Special Veterans Day Edition: John Wayne in SANDS OF IWO JIMA (Republic 1949)


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Critics of John Wayne gave him a lot of flak for not serving his country during World War II, especially in the turbulent 1960’s, labeling him a phony patriot and celluloid warrior. The truth is Wayne DID try to get into the war, but was stymied in his attempts on two fronts: Republic Studios boss Herbert Yates, who filed for deferments so he wouldn’t lose his cash cow, and Wayne’s first wife Josie, who failed to forward letters from OSS Chief Wild Bill Donovan’s office. Be that as it may, The Duke was no phony, and did what he could on the home front for the war effort.

SANDS OF IWO JIMA was made four years after the war as a tribute to the brave souls of the United States Marine Corps who fought against the Japanese in the South Pacific. Wayne plays the tough top kick Sgt. John Stryker…

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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 Watches An Oscar Nominee: Auntie Mame (dir by Morton DaCosta)


Oh Lord, Auntie Mame.

There were two reasons why I watched the 1958 film Auntie Mame.

First off, as I’ve mentioned before, TCM has been doing their 31 Days of Oscar this month.  They’ve been showing a lot of films — both good and bad — that were nominated for best picture.  Since it’s long been my goal to see and review every single film that has ever nominated for best picture, I have made it a point to DVR and watch every best picture nominee that has shown up on TCM this month.  Auntie Mame was nominated for best picture of 1958 and was broadcast on TCM this month so I really had no choice but to watch it.

My other reason for wanting to see Auntie Mame was because, when I was 19, I was cast in a community theater production of Mame.  (Mame, of course, is the musical version of Auntie Mame.)  Though everyone who saw the auditions agreed that I should have played the role of Gloria Upson, I was cast in the ensemble.  (Gloria was played by the daughter of a friend of the director.  Typical community theater politics.)  As a member of the ensemble, I didn’t get any lines but I still had fun.  In the opening party scene, I dressed up like a flapper and I got to show off my legs.  And then in another scene, I was an artist’s model and I got show off my cleavage.  (If you don’t use being in the ensemble as an excuse to show off what you’ve got, you’re doing community theater wrong.)  Towards the end of the play, I appeared as one of Gloria’s friends and whenever she delivered her lines, I would make sure to have the most over-the-top reactions possible.  She may have stolen the part but I stole the scene.  It was a lot of fun.

But, even while I was having fun, I have to admit that I didn’t care much for Mame.  It was an extremely long and kind of annoying show and there’s only so many times you can listen to someone sing We Need A Little Christmas before you’re tempted to rip out the hair of the actress who stole the role of Gloria Upson from you.

So, when I recently sat down and watched Auntie Mame, I was genuinely curious to see if the story itself worked better without everyone breaking out into song.  After all, Auntie Mame was the number one box office hit of 1958, it was nominated for best picture, and it was apparently so beloved that it inspired a musical!  There had to be something good about it, right!?

Right.

Auntie Mame tells the story of Mame Dennis (Rosalind Russell, attempting to be manic and just coming across as hyper) who is rich and quirky and irrepressibly irresponsible.  When her brother dies, Mame suddenly finds herself entrusted with raising his son, Patrick (played, as a child, by the charmless Jan Hadzlik and, as an adult, by the stiff Roger Smith).  Mame is a wild nonconformist (which I suppose is easy to be when you’ve got as much money as she does) and she tries to teach Patrick to always think for himself.  However, once Patrick grows up and decides that he wants to marry snobby Gloria Upson, Mame decides maybe Patrick shouldn’t think for himself and goes out of her way to prevent the wedding.

Auntie Mame is an episodic film that follows Mame as she goes through a series of oppressively zany adventures.  When the Great Depression hits, she’s forced to work as an actress, a saleswoman, and a telephone operator and she’s not very good at any of them.  She does eventually meet and marry the wealthy Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside (Forrest Tucker).  As you can probably guess from the man’s name, he’s supposed to be from the south.  (And yet Tucker plays the role with a western accent…)  He loves Mame but then he ends up falling off a mountain.  So much for Beau.

(In the production of Mame that I appeared in, Beau was played by this 50 year-old guy who simply would not stop hitting on me and every other girl in the cast and who was always “accidentally” entering the dressing room while we were all changing.  Whenever Mame mentioned Beau’s death, all of us ensemble girls would cheer backstage.)

Anyway, as a film, Auntie Mame doesn’t hold up extremely well.  I can understand, to an extent, why it was so popular when it was first released.  It was an elaborate adaptation of a Broadway play and, in 1958, I’m sure that its theme of nonconformity probably seemed somewhat daring.  When you watch it today, though, the whole film seems almost oppressively heavy-handed and simplistic.  It’s easy to embrace Mame’s philosophy when everyone else in the film is essentially a sitcom creation.

As I mentioned previously, Auntie Mame was nominated for best picture.  However, it lost to the musical Gigi.

Film Review: Barquero (1970, directed by Gordon Douglas)


barquero-movie-poster-1970-1010695655Travis (Lee Van Cleef) is a former gunslinger who now makes his living taking settlers across a river on his small barge.  When we first meet him, he is telling a child to shut up and stop bothering him while he is guiding the barge.  He depends on the settlers on the other side of the river for his livelihood and they depend on him for transportation but he doesn’t like them and they don’t like him.  Travis only cares about two people, his Mexican lover, Nola (Maria Gomez) and an eccentric hunter named Mountain Phil (Forrest Tucker).

After stealing a shipment of silver, outlaw Jake Remy (Warren Oates) and his army of mercenaries need to cross the river to escape into Mexico.  To prevent anyone from following, they plan to destroy the barge afterward.  However, Travis and Phil find out that Remy is on the way and take the barge to the other side of the river.  When Jake and his gang arrive, a tense stand-off ensues, with the outlaws on one side of the river and Travis and the settlers trapped on the other.

Though Barquero was directed by the veteran American director Gordon Douglas (Douglas’s best known film is the 1950s giant ant film, Them!),  it was heavily influenced by contemporary Spaghetti Westerns and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.  This can be seen in both its graphic violence and in the casting of Lee Van Cleef and Warren Oates in the leading roles.

Travis was a perfect role for Van Cleef, a talented actor who was ignored by Hollywood until he found fame playing ruthless villains in European westerns.  Surly and unsmiling, Travis may seem like an unlikely hero but, like many of the best Spaghetti westerns, there are no traditional good guys in Barquero.  Travis is more interested in saving his boat than protecting the settlers.  He is a hero of circumstance.

As Jake, Warren Oates is a great villain.  In his very first scene, he and a prostitute watch as his gang massacre the citizens of a small town.  When the prostitute asks if she can come with them, Jake calmly replies, “I don’t think so” and shoots her dead.  Stuck on his side of the river, Jake smokes the local weed and starts to have violent hallucinations.  Soon, he is shooting bullets into the river.

Also doing good work are Forest Tucker as Mountain Phil and Kerwin Mathews.  Mathews, who is best remembered for starring in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, plays the Marquette, a disgraced French nobleman who has started a second life as Jake Remy’s right-hand man.

Barquero starts with a bang but it struggles to keep up the momentum over its entire running time.  The opening shoot out is exciting but things slow down almost too much during the stand-off at the river.  It is an interesting but flawed western that deserves to be better known than it is and worth watching to see Lee Van Cleef and Warren Oates at their best.

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Embracing the Melodrama Part II #56: Walking Tall: Final Chapter (dir by Jack Starrett)


sq_final_chapter_walking_tallFor one last time, Buford Pusser is back!  The 1977 film Walking Tall: Final Chapter ends the story that was begun in Walking Tall and continued in Walking Tall Part II.  And it turns out that the final chapter is pretty much just like the previous two chapters.  In fact, I’m tempted to just tell you go reread my review of Walking Tall Part II because that review works just as well for most of the Final Chapter.

Final Chapter starts with footage from the first Walking Tall, with Bo Svenson awkwardly inserted in place of Joe Don Baker.  Once again, we watch as Elizabeth Hartman is shot in the back of the head and Svenson — in the role of Buford Pusser — is shot in the face.  Oh my God, we think, how many times can the exact same thing happen to the exact same character!?

Oh wait — it turns out that Buford is just remembering the death of his wife.  Buford is still haunted by that day and he’s still out for vengeance.  For the next hour or so, we follow Buford as he and his deputies blow up moonshiners across Tennessee.  After each arrest, an attorney shows up and yells at Buford for violating everyone’s civil rights.  In response, Buford smirks until the attorney gets so mad that he decides to run for sheriff himself.

Buford doesn’t give his opponent much of a chance.  As one of his deputies puts it, this guy is just a “bleeding heart liberal.”  (But if he’s so liberal, what’s he doing in Tennessee?  Off with you, sir — return to Vermont!)  Instead of campaigning, Buford spends his time hunting down more moonshiners.  When he discovers that one moonshiner is also an abusive father, he personally drives the man’s son down to the local orphanage.  Oddly enough, Buford does not offer to adopt the kid himself.

Anyway, to the shock of everyone, Buford is not reelected.  No longer sheriff, he struggles to find a full-time job and makes plans to run in the next election.  One of the moonshiners shows up and taunts Buford until Buford is forced to beat him up in the middle of the street.  The new sheriff show up and demands to know what happened.  None of the townspeople are willing to snitch on Buford.  Good for them!

After about an hour and a half of this, something interesting actually happens.  A film producer drives up to the Pusser Farm and tells Buford that he wants to make a movie out of his life.  “We’re going to tell the story exactly how it happened!” the producer assures him.  In the next scene, Buford is advising the director of Walking Tall on how to properly film a car chase.

And you know what?  These scenes of Buford watching his life story be filmed are actually rather charming.  For the only time in the series, Bo Svenson actually appears to be having fun in these scenes.  And, when Buford runs from a theater while watching the recreation of his wife’s murder, it’s actually a very effective moment.

Anyway, there’s not much running time left after all of that.  We see Buford sign a contract to play himself in the sequel and, by this point, we all know what happened afterward.  Buford was killed in a mysterious car accident.  But fear not!  The film opens with a heavenly choir and Svenson’s voice booming from the heavens so we all know that Buford Pusser is arresting moonshiners in Heaven.

And good for him!

Peace be with you, Buford Pusser.