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)

Saturday, September 17 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Big Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 16 at 2:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Sunday, November 27 at 2:00 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)

Thursday, September 15 at 5:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Saturday, October 8 at 12:00 p.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)

Tuesday, September 13 at 2:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Conversation

Film is an intrusive medium. Even though we willingly suspend our disbelief to accept movies as fiction, there’s a strong element of voyeurism that’s inherent in the art form. Movies allow us to spy and eavesdrop on the lives of others. We see private actions we wouldn’t ordinarily see and hear private conversations we wouldn’t ordinarily hear.

The Conversation (1974) is one of a handful of films that openly — and successfully — exploit this key attribute of the medium. As in Psycho (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960), we’re simultaneously repelled and fascinated by the main character. In all three films, the protagonist is psychologically detached from others and — perhaps because of the extreme detachment — obsessive in his observation of other people. The three protagonists also intensely guard their own privacy.

In The Conversation, the protagonist is Harry Caul (played by Gene Hackman). He spies on people for a living using sophisticated listening devices. Well aware of what he can do to other people, he is compulsively paranoid that others will invade his own privacy. His girlfriend (played by Teri Garr) doesn’t even know what he does for a living.

While editing one of his surreptitious audio recordings, Harry discovers what he thinks is evidence that a murder will be committed. This echoes Blowup (1966), where a photographer uses the isolating and magnifying power of visual technology to uncover a possible murder. Here we have the added pleasure of a fine character study. Gene Hackman gives an understated performance that’s easily one of his best.

More relevant today than when it was first released, The Conversation (1974) probes the boundaries between technology and privacy. Francis Ford Coppola directed it in-between The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974), and just before Apocalypse Now (1979). If you’ve familiar with the other three films, you may be surprised by how restrained and personal this film is. In its own way, it’s just as good as Coppola’s other films from the 1970s.

The Conversation
(1974; directed by Francis Ford Coppola, cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Lions Gate
List Price: $13.99 (Blu-ray), $7.99 (DVD)

Friday, September 9 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

My Man Godfrey

While the screwball comedy is a byproduct of the Great Depression, not every screwball comedy reflects the era head-on. My Man Godfrey (1936) is both a spoof of — and a commentary on — the financial inequities at the time. The movie-going public was well aware the Depression was hitting the poor much harder than the wealthy, so poking fun at the idle rich was a staple of the genre. The prevailing attitude? We’re all in this together, so don’t get snooty or high-hat just because you’re well off.

Unlike the previous year’s Ruggles of Red Gap, where a real butler finds himself in the wild west, My Man Godfrey’s butler may not be what he appears to be. Both films poke fun at rich Americans who have plenty of dollars, but no sense. Godfrey is more direct in its satire, and like Sullivan’s Travels (1941), its message for social equality (in the midst of economic inequality) is front and center.

William Powell is perfectly cast as Godfrey the butler, who knows more about money and manners than his employers (echoing Charles Laughton’s role in Ruggles of Red Gap). Carole Lombard plays Irene, a spoiled heiress who is bored with her frivolous life — though she doesn’t know it yet. Here’s an example of the interplay between Powell and Lombard:

Godfrey: Do you mind telling me just what a scavenger hunt is?
Irene: Well, a scavenger hunt is exactly like a treasure hunt, except in a treasure hunt you try to find something you want, and in a scavenger hunt you try to find something that nobody wants.
Godfrey: Hmm, like a forgotten man?
Irene: That’s right, and the one who wins gets a prize, only there really isn’t a prize. It’s just the honor of winning, because all the money goes to charity, that is, if there is any money left over, but there never is.
Godfrey: Well, that clears the whole matter up beautifully.

This was the first film to be nominated for all four acting Oscars: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. Coincidentally, it was the very first year for the two supporting awards. My Man Godfrey was also nominated for the writing and directing Oscars. To this day, it’s the only film to be nominated for all six awards and not be nominated for Best Picture. And to this day, it’s the only film to be nominated for all six awards and not win any of them.

My Man Godfrey
(1936; directed by Gregory La Cava; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $29.95

Tuesday, September 6 at 1:45 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) 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)
List Price: $14.98

Sunday, September 4 at 6:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Out of the Past

It’s interesting to note that my two favorite film noirs of the 1940s — Double Indemnity (1944) and Out of the Past (1947) — also have the two best femme fatales (Barbara Stanwyck and Jane Greer). Which one is the deadliest? If both were in the room, I would say keep your eye out for Greer. She’s much better at convincing those around her that she couldn’t possibly be doing what you think she is doing.

In Out of the Past, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) describes Kathie Moffat (Greer) as “a bit cold around the heart.” Jeff knows he is being conned, and that he is going to have to pay big time for it, but he can’t help himself (just like Walter Neff in Double Indemnity).

This was Mitchum’s first starring role, and he wasn’t the first choice. Both John Garfield and Dick Powell turned down the part. This is arguably Mitchum’s best role and a perfect launching pad for his career. Kirk Douglas plays Whit Sterling, who sends Jeff to look for Kathie, his mistress. Daniel Mainwaring (using the pen name Geoffrey Homes) wrote the screenplay based on his novel, Build My Gallows High.

Director Jacques Tourneur expertly guides the viewer through the various plot twists and double dealings. Tourneur is best known for his previous collaboration with Val Lewton on the atmospheric horror films Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), though Out of the Past is probably his finest film. He came by his talent naturally. His father was Maurice Tourneur, a well-respected Hollywood silent film director.

Here’s a trivia question for you. When the film was remade in 1984 as Against All Odds, what part did Jane Greer play? She was cast as the mother of her original character.

Out of the Past
(1947; directed by Jacques Tourneur; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $21.99 (Blu-ray), $17.99 (DVD)

Sunday, September 4 at 4:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies


Greatest Western of all time? Most influential Western? Archetypal Western? Stagecoach (1939) may be all three, depending on your point of view. John Ford hadn’t made a Western since 3 Bad Men (1926) and was eager to make another. Stagecoach was originally slated to be shot in Technicolor with David O. Selznick as the producer. Selznick wanted Gary Cooper to play the part of the Ringo Kid and Marlene Dietrich to play the part of Dallas. Ford disagreed, broke with Selznick, and teamed instead with producer Walter Wanger. Ford had already planned to cast John Wayne as the Ringo Kid. He cast Claire Trevor as Dallas.

Stagecoach was both a critical and financial success. Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols created a quintessential Western with easily understood moral distinctions that pit right against wrong and an underlying yearning for traditional open-sky freedoms. Yet it was also a subversive Western that turned the tables on many of the genre’s clichés. As Joseph McBride explains in his definitive Ford biography, Searching for John Ford, “Stagecoach literally was a political vehicle for Ford and Nichols, a way of looking at America’s past and present. This meta-Western can be read as a justification of American Manifest Destiny on the eve of World War II, a scathing critique of capitalistic corruption and Republican hypocrisy, and a celebration of the egalitarian values of the New Deal.”

McBride recounts the impish delight the pair displayed when they spoke with a New York journalist, just days before the opening:

“We’re particularly attached to this one,” said Nichols, “because it violates all the censorial canons.”

“There’s not a single respectable character in the cast,” declared Ford. “The leading man has killed three guys.”

“The leading woman is a prostitute,” Nichols added.

“There’s a banker in it who robs his own bank,” Ford noted.

“And don’t forget the pregnant woman who faints,” Nichols went on.

“Or the fellow who gets violently ill,” said Ford, referring to the drunken doctor.

From our perspective, Stagecoach looks and feels like a conventional Western expertly put together. There’s no fluff. Ford was famous for cutting out dialogue and expository scenes that weren’t absolutely necessary to the plot or the development of the characters. Even though his style was strikingly different from Ford’s, Orson Welles referred to Stagecoach as his “movie textbook.” Welles said he watched the film “over forty times” in order to learn how to make movies. While preparing to direct Citizen Kane (1941), he studied Stagecoach each night for more than a month, often accompanied by one or more of the technicians at RKO.

If you’re a fan of Hollywood movies from the 1930s and 1940s, don’t pass this one by. Even if you don’t care for Westerns, you’ll find this one rich in history with multi-dimensional characters real enough to walk out from the screen. That Ford was able to release both Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln in 1939 was an incredible accomplishment, followed by The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home in 1940, and How Green Was My Valley in 1941. With these and many other outstanding movies to his credit, Ford would become the greatest director in the history of film.

(1939; directed by John Ford; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $29.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Saturday, September 3 at 12:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Palm Beach Story

Only Preston Sturges could begin a movie with a frantic-paced ending to another movie that doesn’t even exist, and then weave the story so it circles back to explain the improbable beginning. The Palm Beach Story (1942) is Sturges’ funniest film. That’s high praise when you consider that so many of his other directorial efforts — Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) — are among the best comedies ever made.

Why is The Palm Beach Story the best of the lot? It has everything that makes a Sturges comedy an undeniable delight. It was the frantic pacing that almost takes your breath away, the deadpan comic delivery that makes you wonder if the actors are fully aware of what they’re saying, and a script that mixes sophisticated and low-brow humor in what became a Sturges trademark.

Here are some excerpts from the film’s dialogue. Claudette Colbert plays Geraldine “Gerry” Jeffers, Joel McCrea plays Tom Jeffers (a.k.a. “Capt. McGlew”), Rudy Vallee plays John D. Hackensacker III (a.k.a. “Snoodles”), and Robert Dudley plays the Wienie King.

Tom: So this fellow gave you the look?
Gerry: At his age it was more of a blink.
Tom: Seven hundred dollars! And sex didn’t even enter into it, I suppose?
Gerry: Sex always has something to do with it, dear.

Hackensacker: If there’s one thing I admire, it’s a woman who can whip up something out of nothing.
Gerry: You should taste my popovers.
Hackensacker: I’d love to. The homely virtues are so hard to find these days . . . a woman who can sew and cook and bake, even if she doesn’t have to . . . and knit and . . .
Gerry: And weave.
Hackensacker: You’re joking. But I mean seriously that is a woman.
Gerry: Were you going to buy me some breakfast or would you like me to bake you something right here at the table?
Hackensacker: I like a witty woman too. (pause) Now what will you have? The 35 cent breakfast seems the best at first glance but if you analyze it for solid value the 55 cent is the one.
Gerry: I wouldn’t want to impose.
Hackensacker: No, feel free to choose anything you like. There’s even a 75 cent breakfast if it appeals to you.
Gerry: We might share one.

Wienie King: I’m the Wienie King! Invented the Texas Wienie! Lay off ‘em, you’ll live longer.

During the 1940s, Sturges had no equal when it came to directing (and writing) Hollywood comedies. Lubitsch, Capra, Hawks, and Cukor have their standout comedy classics, but their output can’t stack up against Sturges’ spectacular run from 1940 through 1944. You could argue Sturges was able to single-handedly extend the screwball genre well into the war years. If you’ve never see a Sturges film, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do. And this is a great place to start.

The Palm Beach Story
(1942; directed by Preston Sturges; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $25.99 (Multi-Format)

Thursday, September 1 at 11:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Thursday, September 15 at 4:30 a.m. eastern (late Wed. night) on Turner Classic Movies
Friday, November 11 at 4:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Sullivan's Travels

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

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

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

Here are some excerpts from the script:

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 1 at 9:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Friday, November 11 at 3:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies


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.

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

Wednesday, August 30 at 1:30 a.m. eastern (late Tue. night) on Turner Classic Movies

They Were Expendable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 22 at 10:00 p.m. eastern 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)

Sunday, August 21 at 2:00 a.m. eastern (late Sat. night) on Turner Classic Movies

« Previous PageNext Page »