Drama

Sounder: The Anti-Blaxploitation Film

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Paul Winfield (left) doles out fatherly advice. Image: oscarmovs.com

“Son, don’t get used to this place.”

This advice is from a sharecropping father to his eldest son in 1930s Louisiana – and if you guessed these people are black and poor, you guessed right.

The father’s statement has dual meaning: Don’t settle for being a sharecropper, and don’t settle for being a poor black man in Louisiana.

The line is from the 1972 drama, Sounder, a thoughtful and moving film about family, poverty, and being black. Especially about being black.

A little background: In the 1970s, a new sub-genre of film emerged, called Blaxploitation. These were films intended for urban African-American audiences, but were often criticized for perpetuating stereotypes. (You can find a list of blaxploitation films here.)

While Sounder is a movie about being black, it is not an edgy look at life on the mean streets of a large city. In fact, Sounder has often been called an “anti-Blaxploitation” movie due to its focus on a hard-working rural family. It’s based on the lyrical and haunting Newberry Award-winning novel by William H. Armstrong.

Initially, there weren’t high hopes for the film. Variety magazine, at the time, said Sounder would “test whether the black audience will respond to serious films about the black experience rather than the ‘super black’ exploitation features.”

The plot: A poor sharecropper (Paul Winfield) is arrested for stealing meat from a smokehouse. He is quickly arrested and sent to a hard labour camp, leaving his wife (Cicely Tyson) and their three children to plant and harvest the year’s crops.

Sounder is the name of the family’s dog, who is a symbol of the father’s impulsiveness and, by extension, the family’s suffering.

Both Tyson and Winfield were nominated for Oscars, and rightly so. Tyson portrays a strong, determined woman who says more in the tightening of her lips than other actresses say in a page of dialogue. We feel Tyson’s weariness, her fear and her sense of rage. She makes us wonder if, given similar circumstances, we would soldier through half as well.

Winfield is magnetic as a charming man who truly loves his wife and children. He’s quick to laugh but also quick to sink into depression. He’s complex, but never unsympathetic. As he’s arrested for the theft of the meat, his face shows regret, but his body language says, There’s nothing I can do now.

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Cicely Tyson keeps her anger in check. Image: mubi.com

It’s easy for us to say Winfield’s character should not have stolen the meat for his family. But the larger context of the film alters our view. While the family lives on lush Louisiana farmland, they’re practically starving. They’re a study of stark poverty in a rich landscape.

And this family toils. It’s rare to see characters in a film who work as hard as these people do. But it’s not enough. No matter how hard they work, they cannot change the fact they are poor and black.

Sounder is not a comfortable film. Although it has artful cinematography and feels authentic to the 1930s, it’s not intended to make us feel better about the family’s fortunes – or anything else.

With this in mind, it’s surprising that the movie was a box office hit. It was the 15th highest-grossing film of 1972.

Aside from the two Oscar nods for acting, Sounder was also nominated for best adapted screenplay and best picture. But filmmakers went home empty-handed because 1972 was also the year of another cinematic exploration of American life: The Godfather.

Sounder is not a light-hearted viewing experience, but it is a worthwhile one. A film about a poor black rural family is not a theme Hollywood visits often, which means Sounder should be on your Must-Watch List.

Sounder: starring Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, Kevin Hooks. Directed by Martin Ritt. Written by Lonne Elder, III. Radnitz/Mattel Productions, 1972, Colour, 105 mins.

Kirk Douglas: Disaster Tourism for Fun & Profit

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Kirk Douglas discovers the Story Of A Lifetime. Image: Criterion

We humans are fascinated by disaster and tragedy.

Many tourist attractions (politely named “Interpretive Centres”) have been built on the sites of man-made and natural disasters. You want to tour the Chernobyl nuclear power station? Click HERE!

The gritty 1951 drama, Ace in the Hole, is one of the best films to explore disaster tourism, profitable side businesses and media coverage. “Bad news sells best,” is the film’s message. “Good news is no news.”

In this film, Kirk Douglas stars as a talented journalist who can’t keep a job. He brags about being fired from 11 newspapers with a combined circulation of seven million. When he finds himself in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he talks the publisher of the local newspaper into hiring him.

On the day he is sent out of town to cover an annual Rattlesnake Hunt, Douglas stops at a small gas station/hamburger stand and learns of a man (Richard Benedict) trapped by a cave-in inside a nearby mountain.

Now, Douglas wasn’t fired from the best newspapers for nothing, and he smells a story – a real story that could reboot his career, and maybe earn him a Pulitzer. Quickly he galvanizes the local sheriff (Ray Teal), the contractor heading up the rescue operation (Frank Jaquet), and Benedict’s unhappy wife (Jan Sterling). Douglas poses this question: If rescue workers were to take a few days to rescue the man, instead of a few hours, how much more profitable would that be for you?

Not one of the main characters in this film is untainted. Sterling’s character, for instance, wants out of her hamburger-slinging life; Teal, as Sheriff, wants to be re-elected; and the contractor Jaquet wants to keep his cozy government contracts.

See? With a cave-in, there’s something for everyone!

Douglas is pure magic in the role of the amoral journalist. He’s smooth-talking when he has to be, and doesn’t think twice about muscling others. He is ambitious and mean, and cannot wait to announce to the journalism world, “I’m back, Baby!”

Douglas’ ability to manipulate the rescue – and the story – is breathtaking. You hate him for his ruthlessness, but you almost admire his strategy.

Ultimately, it’s not how he manipulates the situation that causes us the greatest discomfort. It’s how easily he does so.

Douglas adresses the festival goers – er, the supporters of the traped man. Image: lskdjf dsj

Douglas addresses the festival goers – er, the supporters of a trapped man. Image: Sound on Sight

As word of the trapped man spreads, and with an elaborate rescue operation underway, the flats at the base of the mountain start to fill with tourists. Suddenly, Sterling is making more money than she can spend. People start arriving at the mountain, on vacation, with Airtream trailers and barbeques in tow. An amusement company erects carnival rides for the kids.

Douglas is now treated like a celebrity he’s always wanted to be, and Steling can’t count her cash fast enough. “Honey,” she says to Douglas, “you like those rocks just as much as I do.”

Life has never been better!

Except it’s not. Except there is a real man whose legs have been crushed beneath rock, and the sound of the rescue drill, endlessly pounding through the mountain, tears away his nerves. “It feels like someone is driving crooked nails in my head!” he cries.

This man is important only as long as he remains the ace in the hole. He’s trapped between the mountain and Kirk Douglas and, in this film, only one of them can win.

Ace in the Hole is one of our favourite movies. If you haven’t yet seen this film, promise us you’ll do so ASAP.

Ace in the Hole: starring Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur. Directed by Billy Wilder. Written by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels & Walter Newman. Paramount Pictures Corp., 1951, B&W, 112 mins.

This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon.

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Girl, in Garden, with String

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Magda Foy (in white) practices alternative medicine.

There is a film that makes us a little weepy every time we watch it.

Every. single. time.

Get this: The film is not even 12 minutes long – and it’s over 100 years old!

If you’ve seen the 1912 film Falling Leaves, you know what we mean. If you haven’t seen it, then please scroll right to the bottom of this post where you can watch it.

Falling Leaves is a beautifully-crafted film about a young woman (Marian Swayne) who is dying of consumption. Swayne’s character is caring, sweet-tempered and adored by her little sister (Magda Foy). Swayne dotes on Foy; she reads to her and accompanies her singing via piano.

But she is dying and, after a particularly severe attack, the doctor has bad news for the family. “When the last leaf falls,” says the doc, “she will have passed away.”

The family is naturally distressed, but Foy isn’t convinced. She reasons that if there are still leaves on trees, her sister will not die.

Foy finds a ball of string and runs to the garden. She picks up fallen leaves from the ground and, using the string, she gently but firmly hangs these leaves on the bare branches. However, the leaves continue to drop at a pretty fast clip, much faster than Foy can pick them up.

In this scene, the director keeps Foy at the bottom of the frame, as if to emphasize how little she is, in comparison with the trees, which are quite tall. Every time Foy bends down to retrieve a leaf, she disappears from view and we are left, briefly, with a sense of panic. Hurry! Leaves are falling!

We admire this little girl, alone in the garden in her night-dress, yet our heart breaks for her. If only such single-mindedness could actually cure her sister!

Director Alice Guy-Blaché was a French filmmaker who made her first film, The Cabbage Fairy, in 1896, while she worked at Pathé Studios in France. When she and her husband emigrated to the U.S. in 1906, she founded her own studio, Solax, where she cranked out a film every week, including Falling Leaves.

Guy-Blaché made a brilliant choice in casting Foy as the little girl. Foy is innocent, charming and tenacious. She convinces us she would hang every fallen leaf in the garden if it would cure her sister, and she would do so gladly.

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“No trouble at all. I always carry my patented medicine with me.”

Happily for everyone, a renowned Bacteriologist (Mace Greenleaf) happens to be walking by the garden and sees Foy absorbed in her unusual task. When Foy realizes this stranger could help her sister, she drags him into the house and into her sister’s bedroom where – lo, what’s this? – he pulls a vial of anti-consumption serum from his pocket. Ta dah!

(Three months later, the famous Bateriologist is still making house calls. And bringing flowers. And telling Swayne funny stories while feeding her snacks.)

Yes, we know you’re thinking it was the Bacteriologist, with his modern medical knowledge, who heals Swayne. But our heart tells us differently. Our heart tells us it was a little girl, alone in the garden in her night-dress, with a ball of string and a Mission.

Falling Leaves: starring Mace Greenleaf, Blanche Cornwall, Marian Swayne. Directed by Alice-Guy Blaché. Solax Studios, 1912, B&W, 12 mins.

This post is part of the SHORTS BLOGATHON, hosted by Movies, Silently. Click HERE for a list of all fab entries.

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Saying Goodbye to the 1930s Gangster

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James Cagney in his pre Big Shot days. Image: Doctor Macro

*Spoiler Alert*

Who doesn’t love that great dialogue from 1930s gangster flicks? These films treated us to such gems as:

“Listen, you crummy, flat-footed copper. I’ll show you whether I’ve lost my nerve…!”
– and –
“Why, that dirty, no-good, yellow-bellied stool.”

From these movies we learn what a “mug” is, how to “take a powder”, and when a person should “cheese it”. We also observe the desperate life and high living of the Depression-era gangster.

These were gritty films, made on tight deadlines and small budgets, and they were glorious. In our opinion, nobody consistently made a better gangster picture than Warner Brothers.

These kinds of gangster films, centering on the Prohibition Era, did not end with the 1930s but, by 1939, they were on the way out.

It only seems right, then, that the last great gangster flick of the 1930s (in our opinion) was made by Warner Bros., starring two of the best actors in the genre, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. The film, The Roaring Twenties (1939), is its own swan song.

Cagney plays a WWI veteran who is unable to get a job when he returns to the Prohibition-era U.S. When he is arrested for unwittingly committing a crime, he decides the only way he can pay the rent is to become a rum runner.

Here’s where we see the bootlegger as the free-market entrepreneur. Cagney buys a taxi to transport illegal liquor, then he decides he can make his own booze. (“I’ve got a bathtub too.”) Soon he has a large supply and distribution network, and is making so much dough he can hardly spend it all.

This movie, like the bootlegging biz, is built on ambition and revenge. Cagney’s character is calculating and decisive, and we cheer for him every minute he’s on the screen. You show ’em, Jimmy! Take that, you coppers!

We want to believe Cagney can’t lose, that he’s untouchable.

Alas, the film has other plans. It has set up Cagney to fail, and it starts in the opening scene.

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Jeffrey Lynn (left) shares his feelings with Cagney and Bogart. Image: Trophy Unlocked

The first scene in the film centres on three foot soldiers in France: Cagney, Bogart and Jeffrey Lynn. In these opening minutes, the pattern of these three men’s relationship is established for the entire movie. Bogart is a psychopath whose actions are brutal, even in war. Lynn is a meek intellectual who will eventually advise Cagney on business matters. And then we have Cagney, a decent fellow who doesn’t have the killer instinct to survive (à la Bogart), nor the humility to know when to quit (à la Lynn).

Cagney can make money – and a stiff drink – but he’s unsuccessful in almost everything else. As a returning veteran, he’s subtly told it’s not society’s fault that he wasn’t killed overseas. Then he falls desperately in love with singer Priscilla Lane, a woman who respects his wallet but not enough to tell him the truth.

There is a woman who loves Cagney, savvy club owner Panama Smith (the fab Gladys George), who has soft heart and a feather-trimmed wardrobe. She is one of the few people who doesn’t use Cagney, or use him up.

In a film of loss and desperate characters, Cagney is the central tragic figure. He runs the bootlegging world, but never really fits into it. And when Prohibition is repealed, there is no room for him anywhere, anymore. He is now a Big Shot Without Portfolio.

 The Roaring Twenties can sink into melodrama at times, but the performances are mesmerizing. Which is only fitting for the last of the 1930s gangster flicks.

The Roaring Twenties: starring James Cagney, Priscilla Lane, Humphrey Bogart. Directed by Raoul Walsh. Written by Jerry Wald, Richard Macaulay, Robert Rossen. Warner Bros. Pictures Inc., 1939, B&W, 106 mins.

This post is part of the FABULOUS FILMS OF THE 30s BLOGATHON, hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Click HERE for a list of all fab entries.

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Fred MacMurray: Villain in Remission

Fred MacMurray (right) wishes he had some poisoned strawberries. Image: lasdkjf lakdsjf

Fred MacMurray (right) wishes he had some poisoned strawberries. Image: YouTube.com

*This post is one great big spoiler.

There’s a neat villain bait-and-switch in the 1954 drama The Caine Mutiny.

This film, based on the novel by Herman Wouk, is about a crew on an aging minesweeper during WWII. The script cleverly muddies the waters (ha ha) as it resets the parameters of villainy.

When the tired, caustic captain of the Caine is replaced by a new spit-and-polish leader (Humphrey Bogart), we expect a little friction from a crew unused to strict navy procedures. What we do not expect, though, is a mentally-unstable Bogart who won’t accept responsibility for his errors, and chastises crew members for minor infractions – whether real or imagined.

The movie would have us believe Bogart’s character is the villain, but Bogart the actor doesn’t entirely play it that way. He presents a man who is fearful, confused and easily panicked. He also has his pet obsessions which make crew members (and we the audience) feel apprehensive.

It is the ship’s Communications Officer (Fred MacMurray) who first becomes wary of Bogart’s mental capacities. He eventually convinces the Executive Officer (Van Johnson) that Bogart might be paranoid and unfit for his post. Johnson agonizes over his loyalty to navy regulations vs. the worrisome behaviour of his commanding officer.

It is during a wild storm at sea when Bogart makes bizarre decisions that put his ship and his crew in jeopardy. Johnson finally relieves Bogart of his command and, in doing so, ensures the crew and the ship survive.

Upon return to the U.S., however, Johnson faces a court martial for mutiny. It is during this trial that we realize the villain wasn’t Bogart after all. It was our chum, MacMurray, who kept us laughing with his witty one-liners.

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MacMurray has the “cleanest skirts” in the navy. Image: sherdog.com

Alas, MacMurray is someone we’ve been cheering for. His character is glib, amusing and savvy. He is the film’s comic relief, the person who voices our suspicions about Bogart. (MacMurray on Bogart: “This is the magnificent saga of a man whose lack of charm is exceeded only by his lack of intestinal fortitude.”)

MacMurray consistently disdainful of Bogart. He smirks when Bogart speaks and gives meaningful glances to other cast members. MacMurray sells us faulty merchandise when he does this; he convinces us Bogart is a crackpot who is unworthy of help or sympathy.

It is interesting, though, to compare the attributes MacMurray dislikes in Bogart with those of his own personality.

For example, he has nothing but derision when Bogart clumsily sidesteps responsibility, but MacMurray’s sidestep is sublime. He’s dumbfounded when Bogart perceives a theft of canned strawberries, but perceives he himself to be a master of psychiatry. He ridicules Bogart’s cowardice, but proves himself to be just as skittish.

Like Bogart, MacMurray operates under the assumption that he has everything under control. He knows what he’s doing, and we believe him.

Until.

After insisting Johnson stage a mutiny for the better part of the movie, MacMurray is suddenly vague during the court martial. Oh no, he never speculated about Bogart’s mental state. He had no idea what was really going on. After all, wasn’t he shocked – shocked! – to learn Johnson had taken control of the Caine?

MacMurray offers a perfect portrayal of a man who doesn’t think he’s a bad guy. He’s just someone who’s looking after Number One; others can tidy up the resulting mess.

The Caine Mutiny is a fascinating film with a lively script and a fabulous cast. In our opinion, it bends the traditional notions of villainy in a shrewd way.

The Caine Mutiny: starring Humphrey Bogart, Jose Ferrer, Van Johnson. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Written by Stanley Roberts & Michael Blankfort. Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1954, Colour, 127 mins.

This post is part of THE GREAT VILLAIN BLOGATHON, hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin and yours truly. Click HERE for a list of all dastardly entries.

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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.

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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.

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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

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“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:

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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?

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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.”

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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.