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Tag Archives: Herbert Stothart

The Sea of Grass (April 25, 1947)

Elia Kazan’s The Sea of Grass premiered February 26, 1947, in Lincoln, Nebraska. It opened in New York City a day later, and went into wide release on April 25, 1947.

In his review of the film in The New York Times on Friday, February 28, Bosley “The Grouch” Crowther referred to the film as “Metro’s new cow-or-plow drama,” which is the best and most succinct description of the film imaginable.

This was Kazan’s second film — his first was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and Boomerang (1947), which I reviewed earlier this year, was his third.

The Sea of Grass is the story of a high-born St. Louis woman, Lutie Cameron (Katharine Hepburn), who marries a cattle baron, Col. Jim Brewton (Spencer Tracy), and leaves the comfortable world of high society for a rough-and-tumble life in a place called Salt Fork, in the Territory of New Mexico. Brewton legally owns very little of the hundreds and hundreds of acres over which his cattle roam, but he fought and bled for the land, and he’ll be damned if any pussy-footing sodbusters are going to come in and reap the rewards he feels he earned for himself. Brewton’s connection to the land is full of mystical reverence, and he’s distant from people, including his wife. Lutie is driven into the arms of Brewton’s mortal enemy, Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas) — a lawyer who fights for the rights of homesteaders — just long enough to wind up carrying Chamberlain’s child. Lutie returns to Brewton and bears him a second child, a son named Brock (they already have a girl named Sara Beth).

When Brewton discovers that he has been cuckolded, he gives Lutie a choice. She can either leave and take Brock with her, exposing him as a bastard, or she can leave alone and he will raise Brock as his own son. Tearfully, Lutie takes the latter option, and lives in exile. Sara Beth grows into actress Phyllis Thaxter, and Brock grows up into snivelling punk Robert Walker. Brock’s true parentage seems to be an open secret in and around Salt Fork, and he responds by drinking, gambling, sneering, and throwing lead into anyone who disparages him. He’s an early-20th-century rebel without a cause, and tragedy always seems right around the corner whenever he’s onscreen.

The Sea of Grass is based on the 1936 novel by Conrad Richter. Kazan was so attracted to the material that he specifically asked MGM if he could direct it. (Kazan was under contract with Twentieth Century-Fox at the time, but it wasn’t an exclusive contract, and it allowed him to work with other studios.) His vision was of an on-location shoot that would last months, featuring unknown actors with leathery faces and a grand sense of scale that would express the drama and sadness of a way of life in America that is dead and gone.

There are hints of this in a few scenes. The few sweeping shots of the pre-Dust Bowl prairie land of the Great Plains, with the gently rolling oceans of grass that give the film its title, are unspeakably beautiful. But for the most part, The Sea of Grass is a melodrama that’s soapy enough to wash your car with.

Kazan was restricted by the studio to shooting on soundstages, and he found directing Spencer Tracy nearly impossible. Tracy was in a bad way during the making of the film, and he was drinking heavily. His performance isn’t bad, but it’s muted and deeply subdued, as though he’s only partly present most of the time. Katharine Hepburn, on the other hand, is histrionic, and very nearly a haughty parody of herself. There are moments of great visual excitement in the film, such as a violent confrontation between homesteader Sam Hall (James Bell) and Brewton’s men during a windstorm. At more than two hours long, however, The Sea of Grass offers very little in the way of the kind of action I look for in a western, and the soapy drama it’s packed with is pretty turgid.

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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.

Undercurrent (Nov. 28, 1946)

Undercurrent
Undercurrent (1946)
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The next time you and a friend see a turgid, overlong thriller with too many twists and turns, bogus storytelling, and good actors wasted, and your friend says, “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” you can show your friend Undercurrent and prove that they make ’em exactly like they used to.

Pound for pound, Undercurrent might have boasted more talent than any other mystery melodrama in 1946. Director Vincente Minnelli and cinematographer Karl Freund were both gifted craftsmen with numerous acclaimed films under their belts. Herbert Stothart’s music is moody and evocative, especially the film’s haunting theme. Actors Robert Taylor and Katharine Hepburn were both stars of the highest magnitude, and hadn’t been seen onscreen for some time. Taylor had just finished his term of service as a flying instructor in the U.S. Naval Air Corps and Hepburn hadn’t appeared in a movie for a year and a half.

So what’s the problem? While studio tinkering could have played some part, the problem seems to mostly be Edward Chodorov’s screenplay, which was based on a story by Thelma Strabel. In a word, it’s silly. As soon as a promising situation is established, the story goes in a different direction, which serves to undercut the tension. The review of the film in the November 11, 1946, issue of Time called the plot “indigestible,” and said it was like “a woman’s magazine serial consumed at one gulp.”

Hepburn plays a young woman named Ann Hamilton who lives with her father, chemistry professor “Dink” Hamilton (Edmund Gwenn). Ann is herself chemically inclined, and prefers to spend time tinkering in the laboratory than entertaining proposals from eligible young men. All that changes when the handsome, mustachioed, and fabulously wealthy Alan Garroway (Taylor) enters her life. Alan is the inventor of the Garroway Distance Controller, which helped win the war.

Hepburn and Taylor in the shadow of Mitchum

Alan and Ann marry, and he takes her away with him to Washington, D.C., where she feels completely out of her depth in high society. Meanwhile, Alan starts making sinister insinuations about his brother Michael, who supposedly went missing years earlier with a large sum of money embezzled from the family business, and who is offscreen for most of the picture. The film seems to be setting up “What happened to Michael Garroway?” as the central mystery, but if you’ve looked at a cast list with character names, this plot thread won’t be that mysterious for you.

When Alan takes Ann away to his lovely country home in Middleburg, Virginia, the film threatens to settle down and become a solid Gothic melodrama. The estate has no phone line, and Alan’s behavior is increasingly bizarre. And as one critic noted, the central theme of Gothic fiction seems to be, “Someone is trying to kill me, and I think it may be my husband.”

True to form, however, the film goes in yet another direction, with Ann going off to explore Michael Garroway’s ludicrously appointed mansion-cum-bachelor pad, where she explores his musical instruments and books of poetry with copious underlinings, and seems to be falling in love with a man she has never met. I’m sure a good film could be made about a love triangle with one-third of the equation missing for most of the film’s running time, but this isn’t it. As Bosley Crowther said in his review of Undercurrent in the November 29, 1946, issue of the NY Times, “And if that also sounds a trifle senseless, let us hasten to assure you that it is.”

Robert Mitchum — one of my favorite actors of all time, ever since I saw him host Saturday Night Live in 1987 and asked my mom, “Who is that?” — is also in Undercurrent, but he doesn’t show up until more than halfway through the film’s running time, and only has a few scenes.

I may have made Undercurrent sound terrible. It’s not. It’s mediocre popcorn entertainment, and I had fun watching it. And it’s no worse than most of the “neo-noirs” that littered multiplexes throughout the 1990s … it’s just not much better, either.

They Were Expendable (Dec. 20, 1945)

It has become clear to me that John Ford does something for others that he doesn’t do for me. Active from the silent era through the ’60s, Ford is regularly listed as one of the greatest American directors of all time, as well as one of the most influential.

It’s not that I don’t like his films. I’ve enjoyed most that I’ve seen. But aside from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), I haven’t loved any of them. Ford’s influence on the western is hard to overstate, and I respect what films like Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956) did to elevate the genre, but I wouldn’t count either as one of my favorite westerns.

They Were Expendable was Ford’s first war movie. It is a fictionalized account of the exploits of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3 in the early, disastrous days of America’s war in the Pacific. Based on the book by William L. White, the film stars Robert Montgomery as Lt. John Brickley, who believes that small, light PT (patrol torpedo) boats are the perfect crafts to use against the much-larger ships in the Japanese fleet. Despite the speed and maneuverability of PT boats, the top Naval brass reject Lt. Brickley’s plan, but he persists in equipping the boats and training his men, and they eventually launch attacks against the Japanese, and even use PT boats to evacuate Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his family when the situation in the Philippines goes from bad to worse.

They Were Expendable is a product of its time. When the actor playing MacArthur is shown (he is never named and has no lines, but it’s clear who he is supposed to be), the musical score is so overblown that it elevates MacArthur to the level of Abraham Lincoln, or possibly Jesus Christ. The bona fides of the film’s star are asserted in the credits; he is listed as “Robert Montgomery, Comdr. U.S.N.R.” (Montgomery really was a PT skipper in World War II, and did some second unit direction on the film.) And in keeping with the film’s patriotic tone, the combat efficacy of PT boats against Japanese destroyers is probably overstated. (This is also the case in White’s book, which was based solely on interviews with the young officers profiled.)

None of this was a problem for me. What was a problem was the inconsistent tone of the picture, exemplified by the two main characters. Montgomery underplays his role, but you can see the anguish behind his stoic mask. He demonstrates the value of bravery in the face of almost certain defeat. On the other hand, John Wayne, as Lt. (J.G.) “Rusty” Ryan, has swagger to spare, and is hell-bent for leather the whole time. He even finds time to romance a pretty nurse, 2nd Lt. Sandy Davyss (played by Donna Reed). Wayne doesn’t deliver a bad performance, but it’s a performance that seems better suited to a western than a film about the darkest days of America’s war against the Japanese.

Maybe we can blame Ford and Wayne’s previous work together, and their comfort with a particular genre. Reports that Ford (who served in the navy in World War II and made combat documentaries) constantly berated Wayne during the filming of They Were Expendable for not serving in the war don’t change the fact that the two men made many westerns together before this, and would make many after it. Several scenes in They Were Expendable feel straight out of a western. Determined to have an Irish wake for one of his fallen brothers, Wayne forces a Filipino bar owner to stay open, even though the bar owner is trying to escape with his family in the face of reports that the Japanese are overrunning the islands. Even more out of place is the scene in which the old shipwright who repairs the PT boats, “Dad” Knowland (Russell Simpson), refuses to leave the shack where he’s lived and worked in the Philippines since the turn of the century. Wayne eventually gives up trying to persuade him to evacuate, and leaves him on his front porch with a shotgun across his lap and a jug of moonshine next to him, as “Red River Valley” plays in the background.

The scenes of combat in They Were Expendable are well-handled, and the picture looks great. Montgomery is particularly good in his role. As war movies from the ’40s go, it’s not bad, but far from the best I’ve seen.

Son of Lassie (April 20, 1945)

SonofLassieSon 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.