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Tag Archives: James Stewart

Broken Arrow (July 21, 1950)

Broken Arrow
Broken Arrow (1950)
Directed by Delmer Daves
20th Century-Fox

1950 was an interesting year for the Hollywood western. It was also an interesting year for the movie career of James Stewart, who appeared in two significant westerns that were released that summer, Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 and Delmer Daves’s Broken Arrow.

They’re both good films, and they presaged greater things on the horizon for Stewart, who was already a huge star, but was now on his way to becoming a bona fide western star, too. Broken Arrow and Winchester ’73 were also a sign of things to come, since the ’50s was the decade that the Hollywood western matured, opening itself to new possibilities and more complex storytelling, like The Gunfighter, released around the same time.

Broken Arrow and Winchester ’73 would make an entertaining double bill, but unless you’re one of those people who can’t stand to watch movies in black & white, I guarantee that you will find Winchester ’73 the more exciting and engaging film.

Broken Arrow is well-made and well-acted, but it’s more significant for its portrayal of American Indians than it is for being a cracking piece of entertainment, like Winchester ’73 is.

Stewart

Not only does Broken Arrow present a sympathetic view of the Apache and their leader, Cochise, but it acknowledges that the beginning of the war between the Apache and the US Army involved broken truces and wholesale slaughter on the part of the cavalry against the Apaches. The film does a good job of depicting the Arizona territory in the midst of war; both sides hate each other with a passion, and enough atrocities have been committed on both sides for peace to be a far-fetched hope.

Enter Tom Jeffords (James Stewart), a former cavalry scout who learns firsthand that the Apaches are far from the inhuman savages he always believed them to be. He desires to broker a peace deal between Cochise (Jeff Chandler) and the United States, so he learns everything he can about Apache customs, beliefs, and language, and sets off to meet Cochise.

Stewart and Chandler

Broken Arrow is based on the historical novel Blood Brother by Elliott Arnold. The screenplay was written by blacklisted writer Albert Maltz. (The writer listed in the credits of the film is Michael Blankfort, who acted as a front for Maltz.)

The main problem with the movie is that while there are a bunch of Native American actors employed as extras, most of the key players among the Apache are portrayed by white actors wearing makeup.

I have to give credit to Jeff Chandler, who delivers a great performance as Cochise. I listen to a lot of old radio shows, and at first it was weird to hear a voice I recognized so well coming out of the mouth of a supposed Apache. (Chandler played the science teacher, Mr. Boynton, on Our Miss Brooks, but I know him best as the radio version of private detective Michael Shayne, “that reckless, red-headed Irishman.”) But once I settled in, I enjoyed Chandler’s portrayal, which is nuanced and mostly free of stereotypical vocal inflections.

Stewart and Paget

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Debra Paget as “Sonseeahray,” Tom Jeffords’s historically nonexistent love interest. The 16-year-old Paget is cute as a button, but she’s about as convincing an American Indian as Disney’s Pocahontas.

The most significant Apache character in the film played by an actual Native American is Geronimo, who is played by Jay Silverheels (best known as the Lone Ranger’s best friend Tonto on the long-running TV series). Silverheels has one really good dramatic scene as Geronimo and then leaves the Apache tribe to continue waging war against the United States on his own.

Delmer Daves would go on to make one of my favorite westerns of the ’50s, the original 3:10 to Yuma (1957). Broken Arrow is also good, but I wouldn’t quite call it a classic. It’s incredibly progressive in a lot of ways, and a refreshing change from westerns in which American Indian tribes were faceless hordes, so if you can get past the cognitive dissonance of seeing Apache characters played by white actors, there’s a lot to recommend Broken Arrow.

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Winchester ’73 (June 7, 1950)

Winchester 73
Winchester ’73 (1950)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Universal Pictures

Among film geeks, Anthony Mann is revered for two things — his hard-boiled film noirs of the 1940s and his “psychological westerns” of the 1950s.

Mann’s western phase kicked off in 1950 with three films, Winchester ’73 with James Stewart, The Furies with Barbara Stanwyck, and Devil’s Doorway with Robert Taylor.

Winchester ’73 was significant because it was Mann’s first film with Jimmy Stewart, the most likeable beanpole everyman in Hollywood, and it helped Stewart craft a new image for himself.

Mann and Stewart went on to make seven more films together, but it is their five westerns that are best-regarded today. After Winchester ’73 came Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), and The Man From Laramie (1955).

I first saw Winchester ’73 about 15 years ago, after being completely blown away by Mann’s noirs T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948), and wasn’t as excited by Winchester ’73.

Stewart and Mitchell

Winchester ’73 is regularly lauded as the first “adult western,” and the beginning of a richer and more complicated era for the genre.

I don’t totally buy this. While the majority of westerns in the 1930s and ’40s may have been aimed at kids (it’s almost impossible for an adult to watch a Buster Crabbe western without clawing their eyes out), there were westerns aimed at adult viewers going all the way back to the birth of cinema. To say that Winchester ’73 is the first “adult western” is to ignore the westerns directed by John Ford, Raoul Walsh, André De Toth, and plenty of others.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the 1950s was the best decade for westerns in the history of Hollywood, and Winchester ’73 is a really good western with complex characters and excellent performances. It just doesn’t totally work for me. It has an episodic structure that follows the “priceless … one in a thousand” Winchester ’73 rifle as it passes from owner to owner, and most of the episodes don’t do much for me until Dan Duryea shows up toward the end. (Although I do always get a perverse thrill from seeing Rock Hudson playing a shirtless Native American.)

I find the last third of Winchester ’73 incredibly thrilling and fun to watch. Duryea plays runty, nasty villains like no one else, and its during his episode of the film that Stewart finally shakes off his nice guy image and does stuff on screen that he’d never done before.

Duryea and Stewart

While it’s not my favorite western of all time, I still would recommend Winchester ’73 to any fans of westerns, as well as any film fans who want to explore the western genre. It’s a well-made movie, an important western, and William H. Daniels’s cinematography is gorgeous.

Also, the DVD of this film released in 2003 is a must-have for classic film fans. The special features listed on the DVD case only refer to an “Interview with James Stewart,” which is the most insane piece of underselling I’ve ever seen on a DVD.

That interview is actually an entire commentary track for the film. It’s guided by an interviewer who asks questions, but it’s still Jimmy Stewart talking about the movie as it goes, occasionally commenting on what’s happening onscreen, but mostly just sharing recollections of old Hollywood and old talent, as well as waxing philosophical about the old studio system. It’s incredibly enjoyable to listen to for anyone who’s a classic film fan. It was originally recorded in 1989 for a LaserDisc release of the film. Toward the end of the commentary with the interviewer, Jimmy Stewart marvels at how far technology has come and says, “laser, huh?”

It’s incredibly rare to have this kind of commentary track from a star as old as Stewart, and it’s something to be treasured.

Winchester73DVD

Rope (Aug. 28, 1948)

Rope
Rope (1948)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Warner Bros. / Transatlantic Pictures

Did you know that actor Dick Hogan’s last role was playing a symbolic male orgasm?

It’s true. Hogan — previously mentioned in this blog for his role in Shed No Tears (1948) — was cast in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope as murder victim David Kentley.

It’s an important role, but a thankless one. As Kentley, Hogan has no lines, and is offscreen for most of the film’s running time.*

After the film’s opening credits have rolled, we hear his scream, then see him with a rope wrapped around his neck at the moment he is dying. He’s being murdered by a pair of thrill-killers named Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) who consider themselves “superior” and most everyone else — including their friend David — “inferior.”

Rope is based on a 1929 play written by British playwright Patrick Hamilton. Brandon and Phillip are thinly veiled versions of Leopold and Loeb, the infamous thrill-killers who in 1924 murdered a 14-year-old boy in an attempt to commit a “perfect crime.”

Leopold and Loeb were law students at the University of Chicago. Both came from wealthy families, and both had muddled ideas about Nietzsche’s concept of the “superman” and their own superiority.

Long story short, their crime was far from perfect, and they were arrested and put on trial. Leopold and Loeb were represented by Clarence Darrow, who was a staunch opponent of capitol punishment. The jury found them guilty and the judge sentenced the two young men to life in prison for murder, plus 99 years for kidnapping. Loeb was killed by another inmate in 1936, but Leopold was eventually paroled in 1958, after 33 years in prison. He died in 1971 of natural causes.

Dick Hogan

But back to the fictionalization of their crime, and that symbolic male orgasm I mentioned at the beginning.

I’m sure some will accuse me of “reading too much into” the film or seeing something that isn’t there, but I think anyone who reads up on the Leopold and Loeb case and then immediately watches Rope will find it impossible not to notice the homosexual undertones. Also, Hitchcock is one of the most self-aware filmmakers of all time, and he was fascinating by unconventional sexuality.

The very first scene — the murder — is a symbolic orgasm shared by the murderers; strangled, intense, and shameful.

The murder is a stand-in for a sexual encounter between Brandon and Phillip. Phillip doesn’t want to turn the lights on right away. “Let’s stay this way for just a minute,” he says, and Brandon lights up a post-coital cigarette. “We couldn’t have done it with the curtains open in the bright sunlight.”

This is about as explicit as a film from 1948 could be when exploring gay sex and gay desire.

Add to this the fact that the two young men are most in danger of being found out by book publisher Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), who was the boys’ headmaster in prep school. The theme of naughty little boys possibly being found out and punished by a boarding-school authority figure is just one of the many skillful pieces of homosexual innuendo that Hitchcock sprinkles throughout Rope.

Granger, Stewart, and Dall

Rope is one of Hitchcock’s most impressive technical stunts. He filmed the action in long takes, like a play. Most of the cuts are necessitated by the length of film reels, and are done as seamlessly as possible (e.g., an actor passes in front of the camera, darkening the frame for a moment to facilitate a cut). Most of the action of Rope takes place during a dinner party at Brandon and Phillip’s apartment. They’ve arranged a buffet on top of the trunk in which David Kentley’s corpse has been hidden.

I don’t normally like films adapted from plays, but I love Rope. Stage plays are very different from screenplays, and I think the problem with most play-films is that something seems very, very “off” about the dialogue and the way the characters appear, disappear, and reappear in physical space. By filming Rope exactly like a play, however, Hitchcock ironically created a very exciting movie that works extremely well. There’s a creepy sense of intimacy created by the single setting and the actors all playing off each other without a cut every few seconds. And of course, the fact that every line in the film is colored by the viewer’s knowledge that the corpse of David Kentley is hidden away under everyone’s nose.

The way the film moves from day to night is eerie and impressive, too. The backdrop of the film is an enormous window that looks out over Manhattan, and as the film moves forward in time the sky grows darker and lights come on in the buildings and smoke curls from little smokestacks.

Rope should be seen at least once by everyone who has any interest in how films are made. And for people who love Hitchcock’s gruesome playfulness and gallows humor, it’s a film to be savored over and over.

*Interestingly, Hogan has a speaking role in the film’s trailer, but never utters a word in the film itself. Hitchcock’s films always had some of the most inventive trailers, and Rope is no exception:

Call Northside 777 (Feb. 1, 1948)

Call Northside 777 is the latest in director Henry Hathaway’s series of fact-based dramas.

Together with producer Louis de Rochemont, the creator of the March of Time series of newsreels, Hathaway made The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), which were both based on the wartime exploits of the OSS.

Unlike Hathaway’s previous film, Kiss of Death (1947), which was fiction, but made in a verité style and filmed on location, Call Northside 777 is more in line with Louis de Rochemont’s Boomerang (1947), which was directed by Elia Kazan.

Like Boomerang, Call Northside 777 is about a miscarriage of justice.

In 1933, Joseph Majczek and another man, Theodore Marcinkiewicz, were convicted of killing a Chicago police officer the previous year. In 1944, their convictions were overturned when a crusading reporter named James McGuire helped prove that the eyewitness who gave the testimony that sent the two men to prison had perjured herself under pressure from the police.

Majczek is renamed “Frank Wiecek,” and he’s played by Richard Conte. The crusading Chicago Times reporter is renamed “Jim McNeal” and he’s played by James Stewart.

McNeal’s editor, Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb), spots a notice in the classified section of the Times — “$5000 reward for killers of Officer Bundy on Dec. 9, 1932. Call Northside 777. Ask for Tillie Wiecek 12-7 p.m.” — and sends McNeal to investigate.

Tillie Wiecek (Kasia Orzazewski) is the convicted man’s mother. She earned the $5,000 by scrubbing floors.

After McNeal interviews Mrs. Wiecek, his wife Laura (Helen Walker) says to him, “I wasn’t thinking about the boy, I was thinking about his mother. You know what it is? It catches your imagination. Nobody knows whether she’s right or not. She’s worked so hard, she’s had such faith that, well, I want her to be right.”

McNeal, on the other hand, is hard-nosed and unsentimental about the case. As he tells Wiecek when he goes to prison to interview him, “She believes you. I need proof. This thing’s gotta have sock — mass appeal. It’s the only way we’ll be able to help you.”

Eventually, though, the evidence begins to pile up, and even the cynical McNeal is convinced of Wiecek’s innocence.

Call Northside 777 was released on DVD in 2004 as part of the Fox Film Noir collection, but there’s very little thematically that marks it as “noir.” The closest the film gets stylistically to being a film noir is toward the end of the picture, when McNeal scours the Polish neighborhoods of Chicago in search of the eyewitness in the Wiecek case, Wanda Skutnik (Betty Garde). These scenes are bathed in shadows and shot through with suspense.

For the most part, though, Call Northside 777 is lit and shot in a neutral, docudrama fashion, which is a shame, since it was the first big Hollywood production filmed in Chicago. There are a few shots of the Merchandise Mart, the Loop, and Holy Trinity Polish Mission, but most of the film takes place indoors.

It’s a good film, but since it’s mostly a hidebound retelling of established facts, it’s never as thrilling or suspensful as a piece of pure fiction like Kiss of Death. It’s interesting, for instance, that Leonarde Keeler, the co-inventor of the polygraph, plays himself in the scene in which Wiecek is given a lie detector test, but it’s not really the stuff of great drama.

The best thing about the film is Jimmy Stewart’s performance. He handles his character’s progression from a cynical reporter who’s “just doing his job” to a man who’s finally found a cause worth fighting for wholly believable and thoroughly involving.

Magic Town (Oct. 7, 1947)

Complaining that William A. Wellman’s Magic Town is built on a faulty premise is kind of like complaining that Cadbury Creme Eggs are too sweet, but I’m going to do it anyway.

Magic Town, which is written by frequent Frank Capra collaborator Robert Riskin, is about a public opinion pollster named Lawrence “Rip” Smith (James Stewart) whose small polling company has just gone out of business because of high overhead costs. To stay afloat, Rip starts looking for a mathematical miracle in order to conduct public opinion polls without nationwide coverage.

He finds the shortcut he’s been looking for in a little town called Grandview.

You see, Grandview has the exact same distribution of Republicans and Democrats, men and women, old and young, farmers and laborers, and so on, as the nation as a whole. In other words, Grandview thinks exactly the same way the entire United States does. Instead of exhaustive telephone polling of representative swaths of the nation, all Rip will need to do is find out what people in Grandview think, and he’ll be able to extrapolate the results.

The catch is that the people of Grandview can’t know what Rip is up to, otherwise they’ll become self-conscious, and it’ll kill the goose that lays golden eggs. So Rip and his partners, Ike (Ned Sparks) and Mr. Twiddle (Donald Meek), head for Grandview, where they pass themselves off as insurance men from Hartford, Connecticut. They’ll engage in stealth polling, pretending to offer insurance policies while they’re really making note of the current issues the citizens of Grandview are all too willing to sound off about.

Rip’s plan hits a snag as soon as he hits town, where he reconnects with an old friend from his days in the service — Mr. Hoopendecker (Kent Smith) — who is now principal of Grandview High School. The snag is pretty local girl Mary Peterman (Jane Wyman), who’s a civic crusader, and is constantly pushing to modernize the town and build a new civic center.

Rip’s “perfect” town and its “perfect” demographics can’t be altered in any way for his covert polling operation to work, so he opposes Mary’s plans. He tells the city council that Grandview is “A sturdy challenge to the evils of the modern era.” He encourages them not to modernize anything and not to change anything.

And herein lies the problem, and the reason I said that Magic Town is built on a faulty premise. Grandview supposedly perfectly mirrors the demographics of the United States as a whole, but it’s consistently represented as an idyllic Utopia, unchanging, and a refuge from the outside world. (It’s also oddly free of blacks and Jews.)

So Magic Town is less about a town that represents America in miniature than it is about one of the most enduring American myths — the sanctity and perfection of small-town life. Grandview doesn’t represent what America actually is, it’s what America wishes it was.

Rip finds happiness in Grandview. He and Mary fall in love. He and Hoopendecker relive old times. Rip coaches the boys’ basketball team and turns them into winners.

All this could have been funny, romantic, and charming, but the film persists with its idiotic plot about opinion polling. Eventually Mary finds out what Rip is really up to and “outs” him in the press. There follows a nationwide rush to move to this “mathematically perfect” town. The civic center is approved and the citizens of Grandview become full of themselves and start forming and selling their own opinions.

And just as Rip predicted, their self-consciousness destroys everything, and results in the following newspaper headline: “GRANDVIEW COMPLETES FIRST POLL. 79% Favor Woman for President. ‘RESULT RIDICULOUS!’ SAYS EXPERT.”

All the newcomers move out of the now not-so-magic town, but things don’t go back to normal. Grandview is in shambles, and it’s up to Rip to fix things.

Despite the weak story, I enjoyed all of the actors in Magic Town, especially Stewart. He’s been parodied and impersonated so many times that it’s easy to forget what a good actor he was. He didn’t always play good guys, but when he did, no one projected the same kind of sweetness, generosity, and earnestness.

Magic Town is sort of a “greatest hits” compilation of earlier, better films that Stewart starred in. There’s the same celebration of small-town life found in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and there’s even a scene in which Stewart gives an impassioned speech while being supported by a bunch of kids, just like in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). It’s nowhere near as good as either of those films, but it’s not without its modest pleasures, as long as you don’t think about it too hard.

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.