War

Winston Churchill vs. Colonel Blimp

LIfe-long pals Image: kdjf eif

Roger Livesey (left) plays a bombastic yet lovable Colonel. Image: moviemail.com

When we (as in, yours truly) were young, we felt we were smarter than older generations because we could identify the celebrities du jour. We thought this somehow made us smarter, which is rather embarrassing to admit.

Now that we’re a bit older, we realize we don’t know as much as the generation before or after us, which is also rather embarrassing.

There’s a lot to be said about the experience and wisdom of older generations, but oftentimes the fresh perspective of younger generations is necessary.

This is one of the themes of the British WWII war dramedy The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, a film about a young British army soldier who duels with, then befriends, a German soldier. He remains the German’s lifelong friend despite the miles between them, a mutual love for the same woman, and a mild skirmish known as WWI.

The main character is a clever young man who serves his country his entire life with the ideals he was raised, but as he grows older he becomes increasingly out of step with the perplexing twentieth century.

So, who on earth was Colonel Blimp?

Blimp was a popular British cartoon that lampooned stuffy, démodé leaders in government and the military. Blimp often makes circular arguments and/or arrives at ridiculous conclusions, most of which are based on the assumption that the British Empire Is Never Wrong. Here is an example:

Colonel Blimp in his element. Image: akdsjf

Colonel Blimp waxing eloquent in his Turkish bath. Image: Air Force Amazons

The movie Colonel Blimp is named Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), and when we first meet him, he is just like the cartoon figure pictured above. He is an awkward, blustery old man, complete with giant walrus moustache.

We also discover, however, that Wynne-Candy is also a man who loves deeply and, when he was a young man, he fell in love with a woman he didn’t marry – and never got over it. (This woman is Deborah Kerr, who plays three women in the film.) Not only that, his fondness and admiration for his German friend (Anton Walbrook), is a remarkable show of loyalty. Despite our initial impressions, we find ourselves becoming enamoured with Wynne-Candy.

Colonel Blimp is considered one of the greatest British films ever made; it was written and directed by the brilliant filmmaking duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. One of the most remarkable scenes features a monologue by Anton Walbrook when his character applies for refugee status in England. The monologue starts at the 1:16 mark below. When Walbrook begins his speech, notice the camera never looks away, never blinks.

But when Colonel Blimp was released in 1943, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill tried to have it banned, even though it was a commercial success – and even though it contained Walbrook’s inspirational monologue. When the ban attempt failed, he managed to delay its international release until 1945.

Colonel Blimp, we presume? Image: lskdfj

Colonel Blimp’s personality bears no resemblance to Winston Churchill. None what-so-ever. Image: Cinemas Online

One can’t be too hard on Churchill for this position. It was WWII, after all, and British civilians were asked to make great sacrifices for the war. He certainly wanted to keep civilian morale high, and having a pompous, slightly ridiculous character lampooning the military was, in his mind, likely defeating the purpose.

(The British media, like any other media, loves a whiff of scandal, and they discussed Churchill’s displeasure with this film at length in 2012, when Colonel Blimp was re-released. You can see an example here.)

If you’ve not seen The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, please set aside an evening for it. It’s a gorgeous film, and is ranked 45 out of the top 100 British films of all time. More importantly, however, you’ll be glad to make Colonel Blimp’s acquaintance.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp: Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Anton Walbrook. Written & directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The Rank Organisation, 1943, Technicolor, 163 mins.

This post is part of the BRITISH EMPIRE Blogathon hosted by Phantom Empires and The Stalking Moon. Be sure to read all the other contributions!

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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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The Opportunistic Hume Cronyn

Hume Cronyn (right) kfj alskdjf  Image: laskdjf

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.

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

You can trust me - I wear white suits

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.