Drama

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.

skdfj alksfj d Image: blu-ray.com

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.

The Opportunistic Hume Cronyn

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Hume Cronyn (right) can’t help it if Nazi prison guards reward him. Image: A Certain Cinema

Some people are born to get ahead of everyone else. They can’t help it; it’s not their fault they seize opportunity faster than everyone else.

This is the kind of person Hume Cronyn portrays in The Cross of Lorraine (1944), a WWII war drama about French prisoners in a German military prison camp. The film stars Jean-Pierre Aumont and Gene Kelly as two Frenchmen taken prisoner shortly after German occupation. The pair become friends despite their philosophical bents: Aumont is tempted by opportunities given to those who cooperate with Germans; Kelly, on the other hand, hates the Nazis and undermines them in every way possible.

Cronyn, however, isn’t one to agonize over ethics when it comes to Nazis. Early in the film, we learn Cronyn is a successful wine salesman who has several German customers. But, as he sees it, money is money. Why should he discriminate? If anything, he’s the victim! Is it his fault he has a good product that people want to buy?

When the prisoners disembark at the camp, officials ask for a translator. Our man Cronyn steps forward and and offers his help with registering prisoners. (Is it his fault he’s fluent in German?) He’s not translator for more than two minutes before he starts acting in a brash and superior manner. He asks for peoples’ names even though he knows who they are.

Cronyn is perfect in the role of the weaselly stool pigeon. He’s cocky and smug as he struts around the barracks. “This isn’t so bad,” he says cheerfully, with clean face and uniform. “Things could be a whole lot worse.” His fellow Frenchmen, haggard and dishevelled, respond with icy silence.

We dislike Cronyn’s character, but we admire the actor’s ability to play such a distasteful person. In one scene, he tells a starving prisoner, “You really want to know what I eat? Soup. Real vegetable soup. Sometimes with a piece of meat in it!” But this braggadocio is no minor quirk. We soon learn how dangerous he can be.

The Cross of Lorraine figures prominently in this film. Image: Dr. Macro

Prison officials are easily annoyed by symbols of freedom. Image: Dr. Macro

In one of the film’s darker scenes, a man is shot while escaping and is left hanging on the prison fence like windblown laundry. The priest (Cedric Hardwicke) and the other prisoners decide to hold a makeshift funeral service for the man, even though religious services are forbidden. Cronyn makes a special effort to remind Hardwicke of this regulation. He’d hate to see harm come to the priest. After all, Cronyn is a decent fellow at heart.

The men gather for the funeral, pretending to boil weeds so they won’t catch the guards’ or Cronyn’s eye. But Cronyn decides to stroll through his fellow prisoners, trying to sniff out their plan, even though they refuse to talk to him. (Is it his fault camp officials want to know everything that goes on? He doesn’t make the rules, for pete sake!) When he hurries to fetch the guards, Harwicke begins the funeral service and does not not stop – not even when the guards arrive and execute him.

The Cross of Lorraine is a gritty war film with performances that wrenches your heart. Hume Cronyn, above all, is perfect as a man who’s a victim of his own cleverness.

The Cross of Lorraine: starring Jean-Pierre Aumont, Gene Kelly, Cedric Harwicke. Directed by Tay Garnett. Written by Michael Kanin, Ring Lardner Jr., Alexander Esway, Robert D. Andrews. Metro-Goldwyin-Mayer Corp., 1944, B&W,90 mins.

The Jackie Robinson Story

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Jackie Robinson (centre) meets baseball fans who think only white men should play baseball. Image: ossieandruby.com

There’s something in the way Jackie Robinson holds a baseball bat.

He treats it with nonchalance; it’s almost an accessory to carry while wearing a baseball uniform. But when Robinson stands at home plate, holding this same bat, he slugs the ball with a sharp crack! that happens so quickly you can hardly believe he actually hit the ball.

The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) examines the life and early career of the famed Number 42, the first African-American to play in the major leagues. The story was later retold in the 2013 film 42, starring Chadwick Boseman. While the 1950 film has a more modest budget than the 2013 version, it has one huge advantage: It stars Jackie Robinson as himself.

Now, Robinson is not what you’d call a classically-trained actor, but who cares! We get to see Jackie Robinson play baseball!

The Jackie Robinson Story is like being at a ball game, with all the sounds of a game: the whack of the ball against the bat; the roar of the crowd; the chatter in the dugout. This film was made by folks who love baseball, and they’ve not skimped on footage of Robinson hitting and stealing bases.

But the film isn’t just about the game of baseball. It’s about the concept of baseball – who the game is for and who should be allowed to play.

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Jackie Robinson starts his MLB career in Montreal. Image: The Grio

In 1947, Robinson is signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers to play for their farm team in Montreal. He is the first African-American ball player in the major leagues.

Sports reporters are waiting when Robinson steps out onto the Montreal field for the first time. They ask if he thinks there’s going to be trouble. “The only trouble I’m worried about is a ground ball to my right,” he quips.

The reporters are not asking about ground balls and Robinson knows it. He’s reminding them he has the right to play baseball.

In the scene where Robinson is initially signed by the Dodgers, the owner (Minor Watson) sits at his desk and lights a cigar as he carefully studies Robinson. For a moment, we are uncertain of Watson’s motives: does he sincerely want to hire Robinson, or is he going to humiliate him? But as Watson pointedly stares Robinson, we realize he’s analyzing the athlete, not the colour of his skin.

“We’re tackling something big here, Jackie,” Watson says. “If we fail, no one will try again for 20 years.” He tells Robinson that the going will be rough; fans will throw insults at him, and opposing players will run at him spikes first. Watson a ballplayer is needed who has guts enough not to fight back.

Robinson is that player, and he takes everything on the chin. He’s booed when he steps up to the plate. Fans shout obscenities at him and pitchers aim for his head instead of the strike zone. Yet, Robinson sells tickets. Love him or hate him, everyone wants to see him play.

The Jackie Robinson Story is a movie about breaking the colour barrier and a remarkable pioneer major league player. But it’s also a love letter to a game made better by Robinson.

The Jackie Robinson Story: starring Jackie Robinson, Ruby Dee, Minor Watson. Directed by Alfred E. Green. Written by Lawrence Taylor and Arthur Mann, Samson Raphaelson. Jewel Pictures  Corp., 1950, B&W, 77 mins.

This post is part of the Big League Blogathon hosted by Forgotten Films. Be sure to read all the contributions celebrating the great game of Baseball.

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Sidney Lumet Directs 12 Angry Men

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These cheery jurors duke it out while deciding a verdict for a murder trial. Image: dvdbeaver.com

We wish Sidney Lumet had won the Best Director Oscar for the 1957 ensemble drama 12 Angry Men.

The poor slob didn’t have a chance. The Bridge on the River Kwai was the juggernaut that year, winning seven out of eight nominations. A black and white movie about twelve men talking in an meeting room is no match for a sweeping technicolor war epic.

Lean deserved an Oscar, in our opinion. But we like to think, had 12 Angry Men been released any other year, Lumet would have scored the top prize.

Now, we weren’t kidding about the premise of 12 Angry Men. This really is a movie about jurors debating whether an 18 year-old teenager is guilty of murdering his father. There are no car chases, no romantic interludes, no gun fights. These men sit at a boardroom table and talk.

And yet.

This movie is so riveting, you cannot take your eyes from the screen. It has a brilliant screenplay with a perfect cast, e.g. Henry Fonda, Jack Warden, and our fave, Lee J. Cobb. It also has a director who pulls you into the screen and makes you feel as though you’ve been sequestered in the same room as the jurors.

The movie opens as the trial judge finishes giving his instructions to the jury. As the jury leaves and the courtroom empties, Lumet’s camera moves in close and isolates the defendant. He’s little more than a frightened boy who looks as though he should be sitting in math class instead of a murder trial.

The remainder of the film, which centres on the jury’s discussion, is set in a hot, airless boardroom. It has a large table, uncomfortable wooden chairs and a fan that doesn’t work.

Here is where we meet the jurors, all of them white and male but very different in temperament. Included in this bunch is a stock broker, a salesman, a house painter, and a high school coach.

What we don’t realize is that Lumet has already started toying with us via camera angles. He consistently keeps the height of the camera in two positions: (A) as if you were seated at the table with the jurors; and (B) as if you were standing near the table with the jurors. He creates intimacy by never letting the characters get too far away from us.

He’s also forcing us to form quick opinions of these jurors, but we’ll get into that later.

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Lee J, Cobb (centre, with arm raised) wishes to re-enact the murder with Henry Fonda (left). Image: The Last Honest Man

The judge has instructed the jury to reach a unanimous verdict. Eleven men think the defendant is guilty; one (Fonda) does not. The other jurors become frustrated with Fonda; Warden, for instance, has tickets to a ball game and wants to quickly dispense with the matter.

As the jurors discuss the case, they reveal their personalities. Lumet has the actors unwrap each character slowly, giving them space to examine their values and prejudices. Even minor characters with few lines are notable by their silence. (Lumet often includes two men in his shots, and the one who’s listening sometimes says more than the one who’s speaking.)

On the surface, the men’s discussion centres around evidence presented at the trial, but what we’re really examining is the men and their motivations.

As the discussion unravels, the jurors divulge the truth about themselves and we realize this is what we’ve been expecting all along. What we didn’t expect, though, is how our opinion of these characters is changing.

Do you know why this movie is so riveting? It’s this: Just as the jurors see the defendant in a new way, we see the jurors in a new way. They mirror what we are experiencing as we watch the film. Lumet has cast us, the audience, as these men’s jurors.

This is Lumet’s gift to us. He hasn’t merely entertained us; he’s given us a chance to expand our thinking.

12 Angry Men Oscar Nominations (1958):

  • Best Director (lost to David Lean)
  • Best Picture (lost to The Bridge on the River Kwai)
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (lost to The Bridge on the River Kwai)

12 Angry Men: starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Written by Reginald Rose. United Artists Corp., 1957, B&W, 93 mins.

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen,  Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club during the month of February. Be sure to read all the other fabulous contributions.

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Thoughts on the Ultimate Hollywood Film

Kirk Douglas is pleased with Lana Turner's performance - for now. Image: The Guardian

Kirk Douglas is pleased with Lana Turner’s performance – for now. Image: The Guardian

*SPOILER & CYNIC ALERTS*

Quick! Without searching online, do you know who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last year? … Anyone?

Alas, this is the downside of winning a Big Prize. In time, winners’ names become reduced to a trivia answer. (“I’ll take last year’s winners for $200, Alex.”)

There are countless movies that examine winning big prizes or, rather, winning big in life. One film, the 1952 drama, The Bad and the Beautiful, examines winning in Hollywood.

We think The Bad and the Beautiful could be the ultimate Hollywood film, but not in the way you might expect.

First, let us say this is a well-crafted film with inspiring performances. It would take us at least week to describe how brilliantly cast these actors are, under the expert direction of Vincente Minnelli.

Told through flashbacks, the film is cordoned into three sections as told from the perspective of three characters, each a member of the Hollywood elite. Common to all of these characters is Jonathan Shield (Kirk Douglas), a ruthless but charming movie mogul who uses people then beats them at their own game.

Douglas’ character has been exiled from Hollywood and is languishing in Europe. In an attempt to resuscitate his career, he arranges a phone meeting with the three people he’s used the most: a film director (Barry Sullivan); an actress (Lana Turner); and a screenwriter (Dick Powell). Each of these has a heart-wrenching story of how Douglas used them and knocked them aside.

At first the trio is reluctant to have the teleconference with Douglas, let alone work with him again. But Douglas’ ally/producer (Walter Pidgeon), a smooth-talking diplomat, explains to each of them how Douglas has actually boosted their careers. The director has twice been awarded an Oscar. The actress is a top box-office draw. And the writer has won the Pulitzer Prize.

See? Douglas’ character isn’t that bad, explains Pidgeon. He’s actually helped you people. It’s not like he’s killed anyone.

Oh. Wait a minute.

Let’s look at Powell’s character. He wrote a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel about a southern woman based on his late wife; a woman who died in an accident during an illicit rendezvous that Douglas had arranged. Douglas didn’t mean for the woman to die; after all, it was her choice to jump at the bait he offered. Is it Douglas’ fault he spotted her weakness and gave her a push? But now that she’s dead, Powell ends up writing the Great American Novel. Pidgeon’s character tells Powell he should be grateful.

Grateful? For losing his wife?

Similarly, Sullivan’s character thinks he’s Douglas’ friend and entrusts him to direct a screenplay he wrote. Douglas steals the screenplay and manages to get Sullivan fired from the project. As for Turner’s character, she falls in love with Douglas; their relationship lasts during the filming of a movie, then he dumps her without warning.

Pidgeon also tells Sullivan and Turner they should be grateful, too. Being used and stabbed in the back in return for more money and fame is worth it, apparently. Why else would you develop relationships?

Is this really the underlying message here? Relationships are expendable when furthering your career? It’s all worth it if you attain greater material success?

The Bad and the Beautiful is a perfect example of a character-driven film and, if you haven’t seen it, you really ought. You may not agree with our cynical view of the film, but we think you’ll be intrigued by its steely-eyed view of Hollywood.

The Bad and the Beautiful: starring Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Dick Powell. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Written by Charles Schnee. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp., B&W, 1952, 116 mins.

The Best Laid Plans of Lon Chaney, Jr.

Lenny (Lon Chaney, Jr., left) asks George (Burgess Meredith) when they're getting the rabbits. Image: ksdjf lskdj f

Lenny (Lon Chaney, Jr., left) asks George (Burgess Meredith) when they’re getting rabbits. Image: lewiswaynegallery.com

*Mild Spoilers

Lon Chaney, Jr., once portrayed the sweetest, most sensitive soul you’d ever want to meet. He was an easy-going fellow who wasn’t the least bit fussy. “I don’t need no fancy foods like beans with ketchup,” the character declared, and he meant it.

But this sweet, sensitive soul was also dangerous. If you weren’t careful, he’d kill you.

The 1939 version of Of Mice and Men is the first (and our favourite) retelling of the John Steinbeck story. It received four Oscar nominations but none for acting, which is a doggone shame considering the cast included Burgess Meredith and our man Chaney, Jr.

Of Mice and Men was Lon Chaney, Jr.’s breakout movie. It made him a star.

In the film, Chaney and Meredith are Lenny and George, migrant workers who travel throughout California. Chaney’s and Meredith’s characters are opposite to each other in every possible way. Chaney is tall and muscular; Meredith is small and wiry. Chaney’s character takes people at face value; Meredith sniffs for a motive. And, while Meredith is a fast thinker, Chaney is not. Chaney’s character has the mental capacity of a five year-old.

Chaney is utterly convincing as the sweet-natured Lenny. His goal in life is to buy a small homestead with Meredith: they will have a little house, a cow, some chickens. And rabbits. It will be Chaney’s job to tend the rabbits, as he reminds Meredith all day, every day.

Because he is mentally challenged, yet physically strong, Chaney’s character is fascinatingly complex. Chaney gives a remarkable portrayal, and never slides outside of character. Even when he’s not in the foreground, he’s still Lenny-esque, watching other characters with eager but slightly vacant eyes.

When Chaney’s character is given a puppy, his face glows. This giant of a man sits cross-legged in the barn with the wee pup, cuddling it and scratching its ears. The puppy is his whole world, and he couldn’t be happier.

We think it’s a scene of joy and we say, “Aww.” But it’s not. This is Chaney setting us up.

It’s a mean trick he plays on us. All through the movie we suspect disaster is going to kneecap us, but we shove it aside. Chaney is guileless and trusting, and he suckers us into believing everything will be all right.

Except it’s not. We are given a sudden, shocking glimpse into Chaney’s darker side when the boss’ churlish son (Bob Steele) attacks Chaney by hitting him in the face. Chaney, who’s been told to never fight back, covers his face with his hands and wails, “George, make him stop!” When Meredith gives him permission to defend himself, Chaney seems to fall into a trance. He simply reaches for Steele’s hand and crushes it. He doesn’t let go; he neither sees nor hears nor feels, while Steele writhes below him, shrieking with pain.

You see? Chaney has led us to believe that something like this could never happen, not on our watch. But it does – and much worse, too, before the film is over.

There have been four other versions made of the Steinbeck novella, Of Mice and Men. But for our money, no other actor comes close to capturing Lenny’s charming innocence as Lon Chaney, Jr. He is riveting as a man who is too dangerous for his own good.

Of Mice and Men: starring Burgess Meredith, Betty Field, Lon Chaney, Jr. Directed by Lewis Milestone. Screenplay by Eugene Solow. United Artists Corp., B&W, 1939, 104 mins.

This post is part of the CHANEY BLOGATHON, hosted by The Last Drive in and Movies, Silently. Be sure to check all the other entries!

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