Drama

1950s Suburbia in CinemaScope

Gregory Peck wonders if he should take a new job. Image: lsakdjf ksdfj

Gregory Peck wonders if he should take a new job with higher pay. Hmm. Image: dvdbeaver.com

*Spoiler Alert*

This is our opinion: Some of the finest acting we’ve seen from Gregory Peck is not as a crusty sea captain or an egotistical WWII General.

Some of his finest work is as a married father of three kids, a man who commutes to work daily and agonizes over The Right Thing To Do.

Peck is an actor who can handle Hollywood’s big-screen challenges (e.g. giant whales with a vendetta), but it’s the portrayal of life’s everyday struggles – and the associated price tags – that test his resolve.

However, Peck’s character has an added layer: He grapples with inner demons who won’t stay put and are clouding his marriage, his career, and his relationship with his children.

The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit is a 1956 drama based on the bestselling Sloan Wilson novel that examines middle-class America and its preoccupation with money. In the movie, Peck is persuaded (against his better judgement) to take a job at a television company as a PR consultant.

A telling scene occurs early in the film. When Peck is interviewed for the PR position, he must answer the question: The most significant thing about me is… Peck lights a cigarette as he slowly realizes he can’t provide an answer.

There are numerous themes in this film, not all of them successfully handled, but who could resist when using the larger-than-life CinemaScope format? Each storyline could be a movie of its own:

  1. Peck’s memories of World War II.
  2. Peck’s job and the politics therein.
  3. The family’s move to a different house.
  4. A media magnate who forfeited his marriage and his daughter for his career.
  5. The speech that Peck is assigned to write for his boss, which appears to be his entire job description.

Good thing the acting is top-notch. Some of the best actors of the day appear in this film, such as Lee J. Cobb and Keenan Wynn.

Plus Fredric March. He plays Peck’s boss and the owner of a television company, and is compelling as a work junkie. He knows his obsession with his career is ruining his life and his family, but he can’t stop.

The most interesting character, we feel, is Peck’s wife, played by Jennifer Jones.

JEnnifer Jones lsdkjf alksdfj . Image: laksdjf ksdjf

Jennifer Jones is ready to strangle Gregory Peck. Image: ApkXda.com

Jones has the thankless job of being Peck’s wife, a woman who must deal with the endless demands of children and broken appliances. She’s frustrated with their house and with Peck and his cautiousness. But we soon realize the real reason she’s frustrated is because Peck continues to be haunted by his experiences in WWII.

Jones: “Ever since the war –”
Peck: “Why are you still harping about the war? … It’s gone and forgotten.”
Jones: “I don’t believe it. Not for you, anyway.”

Her best scene is when Peck finally tells her that he had an affair while he was fighting in Italy. As he is speaking, Jones abruptly cuts him off and tells him about the difficult summer she was experiencing while he was having his little fling. Jones is calm, even a little wistful as she speaks, but her tone says Don’t Mess With Me. In not so many words, she’s telling Peck the war wasn’t just about him.

It’s a slap in the face, just as Jones intended.

Because it’s filmed in CinemaScope, the film appears large, but the themes are claustrophobic. An audience needs all that wide-screen space to absorb the melodramatic turmoil and believe a happy ending is possible.

The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit is a rambling movie, but it does have a timeless message about the conflicts between a family and a career, which makes its grand cinematography feel strangely intimate.

The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit: starring Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones, Fredric March. Written & directed by Nunnally Johnson. 20th Century-Fox, 1956, Colour, 153 mins.

This post is part of the Cinemascope Blogathon, hosted by Classic Becky’s Brain Food and Wide Screen World. Click HERE for a list of all the entries.

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Directing Giants, and Tragedy, in Boys Town

Mickey Rooney (right) tells Spencer Tracy how Things Are Going To Be Around here. Image: britannica.com

Mickey Rooney (right) tells Spencer Tracy how Things Are Gonna Be Around Here. Image: britannica.com

*Spoiler Alert*

There’s a sneaky trick director Norman Taurog uses in the MGM drama Boys Town (1938).

Two of MGM’s biggest names, Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney, star in this film about a socially conscious priest (Tracy) who creates a refuge for troubled and homeless boys. The film, based on a true story, examines the efforts of one Father Flanagan, founder of the Boys Town community that is still around today.

As Boys Town grows in size and reputation, a convicted criminal asks that his delinquent kid brother (Rooney) be taken to Boys Town in the hopes of reforming him. Tracy hunts the kid down and finds him in the middle of a poker game. The players stand when Tracy enters the room, and politely address him as “Father”. Rooney, on the other hand, puts his feet on the table and blows cigarette smoke at the priest.

Here is the start of an on-screen power struggle between these two MGM giants, and we can hardly wait for the big showdown: The calm, determined Tracy vs. the feisty, determined Rooney.

But director Taurog, the sneak, has other plans.

In the middle of all this, we are introduced to an adorable little boy named Pee Wee (Bobs Watson), a short, roundish kid with an infectious smile. He is one of the few children at Boys Town who actually like Rooney; for some reason, he sees something noble in him. That’s the kind of kid Pee Wee is.

So. While we’re distracted by the Tracy-Rooney rumble, the cutest kid in the film gets hit by a car.

It happens after Rooney’s character decides to run away from Boys Town. Pee Wee sees Rooney, suitcase in hand, and chases after him. The child catches up with him and pulls on his sleeve, pleading, “We’re going to be pals, ain’t we?” Rooney, nearly in tears, pushes the child to the ground and tells him to go back. He then storms across the highway, and Pee Wee, caught in the tail wind, is too upset about his hero to think about oncoming traffic.

In an instant, two of MGM’s über celebrities are virtually reduced to supporting players in one of the most shocking scenes in the film.

lakdj flkasj fasdfj  Image: A Certain Cinema

Norman Taurog (right) on the set with Rooney. Image: A Certain Cinema

The accident scene is, frankly, a sucker punch, but it doesn’t feel contrived because Taurog lets the story of Boys Town unfold organically. He doesn’t tell us what the characters are like, he shows us what the characters are like. In doing so, he quietly pulls us into their world.

He’s sly when pricking our conscience about street kids. For example, in the opening scene, a prisoner on death row delivers a lengthy but riveting monologue about his desperate childhood. In another scene, a distraught child accuses Tracy, “I thought you said if we were good, everyone would want to help us.”

Whoa. This stuff ain’t sugar coated.

The director also plays with the different personalities in Boys Town, and we start to feel like we personally know these kids. Taurog isn’t turning the movie into a vehicle for Tracy or Rooney. He’s presenting a community, much like Boys Town itself.

Taurog, nominated for best director, did not win the Academy Award that year; he lost to Frank Capra for You Can’t Take it With You. However, Boys Town did win two Oscars (Best Actor and Best Original Story). It’s a movie we hope you’ll add to your Must-Watch List.

Boys Town: starring Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Henry Hull. Directed by Norman Taurog. Written by John Meehan and Dore Schary. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp., 1938, B&W, 93 mins.

This post is part of the 31 DAYS OF OSCAR Blogathon: Pictures & Directors, hosted by Paula’s Cinema Club, Outspoken & Freckled and Once Upon a Screen. Click HERE for a list of all participants.

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Miriam Hopkins & The Mercenary Art of Persuasion

Miriam Hopkins always takes things in stride. Image: lskdjf aiefj

“GASP! I’m NOT the centre of the universe?!” Image: Shadowplay

We feel sorry for people who discover Life Isn’t Fair. It’s an unpleasant realization, one that’s often accompanied by fist shaking, table pounding and other notable hand gestures.

Life is not fair, and we must either accept it, or follow Miriam Hopkins’ lead in the 1943 drama Old Acquaintance, which is to ensure life is more fair to you than to others.

 Old Acquaintance is what’s called a “women’s picture”, one of several melodramas made by Warner Bros around World War II. This one is about the friendship between two women over the span of 20 years. It stars Bette Davis as Kit, a down-to-earth, roll-with-the-punches kind of gal, and Miriam Hopkins as Millie, a vain, tightly-wound, self-centred greedy-pants.

The two women could not be more different and it’s almost unfathomable they should become and remain friends. The screenplay acknowledges our disbelief: In one scene Hopkin’s husband (Jon Loder), asks Davis why she’s been life-long friends with Hopkins. Davis replies, “She knew me when everyone called me ‘Chucky’.” This matters to Davis, although we can’t imagine why.

We can, however, imagine millions of reasons not to remain friends with Hopkins, the greatest being her infuriating nature. She is so volatile. She’s cheery, then furious, then in tears. You never know what’s coming next. Plus, she chooses to see life as she wants it to be, not as it is. (For example, she dresses in the frilly costumes of her characters in the popular romance novels she writes.) Yet, this approach brings her material success – which is even more maddening.

Not only that, she’s always on the verge of a major crisis. In one scene, she wails, “I should have thrown myself out the window like I planned. How can I face people?”

No wonder Davis snaps and does this:

"How come you get a blogathon and I don't?" Image: lskdj flskdjf

“I should’ve done this an hour and a half ago.” Image: Matthew’s Island of Misfit Toys

Many have criticized Hopkins for being too over-the top, as though she were playing to a large outdoor theatre rather than studio cameras.

Yet, we mustn’t be too dismissive of Hopkins’ performance. It’s her theatrics, for instance, that make Davis look even more even-tempered – the neck-shaking event notwithstanding. It’s also worth nothing that Hopkins maintains a high level of intensity throughout the movie, which deliberately keeps the audience on edge.

Hopkins is mesmerizing as this difficult character. She has a daughter and a husband, but doesn’t seem to have deep feelings for either one. “Yes, a husband can be a great comfort at times,” she sighs, as though it were the same thing as keeping extra sugar in the pantry. In another scene, she sniffs, “People are a nuisance. The only people who matter are the people in my books.”

She’s not telling the truth, of course. The person who matters most in the world, besides herself, is Davis. Hopkins, strangely, almost becomes subservient to Davis’ character. Davis is the only one who can reason with her, calm her down and, ultimately, forgive her.

Old Acquaintance is pure melodrama, but it is an interesting look at women’s friendship – a topic Hollywood normally overlooks. As much as Hopkins’ character infuriates us, she has a way of making us exonerate her in the end.

Old Acquaintance: starring Bette Davis, Miriam Hopkins, Gig Young. Directed by Vincent Sherman. Written by John Van Druten and Lenore Coffee. Warner Brothers Pictures, 1943, B&W, 110 mins.

This post is part of the Miriam Hopkins Blogathon, hosted by yours truly and Maedez of A Small Press Life and Font and Frock. Click HERE for a list of all participants.

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Contrary to Popular Opinion: The Postman Should Cut & Run

lsdjf alskdfj sdj f Image: doctormacro.com

“I love you. Let’s go swimming.” Image: doctormacro.com

We knew this day would come.

We knew there would come a day when we would spill our darkest movie secret.

It’s this: We think the 1946 holy grail of film noir, the one that’s on everyone’s Top 10 List, is dreadfully overrated. In fact, we can hardly sit through it.

The Postman Always Rings Twice, in our opinion, is a muddled, overrated melodrama starring John Garfield and Lana Turner. It’s about a woman and her lover who plot to kill her husband (Cecil Kellaway). You can click HERE for the trailer, but we think a more enjoyable viewing choice is this vintage science documentary on atomic energy.

So what’s our big fat problem with The Postman Always Rings Twice? We’re glad you asked.

1. Some of the innuendo is a little too on the nose. For example, in one scene, Turner demands that Garfield paint all the chairs in the cafe:

Garfield: “Maybe I’ll look in the paper. Maybe I’ll find a sale on cheap paint.”
Turner: (icily) “You won’t find anything cheap around here.”

(Do you suppose they’re not actually talking about paint? Oh, those canny scriptwriters!)

2. Is Turner’s much-older husband really so bad? Is he really worth killing for a gas-station-slash-hamburger joint? Of course, his death is insured for $10,000, which would buy a lot of ground beef, so maybe we’re being too judgmental.

However, we can’t help but feel a little sorry for the husband. He’s a plain, unsophisticated fellow who knows Turner is too attractive for him. In one scene, the poor slob sings a song that is a mockery of his life:

I’m not much to look at
Nothing to see
Just glad I’m living
Lucky to be
I’ve got a woman crazy for me
She’s funny that way

He’s a dead man, Kellaway is, so to ensure we don’t gain too much sympathy for him, the scriptwriters make him suddenly decide to move to northern Canada so Turner can look after his paraplegic sister.

Turner does not take this news well. Northern Canada, after all, is the absolute worst place on earth. Here is a picture:

klsdj flsajdf asdkljf  Image: lskdjf klsdjf

The Yukon, in northern Canada. Image: Discover Canada

But it’s not a place where a gal can easily wear white shorts and heels, so we have to take that into consideration.

3. All the business about electricity (the neon sign, the unlucky cat tripping the breaker) is a deceitful use of foreshadowing. Electricity is a clever, ominous presence in the first half of the film, then it’s dropped like a tainted celebrity. It’s a cinematic rip-off.

4. How can a movie with so much promise so badly lose its way? The film starts with good tension and palpable chemistry between Turner and Garfield. But halfway through, it stumbles and never regains its footing. Before we know it, we’re slogging through dialogue like this:

Turner: “All the hate and revenge has left me, but is it all out of you?”
Garfield: “I’m trying to find some way I could prove it to you.”

Then they go swimming. Yes, swimming. The universal gesture of forgiveness.

Other choice lines include:

  • “Both of us hating each other, like poison.”
  • “I couldn’t have this baby, then have it find out that I sent its father into that poison gas chamber for murder.”

5. Turner and Garfield don’t think things through. They decide to run away together, but they don’t have a car. So they trudge alongside the hot, dry highway, suitcases in hand, unable to hitch a ride.

Um… these are people who are going to plan the Perfect Murder?

Even though our faves Hume Cronyn, Alan Reed and Leon Ames have supporting roles in this film, they can’t save it.

Our biggest problem with The Postman Always Rings Twice is that it deserves to be more than it is, and we blame the script. The soap-opera dreck we’re left with at the conclusion is almost unbearable. The atomic energy documentary we referenced earlier has a much more satisfying ending.

(Whew! We are so relieved to unburden ourselves of this dark secret.)

The Postman Always Rings Twice: Lana Turner, John Garfield, Cecil Kellaway. Directed by Tay Garnett. Written by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp., 1946, B&W, 113 mins.

This post is part of the CONTRARY TO POPULAR OPINION Blogathon hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies, Silently. Click HERE to read all the other contributions!

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Who’s Ready for Holiday Treacle?

C. Aubrey Smith ksdjf kasdjf  Image: Let the Show Begin

Richard Carlson (right) doesn’t stand a chance in the big city. Image: Let the Show Begin

How do you prefer your holiday schmaltz? Do you like it straight up, or do you mix it with a little soda water?

We’ve been mulling this over since we saw the 1940 holiday drama Beyond Tomorrow, a movie about finding fame and losing your soul, the rewards of self-sacrifice, and friendships that survive anything, including death.

If this sounds like every contrived theme in the movie playbook, wait – there’s more!

Let’s add an aw-shucks singing cowboy who’s naive to big-city ways; a young woman who teaches sick children; and three lonely, older men who desperately need friends.

This is sentimentalism as subtle as a line drive.

Charles Winninger, C. Aubrey Smith and Harry Carey are three older men who suddenly find themselves without guests to celebrate Christmas Eve. They decide to toss three wallets, each containing $10, into the snowy street to see who might return them. Those who do will be invited to dinner. “Win or lose,” says Winninger, “we dine at seven.”

Happily, the aforementioned singing cowboy (Richard Carlson) and the selfless carer-of-children (Jean Parker) arrive independently to return the wallets, money intact. As you might expect, it’s Love At First Sight for these two young people, and soon everyone becomes best of pals. They all live happily ever after.

Uh uh. Not so fast, dear Reader.

Sadly, the three older men are killed in a plane crash, and become ghosts sent to guide Carlson and Parker. But, lo! What’s this? While the men are delayed in cosmic ether, Carlson becomes a famous singer and falls into the clutches of a scheming Broadway celebrity (the fab Helen Vinson).

We can tell you’re rolling your eyes, and we don’t blame you. This sounds like the worst kind of treacle. Listen to some of these lines:

  • “There are some mistakes that can never be remedied.”
  • “You were too young and thoughtless, and success came too suddenly.”
  • “Now go to him. And when he sees you, his heart will remember.”

See what we mean? Even the New York Times sniffed, “[The] mystical peregrinations are more preposterous than moving.”

The three ghosts kdfj aieuf sdkj Image: lskdjf kej

C. Aubrey Smith (right, standing) seems to be having too much fun in the Afterlife.  Image: The Movie Scene

However.

There is something about this film that sucks you in, despite all logic and sound reasoning. It’s not the best holiday movie ever made, but it still leaves you feeling warm and cozy, like a pair of hand-knit socks.

For example, Winninger’s character is unfailingly sunny and hopeful, and he never gives up on Carey’s acerbity. Parker’s noble, self-sacrificing caregiver is a champion next to Vinson’s shallow, spoiled Broadway star.

This movie is nothing but sentimental balderdash, yet it does, in its flawed way, inspire its audience. In 1940, the year this film was released, North America was clawing its way out of the Great Depression, and WWII was underway in Europe.

We don’t recommend you drop everything to watch Beyond Tomorrow (re-released in colour in 2004), but if you’re spending a snowy evening sipping a Tom and Jerry*, we think you’ll enjoy it.

*This movie features a once-popular holiday drink called a Tom and Jerry. It’s a rather fussy, high-calorie cocktail, but it sounds dee-lish.

Beyond Tomorrow: Harry Carey, C. Aubrey Smith, Charles Winninger. Directed by A. Edward Sutherland. Written by Adele Comandini. RKO Radio Pictures, 1940, B&W, 84 mins.

Lady Smugglers in War-Time

Nurse Edith Cavell ... Image: dfkj ad

Anna Neagle (centre) smuggles escaped POWs in a civilized fashion. Image: The Telegraph

Edna May Oliver is our new hero.

We realized this when we screened Nurse Edith Cavell, a drama based on the true story of a courageous British nurse who helped over 200 Allied POWs flee Belgium during World War I.

This unusual war movie is about four not-so-ordinary women whose friendship propel them to defend their country by treating sick and injured POWs and sneaking them out of the country.

The smuggling ring is headed by the stalwart Cavell (played by popular British actress Anna Neagle), a nurse at the Berkendael Medican Institute in Brussels. (Neagle, incidentally, is almost too beautiful to be convincing in this role; however, she does bear a passing resemblance to the real Cavell.)

Neagle is joined by May Robson, a grandmother often given to hysterics, but is able to shelve the dramatics when necessary. The fabulous Zazu Pitts is the third member of the gang; she plays the amusing wife of a cargo boat owner who flirts with (and fools) German officers every time they unload “cargo” (read: escaped POWs) in Holland.

These characters are remarkable women, portrayed by terrific actors.

But our fave is Oliver, the fourth member of this consortium, a brisk, no-nonsense Countess who has little tolerance for silliness or idiocy. The Countess lives at Chateau Mavon, which seems to be comparable in size to the Pentagon. When her servants begin to panic with the sounds of approaching German cannons, they insist Oliver leave immediately. She may be killed! Oliver shrugs. “It would only be anticipating the inevitable by a few years,” she replies.

Edna May Oliver stares danger in the face and says, "Make mine a double." Image: lkdfj

Edna May Oliver (right) is unfettered by fear. Image: BFI

Whether Oliver is opposed to German occupation in general, or philosophically opposed to people more bossy than herself, it is hard to say. But she takes on the role of smuggler with relish.

In one scene, she visits a shoemaker to pick up forged ID papers. The shoemaker looks like a bit of a greasy character, but Oliver, in her expensive overcoat and sparkly earrings, pays no mind. She’s here on Business, so make it snappy with the forged papers, mac.

In another scene, a young man, claiming to be a POW, has come to ask Oliver for help getting out of Belgium. Oliver is compelling in this scene. She doesn’t speak; she studies the man evenly, asking only what he wants her to do. She then instructs her maid to take him to the kitchen where he can have something to eat. She adds, meaningfully, “And lock the kitchen so he won’t be disturbed while he’s there.” She then telephones police and asks them to arrest their own stool pigeon. She ain’t no fool.

Oliver is a perfect choice for a film with unorthodox gender roles. For instance, the heroes are women while the enemies are men. The women rescue men, instead of the familiar men-rescue-women movie scenario. The film also warns us that the German occupiers do not care if insubordinates are men or women.

Nurse Edith Cavell is a low-budget film, and can be a bit preachy at times, but it is a fascinating look at an incredibly courageous woman. We hope Cavell really did have a no-nonsense Countess as a friend, someone who was just like Edna May Oliver.

The Real Edith Cavell. Source

The real Edith Cavell. Image: quotessays.com

Bonus Trivia Fact #1: Nurse Edith Cavell premiered in New York on September 22, 1939, 18 days after the declaration of World War II.

Bonus Trivia Fact #2: There is a mountain named for Edith Cavell in Canada’s Jasper National Park.

Nurse Edith Cavell: Anna Neagle, Edna May Oliver, George Sanders. Directed by Herbert Wilcox. Written by Michael Hogan. RKO Radio Pictures Inc., 1939, B&W, 94 mins.

This post is part of the WORLD WAR ONE IN CLASSIC FILM Blogathon hosted by the delightful Movies, Silently and Silent-ology. Click HERE to see the other fab entries.

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Proposal: Let’s Reappraise A Soldier’s Story

This post is part of the 1984-a-thon hosted by Forgotten Films.

Howard E. Rollins is the new, unwelcome sheriff in town. Image: lksdjf aioewf

Howard E. Rollins, Jr. is the new, unwelcome sheriff in town. Image: Cinema 1544

We want to know: What’s wrong with the 1984 drama A Soldier’s Story?

The movie met with a cool reception when originally released. Film critic Roger Ebert, for one, was unimpressed. “A Soldier’s Story is one of those movies that’s about less than you might think,” he wrote. “Did this movie have to be so…trapped by its mechanical plot, so limited by a murder mystery?”

Others criticized it for a long-winded script and a perceived lacklustre performance by star Howard E. Rollins, Jr.

Even members of The Academy were conflicted about the film. A Soldier’s Story was nominated for three Oscars but wound up with nothing:

  • Best Picture (lost to Amadeus)
  • Best Supporting Actor, Adolph Caesar (lost to Haing S. Ngor, The Killing Fields)
  • Best Adapted Screenplay (lost to Amadeus)

The scorekeeper of all things pop culture, ranker.com, lists the Best Black Movies of All Time. Out of 512 movies, A Soldier’s Story ranks a respectable 98th, but well behind White Chicks (#87) and Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (#70).

A Soldier’s Story, based the Pulitzer Prize-winning play A Soldier’s Playwas almost never made. Warner Bros, Universal, MGM and United Artists rejected the film because, according to director Norman Jewison, the studios felt “a black story…based on World War II, [would not be] popular at the box office.” Columbia eventually signed on with a modest budget of $5 million. (The film earned approximately $22 million in box office sales, but compare that to the top-grossing movie of 1984, Beverly Hills Cop at $234,760,478.)

Armed with all this scholarly research, we (as in, yours truly) were prepared to write this film off. Then we actually watched it.

Twice.

In a row.

Denzel Washington (left) tells Adolph Caesar alksdj fskdj. Image: ksdj f

Denzel Washington (left) tells Adolph Caesar where to go and how to get there. Image: Total Film

A Soldier’s Story is, as Roger Ebert pointed out, a murder mystery. Outside an army training base in Louisiana, an African American sergeant (Adolph Caesar) is murdered. It is 1944, and the sergeant was in charge of an African American platoon that’s being kept behind to play baseball instead of being sent overseas to fight.

The Brass in Washington dispatches a Captain Davenport (Rollins) to investigate the sergeant’s murder. Rollins’ character turns heads when he arrives on the base; he is the first “coloured officer” the men have ever seen. Rollins is told he has three days to find the murderer and is warned against arresting white civilians from the nearby town.

As Rollins investigates Caesar’s death, he discovers the dead sergeant had alienated his platoon and may have contributed to a soldier’s suicide. Not only that, Caesar’s character had strong opinions about race and how African Americans should behave.

This is a superbly acted film. Rollins is a tightly-wound character; he portrays Davenport with the defensive edge of a man who’s constantly being told he doesn’t belong. Caesar, who practically steals the entire movie, is mesmerizing as the twisted army sergeant. Denzel Washington, in an early screen role, is engaging as a smart young man who doesn’t suffer fools – even if they are his superior officers.

(Digression: There is some terrific music in this film, featuring the fabulous Patti Labelle and Larry Riley performing their own compositions. Herbie Hancock provides the film score.)

The film, which has an authentic World War II feel, takes an unflinching look at race and segregation. One character asks: “Who gave you the right to judge who is fit to be a Negro and who is not?” In another scene, Rollins finds a message scrawled on his bathroom mirror: “Welcome Snow Flake.”

A Soldier’s Story may have an oh-so-tidy ending, but that doesn’t take away from its thought-provoking themes or impeccable acting. We think it’s time this film is given another look.

A Soldier’s Story: Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Adolph Caesar, Art Evans. Directed by Norman Jewison. Written by Charles Fuller. Columbia Pictures, 1984, Colour, 140 mins.

This post is part of the 1984-A-THON hosted by the fabulous Forgotten Films. Click HERE to read the other entries.

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John Ford’s Theatre of Faux Piety

Charles W... sldfj asfdj  Image: lsdkjf

Charles Winninger won’t talk politics today, gentlemen. *Wink!*  Image: Alt Screen

Guess which of John Ford‘s films was his favourite. Come on, take a wild guess.

The Sun Shines Bright is not a typical John Ford movie. There isn’t a single A-list actor, nor does it appear to have an expensive budget. Despite this (or because of it?) the director labeled it as his favourite.

The Sun Shines Bright is about a small southern town at the turn of the twentieth century. It is based on three short stories written by American humourist Irvin S. Cobb (1876-1944).

The town’s circuit judge, played by Charles Winninger, is facing re-election. Winninger’s character is a down-to-earth man who refers to his drink as “corn squeezin’s”, and scurries about helping his fellow townspeople. However, he is always in election mode and often mockingly protests, “No politics today, gentlemen.” It’s a rather disingenuous campaign strategy when you think about it.

While the campaigning is afoot, an African American teenager (Elzie Emanuel) is arrested for raping a white girl. Winninger works to calm the town’s anger, especially when a lynch mob marches toward the jail where Emanuel is held.

In the midst of all this, a young woman who was adopted as a child (Arleen Whelan) tries to find the truth about her birth family.

There is a lot to admire about The Sun Shines Bright. It’s beautifully filmed, like all of Ford’s movies, with each shot artfully framed. It doesn’t easily slide easily into one genre, so it is more reflective of actual life. It is a drama and a comedy and a philosophical history.

It’s the kind of movie that should make us think Ford-as-storyteller is a fine humanitarian.

But it doesn’t.

It can’t, because we are watching John Ford’s Theatre of Faux Piety. This is where words do not match actions, and the discrepancy between the two is so jarring we can hardly concentrate on the plot.

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Stepin Fetchit as Winninger’s “assistant” (read: Servant). Image: blu-ray.com

The themes of this film are hypocrisy and redemption, as illustrated by these scenarios:

  • a young woman is ostracized by her fellow townsfolk because she was born out of wedlock.
  • when a sick woman with a dubious reputation arrives in town, she shunned by “decent” folk and is forced to take refuge at a brothel.
  • when a white girl is assaulted, police immediately arrest an African American teenager without proof.

These are thought-provoking themes that should be explored in film. Yet it’s strange that in a movie preaching Equality For All, the director presents African Americans as weak, one-dimensional characters who are completely dependent upon white townsfolk. Subtext: everyone deserves to be equal but them.

These characters have neither original thought nor ambition nor bravery. Really? People who survived slavery – and all that went with it – are now simpering fools?

It’s Faux Piety. Because Ford presents African Americans as ludicrous caricatures, the movie becomes hollow. When Emanuel is found innocent of rape charges, the film celebrates Winninger the Hero instead of examining the actions that imprisoned an innocent teenager to begin with.

We are left wondering: Redemption for some, but not all?

The Sun Shines Bright could have been one of the great films of Ford’s career. Instead, it leaves us feeling like a great premise has been squandered.

The Sun Shines Bright: starring Charles Winninger, Arleen Whelan, John Russell. Directed by John Ford. Written by Laurence Stallings. Republic Pictures Corp., 1953, B&W, 100 mins.

This post is part of the JOHN FORD BLOGATHON hosted by Krell Laboratories and Bemused and Nonplussed. Click HERE to see the other posts.

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Guest Post: To Sir, With Love

Note: We are thrilled to have Pamela Fallon Thornley as our Special Guest Blogger. You can follow Pam on Twitter at @fallonthornley.

When I think of the year 1967, the first movie that comes to my mind is To Sir, With Love. It might not be everyone’s first choice, since it did not win Best Picture or any other Oscars, but that does not stop it from being an important movie for its time. It dealt with many issues relevant to the 1960’s, and it also had a very distinctive sixties look. I wasn’t alive in 1967, but this piece of that year, is very near and dear to my heart.

The story, written by E.R. Braithwaite, and adapted for the screen by James Clavell, centers around the character Mark Thackeray, a man who, though educated as an engineer, has decided to accept an appointment as a teacher at a London school. The movie opens on his first day in this position, when he meets his fellow teachers, and more importantly the students that will be in his class. Being new to the teaching profession things, BIG SHOCK, didn’t go swimmingly at first. Like many movies dealing with the trials and tribulations of school life, the adolescents in this film are troubled, with many being just plain rebellious, which makes Mr. Thackeray’s job all that more challenging. Gradually, as he starts to find his own teaching style, and as his students begin to realize that he has their best interest at heart, things begin to improve. The school is full of teachers that have lost or never had the love for the profession. Mark Thackeray is a breath of fresh air in this stale and stagnate institution. Most of the students come from homes that lack discipline and structure, and they are in desperate need of a strong role model. He becomes this for them.

By 1967 there had been countless movies about the relationships, and the interactions between teachers and their students. However, I feel that To Sir, With Love was able to take a fresh and positive spin on the storyline. The thing that made this movie unique, is the approach used to solve and defuse the problems at school. Mr. Thackeray talked to his students. Instead of just spouting off rules, he explained things to them. With this approach, an honest relationship blossoms between the teacher and students. Mark never talks down to them or treated them as if they were children. Instead, he expected them to act as adults, like the ones the world was soon expecting them to be. He taught them life skills,such as tips on cooking and hygiene to get them ready for the outside world. This is important, since the next stage in their lives is to go out into the work force. No topic was forbidden, which helped to get his students to open up, and the teenagers really respected him for it. For many of them having any respect for an adult was a big step just in itself. He did set some ground rules for his class, but only in that he expected them to show him and their fellow class mates due respect, to be clean, and not to use foul language. Students were to address each other as Miss or Mr, and they were to address him as either Mr. Thackeray, or Sir. You can guess which one they preferred.

As I have said, while in Mr. Thackeray’s class the students dealt with and discussed many issues. Mark’s interaction with his students didn’t go without complications and problems. Being new to the teaching profession also didn’t help as sometimes his approach lacked diplomacy. An early example of this occurred when Mark first announced to his class, the rules he expected them to follow. They didn’t understand why they were expected to maintain good hygiene, and keep a nice appearance when one of the teachers, Mr. Weston didn’t. Mr. Thackeray’s response was cut and dry,“Mr. Weston is not your teacher. We won´t discuss him, I´m the one to criticize if I fail to maintain the standards.” When his students argue this being unfair he responds by saying,“I agree, but that´s an example of things you´ll have to put up with as an adult. You´ll just have to take it.” This issue of fairness comes up many times in the movie, and causes much conflict between students and teacher. An even more significant case of this happened after Mr. Thackeray sided with a teacher that the students felt was bulling one of their classmates. One of the boys, Potts tried stand up for his friend by threatening Mr. Bell, and Sir instead of agreeing with his actions told Potts “You owe Mr. Bell an apology”. He tried to explain that he wasn’t siding with Mr. Bell’s actions, but that he didn’t like Potts fighting, “I am not concerned with Mr. Bell´s behavior, but yours.” This didn’t go well with Potts, and the other male students especially Denham the self appointed leader of the class. Denham tried to “teach” Mark a lesson by suggesting they should put boxing gloves on, and have a “friendly”sparing match. In the end it was Denham that learned that violence wasn’t the answer when Mark showed Denham that he was very capable of defending himself, but rather avoid such methods for handling a disagreement. As the students begin to mature under Mr. Thackeray’s tutelage they start to understand that he isn’t trying to be mean, but trying to show them passive ways to deal with their problems, and quarrels. As Sir puts it, “you’re supposed to be learning self discipline.”

As their teacher there were many times Sir, was called on to give advice, and to help his students with personal issues. Some were on a one on one bases like when Mrs. Dare asked him to talk to her daughter, Pam about being out late at night. Pam is very hurt because she feels her behaviour is justified, and she doesn’t understand him talking to her on her mother’s behalf, “Why are you taking her side?”. Her hurt is intensified because she has been one of his biggest supporters, and also because of the very thinly veiled crush she has on Mr. Thackeray. They do manage to work through this bump in their relationship, and come to an understanding where they have mutual respect for each other.

An issue of great significance that was dealt with in Sir’s classroom was racism. Racism is still a big issue today, but back in 1967 during the civil rights movement it was very much a hot topic. This issue is skirted around during most of the movie but is discussed seriously after a boy in the class, Seales, loses his mother. The students wanted to do something for their classmate, and friend because of his mother’s death, but because his family is black the students feel it will look bad if they are seen going to his house. They try to explain that they don’t feel any malice towards him or his family, but as Babs (Miss Pegg) says, “You can´t imagine the things be said.” It is at this time that Mr. Thackeray teaches them not so much in words as much by his own actions that in the case of racism doing nothing when you know it is wrong is the worse way to handle it. They are part of the generation that if they feel something is unjust they need to be the ones to change it. Keeping quiet is no longer acceptable, the way to show people that racism is wrong is through their own actions. In the end, they all take the flowers to Seales’ house. It is a simple gesture, but it is a victory on so many levels, and that the students might not even realize it. It shows changes in a positive direction, and increasing maturity by the students. They are starting to act as responsible adults.

The appropriate way to describe the style of the movie, in simple terms is that it seemed real and authentic which was becoming more common place in the sixties. The movie directed by James Clavell, takes place in the London’s poor East End in the sixties,and was filmed on location in London. The constant use of exterior scenes on real London streets help makes one unquestionably feel like that is exactly where you are.. The school scenes might have been done on a sound stage, but if that is the case, the transition certainly wasn’t noticeable, and they did a very convincing job of replicating a realistic school interior. The building looked dilapidated, and seemed in desperate need of repairs and renovation. The class rooms, gym and teacher’s lounge are all dreary and drab with outdated furnishings and equipment. The wardrobe and hairstyles for the movie captured the look for the late sixties perfectly. Perfectly in that it captured the popular style of 1967, but with the use of natural light, and minimal use of filters in no way did the characters have flawless appearances. The clothes though the proper style were not tailored, the mini skirts and dresses didn’t look new and even gave the appearance that they might have been purchased at a discount store.   This realistic feel also held true with the hairstyles and makeup. The cast was filled with women sporting over teased locks, and men with hair long enough that they could have been mistaken for one of the girls. However, none of it had that Hollywood glitz and glamour look to it. Make up also didn’t look professionally done, and stayed with minimal application of lipstick, blush & eyeliner on the actresses. I’m not saying any of it looked bad, I’m just saying that all the looks shown in the movie could easily be achieved, and gave the characters the feel of being real people. This helps to make the characters more relatable by the viewers.

An aspect of the movie that needs to be singled out is the music. The film isn’t a musical in a classic sense, but music does hold a great importance. It is as though it is a character, and more importantly it is as though it is one of the students. The music changed when the attitude and mood of the students change. It is revealed early in the story that the students are allowed to run a part of the school at lunch time in order to dance and to listen to “their” music. Music at this point shows the barrier between the students and teachers. Later during the field trip to the museum, the title song is played for the first time. The field trip holds great importance because it shows that Mr. Thackeray feels he can trust his students to behave, and it is also a chance for these young people to see places outside their normal life. The song speaks the words of how the students feelings for their teacher. It plays while a montage of the trip is shown. Can hear such lines as

“A friend who taught me right from wrong
And weak from strong”

It isn’t in the scene as much as it is in the air. It speaks of how important Mr. Thackeray is to them, and it shows the change in the teen’s view towards school and towards “Sir” that is happening now in the movie. Later at the conclusion of the movie, during the end of school dance music is played, and everyone dances. Music is now used to bring the students and teachers together. This is a significant difference from the beginning of the movie. The barrier is gone, and the students are letting the teachers, and adults in general, into their lives. During the dance the title song is played again, but this time one of the students, Miss. Peg (aka Lulu) is actually singing the words

“But how do you thank someone
Who has taken you from crayons to perfume?’

Not only do they respect and admire Mr. Thackeray, they want to say it out loud. The song is actually played one more time during the ending credits. At this final part of the movie Mr. Thackeray has a tough decision about which path he should take with his career. The song playing, hints to us that his students helped him to make his decision.

I’ve talked about the movie To Sir, With Love from an analytical point of view, but I haven’t yet explained why it is near and dear to me. Well to start it has the rare distinction of being one of the few times my mother suggested a movie to me. I’m not saying that she ever really hindered my love of movies, but I can’t really say that we bonded over them. We have gotten better over the years, but still I am mainly her go to when she needs a title for her crossword, or in someway needs to use my knowledge of films. This wasn’t the case one Sunday night in 1987. My mother announces that we need to have dinner early because she saw in the listing that a movie that she loves is going to be playing on the movie channel. She says that it is called To Sir, With Love, but at this time the title really didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t go into it overly excited or with much enthusiasm, but I did agree to sit down to watch. Well, when the ending credits played and the title song plays for the final time this ho hum view had changed. No, it wasn’t because there was a main character named Pamela, though I did like that fact. The best way to explain the change in my reaction is to say “Sidney Poitier!!!!” It also starred Christian Roberts, Judy Geeson, Suzy Kendall, a really young Michael Des Barres, and the singer Lulu in her first movie role, but it was Sidney Poitier that made the movie for me. To say I was blown away by his charismatic performance is an understatement. The power of very good casting. I only wish I was one for keeping a diary, because I would love to read precisely what my first thoughts were of his performance. One thing is for sure, is that, if I had written in a journal, I’m pretty sure one of the first entries about Sidney Poitier would have started with “Oh My God, He is Gorgeous!!!!!” I should clarify that I was also very much impressed with his acting. His looks were just a plus. This movie set me on the path of a “slight” Sidney Poitier obsession where I wanted to learn everything about him, and to watch all of his films. Just so you know, his other films that I was able to find didn’t disappoint either, but To Sir, With Love is still my favourite.

All this talking about To Sir, With Love is making me realize that I haven’t watched it in awhile, at least a few months. Well, I better go fix that right a way. Until I can get to my DVD player I think I will listen to the song To Sir, With Love sung by Lulu. It never fails to put a smile on my face. I hope others will take my lead, and go experience it all as well.

You can follow Pam on Twitter @fallonthornley.

This post is part of the 1967 IN FILM Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings and The Rosebud Cinema. Click HERE for a list of contributions.

Song of the Little Road

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Life is never easy for Karuna Banerji. Image: The Film Sufi

We thought you might be jonesing for something a little different today.

Maybe WAY different.

So here’s a 1955 Bengalese film that impressed the folks at Cannes so much they nominated it for the Palme d’Or.

Pather Panchali (“Song of the Little Road”) is based on a 1929 novel by Bengalese writer, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, and is an example of neorealist filmmaking. It’s the first instalment of a trilogy that examines the life of a Bengalese family wrestling with poverty and never-ending injustices.

This film has unexpected moments of joy that feel like a cool breeze: children racing to watch a train rumble across the landscape; a girl admiring a pretty necklace; a father smiling when he sees his children having fun.

But because we’re in neorealistic territory, the film has moments of intense sorrow. Do not come near this movie without a tissue handy.

Director Satyajit Ray did not use professional actors in this film. In fact, this was Ray’s first film, which he shot over a period of three years while he worked full time for an advertising agency. Despite – or maybe because – the actors are not professionals, their performances are mesmerizing. You forget you’re watching a movie; you almost feel as though you are living with this family.

There is much to discuss and admire in Pather Panchali, but we’re going to concentrate on the mother, Sarbajaya, played by Karuna Banerji. She is, in our opinion, the most compelling character in this remarkable film.

From a global perspective, Banerji’s character is one of the most vulnerable people in the world. She is a poor, rural woman in a third-world country who is often abandoned by her restless husband to care for their children alone. But Banerji’s character is smart and engaging and unafraid to say what she thinks.

In one scene, Banerji’s big-talking husband tells her about his meeting with a distinguished-looking man who has offered a job. The husband has refused because he doesn’t want to seem desperate. Banerji reminds her husband that they are desperate. The husband says neighbours might disapprove if they knew the man’s caste. When Banerji asks how people might discover this, he replies, “Maybe [from] you. I know how women are.” Banerji responds as one would a child: “I’m busy enough without running around telling your business.”

Banerji is one of those actresses who doesn’t need to speak to convey her thoughts. In another scene, she watches the family’s contentious but aged Auntie return to their property. She’s come to die, Auntie announces, as she shuffles toward the house with her thin bedroll and cloth bundle – her only possessions. Banerji, wordlessly sipping from a mug, studies this sharp-tongued, elderly woman without sentimentality: This is how life ends for a woman.

It’s a surprising film in many ways. We did not expect the female characters to be featured more prominently than the men. We did not expect to see scenes of incredible beauty filmed in stark black and white. Most of all, we did not expect to be so emotionally connected to this family.

Pather Panchali is one of those quiet films that steals your heart without your noticing. We urge you to drop everything if you ever have the chance to see this incredibly moving film.

Pather Panchali: Song of the Little Road starring Kanu Banerji, Karuna Banerji, Subir Benerji. Written & directed by Satyajit Ray. Janus Films, 1955, B&W, 135 mins.