Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: Gentleman’s Agreement (dir by Elia Kazan)


Earlier today, as I was watching the 1947 film, Gentleman’s Agreement, I found myself thinking about a conversation that I had in 2006.

This was when I was in college.  I was having lunch with some friends from one of my classes.  As we were eating, the conversation turned to the war in Iraq.  That, in itself, was not surprising because, in 2006, it seemed like every conversation somehow turned to what was happening in the Middle East.

One of the people with whom I was having lunch was Olivia, self-styled intellectual who fancied herself as the most knowledgeable person on campus.  To be honest, I can’t think of anyone who liked her that much but she had a skill for subtly weaseling her way into almost every conversation.  She was one of those incredibly pretentious types who started every sentence with “Actually….” and who had embraced Marxism with the shallow vapidness of someone who had grown up in Highland Park and who would never have to struggle to pay a bill.

On that day, Olivia announced to us all that the only reason we were in Iraq was because we were doing the bidding of Israeli lobbyists and then she went on to talk about how 9-11 was an inside job.  She repeated the old lie about Jews calling in sick on 9-11 and claimed that five MOSSAD agents were arrested in New York for celebrating after the collapse of the Twin Towers.

After Olivia said this, there was the briefest silence as everyone else tried to figure out how to react.  Finally, someone tried to change the subject by making a joke about our professor.  Realizing the no one was going to openly disagree with Olivia and risk an argument, I said, “That’s not true.”

“What’s not true?” Olivia asked.

“About Jewish people calling in sick on 9-11 and celebrating after the Towers fell.  That’s not true.”

Olivia looked a little bit surprised that she was being openly challenged.  Finally, she said, in a surprisingly sincere tone of voice, “I’m sorry.  I didn’t realize you were Jewish.”

I’m not Jewish.  I’m Irish-Italian-Spanish and pretty much all of my immediate ancestors were Catholic.  But, as far as Olivia was concerned, I had to be Jewish because why else would I object to her repeating an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory?  When she apologized (and, make no mistake, there was not a hint of sarcasm in her tone when she said she was sorry), it wasn’t for being a bigot.  Instead, it was for being a bigot in front of the “wrong” person.  It didn’t occur to her that I was upset because what she said was bullshit.

Anyway, I wish I could say that I threw a drink in Olivia’s face or that I stood up on the table and delivered an impassioned speech but, once again, the other people at the table hastily changed the subject.  Anything to avoid a conflict, I suppose.  That was the last time I ever had a conversation with Olivia.  For the rest of the semester, I ignored her and I felt pretty proud of myself for shunning her.  It’s only been recently that I realized that Olivia also didn’t really make any effort to really talk to me after that conversation.  I shunned her because of her bigotry and I can only assume that she shunned me because of her misconception about my ancestry.

Gentleman’s Agreement is about a Gentile reporter named Phillip Green (Gregory Peck) who, while researching a story about anti-Semitism, poses as a Jew and discovers that the world is full of people like Olivia.  His own fiancee, a self-declared liberal named Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), reacts to Phil’s plan by asking him, “But you’re not really Jewish …. are you?”  By the simple act of telling everyone that his last name is actually “Greenberg,” Phil discovers that he suddenly can’t get a hotel reservation.  People stop returning his calls.  When he and Kathy have an engagement party in a wealthy community in Connecticut, many of Kathy’s friends stay away.  (Kathy, meanwhile, begs Phil to let her tell her family that she’s not actually engaged to a Jew.)  When Phil’s son, Tommy (Dean Stockwell), is harassed at school, Phil is shocked to hear Kathy tell Tommy that he shouldn’t listen to the bullies not because they’re a bunch of bigots but because “you’re not actually Jewish.”

Meanwhile, Phil’s friend, Dave Goldman (John Garfield), has returned from serving in World War II, just to discover that he can’t even rent a home for his family because many landlords refuse to rent to Jews.  When Phil learns that Katy owns a vacant cottage, he suggests that she rent it out to Dave.  Despite her sympathy for Dave, Kathy is shocked at the suggestion.  What will the neighbors think?

Gentleman’s Agreement was produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, who took on the project after he was refused membership in the Los Angeles Country Club because the membership committee assumed that Zanuck was Jewish.  It was considered to be quite a controversial film in 1947, as it not only dealt with American prejudice but it also called out two prominent elected anti-Semites — Sen. Theodore Bilbo and Rep. John E. Rankin — by name.  Zanuck often claimed that the other studio moguls asked him to abandon the project, saying that a film would only inspire more of what it was trying to condemn.  Still, Zanuck stuck with the project and it was not only a box office hit but it also won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Seen today, Gentleman’s Agreement has its flaws.  In the lead role, Gregory Peck is a bit of a stiff and Elia Kazan’s directs in an efficient but bland manner.  Because this film was made in 1947 and a happy ending was a must, Kathy is given a rather convenient opportunity at redemption.  The film’s most compelling performers — John Garfield, Celeste Holm, and June Havoc (playing Phil’s Jewish secretary, who had to change her last name before anyone would even consider hiring her) — are often underused.

And yet, with all that in mind, Gentleman’s Agreement is still a very effective film.  Gentleman’s Agreement understand that there’s more to prejudice than just the morons who go to rallies or the degenerates who shout slurs across the street.  Gentleman’s Agreement understands that, for prejudice to thrive, it also needs people like Kathy or Olivia, people who have that prejudice so ingrained in their system that they don’t even think twice about it and Dorothy McGuire does a very good job of playing a self-satisfied liberal who is blind to her own prejudice.  Gentleman’s Agreement understands that bigotry isn’t just about the openly hateful.  It’s also about the people who silently tolerate it and who refuse to stand up against it.  It’s about the people who respond to prejudice not with outrage but who instead attempt to change the subject.

In the UK, one of the two major political parties has basically surrendered itself to anti-Semitism.  Here in the US, Congress can’t even bring itself to condemn the frequently anti-Semitic comments of two of its members.  Elected leaders and pundits only offer up the weakest of condemnation when Jewish people are viciously attacked in the streets.  When a man attacked a group of Jews on Hanukkah, many excused the man’s attack by trying to say that he was just upset about  gentrification.  For many reasons, Gentleman’s Agreement is still relevant and important today.

Cleaning Out the DVR #24: Crime Does Not Pay!


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We’re way overdue for a Cleaning Out the DVR post – haven’t done one since back in April! – so let’s jump right in with 4 capsule reviews of 4 classic crime films:

SINNERS’ HOLIDAY (Warner Brothers 1930; D: John Adolfi) – Early talkie interesting as the screen debut of James Cagney , mixed up in “the booze racket”, who shoots bootlegger Warren Hymer, and who’s penny arcade owner maw Lucille LaVerne covers up by pinning the murder on daughter Evalyn Knapp’s ex-con boyfriend Grant Withers. Some pretty racy Pre-Code elements include Joan Blondell as Cagney’s “gutter floozie” main squeeze. Film’s 60 minute running time makes it speed by, aided by some fluid for the era camerawork. Fun Fact: Cagney and Blondell appeared in the original Broadway play “Penny Arcade”; when superstar entertainer Al Jolson bought the rights, he insisted Jimmy and Joan be cast in the film version, and…

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Repent, Ye Sinners!: STRANGE CARGO (MGM 1940)


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Any film condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency can’t be all bad!  STRANGE CARGO depicts a bunch of hardened, unrepentant criminals escaping a brutal French Guiana prison, with a prostitute in tow to boot, and is laced with plenty of lascivious sex and brutal violence. But that wasn’t all the self-appointed guardians of morality objected to… there was the character of Cambreau who, though the film doesn’t come right out and say it, supposedly represents none other than Jesus Christ himself!

One more time: Clark & Joan

Clark Gable and Joan Crawford , in their eighth and final film together, lead this pack of sinners through a sweltering jungle of lust, murder, and ultimately redemption. He’s a con named Verne, “a thief by profession”, whose several attempts at escape have proved unsuccessful. She’s Julie, a two-bit hooker plying her trade on the island. The pair, as always, crackle like…

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Horror On The Lens: Gammera The Invincible (dir by Noriaki Yuasu and Sandy Howard)


Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that 1966’s Gammera The Invincible is not really a horror film.  Maybe there was a time when people found the idea of a giant, fire-breathing turtle to be scary but I kind of doubt it.

But let’s think about this!  What better time is there to watch a movie about giant, fire-breathing turtle than in October?

Seriously, this is a fun movie and if you’ve got some time to kill this morning, I guarantee this movie will make you smile.

As I wrote in my 2014 review of this film, Gammera is one hell of a turtle.

Enjoy!

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: The Silver Chalice (dir by Victor Saville)


If you ever needed proof that everyone has to start somewhere, look no further than the 1954 biblical epic, The Silver Chalice.

The Silver Chalice features the film debut of Paul Newman, who later proved himself to be a legitimately great actor.  It’s true that, unlike a lot of actors, Newman made his debut in a starring role.  He never had to humiliate himself with any one-line roles or walk-on bits.  No, Paul got to humiliate himself with a starring role.

Paul Newman was 29 years old when he played Basil, a former slave turned sculptor.  Not only did Newman bear a disconcerting resemblance to Ben Savage (of Boy Meets World fame) but he gave a performance that was so bad that it’s kind of a shock that he ever worked again.  Basil is a passionate artist, one who survived being betrayed by his adopted family and slavery.  Newman comes across like a nice, young man from Iowa.  Usually, Newman looks miserable but occasionally, he flashes a somewhat weak smile.  When Basil gets mad, Newman speaks in a squeaky voice.  When Basil is feeling reverent, Newman furrows his brow like a hungover Russell Brand staring straight into the sun.

“But me and Topanga are soul mates…”

Then again, I’m not sure that any actor could have given a good performance as Basil.  The Silver Chalice has a terrible script, one that was written by Lesser Samuels.  (I’ll avoid the obvious joke about whether or not The Silver Chalice would have been better if written by Greater Samuels.)  Apparently, before Newman was cast, the producers pursued James Dean for the role.  I’m sure we all would have enjoyed seeing Dean slouch his way through the film but I doubt that even he could have done much with The Silver Chalice.

The Silver Chalice is based on a novel, which perhaps explains why there’s so many characters and so many unnecessary subplots.  Basil follows a path that will be familiar to anyone who has seen a 1950s biblical epic.  He’s a young Greek who is adopted into a noble Roman family.  When his kindly stepfather dies, Basil’s stepsiblings sell him into slavery.  It’s not an easy life but Basil is a talented sculptor so Joseph of Arimathea commissions him to make a silver chalice for the Holy Grail.  Basil goes from poor to rich to poor again to rich again to ultimately saved by grace.  He even gets to do the same walking towards Heaven thing that Richard Burton did at the end of The Robe.

Meanwhile, Simon Magus (Jack Palance) is wowing the citizenry with his magic tricks and claiming to be the risen Messiah.  Simon’s assistant just happens to be Helena, who knew Basil when he was younger.  Young Helena is played by dark-haired Natalie Wood.  Grown-up Helena is played by blonde Virgina Mayo.  They were both good actresses but there’s seriously no way that Natalie Wood would have ever grown up to be Virginia Mayo.

Jack Palance pretty much steals the movie, mostly because he gets to wear the silliest costumes:

Poor Paul Newman has to settle for a tunic and a miniskirt, while Jack Palance gets to wear this:

Personally, I’ve always enjoyed the story of Simon Magus.  He tried to show off by flying over the Roman Forum so St. Peter said a prayer and Simon promptly plunged to his death.  Take that, you Gnostic!

Another interesting thing about The Silver Chalice is that the sets are very deliberately fake.  I don’t mean that they look cheap.  I mean, much as in the style of German Expressionism, the sets are specifically designed to remind you that you’re watching a movie.

For instance, look at the wall behind Palance:

Look at this pleasure palace:

Look at Rome at night:

The sets are extremely dream-like and yet everything else about the film is extremely slow and conventional.  One wonders if director Victor Saville was trying to make an art film, though there’s nothing else in his long filmography that would suggest that Saville was anything other than a workmanlike director.  In fact, most biblical epics of the time took a lot of pride in looking as expensive and “accurate” as possible.  Major studios in the 1950s were not known for artistic experimentation, especially when it came to Biblical epics.  It’s hard to know what to make of The Silver Chalice‘s artistic flourishes, which is why it’s easier to just focus on what a terrible performance Paul Newman gives.

That’s certainly what Paul did!  In 1966, when The Silver Chalice finally premiered on TV, Newman took out a newspaper ad in which he apologized for his performance and then asked people not watch.  Apparently, he also used to show the movie during parties on the condition that his guests mock the film while watching it.

I don’t really blame him.  It’s an amazingly dull film and Newman looks absolutely miserable in nearly every other scene.  However, because it did star Paul Newman, The Silver Chalice will always have a life on TCM.

Speaking of TCM, they last broadcast this film on February 24th as part of their 31 Days of Oscar.  (It was nominated for both its sets and its score.)  That is when I recorded it.  And, after watching it yesterday, I was more than happy to erase it.

Hammer Time!: KISS ME DEADLY (United Artists 1955)


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Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels have long been one of my favorite Guilty Pleasures. Spillane’s books were the literary equivalent of knocking back shots of Jack Daniels with no chaser. The misanthropic Mike Hammer’s Sex & Violence filled adventures are rapid paced, testosterone fueled trips through a definitely un-PC world where men are men, women are sex objects, and blood and bullets flow freely through a dark, corrupt post-war world.  Spillane turned the conventional detective yarn on its ear and, though critics hated his simplistic writing, the public ate up his books by the millions.

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The film version of Spillane’s KISS ME DEADLY turns film noir on its ear from its opening shot of Christine Bailey (a young Cloris Leachman) running down a lonely highway, almost getting run over by Mike Hammer. The PI picks her up and the opening credits roll backwards to the strains of Nat King Cole crooning “Rather Have The Blues”. This beginning set-up lets…

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Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 8: All-Star Comedy Break


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Tonight I’ll be watching the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, but for those of you non-baseball fans, here’s a look at five funny films from the 1930’s & 40’s:

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IT’S A GIFT (Paramount 1934, D: Norman Z. McLeod) The Great Man himself, W.C. Fields , works his magic in this delightfully demented domestic comedy about hen pecked grocer Harold Bissonette, who dreams of owning an orange grove in California. His wife (Kathleen Howard) is a domineering battle-axe, his kid (Tommy Bupp) an obnoxious, roller skating brat, and daughter Mildred (Jean Rouveral) doesn’t want to leave her “true love”. This sets the stage for some of Fields’ funniest surrealistic scenes, including his grocery store being demolished by blind Mr. Mickle and perennial nemesis Baby Leroy; poor W.C. trying to get some sleep on the porch while being constantly disturbed by noisy neighbors, a wayward coconut, a man looking for “Carl LeFong”, and…

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A Quickie With Lisa Marie: Gammera The Invincible (dir by Noriaki Yuasu and Sandy Howard)


Late night every Saturday, the Late Night Movie crew and I gather over in the SyFy Designs chat room and we watch an old movie.  Last night, we watched the 1966 killer turtle film, Gammera The Invincible.

Gammera The Invicible began life as Gamera, a Japanese monster film that was made in an attempt to rival the popularity of the Godzilla films.  Gamera is a giant, prehistoric turtle who, after being awakened by an atomic bomb, proceeds to attempt to destroy the world.  (And, when you think about the way the world works, who can really blame him?)  Unlike the small, passive turtles that live in the creek next to my house, Gamera can not only fly but breathe fire as well.  He’s one hell of a turtle.

Anyway, when Gamera was released in the States, it was retitled Gammera The Invincible*.  Director Sandy Howard shot some new scenes (featuring American actors like Albert Dekker) and that footage was crudely mixed with scenes from the original Japanese film.  The Japanese actors were badly dubbed and the end result was disjointed, to say the least.

But, disjointed or not, Gammera The Invincible is a lot of fun.  Why?  Well, first off, Gammera is a lot cuter than Godzilla.  How can you go wrong with a giant turtle?  Secondly, Gammera is that rare Japanese monster film that invites you to dance.  I dare you to listen to the Gammera theme song and not be happy!

For me, everything great about Gammera can be seen in the scene below.  As that nameless actor quite correctly puts it, who cares about monsters when you can dance?

If you have 89 minutes to kill, feel free to enjoy Gammera The Invincible!

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* Apparently, the extra M was added to keep people from mispronouncing the turtle’s name.