Month: June 2012

Mrs. Miniver’s War Effort

This post is part of the William Wyler Blogathon hosted by The Movie Projector, which runs June 24-29. You won’t want to miss it!

It's just bombs, darling

Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon as the Minivers during The Blitz.

Yes, Dear Reader, we can tell you’re in the mood for a Movie Of Influence; a film that may have Changed The Course Of History.

You think we’re pulling your leg? No! We would never joke about such a movie as this. Look:

  1. Acclaimed director William Wyler used this movie to help persuade the American public to support World War II.
  2. Winston Churchill felt this movie positively affected the outcome of the war.
  3. The sermon delivered by the vicar at the movie’s conclusion was published in Time magazine and printed on leaflets dropped over Europe.

You could argue that it was one of the most influential films during the second world war. Even Hollywood thought so; this movie received six Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

The 1942 war film Mrs. Miniver, starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon chronicles the life of a middle-class British family during the early days of WWII. The movie is based on a series of London newspaper columns by Jan Struther, which later became a book, then a Hollywood movie.

Wyler is still regarded as one of the best directors Hollywood ever produced, and Mrs. Miniver is one example why. The film opens with the Minivers living a bucolic life in a quaint village in southern England. In the opening scenes we see Garson as Mrs. Miniver, buying a silly hat and then fretting about catching her train. Wyler uses scenes like this to impress upon us that the Minivers’ pre-war life is lovely and sweet, hardly touched by the cruelties of life.

But it’s a set-up, all this cheery complacency. As the audience, we feel a little uneasy because we know that trouble’s brewin’ across the Channel.

With this movie, Wyler tells us to be patriotic and to rally around the cause. He tells us that to overcome great evil, one must make great sacrifice. And he warns us – without expressly saying so – that the Minivers will have to make such a sacrifice. (We dare not reveal any more of the plot for fear of giving away the shocking twist in the story.)

Greer Garson is almost a bit too glamourous for the role of an English housewife, but she still manages to be believable. Walter Pidgeon (with an American accent that is never explained) gives a charming performance as a man who greatly admires his wife. Clearly, this is Garson’s movie and Pidgeon seems comfortable with his role as “the husband”.

Mrs. Miniver reminds us that ordinary people who overcome extraordinary circumstances are society’s heroes. During war, it is not always the generals or the admirals who win the battles. Wyler shows us that heroes are people with the courage and strength to grind through the tough business. They are the ones to be praised.

Mrs. Miniver: starring Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright. Written by Arthur Wimperis, Arthur Froeschel, James Hilton. Directed by William Wyler. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, B&W, 1942, 135 mins.

Adventure in the High Antarctic

We could always hop aboard a penguin sight-seeing cruise

R.F. Scott and the boys, en route to the South Pole.

Have you ever wanted to go on an adventure that tests you so thoroughly you don’t know if you’ll come through it intact?

That type of experience never puts us in a cheery mood. We would much rather watch these types of undertakings from the comfort of our living room.

For example, look at the 1948 British adventure flick, Scott of the Antarctic, a grim re-enactment of Robert Falcon Scott’s 1911-12 expedition to the South Pole. Scott, a former naval officer, is consumed with being the first person to reach the South Pole.

This is a tense, tense film that makes you feel utter despair at times. We’re not joking when we say you’ll be reaching for your sweater when watching this; the sound of the Antarctic wind is that chilling.

As you might imagine, Scott and his team are up against it on all sides. Not only must they contend with the weather and inhospitable landscape, they’re racing against another team! Can you just imagine? You finally raise enough cash to get to the South Pole and suddenly someone else is threatening to beat you to it.

Scott’s competitor is famed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, a person who is never shown in the film but is an ever-present monkey on Scott’s back.

Much of the movie was filmed outside, in the desolate snow of Norway. The actors pull sleds through deep snow, slide on ice and pour tea inside cramped tents. No scenes shot in front of a green screen here; this film-making is about authentic as it gets.

This is not a movie that spares you any of the savage realities of travelling through the Antarctic in the days before penguin sight-seeing cruises. Prior to embarking on his expedition, Scott is advised to not bring motorized sleds. Dogs are much more useful, he is told, because once “a dog is finished, he is still useful to the other dogs.”

Yikes! Now that we’ve almost frightened you away, let us point out that the acting in the movie is pitch-perfect. Expedition leader Scott is portrayed by the great John Mills who, as it turns out, has a passing resemblance to the real Scott.

Then there’s James Robert Justice, who plays injured team member Evans. In one scene, there is a close-up of Evans against the bitter white snow: his face reveals his determination despite his physical pain; then the realization that he is unable keep up with the others; and, finally, the knowledge that he’s going to die, here, at the bottom of the world.

Plus! We have the legendary Director of Photography, Jack Cardiff. He has captured some amazing images: penguins squirting out of the water and onto the ice; dancing green northern lights; icebergs resting majestically in the ocean; sled dogs breaking out of drifts of snow after a night’s sleep.

Scott of the Antarctic is a haunting, well-acted, superbly filmed movie that was the #4 box-office draw in Britain in 1948. In our opinion, it is one of the best adventure movies made, ever.

If you are looking for a rugged Antarctic adventure, we suggest you first try Scott of the Antarctic. It may save you a bit of plane fare.

Scott of the Antarctic: starring John Mills, Harold Warrender, Diana Churchill. Written by Ivor Montagu, Walter Meade, Mary Haley Bell. Directed by Charles Frend. Ealing Studios, Colour, 1948, 110 mins.

Everyone’s a Winner with Auntie Mame

This post is part of a Book-to-Film Series hosted by the fabulous Lindsey at The Motion Pictures. The series runs until June 30.

Not so fast, dah-ling

Rosalind Russell ends up sporting every bracelet in the Warner Bros. Props Department.

It is hard to imagine a family relative more flamboyant than Rosalind Russell in the legendary 1958 comedy Auntie Mame.

Briefly: Auntie Mame is about an orphaned boy (Jan Handzlik) who is shipped to Manhattan to live with his unconventional aunt, a lavish woman who wears bracelets up to there. Auntie Mame lives in a posh two-storey apartment and throws over-sized parties for artists, free-thinkers and world travellers.

Who can out-shine, out-do, out-be Russell’s Auntie Mame? She re-models her apartment, her wardrobe and her hair with each new phase in her life. Look: She’s a Buddhist in silks; a dutiful Aunt in pastels; a poor working woman with buttoned-down collars; a southern belle in flouncy skirts; a wealthy bohemian swimming in accessories. And so on. It’s like a 1950′s issue of Vogue!

This movie is loads of fun because Russell seems almost giddy with such a juicy role. When she first meets her long-lost nephew, she quips, “If he misbehaves, we can always throw him in the river.”

Although she is the dominant personality in this movie, Russell doesn’t overshadow her supporting cast. There is a superb collection of characters in this film which, in the hands of less skilled writers, would be mere stereotypes (the obnoxious nouveau riche, the drunk Irish writer, the mean bank trustee). But these characters don’t feel like stereotypes. Each one is amusing and, in his or her own way, adds texture to the film.

Now, if anyone overshadows Russell’s Auntie Mame it is the Original Auntie Mame, star of the novel by Patrick Dennis upon which the movie is based.

Now this is an Auntie Mame. She is even more charming than Russell’s screen version, if you can believe it, plus we have the benefit of Dennis’ witty prose. As a book, Auntie Mame is exceedingly hard to put down. (We read the novel in practically one sitting!)

Original Auntie Mame uses livelier language than Movie Auntie Mame, but both Mames have the same inspiring zest for life. As Russell says in the movie – with language tidied up from the novel – “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!”

Oh dear. Our goal was to make a legitimate book-to-movie comparison. But the normal rules of comparison do not apply to the Mames. Both are delightfully outrageous, yet both have a soft heart for those in need. You can enjoy Movie Auntie Mame because of Russell’s performance. But you also enjoy Original Auntie Mame because Dennis’ clever, breezy writing.

Two terrific Mames in two terrific formats, and we love them both. Either Mame’s a winner!

Auntie Mame: starring Rosalind Russell, Forrest Tucker, Coral Browne. Written by Betty Comden and Adoph Green. Directed by Morton DaCosta. Warner Brothers, Colour, 1958, 150 mins.

This Kind of Trouble is Lots of Fun

This here is a football, boys

Coach John Wayne is unimpressed with his new team.

The trouble with running a church-funded college is you have to follow the rules. This can be dreadfully inconvenient.

Take fundraising, for instance. If your school is losing money and facing imminent closure, you’ve gotta raise some fast cash. But how is a clergyman to do this when the quickest ways to raise money are always a bit, uh, dodgy?

This is the dilemma faced by Father Matthew Burke (Charles Coburn) in the 1953 comedy, Trouble Along the Way. Coburn is the head rector of St. Anthony’s College, which is $170,000 in the red and is scheduled to be closed after the fall semester.

Coburn refuses to let St. Anthony’s die because it is aging (like him), and he is fighting to keep it relevant (also like him). He feels that if the Church gives up on the college, they’re giving up on him.

Most of Coburn’s lines reflect his unease with the future. In one scene, representatives from the Church tell him that after his college is closed, he’ll be offered a position at another school with “outstanding scholarship and athletics.” Coburn dryly replies, “Which one do they want me for?”

What is a man of the cloth to do? The rector may be religious but he’s also cagey. He decides to hire a professional coach to beef up the football team, and organizes a schedule that includes a game with Notre Dame! Remember, kids: all good things come to those who sell football tickets!

Enter Steve Williams (John Wayne), a former football-coach-turned-down-and-out pool shark. Wayne’s character has been fired from every major college football program, and is now relegated to living above a pool hall with his ascerbic young daughter, Carol (Sherry Jackson).

If there ever was a person with baggage, it is Wayne’s character. He drinks, he can’t keep a job, he doesn’t care if his daughter goes to school or to the Dodgers game. Plus, he has a villainous ex-wife (a scene-stealing Marie Windsor) who wants to destroy him if she can’t have him back. If all that weren’t enough, an officer from the Children’s Court (Donna Reed) begins to investigate Wayne due to suspicions of child neglect.

What is a washed-up coach to do? Wayne decides to accept Coburn’s offer to coach the St. Anthony football team. This enables him to live at the college which, he hopes, will shield him from both his ex-wife and the Children’s Court.

What a treat to see Wayne and Coburn together! Here are two seasoned actors playing polar opposites, and the chemistry couldn’t be better. In one scene, Wayne sums up the two men’s philosophies: “The difference between you and me, Father, is I’m a sensitive man and you’re a gambler.”

It doesn’t take long for Wayne to realize that the only way he can save the football team – and the college – is to bend the rules a little. (Okay, a lot.) Coburn, a trusting soul, is oblivious to this blatant disregard of league rules until all of Wayne’s troubles suddenly collide to create a great big ugly mess.

This movie has been criticized as a blatant public relations vehicle for John Wayne after his nasty public divorce in the early 1950s. But what does it matter? Wayne certainly isn’t the first – or the last – actor to star in this kind of publicity piece. If only every star vehicle had this roster of acting talent with such a witty script!

If you’re looking for a heart-warming, laugh-out-loud movie that underscores a man’s love for his daughter and another man’s belief in higher education, we urge you to watch Trouble Along the Way. We suspect you’ll be adding it to your DVD collection.

Trouble Along the Way: starring John Wayne, Donna Reed, Charles Coburn. Written by Melville Shavelson and Jack Rose. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Warner Brothers, B&W, 1953, 110 mins.