The Fabulous Forties #27: Sundown (dir by Henry Hathaway)


40s

You may remember how, back in April, I started on a mission to review all 50 of the films included in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set.  I actually got off to a pretty good start and, by the end of the month, I was about halfway through.  Yay me!

However, then the month of May began.  And May turned out to be a very, very busy month.  As I sit here writing this, it’s been 27 days since I last posted a Fabulous Forties review.  That review was …. well, I can’t even remember what it was.  After I post this, I’ll click on this link to find out.

However, things have calmed down a bit and now I can go ahead and finish up the Fabulous Forties box set.  And that’s a good thing because, between me and you, I am more than ready to move on to the Nifty Fifties box set!

Anyway, without further ado, let’s consider the 27th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties, 1941’s Sundown!

Poster_of_the_movie_Sundown

Sundown was released by United Artists in 1941.  It’s a propaganda film, telling the story of British soldiers in North Africa and their attempts to both maintain the peace among the natives and to keep the Axis powers from arming the local rebels.  Bruce Cabot is the experienced soldier who knows how things work in Africa.  George Sanders is the new commander who is a bit more by-the-book.  At first, you think that the film is going to be dominated by the rivalry between Sanders and Cabot but actually it’s not much of a rivalry.  For the most part, they get along just fine and I guess that’s to be expected considering that the film was made at a time when the emphasis was on everyone remaining unified against the Nazis.

Speaking of the Axis powers, they’re always in hovering in the shadows of the film but it’s rare that we actually see any enemy soldiers.  Perhaps this is because the film was made at a time when the United States was technically neutral.  Joseph Calleia plays a prisoner of war who has rejected fascism and instead just wants to sing opera and cook for Sanders and Cabot.  Calleia’s character is specifically identified as being an Italian.  If not for that (and the fact that the film was made in 1941), it would be just as easy to assume that Sanders and Cabot were fighting the French or maybe the Russians.

There’s an enemy agent in one of the tribes and it’s up to Sanders and Cabot to figure out who.  Helping them out is the local big game hunter, played by Harry Carey.  And, on top of that, there’s also a mysterious native woman played by Gene Tierney.  Gene Tierney is totally miscast but that adds to this film’s odd charm.

And, for modern viewers, it definitely is an odd charm.  I watched Sundown twice and I’m still not sure exactly what happened in the film.  Sundown is one of those films that doesn’t so much have a plot as it just has a lot of scenes that kind of tell a story, assuming that you have the patience and concentration to figure out how they all link together.  Between Cabot’s roguish smile, Sanders’s stiff upper lip performance, Calleia’s enjoyable overacting, and Gene Tierney’s otherworldly beauty, Sundown is unexpectedly dream-like.  The film even features a sudden sermon in which a clergyman (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) exhorts everyone to fight.  The clergyman is never seen again.

Sundown was a strange movie, one that I often found myself struggling to follow.  It was also apparently a box office bomb, though it did receive 3 Oscar nominations.  One of those nominations was for Charles Lang’s cinematography and it was definitely deserved.  Even the version I saw (which suffered from a typically poor Mill Creek transfer) was still impressive to look at.

Insomnia File #1: The Story of Mankind (dir by Irwin Allen)


Story of Mankind

What’s an Insomnia File?  You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable?  This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If, last night, you were suffering from insomnia at 3 in the morning, you could have turned on TCM and watched the 1957 faux epic, The Story of Mankind.

I call The Story of Mankind a faux epic because it’s an outwardly big film that turns out to be remarkably small on closer inspection.  First off, it claims to the tell the story of Mankind but it only has a running time of 100 minutes so, as you can imagine, a lot of the story gets left out.  (I was annoyed that neither my favorite social reformer, Victoria C. Woodhull, nor my favorite president, Rutherford B. Hayes, made an appearance.)  It’s a film that follow Vincent Price and Ronald Colman as they stroll through history but it turns out that “history” is largely made up of stock footage taken from other movies.  The film’s cast is full of actors who will be familiar to lovers of classic cinema and yet, few of them really have more than a few minutes of screen time.  In fact, it only takes a little bit of research on the imdb to discover that most of the film’s cast was made up of performers who were on the verge of ending their careers.

The Story of Mankind opens with two angels noticing that mankind has apparently invented the “Super H-Bomb,” ten years ahead of schedule.  It appears that mankind is on the verge of destroying itself and soon, both Heaven and Hell will be full of new arrivals.  One of the angels exclaims that there’s already a housing shortage!

A celestial court, overseen by a stern judge (Cedric Hardwicke) is convened in outer space.  The court must decide whether to intervene and prevent mankind from destroying itself.  Speaking on behalf on humanity is the Spirit of Man.  The Spirit of Man is played by Ronald Colman.  This was Colman’s final film.  In his heyday, he was such a popular star that he was Margaret Mitchell’s first choice to play Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind.  However, in The Story of Mankind, Colman comes across as being a bit bored with it all and you start to get worried that he might not be the best attorney that mankind could have hired.

Even more worrisome, as  far as the future of mankind is concerned, is that the prosecutor, Mr. Scratch, is being played by Vincent Price.  Making his case with his trademark theatrics and delivering every snaky line with a self-satisfied yet likable smirk on his face, Vincent Price is so much fun to watch that it was impossible not to agree with him.  Destroy mankind, Mr. Scratch?  Sure, why not?  Mankind had a good run, after all…

In order to make their cases, Mr. Scratch and the Spirit of Man take a tour through history.  Mr. Scratch reminds us of villains like the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu (John Carradine) and the Roman Emperor Nero (Peter Lorre, of course).  He shows how Joan of Arc (Hedy Lamarr) was burned at the stake.  The Spirit of Man argues that, despite all of that, man is still capable of doing good things, like inventing the printing press.

And really, the whole point of the film is to see who is playing which historical figure.  The film features a huge cast of classic film actors.  If you watch TCM on a semi-regular basis, you’ll recognize a good deal of the cast.  The fun comes from seeing who tried to give a memorable performance and who just showed up to collect a paycheck.  For instance, a very young Dennis Hopper gives a bizarre method interpretation of Napoleon and it’s one of those things that simply has to be seen.

And then the Marx Brothers show up!

They don’t share any scenes together, unfortunately.  But three of them are present!  (No, Zeppo does not make an appearance but I imagine that’s just because Jim Ameche was already cast in the role of Alexander Graham Bell.)  Chico is a monk who tells Christopher Columbus not to waste his time looking for a quicker way to reach India.  Harpo Marx is Sir Isaac Newton, who plays a harp and discovers gravity when a hundred apples smash down on his head.  And Groucho Marx plays Peter Miniut, tricking a Native American chief into selling Manhattan Island while leering at the chief’s daughter.

And the good thing about the Marx Brothers is that their presence makes a strong argument that humanity deserves another chance.  A world that produced the Marx Brothers can’t be all bad, right?

Anyway, Story of Mankind is one of those films that seems like it would be a good cure for insomnia but then you start watching it and it’s just such a weird movie that you simply have to watch it all the way to the end.  It’s not a good movie but it is flamboyantly bad and, as a result, everyone should see it at least once.