End of the Trail: James Stewart in Anthony Mann’s THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (Columbia 1955)


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I’ve covered several of the  Anthony Mann/James Stewart Western collaborations here. Their final sagebrush outing together THE MAN FROM LARAMIE was shot in Cinemascope and gorgeous Technicolor, features a bunch of solid character actors, has beautiful New Mexico scenery… yet felt like a letdown to me. Maybe it’s because Mann and Stewart set the bar so high in their previous Westerns, but THE MAN FROM LARAMIE is an anti-climactic climax to the director/star duo’s pairings.

Stewart’s good as always, playing bitter Will Lockhart, whose brother was killed by Apaches and whose mission is to find out who’s selling the guns to them. But the film came off flat, feeling like just another routine Western – good, but not in the same category as WINCHESTER ’73 or BEND OF THE RIVER. Those Mann film noir touches are nowhere to be found, replaced by (dare I say it!)… soap opera elements!

Cathy…

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Horror Film Review: The Uninvited (dir by Lewis Allen)


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If you want to see a really good haunted house movie, allow me to recommend that you track down the 1944 film, The Uninvited.  The Uninvited may not have been the first movie about a haunted house but it’s definitely one the best and one of the most influential.  None other than Guillermo Del Toro has regularly cited The Uninvited as an inspiration and, as I watched the film last night, I could definitely see where the film had influence Del Toro’s Crimson Peak.

The Uninvited tells the story of Rick Fitzgerland (Ray Milland) and his sister, Pamela (Ruth Hussey).  They’ve just purchased a long-empty seaside house and, incredibly, they were able to get it at an amazingly low cost!  The house’s owner, the frail Commander Beech (Donald Crisp, alternating between being menacing and sympathetic), was apparently desperate to get rid of it.

Far less happy about the selling of the house is Beech’s granddaughter, the mysterious Stella (Gail Russell).  As Stella explains it, she grew up in the house, her mother died in the house, and Stella is still attached to the house.  Beech has ordered Stella to stay away from the house but, with Rick falling in love with her, Stella is soon visiting on a regular basis.

Of course, Stella isn’t the only unexpected visitor that the Fitzgeralds get to know.  It quickly becomes obvious that there’s something strange about the house.  Rick and Pamela discover an artist’s studio that is always cold.  They both hear the sound of a woman crying.  Beech claims that it’s nothing to worry about.  Old house make weird noises, he informs them.  However, Rick and Pamela start to become convinced that the house is haunted.

Stella not only agrees that the house is haunted but she also informs them that she knows the identity of the ghost.  It’s Stella’s mother!  But if that’s true, why does the ghost constantly seem to be encouraging Stella to put her life at risk?  Why does Stella go into a trance and, much as her mother did 16 years earlier, attempt to jump over the side of a cliff?

Is Stella’s mother trying to manipulate her daughter into joining her in death?  Or is there something even more sinister happening?

Well-acted and perfectly paced, The Uninvited is an effectively creepy film, one that remains memorable even 72 years after it was initially released.  Visually, The Uninvited resembles a film noir and, if not for a brief scene towards the end of the film, viewers would be justified in wondering if the house really is haunted or if everyone in the film is just letting the isolation and the shadowy atmosphere get to them.  It’s that hint of ambiguity that elevates The Uninvited and makes it a truly thought-provoking haunted house story.

 

Cleaning Out The DVR #18: How Green Was My Valley (dir by John Ford)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by this Friday.  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

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Before I really get into this review, I should admit that I watched How Green Was My Valley with a bias.

Before the movie started, I was expecting to be disappointed with it.  I think that a lot of film lovers would have felt the same way.  How Green Was My Valley won the 1941 Oscar for best picture.  In doing so, it defeated three beloved films that have only grown in popularity and renown since they were first released: Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, and The Little Foxes.  (As well, just consider some of the 1941 films that weren’t even nominated for best picture: Ball of Fire, The Devil and Daniel Webster, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, High Sierra, The Lady Eve, Never Give A Sucker An Even Break, The Sea Wolf, The Wolf Man, and Sullivan’s Travels.)  Because it defeated so many great films and since we’re all used to the narrative that the Academy always screws up, there’s a tendency to assume How Green Was My Valley was really bad.

Well, after years of assumptions, I finally actually watched How Green Was My Valley?  Was it bad?  No, not really.  Was it great?  No, not all.  If anything, it felt rather typical of the type of films that often win best picture.  It was well-made, it was manipulative enough to be a crowd-pleaser while serious enough to appeal to highbrow critics, and, perhaps most importantly, it never really challenged the viewer.  Unlike Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon, How Green Was My Valley is a film that doesn’t require that you give it too much thought and, as such, it really shouldn’t be surprising that it was named the best picture of the year.

How Green Was My Valley was directed by John Ford and, as you might expect from Ford, it deals with a changing way of life and features good performances and a few impressive shots of the countryside.  Taking place in the late 1800s, How Green Was My Valley tells the episodic story of the Morgans, a large family of Welsh miners.  The film is narrated by Huw (Roddy McDowall), a youngest member of the family.  Though Huw’s eyes, we watch as his once idyllic and green village is transformed by the growing mining industry and blackened with soot, poverty, and death.

The film starts out as a fairly even mix of sentiment and drama.  Huw has a crush on his brother’s fiancee.  His sister, Angharad (Maureen O’Hara), has a flirtation with the new preacher, Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon).  Much emphasis is put on communal gatherings.  There is a wildly joyful wedding celebration.  We often see the villagers in church and hear them singing both hymns and folk songs.  In their isolate village, they are are united against a changing world.

Or, at least, they think they are.  As the mining industry grows, that united front and sense of community starts to vanish.  A strike sets family members against each other, as each miner is forced to decide whether to side with management or with his fellow workers.  Each year, the wages become lower.  When management realizes that its cheaper to just continually hire new miners, several of the veteran workers are fired and end up leaving the village to seek a living elsewhere.  As new people come to the village, even Mr. Gruffydd finds himself the subject of gossip.

As for Huw, he grows up.  He goes to school, deals with a sadistic teacher, and learns how to defend himself against bullies.  And eventually, like everyone in his family, he is sent down into the mines and soon, his once innocent face is covered in soot.

And, of course, there’s a big tragedy but you probably already guessed that.  How Green Was My Valley is not a film that takes the viewer by surprise.

For the most part, it’s all pretty well done.  The big cast all inhabit their roles perfectly and Roddy McDowall is extremely likable as Huw.  Maureen O’Hara shows why she eventually became a star and even Walter Pidgeon gives a surprisingly fiery performance.  How Green Way My Valley is a good film but it’s too conventional and predictable to be a great film, which is why its victory over Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon will always be remembered as a huge Oscar injustice.

But, taken on its own terms and divorced from the Oscar controversy, How Green Was My Valley may be a conventional but it’s not a bad film.  It’s just no Citizen Kane.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #12: Jezebel (dir by William Wyler)


Jesebel_movieposterWe started out this day by taking a look at Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage so it seems only appropriate that today’s final entry in Embracing the Melodrama should be another film in which Bette Davis plays a potentially unlikable character who is redeemed by being the most interesting person in the film.

The 1938 best picture nominee Jezebel stars Bette Davis as Julie Marsden, a strong-willed Southern belle who lives in pre-Civil War New Orleans.  Julie is looking forward to an upcoming ball but is frustrated when her fiancée, boring old Pres (Henry Fonda), says that he has to work and declines to go shopping for a dress with her.  Impulsively, Julie does exactly what I would do.  She buys the most flamboyant red dress that she can find.

Back in the old South, unmarried women were expected to wear white to formal balls, the better to let everyone know that they were pure and innocent and waiting for the right man.  When Julie shows up in her red gown, it’s a scandal and, upon seeing the looks of shock and disdain on everyone’s faces, Julie wants to leave the ball.  However, Pres insists that Julie dance with him and he continues to dance with her, even after the orchestra attempts to stop playing music.

And then he leaves her.  At first, Julie insists to all who will listen that Pres is going to return to her but it soon becomes obvious that Pres has abandoned both Julie and Southern society.  Julie locks herself away in her house and becomes a recluse.

Until, a year later, Pres returns.  At first, Julie is overjoyed to see that Pres is back and she’s prepared to finally humble herself if that means winning back his love.  But then she discovers that the only reason that he’s returned to New Orleans is to warn people about the dangers of Yellow Fever.

Oh, and he’s also married.

To a yankee.

For the most part, Jezebel is a showcase for another fierce and determined Bette Davis performance.  It’s easy to be judgmental of a character like Julie Marsden but honestly, who doesn’t wish that they could be just as outspoken and determined?  It helps, of course, that the film surrounds Julie with a collection of boring and self-righteous characters, the type of people who you love to see scandalized.  Henry Fonda gives one of his more boring performances in the role of Pres while Margaret Lindsay, in the role of Pres’s Northern wife, is so saintly that she reminds you of the extremely religious girl in high school who would get offended whenever you came to school wearing a short skirt.  In a society as rigid, moralistic, and judgmental as the one portrayed in Jezebel, it’s impossible not to cheer for someone like Julie Marsden.

Add to that, I totally would have worn that red dress too!  In a world that insisted that all women had to act a certain way or look a certain way and think a certain way, Julie went her own way and, regardless of what boring old Pres may have thought, there’s a lesson there for us all.

When watching Jezebel, it helps to know a little about film history.  Bette Davis very much wanted to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind and was reportedly very disappointed when the role went to Vivien Leigh.  Depending on the source, Jezebel is often described as either being Davis’s audition for the role of Scarlett or as being a consolation gift for losing out on the role.  Either way, Jezebel is as close as we will ever get to seeing Bette Davis play Scarlett.  Judging from the film, Davis would not have been an ideal Scarlett.  (Whereas Gone With The Wind works because Leigh’s Scarlett grows stronger over the course of the film, Davis would have started the film as strong and had nowhere left to go with the character.)  However, Davis was a perfect Julie Marsden.

 

 

Shattered Politics #14: The Last Hurrah (dir by John Ford)


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Down here in Dallas, we have a county commissioner named John Wiley Price.  Even if you don’t live in Texas, you might have heard about him.  A few years ago, Price stormed out of a commissioners meeting while shouting, “All of you are white!  Go the Hell!”  It was a popular YouTube video for a while and attracted all of the usual type of comments that you see online.  It even made the national news.

Nobody down here in Dallas was surprised by Price’s outburst.  To us, that was just John Wiley being John Wiley.  For that matter, nobody was particularly surprised when it was reported that he was being investigated by the FBI.  Everyone always took it for granted that John Wiley Price was taking bribes and receiving kickbacks.  That’s just the way that things are done down here in Dallas, by politicians both white and black.  (Of course, most of the white politicians who do it don’t get publicly investigated by the FBI.)

Now, if you ask the majority of people in Dallas county what they think about John Wiley Price and they’ll probably say something negative.  I’ll admit that I would probably be among them.  But the thing is — John Wiley Price’s constituents love him.  John Wiley Price was first elected to the commissioner’s court before I was even born and, as long as he’s on the ballot, he will be reelected.  Even if Price is convicted on corruption charges, he will still be reelected.

I can still remember the night that it was announced that John Wiley Price was on the verge of being arrested by the FBI.  All across his district, emergency meetings were held in churches and ministers stood behind the pulpit and, while the TV cameras rolled, they called upon everyone to pray for John Wiley Price.  In Price’s district, he’s known as “our man downtown,” the idea being that John Wiley Price is standing up to the rich and white Dallas establishment and, if he makes some money for himself in the process, so be it.  As long as he’s doing right for the people who elected him, who cares how he does it?

And, as much as we may want to judge the John Wiley Prices of the world, the fact that of the matter is that he’s a part of a long American political tradition.  That political tradition is also the driving force behind today’s final entry in Shattered Politics.

First released in 1958 and directed by John Ford, The Last Hurrah tells the story of Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy), the mayor of an unnamed city in New England that’s obviously meant to be Boston.  Skeffington is the flamboyant head of a large and powerful (but, as the film makes clear, aging) Irish-American political machine.  He’s preparing to run for his fifth term for mayor, a campaign that he says will be his last.

Whether Frank Skeffington is a good mayor or not depends on who you ask.  The poor and the disenfranchised love him.  Skeffington, after all, is the son of Irish immigrants.  He was born poor.  His mother worked as a maid and was even fired by a member of the wealthy and influential Force family.  They know that Skeffington has had to cut corners and that he’s gone out of his way to reward his cronies but they also know that Skeffington is on their side.  Though the phrase is never used in the film, Skeffington is “their man downtown.”

Meanwhile, the wealthy and the upper class see Frank Skeffington as being a crook, a man who has run a corrupt administration and who uses class warfare to keep the city divided against itself and to make himself and his cronies rich.  Newspaper editor Amos Force (John Carradine) has thrown his considerable influence between Skeffington’s opponent, a wealthy but dull man named Kevin McCluskey.

Reporter Adam Caulfield (Jeffrey Hunter) is in an interesting position.  On the one hand, he is Skeffington’s nephew.  On the other hand, as a journalist, he works for Amos Force.  Skeffington invites Adam to follow and record his final campaign for posterity.

It’s interesting to compare The Last Hurrah to films like The Boss or All The King’s Men.  Whereas those two films came down squarely on the sides of the reformers, The Last Hurrah is firmly on the side of Frank Skeffington.  It presents Skeffington as being a sentimental figure, the type of old-fashioned, populist politician who won office by going out and meeting the people face-to-face and personally giving them a reason to vote for him.  As Skeffington himself points out, he’s the type of politician that will soon be made obsolete by television and modern campaigning.

And it’s impossible not to enjoy The Last Hurrah‘s refusal to pass judgment on its lead character.  It helps, of course, that Spencer Tracy plays Skeffington with a twinkle in his eye while all of his opponents are played by villainous and aristocratic character actors like John Carradine and Basil Rathbone.  Yes, the film says, Skeffington may have been corrupt but at least he wasn’t boring!

Finally, I enjoyed the film because all of the “good” guys were Irish Catholic and all of the bad guys most definitely were not.

So, with that last hurrah, we conclude Shattered Politics for today.  We’ll be back tomorrow, when we’ll start to get into the 1960s.

Sláinte!