Cleaning Out The DVR #10: The Yearling (dir by Clarence Brown)


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After I finished Abduction: The Jocelyn Shaker Story, I decided to watch a film that was shown on TCM as a part of the 31 Days Of Oscars.  When I started the 1946 film, The Yearling, I thought it was going to be a sweet and heartwarming little movie about a country boy raising a deer.  Instead, it turned out to be a rather dark movie about how much it sucks to grow up in the country.  I can only imagine how many childen, back in 1946, were scarred for life by this movie.

The movie is actually about two yearlings.  The main one is Jody (Claude Jarman, Jr.), who lives in the bayous of 1878 Florida.  His family is a farming and hunting family.  They live in a small shack and struggle to make ends meet.  His father, Penny Baxter (Gregory Peck) is … well, he’s Gregory Peck.  He’s stern but warm and speaks with that deep voice that lets you know that you better pay attention to everything he says.  While Penny is generally laid back and enjoys a good laugh, his wife, Ora (Jane Wyman), is far more serious and severe.  Ora has lost three children and, as a result, she is both overprotective and emotionally distant from Jody.

Jody desperately wants a pet but Ora says that they can’t afford to feed any animals.  However, one day, Penny is bitten by a snake.  Apparently, the organs of a deer can be used to draw out snake venom.  (Seriously, until I watched The Yearling, I had no idea this was the case.  I once nearly stepped on a rattlesnake in New Mexico and it totally freaked me out.  It’s good to know that if I ever do get attacked by a snake, all I have to do is kill a deer.)  Penny shoots a doe and has Jody cut out its heart and liver.  After doing so, Jody notices that the doe had a fawn.  He begs to be allowed to adopt it and, overruling Ora, Penny says that he can.

After getting his deer, Jody goes to visit his best friend, Fodderwing (Donn Gift) and ask him what he thinks a good name would be.  However, Fodderwing’s father informs Jody that his friend has just died.  And really, that scene pretty much epitomizes what The Yearling is about.  Because it’s told almost entirely from Jody’s point of view, the film may occasionally look like an old school Disney film.  But death and hardship are very real in the world of The Yearling.  People die, even children.  Having a pet may make the reality easier to take but it doesn’t change the reality.

Jody names the deer Flag.  As the film progresses, both Jody and Flag grow up.  Unfortunately, as Flag gets older and bigger, he causes more and more trouble for both his family and the neighbors.  He eats crops and he destroys fences.  After Penny is injured, Jody is the one who ends up replanting the corn and fixing all the damage.  But, even after all of Jody’s hard work, Flag still knocks down another fence.  That’s when Jody is told that he must shoot his beloved pet…

And that’s why I went, “Agck!  What type of movie is this!?”

Well, it’s a coming-of-age movie and, unfortunately, Jody is living at a time when growing up means giving up childish things.  (That’s always been my least favorite verse in the Bible, by the way.)  The Yearling itself is a pretty good film, though I do have one major problem with it.  The film looks great and both Jane Wyman and Gregory Peck are expertly cast.  If you keep an eye out, you’ll even spot Henry Travers — Clarence the Angel from It’s A Wonderful Life — in a small role.

That said, my main objection to The Yearling — the thing that keeps it from being quite as good as it could be — is the performance of Claude Jarman, Jr.  In the role of Jody, Jarman goes so totally over-the-top with his line readings and his facial expressions that it immediately takes the viewer out of the film’s reality.  Whenever anything happens — whether its Penny getting attack by a snake or his mother throwing a plate at his deer or Flag knocking over a fence — Jarman responds by standing there with his eyes and mouth wide open.  His lines are delivered with a rushed enthusiasm that can’t hide the complete lack of authentic emotion in his performance.  Claude Jarman tries really hard but it’s not surprising to discover that, after The Yearling, he only appeared in a few more films before joining the Navy and then subsequently moving behind the camera as a producer.

Then again, the Academy thought highly enough of Jarman’s performance to give him an honorary Oscar.  The Yearling itself was nominated for best picture but it lost to another sad film about giving up childish things, The Best Years of Our Lives.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Sergeant York (dir by Howard Hawks)


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The 1941 film Sergeant York was the American Sniper of its day.  A biopic of Alvin York, one of the most decorated American soldiers of World War I, Sergeant York was not only a huge box office hit but it was a film that celebrated American patriotism in the type of unabashed fashion that you would never see in a film made today.  Though Sergeant York went into production at a time when the United States was officially pursuing a policy of international neutrality, it was released shortly before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and, whether intentionally or not, Sergeant York served as a strong recruiting tool.  According to Wikipedia (and we all know that Wikipedia is never wrong), there were reports of young men going straight from the movie to the nearest military recruitment office.

Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours (and running at least 40 minutes too long), Sergeant York is two films in one.  The second half of the film deals with the military career of Alvin York (Gary Cooper), a plain-spoken and honest Tennessee farmer who, because of his strong religious beliefs, unsuccessfully attempts to register as a conscientious objector.  Forced into the Army, York is, at first, dismissed as a simple-minded hillbilly.  (His fellow soldiers are amused to discover that York doesn’t know what a subway is.)  However, to the shock of his commanding officers, he proves himself to be an expert marksman.  As he explains it, being from the country means that he’s been shooting a rifle his entire life.

On the basis of his skills as a marksman, York is given a promotion but he still says that he refuses to kill.  It’s not until his superior officer reminds him of the sacrifices that past Americans have made that York starts to reconsider his position.  Then, a gust of wind opens York’s bible to a verse about giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and York realizes that he can go to war and, if need be, he can kill.

And it’s a good thing that he can!  Because World War I is heating up and York may be the only guy around with the strength and confidence to single-handedly defeat and capture over 170 German soldiers.

The army section of Sergeant York is predictable but well-done.  As you’d expect from a film directed by Howard Hawks, a lot of emphasis is put on how the soldiers work together.  York is portrayed not as being super human but instead as just an honest man who is exceptionally good at his job.  There’s nothing surprising about the second half of Sergeant York but Hawks keeps the action moving and Cooper gives a good performance.

To be honest, I preferred the first half of the film, which examined York’s life before he joined the Army.  When we first meet Alvin York, he drinks too much, he fights too much, and he’s totally irresponsible.  It’s not until he falls in love with Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie) that York starts to change his ways.  The scenes of York in the backwoods of Tennessee had a lively feel to them and it was enjoyable to see Cooper play a somewhat disreputable character.  Cooper seemed to be having fun playing a ne’er-do-well and, in the scenes before York finds God, his bad behavior was a lot of fun to watch.

Considering its success at the box office, it’s not surprising that Sergeant York was nominated for best picture of the year.  While Gary Cooper won the Oscar for best actor, the award for Best Picture went to How Green Was My Valley.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Human Comedy (dir by Clarence Brown)


The-human-comedy-1943Thanks to TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar, I now have several movies on my DVR that I need to watch over the upcoming month.  Don’t get me wrong — I’m not complaining.  I’m always happy to have any reason to discover (or perhaps even rediscover) a movie.  And, being an Oscar junkie, I especially enjoy the opportunity to watch the movies that were nominated in the past and compare them to the movies that have been nominated more recently.

For instance, tonight, I watched The Human Comedy, a film from 1943.  Along with being a considerable box office success, The Human Comedy won on Oscar (for Best Story) and was nominated for four others: picture, director (Clarence Brown), actor (Mickey Rooney), and black-and-white cinematography.  The Human Comedy was quite a success in 1943 but I imagine that, if it were released today, it would probably be dismissed as being too sentimental.  Watching The Human Comedy today is something of a strange experience because it is a film without a hint of cynicism.  It deals with serious issues but it does so in such a positive and optimistic manner that, for those of us who are used to films like The Big Short and Spotlight, a bit of an attitude adjustment is necessary before watching.

And yet that doesn’t mean that The Human Comedy is a bad film.  In fact, I quite enjoyed it.  The Human Comedy is a time capsule, a chance to look into the past.  It also features a great central performance, one that was quite rightfully nominated for an Oscar.  As I watched Mickey Rooney in this film, I started to feel guilty for some of the comments I made when I reviewed Mickey in The Manipulator last October.

2Mickey Rooney in The Human Comedy

The Human Comedy opens with an overhead shot of the small town of Ithaca, California.  The face of Mr. McCauley (Ray Collins, who you’ll recognize immediately as Boss Jim Gettys from Citizen Kane) suddenly appears in the clouds.  Mr. McCauley explains that he’s dead and he’s been dead for quite some time.  But he loves Ithaca so much that his spirit still hangs around the town and keeps an eye on his family.  Somehow, the use of dead Mr. McCauley as the film’s narrator comes across as being both creepy and silly.

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But no sooner has Mr. McCauley stopped extolling the virtues of small town life than we see his youngest song, 7 year-old Ulysseus (Jack Jenkins), standing beside a railroad track and watching a train as it rumbles by.  Sitting on the cars are a combination of soldiers and hobos.  Ulysseus waves at some of the soldiers but none of them wave back.  Finally, one man waves back at Ulysseus and calls out, “Going home, I’m going home!”  It’s a beautifully shot scene, one that verges on the surreal.

That opening pretty much epitomizes the experience of watching The Human Comedy.  For every overly sentimental moment, there will be an effective one that will take you by surprise.  The end result may be uneven but it’s still undeniably effective.

The majority of the film deals with Homer McCauley (Mickey Rooney).  Homer may still be in high school but, with his older brother, Marcus (Van Johnson), serving overseas and his father dead, Homer is also the man of the house.  Homer not only serves as a role model for Ulysseus but he’s also protector for his sister, Bess (Donna Reed).   (At one point in the film, she gets hit on by three soldiers on leave.  One of them is played by none other than Robert Mitchum.)  In order to bring in extra money for the household, Homer gets a job delivering telegrams.

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In between scenes of Homer in Ithaca, we get oddly dream-like scenes of Marcus and his army buddies hanging out.  Marcus spends all of his time talking about how much he loves Ithaca and how he can’t wait for the war to be over so he can return home.  One of his fellow soldiers says, “I almost feel like Ithaca is my hometown, too.”  Marcus promises him that they’ll all visit Ithaca.  As soon as the war is over…

With World War II raging, Homer’s job largely consists of delivering death notices (and the occasional singing telegram, as well).  Telegraph operator Willie Grogan (Frank Morgan) deals with the burden of having to transcribe bad news by drinking.  Homer, meanwhile, tries to do his job with compassion and dignity but one day, he has to deliver a telegram to his own house…

The Human Comedy is an episodic film, full of vignettes of life in Ithaca and Homer growing up.  There’s quite a few subplots (along with a lot of speeches about how America is the best country in the world) but, for the most part, the film works best when it concentrates on Homer and Mickey Rooney’s surprisingly subdued lead performance.  By today’s standards, it may seem a bit predictable and overly sentimental but it’s also so achingly sincere that you can’t help but appreciate it.

The Human Comedy was nominated for best picture but it lost to a somewhat more cynical film about life during World War II, Casablanca.