Grand Illusion

What can I say to convince you to see Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), if you haven’t already seen it? (If you have already seen it, you won’t need convincing). This quote from Orson Welles should do it, “If I had to save only one film in the world it would be Grand Illusion.” On The Dick Cavett Show, Cavett once asked Welles what his favorite films were. Welles answered, “Grand Illusion and something else.” The story goes that large numbers of people tried to track down this other film, they thought was titled Something Else.

Grand Illusion is a truly great film. It’s enriched by Renoir’s sincere compassion for humanity. It has outstanding moments of comedy and tenderness. There’s wartime intrigue and even a hint of romance (not easy for a story that centers around an escape from a prisoner-of-war camp). The title unlocks some of the thematic layers in the film. There’s the illusion the aristocracy will be able to return to their former roles after WWI. There’s also the illusion that the equalities of war will remain completely intact after the war. Renoir embraced the democratic movement that swept away the autocracy, but at the same time, he was nostalgic for the manners, decorum, and traditions that would be lost. Renoir’s best films view human behavior as complex and even contradictory. Employing improvisation even in a tightly structured film such as this one, he strived for a realism that still felt natural and spontaneous.

This film is also notable for its appearance by silent film director Erich von Stroheim, whose realistic style influenced Renoir and motivated him to become a filmmaker. It wasn’t until late in the production schedule that Renoir learned he would be able to cast Stroheim in the part of Captain von Rauffenstein. In his autobiography, titled My Life and My Films, Renoir explained how Stroheim affected both the role and the film:

His part, which at first was a very minor one, had been greatly enlarged because I was afraid that, confronted by the weighty personalities of Gabin and Fresnay, he would look like a lightweight. In art, as in life, it is all a question of balance; and the problem is to keep both sides of the scales level. That is why I took liberties with von Stroheim’s uniform, which was quite out of keeping with my realistic principles at that time. His uniform is authentic, but with a flamboyance quite unsuited to the commander of a POW camp in the First War. I needed this theatrical façade to counterbalance the impressive simplicity of the Frenchmen. There are instances of stylization in La Grande Illusion, despite its strictly realistic appearance, which takes us into the realm of fantasy, and these breaks in illusion I owe largely to Stroheim. I am profoundly grateful to him. I am incapable of doing good work unless it contains an element of the fairy-tale.

Ultimately, what makes Grand Illusion a powerful film is its optimistic message that differences can be bridged through goodwill and understanding. It isn’t a pro-war film because it doesn’t glorify war, and it’s not even an anti-war film, though Renoir in 1937 paradoxically declared himself to be both a pacifist and strongly opposed to Hitler’s aggression (a paradox he addressed in one of his first Hollywood films, This Land Is Mine). For Renoir, war is simply the ideal theatrical stage to show how men can overcome their differences in class, language, race, education, and politics.

Grand Illusion
(1937; directed by Jean Renoir; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (out-of-print DVD)
Lions Gate
List Price: $29.99 (Blu-ray)

Saturday, November 25 at 3:30 a.m. eastern (late Fri.night) on Turner Classic Movies

The Quiet Man

One of John Ford’s most popular films — The Quiet Man (1952) — almost didn’t happen. According to Jordan R. Young’s book John Ford’s The Quiet Man, Ford first tried to secure funding for the movie back in 1937. That was a year after he had purchased the story for just $10. Maureen O’Hara explained that it was flatly turned down by 20th Century Fox, MGM, and RKO. She said it was dismissed as a “silly little Irish story that would never ever make a penny.”

In 1946, Ford agreed to a three-film deal with Argosy Productions. If the first film made money, he would have the go-ahead to pursue his Quiet Man pet project as the third film, on the assumption that it wouldn’t be able to cover its costs. That first film was The Fugitive (1947), which as an artistic success, but a financial flop. As a result, The Quiet Man was again shelved indefinitely.

It might never have been produced, if John Wayne hadn’t approached Herbert Yates, who headed up Republic Pictures. Yates felt that television would soon chip away at Republic’s B-grade movie business. Yates also assumed that The Quiet Man wouldn’t be popular with audiences, so he insisted that Ford, Wayne, and O’Hara make a western first, so that its profits could shore up the later loss. That movie was Rio Grande (1950), which neither Ford or Wayne especially wanted to make.

As you may have guessed, The Quiet Man turned out to be highly profitable, even with its substantial $1.75 million budget. It was the 12th highest grossing film for 1952. And it was one of Ford’s personal favorites.

If you’re looking to see the film in all its glory, you’re in luck. Olive Films recently released a Blu-ray version through its Signature series that’s based on a 4K scan of the original camera negative. Originally shot in Technicolor, the disc’s colors are rich and vivid, without being overwhelming. This film won an Oscar for Best Cinematography, as well as for Best Director, and this latest restoration shows what all the fuss was about.

Extras on the Blu-ray disc include an excellent audio commentary by Ford biographer Joseph McBride, an informative 25-minute documentary hosted by Leonard Maltin, and a 12-minute appreciation of Ford by Peter Bogdanovich. Highly recommended!

The Quiet Man
(1952; directed by John Ford; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Olive Signature
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $22.95 (DVD)

Friday, November 24 at 2:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Saturday, December 23 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Sullivan's Travels

Many comedies include dramatic elements that tag along for the ride, just as many dramas provide comic relief to sweeten an otherwise hard-to-swallow message. Yet only a few films blend comedy and drama as effortlessly as Sullivan’s Travels (1941).

Preston Sturges, the film’s writer and director, was the best comedy writer of the 1940s. He was a master of handling contrasting elements, such as comedy and drama, high-brow and low-brow culture, and verbal and physical humor. Sturges also had a great ear for conversation. His characters could intellectually joust each other with elaborate turns of phrases and sudden twists of ideas. Yet everything comes across as being perfectly natural.

In Sullivan’s Travels, Joel McCrea plays the part of John L. ‘Sully’ Sullivan, a comedy director who wants to make movies with a deeper meaning. Against the better judgment of everyone around him, he decides to dress like a bum in order to experience real hardship. Veronica Lake plays the part of “The Girl” he meets along the way.

Here are some excerpts from the script:

Sullivan: Don’t you think with the world in its present condition, with Death snarling at you from every street corner, people are a little allergic to comedies?
The Girl: No.
Sullivan: Perhaps I don’t make myself clear.
The Girl: Say, how come you know a picture director well enough to borrow his car?
Sullivan: Well, as a matter of fact, I used to know most of those boys. But naturally, I don’t like to mention it in a suit like this. As a matter of fact, I used to be a picture director.
The Girl: Why you poor kid!
Sullivan: Don’t get emotional. I’ll be all right.
The Girl: What kind of pictures did you make?
Sullivan: More along educational lines.
The Girl: No wonder. There’s nothing like a deep-dish movie to drive you out in the open.
Sullivan: What are you talking about? Film is the greatest educational medium the world has even known. You take a picture like Hold Back Tomorrow . . .
The Girl: You hold it . . .

The Girl: I liked you better as a bum.
Sullivan: I can’t help what kind of people you like.

Policeman: How does the girl fit into the picture?
Sullivan: There’s always a girl in the picture. What’s the matter, don’t you go to the movies?

If you’ve read about the Sturges films, and haven’t seen any of them, you might assume they’re not for everyone. On the contrary, they’re real crowd pleasers. Some critics argue that Sullivan’s Travels is Sturges’ best, because — in addition to the humor — it successfully explores the fragile relationship between comedy and drama. This is one of his finest films, though being different from the rest, it’s like comparing apples and oranges when you try to rank it against his other great movies, such as Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944).

Sullivan’s Travels
(1941; directed by Preston Sturges, cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Friday, November 24 at 7:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Bringing Up Baby

I had a difficult time compiling my Top 20 Screwball Comedies list. The biggest challenge was where to put Bringing Up Baby (1938). In the end, I gave it the number two spot, right behind Duck Soup (1933). Andrew Sarris referred to Bringing Up Baby as the screwiest of the screwball comedies. In an article titled “The World of Howard Hawks,” which appeared in the July and August 1963 issue of Films and Filming, Sarris wrote:

Even Hawks has never equaled the rocketing pace of this demented farce in which Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn made Barrymore and Lombard in Twentieth Century seem as feverish as Victoria and Albert. The film passes beyond the customary lunacy of the period into a bestial Walpurgisnacht during which man, dog, and leopard pursue each other over the Connecticut countryside until the behavior patterns of men and animals become indistinguishable.

Sometimes it can be instructive to analyze the structure of a comedy, and this one is ripe for that kind of analysis. The world of Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) is dead or dying — dinosaurs, fossils, and museums. Huxley is almost as lifeless. He has no sense that life could be more than it already is. The world of Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) is just the opposite. It’s full of possibilities. In her world, the animals are very much alive. Her life is unpredictable because she’s willing to fail. And wouldn’t you know it, she fails a lot. This isn’t just an unlikely couple. This is a clash of world views. Neither world is complete unto itself, hence the need for a happy ending to merge the best qualities of both.

In the end — no matter the structure — either the dialogue, gags, and characters are funny, or they aren’t. Bringing Up Baby excels in all three. Hawks had a gift for drawing relaxed, seemingly improvised performances from his actors, especially in the comedies. Everything feels effortless and natural, even though almost all of it was carefully planned. Along with the fast pacing, there’s a rhythm to the dialogue that’s both realistic and engaging. Here’s an example:

Susan: You mean you want me to go home?
David: Yes.
Susan: You mean you don’t want me to help you any more?
David: No.
Susan: After all the fun we’ve had?
David: Yes.
Susan: And after all the things I’ve done for you?
David: That’s what I mean.

The two-disc special edition DVD of Bringing Up Baby features a digitally remastered print, as well as a commentary by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, whose comedy What’s Up, Doc? (1972) was inspired by the film. The second disc includes The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks (1973), a first-rate documentary from Richard Schickel that mixes relevant clips from Hawks’ films with an extended interview with the director.

Bringing Up Baby
(1938; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
Turner Home Entertainment
List Price: $26.95

Monday, November 20 at 6:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Thursday, January 11 at 6:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Saturday, January 27 at 10:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Passion of Joan of Arc

If the historical figure at the center of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) could be said to embody uncompromised dedication, the same could be said of the film’s director, Carl Theodore Dreyer. Consisting entirely of close-ups and medium shots, with only the sparest of backgrounds, Dreyer relentlessly focuses in on the characters and conflicts. It may be the closest we’ve ever come to a pure narrative cinema. As you might expect, reactions to this pared-down style vary. Most film historians view this as one of the greatest silent films ever made. I wholeheartedly agree. Others see it as too extreme. You’ll have decide for yourself.

Much of the emotional appeal of this film can be attributed to the remarkable performance by Maria Falconetti as Jeanne d’Arc. It is often cited as the finest performance ever committed to celluloid. In a 1965 interview with Cahiers du Cinéma, Dreyer explains how he chose Falconetti for the part:

I went to see her one afternoon and we spoke together for an hour or two. I had seen her at the theatre. A little boulevard theatre whose name I have forgotten. She was playing there in a light, modern comedy and she was very elegant in it, a bit giddy, but charming. She didn’t conquer me at once and I didn’t have confidence in her immediately. I simply asked her if I could come to see her the next day. And during that visit, we talked. That is when I sensed that there was something in her to which one could make an appeal. Something that she could give; something, therefore that I could take.

For, behind the make-up, the pose, behind that modern and ravishing appearance, there was something. There was a soul behind that facade. If I could see her remove the facade it would suffice me. So I told her that I would very much like, starting the next day, to do a screen test with her. ‘But without make-up,’ I added, ‘with your face completely naked.’

She came, therefore, the next day ready and willing. She had taken off her make-up, we made the tests, and I found on her face exactly what I had been seeking for Joan of Arc: a rustic woman, very sincere, who was also a woman who had suffered. But even so, this discovery did not represent a total surprise for me, for, from our first meeting, this woman was very frank and, always, very surprising.

Dreyer based the script on the original trial transcripts from the year 1431, as well as a novel by Joseph Delteil. The film took a year and a half to complete, in part because Dreyer insisted that the costumes, church, courtyard, gestures, and other aspects of the production were as authentic as possible. The whole construction was painted pink, rather than white, to give it a gray tint against the sky.

According to Ebbe Neergaard’s book Carl Dreyer: A Film Director’s Work, Dreyer demanded absolute silence and banished anyone who wasn’t needed whenever Falconetti had an important scene. Neergaard writes, “She was, as it were, activated into expressing what Dreyer could not show her, for it was something that could only be expressed in action, not speech, and she alone could do it, so she had to help him. And she realized that this could only be done if she dropped all intellectual inhibitions and let her feelings have free access from her subconscious to her facial expression.”

The Passion of Joan of Arc
(1928; directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95

Saturday, November 18 at 4:45 a.m. eastern (late Fri. night) on Turner Classic Movies

The Wind

The Wind (1928) is a high watermark (if you’ll excuse the pun) for both its star and director. Lillian Gish had played mostly innocent waifs in D. W. Griffith’s films. Those performances are among her best, but she hadn’t been given a chance to take on a wide range of roles.

When she signed with Irving Thalberg at MGM, she was given almost complete control over her career. Her first two films there were La Boheme (1926) and The Scarlet Letter (1926). Gish chose the directors (King Vidor and Victor Seastrom, respectively) and the leading men (John Gilbert and Lars Hanson, respectively), as well as the stories.

For the third film, she chose Seastrom and Hanson again. Based on Dorothy Scarborough’s novel of the same name, The Wind gave Gish an opportunity to play an innocent who becomes a more experienced, self-aware woman. It was her last and best silent performance.

Before immigrating to Hollywood, Swedish-born Victor Seastrom (a.k.a. Victor Sjöström) had established a reputation as one of Europe’s most talented film directors. His Swedish films often contrasted repressed (even obsessively stunted) characters with the elemental forces of nature. His best known American films — He Who Gets Slapped, The Scarlet Letter, and The Wind — also deal with repression and suffering.

Despite the somber plotlines, Seastrom’s films are breathtakingly beautiful in their depiction of the natural world. Seastrom seems to be saying that human pettiness means little when set against the grander scale of nature. Repression of one’s own nature, or stifling the nature of others, is viewed as contrary to the natural order of things.

Repression versus nature is the central theme of The Wind. Gish is perfectly cast as an innocent who is expected to conform to the base and selfish desires of those around her. As her character matures, Gish handles the transitions with self-assurance, while still retaining enough naiveté to make the changes appear convincing.

Few films are able to portray nature as such a tangible presence, as The Wind is able to do. The wind and sand are as much a part of the story as any of the characters. I can’t think of any other films, with the exception of two Japanese movies from 1964 (Woman in the Dunes and Onibaba), where the story, characters, and location are as intricately connected for the entire length of the film.

The Wind
(1928; directed by Victor Seastrom; cable)

Friday, November 17 at 8:00 p.m. on Turner Classic Movies

Vertigo

With so many fine films to his credit, it’s a challenge to pin down Hitchcock’s best film. For my money, the best one is Vertigo. That’s especially evident in the restored print that’s available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Perhaps the most rarefied of Hitchcock’s films, Vertigo is difficult to talk about without giving away important plot elements. If you haven’t seen it, don’t read too much about it. Just watch it, and then watch it again to see how carefully the film is constructed. Just as he does in Psycho, Hitchcock leaves a trail of bread crumbs so repeat viewers can enjoy the story with a renewed sense of awareness.

Vertigo is unusual in its use of associative color. In a 1962 interview with Françoise Truffaut, Hitchcock explained how the color green signals the main character’s state of mind:

At the beginning of the picture, when James Stewart follows Madeleine to the cemetery, we gave her a dreamlike, mysterious quality by shooting through a fog filter. That gave us a green effect, like fog over the bright sunshine. Then, later on, when Stewart first meets Judy, I decided to make her live at the Empire Hotel in Post Street because it has a green neon sign flashing continually outside the window. So when the girl emerges from the bathroom, that green light gives her the same subtle, ghostlike quality. After focusing on Stewart, who’s staring at her, we go back to the girl, but now we slip that soft effect away to indicate that Stewart’s come back to reality.

Pay close attention to Bernard Herrmann’s music. Though not as groundbreaking (or influential) as his score for Psycho, the Vertigo score reinforces the dreamlike and ghostlike qualities Hitchcock referred to in his interview with Truffaut. As in Psycho, the music makes even a simple drive down the highway rich with emotional meaning.

Vertigo
(1958; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Universal Studios
List Price: $79.95 (Blu-ray, as part of the Alfred Hitchcock: The Essentials Collection), $14.98 (DVD)

Wednesday, November 15 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Tuesday, December 26 at 4:45 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Scarface

Howard Hawks is the least appreciated of the great American directors. It took the critics from the Parisian magazine Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s to recognize the consistent style and world view behind such dissimilar films as Scarface (1932), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Air Force (1943), The Big Sleep (1946), Red River (1948), The Thing from Another World (1951), and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Of Hawks’ many best-of-breed genre films, Scarface is the most underrated. Producer Howard Hughes withheld the film from circulation in the U.S. after its initial release, so it was almost impossible to see until the 1970s. You had a better chance of seeing the film if you lived in Paris than if you lived in New York or Los Angeles.

Scarface is far more complex thematically and visually than Little Caesar (1930) or The Public Enemy (1931), and much more satisfying. Tony and his henchmen attend a theatrical performance of Rain, another cautionary tale about a man who tries to impose his will on others. Tony has to leave the theater early, missing the downfall of the play’s tragic figure, in order to set in motion the events that will lead to his own downfall. Like the men in Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings and Air Force, Tony and his gang react to life-threatening situations by creating their own rules of conduct and honor. The group is fiercely loyal until someone deliberately crosses the line to threaten the cohesiveness of the group. In virtually all his films, Hawks explores the interplay between individual initiative and group co-operation. It’s the dynamic push-pull between these two forces that drives the characters’ actions and moves the story forward to its logical conclusion. With the Hawks comedies, that universe is turned completely upside down.

Hawks and scriptwriter Ben Hecht populate the sets in Scarface with symbolic Xs and crosses. Look closely, and you’ll see them throughout the film, particularly at critical junctures in the plot. During the production of the film, Hawks ran afoul of the studio censors, who were repelled by the large number of murders and cold-hearted glee with which the gangsters carry out their revenge. Hawks was forced to insert a high-minded introduction and clumsy moral-indignation scene to soften what was thought to be a dangerously immoral film. Hawks also had to tone down the ending. He had wanted Tony (played by Paul Muni) to end face down in a pile of horse manure.

This isn’t just the best gangster movie ever made. It’s a landmark film of the early 1930s, and the first mature work by one of Hollywood’s preeminent directors.

Scarface
(1932; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
United Artists
List Price: $14.98

Wednesday, November 15 at 12:00 a.m. eastern (late Tue. night) on Turner Classic Movies

A Midsummer Night's Dream

If you looked at the cast list for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), you couldn’t be blamed for passing it by. How could Shakespeare’s most beloved comedy be well served by the likes of James Cagney, Joe E. Brown, Dick Powell, Olivia de Havilland, and Mickey Rooney?

What you wouldn’t know from glancing at the cast list is that this film was co-directed by Max Reinhardt, the famed Austrian theatrical producer and director. His stage production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was considered to be without equal, and he brings a fairytale quality to this production that goes far beyond any other film rendition of the play. The lighting, special effects, costumes, and sets combine to create a magic that’s rarely seen on the screen.

As for the casting, the Warner Brothers contract players are generally competent in their roles. Mickey Rooney is surprisingly good as Puck, though the up-and-down cadences he gives to his lines can be irritating. As Titania, Anita Louise looks just as we imagine a fairy queen should look. And Victor Jory has the commanding presence we expect from an Oberon. Even so, it’s the imaginary world the actors inhabit that grabs our attention. The choreographed movements of the creatures, the light that shimmers from the forest floor, and the misty veils that separate the viewer from the spectacle that unfolds — those are the qualities that make this a must-see film.

Also notable is the accompanying music. Most of it is based on Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was inspired by the play. There wasn’t enough of the composition to fill the 114 minutes of music needed for the film, so composer Erich Korngold supplemented it with passages from other Mendelssohn compositions. Reinhardt had worked with Korngold previously and brought him over from Vienna for this film. It was Korngold’s his first project in Hollywood. He went on to become one of the top film composers of the 1930s and 1940s. His credits include the rousing scores for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940).

This film was a critical and box office flop. It did so poorly, Warner Brothers canceled Reinhardt’s contract for two additional films.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
(1935; directed by William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Tuesday, November 14 at 1:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Monday, December 11 at 2:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Sergeant York

Sergeant York (1941) poses a problem for film scholars. Immensely popular at the time of its release, the movie doesn’t quite fit into director Howard Hawks’ canon. Hawks didn’t have much leeway with the story, which was based on the true-life events of the best known and highest decorated hero of World War I. Released less than six months before the Pearl Harbor attack, Sergeant York addresses the mixed feelings in the U.S. about entering World War II.

One issue for some film scholars, who sometimes cite this as one of Hawks’ least successful efforts, is the fact that its themes are so clearly telegraphed to the audience. Even if you accept the notion that it isn’t a true-blue Hawks film, there was little else Hawks could do, given that his audience already knew York’s story so well. The element of surprise is gone, and any drama that might arise from York’s momentous decision is muted by the inevitable outcome. As a result, the film feels more conventional than Hawks’ other films, which delight us in their unexpected twists and turns, as the characters and story move in and out of Hollywood norms.

While we gain a better understanding of Hawks by seeing the common threads woven throughout his films, it can be equally instructive to see how he handles material that’s somewhat at odds with his usual style of working. Sergeant York isn’t an archetypal Hawks film. It is, however, richly rewarding when judged on its own merits.

The first part of the movie shows an economy of words and gestures that speak volumes about the inner lives of the isolated mountain community. The disparity between the rural and battlefield portions of the film was noted in contemporary reviews. Here’s what Bosley Crowther had to say in his July 3, 1941 review from The New York Times:

That is all there is to the story, but in the telling of it — of the first part, anyhow — the picture has all the flavor of true Americana, the blunt and homely humor of backwoodsmen and the raw integrity peculiar to simple folk. This phase of the picture is rich. The manner in which York is persuaded to join the fighting forces and the scenes of actual combat betray an unfortunate artificiality, however — in the battle scenes, especially; and the overly glamorized ending, in which York returns to a spotless little farm, jars sharply with the naturalness which has gone before. The suggestion of deliberate propaganda is readily detected here.

Even though Hawks was constrained by the characters and plot (Alvin York was still alive at the time), this is very much a Hawks film. York’s Tennessee mountain community parallels the isolated groups in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), Ball of Fire (1941), and The Thing from Another World (1951). Religious principle versus patriotic duty becomes the Hawksian conflict that potentially separates York from his community and ultimately allows him to re-assert his individuality within the group.

Sergeant York
(1941; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $26.98 (two-disc special edition)

Sunday, November 12 at 12:15 a.m. eastern (late Sat. night) on Turner Classic Movies

They Were Expendable

John Ford always seemed to pull for the little guy. And if he wasn’t pulling for the little guy, he was pulling for individuals who take setbacks with a stoic sense of honor and common decency, as well as a sense of humor and self-deprecation. The heroism and unselfishness of Dr. Mudd despite being wrongly accused in The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), the sailors’ good will and comradeship despite their hard lives in The Long Voyage Home (1940), the optimism and practical wisdom of Mayor Skeffington despite the darkening political landscape in The Last Hurrah (1958), the gallantry and idealism of the confederate army despite their inevitable defeat in The Horse Soldiers (1959), and the dignity and patience of the Indians despite their gross mistreatment in Cheyenne Autumn (1964) — Ford often views human nature through the prism of the noble failure.

In a 1955 interview, writer Jean Mitry asked Ford if he deliberately chose stories that thrust a small group of people by chance into dramatic or tragic circumstances. Ford replied:

On purpose? It seems so to me. It enables me to make individuals aware of each other by bringing them face to face with something bigger than themselves. The situation, the tragic moment, forces men to reveal themselves, and to become aware of what they truly are. The device allows me to find the exceptional in the commonplace. I also like to find the humor in the midst of tragedy, for tragedy is never wholly tragic.

Another example of honor in defeat is Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945). It’s based on the true story of John Bulkeley, who helped develop the PT boat for naval combat in World War II. The backdrop is the attack on Pearl Harbor and the bravery of the American forces in what was their worst military defeat up until that time. Robert Montgomery plays Lt. John Brickley (changed from “Bulkeley” for the film), John Wayne plays Lt. Rusty Ryan (Brickley’s friend), and Donna Reed plays Lt. Sandy Davis (the love interest). As in all of Ford’s films, the characters are never lost in the sweep of history. The characterizations are strengthened through the accumulation of personal details — a subtle gesture, a casual look, or an act of kindness that forges a bond between two characters.

They Were Expendable is one of my favorite World War II films. Another is Air Force (1943), directed by Howard Hawks. Apart from having a similar plot (the attempt to recover militarily after an initial defeat in the Pacific), both films are top-notch character studies. They’re also seeped in the feel-good (even propagandistic) wartime ethos that urges us to set aside our differences and join together to overcome a common enemy.

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia. Ward Bond was injured in an automobile accident just before production began on this film. To explain the crutches Bond needed to move around, Ford added a scene in which Bond’s character is wounded.

They Were Expendable
(1945; directed by John Ford; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $21.99 (Blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $16.97 (DVD)

Thursday, November 9 at 5:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Tuesday, January 30 at 8:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Dodsworth

In the 1930s, just about everyone went to the movies. That didn’t mean every movie was targeted to the widest possible audience. In fact, many films were aimed at mature audiences seeking intelligent and restrained drama. Few films, however, dealt with the complexities of middle age and the day-to-day difficulties of maintaining a marriage.

Dodsworth (1936) is an unusually frank film about a couple who are growing apart amid concerns about growing older. Based on a 1929 novel by Sinclair Lewis, the story was adapted in 1934 by Sidney Howard into a popular Broadway play starring Walter Huston and Fay Bainter. Two years later, Howard teamed with director William Wyler to bring the story to film. Huston reprised his role as industrialist Sam Dodsworth and Ruth Chatterton replaced Bainter in the role of Fran Dodsworth, his wife. Mary Astor played the other woman, Mrs. Edith Cortright, though clichés about the other woman fall by the wayside as the movie progresses. Several minor parts were filled by actors who played the same roles on Broadway.

The movie version doesn’t feel like a staged play, even though there is plenty of dialogue. Here are some of the more memorable lines from the film:

Sam Dodsworth: Love has got to stop some place short of suicide.

Fran Dodsworth: Oh, you’re hopeless — you haven’t the mistiest notion of civilization.
Sam Dodsworth: Yeah, well maybe I don’t think so much of it, though. Maybe clean hospitals, concrete highways, and no soldiers along the Canadian border come near my idea of civilization.

Fran Dodsworth: Remember, I did make a home for you once, and I’ll do it again, only you’ve got to let me have my fling now! Because you’re simply rushing at old age, Sam, and I’m not ready for that yet.

Baroness Von Obersdorf: [to Fran] Have you thought how little happiness there can be for the old wife of a young husband?

Apart from the writing, much of the credit has to go to Walter Huston, in one of the best roles of his career, and to William Wyler, whose assured direction makes the characters’ progression feel like an entirely natural development. Dodsworth doesn’t come across as a message picture — you’re not beat over the head with gold-encrusted truths simplified to the point where a 10-year-old child could quote them verbatim. Instead, the audience steadily accumulates knowledge about the characters and their predicaments. By the end, the characters’ decisions make perfect sense based on who we know them to be as individuals, rather than as stereotypes.

Dodsworth
(1936; directed by William Wyler; cable & dvd)
MGM
List Price: $14.95

Sunday, November 5 at 8:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Big Sleep

What if someone created a murder mystery so entertaining you didn’t care who did the murder? That’s the case with The Big Sleep (1946). Based on Raymond Chandler’s first novel, the story draws private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) into an ever expanding circle of corruption and conspiracy. Eight deaths are woven throughout the book and film, making it unusually hard to keep up with the various murderers and victims. Director Howard Hawks phoned Chandler long distance during the film’s production because he couldn’t figure out who murdered the man who was dumped in the ocean along with his car. According to Hawks, Chandler was unable to provide an adequate solution.

William Faulkner worked on the script, along with Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett. Faulkner had teamed with Hawks, Bogart, and Lauren Bacall the previous year on To Have and Have Not (1944). If you’re familiar with Faulkner’s novels, it’s an interesting game to try to spot the Faulkner dialogue throughout the two films.

Here are a few examples from The Big Sleep that Faulkner may have had a hand in crafting:

Vivian: Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them workout a little first, see if they’re front runners or come from behind, find out what their whole card is, what makes them run.
Marlowe: Find out mine?
Vivian: I think so.
Marlowe: Go ahead.
Vivian: I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.
Marlowe: You don’t like to be rated yourself.
Vivian: I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?
Marlowe: Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how, how far you can go.
Vivian: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.

Mars: Convenient, the door being open when you didn’t have a key, eh?
Marlowe: Yeah, wasn’t it. By the way, how’d you happen to have one?
Mars: Is that any of your business?
Marlowe: I could make it my business.
Mars: I could make your business mine.
Marlowe: Oh, you wouldn’t like it. The pay’s too small.

Marlowe: Hmm.
Sternwood: What does that mean?
Marlowe: It means, hmm.

Based on the running time of 114 minutes, it looks like TCM will be showing the 1946 theatrical release of The Big Sleep. The DVD includes the theatrical release, as well as the less-familiar 116-minute prerelease version from 1945. The earlier version has an easier-to-follow, more linear plot. The release version moves along faster, sustains the film noir mood better, and is an overall superior film.

The Big Sleep
(1946; directed by Howard Hawks; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $21.99 (Blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $12.99 (DVD)

Saturday, November 4 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

2001: A Space Odyssey

If the measure of a classic film is its ability to withstand the erosions of time, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) would have to be regarded as the best science fiction film of all time. Though we have moved beyond it chronologically, its predictive value still seems valid.

The decades-old special effects also hold up well. By comparison, George Lukas felt the need to repeatedly update the special effects and storyline in Star Wars (1977), despite the fact it was released nine years later. Science fiction films are especially prone to becoming dated. Both Woman on the Moon (1929) and Things to Come (1936) boldly depict a future that now seems forever bound to a distant past.

One of the reasons 2001 endures is Kubrick’s obsession with getting it right. When there’s an explosion in space, you don’t hear the sound of the explosion. That’s less dramatic, but completely accurate — there’s no air in space to carry the sound. Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke even poke fun at their quest for authenticity. One scene shows the lengthy instructions needed to successfully operate a zero-gravity toilet.

Kubrick did find a technical flaw just before the film was released. It would have been too costly to correct, so the mistake remains. During the flight to the moon, Dr. Floyd drinks food through a straw, in what we understand to be a weightless environment. If you look closely, you can see the food drop when he stops sucking on the straw. Since there’s no gravity, the food shouldn’t be falling back.

Another reason this movie seems contemporary is the remarkably detailed spacecraft and docking facilities. This is the first modern science fiction film in terms of the care and expense devoted to making space travel appear as lifelike as possible. It also didn’t hurt that the movie was shot in 65mm (Super Panavision 70), which provides nearly four times the resolution of a standard 35mm film.

A third contributing factor is the open-ended plot. The conclusion of the film is open to so many different interpretations, you’ll find a variety of websites claiming to “explain 2001.” Even if you accept the most plausible plotline (aliens monitor our technological advances and then help mankind to take the next evolutionary step), there is still a strong element of mystery.

The film combines an obsessive attention to detail with a poetic sense of greater possibilities. That the two can coexist is a testament to Kubrick and Clarke’s creative talents and their willingness to take a great leap of faith in the power of this extraordinary medium.

2001: A Space Odyssey
(1968; directed by Stanley Kubrick; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95 (DVD), $29.99 (Blu-ray)

Saturday, November 4 at 3:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Next Page »