Paths of Glory

Though the two films are worlds part, Paths of Glory (1957) has a lot in common with Dr. Strangelove (1964). Both were directed by Stanley Kubrick, both are hard-hitting anti-war films, and both attack the folly of those who send others off to die. Yet Paths of Glory is the stronger anti-war film. Where Strangelove is played for laughs, this one is deadly serious.

Based on Humphrey Cobb’s controversial 1935 novel, it was turned down by every major studio in Hollywood. Kubrick was just 28 years old when he offered the leading role to Kirk Douglas, who was already an established star. In his autobiography The Ragman’s Son, Douglas wrote that he said to Kubrick, “Stanley, I don’t think this picture will ever make a nickel, but we have to make it.” Douglas had recently signed with United Artists to star in The Vikings (1958). He used his influence to convince the studio to finance the film, which was produced by Douglas’ own company, Bryna Productions.

Douglas was correct. Paths of Glory didn’t turn a profit during its initial release. Fearing it might not be received well in Europe, Kubrick asked composer Gerald Fried to create two title themes for the film. The first was based on the French national anthem, the “Marseillaise.” Because the film is sharply critical of the French military authorities, a second theme that didn’t use the national anthem was used for France and several other European countries. Despite the attempt to soften the blow, Paths of Glory was banned in France until 1975.

Don’t be put off by the fact that Kubrick was 28 years old when he directed the film. This is one of his best, and it’s no less intelligent or less polished than his later, more celebrated films. Kubrick was an obsessive perfectionist — even then. For example, he shot 68 takes of the scene where the soldiers are offered a last meal. They were supposed to be eating during the scene, so a new roast duck had to be prepared for almost every one of the takes.

Paths of Glory
(1957; directed by Stanley Kubrick; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
MGM Home Entertainment
List Price: $14.95 (DVD)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Monday, July 4 at 4:30 a.m. eastern (late Sun. night) on Turner Classic Movies

2001: A Space Odyssey

If the measure of a classic film is its ability to withstand the erosions of time, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) would have to be regarded as the best science fiction film of all time. Though we have moved beyond it chronologically, its predictive value still seems valid.

The decades-old special effects also hold up well. By comparison, George Lukas felt the need to repeatedly update the special effects and storyline in Star Wars (1977), despite the fact it was released nine years later. Science fiction films are especially prone to becoming dated. Both Woman on the Moon (1929) and Things to Come (1936) boldly depict a future that now seems forever bound to a distant past.

One of the reasons 2001 endures is Kubrick’s obsession with getting it right. When there’s an explosion in space, you don’t hear the sound of the explosion. That’s less dramatic, but completely accurate — there’s no air in space to carry the sound. Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke even poke fun at their quest for authenticity. One scene shows the lengthy instructions needed to successfully operate a zero-gravity toilet.

Kubrick did find a technical flaw just before the film was released. It would have been too costly to correct, so the mistake remains. During the flight to the moon, Dr. Floyd drinks food through a straw, in what we understand to be a weightless environment. If you look closely, you can see the food drop when he stops sucking on the straw. Since there’s no gravity, the food shouldn’t be falling back.

Another reason this movie seems contemporary is the remarkably detailed spacecraft and docking facilities. This is the first modern science fiction film in terms of the care and expense devoted to making space travel appear as lifelike as possible. It also didn’t hurt that the movie was shot in 65mm (Super Panavision 70), which provides nearly four times the resolution of a standard 35mm film.

A third contributing factor is the open-ended plot. The conclusion of the film is open to so many different interpretations, you’ll find a variety of websites claiming to “explain 2001.” Even if you accept the most plausible plotline (aliens monitor our technological advances and then help mankind to take the next evolutionary step), there is still a strong element of mystery.

The film combines an obsessive attention to detail with a poetic sense of greater possibilities. That the two can coexist is a testament to Kubrick and Clarke’s creative talents and their willingness to take a great leap of faith in the power of this extraordinary medium.

2001: A Space Odyssey
(1968; directed by Stanley Kubrick; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95 (DVD), $29.99 (Blu-ray)

Sunday, July 3 at 11:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Hamlet

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

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

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

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

Hamlet
(1948; directed by Laurence Olivier; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price $29.95

Wednesday, June 29 at 10:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Wednesday, August 30 at 1:30 a.m. eastern (late Tue. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Ninotchka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 25 at 5:00 a.m. eastern (late Fri. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Captain Blood

Captain Blood (1935) is the first of three exceptional swashbuckling films from an unlikely trio: director Michael Curtiz, composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and actor Errol Flynn. While the other two films — The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940) — are better known, Captain Blood is in many ways the superior film because the trio hadn’t yet settled comfortably into the format.

Known to be hard working, but temperamental, Curtiz was an odd choice to direct a pirate movie. The genre hadn’t been popular since the Douglas Fairbanks films of the 1920s, though it experienced a sudden resurgence in 1935 with the release of both Captain Blood and Mutiny on the Bounty. This was Korngold’s first original film score, and it forever associated his name with classic action-adventure films. The three films just wouldn’t be the same without Korngold’s rousing scores. And 26-year-old Flynn wasn’t supposed to play the title role that propelled him to fame almost overnight. Robert Donat had been the first choice based on his success the previous year in The Count of Monte Cristo. He turned down the part because of poor health.

The studio wasn’t able to spend a lot of money on this project. If you look closely, you’ll notice the ships in the battle scenes aren’t full size. Instead, Curtiz and cinematographer Hal Mohr used miniatures, process photography, and clips from the 1924 silent version of The Sea Hawk.

Though clearly a product of Hollywood, this film has an international pedigree. Curtiz had fled his native Hungary in 1918 when the communist regime nationalized the film industry. Korngold, the son of a well-known music critic, had emigrated from Vienna earlier in 1935. Flynn grew up on the Australian island state of Tasmania. And co-star Olivia de Havilland was born in Tokyo, though her parents were British.

Captain Blood
(1935; directed by Michael Curtiz; cable & DVD)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Monday, June 20 at 5:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Saturday, July 2 at 5:15 a.m. eastern (late Fri. 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)
MGM
List Price: $14.98

Saturday, June 18 at 2:30 a.m. eastern (late Fri.night) on Turner Classic Movies

The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) is not only the definitive Oscar Wilde adaptation, it’s the definitive comedy of manners. Often acknowledged to have the best cast ever assembled for the play — either on celluloid or on stage — this is one of the best film comedies of the 1950s. Michael Redgrave (as Jack Worthing), Joan Greenwood (as Gwendolen Fairfax), Michael Denison (as Algernon Moncrieff), and Dorothy Tutin (as Cecily Cardew) are perfectly matched as the couples who have to overcome real and imagined obstacles to attain true love. Yet it’s the performances by Edith Evans as Lady Augusta Bracknell and Margaret Rutherford as Miss Letitia Prism that steal the show. Pity the poor actress who has to play Lady Bracknell to an audience that remembers Evans’ outraged voice from this unforgettable movie.

Of course, here the play’s the thing. Wilde’s comedic farce is revisited time and time again because inspired writing never grows old. Here is some of the dialogue from the movie:

Jack: I have lost both my parents.
Lady Bracknell: To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

Gwendolen: Even before I met you I was far from indifferent to you. [Jack looks at her in amazement.] We live, as I hope you know, Mr. Worthing, in an age of ideals. The fact is constantly mentioned in the more expensive monthly magazines, and has reached the provincial pulpits, I am told; and my ideal has always been to love someone of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.

Algernon: I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It’s very romantic to be in love but there’s nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one might be accepted. One usually is I believe. Then the whole excitement is over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty.

Lady Bracknell: To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. And I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to? As for the particular locality in which the hand-bag was found, a cloak-room at a railway station might serve to conceal a social indiscretion — has probably, indeed, been used for that purpose before now — but it could hardly be regarded as an assured basis for a recognized position in good society.

The film’s director, Anthony Asquith, was fully in his element when poking fun at British upper-class manners. His father was Herbert Asquith, first Earl of Oxford and Prime Minister of England from 1908 to 1915. Ironically, it was Herbert Asquith, who as British Home Secretary had ordered Wilde’s arrest in 1895 for immoral behavior. Perhaps Anthony Asquith saw his direction of this sumptuous Technicolor production as a form of restitution. Whatever the motivation, Asquith was an excellent choice. His other films include A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929), Pygmalion (1938), The Way to the Stars (1945), The Winslow Boy (1948), and The Browning Version (1951).

The Importance of Being Earnest
(1952; directed by Anthony Asquith; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $21.95

Wednesday, June 14 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)

Monday, June 6 at 6:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Gertrud

Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964) is one of the most demanding classic films you’ll ever see. At the Cannes Film Festival, many in attendance walked out, apparently finding it too painful to watch. At the New York Film Festival, Dreyer was booed when he stood up in the director’s box. You might wonder what profanity, chaotic editing, or wild camera movements might elicit such an extreme response. In fact, the offense was in the opposite direction. Following the general U.S. release of Gertrud in 1966, a New York Times review slammed the film for its overly restrained style:

Its slowness will not surprise those familiar with Dreyer. His tempos have always been deliberate. But here his camera movement and his editing defy the minimal drama in the script. In dialogue the camera often travels back and forth from face to face, instead of cutting from one to the other. “Direction” frequently consists of having characters rise from one sofa, move slowly to another, then sink. Nothing that can be done at length is ever suggested.

Today, there’s a growing recognition that Gertrud may be Dreyer’s masterpiece. This is a work that doesn’t compromise in any way. It’s unusually measured and highly stylized. As if in a trance, the characters speak, but rarely look at each other. Don’t be put off by this mannered approach — stick with it. The severe style allows you to focus in on the characters, to study who they are and what they’re really saying. Look for small revelations in the subtle movements of the characters, as they interact with each other and their sparse surroundings. Like Ozu and Bresson, Dreyer pares everything down to the bare essentials. In this, Dreyer’s final film, what’s left is the barest of the bare.

Filmmaking this extreme is at odds with the cinematic excesses best exemplified by Federico Fellini. Yet this is what Fellini had to say about Dreyer and his pared-down approach:

I know only a few of his films, but I remember being enthralled and bewitched by the extraordinary imaginative force of this great master who contributed so decisively to making film an authentic act of art and expression. The films of Dreyer, so rigorous, so chaste, so austere seem to me to come from a distant, mythical land, and their creator a kind of artist-saint, but it is also true that I find in these films a familiar dwelling place where an artistic vocation has been completely lived, experienced, and expressed.

Gertrud is the story of a woman who refuses to compromise in her search for genuine, unselfish love. The theme reflects Dreyer’s own struggle to attain an uncompromised vision of his artistic intent. Not wanting to give away the ending, let me just say that Gertrud’s free-will journey and contentment with her decisions may parallel Dreyer’s coming to terms with his artistic choices and unique body of work.

Gertrud
(1964; directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $58.99 (as part of the Carl Theodor Dreyer Special Edition Box Set)

Monday, June 6 at 4:15 a.m. eastern (late Sun. night) on Turner Classic Movies

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

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