Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Wolf Man (1941)

By the time “The Wolf Man” was released in 1941, the monster movie genre had found its momentum and worked like a well-oiled machine. Monsters were being put to death in one film, and then always efficiently resurrected for the next sequel. Lon Chaney, Jr., plays Larry Talbot, who returns home after many years abroad to the English estate of his father, played by Claude Rains.

The film begins without lightning storms, dark shadows, or any gloom at all. It is sunny and cheerful, and Larry is welcomed home by his father and by old friend Ralph Bellamy, now a police inspector in the village. Pretty soon there are Gypsies and a lot of fog, and then trouble starts.

We are given a glance at an encyclopedia entry which explains that lycanthropy, or werewolfism, has been known to happen at places like Talbot Castle. This gives us the standard believe-it-or-not challenge to enjoy the film.

Bela Lugosi plays a very different role as a Gypsy who is also a werewolf. He is almost unrecognizable from his Count Dracula role, now with a walrus mustache, his Gypsy native attire, and his bushy hair with no courtly manners and no Brylcreem in sight. His role is brief, however, when he gets clubbed by the sliver-headed cane of Larry, who kills what he thinks is a wolf attacking his new lady friend’s best friend.

His new friend, who is affianced to Patric Knowles in another small role, recites the now famous werewolf poem:

“Even a man who is pure in heart
And says his prayers by night,
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright.”

If you didn’t catch it the first time, that’s okay because it gets repeated a few more times and you’ll know it by heart by the end of the movie.

The wonderful Maria Ouspenskaya plays the Gypsy mother of Bela Lugosi, who mourns her son but is comforted that his torment is over. Larry will eventually turn to her for help. Whenever she is around it gets very foggy.

We know who the next victim is going to be because a pentagram always appears in the palm of the next victim. This, and the dissolve shots which show transformation of Mr. Chaney into a werewolf are the main special effects of this film.

When Larry is first bitten, he heads home and checks his hands and arms. So far, so good. Not too much hair, and he does not need a shave yet. But when he checks his feet and pulls up his trouser legs and shows us his gams, we see it’s too late. Time lapse photography shows his feet turning into monstrous paws.

There are debates among his father, the cop, and the local doctor about werewolfism being a kind of schizophrenia, that it is more psychological than physical, more about, as his father tells Larry, “The good and evil in every man’s soul.” This is 1941, and the film was released just after Pearl Harbor, so there is a bit more being tossed around here than the literal transformation of a man to a monster.

When they are off to church, his father tells the anguished Larry, “Belief in the hereafter is a very healthy counterbalance to all the conflicted doubts man is plagued with these days.”

In Larry’s last transformation into a werewolf in the foggy woods, all the principle characters chase him there, either to kill or to help him, his father, the doctor, the cop, his girlfriend, and the Gypsy woman. There is a brief, but fine showdown between the elegant actors Miss Ouspenskaya and Mr. Rains as he interrogates her but she displays only a fatalistic and calm superiority. When Larry takes the form of a wolf, his own father clubs him to death, and when Larry resumes his peaceful, but now dead, human form, the townspeople assume he died protecting the young woman from a wolf. Neither his grieving father nor the sympathetic Gypsy woman speak the truth. Who would believe them? There’s no such thing as werewolves.

Mr. Chaney is not the actor his father was, but he carries the role of the doomed Larry Talbot with a kind of sad dignity. As Patric Knowles says of Talbot, “There’s something very tragic about that man.”

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Frankenstein (1931)

Universal’s second blockbuster monster hit of 1931 was “Frankenstein” which made a film star out of Boris Karloff in the way “Dracula” did Bela Lugosi. The physical appearance of the monster, the burning windmill, have all become iconic now.

The film is noted in the opening credits to be taken from a novel by Mrs. Percy B. Shelley, as if she were some society dowager writing short stories for “The Saturday Evening Post.” The audience is not informed that this is a classic of English literature, and it is not treated as such, as both the films “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” were based more on the play adaptations than the original novels.

The film opens with a gentleman master of ceremonies introducing the film, and warning us, “I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So, if any of you feel you do not care to subject yourselves to such a strain, well, we warned you.”

Well, now, them’s fighting words and of course not only are we going to stay for the feature, we’re going to take it darned seriously.

Colin Clive plays Dr. Frankenstein, a highly strung scientific genius who lives for his work, at the expense of his friends, his fiancée Elizabeth, played by Mae Clark, and his curmudgeonly father. John Boles plays Victor, who in a role similar to David Manners’ role in “Dracula,” has the less glamorous supporting role as the friend and all around good guy.

Our old friend David Frye appears in this film as well, as Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant, Fritz. Fritz is hunchbacked, subservient, and not overly intelligent. Fritz does a lot less scenery chewing than the crazed Renfield of “Dracula,” but Mr. Frye now seems locked into spending his considerable talent on horror films.

The film begins with Frankenstein and Fritz (sounds like a law firm), robbing a grave. Dr. Frankenstein has cobbled together a body from different body parts, and now needs a brain. The hanged man they find will not do because his neck has been broken, (well, yeah) and so Fritz heads off to the lab of Dr. Frankenstein’s mentor, where there are brains conveniently in jars, to get one.

There are two brains, one labeled “normal” and one “abnormal,” which the lecturer tells his students is the brain of a criminal. One wonders if there is a bit of eugenics of that period involved here. In Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel, the creature is not born evil.

Dr. Frankenstein’s secret laboratory is a cavernous stone castle full of beakers and electrical coils. He is a brilliant megalomaniac who wants to create life from scratch. Getting married to Elizabeth and creating life the old fashioned way doesn’t seem to appeal to him. As he prepares to complete his experiment during a terrific thunderstorm, his mentor, his fiancée, and John Boles crash the party. Mr. Clive’s exasperated, “Of all times for anybody to come!” is almost comic. We’ve all felt the same way at one time or another about unexpected guests.

In a few moments, the inert body of the monster will be hoisted to the skylight to absorb the electricity of the storm outside, Mr. Clive gets to shriek his classic words, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” and we get soon get a monster on the loose.

We hear the heavy footsteps of the creature, and are introduced to the monster in an extreme, but brief close-up, on his drooping lids, his morose expression, the bolts in the neck. The really high forehead and the really flat head. His sleeves are too short. He obeys simple commands, and cannot speak. There is less horror than sympathy for this creature, whom even his creator calls “it” and not “he.”

When the monster kills Fritz, the completely unstrung Dr. Frankenstein is led back home by the dependable Mr. Boles, while his mentor, Dr. Waldman, prepares to destroy the monster. No such luck, and monster heads for the foggy hills. Waldman was played by Edward Van Sloan, who we last saw as Professor Van Helsing in “Dracula.” He also plays the MC at the beginning of this film.

We see jubilant preparations being made in town for long-awaited wedding of Dr. Frankenstein and Elizabeth, which his curmudgeonly father, played with comic irascibility by Frederick Kerr, has been whining for all along. Curiously, none of the citizens of this German village speaks with a German accent. They all sound like a mix between London’s East End, and somewhere in Missouri.

A poignant scene between the monster and his new friend, a little girl who wants to play with him and hasn’t the sense to run away from very big strangers with flat heads, turns tragic when he accidentally kills her. Horrified by what has happened, the monster runs away, more agitated than before, and wrecks the boudoir of Elizabeth, dressed in her wedding gown. Soon all the people with torches and clubs are after him. Evidently nobody owns a gun. Dr. Frankenstein changes from his formal wedding attire and puts on a pair of Jodhpurs, so you know he means business.

Eventually there is a showdown between creator and creation on the stony heights of an impressive set, and the monster knocks Dr. Frankenstein silly, dragging him to the windmill, where of course, the villagers set fire to it. This film has a bit more graphic horror than “Dracula” in the sense that we see the monster throw the little girl into the lake, and we see him throw Dr. Frankenstein’s limp body from the windmill, and we see the flames encircle him as he shrieks in terror. It is as if Universal is starting to push the envelope a bit.

The film ends with a recovering Dr. Frankenstein supposedly having learned his lesson, but quite tellingly, matinee idol John Boles does not get the girl in this film, as David Manners was allowed to in “Dracula.” Both these men were stars who were relegated to these minor roles probably to jump-start the hoped-for popularity of these films. Both films were financial successes, leading to new stars being created, to the point where the handsome leading men were no longer needed to attract an audience.

One note on Boris Karloff’s work in this film, though he does little more than pantomime and grunt, what Karloff endured to create this character is remarkable. The makeup, devised by Jack P. Pierce, took 3½ hours to apply. The costume weighed nearly 70 pounds, and each shoe weighed about 21 pounds. No wonder his footsteps always sounded heavy.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Dracula (1931)

As we’re heading up to Halloween, this week might be a good time to visit three Universal films that give us the Big Three monsters: Dracula the vampire, the Frankenstein monster, and the werewolf. What Warner Bros. was to gangster movies and musicals were to MGM, monster movies were to Universal.

Two films from 1931, “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” kept the studio afloat in the worst years of the Depression. In an era of escapist films, not everyone was escaping to screwball comedies set in wealthy mansions. Some were heading for the hills, those fog-bound Transylvanian Mountains, and the monsters that became matinee idols.

What strikes one immediately is the very slow pace of “Dracula,” which actually was deliberate. It adds to the creepiness of the film and allows lead actor Bela Lugosi to enunciate carefully his heavily-accented English. With his Brylcreemed black hair, his dapper evening clothes and his polished manners, Mr. Lugosi gives us a vampire whose charm will make us swoon as much as his lethal bite. Another standout in the film is David Frye, who plays Renfield, the property agent who secures the Count’s lease on a new residence in England, and who is promptly bitten by Dracula to become his crazed vampire-in-training servant. His horrifically creepy “I’m going to get you” laugh is one of the scariest parts of the film.

David Manners, a handsome and likable leading man of the day has a relatively thankless supporting role as a normal average good guy who tries to comfort the damsel in distress, though the real hero is Edward Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing, vampire slayer.

We begin the film with Gypsies warning Renfield not to proceed on his journey to Dracula’s castle. Our first meeting with Dracula is when he impersonates his own coachman, and meets Renfield on a rugged mountain pass, waiting for him. His catatonic stare seems to glow in the dark, with the help of pin spots from the lighting man. The sets are dark, rugged and evocative, and show how effortlessly a painted backdrop can blend in with a manufactured foreground in black and white photography. This is not so easily accomplished in color films, with the results of fake backdrops looking nothing but fake.

There are bats and rats and bugs all over Dracula’s castle, a couple of critters that look like armadillos. Central casting must have sent them over. Mr. Lugosi’s immortal first line is, “I am Dracula,” and “I bid you welcome.” We hear the sound of howling wolves, and the soundtrack is especially effective in this film, with the heavy grinding sound of rolling wagon wheels. Mr. Lugosi has a rich, beautiful speaking voice, meant for sound film. His Dracula is courtly and well-mannered.

Just why Dracula wants to head off to England is not made clear, but the sea voyage where all the crew arrives in port dead with only the now mad Renfield on board is terrific. Dracula slumbers in his coffin below, and the authorities grab the laughing Renfield and chuck him in an insane asylum, where some of the staff with overdone cockney accents provides a bit of comedy relief.

Dracula strolls the foggy streets of London and bites a Cockney flower girl on the neck. If he had done that to Eliza Doolittle, “My Fair Lady” might have been an entirely different show.

An interesting note is that when Dracula does bite people, turning them into vampires, starting with Renfield and then proceeding on to several others, it is always done under a chaste fade-to-black shot. Renfield pricking his finger accidentally early in the film is the only blood we will see. There is a difference between telling a creepy story to your audience and just plain grossing them out, and that fine line has been lost.

When London suddenly discovers a rash of people turning into vampires, Professor Van Helsing gives us the line that is intended to make the story believable, “The superstition of yesterday can become the scientific reality of today.” We have seen this happen too many times to ignore the possibility that young Mina, who unlike Dracula’s other victims, still retains her polished finishing school diction and exemplary personal hygiene, could become a vampire herself any minute now unless somebody saves her.

It’s clearly not going to be the well-intentioned Mr. Manners, and this is one of the few times when an elderly man is the hero of the day over the younger handsome fellow. Professor Van Helsing warns, “The strength of the vampire is that people will not believe in him.”

There are no real elaborate special effects in this film; it is all told with a suggestion of atmosphere. A little fog goes a long way. There is a clever scene where Van Helsing determines the charming Count is a vampire when Mr. Mannners lifts the lid of a cigarette case on a table, in which there is a mirror in the lid, and Van Helsing, and we ourselves, see that Dracula casts no reflection, and that Mina appears to be talking to herself.

The cellar of the English abbey where Van Helsing, Mr. Manners, and Dracula have a final showdown looks exactly like the cellar of Dracula’s castle back in Transylvania. When Van Helsing drives the stake into the sleeping Dracula’s heart, the camera shifts to a shot of Manners comforting Mina, no longer a vampire when the spell is broken. We heard Dracula’s groans and the sound of the pounding of the stake, which is probably more effective than watching it. In this film, as in the other films we’ll look at this week, the horror is really more suggestive than graphic. What we imagine is sometimes more creepy than what we see.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Thin Man (1934)

“The Thin Man” (1934) brings to life the urbane detective in Dashiell Hammett’s final novel, but also brought to life the remarkable partnership of William Powell and Myrna Loy. Their chemistry, more than anything, carries this film.

It is first and foremost, a mystery with a murder, and suspects, and a dogged detective on the trail. It is also a comedy, where Nick and Nora Charles have a collection of eccentric characters at a cocktail party that beats the nuts at Audrey Hepburn’s party in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by nearly 30 years.

The charm of the relationship between Nick and Nora, played by Powell and Loy, can probably be best exemplified by one particular scene. Nick interviews one of the suspects of the murder, a ditzy and selfish society woman whose distress causes her to seek comfort in Nick’s embrace. At that moment, his wife Nora enters the room. In any other movie, particularly a comedy, there would be that moment of misunderstanding, where the wife thinks the husband has been unfaithful, and he must awkwardly explain himself.

Not for Nick and Nora. After an expectant moment for the audience, Miss Loy playfully makes a disgusted face at Mr. Powell, who playfully returns her disdainful smirk with a nasty taunting face of his own. We see instantly that this is a couple whose trust in each other is as great as their desire for one another.

The film is riddled with funny, sexy lines which skirt the edge of double entendres and show the creativity of talented writers in the days when the Code made flirtatiousness a witty art form. Mr. Powell makes these lines all the more potent by reacting to them when said by the other actors, and not having to awkwardly blunder through them himself. Nick really demonstrates his sophistication not by his evening clothes or his money, but by his ability to pick out the naughty side of everything with a bemused smile.

“What’s that man doing in my drawers?” Nora demands when a police detective searches their apartment, and Nick reacts. When she shows the newspaper headlines to Nick after an altercation with a suspect, she exclaims “You were shot two times in the tabloids.”

He replies, ‘He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.”

There is copious drinking in the film, some white telephones and blond furniture, and a fluoroscope. Pretty much everything that screams 1930s escapist screwball comedy of the society people. Well, maybe not the fluoroscope, but it’s a kick to see this antiquated version of the modern apparatus figures into solving the crime. A few serious scenes with seamy characters and fine, tense acting keep the film on course with the murder plot, but the climax where Nick and Nora invite all the suspects to a formal dinner party to ferret out and murderer and just for the fun of it, is classic.

It’s easy to see why William Powell and Myrna Loy were teamed up again for more Thin Man films. Their easy, sexy chemistry did more to make these two characters and their marriage as important to the film as the mystery to be solved. Neither could be taken for granted.

That’s all for this week. See you Monday. Have a good weekend.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Porter Hall

Porter Hall played a variety of villains, and pompous characters both in dramas and comedies. Some were quite small roles, such as Mr. Belknap in “Going My Way” (1945), whose irritation at having his window broken by kids playing ball brings him to a war of words, not to mention ideologies, with Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley, and announces angrily that he is an atheist when he spitefully chucks the baseball back at Father. To which Crosby replies, when his baseball is returned, “You throw like an atheist.”

Mr. Hall takes it on the chin figuratively and literally through a good part of his career playing unlikable characters, sometimes with an unaffected and natural quality, like his role as Mr. MacCaulay in “The Thin Man” (1934), his third film, and sometimes quite comically over the top, like his neurotic Mr. Sawyer, the Macy’s store psychologist in “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) who antagonizes Kris Kringle and gets smacked over the head with a cane for it.

His is identifiable in all his films, though in some you have to not blink or you’ll miss him, such as Senator Monroe in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) or the reporter Murphy in “His Girl Friday” (1940), or Mr. Jackson in “Double Indemnity” (1946).

Mr. Hall acted on Broadway and in touring stock companies in the 1920s and early 1930s before he came to Hollywood. He was in his 40s by the time he appeared in his first film. This shifty, irritable villain, neurotic psychologist, and occasional atheist was a deacon in Hollywood’s First Presbyterian Church, and reportedly an engaging and well-liked man. Evidently, a very good actor.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Minna Gombell

Minna Gombell, who we last saw as Oliver Hardy’s battleaxe wife in “Block-Heads” (1938), played a wide variety of roles, perhaps a greater range than many other character actors of her day. She was Mrs. Godfrey in the musical “Here Comes the Groom” (1951), and also played the kindly but careworn Mrs. Parrish whose son returns from the war with both his hands amputated in “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946).

She played in a number of westerns, and also played the raucous Queen of the Beggars in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1939). She stands out in the small role of the combative, streetwise floozy Mimi Jorgensen in “The Thin Man” (1934). Miss Gombell could play the sympathetic and sedate matron, or the loud floozy. She did not specialize, and perhaps if she did she might have been known for one attribute or one shtick that she could milk as a character actress. Instead, she was less a typical character actress and more like a lead actress with very few lines.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Deborah Kerr

Deborah Kerr’s recent passing calls to mind her role in “Separate Tables” (1958), one of her six Oscar-nominated roles. The difference in her appearance in this film from her other characterization of cool, controlled, genteel, and sexy women which made her one of the most appealing actresses of her generation, is the challenge of playing Sibyl Railton-Bell and her success at such a pathetic and unflattering character.

Sibyl is emotionally brittle, shy, nervous and dominated by a manipulative and controlling mother. In this role Miss Kerr manages the unusual combination of appearing hunched over and yet lanky at the same time. She carries herself completely differently than she does in her other mannerly “English rose” type outings. Mousy doesn’t seem quite the word for Sibyl; she is quite emotionally crippled by her own bewilderment at relationships with other people and by her inability to crawl out from her mother’s condescending control.

Nearly every character at the seaside English residential hotel in “Separate Tables” is burdened by some emotional deformity. They do not live here as much as hide out here. David Niven, who won his Best Actor Academy Award for his role in this film, play-acts at being a retired army major, with his “What? What?” and “Cheery-bye” lingo represents a caricature more than a human being, as does the stuffy retired school housemaster, and Mrs. Railton-Bell and her unfortunate daughter. Dame Wendy Hiller, who won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of the hotel’s resident owner, seems the most balanced, flesh-and-blood character in the film.

Miss Kerr’s scenes with David Niven are wonderfully complex. We first see her on a solitary evening stroll, waiting for the Major’s return like a child waiting for the return of a doting father. When her mother warns that her fascination with the Major indicates to others in the hotel that she is pursuing him romantically, Sibyl becomes self conscious and horrified, and a shadow is cast over her only friendship.

When her mother ferrets out the news that the Major has pleaded guilty to charges of “taking liberties” with woman in a local movie theater, and calls a meeting of the other residents to condemn him, Sibyl is stunned and shocked, and eventually when prodded for her opinion, breaks into hysterics. But afterwards, she finds the courage to confront him, and to shakily demand of him, “Why did you do it?” As if to say, why did you spoil everything? Now nothing can be the same.

The innocence of their friendship is lost. However, Sibyl’s innocence is still, remarkably, not lost. She is angry and resentful that he ruined their relationship by exposing his sexual repression, and exposing hers, making both a topic for conversation. Her scene with Rita Hayworth, when she comes to the realization that the Major’s remark that they are really similar in their fears is not far from the mark, and that she is hesitant to even speak the word, “…sex. There. I’ve said it,” is poignantly comic. Sibyl begins to undergo a tiny change now, when her embarrassment turns to compassion and concern and for the Major.

“I just want him to be happy,” she says helplessly, and adds, “God bless you,” when they say goodbye. From this giant step, it takes another giant step to defy her mother, but giant steps seem to come easier for Sibyl when her sympathy for the Major erases her own shyness.

Miss Kerr doesn’t have a lot of room to work with in Sibyl, whose world is so narrow and whose emotions are so brittle. This role must have been a greater challenge than her other more classy roles. It is certainly not romantic, but she shows her range than in “Separate Tables.”

For other tributes to Deborah Kerr, see The Shelf,
Self-Styled Siren
and
Laura's Miscellaneous Musings.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Night Nurse (1931)

One of the most interesting aspects of pre-Code daring in “Night Nurse” (1931) involves not the many scenes of Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell undressing before us, which happens so much it gets to be routine, but rather the film’s treatment of the medical profession.

Barbara Stanwyck plays a nursing school student, who befriends fellow nurse Joan Blondell, endures the leering of interns, and helps a bootlegger patient by not reporting his bullet wound to the police. At first she insists she must, and asks him why she shouldn’t.

“For the same reason you don’t squeal about half the raw work you see done here,” he replies. It is the first indication we are given that the medical profession is not all squeaky clean, and Miss Stanwyck, bristling, defends her profession, “We have professional ethics.” She insists, “The things my profession keeps quiet about we believe is for the public’s own good.”

This young neophyte proudly recites her Florence Nightingale Pledge upon graduation, while Joan Blondell blankly chews her gum, and is released to the world as an idealistic and scrappy nurse, for “fifty-six bucks a week.”

Stanwyck’s job upon graduation is as a night nurse to two ill children whose drunken socialite mother and her evil chauffeur are slowly starving them to the death to get their trust fund. Complicit in this attempted act of murder is the children’s own doctor. Miss Stanwyck, suspicious of the children’s care, gets smacked around some by Nick the Chauffer, played with sexy vigor by Clark Gable in one of his first roles.

She complains to Dr. Ranger about Nick and about the kid’s cruel diet. Dr. Ranger, played by Ralf Harolde, is a bad doctor and a bad man, with a bad facial tic, which may insinuate even more evil about him. He arrogantly accuses Miss Stanwyck of blackmail and medical ignorance, and that worst crime a young woman and a young nurse can commit, that she has forgotten her place.

“You’ve picked up a lot of half-baked medical knowledge around the hospital. All nurses do,” he barks. A surprising and nasty indictment of the medical profession of the day, but Miss Stanwyck, though insulted, is not intimated. She intends to be a whistleblower, but her mentor, kindly Dr. Bell, played by Charles Winninger, talks her out of it. When she tells him of Dr. Ranger’s malpractice of the helpless children in her care, Dr. Bell only backpedals, “You know I can’t interfere in another doctor’s case.”

This is a sad comment on the medical profession if poor medical care cannot be taken to task. One wonders if the audience of the day were shocked by this or merely exchanged knowing smirks of agreement at something that they felt always had been and always would be.

But Miss Stanwyck’s character, Laura Hart, is having none of it. “Ethics, ethics, ethics, that’s all I’ve heard since I’ve been in this business. Isn’t there any humanity in it?”

Dr. Bell smokes a cigarette as he tries to both reason with her and disengage himself from the uncomfortable prospect of having to see faults in another physician. However, he encourages her to return to her case and say nothing, and get enough evidence to trap all those who want to harm the children, Dr. Ranger included.

Stanwyck does this, and when she meekly bows to Dr. Ranger’s authority, the pompous fiend condescendingly instructs her, “A successful nurse is the one who keeps her mouth shut.” She obeys, and gets back to the kids.

Eventually, after some tense scenes with the sick kids and the threatening Nick as the little Nanny Ritchey, played by Marcia Mae Jones, becomes unconscious from her anemia, Dr. Bell is strong-armed on the scene by her old pal the bootlegger and performs a blood transfusion from Miss Stanwyck, whose type is “4A” to the little child. Dr. Bell tells her he will go to bat for her with the police, and she announces with relief that he is “swell.”

He is swell, Dr. Bell, and a bit more like the doctors we would come to know after the Code made such grim and grotesque portraits of the medical profession no longer allowable. The squeaky clean Dr. Kildare was in the vanguard of an army of kindly doctors. They brought us comfort. More then curing, they told us nothing was wrong.

It wasn’t really true, then or now. What was true then, and now, is the genuine rage expressed by Miss Stanwyck’s character that some in the revered medical profession did not deserve the reverence that we desperately wanted and needed to bestow.

It cannot be an accurate portrait of less advanced medical care at the time, but just phony movie drama that makes a doctor in the operation in which Stanwyck participates early in the film call for oxygen only when the patient is near death, and puts his ear on the patient’s chest, instead of using a stethoscope to ascertain whether the patient is still alive. Milk baths for anemia? Medical malpractice to include deliberate murder, as well as the medical innocence of the film, rather than the daring pre-Code titillation, is what is most shocking about “Night Nurse.”

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Movie Locations

Author Tony Reeves’ “The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations” (A Cappella Books, Chicago, 2001) tell us that the lighthouse during the big gale in “Portrait of Jennie” (1948) which had tragic consequences for Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten was actually Graves End Light off Boston Harbor.

The book is filled with fascinating entries on the actual locations of movie shoots, though most movie buffs are aware that nearly all films in the Golden Age of Hollywood were shot right on the soundstage.

“Shadow of a Doubt” (1943) gives us a good hometown view of Santa Rosa, California where director Alfred Hitchcock used the train station, and an actual home on McDonald Avenue for the Newton residence.

“Stagecoach” (1939) gave us the first view in a western of the magnificent Monument Valley, which would figure in many westerns in years to come.

“Sunset Blvd.” (1950) of course gave us the glimpse of the iconic Paramount studio gates.

Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958) takes us to several spots around San Francisco, including Telegraph Hill, and the Golden Gate Bridge.

“Way Down East” (1920) D. W. Griffith makes famous Vermont’s White River Junction as the spot of the dangerous crossing on the ice floes.

Take a look at this book for more movie locations you can still visit, though most are from more modern films. The greatest fantasies of the Golden Age were the locations created purely from scratch. Those rain-washed city streets and quiet country lanes and fog enshrouded castles were all myth. They were believable only because we wanted to believe.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Now Playing - October 1942


This ad for “Iceland” (1942) exhorts us to Buy War Bonds and Stamps. In this film, John Payne is a Marine, and Sonja Henie grins with enormous dimples and skates with her usual doll-like grace and precision. “They’re Bringing New Glory…To Old Glory!” the ad fairly shouts.

A follow up to the popular “Sun Valley Serenade,” “Iceland” may have been big on patriotism if a bit thin on plot. It did well at the box office, as Sonja Henie’s skating was a popular novelty no matter what the storyline.

It is announced that tomorrow morning the doors open at 8:45 a.m. for an early bird show for defense workers just getting off the graveyard shift.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Close-up Madness

Gloria Swanson’s famous, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille,” in “Sunset Blvd.” (1950) gives us a slow, blurry and grotesque zoom-in on the tortured, dream-like expression of a woman gone mad. We already knew her trolley was a bit derailed early in the film when she is introduced as a lonely, self-important eccentric. The final close-up tells us nothing new about her, it just slashes away that discrete personal space between us and the unfortunate victim.

The extreme close-up to illustrate madness is also used very quickly, and most startlingly, in “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932) when we are forced almost literally down the evil Count Zaroff’s throat as we stand, with Fay Wray at the top of the stone staircase of his fog-enveloped castle on the uncharted island, a place where he hunts humans. She is going off to bed, while her drunken sot of brother, played comically by Robert Armstrong, assures her that their host will look after him, “The Count’ll take care of me all right.”

“Indeed I will,” the Count, played by Leslie Banks, replies heavily as the tracking shot zooms effortlessly down those stairs from Miss Wray’s vantage point, and ours, and smacks into Mr. Banks’ hollow gaze. It is our first clue of his madness. Until now we have no reason to believe he is, like Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond, nothing more than a colorful eccentric. A colorful character, but not a loony. This close-up tells us there is something more sinister and off balance to him, and removes our comfortable distance from him.

Another even more brief, but insightful close-up indicating emotional disturbance is used, unexpectedly, in the holiday family favorite, “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). James Stewart, in deep trouble, wishes he was never born and Clarence the angel arranges it. Through a wild exploration of a hometown he no longer recognizes, confronting friends and family who no longer know him, we first have a hint that Stewart’s character George Bailey is losing it when he prays in the noisy bar and confesses to God, and to us, two important bits of information. One, he is “not a praying man” and two, “I’m at the end of my rope.”

Later, when his own mother, now a destitute and bitter widow in this bizarro world does not recognize him and refuses to shelter him, George runs away not more than a few steps down her sidewalk and runs smack into us. We do not come to him in his close-up, he comes to us, and stops, and slowly turns his head, searching from one direction to the other, and pauses a brief moment to look with horror into our faces. It is a personal moment for George, a Twilight Zone moment where his world is gone, and he is lost, and he is now a man on the very edge of sanity. His brings his horror to us, much as he has just brought it to the doorstep of his mother. She has sent him away, but what are we to do?

Unlike Count Zaroff and Norma Desmond, George Bailey’s madness is brief, a nightmare that clears and we have a happy ending. The rest of the film is long shots of George in his happy environment, his town’s streets, his big old house. He is always with other people, often a lot of them in each scene. The close-up he shares only with us.

Movie madness can often take the form of wild ranting and aggressive behavior, but it is ironically most chilling, and most personal, when it is still, silent, and very close.

This blog entry is part of The Eyes Have It Close-up Blog-a-Thon at The House Next Door. Have a look at this website for more interesting blogs on the art of the movie close-up.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Old Movie Theaters


The above photo is of the Strand Theatre in the town Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard (which, for those unfamiliar, is an island of the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts).

It is a simple stucco structure, not anything like the megaplex structures of today, but you can tell even at a glance it is not without a quiet air of self importance. This building brings the world to a small island town in a way that the newsstand or the ferry terminal does not. Perhaps you have such a movie house in your town, or did once.

The Regent opened in 1913 in New York City, and is credited with the being the first in that over two-decades wave of the construction of the movie palace. Once flickers became films and movie theaters became almost as respectable as legitimate theatre, these temples to modern American culture joined the general store and the post office in just about every sizeable town in the US, and some not-so-sizeable ones. Some were ornate and awesome, with liveried ushers and gilt and velvet. Some, like the Paramount in Oakland, California or the Lincoln of Cheyenne, Wyoming were decked out in the new 1930s art deco style, solid and sleek. Some had their own individual flavor of architecture, like the Mexican-cathedral look of the Castro Theater in San Francisco. Radio City Music Hall, which in 1932 when it opened in New York City, was the largest such movie palace ever built at that time, seating nearly 6,000.

The depression brought hard times to the theaters just as it did to their audience, who nevertheless, found the theater to be a unique and comforting refuge. Theaters became the hideout of the unemployed.

The so-called Big Five theater chains were run by the studios which showed only their films, Paramount, Warner, Loews (MGM), Fox, and RKO. Besides the “first-run” theaters you had the “second-run” neighborhood movies houses, which showed the films after their original release, for a lower admission price. Most likely, these second-run neighborhood houses are the ones we spent most of our time in as children, an experience made ethereal by the balconies, the artwork on even the ceiling, and the feeling of occasion not duplicated by the modern cinemas of today.

What movie houses do you remember? Let us know.

For more on the history of American movie palaces, have a look at this excellent website.
That's all for this week. See you Monday. Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Number, Please? (1920)

Harold Lloyd’s “Number, Please?” (1920) is one of those films where what is in the background and not the focus of attention is just as fascinating as the action occurring in the foreground.

This is in part because of Harold Lloyd’s typical “modern” feel to his films. His characters, the costumes, the slang, all are pitched firmly in the 1920s. There are no timeless allegories for Mr. Lloyd as what might be presented in a Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton film. Lloyd is all Jazz Age and because of this, we are treated to a view of that era that is genuine and natural. It is one thing to see a film made today of that era, or a documentary, but it is quite another experience to witness a time period so completely unselfconsciously presented.

This short has a simple plot. Lloyd, and his rival, Roy, played by Roy Brooks, must be the first to ask permission of the mother of The Girl, played by Lloyd regular and future wife, Mildred Davis, for The Girl to go on a hot air balloon ride. The first one who gets permission from Mother, gets the girl.

What makes the film interesting is not so much the set up of gags (though one running sequence of Lloyd coming into possession of a stolen women’s purse and being unable, despite repeated attempts, to get rid of it, is very clever), but rather the set and the times. The action takes place at Ocean Park in Venice. It opens with Harold, dejected at being left by his girl, moping as he rides the old wooden Blarney roller coaster. We see the park amusements in the background of his adventures, the advertising signs and the attractions. They are quite eye catching, and it is a delightful game to look for detail.

Several amusement piers had been constructed in the early part of the 20th century around Venice, and the Pickering Pier, where most of the action in this film seems to take place, was built in 1913, and bought by Mr. Pickering in 1919. It was renovated and had a grand re-opening in June of 1920. This film was released in December 1920, so we are seeing a new and extremely popular venue for tourists and day-trippers in that period, practically while the paint was still drying.

Some of the gags in the film include Mr. Lloyd’s getting smacked in the face by a toupee on the roller coaster, which has flown off the head of the fellow in front of him. When Lloyd is given charge of The Girl’s dog, “General Pershing” (this is 1920, after all, and we were still flush off the ebullient conclusion of World War I), he ties the poor dog to a carousel. Of course, the carousel starts to turn, and the dog endures what no film crew would dare do to a dog today. However, after being dragged around and around by his leash, the dog eventually hops onto the carousel and is saved by his own ingenuity from being strangled.

The title comes from Harold’s deciding to beat Roy’s time by reaching The Girl’s mother through that newfangled contraption, the telephone, instead of running over to her house, as Roy does. The public phone booths are extremely busy and he must endure several frustrating failed attempts to reach one. These are the days before self-service dialing, and he must tell the operator the number to connect.

Phone calls no longer cost a nickel and cell phones make phone booths obsolete, but when it comes to customer service, nothing has changed since 1920. The operators gossip and pay no attention to their customers, and when they finally address poor Mr. Lloyd’s needs, they are curt, and they give him several wrong numbers.

We see signs for Lucky Strike cigarettes in the background, for the Pickering Pier, for Ocean Park (which would be demolished in 1975 after a fire in 1974), for the Denver Hotel. Sammy Brooks, a young African-American actor who played several roles for Lloyd in the 1920s, has a funny gag when Lloyd, trying to hide from the police, puts the child on his shoulders and puts his own coat and hat on him. Harold walks away from the cops, looking like a very tall black man with very long legs, very short arms, and a hat too big for him. In a way, it copies the very funny sequence shown earlier where Harold is looking at himself in the funhouse mirrors and we are shown several out-of-proportion images of him.

Eventually, Sammy gets knocked off by an awning, and Harold must keep running.

For more on the history of Ocean Park amusement piers, have a look at this fun website.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Billy Gilbert

Billy Gilbert began in vaudeville as a child, the son of opera singers. He made his way to Hollywood, his first film in 1929, just in time for the talkies, which suited his abilities more than silents would because Gilbert was a blusterer and a sneezer par excellence. Mr. Gilbert had a way of slurring pseudo-German-cum-Italian-cum-Greek accents and appearing as a wild, or goofy, or lost and forlorn character in over 200 films. Many of his roles were quite small, but he featured in Laurel and Hardy shorts, where he was forever chasing them with weapons, and bit parts in “Our Gang” comedies, and played the foil for the Marx Brothers and in Shirley Temple films.

His ability to affect a monstrous sneeze, used as a gag in many of his films, was also used in his voice role of Sneezy in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937).

We see him as the bombastic Field Marshall Herring in “The Great Dictator” (1940), and as the hapless, henpecked but lovable Mr. Pettibone in “His Girl Friday” (1940).

Billy Gilbert was one of those character actors whose personal shtick, primarily the sneezing and blustering, was his chief selling point to directors. One imagines that “Sneezy” was the role of a lifetime, his Rhett Butler.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Two of a Kind Movies

Laurel and Hardy’s “Block-Heads” (1938) was a remake of their earlier “Unaccustomed As We Are” (1929). It was a common feature in the silent days when a plot was just a series of gags for a gag to be re-worked and re-used until it reached some kind of climax, achieved some point of perfection. Then use it again, because it worked.

“Unaccustomed As We Are” was the duo’s first talking picture. A simple plot, Hardy invites Laurel home to dinner. Mrs. Hardy, played by Mae Busch, is a battleaxe whose aggressive complaining embarrasses Hardy. Meanwhile, Mr. Hardy’s innocent friendship with the neighbor lady, Mrs. Kennedy, gets complicated when, because Laurel has caused a gas explosion in Hardy’s kitchen, twice, she runs over to help and Mr. Hardy rips her dress off. Because she has caught fire. He gallantly covers her with a tablecloth. His wife returns. Much angst.

More angst when we see that Mr. Kennedy is a tough cop.

A funny scenario, but they expand it with “Block-heads” nine years later. Here they create a back story for Laurel. The pair had been in the Army in World War I, and years later, Stan is still patrolling the trench because he does not know the war is over. When found and brought to a VA Hospital near Hardy’s home, Hardy goes to visit his old friend.

There is some funny stuff when Hardy mistakenly believes Laurel to be an amputee, and heroically carries Laurel around as tenderly as if he were a child, invites him home to dinner, and tries to bundle him into a car. His impressive girth aside, Oliver Hardy must have had the strength and endurance of an Olympic decathlon champ to manage this scene.

In this film, Hardy and his battleaxe wife, played by Minna Gombell this time, live in an apartment building. We have a multi-level set which makes things interesting. One of the best gags is when a kid from another apartment, played by Tommy Bond, more familiar as the bully “Butch” in the “Our Gang” series, plays with a football in the hall. Oliver kicks this pest’s football down the stairs, a couple of times, where each time it smacks the front desk clerk in the face. It’s a beautiful gag.

One cute bit is when Stan, rather like a Looney Tunes cartoon, takes a full glass of water from his pocket, and then takes ice cubes from the other pocket. He also fills his bare fist with tobacco and smokes his thumb like a pipe.

In this remake, the nice neighbor lady is Mrs. Gilbert, played by Patricia Ellis. Her husband is a bombastic big game hunter, even more volatile than a tough cop, and played to the hilt by Billy Gilbert.

In this film we also have a kitchen gas explosion, and Oliver without pants, and Mrs. Gilbert who comes to help. Unfortunately, she is locked out of her apartment, and then soaked by a punchbowl, and he gives her his pajamas to wear. His wife returns. Much angst. The hot-tempered Mr. Gilbert arrives. More angst.

When his shotgun goes off, men all over the neighborhood are seen leaping out of windows in their underwear.

These films illustrate Hollywood’s favorite belief that if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing again and again.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

A Tale of Two Road Trips - Part 2

We see auto camps in “The Grapes of Wrath” as well, but they are more like concentration camps and Hoovervilles. In one desperate transient camp, the Joad family eats meager stew with guilt, while hungry children outside the tent watch them. Tom Joad, played by Henry Fonda, chases them away, but Ma Joad, played by Jane Darwell, lets them scrape the pot with sticks.

The extended Joad family leaves their foreclosed farm in Oklahoma for a possible better future in California. Their ramshackle farm truck is loaded to the gills with mattresses furniture, tied up with ropes. Wash tubs and suitcases dangle from ropes like Christmas tree ornaments. Like the boy and the mother on the bus in “It Happened One Night” they are dealing with a reality more desperate than running away from a rich father.

Their vehicle becomes their home. “Think it’ll hold?” Fonda asks, and the preacher, played by John Carradine replies, “If it does, it’ll be a miracle out of Scripture.” As desperate as they are, they invite the preacher, who is homeless himself, to join them.

We see Jane Darwell’s stricken, proud face through the windshield. We see a montage of highway city limit signs. Both grandparents die along the side of the road, held and comforted until they do.

The Joads pay 50 cents for a space at an auto camp. The meet (and sometimes flirt) with other travelers like them.

Mr. Malcolm, in his book on Route 1 notes, “The Romans, it has been noted, used roads to spread their culture. For Americans, it often seems, roads are their culture: tacky and beautiful, narrow and wide, straight and curvy, crowded and vacant, smoothed and potholed, scenic and cluttered.” We see America as it was in a bleak period, but where not everything is entirely bleak. Humanity is present even here.

The Joads’ route takes them to remote diners where a kindly short order cook allows them to buy a loaf of bread for 10 cents. A brassy waitress sells 10 cents worth of stick candy for two cents to them, and a couple of truckers leave her a big tip to reward her generosity.

They pass through harsh and beautiful desert country, by pueblos and Southwest Indians herding sheep. At a gas station, two uniformed attendants remark to each other, “Them Oakies ain’t got no sense and no feelings. They ain’t human. No human being would live the way they do. Human beings couldn’t stand to be so miserable.”

We see our old friend Ward Bond in this film, too. Not a surly bus driver this time, he is a friendly traffic cop, a fellow Oklahoman, who, with regret and embarrassment, must sharply warn them to keep moving through his town or they will be arrested.

The Joads’ trials are never-ending it seems, but they eventually come to a government-run auto camp that is clean and safe, and the showers “and things” are outside. The Joad children are thunderstruck by their first encounter with a flush toilet.

Though their struggles are far from over, there is still hopefulness at the end. These two films show the humanity of their adventures, vicariously our adventures, on these road trips. It is a world without cruise control. They have very little control at all.

Still, Ma Joad exclaims, “We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out. They can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ‘cause we’re the people.” Once or twice the Joad family, and Gable and Colbert may glance in the rear view mirror, but they don’t dwell on what’s behind them.

That's all for this week. Have a great weekend. See you Monday.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

A Tale of Two Road Trips - Part 1

Two very different road trips were taken in the Great Depression. One was comic, one was tragic. They are depicted in the films “It Happened One Night” (1934) and “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940). In each case the road means escape from what is behind and pursuit to a desired destiny ahead, and each occurred on two great and historic thoroughfares in this country. “The Grapes of Wrath” of course featured Route 66 westward from Oklahoma to California. The route taken in “It Happened One Night” from Miami, Florida northward to New York City is not named, but in all likelihood if the trip had been taken, it would been on Route 1.

We Americans have, it is said, an automobile culture. Yet before the massive interstate construction of the Eisenhower administration, the US was a loose mesh of two-lane highways, one going and one coming, which thinned out to dirt roads the farther one got from town. Perhaps because of this, there weren’t too many “road movies” in Hollywood’s heyday. People took the train for adventure or for business.

In his introduction to his book, “US 1 - America’s Original Main Street” (St. Martin’s Press, 1991), author Andrew H. Malcolm notes, “Today, most long-distance travelers who choose to stay ground-bound opt for the Interstates, those efficient, high-speed cocoons of concrete copied from Hitler’s autobahns that consume forty-five acres of land in every mile.”

These two movies show an America before the Interstate. The two journeys are as difficult and eventful as Homer’s Odyssey was for him. “It Happened One Night” takes place mostly on a bus. Spoiled rich girl Claudette Colbert runs away from her father on the “Night bus to New York.” Fired smart-aleck reporter Clark Cable shares a seat with her. Ward Bond is the surly driver, who’s first snippy encounter with Mr. Gable draws the oh, so combative remark, “Oh, yeah?”
“Now that’s a brilliant answer, why didn’t I think of that?” Gable rejoins, “Our conversation could have been over long ago.”
“Oh, yeah?”
“If you keep that up, we’re not going to get anywhere.”
“Oh, yeah?”
“You got me. Yeah!”

It is a long, uncomfortable ride on narrow, straight-backed seats but the passengers share companionable inconvenience better than we would today. It is world less comfortable and more courteous. It is a world of pencil-thin mustaches and pencil-thin eyebrows.

They get a 15-minute rest stop at remote greasy spoons. They get 30 minutes for breakfast in Jacksonville, Florida the following morning (it has taken them all night to get from Miami to Jacksonville).

Gable and Colbert then catch a different bus on the same route, and the driver calls his passengers together by announcing the cities that lie ahead of them, Savanna, Charleston, Columbia, Greensboro, Richmond, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and finally, New York.

On this leg of the journey a smarmy salesman named Shapeley, played with panache by Roscoe Karns, annoys Miss Colbert with the snappy pickup line, “Hi, Sister, all alone?” He is fast talking and comically boorish, “Shapeley’s the name, and that’s the way I like ‘em.”

We see rain on the bus windows, and when a bridge is washed out, they stay the night at an “auto camp” cabin, forerunner of today’s motels. It is $2 a night, and here we have the famous “Walls of Jericho” scene. In the morning, Gable informs Miss Colbert that the showers “and things” are outside.

Back on the bus we have group sing-alongs and a talent show of sorts with individuals taking turns at verses in “The Man on the Flying Trapeze.” No need for a DVD shown on a TV mounted on the ceiling of the bus. They make their own entertainment.

We are shaken from the innocent fun, literally, by a slight accident, and a woman has fainted. Her sobbing son, comforted by Gable, confesses they have not eaten and did not guess the trip to New York, where she hopes a job will be waiting for her, would cost so much. Colbert and Gable give him their last couple of dollars. Dreams and desperation are their companions on the bus, and the Great Depression goes along for the ride.

The trip continues for Colbert and Gable as they proceed on foot, hitchhiking with scam artist Alan Hale, who sings wonderful operatic-style nonsense exclamations in his excellent signing voice, “Young people in love are VERY SELDOM HUNGRY!” (Mr. Hale once hoped to be an opera singer.) Gable ends up stealing his car. Eventually they get to New York City, separately, and choices have to be made. Though they have fallen in love with each other by the end of the trip, it is essentially a “buddy” movie, one of the few with a man and a woman. Another that comes to mind is “Sullivan’s Travels,” but that’s a journey for another time.

Tomorrow, more on A Tale of Two Road Trips.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Emma Tansey

Emma Tansey was in her mid 40s when she began her film career as a character actress in 1914. She was still at it when she died in 1942 in her 70s. Most of her time spent on film was as “Old Woman” or “Sweet Old Lady” or most often just “Old Lady.”

She played Mrs. Delaney in “Meet John Doe” (1941) and kisses Gary Cooper’s hand in gratitude. She was a peasant woman in “Les Miserables” (1935), and bought a bus ticket for the incognito Claudette Colbert in “It Happened One Night” (1934). In “The Bank Dick” (1940) she was Old Woman on Bench.

Mrs. Tansey’s three sons also became film actors, and writers and directors, mostly in B-westerns. She played in a fair amount of westerns herself, but went on to appear in modern films as well. She was one of the many character actresses who took the crumbs from the opulent table of Hollywood’s dream factory. One imagines her few scenes in these films paid some bills and kept her alive. One hopes her work gave her pleasure as well. Hers is a face I love picking out in a crowd scene.

Monday, October 1, 2007

The War and The Movies


Ken Burn’s magnificent documentary, “The War” is as good a summary we will likely find on American involvement in World War II. However, I wonder if this documentary is not getting quite the chatter that his excellent documentary on the Civil War did some years ago. That film revived an interest for many non-Civil War buffs that had not been seen since the centennial commemorations of the early 1960s. Perhaps because it made the Civil War new to them. But when it comes to World War II, we may think we already know all about it. I wonder if this is because of the movies.

All the 1940s home-front melodramas and “battle” depictions from soundstage war zones Hollywood fed to us, and which have been left to succeeding generations on video and DVD, are fascinating souvenirs of an era. But that is all they are. They are not documentaries, only stories, and if younger people take them too seriously, or view them too romantically, or dismiss them as nonsense and thereby dismiss the whole era, they may not know anything about Navajo Code Talkers, Japanese-American internment camps in Colorado, Japanese-American fighting units, segregated black fighting units. They will know about the fear, and the anxiety, and the consuming self-defensive patriotism of that era, and those are important things to know, because they are part of the American experience of World War II. But they are not the whole story.

A recent Christian Science Monitor article in which teenagers were interviewed upon viewing Mr. Burns’ “The War” remarks on how much they did not know about that era (which, not surprisingly, was considerable), and also indicated the teens’ rather blasé attitude about that era, particularly a remark made by one young man who insisted, “We’re much more sophisticated these days.”

In some ways, perhaps, especially technologically, but sophisticated does not necessarily mean mature. While the Baby Boomers have been called "the Me Generation," the succeeding Gen Xers and Gen Yers have carried self obsession and self importance to an art form. It is disappointing that this moving and illuminating documentary on World War II should be dismissed by teens as something as invalid and corny as possibly an old Hollywood film. Perhaps Hollywood’s Technicolor way of sanitizing the struggle and making it sparkle like a song and dance number was a double-edged sword. It made the people of that era forget the anxiety for two hours and inspire them to go back out for more. But it slaps a simplistic label on that era and makes young people today disdainful and condescending of that era and those people who lived it.

I have never understood film critics’ common remark that an old film does not hold up to today. Those films made back then were not intended to “hold up” through the ages. They were directed towards the audience of the day, and never expected to be scrutinized on video and DVD generations later. Most of the classics of literature, though they may be revered, would never be published today, either. They do not “hold up”. Yet, we do not question their importance to our culture. Quite possibly sixty years from now today’s popular vampire erotica novels will cause some bewilderment and even disdain to future generations. Tattoos and eyebrow piercings are going to get huge laugh. We should not be too stingy with our empathy. We’re going to need it ourselves someday.

World War II is too large a story to be capsulized in one effort, even by the talented Ken Burns, which he himself acknowledges. It is rather more like a mosaic, a vast jigsaw puzzle. Old Hollywood films of that era are an important part of the puzzle, as are radio programs, newspaper accounts, newsreels, the documentaries of Frank Capra, phonograph records, diaries and letters home. It was a war well documented. But that doesn’t mean we know all about it. With all that documentation, we were still missing a piece, and that is what Ken Burns has supplied. Though his trademark scanning across the faces in a photograph gives us a feeling of intimacy with the subject, it is this very voice from the distance of more than sixty years, this ripening of memory, this fermenting of emotions by those involved that can only take place after a very long time that gives us the viewpoint we were missing.

It is a perspective of objectivity. Burns’ narration does not get emotional; he leaves that to the elderly interviewees. Yet though objective, the film is still empathetic.

To be empathetic, one must sometimes accept what one cannot understand. Burns’ successful Civil War documentary enlightened the viewer on a world of slavery and of slaughter. To connect with that documentary, one must accept that slavery was a common way of life to a particular segment of our Southern land-owning population, a way of life that could only lead to war. One must accept that Americans in both the Union and Confederate armies were passionate about sacrificing their lives for their beliefs and for the hopes of the future, willingly lost thousands of lives in single battles, battle after battle. One cannot begin to understand the American Civil War without accepting that they felt compelled to do this. If one dismisses it with disdain or condescension, one learns nothing.

One cannot begin to understand America’s involvement in World War II without knowing about the savagery of battles kept from the public at home, without accepting the self-defensive patriotism, the racism, the naïveté of self-sacrifice, a “Loose Lips May Sink Ships” poster, a cornball chorus of “In Der Fuehrer’s Face.” If one dismisses it, any of it, as lacking in sophistication, one learns nothing.