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

Wednesday, August 13 at 9:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Saturday, September 20 at 8:00 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

Wednesday, August 13 at 7:45 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Monday, October 13 at 10:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Thin Man

The Thin Man (1934) is the first of six comic detective films featuring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. There have been many recurring romantic pairings over the years (Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, for example), though this may be the most successful pairing involving the same set of characters.

In this first film, the Thin Man is a murder suspect, not the hero, which is why the second film was titled After the Thin Man (1936). By the third film, the distinction was lost, and the name became associated with Nick Charles. A similar misunderstanding occurred with the Frankenstein movies. Frankenstein was the scientist, not the scientist’s creation. The public had associated the name with the monster, and Hollywood wasn’t about to argue the point.

The Thin Man series benefits from dialogue and situations that showcase the urbane talents of Powell and Loy. Unfortunately, the later scripts aren’t nearly as rewarding. Though they’re still worth watching, the quality dropped after the second film.

Here are examples of dialogue from the first film that illustrate the couple’s offbeat relationship:

Nora: Waiter, will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?

Nick: How’d you like Grant’s tomb?
Nora: It’s lovely. I’m having a copy made for you.

Nora: Pretty girl.
Nick: Yes. She’s a very nice type.
Nora: You got types?
Nick: Only you, darling. Lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.

Nick: Oh, it’s alright, Joe. It’s alright. It’s my dog. And, uh, my wife.
Nora: Well you might have mentioned me first on the billing.

Canine star Asta is another reason for the popular success of the series. The same dog (real name Skippy) played prominent roles in two of the best screwball comedies: as Mr. Smith in The Awful Truth (1937) and George in Bringing Up Baby (1938). Several dogs played the part of Asta over the course of the Thin Man series, which lasted until 1947. Whether they were Skippy’s offspring or Skippy look-alikes is still unknown.

The Thin Man
(1934; directed by W.S. Van Dyke; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95 (also available in The Complete Thin Man Collection for $59.95)

Saturday, August 9 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Shop Around the Corner

Some stories are so good, they’re worth telling over and over again. Take, for example, The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Ernst Lubitsch’s romantic comedy starring Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart. It was remade in 1949 as In the Good Old Summertime, with Judy Garland and Van Johnson. In 1963, it was converted into a Broadway musical, titled She Loves Me. And more recently, it was remade as yet another movie, You’ve Got Mail (1998) with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

At its core, the story is quite simple, which is why it’s so easily adapted. A man and woman, who dislike each other intensely in person, have each found love anonymously in a correspondence with a stranger. What they don’t know – and we do – is that they’re corresponding with each other.

The plot wasn’t entirely original to Lubitsch. Screenwriter Samson Raphaelson adapted it from a Hungarian play. Even though Lubitsch isn’t credited with the screenplay, he and Raphaelson worked closely to write the dialogue on all their collaborations. Here’s an example of the dialogue from the film:

Marton: Remember the girl I was corresponding with?
Pirovitch: Ah, yes . . . about those cultural subjects.
Marton: Well, after a while, we came to the subject of love, naturally, but on a very cultural level.
Pirovitch: What else can you do in a letter?
Marton: Pirovitch, she’s the most marvelous girl in the world . . .
Pirovitch: Is she pretty?
Marton: She has such ideals, such a point of view on things . . . She’s so far above the girls you meet today, there’s simply no comparison.
Pirovitch: So she’s not so very pretty.

In a letter to Herman G. Weinberg (written on July 10, 1947 — just months before his death), Lubitsch suggested his three best films were Trouble in Paradise (1932), Ninotchka (1939), and The Shop Around the Corner. Lubitsch cited The Shop Around the Corner as his best “human comedy.” He wrote, “Never did I make a picture in which the atmosphere and the characters were truer than in this picture.” He chose Trouble in Paradise for its style and Ninotchka for its satire.

While Lubitsch is the master of the sophisticated comedy, you don’t always identify with his characters in the same way you identify with the characters in the comedies of Frank Capra and Leo McCarey. That’s certainly not the case with this film. With its sparkling dialogue, winning performances, and measured pacing, it’s one of the best comedies of the 1940s.

The Shop Around the Corner
(1940; directed by Ernst Lubitsch, cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Friday, August 8 at 12:00 a.m. eastern (late Thu. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Scarface

Howard Hawks is the least appreciated of the great American directors. It took the critics from the Parisian magazine Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s to recognize the consistent style and world view behind such dissimilar films as Scarface (1932), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Air Force (1943), The Big Sleep (1946), Red River (1948), The Thing from Another World (1951), and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Of Hawks’ many best-of-breed genre films, Scarface is the most underrated. Producer Howard Hughes withheld the film from circulation in the U.S. after its initial release, so it was almost impossible to see until the 1970s. You had a better chance of seeing the film if you lived in Paris than if you lived in New York or Los Angeles.

Scarface is far more complex thematically and visually than Little Caesar (1930) or The Public Enemy (1931), and much more satisfying. Tony and his henchmen attend a theatrical performance of Rain, another cautionary tale about a man who tries to impose his will on others. Tony has to leave the theater early, missing the downfall of the play’s tragic figure, in order to set in motion the events that will lead to his own downfall. Like the men in Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings and Air Force, Tony and his gang react to life-threatening situations by creating their own rules of conduct and honor. The group is fiercely loyal until someone deliberately crosses the line to threaten the cohesiveness of the group. In virtually all his films, Hawks explores the interplay between individual initiative and group co-operation. It’s the dynamic push-pull between these two forces that drives the characters’ actions and moves the story forward to its logical conclusion. With the Hawks comedies, that universe is turned completely upside down.

Hawks and scriptwriter Ben Hecht populate the sets in Scarface with symbolic Xs and crosses. Look closely, and you’ll see them throughout the film, particularly at critical junctures in the plot. During the production of the film, Hawks ran afoul of the studio censors, who were repelled by the large number of murders and cold-hearted glee with which the gangsters carry out their revenge. Hawks was forced to insert a high-minded introduction and clumsy moral-indignation scene to soften what was thought to be a dangerously immoral film. Hawks also had to tone down the ending. He had wanted Tony (played by Paul Muni) to end face down in a pile of horse manure.

This isn’t just the best gangster movie ever made. It’s a landmark film of the early 1930s, and the first mature work by one of Hollywood’s preeminent directors.

Scarface
(1932; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
United Artists
List Price: $14.98

Wednesday, August 6 at 9:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Friday, September 26 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Sunday, October 5 at 10:00 a.m. eastern 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

Tuesday, August 5 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

Tuesday, July 29 at 6:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Saturday, August 2 at 6:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Random Harvest

No matter how many classic films you’ve seen, there will always be films that escape your notice. They may no longer exist (most silent films, for example). There may be rights issues (the long version of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, for example). Or you didn’t know enough about them to actively seek them out (hence this site’s tagline: so many movies, so little time).

I hadn’t seen Random Harvest (1942) until about six years ago. I had forgotten what a competent director Mervyn LeRoy was and had neglected to look for his other films. Admittedly, his output is uneven, but any director responsible for the likes of Little Caesar (1930), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Hard to Handle (1933), They Won’t Forget (1937), Waterloo Bridge (1940), and Mister Roberts (1955; co-directed with John Ford) is worth further study.

As a sentimental romantic drama, Random Harvest is surprisingly restrained. This is a film that tugs on the heartstrings without treating the audience as though it has a collective IQ of 50. The various twists and turns are laid out carefully, and even when you know where it’s heading, the movie remains intellectually and emotionally satisfying. The plotline is important, so do refrain from reading too much about this one until you’ve had a chance to see it. Above all, don’t read the back of the DVD case, which gives away half the plot (what were they thinking?). The story is based on the novel by James Hilton, who is best known as the original author of two other Hollywood adaptations: Lost Horizon (1937) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). That these three creatively successful films were directed by three different directors speaks well of the narrative strength of the novels.

The casting of the two leads is another plus. Ronald Colman and Greer Garson were highly regarded by their contemporary audiences. Today, they’re barely known by the general public. If you’ve ever wondered just how talented Colman and Garson were, this film should answer that question in spades. Bottom line: If you tend to avoid sentimental Hollywood dramas, give this one a chance. The performances, script, and direction place it firmly in the don’t-miss category.

Random Harvest
(1942; directed by Mervyn LeRoy; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Friday, July 25 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Out of the Past

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

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

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

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

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

Out of the Past
(1947; directed by Jacques Tourneur; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Friday, July 25 at 2:00 a.m. eastern (late Thu. night) on Turner Classic Movies

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Greed and human nature — it’s a common theme in both movies and literature, but rarely has it been handled as expertly as in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Following his service in World War II, director John Huston found the ideal project for his next film. It would be based on the novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, written by the mysterious B. Traven. Even today, no one is quite sure who B. Traven was, though historians strongly suspected that Traven met with Huston under an assumed name during the film’s production in Mexico.

The movie is a carefully crafted moral tale about human frailty and the difficulties we might encounter when given the chance to accumulate massive wealth. The three main characters react differently, and it’s the difference in their reactions that keeps the tale from becoming too dark and cynical.

Huston wrote the screenplay, and he keeps a tight rein on the narrative as the story and characters progress to a satisfying conclusion.

Here are a few gems from the film’s dialogue:

Flophouse Bum: $5,000 is a lot of money.
Howard: Yeah, here in this joint it seems like a lot. But I tell you, if you was to make a real strike, you couldn’t be dragged away. Not even the threat of miserable death would keep you from trying to add 10,000 more. Ten, you’d want to get twenty-five; twenty-five you’d want to get fifty; fifty, a hundred. Like roulette. One more turn, you know. Always one more.

Gold Hat: We are Federales… you know, the mounted police.
Dobbs: If you’re the police, where are your badges?
Gold Hat: Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!

Howard: We’ve wounded this mountain. It’s our duty to close her wounds. It’s the least we can do to show our gratitude for all the wealth she’s given us. If you guys don’t want to help me, I’ll do it alone.
Curtin: You talk about that mountain like it was a real woman.
Dobbs: She’s been a lot better to me than any woman I ever knew. Keep your shirt on, old-timer. Sure, I’ll help ya.

Huston cast his father Walter Huston in the pivotal role of Howard, a seasoned old prospector who understands from experience what gold fever can do to an otherwise honest man.

Both father and son won Oscars for this film (Best Supporting Actor for Walter Huston, and Best Director, as well as Best Screenplay, for John Huston). It was the first time a father and son had received Academy Awards for the same movie.

The recently released Blu-ray version is a joy to behold, especially if you’re able to view it on a large screen. Watch for several uncredited cameos, including John Huston as the American who Dobbs keeps asking for a handout, Jack Holt (Tim Holt’s real-life actor father) as an flophouse bum, and a young Robert Blake as a Mexican boy who sells lottery tickets from the street.

Also on the Blu-ray disc are an informative 49-minute documentary on the making of the movie, a comprehensive 128-minute documentary on John Huston, and a selection of short subjects from 1948.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
(1948; directed by John Huston; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $24.98 (Blu-ray), $26.98 (Two-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Wednesday, July 23 at 10:15 p.m. eastern 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)

Saturday, July 19 at 2:00 a.m. eastern (late Fri. night) on Turner Classic Movies

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)

Friday, July 11 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)

Friday, July 4 at 8:00 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, July 4 at 4:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

« Previous PageNext Page »