Classics From Criterion: GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946)

Charles Dickens is an another author who I am sorry to say I have not read which is a situation that I hope to remedy soon.  That having been said, I have recently been on a reading binge which has brought me back to my bookworm roots.  So when I was trying to decide on a movie to watch the other day it seemed only right that I choose something with a literary basis.  Which led me to my copy of David Lean’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS.

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The story is that of a boy named Pip (Anthony Wagner).  He is a poor boy and an orphan, who now lives with his sister and her husband.  One stormy evening he makes his way to the churchyard to leave flowers on the grave of his parents.  While there he is startled by a gruff man with shackles on his arms and legs.  The man, named Abel Magwitch (Finlay Currie), is an escaped convict and steals what items Pip has in his pockets and then demands that the frightened boy bring him food and a file for his chains.  Pip returns to his sisters home where he is greeted by her husband, Joe (Bernard Miles).  Joe is a blacksmith and is kind to Pip while his wife, Pip’s sister, is decidedly not.  After a less than pleasant dinner, Pip sneaks into the kitchen after everyone else is asleep and steals a meat pie and a file from Joe’s workshop.  He then hurries off to find Abel but runs into another escaped convict, this one with a scar across his cheek.  When Pip finally finds Abel he tells him about the another man with the scar.  Abel becomes agitated and thanks Pip for helping him before running off into the night.

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Sometime later soldiers come to the door looking for Joe.  They need help repairing a pair of shackles that they need in order to recapture some escaped convicts.  Joe repairs the shackles and then takes Pip along while they watch the soldiers hunt for the escaped men.  It isn’t too long before they hear sounds of a struggle and come upon Abel wrestling the man with the scar.  Abel declares his hatred for the other man and is once again arrested.  As the two men are lead back to the prison boat, Abel confesses to Joe that he stole a meat pie from his house but never mentions Pip playing any part.

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Some time passes and Pip is summoned to the great house of the eccentric spinster, Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) to act as a companion to the teenaged girl who lives there named Estella (Jean Simmons).  Estella is cold and cruel, though beautiful, and she mocks Pip’s manners and coarse behavior at every opportunity.  Though he finds her behavior hurtful Pip still falls in love with her.  During his visits to the house he also meets a skinny young boy who challenges Pip to a fist fighting match.  Pip easily beats the boy who surprisingly stands up and politely thanks Pip before the latter takes his leave.  When Pip turns fourteen his visits come to an end as he must begin his apprenticeship as a blacksmith.  Estella also leaves at this time, heading to France in order to learn how to be a lady.

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Six years later Pip (John Mills) and Joe are visited by Miss Havisham’s lawyer, Mr. Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan).  Mr. Jaggers tells Pip that he is the recipient of a mysterious benefactor who hopes to help turn him into a gentleman with “great expectations”.  Pip leaves Joe, who has been made a widower in recent years, along with the new housekeeper Biddy and travels to London where he is set up in an apartment by Mr. Jaggers.  At the apartment he meets his roommate, one Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness) who in fact turns out to be the skinny boy Pip met all those years before in Miss Havisham’s garden.  Herbert is charged with teaching Pip how to become a gentleman.  Herbert and Pip run up debts in their quest to make Pip a true London gentleman.  Herbert also tells Pip the truth of Miss Havisham and her intentions when it comes to Estella (Valerie Hobson), whom Pip still loves.

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This version of GREAT EXPECTATIONS is not based so much on the book as it is the 1939 stage adaptation which happened to feature Martita Hunt and Alec Guinness in the roles they would also play in the film.  David Lean had never read the Dicken’s classic and was cajoled into seeing the play by his wife.  The ending of the film was somewhat changed from that of the book thanks to an idea once again from David Lean’s wife which lead to her receiving a screenplay credit.

While GREAT EXPECTATIONS is a slimmed down version of the classic work it in no way feels rushed or choppy.  The whole story moves along with such compelling and intriguing action that you can’t help but get swept along.  Considered one of the best, if not the best, film version of a Dickens’ story I have to say that this film was absolutely wonderful.  There is a darkly twisted sense of humor that Dickens’ seems to have in many of his stories and that is evident here.  From the death masks on the wall of the lawyer’s office to the elderly man who only wants a nod from you now and again to keep him happy, evidence of the Dickensian sensibility is everywhere.  It feels as if David Lean has a great respect for the source material and made an effort to honor that.

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For such a complex and rich story the film version does a remarkably good job of pacing and plotting.  The story never feels bogged down in details and the characters never become muddled.  Yes there are certain elements from the book that are glossed over or removed and I am sure that if/when I read Great Expectations for myself I will find many things that the film never mentioned.  But GREAT EXPECTATIONS the film is smart, funny, exciting, suspenseful, and tremendous.  It is exceptionally well done and it is a film that I had never seen before but one that has now found its way on to my favorites list.  Moreover, GREAT EXPECTATIONS the film did the one thing that I believe all films based on books should do.  It made me excited to read the book!


If you have read Great Expectations or if you have seen this film or both let me know in the comments what you thought and how it compared to the book!

 

Watching With Warner: THE SEARCH (1948)

Out of the stuff of one of the saddest and most arresting human dramas of our times—that is the fate of the children of Europe whose homes were wrecked and whose lives were damaged by the war—Lazar Wechsler, a Swiss film producer, has made a picture which may prudently be said to be as fine, as moving, and as challenging as any the contemporary screen provides. The Search is its American title, and it opened at the Victoria last night. Our earnest wish is that it might be seen by every adult in the United States.

When I first watched THE SEARCH I was stunned.  I was stunned that I had never heard of this movie before.  Stunned that not more people talked about this film, stunned that it wasn’t mentioned more when post WWII cinema is discussed.  I was stunned at how good this movie was, how moving it was, how meaningful it was.  The above quote is from the original New York Times review from 1948 when the film was released.  The reviewer goes on to say;

For The Search is not only an absorbing and gratifying emotional drama of the highest sort, being a vivid and convincing representation of how one of the “lost children” of Europe is found, but it gives a graphic, overwhelming comprehension of the frightful cruelty to innocent children that has been done abroad. Within the framework of a basic human story—the tireless search of a displaced Czech mother for her little boy and the parallel efforts of others to help the nameless youngster and give him security after the war—it clearly lays out for us a problem facing western civilization today: what’s to be done with this vast backwash of shattered children who will be grown-ups tomorrow?

THE SEARCH opens with trains carrying children.  These are orphans, children separated from their parents and families, children who have seen unspeakable things in concentration camps, who have lived on the streets, who have hidden in fear from the Nazis.  This time the trains are taking them to an American camp, specifically set up for the processing and care of these lost souls.  In charge of this camp is Mrs. Murray (Aline MacMahon), a older matronly woman with the hardened efficiency of the military officer she is, and the kindly concern of a mother that she might be.  The children are frightened and unsure what is about to happen with them.  None speak English and for many the last train they rode on took them to a place of nightmares.  Through gestures and some French, Russian, Polish, German, Czech, Hungarian, and Hebrew, most of the children are able to give their names and tell their terrible tales.  One girl was forced to clear away the clothes of the people who had been gassed, finding among them the blouse of her mother.  Another young boy saw his parents killed before his very eyes.  The adults are shocked and saddened by what they hear, but they do their best to try and make the children understand that they are safe at last.

Among the children there is one little boy who remains silent refusing to speak except for “Ich weiß nicht”, I don’t know.  The only one who knows him is a little French boy who has been hiding with him, but even his French companion does not know this boy’s true name or where he comes from.  The only clue is a number tattooed on his arm and a woolen cap on his head, obviously made with love.  The mute little boy is named Karel Malik (Ivan Jandi) from Czechoslovakia and he was the son of a mother and a father, and little brother to a sister.  What Karel cannot remember is what happened to him, what happened to make him forget and be silent.  He and his mother were separated from his father and sister and sent to a concentration camp.  While in the camp Mother and son were separated and it was this trauma that sent Karl into his mute state.

The children are to be moved to a larger facility, one equipped to handle them.  They are loaded into ambulances but many children panic because ambulances were used to transport those on their way to the gas chamber.  After some coaxing the children board the vehicles and start on their way.  But during the journey some children smell exhaust fumes and mistakenly believe they are on their way to be gassed.  Several children break out of the vans and begin running away, including Karel and his companion.  While most of the children are rounded up and brought back, Karel and his friend attempt to ford a river to get away.  In the crossing Karel’s friend drowns and he himself is assumed drowned when only his woolen cap can be found.

Karel wanders into the ruins of a town, tired, hungry, and suffering from a cut foot.  He comes across an American GI eating a sandwich in his jeep.  Ralph “Steve”  Stevenson (Montgomery Clift) shares his sandwich with Karel and decides that he cannot leave the young boy on his own.  It takes some strong arms and determination, but Steve manages to get Karel back to his house.  Once he shows Karel that he and his friend, Jerry Fisher (Wendell Corey), can be trusted things calm down.  Steve even begins teaching Karel, whom he nicknames “Jim” as he has no idea of Karel’s true identity, to speak English and is trying to use government channels to find out any background information on Karel using the number tattooed on his arm.  When the answer comes back that there is no child registered with that number and that no one has come looking for a child matching Karel’s description, the official suggestion is to take Karel to a government camp especially as Steve is awaiting his transfer orders back to the United States.  Steve isn’t too happy with this course of action however, as he and “Jim” have started to bond, and begins trying to find a way to bring the boy back to America with him.  But what Karel and Steve don’t know is that Karel’s mother, Hanna (Jarmila Novotna), has survived the concentration camp and is now searching for her lost son.

I have to be honest, I never was completely blown away from Montgomery Clift.  I often found his characters rather similar in their portrayal, tortured and angst ridden, and I attribute that to his real life struggles with anxiety and later drug and alcohol addiction.  I know that his friendship with Elizabeth Taylor, though it was his greatest and most enduring, took a toll on him emotionally which possibly contributed to the angst we see on screen.  But THE SEARCH introduced me to a completely new Montgomery Clift.  This is his first starring role and there is a genuineness and eagerness to him.  You can almost feel his energy, his earnestness, and there is a true star quality on display.  We are seeing Montgomery Clift at the beginning, before life took it’s toll, and it is dazzling.

Rumor has it that Ivan Jandi spoke no English and learned all his lines phonetically.  If this is true it is all the more impressive, as even with no command of the English language Ivan Jandi turns in a performance that is so affecting that it will stay with you long after the film is over.  The relationship between his character and Montgomery Clift’s Steve feels honest and true, with no hint of American propaganda or overly sweet sentimentalism.  This relationship is the heart and soul of this film, and it works beautifully.  Steve moves through the initial shock of realizing that this little boy has been through the horrors of a concentration camp, and all the terrible things that entails, and comes to a feeling of responsibility and love for his young charge.  This is not a case of a swell American taking in a stray refugee and showing him how terrific America is, rather this is simply a man who has seen terrible things that have shaken him to the core who finds a young boy who has suffered those terrible things and wants to do the best thing for him.

THE SEARCH is a film that I feel is important.  Usually noted for being shot among the actual ruins of Ingolstadt, Nuremberg, and Würzburg, there is so much more to this film.  THE SEARCH is a beautiful film that pulls no punches when it comes to telling the horrors of war and the terrible things done to the children at the hands of the Nazis.  It pulls no punches at the emotional toll the war has taken on the soldiers, the civilians, and the children.  It is honest, heartbreaking, and amazingly well done.  I truly hope that you will take the time to seek out this film and see it for yourselves.

The Search, in our estimation, is a major revelation in our times.

-New York Times Film Review by Bosley Crowther, 1948


If you want to hear more about Montgomery Clift you can find a terrific podcast by Karina Longworth called You Must Remember This here.  Also, here is the link to the original movie review quoted in this post.  Finally, if you would like to own a copy of THE SEARCH you can buy it here!

Spending Time with Turner Classic Movies: LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (1955)

A few weeks ago I celebrated my return to blogging with a giveaway.  I asked people to enter by leaving me a comment with a suggestion of a movie that I should watch and blog about.  I had several great suggestions, all of which I plan on watching at some point in the future, and the winner of the giveaway was Kristina of Speakeasy!  Her suggestion was a movie starring Doris Day and James Cagney and it was one that I had never heard of before, a movie called LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME.

LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME is a biopic about Ruth Etting (Doris Day) and Martin Snyder (James Cagney) aka Marty the Gimp, a Chicago gangster who helped start her career.  Marty meets Ruth at a taxi club in Chicago in the 1920s.  Although he is there to shake down the owner, Marty is distracted when a fight breaks out on the dance floor.  Ruth has kicked yet another customer in the shins for getting fresh and her boss has had enough.  Marty sees Ruth get fired and follows her into the back dressing room.  Ruth initially resists Marty’s offers for help, suspecting he only intends to use her and discard her, but she finally agrees to take his card.  Marty uses his nightclub connections to get Ruth a job in the chorus at a fancy club and it is here that she meets handsome pianist Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell).

Ruth soon tires of just being part of the chorus and sets her sights on her true ambition, to be a singer.  Marty in the meantime is now ready to claim his reward for helping Ruth and tells her she is going to Miami with him.  Ruth refuses to be his mistress however, and Marty relents even offering to get her singing lessons with Johnny.  Ruth turns out to have natural talent and Marty gets her a gig headlining at the club.  Johnny warns Ruth that Marty’s intentions are not honorable and that she should make her own way, without the gangster’s help.  Ruth maintains that she knows what Marty is expecting but that she needs his connections, besides what is the harm in just playing along?

Ruth’s career begins to take off, her debut as headliner at the club a great success, and Marty begins to fall in love with her.  One night after a show Ruth introduces Marty to Bernard V Loomis, an agent from New York.  Loomis says that he has lined up auditions for Ruth but Marty jealously dismisses him.  Marty tells Ruth he has bigger plans for her and soon sets her up with her very own radio show with Johnny as conductor.  Ruth’s popularity grows and soon Marty has set her up with that Ziegfeld Follies.  Johnny has fallen in love with Ruth by this time and pleads with her again to leave Martin and let Loomis represent her, but she still refuses.  Johnny tells Marty that he won’t accompany Ruth the New York and the two men argue about the woman they both love.

In New York Ruth is fitting in well with the follies but Marty isn’t so happy.  New York folks don’t hold him in the same regard as the ones in Chicago and Marty is chaffing at the perceived slights and insults.  He continues to act as Ruth’s manager while Loomis keeps a low profile to avoid damaging Ruth’s chances and angering Marty.  During Ruth’s big night Marty tries to reign in his jealousy but when he is prevented from visiting her backstage between acts, Marty flies into a rage and becomes violent.  He attacks and beats a stagehand before he is forcibly removed while a shaken Ruth goes back on stage.  Back in their hotel Marty is making phone calls to Chicago when Ruth returns.  He tells her that she is no longer going to be part of the show in New York and that he is breaking her contract.  Ruth refuses and angrily tells Marty that she hates the way he is acting and that his actions are ruining everything.  Marty in turn reproaches Ruth for not standing beside him when he has done so much to help her.  Ruth tearfully says that there is no way to pay Marty back for what he has done but Marty begs to disagree and forcibly kisses her.  Soon after Ruth agrees to marry Marty, even though she does not love him, out of a sense of obligation and leaves the production in New York.  Marty takes Ruth all over the country and her career continues to grow and thrive under his direction.  Ruth is miserably unhappy and takes up drinking.  One night Marty comes into her dressing room at a club with big news…he has gotten Ruth a part in a major Hollywood motion picture!  Ruth is less than enthused, much to Marty’s frustration and irritation, but she perks up considerably when a phone call comes in from none other than Johnny Alderman.

When I first saw Kristina’s suggestion I was intrigued, as well as a little unsure of what to expect.  I knew Doris Day, in fact I had many fond memories of watching PILLOW TALK and LOVER, COME BACK with my sister during our slumber parties.  I knew James Cagney too and somehow the mash-up of WHITE HEAT and PLEASE DON’T EAT THE DAISIES wasn’t something I could get my head around.

The real Ruth Etting and Marty Snyder

From dorisday.net

Ruth Etting had over sixty hit recordings and working in stage, screen, and radio.  She grew up wanting to be an artist, sketching and drawing wherever she was able, before attending art school in Chicago when she was sixteen.  While attending classes Ruth got a job at the Marigold Gardens nightclub and it was there that the showbiz bug bit.  Ruth had sung in school and in the church choir, but had never taken formal vocal lessons.  She styled her singing after Marion Harris but varied her tempos and phrases in order to make it uniquely her own.  Her big break came one night when the featured soloist, who happened to be male, became ill and dropped out.  Ruth quickly changed costumes, scanned the music, and lowered her register (something that added to her singing appeal) and the rest is history.  She did marry Martin Snyder in 1922, at the age of 25, and stayed married to him until 1937.  There was another man named Alderman but his first name was Harry and he was married when he and Ruth started seeing each other.  Ruth and Alderman married in 1938 and moved to a farm in Colorado Springs where they lived mostly out of the public eye for the rest of their lives.  Of course with any film based on the life of a real person, LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME takes some liberties with historical fact.  For example, Ruth never worked as a taxi club dancer this was simply done to highlight the song “Ten Cents a Dance”.  But historical accuracy is not what makes this movie so good.  It comes from the fact that Ava Gardener said no.

There was some discussion of Jane Powell taking the lead role, but the studios could not see her in the role of a nightclub singer.  Ava Gardener was a front-runner for the part but she turned it down because she didn’t want to have her singing dubbed again as it was in SHOWBOAT, as did George Cukor when he was offered the chance to direct though his reason was not wanting to direct a film with gangsters.  According to Robert Osborne on TCM, the story goes that when the film came out both Gardener and Cukor went to see it.  Exiting the theater Gardener said, “George, we made a mistake.”  Cukor responded, “No we didn’t because if we had said yes it would not have been THAT good.”

James Cagney is the one who suggested Doris Day for the role of Ruth Etting after the two had worked together on WEST POINT STORY.  Doris Day was unsure about playing Ruth Etting because she was concerned about portraying a woman who was basically a gold-digger or a kept woman.  This role would force her to portray Ruth’s struggle from seedy nightclubs to the New York spotlight complete with skimpy costumes, drinking, swearing, and other lewd behavior.  Director Joe Pasternak told her that she would bring a sense of dignity to a part that would offset the otherwise vulgar behavior of Ruth Etting.  I think that this is true because the usual Doris Day “how dare you” indignity comes out in scenes but not like when Rock Hudson slings her over his shoulder in PILLOW TALK.  There it is used for comic effect but in this film it gives Ruth a sense of moral fiber and changes her reasons for doing what she does from just trying to get ahead to world-weary knowledge.  By that I mean that through Doris Day’s portrayal we see Ruth as a woman who is using Marty and manipulating him not because she is a floozy looking for a meal ticket, but because she is a woman who has seen what is needed to get ahead in show business and is trying to avoid paying that price.  She doesn’t want to sleep with Marty so she plays along just enough to keep him happy but without compromising her morals.  In that light we can start to sympathize with Ruth, especially after Marty attacks her.  After that moment she is defeated and deflated, becoming more like an abused spouse than a scheming gold-digger.  The scene where Marty attacks Ruth actually went much further than what ended up in the final cut of the film.  In a scene that was mostly removed by the censors, Doris Day recalled: “[Co-star James Cagney] attacks me savagely; and the way Cagney played it, believe me, it was savage. He slammed me against the wall, ripped off my dress, my beads flying, and after a tempestuous struggle, in which I tried to fight him off with every realistic ounce of strength I had, he threw me on the bed and raped me. It was a scene that took a lot out of me, but it was one of the most fully realized physical scenes I have ever played…It wasn’t until I saw the movie in its release that I became aware that most of the scene had been cut.”  I was surprised at how frankly this film dealt with issues like sex, abuse, and even rape.  It seemed a much more modern film than 1955, and it is even more surprising that the censors let so much through.  Or maybe it is simply to the credit of the writing (Oscar winning writing from Daniel Fuchs), directing, and the superb acting of James Cagney (who received an Oscar nomination for his role) and Doris Day that the message and true intentions behind Marty and Ruth’s relationship comes through in spite of the Hayes Office.

Doris Day is an actress that mostly is remembered for happier roles.  Her films with Rock Hudson, PLEASE DON’T EAT THE DAISIES, and YOUNG AT HEART are far more familiar roles but beneath this happy, comic actress was a truly great talent for the dramatic.  This is a much darker movie than Doris Day usually made but it is an example of what a truly talented and engaging actress she was.  In her hands Ruth Etting becomes a woman who is trapped, first by her circumstances and then by a jealous and possessive man, but who struggles to preserve her dignity while having the strength to pursue her dreams.  Joe Pasternak was right when he told Doris Day that she would bring dignity to the role.  She brings not only that but also her immense talent to a role that really should have garnered her an Oscar nomination, if not the award.


Thanks to Kristina at Speakeasy for the suggestion!  If you have a film that you think I should see let me know in the comments below!

Classics From Criterion: ACE IN THE HOLE (1951)

Charles “Chuck” Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is an out of work reporter who finds himself outside of the offices of the Sun Bulletin in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  His car has just been towed and Chuck decides to rush into the offices and ask for the editor.  He makes his pitch, calling himself a $250 a week reporter who can be had for $50, but his brand of shock journalism is not the editor, Jacob Boot’s, cup of tea.  However, Boot agrees to give Chuck a job provided that he remains honest and sober which Chuck agrees to.  Chuck acknowledges that his past rough and brutish behavior has cost him several high-powered jobs but he is confident that his next big break is just around the corner.  Until it comes around all he has to do is wait and keep his nose clean.

One year passes and Chuck is still working at the Sun Bulletin and is becoming increasingly disgusted with his lot.  He is itching for a good juicy story, the sort that will get him back on top, but the best he can get is an assignment to cover the local rattlesnake hunt.  Chuck drives towards town along with cub reporter/photographer Herbie Cook (Bob Arthur) but soon stops for gas at a small trading post.  Herbie goes in to find an older woman weeping and praying in the backroom and soon police sirens can be heard.  While he and Chuck are wondering what is going on a young blonde woman approaches asking for a ride.  Her name is Lorraine (Jan Sterling) and she is the wife of Leo Minosa, who is the owner of the trading post.  Leo was exploring a nearby cave and is now trapped in a cave-in.  Lorraine is bringing him blankets and a thermos of coffee and Chuck offers to drive her the rest of the way.  Once at the cave Chuck hears that it is a sacred cave to the Native Americans, called the Cave of the Seven Vultures.  Sensing a chance at a story, Chuck pushes his way past the sheriff’s deputy and enters the cave ostensibly to bring Leo the blankets and coffee.

Once underground Chuck soon finds Leo, trapped under the mud and rubble but otherwise upbeat.  He is certain that he will be out soon and he is more than happy to let Chuck take his picture.  He is especially thrilled when Chuck says that he will publish a story about Leo in the paper along with the photograph.  Chuck returns to the trading post where he rents a room from Lorraine and then calls Boot.  He tells Boot that he has the front page story and begins typing up the story.  While talking to Lorraine, Chuck learns that she and Leo were married soon after Leo was discharged from the military.  Lorraine quickly became unhappy and disillusioned with their life and is now taking her chance to leave Leo while she can.  Chuck nows how this will hurt his story so he tries to shame Lorraine into staying but to no avail.  The only thing that stops Lorraine is when Chuck tells her that this story will bring customers from all over the country to her tiny store.  The prospect of increased profit is too enticing to Lorraine and she agrees to stay.

The trading post is soon besieged by tourists, all anxious to get a glimpse at the human tragedy that is unfolding.  Lorraine begins charging for admission to the site, against the wishes of her father-in-law, and presses her mother-in-law into service to help with the rush of customers at the trading post.  Chuck learns from the local physician, who has just been down to see Leo, that the trapped man is healthy and could probably last a week underground.  With this in mind Chuck goes to see the Sheriff with a proposal.  Knowing that the Sheriff is crooked and up for re-election Chuck suggests that they prolong the rescue effort, taking a whole week by drilling down from the top of the mountain rather than shoring up the loose walls and going in from the side (which would take only sixteen hours), so that the Sheriff can use the event to bolster is re-election campaign.  In exchange for his quiet and cooperation, the sheriff will guarantee Chuck exclusive access to the story.  The Sheriff agrees and uses his position to force the construction foreman to go along with the plan.  Chuck tells Herbie that they are quitting the Sun Bulletin now that they have a big enough story to write their own ticket with.

That night Lorraine comes to see Chuck and flush with her recent success tries to flirt with him. Chuck responds by slapping her and reminding her that she is supposed to be playing the grieving wife.  The next day the drilling begins and more reporters show up but they are to be disappointed.  When they question why they are being denied access to the story while Chuck is allowed free rein, the Sheriff responds that he has deputized Chuck and no one else can have access to the cave for safety reasons.  Meanwhile down below, Chuck is talking with Leo again.  Leo declares that Chuck is his best friend, which Chuck has little reaction to, and tells him about a present he has bought for Lorraine for their upcoming anniversary.  Back at the trading post Chuck is confronted by his old boss, Mr. Boot.  Boot has figured out Chuck’s angle and condemns his “below the belt” journalism.  Chuck could not care less especially as the editor of a major New York paper is on the phone, having just agreed to hire Chuck to cover the story.  Things could not be going better for Chuck.  He has exclusive access to the story of the century, Leo thinks of him as a friend and confidante, the tourists have turned the outside into a literal carnival and the money is rolling in, and oh yeah he is having an affair with Lorraine.  But at the next visit inside the cave with another day or so to go before the drills reach Leo, the doctor delivers terrible news.  Leo has developed pneumonia from laying in the cave for the past five days and won’t survive more than twelve hours.

This film did not do well when it was first released.  In fact the profits were so poor that Paramount not only changed the title to THE BIG CARNIVAL, without Wilder’s knowledge, but also subtracted the losses from the profits of Wilder’s next film, STALAG 17.  It is a very modern film, one that feels even more relevant today than it might have in 1951.  It is also a very uncomfortable and uncompromising look at the darker ambitions and urges of people, as such it isn’t too surprising that audiences didn’t take to the film.

The most significant point of the film is the manipulation of events by Chuck Tatum, his unwavering and uncompromising desire to control the unfolding story in order to keep his exclusive.  His single-minded behavior doesn’t take into account any one else, not Leo, not Lorraine, not Herbie, not the Sheriff, and not the thousands of people coming to see the spectacle.  He prevents the workers from digging Leo out sooner in order to prolong the story to keep readers interested and to bolster his fame and desirability to other newspapers.  He keeps Lorraine from leaving to keep the family life looking pristine.  He feeds Leo’s parents false hope and accepts their kindness all because he wants the story.  Of course Chuck is not alone in using Leo’s situation for his own personal gain.  Lorraine hates Leo but loves money so she stays on at the trading post and even starts charging for admission.  The Sheriff wants re-election and so agrees to force the miners to dig Leo out slower as well as giving Chuck exclusive access.  Even the construction foreman wants to keep his new job and so agrees to dig Leo out using a method he knows is unnecessarily slow.  Every person in a position to help Leo, to keep him from being trapped longer than needed, every single one of them fails to because of their own selfish reasons.

And what of the crowd of people gathering outside the cave?  The cave, which before was revered as sacred to the Native Americans and considered a pit stop by tourists, now is attracting thousands of men, women, and children.  They gather to sing songs about Leo, to take pictures, to ride carnival rides, and buy hamburgers.  They tell their children to pay attention as this is “educational”, which it is though not for the reasons they might think.  Chuck and the others certainly have a major part in what is happening but these people do as well.  Who buys the papers that Chuck writes for?  Who elects the Sheriff?  Who pays Lorraine the money she asks for, even as the price of admission creeps higher and higher?  While we have to confront the selfishness of Chuck, his callousness and puppet-mastery, we also have to confront the fact that people love to watch a car wreck.  How can it be that no one thinks it in bad taste to buy hot dogs and ice cream outside of a cave where a man is fighting for his life?  How can it be that a human tragedy such as this becomes a sideshow?  Since when does a human life equate increased revenue?

Wilder’s film is a startling and shocking look at the darker side of men and their desires.  The film never hides the truth of the matter, rather forcing us to confront it.  Little wonder then, that this film was not popular when it first came out.  The issues presented within are relevant at all times but in this time of social media, when everyone has a camera and can be an ersatz reporter, they are even more so.  The questions it raises are even more important now than in 1951.  Who is writing the news?  Who benefits from the news?  When is a life more valuable than a profit?  We like to think we know the answers to these questions and we like to pretend that they are easy.  But ACE IN THE HOLE shows that is not always the case.

Spending Time with Turner Classic Movies: THE CITADEL (1938)

Have you ever had a movie just suck you in?  You sit down, not intending on watching a movie, and all of a sudden two hours have gone by and you are left wondering what happened.  That happened to me yesterday, while TCM was airing a Robert Donat birthday tribute and I sat down to take a short break after lunch.  I watched the end of KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR (a fantastic movie by the way) and fully intended to get up and do something else when THE CITADEL came on.

Andrew Mason (Robert Donat) is a Scottish born idealistic new physician, who has recently come to work in a Welsh mining town as apprentice to a Dr. Page.  Life is not wholly pleasant for Andrew as the town is sorely lacking in updated medical supplies, rife with superstitious townsfolk, and Dr. Page’s wife is a pain.  She forces Andrew to work for almost no money and gives him a tiny room to live in.  The townsfolk are initially standoffish of the new doctor but once Andrew saves an apparently still-born baby, they warm to him and make him into a hero, much to Mrs. Page’s dismay.  It is around this time that Andrew makes friends with Denny (Ralph Richardson), a fellow doctor who likes his drink a little too much, and meets the local school teacher Christine Barlow (Rosalind Russell).  Denny is attracted to Christine but is too shy to approach her romantically.

Andrew soon hears about a nearby town in need of a new doctor and he eagerly applies for the post.  The committee is willing to hire him but they are only offering the position to married men.  Andrew quickly says that he is engaged to be married, once he gets a position of course, and the committee offer him the job.  Andrew accepts and then goes to find Christine.  He tells her about his problem and how he needs to find a wife.  Christine tells him to go and tell the committee that there are no problems with his application and the two are soon married.  Both soon realize that they are in love and being their life together.  In their new home Andrew begins making waves by not being anything like the old town doctor, namely by not giving the patients what they want without a medical reason.  He also realizes that many of the miners are affected by a mysterious lung ailment.  He begins to do research, helped by Christine, and soon comes to the realization that the miners are contracting tuberculosis due to the dust in the mines.  He sets about writing a paper to submit to medical journals and is soon attracting the attention of fellow physicians for his forward thinking and advances.

But the townspeople are becoming suspicious of Andrew for just those reasons and they soon take action.  One morning, Christine comes rushing into Andrew’s office to tell him that all their work has been destroyed by a mob who rushed into their home.  Angered and hurt, Andrew resigns his position and takes Christine to London.  There Andrew sets up a practice and hopes to soon be caring for more appreciative clientele.  Unfortunately this is not to be and Andrew is soon left selling his own possessions in order to make ends meet, and piercing the ears of less than fashionable women.  One day Andrew and Christine go out to lunch at a local Italian restaurant, run by Mrs. Orlando and her daughter Anna.  Mrs. Orlando treats the couple kindly, having been their only friend during their time in London, and Anna shows them her new dance steps.  Lunch is scarcely begun though when Andrew is summoned to a local department store where a young woman appears to be having a seizure.  Andrew clears the room and helps the woman onto the couch.  When she starts screaming and crying again, Andrew slaps her as he has realized that she is simply putting on an act and not having a seizure at all.

The young woman’s name is Toppy Leroy (Penelope Dudley Ward), one of the richest women in London, and she asks Andrew to see her home where she offers him a drink to celebrate.  Andrew declines and heads for the elevator where he runs into Dr. Lawford (Rex Harrison), an old medical school friend.  Lawford invites Andrew to come and see some patients with him at a fashionable nursing home.  Andrew agrees and is soon caught up in the world of high-end private practice.  His days are full of golf outings and consultations which require no great medical effort on his part. Christine is suspicious about the sudden influx of cash for little work, but Andrew dismisses her worries.  In fact, Andrew has become more and more distant lately and has even begun having an affair with Toppy.  Christine is worried about Andrew and so, when he asks where she would like to go to lunch one day, takes him back to Mrs. Orlando’s kitchen.  On their way there the couple runs into Denny and the three go to lunch, where they find Mrs. Orlando but no Anna.  She tells them that Anna is sick with a lung disease but Andrew barely acknowledges this.

Denny begins to tell Andrew his new plans for an affordable care clinic for the people in the small villages and asks Andrew to come and work with him.  Andrew turns him down and asks Denny where he will get his money from, especially if he will care for people for free.  Denny is disenchanted by the changes he sees in Andrew, and though he has managed to stay sober for some time, goes out drinking.  He returns later that day, thoroughly soused, and tells Andrew exactly what he thinks of him before turning and hurrying out into the street.  Christine looks out the window in their apartment and sees an automobile accident occur.  Horrified she realizes that it is Denny who has been struck and Andrew runs to the scene.

This movie was nominated for four Academy awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director.  Once again, King Vidor takes a story of ordinary people and makes it into something extraordinary.  I literally could not turn this movie off and had to sit there and watch it all the way through.  The story is so well done, so absorbing, but also so real and affecting.  The story of a medical man struggling to keep his ideals and scientific curiosity in a field where money and social-climbing are becoming more the norm definitely hit home for me, a former nurse.

Rosalind Russell is wonderful in this film, quite different from we are used to seeing her.  So often in her roles, Rosalind Russell is just a little edgier, tougher, louder, brasher, and more energetic than other leading ladies.  But this film really gives her a chance to be a more reserved and gentle character, to portray a woman who loves her husband deeply and quietly and much more realistically than is usually shown.  But the one who really steals this movie is Robert Donat.

I have loved Robert Donat since I first saw him in THE 39 STEPS.  There was a special quality about him that was so different from most other leading men, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.  But I think after watching THE CITADEL I might have a better idea.  I think it is because he is kind.  There is an element of kindness and humbleness to him that comes through in so many of his performances, and it does again here.  Andrew is a kind man, who even when he becomes angry and speaks forcefully will still remember to say “Thank you for letting me speak” and “Good day”.  He is idealistic without being naive, his excitement and desire to help and heal people coming through without seeming to be contrived.  And that is what makes his fall into the superficial world of fashionable private practice all the more devastating.  To see a man who had such ideals fall so far away from that which he once held dear, shows so clearly how badly his trust and his heart must have been betrayed by the actions of the fearful townspeople.  As I said before, there is a kindness to Robert Donat and a humbleness that makes him so watchable and so wonderful.  He is an actor that suffered greatly from anxiety and shyness, perhaps so much so that it ended his career and possibly his life far too soon.  This film is a true testament to the great talent of an actor who deserves to be known not only for his career but his spirit and soul, because when Robert Donat acts that is what he gives each and every time.


If you want to learn more about Robert Donat, Meredith over at Vitaphone Dreamer has written a fantastic profile of him!  Also, there is an entire site devoted to Robert Donat so definitely go and check it out.

Watching With Warner: KINGS ROW (1942)

For one of my final entries into my Warner Archive Watch-a-Long we travel to the small town of Kings Row for a good, old-fashioned melodrama.  I wasn’t sure how I was going to recap this movie, because honestly half the fun of a melodrama is going along with the story and being surprised by all the twists and turns.  So, this is going to be a little briefer than my other recaps but hopefully it will preserve the surprises for future viewers.

In the small town of Kings Row several children are growing up.  Among them are Parris Mitchell who is being raised by his French grandmother, and Parris’ best friend Drake McHugh.  Drake is the orphan son of some very wealthy people but who basically does as he likes while paling around with Parris.  Other members of the town are Cassandra Tower, daughter of Doctor Tower (Claude Rains), and Louise Gordon, daughter of Doctor Henry Gordon (Charles Coburn).  Both doctors are not what they first appear to be, and both harbor secrets.  Doctor Gordon is the more popular and accepted of the two, and so it is that almost no one turns up to Cassandra’s birthday party.  Louise has decided to throw her party on the same day and has stolen away all Cassandra’s guests, as most inhabitants of Kings Row would prefer to avoid the Tower home with its secrets and whispers.  Parris, having always cared for Cassandra, has gone to the Tower party and is met on his way home by Drake.  Drake has attended Louise’s party but admits to Parris that he probably should have gone to Cassandra’s instead.  As they walk they stop by another friends home, where they find that his father is to be operated on by Doctor Gordon for treatment of his ulcers.  Hideous screams come from the room above and the boys hurry away, while their friend bangs and cries on the front door.  Continuing on their walk the two friends begin playing with Randy Monaghan (who will be played by Ann Sheridan), a girl from the wrong side of the tracks.  Randy is easy-going and fun to play with, and the three children have a wonderful time.  Later that night, while on his way home, Parris runs into Cassandra who tearfully tells him that her father is taking her out of school.  She won’t tell Parris any more than this and runs off.

Many years pass and Parris (Robert Cummings) is now a grown man, interested in pursuing medicine.  He is still friends with Drake (Ronald Reagan), and still pines for Cassandra (Betty Field).  The year is now 1890, and Parris decides to take up studying medicine under the tutelage of Doctor Tower.  While in the house, he finally sees Cassandra again for the first time in years.  After some difficulties the two begin a secret relationship, with Drake as the only confidant.  Drake meanwhile, intends to marry Louise but her parents are staunchly against the union.  Drake is persistent and is willing to go against their wishes in order to be with Louise, but Louise is not wiling to go against her parents wishes.

Parris’ grandmother is now older and has fallen ill.  It is decided that no one will tell Parris the true magnitude of her diagnosis until he is ready to attend medical school.  Doctor Gordon is attending to her and it is soon discovered that her terminal cancer is progressing more rapidly than previously thought.  She soon succumbs and in his grief, Parris turns to Doctor Tower for comfort.  Through his conversations with the older man, Parris decides to take up the new medical field of psychiatry.  Doctor Tower tells Parris that his studies with him are now complete and that he will send on an application for entry into a medical school in Vienna.  Cassandra is becoming more and more agitated around Parris but continues to refuse to tell him why she is not allowed out of the house, and why her father kept her out of school.  Parris is convinced that Cassandra is being mistreated by her father and resolves to take her away with him.  He proposes marriage to Cassandra but she refuses him and runs from the room.  Later that night, while Parris and Drake are talking, Cassandra bursts into Drake’s house and wildly begs Parris to take her away with him when he goes to medical school in Vienna.  Then just as quickly she turns and runs from the house, leaving a bewildered Paris behind.  He hurries after her and sees Doctor Tower sitting on the front porch.  Intending to have it out with the man, Parris steps forward but is stopped by Drake who advises waiting until the morning.

The next day dawns and Drake brings Parris some coffee and his breakfast.  He wants Parris to drink his coffee before he tells him the terrible news he has just learned.  It has to do with Cassandra and her father…

I honestly don’t want to go any further into the story because I don’t want to ruin it.  The best part of this film is the way it just sweeps you up into the soap opera drama with twists and turns and shocks galore.  This was a tough sell for a movie script during the time of the Hayes code.  The book it is based on, written by Henry Bellmann, featured such things as incest, adultery, and suicide.  In fact, the head of the Hayes office wrote an open letter about the novel’s unsuitability for filming.  The producers agreed to remove much of the offending content and instead make a movie focusing on an idealistic young doctor’s journey and his reactions to the world he sees around him.  If this is what was left in, I can’t imagine what was cut out from the book!

While Robert Cummings plays the “hero” of the story, I found myself drawn to the story of Drake and Randy much more.  Ronald Reagan called this film the best he was ever in, and I tend to agree with him.  The breadth and scope of this story is sweeping, and the challenges faced by the characters are many.  As an actor, Ronal Reagan must have enjoyed the chance to play such a wide range of emotions and situations.  Ann Sheridan is also great, portraying a real “stand-up gal”.  Randy is no wilting daisy and she stands up to meet any challenge head on.  It was a refreshing change, even from the other female leads in the film.

KINGS ROW is a soap opera if ever I saw one, but it is a soap opera of quality.  Peyton Place has nothing on the people of Kings Row!  It also is worthwhile to note that the novel was based on the town of Fulton in Missouri, Bellamann’s hometown.  Just think if this is what went on in Fulton, what could be happening behind closed doors in your hometown?

Watching With Warner: H.M. PULHAM ESQ (1941)

Sometimes I just want to watch a good story.  You know the kind, the sort of story that you can just get lost in.  So after reading the description of H.M PULHAM ESQ, I was intrigued.  A movie about a man looking over his life as he writes his biography for his Harvard class 25 year reunion sounded promising, and was certainly a good story.  The fact that it featured Hedy Lamarr and Robert Young, and was directed by King Vidor only heightened my interest.

Harry Moulton Pulham Jr. (Robert Young) is a man of habits.  He has the same thing for breakfast every morning, reads his same newspaper, kisses his wife, Kay (Ruth Hussey), on the same cheek, takes two peanuts for the squirrels, and walks to his office.  He arrives precisely at the same time every morning and begins answering letters with his secretary.  One such morning he receives a phone call from Bo Jo Jones, an old classmate from Harvard.  Bo Jo is loud and overbearing, if friendly, and has soon cajoled Harry into coming out to lunch with him and several other old classmates.  At lunch Bo Jo reveals that he is planning their class 25 year reunion and tasks the other men to write their biographies, giving Harry the assignment of compiling them.  That evening Harry begins writing his own biography, beginning of course with his birth.  He recalls that as soon as he was born in Back Bay in Boston, his father enrolled him in Saint Swithen’s School.  It was at this school that he first met Kay, a bossy young girl who Harry accidentally was paired with at a school dance.  Even at that young age Kay was particular, directing Harry on how he should dance with her.  Harry’s memories are interrupted by Kay, who is much the same as she was as a child.

The next day Harry receives a phone call from a woman named Marvin Myles (Hedy Lamarr), now Mrs. John Ransome.  She asks to meet him for lunch and Harry agrees.  That afternoon Harry makes his way to the restaurant to meet Marvin.  He arrives and checks his coat, and looking out into the dining room he sees Marvin.  In that moment he has a change of heart and hurries out, ending up at a florist not far away.  He orders some roses to be sent to Marvin, along with a card apologizing for standing her up, and a gardenia for Kay.  It seems that Marvin was a woman who Harry loved years ago, and now he cannot bear to meet with her agin.  He returns home and finds Kay on the phone, gossiping with her friends.  Leaving the gardenia unnoticed, Harry goes to walk the dog.  As they walk, Harry wonders if he has ever really been happy in his life and begins to think back on his past.

At this point flashbacks of Harry’s life become the majority of plot, so in an effort to not forget any important points I will recount Harry’s life chronologically here.

While at Harvard, Harry befriends the more worldly Bill King (Van Heflin) and the bespectacled Joe Bingham (Phil Brown).  After his college days, Harry joins the army and enters World War I.  During his time in service Harry displays extreme bravery and is decorated for holding off a squadron of Germans with his men.  Once he returns to civilian life, Harry finds that he has no desire to return home to Boston and so travels on to New York City where he meets up again with Bill.  Bill offers to help Harry get a job at the advertising firm where he works.  Harry gets a job and it is here that he meets Marvin.  Marvin, who works as a copywriter, is very different from any of the women that Harry knew in Boston.  Her independence and ambition puzzle Harry, and at first the two do not get along well.  But after working together on a soap campaign they grow closer and soon the two are in love.  Harry travels home one weekend to visit his mother, who is in poor health, and while there he and his father talk about life.  Harry’s father cannot understand why Harry enjoys his life in New York City, and urges him to consider coming back home and taking over the family business.  Harry returns to New York and Marvin, and the two enjoy their time together.  However, Marvin has no desire to get married quickly and is concerned about the difference in their backgrounds.

One night Harry gets a phone call, telling him to hurry home because his father is dying.  Harry rushes back and is able to say goodbye to his father, who again urges him to come back home.  After his father’s death, Harry remains in Boston to take care of business matters but soon sends for Marvin and Bill to come visit.  Harry tries to help Marvin feel at home but she is unsettled and uncomfortable with the formal Bostonian living, especially when she realizes that Harry’s mother has not been told about their relationship.  While visiting Harry also runs into Kay, who is now engaged to Joe, much to Bill’s delight.  Bill has always had a thing for Kay and now he takes advantage of his close proximity, the two of them flirting shamelessly.  Several days later Joe comes to see Harry with terrible news.  Kay has suddenly broken their engagement and he has no idea why!  Harry encourages him to have a “showdown” with Kay, and realizes that he needs to do the same with Marvin who has since returned to New York.  However, when Harry confronts Marvin about getting married she reveals that she felt stifled in Boston and that she could never be happy there.  The two realize that they cannot get married, and Harry returns to Boston as Marvin promises to wait for him if he every wants to come back.

Some time later Kay, whose engagement has also fallen through, calls Harry and the two go sailing together.  While out on the boat they discover that they have had very similar problems in life and that they are very alike.  Kay notes that they have always been in each other’s life somehow, and the two eventually fall in love and get married.

Coming back to the present, Harry awakes the next day to find his life in disarray.  He feels out of sorts and rejects his usual morning paper.  Kay notices the change and asks if everything is alright.  Harry begs Kay to go away with him in the car right away, no schedules or appointments.  Kay refuses, citing her many social engagements, and Harry leaves for work.  Once there he picks up the phone to  call Marvin once again.

This film is based on a novel by John P. Marquand, which started life as a serial called GONE TOMORROW in McCall’s magazine in early 1940. It is a story that might seem familiar but is much more than what it might first appear to be.  Even though there are plenty of movies made today about people and their lives, even people looking back over their lives, I don’t think that this sort of story is told that much today.  The point of this film is to look back over Harry’s life and to ask the question, can a man be happy if he lives the life that he should live or the life that he wants to live.  The life that Harry has lived is not particularly remarkable, even for the time, nor is it particularly glamorous.  In fact he is fairly average for what he is, a Back Bay Boston son born into an “old money” family with all the responsibilities and expectations that come with that.  But that is what makes the story so strong, as well as the movie.  This is a story of a normal man, a man that could be anyone’s father, brother, son, or husband.  I think that is one of the things I enjoy so much about King Vidor.  He often seems to tell the stories of ordinary people, but he does it in such a way as to make it feel extraordinary.  He co-wrote this screenplay with his wife, Elizabeth Hill Vidor, and I think that makes the movie and especially the ending even stronger.  The conversations and relationships between the characters feels real and honest, and these are conversations that you can picture people having in their own homes.  It also makes the ending more impactful, realizing that it came from the minds of a husband and wife.

Without spoiling too much, I think that the ending of this movie is what makes it special.  Some people watching it today might think that it is a poor ending, or one that doesn’t ring true but I disagree.  There is something quite lovely in the way that it ends, and the place that Harry, Kay, and Marvin are in when it does.  It is a very different ending then would be made today, in much the same way that the ending of A BRIEF ENCOUNTER would most likely be changed today, but I do think that it is the right ending for these characters.

Hedy Lamarr counted this as her favorite film and many critics called out her performance as the best of her career.  This is my first time seeing her, so I can’t compare, but she is fantastic.  Marvin could easily be a very one-dimensional character but she manages to make her into a complex woman.  Her scenes with Robert Young are charming and natural, and you feel the attraction between these two people.  Harry is completely bewildered by her and she cannot understand his stuffiness.  Together they help improve the other, Harry coming out of his shell and Marvin blossoming under the love of a good man.  Also, and this is a small thing, the “old people” makeup in this film is great!  It is by far the most natural and believable makeup that I have seen in an older film.  Subtly done, you really feel like you are seeing a natural progression of age rather than two younger actors put into makeup.  It is a little thing, but it is nice not to watch a movie noticing how much makeup is put on the younger actors to make them look old.

All in all this is a lovely movie that I highly recommend!  The performances are natural and effortless, and the characters are ones that you don’t mind investing two hours of your time in.  King Vidor has given us a window into the life of Harry Pulham and the journey we take with him is quite enjoyable.

Watching With Warner: ESCAPE (1940)

In the mountains of Bavaria a woman lies in a bed, a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp.  She and her roommate are kept by a surly nurse, who seems less concerned with their actual health, and more with their ability to walk come Saturday.  When the roommate begins to hack and cough, the nurse calls for the doctor.  Doctor Ditten (Phillip Dorn) enters and sends the roommate out for treatment.  He now turns to the other woman, a German-born actress named Emmy Ritter (Nazimova).  Ditten recognizes her from her days on the stage, and it is implied that he has gone above and beyond in her treatments in an effort to keep her alive.  This seems to be a cruel irony because Emmy has been sentenced to death and her execution is to take place on Saturday.  Ditten takes pity on the poor woman and offers to let her write a letter to her son, however he will not be able to deliver the letter until after the execution.  Convicted as a traitor for harboring refugees, Emmy is surprised at this offer of kindness and gladly accepts.

Unbeknownst to both of them, Emmy’s son Mark Preysing (Robert Taylor) has arrived in the country looking for any information on his mother’s whereabouts.  He is stymied however, when everyone he talks to gives him the same response.  No one will talk about what has happened to his mother and instead recommend that he go back to America as quickly as possible.  Mark is relentless and goes the police commissioner to find out what he can about his mother.  It is here that he finally learns what charges have been brought against his mother and he pleads with the commissioner to see sense.  His mother is a kind woman who has no traitorous inclinations at all, she must have been confused and certainly didn’t mean anything treasonous!  The commissioner won’t listen and is only interested in learning who told Mark that his mother was being held at all.  Mark won’t reveal his source and is told to return next Friday.

Mark now travels to a small Bavarian town in search of an old servant of his mother’s, a man named Fritz Keller (Felix Bressart).  When he finally finds him however, Fritz claims not to know him and brushes him aside.  Dejected, Mark wanders down to a frozen lake where several young women are skating.  They call to a nearby woman who they call “Countess”.  The Countess Ruby (Norma Shearer) soon falls into conversation with Mark and reveals that she is also American.  Having moved to the country over ten years ago, she stayed on after her husband died and now runs a finishing school out of her home.  Ruby is sympathetic to Mark’s situation but has no information to give him, though she promises to get in touch with him if she finds anything out.

Ruby has indiscretions of her own and is the mistress of a high-powered Nazi general, Kurt Von Kolb (Conrad Veidt).  Kurt and Ruby have known each other for many years and became involved soon after Ruby’s husband died.  Kurt suffers from a heart condition and so must avoid excitement.  So when Ruby broaches the topic of Emmy Ritter, she does so subtly.  Kurt reveals that Emmy is being held in a camp not far from the village and will be executed on Saturday.  The next day Ruby heads into town with her girls to see a military parade.  Feigning a headache, she slips off into Mark’s hotel.  Once there, however, she loses her nerve and cannot bring herself to tell him what she has found.  Mark, for his part, has begun to fall in love with Ruby but once he finds out that she is involved with Kurt he pulls away.  Later that night, Kurt mentions to Ruby that she was seen talking with Mark.  He warns that if Mark continues poking around there will be consequences, regardless of whether he is an American or not.

Ruby asks Mark to meet her that night at a concert and he reluctantly agrees.  Once there, Ruby warns him that he must leave Bavaria as soon as possible.  Mark is enraged at what he takes as callousness on her part and lashes out at her.  At this point the concert lets out and the pair find themselves in the lobby surrounded by people.  Ruby sees several people she knows, including Doctor Ditten.  She soon leaves with a group of friends, leaving Mark and Ditten to share an umbrella.  The two men decide to go and get a drink at a local pub.  It is here that Ditten reveals his party affiliations, and asks Mark to send him some American medical journals.  Mark agrees and the two men exchange addresses, and names.  Ditten is shocked to learn that he is drinking with the son of Emmy Ritter and produces the letter written for him.  He finally tells Mark the truth of his mother’s situation and that there is nothing to be done.  He also advises Mark to leave, something he refuses to do.  Ditten leaves but invites Mark to his apartment the following evening.  Mark returns to his hotel and finds Fritz waiting for him.  He admits that he was afraid to be seen talking to Mark but offers to help bury Emmy properly after the execution.

The next day, Emmy suffers what appears to be a fatal heart attack.  Ditten pronounces her dead and signs her certificate.  That night Mark comes to Ditten’s apartment where, after dismissing his maid for the evening, Ditten reveals that Emmy is not truly dead.  She is in a coma after being administered a drug by Ditten.  Mark must now find a way to go and retrieve her body within the next three hours or Emmy will suffocate in the coffin.  He must also bring with him many blankets and coats to help warm her up.  Mark is at a loss but soon decides to call Fritz, telling him to that Emmy has died.  Fritz is instructed to collect Emmy and then meet Mark at a local pub.  However, when Mark arrives at the pub he finds that two Nazi officers are also stopping there and they have developed an interest in this American with his large bundle of blankets and coats.

I will admit that when I first started watching this film I found Robert Taylor’s character sort of annoying.  ESCAPE is based on a book and I am not sure how close to the source material the screenplay is, so I can’t say if this is how he is in the book.  The character of Mark comes off as a “typical American”, running around Bavaria demanding to know where his mother is.  He is confounded by the reluctance of the townspeople to help and their insistence that he return to America.  I found this a little irritating but then I was coming at it with the benefit of history on my side.  The important thing to realize is that the time when this book was written and when this film was made was a very crucial moment in history.  Hitler had been in power for almost seven years, World War II was happening but America was not yet involved, the full and terrible truth of the Nazi regime was not yet fully realized.  So if you look at it like that, the reaction of Mark to the people of Bavaria makes more sense.  He is the typical American in that he cannot conceive of a life where you are not free to question, to challenge, to investigate.  The very idea that there might be a place where people can be arrested and sentenced to die simply for helping those who wish to leave the country is so completely alien and foreign to him that he simply cannot accept or process it.

Ruby is a much more complex character, an American who has chosen to give up her citizenship in order to remain in a country that is not her own.  This country is now swept up on the Nazi tidal wave and yet she remains.  Not only that, but she has a lover who is a high-ranking Nazi official.  She seems to still believe that just because Kurt wears the uniform he remains pure of heart, rejecting the Nazi rhetoric.  That her adopted country, though now controlled by the Nazis, is not changed by the events surrounding it and remains the same place she fell in love with.  As time passes she begins to see that the Nazi poison has in fact taken hold of all that she once held dear, including Kurt.  She must then decide where her loyalties lie, whether it is with her adopted country and German lover or with her birthplace and Mark.

Kurt is a devious man.  I think that the fact that his heart is damaged (irony intended) has caused him to be far more underhanded than perhaps he once was.  Some of the comments he makes to Ruby, glancing blows at first and far more savage digs later, seem almost diabolical.  It is his way of keeping her off guard, keeping himself in control of the relationship.  Further, he is a complete convert to the Nazi ideology whatever Ruby might hope for.  By the end he has shown himself to be an enemy in every sense of the word.

As I noted before, this film was made at a strange moment in history.  People were aware that bad things were happening, that Hitler was trouble, and yet there was still this moment of peace when all the world was at war except America.  And so, this movie does not wish to disturb that peace.  For the entirety of the film no mention is ever made of Germany or Nazis.  It is rather “that country” and “political police”.  Even Hitler avoids much mention beyond a Nazi salute.  While the message is clear, that this is a dangerous regime and the world should be on watch for it, the political constraints of the time prevent it from being made obvious.  All in all ESCAPE is a good film and compelling story, one that is almost made more powerful for all the things that it doesn’t say as well as what it does.

Watching with Warner: CLASH BY NIGHT (1952)

I love Barbara Stanwyck.  When I started watching movies when I was younger I never saw many of her films, and so was unaware of her talents.  Growing up my favorite actresses were more along the lines of Katherine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn.  While I still like both actresses, my tastes have grown more towards Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, and Lauren Bacall.  But I think that if I had to name my favorite actress it would be Barbara Stanwyck.  She is such a tremendous talent and, from what I have read, a truly professional and hardworking actress.  There is an honesty that comes from Barbara Stanwyck in her movies, an honesty that I think comes from her as a person.  This honesty has never seemed more immediate or apparent than in CLASH BY NIGHT directed by Fritz Lang.

In seaside Monterey, Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) has returned home after spending the last ten years in the big city.  Upon her arrival she takes a moment, and a drink, in the local bar where she runs into Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas).  Jerry is a local fisherman who lives with his elderly father (Silvio Minciotti) and his Uncle Vince (J. Carrol Naish).  Jerry is thrilled to see Mae, remembering her from his younger days, but Mae fails to recognize him and leaves to find her brother.  Mae’s brother Joe (Keith Andes) works alongside Jerry on the fishing boats and is returning home with his girlfriend, Peggy (Marilyn Monroe), who works at the local cannery.  Joe is less than pleased to find Mae waiting for him and questions her reasons for returning.  Mae is quite upfront with Joe in admitting she made a mistake, and reveals that she was involved with a married man who died and left her some money in his will.  His wife and children contested the will and left Mae with nothing, so unhappy and alone she felt there was nothing left but to return to her home.  After hearing Mae’s story, Joe softens a bit and Peggy helps Mae unpack.  While putting clothes away, Peggy confides to Mae that she is envious of her experiences in the big city and yearns for more excitement.  Peggy admits she wants to be like Mae and never let any man tell her what to do.

Weeks go by and Mae barely leaves the house.  At the docks, Jerry asks Joe about her availability and Joe encourages Jerry to ask Mae out for a date.  Jerry does and to his great excitement, Mae agrees.  The night of their first date arrives and Jerry is eagerly getting ready when Uncle Vince comes home with an armful of beer for himself and Jerry’s father to share.  Uncle Vince advises Jerry to be careful, that women are like horses and sometimes you need to use the whip on them, all of which Jerry ignores before leaving for his date.  After picking Mae up at her house, the two go to see a movie at the local theater where Jerry’s friend Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan) works as a projectionist.  Once the movie is over, Jerry takes Mae to meet Earl introducing him as his best friend.  Mae is initially attracted to Earl but soon comes to reconsider this attraction when he launches into a misogynistic tirade about his wife, who works as a burlesque dancer.  She notes that Earl hates women and Earl does not deny it.  Mae becomes sharp and dismissive of Earl and eventually asks Jerry to take her home.

Sometime later, during a night boat ride, Jerry broaches the subject of marriage which Mae gently rebuffs.  She tells Jerry that she wouldn’t make a good wife for him and that he should find someone else who is more of the “wife type”.  Several nights later, Jerry and Mae are out a beachside bar when Uncle Vince tells Jerry that his father is getting drunk at the counter.   Jerry hurries off to stop him, leaving Mae and Earl alone.  The two begin talking and it soon becomes clear that while they each find each other attractive, there are deeper forces working against them.  Earl again launches into a rant against his wife, further cementing his attitudes against women.  Mae has her own feelings about men, having little time for those who would act more like boys than men.  Not wanting to be a nursemaid for her man, desiring instead a man who makes he feel confident and alive, Mae says that she could bear anything if she truly felt love for a man again.  Earl, somewhat drunk at this point, tries to forcibly kiss Mae causing her to slap him.  Jerry returns and Mae angrily asks him to walk her home, leaving Earl alone at the table.  Once they reach her door Mae tells Jerry that if he still wants to marry her, she would try her best be a good wife to him and to not hurt him.  The two are soon married and at the wedding reception Earl insists on kissing the bride.  Mae resists and Earl storms off angrily into the night.

Several months later, Mae and Jerry are living happily together with their newborn daughter named Gloria.  The only one who isn’t happy is Uncle Vince, who has been ousted from the house by Mae, and he complains to Jerry.  Uncle Vince says that Mae is too controlling and that Jerry has become henpecked, but Jerry denies this and sends Uncle Vince away.  That night, at Jerry’s invitation, Earl comes to call.  When he arrives at the house, the now divorced Earl is visibly drunk and soon passes out. Jerry carries him inside to sleep it off and that is where Earl revives the next morning, after Jerry has left for work.  Mae is alone in the kitchen, feeling more conflicted than ever with the arrival of Earl.  Her request for a goodbye kiss from Jerry has not seemed to settle any feelings for her, and she swallows her sobs as she hears Earl stirring.  Earl questions Mae as to the status of her relationship with Jerry.  Mae denies that anything is wrong but Earl senses that Mae has given up her hopes for excitement and surrendered to a quiet life with Jerry.  He seizes a chance and forcibly kisses her which Mae resists.  They are interrupted by the arrival of Peggy, who happily shows off her new engagement ring.  Mae offers to take the baby and go into town with her, but Peggy can’t wait and hurries out.  Earl and Mae left alone again finally succumb to their desires and kiss passionately, beginning an affair.  Sometime later Jerry finds out that his father has gotten into a fight at the bar and rushes over to retrieve him.  Once home, Jerry begs his father to tell him why he was fighting but he gets no reply.  Uncle Vince however, is more than happy to reveal that the entire town has been gossiping about Mae and Earl and his father was defending the family name.  Jerry refuses to believe this and drives Uncle Vince from the house.  But doubts soon creep in, especially as Mae and Earl have gone out to the fair together.  Jerry searches their bedroom and soon finds two brand new nightgowns, and a bottle of perfume.  At that moment Earl and Mae return and Jerry goes to confront them.

This was Marilyn Monroe’s first starring role and once again it is an example of what a talented actress she might have been given the chance.  Made prior to GENTLEMAN PREFER BLONDES and HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE, long before THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, this is before Marilyn was Marilyn.  The baby doll voice isn’t quite there and the vapidness is gone.  Instead there is an earnest attempt by a young actress to make an impression in a serious dramatic role.  Marilyn Monroe was known for being difficult on set, prompted by her severe insecurity in herself, often missing lines or needing retakes.  The one person in all Hollywood who never complained, the one who was always kind to her, was Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck came to this film having just gone through the emotional devastation of divorcing her husband, Robert Taylor.  Taylor, who was the love of her life, was said to have had numerous affairs during their life together and there were rumors of affairs on Stanwyck’s end as well but these are unsubstantiated.  Another possible cause of the breakup was the fact that Robert Taylor had made attempts at creating a life outside of Hollywood, a goal that Barbara Stanwyck did not share.  In spite of her emotional distress, she remained professional throughout the filming but I can’t help but think that part of the emotional impact her performance has in this film comes from her personal experiences.  There is a weariness and sadness in Mae that feels real, and looking at Barbara Stanwyck’s face you can see the truth behind the acting.  In some ways this script must have mirrored aspects of her own life and marriage, the hurts and slights suffered by both Mae and Jerry familiar and painful.  The journey of Mae, seeking to decide what is more important in life and love, whether it is better to have a life that is full of excitement and personal fulfillment or to have a life of quiet moments and caring for something bigger than oneself, must have seemed very close to Barbara’s desire to have a life in Hollywood versus the desires of her husband.

This film is a true character study of men, women, and the slowly shifting roles in the world.  What is the role of a men and a woman in a relationship or marriage?  What happens to those roles when women assert more independence?  How does a man relate to a woman who acts more liberated?  What do women want from men and what do men want from women?   Mae wanted independence but wants a man who not only supports her and boosts her up, but also is strong and confident and doesn’t need her to mother him.  She is initially happy with Jerry but soon becomes restless, and finds herself annoyed by his laid-back manner.  In Earl she finds a man who is exciting but one who has a dislike of women, a distrust of their motives and games.  I’m not certain if I believe that Earl is truly in love with Mae or if he simply lusts after her and enjoys to attention and power of the relationship.  There is a scene where Earl says, in almost a throw-away line, that he needs to be wanted and needed and I think that has more to do with his affair with Mae than actual emotional connection.  Earl and Mae are two people who have been hurt and who are fulfilling their selfish and personal desires.  The challenge to Mae is the decision she must face when confronted with the affair.  What matters more in that moment, her own happiness or the happiness of the other people in her life?  What is important and what is worth losing?

Spending Time with Turner Classic Movies: BUS STOP (1956)

I didn’t watch BUS STOP with the intention of doing much more than just watching it.  I was curious to see a movie that had been named by several people as an example of Marilyn Monroe’s acting talents, but I wasn’t planning on doing a blog post about it.  But here it is, days after seeing it, and I can’t stop thinking about this film.  Reasons why will become apparent, but obviously a blog post needed to be written.

Beauregard “Bo” Decker (Don Murray) is training for the rodeo.  His skills and times being good enough, he makes plans to leave his ranch for only the second time in his entire life.  His friend and father figure, Virgil (Arthur O’Connell) is accompanying him to the rodeo in Phoenix having been with him for the past twenty-one years.  The two board the bus to Phoenix and settle down in the back seat, where Virgil offers Bo some friendly advice about the women they are certain to meet.  Virgil knows that Bo is inexperienced when it comes to the fairer sex, but at the same time he feels that it is time that Virgil find someone to settle down with.  Bo is determined to find his angel while Virgil counsels finding a “plain, old girl” instead.  The bus stops at Grace’s Diner where, while bus driver Carl (Robert Bray) flirts with the sassy Grace (Betty Field), the other passengers have lunch.  Bo gulps down a meal of three raw burgers and a quart of milk while Virgil extolls the virtues of one of the new female passengers named Elma (Hope Lange), who works at the diner with Grace.  Bo is uninterested in Elma however, and the bus continues on its journey.

Once in the city, Bo is overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and the women.  Across from their hotel room, Virgil spots an attractive blonde dancing at a club and goes over to investigate.  The blonde is named Cherie (Marilyn Monroe) is she is currently being berated by her boss.  He calls her an ignorant hillbilly and leaves her in her dressing room.  Cherie’s friend, Vera (Eileen Heckart) comforts her and listens to the story of how Cherie came to be in Phoenix.  Cherie has dreams of Hollywood and of being a great “chantoosie”, instead of just a small town girl from the Ozarks.  Virgil soon enters the club and at the insistence of her boss, Cherie approaches him in order to cajole him into buying drinks.  Virgil is happy to oblige at first but after several shots whiskey and finding out that not only has Cherie been drinking tea this whole time, but that each shot is costing him sixty cents he becomes irate.  Cherie makes her exit in order to get ready to perform on stage and it is while she singing a slightly tuneless rendition of “That Old Black Magic” that Bo enters the club.  Immediately smitten with her Bo is offended when the crowd does not give Cherie’s performance the proper respect and silences the noisy rabble, so that Cherie can continue.  After the show is concluded Bo follows Cherie backstage and cajoles her into coming out back with him.  They talk briefly and Bo attempts to woo Cherie with acrobatics before passionately kissing her.  While Cherie appreciated Bo’s assistance with the crowd inside and is physically attracted to him as well, she has no feelings of love for him at all so imagine her surprise when Bo pulls her inside and tells Virgil that they are getting married.

Early the next morning Cherie is sleeping in her boarding house room when the door bursts open and in walks Bo.  He nudges and needles and even (in an attempt to impress her with his mind) recites the Gettysburg Address, all in an attempt to convince her to attend the rodeo parade with him.  Finally he resorts to dragging a sleepy Cherie out the door and off to the parade, and then to the rodeo.  At the arena Bo takes Cherie’s scarf and wraps it around his neck for luck.  Off he goes to compete, while Cherie talks with Vera about what has happened.  Cherie shows Vera an engagement ring that Bo has bought, and tells her that Bo has even gotten a marriage license and is planning on having the ceremony after the rodeo.  Just then, Vera spots a preacher in the stands and Cherie flees in a panic.  Back at the club, Vera and Cherie try to come up with a plan when Virgil comes in.  He offers to help Cherie escape from the overbearing Bo and the three devise a plan.  When Bo comes back from the rodeo, Cherie will excuse herself to her dressing room and escape out the open window to the bus station.  From there she will take the bus to Los Angeles while Virgil will take Bo home to Montana on another.  But when the time comes Cherie is unable to lie to Bo and tells him goodbye forever, sending him into a frenzy which culminates with him chasing her down at the bus station and lassoing her, before pulling her onto the Montana-bound bus with him. Imagine the surprise of the driver and other passengers when Cherie asks them for help as she is being “abducted…you know, kidnapped”.

When I first starting watching BUS STOP I had the same thoughts that Robert Osborne said he had.  First, I thought “Dude, chill out” which I thought several more times in succession.  Then I thought how terribly annoying the character of Bo was, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to make it through the whole movie with the performance that Don Murray was giving.  On THE ESSENTIALS, Drew Barrymore called it a “broad performance” which I think is a generous word for it.  Let’s call it what it is, which is painful.  Bo is a loud mouth, a bully, and just way too much.  He doesn’t listen to anyone but himself, and is very childlike in that he wants what he wants when he wants it no matter what.  I do agree that by the end of the film his character has come around, but he is still annoying and it is a long journey before he makes it there.  That being said, there are some great supporting characters and some very fine performances by the so-called “character actors”.  Grace and Carl have a lot of fun scenes together, and Vera is a great support to Cherie.  But for me, the true standout of this film is Marilyn Monroe.

The performance that Marilyn Monroe gives in this film needs to be seen, not just by fans but by anyone who thinks that Marilyn Monroe is nothing more than a woman in a white halter dress standing on a subway grate.  At the time of this film, Marilyn was enrolled in the Actor’s Studio and was focused on using the method acting technique in her performance.  It shows because truly this is as honest and heartfelt as an actor can be in a role, and she manages to do something that is seemingly impossible.  She ceases to be.  By this I mean, she is no longer Marilyn Monroe playing a character rather she IS that character.  She is Cherie.  It is a role that could so easily go into cartoon or caricature, just the southern accent could send it into pantomime, but it never does.  It is remarkable because someone like Marilyn Monroe shouldn’t be able to do that, or so we have been lead to think.

Marilyn Monroe really pushed to get this film made and to play this role.  In fact, it was her own production company that took on the project.  At the time no studio would seriously consider giving a B-movie pin-up girl dramatic roles, and so Marilyn took matters into her own hands.  In the same way that Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis bucked the studio system in order to get better roles, so to did Marilyn.  She was serious about her career as an actress and if her 1955 New Year’s resolutions are any indication, serious about developing her craft.  She was also painfully insecure and had no self-esteem, and it is this that makes her performance in BUS STOP so arresting and so bittersweet.

This is the performance that hints at the great actress that could have been.  What might have happened if her talents had been nurtured?  If her ego had been boosted?  If her ambitions had been supported?  The small amount of research that I have done on Marilyn Monroe has led me to believe that she was far smarter than most people realized, and far more than she gave herself credit for.  She created Marilyn Monroe, from the hair, to the voice, to the walk.  She knew what people wanted and what would get her ahead and she did it.  And then once she was in she wanted to improve and become more, so she started taking acting classes, reading books, attending lectures, and trying to get better roles for herself.  She wanted to become an actress, not just a pin-up, and I don’t think enough people respected her for that.  Even today, too many people just think of Marilyn Monroe with her skirt blown up or dancing with diamonds.  But this movie gives us a chance to see just how talented she really was.  And for me it is sad to think that she never knew that.  That she never had a moment where she felt that she was becoming the respected actress that she deserved to be.

There was some discussion about why this movie was part of The Essentials, especially when it has something like Don Murray’s character in it.  I can see why this was a question, but I don’t think that a movie needs to be a perfect movie in order to be an essential film.  In order for a film to be essential, I think it just needs to have a piece that is essential.  Maybe it is the script, the directing, the sets, the story, the music, or the acting.  For me, BUS STOP is essential thanks to Marilyn Monroe.  Her performance is essential because it is not only a fine example of method acting, but because it is an example of a tremendous talent that never had the chance to be fully realized or recognized until now.