Long Day's Journey into Night

What if you took the greatest American play and turned it into a film using an ideal group of actors? That’s exactly what happened with Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962).

Deeply autobiographical and searing in its emotional power, the play wasn’t supposed to be made public until 1988. Completed in 1942, Eugene O’Neill asked his publisher Random House to seal the play in its vault until 25 years after his death. Following O’Neill’s death in 1953, his wife transferred the rights to Yale University, which nullified the agreement with Random House.

As a result, it was performed on Broadway and published in 1956, three year’s after the playwright’s death. The Broadway production featured Fredric March (as James Tyrone), Florence Eldridge (as Mary Tyrone), Jason Robards, Jr. (as “Jamie” Tyrone), and Bradford Dillman (as Edmund Tyrone). It received the Tony award for Best Play, and March received the Tony for Best Actor.

Only Jason Robards, Jr. repeated his role for the film version. Sidney Lumet, the film’s director, cast British actor Ralph Richardson as Jamie Tyrone. One of the greatest Shakespearean actors of his generation (along with Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud), Richardson was already familiar to American audiences through such as films as The Heiress (1949), Richard III (1955), Our Man in Havana (1959), and Exodus (1960).

Katharine Hepburn was cast as Mary Tyrone. Her previous movie, Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), was also based on a dramatic play, though her entire career was preparation for what was probably the most demanding role of her lifetime. Former child actor Dean Stockwell was chosen to portray young Edmund. Only 26 at the time, Stockwell holds his own among the three more experienced actors.

As a tribute to their extraordinary performances, all four won acting awards at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival. Hepburn was honored as Best Actress, and the three male leads shared the award for Best Actor.

As good as the play and performances are, this film isn’t for everyone. It reaches into the depths of the human psyche and explores — perhaps better than any other work of art — the complex love-hate relationships among family members that build up over the years. This isn’t your typical family, fortunately, and it’s even more frightening to think these events largely mirror O’Neill’s own experiences (the Edmund character is based on O’Neill).

If you haven’t seen the film, do give it try. There isn’t anything else like it. The 1950s and 1960s opened up the floodgates for movies based on dramatic Broadway plays. None have the strength and intensity of this film. If any play deserves to be called the American Hamlet or the great American play, this would have to be it.

Long Day’s Journey into Night
(1962; directed by Sidney Lumet; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Olive Films
List Price: $18.99 (Blu-ray), $17.99 (DVD)

Wednesday, June 1 at 8:00 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)

Monday, May 30 at 9:00 a.m. eastern 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)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Saturday, May 28 at 1:00 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

Thursday, May 19 at 6:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Footlight Parade

How do you top the untoppable? That was the problem facing Busby Berkeley and the Warner Bros. Studio back in 1933. Following the success that same year of 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, how could they make the script funnier, the pacing faster, and — most importantly — the spectacular musical numbers even more spectacular? The answer was Footlight Parade (1933), which is funnier, faster, and more spectacular than its two predecessors.

Footlight Parade may surprise you if you haven’t seen many classic films. You may be aware of Busby Berkeley’s campy musical numbers, but you may not realize how strong the comedic elements are in the earlier (and superior) Berkeley films. Just as Top Hat (1935) is just as good a romantic comedy as it is showcase for great dancing, the first two-thirds of Footlight Parade holds its own against most comedies. The last third of the movie consists almost entirely of the three musical numbers — each one bigger (and more improbable) than the last.

If you haven’t watched Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), you may also be surprised to see James Cagney dance in this film. In fact, he started out as a dancer and was cast as a gangster in The Public Enemy (1931) only after switching roles.

And if you haven’t seen many pre-code Hollywood films from the early 1930s, you may be amazed by how modern they feel, especially in their verbal and sexual frankness. It isn’t anything you couldn’t hear on network television today, but it may be a shock to hear this coming from your grandmother’s or great-grandmother’s generation. One of the musical numbers revolves around a honeymoon hotel where all the guests go by the name of Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

Here are a few highlights from the movie’s dialogue, which have a refreshing depression-era we’re all in this together attitude:

Chester Kent: Hello, Vivian. This is Miss Rich. My secretary, Miss Prescott.
Nan Prescott: I know Miss Bi… Rich, if you remember.

Nan Prescott: [to Vivian] As long as there are sidewalks, you’ve got a job.

Charlie Bowers: Is there anything I can do?
Chester Kent: Yeah. See that window over there?
Charlie Bowers: Yeah.
Chester Kent: Take a running jump and I think you can make it.

In my college days, we used to run Footlight Parade regularly during final exams. Just as depression-era audiences craved an escape from their daily trials and tribulations, the exam-weary students responded positively to the film’s snappy comebacks, flawless comic timing, and — yes — glorious excesses contained in the musical numbers. Granted, it’s all a bit silly, but who doesn’t need a bit of silly every now and then?

Footlight Parade
(1933; directed by Lloyd Bacon, musical numbers by Busby Berkeley; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price : $19.95

Sunday, May 15 at 10:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Awful Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 14 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Only Angels Have Wings

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) is one of Howard Hawks’ best and most personal films. Hawks was a master of taking on the conventions of a genre and adding deeper meaning to its clichéd elements. At the same time, he was able to reinvigorate the entertainment aspects of the genre, so the end result is a far richer film than you would expect. Only Angels Have Wings is a teeth-clinching adventure film about a band of outcast pilots who bravely agree to fly a South American mail run — in weather conditions that would turn back any other pilot.

As in later Hawks films, you’ll find the themes of loyalty, personal responsibility, and group cohesion. Underneath those themes is a web of complex personal relationships. And within those relationships, you’ll encounter the problem of how we deal with — or choose not to deal with — the issue of our own mortality.

In an interview published in the February 1956 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, Hawks describes a scene where two of the pilots deal openly with the inevitability of death:

Adventure stories reveal how people behave in the face of death — what they do, say, feel, and even think. I have always liked the scene in Only Angels Have Wings in which a man says, ‘I feel funny,’ and his best friend says ‘your neck is broken,’ and the injured man then says ‘I have always wondered how I would die if I knew I was going to die. I would rather you didn’t watch me.’ And the friend goes out and stands in the rain. I have personally encountered this experience, and the public found it very convincing.

It isn’t all doom and gloom. Only Angels Have Wings has a central life-affirming message and plenty of lighthearted moments. The pilots enjoy themselves all the more because they understand life can be fleeting. The audience’s misgivings are embodied in the Bonnie Lee character played by Jean Arthur. While she is initially repulsed by the men who appear to be insensitive to the loss of their friends, she comes to realize (as we do) that this may be the only way they can do their jobs and remain sane.

No other adventure film, that I’m aware of, does a better of job of presenting both the good effects (intense personal friendships) and bad effects (emotional scaring) that flow from a constant exposure to danger. Even more impressive is the film’s exploration of the intricate interplay between the good and bad effects. Insight into the human psyche on top of an exhilarating adventure story — what more could you ask from a Hollywood film?

Only Angels Have Wings
(1939; directed by Howard Hawks; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $27.99 (Blu-ray), $22.99 (DVD)

Saturday, May 7 at 7:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Foreign Correspondent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 5 at 2:00 a.m. eastern (late Wed. night) 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 3 at 9:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Duck Soup

Marx Brothers fans usually fall into two camps: those who think Duck Soup (1933) is their best film, and those who think A Night at the Opera (1935) is their best film. The strongest argument in favor of A Night at the Opera is the stateroom scene. It’s the funniest sequence the Marx Brothers ever created. I’m in the Duck Soup camp. I think the slow portions of A Night at the Opera tend to drag it down a bit. And while no single sequence in Duck Soup quite matches the stateroom scene, it’s more consistently entertaining.

Much of the credit has to go to Duck Soup’s writers. Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby worked together on the story, and Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin provided additional dialogue. It also didn’t hurt to have Groucho (Rufus T. Firefly), Chico (Chicolini), and Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Teasdale) to deliver the lines. Here are some examples:

Rufus T. Firefly: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Mrs. Teasdale: Why, he’s dead.
Rufus T. Firefly: I bet he’s just using that as an excuse.
Mrs. Teasdale: I was with him to the very end.
Rufus T. Firefly: No wonder he passed away.
Mrs. Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Rufus T. Firefly: Oh, I see, then it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.

Mrs. Teasdale: Notables from every country are gathered here in your honor. This is a gala day for you.
Rufus T. Firefly: Well, a gal a day is enough for me. I don’t think I could handle any more.

Rufus T. Firefly: Now, what is it that has four pairs of pants, lives in Philadelphia, and it never rains but it pours?
Chicolini: Atsa good one. I give you three guesses.
Rufus T. Firefly: Now let me see. Has four pair of pants, lives in Philadelphia… Is it male or female?
Chicolini: No, I no think so.
Rufus T. Firefly: Is he dead?
Chicolini: Who?
Rufus T. Firefly: I don’t know. I give up.
Chicolini: I give up, too.

Prosecutor: Chicolini, when were you born?
Chicolini: I don’t-a remember. I was just a little baby.

Prosecutor: Something must be done! War would mean a prohibitive increase in our taxes.
Chicolini: Hey, I got an uncle lives in Taxes.
Prosecutor: No, I’m talking about taxes — money, dollars!
Chicolini: Dollars! There’s-a where my uncle lives! Dollars, Taxes!

Duck Soup benefits by having a first-class director at the helm. Leo McCarey had directed many of the best Laurel and Hardy silent comedies. His previous sound comedies, especially Let’s Go Native (1930) and The Kid from Spain (1932), show an inventive and improvisational style that would blend well with the Marx Brothers. Unfortunately, Duck Soup was a flop at the box office. As a result, it was their last film at Paramount. MGM gave them another chance, though their freewheeling approach would prove to be at odds with the MGM factory system. Their comedies following A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races are pale imitations of their earlier classic films.

Duck Soup
(1933; directed by Leo McCarey; cable & dvd)
Universal Studios
List price: $19.98

Tuesday, April 26 at 9:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Wagon Master

When you see a list of the great westerns directed by John Ford, Wagon Master (1950) is rarely included among them. At first glance, it’s easy to see why. There are no big stars, such John Wayne or Henry Fonda, to prop up the movie. It’s less action oriented than other Ford westerns, such as My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). And on the surface, it appears to be less ambitious than your typical Ford film. Yet when Peter Bogdanovich interviewed Ford in 1964 (the interviews are included in Bogdanovich’s book John Ford), the director explained that, “Along with The Fugitive and The Sun Shines Bright, I think Wagon Master came closest to being what I wanted to achieve.”

Ford wrote the original story for the film, which has an ease and flow that are unusual, even for Ford. Produced at the height of his creative talents, the casual style masks a message that was almost daring for its time. Fellow director Lindsay Anderson described Wagon Master as an “avant-garde Western” and one of Ford’s “most lyrical films.” And in Searching for John Ford, the definitive biography of the director, author Joseph McBride wrote:

Ford finds in Wagon Master the purity of a vanished era when faith in the American future was the stuff of everyday life, a time when, at least in his fervently romantic imagination, it was still possible for Americans to transcend the divisive forces of social prejudice. Wagon Master did not come with the usual trappings of a protest film, but that’s what it was, Ford’s indirect protest of the darkness, suspicion, and hatred that had enveloped America by the middle of the twentieth century. Rather than situating his morality play in the unfamiliar terrain of a present-day community of outcasts, as he clumsily attempted to do in Pinky, Ford wisely sets it in the time and place that feels most comfortable to him, what Charles FitzSimons called ‘Fordland.’

The movie tells the story of a group of Mormons who are seeking a new life in the West. While Ford portrays them sympathetically, he also shows how they’re forced to compromise their principles in order to defend themselves against violence. Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr. play two honest and hard-working cowboys who help lead the Mormons across a dangerous section of the country. Ward Bond, playing against type, takes on the role of Elder Wiggs, a Mormon elder who grows more tolerant as the journey progresses. Bond’s role in the 1950s television show Wagon Train was based on his portrayal in this movie.

A great film is the sum of its parts, and Wagon Master is strengthened by the steady accumulation of its character-defining gestures and situations. The genuine affection shown as Elder Wiggs apologizes to his horse, the viciousness revealed as Uncle Shiloh Clegg whips his sons into submission, and the unrestrained excitement displayed as the Mormon “sisters” blow their rams’ horns — it is moments like these that make John Ford a master storyteller.

Wagon Master
(1950; directed by John Ford; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.98

Monday, April 25 at 11:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

As the follow-up to his most successful silent film (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler), Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) revives one of cinema’s most intriguing criminal masterminds. When we last saw Dr. Mabuse, he was driven insane by the collapse of his criminal empire. Eleven years later, he has progressed from a coma to only being able to write — first with unintelligible scribblings, then with arcane symbols and unrecognizable words, and finally with detailed instructions for carrying out devious crimes and acts of terror.

Meanwhile, we are reintroduced to Inspector Lohmann, the detective from M, Lang’s previous sound film. Lohmann has encountered the doctor’s name in connection with several puzzling investigations. Were these crimes perpetrated by the same group? And how could they involve a criminal mastermind who is physically incapacitated?

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a thrilling detective story, but also a not-so-subtle reproach of Hitler and the Nazis, who had just risen to power. It even foreshadows our own time with a diabolical character who commits terrorist acts — not for financial gain, but to create chaos and fear among the public.

In an interview with Mark Shivas, published in the September 1962 issue of Movie, Lang explains the origin of the project, and how the film was banned in Germany before it could be released:

In ’32, I guess, someone came to me and said, ‘Look, Mr. Lang, we have made so much money with Mabuse. . . ’ I said, ‘Yes, much more than I did. . . .’ He said, ‘Can’t you give us another Mabuse?’ So I started thinking about it and I said, ‘All right, what shall I do? This guy is insane and in an asylum — I cannot make him healthy again. It is impossible.’

So I invented, with the help of Mrs. Von Harbou, the next Mabuse — The Testament of Dr. Mabuse — and then said, ‘Now I am finished. Now I am killing him.’ I had been able to put into the mouth of an insane criminal all the Nazi slogans. When the picture was finished, some henchmen of Dr. Goebbels came to the office and threatened to forbid it. I was very short with them and said, ‘If you think you can forbid a picture of Fritz Lang in Germany, go ahead.’ They did so.

As Lang tells it, a few days after the ban was announced, he was summoned to meet with Goebbels, who told Lang that Hitler was a fan of Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1927). Hitler wanted Lang to head up a group that would produce National-Socialistic films for the Nazi party. Lang feigned excitement over the offer, but fled to Paris that night. We have only Lang’s word for the meeting, which is at odds with The Testament of Dr. Mabuse having just been banned for its strong political content.

Whatever the truth, Lang left Germany and went on to have a productive career in Hollywood, directing such classics as Fury (1936), Man Hunt (1941), Ministry of Fear (1945), The Big Heat (1953), While the City Sleeps (1956), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). He returned to Germany to direct yet another Mabuse film, titled The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1961).

The digitally restored print on the Criterion DVD is ample proof that this is one of Lang’s best films. Originally 124 minutes, the restored version runs 121 minutes and is based on a German Film Institute print, with missing scenes supplied by prints from the Federal Film Archive (Germany) and the Munich Film Museum. In addition to the top-quality restored print, Criterion provides a second disc with the 94-minute French-language version of the film, which Lang directed simultaneously with the German-language version (Lang was fluent in French). Until 1951, it was the only version available for film historians. The second disc also features a 1964 interview with Lang, background on Mabuse’s creator (the character first appeared in print), and a comparison of the German, French, and American-dubbed versions.

If you’re a fan of Hollywood film noir, you’ll feel right at home with this film’s dark and menacing world. And if you’re a fan of detective and crime movies, you’ll enjoy Lohmann’s dogged determination and the intricate layering of the plot.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
(1933; directed by Fritz Lang; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (DVD)

Thursday, April 21 at 12:45 a.m. eastern (late Wed. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Safety Last

It’s one of the most enduring images from silent comedy — Harold Lloyd grasps the hand of a massive clock as he hangs perilously over a busy street. The image became an emblem for the daredevil stunts that were popular during the era, in part because Lloyd appears so ordinary and out-of-place. The source for the image is Lloyd’s feature-film Safety Last (1923), which combines genuine thrills with intricately constructed humor.

In his tribute to the great silent comedian, titled “Harold Lloyd: A Rediscovery,” Andrew Sarris wrote that Safety Last:

. . . established for all time the spatial metaphor for an American rise to the top in the midst of a fear of falling. As Lloyd became known as the comedian who would do anything for a laugh, the character he played became known as the jazz-age climber who would do anything to succeed . . .

There is a wildly lyrical moment when Lloyd is swinging crazily from a rope, a moment that Keaton might have extended in time for its feelings of freedom and exhilaration. Lloyd treats this moment as an interruption in the ultimate climb, and quickly returns to the business at hand. On the other hand, Lloyd gives us glimpses of an impervious city, and this makes the spectacle more frighteningly real and majestically social. The spectacular climax of Safety Last undoubtedly influenced Chaplin’s cabin-teetering-on-the-cliff sequence in The Gold Rush (1925).

While Safety Last is one of Lloyd’s best features, it doesn’t blend the comedy and characters as successfully as his later silents, especially The Freshman (1925) and The Kid Brother (1927). The film is split into two parts: everything that leads up to the climb, and the climb itself.

The pre-climb portion provides some memorable gags and extended set pieces. One of the cleverest gags comes at the very beginning when we’re surprised to see Lloyd about to be executed by hanging (a hint at his coming ordeal with the climb). The visual elements are then deconstructed, almost Keaton-like, to show that each cliché — prison bars, rope, priest, and inconsolable mother — was misinterpreted.

Later, we see Lloyd as a sales clerk where he battles (sometimes quite literally) swarms of bargain-obsessed women. It’s one of the most laugh-worthy sequences from the 1920s. This too presages the upcoming climb, suggesting the obstacles he’ll encounter and the ingenuity he’ll need to complete his goal.

Safety Last
(1923; directed by Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Wednesday, April 20 at 7:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Mr. Arkadin

Mr. Arkadin (1955) has always been a difficult film for Welles fans. Visually and thematically, it plays out like a baroque variation on Citizen Kane (1941). Once again, Welles portrays a wealthy megalomaniac who attempts to control how others view him, even to the point of buying their adoration. But unlike Citizen Kane, Mr. Arkadin’s technical flaws prevent the story from completely jelling. It also hasn’t helped that the film could only be seen in blurry, incomplete prints with sometimes obvious voice-overs (Welles personally dubbed-in the voices for 18 of the minor characters). Most critics wrote off Mr. Arkadin as a failed attempt to rekindle Welles’ creative flames.

Even sympathetic Welles scholars felt the need to mix their praise for the film with a strong disappointment in its shortcomings. Here’s what Joseph McBride had to say in his book Orson Welles:

If The Stranger is self-parody, albeit unconscious, Mr. Arkadin is something more dangerous and more interesting: a work, like Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman or Ford’s Donovan’s Reef, in which the artist pushes his style past its limits, treating his most personal themes self-consciously, with a measure of irony, and in a manner not pretending to physical or psychological realism. The result, if successful, is a refinement of the artist’s themes to a high pitch of intensity, an intoxicating liberation. The given story is kept purposefully simple so as not to hinder the free expression of character and motif. The pitfalls of such excess are obvious, though for Sternberg and Ford the problem is less acute because on a basic level the concerns of the director and the general audience coincide . . . Welles pretends to no such level of common response, and in this we may see the essential failure of Mr. Arkadin.

We may be due for a major reassessment of this often overlooked film. Criterion has released a new three-disc DVD set it has optimistically titled The Complete Mr. Arkadin. The package contains no less than three versions of the film: the 99-minute Corinth version, which is the earliest English-language version; the 98-minute Confidential Report version, which is the European release that was completed by producer Louis Dolivet after he and Welles had split; and a new 105-minute comprehensive version that may be as close as we’ll ever come to what Welles had hoped the film might become.

The DVD set also includes a book version that in the true Wellesian tradition may — or may not — be a work by Orson Welles, since it appears to be “an unaccredited English translation of a French text adapted and translated from Welles’ writing by a friend and ghostwriter.” Intrigued? Welcome to the many mysteries that surround this unusual project.

Mr. Arkadin
(1955; directed by Orson Welles; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $49.95

Wednesday, April 20 at 12:15 a.m. eastern (late Tue. night) on Turner Classic Movies

« Previous PageNext Page »