Sail Away: John Wayne in John Ford’s THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (United Artists 1940)


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This is my third year participating in the TCM Summer Under the Stars blogathon hosted by Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film , and second entry spotlighting Big John Wayne . The Duke and director John Ford made eleven films together, from 1939’s STAGECOACH to 1963’s DONOVAN’S REEF.  Wayne’s role in the first as The Ringo Kid established him as a star presence to be reckoned with, and the iconic actor always gave credit to his mentor Ford for his screen success. I recently viewed their second collaboration, 1940’s THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, a complete departure for Wayne as a Swedish sailor on a tramp steamer, based on four short plays by Eugene O’Neill, and was amazed at both the actor’s performance and the technical brilliance of Ford and his cinematographer Gregg Toland  , the man behind the camera for Welles’ CITIZEN KANE.

THE LONG VOYAGE HOME is a seafaring saga…

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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.

 

Special Memorial Day Edition: THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS (20th Century-Fox 1944)


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War is hell, not only on the participants, but on those left home waiting for word on their loved ones, dreading the inevitable. THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS is based on the true story of five brothers who served and died together as shipmates, and their family. It’s a story of patriotism, of grief and loss, and its penultimate moment will rip your heart out. Finally, it’s an American story.

The Sullivans are a proud, close-knit Irish Catholic family living in Waterloo, Iowa. Patriarch Tom (played by Thomas Mitchell ) is a loyal railroad man whose five sons (George, Frank, Joe, Matt, and Al) climb the water tower every day to wave goodbye as the train pulls out. Mother Alleta (Selena Royale) keeps the family fires burning, with the help of daughter Gen. The scrappy brothers are a pint-sized version of the Dead End Kids, getting into mischief like a Donnybrook with neighborhood kids on little…

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Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: High Noon (dir by Fred Zinnemann)


(I am currently in the process of cleaning out my DVR!  I recorded the 1952 best picture nominee, High Noon, off of Retroplex on January 28th.  This review is scheduled to posted at 12 noon, central time.  Clever, no?)

High Noon is a testament to the power of simplicity.

It’s a famous film, one that continues to be influential and which is still studied today.  It’s known for being one of the greatest westerns ever made but it’s also a powerful political allegory.  Even people who haven’t seen the film know that High Noon is the moment of the day when someone shows their true character.  Just as everyone knows the plot of Star Wars, regardless of whether they’ve actually watched the film, everyone knows that High Noon is about a town marshal who, after the entire town deserts him, is forced to face down a gang of gunmen on his own.

And yet, it really is a surprisingly simple movie.  It’s the quintessential western, filmed in black-and-white and taking place in the type of frontier town that you would expect to find hiding on the back lot of an old movie studio.  Though wonderfully brought to life by a talented cast, the majority of the characters are familiar western archetypes.

There’s the aging town marshal, a simple man of integrity.  Gary Cooper won an Oscar for playing the role of Will Kane.  When we first see Will, he’s getting married in a frontier courtroom.  All of the town leaders have come to his wedding and all of them wish him luck in the future.  Will is retiring and everyone agrees that the town would never have survived and prospered if not for Will Kane.  After all, Will is the one who captured the notorious outlaw, Frank Miller.  When the news comes that Miller has been pardoned and will be arriving back in town on the noon train, everyone tells Will that he should just leave town and go on his honeymoon.  However, the new marshal will not be arriving for another day and Will is not willing to abandon the town.  However, the town is more than willing to abandon him.

Will’s new wife is Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly).  Amy is a Quaker and a pacifist.  Amy begs Kane to leave town but Kane says that he’s never run from a fight.  Amy tells him that she’ll be leaving on that noon train, with or without him.  Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado) is the former girlfriend of both Kane and Miller.  She is one of the few people in town to call out everyone else’s cowardice but she is still planning to leave before Miller arrives.  As she explains it to Amy, she would never abandon Kane if he were her man but he’s not her man anymore.

The townspeople, who first appear to be so friendly and honest, soon prove themselves to be cowards.  None of them are willing to stand behind Will.  The Mayor (Thomas Mitchell) publicly castigates Will for staying in town and putting everyone else in danger.  Deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) says that he’ll only help Will if Will recommends him as his replacement.  The town minister (Morgan Farley) is more concerned with why Will was married by the justice of the peace, instead of in the church.  The town judge (Otto Kruger) leaves early, saying he can be a judge in some other town.  One of the few people to show Will any sympathy is the former marshal (Lon Chaney, Jr.) but, unfortunately, he is too old and crippled by arthritis to provide any help.

Though it all, Frank’s gang sits at the train station and waits for Frank to arrive.  One gang member is played be Lee Van Cleef.  He looks really mean!

With a brisk running time of 84 minutes, High Noon unfolds in real time.  Throughout the film, as Kane grows increasingly desperate in his attempt to find anyone brave enough to stand with him, we see clocks in the background of nearly every scene.  We hear the ticking.  We know that both noon and Frank Miller are getting closer and closer.  We know that, soon, Will will have no other option but to stand on the street by himself and defend a town that doesn’t deserve him.

It’s simple but it’s undeniably powerful.

It’s been said that High Noon was meant to be a metaphor for the blacklist.  Frank Miller and his gang were the fascists that, having been defeated in World War II, were now coming back to power.  Will Kane was a stand-in for all the men and women of integrity who found themselves blacklisted.  The townspeople represented the studio execs who refused to challenge the blacklist.  That’s the theory and it’s probably true.  But, honestly, the political metaphor of High Noon works because it can be applied to any situation.  Will Kane is anyone who has ever had to face down the forces of totalitarianism.  He is anyone who has ever had the courage to take a lonely stand while everyone else cowered in the corner.

It’s a powerful metaphor and it’s also a genuinely entertaining movie.  The gunfight is thrilling.  The romance between Will and Amy feels real.  Even the town feels like an actual place, one that has its own history and culture.  It’s a simple film but it’s a great film.

Like a lot of great films, High Noon was nominated for best picture.  And, like a lot of great films, it lost.  In High Noon‘s case, it lost to a film that is almost its exact opposite, The Greatest Show on Earth.  However, Gary Cooper did win an Oscar for his unforgettable performance as Will Kane.

I think we tend to take classic films for granted.  Don’t do that with High Noon.  See it the next chance you get.

Lisa Reviews an Oscar Nominee: Our Town (dir by Sam Wood)


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(SPOILERS BELOW!  THE END OF THIS FILM WILL BE REVEALED!  I will also be revealing who played George Gibbs but that’s probably not as big a spoiler.  It depends how you look at it.)

I was only 15 years old when I first read Our Town.  Because I was a theater nerd, I knew a little about the play.  For instance, I knew it took place in a small town.  I knew that it was narrated by a character known as the Stage Manager.  I knew that the play was meant to be performed on a bare stage, with no sets or props.  What I did not know, as I innocently opened up that booklet, is that Our Town is probably one of the most traumatically depressing plays ever written.

When the stage manager appears at the start of the play and talks about the town of Grover’s Corner, he lulls you into believing that you’re about to see a sentimental, comedic, and old-fashioned celebration of small town life.  We meet the characters and they all seem to be quirky in a properly non-threatening way.  Joe Crowell shows up delivers a newspaper to Doc Gibbs.  The stage manager mentions that Joe will eventually grow up to attend to M.I.T.

“Awwwww!  Good for Joe!” the audience says.

And, the Stage Manager goes on to inform us, as soon as Joe graduates, he will be killed in World War I, his expensive education wasted.

Okay, the audience thinks, that was a dark moment but this play was written at a time when World War I was still fresh on everyone’s mind.  Surely the rest of the play will not be quite as dark…

And fortunately, George Gibbs and Emily Webb show up.  They’re young, they’re likable, and they’re in love!  George and Emily get married and they’re prepared to live a long and happy life in our town!  Good for them!  YAY!

And then Act III begins…

Oh my God, Act III.  Act III begins with almost everyone dead.  Emily died in child birth so she hangs out at the local cemetery and talks to all the other dead people, the majority of whom only have vague memories of their former lives.  Emily relives the day of her 12th birthday and discovers that it’s too painful to remember what it was like to once be alive.  Emily asks the Stage Manager if anyone truly appreciates life.  The Stage Manager replies, “No.”  In the world of the living, George Gibbs sobs over his wife’s grave….

And the play ends!

OH MY GOD!

Seriously, reading Our Town was probably one of the most traumatic experiences of my life!

The 1940 film version of Our Town is a little less traumatic because it changes the ending.  In the film version, Emily doesn’t die.  She nearly dies while giving birth to her second child and the entire third act of the play is basically portrayed as being a near-death hallucination.  But, in the end, she survives and she comes through the experience with a new found appreciation for life.

And it’s certainly the type of happy ending that I was hoping for when I first read the play but, as much as I hate to admit it, the story works better with Emily dying than with Emily surviving.  The play presents death as being as inevitable as life and love and it makes the point that there’s nothing we can do to truly prepare for it.  By allowing Emily to live, the film gives us a ray of hope that wasn’t present anywhere else in Our Town.  The happy ending feels inauthentic.  If Emily could live then why couldn’t Joe Crowell?  For that matter, why did Emily’s younger brother have to die of a burst appendix on a camping trip?

But, other than the changed ending, Our Town is a pretty good adaptation of the stage play.  While the film features an actual set (as opposed to the bare stage on which theatrical versions of Our Town are meant to be performed), director Sam Wood does a good job of retaining the play’s surreal, metatheatrical style.  Making good use of shadow and darkness, Wood and cinematographer Bert Glennon made Grover’s Corner seem like a half-remembered memory or a fragment of a barely cohesive dream.

Frank Craven, who originated the role on Broadway, is properly dry as the Stage Manager and, in the role of Doc Gibbs, Thomas Mitchell is so sober and respectable that it’s hard to believe that, in just 6 years, the same actor would play the delightfully irresponsible Uncle Billy in It’s A Wonderful Life.  Emily and George are played by Martha Scott and an impossibly young William Holden, both of whom give wonderfully appealing performances.

With the exception of that changed ending, Our Town is a worthy adaptation of a classic play.  It was nominated for Best Picture but lost to another literary adaptation, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

A Star is Born in Monument Valley: John Wayne in John Ford’s STAGECOACH (United Artists 1939)


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If you think the characters and Western tropes in STAGECOACH are familiar, you’re right. But let’s be clear… STAGECOACH introduced many of these now-clichéd devices to film, and is one of the enduring classics of the American West. Director John Ford was well versed in Westerns, having cut his professional teeth on them during the silent era. This was his first sound Western and Ford was determined to reinvent the genre, with much more adult themes than the usual Saturday matinée kiddie fare. He succeeded with a daring story featuring an outlaw and a prostitute as his heroes, and exceeded his goal by creating a brand new Hollywood star in the process: John Wayne.

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Wayne had been a football player for the USC Trojans when an injury caused him to lose his scholarship. Through some university connections, he was able to gain employment in the film industry as a prop…

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Sci-Fi Film Review: When the Sky Falls (dir by John L’Ecuyer)


I guess it’s open to debate as to whether or not When The Sky Falls is truly a science fiction movie.  It deals with a huge storm that basically produces extremely powerful lightning and the lightning occasionally appears to have a mind of its own.  I have no idea if there’s any scientific basis for this.  I don’t really understand how lightning works, other than the fact that you don’t want to stand under a tree in a lightning storm and you definitely do not want to get struck.

But, regardless of whether the film is scientifically accurate or not, I still feel like this should be considered a science fiction movie.  First off, there’s the fact that the lightning itself often does seem to be intentionally targeting the film’s heroes.  Though the film never specifically states this as fact, it does seem as if the lightning has developed enough of a personality to hold a grudge against those attempting to escape it.  Secondly, the film’s main character is an ozone researcher and that just seems like an appropriate job for a character in a science fiction film.  And finally, despite the fact that it premiered on the Lifetime Movie Network, the entire film feels like it belongs on the SyFy network.

Seriously, everything about this film — from the acting to the cheap but crudely effective special effects to the environmentalist protagonist — feels reminiscent of a pre-Sharknado SyFy film.  (It’s easy to forget that, before Sharknado, SyFy films pretended to take themselves seriously.)  The plot even follows the standard SyFy formula — a dysfunctional family spends the weekend at a cabin in the woods and end up getting separated once the big lightning storm strikes.  They start out arguing and they end up depending on each other for survival.  And, perhaps most importantly of all, Dad gets to prove that he’s not as lame as everyone thinks.  If Lifetime films all build up to that moment when everyone realizes that mom was correct, SyFy films often celebrate the uncool but capable father figure.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about When The Sky Falls is that it was even on Lifetime Movie Network to begin with.  Compared to more traditional LMN films — like Confessions of a Go-Go Girl and The Perfect TeacherWhen The Sky Falls feels a bit out-of-place.  Perhaps next year, SyFy will return the favor and produce a sequel to Back To School Mom.

But anyway, what about the film itself?  In no way can it compare to either SyFy or Lifetime at its best.  The script is predictable, the actors struggle with some seriously undeveloped characters, and the film never finds a steady pace.  Some parts of the film seem way too slow while others seem to be oddly rushed.  On the plus side, when taken on their own terms, some of the lightning effects are kind of fun and the film was shot in Canada so, at the very least, you get to see some really pretty scenery.

Seriously, I love Canada!

Love you, Canada!

Love you, Canada!