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)

Monday, October 26 at 1:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Gold Rush

For many years, I considered The Gold Rush (1925) to be my favorite Chaplin film. It has everything you would want in a great comedy: thrills (sliding off the edge of a cliff), romance (Georgia Hale is strikingly beautiful), imagination (a pretend dance using forks and potatoes), pathos (the tramp waiting for Georgia to attend his dinner), and intelligent humor (almost everywhere you look). These days I would choose City Lights (1931) as Chaplin’s best, but only because it’s more polished and consistent. I would still choose The Gold Rush as the best introduction to Chaplin — as long as the print quality is good, and it’s not the 1942 reissue version where Chaplin speaks all the titles and provides a running commentary. Unfortunately, the print quality is usually better with the 1942 reissue over the 1925 silent version.

Though fiercely original, Chaplin could still be influenced by other filmmakers. In his book Charlie Chaplin, author Theodore Huff describes how Chaplin may have absorbed ideas from other films:

The close to hysterical suspense of the scene of the cabin half over the cliff may show the influence of Harold Lloyd who started a vogue for comedy-thrill sequences in his “Safety Last” and other skyscraper pictures. It is Chaplin’s first use of such effects but, imitated or not, his inimitable touches make it his own. The happy ending of the film, which in some ways breaks the mood, may have been inspired by the epilogue of Murnau’s “The Last Laugh,” which was then influencing picture-making all over the world.

Chaplin considered The Gold Rush to be “the picture I want to be remembered by.” Huff estimated its production costs to be in the neighborhood of $650,000 (compared with $300,000 for The Kid). It was money well spent. The Gold Rush was one of the highest grossing films of the 1920s, bringing in $2.5 million domestically and another $2.5 million internationally. Chaplin received about $2 million, which was an extraordinary amount of money at the time.

Based on the listed running time (89 minutes), it appears that TCM has scheduled the 1925 version this time around. The Blu-ray and DVD packages from Criterion include both versions, which gives you a chance to experience the film from two different perspectives.

The Gold Rush
(1925; directed by Charles Chaplin; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Monday, October 26 at 9:45 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Kid

You could go around in circles trying to decide who is better: Chaplin or Keaton? Setting aside personal preferences, they’re close enough to call it a tie. Chaplin taps directly into your emotions, while Keaton’s work is more cerebral. Two of Chaplin’s feature-length films tug at the heart strings more than the others. They are The Kid (1921) and City Lights (1931). City Lights is the superior film in almost every way, yet The Kid has a sincerity that makes it almost as powerful emotionally.

The Kid was the first feature produced and directed by Chaplin. By the 1920s, he could invest the time and resources needed to construct the film the way he wanted it. In his book Charlie Chaplin, Theodore Huff describes Chaplin’s creative process:

The scene in which Jackie makes pancakes and Chaplin rises from his bed in the suddenly improvised blanket-lounging robe, is said to have taken two weeks and fifty thousand feet of film to shoot. Even counting in the fact that two cameras were used (one negative was for Europe), this is exceptional footage for a scene scarcely a minute in length. But perfect timing and precision were desired and achieved.

Chaplin’s slow, methodical approach was confirmed by Jackie Coogan, who played the title role. In Brownlow and Kobal’s book Hollywood: The Pioneers, Coogan explained, “Sometimes we wouldn’t turn a camera for ten days while he got an idea.”

Coogan joined his parent’s vaudeville act when he was just two-years old, and Chaplin spotted Coogan when he was five. Chaplin knew right away he wanted to work with the young boy, but what kind of story would best show off his talents? The story Chaplin devised was close to his own childhood poverty. He modeled the Tramp’s dilapidated room after the room he had shared with his mother in the London slums.

Despite the grim surroundings and sentimental plot, there’s more than enough humor to tip the scales toward comedy. Highlights include Chaplin’s stationary running as he pretends to pursue the orphanage van, the Tramp’s dream of a heaven where everyone flies (including the dogs) with angelic wings, and the easy familiarity between Chaplin and Coogan.

The DVD features a new digital transfer using a print from the Chaplin family vault. The bonus disc provides three scenes Chaplin deleted from the film’s 1971 reissue. They further develop the background story of the boy’s mother.

The Kid
(1921; directed by Charles Chaplin; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $29.95

Monday, October 26 at 6:00 a.m. eastern 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, October 15 at 3:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies


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.

(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, October 10 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The General

In one of the finest books ever written about comedic film, The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr refers to Buster Keaton as the most silent of the silent film comedians:

The silence was related to another deeply rooted quality — that immobility, the sense of alert repose we have so often seen in him. Keaton could run like a jackrabbit, and, in almost every feature film, he did. He could stunt like Lloyd, as honestly and even more dangerously. His pictures are motion pictures. Yet, though there is a hurricane eternally raging about him, and though he is often fully caught up in it, Keaton’s constant drift is toward the quiet at the hurricane’s eye.

The two Keaton qualities of motion and immobility are perfectly contrasted in The General (1927). It isn’t Keaton’s funniest feature (that honor would go to Seven Chances) or his most inventive feature (that honor would go to Sherlock, Jr.). It is, however, his best blend of comedy and drama, and an ideal choice for anyone who assumes silent comedy is synonymous with empty-headed slapstick. The General has its share of laughs, gags, and pratfalls, but there’s so much more.

Here Kerr eloquently describes the climatic final scene:

As The General must be the most insistently moving picture ever made, so its climax is surely the most stunning visual event ever arranged for a film comedy, perhaps for a film of any kind. . . With all forces moving and the panorama embracing river, steep slopes, and endless forest, the train’s belly begins to droop through the burned gap in the bridge, the gap splinters wide, the understructure pulls away as the great beast seems to claw at it, and in a serpentine curve that is as beautiful as it is horrifying the train goes down to the water with its smokestack vomiting steam, a dragon breathing fire even in death. . . The awe of the moment is real: we are present in some kind of history, if only the history of four or five minutes on a day when an actual locomotive, a true burning bridge, masses of breathing men, a verifiable landscape, and a cameraman were present. Visitors to Cottage Grove, Oregon, where the shot was made, still drop by the ravine to look at the fallen locomotive; the evidence of an event remains, is still somewhat numbing.

This film has a nuanced playfulness you rarely see in comedies. One example, among many I could cite, is the famous scene when Keaton reaches out to strangle his girlfriend in frustration and then decides to kiss her instead. Is there a single moment in film or literature that better sums up the difficulty of maintaining a romantic relationship?

Another scene involves Keaton’s beloved train (The General) starting up and moving while he is sitting on the elbow-like rod that connects the engine to the wheel. Keaton is lost in thought and doesn’t realize he is moving up and down, as well as forward, until the train picks up considerable speed. We laugh because he doesn’t sense the movement right away. We also laugh (or should laugh) because this gag works strictly in a silent medium. In the real world (or in a sound film), we would wonder why he didn’t hear the engine. The in-joke for Keaton and his 1927 audience is that this is a jab at silent film conventions. If you think I’m stretching the point, you only have watch Sherlock, Jr. (1924) to see Keaton poke fun more openly at film logic and the very vocabulary of filmmaking. That’s the wonder of Keaton’s genius — his movies are satisfying on so many different levels.

The General
(1927; directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Kino Video
List Price: $24.95 (DVD), $34.95 (Blu-ray)

Friday, October 9 at 6:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Citizen Kane

Sometimes the conventional wisdom is true. In this case, Citizen Kane (1941) really is one of the best films ever made. Another bit of conventional wisdom is that Welles wasn’t able to direct another great film after Kane. That bit of shared knowledge is not true.

Kane is the only film where Welles was given complete control — and close to unlimited resources — to make the film he wanted. But how could a 25-year-old novice pull off what many have called the great American film? Here’s how Welles explained it in a 1966 interview conducted by Juan Cobos, Miguel Rubio, and J. A. Pruneda for the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma:

I owe it to my ignorance. If this word seems inadequate to you, replace it with innocence. I said to myself: this is what the camera should be capable of doing, in a normal fashion. When we were on the point of shooting the first sequence, I said, ‘Let’s do that!’ Greg Toland answered that it was impossible. I came back with, ‘We can always try: we’ll soon see. Why not?’ We had to have special lenses made because at that time there weren’t any like those that exist today.

Kane is a virtual catalog of visual and aural film techniques that give it a level of energy few films are capable of sustaining. Yet the real accomplishment is the tight integration of those techniques. Yes, the techniques are there to impress the audience, but more importantly, they’re there to fill out the characters and story.

Welles was young, but no babe on the woods. The studio gave him complete freedom because of his meteoric rise in radio and the theater. His radio drama of War of the Worlds had literally scared some listeners into believing there was a real invasion from Mars. And he had earned the moniker, “Boy Wonder of Broadway,” by staging such experimental productions as a Macbeth set in Haiti with an all African-American cast, a modern-dress Julius Caesar, and a production of the jazz opera, The Cradle Will Rock.

In his article for Action Magazine 4 (1969), titled “Citizen Kane Revisited,” Arthur Knight wrote that Welles spent hundreds of hours studying past films, first at the Museum of Modern Art and later on the RKO studio lot. Welles was particularly drawn to John Ford’s films. He watched Stagecoach over and over again, in order to analyze each shot. Though he downplayed the notion in public, Welles knew how to break the rules because he had taken the time to learn the rules in the first place.

Welles brought almost all of Kane’s actors, as well as music composer Bernard Herrmann, from the theater. Being new to Hollywood, they were eager to show what they could do. Though a veteran of Hollywood, Greg Toland was the perfect choice for director of photography. He was just as willing to experiment.

It’s a wonder it all came together. Here the credit goes to Welles and fellow-screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Citizen Kane has a depth of character and narrative flow that matches its technical fireworks. If you haven’t seen it, don’t hesitate. It’s one of a handful of films that shows what the medium is truly capable of producing.

Citizen Kane
(1941; directed by Orson Welles; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Bros.
List Price: $64.99 (70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray)
Turner Home Entertainment
List Price: $34.95 (Two-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Wednesday, October 7 at 10:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies


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.

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

Tuesday, October 6 at 6:15 a.m. eastern 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)

Saturday, October 3 at 8:00 p.m. on Turner Classic Movies

Doctor Zhivago

Sometimes it takes an extensive digital restoration to re-establish the greatness of a film. That’s certainly the case with Doctor Zhivago (1965). I’ve had a chance to watch the recent Blu-ray release of this popular classic, and it confirms that director David Lean was at the peak of his craft with Zhivago. It’s equal in epic stature to The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). More surprisingly, it matches the rich characters and intimate drama found in Lean’s earlier films, such as Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946), and Hobson’s Choice (1954).

The restoration team at Warner Bros. faced some unusual challenges due to the poor condition of the original negative. Lean had wanted to film Doctor Zhivago in 65mm, but had to settle for 35mm. To maximize the print quality for the 70mm theaters, Lean agreed to strike the theatrical prints directly from the original 35mm A & B rolls—splices and all.

“The original negative, as it now exists, is in far less than stellar condition,” explains archivist Robert Harris in a posting at “Over the past couple of decades there have been abortive rescue attempts at best. But finally Warner Bros. has seen fit to properly digitally restore the film, bringing together the best of the surviving pieces of film.”

This restored version has caused me to reconsider my view of the film, now that it is available again as the director intended. I had written off Doctor Zhivago as a lesser work by Lean—overly emotional without a strong enough structure to sustain its ambitions. What I discovered was an intricate and quite believable drama set against the sweeping vistas of history. (It’s worth noting that the history presented isn’t entirely accurate. Russian poets weren’t politically repressed during the revolution. That didn’t happen until later, when Stalin came to power.)

The film does take some twists and turns that you won’t find in the novel, such as the opening and closing scenes where Yevgraf (Alec Guinness) is searching for Zhivago’s daughter. Lean and scriptwriter Robert Bolt had to reduce the massive work into a three-hour story that could fully stand on its own.

In the book The Making of Feature Films (1971), Bolt explained their approach:

If you are going to reduce a book to a twentieth of its length, you can’t go snipping out pieces here and there, up to nineteen-twentieths. You have to take in and digest the whole work to your own satisfaction and then say, ‘Well, the significant things, the mountain peaks which emerge from this vast panorama are such-and-such incidents, moral points, political points, emotional points, and those are all I can deal with in dramatic form–all I should deal with’…. Once the peaks have emerged, the problem is how to link them. You are under the necessity of inventing incidents which do not occur in the book–threads which will draw together rapidly a number of themes, where Pasternak might have taken 10 chapters.

Lean and Bolt were able to solve a problem that still plagues directors and screenwriters. How do you make a big-canvas movie without losing your focus on the characters and story? If you look at the list of inflation-adjusted all-time U.S. box-office winners, you can see that the top moneymakers were able to do just that. You can also see that Avatar hasn’t yet passed Doctor Zhivago in its inflation-adjusted theatrical receipts.

Doctor Zhivago
(1965; directed by David Lean; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $29.95 (Blu-ray), $21.95 (DVD)

Monday, September 21 at 8:00 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

Tuesday, September 15 at 8:00 p.m. eastern 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

Sunday, September 13 at 6:00 a.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, August 30 at 10:15 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)

Saturday, August 29 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

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