Month: July 2012

John Wayne Upgrades the U.S. Navy

This post is part of the 2012 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, hosted by the lovely and talented ScribeHard on Film and Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence. This blogathon runs every day in August.

Is that admiral dissing us?

John Wayne and Robert Montgomery wait while the rest of the Navy goes to war.

No one can do John Wayne like John Wayne.

Sure, a lot of people can impersonate The Duke, but no one delivers a line like he does.

Consider this scene in the 1945 war drama They Were Expendable. Wayne is a lieutenant stationed in the Philippines who incurs a minor injury to his hand. He is sent, against his will, to an American naval hospital where meets a nurse (Donna Reed). In an effort to make him feel more comfortable, Reed politely asks him if he would like to attend a dance that evening.

Wayne’s response is as impolite as can be. “Listen, sister, I don’t dance. And I can’t take time out now to learn. What I wanna do is get outta here.”

We ask you: Who but John Wayne could say a line like that and still elicit sympathy from the audience? His tone is a mix of annoyance and impatience; still, it makes us laugh because it’s such a John Wayne thing to say.

They Were Expendable is the true story of PT (Patrol Torpedo) Boat Squadron Three. The script is based on a book by William L. White, who chronicled the adventures of real-life Lieutenants John Bulkeley and Robert Kelly. The names of these two lieutenants were changed to Brickley (Robert Montgomery) and Ryan (Wayne) for this movie.

Wayne and Montgomery and their squadron are stationed at Manila Bay in the Philippines when they receive word of the attack at Pearl Harbor. Suddenly, everyone is making plans for war, but the boys of PT Squadron Three are not included. Noooo – they get messenger duty. Whoop-de-doo. They’re like the little brother that is not allowed to tag along with his older siblings.

This is a movie about war, but it is more about relationships during war, especially the growing relationship between the Navy and the squadron. The PT boats are fast and maneuverable but at first the Navy doesn’t take them seriously. Even Wayne starts out scornful of the boats; early in the movie he refers to them as “high-powered canoes”.

The movie also looks at the relationship between Wayne and Montgomery, with Montgomery as group leader and mentor. They have a companiable chemistry, these two; Wayne never upstages Montgomery as The Boss. And Montgomery should be The Boss; turns out he was an actual PT boat skipper during WWII. He also took over directing duties from John Ford, when Ford broke his leg during filming.

Then there is the relationship between Wayne and Reed. Despite his earlier rebuff, Wayne decides to dress in his Navy whites to attend the aforementioned dance. Reed and Wayne begin to fall in love and, in this way, the movie shows us the difficulty in forming a romantic relationship during war.

Wayne is not the star of this movie but he is an understated scene-stealer, believe it or not. An example is a brief scene where Wayne has a very un-John-Wayne moment. His squadron is clearing out – to see real war action, finally! – and he restlessly waits for a goodbye phone call from Reed. In most movies, Wayne never waits; he charges ahead and Gets The Job Done. But here he is in the abandoned PT headquarters, in the midst of chaos, the shortage of time pressing so heavily you can hardly breathe; he paces and kicks at the floor, nervously waiting for the stupid phone to ring. Reed does call but is cut short because the generals need the phone lines. He frantically dials the operator, and pleads to be reconnected. You can hear the worry and frustration in his voice: he may never see Reed again, and there is so much yet to say.

In case you’re worried that this is a “soft” war movie, don’t be! There are plenty of battle scenes in this film, but they are not gratuitous. Their sole purpose is tell the story about the squadron and the growing respect it receives from the Navy.

Ford also tells this story in his way of using almost-tender close-ups of supporting characters; their grim faces remind us that, in in the theatre of war, it is the individual who always pays the price of admission.

They Were Expendable was nominated for two Academy Awards (Best Special Effects and Best Sound), and it is regarded as one of the best war films made during WWII. It is a movie not to be missed if you’re a burgeoning John Wayne fan.

They Were Expendable: starring Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, Donna Reed. Directed by John Ford. Written by Frank Wead. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1945, B&W, 135 mins.

The Politics of the Front Page

Fools! Resistance is futile

Pat O’Brien (right) is no match for the calculating Adolphe Menjou (left).

How does Adolphe Menjou do it?

How is he able to portray a manipulative, callous backstabber and still be likable? Why do you almost want to cheer for this cold-hearted lizard?

We marvel over this every time we see a Menjou film, but we’re really wondering about it since we’ve seen The Front Page, a 1931 comedy-satire about newspapermen covering an execution.

Now, you wouldn’t think a hanging would be the subject of a comedy, but this script actually uses humour for its sharp critique of social issues. Hollywood felt the gamble paid off: The Front Page was nominated for three Academy Awards.

The film opens as workers test the rope on the gallows at a city jail; they are arguing about the tension needed to hang a prisoner. Across the street is a waiting room for the press, where “the boys” are gathered in anticipation of the execution. They play cards, trade insults and holler at the jail workers every time the weighted rope plunges through the floor of the gallows.

There are many people who are keenly interested in the timing of this execution. The reporters want the accused hanged at 5:00 a.m. so they’ll have the story printed in time for the morning papers. But the politicians want prison officials to wait until the following Tuesday which is just before a civic election.

Back to Menjou. He is a newspaper editor/tyrant who is trying to prevent his star reporter, Hildy (Pat O’Brien), from quitting the newspaper racket and moving to New York with his fiance. Menjou convinces O’Brien to stay long enough to write the story of the execution. He tells O’Brien that when the story is finished he is free to marry his fiance and catch the train to New York. O’Brien, the poor sucker, believes him and agrees to stay.

Here’s an example of Menjou at work. Naturally, O’Brien’s fiance leaves for New York without him and he mourns her departure, saying a girl like that comes along only once in a lifetime. “You’ll sleep it off,” replies Menjou with a shrug.

This movie is deliciously set up with satire and social commentary, and even the minor characters are really interesting. What more could you want in a movie?

Nothing! You think the movie is fine just as it is.

Then the prisoner escapes.

Because this film is over 80 years old and has not been remastered (to our knowledge), the sound quality is rather poor in places. It’s a shame because some actors deliver their lines quickly and you can just tell – darn it! – that you’ve missed a real zinger.

But its age does not obscure the truly innovative cinematography. There are some really interesting shot compositions and clever angles. The movie basically takes place in one room but it doesn’t feel closed in, thanks to Lewis Milestone‘s direction.

(Side note: Director Howard Hawks would remake this movie in 1940, but with some significant changes. The popular His Girl Friday stars Rosalind Russell as a female Hildy, and Cary Grant as her editor and meddlesome ex-husband.)

The Front Page provides social commentary that is as relevant today as it was in the early 1930s. It’s worth a look – if not for the wonderful cast and witty script, for Menjou’s performance alone.

The Front Page: starring Pat O’Brien, Adolphe Menjou, Mary Brian. Written by Ben Hecht. Directed by Lewis Milestone. United Artists Corp., B&W, 1931, 101 mins.

Geraldine Page’s Lonely Heart

Don't make me fall in love

Glenn Ford can’t help being won over by Geraldine Page’s charm.

We are rather peeved.

We’ve just finished viewing the 1964 comedy Dear Heart and are shocked – shocked! – to discover Geraldine Page was not nominated for an Academy Award for her performance.

Dear Heart centers around two strangers who happen to stay at the same hotel in New York. Evie Jackson (Page) is a bordering-on-middle-age postmistress from Avalon, OH, attending a national Postmasters’ Conference. Harry Mork (Glenn Ford) from Altoonah, PA, is a middle-aged greeting card salesperson. He’s just been promoted to his company’s marketing department and is in New York to attend business meetings.

As viewers, we don’t immediately warm to Page’s character. She’s too friendly and clingy and, frankly, a bit silly. But her smile is warm and her heart is generous and she has the endearing ability to laugh at herself. Before you know it, you find her utterly charming. So when her long-lost friend meets her for coffee and quickly escapes because she’s “busy”, your heart breaks a little for Page.

She and Ford meet by chance in the crowded hotel restaurant and his first reactions to Page mirror our own. He wants to like her, but her personality is too overwhelming and he finds an excuse to leave. Again, we feel for Page; we see the disappointment, then the resignation on her face. This is how life goes for her.

Ford’s character has more of a complex story. He is engaged to Phyllis (Angela Lansbury), but he’s uncertain about their relationship. We know this by the way he twists the signet ring on his left hand. When he wants people to think he’s married, he turns the signet inward. When he wishes to appear single, he rotates the signet to the outside.

Meanwhile, Ford has met June (Barbara Nichols), a vivacious dyed-blonde woman who sells postcards and magazines at a kiosk in the hotel lobby. He tries to start an affair with her, the results of which are hilariously unsuccessful.

Page observes Ford’s attraction to Nichols, which adds to her loneliness. After all, she is a woman who arranges to have herself paged in a busy lobby because it verifies her existence.

The first half of Dear Heart is a laugh-out-loud comedy; but the last half of movie starts to feel like a sluggish drama – until Lansbury makes her scene-stealing appearance. Her character is everything Page’s is not: a sleek, sophisticated woman in a gorgeous designer suit. She tells Ford she’s counting on him to straighten out her 18 year-old son because, she declares, she “is done with doing.”

But it is with Page that Ford’s character has the most chemistry, and an unlikely romance develops. We see him softening towards her, then truly appreciating her qualities. Ford is extremely likable in this film. He’s a man who can be too smart for his own good, and accepts the inevitable misfortune with a wry sense of humour.

We felt surprisingly weepy at the end of this movie because the outcome of this romance matters - really matters. We do not want Page to go back to Avalon alone, with the added burden of heartbreak.

Dear Heart is a sweet movie with an excellent screenplay by Tad Mosel. He has created a completely plausible situation with quirky characters and very funny lines. You’ll be glad you made the effort to see it.

Incidentally, in case you were wondering, the 1964 Best Actress award went to Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins.

Dear Heart: starring Glenn Ford, Geraldine Page, Angela Lansbury. Written by Tad Mosel. Directed by Delbert Mann. Warner Bros. Pictures, B&W, 1964, 115 mins.

A New Perspective of a Difficult History

Yikes - this ain't lookin' too good

Robert Francis battles malaria and prejudice.

Sometimes Hollywood really did try.

The major studios made millions from portraying Native Americans as primitive warmongers with bad aim, but once in a while they made a movie that tried to correct the stereotype – if somewhat clumsily.

They Rode West is a 1954 western set in the American midwest circa 1870. It examines the relationship between the American army and Native Americans (in this case, Kiowa) who were recently confined to reservations.

The movie opens as the doctor at an isolated army base prepares for surgery. He is drunk and he cleans his scalpel by wiping it on his coat. The patient, unsurprisingly, dies and the drunk doctor is thrown off the base. Clearly, this detachment is in need of a real physician.

Enter his replacement, Robert Francis as Allen Seward, a young doctor who’s come west with the army to gain the experience he needs to build his own practice. On the same train as Francis is Laurie MacKaye (Donna Reed), a colonel’s niece and coquette who flirts with every man within a 10-mile radius. Much to Reed’s dismay, Francis’ character is Serious and Purposeful and doesn’t have time for her tomfoolery.

During the two-day ride from the train station to the base, the company is ambushed and rifles are stolen. Their brisk, no-nonsense captain (Phil Carey) is convinced that the Kiowa are behind this dastardly deed and he makes plans to invade the reservation ASAP, with Francis in tow.

Here is a scene that’s designed to make you uncomfortable. When the army arrives at the village, Carey makes the Kiowa line up as men search the teepees. As a viewer, you are acutely aware of the Kiowa’s humiliation: they have been robbed of their land and now they don’t even have the privacy of their own homes.

It doesn’t stop there. Francis refers to the Kiowa as “people”, but he is rebuffed and told they are merely “indians”. He also meets the village’s medicine man, Isatai (Frank deKova) with whom he develops an instant liking and rapport. The army is not amused.

While the search for the rifles is being conducted, Francis notices a boy who is ill with malaria. His beautiful mother (May Wynn) speaks flawless English but, sadly for Francis, is unavailable. The attraction that Francis has for Wynn does not go unnoticed by Reed, who has enough time to juggle several boyfriends and keep tabs on Francis’ love life.

It is not long before others in the Kiowa village succumb to malaria, including Wynn’s husband. Francis realizes the cause is contaminated water; the army decrees where the Kiowa may live and they refuse to grant permission to move to a higher elevation with clean drinking water.

(Hullo, what’s this? An acknowledgement that Native Americans may have been mistreated by the American army?)

This is not a perfect movie, and much effort is given to planning how to “rescue” Wynn’s character from the reservation. The time spent on this scheme, when so many others are dying of malaria, tells us that Wynn’s life is more valuable than the the rest of the Kiowa.

And yet, They Rode West is an entertaining film with a believable story and footage that looks startlingly modern. If you’re looking for a different perspective of a difficult chapter in American history, this is the movie to see.

They Rode West: starring Robert Francis, Donna Reed and May Wynn. Written by DeVallon Scott and Frank Nugent. Directed by Phil Karlson. Columbia Pictures, Colour, 1954, 90 mins.

Too Late for Tears

This post is part of the Best Hitchcock Films Hitchcock Never Made Blogathon, hosted by Tales of the Easily Distracted and Classic Becky’s Brain Food. It runs from July 7-13.

Don't make me use this designer scarf on you

Lizabeth Scott as a woman in a Perpetually Bad Mood.

Have you ever rented a locker at the bus station to hide stolen money?

On second thought, don’t tell us. We’d rather plead ignorance if it ever came to a trial.

We’ve been musing about loot in bus station lockers ever since we saw the 1949 film noir Too Late for Tears. This Hitchockian-type movie has all the ingredients of a top-notch film noir: a grumpy dame, a desperate situation – and dough that’s gotta be stashed until things cool down.

Lizabeth Scott is Jane, a woman whose meanness is surpassed only by her selfishness. One night, as she and her husband (Arthur Kennedy) are driving on an isolated highway, a vehicle approaches and a bag is tossed into the back of their car. When they stop, the couple opens the bag and discovers it is full of money! $60,000! Sixty Grand is nothing to sneeze at now, never mind the spending power it had in 1949.

Scott insists they keep it. After all, the money was thrown into their car and because she wants it she should have it. Kennedy, however, says he’s going to turn it over to the police. But he doesn’t follow through, not even when he is pulled over moments later for a routine traffic violation.

Too Late for Tears is a finely-tuned movie with tension that builds and never lets up. It is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s work in the 1940s and early 1950s, but director Byron Haskin establishes his own style right at the start. Haskin is grittier than Hitchcock, but also treats us to plenty of funny lines.

In one scene, a man claiming to be Kennedy’s long-lost army buddy (Don DeFore) goes with Scott’s sister-in-law (Kristine Miller) to the lake where Kennedy was last seen alive. DeFore questions the Boat Rental Man (BRM) about Kennedy:

BRM: Are you a cop?

DeFore: Do I look like one?

BRM: I never seen any that did.

In another scene, DeFore shows up at Scott’s apartment and runs into Miller. When they hear Scott approaching, Miller practically throws DeFore into her apartment. DeFore remarks, with slight awe, “Mother told me there’d be times like this.”

Oh right – you’re probably wondering about the money! When Scott and Kennedy first “receive” the money, they put it in a locker at Union Station. Now here’s a neat effect that Haskin gives us: Even though the money does not make another appearance until near the end of the movie, it is an ever-present focal point. Everything revolves around the money: How long to hide the money? When can we spend the money? Why can’t we keep the money?

Things get interesting when a stranger in a polka-dot bow tie (Dan Duryea) appears at Scott’s apartment, claiming to be a police detective. He is very interested in the money, but Scott is no dummy. She decides to use this stranger for her own purposes, one of which ends in murder.

Too Late for Tears is a delicious film noir that has a lot of plot twists – too many to detail here – plus there is some interesting footage of the 1940s Hollywood area. (Note that 1940s Hollywood looks remarkably like present-day Hollywood.)

The best thing about Too Late For Tears is that it has not, as far as we know, had a slick digital remastering. This slightly grainy quality makes the movie especially edgy and unnerving. Not only that, it has a highly satisfying ending. It’s everything a film noir should be.

Too Late for Tears: starring Lizabeth Scott, Don DeFore, Dan Duryea, and Arthur Kennedy. Written by Roy Huggins. Directed by Byron Haskin. Republic Pictures Corp., B&W, 1949, 100 mins.