Monday, May 30, 2011

The General - 1926


“The General” (1926) is a Civil War story remarkable for two interesting qualities. First, it has the intriguing look of a Mathew Brady Civil War-era photograph. Second, the story is entirely apolitical.

Mathew Brady photo: Library of Congress, (now in public domain), Hanover Junction, Pennsylvania, 1863.

As far removed as we are today from the Civil War, and despite our technological proficiencies, we could not achieve either of these qualities in a Civil War film today; nor would we probably try. In the first case, producers might shrug off any attempt to replicate a Mathew Brady photo with the attitude that most younger audiences would neither recognize nor appreciate that effect. Mathew who?


In the second case, we have a self-conscious but determined tendency (as we’ve discussed on this blog before), to justify history (when we’re not over-simplifying it or dumbing it down). Buster Keaton, the film’s star, and one of its writer-directors, avoids explanation or politics by focusing on the story of one stumblebum who tries to retrieve a train engine that has been stolen.

This post is our annual commemoration of Memorial Day with a look at the Civil War through the movies. Memorial Day has its roots in the Civil War. In previous Memorial Day posts we covered “Friendly Persuasion” (1956), and picked apart the symbolism used in “Gone with the Wind” (1939). “The General” has neither message nor sweeping saga, but there is an off-beat realism to the movie that neither “Friendly Persuasion” nor GWTW has.

We might note that 1926, when “The General” was released, was closer to the end of the Civil War than we are today to the end of World War II. That may not be enough in itself to lend authenticity; “Birth of a Nation” (1915) was even closer in proximity to the Civil War, yet has more music hall melodrama about it than a Mathew Brady photo. And director D.W. Griffith’s awkward defensiveness over The Cause resulting in an infamous racist slant on the Southern justification both for the war and the Ku Klux Klan got him in such hot water that perhaps a wish to avoid controversy inspired Buster Keaton’s apolitical telling of an unlikely Confederate hero. Perhaps it only reflected Keaton’s personal lack of interest in anything more than a great gag, a meticulously executed stunt, and above all, trains.

Buster Keaton, a train enthusiast more than a Civil War buff, nevertheless purposely created his calculated “Mathew Brady effect” for historical authenticity.  His longer hair in this film is small but nice touch.  One compromise (or perhaps just an ordinary flaw) is the display in town of the “Confederate” flag of blue crossed bars on a red field, with stars for each Confederate state. As mentioned in last year’s post on GWTW, this flag now commonly referred to as the Confederate flag was not the flag of the Confederacy, and would not have flown over a recruiting office as in this 1861 scene.  General P.G.T. Beauregard, Army of Northern Virginia, sought a different design after the First Battle of Bull Run (or First Manassas) to keep his troops from being the victims of friendly fire, because the actual Confederate flag, commonly called the Stars and Bars, looked very similar to the United States flag.

At times the film’s apolitical nature is too obvious, such as when the war begins. Keaton is spooning with his best girl on the parlor sofa when her brother strides in, and announces, “Fort Sumter has been fired upon.” Her father, seemingly emotionless, replies, “Then the war is here.”

This makes it sound as if they are responding in dull surprise to news of a bad storm destroying crops in another county, an act of God. The Confederates fired upon Fort Sumter purposely to start the war. Some Southerners were pleased, some were anxious, some were certainly baffled and wondering what was going to happen next, but nobody shrugged it off as just one of those things.

There is also the noticeable absence of any discussion of states’ rights or reasons for the war. Toward the beginning of the film, a few African-American actors are shown carrying trunks off a train that has just arrived in town. The camera does not linger on them; they are easy to miss if you’re not watching closely. Keaton seems to have chosen not to show stereotyped slaves -- by not showing slaves at all, nor addressing the issue of slavery. This is how Keaton manages to be apolitical on the two most controversial aspects of the Civil War: that it was started by disgruntled secessionist politicians who wanted to protect their property; and their property was human beings.

On one hand, this seems like a terrific cop-out on Keaton’s part; but his intense concentration on the trains in this movie sweeps away the nefarious causes of the Civil War and the gore of that catastrophe. It isn’t even a case of his ignoring the politicians and generals in favoring a story about the common solider. Keaton’s character isn’t a soldier. He’s a train engineer, and he wears both blue and gray uniforms in the course of the film as disguises in order to guide his engine safely home.  Keaton rigidly sticks to his story, as oblivious to social conflicts around him as his character is oblivious to anything but his beloved train.

The story, based on a true event, is about a unique Civil War train robbery, where Union raiders confiscate a Confederate train. In this movie, Keaton is the engineer of “The General”, which runs on the Western and Atlantic Rail Road in Tennessee and Georgia.

When war is announced, Keaton attempts to enlist in the Confederate army, but is turned away because he is more valuable running the train. A series of misunderstandings, and his girl, played by Marion Mack, thinks he has refused to enlist because he is a coward.

Union spies capture his train, with Keaton in pursuit (on a hand cart, on an early wooden bicycle, and running like crazy). At this point, Keaton is unaware that Marion Mack, who was in the baggage car searching for something in her trunk, was captured by the Union men, who tie her up.

At first Marion Mack is the damsel in distress. Later on in the film she gets some unexpected slapstick moments, is hoisted around in a sack, shows her comedy chops, and even runs the train. She gets pummeled with water from the water tower spout, and in a PBS documentary on Buster Keaton shown some years ago, “Buster Keaton - A Hard Act to Follow”, she acknowledged that she had no idea she was about to be half drowned in that scene.

A funny bit occurs when Keaton directs her to feed with boiler with wood as he drives the train. She picks up the smallest, most dainty pieces, and he sarcastically hands her a sliver of wood, which she quite seriously throws on the fire. He is so exasperated with her at one point, his hands make as though to choke her, but after a shake or two, he kisses her instead.

Another laugh is when Keaton, unable to avoid getting out of a way of a cannon pointed at him, heaves a chunk of firewood at it, as if it were a dog he could chase away.

Despite Keaton’s deserved reputation for being one of the funniest comedians in silent films, this movie is not strictly a comedy. It’s really more of an adventure tale, told in constant motion. The camera following the train is in many scenes on another train running parallel. Keaton’s formidable athleticism is astounding. He runs and climbs all over the train, scrambling over the wood pile, crawling on the cow catcher. Other cast members, including Marion Mack, also clamber all over the moving train.

Just the scene where he sits on the crossbar of the train wheels and gets lifted up and down with the train movement had to be risky.

His gags are amazing for their complexity and precision. When the Union spies in “The General” chuck railroad ties at the train engine which Keaton uses to pursue them, he lies down on the cow catcher, and with a heavy railroad tie in his hands, slams it down to knock another wooden railroad tie off the track with an elementary lesson in physics. The train is still moving while he does it.

The timing of firing the railroad car cannon, first a comic dud, and then a success, was perfect, all while the trains are moving.

The most spectacular effect was, of course, the train wreck on the wooden bridge across the wide gorge. Keaton’s crew built the bridge, and then in a single shot -- it could not have been done twice -- the train engine and wood car are driven to the center, and Buster lights a fire on the wooden bridge to scuttle it before the Union men hot on his tail can use it. The fire starts before he is ready, and he must jump through flames to escape, accidently jumping through a gap in the bridge and plunging to the creek below. The fire engulfs the bridge, and the train collapses into the gorge.

In the PBS documentary on Keaton’s career mentioned above, an eyewitness to the event remarked that the silent stream of steam we see billowing out of the wrecked train was not silent at all. The train’s steam whistle let off a long, continuous shrill blast that sounded ominous and frightening to the spectators. Too bad that sound was not replicated for the movie. Some, horrified, also mistook the dummy planted at the controls for a real person.

After the train wreck there is a brief battle between the blue and gray, who finally catch up to each other. These fellows were played by Oregon National Guardsmen, changing uniforms to be both the Union and Confederate soldiers.

“The General” received mixed reviews when it was released, and some reviewers seemed to find fault with it mainly because it wasn’t what they were expecting: more than just a comedy, but less than a Civil War epic. In both the study of history, and our perception of movies, we are often guilty of clinging to preconceived notions. It was reportedly Keaton’s favorite film and the one of which he was most proud.

When a Confederate soldiers falls in battle while a confused and annoyed Keaton is talking to him, and when a Union soldier dies when Keaton’s sword accidently slips out of his hand and is driven into the soldier’s back, we are shown these events as gags. Maybe that’s what some critics had trouble swallowing. Depictions of historical events, especially in this manner, are going to seem callous, like treading upon hallowed ground. But interestingly, Keaton, both director and character, is determined to take only his train and his lady love seriously. Nothing else is of much significance. Despite its Mathew Brady look, the film’s tone seems quite modern in this respect, with wry, dry humor, at times almost cynical.  This is where he really departs from D. W. Griffith's sentimentality.

When he rescues the “Confederate flag” from a fallen flag bearer, he looks like a hero for only a brief moment. Then he gets jostled and knocked on his rear end. He’s no hero, he seems to be saying. He’s just a guy trying to belong somewhere. It’s still easy to get knocked on your rear end even if you’re trying to tread carefully over hallowed ground.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Odds and Ends

I won't be posting next week as I have some other fish to fry, but a few odds and ends to wrap up first:

Thanks to John Hayes for reviewing my  novel, "Beside the Still Waters" over at his Robert Frost's Banjo blog here.

Thanks to Yvette for reviewing my novel, "Cadmium Yellow, Blood Red" over at her blog, In So Many Words, here.

Yvette also tagged me for a meme going around.

1) If you could go back in time and relive one moment, what would it be?   This brings to mind the scene in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" when Emily asked to re-live one day of her life, a pleasant birthday, that just in the remembering the sweetnest of it was too painful.  I'm not sure I'd want to re-live any day.  That's what memories are for.

2) If you could go back in time and change one thing, what would it be?  Reclaim missed opportunities, I suppose.   Too many to name.

3) What movie/TV character do you most resemble in personality?  I can't think of any, though I identify with stoic, dry-witted characters who are unobtrusive until something pushes them over the edge.

4) If you could push one person off a cliff and get away with it, who would it be?  Nobody anymore.  President Obama and the Navy Seals have already taken care of that for me.

5) Name one habit you would like to change in yourself.  Taking on too much.

6) Describe yourself in one word.  Unassuming.

7) Describe the person who named you in this meme in one word.   Intelligent.

8) Why do you blog? Answer in one sentence.    As a writer, blogging is just one more way for me to do what I do.

Thanks to Yvette for tagging me for this meme, and I'm sorry you've chosen such a reserved person.  I inevitably fail at games like this due to an over-abundance of social reticence.

I'm supposed to name three more to tag, but I think instead I'll let those of you who choose to, tag yourselves and play the game at open invitation.

That's all for now.  I'll see you Monday, May 30th with a look at Buster Keaton's "The General."

Funny, I almost forgot.  From now until next Wednesday, the 25th, I'm giving away FREE a copy of my time-travel adventure novel "MYTHS OF THE MODERN MAN", as an ebook available through Smashwords.  You put in this coupon code:  RA54Q, and you can download the book in any e-reader format, or in text to read off your computer.   The book is also for sale at Amazon, and if anybody could leave a review on the Amazon product page, I'd appreciate it.  But, no strings.  Happy reading.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Only Angels Have Wings - 1939



“Only Angels Have Wings” (1939) is a quintessential film of 1939, I would suggest for two reasons. First, its “boys’ own adventure” type story of a band of mail flyers in South America would be the end of the Depression era adventures, the last bit of intrigue in a far away land before World War II, which would turn very young real-life fliers into men under horrific circumstances. The aimless flyers in “Only Angels Have Wings” haven’t any such worries. They are not responsible for a nation’s freedom. They can’t even be responsible for themselves.

Somewhere out there in the tropical mist, we are on the cusp of a more treacherous world, a more grown up world. One gets the feeling Cary Grant is trying to hold it off as long as possible.

The second element that makes this movie such a prime example of 1939 is the presence of character actor Thomas Mitchell, who played in five of the top movies that golden year, all winners. Besides this one, he was in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, “Gone with the Wind”, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, and “Stagecoach”, for which he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. It’s not a 1939 film without Thomas Mitchell.

For classic movie buffs, 1939 has always been regarded as the banner year, when the Hollywood movie factories churned out on their assembly lines a greater than usual number of excellent films. This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association “Classic Films of 1939 Blogathon” which runs from May 15th through the 17th. Have a look here at the website for a listing of bloggers and their 1939 films. Looks like a lot of great reading.

In this essay, I’d like to look at “Only Angels Have Wings” through the prism of 1939 and not so much about what we know about that year, but what we may have forgotten about it. The biggest thing we often forget is that we’re watching current events. This film marks the end of a timeline in an era, though I rather imagine director Howard Hawks, himself a former flier, would not have recognized that when he made it. It had only been some 12 years previous to the making of this movie that Charles A. Lindbergh, “Lucky Lindy” flew the first non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. That generation of seat-of-the-pants fliers like Lindy and Amelia Earhart, the Granville Brothers, and Bessie Coleman, were still part of the American popular culture; though some of them had already been killed in their daring exploits. These were still the days when airplane flight brought out the press and the newsreels cameras, where records made for huge headlines and parades.

Most people alive in 1939 could remember a time when there were no airplanes.

A week or so after “Only Angels Have Wings” premiered in May 1939, an unusually large number of the original cast, including Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Richard Barthlemess, Rita Hayworth, and Thomas Mitchell, and even some original actors in very minor roles, appeared in a radio script version broadcast by the Lux Radio Theater. Have a listen to the show here, now in public domain, at the Internet Archive site. Scroll down the year 1939 until you get to May 29th.

Between the 2nd and 3rd acts, the show’s producer and host, Cecil B. DeMille, interviewed on radio hookup from New York City the captain of the “Yankee Clipper” that had just that week made headlines by inaugurating the first commercial airline service from the United States to Europe. This was not a movie stunt, this was real life. The four propeller engine plane held a crew of 14 and could carry 74 passengers, and the mail. The captain announced, “That means we have at last conquered the Atlantic.” The flight took 25 hours.


Here is a newsreel of the event (Remember to scroll down to the bottom of the page to mute the music so you can hear the video):



The world suddenly got smaller, and inter-continental travel got easier (if you consider a 25-hour flight in a propeller plane easy). “Only Angels Have Wings”, is a product of this world where pilots were regarded as daredevils and pioneers, not yet corporate executives or administrators.

There is an inherent comic book feel to this movie, though again, I’m sure Mr. Hawks did not intend that. Consider how the pilots wear their holstered side arms below the belts of their high-waisted pants, their cuffs rolled up to show their boots. Black leather jackets with faded World War I insignia, and broad-brimmed straw hats to suggest a rakishness that is permissible in a area of law by mutual consent, opportunities built on enormous risks, too much liquor and a few carefully chosen (by the director, at least) women. Except for these last two points, we might be watching a film version of the popular comic strips “Terry and the Pirates” or “Smilin’ Jack”.

Here in this world of rattan shades and bamboo furniture, tropical birds and strumming guitars, Cary Grant is boss of a fledging airline running mail from a small port city of Barranca (you know you want to say it. Go ahead: “Calling Barranca, calling Barranca!”) to villages and mining camps far up the Andes. We are in South America, and the only premonition we get of the war to come is the Latin American music, which will have a huge impact beginning in the next year when after war broke out in Europe, we strengthened military and commercial ties with Latin America. The samba and the rumba were not far behind.

Jean Arthur stumbles into Barranca off a tramp steamer one tropical night that delivers a handful of passengers, and cargo, and mail for the plane. She is a piano player, who has left her last troupe of entertainers in Panama. She’s on her own, as free, or as lost, as the men she encounters in the base camp run by Dutchy, played by Sig Ruman. Most of the action of the film takes place in his bar/restaurant/hotel/air field. It is almost like Rick’s Café Americain in “Casablanca” only without the Nazis, or the refugees.

“Casablanca”, despite being almost entirely confined to Rick’s, gives us a closer look, and better acquaintance with the local setting and people. “Only Angels Have Wings” gives us only a brief look at the locals, when Jean Arthur enters another saloon that seems to cater only to them, and enjoys, and sings along with, vibrant Spanish music and dance. She is courageous enough to explore and appreciate. Cary Grant and his boys only buy drinks for, and we assume, sleep with, local girls from time to time. They don’t bother with the local culture too much. Their clubhouse is an island unto itself. Like Peter Pan's Island of Lost Boys.  An American 1939 fantasy.  When Mr. Grant reaches into his wallet to donate money to the sister of a killed pilot, he offers American greenbacks.  In a country where U.S. currency is not used.

Two happy go lucky fliers chat up Jean and bring her to their clubhouse for drinks and steaks, and take turns flirting with her. One, played by a young Noah Beery, Jr., is sent by the boss, Cary Grant, on a late night mail run, but there is bad weather and he returns in a risky landing. The film is barely ten minutes old and we have a ghastly crash while Grant, Miss Arthur, and Grant’s best pal, Thomas Mitchell look on, horrified.

Jean Arthur, sassy and street smart, is crushed by this tragedy, and finds herself equally exasperated with, and attracted to, flippant Cary Grant. In matters of everyday living she is in firm control and nobody’s fool, but in love…she is utterly helpless.

Mr. Grant plays the cynical, smart aleck leader. It would be interesting to have seen Humphrey Bogart in the role, to have his calm stoicism play against a jittery Jean Arthur. He would have given the character a soulfulness, a back story of pain and hard luck just in his glance. Bogie always walks in the door with his own back story, the way some actors might show up for auditions with their own costumes. Despite his facade of danger, he has a code of honor, while Cary Grant has no such nobility. He is really a condescending rogue. He sizes up Jean Arthur with the taunting remark, “Chorus girl?”

But Cary Grant, as handsome as it gets and just coming off his hero-adventurer stint in "Gunga Din" (1939) is right for the role in his charm, his boyish devil-may-care attitude, and especially his under-the-surface neediness.  (And Bogart had not yet reached his "hero" stage; he was still a thug in 1939.)

Some reviewers have suggested over the years that Grant was miscast in this role, but I disagree.  It's true that he had not yet reached the maturity of his later roles where he was able to play a mysterious, cool man of action, as in "North by Northwest" (1959) or "Charade" (1963).  It is also true that at times in "Only Angels Have Wngs" his character seems just a little too forced into the straightjacket of Howard Hawks' alpha male: his fastitious pseudo-macho shirt collar always buttoned at the neck to a half-standing position, the self-consciousness of his growling speech and movements.  There is no back story to read in his face and his manner, the way we can with Richard Barthlemess and all the other minor characters.   It is as if at times the handsome veneer is vacant.

At this stage of his career, he was much better suited to the charming scamp, con artist roles, such as with his other Hawks' film of the time, "His Girl Friday" (1940).  Still, Grant in this role of the leader of this band of fliers is fun to watch, and he pulls off something that I don't think any other male star of his day could do as well.

There is an inkling of brittleness to his bravado that is intriguing. He talks a great game of fatalistic acceptance of risk and death, but he clings to Thomas Mitchell as his chief emotional burden and his greatest friendship, for whom he takes heartsick responsibility and from whom he receives love and understanding he gets from no one else…until Jean Arthur comes along.

She is the lone woman who infiltrates the boys’ clubhouse. She says “Down the hatch” when she drinks her bourbon with Noah Beery, Jr. and Allyn Joslyn (for more on Allyn Joslyn, have a look at Caftan Woman’s recent post here), but she’s still a lady. She bristles at being passed along, and at being taken for granted. Eventually, she starts to blend in with the boys, after Cary Grant has shaken her, physically as well as emotionally, bawling her out for bawling the boys out when they display no mourning over the death of the flyer Joe Souther.

“Who’s Joe?” they scoff.

In a sweet bit of consoling, which is reprised later in the film, Victor Kilian, who plays the radio operator “Sparks”, confesses he got the same treatment when he was a newbie. Jean unburdens herself to the gentle, sad-faced Mr. Kilian,

“You know, all my life I’ve hated funerals. The fuss and bother never brings anybody back and it just spoils remembering them as they really are. And when I see people actually facing it that way, I act like a sap.”

She remembers the pain of her father’s sudden, violent death. She is alone in the world and so she grabs onto life with both hands, traveling by herself, not fearing to explore, or expose herself to emotional commitment. She is braver than Mr. Grant in this respect.

To make amends for her “unmanly” outburst of grief at Joe’s death, she wanders back into the bar and interrupts a jam session at the piano, taking over the keys herself, and banging out Sophie Tucker’s old theme song “Some of These Days”. Jean Arthur actually looks like she’s playing the piano here; she fakes it well. Most stars tinkling the ivories for a film role usually looked like they are mixing meatloaf with their hands.

Here’s the clip:



“Who’s Joe?” Grant tests her.

“Never heard of him.”

Later, alone at the piano as the bar empties out, she begins the leaden strains of “Lebestraum”, but catches herself before she gets too maudlin. Joe’s personal effects are brought in, only a handful of trinkets, and Cary Grant, per their ritual, allows anyone to take what they want. He offers the trinkets to Jean, and she takes a watch, the most expensive thing.

“You’ve got a good eye,” Grant sneers at her, insinuating that she is just a gold-digging chorus girl after all.

She gives him a look of disgust and mutters in a low voice, just short of growl, “Say, somebody must have given you an awful beating once.” It’s as good a putdown as anybody ever gave to Grant, and as truthful. He begins to change his opinion of her, for her honest challenge, and because she immediately gives the gift to the local girl who grieves the most for Joe. Grant is rebuffed, and impressed.

Miss Arthur is not far from the mark when she suggests someone has treated him badly. We get his version of a former love who tried to ground him with her possessiveness. It is also a warning to Jean not to try to do the same. He invites her to his room, and she accepts, but then he steers her out the door back to the boat. It’s a teasing game, and he blinks first. But when the fog clears and he must take the next mail plane out, he grabs her in a hasty kiss, and she is hooked. We know this, because she’s still there when he returns in the morning.

He irritably puts her off again, and she questions her own mixed up feelings and lack of judgment, “I don’t know whether this is me or another fella.”

Only Jean Arthur could say a line like that and be believed, just like she’s probably the only actress who can use interjections like “Hey!” “Say!”, “Gee whiz!” and “Jeepers” and have it sound profound.

There’s nobody that does that uncomfortable, “caught in the act” look quite like Jean.

But Grant is chafing over this clingy female, and the fear of commitment, and he demands she take the next boat, which won’t come until next week because, “Yes, they have no bananas” as Thomas Mitchell points out. Grant stomps away, and Jean is embarrassed and crestfallen.

“I’ve never quite made such a chump of myself.” Fortunately, Grant’s buddy becomes her buddy and he comforts her. Too bad she didn’t fall in love with Thomas Mitchell. (During the Lux Radio Theater broadcast of “Only Angels Have Wings”, Mr. DeMille thanked Jean Arthur and Thomas Mitchell for taking a week off from their current filming of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” to do the radio show.)

The movie shifts gears and we have the introduction of Richard Barthlemess, last seen here in “Heroes for Sale” (1933), as a new flier with a fake name and a mysterious past. Rita Hayworth is his pretty young wife. She doesn’t know that years before he piloted a plane that was going down in flames, and he bailed out, leaving his mechanic on board to die. Ever since then he has been shunned by other fliers.

He doesn’t know that she is Cary Grant’s former lover.

The subplots of this movie keep the pace moving nicely. Another subplot is Thomas Mitchell’s fading eyesight, which prompts Cary Grant to ground him. Mitchell is noble about it, accepting.  Gut-wrenching tension between one who has to give bad news, and another who has to hear it.   When Mitchell leaves, Grant boots a chair across the room in an explosive gesture, demonstrating only to us how badly he feels.

The mechanic who died in Richard Barthlemess’ plane was Thomas Mitchell’s younger brother. When Mr. Barthlemess is found out, he is shunned here, again, by these pilots, as he always is wherever he goes from job to job. He withstands Cary Grant’s barbs with stoic, self deprecating sarcasm, but Grant offers him a few dangerous jobs one else will take to earn his boat passage out of here. Including flying nitroglycerin, which he drops on condors.

Barthlemess is great in this role, a man doomed by his own guilt, haunted and too self-punishing even to look for redemption. We look in his expressive dark eyes and maybe we recall the “The Dawn Patrol” (1933) and other hero roles not so many years ago, but seemingly a lifetime for this now middle-aged man.

Another element is keeping up the pace is the constant and subtle shifts into humor. There are glib remarks and pratfalls. The proud Spanish-speaking company doctor, played by Lucio Villegas, who Barthlemess is ordered to fly up to a mining camp to treat an injured man is insulted by the suggestion that it might be too dangerous, and spouts a soliloquy from Shakespeare about courage while Grant tries to placate him and shut him up.

Then there are the flying scenes that take us breathlessly up the mountain passes and across rugged terrain in a craft that looks like to be little more than a wood crate with wings. The aerial photography is spectacular. Though some of it is models, it’s all breathtaking action. At one point, Barthlemess must take off from a narrow cliff with not enough room to taxi, so he taxis the plane right off the ledge and picks up the wind currents on the drop, like a kite, in a stomach-turning descent.

It is these successful daring tasks and precise flying that earns Barthlemess Grant’s grudging respect. Eventually, however, Rita Hayworth (Judy, Judy, Judy) wants to know why her husband is always treated like dirt. She is still in the dark about his past. We have a reunion scene between the former lovers Hayworth and Grant, but we can see that there are no more sparks between them. Miss Hayworth is in love with her husband, and Mr. Grant is just as fed up with her as when she tried to tame him.

It would have been more interesting, I think, to have Grant and Hayworth still attracted to each other, then the foursome would really be caught in a dilemma; each would be forced into making decisions about their lives instead of just letting things happen.  Perhaps Howard Hawks felt he had enought subplots.

More humor when Grant catches the stumbling Jean Arthur eavesdropping on their conversation, and Jean slowly starts to enter the picture again, waiting out a nail-biting test flight of Grant’s that has her getting sick to her stomach. Again, comforted with kind words and a Bromo-Seltzer from Thomas Mitchell. She confides again her love of Grant to him.

“I know I’m a fool, but I can’t do anything about it,” she whimpers. She recognizes, and envies, Mitchell’s close relationship with Grant.

“You love him, don’t you, Kid?”

“Yes, I guess I do.”

“Why can’t I love him the way you do, sneer when he tries to kill himself, be proud when he doesn’t? Why couldn’t I be there to meet him when he got back? What do you do when he doesn’t come back when you expect him to?”

Mitchell’s tortured expression and body English tells us there’s been many a time he got sick with worry over Grant. “I go nuts.”

Another comic, but sexy scene is when Jean Arthur sneaks into Grant’s room so she can use his bathtub. Grant enters, and they bristle and irritate, and flirt, and laugh. Rita pops in, and a terrific jealous exchange between her and Jean:

“Maybe I’d better go,” Jean offers.

“No, please don’t,” Rita replies, with raised eyebrows and an arch expression.

“I really didn’t intend to.”

But Rita is not really jealous, she’s affirmed that she loves her husband and will let the past go.

Another comic bit when Grant sees Arthur limping and he picks her up in her arms. She tells him she’s not hurt, she just broke the heel of her shoe.

“Imagine,” she says, “Losing one heel right after another.” They kiss, and she promises there will be no tying him down or asking him to give up flying.

“You don’t have to be afraid of me anymore.” What a line, as comforting as it is accusing. The screenwriter gives her more gold,

“There’s nothing I can do about it, I just love you. That’s all. I feel the same way about you the Kid does.”

It’s an honest assessment of his relationship with Thomas Mitchell, who puts a coat over Grant’s shoulders on a chilly night, brings him coffee and worries that he doesn’t get enough sleep, lights his cigarettes. (Everybody seems to light Grant’s cigarettes in this movie.) He does what he can do for his chum, then he wanders into the background. It’s the kind of relationship with which Grant is comfortable, and the only kind he can accept from Jean.

He’s still not a committing kind of guy, but something happens to open up a place on Grant’s dance card.

Yeah, a great big old cast iron spoiler here. Read on at your peril.

Another flight must be undertaken to meet a needed contract, but the only ones who can take this assignment are Barthlemess and Mitchell. Destiny takes a hand, and the man with the guilt, and the man with the hatred for the guilty party who got his kid brother killed are riding the skies together.

The plane runs into trouble, a fire on board, and they crash, but Barthlemess will not bail out this time. With superb flying, he brings the plane to the ground. He is badly burned, but Thomas Mitchell is fatally injured.

Afterwards, the fliers welcome Barthlemess into the fraternity and place a drink in his bandaged hands. Manuel Alvarez Maciste plays guitar and sings a sad Spanish tune that soothes and laments at the same time. Mitchell’s personal effects are laid out on the bar in a handkerchief. This time, Cary Grant does not cynically offer the goods to anyone. He takes the small bundle to his room to be alone with them.

It’s different with Mitchell. Nobody’s going to say, “Who’s the Kid?” at his death. Mr. Grant’s manly code of élan in the face of death does not extend to his dearest friend. Maybe he’s a hypocrite. Maybe he’s human. The men who call him “Papa” because he is their leader in their tight-knit male hierarchy will not see him cry, but Jean does.

Another smoothly comic bit when Jean, antsy and pacing outside Grant’s office just before she leaves for the boat meets with Victor Kilian again, who whispers to her,

“Aren’t you going to say goodbye to him? I think you ought to.”

Jean, surprised, clinging to hope, “You do?”

“I think he’d want you to.”

“You sure? I don’t mind doing it if you say so.”

“I do say so.”

“You do?”

With Kilian’s blessing, she enters Grant’s office, mumbling defensively that Kilian wanted her to.

It runs that knife edge between silliness and deeply touching.

She practically begs Grant to ask her to stay, but he vacillates. He wants her to stay, because he needs somebody. He’s just about to say something, when we hear from the radio once more:

“Calling Barranca! Calling Barranca!”

The weather clears, and there is one last chance to make their contract, so Grant scrambles to his plane. This time Jean’s plea has a disgusted, angry tone.

“I’m hard to get Geoff. All you have to do is ask me.”

He can’t, but he suggests they flip a coin, and it is not until after he leaves that she realizes it is Thomas Mitchell’s two-headed coin.

It’s the closest he can come to asking her to stay, and she does. We may wonder if she’s getting the short end of the stick staying with a man so emotionally close, or so proud, or so hurt, or so juvenile he cannot comfort her with a simple “I love you”. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t. If he’s inscrutable to Jean, he is to us as well.

But this is not a world of commitments, because commitment suggests the possibility of a future, and in Barranca we are only concerned with the here and now. There will be many hasty commitments made, clung to, and perhaps regretted during the war that will follow in only a few more months.

Does anybody else feel sorry for the guy in the mountain lookout post, all by himself through the entire movie? Played by Don “Red” Barry, poor “Tex” never gets any company, except his mule.

“Only Angels Have Wings” made such an impression of movie audiences of the day that “Calling Barranca!” was a punch line for a while. A few cartoons used the gag, including this one from Tex Avery’s “Ceiling Hero” (1940) and “Saddle Silly” (1941).



Perhaps some of you will remember the early 1980s TV show “Tales of the Gold Monkey” starring Stephen Collins. That was inspired by “Only Angels Have Wings”.

The banner year of 1939 gave us movies that were escapist in many ways, but inevitably truthful about who we were, and what we imagined about the world. Please have a look at the many other blogs participating in this blogathon. Special thanks to Becky of “Classic Becky’s Brain Food” and Page of “My Love of Old Hollywood” for organizing the fun.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Classic Films of 1939 Blogathon - reminder


Just a reminder that on Monday the 16th, we join the Classic Films of 1939 Blogathon, sponsored by the Classic Movie Blog Association. The blog entries run from Sunday the 15th through Tuesday the 17th, so be sure to check out the many wonderful blogs which are participating in this salute to that very special movie year. Here’s a list.


My turn at bat on Monday will be “Only Angels Have Wings” (1939), directed by Howard Hawks, and starring Cary Grant and Jean Arthur, with Rita Hayworth and Richard Barthlemess. I hope you can stop by. This poster is swiped from the blog “My Love of Old Hollywood”, where Page has gathered a terrific collection from the films we’re showcasing on the 1939 Blogathon. Go have a look. See you Monday in Barranca.


Monday, May 9, 2011

Myths of the Modern Man



This is to announce my latest novel published as an ebook through Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com, and Smashwords: MYTHS OF THE MODERN MAN.

A late 21st century time traveler battles bards, druids, warrior queens, and Roman cohorts for survival during the Celtic rebellion against the Romans in Britannia, 60 AD. Fun for all.

Time traveler John Moore’s fate is determined by four women: the Celtic warrior queen Boudicca; Tailtu, a gentle slave purchased from another clan; Dr. Eleanor Roberts, a severe, jealous and brilliant woman who spearheads the time travel mission; and enigmatic Dr. Cheyenne L’esperance, herself a time traveler from an even more distant future. Moore’s mission to survive three battles against the Roman legions coincides with survival tactics and backstabbing in the modern government department. The savage past clashes swords with the desperate future in a time continuum of treachery. All this, and a smattering of Latin for $2.99! What a deal!

For those without a Nook or a Kindle or other e-reading device, the Kindle software can be downloaded to your computer for FREE (see link in the sidebar), or you can download the novel from Smashwords in a variety of formats that you can read right off your computer.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Narrow Margin - 1952


“The Narrow Margin” (1952) is a speeding bullet of a movie that stuns and entertains like no other B-noir. And that it happens almost entirely on a moving train is icing on the cake.

I do, however, wish it had a different title. When I was planning on using this film for our celebration of National Train Day, (Saturday, May 7th), I couldn’t remember the title of the movie. Took me forever to research enough scraps of cast names that I could recall to get it. If it had been called “That Train Movie with the Gangster’s Moll and the Gravelly-Voiced Guy Running from the Mobster with the Fur on His Coat Collar” I would have had no trouble locating this at all.

The premise of the film is simple. A pair of detectives in Chicago are assigned to escort a gangster’s moll to appear as a witness in court in Los Angeles. They take the train across the country. Bad guys are after her to shut her up.  It's a race for their lives, a game of terminal (mind your head on the pun) hide and seek.

No sooner do we understand the gravity of the situation, when the senior detective, played by Don Beddoe, is shot dead, taking the bullet intended for the gangster’s moll. The other detective (with the gravelly voice) is played by Charles McGraw. Losing Beddoe is almost like losing his own father. There’s a nice bit where, cradling Beddoe in his arms, he brushes off Beddoe’s lapel that had cigar ash fall on it, a reprise of his similar protective flick of ash off Beddoe’s lapel when they talked in the cab ride earlier.

Torn up, and furious at the mouthy moll, played terrifically by Marie Windsor, McGraw has his work cut out for him now that he has to take this she-devil on to Los Angeles by himself. The bad guys do not know what she looks like because the police have been protecting her. They do know what McGraw looks like though, so they assume if they follow him on board the train, he will lead them to her.

A bit of a complication occurs when McGraw is seen conversing with another lady passenger, played by Jacqueline White. Love that first name. Has a ring to it.

Uh-oh, the gangsters mistakenly think Miss White is the moll they want to kill. McGraw realizes this, and as if the pressure wasn’t bad enough, now he must protect two women, one of whom does not even know her life in is danger.

That’s all you’re going to get from me on the plot. It has so many twists and turns, and is so fast paced, you’d need a scorecard to follow it. A few surprises occur that will be ruined if I say anything else. So, just a few observations of how the train in this movie IS the movie.

We start with the opening credits, a powerful locomotive zooms at us in the night, the title splashes in our faces, and we hear the clanging and train whistle. There is no musical score to this movie. The soundtrack is all train noises. At one point, the gangster’s moll file her nails with an emery board, in an extreme close-up. It mimics the rhythmic sound of the train as we dissolve to a close-up of the trains wheels. The train is alive.

Richard Fleischer, son of the noted animator Max Fleischer, who gave us Popeye and Betty Boop, directs this taut film. His creativity is delightful. In another scene, a body falls after being shot and inadvertently brushes against a record player, thereby turning it on to blast a bluesy requiem. The movie said to have been shot in 13 days, and you can believe it because the entire movie is constant motion.

There is the train, first and foremost, a world unto itself that flies by cities and towns, stops at a few of them, but never stays for long. There is also the inherent sociability of train travel, so different than with planes. We are seated in dining cars and lounge cars with strangers, and introductions naturally follow, conversations begin, and we enter other people’s lives. The rolling village is self contained, but you can get on and off whenever you feel like it.

This represents another conundrum for our gravelly-voiced McGraw. What bad guys are getting on the train where, and who are escaping by getting off?

Mr. McGraw is seen constantly running down the corridors of the train cars, a lot of cat-and-mouse deception with the bad guys. They try to search his compartment. He sneaks Miss Windsor out at one point to the ladies’ room, then hustles her back. She bolts down the corridor hugging her suitcase, dressed in a black negligee. Watching them running on the swaying train through narrow corridors is one of the most entertaining parts of this movie.

At one point, one of the mob henchman and McGraw duke it out in the men’s room. We have several minutes of no dialogue, just shoving each other’s mugs into sinks, punching, and at one point McGraw kicks right towards the camera and we get the bottom of his gumshoe in our faces.

A little boy on board, played by Gordon Gebert (you’ll remember him as the Janet Leigh’s son in “Holiday Affair” from our post here), has seen McGraw’s gun and takes him for a train robber. If McGraw thinks the mobsters are tenacious, they’ve got nothing on this little boy, who will not leave him alone.

Several peeks back into the compartment where Marie Windsor fumes, still in her black negligee, and waits for food. Her ugly attitude makes us hate her almost as much as McGraw does, or would if her snappy repartee weren’t so entertaining. At one point, McGraw tells her, “You make me sick to my stomach!” She fires back, “Well, use your own sink.”

They are either the worse enemies in the world, or they are like an old married couple. Their chemistry with each other is terrific.

Hide and seek continues, roaring through the West like destiny unleashed. A very large gentleman, who keeps bumping into McGraw and therefore, because of his girth in the narrow corridor, provides comic bits, is suddenly turned into a suspicious character when he innocently (or knowingly?) answers McGraw’s question of when they are to pull into the next scheduled stop.

The fat guy, played by Paul Maxey (who in credits in other movies is actually billed as the fat guy or the heavy gent), answers him politely, but suddenly, we have a flash of passing lights splashing across his serious expression and a startling shriek of train whistle. He holds the position, like a tableau, for several startling seconds. It’s as if the train is trying to tell us something about this guy.

Another treat about this movie is the many close-ups, probably because we are in such small quarters. We also get a lot of shots done through reflections in windows and mirrors, and the final climax features this device.

This is a movie to be experienced, not just watched. It was filmed in the last days of what we might think of as the glamorous era of train travel. “Union Pacific”, which we covered on yesterday’s post, showed us the beginnings, rough and hard, yet without the bleakness of this modern film noir.

Still, even with a gash in his head and the threat of murder around every narrow corner, a mouthy dame back in the compartment, and a small boy attacking him in the sleeper car, Charles McGraw can make this train trip seem snazzy and elegant.

Have a look here for more on National Train Day. Don’t let train travel, which is the most economic and eco-friendly way to travel, be left to old movies. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, domestic travel by train is 20% more efficient than air travel and 28% more efficient than travel by car on a per-passenger-mile basis. Train travel may seem nostalgic, but it can also be our future.

Book your next trip by train. I will, too. It’s the only way to fly.

See you in the dining car.