Personal Collection of Classics: THUNDER ON THE HILL (1951)

In the hills of Norfolk, England a storm is coming.  As the rain pours down the local community make their way to Our Lady of Rheims Convent in search of sanctuary against the rising floodwaters.  The nuns in the convent are making things ready under the watchful eye of Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert).  Sister Mary is not too popular with the nurses who work alongside the sisters, thanks mainly to her exacting manner and superior attitude.  But Sister Mary has demons of her own thanks to her guilt over her sister’s suicide.  Her only ally against the nurses is Dr. Edward Jeffreys (Robert Douglas), who is awaiting the arrival of his sickly wife.

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Before too long all the townspeople, and Dr. Jeffreys’ wife, are gathered safely inside and not a moment too soon as the call comes in that the roads are completely flooded.  Everyone settles in for the night but the sisters receive a surprise from the police sergeant.  Convicted murderess Valerie Carns (Ann Blythe) was on her way to her execution when the roads flooded.  Now forced to wait until the weather improves, Valerie and her guards are being sequestered at the convent much to the chagrin of the local populace.  The other nuns accept Valerie as a lost soul, someone to be treated carefully but with compassion, but Sister Mary feels compelled to try to make a connection with Valerie.

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Not surprisingly, Valerie is less than enthusiastic about Sister Mary’s attempts to make nice.  Convicted of murdering her brother, the ailing pianist Jason Carns, Valerie is all too aware of what people think of her and just wants to be left alone.  Sister Mary perseveres, much to pretty much everyone’s annoyance, and Dr. Jeffrey’s is forced to tell her the cold hard facts.  It seems that he knew Valerie and her brother as he cared for Jason before he died.  He says that he heard Valerie wish her brother was dead and the circumstantial evidence that he, and others, gave during the trial helped convict her.  Sister Mary sees the parallels between Valerie’s suffering and her own guilt over her sister and is even more determined to help.  As time passes Valerie begins to warm up to Sister Mary and tells her that the truth is she did not kill her brother but has been falsely accused.  It is now up to Sister Mary to discover what really happened to Jason Carns before the waters recede and Valerie is taken to fulfill her death sentence.

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THUNDER ON THE HILL is based on the play Bonaventure by Charlotte Hastings and is definitely a lesser known work by director Douglas Sirk.  Claudette Colbert gets to show some real dramatic range in a role that was certainly not typical for her.  In 1951 Claudette Colbert was still a great actress but the tide was turning and her type of woman, refined, classy, and elegant, was being replaced by a younger, “sexier” generation.  But in THUNDER ON THE HILL she is stripped of her usual glamour and fashion and what we are left with is simply the woman and the actress.  In spite of spending the entire film in a habit, Claudette Colbert still manages to radiate energy and elegance and makes us feel that here is a woman driven by dark secrets to strive for something greater than herself.  There is of course a religious connotation to the story, simply due to its setting, but Douglas Sirk didn’t want that to be a large part of it.  He said, “I wanted this picture to have nothing to do with religion. For me, there is one interesting theme in it: this girl (Ann Blyth) being taken to the gallows, the storm, the delay, and so on. This should have been the only thing the picture was about. There was no story in the Claudette Colbert part. But for various reasons, including the fact that the producer blew most of the budget building that fantastic convent in Hollywood, when we could have gone on location somewhere, they kept pushing it towards religion the whole time.”  While religion might have come into it, the fact that Sirk’s primary intention was to examine the relationship of these two women and a young woman facing her own mortality is part of why I enjoyed this film so much.

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This is one of those films that allows women to hold the spotlight.  The women in this story are weak, frightened, cunning, cruel, nobel, naive, funny, and intelligent.  In short, they are people and fully developed ones at that.  They are not simple caricatures of what women were “supposed to be”.  Nor are they purely evil or purely good, but rather a bit of both.  Douglas Sirk allows his female leads to be unpleasant, to be wrong, to be ugly even in an effort to examine their relationship in the face of looming death.

I recently read the fantastic book BURIAL RITES and some moments in this film made me think of that.  Particularly the beginning with the people’s reactions to having a condemned murderess in their midst was very reminiscent.  I wish that a bit more time could have been spent with Valerie learning to trust Sister Mary before she completely opened up to her.  I wanted to see Ann Blyth angry more!  But aside from this small quibble I really enjoyed THUNDER ON THE HILL.  I watched it on National Women’s Day and it seemed a fitting movie to watch on that day.  I highly recommend checking this film out if you have the chance!

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The Try It, You’ll Like It! Blogathon: THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942)

This post is part of the Try It, You’ll Like It! Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently and Sister Celluloid.  Be sure to check out the other entries here!

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Let’s be honest.  If you are a classic film fan the chances are good that you have at least one person in your life who is less than excited at the prospect of watching one of your “old movies” with you.  For me that person would have to be my husband.  God love him he tries, he really does, but he just can’t quite muster up the same enthusiasm as I do when I put in a DVD and Barbara Stanwyck comes on screen.  I’ve been trying to convert him, slowly, and I have found some films that he has enjoyed.  Recently, we watched THE PALM BEACH STORY and in my opinion it is a terrific movie to use when introducing non-fans to classic films.

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First, a brief summary of the film.  Tom (Joel McCrea) and Gerry (Claudette Colbert) are a married couple in New York City.  They are also currently in a bit of financial difficulty especially as their landlord is showing new tenants their apartment.  Gerry happens to be home during one such tour and takes refuge in a shower.  She is discovered there by a funny little old man who calls himself “The Weinie King”.  When Gerry explains that the reason the landlord is showing their apartment is because they have no money to pay the rent, the Weinie King gives her a large sum of money for no other reason than to annoy his wife.  And the fact that Gerry happens to be a lovely girl with a nice voice.  Gerry gratefully takes the money and gives the old man a kiss on the cheek.

Tom meanwhile is at the office making a sales pitch.  He is trying to convince a potential investor that his idea for a new kind of airport is an idea worth putting some money behind.  When he gets a very excited phone call from Gerry, who is trying to tell him what happened with the Weinie King, he barely has time to listen.  Gerry agrees to tell him everything that night and then hurries out to put the new money to good use.  When Tom arrives home later he is shocked to find that Gerry has paid all the bills and the rent, as well as bought herself a new dress and now she wants to take him out to dinner and theater with the money left over.  Tom is suspicious of this man who came into the house and gave his wife money and wanted nothing in return.  Gerry is slightly offended by this but not for the reasons you might think.  She has been trying for some time to use all of her talents to help Tom get ahead in the world and every time he becomes jealous and ruins things.  Over dinner that evening Gerry, who has had a bit to drink, tells Tom that she firmly believes that while she still loves him it would be in his best interest if she was to leave him.  She is only holding him back and since he won’t accept her help, leaving is the only way she can ensure that Tom’s career will be successful.  Tom dismisses this notion as foolish but even after they return to their apartment, Gerry is insistent that she is leaving him.  But some caring and helpful unzipping of a difficult zipper stop this conversation from going any farther.

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Morning comes and while Tom slumbers peacefully, Gerry tearfully writes him a note.  In it she explains that she was perfectly serious last night, that in spite of how much she still loves him she is leaving him so that he will finally be the success he deserves to be.  Unfortunately, Gerry is not super stealthy when leaving the note and Tom wakes up in time to see her leaving.  He gives chase and the two eventually end up at the train station.  Having no money of her own, Gerry must resort to using her feminine wiles and finds success in a traveling group of men who call themselves The Ale and Quail Club.  She waves goodbye to Tom as the train pulls away from the station.  Tom decides to follow Gerry’s train and meet her when she arrives in Florida some time later.  By the time he finds her things have changed.  Gerry is no longer part of The Ale and Quail Club, but she is accompanied by a young man (Rudy Vallee) who happens to be a millionaire and who has bought her an entire wardrobe, and his wife introducing him as Captain McGlue to a very forward woman (Mary Astor) with a boyfriend named Toto.

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THE PALM BEACH STORY is crazy, zany Preston Sturgess goodness.  It is just fun!  And that is what makes it such a great first film for non-classic film lovers.  Comedy is perhaps the easiest genre to take when trying a new kind of film, book, or television show.  Humor is a universal value and something we all can enjoy.  It sets people at ease, perhaps making them feel less pressured to do anything more than enjoy the film they are about to see.  Comedies don’t have to be dissected or discussed, although they can be certainly, they really only need to be enjoyed and it doesn’t get much better than Preston Sturges.

Too often people think of classic films as slow, clunky, and boring.  These are three words that will never be used to describe THE PALM BEACH STORY or Preston Sturges.  With THE PALM BEACH STORY, Sturges is at the top of his game and throws himself and the audience into the zany story with reckless abandon.  The story, the characters, and the jokes come fast and furious and with such enthusiasm that we can’t help but get swept up in it.  Have a friend who says that old movies are dull?  Show him this movie and stand back!  The comedy makes the transition easier, the ability to forget that the film being watched is over sixty years old simpler, and the preconceived notions of classic films seem foolish.  This is an old movie that doesn’t feel like an “old movie” and this is because Sturges has crafted such a clever, funny, and enjoyable comedy that it has become timeless.  In case you are still on the fence about whether or not THE PALM BEACH STORY is a great film to show a novice fan, here are three reasons why you should courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

So back to the night I showed THE PALM BEACH STORY to my husband.  He liked it.  He really liked it.  He laughed.  Out loud.  Several times.  And days later he would look at me and say “Nitz Toto!” and start laughing.  I don’t think you can ask for a better review than that, do you?