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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.

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The Harvey Girls (Jan. 18, 1946)

In 1876, a 41-year-old entrepreneur named Fred Harvey opened a string of restaurants along the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway line. The eateries catered to middle-class and wealthy travelers alike, and at the height of the franchise’s success, there were more than 80 Harvey House restaurants. Harvey died in 1901, but the Fred Harvey Company continued to build restaurants into the 1960s.

A restaurant chain might seem an unlikely subject for a big-budget, Technicolor, Hollywood musical, but clearly the young, attractive waitresses in their crisp black and white uniforms were enough of a hook. The film opens with the following portentous prologue:

“When Fred Harvey pushed his chain of restaurants farther and farther west along the lengthening tracks of the Santa Fe, he brought with him one of the first civilizing forces this land had known … the Harvey Girls. These winsome waitresses conquered the west as surely as the Davy Crocketts and the Kit Carsons — not with powder horn and rifle, but with a beefsteak and a cup of coffee. To these unsung pioneers, whose successors today still carry on in the same tradition, we sincerely dedicate this motion picture.”

If all this is to be taken seriously, then who wouldn’t want to lionize these distaff settlers? I haven’t read Samuel Hopkins Adams’s 1942 novel that this film is based on, but it must have been a good story for Hollywood to want to pick it up. Or maybe it was just that Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren realized what a catchy rhythm the phrase “on the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” had.

After the prologue and credits, the film opens on a shot of a moving train. Susan Bradley (Garland) is standing on the deck of the caboose, singing a forgettable song about love. She is heading out west to marry a man whom she only knows from the florid love letters he has written her. When her suitor, H.H. Hartsey (Chill Wills), turns out to be a functionally illiterate cowpoke who had a friend play Cyrano for him by penning the letters himself, Susan parts with him (mostly amicably), and becomes a Harvey girl.

The dramatic conflict, such as it is, comes from the local saloon and gambling house, which also features dancing girls. The owner of the palace of sin, Ned Trent (John Hodiak), and his star attraction, Em (played by a young and foxy Angela Lansbury), fear that the opening of the Harvey House will usher in a new era of respectability and crush their business. In real life of course, Trent’s girls would have been prostitutes and Em would have been their madam, but in the world of 1940s M-G-M musicals, dancing the cancan for hooting and hollering cowboys was about as scandalous as they could get.

Garland and Lansbury both give good performances, and are backed up by a large and talented cast. Virginia O’Brien (as the Harvey girl “Alma from Ohio”) is tough and sassy, and Ray Bolger, most famous for playing the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz (1939), here gets to play the Cowardly Homosexual, a popular character type in Hollywood pictures for decades. While his sexual preference is never identified outright, Bolger’s character’s effeminacy and fear of any butch labor (such as shoeing horses), as well as his spirited prancing, leaping, and tap dancing make it clear that he doesn’t have any designs on the ladies.

The Harvey Girls is an entertaining mix of musical and western. But if director George Sidney aspired for it to be anything more than breezy entertainment, it doesn’t show. Judy Garland is always a delight, but Vincente Minnelli’s ability to coax a nuanced performance from her and to tell an engaging story from beginning to end in a musical is sorely missed here. The Harvey Girls is enjoyable, but it’s no Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Also, aside from the standout song, “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” (which won an Academy Award for best song), no musical number in the picture really stands out.

Leave Her to Heaven (Dec. 19, 1945)

Can there be such a thing as a film noir in color? I don’t think there can, but the term noir has been so widely used, popularized, and bastardized that director John M. Stahl’s Technicolor adaptation of Ben Ames Williams’s novel Leave Her to Heaven, made during the heyday of noir in Hollywood, is often referred to as a rare instance of a film noir in color.

A year after she starred as the eponymous Laura (Otto Preminger’s 1944 classic that is also frequently referred to as a noir even though it really has very few characteristics of one, aside from being filmed in black and white), Gene Tierney created a memorably unhinged character named Ellen Berent.

When we first meet Ellen, the first thing we see is her beauty. Sitting across from novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) in the lounge car of a train, surrounded by green walls, her dark hair and pale face offset by her bright red lips, she looks like a porcelain doll come to life. Quickly, however, we notice something else. The way she is staring at him is predatory. The way she doesn’t speak for a long time after he answers a question is strange. She is beautiful, but there is something wrong with her. We can guess, however, that his relationship with Ellen won’t have a happy ending.

If only Richard saw what the audience can see. Of course, the audience also has the advantage of a framing device. In the first scene of Leave Her to Heaven, we see Richard return to Deer Lake, Maine. His friends and neighbors look at him strangely. As they whisper among themselves, we learn that he has just gotten out of prison after a two-year stint, but we don’t know what the charge was.

Most of the story is told in flashback. Beginning with the scene on the train, we see how Richard fell into Ellen’s clutches. After they disembark, they find that they are both guests at Rancho Jacinto, in New Mexico, where Ellen has gone to scatter her father’s ashes. After telling Richard several times how much he looks like her father (even though a framed photograph of the man looks nothing like Cornel Wilde), the scene in which the stone-faced Tierney rides a horse and scatters her father’s ashes in the mountains is one of the most striking in the picture. When Richard agrees to marry her soon after, it is at her urging. Marrying her is something he thinks he wants, but the words “Will you marry me” never escape his lips. He is caught in her web.

After their marriage, Ellen and Richard go away to his cabin in Maine. She resents the intrusion of anyone else into their lives, such as her sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain) or Richard’s younger brother Danny (Darryl Hickman), who is recovering from polio, and her resentment has deadly consequences.

Ellen is devious, but it’s not always clear how conscious she is of her own cunning. Although the other characters speak of how unnaturally close she was to her father, and how she loves with a childish ferocity that can be dangerous, the viewer is not privy to any deeper psychological insights. There are no scenes of her childhood or flashbacks to any trauma that might have precipitated her madness. It’s refreshing to have a character with sociopathic tendencies that have no pat explanation, but some insight into the jealousy that drives her might have helped flesh out the character.

So what is it that makes Leave Her to Heaven a film noir? The classification is a slippery one, and has become popular enough that nearly every black and white film from the ’40s that is not a musical or a comedy has been called a film noir at some point. In one of the first treatises on the subject, the 1955 book Panorama du film noir américain 1941–1953, French film critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton identified the five main facets of film noir. They said that it is “oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel.” Over the years, the term film noir has grown to encompass certain stylistic elements as well. Stark black and white cinematography and unbalanced constructions that grew out of German Expressionism are both hallmarks of noir, as is a pervading sense of doom.

So does Leave Her to Heaven contain any of these elements? It certainly could be called “strange,” but it’s not particularly dreamlike. It’s not very erotic, either, since Ellen seems to capture Richard in a web that is more psychological than it is sexual. Her actions are sometimes cruel, but the picture as a whole is not terribly ambivalent. Ellen may arouse feelings of both pity and hatred in the viewer, but she is still presented in a straightforward way. She has no crises of conscience or confusion about what she wants. And the lush Technicolor cinematography really pushes Leave Her to Heaven out of the noir category.

Leave Her to Heaven is a melodrama with a couple of shocking scenes, a sociopathic main character, and a courtroom denouement that drags down the pacing of the picture, but which does feature an enjoyable performance by Vincent Price as one of Ellen’s old flames who is now a prosecutor. It is not a film noir, unless we can divorce style from content. The absence of black and white cinematography and a real sense of doom (or a truly unhappy ending) means that Leave Her to Heaven just doesn’t qualify as a film noir. Of course, this shouldn’t stop anyone from seeing it. Whatever its genre, it’s an effective film with an interesting performance by a beautiful actress who didn’t exhibit a great deal of range in any of her roles, but who is chilling in this one.

Leave Her to Heaven was Twentieth Century-Fox’s highest grossing picture of the 1940s. Tierney was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress, and Leon Shamroy won an Oscar for best cinematography in the color category.