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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

An Oscar for Ethel: NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART Film Review

It is an unusual film in many ways: the directorial debut of author and playwright Clifford Odets (and only one of two for him), an unusual dramatic role for Cary Grant, and the return to Hollywood of stage queen Ethel Barrymore after a twelve-year hiatus.  The film, of course, is NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART (1944). In celebration of Ethel's 137th birthday, I'm pleased to present this post as part of the 2nd Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted by Crystal of The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.
Ethel is someone that I will admit to putting on a pedestal.  Whenever I'm having a bad day, or need to calm my nervousness and take a risk, I think of her.  That's because my mother told me that, when  she was young, her father encouraged her to 'do her best Ethel Barrymore' in face of trying circumstances.  That stuck with me.  For my grandfather's generation, there was probably no other actress who so embodied excellence in the art of acting.  For those who haven't seen any of her films, I can attest--she was the real thing.
Young Ethel Barrymore
Clifford Odets
I eagerly approached NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART precisely because it was Ms. Barrymore's only Oscar.  I found it often moving, with complex, well-drawn characters, if not wholly satisfying.  The filmmakers went to great lengths to ensure Barrymore would star.  In fact, David Hempstead, producer at RKO Pictures, bought the rights to the novel by Richard Llewellyn, and offered the role of 'Ma Mott' to Barrymore, who turned it down, thinking the novel wouldn't make a good film.  She was reluctant also because her previous film, RASPUTIN & THE EMPRESS, was not a happy experience, despite starring along with both brothers, Lionel & John.  When Clifford Odets was given the job to adapt the novel for the screen, Barrymore softened.  The problem then was her commitment to a touring production of the stage play The Corn is Green during the time filming would commence.  So RKO simply paid the play's producer to take a six-week hiatus.

Barrymore felt comfortable with Odets as director, because of his stage credentials and his deference to her.  Despite its studio production, the film was set in 1930s London, in the working class East End. As widow "Ma" Mott, Barrymore owns a junk shop and barely gets by, no thanks to her vagabond and often AWOL son, Ernie Mott, played by Grant.  Ernie can't seem to stay long enough to take charge of the shop, and there is an uncomfortable truce between mother and son.  Having recently returned from a jaunt to who knows where, this time Ernie is facing for the first time some very unpleasant consequences of leaving again -- Ma is now dying of cancer, and he falls in love with beautiful Ada, as a vulnerable young woman trying to make up for some bad decisions but not quite succeeding.  Things get even more complicated when both Ma and Ernie separately get mixed up with the criminal element.  We wonder if anyone in the film will have a happy ending.
Barrymore as 'Ma Mott' has not had an easy life.  
Grant in an early scene
I've read some commentary claiming that Grant didn't fit the part of a young cockney wastrel, or that he was too old (at just over 40) for the part.  In fact, in Richard Schickel's biography of Grant, the author quotes Grant as feeling that way himself, although he loved playing the role.  For me, he was perfect; the years wore on him well, convincing us he really had thrown away half of his life and it was beginning to catch up to him psychologically. There was never any doubt that underneath his obvious immaturity and indecision he was a good guy--when he first appears on the scene all the neighbors are truly thrilled to see him.  Grant used his (natural) cockney accent to good effect, and was quite subtle and powerful in the more emotional scenes.  Ultimately if he didn't realize the full impact of the character, as Schickel suggests, due to holding back a bit too much, he was believable as a flawed hero.
Luminous June Duprez in NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART
The cast of supporting actors was also mostly very good - Barry Fitzgerald as the crusty aging fellow who lost a son in WWI; June Duprez, the English-born actress as Ada, lovely, vulnerable, but tough.  Jane Wyatt was a bit too angelic in her self-sacrificing love for Grant. I was disappointed that normally supremely interesting and reliable Dan Duryea had a throwaway part as a shopkeeper and had a cringe-worthy accent in the few lines he uttered.
Barry Fitzgerald and Grant have a pint together
With the Salvation Army hat
Barrymore's screen presence was a good match for Grant.  Her accent, at least to my ear, was just right, and considering her acting chops and experience, not surprising.  Having been away from the screen so long she apparently was very nervous, nailing rehearsals but losing confidence during actual filming.  She regained the confidence she needed when in secret, Odets starting filming the rehearsals and playing them back to her to show her how good she was.  She relished disappearing into the role, and wearing a 75 cent hat from the Salvation Army that Odets trampled on to make it all the more 'lived in.'  The final scene in which Barrymore and Grant appear together was so convincing that I couldn't hold back the tears.
A heart-rending scene with Grant
What didn't completely work for me was the journey into film noir territory in the second half of the film with the gangsters, car chases and dimly lit scenes, when the film seemed to be going along quite well as a character-driven melodrama.  The film also got quite 'preachy' about values associated with wartime sacrifice and morality, with the clouds of WWII ominously and quite obviously appearing near the end.  More liberal editing and shorter overall run time would have been welcome.

The film received good reviews, and the normally snarky Bosley Crowther of the New York Times was effusive with his praise: "The poignant and wistful story of the Cockney wanderer, Ernie Mott, and his sad and wonderful mother and their ever-hungry search for some sort of spiritual fulfillment has been rendered in this film with all of the beauty and feeling that one could hopefully expect.".(NY Times, 11/18/1944). The film eventually lost money -- it was apparently too much of a downer for mass audiences -- but won Barrymore her Oscar, which stunned her.  When asked if she thought it was fair for her to have won when others had gone to Hollywood earlier and toiled longer there, she paused, and then replied, "Perhaps they shouldn't have gone."  Her success prompted her to move to Hollywood and devote many more years to the medium--and we are the better for it.
Barrymore with her Oscar and Broderick Crawford (1945)
James Kotsilibas-Davis, The Barrymores: The Royal Family in Hollywood, 1981, Crown Publishers.
Richard Schickel, Cary Grant--A Celebration, 1999, Applause Books.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Carey Family in the John Ford Western Universe

In 1947 Harry Carey Jr. had just finished his first picture with director John 'Uncle Jack' Ford.  He was hanging around the set when he saw a surprising sight -- his father's horse Sunny, and actor / stuntman Cliff Lyons dressed in his father's iconic black western attire.  Ford said to young Carey, "Go home, kid, you're not supposed to see this."  As Carey left the set to go home, he broke down in sobs.  This was the filming of the picture's dedication to the recently passed Harry Carey Senior. As shown after the opening credits of 3 GODFATHERS, with the tune 'Goodbye, Old Paint, I'm Leaving Cheyenne" playing in reference to Carey's iconic screen character 'Cheyenne Harry', I doubt there is a more elegant and meaningful torch passing from one generation to the next in film:

[This post celebrates the history of cinema as part of the 'Movie History Project' blogathon, hosted by Ruth of Silver Screenings, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Fritzi of Movies Silently.  Check out their blogs from Aug 5-10th for a rich, diverse and entertaining look at Hollywood history.]

I was first introduced to Harry Carey Sr. by accident -- one of the 'extras' on the Criterion issue of STAGECOACH that I purchased was the silent film thought lost:  BUCKING BROADWAY, with John Ford directing Carey.  Initially thinking I wouldn't enjoy it, I couldn't turn away.  The combined genius of Ford, a director learning his craft, and Carey, who had as compelling, natural and nuanced screen presence as any of the silent greats, made it.  Sadly, of over 20 films they made together, there is only one other Ford-Carey silent film existing, STRAIGHT SHOOTING, their first feature.  As I learned more about Carey, I came to appreciate that there may not a John Ford as we know him today without him.  The intersection of the Carey family's lives and careers with that of Ford, is one of the fascinating and fruitful contribution to the Western film genre, spanning six decades of history.
Harry Carey Sr.
Young Olive Golden Carey
Henry DeWitt Carey II got his start far from the west -- he was born in Harlem, NY in 1878 into an upper middle class family.  He attended law school at NYU, but was kicked out for a prank involving female underwear (!).  He turned to acting and writing plays, and was hired by D.W. Griffith, and eventually by Carl Laemmle at Universal, where he spent several years making Westerns, which were very much in vogue in the early silent era.  According to Scott Eyman's Ford bio, in 1916 Carey met Ford at Universal, and was instantly impressed with his imagination and proficiency with the camera.  Ford was only 21.  Carey requested of Laemmle that Ford direct his next picture, and the collaboration was born.  Ford said of Carey at that time "Carey tutored me in those early years, sort of brought me along." They made 16 shorts together, with Carey starring as adventurous, somewhat dangerous, cowboy "Cheyenne Harry."  Carey often shared directing duties as well.  About this time actress Olive Golden, 18 years his junior, came into his life, and they married in 1916.  The newlyweds and Ford shared a small apartment initially, as their working relationship and friendship grew, and then fraternized in the Carey ranch in Newhall, California as Careys began to live a truly Western lifestyle.  According to Olive, many ideas for the Ford-Carey pictures were 'dreamed up around the wood stove in the kitchen' at Newhall.  As Olive was giving birth to Harry Carey Jr., the two got drunk on Mellwood brand whiskey waiting on the successful delivery.  (Later, Ford, when in one of his cantankerous moods, would call Jr."Mellwood").
Harry Carey with Harry Carey Jr.
Harry Carey's acting style was very natural -- in contrast to the more typical theatrical style of the early silent era.  His personality was tough, his looks rugged and dark.  But he projected a natural warmth and depth of emotion beneath that Ford tapped into. STRAIGHT SHOOTING showed Carey tormented over his potential role in dispatching the family of farmers who interfere with the ranching hegemony, and after some bloodshed, ultimately he changes sides and confronts the threat.
Carey in STRAIGHT SHOOTING with his iconic arm pose.
John Ford
He was a star, although a less popular one at the time compared with the likes of Tom Mix and William S. Hart.  A falling out with Ford around 1920 ended their professional collaboration.  The origins of the split seem to be buried forever; Carey Jr. said his father refused to talk about it, although he admitted in his later years his father would occasionally 'rant' about Ford's less admirable qualities.  Eyman references a potential issue about pay and equity, and mentioned that they did maintain an off-again/on-again friendship.  While Ford's star continued to rise, Carey's seemed to stagnate, and although he transitioned into the talking era well, his voice an authoritative deep baritone, he mainly starred in distinctly low-budget B westerns.  In a couple of those that I've seen, WAGON TRAIL and THE NIGHT RIDER, he adds interest and gravitas to the often melodramatic goings on.

Harry Carey Sr. in
In bigger budget pictures, he won mostly secondary roles.  A notable exception was MGM's first 'on-location' blockbuster TRADER HORN (1931), where he plays the lead.  (I admit to not being able to watch this one, because of the reported rampant mistreatment of animals during filming). Olive Carey, who had taken a long break from acting to raise her two children, appeared in a small role, but only made $300 for her work in horrific conditions (Star Edwina Booth contracted malaria and nearly died).  Carey later won an Oscar for his small role as quietly supportive Senate President in the Frank Capra/James Stewart classic MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939).  Long-time friend and collaborator George Hively said about Carey "He was a warm, warm man. Remember the character he portrayed in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON? That was Harry Carey."

Harry Carey Jr.
Despite the continued friendship, Ford was not initially an encouraging influence on young Carey Jr., whose red hair earned him the lifelong nickname 'Dobe.'  Ironically the young man's first film appearance was with Howard Hawks, in the classic RED RIVER, a film in which Carey Sr. also had a small role near the end.  The two did not share a scene.

John Ford is best known today for his classic sound Westerns beginning with the 1939 Best Picture Oscar nominee STAGECOACH, which gave John Wayne his shot at stardom.  Ford told complex tales with breathtaking beauty, using stunning outdoor shots and well-drawn characters, emphasizing community, honor and heroism, often with healthy doses of humor. He used a group of actors he liked and trusted, referred to as the 'John Ford Stock Company' and did not give allegiance to any one studio.  He relished the independence often accorded him.  When Harry Carey died in 1947 of lung cancer and its complications, Ford, and also John Wayne, who had become an admirer and friend of the elder Carey, were both present.  Not too long before he died, Carey Jr., recalled, his father told him that Ford would only hire young Carey in a film after he died " will (work for Ford)...--not till after I croak-- but then you will.  You can bet on it."  Shortly thereafter came 3 GODFATHERS -- and sure enough, Jr. was offered a starring role, along with Wayne and Pedro Armendariz.  As a film it's not in Ford's top echelon, but it's stirring in its Christian allegorical themes, appropriate somehow for the film that signaled the passing of the acting baton from the father to the son.

That association with Ford, built on many years of family friendship and loyalty, cemented the Western career of the younger Carey.  He had initially hoped on being a singer, but that didn't turn out. (You can hear him sing in 3 GODFATHERS, a pleasant enough voice). While 'Dobe' worked in the same film genre as his father, he projected a starkly contrasting screen character. Carey Sr. was dark, Jr. was a very light red-head.  All boyish enthusiasm and naivete, he rarely stole a scene and was more or less content with his supporting roles.  He was fearful of Ford, who was well known for his eccentric and tyrannical ways on and off set, yet he grew to love him.  His memoir brims with humorous exploits with the Ford crew, including Wayne, friend Ben Johnson, Ward Bond, and the rest.  Despite working with young Carey on a few pictures, it took Ford time to trust his acting abilities, and for SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, he hired actor Arthur Shields to coach him, and ultimately help him get into the character of the secondary role he played.
Carey Jr. with Wayne in SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949)
Carey Jr. did not only make Westerns with Ford -- he relished his roles in two non-Westerns, MISTER ROBERTS, with Henry Fonda, and THE LONG GRAY LINE, with Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara.  The last Ford film he appeared in he wasn't even credited -- it was CHEYENNE AUTUMN, and he and Ben Johnson were apparently paid mostly to ride their horses together on location at critical moments.  Both he and his mother Olive transitioned into television roles, often in the Western genre, and both lived into their early nineties.  Harry Carey Jr. died in December 2012, approximately 100 years after his father broke into the picture business.

In Ford's Western masterpiece from the 1950s, THE SEARCHERS, the entire Carey family had their time in the spotlight.  'Dobe' Carey was on hand again playing a young man from the village, Brad Jorgenson, who is full of hate for the Comanches who murdered his sweetheart.  His mom Mrs. Jorgenson is played by Olive Carey.  Harry Carey Sr. made an 'appearance' through the assistance of an old friend:  At the very end of the film, after John Wayne brings his lost niece home to the loving arms of Olive's 'Mrs. Jorgenson' and family, he was filled with emotion thinking of Harry Sr.  As Olive looked on off camera, in the famous shot framed in the dark doorway, Wayne reached over with his left arm and held his right above the elbow, in the way Harry Carey often did, in a poignant tribute, before walking slowly away.

The Carey family collaborations with Ford yielded among the best of the Western genre over 50 years in Hollywood.  Their legacy remains alive in that genre, which still is pertinent today.  As Robert Warshow wrote:  "The movies in which the Westerner played out his role preserve for us the pleasures of a complete and self-contained drama--and one which still effortlessly crosses the boundaries which divide our culture."

Many of Harry Carey Sr.'s  films are on Youtube, here's a few:

For further perspective on the Careys, check out this terrific post by blogger Caftan Woman.

(1) Carey, Harry Jr. Company of Heroes -- my Life as an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company.  Taylor Publishing, 2013.
(2) Eyman, Scott, Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford, Simon & Schuster, 1999.
(3) Bogdanovich, Peter, 'Directed by John Ford', documentary from 1971.
(4) Kitses, Jim, Horizons West, British Film Institute Publishing, 2004.
(5) Warshow, Robert, "The Westerner" in The Immediate Experience, Harvard University Press, latest edition 2001.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

August Classic Film Screenings in Greater Boston

While my cinema highlight of the month will no doubt be the very special film festival of rare silents and early talkies in Rome, NY, (check out the Capitolfest website HERE), there will be again an abundance of big screen offerings locally.  I hope to take in a few.  Anyone want to join me?

Harvard Film Archive (HFA)
Great news!  Rouben Mamoulian - Reconsidered opens this month.  The HFA promises 'beautiful prints and recent preservations' to be focus of this complete retrospective of the talented studio-era director. Mamoulian worked with the best of the best, and excelled in many genres, although only directed a total of 16 films starting in the early 1930s.  His career included the stage as well, and he brought a theatrical sensibility combined with a love of and talent for technological innovations to his films.
Rouben Mamoulian
Fri Aug 12 7 PM APPLAUSE (1929)  Mamoulian's first film, an early sound musical featuring a back-stage drama.

Fri Aug 19 7 PM DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931) This lauded film version of the classic horror film features Fredric March stunning in the lead roles, and Miriam Hopkins in a vulnerable role, with juicy elements of the 'pre-code' era.

Fri Aug 19 9 PM SUMMER HOLIDAY (1948) A 'sunny musical' starring Mickey Rooney, based on a play by Eugene O'Neill ('Ah, Wilderness!')

Sat Aug 20 7 PM LOVE ME TONIGHT (1932) Film version of the Rodgers & Hart musical, starring musical pros Jeanette MacDonald & Maurice Chevalier, with young pre-superstar Myrna Loy in a supporting role.

Sat Aug 20 9 PM THE GAY DESPERADO (1936).  This one sounds interesting a 'musical-gangster-comedy' set in Mexico. Starring Ida Lupino, Nino Martini & Leo Carrillo.

Sun Aug 21 5 PM BECKY SHARP (1935).  Film version of Thackeray's 'Vanity Fair', starring Miriam Hopkins in the lead role.  Said to be the first feature film using three-color Technicolor process.

Sun Aug 21 7 PM RINGS ON HER FINGERS (1942).  Great cast here: Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney, and terrific character actor Laird Cregar.  It's Mamoulian's only screwball comedy.

Fri Aug 26 7 PM GOLDEN BOY (1939).  Those interested in seeing William Holden's first starring role will not be disappointed with this melodramatic tale of a boxer, based on a play by Clifford Odets.

Fri Aug 26 9 PM CITY STREETS (1931).  Gary Cooper & Sylvia Sidney star in this gangster drama.  I'll have had a heavy dose of Cooper at Capitolfest, so I may just need this fix a week later.
Gary Cooper & Sylvia Sidney
CITY STREETS (photo from HFA)

Sat Aug 27 7 PM QUEEN CHRISTINA (1933).  Greta Garbo stars with former lover and silent star John Gilbert in this romantic period piece.

Sat Aug 27 9 PM WE LIVE AGAIN (1934). Another romantic period piece, this time in Russia, with Anna Sten & Fredric March.

Sun Aug 28 4:30 PM
SILK STOCKINGS (1957).  Mamoulian's last film and Fred Astaire's last dance film, also starring Cyd Charisse.

Sun Aug 28 7 PM
THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940).  With Tyrone Power.  What else needs to be said?
Ty Power as Zorro. (photo from HFA)

Mon Aug 29 7 PM  HIGH, WIDE AND HANDSOME (1937).  Randolph Scott, Irene Dunne and Dorothy Lamour star in this musical dose of Americana, seen as a follow up to SHOWBOAT.

The Robert Aldrich retrospective continues as well in August, and here are what remain in the program:

Aug 18, 7 PM  KISS ME DEADLY (1955) closes the retrospective.  It also opened it, on June 3.  I attended that one; well worth watching this classic later noir on the big screen.

Fri Aug 5 9:30 PM:  THE ANGRY HILLS (1959) with Robert Mitchum.

Sun Aug 7 4 PM: THE FRISCO KID (1979) with Gene Wilder & Harrison Ford.

Sun Aug 7 7 PM: EMPEROR OF THE NORTH (1973) with Lee Marvin, Keith Carradine, & Ernest Borgnine.

Mon Aug 8 7 PM:  VERA CRUZ (1954) ahead of its time leaning toward a revisionist Western tone, with Gary Cooper & Burt Lancaster.

Sat Aug 13 7 PM:  WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, the classic schlocky thriller with Bette Davis & Joan Crawford.

Sat Aug 13 9:30 PM:  THE BIG KNIFE (1955) with Jack Palance & Ida Lupino.

Sun Aug 14 5 PM:  THE BIG NIGHT (1953).  This one was directed by Joseph Losey, but assisted by Aldrich.  Starring John Barrymore Jr., Preston Foster, & Joan Lorring.  The HFA site mentions it as an 'unsung gem', a modern-day Hamlet story, and includes Aldrich himself in a cameo.

Sun Aug 14 7 PM
: HUSH ...HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964) a sort-of follow up to BABY JANE, this one pairing Olivia de Havilland with Bette Davis & Joseph Cotten.

The Coolidge Corner Theatre
On tap in their fun 'Big Screen Classics' we have THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY kicking off the month of August.  I need to see this, as one of the most iconic 'revisionist Westerns,' although the way my week is shaping up I doubt I will make it.  It's showing on TCM soon so I'll set my DVR.
Monday Aug 1, 7 PM:

Monday Aug 22, 7 PM:  Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963)-- I'm super excited about this one, as I haven't yet seen it; "One of the greatest films ever made about film."  Starring the charismatic Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale.

Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Jules Dassin (right) is in trouble in his heist film RIFIFI
The MFA has a nice theater open to the public, and features classics, foreign films and often hosts film festivals.  Next month they have scheduled several screenings of a new digital release of the French film noir classic  RIFIFI, by blacklisted Hollywood director and actor Jules Dassin, who has a minor role in the film.  It's a terrific one!  Sun Aug 7, 11:30 AM; Thurs Aug 11, 5:00 PM, Sat Aug 13 2:00 PM

How cool is Paul Newman in COOL HAND LUKE?
Somerville Theatre
The Somerville has a fun Thursday evening series in August called "Play it Cool", featuring some of the best of Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and their partners in cool from the 1960s and 70s, in 35 mm prints. For a mere $10, you get two films. Almost like it was in the good old days!

Aug 4 starting at 7:30 PM it's Paul Newman night:  COOL HAND LUKE & CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958)

Aug 11, 7:30 PM: In GET CARTER (1971) & POINT BLANK (1967), we get Lee Marvin & Michael Caine.

Aug 18, 7:30 PM: OCEAN'S 11 (1960), with Rat Packers Frank Sinatra & Dean Martin, & THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, with Steve McQueen & Faye Dunaway.

Brattle Theatre
Kudos to the Brattle for continuing their year-long celebration of Film Noir with the 6th part in the series focusing on FEMMES FATALE.  Double features presented both Mondays and Tuesdays as follows, with 'femmes fatale' highlighted:
DETOUR -- Tom Neal and Ann Savage.

Aug 1 & 2
 Peggy Cummins GUN CRAZY (1950).  This movie is all kinds of crazy.  Also with John Dall.

Claire Trevor BORN TO KILL (1946) Also with Lawrence Tierney.

Aug 8 & 9
Lizabeth Scott DEAD RECKONING (1949) Also with Humphrey Bogart.

Lizabeth Scott TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1946) Also with Dan Duryea and Burt Lancaster.  This is a recent restoration by the Film Noir Foundation--an excellent one.

Aug 15 & 16
Barbara Stanwyck: DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944).  Considered by many to be the top of the genre, in the very least, top of the early noir era.  Also with Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson.
Ann Savage DETOUR A 'poverty row' noir that is held up as a good example of what innovative direction (Edgar Ulmer) and inspired acting can do with a low budget.  Also with Tom Neal.

Aug 22 & 23
Rita Hayworth GILDA Also with Glenn Ford.  See it for Rita Hayworth's luscious hair and her 'Put the Blame on Mame' musical number.
Rita Hayworth THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI Also with Orson Welles.  Welles directed his then-wife Rita in this superior noir.  Rita's hair here is controversially blond and short, compared with her long red locks in GILDA.

Aug 29 & 30
Gene Tierney LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN  Lovely Gene Tierney isn't such a lovely person in this noir melodrama.
Rosamund Pike GONE GIRL  This neo-noir was a big hit in 2014.  Also with Ben Affleck and Neil Patrick Harris.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Western Movie Summer Part 3: Two 'Border Westerns' from the 1950s

It's been about a month since I last posted an update from my 'Western Movie Summer', but despite that I've been watching as many Westerns as I possibly can squeeze in.  Following the general outline of the podcast course I'm well into in the 1950s now.  For this post I contrast two films from the beginning and end of that decade: John Ford's RIO GRANDE from 1950, and THEY CAME TO CORDURA, (1959) directed by Robert Rossen.  While having somewhat similar themes, the two films approach them very differently, and in many ways the first feels like a late 1940s film, while the second prefigures the more gritty 1960s.

Any classic movie buff or Western fan will no doubt be intimate with much of John Ford's exceptional and award-winning directorial work.  His output is staggering: 146 films starting in the silent era through the mid 1960s.  While not exclusively focusing on Westerns, he viewed himself as a storyteller of that great American frontier:  "I'm John Ford. I make Westerns," he was quoted as saying.  RIO GRANDE falls near the middle of Ford's career and is the last of the now-dubbed 'Cavalry Trilogy', which also included SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON and FORT APACHE.

John Wayne sporting a mustache, with O'Hara
This one stars Ford favorite John Wayne as a Union Cavalry Fort commander in Texas near the Mexican border.  He must confront a threat of marauding Apaches who threaten the U.S. settlers from their base camp in Mexico.  He's told initially that he cannot take his troops across the border under any circumstances.  At the same time he must also deal with an estranged wife (Maureen O'Hara) who shows up looking for their son (Claude Jarman), who dropped out of West Point and has enlisted in his father's regiment to the dismay of both parents.  The film is in black and white, which apparently was not the choice of Ford, but Herbert Yates, head of Republic Pictures, nixed color photography.  The B&W is effective though, as it somewhat distances us and makes us feel the 'myth' of the west as opposed to the reality.  Ford's characteristic humor emerges often in this one, especially through Victor McLaglen's befuddled sergeant.  The romance engages us, and the first pairing of Wayne with statuesque, strong-willed beauty Maureen O'Hara would strike cinema gold.  The camaraderie among the troops, both enlisted and officers, feels natural with Ford's 'stock company' actors including Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. all acquitting themselves well.  With the beautiful photography and great action sequences, the film struck me as emblematic of the best output of the studio era:  although it doesn't question the social and political consensus, it presents a psychologically layered and complex character drama.

Gorgeous, strong Maureen O'Hara
Prof. Slotkin makes the case that the film projected a political/military view that in order to protect the world from communism, which was emerging as the next major threat, the U.S. government might have to break laws to take right action (e.g. in Korea).  In the film, the law broken here is 'crossing the border' into Mexico, which the film presents as ultimately the right thing, to save the children taken captive.  That Maureen O'Hara's character comes around to approving this action validates this view.  The other major theme Ford subtly tackles here is the familiar one -- the definition of manhood and passing the torch to the next generation.  We see this struggle in how Jarman's character tries to gain the approval of his father, and the difficulty Wayne has in accepting his son when he hasn't proven himself.  Well, ultimately Jarman does, by pulling an Apache arrow out of his father's chest; O'Hara comes around to her husband's world view, and all is reconciled to the man's view of heroism and right action.  

While Victor Young composed the score, the highlights for me were the songs interspersed through the movie, performed by the 'Sons of the Pioneers' western music group.  They were written into the script as a regimental troupe of musicians, and when they played, the action stopped and you were treated, along with the cast, to a gorgeous bit of musical history.  This added to the nostalgic tone of the film.  Check out this video clip of a key scene with the musical serenade:

Based on a 1958 novel by Glendon Swarthout, adaped by Ivan Moffat and director Rossen who had been blacklisted, this is a very different film.  First, I admit to watching this for Van Heflin, clearly a current obsession, but who elevates every film he's in. This one is no exception.  The star, though, is Western film hero Gary Cooper, near the end of his career.  He plays an army officer who had been disgraced because of actions seen to be cowardly, and must now earn his pay by identifying those soldiers whose bravery should earn them the Congressional Medal of Honor.  He's stationed with a Cavalry outfit in 1916 that is ordered to raid a hacienda in Mexico against a band of Pancho Villa's soldiers who are taking refuge there in their ongoing rebellion.  The hacienda is owned by none other than Rita Hayworth, here an American ex-pat on the 'wrong' side.  Ultimately, the battle is won, Hayworth's taken prisoner, and Cooper must remove several men along with Hayworth -- these men Cooper himself witnessed acting heroically, and will see that they escape from further harm to claim their award and thus be examples for all other fighting men.  He's required to get this disparate group, including Heflin, Tab Hunter, Dick York, Michael Callan, and Richard Conte, back to Cordura in the U.S., and the main part of the film is their difficult journey.
The film's theme after the opening titles
It's a film that isn't subtle about probing the concept of bravery, cowardice, and manhood.  In fact, contrary to RIO GRANDE, actions in battle against the enemy are not what define a man, but instead  how he treats his fellow humans in the ordinary struggles of life.  So here, each of the soldiers who appeared brave in battle are found to be vain, opportunistic, or criminal, and all treat Cooper with contempt.  Heflin's character, a sergeant, is a particularly nasty piece of work. After the group loses their horses to hostile native Americans, they find themselves lost in the desert, growing desperate as their food and water supplies dwindle.  In that literal and figurative cauldron, the moral drama plays out -- man against man, man against woman.  And, there is no question here about the legality of crossing the border to carry out a military action.
Rita Hayworth openly taunting her captors by pouring away liquor, as Cooper looks on
After a set-up similar to many Westerns of the era, with the portrayal of the men in the army outpost and then the raid on the hacienda, it quickly comes a different movie, an unrelentingly brutal one with just the main characters fighting the elements and each other.  Rita Hayworth sets aside her glamorous image, and while she's still beautiful, she has to fight throughout to retain her personal dignity.  Her strength matches Cooper's, who, overall stoic as usual, ultimately finds his inner hero.   The production was plagued with problems. Dick York suffered a back injury that limited his career.  Most scenes had to be re-shot due to a mid-filming unplanned location change. Heflin said it was the most physically demanding film work he'd done.  Yet, it marked a turn toward a less romanticized view of the western myth, and the U.S. military in particular.
The men find a source of water, only to find out it's contaminated.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

In the words of Bosley Crowther: A Birthday Tribute

Bosley Crowther was a film critic for the New York Times during much of Hollywood's 'golden age', 1940-1967, and an author.  In his NY Times obituary from 1981--not unbiased, obviously--it was suggested that he was "the most influential commentator in the country on the art and industry of motion pictures".  I've come across dozens of his reviews online in the years that I've been a classic film enthusiast.  If you agree or don't agree with his assessment of the films, you can't help but admire his use of language.  It's his constant breezy and often brilliant and cutting wit that make his reviews a joy to read, and in some cases will induce a hearty belly laugh.  His birthday is July 13, so on this day I celebrate him with quoting a tiny sampling of his reviews, with links to the reviews and dates of publication indicated.

SANTA FE TRAIL (12/21/40):  "'Santa Fe Trail', Which is Chiefly a Picture about Something Else, Opens at the Strand."

"Mr. Flynn plays Jeb Stuart, who was famous for his flowing red beard, with but the trace of a moustache on his lip. A shorn and fragile Jeb, one may complain; yet think what the fans would say if Mr. Flynn had to play a romantic role behind a mess of herbage!"


"As the lady, Miss Loretta Young gives a performance which may best and most graphically be compared to a Fanny Brice imitation of a glamorous movie queen. Whatever it was that this actress never had, she still hasn't got. Alan Ladd, just returned from the Army, plays the doctor with a haughty air that must be tough on his patients—and is likely to be equally tough on yours."

"Faith has the strength to move mountains, but it is sorely taxed in sustaining this mountainous film."

ALL ABOUT EVE (10/14/50)"If anything, Mr. Mankiewicz has been even too full of fight—-too full of cutlass-edged derision of Broadway's theatrical tribe. Apparently his dormant dander and his creative zest were so aroused that he let himself go on this picture and didn't know when to stop. For two hours and eighteen minutes have been taken by him to achieve the ripping apart of an illusion which might have been comfortably done in an hour and a half."

"For a turkey dinner, with Christmas trimmings, is precisely what's cooking at the end of this quaint and engaging modern parable on virtue being its own reward. And a whole slew of cozy small-town characters who have gone through a lot in the past two hours are waiting around to eat it—or, at least, to watch James Stewart gobble it up."

THE THREE MUSKETEERS (10/21/46)"The abundant talents and resources of Alexandra Dumas, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the Technicolor company and Lana Turner's couturier contribute just about equally to the over-all effect of Metro's splendiferous production of Dumas' 'The Three Musketeers.'"

"As producer of the picture, Mr. Welles might better have fired himself—as author, that is—and hired somebody to give Mr. Welles, director, a better script."

BONNIE & CLYDE (4/14/67)
"It is a piece of bald-faced slapstick that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cut-ups in 'Thoroughly Modern Millie'.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

W.C.Fields Afternoon at the Somerville Theatre

For fans of this great comedian it was a dream come true this past Sunday afternoon: two silent features screened in 35 mm, along with a silent and talking short, with live music from keyboardist Jeff Rapsis and tales from Fields' granddaughter Dr. Harriet Fields.  It was a good crowd at the Somerville, and considering it was a drizzly and cool day, it made perfect sense to stay inside and take part in this 4+ hour event.

W.C. Fields (1880 - 1946) is a film comedian whose films I haven't approached much before this, only having seen one short and one feature. His career was not unlike many turn of the century comedians who first made their mark on the stage and in Vaudeville in particular.  Fields here perfected his tricks and physical comedic timing that translated so effectively on the screen.  In fact, throughout most of his career he alternated between stage and screen projects. His first-ever film was the silent short POOL SHARKS (1915), which was one of the films screened between the two features.  It struck me as an undistinguished early silent comedy, with the frantic energy of Fields and his cronies circumnavigating a pool table and conjuring all kinds of tricks with the shots and ball movements to wow audiences.  I learned that this very pool table from the film is now on exhibit at the Magic Castle hotel and museum in Hollywood, where I stayed for the Turner Classic Film Festival.  If I go back next year I need to check it out!
That's Fields in the center with his clip-on mustache he used in all his silent films.
This program at the Somerville, part of their 'Silents, Please' series, was rather a continuation of last year's 100th anniversary celebration of Fields' first appearance on the screen.  The  feature silent films were restored by the Library of Congress and now are listed on the National Film Registry.  Both were fun, but I especially liked 'SO'S YOUR OLD MAN (1926).  In this one, Fields plays a 'glazier' in a lower class home who invents a special unbreakable car windshield.  He incurs the wrath of the local society matron whose son has fallen for Fields' daughter, because his lower class manners are insulting to her.  In an extended rant, the society matron dresses him down, with him listening patiently; he has the last word at the end when he comes back at her (unnamed) insults with "so's your old man!"

After a series of mishaps he finds his reputation saved by a Spanish princess he meets on a train, and ultimately becomes a rich business owner and everyone lives happily ever after.  It's a really fun romp, with many sight gags--special mention should be made of  the terrific comic turns of Marcia Harris as Fields' wife, and Julia Ralph as the society matron.  Interestingly Gregory La Cava, perhaps best known as the director of the screwball classic MY MAN GODFREY, was the director of this and likely had a lot to do with its success.  The film was apparently remade as YOU'RE TELLING ME (1934), and featured Fields' hilarious golf course routine.

Louise Brooks and Fields
The second feature of the day was IT'S THE OLD ARMY GAME (1926).  This one was also produced at the Astoria Studios in Queens, and featured a lovely Louise Brooks along with Fields.  Fields, here as Mr. Prettywillie (!), is a drug store owner in Florida who is trying to make it big by selling questionable real estate deals from New York.  In the meantime he and his family go for an extended picnic on the lawn of a local mansion uninvited, and there is a romantic sub-plot between Brooks, one of his shop workers, and another character, and all sorts of assorted gags and misadventures.  I found this one not quite as enjoyable as the first, and a bit hard to follow, but it did have some hilarious moments, and I found myself appreciating Fields' particular brand of acerbic and athletic visual humor.

Dr. Harriet Fields (from Linked In)
Dr. Harriet Fields, Vice-President of W.C. Fields Productions and advocate for her grandfather's memory, spoke multiple times during the program, before and between films, and taking questions from the audience. While Dr. Fields is a prominent health-care activist in Africa, she clearly relishes her part-time mission of enabling the best possible current appreciation of Fields' talent.  She shared with us her view of him as a person, especially as a loyal friend. Among his good friends were Louise Brooks, humorist Will Rogers, and actor Grady Sutton.  Dr. Fields told one funny story about when W.C. was invited to Louise Brooks' home in Hollywood after she became a star--he horrified her by picking up expensive pieces of china and crystal and juggling them high in the air.  Luckily, Fields was a first-rate juggler and all survived intact.

Another interesting story she told story is the 'canary incident' in which Fields was apparently hauled before a judge charged with 'torturing a canary' during a stage act.  The 'torture' mainly consisted of the bird being placed in his pocket.  The story is recounted here.  The actual court transcripts are public record and have been turned into live entertainment by way of a dramatic public reading!

Jeff Rapsis addresses the crowd
About the man personally, Dr. Fields described him as much friendlier to animals and children than his reputation suggests, and someone who loved to read and learn.  One of his hobbies was reading the dictionary at night, and there got ideas for some of his wacky character names, including "Prettywillie", his name in IT'S THE OLD ARMY GAME.

Not a bad way to spend a rainy Sunday--in the company of other classic film enthusiasts enjoying rare films on the big screen.  A special mention must go to Somerville staff, and also keyboardist and silent film music expert Jeff Rapsis, who added a tremendous live improvised soundtrack to all of the silents, and who also served as partial M.C. to the event.

For your summer reading lists, here are two books to consider adding:
The reissue of Fields' book first published  in 1940, 
new forward by Dick Cavett
New 'autobiography' of Fields from his personal papers,
compiled by grandson Ronald J. Fields.  Forward by Conan O'Brien.