Cable and DVD


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

Camille

Eighty-one years after its release, how do we sort out the merits of a movie like Camille (1936)? Strictly in terms of Garbo’s performance, it may be her finest sound film. Yet with all her films (with the exception of Lubitsch’s atypical Ninotchka), there was always something that kept the whole from being better than the sum of the parts. In this case, the flaw is Robert Taylor. Granted, the part calls for an actor who can appear young and inexperienced, but that doesn’t mean the part should actually be played by a young and inexperienced actor.

George Cukor, who Clark Gable is supposed to have ejected from Gone with the Wind (1939) because he was a “woman’s director,” was the ideal choice from the stable of MGM directors. His previous adaptations of Little Women (1933) and David Copperfield (1935) show a remarkable talent for transforming classic novels into flesh-and-blood movies with enough warmth and intelligence to balance out the overt sentimentality.

What makes Camille fascinating isn’t Cukor’s transformational directing style but Garbo’s transformational persona. Back in the 1970s, TV-host Dick Cavett would often ask his guests who knew Garbo in her prime, whether the magic was there when you encountered her in person. The answer was just as elusive as Garbo’s personality. Some said you did see the magic; others said it was reserved exclusively for the silver screen.

There is no other actor or actress who rises above the craft in the same way that Garbo does. She appears not to be acting, but simply to be truly alive. If you’ve never seen a Garbo film, this all may sound rather strange, but she was able to achieve something — whatever you might to call it — that actors and actresses are continually striving for. She was unable to sustain it for long, similar to how a jazz musician or athlete might be in the zone for a fleeting second or two. Camille has more than its share of these kinds of moments and is well worth watching just to see Garbo sparkle and shine.

Camille
(1936; directed by George Cukor; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Tuesday, October 3 at 3:00 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Random Harvest

No matter how many classic films you’ve seen, there will always be films that escape your notice. They may no longer exist (most silent films, for example). There may be rights issues (the long version of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, for example). Or you didn’t know enough about them to actively seek them out (hence this site’s tagline: so many movies, so little time).

I hadn’t seen Random Harvest (1942) until about six years ago. I had forgotten what a competent director Mervyn LeRoy was and had neglected to look for his other films. Admittedly, his output is uneven, but any director responsible for the likes of Little Caesar (1930), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Hard to Handle (1933), They Won’t Forget (1937), Waterloo Bridge (1940), and Mister Roberts (1955; co-directed with John Ford) is worth further study.

As a sentimental romantic drama, Random Harvest is surprisingly restrained. This is a film that tugs on the heartstrings without treating the audience as though it has a collective IQ of 50. The various twists and turns are laid out carefully, and even when you know where it’s heading, the movie remains intellectually and emotionally satisfying. The plotline is important, so do refrain from reading too much about this one until you’ve had a chance to see it. Above all, don’t read the back of the DVD case, which gives away half the plot (what were they thinking?). The story is based on the novel by James Hilton, who is best known as the original author of two other Hollywood adaptations: Lost Horizon (1937) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). That these three creatively successful films were directed by three different directors speaks well of the narrative strength of the novels.

The casting of the two leads is another plus. Ronald Colman and Greer Garson were highly regarded by their contemporary audiences. Today, they’re barely known by the general public. If you’ve ever wondered just how talented Colman and Garson were, this film should answer that question in spades. Bottom line: If you tend to avoid sentimental Hollywood dramas, give this one a chance. The performances, script, and direction place it firmly in the don’t-miss category.

Random Harvest
(1942; directed by Mervyn LeRoy; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Thursday, September 14 at 10:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Ball of Fire

Ask any Howard Hawks fan to name Hawks’ best comedies, and you’ll likely be stuck in a twenty-minute conversation. Almost everyone agrees Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940) are top notch, but after that, the choices begin to differ. I would place Twentieth Century (1934) right up there, as well as Ball of Fire (1941). Far superior to Hawk’s own remake (A Song is Born), Ball of Fire sparkles with intelligent wordplay and shines with immediately likable characters.

Written by Charles Brackett, Thomas Monroe, and Billy Wilder, Ball of Fire is the story of seven encyclopedia writers who venture out into the world after nine years of cloistered research. Having just completed their entries on Saltpeter and Sex, they discover their books aren’t up-to-date enough for their entry on Slang. Led by Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), they encounter Sugarpuss’ O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), a fast-talking compendium of street idioms. They learn “shove in your clutch” means “get lost” and a “crabapple annie” is a stuffy, prudish person.

Sugarpuss O’Shea: Do you know what this means – ‘I’ll get you on the Ameche?’
Professor Bertram Potts: No.
Sugarpuss O’Shea: ‘Course you don’t. An Ameche is the telephone, on account of he invented it.
Professor Bertram Potts: Oh, no, he didn’t.
Sugarpuss O’Shea: Like, you know, in the movies.
Professor Bertram Potts: Well, I see what you mean. Very interesting. Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind; unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.

Though Wilder denies it was done consciously, the script plays out as a twisted Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Here, Snow White isn’t so innocent, the prince is one of the seven dwarfs, and the dwarfs are called on to save the day. Much of the humor derives from how sheltered the encyclopedists have become in their quest to study life from a distance. Almost all Hawks films explore the dynamics of a closed group, and how it handles threats from the outside world. Ball of Fire fits squarely into that canon, though it’s more gentle than the other top Hawks comedies (the seven men are almost the antithesis of the reporters in His Girl Friday).

Ball of Fire
(1941; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
MGM
List Price: $14.98

Sunday, August 13 at 2:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Long Voyage Home

When asked by Jean Mitry in 1955 to list his favorite films among the ones he had directed, John Ford included The Long Voyage Home (1940) among a handful of titles. At the time of its release, John Mosher wrote in The New Yorker that this was “one of the most magnificent films in film history.” Eugene O’Neill considered it to be the best adaptation of his work. He liked it so much, he owned a personal print and regularly screened it. Yet The Long Voyage Home is probably the least known of Ford’s greatest films.

One reason is the poor quality of the prints regularly shown on television. This was the film that cinematographer Gregg Toland worked on just before Citizen Kane (1941). It features comparable deep-focus shots and contrasts in lighting, as well as extraordinary shadows that move and extend across the screen. With a poor quality print, you lose the visual tones Toland strived to create. Fortunately, the print Turner Classic Movies has shown recently is better. It still falls short of what it could be, but you can see much of what impressed the critics back in 1940.

One of those critics was Bosley Crowther, who wrote this in the New York Times:

John Ford has truly fashioned a modern Odyssey—a stark and tough-fibered motion picture which tells with lean economy the never-ending story of man’s wanderings over the waters of the world in search of peace for his soul. It is not a tranquilizing film, this one which Walter Wanger presented at the Rivoli Theatre last night; it is harsh and relentless and only briefly compassionate in its revelation of man’s pathetic shortcomings. But it is one of the most honest pictures ever placed upon the screen; it gives a penetrating glimpse into the hearts of little men and, because it shows that out of human weakness there proceeds some nobility, it is far more gratifying than the fanciest hero-worshiping fare.

This is very much an ensemble piece with outstanding performances from Ford’s stock company of actors, including Thomas Mitchell (as Aloysius ‘Drisk’ Driscoll), Barry Fitzgerald (as Cocky), John Qualen (as Axel Swanson), and Ward Bond (as Yank). Most notable is John Wayne’s performance as Ole Olsen, the good-hearted Swede who keeps trying to return home to the family farm — but always ends up signing on again. The role is the opposite of Wayne’s usual swaggering persona, and he is surprising good in the part.

Dudley Nichols wrote the screenplay based on four early O’Neill plays about life at sea. Both Ford and O’Neill had Irish backgrounds, and they share a strong sympathy for the downtrodden. Toland’s moody photography and O’Neill’s tendencies toward pessimism are perfectly balanced by Ford’s inherent optimism. Much as he took the hard edge off Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath filmed that same year, Ford explores the depths of human deprivation in The Long Voyage Home without losing faith in the essential goodness of human nature.

The Long Voyage Home
(1940; directed by John Ford; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Saturday, August 12 at 6:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Winchester '73

Winchester ’73 (1950) is an important film for many reasons. It’s the first in a string of five top-notch westerns made over a five-year period that were directed by Anthony Mann and star James Stewart. The other four are Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1955), and The Man from Laramie (1955).

You could argue that Winchester ’73 is the first modern western. It brings the flawed protagonist from the film noirs over to the westerns. Mann had already made a name for himself with his skillful direction of tough-guy psychological dramas, including T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and Side Street (1949). By 1950, he was well prepared to reinvigorate the western genre by giving it a darker, more anguished hero.

The success of Winchester ’73 is largely responsible for the rebirth of the genre in the 1950s, and its tone would lead to other revisionist westerns, such as John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969). It isn’t fair, however, to say there were no dark westerns prior to 1950. Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948) points in this direction, though the John Wayne character isn’t the protagonist of that film.

Winchester ’73 is also notable for its contribution to the break up of the studio system. Mann couldn’t afford to pay Stewart his usual salary, so Stewart agreed to take a percentage of the profits. That turned out to be a smart move, because Winchester ’73 went on to gross $4.5 million in the U.S. That encouraged similar deals between other actors and production companies, and this alternative method of compensation broke the studios’ control in determining which movies actors would appear in and how much they would be paid.

Stewart was a big star at the time (Harvey was released that same year), though he hadn’t appeared in a western since Destry Rides Again (1939). He was taking a risk, as was Mann, in making a moody western. The public may not have accepted the usually upbeat Stewart as having deep unresolved psychological issues. Obviously, the public was able to handle the complexity, and this type of role proved to be a creative shot in the arm for Stewart, who would go on to play brooding roles in the other Mann-Stewart westerns, as well as Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958).

Winchester ’73
(1950; directed by Anthony Mann; cable & dvd)
Universal Studios
List Price: $14.95

Monday, July 24 at 8:45 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Vampyr

A typical horror movie has few surprises, so it isn’t very horrifying. A truly frightening movie would have to throw you off-kilter, so you don’t have a chance to relax or become too comfortable with the made-up world. That’s what Carl Dryer’s Vampyr (1932) does. To intensify the sense of foreboding, it continually shifts the ground out from under your feet. It may be the most unusual horror film you’ll ever see.

According to The Cinema of Carl Dryer by Tom Milne, Dryer described his stylistic approach to his crew with these words:

Imagine that we are sitting in an ordinary room. Suddenly we are told that there is a corpse behind the door. In an instant the room we are sitting in is completely altered; everything in it has taken on another look; the light, the atmosphere have changed, though they are physically the same. This is because we have changed and the objects are as we conceive them. That is the effect I want to get in my film.

Released a year after Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi, Vampyr’s vampire isn’t identified until late in the story. Yet Dryer conveys the vampire’s influence right from the beginning using a variety of disorienting cinematic techniques. These techniques include seeing the effect of an action well before its cause, especially through Allan Grey’s (the main character’s) dreams and visions. Dryer often moves the camera independently of the action as though it anticipates something the characters are only vaguely aware of. Similarly, the point of view sometimes shifts oddly. For example, at the beginning of the story, we bounce back and forth between interior and exterior views of the inn. That suggests Grey’s perspective may be too limited to comprehend all that will transpire.

At first glance, these techniques might seem random or amateurish. They are, in fact, quite deliberate. They’re designed to make us question what we see on the screen, just as Grey will need to question the reality around him in order to uncover the evil that has taken hold there. As a counter balance, Dryer uses explanatory intertitles and quotes from Grey’s book on vampires to center the story.

The result is a journey through a supernatural world defined by its own logic and rules that are revealed only as the story progresses. While not entirely successful, Vampyr would be my pick for the most ambitious horror film ever made. It creates both an eerie atmosphere and a parallel sense of psychological dislocation.

Keep in mind that Vampyr was the film Dryer chose to direct following The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). In both films, the main character is challenged to stand by a set of beliefs that can’t be proved.

Vampyr
(1932; directed by Carl Dryer; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95

Tuesday, July 16 at 6:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Hamlet

Until Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948), Shakespeare films were considered to be box office poison. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and Romeo and Juliet (1936) lost money, despite having top Hollywood stars in the leading roles. Studios were all in favor of releasing an occasional prestige film, even if it took a loss, but previous adaptations of the Bard suggested the audience wasn’t ready.

Olivier made Shakespeare acceptable by taking a more cinematic approach. Hamlet was photographed and lit like a deep-focus film noir. The camera glides along the dark halls and winding steps as though it was a living, breathing person. Through a subjective use of the camera, Olivier treats the audience as a voyeur — we feel we’re spying on a family coming apart at the seams. This is very much in keeping with Olivier’s Freudian interpretation of the play. Olivier even suggests a possible Oedipal relationship between Hamlet and his mother. Hamlet is seeking to eliminate a rival as much as he is seeking revenge for his father’s death.

This production is also innovative in Olivier’s use of a voice over for Hamlet’s soliloquies. If the soliloquies are meant to be Hamlet’s inner thoughts, then a voice over is a more natural representation than having the actor speak his thoughts out loud. Would Shakespeare have approved? We’ll never know, though it’s a technique that wouldn’t have been practical on the Elizabethan stage.

Hamlet won four Academy awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Olivier), Best Black and White Art Direction/Set Direction, and Best Black and White Costume Design. The film was praised for its magnificent photography with Olivier given much of the credit for deciding to film in black-and-white rather than in color. Olivier’s previous Shakespeare film, Henry V (1944), was photographed in Technicolor. Years later, Olivier revealed during a television interview that he was having a quarrel with Technicolor at the time, and he chose to shoot Hamlet in black-and-white out of spite — not for creative considerations. Whatever the reason, it’s hard to imagine how this film could be any better in color. It remains the definitive film adaptation of the play, though Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) comes close. Branagh filmed the entire four-hour play, where Olivier had to throw out about ninety minutes of the text in order to make the movie more appealing to a general audience.

Hamlet
(1948; directed by Laurence Olivier; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price $19.99

Wednesday, July 12 at 7:45 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Freaks

One of the more unusual Hollywood studio films from the 1930s is Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). It’s often dismissed as an exploitation film or a cheap attempt at sensationalism. In fact, it’s neither. Browning, best known for having directed Dracula the year before, had run away to join the circus when he was 16 years old. He worked as a talker (popularly, though incorrectly, known as a circus “barker”). He also worked as “The Living Corpse” and performed as a clown with Ringling Brothers.

Browning chose real-life circus freaks for many of the roles in the film, not so much to exploit or sensationalize their presence, but to portray them as he had experienced them — as ordinary people with mostly ordinary lives. By contrast, the other characters in the film are portrayed as greedy, arrogant, and intolerant. They’re the real freaks. From this point of view, Freaks is the opposite of an exploitation film. Andrew Sarris has argued it’s “one of the most compassionate films ever made.”

As entertainment, Freaks has its ups and downs. The circus freaks aren’t always convincing. They’re amateur actors, after all. Unfortunately, some of the professional actors aren’t much better. Former silent star Olga Baclanova has a heavy Russian accent that tends to get in the way.

On the plus side is Browning’s skill in weaving suspense and horror elements into the narrative. He does this without undercutting his central thesis that the freaks are better adjusted and more tightly bonded in friendship than the outsiders. As a former circus talker, Browning knows audiences want to stare at the freaks, even as they want to turn away in disgust. He uses these contradictory emotions to build to an exciting finish. A scene where the freaks sincerely accept an outsider as “one of us” evokes similar mixed emotions, both for the character in the film and vicariously for the audience.

This film isn’t for everyone. If you can move beyond the sub-par acting and shock-horror overlay, you’ll find a serious exploration of what it means to be a kind and generous person, no matter which cards life has dealt for you.

Freaks
(1932; directed by Tod Browning; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Wednesday, June 21 at 11:45 p.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

Friday, June 9 at 4:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Thin Man

The Thin Man (1934) is the first of six comic detective films featuring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. There have been many recurring romantic pairings over the years (Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, for example), though this may be the most successful pairing involving the same set of characters.

In this first film, the Thin Man is a murder suspect, not the hero, which is why the second film was titled After the Thin Man (1936). By the third film, the distinction was lost, and the name became associated with Nick Charles. A similar misunderstanding occurred with the Frankenstein movies. Frankenstein was the scientist, not the scientist’s creation. The public had associated the name with the monster, and Hollywood wasn’t about to argue the point.

The Thin Man series benefits from dialogue and situations that showcase the urbane talents of Powell and Loy. Unfortunately, the later scripts aren’t nearly as rewarding. Though they’re still worth watching, the quality dropped after the second film.

Here are examples of dialogue from the first film that illustrate the couple’s offbeat relationship:

Nora: Waiter, will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?

Nick: How’d you like Grant’s tomb?
Nora: It’s lovely. I’m having a copy made for you.

Nora: Pretty girl.
Nick: Yes. She’s a very nice type.
Nora: You got types?
Nick: Only you, darling. Lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.

Nick: Oh, it’s alright, Joe. It’s alright. It’s my dog. And, uh, my wife.
Nora: Well you might have mentioned me first on the billing.

Canine star Asta is another reason for the popular success of the series. The same dog (real name Skippy) played prominent roles in two of the best screwball comedies: as Mr. Smith in The Awful Truth (1937) and George in Bringing Up Baby (1938). Several dogs played the part of Asta over the course of the Thin Man series, which lasted until 1947. Whether they were Skippy’s offspring or Skippy look-alikes is still unknown.

The Thin Man
(1934; directed by W.S. Van Dyke; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95 (also available in The Complete Thin Man Collection for $59.95)

Friday, June 9 at 3:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Thing

Just who was responsible for The Thing from Another World (1951)? If you look at the credits, you can see it was directed by Christian Nyby. But if you ask any Howard Hawks fan, you’ll probably be told it’s pure Hawks. The promotional materials of the time have Hawks’ name in big letters above the title and Nyby’s name below in small print. This ambiguity poses a problem for anyone compiling a Hawks filmography. Some writers include The Thing along with the films Hawks directed, while others — playing it safe — leave it out.

In a discussion with the audience at the 1970 Chicago Film Festival, Hawks was asked if he had directed parts of The Thing. This was his response:

Christian Nyby was my cutter, one of the finest cutters in the business, and I thought he deserved a chance to direct. After he directed a few days, he said, ‘Look, it’s an awful lot different cutting a film somebody gives you and making a film to cut. Will you come down and give me some help?’ I helped him some, but I didn’t come in and direct part of it. I just would say, ‘I think you’re attacking this scene wrong.’

Why are we so sure this is a Hawks film? After all, he didn’t direct or produce any other science fiction films. For Hawks, one-of-a-kind projects were not unusual. Gentleman Prefer Blondes was his only musical, and Scarface was his only gangster film. Hawks liked to work in a wide range of genres, yet his films are remarkably similar in theme and structure. In this case, the isolated group is a collection of military men and scientists stationed in the Arctic region. The external threat is an alien. And the Hawksian woman, who can hold her own with the men without losing her femininity, is a secretary to one of the scientists. There’s also the usual camaraderie, group banter, and overlapping dialogue that make a Hawks film so enjoyable.

While it may be a minor Hawks film, The Thing is one of the better science fiction films of the 1950s. Like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Forbidden Planet (1956), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), it deals with larger issues than whether we can survive an alien invasion. Each of these films also explores what it means to be a human being.

The Thing from Another World
(1951; directed by Christian Nyby; produced by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
Turner Home Entertainment
List Price: $19.95

Tuesday, May 30 at 1:30 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, May 26 at 10:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Fury

Fritz Lang’s first American film after fleeing the Hitler regime in Germany, Fury (1936) is a terrifying look at how good people can go bad when swayed by the darker instincts of a crowd. The incredible scenes where the mob tries to lynch an innocent man recall the workers frantically fleeing the city in Metropolis and the angry calls for justice against the child murderer in M.

David O. Selznick brought Lang to MGM in 1934. He languished at the studio for months and was nearly fired. Given one last chance, Lang was handed a four-page outline titled Mob Rule. MGM told Lang and writer Barlett Cormack they would need to develop it into a script for Lang to direct.

Lang didn’t speak English very well at the time, so he looked around for inspiration. He found that inspiration in the form of newspaper clippings, as he explains in a 1965 interview with Peter Bogdanovich:

I followed a habit I had in Europe (and still have) of collecting newspaper clippings — I have used them for a lot of my pictures. We found a lynching case that had happened in San Jose, California, a few years before I made the film, and we used many newspaper clippings for the script.

Spencer Tracy turns in a gripping performance as Joe Wheeler, a man jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. Sylvia Sidney portrays his loyal girlfriend. The film also provides early roles for long-time character actors Walter Brennan and Ward Bond.

While it would be easy to dismiss Fury as a transitional film where Lang is learning how to deal with the restrictions of the Hollywood studio system, I find it has an unusual rawness and intensity. Lang must have seen something in it. Fury was his favorite film among the ones he directed in the U.S.

Fury
(1936; directed by Fritz Lang, cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Tuesday, May 23 at 9:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Next Page »