Monday, December 26, 2011

Happy New Year

I hope the holidays are going well for one and all, and I'd like to take this opportunity to wish you a Happy New Year, as I won't be posting the rest of this week.  Thank you most sincerely for the pleasure of your company this year. 

We'll start the new year off next week with a visit to Las Vegas, with two very different movies: "Las Vegas Story" (1952) a crime drama featuring Jane Russell, Victor Mature, and Vincent Price.  Then we'll take it on the lighter side with the musical "Meet Me in Las Vegas" (1956) with Dan Dailey and Cyd Charisse.  I hope you can join us.  I'll meet you by the slot machines.

For now, a final holiday offering from a very jazzy cartoon Ella Fitzgerald.  Remember to scroll down to the bottom of the page to mute the Christmas music so you can hear the video.

See you next week.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Remember the Night - 1940


“Remember the Night” (1940) is a polar opposite to “My Reputation” (1946), covered here in Monday’s post. The latter film feels darker in tone and in cinematography. It featured flashes of noir. The characters were well-to-do upper crust. It was wartime. Conversely, “Remember the Night” brings us out of the Depression, among simpler, homespun people. It is screwball comedy when it’s not frankly sentimental, and is a much lighter film in tone as well as on the set. The linchpin between the two movies is Barbara Stanwyck, who with ease can be either a shy upper class widow, or a petty thief from the streets.

There’s a lot to recommend the film, the Preston Sturges script with its absurdities, Fred MacMurray’s average-joe-as-hero, and especially Beulah Bondi. She played mothers most often, and she had a transcendent quality on screen, at the same time utterly realistic. She had this in common with Barbara Stanwyck. The emotional electricity each was able to bring to her work is even greater in their scenes together.

Because Miss Bondi played mothers so often, and was so recognizable a character actress, and had that trademark quiver to her voice, it might be easy to dismiss her, unless you watch her carefully. Especially those large, expressive eyes. Her years of stage work (she came to the movies in her early 40s) shows in her ability to play off her scene partner rather than the camera -- which is what a lot of movie stars did who did not have theater experience. Spring Byington, who also had a career of playing mothers, had a lighter, more comic touch, and she could be accused of sometimes playing a stereotype. That’s because comedy is often born of parody.

But Beulah Bondi is entirely genuine. You see her in this film and recognize the mother she is supposed to be, fluttering in the kitchen and fussing over her son.  She is a woman of hard work, restlessness, tension. She snaps at the hired boy. She bends over backwards to make the stranger Barbara Stanwyck welcome in her home, and when her son Fred MacMurray plays the piano and sings the wrong line in “Suwannee River”, she mouths the correct word and shakes her head with disapproval, not angry, but embarrassed that her boy and his $14.00 worth of piano lessons has let her down in front of company, all the while adoring him at the same time.

You have the sense that she has lived a very hard life, but managed to keep a good outlook in spite of it.

Preston Sturges reportedly was not entirely happy with the film. He felt that his screwball comedy was turned into sentimental schmaltz, and at times it was. But “Remember the Night” has become for us, in a more cynical era, a wonderful holiday tradition. It could not be so without the sentiment. That it is equal parts screwball only makes it better.

We are coming out of the Depression in 1940. The war is going on in Europe and Asia, but you’d never know it from this movie. When Stanwyck and MacMurray travel cross-country by car, they encounter a WPA sign announcing yet another road construction project -- that never seems to be completed. But it was such projects that helped to drag us out of the depths of the Depression some seven years earlier.

Barbara Stanwyck has her own way of dealing with hard times. She’s a thief, and has walked out of a jewelry store with a diamond bracelet on her arm. She’s caught, and Fred MacMurray is the prosecutor in court.

Her defense attorney, played by Willard Robertson (who had really been a lawyer in younger days), engages in some magnificent and utterly pompous courtroom theatrics, which much have been a blast for him. He contends she was hypnotized by the sparkle in the jewels and forgot what she was doing, which in modern medical terms is called schizophrenia. Yeah, sure it is. He makes P.T. Barnum look like a Presbyterian minister.

The case, which is tried on Christmas Eve, is postponed until early January. Since she has no money and can’t raise bail, she’s doomed to spend Christmas in the hoosegow. Good guy Fred feels bad, and pays Fat Mike the bail bondsmen to get her out for the holiday.

He thinks his good Samaritan deed ends there, but it does not. Oh, but it’s a tricky world full of people with dirty minds. Such is the case with Fat Mike, who thinks Fred wanted Miss Stanwyck free so he can receive sexual favors. (“He’s got a mind like a sewer,” Fred says.) When Fat Mike drags her to Fred’s apartment, she thinks the same.

Fred “Snowflake” Toones is Mr. MacMurray’s dimwitted houseman, not a great role but unfortunately typical leavings for Snowflake. His role as a cowboy in Gene Autry’s “The Singing Cowboy” discussed here was better.

Snowflake’s packing up Fred’s stuff and trying to hustle him out of the apartment because Fred’s supposed to drive to Indiana to visit his mother for Christmas. Stumped with what to do with Stanwyck, who is more amused than relieved that he has no designs on her, Fred takes her to a supper club for a bite to eat while they figure out where she can go.

He requests the orchestra play “Back Home Again in Indiana” and she and Fred dance to the really lovely rendition by a female vocalist unknown to me, backed by a male quartet. Stanwyck is also from Indiana, and the thought that she might be lying when she announces this is quickly dismissed by her excitement. Barbara Stanwyck really owned a scene and could make you believe anything.

It has been years since she’s seen her mother -- she ran away when a teen -- and Fred suggests he drop her off at her mother’s house for the holiday and pick her up on the drive back. She’s flustered by the idea, and there is a wondrous expression, anxiety mixed with longing, in her dark eyes.

I guess songs about our home states do that to us. Look how Jean Arthur completely lost it during her tipsy rendition of “The Iowa Corn Song” in “A Foreign Affair”, discussed here.

Doah! You can just sense a future trivia post about state songs in the movies, can’t you? This stream of consciousness writing is going to be the end of me one of these days.

I’m pretty sure “All Hail to Massachusetts” has never been in a movie.

Mr. MacMurray and Miss Stanwyck take the car across a handful of states without any national highway system at all -- that didn’t come until the 1950s -- and study the paper map when they get lost. See how much fun life was before GPS? I admit, I’m still a map person. I got a kick out of the scene where they have to pull up to a general store/post office to read the name of the town on the building so they can find out where they are.

I was on a train once, traveling through a dark upper New York State night, when, half asleep in my berth, I felt the train stop. I looked out the window to read the name off the train depot to see where we were, but we had not stopped at a depot. All was dark. All except a distant enormous red KODAK in block letters. Ah, I thought to myself. Rochester.

GPS? I spit on your GPS.

However, much as I admire the freewheeling adventure of our two travelers, I am invariably made freezing when I watch this movie because they travel for hundreds of miles in the winter with their car windows rolled down. Now, I know this was filmed on a nice toasty Hollywood soundstage, but jeez-louise. I have driven short distances with no heat and it’s a challenge to the soul. Several hundred miles would be a feat, I fear, beyond my endurance. You see, we here in the northern climes do not go to the trouble and expense of heating our homes for the ambience. We do it to keep from dying. Hypothermia also occurs in cars driving 700-plus miles in freezing temperatures with the windows open.

Especially when they get lost, tired, and decide to sleep in the car. With the windows open.

It’s a cozy shot as they wake up to a cow’s big old face in their faces. At least the cow had a nice warm barn full of other cows in which to spend the night.

The farmer hauls them before the local judge for trespassing and destruction of property, and when they flee justice and become fugitives, MacMurray gets a taste of what life has been like for Stanwyck -- always ducking, living by her wits, and even enjoying the taste of rebellion

The visit at Stanwyck’s mother’s house brings the merriment to a screeching halt and explains why she came to a wayward end. It’s a good set-up scene where she and MacMurray stand on the steps of the home of her mother and stepfather. They rap at the door and hear dogs barking, and then a light goes on. We see her mother only as an eerie dark figure, lit from behind. When we first see her stony face, we can appreciate Stanwyck’s nervousness.

Her mother, a cold, hard woman, well played by Georgia Caine, revives old complaints and resentments against her daughter, who never measured up to her rigid standards. Fred gets Barbara out of there in a most gallant way, and takes her to spend Christmas with his family.

It’s a different story at his mom’s house. Here the idealized home and hearth kicks any rebellion out of Stanwyck and she is transformed by the kindness shown her, and by the gentleness of these country kinfolk. Along with Mother Bondi, Elizabeth Patterson (another stage-trained actress you might remember as Mrs. Trumbull on “I Love Lucy”) plays Fred’s spinster aunt. 

The mop-haired Sterling Holloway plays the dimwitted hired boy, Willie. You may still think of the voice of Winnie the Pooh when you hear him. We get to hear his mellow tenor on the old chestnut, “A Perfect Day”.

They do all the things Stanwyck would roll her eyes over and ridicule with a cutting remark if she were telling the story, but she’s not telling it. She’s living it, and we see her shy disbelief, almost as if she senses she’s entered a happy Twilight Zone. When Fred plays the piano, we see Stanwyck sitting very still, but rolling her eyes over Fred, and the room where the ladies and Willie are an audience as they string a popcorn chain for the tree. Stanwyck is drinking in the scene around her, like a person removed from it, but astounded to discover she is really part of it.

This still, silent, powerful acting is reprised when she is taken to her room. After Miss Bondi has left her alone, Stanwyck leans over her suitcase on the bed and sinks her chin into her shoulder, looking all around the room pensively, curiously, with almost a note of humor we think, until we see there are tears in her eyes.

Fred, being a square shooter, tells his mother what kind of person Stanwyck really is, and Beulah Bondi, the forgiving type, makes being extra nice to Barbara her new project. This includes gift giving the next morning around the tree. Stanwyck is part of the family by the end of the week.

A cute scene that again, turns unexpectedly tender, when Aunt Elizabeth Patterson hog-ties Stanwyck into a corset (having fun with the Scarlett O’Hara scene of a year before?), and lets her wear a long gown of what was supposed to be part of her own wedding trousseau. We see a stack of letters tied with a ribbon packed away with the dress, and we see that the spinster aunt has been disappointed in love.

Barbara spent New Year’s Eve in a fancy big city hotel ballroom in “My Reputation”. Here it’s a barn dance, and when the band leader/square dance caller checks his pocket watch and sees that it’s midnight, the fiddlers and such launch into “Auld Lang Syne” with the best of them, and paper streamers float down from the hayloft.



I love how Sterling Holloway leaps into the arms of a very tall girl to get his kiss.

Mother Bondi sees the attraction between her boy and the petty thief houseguest, whose romance is egged on by her Cupid-playing sister. She tries to gently put a stop to what might be the end of her good boy’s career if he gets tangled up with a bad girl.

It’s a good scene when she levels with Stanwyck. Barbara is first embarrassed that Beulah Bondi knows the truth about her. Stanwyck, always on the ball, gets the message and reassures Miss Bondi. Look at the shot where Bondi stands behind Stanwyck, who stands at her mirror. Stanwyck conveys with a comb touched, as if frozen there, to her cheek, her awkwardness, her shame, and her sorrow to find that she really has no future. Not with Fred, not with any nice guy. Bondi leans over her with a hug, equally agonized.

One the ride home they drive through Canada.

I know they joked about not wanting to drive through Pennsylvania again because that’s where they took it on the lam from the farmer with the shotgun and the judge, but really? That’s a heck of a detour to make. Through a much colder country. Lake-effect snow. With the car windows rolled down.

Nice shot of them by icy Niagara Falls though. We talked about Niagara Falls in the movies in this previous post. And a lovely ambiguous remark by Stanwyck when MacMurray, who wants to marry her says he’ll take her to Niagara Falls on their honeymoon.

“But we’re there now, Darling.”

Fade to black. Quick, before the censors find out what she means.

Of course, another reason for Canada is that Fred suggests since they are out of the US, she could jump bail and he practically invites her to become a fugitive. She wants to go back and face the music. Then when the trial resumes, he tries to throw it, but she won’t let him to that, either. She pleads guilty.

We don’t know what her sentence is going to be, but they’re both pretty sure they won’t be seeing each other for a while. We’re also pretty sure Fred will wait for her.

“Will you stand beside me and hold my hand when they sentence me?” Barbara asks, and again, it is a kind of Christmas miracle that we believe her helpless anxiety, this woman who could be so tough in other movies.

Christmas is a lovely illusion, and is probably best appreciated when we let it be. Reality is for January.

Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Beulah Bondi, and Sterling Holloway reprised their roles in the Lux Radio Theater presentation of this movie March 25, 1940. Have a listen here at the Internet Archive, now in public domain, or download it free to your computer. Scroll down to “Remember the Night”.



Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, and may the peace of the season be yours.

Monday, December 19, 2011

My Reputation - 1946



This week we have A Barbara Stanwyck Christmas with “My Reputation” (1946) and “Remember the Night” (1940). When you count in “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945), which we previously covered here, it seems Miss Stanwyck became one of the leaders in the Christmas movie genre.

A young relative of mine, 10 years old to be exact, in between mouthfuls of chocolate cake, informed me quite solemnly that new Christmas movies were not as good as “classic movies”. She was so firm in her opinion I could not help but agree (she doesn’t know anything about this blog), pleased with the flourish in her use of the word “classic.” She is as familiar with “It’s a Wonderful Life” as any old movie buff.

She could not, however, precisely tell me why old Christmas movies are better, though in time she will likely come up with several reasons. She’s a rather analytical type of person. Don’t know where she gets it.

For my part, I think one of the chief reasons “classic” Christmas movies are so powerful is that, ironically, they are not all about Christmas. Christmas is only the backdrop to a collage of story lines, subplots, and images, sometimes only a scene or two in a movie that otherwise deals with non-holiday drama.

To be sure, Christmas comes with its own drama, which is why many people are stressed out this time of year. It is a checklist of tasks we must accomplish. It is a recurring nightmare of family feuds. Annually, we seem to fail to measure up to a goal of spiritual, and temporal completeness.

I think modern Christmas movies, TV-movies, etc. are less powerful and satisfying than classic films because they tend to put this holiday frenzy as the crux of the story, instead of allowing it to be the backdrop. As every classic film fan can tell you, we notice the backdrops. We study them. They are important just where they are. Bedford Falls is the backdrop; James Stewart and his stupendous meltdown and the reasons for it are the story. But through the telling, we know all about Bedford Falls, and it becomes a character in the movie. The Christmas climax is fitting because Christmas is not the nightmare; it’s just the time the nightmare occurs.

Another way to look at it: let’s say Christmas is the painted backdrop of a stage set. The actors perform in front of it. However, if you make Christmas the focus of the story, i.e., it’s like moving the backdrop downstage closer to the audience.  The actors are now performing behind it and we never see them.

By keeping Christmas in the background, the classic Christmas movie becomes so much more meaningful than the trite “finding the true meaning of Christmas” or having “the best Christmas ever” stories we have today. The classic Christmas film is about life and death, prison and sickness, lies and deceit, and never getting what you really want. Then the Christmas scene -- like the thunderous ringing of church bells or the clash of symbols that accompany it, makes us feel triumphant in a colossal way, because we have discovered again we are human and survived being human, and have forgiven others for being human.

Christmas movies made during the early 1940s have a special tension to them. World War II was, shall we say, a rather bigger impediment to holiday serenity than standing in a long checkout line. We know, just as the characters know, this may be their last Christmas together. Ever. Or, maybe not. Depending on the role of the dice. There is no way for us to replicate that dramatic tension today.

I guess it’s about time I got to the movie.

“My Reputation” deals with a woman’s adjustment to widowhood and then opening herself up to a new romantic relationship. Christmas slides in at the end of the movie like a runner rounding third base and stealing home.

Barbara Stanwyck plays a new widow with two sons, ages 12 and 14, played by Scotty Beckett with his customary easy charm, and Billy Cooper. Cooper made only a handful of films, but his portrayal of the sensitive older son is quite nice. The boys have little idea of the horrors of their father’s longtime illness or their mother’s devoted care giving. They will be equally ignorant of how lonely she is, and how lost she is now that her social position seems to have changed with her husband’s passing.

Her mother hammers this home to her. Played with her usual frank, thoroughness of character, Lucille Watson is the dragon lady, Miss Stanwyck’s upper crust mother to whom duty and honor are substitutes for joy and happiness. She has been a professional widow for 25 years, and has worn black every day like a uniform. She expects Barbara to do the same now.

Note the hanky Miss Watson sniffles into. Even that is edged in black.

Miss Watson gets a wry, comic scene where she describes a friend’s fight with the local ration board about getting a larger gasoline allotment because her luxury car only gets 9 miles to the gallon. Her indignant friend, another woman from “good society” complains, “They’re just doing everything they can to break our spirits. It’s pure class prejudice.”

Ah, the rich resenting calls for equity put on them by a democratic society in wartime, calling it class prejudice. Sound familiar?

“Stick to your rights,” Lucille Watson tells her, “This is still America.” Yes, but whose?

Another footnote to the war is the scene where Stanwyck shops at the local market with her ration book. In this post last year about “Love Letters” (1945), we noted that not a lot of wartime movies showed the omnipresent ration books, but here we get to see Stanwyck flipping through hers. $1.38 for a pound of bologna, plus 24 points. You could have all the money in the world, but if you didn’t have 24 points, either in the form of stamps or little round fiber-celluloid tokens (like game pieces, red for meat and fats, blue for processed foods), you went home empty.  (Note, this movie was made during the war, but not released until 1946.)

Stanwyck shrinks from the horror of her bossy mother’s code of behavior. With her sons about to leave for boarding school, she suffers from the anxiety of being nobody’s wife, nobody’s mother, with her only role left of being her mother’s dutiful, and dutifully spiritless, daughter.

Barbara Stanwyck plays, or rather underplays, this woman with impressive sensitivity. Her long career showcased the enormous range of her talent, but strong women became her forte. When she had to, she could chew scenery with the best of them. This role required a different tone, and she demonstrates her intelligent reading of a character, her tasteful delineation of what is appropriate.

She gently plays a gentle woman, and hits all the right notes. A scene early in the film where she reads a letter written to her by her deceased husband is particularly moving. She exhibits a lot of control in her shaky voice, as well as through the movie when she has moments of nearly breaking down. It is never forced, it is always genuine.

Luckily for her, Eve Arden is her pal. She tries to buck her up and encourages her to stand up to her mother, but it’s a long, slow learning curve for the emotionally brittle Stanwyck. Miss Arden provides her customary sensible support, but there’s not a lot of wisecracking for her in the film.

Jerome Cowan, however, who we saw in “Beloved Enemy” here, leaps off the screen in a small role as the husband of a friend who makes passes at Stanwyck. He’s the smarmy fellow who can’t keep his hands off her when his wife isn’t looking, and when he offers to drive her home, we can foresee better than Stanwyck does that he means her no good. A brief tussle in the front seat, she gets away from him, but there’s no comeuppance for this creep. Cowan plays him with the right sort of grinning lust and self confidence.

Thoroughly shaken, Miss Stanwyck is more upset by the prospect of being alone than being assaulted by a friend because she is now “a woman on the loose.” Soon, she will have a new worry: how to be open to a new love when he shows up.

This turns out to be George Brent, who meets her on the ski slope. Eve Arden and her husband have taken Stanwyck to Lake Tahoe. The foursome get along swell, but the twosome is harder to evolve. Stanwyck is reticent to take up so soon with another man, despite her loneliness, and Brent is too much of a free-spirited bachelor to want to be tied to anyone, especially a woman who requires such deft wooing. Wooing is not Mr. Brent’s forte. He comes from the grab-them-and-plant-a-forceful-kiss school of romance. And if she is so insulting as to struggle, ridicule her for her childishness.

Some have criticized Brent for being wooden, not just in this role but period. I can’t really fault him for this performance, though, because we don’t get too much of his side of the story of this relationship. The movie isn’t really about them, it’s about her. At the end of the film, when Brent decides he wants to make a commitment, he’s not really believable. It seems too sudden a transformation. I don’t think Brent can be entirely blamed for a script that doesn’t let us see his struggle.

One scene between them doesn’t work at all. They have known each other for a while, and she comes to visit him in the apartment he is using while a friend is away. They sit on the couch and he attempts to seduce her with an unwanted martini and Jerome Cowan’s patented pawing technique. This does nothing for Brent’s role as the designated hero in this film.

Contrast it with the famous and astounding erotic scene between Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur in “The More the Merrier”, discussed here. He has his hands all over her, but she is not unwilling as Stanwyck is in this scene; rather she is only awkward. She is a reserved and prudish woman awakening to the wonderful world of sexual arousal, and McCrea’s perseverance is softened by the comedy accompanying the wooing. In the scene between Brent and Stanwyck, we have none of that, and it’s a shame, because Stanwyck had a similar quality to Miss Arthur’s ability to play both drama and comedy at the very same time.

A funny note about Eve Arden’s relationship with her husband, however -- I think this is the only time I can remember seeing a man and woman lying prone in bed together in a film of this era. Granted, she’s bundled up because of the freezing cold of their mountain cabin, and he is reading and giving her only minimal attention. Also, he calls her “my pet”, which is about as romantic a term of endearment as calling her “you pinhead”, in my book. Still, there are four legs in that bed, not one of them on the floor. Chalk that up to some kind of record.

The climax of the movie comes at Christmastime, when our everyday lives become suddenly more intense due to the enormity of tradition, and the ties that bind.

Stanwyck invites Brent to her home to meet her boys and share in the festivities, which features Eve Arden and her husband, the sassy housekeeper played by Esther Dale, the family friend and attorney played by Warner Anderson -- who is barracking to be the new man in Stanwyck’s life, and her disapproving mother.

When they gather around the piano to sing carols, George Brent is the odd man out, watching them and not even trying to fit in. More could be done with this scene, but we get the point.

Stanwyck gets serious that whirlwind week between Christmas and New Year’s, but when the boys, home from school, hear gossip about their mother at a party, we see that Lucille Watson’s warnings about her reputation have come back to haunt her.  She has a nice scene where she confronts her so-called friends.

Janis Wilson and Ann Todd play friends of the boys. Young Miss Wilson only made a handful of films, but she was terrific in her debut film “Now Voyager”. Young Miss Todd had a longer career, and we saw her in “Roughly Speaking” here. The inevitable Bess Flowers also plays one of the society friends at the party, but then she always shows up everywhere. I think we’ve mentioned before she has the biggest “walk-on” career of just about anybody.

I think I ran into her at the grocery store the other day.

At their own New Year’s Eve party, Stanwyck and Brent get the paper streamer treatment, the conga line, and the champagne, and when he drops the bad news that’s he’s being sent overseas, she wants to follow him to his point of embarkation, New York City, to spend all the time she can with him. Her mother, in a sensible and reconciling gesture, takes responsibility for her sons when they run away because their mother is a floozy, and Stanwyck comes down to earth, content to wave to Brent on the train platform and not go with him.

A nice touch to the end is when the train pulls out and a group of sailors hanging out the train windows whistle at her. It may do more for her morale about getting back in circulation than anything Brent has done the entire movie. She gives them a shy salute. Her sense of humor, and her sense of control, are back now.

Have a look here at Laura’s recent take on this movie at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings. Come back Thursday for Barbara Stanwyck’s turn as a crook about to be reformed by Fred MacMurray one Christmas week in “Remember the Night.”

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Off Topic - Blog Tour

Update on my blog tour for my novel "Beside the Still Waters" - a few more stops here:

Interview at Blogher here.

Interview at Broowaha here.

Guest blog post - How to Write by the Seat of Your Pants - at AllVoices here.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

World Without Blow Dryers - Answers

The answers to our screen caps in Monday’s post “In a World Without Blow Dryers” -

1. - That’s Cary Grant toweling Rita Hayworth’s tresses in “Only Angels Have Wings” (1939), which we discussed here.

2. That’s Bing Crosby toweling Alexis Smith’s tresses in “Here Comes the Groom” (1951), which we discussed here.

3. That’s Ruth Donnelly (the perennial wisecracking best pal) toweling Jean Arthur’s tresses in “More Than a Secretary” (1936), which I hope to cover sometime in the new year.

4. That Jessica “Jessie” Grayson scrubbing Teresa Wright’s scalp in “The Little Foxes” (1941). I always loved this scene. She does such a mercilessly thorough job. It’s fun to watch. Miss Wright may have been half drowned by the end of it, but she had very clean hair.  For the rest of her life, probably.

Monday, December 12, 2011

In a World Without Blow Dryers

1

Time for more inane screen cap trivia.  Who in these scenes has the wet hair, and who is doing the towel-drying of same?  From what movie? 


2



3

Answers on Thursday.  Now go wash your hair and get somebody else to towel dry it for you.  It's the movie star way.

Or if you're too lazy to wash it yourself, you can always get somebody to do that, too:


4

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Off Topic - Blog Tour

This is just a brief update on a blog tour I've undertaken this week for my novel, "Beside the Still Waters."  

I have a guest post up here at "All the Days Of" blog.

And interviews here at: Blogcritics,

Review from Here,

And Examiner.com.

The blog tour will continue this coming week.

Also, anyone who signs up for my mailing list this month - see the sidebar - will receive a coupon code for a free copy of my ebook "Myths of the Modern Man" from Smashwords.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Uneasy Victors PT 4 - "Judgment at Nuremberg" - 1961





“Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961) is a perfect union of script, stage, and screen. In few other films is dialogue so completely depended upon to move the action, tell the back story, and dramatize the events. That this is accomplished with such graceful simplicity in this movie is its most astonishing and crowning achievement.

This is our last entry in our series on “Uneasy Victors” in which we examine Hollywood films tackling American involvement, and American mood, in Occupied Germany after World War II. Our intro to this series is here. We discuss “A Foreign Affair” (1948) here, and “The Big Lift” (1950) here.  Yesterday, we marked the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which brought our entry into World War II, and our eventual role as uneasy victors.

The startling beginning to this film serves as a metaphor for the movie and our series: the German martial tune “Wenn wir marshieren” is sung by a male chorus, of whom we might imagine to be soldiers. Then the footage showing the concrete swastika on the Nuremberg stadium being exploded to nothing.

But the regime we had defeated, and the people who lived in that world, did not vanish into nothing. They were before us now, real, alive, and carrying more baggage from the recent terrible past than most of them wanted to admit.  And we find ourselves at a sudden full stop.  The warrior's drive it took to win the war must be muted to a stateman's diplomacy.

As in the two other movies we discussed, rubble plays a big part in our discovery of Occupied Germany. Spencer Tracy’s first line in the movie, as he is being driven through Nuremberg says, “I didn’t know it was so bad.”

Spencer Tracy is a semi-retired American judge from Maine, who is assigned to head the tribunal in the Judges Trial phase of the Nuremberg Trials which served to try and punish Nazi officials. All the big names and the higher-ups have had their day in court, and this new trial before us focuses on lesser figures. They are smaller fish.

The Germans, the Europeans, and the Americans back home are growing weary of the trials and losing interest. There is something at stake, however, we come to understand, in just letting bygones be bygones. As prosecuting attorney Richard Widmark sarcastically retorts to rumblings that he should just drop the case, “What was the war all about?”

There is also a danger in proceeding with this trial. One of the accused men is a famous German judge who worked diligently for democracy in the Weimar Republic before Hitler took power. Played by Burt Lancaster with enigmatic dignity, he has a long career of distinguished and honorable work, and is a hero to his people. It will not be easy to try and convict him.

In the middle of the trial, we hear that the Russians, our allies in World War II, have blockaded Berlin in an attempt to get the allies to relinquish the capitol to their control. The Berlin Airlift is about to begin -- which takes us back to “The Big Lift”. We are undecided as to the wisdom of continuing to punish the Germans -- we may need them in a new war against the Soviet Union.

This movie, then, is about compromise. When do to it. When not to. What are the consequences? There are always consequences.

The ensemble cast is well chosen and effective in every minute detail, right down to Tracy’s household butler and housekeeper, played by Ben Wright and Virginia Christine. They are a husband and wife, humble, slightly nervous about pleasing “Your Honor”, because without this job they would starve. They represent the average German citizen who has lost much in the war, who are not responsible for Nazi atrocities -- but who are not entirely convinced that the atrocities are as bad as everyone says they are.

A young William Shatner plays Tracy’s aide during the trial, who swears in the witnesses. One is struck by his ease and his strong screen presence, even in playing scenes with the magnificent veteran Tracy.

Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift play victims called to give testimony. Both give the performances of their careers.

Marlene Dietrich plays a role completely opposite to the sneering cabaret singer of “A Foreign Affair”. Here she is an aristocrat, proud, dignified, but bitter that she and her kind should be held on the same level as Nazis.

Most especially powerful is the Oscar-winning performance of Maximillian Schell as the defense attorney. He is young, intelligent, impassioned, and desperately tries to save his hero -- Burt Lancaster, from disgrace and dishonor and a prison sentence, in any way he can.

But most evident through this film, though we do not see them, are the director, Stanley Kramer, and the writer, Abby Mann. Mann’s script was originally produced on TV in the acclaimed series “Playhouse 90”, which we discussed in this previous post. “Playhouse 90” also gave us “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and “The Miracle Worker”, and never was television so good.

I mentioned at the beginning of this piece that this film is a union of script and stage, and when I say stage in this case I mean stagecraft. The “Playhouse 90” version (Maximillian Schell and Werner Klemperer reprise their roles here), because of the restrictions of early television was very much like a stage play in the sense that the action was static, one set with simple camera placement.

Though there are some scenes outside the courtroom, the Director Kramer wisely chose to keep this television-style tightness to his movie. It shows up with profound effect even in the smallest scenes. There is a scene where Richard Widmark visits the apartment of Judy Garland and her husband to plead for her to testify. She is reluctant. There are many old ghosts haunting her. As Widmark and Miss Garland -- he in his officer’s uniform and she looking like a bedraggled hausfrau in her bathrobe and unkempt hair -- stand in heated discussion -- in the foreground we have her husband facing us, his back to them. We see his tortured expression. The trio is an artists’ composition for the camera.

What were restrictions on television became style in this movie, and used to extremely dramatic effect. Though most of the action takes place in the courtroom in an exchange of dialogue between the witness and the attorney, the camera is always, always moving. We slide in a slow, graceful dance around the courtroom, as the camera probes the many uniformed personnel. The translators, the guards, the gallery of observers, the stony-faced defendants, and nervous testifiers in the witness stand.

We travel 360 degrees all around the flinching expression of a confused, distressed Montgomery Clift -- who seems like a completely different man to how he appeared in “The Big Lift” 11 years before -- before his disfiguring car accident and years of drug and alcohol abuse. Truly, he was a different man.

We travel all around the chiseled features of Burt Lancaster, moved at last to speak though through much of the trial sits in silent protest. The stage play sets him in his witness box, delivering his lines with his precise speech, but the movie camera compliments the stagecraft and lets us get in really close to see the flashing of his haunted eyes.

It would be a good lesson for young filmmakers who these days seem to have almost uniformly adopted the quick edited, jerky camera habit to see what mature and elegant cinematography looks like.

The most magnificent CGI or special effect is not more dramatic than a slow, intimate close-up on human tears.

We see each person with a headset, all intently listening and pausing before they respond, because we do not understand each other.

There are four defendants in this trial, all German judges who are accused of crimes against humanity. Two particular cases are presented before us: one in which Montgomery Clift was forcibly sterilized in retaliation because his father was a member of the Communist Party and his family did not support Hitler, and his brothers beat up a bunch of Brown Shirts harassing them.

The other case is about Judy Garland’s friendship with an elderly Jewish man, a friend of her family. When she was a girl on her own after her parents died, he continued to visit her and bring her gifts and comfort, and advice. She was sentenced to prison for breaking the law that said a German (Christian) girl could have no intimate relations with a Jewish man. Her defense was that her relations with him were not intimate, and that he was only like a kind uncle to her. The law in Germany at the time stipulated that any contact was forbidden. She was imprisoned, and the Jewish man was executed.

The judge at her trial was Burt Lancaster.

Maximillian Schell’s defense of the accused judges ranges from brutally tearing apart the witnesses’ claims, to an even more insidious tactic -- the time-worn defense of merely following orders. But both these tactics are brilliant and thrust to the heart of the American conscience -- our own uncomfortable conscience at being occupiers.

In the first instance, he demonstrates that Mr. Clift was sterilized not for political reasons, but for medical reasons. He was tested and judged to be mentally incompetent, and for this reason was required to be sterilized for the betterment of the state. Herr Schell points out a very similar stance in American law, in a judgment written by renown United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in an era when eugenics was popular.

The camera pauses to let us see this stick in the throats of Spencer Tracy and Richard Widmark.

In the case of Judy Garland, Schell breaks her down and twists her words to make her and her relationship with her elderly benefactor appear dirty. At this point, we watch Schell raging, barking in profile, while behind him in the shot, an outraged Burt Lancaster can take no more. He jumps to his feet and with all his authority, silences the young protégé with rebuke.

We have already been clued into Lancaster’s moral righteousness. Schell has outlined his exemplary judiciary career. But we get a personal, dramatic taste from Marlene Dietrich.

Spencer Tracy discovers that the mansion in which the US Army has billeted him during this trial was confiscated from Dietrich, the wife of a German general who was previously tried and executed. Having usurped her home, Mr. Tracy feels most intimately the role of the Uneasy Victor.

“There’s one thing about Americans,” Widmark bitterly remarks, “We’re not cut out to be occupiers. We’re new at it, and we’re not very good at it.”

Tracy and Marlene meet socially, and he is intrigued with her soignée class and intelligence. She is an aristocrat, the daughter and the wife of career military men. She invites him to a concert, proud to show another side, a cultured, genteel side of German life. Over the strains of Beethoven, Spencer Tracy looks around at the audience, wondering what is in the hearts and minds of these conquered people so bravely looking beyond their recent past to a future swept clean…by what?

Tracy is a kind of Mark Twain/Abraham Lincoln character in this movie, small town American, homespun horse sense, self deprecating, and a willingness to keep an open mind. When he meets Marlene in a charming tavern -- again, for the third time in this series we are taken out to the cabaret -- she tries harder to impress upon him the respectability of the German people, despite what their own political monsters have done to them.

To this end, she tells a story about Burt Lancaster, who in a social gathering, discovering a smarmy Hitler flirting with his wife, bravely and with disgust bestows upon The Little Corporal a rebuke no less severe than he has given to Maximillian Schell in the courtroom, and no less public.

Marlene then catapults the conversation to the ultimate question at hand and the thing that Tracy really wants to know: Do you really think we knew about the concentration camps and the murder of millions? We didn’t know.

In court, Richard Widmark has finally shown the footage of the concentration camps and what Allied soldiers, like himself, found there when they marched in and liberated them. Widmark, in his crisp, carefully enunciated speech (they had voices then) narrates the movie.


“How DARE they show us those films!” Werner Klemperer, one of the defendants shrieks.



In the tavern, we hear the soft tenor singing, “Du, du liegst mir in Herzen....”



The judges had to make their rulings based upon the laws they were given, which was based on the political influence at the time.



American judges are also influenced by politics, we see, as Tracy’s fellow judge, Ray Teal insists they must be lenient on the Germans because the Soviets are worse. He calls prosecutor Widmark “a radical” and a “protégé of FDR.” Conservatives hated President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, vilified him, and their political progeny continue to do the same. Ray Teal wants to know where Tracy stands.

“I’m a rock-ribbed Republican who thought Franklin Roosevelt was a great man.”

“Oh. One of those.”

Marlene sings a verse of “Lili Marleen” as Tracy walks her home, past the ruins, to her apartment. It is not as dilapidated as her flat in “A Foreign Affair”, but we can see the shabbiness in the boarded up windows, where the elegant coffee set seems to cast a refulgent glow, a reminder of the genteel past in a post-War room. Her husband’s distinguished portrait is displayed in pride of place.

“We did not know!” She insists.

Tracy, struggling with his uncertainty replies, “As far as I can make out, no one in this country knew.”

She tells him, “We have to forget if we are to go on living.”

It has been reported that Marlene hated doing this scene, to play the spokeswoman for a regime she personally hated, to the point where it made her physically ill.

“As a German, I feel ashamed that such things could have taken place in my country,” Maximillian Schell, barely containing his anger responds, “But I do think it was wrong, indecent, and terribly unfair of the prosecutor to show such things….”

He pleads with Lancaster to keep silent and not take the stand, “We have to look to the future. We can’t turn back now. Do you want the Americans to stay here forever?” Besides, he says, the Americans do not have the right to judge them, and brings up Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“Is that their superior morality?”

In court, Schell expertly shifts the blame for these trials from Lancaster to the world at large, who let Hitler have his way for so long.

Burt takes the stand and explains in passionate shame how a man, and a country, could use love of country as an excuse to deny rights to the individual. He is the picture of dignified self-loathing, near tears. He describes himself as a man “worse than all of them because he knew what they were and went along with them…made his life excrement because he worked with them.”

Wanting to explain personally to Tracy about the millions who were persecuted, Lancaster tells him, “I never knew it would come to that.”

Tracy replies, “It came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”

The German judges are all found guilty, and as Tracy departs the prison after his final visit with Lancaster, we hear the strains of “Wenn wir marschieren” once more, and the silent caption telling us that now, in 1961 at the time this film was made, not one single person imprisoned during the Nuremberg Trials was still serving his sentence. They had all been freed.

Another political compromise?

It’s a cynical ending to an earnest film with a passionate message. The movie had its world premiere in Berlin on December 14, 1961 -- West Berlin now, as four months before, the German Democratic Republic built the Berlin Wall. Doubtless, the audience considered that and may have been distracted by current events from this magnificent movie. Did current events render the film obsolete and irrelevant?

We’ll close this series by giving Marlene Dietrich the last word. In 1960, before this film was made, she took her cabaret act to Berlin for the first time, where she was greeted with a pained mixture of welcome, and furor by those who still resented her for “betraying” her homeland. After this movie came out, she took her act to Israel, which welcomed her as a celebrity who was well known to be anti-Nazi.

However, Marlene was advised not to sing any songs in German, as that language was taboo there at the time. Marlene broke the taboo and sang in German, and was cheered, especially for the song shown below (though this footage is from a later European concert). It is “Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind.” You will recognize it as Pete Seeger’s, “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?”

We may smile at her limited vocal range, and at her studied showmanship, but there is something wonderfully transcendent in this German rendition of an American anti-war song. Especially when it is sung by this German actress.  This American actress.

Don’t forget to scroll down to the bottom of the page and pause the music so you can hear the video.