Ted Tetzlaff’s The Window is a film noir version of “the boy who cried wolf” in which no one believes a boy who claims to have witnessed a murder. The Window is a wonderful suspense thriller with great performances all around.
In Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives, a trio of women nervously wait to find out which of their husbands has run away with the town hussy. Told mostly in flashback, it’s one of the smartest and funniest films I’ve seen from the 1940s about marriage and the American class structure.
Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly’s third all-singing, all-dancing collaboration is the enduring classic of the bunch. On the Town is a joyful, whirlwind journey through New York City about three sailors with 24 hours of shore leave who paint the town red.
Director Carol Reed’s second collaboration with writer Graham Greene stars Joseph Cotten as a writer lost in a labyrinth of secrets and lies in postwar Vienna. Orson Welles has a relatively small amount of screen time, but his character dominates the film like a specter. The Third Man is a haunting, beautifully filmed thriller.
It’s hard to imagine a better vehicle for the talents of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn than Adam’s Rib, a hilarious comedy written by Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon whose take on the war between the sexes is still relevant.
Whisky Galore is a hilarious British film about a group of islanders who “liberate” hundreds of cases of liquor from a shipwreck. It’s a great film that wrings humor out of more than just forced sobriety and drunken revelry. It’s an extremely well-crafted film about small-town life that’s warm and deeply human.
Akira Kurosawa’s police procedural Stray Dog is the tale of an older, experienced detective (Takashi Shimura) and a younger, more impulsive detective (Toshirô Mifune) on the trail of the younger detective’s stolen pistol, which is being used in a series of increasingly violent crimes. It’s one of Kurosawa’s earliest masterpieces, and a film I can watch over and over.
Raoul Walsh’s White Heat ended the classic cycle of Warner Bros. gangster movies with speed and fury, and featured a blistering performance by James Cagney as one of Hollywood’s most memorable psychopathic criminals.
Yasujiro Ozu’s tale of a father emotionally letting go of his beloved adult daughter is beautifully filmed, wonderfully acted, and quietly devastating. Ozu is the acknowledged master of the understated Japanese domestic drama, and his films are treasures to be discovered and rediscovered.
In 1949, the Kirk Douglas vehicle Champion was the boxing movie that got all the praise, but the truly enduring classic is Robert Wise’s lean, mean The Set-Up. A masterpiece of brutal efficiency, it’s one of the all-time great noirs, without a single slack moment.
Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
Directed by Henry King
In my review of Battleground (1949) last month, I referred to it as “a return to films about World War II that focused on the combat experience.”
When I said that, I completely overlooked three studio pictures about air combat in World War II that were released before Battleground — Raoul Walsh’s Fighter Squadron (1948), Sam Wood’s Command Decision (1948), and Delmer Daves’s Task Force (1949).
It just goes to show that you shouldn’t make bold pronouncements about films by using words like “first” and “only” unless you’ve seen every movie ever made, and seeing every movie ever made is impossible.
So I’ll take the hit on that inaccuracy.
Anyway, Twelve O’Clock High was the third in a string of high-profile studio pictures about World War II released toward the end of 1949, all of which received several Oscar nominations. (Battleground and Sands of Iwo Jima were the first two.)
Like Sands of Iwo Jima, Twelve O’Clock High features actual combat footage shot during the war, but unlike Sands of Iwo Jima, the footage is used sparingly, only appearing toward the end of the film. For the most part, Twelve O’Clock High is a character-driven drama about men pushed to the limit as they fly one deadly mission after another.
Twelve O’Clock High was directed by Henry King. The screenplay was adapted by Beirne Lay Jr. and Sy Bartlett from their novel of the same name, which was based on their own experiences in World War II. Most of the characters in the book and film are based on real people or are composites of several people.
The film begins in 1949, when Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger), who spent most of the war as a Major in the U.S. Army Air Forces, has his memory stimulated by a Toby Jug he finds in a London shop. It’s identical to the one that used to sit in the officer’s club of his old airfield at Archbury. He bicycles out to the site of the airfield, which is now just a field of gently waving grass, and he falls into a reverie.
Twelve O’Clock High details the extreme stress suffered by the members of the 918th Bomb Group, who flew daring daylight precision bombing runs and suffered heavy losses to anti-aircraft fire and to the Luftwaffe. When their commanding officer, Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill), begins to crack under the strain, he is replaced by Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck).
Savage is so hard and unforgiving that for most of the film he doesn’t seem quite human. The men loved Colonel Davenport, but the closeness probably affected his leadership. On the other hand, they hate Brigadier General Savage so much that every man in the 918th applies for a transfer. Savage grants their requests, but ties them up with red tape long enough to whip the men into shape, and eventually their feelings change when their bombing runs become more successful and they suffer fewer casualties.
Early in Twelve O’Clock High there is a spectacular sequence in which a B-17 crash-lands. It was pulled off by stunt pilot Paul Mantz, who took off and crash-landed without any assistance. Most of the film, however, is a portrait of combat stress. Even the most stoic characters in the film eventually crack under the pressure. When the actual combat footage is used toward the end of the film, the audience already has a sense of what the pilots and crewmen are experiencing, and how dangerous their missions are.
Twelve O’Clock High is a really good World War II movie, and by all reports an extremely accurate one. I didn’t emotionally connect with it the same way I connected with Battleground, but that’s just a personal preference. If you have any interest in the air war in Europe, particularly how B-17 bombers were used, then Twelve O’Clock High is a must-see film.
It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Gregory Peck. It won two Oscars: Best Supporting Actor for Dean Jagger and Best Sound Recording.
Directed by William A. Wellman
A lot of reviews of Battleground claim it was the first World War II movie to portray servicemen as fully human characters who experience fear and doubt, and not just as inspirational patriotic figures.
Whoever thinks this has probably not seen very many World War II movies made between 1941 and 1945. While Americans have never been great at understanding our enemies, we have always been good at exploring the vulnerability, fears, and doubts that our own soldiers experience in combat. Everything from Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895) to Lewis Milestone’s film version of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) presented nuanced views of men under fire.
During World War II, Hollywood films about the war tended to lionize servicemen and depict America’s involvement as vitally necessary, but the better ones, like Mervyn LeRoy’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) (with script by Dalton Trumbo), were also great human dramas.
A Walk in the Sun was directed by Lewis Milestone, the man who directed All Quiet on the Western Front. It attempts to depict the mind of the American infantryman, through both dialogue and rambling internal monologues (a technique Terrence Malick would later use in The Thin Red Line). In keeping with the POV of the soldiers, the viewer is kept mostly in the dark about the larger significance of the violence, which punctuates the film in terrifying and confusing bursts.
The Story of G.I. Joe starred Burgess Meredith as embedded combat reporter Ernie Pyle and co-starred Robert Mitchum as the commanding officer of Company C, 18th Infantry. It was directed by William A. Wellman, the man who directed Battleground. Just like Battleground, the scenes of violence were swift and brutal, but the focus for most of the film was on the infantrymen themselves, and the boredom, extreme physical discomfort, and drudgery punctuated by fear that everyone who serves in combat experiences. Also like Battleground, most of the extras in The Story of G.I. Joe were actual soldiers who had served in combat.
The big studios dumped most of their existing war movies in theaters not long after V-E Day and V-J Day in 1945, rightly assuming that the public had little interest in war movies once the war was over. In the few years that followed, plenty of movies dealt with veterans’ homecomings (The Best Years of Our Lives, released in 1946, was the finest of these films), but I’m hard pressed to think of any American films from this period that directly dealt with the experience of combat. The only one I can think of is Mervyn LeRoy’s Homecoming (1948), but all of the fighting in that film was just the backdrop for a passionate and illicit romance between Clark Gable and Lana Turner.
So Battleground was unique in that it was a return to films about World War II that focused on the combat experience. Producer Dore Schary brought the project with him to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer when he left RKO Radio Pictures. It was a passion project for him, and he really had to fight to get it to the screen, since MGM head Louis B. Mayer believed that the public was still tired of war films.
Schary’s persistence paid off. His tribute to the “battered bastards of Bastogne” was a huge hit with audiences, and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. (It took home two Oscars, one for Best Story and Screenplay, and one for Best Cinematography, Black & White.)
As I said earlier, Battleground is firmly in the tradition of humanistic portraits of ordinary soldiers like The Story of G.I. Joe and A Walk in the Sun, but it does go further than any films made during World War II depicting how scared many ordinary infantrymen really were, and how strongly they could desire to be far, far away from the fighting.
One character in Battleground is counting the days until he rotates out of the Army, and is furious when he’s told that they’re surrounded by the Germans, and he’s not going anywhere. But typically of the film, he steels his courage and eventually manages to make jokes about how the Germans are committing war crimes by shooting at him, a civilian. Another character has a full set of false teeth, which he loses and then tries to be given medical leave for a few days. (That character is played by Douglas Fowley, who really did lose his teeth in an explosion while serving on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.)
At one point in the film, two soldiers retreat and have to leave behind a wounded man, who hides himself from the Germans by crawling under the wreck of a jeep and covering himself with snow. The film never depicts any of the men’s acts as cowardly; they are badly outnumbered, and doing anything else would have been suicide for all of them.
The Oscar-winning screenplay of Battleground was written by Robert Pirosh, who served as a master sergeant with the 35th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge. Pirosh based his script partly on his own experiences, but the film details the exploits of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, so Lt. Col. Harry Kinnard, who had been the deputy divisional commander of the 101st at Bastogne, served as technical advisor. More than a dozen veterans of the 101st appeared as extras in the film and worked with the actors to ensure accuracy. (The film is relatively accurate except for a plot about German soldiers moving through the lines who are disguised as Allied soldiers, but this can be forgiven in the interest of creating suspense and tension. It is, after all, “only a movie.”)
The actors are all great, and many of them had actually served in combat. James Whitmore, who plays Sgt. Kinnie and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role, served in the Marine Corps in World War II. James Arness, who would go on to star in the 20-year run of Gunsmoke on TV, has a small role in the film, and was the most decorated soldier among the cast. (Arness was severely wounded at Anzio, and received the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the World War II Victory Medal, the Combat Infantryman Badge, and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronze battle stars.)
Consequently, Battleground is one of the most authentic World War II movies you will ever see, even though it might not seem that way to a viewer who has been weaned on the bloody CGI horrors of 21st-century war movies. However, if you’re conversant in the language of film, and can read what is being written on and off the screen, there’s one sequence that’s as brutal as anything you’ll ever see in a war film. Our heroes are surprised by German troops and in a fast-moving sequence, Ricardo Montalban rips a German soldier’s throat out with his teeth, Van Johnson stabs a German soldier to death with his bayonet, and John Hodiak bashes in the skull of a German soldier with the stock of his rifle.
I’ve read reviews of Battleground that refer to it as an “anti-war film.” I don’t know if this point of view springs from Steven Spielberg’s ridiculous assertion, made around the time that the philosophically incoherent Saving Private Ryan (1998) was released, that “every war movie, good or bad, is an anti-war movie,” but it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Although very few Hollywood films can simply be called “pro-war” films, a truly “anti-war” film would have to condemn any kind of armed conflict and celebrate pacifism as a viable and noble alternative. A truly “anti-war” film could not depict death and destruction in a highly aestheticized way, like Apocalypse Now (1979). And it could not celebrate the value of brotherhood under fire, as do Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down (2001). No film that celebrates soldiers nobly putting their lives on the line for the greater good can ever be called an “anti-war movie,” any more than The Passion of the Christ (2004) can by called an “anti-crucifixion movie.”
I’m not condemning Battleground because it’s not an anti-war movie. I even thought the short, moving scene in which an Army chaplain explains why he thinks America’s involvement in the war is vitally necessary was one of the best bits of the movie.
But today is Memorial Day, and I think it’s worth considering, as we honor the sacrifice of people who laid down their lives overseas, that no war movie can ever replicate the experience of combat. No matter how realistic, the viewer is watching from a position of safety. And every war film is a tale told by survivors. The dead no longer have a voice.
All the King’s Men (1949)
Directed by Robert Rossen
Director Robert Rossen’s film adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King’s Men was a big winner at the Oscars in 1950.
With seven nominations and three wins, All the King’s Men just trailed behind William Wyler’s The Heiress (an adaptation of Henry James’s 1880 novel Washington Square), which had eight nominations and four wins.
At the 22nd Academy Awards, All the King’s Men was nominated for Best Motion Picture, Best Director (Robert Rossen), Best Actor (Broderick Crawford), Best Supporting Actor (John Ireland), Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge), Best Screenplay (Robert Rossen), and Best Film Editing (Robert Parrish and Al Clark).
It took home the awards for Best Motion Picture, Best Actor for Crawford, and Best Supporting Actress for McCambridge.
These were huge wins for both actors. Broderick Crawford had appeared in a lot of movies, but probably hadn’t made a big impression on the movie-going public. Prior to All the King’s Men his biggest acting success had been playing Lennie in Of Mice and Men on Broadway, but when the film version was made in 1939, he was passed up for the role and Lon Chaney, Jr., was cast instead.
Mercedes McCambridge was an accomplished radio performer who did a lot of work on the air with Orson Welles, but this was her first appearance in a film. Not too shabby!
Rossen did a lot of work as a screenwriter before making All the King’s Men, but it was only the third film he directed. The first two films he directed were Johnny O’Clock (1947), which not very many people saw, and Body and Soul (1947), which was a hit with both critics and audiences.
All the King’s Men was an even bigger success than Body and Soul. In the 1950s, Rossen had trouble with HUAC, eventually “named names,” and continued directing films, but it would be a long time before he would make another widely acclaimed film (The Hustler, with Paul Newman, in 1961).
Just as Citizen Kane was a thinly veiled gloss on the life and career of William Randolph Hearst, All the King’s Men is a thinly veiled gloss on the life and career of Louisiana politician Huey Long.
Huey Long was Governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and a U.S. Senator from 1932 until his death in 1935. He was a political operator who could turn wild dreams into massive public projects, he was a passionate advocate of wealth redistribution, and he was a divisive figure.
The film twists and amplifies Long’s legacy for dramatic effect, but enough of the details are close enough that speaking the name “Huey Long” was forbidden on the set.
As Willie Stark, Broderick Crawford doesn’t attempt a Southern drawl, but it’s probably better that way. I didn’t even think about the way Crawford was speaking while I was watching the movie. His performance is raw and powerful, and is the perfect mix of bonhomie, sincerity, menace, and naked ambition. Through the eyes of reporter Jack Burden (John Ireland) we see Willie Stark transform from an honest but inexperienced politician to a canny operator in charge of an enormous political machine.
Unlike Citizen Kane, which is one of the most highly stylized films ever made, Rossen and his cinematographer, Burnett Guffey, shot All the King’s Men in a naturalistic fashion. It’s mostly shot in real locations (which are occasionally very drab) and employs a lot of non-actors (a.k.a. “real people”) in small parts. The only really over-the-top visuals occur at Willie Stark’s political rallies, which often take place at night and are full of torches and rows of jackbooted police officers, which makes the rallies resemble the Nuremberg Rally.
I especially liked some of the casting choices. Dark-haired pretty boy John Derek plays Willie Stark’s son, college football star Tom Stark. He is oddly mirrored by Walter Burke as “Sugar Boy,” Willie Stark’s nefarious bodyguard. Derek and Burke have similar bone structure and coloring, but while Derek is handsome and charming, Burke is reptilian and creepy.
All the King’s Men is far from being a docudrama about American politics, but its over-the-top tale of ambition perverted by corruption is still relevant.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Directed by John Ford
Argosy Pictures / RKO Radio Pictures
As a cinephile, I feel like any criticism of the almighty John Ford must be made in hushed tones.
So in that spirit, let me begin by praising the aspects of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon that I found praiseworthy.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is one of the most beautifully shot westerns I’ve ever seen. Winton C. Hoch won the Academy Award for best color cinematography for this film, and he deserved it. Hoch had previously shot 3 Godfathers (1948) for Ford, and would go on to lens three more films for Ford, The Quiet Man (1952), Mister Roberts (1955), and The Searchers (1956).
Technicolor is a process that often looked oversaturated and occasionally even gaudy, but She Wore a Yellow Ribbon looks simultaneously lifelike and hyperreal. It stands as a towering achievement of what a talented cinematographer could do when shooting in Technicolor.
I also really enjoyed Ben Johnson’s performance as Sgt. Tyree, a former Confederate captain now serving in the U.S. Cavalry as a scout. Johnson was as comfortable in the saddle as he was on his own two legs, and he would go on to a long career in Hollywood, specifically in westerns. I enjoyed his role in Mighty Joe Young (1949), but it didn’t hint at his future greatness in the same way that his performance in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon does. I also enjoyed Richard Hageman’s score, and I found this film enjoyable moment to moment.
But overall, I really didn’t like it. I like plenty of John Ford’s movies just fine, but for more than 20 years I have been mystified by the universal reverence film fans have for his work.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is emblematic of what I don’t like about Ford’s films. His westerns were grand operations in mythmaking, but with an excess of sentimentality. They were historically inaccurate and geographically incoherent, and without a great actor like Henry Fonda in the lead, his films feel like they’re adrift at sea.
I like John Wayne. I really do. But he was better at being an iconic presence than he was at turning in a good performance. The only “performances” of his I’ve found compelling were ones that contained a streak of nastiness, like his roles in Red River (1948) and The Searchers (1956). In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wayne is mostly himself, but he has a few opportunities to emote, and those scenes were dead on arrival for me. There’s nothing interesting about his character, unlike Henry Fonda’s deeply flawed character in Fort Apache (1948).
This is a film with remarkably low dramatic stakes. Almost nothing happens in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. This would be fine if it were simply a realistic look at the role the U.S. Cavalry played in the settling of the American West, but it’s not in any way realistic or historically accurate. It takes place in 1876, shortly after the massacre of General Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The film’s narrator informs us that multiple Indian nations are joining forces to fight the U.S. government en masse, and that just one more defeat like the one Custer suffered and it will be a century before the Pony Express will be able to safely cross the west again. Historically, this is utter hogwash, and not just because the Pony Express ceased operations in 1861.
Of course, a western doesn’t need to be historically accurate to be entertaining, but with no interesting characters, no dramatic tension, and extremely little action, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon just didn’t work for me. Perhaps my viewing was a victim of high expectations, since She Wore a Yellow Ribbon seems to be universally loved by classic film fans. It’s the second in Ford’s unofficial “Cavalry Trilogy,” but aside from the gorgeous visuals I thought it was a much weaker movie than the first, Fort Apache. (The third part of the trilogy is Rio Grande, which was released in 1950 and also starred John Wayne.) On the other hand, I brought no particular expectations to Ford’s last film, 3 Godfathers, and I enjoyed that one quite a bit.
Mighty Joe Young is a wonderful fantasy movie, but I doubt it would have much staying power without the special effects work of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen.
At a young age, Harryhausen was influenced by the groundbreaking stop-motion effects O’Brien created for the dinosaur epic The Lost World (1925). At a slightly less young age, Harryhausen was even more bowled over by O’Brien’s work on King Kong (1933), and a lifelong obsession was born.
Harryhausen’s first professional work was a series of Puppetoons shorts for George Pal at Paramount Pictures. During World War II he worked on various short films. He also worked on commercials and an anthology short called Mother Goose Stories. But Mighty Joe Young was his first big feature film. He was working under the direction of his idol, Willis O’Brien. (In supplementary features on the DVD of Mighty Joe Young that I watched, Harryhausen affectionately refers to him as “Obi.”) O’Brien did all of the continuity sketches, but the majority of the painstaking stop-motion animation was carried out by Harryhausen.
In reality, Mighty Joe Young was a metal armature with hinges and ball-and-socket joints covered with rubber and fur. But on screen, he is a living, breathing creature with emotions that are as easy for the audience to understand as the most overwrought histrionics of a silent-movie actor.
For instance, watch the clip below, which shows Mighty Joe Young’s first appearance at the Golden Safari Club (which was reportedly inspired by the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles). Look at the mix of emotions on Joe’s face. Confusion. Concern for the girl he’s holding up, who is his only friend. And curiosity about all the people thronged to see him. Mixed with the music of “Beautiful Dreamer” (Joe’s favorite song), it’s a powerful moment, and it was created one frame at a time by Ray Harryhausen with metal, rubber, fur, and bits of clay for Joe’s lips and brow.
If Mighty Joe Young had been played by Ray “Crash” Corrigan in a gorilla suit, it just wouldn’t have had the same effect.
Mighty Joe Young is a series of grand stop-motion set pieces. Each is more spectacular than the one before it, and each tells us more about Joe’s character. When we first see him, he’s a ferocious beast, smashing open a lion’s cage. His ferocity remains formidable, but we grow more sympathetic to him as we begin to see his noble heart. Not to mention the fact that he’s mistreated by humans in infuriating ways.
The human protagonists of the film aren’t nearly as interesting as Joe, but they all give good performances.
Robert Armstrong plays Max O’Hara, the blustery Hollywood producer who brings Mighty Joe Young to America. It’s a very similar role to that of Carl Denham, who Armstrong portrayed in both King Kong (1933) and Son of Kong (1933), both of which — like Mighty Joe Young — were directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack.
According to Harryhausen, writer Ruth Rose patterned the character of Max O’Hara on producer Merian C. Cooper, who always wanted things “bigger!”
Terry Moore plays Joe’s oldest human friend, Jill Young, a white girl who grew up in Africa on her father’s farm. She purchased Joe from two natives when he was still an infant. (She was lonely and had no one to play with.) In many ways, Jill is as much of an outsider in America as Joe is.
Film fans today probably know Ben Johnson best from his work with Sam Peckinpah — he appeared in Major Dundee (1965), The Wild Bunch (1969), Junior Bonner (1972), and The Getaway (1972). Or possibly they know him as “Sam the Lion” in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) or as G-man Melvin Purvis in John Milius’s Dillinger (1973). If you’re a horror fan, you might know him from Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) or Roger Spottiswoode’s Terror Train (1980).
In Mighty Joe Young, Johnson plays Gregg, an Oklahoma ranch hand and rodeo rider, which is exactly what Johnson was in real life. He’s a little wooden, but his authenticity makes up for it. Johnson had bit parts in a bunch of films before Mighty Joe Young, but this was his first leading role, and the first time he had his name in the credits.
Mighty Joe Young won one Oscar at the 22nd Academy Awards, for best visual effects.
Despite Harryhausen’s spectacular special effects, Mighty Joe Young was a box-office disappointment at the time of its release, and plans for a possible sequel, in which Joe would team up with RKO’s other hot jungle property — Tarzan (at this point played by Lex Barker), were scrapped.
But it was just the beginning for Harryhausen.
Mighty Joe Young will be shown on TCM on February 24, 2014.
Neptune’s Daughter (1949)
Directed by Edward Buzzell
Neptune’s Daughter was the third and final pairing of Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban. The two previously starred together in Fiesta (1947) and On an Island With You (1948).
In Neptune’s Daughter, Williams plays Eve Barrett, a swimsuit designer, and Montalban plays a dashing South American polo player named José O’Rourke.
The film also stars MGM’s big comedic draw, Red Skelton, as masseur Jack Spratt, and the manic, wild-eyed Betty Garrett as Eve’s sister, creatively named “Betty Barrett.”
Neptune’s Daughter was the second time Skelton and Williams appeared together. The first was Bathing Beauty (1944). (They both appeared in the revue film Ziegfeld Follies, but in separate segments.)
I love Esther Williams. She’s beautiful, athletic, and charming. And the fact that she was a swimming star made her unique. I also like Betty Garrett, who plays essentially the same man-crazy role in Neptune’s Daughter that she played in Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949). And Ricardo Montalban is Ricardo Montalban. He’s the smoothest Latin lover in Hollywood history.
But I’m not totally sold on Red Skelton. I just don’t find him that funny. Plenty of his bits in Neptune’s Daughter are amusing, but I didn’t find them particularly uproarious, and I really don’t enjoy all his mugging for the camera.
The musical high point of Neptune’s Daughter is the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” by Frank Loesser. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best original song, but there was some controversy over whether it should be eligible for the 1949 Oscars, since Loesser wrote it in 1944 and had performed it at parties with his wife, Lynn Garland. Since it had never been performed “professionally” until its appearance in Neptune’s Daughter, it was deemed eligible and went on to win the Oscar. Loesser’s wife, however, was furious that her husband had sold it to MGM, since she considered it “their song.”
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is first performed by Montalban and Williams; he sings the “wolf” part and Williams sings the “mouse” part. It’s performed later by Betty Garrett and Red Skelton with the roles reversed; she is the aggressor and he is the shy one.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was used in the film because MGM’s censors decided that the lyrics of Loesser’s song “I’d Love to Get You (On a Slow Boat to China)” were too suggestive. (Which explains its presence in a film that takes place in sweltering heat.)
This is ironic, since “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has lyrics that are more more suggestive than the lyrics of “I’d Love to Get You (On a Slow Boat to China).” Parts of the song even border on suggesting date rape, an aspect of the song that was recently satirized by Key & Peele.
I think some of the lyrics to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” sound worse now than they were intended to. For example, the line “Hey, what’s in this drink?” suggests roofies nowadays, but at the time Loesser wrote the song it was probably meant to imply the sentiment, “Oh my goodness this is a strong drink.”
I think it’s a playful and seductive song, and the fact that Skelton and Barrett reverse the roles when they perform the song adds to the acceptability.
What I found totally unacceptable in Neptune’s Daughter, from a gender standpoint, is the unquestioned assumption that Esther Williams’s character will have to give up her swimwear design business — which she built herself — if she gets married. The idea that she could remain head of a successful company and also be a married woman is unthinkable.
But for the most part, Neptune’s Daughter is a fun, vibrant Technicolor extravaganza. For my money, anything with Esther Williams is worth watching.
Neptune’s Daughter will be shown on TCM on April 6, 2014.
Directed by Mark Robson
SPOILER ALERT. This review will discuss plot points of this film that you may not want to know if you haven’t already seen it.
Mark Robson’s Champion is not a film about a man destroyed by fame. It’s a film about a man whose resentment, anger, selfishness, and cruelty are given free rein by fame and fortune.
It’s not an uplifting film, but it’s an occasionally powerful one, since it depicts a man who stands up to everyone who tries to take advantage of him, mistreats everyone who ever cared about him, and becomes middleweight champion of the world and dies of a brain hemorrhage without ever showing an ounce of remorse.
It’s also a tremendous showcase for Kirk Douglas, who made his film debut in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). He played an uncharacteristically milquetoast character in that film, but his next role, in Out of the Past (1947), was more of an indication of what lay ahead for Douglas. His character “Dink” in Out of the Past is a vicious crime boss, as was the character he played opposite Burt Lancaster in I Walk Alone (1948).
Not every character Douglas played in the 1940s was a strutting, snarling alpha male — his wonderful performance in A Letter to Three Wives (1949) is a great example of his range — but he excelled at playing macho men, and Champion cemented that image. With his jutting cleft chin, puffed-out chest, intense eyes, and lean, muscular physique, Douglas dominates every scene in Champion.
If Kirk Douglas had a spirit animal, it would probably be a banty rooster.
Douglas’s physical intensity carries him through Champion fairly well, which is good, because he’s not that convincing as a boxer. He looks the part, but he doesn’t move like a world-class middleweight. He lacks the right combination of speed and power.
Champion was based on a story by Ring Lardner and was nominated for six Academy Awards (best actor for Douglas, best supporting actor for Arthur Kennedy, best screenplay for Carl Foreman, best score for Dimitri Tiomkin, best black & white cinematography for Franz Planer, and best editing for Harry Gerstad), and won one — the Oscar for editing.
But now that almost 70 years have passed, I think Champion compares really unfavorably to Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949), which was released around the same time and was nominated for zero Oscars. First of all, Robert Ryan boxed as an amateur heavyweight, so he was utterly convincing as a professional fighter who loses more often than he wins. (Asking us to accept Douglas as the world middleweight champion is too much, I think.)
Also, The Set-Up is a tightly coiled masterpiece from beginning to end, while Champion feels sloppy. Douglas’s training and his rise up the boxing rankings are both done as cheesy montages with a light tone. The film doesn’t really get going until more than a half hour has passed, when Douglas’s character, Michael “Midge” Kelly, refuses to throw a fight to Johnny Dunne (John Daheim). For the next hour, Champion is a good film. Not a great film, but a good one. The always-great Arthur Kennedy turns in a good performance as Midge’s sad-sack brother, Connie, and Ruth Roman and Marilyn Maxwell are both good as the women Midge uses and abuses.
I found the penultimate sequence of the film particularly harrowing, but modern-day viewers might miss its implications.
Ruth Roman’s character, Emma, is romanced by Midge early in the film, which leads to her father forcing them to marry at gunpoint. As soon as it’s official, however, Midge drops her like a bad habit, and she eventually finds love with his brother Connie.
Toward the end of the film, when Emma is preparing to get a divorce from Midge in Reno so she can marry Connie, Midge forces himself on her. He kisses her, says “It’s still there, isn’t it?” She walks away from him and says, “Leave me alone.” He walks toward her and says, “You’re my wife.” She looks scared, and the screen fades to black.
Plenty of classic films show women yielding to an aggressive man, but I think it’s significant that the fade-to-black happens without showing her acquiesce to a kiss or yield in any pleasurable way. His line “You’re my wife” strongly implies that he is going to have sexual intercourse with her whether she likes it or not. It’s his legal right, and the concept of “marital rape” was not a criminal act in 1949. But it’s a rape, and it’s a violation of his brother’s trust, since Midge and Emma were married in name only. His brother’s rage in the next scene is also a pretty clear indication that something awful has happened.
After Midge wins his final fight and collapses and dies in his dressing room, the press asks Connie for a statement. “He was a credit to the fight game, to the very end,” Connie says, because he can’t bring himself to say that Midge was a credit to humanity, or to anyone else.
Much like Midge Kelly himself, Champion was a hard film for me to like. It’s a good movie, but not nearly as good as some of its contemporaries, like Body and Soul (1947) and The Set-Up.
A Letter to Three Wives (1949)
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
At the 22nd Academy Awards in 1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz received two Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives. One was for best director and the other was for best screenplay. (A Letter to Three Wives was also nominated for best picture, but didn’t win.)
The film was based on a novel by John Klempner originally published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1945. The novel was called Letter to Five Wives, but the original script for the film version omitted one of the wives and was called A Letter to Four Wives.
Mankiewicz felt the shooting script was still too long, so he cut out one of the four wives. (Sorry, Anne Baxter.)
A Letter to Three Wives is divided into three sections, each dominated by a flashback sequence.
The first section focuses on Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain) and her husband Brad (Jeffrey Lynn), who met when they were both serving in the Navy.
The second section focuses on Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern), a writer of radio dramas, and her husband George (Kirk Douglas), a schoolteacher.
The final section of the film focuses on Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) and her husband Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas), an appliance-store magnate.
While each section focuses on a different couple, this is not an anthology film. The viewer meets all the characters in the early going, but sometimes just for a moment. Watching A Letter to Three Wives is a little like being introduced to a rush of people at a party. As the evening wears on, you become better acquainted with everyone and you learn how their lives intersect in often messy and hilarious ways.
A Letter to Three Wives takes place in an upper-middle-class Eastern community that’s 28 minutes from the big city, or “23 if you catch the morning express,” as Addie Ross tells the viewer. Addie Ross is the most beautiful and alluring woman in town, and although her presence dominates the film, we never see her. We only hear her voice as she cuts in to narrate and comment on bits of the story. (Addie Ross is voiced by the uncredited Celeste Holm).
Rita, Lora Mae, and Deborah are on their way to help run a day trip for underprivileged children when they receive a letter from Addie informing them that she’s leaving town for good, but she’s not leaving empty-handed — she’s taking one of their husbands with her. The three friends are forced to board the boat, and all of them stare longingly at the public telephone on the dock as they drift into the water. They won’t be able to find out which one of their husbands is missing in action until the day is done.
Mankiewicz directed some fine films before this one, including the Gothic thriller Dragonwyck (1946), the film noir Somewhere in the Night (1946), and the brilliant romantic comedy The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), but A Letter to Three Wives is head and shoulders above all of them.
Mankiewicz was a witty, intelligent, and acerbic writer-director, and A Letter to Three Wives shows him in top form. It’s one of the smartest and funniest films I’ve seen from the ’40s about marriage and the American class structure. Deborah is a farm girl and never feels at home with the country-club set she’s married into. Rita has a demanding, high-paying job, and she makes a lot more money than her schoolteacher husband. Lora Mae is a trophy wife to a fabulously wealthy, boorish, and bullheaded man.
Kirk Douglas, who plays Rita’s schoolteacher husband, is fantastic in this film, and delivers one of the most eviscerating speeches I’ve ever heard about anti-intellectualism and the idiocy of appealing to the lowest common denominator. And Paul Douglas, who plays Lora Mae’s husband, gives a phenomenal performance as well. He was a stage actor, and this was his first appearance in a feature film, but he owns the screen, and would go on to have an interesting career.
A Letter to Three Wives is a masterpiece of scriptwriting and direction. Addie Ross is really just a plot device to tell a character-driven story, and toward the end of the film, I realized that I’d been told a very different story than the one I thought I was watching.