Ninotchka

In a letter to film historian Herman G. Weinberg, director Ernst Lubitsch cited Ninotchka (1939) as one of his three best films. Lubitsch wrote, “As to satire, I believe I probably was never sharper than in Ninotchka, and I feel that I succeeded in the very difficult task of blending a political satire with a romantic story.” The letter was written on July 10, 1947 — just months before Lubitsch’s death.

Greta Garbo plays the part of Ninotchka, a stern, no-nonsense Russian envoy sent to Paris to check up on three representatives of the Soviet Board of Trade. She believes they are unduly influenced by capitalistic luxuries. Melvyn Douglas plays the part of Leon, a sophisticated bachelor who seems to have little more to do than experience the sights and sounds of Paris.

This time around, Lubitsch teamed with writers Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and Walter Reisch to adapt a story by Melchior Lengyel. As you might expect from the talent involved, the script is full of comic gems. Here are some examples:

Buljanoff: How are things in Moscow?
Ninotchka: Very good. The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.

Iranoff: Can you imagine what the beds would be in a hotel like that?
Kopalski: They tell me when you ring once the valet comes in; when you ring twice you get the waiter; and do you know what happens when you ring three times? A maid comes in — a French maid
Iranoff (with a gleam in his eye): Comrades, if we ring nine times . . .

Ninotchka: I am interested only in the shortest distance between these two points. Must you flirt?
Leon: I don’t have to but I find it natural.
Ninotchka: Suppress it.
Leon: I’ll try.

MGM publicized the film with the tagline, “Garbo laughs,” ignoring the fact that Garbo had laughed in a previous MGM film, Queen Christina (1933). Ninotchka was a box office success and was later remade into the musical Silk Stockings (1957). After she retired from her film career, Garbo acknowledged that Lubitsch was the only truly great film director she had worked with.

Ninotchka
(1939; directed by Ernst Lubitsch; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Turner Classic Movies
List Price: $19.98 (Blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.98 (DVD)

Saturday, February 27 at 12:00 a.m. eastern (late Fri. night) on Turner Classic Movies

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

The second film in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) is best viewed as a companion piece to Fort Apache (1948). Where in Fort Apache, ritual and duty are questioned and even challenged, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon affirms ritual and duty as both necessary and honorable. As a result, Captain Nathan Brittle (played by John Wayne) is a more sympathetic character than Fort Apache’s Colonel Thursday. Where Fort Apache shows how unity can be disastrous when following a misguided leader, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon shows how unity can succeed when a leader understands the long-term goals and doesn’t underestimate the enemy.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was well received at the time of its release. Here’s what Bosley Crowther had to say about it in his New York Times review dated November 18, 1949:

For in this big Technicolored Western Mr. Ford has superbly achieved a vast and composite illustration of all the legends of the frontier cavalryman. He has got the bold and dashing courage, the stout masculine sentiment, the grandeur of rear-guard heroism and the brash bravado of the barrack-room brawl. And, best of all, he has got the brilliant color and vivid detail of those legendary troops as they ranged through the silent “Indian country” and across the magnificent Western plains.

The story is set immediately following Custer’s Last Stand (a historical event that was the basis of the fictional confrontation in Fort Apache). Ford emphasizes that both the army and the Indian forces are unified from diverse groups. The narration explains that the uprising consists of many different Indian nations who are emboldened by Custer’s defeat. The story also provides numerous references to the cavalry being strengthened by its absorption of the Confederate soldiers.

Captain Brittle is about to retire, and a key question in the movie is whether the new soldiers will have the experience to understand not only what’s at stake, but also why a conflict isn’t inevitable. When Brittle and Sgt. Tyree (played by Ben Johnson) enter the Indian camp to try to avert a battle, it’s clear the young Indians no longer heed the wisdom of their elders. Ultimately, it’s the willingness of the cavalry to incorporate the experience of its elders (and the willingness of the young recruits to follow that wisdom) that gives the army an advantage over the Indians.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
(1949; directed by John Ford; cable & dvd)
Turner Home Entertainment
List Price: $19.95

Wednesday, February 24 at 4:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Monday, April 25 at 9:45 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Foreign Correspondent

Foreign Correspondent (1940) was Hitchcock’s second Hollywood film, though it was Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film in the sense that it was the first true Hitchcock film made in Hollywood. Rebecca (1940) was as much David O. Selznick’s movie as it was Hitchcock’s, which may explain why Rebecca was the only Hitchcock film to win an Oscar for Best Picture.

Foreign Correspondent, on the other hand, is pure Hitchcock. It’s the story of an innocent bystander who becomes involved in an intrigue — a storyline exploited successfully in The 39 Steps (1935), Young and Innocent (1937), and The Lady Vanishes (1938). It also blends suspense, comedy, and romance in a way that would later become synonymous with Hitchcock’s name.

All the actors seem perfectly cast, yet Hitchcock didn’t get his first choice for the title role. In a 1962 interview with Françoise Truffaut, Hitchcock explained how he ended up with Joel McCrea:

In Europe, you see, the thriller, the adventure story is not looked down upon. As a matter of fact, that form of writing is highly respected in England, whereas in America it’s definitely regarded as second-rate literature; the approach to the mystery genre is entirely different. When I had completed the script of Foreign Correspondent, I went to Gary Cooper with it, but because it was a thriller, he turned it down. This attitude was so commonplace when I started to work in Hollywood that I always ended up with the next best — in this instance, with Joel McCrea. Many years later Gary Cooper said to me, ‘That was a mistake. I should have done it.’

Most moviegoers wouldn’t consider Hitchcock to be a trailblazer with special effects, though he certainly was. Take a look at the perspective-distorting zoom or the psychological application of color in Vertigo (1958). Or check out the use of electronic sounds as bird noises or advanced optical printing techniques to simulate large flocks in The Birds (1963).

Foreign Correspondent includes a spectacular shot near the end of the film where a plane is diving into the ocean. You see the water appearing closer, as viewed through the cockpit windshield. When the plane hits the ocean, the water suddenly rushes into the cockpit. All this is contained within a single shot with no apparent edits or special effects, so how was it done? This is Hitchcock’s explanation from the Truffaut interview:

I had a transparency screen made of paper, and behind that screen, a water tank. The plane dived, and as soon as the water got close to it, I pressed the button and the water burst through, tearing the screen away. The volume was so great that you never saw the screen.

Here’s an odd bit of trivia for you. In his article “The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock, Part Three,” Raymond Durgnat writes that “Dr. Goebbels loved watching Foreign Correspondent.” Goebbels predicted it would make “an impression upon wide broad masses in the enemy countries.” Hitchcock later speculated that a print was probably brought in through Switzerland. Was this a case of an unscrupulous political manipulator recognizing the skills of a more benign artistic manipulator?

Foreign Correspondent
(1940; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray-DVD combo)

Tuesday, February 23 at 12:00 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon (1941) is often cited as the very first film noir. Whether it is or not depends on your definition of a film noir. It has many of the elements we associate with the genre. On the other hand, director John Huston’s tight script and well-paced direction give it a lift that’s missing from the vast majority of film noirs.

This was Huston’s first directorial effort, and it’s one of the better first films from a Hollywood director. Huston’s father, actor Walter Huston, has a brief role as the ill-fated captain who delivers the all-important package. John Huston was working as a screenwriter for Warner Bros and was anxious to direct one of his own scripts. He chose Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel of the same name, which must have seemed an odd choice as the studio had filmed it twice already.

The 1931 version, originally titled The Maltese Falcon, was later retitled Dangerous Female so it wouldn’t be confused with Huston’s 1941 remake. As a pre-code movie, it incorporated some of the seedier elements from the novel, though it lacked the novel’s gritty atmosphere and dramatic tension. A second adaptation titled Satan Met a Lady (1936), starring Bette Davis, was directed with a lighter touch — almost as a comedy.

Huston’s version was a success largely due to his extraordinary skill in creating fully formed characters through dialogue. The script even pokes fun at the conventions of the genre, which is especially remarkable when you consider that Huston was bringing some of those conventions to film for the very first time. Here are a few examples:

Spade: You, uh — you aren’t exactly the sort of a person you pretend to be, are ya?
Brigid: I’m not sure I know exactly what you mean.
Spade: The schoolgirl manner, you know, blushing, stammering, and all that.
Brigid: I haven’t lived a good life — I’ve been bad, worse than you could know.
Spade: That’s good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.
Brigid: I won’t be innocent.
Spade: Good.

Gutman: I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously, unless you keep in practice. Now, sir, we’ll talk if you like. I’ll tell you right out, I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.

Wilmer: Keep on riding me, and they’re gonna be picking iron out of your liver.
Spade: The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter, eh?

Gutman: By Gad, sir, you are a character. There’s never any telling what you’ll say or do next, except that it’s bound to be something astonishing.

In addition to launching the directorial career of John Huston, this film brought Humphrey Bogart from the second rank of actors and made him a star. His role as the hard edge — but not heartless — private detective Sam Spade would strike a chord with audiences and cause Warner Bros to seek out similar properties for Bogart. Without the success of The Maltese Falcon, the studio might not have been as eager to film Casablanca (1942) or The Big Sleep (1946).

Bogart’s role in The Maltese Falcon was originally offered to George Raft, who turned it down because he didn’t think the film would be important enough. Had Raft taken the part, Bogart might not have been considered for any of his later roles. And this version wouldn’t have been as successful or influential.

The upcoming Blu-ray looks terrific with deep dark tones in the shadows and an appropriate level of film grain. If you’ve only see this film over the years on a small television, you’ll be amazed at how wonderful it looks on a big screen.

An added bonus on the Blu-ray disc is a studio blooper reel titled “Breakdowns of 1941.” Who knew that Jimmy Stewart, Pat O’Brien, and James Cagney would laughingly curse after flubbing a line? I guess these actors were human after all.

The Maltese Falcon
(1941; directed by John Huston; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.98 (Blu-ray), $29.98 (Three-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Friday, February 19 at 11:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Greed and human nature — it’s a common theme in both movies and literature, but rarely has it been handled as expertly as in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Following his service in World War II, director John Huston found the ideal project for his next film. It would be based on the novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, written by the mysterious B. Traven. Even today, no one is quite sure who B. Traven was, though historians strongly suspected that Traven met with Huston under an assumed name during the film’s production in Mexico.

The movie is a carefully crafted moral tale about human frailty and the difficulties we might encounter when given the chance to accumulate massive wealth. The three main characters react differently, and it’s the difference in their reactions that keeps the tale from becoming too dark and cynical.

Huston wrote the screenplay, and he keeps a tight rein on the narrative as the story and characters progress to a satisfying conclusion.

Here are a few gems from the film’s dialogue:

Flophouse Bum: $5,000 is a lot of money.
Howard: Yeah, here in this joint it seems like a lot. But I tell you, if you was to make a real strike, you couldn’t be dragged away. Not even the threat of miserable death would keep you from trying to add 10,000 more. Ten, you’d want to get twenty-five; twenty-five you’d want to get fifty; fifty, a hundred. Like roulette. One more turn, you know. Always one more.

Gold Hat: We are Federales… you know, the mounted police.
Dobbs: If you’re the police, where are your badges?
Gold Hat: Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!

Howard: We’ve wounded this mountain. It’s our duty to close her wounds. It’s the least we can do to show our gratitude for all the wealth she’s given us. If you guys don’t want to help me, I’ll do it alone.
Curtin: You talk about that mountain like it was a real woman.
Dobbs: She’s been a lot better to me than any woman I ever knew. Keep your shirt on, old-timer. Sure, I’ll help ya.

Huston cast his father Walter Huston in the pivotal role of Howard, a seasoned old prospector who understands from experience what gold fever can do to an otherwise honest man.

Both father and son won Oscars for this film (Best Supporting Actor for Walter Huston, and Best Director, as well as Best Screenplay, for John Huston). It was the first time a father and son had received Academy Awards for the same movie.

The recently released Blu-ray version is a joy to behold, especially if you’re able to view it on a large screen. Watch for several uncredited cameos, including John Huston as the American who Dobbs keeps asking for a handout, Jack Holt (Tim Holt’s real-life actor father) as an flophouse bum, and a young Robert Blake as a Mexican boy who sells lottery tickets from the street.

Also on the Blu-ray disc are an informative 49-minute documentary on the making of the movie, a comprehensive 128-minute documentary on John Huston, and a selection of short subjects from 1948.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
(1948; directed by John Huston; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $24.98 (Blu-ray), $26.98 (Two-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Tuesday, February 16 at 12:15 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Mutiny on the Bounty

If you haven’t heard of the director Frank Lloyd, you’re not alone. Even though he directed, produced, and/or appeared as an actor in more than 180 films from 1912 through 1955, he isn’t well known. He is best remembered for his masterful direction of Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). Lloyd was the ideal choice to helm this true-life British naval mutiny from the late 18th century.

Born in Scotland, Lloyd watched his father install turbines and engines into all kinds of boats, including Tall Ships. His family traveled throughout Scotland, England, and Wales as his father looked for work. When Lloyd became a Hollywood film director, he searched for interesting tales about ships and the sea. Before being offered Mutiny on the Bounty, he had directed a surprising number of boat- and sea-related films, including The Sea Hawk (1924), Winds of Chance (1925), The Eagle of the Sea (1926), The Divine Lady (1929), Weary River (1929), and Cavalcade (1933).

Lloyd knew he could turn the incident into a rousing, yet deeply human motion picture. He later wrote:

When I finished reading Mutiny on the Bounty, I felt a definite excitement running through me. I knew I’d follow the simply history of a little ship – a character in itself – on a long journey. That aboard is a small group of men, courageous, sometimes sullen, always genuine. That the ship and the men reached Paradise and saw its beauty, were forced to leave that Beauty and mutinied. I knew that there was a thrilling adventure, a great and simple theme, the qualities of laughter and grief, and superb characters. And I knew that I could sell a combination like that to any audience.

The production was no small undertaking. It took two years to complete with a budget of almost two million dollars. Clark Gable had to be convinced to shave off his “lucky mustache,” because facial hair wasn’t allowed in His Majesty’s Navy at the time. Charles Laughton contacted the London tailor shop that had outfitted the real Captain Bligh 150 years earlier, in order to recreate Bligh’s uniform. The portly Laughton lost 55 pounds so he could match Bligh’s exact measurements.

The result is one of Hollywood’s best seafaring movies (John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home may be the very best). It was a huge hit for MGM, despite the staggering $1,905,000 budget. It went on to earn $4,460,000 at the box office and win an Oscar for Best Picture.

In 1962, the story was remade as Mutiny on the Bounty, with Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian and Trevor Howard as Captain Bligh. There’s a strange link between the two movies. Movita Castaneda, who played Fletcher Christian’s Tahitian wife in the original film, later married the real-life Marlon Brando, the Fletcher Christian in the remake.

The story was remade yet again in 1984 as The Bounty, with Mel Gibson as Fletcher Christian and Anthony Hopkins as Captain Bligh. The 1984 film is the better of the two remakes. It also adheres more closely to the historical facts by portraying Bligh as repressed and authoritative, rather than mad and egotistical.

If you’ve seen only the usual print of this film on television, prepare to be duly impressed by the recently-released Blu-ray. It features a photochemical restoration of a recently discovered original nitrate camera negative. The print looks great with a consistently sharp image and smooth graytones. The audio is clear throughout, though there’s some shrillness in the louder portions, which is fairly common with movies from the early- to mid-1930s.

Both the Blu-ray and DVD include an interesting short, titled Pitcairn Island Today (1935), which shows the descendants of the crew and their living conditions on the island.

Mutiny on the Bounty
(1933; directed by Frank Lloyd; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $34.99 (Blu-ray), $19.98 (DVD)

Monday, February 15 at 8:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Sunday, April 17 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Awful Truth

The Awful Truth (1937) is one of the least appreciated of the top screwball comedies, in part because director Leo McCarey isn’t as well known as directors Frank Capra, George Cukor, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, or even Howard Hawks. His best comedies include Let’s Go Native (1930), Duck Soup (1933), Six of a Kind (1934), Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), and The Awful Truth. These comedies share a relaxed feel, seamless construction, and almost unequaled comic timing. McCarey was quite willing to improvise on the set, yet his films stay focused, which isn’t always the case with directors who improvise. Of course, it helps if you’re working with top talent. McCarey directed some of the best work of The Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Mae West, and Eddie Cantor.

McCarey shifted away from comedy in the 1940s. During the war years and into the 1950s, he specialized in competently made, often sentimental dramas, such as Love Affair (1939), Going My Way (1944), The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), and An Affair to Remember (1957). Throughout his career, McCarey brought a human touch to his films that was both sincere and discerning. According to Andrew Sarris’ book The American Cinema, “Jean Renoir once remarked that Leo McCarey understood people better than any other Hollywood director.”

The Awful Truth is based on Arthur Richman’s 1921 Broadway play of the same name, which was also the basis for a 1925 silent film and a 1929 sound film. The same story was remade as a musical in 1953 with the oddly appropriate title, Let’s Do It Again.

Because McCarey could make the characters so believable and likeable, almost from the start, he and screenwriter Viña Delmar were able to infuse the dialogue with an intelligence and grace you rarely see this side of Lubitsch. Here’s an example of the lines given to the main actors, Cary Grant (Jerry Warriner) and Irene Dunne (Lucy Warriner):

Lucy: You’re all confused, aren’t you?
Jerry: Aren’t you?
Lucy: No.
Jerry: Well you should be, because you’re wrong about things being different because they’re not the same. Things are different except in a different way. You’re still the same, only I’ve been a fool… but I’m not now.
Lucy: Oh.
Jerry: So long as I’m different, don’t you think that… well, maybe things could be the same again… only a little different, huh?

If you like comedies such as Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Philadelphia Story (1940), His Girl Friday (1940), and The Lady Eve (1941), you’re almost sure to like this one. It’s a rare treat.

The Awful Truth
(1937; directed by Leo McCarey; cable & dvd)
Sony Pictures
List Price: $19.95

Sunday, February 14 at 10:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Sunday, April 24 at 12:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Hustler

The Hustler (1961) is one of the best sports film ever made, though it doesn’t feel like a sports film. Gone is the pure exhilaration you feel when the hero succeeds, or the gritty resolve you experience when the hero faces a temporary setback. Director Robert Rossen’s earlier sports movie, Body and Soul (1947), hews closer to the conventions of the genre. Despite an overlay of self-doubt and personal angst, its story plays out as a competitive match where victory is still all important.

With The Hustler, character is the central focus. For pool hustler Fast Eddie (played by Paul Newman in a breakthrough role), winning isn’t just about succeeding in the game, it’s also about succeeding in life. He has the necessary skills to win, but is held back by a lack of character. When Eddie’s manager tells him he has talent, Eddie asks, “So what beat me?” Without hesitation, the manager answers, “Character.” We cheer for Eddie and want him to win, but we also see the tense relationship between an unclear head and a disciplined body, more so in this film than perhaps in any other.

Another strength of this remarkable movie is its ability to focus that same character-defining microscope onto the other strong personalities in the story. This is very much an ensemble piece, which draws equally electrifying performances from George C. Scott (Eddie’s slimy manager), Piper Laurie (Eddie’s troubled girlfriend), and Jackie Gleason (Eddie’s self-assured competitor — Minnesota Fats). The story improves with each viewing, as you pick up the subtle interactions among the characters.

All four actors were nominated for Best Actor Academy Awards (Scott declined his nomination). The Hustler earned nine nominations in all, including Best Picture, but won only for “Best Cinematography, Black-and-White” and “Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Black-and-White.” Newman won an Oscar for his portrayal of Fast Eddie 25 years later, in Martin Scorsese’s sequel The Color of Money (1986). Was it meant to be a reward for his earlier role? Probably, though we’ll never know for sure.

The Hustler
(1961; directed by Robert Rossen; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
20th Century Fox
List Price: $29.99 (Blu-ray), $14.98 (DVD)

Tuesday, February 9 at 1:00 a.m. eastern (late Mon. 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

Monday, February 8 at 7:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Wednesday, March 30 at 8:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

North By Northwest

Roger Thornhill should have known he was in trouble when he walked through the lobby, and the hotel’s music system played “It’s a Most Unusual Day.” Of rather, we should have known. He may not know it, but we do — he lives inside a Hitchcock film, so we can expect a healthy dose of sly humor and calculated thrills. If you’ve never seen it, don’t miss this one. I would pick North by Northwest (1959) as the third best Hitchcock film (after Vertigo and Psycho).

As an advertising executive, Thornhill (Cary Grant) deals in public perceptions and appearances. His job is to make real life seem more than it really is. It’s a fitting profession for someone who is less than he seems. Thornhill is bored with life and his predictable role in it. That’s about to change when he becomes entangled in a case of mistaken identity. He will be steadily stripped of his identity and forced to assume the role of another man. Along the way, he’ll encounter a mysterious woman (Eva Marie Saint), a suave-but-sinister villain (James Mason), and a larger-than-life monument (Mount Rushmore). And once again, we have a terrific musical score from Bernard Herrmann.

The most famous part of the movie is the stark sequence in which Cary Grant is chased by a crop duster. In a 1962 interview with Françoise Truffaut, Hitchcock explained how he got the idea:

I found I was faced with the old cliché situation: the man who is put on the spot, probably to be shot. Now, how is this usually done? A dark night at a narrow intersection of the city. The waiting victim standing in a pool of light under the street lamp. The cobbles are ‘washed with the recent rains.’ A close-up of a black cat slinking along against the wall of a house. A shot of a window, with a furtive face pulling back the curtain to look out. The slow approach of a black limousine, et cetera, et cetera. Now, what was the antithesis of a scene like this? No darkness, no pool of light, no mysterious figures in windows. Just nothing. Just bright sunshine and a blank, open countryside with barely a house or tree in which any lurking menaces could hide.

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia. Jessie Royce Landis, who portrays Grant’s mother in the film, was either 10 months younger or seven years older than Grant (she may have lied about her age).

North by Northwest
(1959; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $34.99 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)

Sunday, February 7 at 9:45 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

It Happened One Night

Can one film save a failing movie studio? If the film is It Happened One Night (1934), it can. Columbia Pictures needed a hit in order to survive, and it was a gamble for the studio to spend $325,000 on this project, especially since several bus-related movies had recently failed at the box office. Fortunately, everything clicked, and It Happened One Night became the sleeper hit of 1934. It went on to become the first film to sweep all five major Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. Yet immediately after she had completed filming her scenes, Claudette Colbert had told her friends, “I’ve just finished the worst picture in the world.”

If you know director Frank Capra’s later comedies, such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), you may be surprised by the restrained sentimentality in this one. Part of what makes this comedy so enduring is its in-your-face banter that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Robert Riskin wrote the screenplay, based on the short story “Night Bus” by Samuel Hopkins Adams. The script moves at a quick pace, and its self-deprecating humor resonated with depression-era audiences who were trying to cope with financial pressures.

Here’s a scene between Peter Warne (played by Clark Gable) and Alexander Andrews (played by Walter Connolly):

Alexander Andrews: Oh, er, do you mind if I ask you a question, frankly? Do you love my daughter?
Peter Warne: Any guy that’d fall in love with your daughter ought to have his head examined.
Alexander Andrews: Now that’s an evasion!
Peter Warne: She picked herself a perfect running mate – King Westley – the pill of the century! What she needs is a guy that’d take a sock at her once a day, whether it’s coming to her or not. If you had half the brains you’re supposed to have, you’d done it yourself, long ago.
Alexander Andrews: Do you love her?
Peter Warne: A normal human being couldn’t live under the same roof with her without going nutty! She’s my idea of nothing!
Alexander Andrews: I asked you a simple question! Do you love her?
Peter Warne: YES! But don’t hold that against me, I’m a little screwy myself!

Some film historians cite It Happened One Night as the first screwball comedy. Whether that’s the case depends on how you define a screwball comedy. It opened earlier in the year than Twentieth Century (1934) and The Merry Widow (1934), yet it was released one year after Duck Soup (1933) and two years after Trouble in Paradise (1932). It’s certainly one of the first screwball comedies and easily one of the best.

It Happened One Night
(1934; directed by Frank Capra; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
The Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray)
Sony Pictures
List Price: $24.95 (DVD)

Friday, February 5 at 11:45 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)

Friday, February 5 at 12:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Third Man

We talk about the great directors, yet it’s always a group effort. It takes a strong director to steer the many divergent elements in the same direction. When the process works, all the elements fit together so the result is equal to more than the sum of the parts. The Third Man (1949) is a film where everything meshes — the script, acting, camera placement, lighting, music. It’s probably the best British film made after World War II, as well as the best film noir made in Europe.

Because each of the elements is so exceptional, director Carol Reed is rarely given the credit that’s due. He pushed to have the zither music in the movie. He also argued for the final shot being held much longer than writer Graham Greene or producer David O. Selznick thought appropriate. Selznick wanted to use studio interiors for the production, but Reed preferred the actual war-torn streets of Vienna as a backdrop. The camera and lighting compositions with their odd angles and surreal effects contribute significantly to the atmosphere of the story. The overall look combines the moody darkness of a film noir with the starkness of a you-are-there documentary.

Graham Greene’s script was developed specifically for this project. He also wrote it as a short story, but only to work out the ideas. In his book Ways of Escape, Greene explained, “The reader will notice many differences between the story and the film, and he should not imagine these changes were forced on an unwilling author: as likely as not they were suggested by the author. The film in fact is better than the story because it is in this case the finished state of the story.”

As good as Greene’s script is, the most famous lines from the film were written by Orson Welles. Onscreen for a comparatively short time, Welles’ performance as Harry Lime stands out as one of his best roles. Here are two nuggets from Welles’ self-penned dialogue, where Lime explains to Rollo Martins (played by Joseph Cotten) that it’s a dog-eat-dog world:

Martins: Have you ever seen any of your victims?
Lime: You know, I never feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax — the only way you can save money nowadays.

Lime: Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Avoid the poor quality prints that were struck when the film temporarily lapsed into the public domain. The discs from Criterion and Lions Gate are the best way to see it — other than in a movie theater, of course. I haven’t seen the print that TCM shows occasionally, though that network is usually conscientious in trying to obtain the best available print.

The Third Man
(1949; directed by Carol Reed; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray, out of print), $39.95 (DVD, out of print)
Lions Gate — StudioCanal Collection
List Price: $39.99 (Blu-ray)

Wednesday, February 3 at 10:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Merry Widow

Ernst Lubitsch had no equal when it came to crafting sophisticated comedies. One of the first sound-era Hollywood directors known and revered by the public, his “Lubitsch touch” represented the pinnacle of intelligent humor. His version of The Merry Widow (1934) still towers over other comedies.

As Herman G. Weinberg pointed out in his book The Lubitsch Touch, “This time the first ‘Lubitsch touch’ came right under the credit titles as a magnifying glass sought in vain to find the tiny mythical kingdom where the action takes place.”

Ostensibly based on the operetta of the same name (which Erich von Stroheim used as the basis for his 1925 silent film), Lubitsch and screenwriters Ernest Vajda and Samson Raphaelson essentially threw out the plot and started from scratch.

Jeanette MacDonald is the wealthy widow who owns 52 percent of every cow in the small country of Marshovia. Maurice Chevalier is the playboy prince who is given the task of wooing her back from Paris, so her riches will remain in the kingdom.

Supported by an outstanding cast of character actors — including Edward Everett Horton, Una Merkel, Sterling Holloway, and Hermann Bing — The Merry Widow is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face and a feeling of nostalgia for a golden age of screen comedy.

I’m happy to report that this movie is finally available on DVD, though it’s available only as a Manufactured on Demand (MOD) disc. That’s a DVD-R format. As a result, it may not play properly on some PC-based DVD drives or DVD recorders. I had no problems playing it on my PC-based DVD and Blu-ray drives, though your results may vary. This MOD disc should be issue-free with most standalone DVD and Blu-ray players (the kind you connect to a home TV).

The video and audio quality on this disc is first rate. Warner has done an excellent job of transferring this film at a suitably high bit rate (8000 kbps for the video and 192 kbps for the audio). The image had plenty of contrast and detail, and the sound (especially important for the musical numbers) was clear and never shrill. It looked great projected onto a 100-inch screen. Highly recommended.

The Merry Widow
(1934; directed by Ernst Lubitsch; cable & dvd)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $18.95 (available as a Manufactured on Demand disc from WarnerArchive and WBshop)

Thursday, January 28 at 9:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

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