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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #27: Body and Soul, 1947

Promoter Roberts: "What makes you think you can get away with this?"
Charley Davis: "What are you gonna do? Kill me? Everybody dies."


Director: Robert Rossen
Writers: Abraham Polonsky
Cinematographer: James Wong Howe
Producer: Bob Roberts for Enterprise Productions
Starring: John Garfield, Lilli Palmer, Anne Revere, Canada Lee, Hazel Brooks, William Conrad

Fascinating shot of nightclub singer Alice (Hazel Brooks) and her
lover Quinn (William Conrad).

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
As the only son of a lower East Side candy store owner during the early days of the depression, Charley Davis dreams of being a prizefighter but his mother is intent on seeing him go to college. When his father is accidentally killed in a gang-related hit, Charley is more determined than ever to pursue his dreams and earn enough money boxing to support his mother and his fiancee, Peg. Unfortunately, he falls victim to unscrupulous agents and promoters, and while his fortunes rise, his integrity sinks. When he is duped into endangering the life of one of his rivals in the ring but a friend outside of it, and Peg leaves him, he must decide if he'll sell out to corruption or get out before it's too late.

Production Background
John Garfield was a star for Warner Bros. in the 1930s and early 1940s, but when his contract expired he formed his own production company, Enterprise Productions, and employed many of his colleagues from the Group Theater to develop films that had sociopolitical messages - Body and Soul was one of the first of those. Screenwriter Polonksy adapted a story of the life of boxer Barney Ross, with significant details altered, for the script. To capture the intensity of the boxing matches, cinematographer James Wong Howe apparently rollerskated with his camera around the ring in the boxing scene at the end of the movie. 

The film was well-reviewed at the time, when Garfield reached perhaps the peak of his success, shortly before the Communist witch hunts put a target on him. He received his second and last Oscar nomination for his performance in this film. Polonsky also received a nomination for his script.

Some other notable film-related events in 1947 (from Filmsite.org):

  • The Actors Studio, a rehearsal group for professional actors, was established in New York City by Elia Kazan, Robert Lewis, and Cheryl Crawford. It soon became the epicenter for advancing "the Method" - a technique of acting that was inspired by Konstantin Stanislavski's teachings. It later gained fame through the leadership of Lee Strasberg in the 1950s, whose clients included Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean.
  • In Washington, D.C., the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) opened its hearings for an investigation of alleged communist influence in the Hollywood movie industry. It subpoenaed 41 witnesses, its first wave of witnesses which included the 'unfriendly' "Hollywood 19" (13 of 19 were writers). 
  • The Golden Age of Hollywood peaked at 4.7 billion theater admissions in 1947.
  • MGM's Cynthia (1947) was the coming-of-age film for budding 15-year-old screen star Elizabeth Taylor, in which she played the title role of small-town, physically-frail, musically-talented teenager Cynthia Bishop. She received her first (grown-up) on-screen kiss from beau Ricky Latham (Jimmy Lydon) in a scene on a front porch following their attendance at the Spring Prom.
  • 1947 was the first year in which an outstanding foreign film would be honored each year by a special non-competitive statuette; the first film to win was Vittorio de Sica's, Shoe Shine. [The Academy had no separate category to recognize foreign language films until 1956 when it established the Best Foreign Language Film category.] The film also received only one competitive Oscar nomination, Best Original Screenplay.

My Random Observations

  • Why must all female love interests be artists or nightclub singers? Why not pharmacists, research chemists, or accountants?! I may be exaggerating, but every once in a while this chemist would like to see a working woman in a more ordinary profession get noticed by leading men. 
    The "other woman" is nightclub singer Alice, who Charley 
    visits (with his back to the camera) when he's feeling blue.

Peg and Charley are attracted to each other even while
he pushes a bit too hard.

Alice visits Charley at the ring; let the flirting commence.

  • Another comment about the times: despite smoking being ever so prevalent during the mid-20th century, I would have thought in a studio full of freshly painted art it would be verboten. Not so. Watching Lilli Palmer's character strike a cigarette in her own artist's studio took me out of the picture momentarily imagining a yellow film over all those paintings. 
    Peg (Lilli Palmer) lights up while Charley (John Garfield)
    chats with her roommate.
  • While Charley and his parents clearly live on the lower East Side of NYC, there doesn't appear to be anything in the film that depends on their being Jewish except for a matter-of-fact declaration by a social worker in a scene where Mrs. Davis (Anne Revere) is applying for monetary assistance--a rather refreshing and unusual perspective in the 1940s. Of course, Garfield was Jewish, along with screenwriter Polonsky, and he had just come off the successful Oscar-winner A Gentleman's Agreement, all about being Jewish in America and anti-Semitism. 
  • I normally approach boxing movies with trepidation as I don't relish seeing two humans bash each other for sport, but this one had relatively few scenes of with actual fighting. The climatic match at the end of the film was fabulous to watch, kinetic and apparently realistic, yet not so brutal that I had to turn my head.
  • Charley (Garfield) does get beat around in the boxing scene.
    Apparently Garfield at one point suffered a minor heart attack 
    while filming.

  • Beware of spoilers in this comment about the irony of art and life. Canada Lee's character, boxer Ben Chaplin, suffers a blood clot in his brain that could dislodge and kill him at any moment. It basically ends his boxing career, but when he is fired in his coach role his emotional reaction triggers the fatal attack (this was a heartrenching scene). In real life, though, it was Garfield's precarious health (due to a scarlet fever-damaged heart) that threatened to end his life. And similar to Canada Lee's character, a rejection (his blacklisting during the HUAC witchhunt era and corresponding loss of film roles) is believed to have precipitated his fatal heart attack at only age 39. 
    Ben Chaplin (Canada Lee) and Charley have a heart-to-heart.
  • I was struck by the choice of lighting in key scenes in the film. Most of the early scenes, and almost all in the Lower East Side are at night or in limited lighting and shadows, perhaps signalling the tough life our hero was living in, or his state of mind then. When he begins to attract money and fame, indoor scenes are much brighter, and there are a few outdoor daytime scenes as well. Here we have a life much more desirable and seductive. No wonder it's hard to turn away from corruption and easy living.
    Charley and Peg conduct their courtship in the shadowy
    Lower East Side.

Charley returns to his mother's apartment (Anne Revere) and finds
she doesn't approve of how he makes his living.


When the dough is rolling in, Charley is in the bright lights:
here in his luxury apartment way uptown.

Where to Watch
The film is currently on YouTube, here.

Further Reading
The Film Noir Board blog digs into the meanings in the film's story and makes the case that it's a noir film. 
As usual, TCM's site provides production details.

A confrontation over a high price to pay to maintain the
lifestyle to which our hero and his lady have become accustomed.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #26: To Each His Own, 1946

"Although (screenwriters) Charles Brackett and Jacques Théry are not telling anything new in "To Each His Own," which follows the broad pattern of countless tales about the grief of unwed mothers, they have worked in a few refreshing twists."  
--NY Times reviewer Bosley Crowther, May 24th, 1946.

To Each His Own, 1946

Director: Mitchell Leisen
Writers: Charles Brackett and Jacques Théry
Cinematographer: Daniel L. Fapp
Producer: Charles Brackett for Paramount Pictures
Starring: Olivia de Havilland, John Lund, Mary Anderson, Roland Culver, Philip Terry, Bill Goodwin, Griff Barnett

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
In a tale told in flashback, middle-aged business executive Miss Jody Norris talks to her London colleague Lord Desham about why she gives her life over to work. As a young woman, helping her father in his drug store in Piersen Falls, USA, during the time of the Great War, she meets a young combat pilot (Capt. Cosgrove) with whom she has a secret and brief affair before he is killed in action. She retreats to NYC to have her baby, a son, and despite her wanting to keep him, he is adopted by her friends Corinne and Alex Piersen who don't know the truth about his birth parents. Jody plays nanny to the little boy until she can find a way to convince them to give her her son back. Meanwhile, she throws herself into work, and nearly single-handedly converts her friend and former beau Mac's bootlegging operation into a cosmetics factory that brings her wealth and status. Her efforts to get her son back don't go as planned, of course, and she must make a choice once her grown son crosses her path.

Production Background
To Each His Own was a significant film for Olivia de Havilland for at least two reasons. First, it won her first Oscar for Best Actress, and second, it was her "comeback" role after her legal battle with Warners' seeking early termination of her contract. She won the lawsuit, and what became known as the De Havilland Law, that prevented movie studios from indefinitely extended actors contracts that limited their options and creative freedom. She had been off the screen for two years prior; her previous film was 1943's Government Girl.

De Havilland campaigned to have Mitchell Leisen direct the film, as she thought the material would be elevated from its soap opera foundation, as she was thrilled with his work directing her in Hold Back The Dawn (1941), also a wartime romantic melodrama. A name largely unrecognized today, Leisen helmed many successful A pictures at Paramount (including Death Takes A Holiday (1934) that I wrote about here), and de Havilland and other actors felt supported by him. Leisen worked closely with Charles Brackett to polish the script and make de Havilland's character more nuanced. The film also marked the debut of actor John Lund, who played both Jody's lover and her grown son. 

Some other notable film-related events in 1946 (from Filmsite.org):

  • Disney's first live-action feature film The Song of the South was released, with three major segments of animation; it was based upon Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus folk tales regarding Br'er Rabbit; due to extensive protests (mostly by the NAACP) over the stereotypical representations of blacks in the film and the film's romanticizing of slavery, the controversial film was never released on home video for US audiences
  • The most famous role and peak performance of WWII's GI "love goddess" - the beautiful, alluring, and provocative, red-haired pin-up Rita Hayworth - with her sleek and sophisticated eroticism, lush hair and peaches and cream complexion, was in director Charles Vidor's Gilda
  • Director William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor in 1947. It was a classic post-war film that poignantly portrayed the readjustment of veterans and their families after their return home. Double amputee and amateur actor Harold Russell became the only actor to win two Oscars for playing the same role, a returning GI named Homer Parrish. He was awarded a special Academy Award for "bringing aid and comfort to disabled veterans," and then also won the year's Oscar as Best Supporting Actor.
  • French critic Nino Frank was credited as being the first to coin the phrase "film noir" in reference to Hollywood movies in the 40s (dark crime dramas and gangster films, psychological thrillers, etc.) that combined gritty expressionistic cinematography and bleak, hard-boiled writing - from novelists such as James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett. His article was published in the French film magazine L'Ecran Francais (August 28, 1946 issue).

My Random Observations

  • Olivia de Havilland owned this movie. In addition to being in nearly every scene, she in effect played two distinct characters: the ingenue and the hard-nosed businesswoman with a secret. The former was shades of Melanie Wilkes, and the latter was a warm-up for her older character in The Heiress. Come to think of it, that was another film requiring her to portray great range. 
    Middle-aged Jody immediately before the flashback begins...

    And with the power of lighting and makeup, she
    is transformed to a younger woman.
  • It was refreshing that the main character was allowed to be unsympathetic at times. When she blackmailed Corinne to get her son back (then at schoolboy age) you rather rooted against her. But when she was sympathetic it wasn't just when she was a young innocent following her heart; it was when she showed a better business head than her male colleagues and worked circles around them.  And she clearly enjoyed the success her career gave her.
Jody gets to work to convert Mac's (Bill Goodwin,
right) bootlegging operation to a cosmetics plant.
  • Any film about unwed motherhood made in the 1940s will be dated, and while you do feel for Jody here, and rue the societal forces that conspired against her, to me adoption by a loving (if vain) mother is a special calling that should be honored. So I winced during those moments when Jody was trying to wrestle "Griggsy" away from Corinne and Alex. And the ending was sour for me (Warning: Spoiler ahead). While it seemed a fait accompli that the adult Griggsy would be made aware and be reunited with his birth mother, the fact that that revelation was made during his wedding I felt was wrong. Even though it was lovely that Lord Desham arranged for the quick wedding before Griggsy was to ship out, the evening should have been about the wedding and not a reunion that really wasn't needed. (And I 100% with Bosley Crowther's statement at the beginning of this post).
Jody preparing to blackmail the unsuspecting
Corinne (Mary Anderson) by offering to bail her husband
 out of financial ruin if they give her back their/her son.
Lord Desham (Roland Culver) encouraging Jody
to tell about her younger years.
  • Who were all these wonderful character actors?! I've been used to recognizing well-loved character actors over and over again, so my experience with this film was just...odd. Perhaps because I've seen fewer Golden-age films from Paramount? Regardless, one I recognized slightly was Griff Barnett as de Havilland's father, as he had some small roles in some Alan Ladd films of the era. He was wonderful.
    Griff Barnett as the wise father.
  • Speaking of Alan Ladd, John Lund bore an uncanny resemblance to Ladd, although Lund was, of course, taller. Ladd and de Havilland had worked together in 1958 in the underrated and heartwarming The Proud Rebel.
    John Lund as Capt. Cosgrove
  • This picture was lush and evocative. I've learned Mitchell Leisen was apparently very attuned to period detail in set design and costuming and insisted on 100% accuracy. That gave his films a sense of time and place that elevated his films.
First indication she's pregnant -- she very deliberately
drinks milk in her father's small-town drug store.

Stylish and successful, Jody takes no prisoners.
Where to Watch
Unfortunately, this one is difficult to find commercially. It isn't available on DVD in the U.S., although it was released on VHS. A rough print is available on archive.org here

Further Reading
A detailed analysis of the film is provided in this article in Film Comment magazine.

Friday, September 10, 2021

The Making of Citizen Kane and the Music of Bernard Herrmann - An Interview with critic Roger L. Hall

On Tuesday, September 14, our local classic film club Reel Classics of Greater Boston is hosting a special virtual presentation on the making of Citizen Kane, with a special emphasis on the score by Bernard Herrmann. Our speaker is Roger L. Hall, composer, film music critic, preservationist, and writer. We're thrilled to celebrate this landmark film's 80th Anniversary with "Raising Kane - The Making of a Classic Film and Score." 

I had the opportunity to chat with Roger and ask him a bit about his experiences with the music of Bernard Herrmann and of course his love of Orson Welles' 1941 masterpiece. Excerpts from the interview are below.

Roger L. Hall

JD: If you could sum up Bernard Herrmann’s music or musical impact with a word or short phrase, how would you do it?

RH: It’s a tough one, but I would say ‘master of orchestration.’ He used the orchestra in novel ways in his scores. Think of the violins in the shower scene in Psycho, for example. He applied his unique use of instruments across a broad range of musical styles (classical to jazz) and from his earliest films to his last film that he scored, Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver. Amazingly, Herrmann insisted on doing his own orchestrations!


JD: Is there anything you’d like to be able to ask Herrmann today about a musical choice he made in one of his films?

RH: It probably wouldn’t be easy! Herrmann was a very difficult man to talk to. I was listening to an interview with him the other day, and he came across as very obstinate and argumentative. But given the chance I would love to ask him about many things especially about the orchestration in certain films. I find particularly interesting that his favorite films that he scored were ones in which the stories were compelling to him: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, for example, was his favorite film, and of course his score was beautiful in that film. He had lived in England and was very taken with British culture, especially in the 19th century. He wrote an opera based on Wuthering Heights (the Emily Bronte novel). But beyond that, the stories themselves were very important to him. Even Taxi Driver and Obsession, his later films. If he liked the story, he put everything he had into the music.

Orson Welles speaks with Bernard Herrmann
(from bernardherrmann.org)

JD: What would be missing in the experience of Citizen Kane without the great score by Herrmann?

RH: Many of the great scenes are enhanced by the score, but particularly Herrmann aided Welles in the transitions between scenes. There are a lot of quick scenes in Citizen Kane, and a lot of them are done through the music, not dialogue. Without the music the scene cuts would be awkward and wouldn’t work well. This technique comes from radio in which scene transitions were cued with a musical flourish. Of course, Welles and Herrmann worked extensively in radio. I recently re-read NY Times critic Bosley Crowther’s review of the film, and even he, who rarely pointed out the music in a film, praised Herrmann’s score as being a critical element.

This is why I titled my tribute on the 75th anniversary of the film Herrmann Raises Kane! (with apologies to Pauline Kael), because his music really adds that extra element that takes an already great film to the next higher plane. There aren’t too many films that you can say that about; Gone With The Wind is another (score by Max Steiner).

JD: I understand you have some personal connections to the film.

RH: Yes, I’ll tell my story about the sled during the presentation, but one other connection was a place where I went to school was filmed in the opening newsreel montage! I didn’t realize it when I first watched the film, but learned about it later – it’s Oheka Castle on Long Island where I attended Eastern Military Academy. I have speculated that the builder of Oheka Castle, Otto Kahn, could very well have been one of the inspirations for Charles Foster Kane, as he was Chairman of the Metropolitan Opera, wielded considerable power in New York, was a creditor of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, and kept a mistress.

Oheka Castle, Long Island, NY (modern view)

Oheka Castle and grounds as seen in Citizen Kane

JD: What did you think about Mank (the 2020 film portrait by David Fincher of Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane with Orson Welles)?

RH: Frankly, I had trouble with it. It was interesting in places but there really wasn’t much to it. I also didn’t like the music at all (music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). But I’m glad that it brought timely focus again to this great film.

JD: Thanks so much, Roger! I’m looking forward to your presentation on Tuesday!

Check out Roger's special compilation of Herrmann excerpts from his 1941 films and related text files and radio programs that Roger participated in. 

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #25: Fallen Angel, 1945

This post marks the halfway point in my journey through film history by watching approximately one film per week from successive years. Woo hoo!

Fallen Angel, 1945

Director: Otto Preminger
Writers: Harry Kleiner from a novel by Marty (Mary) Holland
Cinematographer: Joseph LaShelle
Producer: Otto Preminger for 20th Century Fox, Inc.
Starring: Dana Andrews, Alice Faye, Linda Darnell, Charles Bickford, Anne Revere, Bruce Cabot, John Carradine

Why I chose it
Although I loved British Powell & Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale, last week's film, I felt like returning to the Hollywood Studio System for a film that would represent the best things about the system during Hollywood's Golden Age. I was also in the mood for a film noir, a genre/style that was gaining major traction at this time in Hollywood. This film was recommended to me by two film friends whose opinion I trust.

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
Running out of bus fare, drifter and con-man Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews) disembarks from his Greyhound in a sleepy California coastal town, shy of his San Francisco destination. He take temporary refuge in "Pop's Eats" diner. 'Pop' (Percy Kilbride) is concerned about his favorite waitress, Stella (Linda Darnell), who has been missing for a few days. Stella reappears that evening, and Eric realizes the brunette bombshell has all the men in the town pining for her. Soon, Eric himself pursues Stella, who is also attracted to him, but demands that he earn enough money to support her.  Eric gets involved with a traveling fortune teller and medium (Carradine) and in that process meets sisters Clara and June Mills (Anne Revere and Alice Faye), the wealthy unmarried daughters of the town's former mayor. He sweeps the virginal June off her feet, but only intends to fleece her and skip town with Stella. Unfortunately, the same day he ties the knot with June, a key character is murdered and Eric becomes a prime suspect.

Production Background
Director/Producer Otto Preminger had a major hit for Fox, Laura, in 1944 with Dana Andrews and another brunette bombshell, Gene Tierney. So he was invited back the following year, along with many key crew members, including cinematographer LaSelle and composer Raksin, and leading actor Andrews, to helm Fallen Angel. In this melodrama propelled by a love triangle, the 'bad' love interest was cast with a star on the rise, sultry beauty Linda Darnell, who was romantically linked to Fox boss Darryl Zanuck. The 'good' girl went to a rather unusual choice: Alice Faye was known mostly from her musical films. But although Faye had begged to be cast in this to broaden her range, she apparently so disliked the finished film and her role, reduced to give Darnell more screentime, that she abruptly halted her career and didn't appear in a film again until 1962. 

While the film garnered generally good reviews, especially for the actors, it didn't make as much of an impression as Laura, and didn't earn any Oscar nominations. Preminger went on to work with Linda Darnell again in the romantic melodrama Forever Amber (1947), while Darnell and Andrews were paired as a married couple forced to fly a commercial airline flight in trouble due to incapacitation by the cockpit crew in Zero Hour! in 1957. Sadly, Darnell died in 1965 at age 41 in a house fire.

Some other notable film-related events in 1945 (from Filmsite.org):

  • Roberto Rossellini's influential landmark film Open City (1945, It.) formally introduced Italian Neo-Realism, marked by a gritty, authentic and realistic post-war film style. Characteristics included the use of on-location cinematography, grainy low-grade black-and-white film stock and untrained actors in improvised scenes. The socially-aware, documentary-style film captured the despair and confusion of post-World War II Europe.
  • Joan Crawford, who had developed a reputation for being mannered and difficult (and had been let go two years earlier by MGM for a slumping decline), pleasantly surprised everyone at Warners when she delivered one of the best performances of her career in Mildred Pierce (1945). In an astonishing comeback part (and debut role for Warners), Crawford won the film's sole Academy Award Oscar.
  • The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), created by major US film studios in 1922 to police the industry, was renamed as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). It was responsible for implementing the voluntary film rating system.
  • Pathe newsreel footage of the liberated German concentration camps was released - Radio City Music Hall declared it "too gruesome to be shown at a family theater."

My Random Observations

  • One of the things I learned from the TCM/Ball State U. course on film noir was that in a noir film, you're likely to see rooms with horizontal window blinds. This is a great piece of set design for the cinematographer, because they can use low lighting and shadow effects to cast what looks like jail bars across their subjects. Blinds show up early and often in Fallen Angel. In particular, in the diner Pop's Eats, where all the film's less savory characters meet. We're clued into the unhealthy relationships that play out at Pop's and will likely lead to serious problems.  Below are just a few of the shots featuring the prominent blinds.

    Stanton walks into "Pop's Eats"

    At "Pop's" counter is Pops (Kilbride, left), Stella, Mark Judd (Bickford)
    and Stanton. Blinds and their shadows dominate the screen.  

    Stanton and Stella get to know each other at "Pop's"

    Shadows galore as Prof. Hadley (Carradine, right) enters "Pop's"

  • On the other hand, the abode of the Mills sisters is Victorian -- we almost lose the two demure and secluded sisters in this shot at breakfast:
    June (Faye) and Clara (Revere) blend into their curtains
    while discussing their private lives while breakfasting.

  • Despite the near-identical production team, and the same leading actor, this film doesn't feel much like Laura. I attribute that first to the dominance of the musical score in the earlier film (courtesy of composer David Raksin), which sets an ethereal mood and gets stuck in your head pretty quickly. Second, Laura plays out in a mostly upper-class milieu, unlike the gritty, grimy feel of much of Fallen Angel. Yet, blinds show up in Laura, too!

    Laura (Gene Tierney) in her office.
  • In the reviews I've read, it's common to criticize Alice Faye's character's angelic, compliant, and loyal qualities that defy credulity. That didn't bother me, although I did find her June a bit of an enigma. For a character that started out as a spinster church organist, she took a huge leap to become a savvy, down-to-earth guardian angel who's willing to live with Eric Stanton's duplicitous misogynist. To make this transition she must have had a far more complex interior life than we see on screen. This was a miss for me, although I do appreciate that the film was primarily concerned with Stanton's character arc.
    June plans to play an organ recital at the church.

    June, the steely organist.

    June lets her hair down for Eric Stanton.

    And...June's costume neckline takes a major drop.
  • The best black and white films are just gorgeous to look at -- and this one should rank among those cited for the beauty of the shot composition. Here are just a few more screenshots highlighting the art of black-and-white cinematography in the studio era.









Where to Watch
A very nice print is streaming for free on YouTube at present. You can watch at this link. It's also available for free streaming on Archive.org, and can be purchased on Fox Home Entertainment DVD from the usual vendors.

Further Reading
Go to TCM's articles on the film, which served as one of my sources of production tidbits, for more detail. 

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #24: A Canterbury Tale, 1944

"And when I turn the bend in the road, where they too saw the towers of Canterbury, I feel I've only to turn my head, to see them on the road behind me."
Magistrate Thomas Colpeper

Above images from the opening credits

A Canterbury Tale, 1944

Writers, Directors and Producers: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Cinematographer: Erwin Hillier
Starring: Eric Portman, Sheila Sim, Dennis Price, Sgt. John Sweet

Why I chose it
Before I watched The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I was wary of the British filmmaking team Powell and Pressburger, because I had disliked Black Narcissusthe first of their films I saw. But after I saw those films, I fell under the spell of this duo and have enjoyed a couple of their black and white films from 1940s. When this film showed up on a 'best of 1944' list, I happily dispensed with my usual Twitter poll and dove right into this new-to-me film from the duo who called themselves 'The Archers'.

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
In war-torn England, an English army sergeant (Peter played by Dennis Price), a U.S. Army sergeant (Bob played by John Sweet), and a young woman recently assigned to the 'Women's Land Army' (Alison played by Sheila Sim) meet when disembarking a train in small town Kent, one stop from their eventual destination of Canterbury. As they walk away from the station in the dark, Alison is accosted by an unknown uniformed man who pours glue on the back of her head and gets away without being identified. The three make a pact to investigate this latest in a series of assaults by the mysterious 'glueman', while taking on their current assignments and planning to head to Canterbury. They encounter the enigmatic local magistrate Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman) who is intent on lecturing the locally-deployed soldiers about the history of the region and the famous 'Canterbury' Pilgrims Road. As the three young friends get closer to solving the glueman mystery, they bond over their own personal burdens and secrets, with the hope that their visit to Canterbury will bring answers. 

Our three modern pilgrims share a train compartment:
Alison, (Sheila Sim) bottom; Peter (Dennis Price), upper
left, and Bob (John Sweet), upper right.

Production Background
Fresh off of his success with the wartime satire The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Michael Powell had grown up in Kent and was attracted to the non-conventional wartime story because of his love of English history and small village life. He and Pressburger filmed on location in the Kent town of Fordwich  but named it Chillingbourne for the story. They made use of many locals in small parts in which they mostly played themselves, along with professional, if largely unknown actors, for the main and other bit parts. While they were allowed to film exteriors in Canterbury in and around the Cathedral, they were unable to film inside and had to recreate the gothic interiors in their studios in Denham.

Sgt. Johnson (Sweet) takes in the majesty of the Canterbury Cathedral.

They cast a complete unknown, John Sweet, for the part of the U.S. Sergeant who struggles to adjust to life in England. And there was a reason for that: Sweet himself was an actual U.S. Army Sergeant stationed in England whom the duo just happened to see in an amateur play put on by his outfit. Not able to employ their first choices of Burgess Meredith or Tyrone Power who were also in active service at the time, Powell & Pressburger made do with Sweet, who, with a little coaching, was a natural screen presence who brought 'aw shucks' integrity to his role as Bob Johnson. 

Once Sweet returned to the U.S. after the war, he attempted to capitalize on his screen credit with Britain's top filmmakers but was turned down for anything more than bit theatrical parts, and a Hollywood career failed to materialize. He returned to his teaching career (first college, then high school) and fell into obscurity as A Canterbury Tale failed to make much impression in the U.S. (even if there were flashback framing scenes added for U.S. audiences to help with the context). Many years later, Sweet was tracked down by Paul Tritton for a contribution to his planned 'making of' book on the film. Sweet was happy to share his diaries and personal photos he kept from the time of production, and was caught up in a wave of rediscovery of the film due to directors Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorcese championing the work of Powell and Pressburger.

In 2000, Sweet returned to Kent for a special screening of the film and reunited with Powell, Sheila Sim (now Lady Richard Attenborough) and many of the locals; Dennis Price and Eric Portman were deceased by then. So over 50 years later, Sweet's talents were recognized and appreciated by new generations, a fact that greatly satisfied him during the last years of his life. He lived to 2011, when he died at age 95. His obituary had one line about the film as follows: "Sweet...served as an Army Clerk in WWII in London where he was cast into a British film which changed his life."

Sgt. John Sweet with some local boys in A Canterbury Tale

An older John Sweet (center) with Sheila Sim at the 2000
celebration of the film in England. (Photo attributed to Paul
Tritton and posted on www.powell-pressburger.org).

Some other notable film-related events in 1944 (from Filmsite.org):

  • The first Golden Globe awards ceremony took place at 20th Century Fox Studios, at first marked by the awarding of scrolls (not statuettes) to honorees (not nominees) who were announced earlier.
  • A Los Angeles court ruled, in the so-called "Havilland decision," that Warner Bros. had to release actress Olivia de Havilland after her seven-year contract expired. It said that the studio could not add time to her contract to make up for the periods when she was on suspension. This ruling undercut studios' ability to lock actors into long-term contracts.
  • A few years after his first lead film role in 1938, western star Roy Rogers' future wife Dale Evans was first cast in a movie opposite him (as Ysobel Martinez) in 1944 - Cowboy and the Señorita (1944). Following the 1946 death of Roy's wife Arline due to complications during childbirth, Roy married Dale on New Years Eve 1947.
  • Swimmer Esther Williams starred in her first Technicolor aqua-musical in the MGM production of Bathing Beauty (1944). It featured synchronized swimming and diving numbers.
  • To Have and Have Not (1944) paired an unhappily-married Humphrey Bogart and young Lauren Bacall for the first time (this was Lauren Bacall's movie debut at age 19 ). She was sensational when she first appeared with the sultry question: "Anybody got a match?" The couple fell in love while making the film - and were married shortly afterward in 1945.

My Random Observations

  • After about 20 minutes, I paused the film to marvel that I had a smile on my face; unlike last week's movie, this one was a true pleasure, a reminder of why the best movies have so much power to entertain. Perhaps I needed something that was anti-Hollywood. Powell & Pressburger defied genre here, with corresponding tonal shifts (noir, comedy, romance, fantasy, and back again) and an unconventional script which--partial spoiler here--avoided a traditional romance of leading man and lady coming together at the end of the film, even though there were plenty of romantic feelings pulsing through our characters.
    In the English countryside, Alison and Bob bond by sharing
    the losses both have suffered.

  • Speaking of John Sweet as Sgt. Bob Johnson, I knew immediately from his accent that his actor was American and not a Brit attempting a midwestern accent. And I appreciated that his character was utterly believable if a bit idealized. That there were multiple scenes of interactions between Bob and locals in which they struggled to get past the language and cultural differences, in all cases thanks to patience and good humor on all sides, mutual understanding was achieved. Bob himself was a mild-mannered American who worked to understand and be respected by villagers.

    Bob encounters a boy at his hotel window (it's revealed that
    the youngster is standing a top a moving hay pile) in a scene
    that reminded me of the conclusion of A Christmas Carol.

  • I love the spunky, unconventional women who know their own minds in many of Powell and Pressburger films - Alison Smith follows this tradition perfectly (think Joan Webster in I Know Where I'm Going! or June in A Matter of Life and Death). And unlike most Hollywood leading ladies, Alison is not afraid to go around the countryside in pants and a hair scarf, with little to no makeup, and throw hay around a barnyard. When she's asked if she's afraid to go about for fear of another attack by the 'glueman', she says, "On the contrary, I'll go about every night until I catch him!" 
Shelia Sim as determined, unfazed Alison Smith.
  • While the pilgrim path of the three young people is what we follow, the mysterious Mr. Colpeper, self-appointed preserver of local history and misogynistic Victorian values, seems to be on a journey toward a conversion of his own. When he complains that soldiers must be arm-twisted into attending his local history lectures, our heroine asks him "Did you ever think to invite the girls?" "No." "Pity," Alison says, with a long stare that I would like to believe convinces that this is one middle-aged man who will no longer underestimate a woman (he had earlier refused to employ Alison on his own farm because of her gender). He later turns up to offer Alison some comfort during a particularly emotional moment, perhaps to help make amends.

    The first time we see Colpeper in his office appropriately adorned
    with medieval touches.

    Colpeper counseling Peter Gibbs.

    Colpeper attempting to comfort Alison in Canterbury.

  • There are enough slightly eerie touches to suggest some supernatural element(s) at work. All of which added to the overall sense of wonder in the everyday experiences the characters live on their individual and collective journeys:

    The first time we see the hotel sign: 'The Hand of Glory'

    In the film's prologue we see an original Canterbury pilgrim...

    ...transform into a soldier as he looks skyward (in a 
    sequence that may have inspired Kubrick's opening of 2001:
    A Space Odyssey
    )

  • Note to self: don't wait too long before watching another Powell & Pressburger film.

Where to Watch
For those who subscribe, the film is available on the online Criterion Channel; it's available on their DVD of course, too, with many valuable extras including interviews with Sheila Sim and John Sweet. Amazon Prime customers can purchase the film online for $3.99. An inferior print is available for free on YouTube here.

Further Reading (because I really didn't do this film justice)
Writer Xan Brooks offers his reasons for why the film is his favorite in The Guardian (2011)
Peter von Bagh analyzes the film here for The Criterion Collection.