The Boy With Green Hair (1948)
Directed by Joseph Losey
RKO Radio Pictures
If you only know Dean Stockwell as the craggy character actor who appeared in TV shows like Quantum Leap and Battlestar Galactica, it might be hard to believe that he was ever an adorable little 12-year-old boy.
Well, he was. Even with a shaved head, which is how he first appears in The Boy With Green Hair, in the 1940s Stockwell was cuter than a barrel of baby pandas.
The Boy With Green Hair was Joseph Losey’s first feature-length film. It’s a lovely little Technicolor parable that opens with the song “Nature Boy.” (You know, the one about “a very strange, enchanted boy”?) Nat King Cole’s recording of the tune was a big hit in 1948, and was the #1 single in the United States for seven weeks. The melody of the song recurs throughout the film.
It’s the story of a boy named Peter Fry (Stockwell), whose parents are dead, but no one seems to want to tell him. He’s shuttled around from home to home, always carrying a letter to show his foster parents (who he refers to as his “aunts and uncles”), although he’s not aware of the contents.
Eventually he settles down with “Gramp,” a former vaudevillian and magician (and current singing waiter) played by likeable old Irishman Pat O’Brien.
Peter thrives under Gramp’s care, feeling good enough about life that he no longer has to sleep with a baseball bat (though he keeps it on the floor next to him just in case). One day, however, his school holds a charity drive for war orphans. As Peter stands in front of a poster with a black and white photograph of an “Unidentified War Orphan,” he’s forced to confront the truth about his parents. They died in the London Blitz, and Peter can no longer deny the horrors of war. All of a sudden, war orphans aren’t just “over there,” they are right here, and he is one of them.
Not long after this revelation, he wakes up one morning with bright green hair. Punks with brightly dyed hair turned heads in the 1970s, and it was even more unheard of in the 1940s. Peter is instantly ostracized by people who happily tousled his hair when it was brown. His teacher, Miss Brand (Barbara Hale), tries to make him feel OK about his condition. He may be the only kid in class with green hair, but there’s also only one boy who has red hair. But nothing stops the bullying and name-calling. The world is cruel to those who are different.
The Boy With Green Hair is told in flashback, as Peter sits in a police station with a shaved head, telling his story to kindly child psychologist Dr. Evans (Robert Ryan). The message of the film might seem simple, but Losey’s direction and Stockwell’s assured performance elevate it to something haunting and strange that can’t be boiled down to a single slogan. It’s a movie that tells a serious, allegorical story about a child that other children can understand.
During World War II, director George Stevens served as a Lieutenant Colonel in charge of combat photography. He filmed D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, the liberation of Paris, and the horrors of the concentration camps.
When he returned home to America he started a production company, Liberty Films, with William Wyler and Frank Capra. For his first film, Stevens chose to look back to the time and place of his own boyhood — early 20th-century California — rather than the uncertain post-war future.
I Remember Mama is the story of a Norwegian immigrant family living in San Francisco. It’s based on the 1944 play by John Van Druten, which was adapted from Kathryn Forbes’s book Mama’s Bank Account, which was published in 1943.
The film opened in limited release on March 9, 1948. At 11:55 AM on that day, director Michael Curtiz sent Stevens a telegram that read:
Dear George: Without exception I think “I Remember Mama” is the most perfect picture that Ive [sic] seen in years. Direction was magnificent and I think all of us can learn [a] great lesson from it. My deepest admiration goes to you and everyone who had any part in this production. Warmest regards. Mike Curtiz.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I Remember Mama is the most perfect film I’ve seen in years, it’s a wonderful movie that’s heart-warming without being saccharine and that’s beautifully acted and filmed, much of it on location in San Francisco.
Of course, Stevens had the benefit of wonderful source material. I’ve never seen the play by John Van Druten that the film is based on, but I read Kathryn Forbes’s Mama’s Bank Account in sixth grade, and so much about it has stayed with me. It’s warm, humorous, and there’s pure magic in its evocation of ordinary life.
Mama’s Bank Account is a fictionalized memoir written from the point of view of a young woman who aspires to be a writer. (Much of the book was inspired not by Forbes’s mother but by her Norwegian immigrant grandmother.)
Barbara Bel Geddes plays Katrin, the young writer who finds her subject when she decides to write about her mother, and she sometimes addresses the camera directly. Irene Dunne plays “Mama” (we never learn her real name, which is as it should be).
Like the book, the film is a series of vignettes. There is the tale of the family’s roomer, Mr. Hyde (Cedric Hardwicke), whom Mama’s sisters warn her might be putting something over on her when he’s always late with the rent, but Mama doesn’t mind so much, because Mr. Hyde reads to the family every night from the classics — A Tale of Two Cities, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Hamlet. Like most of the stories that comprise I Remember Mama, the tale of Mr. Hyde has a bittersweet end, but it’s more sweet than bitter, since his enthralling nightly storytelling sessions kept Katrin’s brother Nels (Steve Brown) off the street the night his friends were arrested for breaking into a shop, and were Katrin’s inspiration to become a writer.
My favorite vignette from both the book and the movie is about Katrin’s Uncle Chris (Oskar Homolka), with his loud voice and his fierce black mustache, who would come down from his ranch in the north and descend upon San Francisco in his automobile, charging up Market Street with ferocious speed, compensating, perhaps, for the limp he still carries from a childhood accident. When Katrin writes a story about her uncle Chris, her teacher scolds her and tells her it’s not nice to write that kind of story about a family member.
I Remember Mama occasionally gets a little schmaltzy, like when Mama impersonates a scrubwoman to get into the children’s ward of a hospital to see her youngest child, Dagmar (June Hedin), and then sings a lullaby that puts all the little girls in the ward to sleep. But for the most part Stevens avoids easy sentiment. Dunne’s performance as Mama is really wonderful, and her line delivery is great. When Katrin asks her mother, “Wouldn’t you like to be rich?,” Mama responds, “I would like to be rich the way I would like to be ten feet high. Is good for some things, is bad for others.”
I Remember Mama was nominated for a bunch of Academy Awards, but it didn’t win any — Best Actress (Irene Dunne), Best Supporting Actor (Oskar Homolka), Best Supporting Actress (Barbara Bel Geddes), Best Supporting Actress (Ellen Corby), and Best Cinematography, Black and White (Nicholas Musuraca).
The Yearling (1946)
Directed by Clarence Brown
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.
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.
Song of the South (1946)
Directed by Wilfred Jackson and Harve Foster Walt Disney Productions / RKO Radio Pictures
Walt Disney’s Song of the South is the first movie I ever saw. (I think my mother may have taken me to some movies when I was a baby, but that doesn’t count.) Seeing it in the theater was a big deal for me. The most sophisticated piece of electronics we had growing up was a KLH radio, and the only time I saw television was at my grandmother’s house. (She had a 13″ black & white Zenith.) I don’t know exactly when I saw Song of the South, but it must have been during the film’s 1980 re-release.
Song of the South premiered in Atlanta on November 12, 1946. It was the first film to have its premiere there since Gone With the Wind in 1939.
Based on Joel Chandler Harris’s books about an old storyteller named Uncle Remus, the film was controversial even before it went into production. In 1944, the Production Code Administration suggested a number of changes to Dalton Reymond’s script to minimize its potential to offend black filmgoers, including the following: that the phrase “old man” be substituted for “old darkie,” that the term “Mister John” be substituted for “Marse Jawn,” and that it be made clear that Uncle Remus belongs to a bygone era. Walt Disney did not, however, take their suggestion that it be made clear that the film takes place after the Civil War, when slavery was abolished, which is what got him into the most trouble.
Disney was not insensitive to the potential that Song of the South had to upset audiences. To deflect some potential flak, he brought in left-leaning Maurice Rapf, an emeritus director of film studies and an adjunct professor at Dartmouth College, to write a treatment of Reymond’s script that had the main white family living in a run-down farmhouse, not a beautiful plantation, and cut out scenes of black plantation workers going about their duties in a happy and docile fashion while singing uplifting spirituals. (Rapf, who was both Jewish and a Communist, denies that Walt Disney was intolerant, and said that while Disney was a conservative, he accepted the political and religious differences of the men who worked for him, many of whom were Jewish and/or leftists.)
For whatever reason, however, all of the aforementioned changes remained in their original form in the final cut of the film. In the cinema section of the November 18, 1946, issue of Time magazine, their reviewer wrote that “Tattered ol’ Uncle Remus, who cheerfully ‘knew his place’ in the easygoing world of late 19th Century Georgia … is a character bound to enrage all educated Negroes, and a number of damyankees.”
Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, sent a telegram to the press on November 27, 1946, that said the following: “The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recognizes in ‘Song of the South’ remarkable artistic merit in the music and in the combination of living actors and the cartoon technique. It regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the north or south, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery. Making use of the beautiful Uncle Remus folklore, ‘Song of the South’ unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts.”
Ebony magazine was less tempered in their criticism of the film. They wrote, in a full-page jeremiad against the film, that Song of the South promoted “Uncle Tomism as the model of how Negroes should behave in white company.” Of the film’s star, they wrote, “James Baskett, who symbolically enough was taken from the Amos ‘n’ Andy radio show to portray Remus, is an Uncle Tom-Aunt Jemima caricature complete with all the fawning standard equipment thereof — the toothy smile, battered hat, grey beard, and a profusion of ‘dis’ and ‘dat’ talk. He lives up to his ‘lovable’ billing — certainly to Dixie audiences for whom any Negro who bows and scrapes is ‘lovable.'”
Most negative reviews of the film did, however, praise the animated sections of the film, which featured the antics of the crafty Br’er Rabbit, the diabolical Br’er Fox, and the slow-witted Br’er Bear. And the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences liked Baskett’s performance as Remus enough to give him an honorary award at the 20th Academy Awards in 1948 “For his able and heart-warming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and story teller to the children of the world, in Walt Disney’s Song of the South.” (On the other hand, this took him out of the running for a real Oscar.)
While I don’t disagree with Ebony magazine’s assessment of the character of Uncle Remus, I do think Baskett gives a remarkable performance, full of warmth and humanity. There are some cringe-worthy moments, but overall I was moved by the character he created. It’s worth pointing out that Baskett also provided the voice for Br’er Fox, whose malevolent, mile-a-minute line delivery is so different from Remus’s slow, rich baritone that I never would have guessed it was Baskett’s voice if I hadn’t looked it up.
Remus comes into the life of a young white boy named Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) just when Johnny needs him most. Johnny’s father has left for Atlanta, and the boy wants to run away from home. Unlike Johnny’s mother, Remus understands the psychology of children, and instead of telling Johnny he shouldn’t run away, he gently steers him in the right direction by first agreeing to go with him, then telling him a story about a time when Br’er Rabbit was fed up and wanted to run away from all his troubles.
While the film presents a bucolic and idealized view of the Old South, there’s plenty of sadness, if you care to look for it. Johnny’s friendship with a black boy his own age is presented in a sweet, uncomplicated fashion, but look deeper. When the boy, Toby (Glenn Leedy), comes into Johnny’s room in the morning before a day of playing together, the first thing he does is pour water into the basin on top of Johnny’s bureau. Also, when Johnny runs off, Toby is viciously scolded by the older black servants in Johnny’s family, because it was Toby’s job to care for Johnny. Johnny is still the master and Toby is still the servant, and it’s doubtful that the two would have been able to remain friends into adolescence.
There’s also a running conflict between Johnny and two poor white boys who want to drown the puppy that Johnny got from them. While Uncle Remus scolds the two boys and runs them off when they bully Johnny, his authority only goes so far. When Johnny’s mother orders him to give back the puppy, Remus’s impotent rage is truly heartbreaking.
It’s hard to enjoy the third cartoon segment if you’re preoccupied with wondering whether or not the bad boys drowned that puppy. And while the puppy shows up for the final sequence of the film, the whole thing has a sense of unreality about it, since all the cartoon characters show up to interact with the happy children and Uncle Remus, who rubs his eyes ’cause he can’t hardly believe what he’s seeing! Br’er Rabbit right there? Yes indeed.
While Song of the South was re-released in U.S. theaters in 1956, 1972, 1980, and 1986, it has never been released in the United States on any home video format, and there are currently no plans to do so. Earlier this year, Disney CEO Robert Iger reiterated that there are no plans to release the film on DVD in the United States. He called Song of the South “antiquated” and “fairly offensive.” (Apparently this is something of an annual tradition at Disney shareholder meetings.)
Re-watching this film after 30 years was an interesting experience. While I didn’t pick up on all the subtleties when I first saw the film, I was surprised by how much I remembered. The cartoon sequences are a lot of fun, and the live-action sections contain much that is noteworthy. If Disney had taken Rapf’s advice — or if they had gone even further and removed every human actor except for Baskett and Driscoll — you’d probably be able to buy a deluxe DVD edition of Song of the South this Christmas for your kids.
It’s worth remembering, though, that no matter how the film’s themes had been presented, the star of Song of the South would not have been able to attend the film’s premiere in Atlanta. In 1946, it was still a segregated city. While Baskett would have been able to stay in one of the city’s black-owned hotels, he simply would not have been allowed to participate in any of the public events associated with the premiere.
Pal rides again! In Fred M. Wilcox’s Courage of Lassie, the irrepressible little scamp from whose seed all dogs who ever played Lassie are descended plays an orphaned collie. The little guy is left behind in an idyllic, Technicolor wilderness after the old fisherman who owns Lassie rows off with her and what he thinks are all of her puppies.
There follows a delightful montage of the little collie frolicking in the woods for days with birds, other four-legged beasties, and even a big black bear. This being a kid’s movie, however, you can be sure that gut-wrenching tragedy is right around the corner. Sure enough, the collie puppy and his little fox friend are caught in stormy rapids, and the fox is washed away, presumably to his death. The puppy, balanced on a tangle of branches, safely makes it to shore. Seemingly unfazed by his little buddy’s demise, the puppy’s next move is to happily run off with Elizabeth Taylor’s pants, and a lifelong bond is formed.
Taylor was 14 years old when she appeared in this film. Just like Pal, she’s playing a different role than she played in the film Lassie Come Home (1943). I think Taylor was a fantastic child actor. Just like in National Velvet (1944), she takes material that could be laughable or treacly and performs it with such conviction that you can’t help but be swept along. As Kathie Merrick, she believes in her dog, whom she names “Bill,” even though her family doesn’t think he has what it takes to be a sheep-herding dog.
By the end of the film Bill will prove that he not only has “the right stuff” in the pasture, but that he can be drafted and serve under heavy fire just like any other red-blooded American boy.
Bill goes through a lot in this film. He’s shot by a couple of dopey young hunters with quick trigger fingers, he’s run over by a truck while herding sheep across the road (and carried off by the well-meaning driver who doesn’t realize Bill belongs to someone), he’s renamed “Duke” at Dr. Colman’s Dog and Cat Hospital in the big city, and he’s trained for war and shipped off to the Aleutians to fight the Japanese.
“Duke” performs bravely despite a bloody neck wound, dragging himself through the mud to deliver a message, then leading the reinforcements back to the troops. He saves the day, but suffers from shell shock. He escapes the train that is taking him home and runs off into the area of the country where he remembers being with Kathie. Unfortunately, his PTSD has taken a toll, and he lives as a feral animal, raiding hen houses and killing local livestock. Kathie saves him from a farmer’s bullet, but he’s still put on trial as a mad dog.
Things look pretty grim for Bill until Harry MacBain (Frank Morgan, who played Prof. Marvel and the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz) makes an impassioned plea for understanding. This is the most interesting part of the film, since MacBain has looked up Bill’s war record, and his speech is a thinly veiled reference to human veterans who may be acting differently after their service overseas. Violent, antisocial behavior and drastic personality changes can be a byproduct of serving in combat, he says, and we on the homefront shouldn’t be so quick to judge our returning veterans. Even if they’re not lovable border collies.
Make Mine Music (1946)
Directed by Robert Cormack, Clyde Geronimi, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske, and Joshua Meador
Walt Disney Productions / RKO Radio Pictures
From 1937 to 1942, Walt Disney Pictures produced some of their best and most famous animated features — Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940) Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942).
During World War II, however, the U.S. Army contracted Disney to make training and instruction films like Victory Through Air Power (1943), as well as propaganda shorts like Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi (1943), which is still an effective and chilling piece, and Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943), in which Donald Duck has a nightmare and imagines himself a factory worker for the Third Reich. (Have you ever wanted to see Donald Duck read Mein Kampf and give the Sieg Heil salute while quacking “Heil Hitler!” over and over? Of course you have. Check it out if you haven’t already seen it.) These films didn’t generate any income for the studio, so in the post-war years Disney’s feature-length animated films were inexpensive repackagings of short subjects; Make Mine Music (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), and Melody Time (1948).
Like any compilation, Make Mine Music is a mixed bag. It begins with “a rustic ballad,” as the title card tells us. The King’s Men sing “The Martins and the Coys,” a comedic take on the famous Hatfield and McCoy feud of the late 19th century. Sadly, hillbilly humor is something we’ve lost in this country. As cable TV has spread to the farthest reaches of the nation and more people have moved from remote rural areas to suburbs, barefooted hicks who tote shotguns, sleep with their arm around a pig, drink “mountain dew” (a.k.a. moonshine), and never wear a shirt under their overalls have gone the way of the dodo. In 1946, however, there were still plenty of those “reckless mountain boys” running around, and this segment lampoons them in grand style. The Martins and the Coys blast one another to pieces with shotguns until their clans are each left with just one representative. One a young man, the other a young woman. The punchline? They fall in love, get married, and then the bickering and the feuding start all over again, while their deceased ancestors watch with approval from their perches on clouds up in hillbilly heaven.
The second feature is “a tone poem.” The Ken Darby Chorus sing “Blue Bayou” while what appears to be an egret lazily flies around a blue bayou full of dark, dripping colors. Eventually the egret meets a second egret and they slowly disappear into the sky together. This short is audiovisual heroin, and I felt as if I was being shot up against my will.
Luckily, the third feature, “a jazz interlude” featuring Benny Goodman and his Orchestra called “All the Cats Join In,” really knocks it out of the park. Stylized images are created in a sketch book by an oversized pencil and then come to life. First a cat is drawn, then erased, then replaced by an Archie Andrews lookalike. There are even a few risqué images, with a bobby soxer jumping in the shower to get ready for a date, then running around barely covered by a towel, then jumping into her clothes and exposing her frilly underthings while bent over and rummaging around in her closet. All the while her younger sister mimics her every move. Then it’s into the jalopy with the rest of the gang and off to the malt shop. The music in this one is genuinely good, and the animation style looks about 15 years ahead of its time.
At this point, the structure of Make Mine Music becomes clear, as this fun and jazzy number is followed by another mawkish piece of visual barbiturate — “a ballad in blue” — featuring Andy Russell singing “Without You.” Rivulets of water running down a windowpane create one maudlin image after another, none of them memorable, but all designed to evoke a sense of pretty desolation — trees without leaves against a sunset, etc. Eventually we come back in through the window and the piece ends with the image of a dark blue sky surrounded by black with a single star in the sky, mirroring the lyrics of the song. This short is not recommended for the clinically depressed or anyone who’s just been dumped.
True to the established pattern, the next short is tons o’ fun. It’s “a musical recitation” by Jerry Colonna of “Casey at the Bat.” It opens with a series of turn-of-the-century stills and enlightened lyrics like, “The ladies don’t understand baseball a bit, they don’t know a strike from a foul or a hit,” followed by typical goofy “humorous” Disney animation. It’s all silly fun, and the final strikeout sequence is especially over the top.
Unsurprisingly, this is followed by a “ballade ballet” with animated versions of dancers Tania Riabouchinskaya (listed in the credits as just “Riabouchinska”) and David Lichine, accompanied by Dinah Shore singing “Two Silhouettes.” The white silhouetes are clearly based on real figures, and are gag-inducing, but can’t hold a candle in the gorge-rising department to the chubby white cherub silhouettes who fly in at the very end to drape the dancers with something or other.
Next up is “a fairy tale with music,” which is a version of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” narrated by Sterling Holloway. If you took a field trip to the symphony when you were a child, chances are “Peter and the Wolf” was on the program, since it’s a great way to introduce young people to a variety of instruments and the concept of musical motifs. Like “Casey at the Bat,” this segment is serviceable, but not wildly memorable.
Following this is the Goodman Quartet performing “After You’ve Gone.” Little anthropomorphic instruments dance around. It’s short and sweet.
The high point of Make Mine Music is “a love story” sung by the Andrews Sisters, “Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet.” This one is just adorable. Anthropomorphic hats have the potential to be really creepy, but they’re both pretty cute — especially Johnnie, whose expressive eyes are formed from the divets in the front of the fedora above the hat band. Long story short, Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet sit next to each other in a department store window, fall in love, are separated, and eventually find each other again.
Make Mine Music was the first movie my mother remembers seeing. When I was a little kid, I asked her about the first movie she’d ever seen, and the only thing she specifically remembered was “Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet.” She even sang the first few bars of the song, and got the melody just right, although not with the Andrews Sisters’ adenoidal twang.
The final short is an “opera pathetique” performed by Nelson Eddy, who does all the voices for the “tragic story” of “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met.” An impresario from the Met named “Teti Tati” takes off after Willie the whale after reading about him in the newspaper, because he believes that an opera singer has been swallowed by the whale, like Jonah. When Teti Tati discovers that Willie can sing in three voices, he believes that the whale has swallowed three different opera singers. (We get to see a whole lot of Willie’s three vibrating uvulas.) There follows a fantastic dream sequence in which Willie imagines himself in a variety of roles, his bulk spilling out over the stage. He showers himself with “tears” from his blowhole while singing Pagliacci. He appears in flames as Mephistopheles. But unfortunately, it’s all a fantasy, and eventually the impresario succeeds in harpooning Willie. Unlike the duck in “Peter and the Wolf,” however, Willie doesn’t come back. Sure, the conclusion shows us that he’s in heaven singing in “a hundred voices,” but what consolation is that to a five-year-old? Or to a thirty-five-year-old, for that matter?
If you like this movie enough to rent or purchase it on DVD, you’ll find that the first short, “The Martins and the Coys,” has been completely cut out, and the King’s Men have been deleted from the opening credits. Why? Because as a corporate entity, Disney constantly rewrites its own artistic history. When Melody Time was released for the home video market in 1998, a cigarette dangling from Pecos Bill’s mouth was digitally removed. Also, lyrics in the opening song of Aladdin (1992) were altered under pressure from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
This is nothing new. When Fantasia was re-released in the late ’40s, some incredibly racist caricatures were excised. Were they offensive? Of course. Should Disney be allowed to get away with whitewashing (no pun intended) their own work? I don’t think so.
Why was “The Martins and the Coys” removed, anyway? A common explanation given is that it contains gunplay, but so does “Johnnie Fedora.” Was it because of stereotypes of rural Americans? What about the Italian stereotypes in “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met”? Or the chauvinistic lyrics in “Casey at the Bat”?
Will some day the wonderful “All the Cats Join In” be removed from prints of this film under pressure from the fat-acceptance crowd, since in one scene a bobby soxer is drawn a little heavy in the hips, leading a boy to shake his head until the pencil and eraser come back in to “fix” her?
At least when Disney released Der Fuehrer’s Face on DVD as part of the Walt Disney Treasures — On the Front Lines collection, they didn’t mess with it. All you have to do is suffer through Leonard Maltin explaining that during wartime, stereotypes were sometimes used and abused. (And you do have to suffer through it every time you watch it. The DVD is programmed so you can’t fast forward past it.) Disclaimers like that are fine with me. Rewriting history is not.
The Bells of St. Mary’s, Leo McCarey’s follow-up to his smash hit Going My Way (which won the Academy Award for best picture of 1944), premiered in New York City on December 6, 1945. It was one of the first really “respectable” sequels, and, like Going My Way, was nominated for Oscars in all the big categories; best picture, director, actor, and actress. (Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend ended up taking home the awards for best picture, director, and actor, and Joan Crawford won the best actress award for Mildred Pierce.)
In The Bells of St. Mary’s, Bing Crosby reprises the role of Father O’Malley, for which he won an Academy Award for best actor of 1944, and he is joined by Ingrid Bergman, the best actress winner of 1944 (for Gaslight). The talent pool might be heavy, but the film itself is pretty light. There’s a disease, but it’s not fatal; there’s a bunch of needy kids running around, but the word “orphan” is never heard; and the sisters are in danger of losing St. Mary’s, but keep your fingers crossed for a Christmas miracle.
Like a lot of sequels, The Bells of St. Mary’s sticks with the formula of its predecessor. Father O’Malley is still the new guy in town, he’s still freewheeling and freethinking, and he butts heads with the other members of the clergy. His foil in Going My Way was Barry Fitzgerald as a crotchety old Irish priest, and in The Bells of St. Mary’s it’s the luminous Ingrid Bergman as Sister Benedict, a nun who was born in Sweden and raised in Minnesota. Bergman projects equal parts wisdom and naivete, and her performance is beatific enough, at least on the surface, to make up for what the role lacks in substance. The scene in which she masters the techniques of boxing by reading a book and then teaches the sweet science to a young boy who is being bullied is both funny and touching.
Crosby builds on his characterization of Father O’Malley. He’s a little older and wiser than he was in Going My Way, but not much else has changed. He’s still a “modern” thinker. He’s still a magnet for young girls in trouble, and if someone has a problem that can be solved with a song, he’s still happy to sit down at a piano and lend his golden pipes to the situation. Crosby will never be mistaken for Laurence Olivier, but he’s believable and charismatic in this picture. Enough so that he can deliver lines like, “If you’re ever in trouble, just dial ‘O’ … for O’Malley,” and not automatically trigger the viewer’s gag reflex.
The world of The Bells of St. Mary’s is much like our own, but the problems in it are solved with broad strokes and last-minute changes of heart instead of time and hard work. All it takes to mend a broken family is simply locating the wayward father, and getting a new parish is no harder than praying for it (and cajoling an old millionaire to donate his latest high-rise condominium).
Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s are both holiday classics, even though neither focuses too much on Christmas. There’s a cute scene in The Bells of St. Mary’s in which some very small children stumble and improvise their way through a rehearsal of a Christmas pageant, but that’s about it. Oh, and a year later, astute viewers will be able to spot The Bells of St. Mary’s on the marquee of the local movie house in Bedford Falls when Jimmy Stewart runs through downtown wishing everyone and everything a Merry Christmas at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.
Son of Lassie could just as easily have been called Laddie Goes to War! In this follow-up to Lassie Come Home (1943), which starred Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor, Lassie has a son, named Laddie. Laddie grows ups, as does young Joe Carraclough, who was played by McDowall in the first film, but is here replaced by future Rat Pack member and Kennedy spouse Peter Lawford, whose slightly deformed arm kept him out of World War II. Joe joins the army, and Laddie tries to join up with him, but he cringes the first time blank cartridges are fired at his face, which disqualifies him as a canine soldier. When Joe is taken prisoner of war in Norway, however, Laddie … well, I don’t want to give anything away. (But if you’ve ever seen a “boy and his dog” movie before, you can probably predict what will happen.)
Various locations in Canada and the Colorado Rockies were used to replicate Norway. Never having been to Norway, I can’t say how well the substitutions work, but they are gorgeous, and look like something out of a storybook. If all you’re looking for is a beautiful Technicolor travelogue, Son of Lassie fits the bill.
I, on the other hand, was looking for something more. I am a huge dog lover, but I found Laddie to be a charmless buffoon. Also, all collies look alike to me, so his scenes with his mother Lassie were really confusing. Interestingly–and I didn’t know this until after I saw this movie–both Lassie and Laddie were played by the same dog, Pal, the male collie who played Lassie in Lassie Come Home. (For the scenes in this film in which Laddie appears with his mother, another collie filled in as Lassie.) Apparently every single dog who has played Lassie on film has been a descendant of Pal. Perhaps Laddie’s general dopiness isn’t Pal’s fault. It could just be the way the character is written. The same could be said for Joe, who also comes off as a bit of a dope. On the other hand, they are well suited for each other. Both are naive and somewhat incompetent, not to mention the fact that they sleep together, eat together, and share a bond that would be homoerotic if they weren’t from different species. Son of Lassie is a decent flick for kids, especially kids who love dogs, but the flat acting and bad dialogue don’t make it a first choice to rent for adults.