Movie of the Month: The Lineup (dir. Don Siegel, 1958)

(I’m changing my Short of the Month bit to Movie of the Month. I’m sure there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth lol.)

In observance of Noirvember, I’m recommending the last noir I watched, Don Siegel’s The Lineup. Set in San Francisco, it’s a taut little crime thriller that cuts between two plot threads: a trio of crooks out to recover smuggled narcotics and the cops on their trail.

While the first fifteen minutes leave the impression that you’re about to get a standard police procedural, the moment the criminals appear, it’s clear you’re in for a treat. Each of the crooks is given a strong personality and the dynamic between them is uneasy throughout. One is more restrained, hoping to get the job done as quietly as possible, while the driver is an alcoholic with a bottle hidden on his person.

The shining star of the whole thing is a young Eli Wallach as “Dancer,” the most violent of the smugglers. Brimming with pent-up rage beneath his deadpan manner, he leaves a trail of bodies in his wake as he goes to uncover his illegal goods. He’s so engaging that he makes the more heroic characters look absolutely colorless by comparison.

The movie’s most noirish element has to be that undercurrent of danger in a seemingly civilized society, that sense that no one can truly be trusted. At one point, Wallach puts on a courtly, charming manner to persuade one of his marks to take him back to her apartment where his next shipment is hidden inside her daughter’s doll.** There’s something understated yet dreadful about how this woman– and indeed, so many other characters in the film– takes Wallach at face value, never suspecting his unsavory occupation or violent nature. It’s as if she thinks the truly evil parts of the world will never touch her and her upper-middle class life– by the end of the movie, it will be clear that there is no real insulation from evil for anyone.

** I just realized between a trio of bad guys searching for heroin and one of the shipments being placed inside a child’s doll, this sounds an awful lot like Wait Until Dark, which I just did a big project on last month– I swear to God, my picking this movie was just a coincidence, I’m not that obsessed (I hope).

The Singin’ in the Rain Blogathon: Examining the Broadway Ballet

This post is for the Singin’ in the Rain blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Muse.

“Gotta dance!”

Despite brimming with gorgeous production design and iconic moments, Singin’ in the Rain‘s thirteen-minute Broadway Ballet sequence is the most controversial episode of the entire film. Gene Kelly thought it was too long. Co-director Stanley Donen’s distaste for the sequence was so great that he actually doctored a print requested by fellow filmmaker Julie Dassin, cutting more than half of the ballet out because he thought it interrupted the flow of the narrative to no purpose. Go online and it isn’t uncommon to find this sort-of exchange among movie geeks:

Movie geek 1: “What’s the point of the Broadway Melody scene?”

Movie geek 2: “Satisfying Gene Kelly’s ego.”

Considering how Arthur Freed was the one who pushed for a big ballet sequence rather than Kelly (whose original conception of the “Broadway Melody” number was more modest), this isn’t the right answer. However, the question still stands– does the Broadway Ballet have any true justification beyond
“we need a showstopper to bookend the movie”?

It is true that the ballet does not progress the main plot of Singin’ in the Rain (though neither does the big fashion show segment of “Beautiful Girl” or the entirety of “Make ‘Em Laugh”). It’s best to compare the Broadway Ballet to the most celebrated dream ballet of them all, the seventeen-minute dance sequence in the 1948 classic The Red Shoes, itself a big inspiration for Gene Kelly.

What makes the ballet of The Red Shoes tower above others of its kind is the way it delves into the psychology of the protagonist. The sequence is openly surreal, with the young dancer projecting the two men in her life onto the other characters. Reality and fantasy blur, illustrating the dancer’s inner conflict between art and real life. Singin’ in the Rain is a much lighter movie than The Red Shoes, but the Broadway Ballet is arguably a similar psychological projection for Kelly’s swashbuckling hero, Don Lockwood.

Consider his character for a moment. In the first few minutes of the film, we learn that Don comes from a dance background. When success on vaudeville eludes him, he resorts to film work, first as an on-set musician and then as a stuntman. He stumbles into movie stardom in a manner that suggests anything but his “dignity, always dignity” motto, becoming successful but arrogant and complacent. The talkie revolution endangers his star status. The great irony is that a return to his undignified song and dance roots is what salvages Don’s career, making him a perfect fit for changing times.

Now, what does this have to do with the ballet sequence? A lot since the ballet both reflects Don’s character development and the Hollywood milieu in which he works.

A breakdown of the sequence

The Broadway Ballet stuns from the very start, pulling back from Gene Kelly to reveal a massive set dominated by vibrant neon signs and colorfully-clad dancers. The nameless protagonist of this sequence– who I’ll refer to as “the hoofer”– is almost entirely the opposite of Don’s swashbuckling hero persona. If Don the silent movie star is a mash-up of Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert, then the hoofer is pure Harold Lloyd, the great slapstick comedian who took on an enthusiastic but hapless everyman persona. His characters tended to long for success in the social world just as the hoofer craves Broadway stardom.

After passing a series of colorful characters on his way to the theater, the hoofer makes his audition rounds, only impressing the third and final agent. He is ushered to a speakeasy, which is presented as a weird kind of haven for those who “gotta dance.” I have always wondered why. Is it because the speakeasy represents a space where normal, stifling social rules no longer apply? Is it a space where the joy of dancing for its own sake can be appreciated? It would seem to be a liberating place given how easily the misfit hoofer is able to energize the crowd, but the presence of mobsters complicates this romantic view. In that sense, the speakeasy might be a bit like Hollywood itself, a place where art and money uneasily sit side by side.

Enter Cyd Charisse as the vamp.

With her Louise Brooks bob and smoke curling from her nostrils, Charisse’s vamp dominates this whole sequence with her slinky sexuality. Her green dress calls to mind both the dollar bill and the serpent in Eden, tempting the hoofer into the cynical, covetous side of show business. The dance between the two evolves from a seduction to a borderline tryst, ending with the vamp seemingly on the verge of submitting before the sparkle of a diamond bracelet lures her back into the arms of her coin-flipping mobster lover.

I’ve seen some claim the vamp is a dream stand-in for the power-hungry Lina Lamont, but I think she’s a general representation of what the hoofer (and Don) could potentially become: a sellout uninterested in art for its own sake.

Before the hoofer can become too broken-hearted, the stage agent wrenches him off and we get a short “rise to the top” montage. Ditching the Harold Lloyd look for a Harpo Marx makeover, the hoofer becomes a burlesque star. He moves onto vaudeville, dressed in a snappy striped suit and a boater, before moving onto the top hat and tails world of the Ziegfield Follies.

Whenever I watch this movie with other people, no one ever fails to note how much less involved the dancing becomes with every supposed upgrade to a ritzier venue. The burlesque and vaudeville dancers crackle with energy, while the beautifully gowned Follies showgirls barely move. The same applies to the hoofer once he’s made good: he puts more effort into tugging at his immaculate cuffs than impressing with any creative choreography. It’s definitely funny, but also a subtle indicator that success for an artist can breed stagnation.

Fading out to images of applauding hands and then a spinning roulette wheel, the film transitions to a casino where the hoofer makes a grand entrance. The carousing inside suggests the post-premiere party Don attends at the start of the movie. His success is cemented, but the sudden presence of the vamp in white creates a mood of longing.

For all his success, it is clear something essential is missing from his life. Convention suggests it might be the desire to share his success with a romantic partner, but arguably, there’s something else at play.

The casino morphs into a pink, Dali-style dreamscape populated only by the dancer and the vamp, suddenly transformed into a long-haired ingenue with a white veil trailing behind her in the wind. This is a dream sequence WITHIN a dream sequence, with the hoofer projecting his romantic aspirations onto the vamp.

Just as some link the green-clad vamp with Lina Lamont, it is also common to see the ingenue figure as a stand-in for Kathy Selden, both because of her romantic innocence and because the pink set is reminiscent of the movie stage setting of “You Were Meant for Me.” That’s a legitimate connection, but continuing with my more abstract interpretation, I think the ingenue is the artistic reverse image of the vamp, representing creative passion unsullied by greed. It’s notable that when the dream ends and the hoofer eagerly approaches his would-be lady love, she tosses him a coin before slinking off to the mobster. She rejects his artistic idealism, suggesting that at the top (and by extension, in show business in general) there’s only room for money.

If we are to see Kathy Selden in anyone in this sequence, I would actually argue she’s better represented by the fresh-faced dancer the hoofer encounters outside the casino. Dressed in the same Harold Lloyd glasses and banana vest get-up, this newcomer’s unspoiled joy in his art rekindles the hoofer’s passion for dance, not unlike the way Kathy helps Don revitalize his endangered movie career by reminding him of his undignified “hoofer” background, now the key to rescuing his career. In the end is the beginning, to use an old cliche.

And then, after the sequence comes to a glorious end and we return to the “real world” of the film, studio head RF claims he “can’t quite picture” Don’s cinematic flights of fantasy. Though Singin’ in the Rain treats RF sympathetically (considering he’s a studio head), he is in the end a money man, ever practical. It’s fitting that even the closing joke of the entire sequence emphasizes the ballet’s presentation of the tension between art and business.

“Broadway always wears a smile”

Picking a favorite number in Singin’ in the Rain is like picking a favorite child. It just seems wrong. For me, it’s a toss up between “Make ‘Em Laugh,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” and this massive ballet sequence. But out of the three, the Broadway Ballet strikes me as one of the finest examples of what Hitchcock once called “pure cinema.” The choreography, editing, sets, costumes, and strong visuals tell a story that is compelling on its own, even without its connections to Don’s journey as an artist or the tug of war between money and artistry in Hollywood. To cut a single frame seems a sacrilege (my apologies to Stanley Donen).

Sources:

BFI Classics: Singin’ in the Rain by Peter Wollen

Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and his movies by Stephen M. Silverman

Singin’ in the Rain: The making of an American masterpiece by Earl J. Hess and Pratibha A. Dabholkar

Happy birthday William Wyler

Today is William Wyler’s 120th birthday.

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.

Carrie

I couldn’t find a trailer for this one, so enjoy this small clip which demonstrates the assured direction and performances of this underrated movie.

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.

Wuthering Heights

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.

The Collector

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

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.

The Heiress

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.

On George Lucas, The Searchers, and cinematic quotations

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.

Image source: The Cinema Archives

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.

Lucas’ homage to The Searchers during the burning of the Lars farm was noticed and commented on even back in 1977. Second image source: Second Reel

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.

Image source: The Cinema Archives

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.

Sources:

https://kitbashed.com/blog/the-searchers/

https://kitbashed.com/blog/there-was-once-a-certain-kind-of-cinema

The Searchers: BFI Classics by Edward Buscombe

Favorite posts of 2021

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.

HB Warner, a retrospective of his career and a reflection on Mr. Gower

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.

Carol Dempster birthday tribute

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.

The greatest hits of 1921

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.

“If you thought you knew what terror was,” or that time Tarantino was a Broadway star

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.

It’s a Wonderful Life blogathon: HB Warner, a retrospective of his career and a reflection on Mr. Gower

This is my entry for the It’s a Wonderful Life blogathon. Go on over to the Classic Movie Muse’s blog to check out the other contributions!

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.

Harold Hartsell and a young HB Warner in a 1910 production of Alias Jimmy Valentine. Image source: Wikipedia

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.

HB Warner as a morphine addict in the 1916 drama The Beggar of Cawporne. Image source: Wikipedia

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.

A magazine ad for When We Were Twenty-One, a starring project for Warner in the early 1920s. Image source: Wikipedia

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.

Warner as Jesus Christ, his most famous role during the silent era. Image source: Criterion Collection

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 with Norma Shearer in a lobby card for The Trial of Mary Dugan. Image source: normashearer.com

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.

HB Warner in It’s a Wonderful Life. Image source: Vanity Fair

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.

Sources:

Empire of Dreams by Scott Eyman

The Epic Film: From Myth to Blockbuster by Constantine Santas

LIFE: It’s a Wonderful Life

Who Was Who in the Theatre: 1912-1976 Vol. 4 Q-Z 

Reflecting on my favorite version of A Christmas Carol

‘Tis the season to binge your holiday favorites! And few Christmas stories are as beloved as Charles Dickens’ enduring classic, A Christmas Carol. You might dread dealing with cranky relatives at Christmas, yet we all seem to look forward to revisiting fiction’s favorite misanthrope Ebeneezer Scrooge.

Pretty much everyone has a go-to adaptation of A Christmas Carol. God knows, there’s one for every taste. Want A Christmas Carol with a large dollop of Old Hollywood gloss? Here’s the Reginald Owen version! Enjoy warm sentiment and meta comedy? Here’s The Muppet Christmas Carol! Like your Dickens extra dark and moody? Here’s the George C. Scott movie! Want musical numbers and a campy as hell Jacob Marley? Here’s the Albert Finney version!

To name the 1951 Alastair Sim adaptation as my favorite isn’t going to score me any originality points. It’s one of the most popular versions, tied with the Scott movie as the definitive cinematic Carol. I watch at least three or four versions of this story a year when December rolls around, but the Sim version is the only one I put on without fail.

What sets the Sim version apart for me is its masterful tone. A great many Carols are too sentimental or sweet, taking the bite out of Dickens’ social criticism and blunting Scrooge’s redemption. And as admirable as I find a great many elements in the much-loved Scott version, I always thought it had the opposite problem, becoming so excessively grim that it undercuts Dickens’ palpable sense of holiday cheer and communal joy (that’s my unpopular opinion for the day—in the name of Christmas, please don’t put a stake of holly through my heart for it!).

Dickens’ original story is so beloved because of its multi-faceted nature. It’s a scary ghost story with a gloriously joyful conclusion. It criticizes society’s callousness towards the unfortunate while affirming that even the worst people can change. The Sim version achieves all of this perfectly and I think the key to that success is Sim in the lead. His characterization is so rich and dynamic. Some Scrooges are such monsters that we don’t want to see them redeemed, so it’s important that Scrooge not be 100% off-putting in his earliest scenes. The best Scrooges infuse their crotchety callousness with a grim sense of humor, and I think Sim managed that best of all.

Humor aside, what defines Sim’s approach to the character is its palpable vulnerability. To put it bluntly, this Scrooge is a sad man who hides his pain behind a hostile front. The most heartbreaking moment in the film is when the aged Scrooge realizes he ran out on his dying sister right before he could listen to her request that he take care of her newborn son. Scrooge’s body trembles with waves of regret and self-loathing. He sees firsthand just how hardened he became, even towards the one person who loved him most.

Fan’s early death and the absorption of Fezziwig’s company leave indelible wounds on Scrooge’s psyche. These avatars of love and warmth being utterly destroyed, Scrooge is left with the conclusion that money will be the sole means of protecting himself from pain. The young Scrooge’s line to Jacob Marley during their first meeting is telling:

“I think the world is becoming a very hard and cruel place, Mr. Marley. One must steel oneself to survive it and not be crushed under with the weak and the infirm.”

On that note, few other versions make Scrooge’s subsequent rejection of his fiancée (here renamed Alice) more credible than here. Contemptuous of weakness and poverty, his once-beloved Alice holds little allure for a man obsessed with “gain.”

Sim’s Scrooge also boasts a wonderfully credible transformation. This isn’t a case of some mean old man being scared into reformation through hellfire—this Scrooge is a man on the verge of total despair. It’s not that he just does not want to change: he also believes it’s too late. He’s already immured himself in the deceased Marley’s miserable, dilapidated house (a set which eerily resembles the Bates house from Psycho… or is it just me that thinks that?), treating himself with no more kindness than anyone else. Scrooge’s inner gloom is also reflected in the shadowy, filthy Victorian London sets, lit very much like any hard-nosed noir of the period.

And then Dr. Pretorious himself shows up.

Contemporary reviewers slammed the movie for its darkness, but this willingness to show emotional trauma, poverty, and despair only heightens the story’s moments of compassion and joy. They are no longer taken for granted. It is hard to do good in a seemingly unjust and hopeless world. It is hard to face the day— even Christmas Day— with a heart weighed down by grief and resentment. And yet, when we see the weary but good-hearted Alice comforting the poor at a shelter or the put-upon Cratchits making the best of their meager holiday feast, these moments hit the viewer that much harder because we understand their greater significance. These people have been beaten down by life. By all means, they should be as bitter as Scrooge and yet they choose compassion over self-isolation.

This too is why Scrooge’s awakening on Christmas morning gets me in the Sim version the way no other adaptation does. He’s EARNED it. His giddiness is palpable after so much inner struggle and reflection. I’ve got about every frame and line from this movie committed to memory, and yet this scene never fails to lift my spirits and make me smile like an eggnog-addled fool. It’s truly the perfect finale to a movie I would consider as close to perfect as movies can get.

Bernard Herrmann blogathon: On Dangerous Ground (1951)

This post is for the Bernard Herrmann blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Muse. Check out the listings for more Herrmann-related material. The blogathan lasts from October 29th to October 31st.

Image source: Wikipedia.

On Dangerous Ground had a famously muddled production and has enjoyed an equally muddled critical afterlife. Director Nicholas Ray considered the movie a failure and producer John Houseman found it “sort of a mess… but awfully good.” Now that the passage of time elevated this once minor work to cult status, generations of critics and movie geeks have argued its merits. Is the story structure, severing the film into two tonally disparate halves, merely uneven or is it bold? Do the romantic elements complement the gritty noir elements or do they declare open war upon them?

The movie starts like any typical noir. Jim Wilson is a big-city cop who’s been hardened by constant exposure to corruption and criminality. His ordinary world encompasses darkened alleys and shabby apartments populated by every kind of scumbag. Not above beating the hell out of suspects to get confessions, Jim is too much even for the police force. His captain opts to send Jim to the snow-covered countryside where there’s a murderer on the loose, hoping the assignment will cool Jim off literally and metaphorically.

Depending on your perspective, this is either where the movie loses its way or gets interesting. Jim encounters a reflection of his own anger in the victim’s father, who swears bloody vengeance on the killer. During the search, he also comes across the lonely Mary Malden, a sensitive young blind woman who knows the killer’s whereabouts but is not willing to reveal him. It turns out Mary is the killer’s sister and she’s hoping he’ll agree to be hospitalized for his mental illness rather than continue to run from the law.

Image source: The Signal Watch.

On Dangerous Ground is definitely a film of two halves. While most people prefer the gritty urban fare in the beginning, I take more to the latter section. The desolate beauty of the wintry countryside sets the film apart from your typical city-bound noir, createing an atmosphere both dreadful and romantic. The black-and-white visuals make the sense of cold palpable, especially when the film goes inside Mary’s cabin, dominated by deep shadows and the intense white fire of the hearth.

What stands out the most in the story is the fragile relationship between Jim and Mary. Ryan and Lupino could both channel hardboiled toughness and soulful yearning, making them an ideal screen pairing. Their characters are desperately, even ontologically lonely people, lending a desperate quality to their budding romance. Not everyone likes this part of the script, feeling any love that doesn’t end in disillusionment or death has no place in noir. However, I think there’s room in film noir for movies that show some glimmer of hope in an otherwise corrupt world. Murder, My Sweet has a similarly romantic subplot between Philip Marlowe and a fresh-faced ingenue, and no one ever contests its noir status.

“The Death Hunt”

The one element of the film everyone agrees upon is the quality of Bernard Herrmann’s score. For his part, Herrmann liked the movie and claimed he was “very partial to it” in a 1971 interview. Herrmann’s score brings together the contrasting elements of menace and romance in a chocolate/peanut butter style combination. This contrast is especially clear in two pieces from the score: “Death Hunt,” an intense, brassy composition which plays while the men are pursuing the killer, and the gentle, romantic theme associated with Mary. The gentler music is soulful and moving, perfectly complimenting the central romance and the quiet, desperate yearnings of both lovers.

The suite

Whether you see On Dangerous Ground as a truncated curiosity or an underrated gem, there’s no denying the power of the film’s many parts. Herrmann’s contribution might just be the glue that holds everything together.

Sources:

A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann by Steven C. Smith

Happy birthday, Frederick Knott!

Frederick Knott and Grace Kelly on the set of Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. I appreciate the pun on the back of Knott’s chair.

Playwright Frederick Knott was born 105 years ago today.

The son of Quaker missionaries, he had a distinguished resume by all accounts: he studied law and played tennis before serving in the British Army during World War II, attaining the rank of major by the time he left the service in 1946. But it is primarily for his theater work that Knott is remembered today, even if he did not write many plays.

Exposure to Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas instilled a fascination with the stage from a young age. The child Knott was so enamored with them that he staged his own versions in the family garden. Though he would make his name as a playwright, his first play would not be produced until he was in his thirties. Initially, he tried to make it as a screenwriter, most notably adapting material for horror legend Terence Fisher’s first Hammer project, The Last Page.

Knott’s breakout hit Dial M for Murder struggled to be realized—it was rejected repeatedly as having little box office potential. Frustrated, Knott managed to get the play produced for television by the BBC in 1952, where it made enough of a splash to garner the interest of the West End. The play would become an unexpected smash, quickly moving to Broadway and then attracting the attention of Hollywood. Alfred Hitchcock’s film version also proved a great success with Ray Milland and Grace Kelly headlining the project.

Dial M for Murder has been adapted for television multiple times over the years. The above image is from a 1958 production starring John Williams (who was also in Hitchcock’s famous version), Maurice Evans (a veteran of the Broadway production, and Rosemary Harris.

Like the later Columbo series, Dial M is less a “whodunit” than a “how will they be caught.” It follows the sociopathic and greedy Tony Wendice as he plots to have his unfaithful heiress wife murdered before she leaves him for her lover, taking her millions along. The plan is meticulous with seemingly no detail overlooked, but small errors during the execution make big problems and Tony has to improvise while his wife’s paramour (who just happens to be a crime fiction novelist) and a meddling detective wait in the wings.

From then on, Knott was most associated with thrilling potboilers, though he was hardly a prolific writer. There were years-long gaps between his plays: nine between Dial M and Write Me a Murder, and then five between Write and Wait Until Dark. In a sense, Knott became a victim of Dial M’s success: he expressed fears about getting into a “rut” by writing thriller after thriller, but his one attempt at dark comedy (Mr. Fox of Venice) failed to garner interest and so a master of twisty thrillers he has remained.

Knott’s two 1960s thrillers: Write Me a Murder and Wait Until Dark.

Write Me a Murder is an underrated piece of work following mystery authors David and Julie, a pair of illicit lovers who try to enact the perfect murder on the latter’s loathed husband. It had a respectable run, but would be overshadowed by Knott’s next and final play, Wait Until Dark, a sinister home invasion thriller. New York native Susy Hendrix is a blind woman targeted by a trio of cunning drug smugglers, their struggle culminating in a showdown that put both the characters and the audience in near-total darkness. Like Dial M, Wait Until Dark received a popular Hollywood adaptation, with Audrey Hepburn giving the final performance of her superstar heyday in the lead role.

Like Dial M, Wait Until Dark was enormously successful and has been revived often over the years, though never more infamously than the 1998 Broadway production with Quentin Tarantino as the villain. How I wish there was video of it.

Wait Until Dark’s success on stage and screen closed out Knott’s career. Though many an advance was thrown his way, Knott was content to coast off the continued success of his thrillers for the remaining decades of his life, even though he still had ideas for other stage work running through his brain. He would pass away in 2002 at the age of 86.

Knott has left an indelible impact, even if his name is only known to theater geeks and classic film buffs. His thrillers could almost be considered a trilogy on the myth of the perfect crime. All feature a criminal mastermind with a major case of hubris, his plans undermined by overlooked details and unexpected behavior from the potential victims.

Knott also had a good handle on witty dialogue and concise characterization. He had a particular talent for creating memorable villains, each unique and menacing in their own way, but his sympathetic characters like the meek but unrelenting Julie of Write Me a Murder or the vulnerable yet tough-minded Susy of Wait Until Dark are also well-drawn on the page, parts any actress would be proud to take on.

Knott’s writing is most remembered in the form of major Hollywood versions of his plays, like the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock Dial M for Murder. These films in turn have been ripped off or unofficially remade many times ever after, such as 1998’s A Perfect Murder, a sexed up reimagining of Dial M.

Knott’s wife Ann claimed he did not enjoy writing and only did so for the big, big money. If so, I’m glad he got past his dislike of writing to give us what he did.

So, happy birthday Frederick Knott—because of you, I haven’t opened a fridge or picked up a pair of scissors without thinking of murder ever since.

References:

https://www.bard.org/study-guides/about-the-playwright-dial-m-for-murder

https://www.playbill.com/article/frederick-knott-playwright-of-wait-until-dark-and-dial-m-for-murder-dead-com-110662

The Classic Movie Ice Cream Social: The Hidden Fortress (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1958)

Out of all of Kurosawa’s 1950s output, The Hidden Fortress may be the lightest. Seven Samurai may be more action-packed, but it still has numerous heavy dramatic moments and an ending tinged with melancholy. By contrast, Fortress is more of an adventure story and features more comedy, particularly in the peasant duo played by Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara, who almost resemble Laurel and Hardy in their bickering and friendship. The premise is simple: two peasants named Tahei and Matashichi end up unwittingly accompanying a disguised princess and general as they cross enemy territory with gold in tow. The peasants try to make a quick buck whenever they can and the princess experiences culture shock as she encounters the world outside the palace walls for the first time.

The charms of The Hidden Fortress are plenty: beautiful widescreen images, Tohsiro Mifune in shorts (swoon), and sweeping action sequences. There is plenty of comedy, but the story and its world are hardly made of sweetness and light. There is definite danger. Kahei and Matashichi, as hilarious as they are, have a sinister side: their first impulse upon seeing the princess for the first time is to force themselves upon her while the general is not looking. Even after traveling alongside her for days, they still try assaulting her in her sleep, staved off only by the fury of a sex worker the princess had rescued earlier and a big boulder! And yet, the two do possess qualities that endear them to the audience, such as their committed friendship.

For me, it is Misa Uehara who steals the show as the tough-as-nails teenage Princess Yuki. Severe with her eye make-up and masculine stance, she is nevertheless still vulnerable and human. Her sheltered upbringing makes her more curious about the lives of the common people. She is brave and kind, willing to help others at the expense of her own safety. She undergoes a spiritual transformation during the Buddhist fire festival, dancing and singing along with the peasants in abandon. Kurosawa isn’t known for having too many great female characters, but Princess Yuki is one of his best characters period. Out of all the characters in the film, her arc is the most dynamic and by the end, you’re left wondering what kind of woman she will grow to be.

The first thing most people hear about The Hidden Fortress is that it was the model for the original 1977 Star Wars. According to The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler, George Lucas’s early treatments of the plot were basically word for word the summary of Kurosawa’s film, though the story moved farther away from this outline with each subsequent draft. Star Wars does share much with this film, particularly its enchanting mix of light adventure and a gritty, dangerous setting. Still, the weird thing about The Hidden Fortress’s relation to Star Wars is that it resembles The Phantom Menace more than it does A New Hope! Think about it, both movies feature: 1) A member of royalty in disguise and a stoic warrior out to protect her, 2) prominent comic relief sidekick character(s), and 3) a journey into enemy territory that ends with an awards ceremony. But hell, I don’t need to tell you which movie is better, do I?

If you have never seen a Kurosawa film and you are intimidated by the run time of Seven Samurai or heavier fare like Rashomon or Ikiru, then this may be a good place to start. Accessible and fun, The Hidden Fortress is a great adventure.

This is part of the Classic Movie Ice Cream Social hosted by Movies Silently. Check out her blog for more sweetness!