The Last Gangster: James Cagney in WHITE HEAT (Warner Brothers 1949)


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When James Cagney burst onto the screen in THE PUBLIC ENEMY, a star was born. Cagney’s machine gun delivery of dialog, commanding screen presence, and take-no-shit attitude made him wildly popular among the Depression Era masses, if not with studio boss Jack Warner, with whom Cagney frequently battled over salary and scripts that weren’t up to par. Films like LADY KILLER , THE MAYOR OF HELL , and ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES made Cagney the quintessential movie gangster, but after 1939’s THE ROARING TWENTIES he hung up his spats and concentrated on changing his image. Ten years later, Cagney returned to the gangster film in WHITE HEAT, turning in one of his most memorable performances as the psychotic Cody Jarrett.

Cagney is older and meaner than ever as Jarrett, a remorseless mad-dog killer with a severe mother complex and more than a touch of insanity. Jarrett has frequent debilitating headaches…

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Cleaning Out The DVR #15: Random Harvest (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


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This morning, as a part of my continuing effort to watch 38 films by Friday and clean out the DVR, I watched Random Harvest, a romantic melodrama from 1942.

And when I say that Random Harvest is a melodrama, I’m not exaggerating.  During the first hour of the film, I found myself thinking that if Random Harvest were made today, it would probably be a Lifetime movie.  By the time the second hour started, I realized that it would actually probably be one of those heavily hyped miniseries that ends up being broadcast on A&E, Bravo, and Lifetime at the same time.  This is one of those big, epic stories where, every few minutes, a new plot twist emerges.

When the film opens during the first World War, John Smith (Ronald Colman) is a patient at a British asylum.  He knows that he was once a soldier.  He knows that he was gassed during a battle.  He knows that he’s recovering from extreme shell shock and it’s still a struggle for him to relate to other human beings. He knows that he will probably spend the rest of his life as a patient at the asylum.  He also knows that his name is not John Smith.  He’s not sure what his real name is because he suffers from amnesia.

One night, a message comes to the asylum.  The war has ended!  All of the doctor and orderlies go out to celebrate, leaving Smith unguarded.  Smith simply walks out of the asylum and eventually makes his way to a nearby town.  It’s there that he meets Paula (Greer Garson), a kind-hearted singer who invites Smith to join her traveling theatrical troupe.

Paula and Smith fall in love, end up getting married, and have a child together.  Paula encourages Smith to become a writer and eventually, a publisher in Liverpool asks to meet with him.  However, when Smith goes to Liverpool, he ends up getting hit by a car.  When he regains consciousness, he suddenly knows that his name is Charles Rainier and that he’s rich!  However, he no longer remembers that he was once named John Smith, that he’s married to Paula, or that he has a child.

The years pass.  Charles returns to his old life of servants, money, and political ambition.  His stepniece, Kitty (Susan Peters), falls in love with him but Charles, for his part, cannot stop wondering about what happened between getting gassed in World War I and getting hit by that car in Liverpool.

Meanwhile, Paula refuses to believe that Smith had abandoned her.  Even after she has him legally declared dead, she continue to believe that he’s out there.  And then one day, she sees a picture of Charles Rainier.  She also learns that Rainier needs an executive secretary, which just happens to be what Paula does when she’s not singing…

Just from reading that plot, you probably think that Random Harvest is an incredibly silly film, that type that, if it were made today, would star Katharine Heigl and maybe a British guy who had a minor role on Game of Thrones.  But, dammit, Random Harvest works!  Filmmakers in the 30s and 40s knew how to make this type of melodrama totally compelling and believable.  There’s not a hint of snarkiness or cynicism to be found in Random Harvest and, as a result, it feels almost churlish to criticize the plot for being implausible.  Sincerity saves this film.

Random Harvest was nominated for Best Picture but it lost to another film starring Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver.  However, Garson gave a far better performance in Random Harvest than she did in Miniver.  When you watch most of her film today, Greer Garson always comes across as talented but a little boring and obvious in her technique.  (She was the Meryl Streep of her day.)  In Random Harvest, Garson actually gets to sing and danger and laugh and behave like a human being.  After seeing her in Blossoms In The Dust, Mrs. Miniver, and Sunrise at Campobello, watching her performance in Random Harvest is akin to an acting revelation.

Meanwhile, Ronald Colman also does a great work at both Smith and Charles (and they really are two separate characters).  Admittedly, Colman does come across as being a little bit too old for the role (and the age difference between him and Susan Peters does add a certain odd subtext to the scenes between Charles and Kitty) but, otherwise, he’s totally and completely credible as the character.  When he’s Smith, he speaks in a halting, uncertain tone and he walks like he’s still learning how to put one foot in front of the other.  When he becomes Charles, he’s definitely more confident but he still moves like a man who feels as if it’s his duty to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders.

(I have to admit that I’ve always found it strange that Margaret Mitchell apparently wanted Ronald Colman to play Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind.  Watching his performance here, I still could not see Colman as Rhett but he would have made a great Ashley Wilkes.)

The beautiful Susan Peters was nominated for best supporting actress for her performance as Kitty.  Random Harvest was her first major role and she gives such a great and likable performance that it makes it all the more tragic that her career was cut short.  Just three years after appearing in Random Harvest, Susan was accidentally shot by her husband.  Though she survived, she would never walk again.  When she died, at the age of 31 in 1952, the official cause was pneumonia but it was also said that she had stopped eating and drinking and had literally lost the will to live.  Whether you love Random Harvest or you think it’s just a silly melodrama, you should watch it just to see Susan Peters’s great performance and to consider what could have been.

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.