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The Yearling (Dec. 18, 1946)

The Yearling
The Yearling (1946)
Directed by Clarence Brown
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The Yearling, which is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, is a hard movie for me to review. It’s a beautifully filmed picture, and is a great example of just how good the sometimes-gaudy Technicolor process could look.

But it’s also one of the saddest “family” films I’ve ever seen. I would certainly never show it to a child under the age of 12, and would only show it to a child 12 or older if they knew the basic story and specifically requested to see it. I’ve seen The Yearling called “heart-warming,” but I found it emotionally draining and depressing.

I don’t know why so many animal stories for young people involve a beloved pet dying, but they do. Unlike The Yearling, however, the animals in Where the Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller at least die after a heroic struggle of some kind. In The Yearling, the 12-year-old protagonist is forced to shoot his beloved deer, whom he raised from a fawn, because it’s eating their cash crops. The message, obviously, is that life is hard, and growing up and becoming a man involves unpleasant tasks, but it still left me feeling more dejected than inspired.

Young Jody Baxter (Claude Jarman, Jr.) is a dreamer — sweet and sensitive despite his hardscrabble life in the Florida scrub country in the late 19th century. He has an easy rapport with his father, Ezra “Penny” Baxter (Gregory Peck), but a more difficult relationship with his mother, Orry (Jane Wyman), who is as hard and unforgiving as pioneer women come. Early in the film, Penny tells his wife, “Don’t be afraid to love the boy.” The film cuts to a scene of Wyman standing in front of the graves of all her dead children, David Baxter, who died at the age of 1 year, 3 months, Ora Baxter, who died at the age of 2 years, 4 months, and Ezra, Jr., who was stillborn, and we see precisely why she is afraid to let down her guard around her only son.

Jody yearns for a little pet of his own, but his parents never let him have one for practical reasons. After Penny is bit by a rattlesnake, however, he shoots a doe for its heart and liver, which can pull the poison from his wound. (I’m pretty sure this is what we would now call “unscientific.”) The doe leaves behind a little fawn, which Jody’s parents allow him to adopt. Jody names the fawn “Flag.”

But why? Why do they finally relent in that situation? The Baxters are practical people who could have seen the handwriting on the wall. When you’re a family that depends on every last penny of income your meager crops provide, having a domesticated deer living on your farm is bound to cause trouble.

Claude Jarman Jr

And trouble Flag causes. Jody’s parents are patient after the year-old Flag eats a large portion of their cash crop of tobacco. Penny and Jody plant a new crop of corn to help make up for the loss. But when Flag eats most of the corn, Jody promises to erect a fence so tall that Flag won’t be able to get over it. His father injures his back, and can’t help him, even though he wants to.

If this was just a story about learning responsibility, then Jody toiling far into the night, in the rain, over the course of several days, all alone, just to build a fence (which appears to be more than six-feet tall) to not only save his family’s crop but also the life of his beloved pet would be enough. But the moment Flag easily jumps over the fence and goes back to work on the corn, my heart dropped. I knew what was coming next, but still couldn’t quite believe it when it happened.

There are plenty of positive interpretations of The Yearling. Death is a part of life, and we all must learn this sooner or later. It could also be seen as a young boy coming to understand his mother’s pain and hardship. Like her, he has now lost something fragile and beautiful that died too young. But these were all things my head understood after watching the movie. My heart felt empty, as though I had just been shown the utter futility of cherishing anything frivolous or out of the ordinary.

The Yearling won three Academy Awards; one for Best Color Interior Direction (Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse, and Edwin B. Willis), one for Best Color Cinematography (Charles Rosher, Leonard Smith, and Arthur Arling), and one honorary Oscar for the young star of the film, Claude Jarman, Jr., who was given an award for “Outstanding Child Actor of 1946.” I thought that Jarman’s performance was good, but I didn’t believe him during two scenes in which he registers horror and disbelief. Peck is good, as always, but he seems miscast. He registers earnestness and decency, but his accent is never quite right. Wyman, I thought, gave the best performance in the film, which was impressive, considering how unsympathetic her character was for most of the running time.

Oh, and there’s a disclaimer at the end that all scenes involving animals were supervised by the American Humane Association. We’re used to seeing this now, but it was fairly new in the ’40s. After several horses were killed during the making of Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and Jesse James (1939), there were numerous audience protests, which led to supervision by American Humane of most Hollywood films involving animal performers. This said, I’d really like to see behind the scenes for the amazing sequence in which Penny and Jody hunt a bear, and their dogs attack it over and over. I guess the bear was just hugging the dogs before it tossed them safely away, but it looked pretty damned real to me.

A Walk in the Sun (Dec. 25, 1945)

A Walk in the Sun
A Walk in the Sun (1945)
Directed by Lewis Milestone
20th Century-Fox

A Walk in the Sun had its premiere on Monday, December 3, 1945, and went into wide release on Christmas day. Produced and directed by Lewis Milestone, the director of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), A Walk in the Sun tells the story of the ordinary men who serve in the infantry. Long stretches of the film are filled with the men’s meandering thoughts (both in voiceover and spoken aloud) and their circuitous conversations. When violence occurs, it comes suddenly, and its larger significance is unknown. The film’s exploration of the infantryman’s P.O.V. is similar to William A. Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe, released earlier the same year. (Burgess Meredith, who played Ernie Pyle in that film, narrates A Walk in the Sun, although he is not listed in the film’s credits. When I first watched this film I was sure it was Henry Fonda’s voice I was hearing. I was surprised when I looked it up and found out it was Meredith.) Unlike The Story of G.I. Joe, however, A Walk in the Sun covers a much briefer period of time (from a pre-dawn landing to noon the same day), and its ending is more heroic, with little sense of loss or tragedy.

Based on the novel by Harry Brown, A Walk in the Sun takes place in 1943, and tells the story of the lead platoon of the Texas division, and their landing on the beach in Salerno, Italy. Square-jawed Dana Andrews plays Staff Sgt. Bill Tyne, a simple man who never had much desire to travel outside of his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. Richard Conte plays the Italian-American Pvt. Rivera, a tough soldier who loves opera and wants a wife and lots of children some day. George Tyne plays Pvt. Jake Friedman, a born-and-bred New Yorker. John Ireland plays PFC Windy Craven, a minister’s son from Canton, Ohio, who writes letters to his sister in his head, speaking the words aloud. Lloyd Bridges plays Staff Sgt. Ward, a baby-faced, pipe-smoking farmer. Sterling Holloway plays McWilliams, the platoon’s medic, who is Southern, speaks very slowly, and just might be a little touched. Norman Lloyd plays Pvt. Archimbeau, “platoon scout and prophet,” as Meredith describes him in the opening narration; Archimbeau talks incessantly of the war in Tibet he theorizes will occur in the ’50s. Herbert Rudley plays Staff Sgt. Eddie Porter, an opinionated guy who’s always looking for an argument (Normal Rockwell’s wasting his time painting photo-realistic covers for the Saturday Evening Post, Porter says. He should use a camera. Some day magazine covers will have moving pictures on them anyway.) Richard Benedict plays Pvt. Tranella, who “speaks two languages, Italian and Brooklyn,” and whose fluency in the former will prove useful when the platoon runs across two Italian deserters.

All of these “types” seem clichéd now, but they’re probably not unrealistic characters for the time. The only really dated thing about A Walk in the Sun is the song that appears throughout the film, and helps to narrate the action. “It Was Just a Little Walk in the Sun,” with music by Earl Robinson and lyrics by Millard Lampell, is sung by Kenneth Spencer in the deep, mournful style of a spiritual. I didn’t dislike the song, but its frequent appearance as a kind of Greek chorus felt intrusive.

One thing that really impressed me about A Walk in the Sun was the cinematography by Russell Harlan. While A Walk in the Sun is clearly filmed in California, Harlan makes the most of starkly contrasted black and white shots that could have been shot anywhere. One of the film’s motifs is black figures against a white sky. There are a couple of scenes that reminded me of the famous final scene in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) in which death leads a procession of people down a hill. Several times in A Walk in the Sun, the platoon is depicted as groups of indistinguishable black figures walking down a black hillside, silhouetted against a completely white sky. And in keeping with the infantryman’s P.O.V., when the platoon lies down to rest there are a couple of shots from the ground, looking up at the sky, while arms reach up across the frame and exchange cigarettes.

A Walk in the Sun is one of the better World War II films I’ve seen, and it’s generally well-regarded, but not everyone liked it. Samuel Fuller, who saw combat in World War II as a rifleman in the U.S. 1st Infantry Division and would go on to direct many cult favorites, wrote a letter to Milestone complaining about the film. “Why a man of your calibre should resort to a colonel’s technical advice on what happens in a platoon is something I’ll never figure out,” he wrote. “When colonels are back in their garrison hutments where they belong I’ll come out with a yarn that won’t make any doggie that was ever on the line retch with disgust.”

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