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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Personal Collection of Classics: THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB (1970)

I think that my Mom might have an inner cowgirl.  I recently found the James Stewart Signature Collection at a discount store, so of course I had to take it home.  When I was telling my Mom what movies were included in the collection, I mentioned the film THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB.  “You have to watch that movie!  It has to be your next blog post” she exclaimed.  I was skeptical, not being a huge western fan myself and this movie is definitely more “modern” than most of the classic films that I watch, but I decided to give it a try.  Starring Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, and directed by Gene Kelly (yes, THAT Gene Kelly) comes the story of THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB.

John O’Hanlan (Stewart) is working as a cowhand in Texas alongside his good friend, Harley Sullivan (Fonda).  Being that they are out working on the open range, news and letters don’t travel fast.  In fact the day that John receives a letter is the first time that any man in the company has gotten one.  The letter is from a lawyer in the town of Cheyenne, Wyoming telling John that his brother DJ has died and has left him something in his will.  John immediately sets out for Cheyenne with Harley close behind.  One year and several thousand miles (and hundred thousand words from Harley) later the pair arrives in town and makes for the lawyer’s office.  Their arrival is a surprise for the lawyer, as DJ has been dead for two years and no one thought that John was coming to claim his property.  However, now that John and Harley are here the lawyer is more than happy to hand over the deed to the property that John has inherited.  DJ had become a business man and has left John his company, The Cheyenne Social Club.

John and Harley head off to find their new property but no one can tell them just what the Cheyenne Social Club is.  The women of the town seem offended when asked and the men just smile.  When they finally arrive at the house it suddenly becomes clear just how social this social club is.  Yes, DJ had been running a brothel and apparently expects John to continue on.  The madam of the house is Jenny, played by Shirley Jones, and she gives John the rundown of the girls.  There is Opal Ann, Pauline, Carrie Virginia, Annie Jo, Sara Jean, and of course Jenny.  The women are thrilled to have John here, hopeful that he will take care of them like DJ used to.  Harley sets about making himself at home and making friends with the girls, but John is completely resistant to the idea of running a brothel.  He heads out to get a drink at the local bar where he is welcomed with open arms by everyone (once they learn he is DJ’s brother and the new owner of the Cheyenne Social Club), except for one nasty individual who has a problem with Jenny.  This man was insulted because Jenny wouldn’t let him touch her unless he cleaned up, and so he doesn’t like Jenny or John.

John isn’t too happy with his situation, and he is even less happy when he breaks the news to the girls that he plans to close down the club and fire them all.  The reason John is unhappy is because no matter how many times he tells them, the girls make no indication that they are planning to leave at all.  The townsfolk get wind of John’s plans and let their displeasure be known (through a bar room brawl).  Even Harley tries to change John’s mind, as he is thoroughly enjoying his social time.  But John won’t relent in his ambitions to be an upstanding citizen.  He goes to see the lawyer again and expands on his plans to reopen the club as a boarding house.  But there is a hitch in his plans because the land that the club is sitting on is owned by the railroad  DJ was able to strike a deal with the railroad in that so long as the ladies remain at the club the club remains open.  If the ladies leave, the land reverts back to the railroad’s control.  Stymied, John returns to the club only to find that Jenny has been badly beaten.

With the town doctor attending to Jenny, John demands to know who did this to her.  Harley tells him that it was Corey Bannister, the unpleasant man from John’s first night at the bar.  Furious with what has happened, John storms off to the bar to confront Bannister.  Harley goes with him, protesting all the time that John is a terrible draw and “no hand with a gun”.  At the bar, John confronts Bannister demanding that he pay for what he has done to Jenny.  It will come down to who is the quicker draw and it doesn’t look like it will be John.  But through a lucky series of events John is able to shoot and kill Bannister, “Just like DJ would have done” marvels the barkeeper.  Back at the home, Jenny is recovering well and John has resigned himself to running a brothel.  The next day the sheriff rides up to tell John that Bannister’s kinsmen are riding to town to kill him, and recommends that John leaves town as soon as possible.  Harley thinks that this is an excellent idea and begins packing.  Much to his surprise John does not agree and insists on staying in Cheyenne to defend the ladies of the social club from the incoming Bannisters.  Not wanting to die, and seeing no reason to stay, Harley bids goodbye to John and rides off.

Harley can’t understand why John feels the need to stay behind, and reasons that he will be outnumbered ten to one when the Bannisters arrive.  How could ten to two make any difference?  Coming up over a ridge, Harley finds a group of about ten men gathered around a campfire.  He joins them for a rest and a cup of coffee and gets to talking.  Conversation turns and Harley realizes that the men that he is talking to are in fact, the Bannisters traveling to confront John.

As I said, I am not a huge fan of westerns but this film is more a “western lite”.  It plays more like a comedy with a western setting and is actually a pretty fun ride for an afternoon.  I love Jimmy Stewart always and seeing him play alongside his lifetime friend, Henry Fonda (who Stewart recommended for the role of Harley), is great.  You almost get the feeling that the two of them are just ad libbing actual conversations that they have had into the scenes.  The political subplot was definitely added in due to the real life political differences of Stewart and Fonda, and it would be interesting to know how much more of their relationship influenced their characters.  It was also interesting to watch a movie that was directed by Gene Kelly, as I have enjoyed some of his other directorial projects such as A GUIDE FOR THE MARRIED MAN and of course SINGING IN THE RAIN (although he was co-director for that one).

THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB isn’t a great film by any means.  But it is a fun and silly bit of storytelling that really lets the relationship between Stewart and Fonda shine.

Personal Collection of Classics: IN A LONELY PLACE (1950)

I was born when she kissed me…I died when she left me…I lived a few weeks while she loved me

Over Thanksgiving I was able to spend time with my parents, and one night my Dad suggested that we watch one of his favorite classic films.  However, I had to promise to blog about it.  This weekend I posted a clue on my Twitter and now we will find out who guessed right!  The film that we watched was IN A LONELY PLACE, directed by Nicholas Ray.

Humphrey Bogart stars as Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter with a volatile and violent temper.  He spends his time with his agent, Mel Lippman (played by Art Smith), and a formerly great but now alcoholic actor, Charlie Watermann (played by Robert Warwick).  One night Dix meets Mel at Paul’s Restaurant to have a few drinks and to hear about a possible new script.  Dix it seems, has been out of circulation for a time and is in need of a hit.  Mel appears to have the answer by way of a book adaptation for a trashy best selling novel.  The problem is that in order to adapt this novel, Dix needs to read it.  However, salvation comes in the form of a check girl named Mildred Atkinson (played by Martha Stewart).  Mildred has not only read the book but loves it, and is more than willing to relate the entire story to Dix over drinks at his apartment.  But Mildred isn’t that kind of girl, so don’t get any ideas.  She breaks her date with her boyfriend, Henry Kessler (played by Jack Stewart), and heads off with Dix, as Mel promises to call on him around 11AM the next day.  Upon arriving at his apartment the two cross paths with Dix’s striking neighbor, Laurel Gray played by Gloria Graham.  Both Dix and Laurel exchange meaningful glances as Mildred notices the architecture.  Dix and Mildred spend a few hours together at his apartment going over the story, which is just as sordid and sappy as you can imagine, before Mildred takes her leave.  Dix is already in his robe and slippers, and having already noticed Laurel on her balcony, heads off to his bedroom in the hopes of maybe one more look.

Early the next morning, long before Mel is due to show up, Detective Brub Nicolai (played by Frank Lovejoy) knocks at Dix’s door.  Dix answers dressed as he was the previous night.  When Brub asks, Dix states that he was asleep and has been home all night.  Brub, a former soldier under Dix’s command and now a detective, tells Dix that his boss wants to talk to him at the station.  Dix seems unaffected by the news, and gets ready while making light conversation with Brub.  At the station Dix is questioned by Captain Lochlear (played by Carl Benton Reid) as to his activities the previous night.  Dix answers all questions with a cavalier attitude that annoys Captain Lochlear.  Hoping to provoke some reaction from Dix, he informs him that the reason why he is here is because Mildred Atkinson has been brutally murdered.  She was killed the previous evening around 12:30AM, strangled and thrown from a moving car.  Since Dix was the last person to be seen with her, naturally the police have some cause to suspect him.  Not helping is the fact that Dix has a long record of fights, assaults, and even violence against a old girlfriend named Fran Randolph, as well as his general “I don’t care” demeanor.  But before things can go any further, in walks Laurel Gray.  She has been brought in to corroborate Dix’s claim that he did not leave the apartment with Mildred but instead stayed home.  She does this while matter-of-factly admitting that she remembers Dix because she “likes his face”.  With his alibi verified Dix is allowed to leave, but Captain Lochlear is still convinced that he is guilty.  Bub feels differently however, believing that Mildred’s boyfriend deserves a second look.

Dix returns home to find Mel in a panic, not knowing whether or not to believe the rumors that Dix has murdered someone.  He knows Dix and is his closest friend, but there is a part of him that doesn’t know how far Dix’s rage can take him.  Dix teases Mel by going along with the story that he has murdered someone and just pulled a fast one on the police.  Mel is about the have a heart attack when the doorbell rings and who should it be, but Laurel Gray.  She and Dix exchange pleasantries and flirtations, while Dix thanks her for backing him up.  The phone begins to ring inside and it is Brub, calling to invite Dix to his house that night for dinner.  But Brub is really asking because Captain Lochlear is convinced that Dix is guilty, and hopes that Brub will be able to gather more information from him over dinner.  Dix agrees to go to dinner but also asks Laurel for a midnight date that same night.

Dix goes to dinner and meets Brub’s wife Sylvia, played by Jeff Donnell.  Over the course of the meal, the subject of Mildred Atkinson comes up again and Dix says that while he did not kill her her, he has a theory on how it was done.  He claims that his writer’s imagination gives him insight and he can think like the killer would.  He has Sylvia and Brub act out his theory of the crime, and is so convincing that Brub himself is carried away into almost strangling his wife.  Dix again seems unfazed by this, shrugging it off as a good story.  He takes his leave of the now uneasy couple, and hurries back to his apartment for his date with Laurel.  Three weeks later Dix and Laurel are inseperable, side by side at all times.  This relationship has done nothing but good for Dix.  He has given up drinking and, much to Mel’s delight, is writing again.  He is working on the script for the bestseller when Laurel is summoned to the police station.  Captain Lochlear is still on the hunt for evidence that Dix is guilty and he believes that Laurel has it.  At the police station he confronts Laurel with the truth about Dix, his history of fights, of violence, and finally his abuse of Fran.  Faced with all this evidence, he asks, how can Laurel still believe that he is innocent?  But Laurel holds firm, stating her faith in Dix, and leaves the station.  But the seeds of doubt are sown.

Some time later Laurel and Dix are spending an enjoyable evening with Brub and Sylvia at the beach.  Everyone is having a lovely time, until Dix finds out about Laurel’s meeting with Captain Lochlear.  Angry at being kept in the dark and accusing Laurel of conspiring against him, Dix speeds off in his car with Laurel beside him.  The ride in silence for a time until Dix’s erratic driving almost get them into an accident with a teenage football star.  When the young man approaches Dix with fury, Dix in turn attacks him and nearly beats him to death.  He only is stopped by Laurel’s screams.  Afterwards Dix seems calmed and almost apologetic towards Laurel, and the two drive home.  But Laurel is becoming increasingly uncomfortable around Dix, her own doubts about his innocence beginning to come through.  As much as she loves Dix, there is a part of her that is not entirely sure that he isn’t capable of murdering someone.  Just as she is beginning to consider leaving Dix, he proposes.  What can she do?  Does she accept the proposal of a possible murderer or refuse and risk his wrath?

IN A LONELY PLACE is a film that I feel resonates just as much, if not more, with today’s audience as it did when it was originally released.  The threat of violence that surrounds Dix grows more and more menacing as the film progresses.  In the beginning Dix is charming and funny, if just a little hot headed.  But as the story goes on, the moments of charm and wit decrease, replaced with more and more moments of paranoia, jealousy, and rage.  We begin to feel, along with Laurel, a growing unease and an increasing suspicion.  Do we really believe Dix when he says that he is innocent?

Nicholas Ray and his then wife, Gloria Graham, were going through a divorce during the filming and I think that it had a big influence on the film.  The ending was shot twice, with the second version being the one that is included in the film today.  After you have watched the film go and look up what the first ending was supposed to be, then compare it to the one that is.  If you take into consideration that the second ending was concocted by a man going through a divorce I think it makes the ending even more powerful because it feels like a true emotion coming straight from the director to the screen.

This film is one that I enjoyed very much but also one that I feel that I will need to see again because there are so many facets and layers to discover.  While the story itself is engrossing and the acting superb, I still don’t feel like I have gotten everything from this film that I can.  IN A LONELY PLACE is definitely a film that I recommend at least one viewing of, if not multiple.  It is a story and a film that will keep revealing pieces of itself each time we return to it, just like Dixon Steele.