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Monthly Archives: December 2010

Out California Way (Dec. 5, 1946)

In the grand tradition of singing cowboys, Monte Hale plays a character in Out California Way named “Monte Hale.”

Out California Way is filmed in “Trucolor,” a two-color film process owned by Republic Pictures, and throws Hale into a metafictional world that pulls back the curtain and allows boys and girls at the Saturday matinée to see what might be going on behind the scenes at Republic with all of their favorite cowboy stars.

Hale doesn’t sit quite as tall in the saddle as Republic’s big boys, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, but he’s self-effacing and charming enough to be believable when he says he’s “just a plain cowboy trying to break in” to the movies.

He’s assisted by little Danny McCoy (Bobby Blake, famous for playing Little Beaver in the Red Ryder series), who’s trying to get his horse Pardner into the movies.

Opposing them is the prima donna Rod Mason (John Dehner), who’s a big radio star as the “Robin Hood of the Range,” and has a career in pictures, too. Little Danny McCoy is president of the Rod Mason Fan Club, but that changes pretty fast after he actually meets the guy. Not only is Mason temperamental and nasty to his co-stars, but he hates children and animals. After threatening to whip Pardner if Danny doesn’t get him off the set, it’s clear that Danny has room in his heart for another cowboy actor. For that matter, so does his young, pretty mother, Gloria (played by Lorna Gray, who’s just 16 years older than Blake).

Hale’s an expert horse trainer, and together he and Pardner form a great team. Originally cast as stunt actors on one of Rod Mason’s pictures, they do such a good job that every rewrite comes back with a bigger role for Hale and a smaller part for Mason.

Mason and his sidekick, stunt rider Ace Hanlon (Fred Graham), are typical black hats, so they stop at nothing to foil Hale and Pardner’s success. While performing a stunt, Ace throws short-fuse dynamite at Hale that doesn’t kill him, but totally blows Pardner’s nerves.

Hale takes time off to retrain Pardner and help him over his trauma, but Mason and Ace immediately undo his hard work by sneaking into the corral at night and freaking out Pardner all over again by repeatedly firing a revolver near his head.

On his journey from “plain cowboy” to movie star, Hale is joined by special guest stars Allan Lane, Don “Red Barry,” Dale Evans, Roy Rogers, and horse Trigger, all members of Republic Pictures’ stable of western stars, and all playing themselves in the sequence in which Hale gives Gloria a tour of the studios. Roy and Dale perform a nice rendition of “Ridin’ Down the Sunset Trail” for them. Not bad for a first date.

John Dehner, who would later be a recurring actor on Gunsmoke (both the radio and TV versions), was a fine actor and makes for a great villain in this picture. While Out California Way isn’t substantively different from any of the hundreds of other oaters put out by Republic Pictures, it was fun to see a slightly different plot than the dependable old “evil land baron makes a grab for smaller ranchers’ land.”

Green for Danger (Dec. 5, 1946)

Sidney Gilliat’s Green for Danger, based on the novel by Christianna Brand, is a terrific whodunnit, replete with the cream of the crop of post-war British film thespians.

The story takes place over the course of one week in 1944 at Heron’s Park Emergency Hospital, a requisitioned and converted Elizabethan manor in the English countryside. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, as the doctors, nurses, and administrators tend to the sick and the wartime wounded while squabbling and engaging in petty jealousies as German bombers fly overhead.

Alastair Sim, who plays Inspector Cockrill, doesn’t show up until halfway through the film, but he narrates it from the beginning, introducing us to a group of doctors and nurses circled around a patient in the operating theater; surgeon Mr. Eden (Leo Genn), a stocky, dark-haired Lothario; anesthetist Dr. Barnes (Trevor Howard), who is engaged to the pretty blonde, Nurse Linley (Sally Gray); hysterical Nurse Sanson (Rosamund John); strait-laced Sister Bates (Judy Campbell); and portly Nurse Woods (Megs Jenkins). Inspector Cockrill informs us that it is August 17, 1944, and that by August 22, 1944, two of these characters will be dead, and one of them will be revealed as a murderer.

I like a mystery that establishes its parameters early in the story, and Green for Danger does exactly that. The fact that we’re quickly introduced to the six main characters while their hair and faces are covered by surgical caps and masks means you’ll have to be paying especially close attention if you want to remember who everyone is at first glance, but if you aren’t, never fear. The characters in this film are sharply drawn, and the actors bring them to life wonderfully.

Trevor Howard as Dr. Barnes is the embodiment of the British middle class; his entire body is one big stiff upper lip. Leo Genn probably isn’t anyone’s current idea of a ladykiller, but his smoothness and charisma make him utterly convincing. Sally Gray is lovely to look at, although when she and Rosamund John were both wearing surgical caps I found them difficult to tell apart. I especially liked Judy Campbell, whose role could have been one-note, but who manages to instill the severe Sister Bates with a good deal of humanity.

The first murder — or was it murder? — takes place when a postman named Higgins (Moore Marriott), injured after a bomb attack, dies on the operating table. Recriminations fly, but his death is written off as an accident until one of the nurses screams during a party that she knows it was murder, and she can prove it. She rushes off into the night, stalked by a killer. This sequence is genuinely terrifying, and is reminiscent of an Italian giallo, with dark shadows, swinging doors, and shutters blowing open and closed in the wind to create dramatic lighting effects.

Inspector Cockrill’s appearance marks a shift in tone, as the film becomes more comic. Cockrill is the diametrical opposite of Dr. Barnes and Mr. Eden. While they are perfectly groomed, neatly coiffed, and sharply attired, he is bald, with shocks of gray hair above his ears, outfitted in an ill-fitting, rumpled suit with a drooping pocket square. He’s a collection of tics, constantly shrugging his shoulders and raising his eyebrows.

He’s also the shrewdest man in the room. When Dr. Barnes disparagingly refers to flat-footed coppers, Cockrill responds, “The police force has not a monopoly of fallen arches, Dr. Barnes. Ask any chiropodist.”

Alastair Sim is a fantastic actor, and he exudes authority as Inspector Cockrill, even when he’s doing a pratfall. Cockrill is a fantastic creation, and watching this film made me wish there were an entire series of films featuring the character. He keeps his suspects constantly off-kilter with inappropriate jokes and ironic comments, and he seems mildly amused by everything, including himself.

Green for Danger was one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had lately. It’s genuinely good escapist entertainment.

My Darling Clementine (Dec. 3, 1946)

“This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” — The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

John Ford’s My Darling Clementine is one of the most lauded westerns of all time.

Most criticism of the film is directed at its numerous historical inaccuracies, not its artistic merits. The ages of the Earp brothers are changed, for what seems no discernible reason. Characters die in the film who didn’t die until decades later. The chain of events that led up to the shootout near the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881 is highly fictionalized. In reality, Doc Holliday was a dentist, not a medical doctor. The list goes on and on.

So to enjoy this film, it’s probably best not to watch it with a talkative history junkie.

And if you yourself are a history junkie, try to ignore all the little details and appreciate this film for what it is — one of the great westerns, full of iconic scenes, memorable performances, finely staged action, and little moments that would be copied over and over again in westerns in the decades that followed.

My Darling Clementine is a remake of Allan Dwan’s Frontier Marshal (1939), which starred Randolph Scott as Wyatt Earp. Both films are based on Stuart N. Lake’s book Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, which was based on interviews with Earp, although most historians suspect that either Lake was embellishing or Earp was.

Again, it really doesn’t matter when it comes to this film. The plot is not the important thing, it’s Ford’s evocation of a frontier town. The rhythms of life, the strong feeling of nighttime, daytime, daybreak — all are perfectly realized. It doesn’t matter that the real Tombstone isn’t anywhere near Monument Valley. Ford shot there because he liked the way it looked.

Day for night shooting can look terribly fake, or just plain terrible, but in this film Ford makes it look beautiful. In one nighttime scene, Wyatt Earp appears on a rooftop, shot in low angle, firing his revolver at a man fleeing on horseback. Behind him is a dark sky full of silvery clouds. The scene clearly wasn’t filmed at night, but it’s still breathtaking.

Henry Fonda’s performance as Wyatt Earp is one of the finest I’ve ever seen in a western. Protagonists in westerns tend to be stalwart men of few words, and Earp is no exception, but the humanity Fonda is able to express merely through his eyes is remarkable.

Fonda generates absolute authority in every scene. Except, of course, when he’s with the pretty Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs). The scene in which he takes her to a Sunday dance at the site where the town’s church will be built is one of the highlights of the film. As Earp walks beside Clementine, the congregation sings “Shall We Gather at the River?” (later to be paid gruesome homage to by Sam Peckinpah when he made The Wild Bunch in 1969). The budding romance between the two is palpable, and is a fine example of Fonda’s wonderful silent acting.

Walter Brennan is also great as Old Man Clanton, the vicious patriarch of a nasty clan. Brennan played a lot of cuddly, blustery sidekicks, but here he’s completely convincing as a cold-eyed villain who tells his boys things like, “When you pull a gun, kill a man.”

I’m less bowled over by Victor Mature’s performance as Doc Holliday. The oily Mature seems to be in a different picture in most of his scenes, as he drinks to escape his past and romances the tragic prostitute Chihuahua (Linda Darnell).

As I said, the liberties Ford takes with history are legion. But as Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp (1994) showed, an accurate recitation of the facts doesn’t necessarily make for compelling drama. And who cares about the actual details of the shootout near the O.K. Corral when we have things in this film like Earp standing perfectly still as a stagecoach pulls in, then running to his left as soon as it kicks up a trail of dust, nearly invisible even to the viewer as he fires several shots and hits his target?

Producer Daryl F. Zanuck notoriously tinkered with this film. He thought Ford’s original version was too long, so he had director Lloyd Bacon shoot some new footage, and then re-edited the film himself. While some of Ford’s lost footage has been unearthed, his original version is lost. Would it have been a better film? Possibly. Is the version we are left with still a great film, and one of the greatest American westerns? Absolutely.

The Trap (Nov. 30, 1946)

Howard Bretherton’s The Trap, produced by James S. Burkett, was Sidney Toler’s last appearance as Charlie Chan. Toler died on February 12, 1947, at the age of 72.

He inherited the role of Chan, a Chinese detective created by the novelist Earl Derr Biggers, from Swedish actor Warner Oland, who died in 1938. Oland played the venerable old detective from 1931 to 1937. He died at the age of 58 from complications due to bronchial pneumonia, possibly related to his alcoholism. (According to Yunte Huang’s recent book about Charlie Chan, Oland like to throw back a few before playing the character, as it helped his fuzzy, drawling, faux-Chinese line delivery. When Toler took over the character, the producers encouraged him to do the same thing.)

The Trap is a run-of-the-mill B mystery from Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. A gaggle of showgirls, their impresario, and their press agent all set up camp in a dusty old beach house in Malibu Beach.

After one of them is strangled with a silken cord, the hysterical women telephone Charlie Chan and reach his driver, Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland). If you enjoy politically incorrect humor, you’re in for a treat, as the bug-eyed Moreland mugs and twitches in ways black actors never would again.

Accompanied by Birmingham and his “number 2″ son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung), Chan arrives on the scene, and proceeds to unravel the mystery while spouting nonsensical aphorisms like, “Puzzle always deepest near the center.”

The Trap is a standard “old dark house” mystery, with the regular array of stock characters, such as a severe old battle-axe of a housekeeper and a doctor running away from his past. Kirk Alyn, who would go on to play Superman in two serials in 1948 and 1950, plays a tall, handsome motorcycle cop who assists Chan in his investigation, and doesn’t make much of an impression beyond his mustache and dark glasses. The beach setting doesn’t really jibe with the creepy old house — which has a basement and plenty of secret passages — and seems to exist mostly as an excuse for the pretty showgirls to go swimming whenever they can.

The Charlie Chan films remain a historical curiosity. Neither Toler’s makeup nor acting make him convincingly Chinese, but the series still has its fans, even its Chinese fans, such as Huang, the author I mentioned above.

Undercurrent (Nov. 28, 1946)

Undercurrent
Undercurrent (1946)
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The next time you and a friend see a turgid, overlong thriller with too many twists and turns, bogus storytelling, and good actors wasted, and your friend says, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” you can show your friend Undercurrent and prove that they make ‘em exactly like they used to.

Pound for pound, Undercurrent might have boasted more talent than any other mystery melodrama in 1946. Director Vincente Minnelli and cinematographer Karl Freund were both gifted craftsmen with numerous acclaimed films under their belts. Herbert Stothart’s music is moody and evocative, especially the film’s haunting theme. Actors Robert Taylor and Katharine Hepburn were both stars of the highest magnitude, and hadn’t been seen onscreen for some time. Taylor had just finished his term of service as a flying instructor in the U.S. Naval Air Corps and Hepburn hadn’t appeared in a movie for a year and a half.

So what’s the problem? While studio tinkering could have played some part, the problem seems to mostly be Edward Chodorov’s screenplay, which was based on a story by Thelma Strabel. In a word, it’s silly. As soon as a promising situation is established, the story goes in a different direction, which serves to undercut the tension. The review of the film in the November 11, 1946, issue of Time called the plot “indigestible,” and said it was like “a woman’s magazine serial consumed at one gulp.”

Hepburn plays a young woman named Ann Hamilton who lives with her father, chemistry professor “Dink” Hamilton (Edmund Gwenn). Ann is herself chemically inclined, and prefers to spend time tinkering in the laboratory than entertaining proposals from eligible young men. All that changes when the handsome, mustachioed, and fabulously wealthy Alan Garroway (Taylor) enters her life. Alan is the inventor of the Garroway Distance Controller, which helped win the war.

Hepburn and Taylor in the shadow of Mitchum

Alan and Ann marry, and he takes her away with him to Washington, D.C., where she feels completely out of her depth in high society. Meanwhile, Alan starts making sinister insinuations about his brother Michael, who supposedly went missing years earlier with a large sum of money embezzled from the family business, and who is offscreen for most of the picture. The film seems to be setting up “What happened to Michael Garroway?” as the central mystery, but if you’ve looked at a cast list with character names, this plot thread won’t be that mysterious for you.

When Alan takes Ann away to his lovely country home in Middleburg, Virginia, the film threatens to settle down and become a solid Gothic melodrama. The estate has no phone line, and Alan’s behavior is increasingly bizarre. And as one critic noted, the central theme of Gothic fiction seems to be, “Someone is trying to kill me, and I think it may be my husband.”

True to form, however, the film goes in yet another direction, with Ann going off to explore Michael Garroway’s ludicrously appointed mansion-cum-bachelor pad, where she explores his musical instruments and books of poetry with copious underlinings, and seems to be falling in love with a man she has never met. I’m sure a good film could be made about a love triangle with one-third of the equation missing for most of the film’s running time, but this isn’t it. As Bosley Crowther said in his review of Undercurrent in the November 29, 1946, issue of the NY Times, “And if that also sounds a trifle senseless, let us hasten to assure you that it is.”

Robert Mitchum — one of my favorite actors of all time, ever since I saw him host Saturday Night Live in 1987 and asked my mom, “Who is that?” — is also in Undercurrent, but he doesn’t show up until more than halfway through the film’s running time, and only has a few scenes.

I may have made Undercurrent sound terrible. It’s not. It’s mediocre popcorn entertainment, and I had fun watching it. And it’s no worse than most of the “neo-noirs” that littered multiplexes throughout the 1990s … it’s just not much better, either.

The Best Years of Our Lives (Nov. 21, 1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Directed by William Wyler
RKO Radio Pictures

William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives premiered in New York City on November 21, 1946, and in Los Angeles a month later, on Christmas day. It was a hit with both audiences and critics, and was the biggest financial success since Gone With the Wind in 1939.

The film swept the 19th Academy Awards, winning in all but one category in which it was nominated. The film won best picture, Wyler won best director, Fredric March won best actor, Harold Russell won best supporting actor, Robert E. Sherwood won for best screenplay, Daniel Mandell won for best editing, and Hugo Friedhofer won for best score. (The only category in which it was nominated and did not win was best sound recording. The Jolson Story took home that award.)

There are several reasons for the film’s financial and critical success. It perfectly captured the mood of the times. In 1946, returning servicemen faced an enormous housing shortage, an uncertain job market, food shortages, and a turbulent economy (price controls were finally lifted by the O.P.A. around the time the film premiered). Combat veterans also faced their own personal demons in an atmosphere in which discussing feelings was seen as a sign of weakness. By telling the stories of three World War II veterans returning to life in their hometown, The Best Years of Our Lives held a mirror up to American society.

The biggest reason for the film’s success, however, is that it’s a great movie. Plenty of films made in 1945 and 1946 featured characters who were returning veterans, but none before had shown them in such a realistic, unvarnished way. The Best Years of Our Lives doesn’t try to wring tragedy out of its characters’ personal situations. It’s an overwhelming emotional experience precisely because it doesn’t strain for high emotions. The film earns every one of its quietly powerful moments. Hugo Friedhofer’s score is occasionally overbearing, and a little high in the mix, but at its best it’s moving, and a fair approximation of Aaron Copland’s fanfares for common men. Gregg Toland’s deep focus cinematography is phenomenal. Every image in the film — the hustle and bustle of life in a small American city, the quietly expressive faces of its characters, and the interiors of homes, drugstores, bars, banks, and nightclubs — is fascinating to look at. (Toland was Orson Welles’s cinematographer on Citizen Kane, and he was an absolute wizard.)

Russell Andrews March

The actors in this film are, without exception, outstanding. Fredric March plays Al Stephenson, an infantry platoon sergeant who fought in the Pacific, and who returns to his job as a bank manager. Myrna Loy plays his wife, Milly, Teresa Wright plays their daughter, Peggy, and Michael Hall plays their son, Rob. Dana Andrews plays the shell-shocked Fred Derry, a decorated bombardier and captain in the Army Air Forces in Europe, who returns home to his beautiful wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), whom he married immediately before leaving to serve. Now that the war is over and they are living together, they realize they have very little in common. Harold Russell plays Homer Parrish, a sailor who lost both his hands when his aircraft carrier was sunk.

Russell was a non-professional actor who lost his hands in 1944 while serving with the U.S. 13th Airborne Division. He was an Army instructor, and a defective fuse detonated an explosive he was handling while making a training film. Russell’s performance is key to the success of the film. An actor who didn’t actually use two hook prostheses in his everyday life wouldn’t have been able to realistically mimic all the little things that Russell does; lighting cigarettes, handling a rifle, playing a tune on the piano. More importantly, Russell’s performance is amazing. From the very first scene that the camera lingers on his face as he shares a plane ride home with March and Andrews, I felt as if I knew the man.

Russell is so convincing as a man who has quickly adapted to his handicap that it’s gut-wrenching to watch as his exterior slowly breaks down, and we’re drawn deeper into his world. Homer Parrish has a darkness inside him, and he carries with him the constant threat of violence; bayonets adorn the walls of his childhood bedroom and he spends his time alone in the garage, firing his rifle at the woodpile. His next-door neighbor and childhood sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) keeps trying to get close to him, but he pushes her away. In a lesser film, this all might have led to a violent and melodramatic finale, but it merely simmers below the surface, informing his character. Instead, the most emotional scenes with Homer take place in smaller ways, such as when we see that he is not as self-sufficient as he seems, and needs his father’s help every night to remove his prostheses before he goes to sleep.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a great film, and should be seen by everyone who loves movies and is interested in the post-war era. It’s long — just short of three hours — but it didn’t feel long to me. The running time allows its story to develop naturally as the characters enter and re-enter one another’s lives. It also felt more real than any other movie I’ve seen this year. (I can’t think of another movie that wasn’t about alcoholism that featured so many scenes of its characters getting realistically drunk.) And despite all the personal difficulties its characters face, it’s ultimately an uplifting film, full of quiet hope for the future.

Sioux City Sue (Nov. 21, 1946)

Frank McDonald’s Sioux City Sue repurposes the script from the 1939 comedy She Married a Cop and takes its title from one of the most popular songs of 1946. It was Gene Autry’s first film after he completed his service in the Army Air Corps during World War II.

More comedy than western, Sioux City Sue is lightweight fluff, but if you like Autry’s music, there’s plenty of it. (Although, if you’re like me, you’ll be a little sick of the title song by the end of the picture.)

In a plot that makes no sense if you stop to think about it for longer than half a second, a pretty blond Hollywood talent scout named Sue Warner (Lynne Roberts) casts Autry in an upcoming movie without telling him that he’ll never actually appear onscreen and is in fact voicing a singing donkey in an animated feature.

Things have changed a lot. Now, Hollywood stars regularly lend their voices to animated features. It’s nice work if you can get it; no time in the makeup chair, no difficult location shooting, and you can take your toddlers to the premiere. But in 1946, no star would ever dream of being in a cartoon. It’s hard, though, not to be delighted and amused by the premiere of the cartoon feature in Sioux City Sue. The little donkey with Autry’s voice, singing to his sweetheart on horseback, both of them wearing western duds, is pretty gosh-darned cute.

But Autry’s been lied to, and that rightly doesn’t sit well with the man. Of course, during the making of the film, Sue fell in love with him, so the big question for the second half of the picture is whether or not she’ll be able to convince him she’s sorry. She does her darnedest, quitting her job and coming to work on his ranch as a cook and general menial laborer.

This being a Republic western programmer, there’s an action-packed climax, and it’s up to Autry and his wonder horse Champion to save the day. The last few minutes of the picture, which involve a dynamited dam, a flood, and a cattle stampede, are exciting. But for the most part, Sioux City Sue is a laid-back and easygoing good time.

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