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Category Archives: November 1946

A Matter of Life and Death (Dec. 25, 1946)

Stairway to Heaven
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
The Archers / Eagle-Lion / Universal Pictures

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s brilliant fantasy A Matter of Life and Death premiered in the United Kingdom on November 1, 1946, and later that year in New York City, on Christmas day, retitled Stairway to Heaven. (After World War II, the word “death” was verboten in film titles for awhile in the United States.)

The film begins with the following statement: “This is a story of two worlds — the one we know and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war. Any resemblance to any other world, known or unknown, is purely coincidental.” It’s a playful opening, and can be interpreted in more than one way. “The Archers” (the name Powell and Pressburger used for their partnership) had a light touch, and were able to weave magical realism into their stories without ever seeming childish or silly.

After a cheeky narrated tour through the cosmos, we see Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven), his Lancaster bomber in flames and about to crash. Peter’s parachute is shot too full of holes to function properly, and he is desperately trying to reach someone on the radio. Next to him lies the body of Flying Officer Bob Trubshawe (Robert Coote). Peter manages to get in touch with June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator, and pours out his heart to her. Finally, he professes his love before leaping out of the bomber without a parachute.

The scene in which Niven wakes up in the pounding surf and believes himself in the afterlife is a masterpiece of subtle humor. He stands, breathes deeply, and walks toward the beach with a beatific gaze, shedding his earthly raiments. The first person he sees is a boy playing a pipe, tending sheep, so why wouldn’t he think he’s passed on to his final reward?

Meanwhile, his mate Bob finds himself in the “other place,” an otherworldly bureacracy in which angel wings arrive en masse on long runners, ready to be attached to newly arrived bodies, and businesslike clerks take names and hand out assignments. Bob is told that there was a clerical error that caused Peter to fall through the cracks, and that he’ll need to be collected forthwith.

The scenes on terra firma are filmed in beautiful Technicolor, while the scenes in the afterlife are filmed in black and white. (Technically it’s “monochrome Technicolor,” not proper black and white, but since I’m not as big of a film nerd as Martin Scorsese, I couldn’t tell the difference.) It’s a simple but brilliant stylistic choice, and it’s way ahead of its time. Films in the ’30s or ’40s that mixed black and white with color film invariably depicted the fantastical world in color and the prosaic world in black and white. To do it the other way around looks forward to the ’80s, when black and white was coming back into vogue, and filmmakers like Scorsese and David Lynch showed just how surreal and otherworldly black and white film could look.

Kim Hunter and David Niven

June and Peter fall in love, but for Peter, time occasionally stops all around him while a ridiculous French aristocrat from the other world known as “Conductor 71” (Marius Goring), pays him visits.

June’s friend Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesey) believes that Peter’s visions aren’t supernatural, but symptoms of a brain injury. Eventually this “matter of life and death” comes to a head as Peter is operated on in our world while simultaneously facing trial in the other.

A Matter of Life and Death is a fantastic film that is satisfying on both a technical level and an emotional level. The performances are all wonderful, and Powell and Pressburger are masterful filmmakers.

Incidentally, in a 2004 poll of 25 film critics in Britain’s Total Film magazine, A Matter of Life and Death was named the second greatest British film of all time, sandwiched between Get Carter (#1) and Trainspotting (#3).

The Crimson Ghost (12 chapters) (Sept. 21-Dec. 7, 1946)

The Republic serial The Crimson Ghost, directed by William Witney and Fred C. Brannon, features one of the most iconic cliffhanger villains of all time. His grinning skull mask was appropriated by the band The Misfits, and may be how the character is best known today, since his face appears on nearly all of their T-shirts and album covers.

The Crimson Ghost’s mask is also the most memorable and sinister part of him in the serial itself. He gets involved with the action — gunplay, car chases, and fistfights — too often to be mysterious or ominous, and his hideouts are generally rustic or quaintly subterranean, but damn that mask is cool!

By 1946, most of Republic’s finest serials were behind them, but the studio still made the best cliffhangers in Hollywood, and The Crimson Ghost stands up as solid entertainment. It’s also one of the earliest examples of post-war, Atomic Age, pulp lunacy. Granted, the storytelling isn’t that different from pre-war Republic serials, but The Crimson Ghost does contain a number of science-fiction elements, and some of the fear and paranoia that came from living in a world with atomic weapons was beginning to creep in.

Charles Quigley plays scientific criminologist and “outstanding physicist” Duncan Richards and Linda Stirling plays his lovely and plucky assistant, Diana Farnsworth. In the first chapter of the serial, “Atomic Peril,” Prof. Chambers (played by Republic mainstay Kenne Duncan, his hair dyed gray and playing against type as a good guy) demonstrates his invention, the “cyclotrode.” The cyclotrode is roughly the size of a bread box, with a rotating cylindrical metal coil on top. It can “repel any atomic bomb attack” by shorting out electric systems, a stunning display of which is shown when Dr. Richards pilots a little model of a B-29 and Prof. Chambers locates it somehow with the cyclotrode and shoots it out of the sky. After the demonstration is over, one of the observing scientists says, “I haven’t felt so safe since before the bomb fell on Hiroshima.”

Prof. Chambers says that he plans to hand the cyclotrode over to the government and begin work on a larger model, but one of his fellow scientists is secretly masquerading as the Crimson Ghost (voiced by I. Stanford Jolley) and commanding a small army of henchmen in his spare time. One of the Ghost’s henchmen — disguised as a janitor — gets the drop on Prof. Chambers with the old “revolver in a feather duster” trick, but Prof. Chambers manages to destroy the prototype, and a small-scale, ridiculous little arms race is on.

Republic Pictures always had the best fight stuntmen in the business, and the brawls in The Crimson Ghost are all really well-done. The first one is a doozy, with Quigley’s stunt double leaping over a conference table, later sliding down its length, and of course breaking lots of furniture along the way. The second fight features the most memorable stunt in the serial, when Quigley’s stunt double leaps up and kicks off of a wall to take down two assailants.

Over the course of The Crimson Ghost, Dr. Richards and Diana constantly cross paths and mix it up with the black-robed baddie and his right-hand man, the suit and fedora-wearing Ash (played by Clayton Moore, who is best known to legions of baby boomers as the Lone Ranger). Like all serials, the plot is massaged, kneaded, and stretched out to fill 12 chapters. There are plenty of fistfights and car chases — the bread and butter of chapter plays — but there are also plenty of nutty pseudoscientific contraptions like the Crimson Ghost’s “slave collars,” which are outfitted with small diaphragm radio receivers that allow the Ghost to order the wearer around like his own personal zombie; the collars also explode when removed, killing the unlucky victim.

It quickly becomes clear that the Ghost is really one of the professors with whom Dr. Richards regularly meets, so why he keeps telling them his plans is beyond me, but it makes for plenty of action when Ash and his henchmen show up every time Dr. Richards and Diana attempt to secure an “X-7 transformer tube” (which Richards explains is “a special radium vapor tube we’ve been developing for a death ray machine”) or procure the heavy water necessary to supply the cyclotrode’s tubes.

There are plenty of cool gadgets, like a transcription disc sent to Dr. Richards that carries a message from the Crimson Ghost that ends with a release of poisonous gas, radioactive tracking devices, dissolving sprays, and a cigarette case that releases a tiny puff of knockout gas.

The Crimson Ghost was one of three serials I watched repeatedly in high school (The Adventures of Captain Marvel and Spy Smasher were the other two). I loved Linda Stirling as Diana, whom Dr. Richards treats like a secretary even though she can pilot a plane, mix it up with Ash, and even throw her little body out of a speeding car and remarkably not have any scratches or bruises on her face. Watching it again made me realize that she’s a really bad actress, even by the standards of Republic Pictures, but her ineptitude as a thespian didn’t change the way I feel about her, or about The Crimson Ghost, which is a top-notch serial with plenty of rewatchability.

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.

The Razor’s Edge (Nov. 19, 1946)

Edmund Goulding’s The Razor’s Edge, based on the best-selling 1944 novel by W. Somerset Maugham, features an Academy Award-winning performance by Anne Baxter in a supporting role, great-looking sets, deliciously bitchy acting by Clifton Webb, and a chance for Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney to show that they were better actors than they are usually given credit for.

So why didn’t I like it? Everything about this film reeks of “Oscar bait.” It’s high-minded, pretentious, and self-important, but ultimately shallow. There are a number of interesting characters in the framing sections of the film, but the central story about a young man named Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power) seeking enlightenment in Eastern spirituality falls flat, and everything else in the movie hangs on it.

Darrell is a veteran of the Great War who returns home to Chicago in 1919 questioning life after a fellow soldier — a friend of his — died saving his life. His confusion and guilt lead him to reject ordinary life and travel the world searching for meaning. He leaves behind his fiancée, porcelain-skinned beauty Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney), as well as a sharply drawn cast of supporting characters; Isabel’s uncle, the fabulously wealthy and snobbish Elliott Templeton (Clifton Webb), the tragic hanger-on Sophie MacDonald (Anne Baxter), and “regular guy” Gray Maturin (John Payne). Just as in the novel, Maugham himself (played by Herbert Marshall) pops in and out of these characters’ lives.

When Tyrone Power first appears in the film, the character of Maugham says in voiceover, “This is the young man of whom I write. He is not famous. It may be that when his life at last comes to an end, he will leave no more trace of his sojourn on this earth than a stone thrown into a river leaves on the surface of the water. Yet it may be that the way of life he has chosen for himself may have an ever-growing influence over his fellow men, so that, long after his death perhaps, it may be realized that there lived in this age a very remarkable creature.”

Maugham’s words are prophetic. In the decades after he wrote The Razor’s Edge, many young men (and some women) would seek wisdom and enlightenment just as Larry does, traveling the world working a series of menial jobs and seeking truth in non-Christian religions.

While working in a coal mine in France, Larry plays cards and drinks with an old man who eventually turns out to be (unshockingly, based on the dialogue that passes between them) a defrocked priest running away from himself. The priest tells Larry of an Indian holy man who is vastly wise, and who may be able to set Larry straight.

Larry makes his way to India, and it was at this point that — at least for me — the movie took a nosedive. While all kinds of terrible things are happening to the other characters — Isabel is in a loveless marriage, Sophie loses her baby and becomes an alcoholic, etc. — Larry hangs out in a set that looks left over from Anna and the King of Siam and studies with an Indian guru who is ridiculously played by British actor Cecil Humphreys. The holy man speaks only of “God,” nothing specific, and certainly nothing polytheistic. His mysticism is inoffensive New Age stuff along the lines of Deepak Chopra’s vague aphorisms.

After Larry learns all he can from books, the holy man sends him on a pilgrimage to the mountains, where he receives “enlightenment” in the form of a matte painting of sun bursting out from behind the clouds and one last mealy-mouthed conversation with the guru.

All of this might have been meaningful in the novel. I can’t say, as I haven’t read it. But at least in this film, Larry’s spiritual journey is a bunch of vague nonsense that trades on the supposed exoticism of the East without actually including anything strange or specific enough to offend Peoria. Worst of all, he returns to his circle of friends, who are now bumming around Europe, with what amounts to a bag of parlor tricks. He does some hypnosis, forcing his friend Gray to drop a coin after he counts to ten and then tells Gray that he will feel pain no longer. Stuff like that. I was surprised he hadn’t learned to turn himself invisible, like Lamont Cranston in The Shadow.

When the movie ends, we’re supposed to believe that everyone who came into contact with Larry is better, somehow, because he is possessed of the most powerful force in the universe, goodness. But what is it about him makes him so good? He agrees to marry Sophie when she is in the depths of her alcoholism, which leads another character to describe him as being in the grips of self-sacrifice, which seems more apt.

Is Larry a good person because, at the end of the film, he works his way back to America on a tramp steamer? So do legions of cruder, simpler men. Does the mere fact of Larry’s enlightened attitude make his manual labor somehow nobler than the manual labor of “lesser” men? If it does, then why? The film never answers this question, but rather asks us to accept its thesis at face value.

I love all the actors in The Razor’s Edge, and they give some of the best performances of their careers in this film. But while it contains plenty of strong individual scenes, it’s a sodden, overlong snoozefest.