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Archive for the ‘PERIOD: WWI’ Category

Mata Hari

25 Jan

Mata Hari – directed by George Fitzmaurice. Turgid Melodrama. 89 minutes Black and White 1931.

★★★★★

The Story: A beautiful spy sleeps with and plans to run off with the enemy.

It’s quite stupid. The writing is scenically dead. But no scene in which Garbo ever appeared is dead. Each scene is perfervidly alive. She is 24 yet she is older and wiser than anyone else in the neighborhood, which includes, as usual, Lewis Stone, who is quite inert, as he often was playing opposite her. Stone has the George-Brent-foible of imagining that to come alive opposite a female star would be to pull the rug out from under her, not realizing that great female stars depend on the surprising and advantageous occasion slipping rugs provide. His woodenness is at one with the balsa of the script.

So here we have her already in power as the fatal woman who drives men wild and who  murmurs to their adavances, “Later.” Lionel Barrymore is one such dumbstruck dumb cluck, and sweet Ramon Navarro is the antidote to him. He’s a Russian pilot carrying messages back and forth to Moscow. She is a spy intent on intercepting them. Barrymore is the military go-between betraying his nation. It all takes place in Paris, and Garbo dances, or, one should say, prances about in skin-tight, gold, toreador pants. Indeed she is never without weird far-Eastern rigs and odd chapeaux. To see them is not to believe them. She is more manly than any of the men. Which is maybe why they throw themselves at her glittering boots. From whose vicinity she nudges them humorously aside.

Mata Hari, in the film (although not in real life, for she was married and the mother of two and over forty) was a woman alone, as was Garbo, and Garbo frequently played such women, women getting by through superior intelligence, daring strategies, consummate allure. Whatever tools that come to hand to promote their survival, her characters seize upon with the ready address of a hardened feminist. Garbo almost never plays a mother. Is almost never actually married, and never happily. In her roles she sleeps her way to the top or has done so. In the enneagram Garbo, a high Virgo, would be not a sexual or social, but a survival type. And perhaps her screenwriters were helpless not to conspire with her vaunted solitude and yet, in blind addiction made role after role of that solitude, a corset that limited her to the range of the isolate. MGM kept her playing these fallen women, fallen, though somehow still unavailable.

This sort of part, Mata Hari, was crazy for Garbo to do, but maybe she felt it would be a change of pace. After all, she was the top actress, the top moneymaker at the top studio. Adrian was doing the things, Douglas Shearer was recording it, Cedric Gibbons was to design it. The director had a reputation for taste and being good with women – yet Mata Hari is not well directed, and the continuity is lousy. But, of course, that is not the point, for it was extremely well filmed – by William Daniels, whose great lighting created her, for herself and for us. This is the period when Garbo does not let anyone on the set, including the crew. The scene is surrounded by black screens. Occasionally Thalberg alone stood far off in the shadows. He watched in admiration, amazement and respect, as we do to this day. Yes, the story is preposterous. But watch it and see how Garbo conjures something out of nothing. Into this grotesque shell of a production, this pearl.

 

Battleground

05 Jul

Battleground – directed by William A. Wellman. WW II Drama. A platoon experiences The Battle Of The Bulge. 118 minutes Black and White 1949.

★★★★★

Paul C. Vogel won an Oscar for photographing it, and Robert Pirosh’s script won one too, and they both deserve it. For this is a wonderful war picture in just those ways, the outlying ways, rather than the performance ways or the direction ways. Whoever was assigned the mise-en-scene deserved one too, for the snow and dirt and fog and filth are convincing and important in determining the grand irony of the Tolstoyan story which tells of a platoon of men in a great battle, none of those men knowing that it is a great battle, none of them knowing if it is a battle at all, none of them knowing even what country they are in. They move in one direction and lie down and fire their guns; they dig foxholes; no sooner are they dug-in than they have to get on their feet and move in another direction. They have no sense of a plan, or who is giving these orders, or why. They shoot at the enemy without patriotism and they lie back in the snow for a flicker of rest without repose. A great deal of the time is spent waiting, scrounging, scratching. I don’t know the time-line of this piece, but it was released in 1949 or 1950 depending on where you look, and this was six years after the events described, which is The Battle of the Bulge at Bastogne in World War II. The principal players are excellent, with Van Johnson as the loud playboy, John Hodiak as a GI with some breeding, and James Whitmore as the Sargeant. (Whitmore never breaks stride with his frost-bitten limp once he adopts it, which is a tribute to his craft.) But the little moments of the picture are as telling as the characters. One wants to know what is going to happen to them rather than who they are, which is just fine, but their walking around a dead body without comment, the disarray of their combat clothes, the pile of galoshes that don’t fit — these make the film a wonder and a reward. I have been in a war and carried an M-1, and the attitudes of survival shown here are real. Besides that, it was a big hit.

 

Objective, Burma!

06 May

Objective, Burma! – directed by Raoul Walsh. Action/Adventure World War II Drama. A company of soldiers after completing its demolition mission must walk two hundred miles through the Burmese jungle while tracked by Japanese intent on killing them. 142 minutes Black and White 1945.

★★★★★

Nominated for three Oscars, George Amy for editing, Alvah Bessie for writing, and Franz Waxman for the score, any one of them deserved it, but, apart from Raoul Walsh, the key genius in all this is James Wong Howe who filmed it. One of the great film artists, he brings a raw look to every shot, and every shot tells. Particularly in light of the fact that we always believe we are in a jungle in Burma, when, in fact, it was shot at the arboretum in Los Angeles and at a California ranch. The uniforms and equipment are authentic, not props and costumes, and the combat footage is actual footage from the China-Burma-India Theatre. So we get real parachute jumps and actual glider landing operations of that period, with tanks and trucks and troops pouring out of them in Burma, and takeoffs, too, which Howe’s footage and Amy’s editing match perfectly. Again Errol Flynn is Walsh’s star, and, with all the guns going off, and the peril of the jungle, the sweat, the hunger, the polluted water, he plays the leader of the slogging men quietly, modestly. The subtle shift in his eyes as he sees the dismembered bodies of his men is so great a film moment that we never have to see the bodies at all. Of course, while the other men grow beards during the long arduous trek, Flynn’s jaw remains shaved – but at least it is dirty, sweaty, and drawn. Walsh made many war films, and this is one of the most commanding World War II films by anyone. His supporting cast is admirable, with George Tobias as the company clown, Mark Stevens as the rescue pilot who cannot rescue them, Richard Erdman aged 19 playing a 19 year old, Warner Anderson as the young Colonel who must abandon them to their fate, James Brown as a doughty sergeant, William Prince in his first film, Frank Tang marvelous as the translator, and Henry Hull who speechifies his lines grandiosely, alas. (“All right, boys, no Hamlets in the jungle,” Walsh told them, but Hull didn’t listen. He was always that way, though; after all, he’d acted with Barrymore.) If you like action/adventure films, Walsh was the top director in his day of them. This is one of his best.

 

 

The Roaring Twenties

15 Mar

The Roaring Twenties — directed by Raoul Walsh. Gangster Drama. 106 minutes Black and White 1939.

★★★★★

~

The Story:A WW I vet can’t find work and so starts up a bootlegging business which gains control of him.

~

Warner Brothers laid on the A-team for this one. Milo Anderson did the clothes: the ladies’ song costumes place a premium on our tolerance for the tacky, but they are right on the money and the period. Ernest Haller shot it; the same year he shot Gone With The Wind for which he won an Oscar, most of Bette Davis’s big films, Mildred Pierce, and later Rebel Without A Cause. And that sweet toughie Raoul Walsh directed it. It was made the wonder year of 1939, and would have won the Oscar any other year, had Oscars ever been given out for gangster flicks.

The picture is set up as a March Of Time documentary of a period 15 years before it was made; it is a montage interspersed with montages – brilliantly shot by Don Siegel and organized by Byron Haskin. They are simply tremendous. Big male character talents fortify the story from the bottom up, topped off by Paul Kelly as the nasty ur-don, and Frank McHugh as the star’s pal played by James Cagney.

Walsh and Cagney loved working together, and this picture is Cagney’s supreme performance as a motion picture actor. Until I saw it I never thought Cagney could act at all. All I ever saw in him was a bully with a tommy gun for a heart. And for the most part in his career, that is what he is. I steered clear of him. But in this piece he is quite something else besides. One sees him as if for the first time. For here he is — with his dancer’s wrists and carriage. He is open, he waits, he responds, his feelings are hurt, he ponders before he speaks, he does not fall back on his rapid timing for every reaction, he wants something he can’t have and doesn’t know he can’t have it, that is to say, for once, he isn’t entirely smart, he is a mess. You can’t take your eyes off him – because he is so real and because his body is fully alert and engaged. It is a pity this side of him was not ever used elsewhere again.

Humphrey Bogart plays his crumby army pal, excellent especially in two execution scenes. And Jeffrey Lynn is the third musketeer, the one who gets the girl. She is played by Priscilla Lane, who has full lips and a sweet soft open look, rather like Betty Grable. She does her own singing, although the lip-sync is slightly off, as it is with Gladys George who plays Panama Smith, in a sketch of Texas Guinan. She is superb in the subtlety of her response in her every scene: she is an actress who can tell a story without spelling it out.

But it is the director, of course, whose triumph this is. Look at the way he sets up his shots for the crowd scenes, the saloons, the brawls. Look at the time he gives to the love scenes – as an action director Walsh is unique in taking his time for these and in giving equal range and ambiguity to all parties concerned. But what is especially powerful is his sparing use of close-ups and his refusal to do reaction shots. If two people are on camera, they are both always in frame, no matter which point of view is cut to. This means that you can always see the response of both actors at the same time and you never have a break in the animal energy between them. Kurosawa later used to do the same.

McHugh and Cagney improvised their scenes together and you can see the freshness of them. Cagney, Walsh, Bogart and especially Frank McHugh rewrote the script as they went along and had a grand old time, and you can enjoy it in the choices, large and small, that animate the scenes as they unfold. Snappy dialogue throughout. Walsh’s first film at Warner’s and first of four with Cagney. The film actually speaks for a moral rather than a chronological era, and the era is not over. It was a huge hit. It still is. Don’t miss it.

 

 

Air Force

07 Jan

Air Force — directed by Howard Hawks.  World War II Story. With many adventures, a B-17 heavy bomber makes its way from California starting on 6 December 1941 to Hawaii, on to Wake, on to Manila, on to Australia, with no sleep for the crew. 2 hours and 2 minutes Black and White 1943.

* * * * *

Terrific! One of the earliest and one of the best WWII films, it demonstrates Hawks’ ability to create living scenes among actors. Here they are filmed in very close quarters, but the characters, their relations with one another and their environment in the fuselage of the bomber carry the film. Our overall interest is, will the plane end up safely? In the story there are many characters with personality interest but only one character with dramatic interest, and that is John Garfield, who plays a disaffected gunner. Will he come around is the question. Or will he be killed beforehand. On hand for all of this are a bunch of very good young male actors full of pep and ideas: Gig Young and Arthur Kennedy and Garfield and John Ridgeley and Charles Drake and James Brown. Abetted by a remarkable old hand, the one-time Western star, Harry Carey, as the sarge in charge. He is just grand. As is George Tobias as a comic engineer. The movie would be dreadful in the hands of any other director, and it often was, as imitators of its melting pot WWII War story crowded the screen after it. Part of its satisfaction derives from its being filmed by the great James Wong Howe who performs miracles of presentation. The air fights were not filmed by him or directed by Hawks, but they are superbly exciting and startling, and the destruction of the Japanese fleet heading towards Australia is a masterpiece of content and editing, and rightly won the Oscar that year for it. Hawks and Howe capture the sweaty tight tube of a great bomber, afloat like a submarine in another element into which there is virtually no escape. And it captures how the men of that day got along with one another to achieve a common and very worthwhile purpose for those men, for the fighting forces, for the home front, and for the allies: the defeat of the Axis powers.

 

This Above All

19 Jul

This Above All – Directed by Anatole Litvak. Wartime Romance. An upper crust girl falls for a man with a past in WWII England. 1 hour 50 minutes. Black and White 1942.

* * * * *

Young Joan Fontaine had a habit of marrying handsome suspicious neurotic men. She had that year won the Oscar for Suspicion with Cary Grant and had Rebecca to her credit. It brought out her skill as a good-hearted victim-girl. She is quite lovely in this, with that same sweet smile that graced her sister. Fontaine’s talent consists of a vulnerable charm and a humorous, good natured femininity, so characteristic of the female actors of that era, and quite welcome to one’s eyes here. You can see what she can do well, in her big early speech, when she tells off the formidable Gladys Cooper: “When you and Uncle Wilfred talk, I seem to hear words oozing from the holes of a moth eaten sofa,” which is a pretty good line. She delivers all the meaning, and holds back all the meanness — which is correct for this character and situation. And you feel for her difficulty in having to do that interminable speech later about How We British Must Soldier On! She lyricizes it into The Far Horizon, which is a mistake: she should simply deliver it right into Power’s eyes. But who can blame her; a speech of that length would daunt the doughtiest actress, which she certainly was not. Tyrone Power is another matter. He had remarkable eyes, and a face completely animated when speaking, so that his inner life moves invisibly through it. I say “invisibly” because he is not “doing his face”. Rather his inner spirit passes through his face, without grimace, without movement, and that genuineness is what people are really picking up from him, reading without eyes. Myrna Loy said of him: ‘He had a very strong sense of other people, heightened by a kind of mysticism, a spiritual quality. You could see it in his deep, warm eyes.”  And so the handsomest man in Hollywood never uses his looks to get what he wants. That’s not the way he was wired. When she asked him what he would like to be if he were not Ty Power: “‘I would like to be the wind, so I could be light and free and be anywhere I want at any time., I could go all around the world and look in people’s windows and share their joys and sorrows.’” It make him a highly sympathetic, responsive and fluid actor. Good for him. Young actors who want to learn film acting would do to watch him.

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Stella Maris

22 May

 

 

Stella Maris – Directed by Marshall Neilan. Melodrama. A sequestered rich girl wakes up to the reality of life in her love for a man also loved by a poor orphan. 84 minutes Black and White Silent 1918.

* * * * *

If you can accept the rubrics inherent in silent pictures as entertainment of a kind, you will likely have a good time with this film. The requirements of story-telling in silent pictures are different from what we have become used to in modern films, and the stories told, while, like ours, still melodrama, are executed on a different level of value, since, let us say, in black and white films, values themselves are more black and white. So patience with the unfamiliar is called for to enjoy what is before us. What is priceless is what the actors do within these confines, and Mary Pickford is an extraordinary example of genius and charm in dealing with them. Here she plays Stella Maris, a Happy Prince character preserved from the woes of this world because she is crippled. The character would be intolerable were she played for pathos, but Pickford plays her as happy, open, and without calculation. You never feel sorry for her. You only want to be in her company. But Pickford also plays another character, the orphan Unity, in one of the shrewdest portrayals I’ve ever seen an actress attempt, for she gives Unity a hunched shoulder which makes her appear also crippled. Standing together in the film, you would not believe they were being played by the same actress. Homely Unity’s inner life in no particular resembles that of pretty Stella Maris’s. Neither in appearance nor being are they the same person. And the actress is completely realistic and in the moment with both. Mary Pickford was the most popular female film star of her time; she was also the most brilliant businesswoman ever to work in Hollywood (She founded and ran United Artists); what is more important still, she clearly was one of the greatest actresses of her era.

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Shattered City:The Halifax Explosion

31 Mar

Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion — Directed by Bruce Pittman — TV Docudrama Miniseries. A shipment of high explosives converges with an out-of-line Belgian vessel in Halifax Harbor during World War I, and creates the greatest man-made explosion in the history of the world, and blows apart many local individuals’ lives. 3 hours Color 2003.

* * * *

This is a solid historical reconstruction of the events leading up to and trailing in the wake of the Halifax disaster. It’s a good piece of historical dramaturgy, based as it is on actual lives and deeds and on the memory of them by those who lived long after, such as the young Connie Collins, who lived until 2003. Arrogance at the helm brought ruin to the lives of 11,000 people that day. Many of the parts are beautifully played, particularly Ted Dykstra, the jolly pilot whose orders were remanded by the dazed captain, and by Lynn Griffin who is one bitching actress as Millicent Collins, the loving mother of all the children, who was permanently blinded, as were hundreds of others by the flash. Shauna Macdonald, a lovely actress, is perfectly cast for the intelligence and reserve which makes her successful as a visiting doctor, and the very handsome Vincent Walsh provides the necessary earnestness as the focal figure of the Royal Canadian Army Captain who takes charge.  Clara Stone plays Connie just fine. And the great Pete Postlethwaite turns up in the last part of this two part series to cause serious doubt as to whether the Captain will win his case. For, as the ship captain, the harbor master, and the pilot are all put on trial, it is worth waiting for the outcome. I found it interesting and informative and easy to take. The whole family could watch it together.

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