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)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95

Sunday, April 13 at 6:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Kid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 2 at 1:45 a.m. eastern (late Mon. 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)

Tuesday, April 1 at 6:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

His Girl Friday

Want to see the true genius of Howard Hawks? You only have to look as far as His Girl Friday (1940). As good as Ben Hecht’s play The Front Page was, it took Hawks (with Hecht’s assistance) to take it to the next level. Hawks talked about the origin of the film in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich:

I was going to prove to somebody one night that The Front Page had the finest modern dialogue that had been written, and I asked a girl to read Hildy’s part and I read the editor and I stopped and I said, ‘Hell, it’s better between a girl and a man than between two men,’ and I called Ben Hecht and I said, ‘What would you think of changing it so that Hildy is a girl?’ And he said, I think it’s a great idea,’ and he came out and we did it.

Much has been written about the Hawksian woman, who can hold her own against a group of rowdy and insular males, but is no less feminine for being able to do so. For Hawks to convert a best-friend role to a best-gal role was almost second nature. Hawks did more than just change the gender of one of the characters. He kept most of the drama involving Earl Williams, the convicted murdered, but he also built up what would become the main concerns of the film — will Hildy walk out on Walter Burns, quit the Morning Post, and marry her fiancée? If the film has a flaw, it’s the wide swings between its dramatic and comedic threads. Fortunately, Hawks and Hecht interweave the two at such a frantic pace, we barely have time to consider the incongruities.

In a 1956 interview with Jacques Becker, Jacques Rivette, and Françoise Truffaut, Hawks spoke about the benefits of a fast pace:

I generally work with a faster than usual tempo than that of most of my colleagues. It seems more natural to me, less forced. I personally speak slowly, but people generally talk, talk, talk without even waiting for other people to finish. Also, if a scene is a bit weak, the more rapidly you shoot it, the better it will be on the screen. Moreover, if the tempo is fast you can emphasize a point by slowing the rhythm.

This film is often praised for its overlapping dialogue. Delivered in rapid-fire fashion — yet never seeming unnatural or forced — the script is a textbook example of how to engage the viewer with wit and style. The one-liners, causal asides, and occasional in-jokes make the first twenty minutes about as good as it gets. Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, and a fine supporting cast round out the talent for one of the finest comedies ever.

His Girl Friday
(1940; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
Sony Pictures
List Price: $24.95

Saturday, March 29 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)

Saturday, March 22 at 1:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Wednesday, May 7 at 3:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Monday, May 26 at 7:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Gold Rush

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

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

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

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

Based on the running time (72 minutes), it appears that TCM has scheduled the 1942 reissue version this time around. The Blu-ray and DVD packages from Criterion include both versions, which gives you a chance to experience the film from two different perspectives.

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

Friday, March 21 at 10:45 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)
MCA Home Video
List Price: $12.95

Wednesday, March 19 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Dodsworth

In the 1930s, just about everyone went to the movies. That didn’t mean every movie was targeted to the widest possible audience. In fact, many films were aimed at mature audiences seeking intelligent and restrained drama. Few films, however, dealt with the complexities of middle age and the day-to-day difficulties of maintaining a marriage.

Dodsworth (1936) is an unusually frank film about a couple who are growing apart amid concerns about growing older. Based on a 1929 novel by Sinclair Lewis, the story was adapted in 1934 by Sidney Howard into a popular Broadway play starring Walter Huston and Fay Bainter. Two years later, Howard teamed with director William Wyler to bring the story to film. Huston reprised his role as industrialist Sam Dodsworth and Ruth Chatterton replaced Bainter in the role of Fran Dodsworth, his wife. Mary Astor played the other woman, Mrs. Edith Cortright, though clichés about the other woman fall by the wayside as the movie progresses. Several minor parts were filled by actors who played the same roles on Broadway.

The movie version doesn’t feel like a staged play, even though there is plenty of dialogue. Here are some of the more memorable lines from the film:

Sam Dodsworth: Love has got to stop some place short of suicide.

Fran Dodsworth: Oh, you’re hopeless — you haven’t the mistiest notion of civilization.
Sam Dodsworth: Yeah, well maybe I don’t think so much of it, though. Maybe clean hospitals, concrete highways, and no soldiers along the Canadian border come near my idea of civilization.

Fran Dodsworth: Remember, I did make a home for you once, and I’ll do it again, only you’ve got to let me have my fling now! Because you’re simply rushing at old age, Sam, and I’m not ready for that yet.

Baroness Von Obersdorf: [to Fran] Have you thought how little happiness there can be for the old wife of a young husband?

Apart from the writing, much of the credit has to go to Walter Huston, in one of the best roles of his career, and to William Wyler, whose assured direction makes the characters’ progression feel like an entirely natural development. Dodsworth doesn’t come across as a message picture — you’re not beat over the head with gold-encrusted truths simplified to the point where a 10-year-old child could quote them verbatim. Instead, the audience steadily accumulates knowledge about the characters and their predicaments. By the end, the characters’ decisions make perfect sense based on who we know them to be as individuals, rather than as stereotypes.

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

Wednesday, March 5 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

A Midsummer Night's Dream

If you looked at the cast list for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), you couldn’t be blamed for passing it by. How could Shakespeare’s most beloved comedy be well served by the likes of James Cagney, Joe E. Brown, Dick Powell, Olivia de Havilland, and Mickey Rooney?

What you wouldn’t know from glancing at the cast list is that this film was co-directed by Max Reinhardt, the famed Austrian theatrical producer and director. His stage production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was considered to be without equal, and he brings a fairytale quality to this production that goes far beyond any other film rendition of the play. The lighting, special effects, costumes, and sets combine to create a magic that’s rarely seen on the screen.

As for the casting, the Warner Brothers contract players are generally competent in their roles. Mickey Rooney is surprisingly good as Puck, though the up-and-down cadences he gives to his lines can be irritating. As Titania, Anita Louise looks just as we imagine a fairy queen should look. And Victor Jory has the commanding presence we expect from an Oberon. Even so, it’s the imaginary world the actors inhabit that grabs our attention. The choreographed movements of the creatures, the light that shimmers from the forest floor, and the misty veils that separate the viewer from the spectacle that unfolds — those are the qualities that make this a must-see film.

Also notable is the accompanying music. Most of it is based on Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was inspired by the play. There wasn’t enough of the composition to fill the 114 minutes of music needed for the film, so composer Erich Korngold supplemented it with passages from other Mendelssohn compositions. Reinhardt had worked with Korngold previously and brought him over from Vienna for this film. It was Korngold’s his first project in Hollywood. He went on to become one of the top film composers of the 1930s and 1940s. His credits include the rousing scores for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940).

This film was a critical and box office flop. It did so poorly, Warner Brothers canceled Reinhardt’s contract for two additional films.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
(1935; directed by William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Monday, March 3 at 3:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

David Copperfield

The novels of Charles Dickens should be ripe for film adaptation. The plucky heroes, sentimental plots, and rich background characters would be instantly recognizable if translated to the screen properly. That’s the problem. What film could possibly live up to the novels, which often run a thousand pages or more? (Dickens was usually paid according to the number of words published.)

After decades of mixed results, three film adaptations stand out from the rest: David Copperfield (1935; directed by George Cukor), Great Expectations (1946; directed by David Lean), and Oliver Twist (1948; directed by David Lean). While the two Lean films stress the darker side of Dickens, the Cukor effort is pure Hollywood — in the good sense of the phrase. It’s impossible now to re-read the novel without imagining Edna May Oliver as the irrepressible Betsey Trotwood, Roland Young as the slimy Uriah Heep, Lennox Pawle as the off-in-a-cloud Mr. Dick, and Freddie Bartholomew as the stalwart young David Copperfield.

Most inspired of all was the casting of W.C. Fields as Mr. Micawber. Cukor recounts his impression of Fields to interviewer Gavin Lambert:

He was charming to work with, his suggestions and adlibs were always in character. There was a scene in which he had to sit at a desk writing, and he asked me if he could have a cup of tea on the desk. When he got agitated, he dipped his pen into the teacup instead of the inkwell. Another time he was sitting on a high stool and asked for a wastepaper basket so he could get his feet stuck in it. Physically he wasn’t quite right, wasn’t bald as Dickens describes Micawber — but his spirit was perfect.

Some critics have complained that Cukor’s David Copperfield is less than the sum of its parts — that the film doesn’t rise above its carefully conceived set pieces and vignettes. I disagree. While the film loses some momentum once the main character becomes a man (Frank Lawton was less than optimally cast as the adult David), that’s equally true of the novel and other film or television adaptations of the book. Dickens was better at portraying childhood hopes and fears than the mature aspirations of those same children as adults.

David Copperfield
(1935; directed by George Cukor; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.98

Monday, March 3 at 4:30 a.m. eastern (late Sun. 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

Sunday, March 2 at 10:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Yankee Doodle Dandy

Many people are surprised that James Cagney’s only Oscar was for his role in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). One reason is that the Academy doesn’t tend to reward performances in genre films, such as gangster, adventure, or science fiction films. It also doesn’t tend to reward performances in musicals, though Yankee Doodle Dandy was an exception.

If you think of Cagney’s roles in the gangster movies, it was his confidence that won you over. Only 5 feet 6 inches tall (short by Hollywood standards), Cagney could stare down anyone in the room. It’s just that kind of brash confidence that made him the perfect choice to portray George M. Cohan, who was just as cocky and full-of-himself in real life as Cagney was onscreen. Cagney also had the background needed to play the part. He started in Hollywood as a song-and-dance man, but was sidetracked into gangster movies when asked to switch parts at the last minute. Cagney did get a chance to return to his song-and-dance roots with his role in Footlight Parade (1933). There, as in Yankee Doodle Dandy, he doesn’t come off as a polished singer or dancer. It’s his enthusiasm that wins you over. He becomes a terrific dancer almost be sheer will alone. If you’ve ever been told, “it’s not what you have; it’s what you do with it,” you’ll find all the proof you need in Cagney’s performance in Yankee Doodle Dandy

Of course, it takes more than a single strong performance to make a great film — particularly if that film happens to be a musical. Cohan’s deeply patriotic songs are real crowd pleasers, not just for their sentiment, but also because they’re the kind of songs that linger in the mind long after you first hear them. Though written for World War I era audiences, they were equally appropriate in 1942 when this movie was released — just months after Pearl Harbor. Even from our perspective, the songs and sentiment still ring true. Odds are you already know many of the songs from the film, which include “The Yankee Doodle Boy” (a.k.a. Yankee Doodle Dandy), “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Harrigan,” “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,” and “Over There.”

A heartfelt movie biography could easily fall on its face without a strong script. Credit here goes to Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph, who adapted the screenplay from Buckner’s story. Director Michael Curtiz, whose Casablanca was released the same year, keeps the pace brisk with plenty of humor to take off the edge. Here are some snippets of dialogue:

Critic #1: I call it a hit. What’ll your review say?
Critic #2: I like it too, so I guess I’ll pan it.

George M. Cohan: My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.

Newspaperman: He’s the whole darned country squeezed into one pair of pants!

Sergeant on parade: What’s the matter, old timer? Don’t you remember this song?
George M. Cohan: Seems to me I do.
Sergeant on parade: Well, I don’t hear anything.

Michael Curtiz was perhaps Hollywood’s hardest working director in the 1930s and 1940s. He turned out an impressive 44 features for Warner Bros. from 1930 through 1939. Curtiz had an extraordinary range across a diverse group of genres. In addition to Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca, he directed Black Fury (1935), Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Four Daughters (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), The Sea Hawk (1940), The Sea Wolf (1941), Mildred Pierce (1945), Life with Father (1947), and The Breaking Point (1950).

Yankee Doodle Dandy
(1942; directed by Michael Curtiz; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $26.95

Friday, February 28 at 11:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Last Picture Show

Some film historians lament that we’ll never recapture the magic of a film noir, screwball comedy, or musical comedy. There’s some truth to that, but why would you want to? Ideally, you learn the lessons from the past and apply what’s equally good from the present. That’s not possible, you say? One of the best examples it can be done is The Last Picture Show (1971).

Peter Bogdanovich, the film’s director, spent years studying and interviewing the top Hollywood directors, including Orson Welles, John Ford, and Howard Hawks. His articles, books, and monographs are a vital part of the canon for anyone interested in film history. In addition, his documentary Directed by John Ford is still the best introduction to that director’s work. In the early 1970s, Bogdanovich successfully make the transition from writing about films to directing films, just as Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rivette and Rohmer had done previously. His first fictional film directed under his own name was Targets (1968). Made on a shoestring budget, it was structured around the chance opportunity to use Boris Karloff in the lead role.

Bogdanovich’s next film, The Last Picture Show, is one of the best American films of the 1970s. He applied many of the lessons he had learned from the classic film directors, especially Ford and Hawks. The measured pacing, open landscapes, and directness of the performances echo such films as The Grapes of Wrath, Red River, Wagon Master, and Rio Bravo. Yet Larry McMurtry’s script is thoroughly modern both in its moral sensibilities and sexual frankness.

There’s also a masterful blending of themes relating to change and nostalgia. Just as the small Texas town is changing and declining (represented by the closing of the only movie theater), the film is an elegy to an old style of filmmaking that’s rapidly disappearing (also represented by the closing movie theater). The older films are emblematic of an America that was beginning to lose its innocence, just as the town’s kids lose their innocence as they confront the complexities of adulthood.

Bogdanovich doesn’t quote Ford and Hawks directly. Instead, he borrows stylistically and alters the lessons to suit the material. The result is a stunning piece of filmmaking that should stand the tests of time.

The Last Picture Show
(1971; directed by Peter Bogdanovich; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Sony Pictures
List Price: $19.95 (DVD), $124.98 (Blu-ray, as part of the America Lost and Found: The BBS Story)

Wednesday, February 25 at 2:45 a.m. eastern (late Tue. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Grand Illusion

What can I say to convince you to see Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), if you haven’t already seen it? (If you have already seen it, you won’t need convincing). This quote from Orson Welles should do it, “If I had to save only one film in the world it would be Grand Illusion.” On The Dick Cavett Show, Cavett once asked Welles what his favorite films were. Welles answered, “Grand Illusion and something else.” The story goes that large numbers of people tried to track down this other film, they thought was titled Something Else.

Grand Illusion is a truly great film. It’s enriched by Renoir’s sincere compassion for humanity. It has outstanding moments of comedy and tenderness. There’s wartime intrigue and even a hint of romance (not easy for a story that centers around an escape from a prisoner-of-war camp). The title unlocks some of the thematic layers in the film. There’s the illusion the aristocracy will be able to return to their former roles after WWI. There’s also the illusion that the equalities of war will remain completely intact after the war. Renoir embraced the democratic movement that swept away the autocracy, but at the same time, he was nostalgic for the manners, decorum, and traditions that would be lost. Renoir’s best films view human behavior as complex and even contradictory. Employing improvisation even in a tightly structured film such as this one, he strived for a realism that still felt natural and spontaneous.

This film is also notable for its appearance by silent film director Erich von Stroheim, whose realistic style influenced Renoir and motivated him to become a filmmaker. It wasn’t until late in the production schedule that Renoir learned he would be able to cast Stroheim in the part of Captain von Rauffenstein. In his autobiography, titled My Life and My Films, Renoir explained how Stroheim affected both the role and the film:

His part, which at first was a very minor one, had been greatly enlarged because I was afraid that, confronted by the weighty personalities of Gabin and Fresnay, he would look like a lightweight. In art, as in life, it is all a question of balance; and the problem is to keep both sides of the scales level. That is why I took liberties with von Stroheim’s uniform, which was quite out of keeping with my realistic principles at that time. His uniform is authentic, but with a flamboyance quite unsuited to the commander of a POW camp in the First War. I needed this theatrical façade to counterbalance the impressive simplicity of the Frenchmen. There are instances of stylization in La Grande Illusion, despite its strictly realistic appearance, which takes us into the realm of fantasy, and these breaks in illusion I owe largely to Stroheim. I am profoundly grateful to him. I am incapable of doing good work unless it contains an element of the fairy-tale.

Ultimately, what makes Grand Illusion a powerful film is its optimistic message that differences can be bridged through goodwill and understanding. It isn’t a pro-war film because it doesn’t glorify war, and it’s not even an anti-war film, though Renoir in 1937 paradoxically declared himself to be both a pacifist and strongly opposed to Hitler’s aggression (a paradox he addressed in one of his first Hollywood films, This Land Is Mine). For Renoir, war is simply the ideal theatrical stage to show how men can overcome their differences in class, language, race, education, and politics.

Grand Illusion
(1937; directed by Jean Renoir; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (out-of-print DVD)
Lions Gate
List Price: $29.99 (Blu-ray)

Monday, February 24 at 10:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

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