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Archive for the ‘John Hodiak’ Category

Common Decision

12 Aug

Command Decision — directed by Sam Wood. WWII Drama. 1hr 52 minutes Black and White 1948.
★★★★★
1948. The Story: Top brass in in WWII England fight over bombing strategy of German targets.
~
In 1946 my father drove me and my brother to Roosevelt field on Long Island to witness the first jet planes. Amazing. They seemed to go straight up in the air, faster than flight. Earlier in the ‘40s my dad also drove us to La Guardia Airport where on its observation deck we were able to watch propellor planes take off and land. Air shows were a sight-seeing excursion common in those days, a treat which went out of fashion when jet planes proved too fast for the naked eye to linger on. The slower prop planes take-off gave you something to follow.

The speed and talent of jets is highlighted here in the need to destroy the German factories that had first begun to make them. Jet fighters might have won The War for the Germans, so the strategy is urgent.

So, is the cost of airmen’s lives to destroy German jet production too high? This is the battle fought by the bomber command headquarters stationed in England.

The problem was gnarled just as it is today by politics, publicity, personalities and promotion in rank. And by the fact that in those days the Air Force was not a separate arm but was part of the Army. In grade school we all sang “Off We Go, Into The Wild Blue Yonder” that ends in: “Nothing can stop the Army Air Corps.” I can sing it to this day.

These matters are brought to a collective head by the General of Walter Pidgeon’ after 48 bombers are lost on the first of three attacks on the German jet fighter factories far out from the range of fighters accompanying those bombers. Walter Pidgeon at one point has the longest monologue I remember ever having witnessed in a movie. He is wonderful in it, and the writing of it itself is wonderful.

This is partly because the material comes from a novel turned into a successful stage play, and that the movie wisely makes little attempt to take its setting out of the small pocket of AAF HQ. The material requires dire sequestration, not expansion. It already has expansion — which is the big issues in what’s written. Watch the other actors stand stock still while Pidgeon performs, quite simply and quite fully, cigar in hand, in one take, this enormous speech.

Sam Wood was noted for his dislike of over-acting, and, while some of the actors have huge scenes, it is a treat to see each actor, with ripe scene-stealing techniques at his beck, hold his place and listen.

The point is that the material itself is important. And is still important. Because the battle is between public opinion of military action and the dire action itself, ruled by something maybe as frisky as good weather.

Van Johnson lodges comic relief as the adjutant who knows how to work the system. Brian Donlevy plays the old chum general. Charles Bickford plays the press secretary. John Hodiak plays the mission lead pilot. Edward Arnold plays the visiting Congressman. Cameron Mitchell, John McIntire, Clinton Sunberg, and Ray Collins all support the main battle, which is between two generals, old friends, one of which is played by Walter Pidgeon. The other by Clark Gable.

Gable was stationed at the Army Air Force in WWII in Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire, the town next to Oundle where I went to school not long after the release of this film. He was gunner on B-17 missions, like the ones we see here.

It is fascinating to watch him, and to see how good an actor Clark Gable is.

What prevents us seeing his talent are the elements that made him a great star and which mask that talent at the same time as they reveal it: His masculinity. The shape of his head. His handsomeness. His marvelous head of hair. His gnarly voice. The flexibility of his features and their interest. He can lead men. All of that allures. Because it is all natural. And he is sexy as all get out. But can you see the forest for these trees? Hard to do.

Just watch him play this huge role. Watch what he does as an actor. So simple. See if you can see what he’s up to. He has a gruff shtick perhaps, but don’t set him aside and think you know him. Yes, you know him. But do you? Watch how fresh he is. Watch how, in the instant, he gears the character to the surprises and disappointments due him. See how committed.

Acting also gives one the illusion of being in the company, the room with, in the presence of remarkable people whom we would otherwise never get close to. The close-ups of Clark Gable put us close enough to him to kiss him.

But this willing illusion of intimacy of ours is also a mask against observing the art of acting. For this illusion is a diversion we deliberately come here to make and enjoy. We lose ourselves in it, don’t we? We put the stars in us. For the price of a mere ticket.

As though their craft existed for no other reason than to fertilize us . Or, so spellbound by what they do with it, their craft did not exist at all.

But what truth their craft conveys!

For instance, I watch Edward Arnold. He is an actor with a big bully voice, authority of manner, and a stout presence to back them. I witness the decomposition of his character as it is humiliated by his betters — he who admits no betters. Edward Arnold is completely real in playing a character, who has no dignity, lose his dignity.

How does Edward Arnold, a human being do it? How does the actor do this?

This actor wins my heart, by playing a character to whom I must close my heart.

Yet, to do that, he has to endure the squalor of mortification, enact and give to us a terrible truth and know it.

I love actors and the art of the actor. Command Decision tells me this is true of me.

 

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.

 
 
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