A Movie A Day #155: Out of the Fog (1941, directed by Anatole Litvak)


When two aging fishermen (Thomas Mitchell and John Qualen) attempt to buy a new boat, they run into a problem with local mobster, Harold Goff (John Garfield).  As Goff explains, if they do not pay him $5.00 a week, something bad could happen to their boat.  When one of the fisherman’s daughter (Ida Lupino) falls in love with Goff, she makes the mistake of letting him know that her father is planning on giving her $190 so that she can take a trip to Cuba.  When Goff demands the money for himself, the fishermen attempt to go to the police, just to be told that there is nothing that the authorities can do.  Goff tricked them into signing an “insurance” contract that allows him to demand whatever he wants.  The two fishermen are forced to consider taking drastic measures on their own.  Out of the Fog is an effective, early film noir, distinguished mostly be John Garfield’s sinister performance as Harold Goff.

Out of the Fog is also memorable as an example of how Hollywood dealt with adapting work with political content during the production code era.  Out of the Fog was based on The Gentle People, a play by Irwin Shaw.  In the play, which was staged by The Group Theater in 1939, Harold Goff was obviously meant to be a symbol of both European fascism and American capitalism.  In the play, the two fisherman had Jewish names and were meant to symbolize those being persecuted by the Third Reich and its allies.  In the transition for stage to film, Jonah Goodman became Jonah Goodwin and he was played by the very talented but definitely not Jewish Thomas Mitchell.   The play ended with Harold triumphant and apparently unstoppable.  Under the production code, all criminals had to be punished, which meant the ending had to be changed.  Out of the Fog is an effective 1940s crime thriller but, without any political subtext, it lacks the play’s bight.

One final note: while Out of the Fog had a good cast, with up and comer John Garfield squaring against old vets Thomas Mitchell and John Qualen, the original Broadway play’s cast was also distinguished.  Along with contemporary film stars Sylvia Sidney and Franchot Tone, the play’s cast was a who’s who of actors and directors who would go on to be prominent in the 1950 and 60s: Lee J. Cobb, Sam Jaffe, Karl Malden, Martin Ritt, and Elia Kazan all had roles.

 

Bloody Pulp Fiction: THE SET-UP (RKO 1949)


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The seedy worlds of professional boxing and film noir were made for each other. Both are filled with corruption, crime, and desperate characters trapped in situations beyond their control.  Movies like CHAMPION, BODY AND SOUL, and THE HARDER THEY FALL expose the dark underbelly of pugilism. One of the best of this sub-genre is THE SET-UP, Robert Wise’s last film for RKO studios. He doesn’t fail to deliver the goods, directing a noir that packs a wallop!

THE SET-UP follows one night in the life of aging, washed up fighter Stoker Thompson ( Robert Ryan ). Stoker’s 35 now, ancient in boxing terms, but still has delusions of making the big time. Wife Julie (Audrey Totter ) is tired of going from one tank town to the next, and fears for Stoker’s safety. She refuses to go to tonight’s fight, a matchup with up and coming young contender Tiger…

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The Fabulous Forties #34: This Is The Army (dir by Michael Curtiz)


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The 34th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set is the 1943 musical, This is The Army.

This Is The Army is based on a Broadway musical that was specifically conceived and written by Irving Berlin as a way to boost wartime morale.  The show, which was a collection of patriotic songs and comedic skits, was performed by members of the U.S. Army.  The film version starts with dancer Jerry Jones (George Murphy) being drafted at the start of World War I and putting together an all-army revue called Yip Yip Yaphank.  (Interestingly enough, this was also the name of a real-life show that Irving Berlin put together during World War I.)  The show is a big hit and, when the soldiers in the cast receive their orders to head to France, they literally march off the stage and out the theater.  It’s actually a pretty rousing scene but it’s almost immediately followed by a very sad one, in which we learn that only three members of the cast survived the war.  Jerry Jones is shot in the leg and when he returns home, the former dancer now walks with a cane.

Twenty-five years later, another world war has broken out.  Jerry’s son, Johnny (Ronald Reagan), has joined the army.  Johnny is ordered to put together another revue, in the style of Yip Yip Yaphank.  At first, Johnny is reluctant but orders are orders.  Soon, Johnny and the cast of This Is The Army are touring the U.S. and even performing in front of President Roosevelt (played by Jack Young, though, from a historical perspective, wouldn’t it be neat if President Roosevelt had appeared as himself in a film with Ronald Reagan?).  Along the way, Eileen (Joan Leslie) tries to convince Johnny to marry her even though Johnny wants to wait until the war is over.

It’s really not much of a plot but then again, the film is about showcasing the musical performances.  The soldiers sing.  The soldiers dance.  The soldiers tell jokes and imitate people who were famous in 1943.  There are several scenes that attempt to wring laughs from soldiers dressed up like women.  What’s interesting is that, at a time when the army was still segregated, the performances in This Is The Army feature both white and black soldiers.  Irving Berlin apparently demanded that black soldiers be allowed to appear in both the stage show and the film and, as a result, the unit that performed This Is The Army was, for a time, the only integrated unit in the U.S. Army.

Of course, that makes it even odder that there’s an extended sequence in which white soldiers perform while wearing blackface and standing on a set that’s been designed to resemble a pre-Civil War plantation.  It’s a scene that pops out of nowhere and then it keeps going and going and going and I could only stare at the screen in shocked horror as it played out.  It’s an odd contradiction that the same Irving Berlin who demanded that black soldiers be honored on stage and screen was also apparently the same Irving Berlin was put a minstrel show sketch into the middle of This Is The Army. 

Interestingly enough, George Murphy later retired from acting and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1964.  Murphy’s success inspired his co-star, Ronald Reagan, to run for governor.  If Murphy had never been a senator, Reagan would probably never have been a president.  Both Reagan and Murphy give likable performances in This Is The Army and it’s easy to see how that likability, while it may not have often translated into great acting, did eventually lead to political success.

This Is The Army is a time capsule film, one that is mostly interesting as a view into the psyche of 1940s America.  The humor is often corny and the storyline is predictable but there’s also a very sad subtext to the film.  Since both the film and the stage show were performed by actual enlisted men, you watch with the knowledge that some of the men singing and joking on stage won’t return from the war.  Often times, during the performances, we see random people in the audience crying as they realize the same thing.  Even in an otherwise light-hearted film, the sobering realities of life during wartime are right beneath the surface.

Cleaning Out The DVR #32: Ninotchka (dir by Ernst Lubitsch)


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

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Oh my God, I love this movie!

First released in 1939, Ninotchka is many things.  It’s a love story.  It’s a comedy.  It’s a story of international intrigue.  It’s a political satire.  It’s a celebration of freedom.  And, perhaps most importantly, it’s a showcase for one of the greatest actresses of all time, the one and only Greta Garbo!

But you know what?  As great as Garbo is, she’s not the only worthy performer in this film.  Melvyn Douglas plays Garbo’s love interest and his performance is full of charm and class.  And guess who plays the main villain?  BELA LUGOSI!  That’s right — this was one of Lugosi’s few roles that did not require him to play a variation on his famous Dracula.  And, even if he doesn’t have a lot of scenes, Lugosi does a pretty good job in Ninotchka.  It’s interesting to see Lugosi playing an all-too real monster for once.

Ninotchka opens in Paris.  Three Russians are in town and they’re trying to sell some jewelry that was confiscated by the government during the revolution of 1917.  That’s right — they’re communists!  When they first show up in Paris, they make a big deal about hating the decadence of capitalism.  But then they meet Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), who proceeds to introduce them to the wonders of the free market.  Soon, the three of them are holed up in their luxurious hotel, ordering room service and having a nonstop party.

(Leon, incidentally, is working for the original owner of the jewelry.  The jewelry, as you’ve probably guessed, is what Hitchock would have called a macguffin.)

Once it becomes obvious that the first three Russians have been corrupted by western society, Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) is sent to bring them back to Moscow.  Ninotchka is a “special envoy” and, from the minute that she meets Leon, it’s obvious that she’s going to be a lot more difficult to corrupt.  For all of Leon’s charm, he cannot get Ninotchka to smile or drop her “all Marxist business” attitude.

Of course. from the minute that she first appears, we all know that Ninotchka is eventually going to loosen up and come to love both the west and Melvyn Douglas.  But what makes Garbo’s performance truly special is that we like and sympathize with Ninotchka even before she embraces decadence.  Even when Ninotchka is reciting Marxist-Leninist dogma, there’s a playfulness to the way Garbo delivers the lines.

That’s one reason why it’s so much fun to watch as Ninotchka (and Garbo) starts to actually relax and enjoy both Paris and life.  Wisely, the film doesn’t suggest that Paris has changed Ninotchka.  Instead, it merely shows that being in Paris and getting to know Leon has finally allowed her to act like the person that she was all along.

(Before her appearance in Ninotchka, Garbo was known for playing very dramatic roles.  Not only is this film about Ninotchka learning to enjoy herself.  It’s also about Garbo proving that she could play comedy just as well as she could play melodrama.)

Of course, eventually, Ninotchka and the three Russians are forced to return to Moscow and director Ernst Lubitsch does a wonderful job contrasting the glamour of freedom-loving Paris with the drabness of life under communism.  Just when it looks like Ninotchka is going to be forced to spend the rest of her life in her depressing apartment and missing the luxury of being able to wear silk stockings, her boss (Lugosi) tells her that she is being assigned somewhere else.  Ninotchka doesn’t want the assignment but, as Lugosi explains, the revolution doesn’t care what the individual wants.

Will Ninotchka and her friends ever find their way back to freedom and Leon?  Or will she remain trapped in the bureaucracy?  You’ll have to watch the film to find out!

I really liked Ninotchka.  Even 77 years after it was first released, it remains a wonderfully romantic and sweet-natured little comedy.  If you haven’t seen it, you definitely should!

Ninotchka was one of the many great films to be nominated for best picture of 1939.  However, the Oscar went to another famously romantic film, Gone With The Wind.

Cleaning Out The DVR: Yankee Doodle Dandy (dir by Michael Curtiz)


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So, today, I got off work so that I could vote in Texas’s Super Tuesday primary.  After I cast my vote (and don’t ask me who I voted for because it’s a secret ballot for a reason!), I came home and I turned on the TV and I discovered that, as a result of spending February recording countless films off of Lifetime and TCM, I only had 9 hours of space left on my DVR.  As a result, the DVR was threatening to erase my recordings of Bend It Like Beckham, Jesus Christ Superstar, American Anthem, an episode of The Bachelor from 2011, and the entire series of Saved By The Bell: The College Years.

“Acgk!” I exclaimed in terror.

So, I immediately sat down and started the process of cleaning out the DVR.  I started things out by watching Yankee Doodle Dandy, a film from 1942.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is a biopic of a songwriter, signer, and dancer named George M. Cohan.  I have to admit, that when the film started, I had absolutely no idea who George M. Cohan was.  Imagine my surprise as I watched the film and I discovered that Cohan had written all of the old-fashioned patriotic songs that are played by the Richardson Symphony Orchestra whenever I go to see the 4th of July fireworks show at Breckenridge Park.  He wrote You’re A Grand Old Flag, The Yankee Doodle Boy, and Over There.  Though I may not have heard of him, Cohan was an American institution during the first half of the 20th Century.  Even if I hadn’t read that on Wikipedia, I would have been able to guess from watching Yankee Doodle Dandy, which, at times, seems to be making a case for sainthood.

And that’s not meant to be a complaint!  74 years after it was originally released, Yankee Doodle Dandy is still a terrifically entertaining film.  It opens with George (played by James Cagney) accepting a Congressional Gold Medal from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  (We only see Roosevelt from behind and needless to say, the President did not play himself.  Instead, Captain Jack Young sat in a chair while FDR’s voice was provided by impressionist Art Gilmore.)  Cohan proceeds to tell Roosevelt his life story, starting with his birth on the 4th of July.  Cohan tells how he was born into a showbiz family and a major theme of the film is how Cohan took care of his family even after becoming famous.

The other major theme is patriotism.  As portrayed in this biopic, Cohan is perhaps the most patriotic man who ever lived.  That may sound corny but Cagney pulls it off.  When we see him sitting at the piano and coming up with the lyrics for another song extolling the greatness of America, we never doubt his sincerity.  In fact, he’s so sincere that he makes us believe as well.  Watching Yankee Doodle Dandy, I found myself regretting that I have to live in such an overwhelmingly cynical time.  If George M. Cohan was alive today, he’d punch out anyone who called this country “Murica.”

Yankee Doodle Dandy is an amazingly positive film.  There are a few scenes where Cohan has to deal with a few Broadway types who are jealous of his talent and his confidence but, otherwise, it’s pretty much one triumph after another for Cohan.  Normally, of course, there’s nothing more annoying than listening to someone talk about how great his life is but fortunately, Cohan is played by James Cagney and Cagney gives one of the best performance of all time in the role.

Cagney, of course, is best remembered for playing gangsters but he got his start as a dancer.  In Yankee Doodle Dandy, Cagney is so energetic and so happy and such a complete and totally showman that you can’t help but get caught up in his story.  When he says that, as a result of his success, things have never been better, you don’t resent him for it.  Instead, you’re happy for him because he’s amazingly talented and deserve the best!

Seriously, watch him below:

James Cagney won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance here.  Yankee Doodle Dandy was also nominated for best picture but lost to Mrs. Miniver.

I’m really glad that I watched Yankee Doodle Dandy today.  In this time of overwhelming negativity, it was just what I needed!

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.