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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Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: The Silver Chalice (dir by Victor Saville)


If you ever needed proof that everyone has to start somewhere, look no further than the 1954 biblical epic, The Silver Chalice.

The Silver Chalice features the film debut of Paul Newman, who later proved himself to be a legitimately great actor.  It’s true that, unlike a lot of actors, Newman made his debut in a starring role.  He never had to humiliate himself with any one-line roles or walk-on bits.  No, Paul got to humiliate himself with a starring role.

Paul Newman was 29 years old when he played Basil, a former slave turned sculptor.  Not only did Newman bear a disconcerting resemblance to Ben Savage (of Boy Meets World fame) but he gave a performance that was so bad that it’s kind of a shock that he ever worked again.  Basil is a passionate artist, one who survived being betrayed by his adopted family and slavery.  Newman comes across like a nice, young man from Iowa.  Usually, Newman looks miserable but occasionally, he flashes a somewhat weak smile.  When Basil gets mad, Newman speaks in a squeaky voice.  When Basil is feeling reverent, Newman furrows his brow like a hungover Russell Brand staring straight into the sun.

“But me and Topanga are soul mates…”

Then again, I’m not sure that any actor could have given a good performance as Basil.  The Silver Chalice has a terrible script, one that was written by Lesser Samuels.  (I’ll avoid the obvious joke about whether or not The Silver Chalice would have been better if written by Greater Samuels.)  Apparently, before Newman was cast, the producers pursued James Dean for the role.  I’m sure we all would have enjoyed seeing Dean slouch his way through the film but I doubt that even he could have done much with The Silver Chalice.

The Silver Chalice is based on a novel, which perhaps explains why there’s so many characters and so many unnecessary subplots.  Basil follows a path that will be familiar to anyone who has seen a 1950s biblical epic.  He’s a young Greek who is adopted into a noble Roman family.  When his kindly stepfather dies, Basil’s stepsiblings sell him into slavery.  It’s not an easy life but Basil is a talented sculptor so Joseph of Arimathea commissions him to make a silver chalice for the Holy Grail.  Basil goes from poor to rich to poor again to rich again to ultimately saved by grace.  He even gets to do the same walking towards Heaven thing that Richard Burton did at the end of The Robe.

Meanwhile, Simon Magus (Jack Palance) is wowing the citizenry with his magic tricks and claiming to be the risen Messiah.  Simon’s assistant just happens to be Helena, who knew Basil when he was younger.  Young Helena is played by dark-haired Natalie Wood.  Grown-up Helena is played by blonde Virgina Mayo.  They were both good actresses but there’s seriously no way that Natalie Wood would have ever grown up to be Virginia Mayo.

Jack Palance pretty much steals the movie, mostly because he gets to wear the silliest costumes:

Poor Paul Newman has to settle for a tunic and a miniskirt, while Jack Palance gets to wear this:

Personally, I’ve always enjoyed the story of Simon Magus.  He tried to show off by flying over the Roman Forum so St. Peter said a prayer and Simon promptly plunged to his death.  Take that, you Gnostic!

Another interesting thing about The Silver Chalice is that the sets are very deliberately fake.  I don’t mean that they look cheap.  I mean, much as in the style of German Expressionism, the sets are specifically designed to remind you that you’re watching a movie.

For instance, look at the wall behind Palance:

Look at this pleasure palace:

Look at Rome at night:

The sets are extremely dream-like and yet everything else about the film is extremely slow and conventional.  One wonders if director Victor Saville was trying to make an art film, though there’s nothing else in his long filmography that would suggest that Saville was anything other than a workmanlike director.  In fact, most biblical epics of the time took a lot of pride in looking as expensive and “accurate” as possible.  Major studios in the 1950s were not known for artistic experimentation, especially when it came to Biblical epics.  It’s hard to know what to make of The Silver Chalice‘s artistic flourishes, which is why it’s easier to just focus on what a terrible performance Paul Newman gives.

That’s certainly what Paul did!  In 1966, when The Silver Chalice finally premiered on TV, Newman took out a newspaper ad in which he apologized for his performance and then asked people not watch.  Apparently, he also used to show the movie during parties on the condition that his guests mock the film while watching it.

I don’t really blame him.  It’s an amazingly dull film and Newman looks absolutely miserable in nearly every other scene.  However, because it did star Paul Newman, The Silver Chalice will always have a life on TCM.

Speaking of TCM, they last broadcast this film on February 24th as part of their 31 Days of Oscar.  (It was nominated for both its sets and its score.)  That is when I recorded it.  And, after watching it yesterday, I was more than happy to erase it.

The Fabulous Forties #28: Jack London (dir by Alfred Santell)


Jack-London-1943

The 28th Film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was a 1943 biopic about the writer, Jack London.  Not surprisingly, the title of the film was Jack London.

Now, I should start this review off by mentioning that I know very little about Jack London.  I don’t think that I have ever read any of his short stories or his novels.  I know that he wrote a novel called White Fang but that’s largely because there’s been so many different film versions of the book.  (Long before directing Zombi 2, even Lucio Fulci made a version of White Fang.)  Here’s what I do know about Jack London:

  1. He was a prominent writer at the turn of the century.
  2. He was reportedly an alcoholic.
  3. He was a Socialist who even ran for mayor of Oakland, California on the party’s ticket.
  4. He was an atheist.
  5. In 1916, depending on the source, he either committed suicide, died of alcohol poisoning, or simply passed away as the result of 40 years of hard living.

Of those 5 facts, 4 are totally ignored in Jack London.  The film does acknowledge that Jack London eventually became a prominent writer, even going so far as to open with stock footage of a U.S. warship being named after him.

As for his alcoholism, we never see London drunk.  Indeed, the film’s version of Jack London is so earnest that it’s hard to believe he’s ever had a drink in his life.

As for his Socialism, we are shown that London grew up in a poor family.  When, after serving at sea, he takes a writing class, he argues with a professor over London’s desire to write about the poor.  However, we never hear London express any specific ideology.  We certainly don’t see him running for mayor of Oakland.

As for his atheism — yeah right.  This film was made in 1943!  There’s no way that Jack London was going to be portrayed as talking about why he didn’t believe in God.

As for his death — well, Jack London ends with the writer very much alive.  There’s not even a title card informing us that London eventually died.

Instead, Jack London is much more concerned with Jack (played by Michael O’Shea) dealing with the Japanese.  Oh sure, we get some scenes of Jack London watching a shootout and breaking up a bar fight in Alaska.  And Susan Hayward shows up as Jack London’s always supportive wife.  (For that matter, Louise Beavers also shows up as Jack London’s always supportive house keeper.)

But, in the end, the majority of the film features Jack London as a war correspondent covering the turn of the 20th century war between Russia and Japan.  When he’s captured by the Japanese, he observes the harsh way they treat prisoners and is shocked when he witnesses several prisoners being ruthlessly executed.  When he talks to a Japanese commandant, he’s outraged as the commandant explains how the Empire of Japan is planning to take over the world.  When Jack finally gets back to America, he’s less concerned with writing White Fang and more concerned with warning the American people to remain vigilant…

Jack London is basically wartime propaganda disguised as a biopic.  The entire point of the film seems to be that if Jack London was still alive, he would want the men in the audience to enlist and the women to buy war bonds.  None of it is subtle and, beyond its value as a time capsule of how Americans viewed the Japanese in 1943, none of it is particularly interesting as well.

In the end, Jack London plays out like one of those earnest but dull educational films that tend to show up on PBS when no one’s watching.

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.

 

 

 

Lisa Watches An Oscar Winner: The Best Years Of Our Lives (dir by William Wyler)


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I’ve seen The Best Years Of Our Lives on TCM a few times.  There’s a part of me that always wishes that this film was dull, in the way that many best picture winners can be when watched through modern eyes, or in any other way overrated.  The Best Years Of Our Lives won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1946 and in doing so, it defeated one of my favorite films of all time, It’s A Wonderful Life.  A part of me would love to be able to say that this was one of the greatest injustices of cinematic history but, honestly, I can’t.    The Best Years Of Our Lives is an excellent film, one that remains more than worthy of every award that it won.

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The film deals with veterans returning home from World War II and struggling to adjust to life in peacetime.  That’s a topic that’s as relevant today as it was back in 1946.  If there’s anything that remains consistent about human history it’s that there is always a war being fought somewhere and the man and women who fight those wars are often forgotten and abandoned after the final shot has been fired.  The returning veterans in The Best Years Of Our Lives deal with the same issues that our soldiers have to deal with today as they return from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Best Years Of Our Lives follows three veterans as they return home to Boone City, Ohio.  As they try to adjust to civilian life, their loved ones struggle to adjust to them.

 Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews

Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews

Fred Derry (played by Dana Andrews) is a self-described former soda jerk.  (To be honest, I’m really not sure what a soda jerk was but it doesn’t sound like a very fun job.)  During the war, he was a captain in the air force.  He returns home with several decorations and few marketable skills.  During the war, he was good at bombing cities but there’s not much that can be done with that skill during peacetime.  Nearly penniless, Fred takes a job selling perfume at a department store.  He spends his days trying to control her temper and not give into his frustration.  At night, he’s haunted by nightmares of combat.

Teresa Wright and Virginia Mayo

Teresa Wright and Virginia Mayo

Meanwhile, his wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo), finds herself resenting the fact that Fred has come home.  She married him while he was in flight training and, as quickly becomes obvious, she’s less enamored of Fred now that he’s just another civilian with a low-paying job.  (She continually begs him to wear the uniform that he can’t wait to take off.)  The Best Years Of Our Lives is a film full of great performances but Virginia Mayo really stands out.  I have to admit that, whenever I watch this film, I find myself envious of her ability to both snarl and smile at the same time.

Teresa Wright, Myrna Loy, Fredric March, and Michael Hall

Teresa Wright, Myrna Loy, Fredric March, and Michael Hall

Al Stephenson (Fredric March) was a bank loan officer who served as an infantry sergeant.  (It’s interesting to note that the educated and successful Al was outranked by Fred during the war.)  Al returns home to his loving wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), his daughter Peggy (the beautiful Teresa Wright), and his son, Rob (Michael Hall).  At first, Al struggles to reconnect with his family and he deals with the tension by drinking too much.  Rehired by the bank, he approves a risky loan to a fellow veteran.  After the bank president (Ray Collins, a.k.a. Boss Jim Gettys from Citizen Kane) admonishes Al, Al gives a speech about what America owes to its returning veterans.

Meanwhile, Peggy has fallen in love with Fred.  When Milly and Al remind her that Fred is (unhappily) married, Peggy announces, “I am going to break that marriage up!”  It’s a wonderful line, brilliantly delivered by the great Teresa Wright.

Harold Russell

Harold Russell

Marriage is also on the mind of Homer Parrish (Harold Russell).  A former high school quarterback, Homer was planning on marrying Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) as soon as he finished serving in the Navy.  During the war, he lost both his hands and now he’s returned home with metal hooks.  Homer locks himself away from the world.  When he finally does talk to Wilma, it’s to show her how difficult life with him will be.  Wilma doesn’t care but Homer does.

Harold Russell won an Academy Award for his performance here.  Russell was not a professional actor.  Instead he was a veteran and a real-life amputee.  Watching his performance today, it’s obvious that Russell was not an experienced actor but the natural charm that enchanted the Academy still shines through.

Harold Russell, Dana Andrews, and Fredric March

Harold Russell, Dana Andrews, and Fredric March

It’s been nearly 70 years since The Best Years Of Our Lives was first released but it remains a powerfully honest and surprisingly dark film.  All three of the veterans deal with very real issues and, somewhat surprisingly, the film refuses to provide any of them with the type of conventional happy ending that we tend to take for granted when it comes to movies made before 1967.  As the film concludes, Fred is still struggling financially.  Homer is still adjusting to life as an amputee.  Al is still drinking.   All three have a long road ahead of them but they’re all making progress.  None of them will ever be the same as they were before the war but, at the same time, they’re all working on making new lives for themselves.  They haven’t given up.  They haven’t surrendered to despair and, the film suggests, that is triumph enough.

The Best Years Of Our Lives is a great film and a great best picture winner.  It’s just a shame that it had to be released the same year as It’s A Wonderful Life.