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Tag Archives: Beulah Bondi

The Baron of Arizona (March 1, 1950)

The Baron of Arizona
The Baron of Arizona (1950)
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Lippert Pictures

Samuel Fuller didn’t suffer from sophomore slump when he directed his second picture, The Baron of Arizona. It’s every bit as good as his first film, I Shot Jesse James (1949), and boasts a great lead performance by Vincent Price and gorgeous black & white cinematography by James Wong Howe.

James Wong Howe is arguably the greatest cinematographer of black & white films of all time, and Fuller was lucky to get him at a low rate. The Baron of Arizona had a small budget and was shot in just 15 days, but it looks like an “A” picture. The cinematography is a big part of this, and Price’s pitch-perfect performance as a louche swindler is another.

Price plays James Addison Reavis, a real historical figure who attempted to defraud the U.S. government by forging land grants in order to take possession of more than 18,000 square miles of the central Arizona Territory and the western New Mexico Territory in the late 19th century.

Vincent Price is best known today as a horror icon, so many people forget that he wasn’t always associated with the horror genre. I always enjoy watching his early performances (and listening to him play “The Saint” on the radio), and the character he plays in The Baron of Arizona is perfectly suited to his talents.

Price was an actor who always seemed to be chuckling at a joke that none of the other actors in the film were privy to, and that quality works perfectly for the character he plays in The Baron of Arizona.

With just two films as a director under his belt, Samuel Fuller was already establishing himself as a filmmaker who could make entertaining, fast-moving, low-budget pictures that had hidden depths. Just like I Shot Jesse James, The Baron of Arizona uses the tropes of the western to turn an American myth on its head.

The Baron of Arizona takes the classic American idea of the “self-made man” and draws it out to its most audacious and unethical conclusion.

Vincent Price

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Mr. Soft Touch (July 28, 1949)

Mr Soft Touch
Mr. Soft Touch (1949)
Directed by Gordon Douglas and Henry Levin
Columbia Pictures

I saw Mr. Soft Touch two weeks ago at the Music Box Theatre, and I loved everything about it.

I couldn’t find many reviews of Mr. Soft Touch online, but most of the reviews I found were lukewarm, and criticized its dichotomous nature. “It can’t make up its mind if it wants to be a film noir or a comedy” seems to be the consensus. Another refrain I saw was “Could have been a holiday classic but misses the mark.”

Most of those reviews blame the fact that the film has two directors.

Well, for once in my life I don’t care what went on behind the scenes, or which director contributed to what parts of the film, because I loved Mr. Soft Touch and I’ll sing its praises from the rooftops.

It probably helped that I saw it on the big screen in a real theater on a gloomy winter afternoon. If it wasn’t a pristine and fully restored 35mm print then it was a damned good facsimile of one. I watch most of the movies I review on DVD (occasionally Blu-ray) or on a streaming service, but that’s out of necessity. If you love classic films there is simply no substitute for the theatrical experience.

Glenn Ford

Mr. Soft Touch stars Glenn Ford as Joe Miracle, a shady character who’s running from the law with a bag full of cash when the movie begins. The opening sequence is suspenseful and features some great San Francisco location shooting. Joe Miracle uses his wits to get through a series of close shaves and eventually winds up hiding out for several days in a settlement house run by a woman named Jenny Jones (Evelyn Keyes).

The settlement house is staffed by Jenny and a group of older women, including actresses Beulah Bondi and Clara Blandick. They tend to the needs of homeless men, juvenile delinquents, and poor immigrants.

For the first reel or two of Mr. Soft Touch I kept waiting for a flashback sequence that would show how Joe Miracle wound up with a bag full of cash, fleeing for his life, and biding his time until he can hop on a steamer bound for Japan. A flashback like that would have been a classic film noir device, but the story unfolds in a linear fashion, and everything is explained along the way.

A bunch of gangland toughs are on Joe’s tail, and they’re led by the always entertaining mug Ted de Corsia. There’s also a muckraking radio reporter, Henry “Early” Byrd (played by a bespectacled John Ireland), who sends warnings to Joe over the airwaves but who might not have Joe’s best interests at heart.

Significantly, Mr. Soft Touch takes place at Christmastime, and adds the layer of “holiday film” to the already rare blending of hard-boiled noir, romantic comedy, and “social issues” picture.

Santa Ford

I got very involved with the story and characters in Mr. Soft Touch. I tend to dislike movies that have an inconsistent tone. Despite the blending of genres, I never felt like the tone of Mr. Soft Touch shifted uncomfortably from one genre to another. It was unpredictable, but it all worked.

I don’t know which director did what, but I never had the sense that there were two different films fighting each other for supremacy. Mr. Soft Touch is all about dualities, though, so perhaps having two directors works in the film’s favor. Joe Miracle’s last name is an Americanization of a much longer Polish surname that starts with the letter M. But it also symbolizes the unexpected gifts of the holiday season, and the element of the unexpected that he brings to Jenny’s settlement house. The title of the film has a double meaning, too. Joe Miracle has hands that can make the dice in a craps game come up the way he wants them, but the title of the film also refers to the goodness lurking behind his tough exterior that Jenny helps expose.

It’s a somewhat odd film, but a thoroughly enjoyable one.

The Snake Pit (Nov. 13, 1948)

The Snake Pit

The Snake Pit (1948)
Directed by Anatole Litvak
20th Century-Fox

The Snake Pit wasn’t the first film about mental illness, but it’s one of the most significant.

German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and M (1931) are powerful films about mental illness, but they’re more horror films than they are dramas, and they don’t explore the day-to-day reality of life in mental asylums. Films like Maniac (1934) and Dead of Night (1945) are at least partially about “crazy people,” but again, mental illness is used as a horror trope, not a sad and difficult fact of life.

The Seventh Veil (1945) and Spellbound (1945) both dealt with psychoanalysis, but they were designed to appeal to a public newly interested in Freudian theory, and didn’t touch on the facts of life in state mental institutions.

In fact, the only movie I can remember seeing before The Snake Pit that really dealt with life inside a mental institution was Mark Robson’s Bedlam (1946), but the fact that it was both a horror film and a period piece gave audiences a comfortable sense of remove.

Olivia de Havilland

The Snake Pit changed all that. It was based on the novel by Mary Jane Ward, who spent eight and a half months in a mental hospital. She was institutionalized for schizophrenia, which was possibly misdiagnosed. The Snake Pit was rejected by several publishers. When it was eventually released in a small print run in 1946 it became an unexpected bestseller and was reprinted many times. It was a novel, not a memoir, but it contained autobiographical elements and most of the characters were based on people Ward had known in Rockland State Hospital.

The film version of the the novel stars bona fide superstar Olivia de Havilland in an unglamorous, makeup-free performance as Virginia Stuart Cunningham. The film drops us into Virginia’s schizophrenic experience in media res. She’s sitting on a park bench, looking up at the sun shining through the branches of a tree. On the surface, it’s idyllic, but we soon notice that her clothes are threadbare and her nylons have a run in them. Her voiceover conveys how confused she is about where she is and what she’s doing there.

Her fellow inmate, Grace (Celeste Holm), is more aware of what’s going on and guides Virginia into the group of women when the noontime break is over. They are shuttled inside by the nurses, and Virginia’s surroundings resemble a prison. There are even iron bars.

This is a major theme in the film. Virginia is locked in a prison of her mind’s own making — her mental illness. But she is also locked in a very real prison — a mental institution where electroshock treatments, cruel staff, and harsh conditions are the norm.

Snake Pit 1948

The one bright spot for Virginia inside the institution is Dr. Mark van Kensdelaerik (Leo Genn), who is only ever referred to as “Dr. Kik,” because Americans find his surname too hard to pronounce. Dr. Kik has a picture of Freud hanging in his office, and believes psychoanalysis is the key to Virginia’s recovery.

I had some uncharitable things to say about Leo Genn in my review of Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), but that was more about his miscasting than anything else. He’s perfectly cast in The Snake Pit, and his performance is wonderful. His Freudian explanation of Virginia’s condition is a bit too neat, but audiences in the 1940s liked their stories with every T crossed and every I dotted.

The other man in Virginia’s life who cares for her is her husband, Robert Cunningham (Mark Stevens), but there’s very little he can do for her. Through a series of heartbreaking flashbacks, we see her grow increasingly fearful of him and confused about reality.

The Snake Pit was directed by Anatole Litvak, a Ukrainian director who became an American citizen in 1940. Litvak’s previous couple of films, The Long Night (1947) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), were both beautifully crafted, but they weren’t as powerful or as resonant as The Snake Pit. The scene in which the title of the film is realized visually is one of the most haunting I’ve ever seen.

Litvak’s direction is wonderful, but none of it would work without Olivia de Havilland’s phenomenal performance. She was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress, but she lost out to Jane Wyman for her role in Johnny Belinda (1948). The Snake Pit actually had an extremely high portion of its budget devoted to hiring seasoned and professional actors, since Litvak wanted even the small roles in the film to be convincing. It paid off.

In addition to de Havilland’s nomination, The Snake Pit was nominated for Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best screenplay, best score, and best sound recording, which is the only Oscar that it actually won.

It’s a Wonderful Life (Dec. 20, 1946)

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and I’m not alone. When I was a kid, not a Christmas went by that it wasn’t shown on television multiple times. For many families, it’s required holiday viewing.

Like a lot of people, I didn’t see the film in its entirety until I’d already seen bits and pieces over the years and seen it satirized and referred to in countless TV shows and movies.

My first memory of seeing part of it was on my grandmother’s 13″ black & white TV. The film was almost over, and I had no idea what it was about. George Bailey (James Stewart) is experiencing what life would have been like if he’d never been born. He’s disheveled and looks terrified. Police officer Bert (Ward Bond) and cab driver Ernie (Frank Faylen) watch as he explores the abandoned, ramshackle version of his own home. The scene is full of darkness and shadows. It has the look of a film noir, and I found it scary.

If you’ve never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, you might think it’s the exact opposite — sappy and sentimental — but that’s not the case. It’s a film full of dark moments, with a sense of desperation that’s always threatening to bubble to the surface. The most famous part of the film — George seeing what life would have been like in Bedford Falls, NY, if he’d never been born — occupies a relatively small amount of the total running time. Most of the film tells the story of an ordinary man who ended up living a very different life than he dreamed he would.

When he was young, George dreamed of going to college, traveling the world, and becoming a titan of industry. His life is an emotional game of tug. He puts off college, stays in Bedford Falls, and even gives away the money he and his wife Mary (Donna Reed) put aside for their honeymoon in order to save the family business, Bailey Building & Loan. George always does the right thing because he’s a decent person, but he’s a real person, too. Each little depredation eats away at him. He loves his wife and four children, but when the evil old Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) spirits away $8,000 from his absent-minded Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), George loses hope. It looks as if the family business might not only be ruined, but George might also be headed to prison.

George asks Potter for a loan, and Potter points out that while he needs $8,000, he carries a life insurance policy worth $15,000, which means he’s worth more dead than alive. The desperate George takes this cruel assessment to heart. He heads home, yells at his children, trashes part of the house, and goes out to get good and drunk. After getting punched in the face in the bar, he crashes his car, stumbles to a bridge, and contemplates killing himself. It’s at this point that a frumpy angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), who has “the I.Q. of a rabbit and the faith of a child,” arrives to show him just how much he really is worth.

It’s a Wonderful Life works as well as it does because it earns every one of its emotional moments. Take, for instance, one of the pivotal moments of George Bailey’s boyhood. George (played by the wonderful Bobbie Anderson, later to be known professionally as Robert J. Anderson) has an after-school job in the local pharmacy, and stops old Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner) from making a fatal mistake. The audience knows that Gower has slipped up not only because he’s drunk, but because he’s distraught following the death of his son. When George returns, having failed to deliver the poisonous “medicine,” Gower beats him savagely. When Gower finally realizes the fatal mistake George has stopped him from making, he breaks down and embraces the boy in an outpouring of emotion.

I really meant to re-watch It’s a Wonderful Life and write a review of it before Christmas. But one thing led to another and I got behind in my movie-watching schedule. I’m glad I didn’t get around to seeing it until now, though. It reminded me just what a great film it is. So many “holiday films” are unwatchable after December 25, but It’s a Wonderful Life was just as engaging and emotionally satisfying in mid-January as it is any other time of the year.

Back to Bataan (May 31, 1945)

BackBataan
Back to Bataan (1945)
Directed by Edward Dmytryk
RKO Radio Pictures

Yes, Back to Bataan is flag-waving agitprop. Yes, it features Anthony Quinn as a Filipino. But under the direction of Edward Dmytryk it’s all done really well. There are a number of gripping battle sequences, and John Wayne in his late 30s was still a lean, mean, ass-kicking machine. The human drama is a little stilted and the politics are simplistic, but when the bullets are flying, Back to Bataan delivers the goods.

The film begins with a battle sequence that depicts the raid at Cabanatuan, a Japanese POW camp, that took place on January 30, 1945. At the time the film was made, the raid was a current event, and was one of the big Allied successes in the Pacific theater. (Filipino guerrillas, Alamo Scouts, and US Army Rangers liberated more than 500 prisoners of war.) After the big opening battle, the film moves back in time to 1942, and tells the story leading up to the raid and the freeing of the POWs. Col. Joseph Madden (Wayne), voluntarily stays in the Philippines after Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his armies pull out. Madden teams up with Filipino guerrilla forces, training them and organizing them. One of his officers, Capt. Andrés Bonifácio (Quinn) is struggling to live up to the reputation of his grandfather, who was a national hero and liberator of the Philippines from Spanish colonial rule. And if that weren’t enough, Capt. Bonifácio’s former fiancée, Dalisay Delgado (Fely Franquelli) has apparently turned traitor, since she now makes regular radio broadcasts radio for the Japanese. Every time he’s near a radio, Capt. Bonifácio has to hear his sweetheart’s mellifluous voice spouting ugly Axis propaganda. Madden, of course, knows that Delgado is actually passing code through these broadcasts, but he’s ordered by his superiors not to tell Bonifácio, so Madden must use all of his skills as a commander to whip Bonifácio into shape and make him a leader of men, no matter how much Bonifácio’s heart may be breaking.

There are conflicting reports of how well Wayne got along with director Dmytryk and screenwriter Ben Barzman, both of whom had communist views. According to Barzman’s wife, they had a humorously antagonistic relationship due to their very different politic views, jokingly calling each other “goddamned communist” and “fascist.” Apparently Barzman and Dmytryk also enjoyed tormenting Wayne, who refused to use a stunt double, by devising scenes that would test his limits. Whether or not this was a friendly game, the results are sometimes stunning. There’s a scene in which Wayne is hugging the ground. A shell explodes right next to him, and his body is flung high into the air and dropped at least 20 feet away. If you rewatch the scene, you can see the wires attached to Wayne’s body, but during the first viewing, when you’re not expecting it, it’s a stunning effect.

The film ends with triumphant footage of some of the real men who were prisoners of war at Cabanatuan. They march together, filmed at low angles, while their names, ranks, and cities of origin are displayed on the screen. After seeing so many Hollywood actors playing soldiers in World War II, it’s interesting to see some of the real men who served. Some of them are handsome enough to have played in the movies. Some aren’t. Almost all of them look relieved and happy, but close to being emaciated. All of them, that is, except for one guy from Chicago who’s really fat and looked deliriously happy. I wonder what his secret was.

The Southerner (April 30, 1945)

SouthernerFrench director Jean Renoir directed this adaptation of George Sessions Perry’s novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, which won the first National Book Award in 1941. (The novel was adapted by screenwriter Hugo Butler, with uncredited contributions from Nunnally Johnson and William Faulkner.)

Zachary Scott, in a role originally intended for Joel McCrea, plays a Texas cotton picker named Sam Tucker who decides he doesn’t want to be a sharecropper anymore. He wants to grow his own cotton, harvest it, and be responsible for his own destiny. So he buys a piece of land and a ramshackle little house, and moves his wife (played by Betty Field), his children, and their crotchety grandmother onto it. Once there, the Tuckers must valiantly struggle against nature, disease, and their fellow humans to make a go of it.

The Southerner received three Academy Award nominations, including one for best director. Renoir didn’t win, but he was named best director by the National Board of Review, which also named The Southerner the third best film of 1945, after the World War II documentary The True Glory and Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (which won the Oscar for best picture). Despite all these accolades, I was lukewarm about this picture. Scott is good in his role. His acting is understated, and he embodies “quiet dignity.” J. Carrol Naish is also very good as the villain of the piece, Tucker’s neighbor who seeks to destroy Tucker merely because of his inchoate hatred for anyone who tries to rise from his station in life. In fact, all the actors are good, except for perhaps Beulah Bondi, who hams it up a bit as Granny, a prickly pear if ever there was one. (Also, it might be hard for modern viewers to see her sitting in her rocking chair in the bed of a slow-moving pickup truck along with all the family’s worldly possessions and not think of The Beverly Hillbillies, which is unfortunate, since this film strives to be a realistic human drama.) My tepid reaction to the film is not related to any of the particulars, but rather to the overall feeling I had at the end. I just felt as if something was missing. Some essential component that would make me care about the characters and their situation more than I did.

Renoir is today best known for his French-language films like Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939), but he made a few English-language films besides this one. The first was Swamp Water (1941), which, like The Southerner, is about simple rural Americans. Perhaps my cool reaction to this film was due to the fact that I don’t find simple people as compelling as complicated people. Or maybe it’s just because the print I saw was kind of crummy. If the visual beauty of the countryside were allowed to shine through, maybe I would have liked it more. I’ve read that Renoir considered this his favorite American-made film. And, as I mentioned above, it was very successful with critics. So if this sounds like the kind of film you enjoy, then by all means you should see it. Meanwhile, I’ll be next door, watching a late ’40s film noir set in a big city about paranoid, sweaty people who aren’t quietly dignified in the slightest.