Wyler’s career lasted from the silent era to the dawn of the New Hollywood. He worked with many of the Old Hollywood’s biggest stars and put out a number of films which are now considered classics. And yet, he is rarely listed as one of the ultimate masters of cinema, despite his excellent track record.
You can blame the so-called “auteurist” critics who started dominating film criticism in the 1960s. The auteur theory essentially views the film’s director as the “author” of a movie. When applying auteurist analysis to a film, you’re essentially trying to discover connections between a filmmaker’s body of work. What are the repeated themes, motifs, and techniques? Think of Ford’s presentation of the old west, Kubrick’s cynical vision of society, or Hitchock’s affection for “the wrong man” trope. I’m not at all anti-auteurism and do believe this type of analysis can be applied to particular filmmakers. However, it becomes problematic when the romanticized notion of a “unified” body of work allows critics to turn their noses up at a great craftsman like William Wyler.
I’ve come to disdain the idea that a “well-directed” movie equals a self-consciously stylish movie. With Wyler, you never notice any stylistic flourishes on a first viewing because he utterly absorbs you into the world of the story. His direction of actors and choice of compositions are often second to none. His versatility with many genres goes to show he was a man who disliked repeating himself. What makes him uninteresting to the aueturists is ironically what makes him such a top-notch director.
I’m going to close out with my top five favorite Wyler movies. The man made such a number of classic films that it was honestly torture to narrow the number down so much, but if you were to ask for recommendations, these are the ones I would offer up as definitive examples of Wyler’s cinematic mastery.
Poignant is the best word to describe Carrie. Based on a grim urban novel by Theodore Dreiser, the film version strikes me as more emotional and tragic, with less of a clinical eye on its central characters, a young woman and her older lover whose fortunes progress in opposite trajectories. Wyler recreates turn of the century Chicago with great skill and doesn’t overplay the potential soapiness of the scenario. I also think this film showcases the career-best performance of Laurence Olivier, which is no small feat. He is truly heartbreaking.
Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is my favorite novel of all time. It is a complicated, emotionally raw work of art that has yet to be adequately adapted into a visual medium. The Wyler adaptation is often scorned by Bronte purists because it cuts off half of the novel, de-emphasizes the themes of cyclical abuse, and sands the more unpleasant edges off Catherine and Heathcliff, the novel’s doomed lovers. But I don’t care: Wyler’s Wuthering Heights is a glorious example of gothic melodrama with its chilly black-and-white cinematography and powerful performances. It has the same passion and quiet menace as later “Hollywood gothics” of the 1940s, like Gaslight or Dragonwyck.
Even though Wyler loved tackling different genres, this dark psychological thriller seems such an odd fit for him. The story of an obsessed bank clerk who imprisons the woman he’s desired from afar in his basement, the material is disturbing, with heavy psychosexual themes and a complicated power dynamic between captor and captive. Considering this was also filmed during the 1960s, a period of radical change in both society and the film industry, one might think the older Wyler would not be up to the task. To the contrary, he does stunning work, keeping location fatigue from creeping into this one-setting thriller with his sharp eye for dramatic compositions and drawing out fantastic work from Terence Davis and Samantha Eggar.
Roman Holiday is known one of the great “a star is born” movies. I cannot imagine a more perfect first starring role for Audrey Hepburn, a sheltered princess who finds love and adventure with a charming journalist in Rome. While most discussion of the film focuses on Hepburn, Wyler’s direction is also deserving of praise. I love the subtle ways he generates humor, like the parallel shots of the princess looking up at the elaborate carvings along the ceiling in her lush bedroom, then later awaking in Gregory Peck’s apartment to ugly industrial pipes shot from a similar angle. And of course, there’s the wonderful handling of tone, which blends light humor with a bittersweet lyricism, building to one of the most perfect endings in film history.
I have not yet seen all of Wyler’s films (The Best Years of Our Lives is my biggest oversight in that regard), but to date, I think The Heiress is his masterpiece. Adapted from a play which was itself adapted from a Henry James novella, The Heiress follows a timid, affection-starved heiress (played by Olivia De Havilland in a career-best performance) in love with a handsome charmer who may or may not be more interested in her money than her heart. It’s a movie that could have easily devolved into campy melodrama, but the characters are all complicated, with even the antagonists showing a great deal more ambiguity than you would expect of such a film. Once again, Wyler shows great skill with the material. Beneath the mannered drawing room surface, this is one emotionally brutal, even cruel movie, so packed with little nuances in the acting and visuals that it absolutely merits repeated viewings.
During the early sound period, producer Joseph Schenck commissioned a series of live-action shorts set to classical music. The series was short-lived, but it did produce one minor classic in the form of The Wizard’s Apprentice.
Ten years before Paul Dukas’ musical interpretation of Goethe’s famous poem became forever linked with Mickey Mouse, pioneering art director William Cameron Menzies and his collaborators created a low-tech fantasy with more charm in its ten minutes than a great many features with slicker effects and bigger budgets. Menzies is arguably the best known production designer of early Hollywood. He was a major asset on the films which employed his skills, from the Arabian Nights fantasy of Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad to the HG Wells-helmed science-fiction epic Things to Come. Here, he meshes a medieval storybook world with gothic touches common to many horror films of the time.
Though this short was produced in the early talkie period, the influence of the late silent era still lingers in every aspect of the production. The atmosphere is right out of the German expressionist classics of the 1920s. The performers’ emoting and full body gestures would be right at home in films from the earlier part of the silent era. They’re operatic and grand, which suit this fairytale narrative perfectly. In fact, the wizard was played by silent film veteran Joseph Swickard, best known as Valentino’s guilt-stricken father in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The other two major performers—Fritz Feld as the apprentice and Greta Granstedt as the diminutive love interest—would go on to have long Hollywood careers in supporting and bit parts for decades to come.
While the film’s special effects are simple, they are effective, especially the brooms. Little more than painted matchsticks with legs, the brooms are surprisingly creepy, perhaps due to how jerky their movements are. The eeriness is a side effect of the primitive technique, a quality which evades the smoother animation of Disney’s broomsticks.
One weird touch I never see mentioned in other reviews of this movie: the funky editing trick that occurs whenever the wizard enters or leaves his study. The shape of the doorway rapidly shifts between high and longways, adding a bizarre dreamlike vibe to the proceedings.
An absolutely classic short—it makes great viewing with Disney’s more iconic take on the poem.
William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come by James Curtis
This piece was supposed to be for May the Fourth—whoops.
To be honest, it switched focus many times—it was originally a simple analysis of the different 1950s movies which influenced Attack of the Clones, the second film in George Lucas’ Star Wars saga. However, I got caught up on one of these movies, a film that has a long-standing relationship with the Star Wars saga—John Ford’s The Searchers.
When you think about it, Ford’s movie seems an odd inspiration for a Flash Gordon-esque space opera. Yes, Ford was a master of composition and his images of the natural world have inspired a great many filmmakers, but when you look at the story proper, it doesn’t seem like Lucas inherited much of it at all—at least, not at first.
Set in post-Civil War Texas, The Searchers opens with the return of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a Confederate soldier turned wanderer, to his brother’s homestead. His homecoming is interrupted by a Comanche raid in which most of the family is brutalized and killed. Ethan’s two nieces are captured by the tribe, leaving him and the family’s adopted son Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) to pursue the captives across the wilderness.
The older of the girls turns up dead and the search for the younger takes so long that it is almost a guarantee that she’s been integrated into the tribe, possibly even married to one of the men. Ethan’s hatred for the Comanche is so strong that it becomes clear he plans to kill the girl rather than rescue her. The only one in his way is the principled Martin, but will he be able to change Ethan’s mind before it is too late?
The Searchers is no simple adventure. Suffused with rage and despair despite its comic scenes, it questions the traditional “Cowboys and Indians” narratives of earlier westerns with a main character whose homicidal bigotry is hard to reconcile with his “compelling strength” as critic Edward Buscombe once observed in his book-length analysis of the film. It’s little wonder the film garnered more appreciation in the jaded 60s and 70s than when it was originally released. New Hollywood’s shining stars tend to list the movie as a favorite. George Lucas is no exception.
The Searchers is often touted as a major influence on the original Star Wars film (also referred to as A New Hope once it became clear Star Wars would become a series), but the connections always seemed thin to me. Sure, you could draw broad comparison between weary war veteran Obi-wan Kenobi with weary war veteran Ethan Edwards—both fought on the losing side of a civil war, both serve as mentor figures to an idealistic younger man. However, Obi-wan is a positive figure while Ethan certainly is not, so the comparison does not run too deep. There’s also the famous quotation of the destroyed homestead in which Luke’s return to the Lars farm openly recreates Ford’s compositions in the 1956 movie. Otherwise, the original Star Wars is a light adventure in which grief and rage are shunted to the side. The movie quotes The Searchers without actually dealing with its themes. This is not a problem, mind you—any wallowing over the barbecued Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru would bog down the film and clash with the pulpy tone it’s going for.
However, A New Hope is not the end of Lucas’ quotations of The Searchers. There’s more of Ford in another, less regarded film in the Lucas saga—Attack of the Clones. Released in 2002, it was the second of the oft-maligned prequel trilogy and usually touted as the worst of the three, even in light of current re-evaluations of the prequel films. Mock the cheesy love dialogue all you want, but rewatching this movie again, I was struck by how much more meaningful the references to Ford’s film are.
One of the major plot threads in Attack of the Clones concerns Jedi apprentice Anakin Skywalker’s (Hayden Christensen) search for his mother Shmi (Pernilla August), who was left enslaved on the desert planet Tattooine at the end of the previous movie in the series. Plagued by nightmares of his mother’s distress and convinced these visions are prophetic, Anakin rushes back to Tattooine in the hopes of finding her. Instead, he discovers that Shmi, though briefly liberated and happily married to a farmer, was captured by the Tusken Raiders, a nomadic tribe hostile to outsiders. Anakin tracks down the Tusken camp and finds his mother just as she is dying, presumably from weeks of beatings. Enraged, Anakin kills every Tusken in sight—(in)famously “not just the men—but the women—and the children too!”
This chapter of the film almost operates as a condensed remake of The Searchers. Anakin’s scouting out the camp and the later funeral scene openly quote shots in Ford’s movie. And then there’s the basic dramatic trappings: the quest for a captive loved one, the obsessed warrior driven by hatred and grief, and even, to a smaller extent, the emphasis on the individual’s psychological need for belonging in a community. Ford extensively explores that third point through the romance subplot with Laurie (Vera Miles) and his depiction of close-knit settler families, while Lucas makes those notions more implicit in Anakin’s alienation from the stoic Jedi Order and how this divide pushes him to the dark side.
Everyone talks about how Anakin is meant to evoke James Dean’s red-jacketed teen hero in Rebel Without a Cause, but he shares way more DNA with Ethan Edwards. For both characters, the genesis of their never-ending rage comes from the violent death of a mother (we see it plainly in Attack of the Clones, while this bit of Ethan’s backstory is only evidenced by the information on Mrs. Edward’s gravestone). Erotic transgression troubles both characters as well: Ethan is in love with his brother’s wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) and the supposed-to-be-free-of-romantic-attachments Anakin is in love with Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman). For these anti-heroes, love becomes twisted into something obsessive and ugly, turning each into monsters unable to connect with anyone. In the end, both are redeemed by love, though neither will ever fully escape their isolation from the greater community.
Beyond showing George Lucas understands film history, what does all this referencing really do? It’s easy to take the standard cynical view that it’s yet another example of the shallowness of postmodern art. While damning the similarly allusion-happy Sergio Leone, Peter Bogdanovich once accused Lucas and others of his generation of “simply making movies they grew up with, over again.” Bogdanovich’s criticism suggests a man caught up in his childhood loves, doomed to a grotesque Peter Pan career.
But I can’t go there, especially since Attack of the Clones shows a decided upping of the ante in Lucas’ engagement with The Searchers. He’s in dialogue with Ford in a way he was not before, actually dealing with Ford’s themes head-on. Maybe it’s because Lucas was older by the time he got to the prequels and therefore better able to understand the tragedy of The Searchers than when he was young. In that sense, he’s not only having a dialogue with The Searchers, but with A New Hope, and arguably with his younger self as well. This suggests not some Peter Pan with a camera, as Lucas’ detractors would define him, but an artist whose worldview evolved between youth and old age. Whatever one thinks of the overall quality of the Star Wars prequels, one cannot accuse Lucas of treading water with them or with his relationships to the movies that shaped him in his youth.
In producer Irving Thalberg’s case, he wanted to give his wife Norma Shearer—then the undisputed queen of the MGM lot—the chance for the crowning artistic achievement of her career. The Boy Wonder desired to bring his favorite Shakespeare play to the screen: Romeo and Juliet, with Shearer starring as the thirteen-year-old Juliet. Though Shearer was in her mid-30s and completely lacking experience with Shakespearean drama, this did not deter Thalberg, who thought the part would allow her to reach new dramatic heights. He spared no expense, lavishing two million dollars on grand sets, gorgeous costumes, and an exhaustive shooting schedule. Several actors turned down the Romeo role, which eventually went to forty-three-year-old Leslie Howard. With bright stars, a high budget, and a classic tale at the heart of it, Thalberg expected a smashing success.
Thalberg’s Romeo and Juliet was ultimately as star-cross’d as Shakespeare’s lovers. Though much ballyhooed before release, the film was indifferently received. While attendance was okay for a more moderately budgeted film, it was not nearly enough to cover this super-productions’s immense cost. Unlike the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli film (also known as “the one where Romeo looks like Zac Efron”) and the 1996 Baz Luhrmann adaptation, this Romeo and Juliet did not strike a chord with the zeitgeist beyond inspiring a vogue for “Juliet caps.” By the end of its run, the film lost almost one million dollars, failing to live up to Thalberg’s hopes. To make matters worse, Thalberg died shortly afterward, ending his career on a disappointing note.
Some derided movies gain prestige over time, with new audiences discovering their merits. This never happened to Romeo and Juliet. If anything, its reputation soured. The ages of the main cast members became more of an issue once Zeffirelli’s version famously used actual teenagers in the lead roles. The buttoned-up love scenes were absurd compared to the explicitness permitted in a post-code world. Shakespeare scholars scorn the film, finding it unimaginative. Norma Shearer fans positively resent its existence, feeling her overgrown Juliet takes away attention from her superior performances in better movies. On the whole, it’s a laughing stock, even among classic movie fans.
But is the movie all that bad? When approached with an open mind, is it a better experience than the critics say?
First, the elephant in the room—yes, Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard are way too old to be playing teenagers. At youngest, Shearer could pass for a twenty-something, whereas Howard always looks like a man at the dawn of middle age. While more mature actors could get away with playing these roles on the safe distance of a stage (for example, nineteenth-century stage star Charlotte Cushman played Romeo well into her forties), the camera is less forgiving, even with flattering make-up and lighting.
Hot take: their ages aren’t as big a deal as people make them out to be.
Shearer and Howard might not pass for teens, but their chemistry was enough to get me to stop caring that they weren’t high schoolers. By the time they lock eyes at the Capulet ball, the two have me utterly sold. In the text itself, Shakespeare signals to the audience that the immediate attraction between Romeo and Juliet is something extraordinary by having the two speak a shared sonnet before their first kiss, and Shearer and Howard help sell this development with their body language. There’s a wonderful blend of sweetness and burgeoning passion in the both of them– especially Shearer, who portrays Juliet’s awakening sexual desire brilliantly.
Shearer’s performance here is often held up as antithetical to her more celebrated pre-code work. Pre-code historian Mike LaSalle derides her turn as Juliet with terms like “queenly” and “embarrassing,” but I find that her Juliet shares commonalities with her more famous roles. Shearer’s characters are often marked by dramatic transformations, usually related to defying society’s double standards, such as Jerry in The Divorcee, who “balances the books” when her husband casually cheats on her, or Elizabeth in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, who breaks from a controlling, possessive father to be with the man she loves.
Shakespeare’s Juliet is a triumph of characterization, going from a young girl willing to allow others to chart her life’s course to a bold young woman willing to sacrifice everything to pursue what she wants, even if it goes against the wishes of her family or the dictates of society itself (which, remember, demands daughters unquestioningly obey their fathers). Chasing her own desires, defying patriarchal authority—doesn’t sound too different from what Shearer was doing in the early 1930s to me.
While Shearer’s acting dominates the film, Howard is no slouch, even though his take on Romeo takes a little getting used to for those of us reared on latter versions. Howard is quite subdued compared to, say, Leonardo DiCaprio in the Luhrmann version (“I AM FOR-TUNE’S FOOOO-OOOOOL!”). Howard’s schtick was playing sensitive, gentle guys, and his Romeo continues in this tradition, though he also gets to be the bold wooer familiar from the play, eagerly pulling Juliet to him moments after they lock eyes on the dance floor. While hotter blood might have improved certain scenes, Howard’s Romeo is nevertheless properly romantic through and through.
A common complaint is that the film renders this most horny of plays utterly sexless due to the constraints of the Production Code. Before rewatching the movie, the dominant image my mind associated with the film was Cukor’s depiction of Romeo and Juliet’s post-coital embrace: Juliet lays across the bed buttoned up to the chin and Romeo is draped across her with both feet on the floor.
Color me shocked when upon revisiting the movie I found that the filmmakers snuck a great deal of spiciness past the censors. Mercutio’s “bawdy hand upon the prick of noon” line (accompanied by raucous laughter from the dirty-minded Nurse) is only the most audacious example. Mercutio still gets to conjure Romeo’s initial infatuation Rosaline by her eyes, forehead, lip, foot, leg, thigh, and “the demenses that there adjacent lie.” Juliet retains part of her pre-wedding night soliloquy, which is all about how eager she is to lose her virginity. Even the bedroom scene I just mocked has a bit more heat than I remembered. Howard is out of his doublet, and the actors share a languid intimacy that strongly suggests this Romeo and Juliet have done more than just lay around holding hands in the dark.
Most of the supporting cast is strong. Edna May Oliver is delightful as the bawdy Nurse, Basil Rathbone’s Tybalt simmers with barely contained menace, and Reginald Denny exudes a calm presence as Romeo’s friend Benvolio. If I have any complaint, it’s with John Barrymore as Mercutio. By this point in his career, Barrymore’s image was on the verge of self-parody, and he was often uncooperative on the set due to his alcoholism. His Mercutio is less the life of the party than an unpleasant, overgrown frat boy on crack. The character’s famous “Queen Mab” speech is reduced to sped up nonsense, and the character’s dying moments lack the bitterness needed to sell it as a proper turning point in the story.
If the MGM Romeo and Juliet has a fatal flaw, it isn’t the actor’s ages—it’s the lack of an original vision for the story. I hate to keep making comparisons with the Zeffirelli and Luhrmann adaptations, but they make a good contrast because they succeeded where MGM failed in having stronger takes on the material. Zeffirelli emphasizes the play’s themes of youth and age, highlighting the generational conflict and making the young people feel like ordinary teens in their idealism, self-absorption, and impulsiveness. Luhrmann makes extensive use of religious imagery and juxtaposes it against a violent, profane, and decadent setting, making Romeo and Juliet’s love more precious by contrast. These films make bold choices that are not spelled out in Shakespeare’s text, but that’s part of bringing the Bard to life for new audiences.
The MGM film does not have any such “take” on the material. It keeps to the text without doing much to draw out particular themes or ideas, save for linking the lovers with pastoral imagery: Romeo is introduced listening to a shepherd sing in the hills, Juliet is introduced in an orchard feeding a pet deer like a Disney princess, and the lovers’ sexual consummation is depicted through a montage of nature imagery. Perhaps this is meant to contrast their love with the artifice of the city and the corruption it represents, but the film does little to develop that idea beyond its borderline noirish depiction of the apothecary’s shop. Thalberg famously flew in academics to oversee the production, claiming they were there to “protect Shakespeare from us.” He was terrified of doing it all wrong—he probably figured the script would take care of itself and that all MGM had to do was supply opulent visuals.
The film is certainly dripping with visual beauty—the magnificent sets and elaborate costumes were meant to evoke medieval Italian artists like Botticelli and Gozzoli– but it’s all empty spectacle that doesn’t do much to evoke the passionate, oppressive atmosphere of the play’s Verona. The nature of the production also put its director to a disadvantage. George Cukor did his best work with more intimate comedies and dramas. A larger canvas rarely yielded his best efforts. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, so much emphasis is already placed on the spectacle that the drama is often in danger of being pushed to the side altogether.
Undeniably, Thalberg’s Romeo and Juliet is a labor of love, and this is both its greatest strength and ultimate undoing. The good there is comes from Howard and Shearer’s tender chemistry, luminescent and resonant despite their shared maturity. For advocates of 1930s Hollywood and the artificial but enticing soundstage worlds they conjured, Romeo and Juliet’s make-believe Verona is a visual treat. That it doesn’t fully stick the landing is a shame, since so much effort was poured into the endeavor– however, I don’t think those efforts were 100% wasted. I am reminded of an anecdote from the great Shakespeare scholar Northop Frye:
“… why is the story of the tragic love and death of Romeo and Juliet one of the world’s best loved stories? Mainly, we think, because of Shakespeare’s word magic. But, while it was always a popular play, what the stage presented as Romeo and Juliet, down to about 1850, was mostly a series of travesties of what Shakespeare wrote. There’s something about the story itself that can take any amount of mistreatment from stupid producing and bad casting. I’ve seen a performance with a middle-aged and corseted Juliet who could have thrown Romeo over her shoulder and walked to Mantua with him, and yet the audience was in tears at the end.”
For all its imperfections and interpretive timidity, I was still moved by the finale of this Romeo and Juliet. It might not be anyone’s favorite telling of the classic tragedy, but it still has enough treasures for anyone willing to give it an honest chance.
The Barrymores: The Royal Family in Hollywood by James Kotsilibas-Davies
George Cukor: Master of Elegance by Emanuel Levy
Norma Shearer: A Life by Gavin Lambert
Norma: The story of Norma Shearer by Lawrence Quirk
As always, please watch the short before proceeding to the article– an easy feat considering this one is under two minutes!
Easily the best-known nineteenth-century stage personality, Sarah Bernhardt’s contributions to film history are often overlooked. Famous Players Lasky—later to become Paramount Pictures—began its history with its distribution of The Loves of Queen Elizabeth, a 1912 feature adaptation of Bernhardt’s stage success of the same name. The Divine Sarah would appear in other features throughout the 1910s, but her most intriguing screen appearance was a short film depicting the climax of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
As far as film historians can tell, Bernhardt was the screen’s first Hamlet. She had played the ill-fated Dane on-stage to great sensation in the 1890s. Rather than playing Hamlet as a mopey, lethargic sad-sack unable to make up his mind, Bernhardt chose to emphasize Hamlet’s intellectual strength and determination to see justice done on his own terms.
These two minutes are all we shall ever see of Bernhardt’s Hamlet and the glimpse is tantalizing. Though fifty-six years old, Bernhardt’s Hamlet is energetic and graceful, fencing with youthful relish. The scene is extremely abbreviated, showing Hamlet and Laertes’ fatal duel sans Gertrude and Claudius. The two fight, Hamlet is cut by the poison sword, Hamlet disarms Laertes, Hamlet takes up the poison sword, gets a hit in, and then swoons and dies, falling into the arms of a convenient group of soldiers who bear the body out of camera range. The focus is all on Bernhardt—Laertes doesn’t even get to die on camera.
Unfortunately, this short does not exist in its entirety. It was originally produced as an early talkie for exhibition at the famous Exposition Universelle in Paris, one of several sound experiments on public display. The footage was synchronized with a wax cylinder recording of the actors speaking, but the cylinder has been long lost. It’s such a shame since Bernhardt was known for her rich voice. (If you’re curious about said voice, recordings of her from the turn of the century are available in online archives, such as this emotional speech from Phedre.) It just goes to show that the history of sound movies long predates The Jazz Singer.
American Cinema of the 1910s, edited by Charlie Keil and Ben Singer
John Williams is most associated with the grand, sweeping scores that made him a household name in the 1970s and 1980s. However, the man’s talents are far more diverse than the casual movie fan might realize. This is apparent when examining Williams’ early scores, back when he was “Johnny” Williams.
“Johnny” Williams often collaborated on scores with other studio composers and worked as a pianist for movie music heavyweights like Henry Mancini and Jerry Goldsmith. He first cut his teeth on solo scoring while working on the 1958 B-picture Daddy-O. He would also write scores for television during the late 50s and early 60s. However, he started to enter the big leagues around the mid-1960s. Williams considers the 1966 caper comedy How to Steal a Million a landmark in this regard.
Before I examine his score, I’d like to give some background information as well as my opinion of How to Steal a Million, one of my go-to feel-good movies and in many ways the end of an era even if it was otherwise an early chapter in Williams’ career.
How to Steal a Million marked the final collaboration between Audrey Hepburn and William Wyler, the filmmaker who made her a superstar in Roman Holiday. The star and director would make two more movies together. Earlier in the 1960s, they’d collaborated on The Children’s Hour, a socially conscious drama that took Hepburn out of her comfort zone as a schoolteacher accused of lesbianism. Wyler tried casting Hepburn as the kidnapped heroine of his 1965 suspense-thriller The Collector, but the darker material put her off. When he tried again with his next film, a heist movie based on the short story “Venus Rising,” Hepburn accepted.
The plot follows Nicole Bonnet (Hepburn), the chic daughter of proud art forger Charles Bonnet (Hugh Griffith). Nicole is wary of her father’s profession while Charles sees himself as an artist who’s only ripping off silly rich people and therefore doing no real harm. While the two live well on his forged masterworks, this dubious livelihood is threatened when one of the fakes—the Cellini Venus, a nude statue passed off as a Renaissance original—is purchased by a museum that intends to scientifically test it for authenticity. Fearing her father will be arrested, Nicole teams up with the handsome Simon (Peter O’Toole), a so-called cat burglar, to steal the Venus before any tests can be made. Inevitably, the two fall in love during the heist, but is Simon who he claims to be?
One thing which sets Million apart from other Hepburn movies is the leading man. Peter O’Toole was only three years younger than his co-star, who tended to be paired with men old enough to be her father. While the two stars were polar opposites, they got along well, cracking one another up on the set much to Wyler’s chagrin (“They react on each other like laughing gas, and the trouble is they’re in almost every scene together.”). Their chemistry was so strong that the press tried stoking up rumors of an affair, but this was not the case.
For the most part, filming went by smoothly. Wyler and Hepburn enjoyed working European hours (from noon until 8pm), and everyone seemed to be having a lark working on the lightweight material. Hepburn’s favorite designer Givenchy would clothe her in over twenty outfits, the most stunning being a black, lacy confection complete with a mask. Much to her joy, Hepburn also became pregnant during the production, though she did not let anyone on-set know.
The only debilitating production issue came from George C. Scott, originally cast as an American art collector intent on procuring both the Cellini Venus and Nicole’s heart. He was repeatedly late, leading to his being fired from the film. Wyler was able to get Eli Wallach to leave the Broadway production of Luv on short notice so he could fill Scott’s part. While Wallach was reluctant to abandon his previous commitment, his understudy Gene Wilder was able to take over. Wallach ultimately enjoyed working with Hepburn, who he saw as considerate and professional. In his memoir, he recalled her kindly offering to remove her shoes to accommodate his height during an on-screen kiss.
Million was released to tepid reviews and positive though not phenomenal box office. The lightweight, unapologetically silly material put off critics like Pauline Kael (who described the film as “blah”) and Bosley Crowther (who accused the script of being “preposterous”—meanwhile, water is wet). This negative perspective remains touted by many critics—read any Hepburn biography or Wyler retrospective and Million is still marked as superficial and laborious. However, hang out with classic movie fans and you’d think it was considered an ironclad comedy classic. I’m certainly among them, though I think I can sort of get why the critics react as they do… even if I still think they are 100% wrong.
How to Steal a Million came out during a strange time in Hollywood history. Old Hollywood had yet to give up the ghost, but it was clear by 1966 that former tastes were going into eclipse. The big epics and splashy musicals that had packed people in were no longer selling as readily as they once did. Many of the classic era stars were either retiring or found their glamorous images falling out of fashion. Arguably, there had not been such a disruptive shift in moviegoing tastes since the dawn of talkies in the late 1920s.
You could call Million a last hurrah for the Old Hollywood that made Hepburn and Wyler famous. You could even argue it’s at heart a 1930s screwball comedy in 1960s clothes. Wyler would shortly retire after making two more movies (one of them being the classic comedy Funny Girl). For a brief time, it seemed Hepburn would continue to make films, ones more in keeping with the times. Her two subsequent projects before her semi-retirement, Two for the Road and Wait Until Dark, would be far more evocative of the changing world of the 1960s: Two for the Road with its unconventional structure and troubled view of marriage, and Wait Until Dark with its gritty crime elements and brutal finale. This drastic shift was done in part to keep Hepburn from losing touch with her public, perhaps even in response to How to Steal a Million’s relatively lukewarm box office. Hepburn herself might have been concerned about the critical consensus which claimed she was on autopilot in Million, playing a smitten ingenue long after she was too old to essay such roles (she was 36 at the time of filming).
I can see where they’re coming from in that Nicole is essentially another variation on Sabrina Fair or Jo Stockton, a wide-eyed young woman just awakened to romantic love. But autopilot? No way! I think Hepburn’s comic timing and sizzling chemistry with O’Toole set her performance apart. She knows she’s in a silly movie but never goes too over the top in her approach. The same applies to O’Toole, who proves a great comic and romantic partner. He screened several Cary Grant movies while preparing for the role, hoping to evoke Grant’s iconic blend of humor and elegance. He succeeded, striking the golden mean between goofiness and Prince Charming dreaminess with his lanky body and big blue eyes. The two are a movie team for the ages and it’s sad they never made more films together.
Overall, this is just an enjoyable lark of a film, a sexy but innocent caper suffused with mod Parisian glamor and enhanced by Wyler’s confident, polished direction. The heist is undoubtedly improbable and the love story is nothing less than a fairy tale in which two beautiful, witty people fall for one another within minutes– but the movie was never going for stark realism! If the movie has a chief flaw, it’s that it’s about fifteen minutes too long for such a frothy confection. However, the majority of the movie is so delightful that it hardly seems worth it to protest. This is the sort of movie you watch to escape the doldrums of reality, not to be reminded of it.
But how about the music? What does our “Johnny” Williams contribute to How to Steal a Million?
Williams’ music suits the movie perfectly. The key adjective for every element of Million is “playful,” and the score is no exception. Williams has a field day with different styles and instruments, particularly a brief electronic piece that drips with 60s-ness. This isn’t the grand Williams of Jaws and Star Wars. Here, he’s clearly indebted to Henry Mancini. As with Mancini’s work on The Pink Panther franchise, Williams’ music here is jazzy and bright, but also multi-faceted enough to never become predictable or mere glamorous background noise.
In his excellent podcast episode on Williams’ score, The Baton host Jeff Commings observes how Williams uses the movie’s central theme in different emotional contexts throughout the story. Over the opening credits, the theme captures the farcical business of the heist, promising comedy and light thrills. Later, the same melody is played in a romantic manner when Simon kisses Nicole for the first time. Both Hepburn’s reaction and the swooning music emphasize how Nicole’s strait-laced world has just been upturned.
(The love theme was also turned into a marketable pop ballad titled “Two Lovers,” complete with cheesy lyrics. Needless to say, I absolutely love it.)
One interesting element of the score that Commings notes on his podcast is that Williams avoids using too many French cliches despite the Parisian setting. The concertina makes an appearance in one place and the French national anthem is briefly referenced, but otherwise, Williams rejects to do the obvious, showing how willing he was to challenge himself even on a light comedy.
Other themes are used for humor and suspense. The fanfare which plays when the Cellini Venus is transported in an armored truck is serious and varied, playing up the humor of the passerby’s awe of what they don’t recognize as a fake. For example, as the truck passes a group of priests, the music briefly booms with church organs as the holy men cross themselves in reverence for the Cellini.
During a delightful sequence often referred to as “the key scene” by fans (I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen the movie), Williams concocts a light, groovy melody with electronic instruments (apparently his first time using electronics in his work). Musically, it’s a stand-out moment because of this difference in instrumentation, but it doesn’t feel out of place or dissonant at all. It always makes me smile and is destined to get stuck in any viewer’s head for hours afterward.
On the whole, the score is a joy to listen to, even isolated from the movie. Like Million itself, the lightness of the music often causes critics to undervalue it. I have heard some complain there is nothing of the later, more iconic Williams on display here, that this is all just “typical 60s fluff,” and therefore this makes the music subpar. That’s a pretty lame criticism. As it is, this is an above average effort, an infectious soundtrack with memorable melodies that perfectly accentuate the accompanying film.
Both How to Steal a Million and Williams’ music deserve their just dues—no, not as high art, but as cinematic champagne from a turbulent era. Charming and funny, the film is a fond farewell to Hollywood’s golden age and the perfect antidote to a bad day. I will always go to bat for both movie and score, critics be damned!
Audrey Hepburn by Barry Paris
Enchanted: The life of Audrey Hepburn by Donald Spoto
This post is for the Umpteenth Blogathon, hosted by CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. It’s a blogathon dedicated to the movies individual bloggers have watched obsessively over the years. Check out the other posts at this link!
SPOILER ALERT! Let it be known, I’m discussing this movie in a fair amount of detail including the ending. I imagine most people know how the Beauty and the Beast story ends, but just in case you’re uninitiated with this movie and want to go into this classic absolutely cold, then watch the movie before reading this.
Some people cannot rewatch movies. They don’t see a point. You already know what’s going to happen. Comedies become less funny. Suspenseful films become less suspenseful. Mystery films are spoiled by knowing who did it. Even art films don’t evade these beliefs about diminishing returns.
Yeah, that’s not me. I love rewatching my favorite films, be they blockbusters or Bergman. Any film that tells its story well will still hold up on repeat viewings. Not every movie is a one-and-done affair and to suggest otherwise is an insult to cinema as an art form, if you ask me.
I also don’t care how astute a filmgoer you believe yourself to be: a movie with many layers cannot be understood on a single watch, especially when the viewer is coming in fresh. Case in point: Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, a movie I have literally watched dozens of times and have yet to grow tired of, let alone fully comprehend.
Many might not get why that is the case. After all, aren’t fairy tales just simple stories for kids? Aren’t they full of bad advice about romance and happy endings? Songs like Maroon 5’s “Payphone” proclaim that “all those fairy tales are full of shit,” after all. Maybe when you get your understanding of fairy tales from popular culture, this might seem to be the case… but no. That’s not what fairy tales are, especially not Cocteau’s magnificent fairy tale film.
Fairy tales are not realist novels or self-help books. They reflect a complex inner reality in their presentation of humanity’s deepest desires and primal fears, but they are not meant to give you dating advice or comfort you with promises of a literal, concrete happily ever after. If anything, fairy tale worlds are perilous. In his book on Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, historian JB Kaufman describes the original context of fairy tales as less sunny than most imagine: “[F]airy tales were expected to contain elements of magic and enchantment but also commonly depicted a cold, forbidding, and dangerous world.” For that reason, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast is my idea of the perfect fairy tale film. There’s nothing sugary or safe about it.
The basic outline should be familiar: Belle, a lovely young woman, takes her father’s place as the prisoner of a Beast who lives in a remote castle. At first repulsed by his animalistic appearance, she comes to see the goodness within him. Her love transforms the Beast into a handsome prince and they marry.
However, Cocteau’s version stands apart from other retellings in its strange details and surrealistic touches. For one thing, Cocteau adds a human suitor for Belle, the handsome but unpleasant Avenant (Disney would famously reincarnate this character into the meme-inspiring, antler aficionado Gaston). Cocteau also tells this enchantment-filled story with a surprising lack of spectacle, setting this film apart from other cinematic fantasies of the time, like The Wizard of Oz or The Thief of Bagdad. Those films seek to wow you with their spectacular effects and color. Not so in Cocteau’s dreamlike, black-and-white universe.
In Cocteau’s world, there is no real spectacle to Belle gliding down a corridor when she first enters the enchanted castle or the candles along the wall igniting by themselves as Belle’s father walks past them. The effects are antique even for the 1940s, yet they somehow make the magic seem more matter-of-fact, further immersing us into the tactile reality of this world.
The characterizations of the titular beauty and beast are no less unsentimental than the magic. Jean Marais’ Beast is as tragic a figure as any classic movie monster, desperate for love and ashamed of his ugliness. He has the soul of a sensitive poet, yet he is also tormented by a desire to kill when he hears wildlife rustling in the bushes. Unlike Disney’s angry and selfish Beast, Marais’ Beast is a victim of vengeful spirits rather than his own bad behavior, making him all the more pitiable.*
Josette Day’s Belle is arguably even more complicated than the Beast and not in a way that immediately endears her to the audience. Her characterization was downright baffling to me the first few times I saw the movie. Used to the feisty bookworm of the Disney version, Day’s Belle seemed aloof, even haughty. However, I’ve come around to the character because there’s a lot more to her than is readily apparent.
In her introductory scene, Belle acts the archetypal Cinderella: dressed in rags, polishing the floor, protesting the ardent affections of Avenant. But even in this scene, as she defends her sisters from Avenant’s barbed comments and claims her father is her sole priority, there is a coyness to her interaction with Avenant, a slight flirtatiousness– of course, that flirtiness evaporates the moment Avenant decides to act like a caveman (dare we say, like a beast?), but it does imply Belle desires something beyond a life of household chores and somber filial duty.
But Belle does not totally subvert our expectations until she’s in the enchanted castle. At first terrified of the Beast, she quickly learns he means her no harm after he carries her to a sumptuous bedchamber and leaves her in peace. Courteous despite his hairy face and compulsive need to hunt, the Beast is the inverse of the handsome but aggressive Avenant. However, Belle’s attitude towards the Beast is just as complex as it is towards her human suitor. Despite claiming “I would never wish you the slightest harm,” Belle can be blunt and callous. For example, though she is aware of the Beast’s self-loathing, she calls him “an animal” when stroking him like a cat.
Though Belle denies any deeper feelings for the Beast, her attraction towards him is palpable. Roger Ebert famously observed how she “toys with a knife that is more than a knife” when rejecting the Beast’s first dinnertime marriage proposal. Later, she takes sensual delight in having him drink water from her bare hands. These scenes flaunt Belle’s erotic power over the Beast, complicating the idea that this is some Stockholm Syndrome fantasy. If anything, it is a power fantasy, with Belle becoming the imperious mistress she refuses to be in her own home. Even the scene where the Beast appears at Belle’s threshold, shirt undone and hands smoking with blood, every bit a virile force, Belle is the one who holds the power, cowering the Beast with a fierce look as she demands he clean himself up.
Unlike the Disney film, in which Belle’s love creates both inner and outer change in the Beast, the Cocteau film transforms both of the lovers. Belle returns to the dying Beast, tearfully confessing that “I am the monster” in failing to keep her promise to return to him. The Beast then transforms into a handsome prince– though that description is debatable if you aren’t fond of ruffled collars.
What are we to make of this transformation? The former Beast seems content enough (no more worries about shedding), but Belle is definitely conflicted. She’s astonished by this miracle and acts a bit coquettish when speaking with the prince, just as she did with Avenant earlier. However, disappointment is palpable when she confesses she will have to get used to the prince, who must seem all too ordinary compared to the magnificent Beast.
Some have taken this ending to be a true downer. Greta Garbo (or Marlene Dietrich, depending on what version of his apocryphal story you hear) famously wailed, “Give me back my Beast!” as she exited the theater. Cocteau himself forecasted a painfully ordinary happily ever after for Belle, in which she could only look forward to bearing children.
Maybe I’m more of a cautious optimist, but it’s hard for me to read the ending as THAT bleak, despite Cocteau’s intentions. The conclusion is undoubtedly bittersweet because the Beast was so majestic compared to the prince (but in the movies, isn’t suffering always more majestic than bedazzled bliss?), but that last image of the lovers ascending into the clouds is hardly a gloomy one and the triumphant music does not suggest a future of endless diaper changes and domestic squabbling. Whatever “ever after” these two encounter, it isn’t going to be as simple as “they lived happily ever after” or “and then they were miserable, life sucks doesn’t it?” From the start, nothing in this movie was that simple, so why should the ending be?
To wrap it up, La Belle et la Bete is a film I can return to again and again because that quiet, seductive magic humming in every gorgeous black-and-white frame has never died out for me. I have a sneaking suspicion that I will never wholly “get” this movie, for all my ruminations on the psychology of the characters or the nature of the magic. And to be honest, in a world where a great many movies are so simple as to barely make an impression beyond their runtime, that’s a wonderful, wonderful quality to have.
* Let it be known that if it sounds like I’m dumping on the Disney film, that is not at all my intention. The 1991 Disney film is a favorite of mine as well– my second favorite movie version of the story, actually. Now the 2017 remake– that abomination is another deal.
Beauty and the Beast: Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale by Betsy Hearne
It’s been my wish to up my blogging game this past year. Instead of standard reviews, I’ve been trying to incorporate more research into my posts and actually offer something beyond “movie good, watch it.” On the whole, I think I was successful and I’m pleased with what I put onto this site over the last several months. In the new year, I plan on redoing the site contents, so if you want to see what else I have posted on here without scrolling endlessly you’ll be all set. Within the next two months, I have two blogathon posts in the making: a piece on Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete and a look at an early John Williams’ score.
In the meantime, here are the posts from 2021 I am proudest of– they represent my best work on this website to date.
This was written for the Classic Movie Muse’s It’s a Wonderful Life blogathon. I’ve always loved Mr. Gower as a character, an alcoholic and melancholy figure in the rather idyllic setting of Bedford Falls, but I knew little of the actor who brought him to life beyond the fact that he played Jesus in the silent King of Kings. It was great to appreciate the man’s ample stage and film experience. Though forgotten today, Warner enjoyed a long career as both a star and character actor. Even if you’ve never heard of him, he’s probably been in one of your classic film favorites.
Controversy, thy name is Carol Dempster, DW Griffith’s one-time girlfriend and leading lady. While I would not consider myself a Dempster fan, I have always found her fascinating, going back to when I first read Richard Schickel’s DW Griffith biography when I was still in high school. Dempster was a teenage dancer when first discovered by Griffith, who tried to make a proper star of her in the 1920s. That never happened for a variety of reasons, but Dempster’s contemporary reputation was not the critical wash-out certain historians say. Inspired by a viewing of Isn’t Life Wonderful (in which Dempster gives a powerful performance) and fan magazine clippings which showed some movie fans did appreciate Dempster, I wanted to learn more about the woman.
For Silentology’s Silent Movie Day blogathon, I wrote about the highest-grossing movies of 1921. It was interesting to see what drew audiences to the theater in those days– in a sense, there was more variety than now, when it seems like superhero pictures and endless franchise installments dominate the end-of-year top tens. However, audiences of yesterday also enjoyed their spectacle, particularly since 1921 audiences had also experienced a major pandemic and other assorted troubles they wanted to escape.
This was easily my favorite post of 2021, an examination of the critically reviled 1998 revival of Frederick Knott’s Wait Until Dark starring Quentin Tarantino of all people. While trying to find production information about the more famous (and better received) 1967 film version, I fell into a research rabbit hole with the revival once I came across old interviews with the actors, director, and producers, conducted months before the show became something no one wanted to discuss on the record, so cataclysmic was its failure. There have been online pieces looking back at this short-lived production, but few go beyond Tarantino’s allegedly wooden performance. I wanted to know what the revival was like, why this play (considered an old chestnut by sophisticated critics) was revived on Broadway to begin with, and how the creative team attempted to modernize it. The answers were all fascinating to me, making me think about the challenges of trying to revive yesteryear’s hits and the double-edged issue of using star power to draw an audience that might not have come otherwise.
Good riddance to 2021. Not betting much on 2022, but I’m gonna start it off with some movie watching. I got a decent sized pile of DVDs and Blurays for Christmas, so time to break them in with a cup of tea and a box of chocolates (I’ll get back to cutting down on sugar when the holidays end!).
My official first watch of 2022 is the 1935 A Tale of Two Cities, a magnificent achievement in adapting Dickens for the screen. I saw this one on TCM some time ago and remember liking it. Coming back to it, I’m stunned by how well the filmmakers were able to condense the story down to two hours. It can be a bit overwhelming for those who have not read the book, but it’s not incomprehensible and moves at a good clip. By the time Darnay was tricked into going back to France, I was surprised at how much time had passed since I pressed play.
The movie makes a few changes from the novel, namely in buffing up the relationship between Sydney and Lucie. They actually feel like friends, whereas in the book Lucie seems to tolerate Sydney more than anything else. I also appreciate Elizabeth Allan’s performance– Lucie tends to set my teeth on edge in the book, while here she’s presented as a little less naive.
Really, all the actors are all exceptional. The 1930s acting style fits perfectly for Dickens’ stylized worlds, bringing more affected characters like Miss Pross, Madame Defarge, or Jerry Cruncher to more glorious life than a more “realistic and gritty” rendition would allow. Ronald Colman is particularly amazing, channeling both Sydney’s sardonic wit and tragic, self-loathing core.
Being a product of the mid-1930s– and therefore only half a decade into the 100% all talking era– A Tale of Two Cities features plenty of silent film style flourishes. Intertitles are used to transition between sections of the story. The repetition of Madame Defarge’s anguished “Why do you bear it?” during the Bastille sequence is something right out of the late silent period, yet it is a flourish that suits the intense drama of the sequence.
Watching this movie is to experience pure old-time movie spectacle: the sweep of actual, non-CG-generated crowds, elaborate costumes and sets, big emotions played out on a grand scale, no chance of a million sequels and spin-offs. Absolutely fantastic. Highly recommended.
Bedford Falls is populated by a variety of rich and memorable characters. Any fan of It’s a Wonderful Life certainly has their favorites. Mine has always been Mr. Gower, the alcoholic pharmacist played by character actor HB Warner. Warner is not exactly a household name, though if you’re a classic movie fan, you’ve undoubtedly seen him, either in It’s a Wonderful Life or as one of the “waxworks” playing cards with Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. However, he enjoyed a long career on stage and screen.
Warner was born in London, England in 1876. Acting appears to have run in his family: his grandfather and father were both prominent stage performers, and his sister Grace would become a stage manager. Despite familial expectation that he would study medicine, Warner studied acting abroad and joined his father’s stock company instead. He toured throughout England for many years before coming to America at the turn of the twentieth century, where he made his Broadway debut in 1903.
Warner began his long association with the movies when he was cast in the 1914 film The Lost Paradise. He became a leading man in no time, playing everything from Ruritanian princes to morphine addicts. Unfortunately, many of his 1910s movies are unavailable for viewing, either from lack of access or their being lost. The most intriguing of these is Wrath, a film that was part of a series on the Seven Deadly Sins.
During the 1920s, Warner worked both in Hollywood and on Broadway. Once again, many of the films he headed are unavailable for viewing, the most regrettable title being 1927’s Sorrell and Son, a role he would later replay when the story was turned into a talkie in 1934. However, some of the movies have made it to home video in recent years, such as Zaza, where he plays a respectable diplomat who falls in love with Gloria Swanson’s showgirl, and the historical drama The Divine Woman where he plays Lord Hamilton to Corinne Griffith’s Emma Hart.
For a long time, Warner’s most famous film role was Jesus Christ in Cecil B. DeMille’s astonishing 1927 epic The King of Kings. Though older than the biblical Jesus by two decades, Warner made an ideal Christ, serene and compassionate as well as virile and persevering. He achieves an ideal balance between the mortal and divine sides of Christ, which is easier said than done judging by subsequent actors’ tendencies to favor one side over the other.
As convincing a Jesus as he was on-screen, Warner was a womanizer and alcoholic in real life. Regardless, DeMille was determined that Warner behave himself during shooting so as to not compromise the production’s sense of holiness. Warner responded by having an affair with an extra and drinking it up as usual. Much to DeMille’s irritation, his meek and mild Jesus also slept onboard a luxurious yacht every night.
Whatever Warner’s off-screen behavior, The King of Kings was a massive hit with a long shelf life. Even after the talkie revolution and the cultural dismissal of silent cinema, The King of Kings remained in circulation well into the 1950s and became an Easter staple on television.
Warner’s career was unaffected by the coming of sound. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, he flourished as a character actor. Notable projects from this period of his career include The Trial of Mary Dugan, Five Star Final, Unholy Love, A Tale of Two Cities, The Rains Came, New Moon, Topper Returns, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and several Bulldog Drummond movies.
Warner’s health declined in the 1950s, but he was determined to keep working. By the time he agreed to take a small role in DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, he was living in a nursing home and had to be carried on the set in a stretcher. Regardless of his health, Warner’s presence awed the cast and crew, and he performed his last scene with poignancy. He would die two years later at the age of 82.
While his film work is extensive, Warner’s most notable output comes from his work for Frank Capra. He would appear in You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but his turn as Mr. Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life is undoubtedly now his most famous role, silent or sound.
It’s a Wonderful Life, for all its small-town coziness and triumphant ending, is a dark, dark movie, and Mr. Gower’s poignant character attests to that more than any other in the film. Haunted and hard-edged, he could have walked right out of a film noir. It was an unusual role for Warner by this time. He gleefully told reporters that DeMille would just lose it when he saw he was playing “the damnedest, dirtiest bum you ever saw, a proper drunk.”
From the start, the Gower part is a reversal of the more dignified roles Warner was used to, even if this character is technically an important member of the community as the town pharmacist. Take Gower’s introduction. It does not leave a good impression: he’s tyrannical and drunk, bossing young George around. At first, we might think he’s just another crank like Mr. Potter. However, George and the audience quickly learn Gower was informed his son died of influenza and he’s turned to alcohol to dull the pain.
Gower’s distracted and irritable in his inebriation, so wrapped up in his suffering that he doesn’t realize he’s about to poison a child by mistake. Even worse, he deliberately slaps the hell out of young George when he thinks his failure to deliver the medication was due to laziness. When George explains his actions and Gower realizes how close he came to killing a kid, his remorse and relief are so beautifully presented.
Everything about Warner’s performance is so deeply felt. His work is never a broad portrait of drunkenness and we get to see enough of the goodness within him to where he feels like a genuine person. He literally makes me cry in some of his scenes, especially when he shows up at the bar during the alternate universe sequence, once again dazed and drunk, but this time with the additional burden of being a social pariah since George was never there to stop him from going through with his fatal mistake. He comes off like a figure out of the Inferno, damned even by the criminals and low-lives within the hellhole that is Pottersville.
It’s interesting how Warner’s two signature roles– Jesus Christ and Mr. Gower– could not be more different. Interestingly, both deal with redemption: Christ is obviously the one doing the redeeming in The King of Kings, while Gower is a lost soul redeemed through George’s kindness who then gets to return the favor at the end of the movie. It’s a dynamic part, one that I appreciate with every Christmas-time viewing of this classic film. It remains an integral part of the movie and a testament to Warner’s often unsung skill as a character actor extraordinaire.
Empire of Dreams by Scott Eyman
The Epic Film: From Myth to Blockbuster by Constantine Santas