King Solomon’s Mines (1950)
Directed by Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton
King Solomon’s Mines was the first Hollywood production to be filmed in Africa since the disastrous Trader Horn in 1931.
Trader Horn made a tidy profit at the box office, but the actual shooting was fraught with danger, disease, and even death. The leading lady, Edwina Booth, contracted a serious illness that forced her to retire from acting, and she sued MGM, who settled with her out of court.
So MGM was naturally hesitant to mount another massive production shot on location in Africa, but King Solomon’s Mines was a gamble that paid off. Not only is it a beautifully shot, well-acted, and exciting film, it was a massive financial success, and was MGM’s most popular release of 1950.
It’s been awhile since I’ve read H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 novel, King Solomon’s Mines, but this film version felt very different to me from its source material, and mostly in ways that I liked.
The most obvious change from the novel is the gender switch of one of the main characters to allow for a female lead. In the novel, a safari leader named Allan Quatermain is hired by a British aristocrat, Sir Henry Curtis, who wishes to find his brother who went missing while searching for the mythical treasure of King Solomon in uncharted regions of southern Africa.
The film version instead features a character named Elizabeth Curtis, whose husband is missing. She’s played by the red-haired Scottish actress Deborah Kerr.
Allan Quatermain is played by the English actor Stewart Granger. The role was originally offered to Errol Flynn, but he balked at the rigorous location shooting and turned it down in favor of appearing in Kim (1950), an adaptation of the novel by Rudyard Kipling. That film was shot in India, but the actors didn’t have to rough it, and stayed in a resort, where presumably Flynn could continue drinking himself to death in comfortable surroundings.
The gender switch is an obvious change, but it’s the overall tone of the film that I thought was the biggest shift from Haggard’s novel. The novel is a rousing Victorian adventure story, while the film is much more of a travelogue. In fact, one of the most common complaints about King Solomon’s Mines from modern viewers is that it’s “boring,” and has very little of the type of action they expect from an adventure story.
Which version you prefer depends upon your personal taste, but I personally loved this film. After so many years of “Africa” in Hollywood films being depicted as a jungle set on a sound stage, seeing the actual landscapes of Uganda, Kenya, and the Congo was a revelation. This is a stunningly beautiful film, and Robert L. Surtees’s Oscar for best color cinematography was well-deserved.
King Solomon’s Mines premiered on November 9, 1950, in New York, and went into wide release on November 24.
Dial 1119 (1950)
Directed by Gerald Mayer
Dial 1119 is an exceedingly well-made B-movie. It’s suspenseful, well-acted, and holds up extremely well. You don’t have to be a fan of film noirs or “old movies” to enjoy this one. As long as you can tolerate watching movies shot in black & white, Dial 1119 will keep you on the edge of your seat for its brief running time of 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Dial 1119 takes place in the fictional burg of “Terminal City,” where an insane young man named Gunther Wyckoff (Marshall Thompson) has come in search of his psychiatrist, Dr. John D. Faron (Sam Levene). The title refers to the police, fire, and ambulance emergency number that exists in the world of the film. (Although a nationwide emergency phone number was proposed in the 1950s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that 9-1-1 became the standard in North America.)
Wyckoff is a convicted murderer who has escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane. Dr. Faron’s testimony kept Wyckoff from going to the electric chair, but the young man is clearly deeply disturbed. He is obsessed with war, death, and murder, and is a deadly threat to anyone who crosses his path.
After stealing a pistol and killing a bus driver, Wyckoff goes in search of Dr. Faron. When he finds his office closed for the night, he crosses the street to the Oasis Bar, where he holes up and takes hostages.
It’s surprising how current many aspects of Dial 1119 feel — like hostages watching their own predicament on TV. All the chime-in Charlies blathering into a reporter’s microphone about what they’d do if they were in the same situation will feel eerily familiar to anyone who’s read comments on an article on the internet.
Also, if you’re used to television sets in movies from the 1950s with screens that are the size of a postage stamp, brace yourself for the biggest TV screen you will see in a movie from 1950. The bartender at the Oasis, Chuckles (William Conrad), has a TV that’s so large and flat that it almost looks like a modern hi-def set. He mentions at one point in the film that he paid $1,400 for the television set, and then complains that for all the money he paid it still only shows crummy westerns and professional wrestling. Replace “westerns” with “reality shows” and this movie could take place in 2016.
One of the things I especially loved about Dial 1119 was how much of the story is told without dialogue or music. We watch the actors’ nervous eyes and sweating faces, and we know exactly what they’re thinking. The score by André Previn is great, but it’s used very sparingly, and never tells the audience how to feel. The actors’ performances and Gerald Mayer’s deft direction tell us everything we need to know.
Dial 1119 has a low budget and was obviously shot as a second feature, but M-G-M productions were always glossy, nicely lensed affairs, even when they were “B” flicks.
Devil’s Doorway (1950)
Directed by Anthony Mann
The great director Anthony Mann worked in a lot of different genres, but he’s most revered today for his noirs and his westerns.
Mann directed three westerns that were released in 1950. Winchester ’73 was the first one released in theaters, but he finished shooting both The Furies and Devil’s Doorway before starting work on Winchester ’73 with star James Stewart.
Winchester ’73 was far and away the most successful, and it’s still a favorite of western fans. (Mann and Stewart also went on to make several more highly regarded westerns together.) Devil’s Doorway remains the least widely seen.
There are a lot of reasons for film fans — particularly western fans — to see Devil’s Doorway. It breaks the traditional mold of the western by having heroes who are Native Americans and villains who are white settlers. It’s well written, tightly paced, and beautifully shot. It was also the last movie Mann made with cinematographer John Alton, who shot some of Mann’s greatest films, including T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and Border Incident (1949).
Like he did in Border Incident, Alton turns wide open spaces, big skies, and towering western mountain ranges into dark, oppressive spaces that seem to be closing in on the tiny humans who inhabit them. Devil’s Doorway is one of the best-looking black & white westerns I’ve ever seen.
My one real problem with Devil’s Doorway, and it’s a big one, is the casting of Robert Taylor as “Broken Lance” Poole, a Shoshone who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Poole is a Medal of Honor winner who returns home to find that the land where he grazes his cattle is going to be overrun by homesteaders and sheepmen. Poole petitions to homestead his own land, but his petition is rejected because he is not an American citizen, but rather a “ward of the government.”
Hollywood has a long history of casting white actors to play non-white characters, especially if they are the lead of a film. And in this respect Devil’s Doorway is no different from the other big western released in 1950 with Native American heroes, Broken Arrow, which starred Jeff Chandler as Cochise. But I found Robert Taylor especially bad. At the time of filming, Taylor was pushing 40, but he looks a decade older. He also looks not at all Native American. At least he doesn’t put on a goofy accent or speak in pidgin English, but he still looks completely wrong for the role. When I was watching him, I couldn’t stop thinking about Jon Lovitz playing Tonto on old episodes of Saturday Night Live.
Aside from the presence of a miscast and aging matinee idol as its protagonist, Devil’s Doorway is a powerful western drama with beautiful cinematography and some stunning battle sequences. It’s definitely worth seeing, along with Mann’s other westerns.
Mystery Street (1950)
Directed by John Sturges
“Mystery Street” is too generic a title for this groundbreaking crime thriller.
To me, Mystery Street sounds like one of those mystery programmers from the ’30s and ’40s designed to run as a second feature — perhaps featuring Charlie Chan or The Crime Doctor.
But with its focus on forensic investigation, Mystery Street is an innovative police procedural. Only its title is run-of-the-mill. If you’re a fan of TV shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Bones, make some time to watch this movie, and see where the genre got its start.
In the post-war years, “reality” entertainment was king. The “ripped-from-the-headlines” police procedurals that are still all over TV kicked off with the film He Walked by Night (1948) and the radio show Dragnet, which began broadcasting in 1949 and quickly inspired a slew of imitators.
Mystery Street follows the established formula of the police procedural, but focuses on the process of forensic investigation. When Lieutenant Peter Morales (Ricardo Montalban) is assigned to a murder case with no clues — only skeletal remains that have washed up on the beach — he turns to Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett) of Harvard Medical School. (Incidentally, Mystery Street was also the first Hollywood film to shoot in Boston and Cambridge, MA.)
Discriminating fans of CSI will enjoy the outlandish example Dr. McAddoo gives Lt. Morales when he explains the kinds of crimes forensic science can solve: a seemingly open-and-shut murder case that turned out to be a combination of a bloody nose, a paroxysmal seizure, and a head injury caused by a fall. (It only looked like the woman’s husband had beaten her to death.)
Mystery Street is a stylish and very entertaining noir. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story. I think it would make a great double bill with Border Incident (1949), another film that starred Ricardo Montalban when he was first establishing himself in Hollywood. He’s a compelling and charismatic leading man, and it’s fun to watch him before he was a household name.
According to Wikipedia, Mystery Street lost money at the box office, which is a shame, because it’s a great little flick. Maybe a better title would have helped?
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Directed by John Huston
I love heist stories. True or fictional, filmed or written; it doesn’t matter. Any tale of a well-planned robbery is catnip to me.
But like any connoisseur, I’m picky. Reading about real-life heists has made me dislike overly complicated fictional heists, like the wackiness on display in the Ocean’s Eleven films. Real-life heists — at least the ones that work — usually involve the smallest possible number of people, and the simplest possible method to get in and get out.
Heist films (and novels) invariably follow the same plot structure. It’s a story in three parts; the planning stages, the heist itself, and the aftermath. The heist itself can take many forms, and it’s always exciting to see a heist that’s creative and fresh, but the overall story is usually as rigidly structured as a haiku.
I also love the heist film’s ability to implicitly or even explicitly comment on America’s capitalist economic system. A group of skilled professionals joining forces to expertly and efficiently make off with the biggest possible haul of cash or saleable goods has resonance in a society that values the almighty dollar over nearly anything else, and in which “legitimate” business endeavors often cross the line that separates the legal from the illegal.
This is addressed explicitly in The Asphalt Jungle. When May Emmerich (Dorothy Tree) says to her husband, Alonzo, “When I think of all those awful people you come in contact with — downright criminals — I get scared.” Emmerich calmly replies to his wife, “Oh, there’s nothing so different about them. After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.”
Emmerich is the “money man” behind the scheme in The Asphalt Jungle. He’s a wealthy attorney who is outwardly legitimate, but is privately bankrolling a heist led and planned by the recently paroled Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe).
In addition to Jaffe and Calhern, the main players in The Asphalt Jungle are Sterling Hayden as the ruthless career criminal Dix Handley, who provides the muscle on the job; Jean Hagen as “Doll,” Dix’s friend and potential love interest; Anthony Caruso as the safe-cracker, Louis Ciavelli; James Whitmore as the driver, Gus; veteran character actor Marc Lawrence as “Cobby,” the bookie who helps coordinate the heist; and of course the luminous Marilyn Monroe, who was just beginning her career in Hollywood, as Emmerich’s young mistress, Angela Phinlay.
Every actor in The Asphalt Jungle plays their part perfectly, which is one of the many reasons this is a film I never get tired of watching.
John Huston is at the top of his game here, and not just in terms of directing his actors. Huston and his cinematographer, Harold Rosson, created something that is really beautiful to look at. Nearly every shot in the film is a masterpiece of framing and lighting. Also, the decision to only use Miklós Rózsa’s score at the beginning and end of the film was a really smart decision. Film scores are often the single element that dates the worst, and even though I love Rózsa’s high-tension scores for noir classics like The Killers (1946) and Brute Force (1947), the absence of a score for most of its running time gives The Asphalt Jungle a sense of documentary realism.
The script for The Asphalt Jungle by Huston and Ben Maddow (based on the novel by W.R. Burnett), is great. It’s full of rich, quotable dialogue. The plot is tightly constructed, but complicated enough that more than one viewing of the film is necessary to see everything that’s going on.
The majority of the film was shot in Los Angeles, mostly in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, but it takes place somewhere in the Middle West. The opening shots of The Asphalt Jungle were filmed in Cincinnati, although the city in which the film takes place is never identified. All we know is that it’s a small city in the middle of the country that’s driving distance from Kentucky and is probably not Chicago.
The Asphalt Jungle is a groundbreaking heist film. There were plenty of movies about crime and criminals made in the first half of the 20th century, going all the way back to the short film The Great Train Robbery (1903), but The Asphalt Jungle changed the game.
The Killers (1946), White Heat (1949), and Gun Crazy (1950) all detailed well-planned robberies, but we really didn’t see much of the robberies themselves. The Asphalt Jungle depicts its heist from start to finish in ways that pushed the envelope of the Hays Code’s rules about depictions of criminal enterprise.
I’m not sure if we’ll see a heist this meticulously detailed again for a few years, until Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) (which also stars Sterling Hayden and takes a lot of cues from The Asphalt Jungle).
But The Asphalt Jungle is an important heist film not just because of its detailed depiction of a well-planned robbery. It’s an important heist film because its intricate plotting, well-drawn characters, and believable depiction of a professional criminal underworld created a template that is still being followed decades later in films like Thief (1981), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Heat (1995), and Inception (2010).
On the Town (1949)
Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly
For me, On the Town is joy. Pure joy.
I loved the first film Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly made together, Anchors Aweigh (1945). I also enjoyed their second collaboration, Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), but On the Town is the enduring classic of the bunch. It takes everything that worked about their previous two pairings and adds more comedy and a dizzying parade of New York City locations.
Normally musicals aren’t my favorite genre, but I love Gene Kelly’s dancing (who doesn’t?) and I love Frank Sinatra’s singing (I know not everyone does, but if you don’t, let’s just agree to disagree), so Anchors Aweigh was a pleasant surprise when I first watched it several years ago.
Since then, I’ve warmed up to the Technicolor musical extravaganzas of the 1940s. Musicals still aren’t my thing, but the candy-colored singing and dancing spectacles from Hollywood’s golden age are extremely impressive. At their best, like On the Town, they weave a magic spell that enthralls even a curmudgeon like me.
On the Town stars Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin as Gabey, Chip, and Ozzie, a trio of sailors who have 24 hours of shore leave to tear through New York City and paint the town red.
Chip is waylaid by an amorous cab driver with the unlikely name of “Brunhilde Esterhazy.” She’s played by Betty Garrett. It’s similar to the man-crazy character she played in Take Me Out to the Ball Game, but her pursuit of Frank Sinatra in On the Town hits sexually suggestive heights that were only hinted at in Take Me Out to the Ball Game. All Chip wants to do is tour New York, from the Bronx to the Battery and everywhere in between, but Brunhilde responds to every single one of his touristy suggestions with an emphatic counteroffer, “Come up to my place!”
Ozzie is pursued by a beautiful anthropologist named Claire Huddesen, who’s played by Ann Miller, whose dancing I found mesmerizing. She thinks Ozzie is a perfect example of “primitive man,” and wants to study him. The song and dance routine in the Museum of Natural History treats anthropology as the study of “ooga booga” stuff, which is potentially offensive in these more enlightened times, but I found it all tongue-in-cheek enough to be entertaining.
And finally, Gabey is overtaken by romantic infatuation when he falls in love with a girl named Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen). She is “Miss Turnstiles of the Month,” and Gabey assumes she’s the biggest celebrity in the city, since her face is plastered all over every subway car. (Incidentally, “Miss Turnstiles” is an obvious play on Miss Subways, which was a real program that featured women on New York City subways from 1941 to 1976. I looked at a bunch of the posters the last time I was at the New York City Transit Museum.)
On the Town is based on a Broadway play that premiered in 1944. The book and lyrics were by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with music by Leonard Bernstein, based on an idea by Jerome Robbins. There’s a bit in the film that pays tribute to the original play, when Gene Kelly imagines his New York adventures set to music on stage, and it’s a wonderful moment that focuses solely on choreography.
On the Town is an exuberant romp that had me smiling from beginning to end. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a movie so unreservedly.
Side Street (1949)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell memorably played young lovers on the run in director Nicholas Ray’s debut film, They Live by Night (1948).
They were reunited in Side Street, a twisty little crime caper directed by the great Anthony Mann.
Side Street isn’t a grand tragedy on the level of They Live by Night. O’Donnell’s role is much smaller and she and Granger play a quietly happy young married couple, not archetypal tragic lovers. But it’s definitely worth seeing. It’s a great crime movie with memorable characters and a lot of wonderful footage of New York City.
It’s also the last in a string of tough, violent, and exceedingly well-made film noirs from Mann, who previously directed Desperate (1947), T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and Border Incident (1949), among others.
After Side Street, Mann would go on to tackle a variety of genres, although in 1950 he exclusively made westerns — Winchester ’73, The Furies, and Devil’s Doorway.
I always have more movies on my “to watch” list than I can realistically make time for, and I almost passed over Side Street. But then I looked it up and saw that it was directed by Anthony Mann, and I had to watch it. I love Mann’s sensibility, and his films are always really well-paced and full of suspense. Side Street is no exception, and if it doesn’t have the stature of some of his other noirs, it’s just because they’re so good that his “lesser” works sometimes get lost in the shuffle.
Mann did some of his best-known work with cinematographer John Alton, but Joseph Ruttenberg, who shot Side Street, was also extremely talented, and he has a lot of high-profile classics on his résumé, like The Philadelphia Story (1940), Mrs. Miniver (1942), and Gaslight (1944).
Side Street looks absolutely fantastic. The interiors live and breathe with complicated interplays of light and shadows. The exteriors are mostly shot on location in New York. Not only does Ruttenberg’s exterior shooting look great, it’s a chance to see a great deal of the city as it existed in 1949, including things that are gone now, like the elevated train tracks in Manhattan.
The story and screenplay of Side Street were written by Sydney Boehm. It’s a relatively simple story about a mailman named Joe Norson (Farley Granger) who sees an opportunity to pilfer a large sum of money and takes it. His wife, Ellen Norson (Cathy O’Donnell) is pregnant with their first child, and he thinks a lump sum of cash is their ticket to the good life. Of course, the person he steals money from is a crooked lawyer with his fingers in the underworld, and Joe’s life quickly spirals out of control as he is hunted by extremely dangerous people while lying to his wife about where he got the money.
All the actors are great, and their characters seem like real people; Edmon Ryan as the shady lawyer, James Craig as his brutal enforcer, Charles McGraw and Paul Kelly as NYPD detectives, and Adele Jergens as a seductress who is part of a honey-pot blackmail scheme. I liked all the actors, but my absolute favorite was Jean Hagen (recently seen in Adam’s Rib), who plays a cynical nightclub singer and B-girl. Her scene with Farley Granger involves him buying drinks to get information out of her, and she delivers her digressive dialogue perfectly as she very convincingly portrays slowly building intoxication. Like Gloria Grahame in Crossfire (1947), she expresses a lifetime of experience, most of it bad.
Everything about Side Street holds up well, and I recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a twisty thriller. Aside from the black and white cinematography, the only thing that might rankle modern viewers is Paul Kelly’s intrusive voiceover, but that was a pretty standard feature of police dramas in the late 1940s.
I especially liked that Farley Granger’s character wasn’t an innocent victim of circumstance. He makes a very clear decision to break the law, but it’s the kind of crime of opportunity most of us have probably considered at least once in our lives.
What would happen if we walked into an empty, unlocked house and poked around? What would happen if we took a joyride in an unattended car with the motor running? What would happen if we swiped an envelope we know is full of cash? Side Street presents a worst-case-scenario answer to that question in a way that’s labyrinthine but fairly believable. Highly recommended.
Directed by John Berry
I recently did an MGM double bill and watched John Berry’s Tension right after I watched George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib (1949).
After the wit, charm, and progressive gender politics of Adam’s Rib, I was turned off by the first reel of Tension and its tale of infidelity and murder. Audrey Totter is the classic femme fatale with no motivation, backstory, or realistic psychology. She’s just bad because she wants to be.
Ditto for her nebbishy husband played by Richard Basehart, who puts up with being cuckolded to such a ridiculous degree that I wanted to reach into the movie, slap him around, and tell him to stop deluding himself and just get a divorce, already.
But after the plot took one crazy turn after another, Tension totally won me over. The plotting is byzantine but never confusing, the performances are all solid, Allen Rivkin’s screenplay (based on a story by John D. Klorer) is clever and engaging, the score by André Previn is terrific, and the film offers a chance to see the lovely Cyd Charisse in a rare non-dancing role. Also, as an MGM production, Tension looks absolutely fantastic, and features a lot of great location shooting in and around Los Angeles.
Richard Basehart brings the same chameleonic everyman qualities to his role in Tension that he brought to his role in He Walked by Night (1948). Unlike that film, however, Basehart isn’t a trigger-happy sociopath in Tension, he’s just an average guy who changes his appearance to commit murder after he’s pushed to the edge by his cheating wife.
Basehart plays a pharmacist named Warren Quimby who works the night shift to make enough money to buy a house in the suburbs for himself and his wife, Claire (Audrey Totter). Unfortunately, she’s as faithless as the day is long, and she runs off with a hairy, knuckle-dragging he-man named Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough).
After Barney Deager beats the tar out of Warren Quimby when he confronts Deager and his wife on the beach, Quimby vows revenge. He gets a pair of contact lenses to change his appearance and moves into an apartment under an assumed name. By creating a person who doesn’t exist, he thinks he’ll be able to murder Barney Deager and get away with it.
Events quickly spiral out of Quimby’s control, as they tend to in film noirs.
He falls for his pretty neighbor, Mary Chanler (Cyd Charisse), who falls even harder for him, his murder plot goes badly awry, and before he knows it, he’s in up to his neck as a dogged pair of homicide detectives played by Barry Sullivan and William Conrad are on his trail.
Tension isn’t exactly a realistic film, but it’s one of the most fun and twistiest noirs I’ve seen in a long time.
Adam’s Rib (1949)
Directed by George Cukor
I haven’t seen all the movies Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made together, but of the ones I have seen, Adam’s Rib is easily my favorite. It’s hard to imagine a better vehicle for their talents.
In Adam’s Rib they play a married couple, Adam and Amanda Bonner, who are both lawyers. The Bonners have a loving marriage, but they’re both prickly and opinionated, and when they end up in the same courtroom on opposing sides of an attempted murder case, their quietly simmering battle of the sexes becomes a full-blown war. (Tracy and Hepburn were a couple in real life, but they were never married. Tracy was separated from his wife, but his Catholic faith precluded a divorce.)
Before Adam’s Rib, Hepburn and Tracy had appeared together in George Stevens’s Woman of the Year (1942), George Cukor’s Keeper of the Flame (1942), Harold S. Bucquet’s Without Love (1945), Elia Kazan’s The Sea of Grass (1947), and Frank Capra’s State of the Union (1948).
The director of Adam’s Rib, George Cukor, directed one of my favorite films from 1947, A Double Life. He is probably most famous for directing The Philadelphia Story (1940), which starred Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart.
Adam’s Rib was written by the same husband-and-wife team who wrote the screenplay for A Double Life, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon. (Ruth Gordon also acted, and had memorable turns as an older actress in Rosemary’s Baby and Harold and Maude.)
I loved A Double Life, but it’s a dark psychological drama about murder and madness, and couldn’t be more different from Adam’s Rib, which is an effervescent comedy, so it was fun to see the same writers and director making an equally good film about a completely different subject.
Adam’s Rib is not just a yuk-fest. While I laughed a lot, its take on gender relations is thought-provoking stuff; not only because it’s so different from most other Hollywood movies of the time, but because so much of it is still relevant.
Society may be less forgiving of male infidelity nowadays, but double standards are still rife. There’s a great scene early in the film in which Amanda Bonner asks her secretary, Grace (Eve March), why infidelity is “not nice” if it’s a man stepping out but “something terrible” if a woman does it.
Her secretary shrugs and says, “I don’t make the rules.” Hepburn responds, “Sure you do, we all do.”
The acknowledgement that we are all complicit in creating standards of “male” and “female” behavior is rare in motion pictures today, and was even rarer mid-century.
I also loved all the subtle bits in the film, like when a shot of the exterior of the courthouse implies that Amanda Bonner’s client may not — as a woman — get a fair trial.
The woman in question is Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday), a ditzy simpleton who emptied a revolver in the general direction of her husband, Warren Attinger (Tom Ewell), and her husband’s mistress, Beryl Caighn (Jean Hagen). She wounded her husband, and is on trial for attempted murder.
Assistant District Attorney Adam Bonner pulls the case and prepares to prosecute Mrs. Attinger, but his wife, Amanda Bonner, begins to needle him about the specifics. When he decides he’s had enough and tells her he hates it when she gets “all cause-y,” it’s the last straw, and she offers her services as a defense attorney to Mrs. Attinger.
One thing I loved about the film was how well Tracy and Hepburn were able to convey their physical tenderness toward each other even when they were arguing. The Bonners are an extremely believable married couple, which is rare to see in the movies.
The supporting cast are all good, although David Wayne’s performance as the Bonners’ amorous across-the-hall neighbor was a little campy and over-the-top for my taste.
Still, this is a great film, and a truly funny and highly literate comedy. Adam’s Rib is a sure bet for my list of the best films of 1949.
Directed by William A. Wellman
A lot of reviews of Battleground claim it was the first World War II movie to portray servicemen as fully human characters who experience fear and doubt, and not just as inspirational patriotic figures.
Whoever thinks this has probably not seen very many World War II movies made between 1941 and 1945. While Americans have never been great at understanding our enemies, we have always been good at exploring the vulnerability, fears, and doubts that our own soldiers experience in combat. Everything from Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895) to Lewis Milestone’s film version of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) presented nuanced views of men under fire.
During World War II, Hollywood films about the war tended to lionize servicemen and depict America’s involvement as vitally necessary, but the better ones, like Mervyn LeRoy’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) (with script by Dalton Trumbo), were also great human dramas.
A Walk in the Sun was directed by Lewis Milestone, the man who directed All Quiet on the Western Front. It attempts to depict the mind of the American infantryman, through both dialogue and rambling internal monologues (a technique Terrence Malick would later use in The Thin Red Line). In keeping with the POV of the soldiers, the viewer is kept mostly in the dark about the larger significance of the violence, which punctuates the film in terrifying and confusing bursts.
The Story of G.I. Joe starred Burgess Meredith as embedded combat reporter Ernie Pyle and co-starred Robert Mitchum as the commanding officer of Company C, 18th Infantry. It was directed by William A. Wellman, the man who directed Battleground. Just like Battleground, the scenes of violence were swift and brutal, but the focus for most of the film was on the infantrymen themselves, and the boredom, extreme physical discomfort, and drudgery punctuated by fear that everyone who serves in combat experiences. Also like Battleground, most of the extras in The Story of G.I. Joe were actual soldiers who had served in combat.
The big studios dumped most of their existing war movies in theaters not long after V-E Day and V-J Day in 1945, rightly assuming that the public had little interest in war movies once the war was over. In the few years that followed, plenty of movies dealt with veterans’ homecomings (The Best Years of Our Lives, released in 1946, was the finest of these films), but I’m hard pressed to think of any American films from this period that directly dealt with the experience of combat. The only one I can think of is Mervyn LeRoy’s Homecoming (1948), but all of the fighting in that film was just the backdrop for a passionate and illicit romance between Clark Gable and Lana Turner.
So Battleground was unique in that it was a return to films about World War II that focused on the combat experience. Producer Dore Schary brought the project with him to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer when he left RKO Radio Pictures. It was a passion project for him, and he really had to fight to get it to the screen, since MGM head Louis B. Mayer believed that the public was still tired of war films.
Schary’s persistence paid off. His tribute to the “battered bastards of Bastogne” was a huge hit with audiences, and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. (It took home two Oscars, one for Best Story and Screenplay, and one for Best Cinematography, Black & White.)
As I said earlier, Battleground is firmly in the tradition of humanistic portraits of ordinary soldiers like The Story of G.I. Joe and A Walk in the Sun, but it does go further than any films made during World War II depicting how scared many ordinary infantrymen really were, and how strongly they could desire to be far, far away from the fighting.
One character in Battleground is counting the days until he rotates out of the Army, and is furious when he’s told that they’re surrounded by the Germans, and he’s not going anywhere. But typically of the film, he steels his courage and eventually manages to make jokes about how the Germans are committing war crimes by shooting at him, a civilian. Another character has a full set of false teeth, which he loses and then tries to be given medical leave for a few days. (That character is played by Douglas Fowley, who really did lose his teeth in an explosion while serving on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.)
At one point in the film, two soldiers retreat and have to leave behind a wounded man, who hides himself from the Germans by crawling under the wreck of a jeep and covering himself with snow. The film never depicts any of the men’s acts as cowardly; they are badly outnumbered, and doing anything else would have been suicide for all of them.
The Oscar-winning screenplay of Battleground was written by Robert Pirosh, who served as a master sergeant with the 35th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge. Pirosh based his script partly on his own experiences, but the film details the exploits of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, so Lt. Col. Harry Kinnard, who had been the deputy divisional commander of the 101st at Bastogne, served as technical advisor. More than a dozen veterans of the 101st appeared as extras in the film and worked with the actors to ensure accuracy. (The film is relatively accurate except for a plot about German soldiers moving through the lines who are disguised as Allied soldiers, but this can be forgiven in the interest of creating suspense and tension. It is, after all, “only a movie.”)
The actors are all great, and many of them had actually served in combat. James Whitmore, who plays Sgt. Kinnie and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role, served in the Marine Corps in World War II. James Arness, who would go on to star in the 20-year run of Gunsmoke on TV, has a small role in the film, and was the most decorated soldier among the cast. (Arness was severely wounded at Anzio, and received the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the World War II Victory Medal, the Combat Infantryman Badge, and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronze battle stars.)
Consequently, Battleground is one of the most authentic World War II movies you will ever see, even though it might not seem that way to a viewer who has been weaned on the bloody CGI horrors of 21st-century war movies. However, if you’re conversant in the language of film, and can read what is being written on and off the screen, there’s one sequence that’s as brutal as anything you’ll ever see in a war film. Our heroes are surprised by German troops and in a fast-moving sequence, Ricardo Montalban rips a German soldier’s throat out with his teeth, Van Johnson stabs a German soldier to death with his bayonet, and John Hodiak bashes in the skull of a German soldier with the stock of his rifle.
I’ve read reviews of Battleground that refer to it as an “anti-war film.” I don’t know if this point of view springs from Steven Spielberg’s ridiculous assertion, made around the time that the philosophically incoherent Saving Private Ryan (1998) was released, that “every war movie, good or bad, is an anti-war movie,” but it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Although very few Hollywood films can simply be called “pro-war” films, a truly “anti-war” film would have to condemn any kind of armed conflict and celebrate pacifism as a viable and noble alternative. A truly “anti-war” film could not depict death and destruction in a highly aestheticized way, like Apocalypse Now (1979). And it could not celebrate the value of brotherhood under fire, as do Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down (2001). No film that celebrates soldiers nobly putting their lives on the line for the greater good can ever be called an “anti-war movie,” any more than The Passion of the Christ (2004) can by called an “anti-crucifixion movie.”
I’m not condemning Battleground because it’s not an anti-war movie. I even thought the short, moving scene in which an Army chaplain explains why he thinks America’s involvement in the war is vitally necessary was one of the best bits of the movie.
But today is Memorial Day, and I think it’s worth considering, as we honor the sacrifice of people who laid down their lives overseas, that no war movie can ever replicate the experience of combat. No matter how realistic, the viewer is watching from a position of safety. And every war film is a tale told by survivors. The dead no longer have a voice.