War

Leo G. Carroll: Prophet of Doom

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Leo G. Carroll (left) tells James Mason resistance is futile. Image: film-cine.com

Sometimes you discover a minor character who embodies the soul of a movie.

The 1951 WWII bio-pic The Desert Fox has a perfect example of such a character, as portrayed by British actor Leo G. Carroll.

The Desert Fox is the story of famed German General Erwin Rommel, who pummelled Allied forces in North Africa before transferring to Western Europe to prepare against the D-Day invasion. James Mason plays Rommel, a sympathetic man who’s a curious mix of strategic logic and unquestioning devotion.

As the film opens, we see Rommel is at the peak of his military success in North Africa. But his troops lack equipment and fuel because these items are being saved for the higher-priority Russian front. A frustrated Rommel does not blame Hitler for this mismanagement; he is convinced a virtuous Fuhrer is being led astray by imbeciles in Berlin.

Nevertheless, there are those who try to convince Rommel that Hitler is the reason for the problems. For example, Cedric Hardwicke is Karl Strölin, a man who tests Rommel’s views re: the function of a soldier versus the duty of a soldier. There is also Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt (Carroll), the barometric character in this film.

Von Rundstedt is a weary figure who is no longer surprised at incompetence or stupidity. He has no illusions about the outcome of the war or the state of politics in Berlin, to which he slyly alludes with caustic wit. (He refers to Hitler as “the bohemian general”, and warns Rommel that he’ll be under surveillance by “friends of the management”.)

Undoubtedly, von Rundstedt’s most meaningful scene is his last. He and Rommel are in a fortified situation room near the west coast of France. Von Rundstedt is D-O-N-E, meaning he’s done with inept leadership and self-delusion and killing. He tells Rommel that Adolf Hitler does not actually believe there will be a large-scale Allied invasion of continental Europe.

In that moment, the whole of WWII unfurls before us like a banner. Here is the actor Carroll, as von Rundstedt, clad in the costume of a once-great army that shocked the world with dazzling military prowess. But now, in its place, stands an isolated Field Marshal with the pallid demeanour of a prisoner of war.

It’s over for him, and for Germany. There’s no more conquering to be had.

The phone rings; it’s Berlin requesting updates, and they’d better be good. Von Rundstedt gamely tries to persuade his superiors to station more troops near the beaches where he (correctly) assumes the Allies will land. When he is asked for another suggestion, he snaps in frustration and his words are like gunfire: “Make peace, you idiot!”

We dare not believe the consequences of those four sharply-spoken words. Von Rundstedt calmly places the receiver in the cradle, as though he had just spoken to his adjunct about a routine errand. He picks up his hat, drapes his coat over his arm, and tells Rommel that within 24 hours he will be named his successor.

Carroll exits the scene and is gone. But he’s not just gone from the scene, he’s gone from Mason, from the movie, from us. “Come back!” we want to cry, but it’s too late. His character has just told Berlin to surrender. There’s no rebounding from that.

Now the movie feels small and narrow without Carroll; his abrupt disappearance weighs on us and follows us from behind. For the first time, we feel actual despair and a little panicked.

The Desert Fox is an absorbing examination of war and deception, and the collapse of a military empire. Leo G. Carroll, in his brief scenes, underscores this tale brilliantly.

The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel starring James Mason, Cedric Hardwicke, Jessica Tandy. Directed by Henry Hathaway. Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1951, B&W, 88 mins.

Flyboys in Love and War

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Flyboy Richard Arlen (left) is comforted by best pal Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers. Image: My Pretty Baby Cried She Was A Bird

The film that won the first Academy Award for Outstanding Picture was an ambitious drama about two American aviators who become bosom pals during World War I. These two men (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers and Richard Arlen) form a strong friendship – even though they both love the same woman.

Wings was a big-budget, high-tech spectacle, costing $2 million US (in 1927 dollars!). It was the second-highest grossing film of the year, after The Jazz Singer.

You might be wondering what $2 million could get you in a black & white silent movie in 1927. Paramount, the studio backing the film, may have wondered the same thing.

Turns out you get a lot for $2 mill. Wings has breathless adventure, engaging characters, and Clara Bow (yes, that Clara Bow). But the most impressive scenes are those that capture the marvel of human flight. (Let us not forget that Charles Lindbergh made his famous trans-Atlantic flight in May of 1927.)

Because Wings is about aviators and aerial battles, there is no shortage of fascinating footage shot in the air. Indeed, many battle scenes look like sky dances.

We – as in, yours truly – are no aviation expert, but we’ve compiled a list of “Get Out!” aerial shots from the film:

  • planes colliding mid air and falling to earth.
  • a pilot struggling to free himself from an upside-down plane.
  • planes taxiing and taking off from a runway, as filmed from above.
  • planes dropping bombs and destroying buildings – filmed through bomb bay doors.  

This kind of footage is humdrum today, but director William A. Wellman was giving audiences a wildly innovative film in 1927. In fact, you’ll swear the actors themselves are flying the planes.

Wings glorifies flight but not war. In one disturbing scene, a pilot is shot while trying to dodge enemy planes; his lifeless body slumps in his seat, blood spurting from his mouth. As another pilot (a young Gary Cooper) warns us, “Luck or no luck – when your time comes, you’re going to get it.”

(Hint: Cooper is telling us to have tissue handy. You thought you could watch this film dry-eyed? Uh-uh.)

As thrilling as the aerial scenes are, and as condemning of war as it is, there are two overriding themes in Wings.

The first theme is friendship and the sacrifices a man will make for his best friend. Rogers and Arlen both love the same woman, but the bond between them is much stronger than the love either of them feels for this gal. (If you’ve seen Wings and have thoughts about the nature of this friendship, please share.)

The second theme is redemption. There is an incredibly moving scene where one character extends almost unfathomable forgiveness to another character. It is so powerful, even we the audience feel absolved. (Tissue Alert!)

In our opinion, Wings not only deserved to be named Outstanding Picture, it deserves the honour of being the first recipient of that award. It set a high standard for Best Picture nominations in all the years to follow.

Wings Nominations (1929):

  • Outstanding Picture (won)
  • Best Effects, Engineering Efforts (won)

Wings: starring Clara Bow, Charles (Buddy) Rogers, Richard Arlen. Directed by William A. Wellman. Screenplay by Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton. Paramount Famous Lasky Corp., 1927, B&W, 144 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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The Joys of a P.O.W.

Claudette Colbert struggles in a POW camp.

Claudette Colbert keeps her head down and her nose clean.

*WARNING: SPOILERS*

Dear Reader: We hope you’re not going to feel ripped off. Not only are we including spoilers in this post, we’re bringing you a sad movie – the kind of sad that needs to have the tissues handy. You may need to reach for the tissue about four times while watching today’s film.

The 1950 war drama, Three Came Home, is based on the true story of American author Agnes Keith and her family who lived in Borneo during the Japanese invasion of WWII. Keith and her family were captured in 1942, and were imprisoned in POW camps until 1945. (Some of the exteriors in this film were shot in the actual locations that Keith described in her memoirs.)

Claudette Colbert plays Agnes Keith, and you’re quickly convinced that she is Agnes Keith. Her Hollywood glamour is toned down and she is believable as a woman capable of great bravery when protecting her family. Patric Knowles plays her colonial-official husband, a stalwart man who is duty-bound and unflappable.

Three Came Home is unusual because it examines the POW experience from a woman’s point of view. The early scenes make it clear that an invasion is inevitable; not only do the characters accept the coming invasion, they begin to normalize it, hoping for the best. “The men waited because it was their duty,” explains Agnes Keith. “The women, because it was their choice.”

Until the rainy night when the Japanese arrive, and the men set out to greet them with umbrellas. The Japanese greet them with guns.

The film portrays men in the Japanese army as quick-tempered and on edge – as any soldier would be. Some of the soldiers are decent people, some are not; but the movie makes it clear they are soldiers doing a soldier’s grim task.

Colbert meets the invading Japanese colonel (Sessue Hayakawa) who tells her he admires her work. An uneasy acquaintance is formed between the two. Although Hayakawa is the colonel of the occupying army, he is a likable and charming man. But, in our film, a pleasant moment like this merely sets us up for a sucker punch. For example, after Colbert has her first conversation with the genial Hayakawa, she leaves his office and nearly trips over the body of a dead Borneo national.

Now let us talk about the “tissue moments” in this film.

TISSUE #1: When the foreign nationals are taken captive, the women and children are placed in a camp about 100 yards from the men’s camp. To make things worse, the men pass by the women’s camp as they go to work in the fields, but contact between the two groups is forbidden.

Colbert slips out of the camp one night to spend a precious few minutes with her husband, despite the fact she has a crippling fever. She stumbles to the rendezvous point in the dark, sick with fear and nearly delirious with fever, whispering her husband’s name, frantic that he’s not there to meet her. When he finally arrives, you almost weep for the sight of him.

TISSUE #2: The women are told they are being transferred to another camp, and they are allowed a few minutes to say goodbye to their husbands. Everyone is marched to a water-filled trench; men on one side, women on the other. It is an awkward farewell scene; characters have so little time to say so much – and they also have to watch they don’t fall into the trench. The tissue moment in this scene? One of the women discovers her husband was transferred to another camp the week before; no one knows where. The camera singles out and isolates this woman, who is alone in her confusion and hurt, while we listen to the other women and their tearful goodbyes.

TISSUE #3 (and possibly #4): Hayakawa visits Colbert’s camp and, during their conversation, he tells her about losing his wife and his three children in the explosion at Hiroshima. Hayakawa is mesmerizing in this scene as man suffering overwhelming loss. As he prepares to leave the camp, he impulsively invites three of the POW children to come to his house for a little party. (Gentle Reader, if you have not used your tissue up until this point, you’ll be using it now.) The children are served a tray of fresh fruit and they marvel at what they’re tasting. But the camera follows Hayakawa as he shuffles to a corner and slumps down heavily into a chair. The children babble about the food but he sees and hears nothing; grief has rolled over his life as though it were smothering a fire.

FINAL TISSUE SCENE: The last tissue is for the final scene of the movie which we’re not going to divulge. There’s no point in telling you the entire movie, is there?

Three Came Home is a thought-provoking film with a sobering message. You have to be in the mood for it, but it is well worth the price of a box of tissues.

Three Came Home: starring Claudette Colbert, Patric Knowles, Florence Desmond. Directed by Jean Negulesco. Written by Nunnally Johnson. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., 1950, B&W, 105 mins.

James Cagney, Secret Agent

James Cagney WWII Secret Agent 20th Century Fox 1947

James Cagney (centre, illuminated) works with the French Resistance.

Have you ever dreamt of becoming a secret agent?

We (as in, yours truly) could never handle the life of a spy. It sounds far too stressful.

We realized this while watching the WWII spy thriller, 13 Rue Madeleine (1947). To be a good secret agent you need to come up with credible lies quickly, and then remember them later on.

Noooo, thank you. We ain’t that clever.

Instead, we’ll just enjoy movies about secret agents, like the fast-paced 13 rue Madeleine. The title refers to an address in the city of La Havre where, according to the film, the Gestapo headquarters are situated. This building is never shown, only its iron gates, which adds an element of creepiness. The only other part of the building that is shown is a sparse, plain room in the basement that is used for torture.

The movie begins as a documentary-style film on how to become a secret agent. Seventy-seven people are selected to be trained as agents, and they are taken to a training facility near Washington, DC. This group learns offensive and defensive tactics, morse code, and how to lie if they’re caught going through someone’s office. You know, the usual spy stuff.

James Cagney stars as Robert Sharkey, a scholar and master linguist. He trains this particular group of students to be super spies before they are shipped to Europe for various espionage assignments.

However, there is a glitch: one of the students is a Nazi agent. Not only must Cagney must find out who it is, he must give this person false information about the Allies’ D-Day plans. Cagney realizes that the Nazis are relying on this agent to retrieve valuable information about the invasion.

As soon as the agents are put on a plane to cross the English Channel, the movie kicks into high gear. This is no longer a documentary; this is now a first-rate spy thriller, where you find yourself talking out loud to the movie. (We actually said things like, “Oh no!” and, “Don’t go up there!”) The scene on the plane is incredibly tense; it is so good you’ll want to watch it twice.

Once those agents parachute from the plane, the movie becomes a hang-onto-your-hat ride with a sudden, shocking finish.

13 Rue Madeleine doesn’t claim to be based on a true story. However, there really was a top-secret organization called the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) that was created during WWII and is regarded to be the forerunner of the CIA. The OSS sent spies all over the world during WWII to form a global intelligence network. It is also true that the Allies “leaked” false information about the D-Day invasion.

Cagney is really good as the super-smart spy instructor, but so is Richard Conte who plays one of Cagney’s students. The French actress, Annabella, was given second billing but her role is too small; her character’s story would make for a fascinating movie in itself. Also watch for Karl Malden, E.G. Marshall and Red Buttons in uncredited roles.

If you’re in the mood for a realistic spy thriller (where agents rely more wits than electronic gadgets), you might want to see 13 rue Madeleine. It will also give you a chance to see if you’d like to fulfill your life-long dream of becoming a Secret Agent.

13 Rue Madeleine: starring James Cagney, Annabella, Richard Conte. Directed by Henry Hathaway. Written by John Monks, Jr. and Sy Bartlett. 20th Century Fox, 1947, B&W, 95 mins.

Sydney Greenstreet: The Urbane Villain

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Sydney Greenstreet (right) impresses his friends with his vocabulary.

In our opinion, the best movie villain is a real smarty pants. There’s nothing worse than a bad guy you can easily outsmart; otherwise, what would be the point of getting out of bed?

This is precisely why we think Sydney Greenstreet is the perfect villain. He narrows his eyes when he scrutinizes you, he laces his capacious vocabulary with dry wit, and he keeps your glass filled with liquor. Plus, he wears those impeccably-tailored white suits that look really expensive.

A perfect example of Greenstreet at work is the adventure-war flick Across the Pacific (1942). Greenstreet is a mysterious passenger on a Japanese freighter in the days preceding America’s active involvement in World War II. He has aligned himself with the Japanese, and is suspiciously keen on gathering information on American military activities in the Panama Canal.

Greenstreet’s fellow passengers include Humphrey Bogart, who plays an army captain freshly discharged for embezzlement, and the delightful Mary Astor, a young woman who claims she’s from Medicine Hat, Canada.

(Digression: What is the deal with Mary Astor’s hair? We are forever distracted by it: How long does it take the hair stylist to prepare it? Why are some parts permed and others not? Why is it so asymmetrical in the back?)

Across the Pacific is one of those movies where everyone lies about their true identity, and for a while you’re scratching your head, wondering who’s a traitor, who’s a spy, and who’s a sucker. It’s also a film where a lot of people end up getting shot.

In addition to that, we the audience are subtly reminded that the Pearl Harbor doomsday clock is ticking. We see cables and other paperwork with dates inching closer to December 7, 1941, which adds another layer of urgency to the plot.

Not surprisingly, this is a film that does not portray the Japanese in a positive way. But at least these characters are given credit for having intelligence and are not reduced to mere caricatures. We love Sen Young’s dynamic performance as a second-generation Japanese-American.

We also love watching Greenstreet and Bogart verbally duke it out on screen. Greenstreet is smooth and urbane, draping complex sentences around the scene like a garland. Bogart is cynical and tenacious, his staccato speech bursting like gunfire. They couldn’t be more dissimilar, and the chemistry couldn’t be better.

Our man Greenstreet had a short but impressive Hollywood career. He made 24 movies in eight years, including The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and the charming Christmas in Connecticut. His career is even more remarkable when you realize that the whole time he was suffering from diabetes and chronic nephritis (Bright’s disease).

Across the Pacific is a good yarn with a clever script and superb direction. It also seems, to us, a plausible scenario in the few short weeks prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

We want to publicly thank our friends at Film Noir Blonde for sending us this terrific DVD. If you’re not already following FNB, well then! Make haste and check it out!

Across the Pacific: starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet. Directed by John Huston and Vincent Sherman. Written by Richard Macaulay. Warner Brothers, 1942, B&W, 95 mins.

Celebrating the Best Character Actors in Classic Hollywood

Lee J. Cobb: What a Character!

This post is part of the WHAT A CHARACTER Blogathon, hosted in part by the lovely and talented Aurora at Once Upon a Screen. The blogathon runs September 22-24, 2012.
I'll get 'em, Papa

Annabella and Lee J. Cobb plot against the Nazis.

Here’s what we wish. We wish Lee J. Cobb were the star of this movie and that the story were told from his point of view.

What movie are we talking about? It’s none other than the 1943 war drama Tonight We Raid Calais, about a secret Allied mission in France during WWII.

Cobb plays M. Bonaparte, a French farmer trying to mind his own business despite being overrun by Nazis. He has a busy farm, an anxious family, disgruntled neighbours – and wearisome Nazis who continually boss everyone around. One of them is especially fond of his eldest daughter (Annabella), a beautiful young woman with a cranky disposition. Really, all of this would be enough to drive anyone crazy.

But not Cobb’s character. He’s a world-weary man who refuses to surrender his principles for a few conveniences. He’s the kind of person you would want on your side if you were facing similar circumstances.

This is also is the kind of actor that Cobb was. He was portraying middle-aged men while he himself was little more than a youth. Never the dashing romantic lead, he once quipped, “We all want to play romantic figures. But because I lost my hair I was stuck playing butchers and crooks.”

But what a career of “butchers and crooks”! Cobb was nominated for Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1954′s On the Waterfront, and was nominated again in 1959 for The Brothers Karamazov. You can view his impressive list of awards here.

Cobb also found success on Broadway. They say playwright Arthur Miller had Cobb in mind when he wrote the role of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Turns out Cobb did play the role in the original Broadway run, and it’s regarded as one of the best interpretations of Loman, ever. (He also won an Emmy for the role in 1966.)

But back to our movie. Cobb doesn’t play M. Bonaparte, he is M. Bonaparte. He speaks with a flawless French accent. He’s comfortable in his unshaven face and lived-in work clothes. You almost feel as though you are watching real-life footage of a brave and unassuming French farmer.

This is why we wish the film were told from Cobb’s point of view. To see the story unfold from the viewpoint of a worried husband and father – a man who has to negotiate with Nazis and still earn a living – would have made an even more engrossing film, especially with Cobb at the helm.

The actual hero of the movie is suave English actor John Sutton who plays a British paratrooper deposited behind enemy lines with orders to sabotage a German anti-tank factory.  Sutton lands near Cobb’s farm and, well, you’ll have to see the movie to find out what happens next. (We will tell you that Sutton plays a trick on the Nazis at the end of the movie that is so smart you will gasp at its brilliance, we kid you not.)

Here’s the thing about Tonight We Raid Calais: This movie is all business. It’s purpose is not to make you laugh; nor will it inspire you with lingering shots of the French countryside. It has a job to do and it gets to it right away. There’s no waste; no frivolity; no amusing little quirks that endear us to various characters. You climb in and hang on until it’s over.

Now, there are a few plot holes in the script but we won’t worry too much about those. Tonight We Raid Calais is so sincere and well-acted that you can easily overlook them. The biggest flaw – which we’ve already pointed out – is that Lee J. Cobb isn’t the star.

Tonight We Raid Calais: starring Anabella, John Sutton, Lee J. Cobb. Written by Waldo Salt. Directed by John Brahm. Twentieth-Century Fox Film Corp., 1943, B&W, 70 mins.

John Wayne Upgrades the U.S. Navy

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

Is that admiral dissing us?

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

No one can do John Wayne like John Wayne.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs. Miniver’s War Effort

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

It's just bombs, darling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joan Crawford Liberates Paris

What's for breakfast, Pilgrim?

Joan Crawford teaches John Wayne how to take down Nazis.

The great thing about a Joan Crawford movie is that everything is about Joan Crawford.

Take the entertaining 1942 wartime drama, Reunion in France. Here, Joan battles Nazis with such conventional weaponry as perfectly coiffed hair and a fur coat with shoulders out to there.

Crawford plays a spoiled Parisian socialite livin’ the good life until the German army rolls into town. Once there, the Germans take over her house, her finances and her boyfriend (Philip Dorn).

Don’t get the wrong idea. This isn’t a movie about German occupation or the struggles of the French Resistance. This is about our Joan deciding that the Nazis are going down! We know this because, as she herself points out, she represents everything France was and is and could be.

O-kayyyyy, then. Now, if that weren’t enough – get this – our Joan actually rescues John Wayne (John Wayne!!) by smuggling him out of the country.

Clearly, the Germans have no idea with whom they’re dealing.

This is an interesting movie in many ways. Director Jules Dassin has added real footage of Paris at the time, including a shot of Adolf Hitler gawking at the Eiffel Tower.

A note about dialogue: Our Joan starts out with a dodgy British accent which begins to droop about eight minutes into the film. However! This is not an issue because we want to see Joan Crawford, not some actress struggling with a phony accent.

If you’re looking for a wartime drama with minimal violence and maximum fashion, make time to watch Reunion in France. Let our Joan inspire you to do something remarkable.

Reunion in France: starring Joan Crawford, John Wayne and Philip Dorn. Written by Jan Lustig, Marvin Borowsky, Marc Connelly. Directed by Jules Dassin. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, BW, 1942, 100 mins.