Thursday, April 2, 2020

Doing Our Bit in Isolation - The 1940s House

In the midst of the pandemic that requires us to be supremely careful, courageous, and compassionate, those of us in the classic film fan community likely have our own recommendations for favorite films to comfort and inspire.  We have favorite films for almost any occasion, actually.  You forgot to pick up your dry cleaning before non-essential businesses shut down?  There's probably a movie for that.  Clinton Sundberg, Charles Lane, and Bess Flowers are probably in it.

But today I'd like to refer you to The 1940s House, another source of comfort and inspiration, and a great learning tool, in the form of a television miniseries that takes us back to World War II in Great Britain. Or rather, it takes a modern British family back to those days and puts them through the paces to see how they cope with rationing, making do, being creative in the midst of adversity, pulling together to cope with a national calamity, and most of all--isolation.  It's a very entertaining and often quite funny glimpse into the old "what would I do if it were me?" game.

Perhaps you remember watching The 1940s House here in the U.S. on PBS back in 2002 - a time when we were still reeling and coping with the aftermath of 9/11.  It's available here on DVD, but you can watch it as well in four parts on YouTube.  If you're looking for something to binge-watch, this is a good pick.  It's not Mrs. Miniver (1942), but it's a nifty bit of time traveling. What I find most especially poignant is how the experience changed them and what it brought to their lives once the experiment was over.  If you do watch it, I'd love to know what you think.

There's another British family that has made a hit on social media this week for their hysterical version of "One Day More" from Les Misérables.  I leave you with them for an even more modern method of coping.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

Friday, March 27, 2020

John Greco's THE LATE SHOW

Hat's off to fellow classic film blogger John Greco of Twenty-Four Frames for publishing his newest collection of short stories.  The Late Show - And Other Tales of Celluloid Malice offers readers a shadowy world where eight tales of crime and horror share a tantalizing link -- there is in each of them a hint, or taste, or even an obsession with movies.

Some of the stories have an ironic, Hitchcockian sense of humor to them, some have a surprise ending, and all are geared to fans of crime fiction who also have a familiarity with the pop culture world of film, especially classic film.

Here's a preview of coming attractions (or what we in the book biz call a blurb):

Eight dark short stories all with two things in common - Movies and Malice! Murder, revenge, greed and more are now playing. In the title story, Margaret Allen's husband is addicted to movies and she cannot take it anymore. Frankie Bosco's on the run after killing two people. With the cops chasing him he ducks into a movie theater showing two James Cagney films. Plus six more stories that may make you change your movie habits.

Congratulations to John on this new short story collection!  The book is on sale here at Amazon in either eBook or paperback.  

For more information, have a look here at John's website.  

He is also a talented photographer whose work can be viewed and purchased on this site.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

FREE eBook - Meet Me in Nuthatch

To help pass the time during the pandemic emergency, please accept my offer of a FREE eBook...

Meet Me in Nuthatch - here's the story:

A whimsical, poignant tale about a practical joke-turned-publicity-stunt that fires up the small town of Nuthatch, Massachusetts, in a desperate attempt to attract tourists.

Christmas tree farmer Everett Campbell proposes turning the clock back to 1904 and reviving the town’s cozy past, an idea he gets from watching his young daughter’s favorite classic movie, Meet Me in St. Louis. She is thrilled at being allowed to dress up and pretend, but not everyone in town is enchanted with the nostalgic promotion—including Everett’s moody teenage son.

The media, and the tourists, do come, but the scheme also attracts a large theme park corporation that wants to buy Nuthatch 1904.

Everett now stands to lose his town in a way he never imagined, and his neighbors are divided on which alternate future to choose.

A local drug dealer, Everett’s boyhood enemy, may hold the future of the entire town in his hands unless Everett can pull off one of his most spectacular, and dangerous, practical jokes.

The eBook is FREE at Apple, Barnes & Noble, Scrbd, 24 Symbols, and Playster all at this link.

And it is FREE here at Kobo at this link.

Bless you all and best wishes for better months ahead.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Happy St. Patrick's Day from the Our Gang kids - who are not practicing social distancing in this photo.  That's okay.  Keep calm and watch classic films is our motto!

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Ben Model's Silent Comedy Watch Party

Go here to join Ben Model and his online house party for a special silent film screening - Sunday, March 15th at 3 pm EDT.  Have a look here at his blog for more info on his Silent Comedy Watch Party!

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Another Old Movie Blog 13th Anniversary

Like migrant birds returning in the spring, I seem to revisit The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) every year about this time.  Perhaps it is the message of a cautious, wary rejuvenation and pragmatic rebirth. Slowing becoming aware of the sounds, the scents, the pale light of a reluctant spring and adjusting to the surprise that life will go on.

Also marking the 13th anniversary of this blog.  Thank you for the pleasure of your company.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Sullivan's Travels - 1941 - The Butler's Admonition

Sullivan’s Travels (1941) is a madcap romp and not-so-incidental grim social commentary—a most striking combination.  Writer/director Preston Sturges deftly constructs a screwball comedy around the framework of a sensitive and serious examination of poverty—while lambasting Joel McCrea’s naïve character for even seeking a social message.  As he begins his exploration of what it is to be poverty stricken so that he may produce a deep and profound message film instead of his usual comedies, Joel McCrea’s first and perhaps best admonition against such a quest comes from his butler.

“I have never been sympathetic of caricature of the poor and needy, sir.”

This is our entry in the Butlers and Maids Blogathon hosted by Rich at Wide Screen World and Paddy at Caftan Woman.  For more on butlers and maids, please see these posts by some terrific bloggers.

Robert Grieg plays film director Joel McCrea’s butler in this movie, and Eric Blore his valet.  So intentionally anonymous are they that they are not given names, only referred to in credits as Sullivan’s Butler and Valet.  Both men spent much of their film careers playing butlers.  Mr. Grieg, born in Australia in the 1870s, and Blore born in London in the 1880s, were perhaps destined for a life of genteel servitude on film in the caste system of Hollywood character actors.  Their accents, their ages, their physical types certainly recommended them for the job, and that indefatigable knack of being silly and supremely dignified at the same time, their very dignity being the springboard of their comedy. They died a year apart from each other in the late 1950s, an era when the British butler was becoming scarcer in Hollywood.

The movie begins ridiculously enough with Joel McCrea, a director fed up with producing comedies and seeking a serious subject worthy of a work of art, announces to the aghast studio heads played by Robert Warwick and Porter Hall his intention not to direct any more comedies.  Mr. McCrea is starving for satisfaction in his work, takes himself and his art very seriously, and having been raised with all the financial and social advantages of the monied class, is completely innocent about the harsh world of poverty.

Quite unexpectedly, the silliness is deflated like a balloon pricked with a pin early on in the movie when the fast-talking McCrea is brought short by the sonorous tones of his suddenly serious butler, Robert Grieg.  Grieg, unlike most Hollywood butlers, gets the honor of a closeup and a thoughtful soliloquy.

“If you’ll permit me to say so, sir, the subject is not an interesting one. The poor know all about poverty, and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.”

Mr. McCrea defends his intentions, “But I’m doing it for the poor….”

To which Mr. Grieg adamantly responds, “I don’t think they would appreciate it, sir. They rather resent the invasion of their privacy—I believe quite properly, sir. Also, such an excursion can be extremely dangerous, sir.”

This is not the “walk this way” nose-in-air schtick of the Hollywood butler.

“You see, sir, rich people and theorists, who are usually rich people, think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches as disease might be called a lack of health, but it isn’t.  Poverty is not the lack of anything but is a positive plague, virulent in and of itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice, despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned.”

Baffled and rebuffed, McCrea responds, “Well, you seem to have made quite a study of it.”

Mr. Grieg answers, “Quite unwillingly, sir.  Will that be all, sir?”

Eric Blore, his valet, cleverly conceals identification in the soles of McCrea’s shoes like a mother protecting her boy at camp with nametags in his clothes, and in a phone call pretending to be a gentleman rather than a gentleman’s gentleman, he manages to trick a railroad clerk to tell him how and where a hobo might hop a freight.  He knows he cannot dissuade McCrea from his mission, but he does his best to pave the way for him.

We might like to know more about the butler’s past that would make him so articulate on the subject of poverty, but the story is McCrea’s, a well-meaning but essentially innocent and perhaps even pompous man who discovers the grim world of Depression-era poverty in a very personal way and learns to find his way back to the safety and blessed relief of comedy.

Veronica Lake is his companion on the trip, and as funny as the slapstick gets on their journey, it is astoundingly interspersed with almost documentary-like scenes without dialogue or narration of breadlines, crowded filthy flophouses, desperate Hoovervilles, and soul-crushing chain gangs. Some scenes are reminiscent of The Grapes of Wrath, and of I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.

Comedy and tragedy, after dancing around each other for a bit, finally intersect at the end of the film in a sweet, sad, and gentle scene in a crude wooden southern Black church, led by minister Jess Lee Brooks, a figure of dignity and nobleness of spirit.  After services, they are to have the special treat of showing a film and have invited the inmates of the local prison to join them.  The preacher reminds his flock, “Neither by word, action, nor by look to make our guests feel unwelcome, nor draw away from them, nor act high with them, for we’s all equal in the sight of God.”  The prisoners, shackled, file in – McCrea among them, who has been mistakenly arrested for murder—as preacher Brooks sings in his majestic bass voice, “Let My People Go.”

The oil lamps on the wall sconces are turned down, and the projector is started up, and a Mickey Mouse cartoon featuring Pluto, who struggles with flypaper stuck to him, entertains the congregation and their guests. McCrea observes the pleased reaction of everyone around him, how they laugh, and finds himself laughing.  He has discovered the magic of comedy in the war against poverty. Real-life director Sturges is far more successful than fictional director McCrea, for he has managed to combine tragedy and comedy in a way that validates both and trivializes neither.

The butler and valet are not present at Joel McCrea’s moment of epiphany.  We could not imagine them guffawing at Pluto with flypaper on his tail.  Perhaps they might have smirked only slightly with disciplined propriety and uttered to their master in clipped speech, “Very good, sir.”
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

Thursday, February 20, 2020


Come back Saturday the 22nd when we visit the Butler and the Valet in Sullivan's Travels (1941) as part of the Butlers & Maids Blogathon hosted by Paddy and Rich!

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Requiescat in pace - Kirk Douglas

It is rare these days for the world of the classic film fan to intersect with news of modern pop culture, for our heroes were of the past, in a studio system long gone and by most, forgotten. When we mourn the passing of a figure from Hollywood's heyday, as happens more frequently as the years pass, non-classic film buffs may say, "Who?" and wonder cynically at our bereavement. 

The passing of Kirk Douglas yesterday gives occasion to remember a great actor known not just to a nostalgic and narrow old movie fandom but also a man who by his long career and longer life is still identifiable as a celebrity, which is certainly unusual.

He was 103 years old when he passed, and remained in the public eye long after his last TV role some twelve years ago.  We old movie buffs know he began his career in 1947, supporting Barbara Stanwick, no less, in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.  He was soon cast as leads, and he never looked back. His career stretched from film noir of studio system days to big budget blockbusters in the fifties and sixties, to eventual character parts and comedy cameos. He wrote his memoirs. He was a humanitarian. But just remaining in the public eye for so long and allowing us to see him age, rather than retreat into private life, is a testament to his vigor and his sociability, despite serious health events over the years. He was joined in the business by his famous actor son, but never replaced by him.  It was good to witness in a society that tends to marginalize the aged.  

We discussed his work in Strangers When We Meet (1960) here, and Seven Days in May (1964) here.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

A Face in the Crowd - 1957

A Face in the Crowd (1957) chronicles its era, lambastes it, and foreshadows future evils of an unchecked demagogue. Perhaps it also marks the end of the noir era of film in its intended righteous ending. It is that ending, however, that contradicts the realities of the future, the cynical realities of our own era. It might be the weakest moment of the movie.

Andy Griffith makes a magnificent film debut as the noxious “country boy” whose meteoric rise in the media is made possible by a gullible public and the machinations of a canny promoter played by Patricia Neal.  Both turn in stunning performances. Their co-dependent professional relationship becomes personal, and intensely psychological as both nearly go off the deep end in mental breakdowns by the movie’s conclusion.

The film is a parable, and starts, rightly enough, as Miss Neal and a radio crew discover Mr. Griffith as a vagrant in jail, a colorful character they exploit for a whimsical program.  We have beginning shots of men playing checkers, whittling, as tropes for the sleepy Southern town with the eerie fatigued complacence of a society willfully decaying.  A gentle bluesy guitar over the credits is a deceptive lulling feel, but there are menacing shadows even now.  The character Andy Griffith plays; and the director, Elia Kazan; and the writer, Budd Schulberg, constantly flick us with contradictory images – warm and kind, and then backstabbing and threatening.  They keep us off balance, and so too will Patricia Neal’s character be swept in and kept off balance throughout the film, falling deeper under the spell and sinking deeper into danger, but it is a quagmire she has created. By the end of the movie, she and Griffith have become allegories of our modern era.

Long post.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

She is a roving reporter for a small-town radio station run by her uncle.  Her show is called “A Face in the Crowd” and today she gleefully interviews drunks and vagabonds at the county jail for amusing material.  The sheriff is sweet on her, so he rouses the inmates and orders them to perform.

Not particularly craving the spotlight, the hungover Griffith is at last persuaded to play his guitar for the pestering radio crew.  He tells folksy stories, and the camera looks beyond the easy rambling of Griffith to Patricia Neal’s delight in finding such good material.  Her gossamer parade of expressions reveals an increasingly intense curiosity about Griffith, her captivation for a man so poetic, earth-bound, and gloriously independent. 

Filling a void in local radio programming—or hitting a nerve—“Lonesome Rhodes” finds an appreciative audience who identifies with him and whose identification with him he will find easy to exploit.  Soon, he has a regular radio program and will use his “voice” to charm the citizens and call down revenge on the sheriff in pranks when he finds his loyal audience will do his bidding.  Lonesome Rhodes, or Larry, has a mean streak.

Neal and her protégé next move to a television program at a small station and a regular sponsor.  Part of Lonesome’s charm for the audience is that he playfully bats the sponsor’s name and product around insultingly, like a cat knocking expensive glass tchotchkes off the coffee table and with about as much concern for consequences, and the audience loves him for his seeming bravado, daring to talk back to authority, telling it like it is.  The very fact that he doesn’t seem to care who he offends, boyishly admitting his lack of social graces with a shrug of his shoulders, endears him to his audience.

We see he makes use of people who latch on to him, but his closest relationship is with his “Mama Guitar” which “beats a woman every time” and is a psychological reference to the mother who slept around and who left him with a misogynistic attitude toward all women.  He continually puts the moves on Miss Neal, who with mature wariness for the grifter, rebuffs him.  However, when one prank gets him in hot water with the sponsor and Griffith is set to leave for good, she invites him into her bed.  Is it because she can no longer contain her desire for him, or because it is all she has left to keep him there?  Neal is more refined and genteel than Lonesome Rhodes, and has kept him at bay with her superiority, but she is no less a compromising person.

Anthony Franciosa plays the aggressive office boy-turned-mogul, a symbol of the new TV age, who joins the Lonesome Rhodes gravy train and propels him to an even larger TV market in New York City.  He takes kickbacks from advertisers and crows, “It’s not illegal if they don’t catch you.”   He will later leave Griffith in the dust when he is no longer of use to the shallow, but even shiftier, Franciosa.

Walter Matthau plays one of the Silent Generation’s men in the gray flannel suit, a writer of intellect and ideals on the writing staff of the program, who is constantly put down by Griffith because Mr. Matthau makes the naïve, if pardonable, confession that he matriculated at Vanderbilt University.  His intellectualism, as well as his decency, is a threat to the homespun (gutter-spun, actually) Griffith, who pathologically resents anyone who has more than he does—more education, more talent, more money, more importance, more fame.

But Lonesome Rhodes continues to keep us off balance with antics that are sometimes kind and always nervy.  He brings forth an African-American woman and says she has had a personal calamity, a fire, and asks his audience to donate money.  Thousands of dollars pour in, and she is able to buy a new home for her family.  Matthau remarks under his breath to Neal in admiration at the moment of surprise when he first brings the lady on stage that putting a black person on TV took nerve here in Nashville.  It did take nerve, but was his generous stunt because he is impulsive and innocent, or because he knows it is nervy and the establishment won’t like it, and so he can’t help himself but to taunt them?  Lonesome Rhodes, as Patricia Neal discovered early on, is an irresistible character.

But the behind-the-scenes staff doesn’t like him.  Matthau is an underling, and he must submit to and endure Griffith’s teasing and bullying, but more insufferable for Matthau is the attraction Patricia Neal feels towards Andy Griffith’s character.  Matthau is in love with her, but in addition to the pain of not being her romantic choice is the anger and disgust he feels towards her for her inexplicable desire for such a phony, manipulative sociopath.  We are meant to see and accept her desire for him, but the hold he has on her is never explained in a psychological or emotional sense.  She is an intelligent, ambitious professional woman.  Matthau may not want to concede her sexual preference for Griffith, and he puzzles over her lowering herself to someone clearly not in her league.  At last, he must accept that the woman he has put on a pedestal is as unscrupulously ambitious as Griffith (it was she who gave him the marketable nickname, “Lonesome” Rhodes,) and that is their strongest bond. 

Griffith does not really need her sexually—he is a womanizer, and in one scene painful to Neal, chooses a young Lee Remick for his second wife.  (A delightfully wry Kay Medford is the first Mrs. Rhodes, who happily watches his climb to fame as long as it means large alimony checks.) He judges a baton-twirling contest and lusts after the innocent 17-year-old played by Miss Remick in her film debut—who enters the Faustian menagerie through her own consuming ambition to be the wife of a big star, and escape from the boredom of her small town.

Apart from these wonderful performances dancing or fencing in their tangled relationships is the broader look at American society at the end of television’s first decade. Once Griffith rides to the top of the ratings and is firmly in the public eye, the movie shifts into high gear and we are slapped with a series of images that parody society even as they unflinchingly document the era.  First is the maniacal Vitajex musical commercial montage, a barrage of tasteless images of coy, seductive females, an animated pig who turns into a wolf by achieving sexual prowess through taking the little yellow pill, Griffith’s in-your-face laugh to a crazed doo-wop tune, a mesmerized audience, and sales charts. 

The uncomfortable flicks of sinister motives, sinister doings grow from merely being less subtle to sinking into out-of-control obvious, and the journey following the increasingly manipulative Lonesome Rhodes and his handler drags us into a Madison Avenue film noir nightmare. His penthouse apartment, and the studio control booth, are all angles and shadows.

Vitajex is Griffith’s commercial sponsor, a diet supplement (made of some sugar and nothing nutritional) promoted in a buttoned-down and boring way by company man played by Paul McGrath, who finds himself totally usurped by Griffith.  Griffith takes over the sales talk and promotes it as a powerful vitamin to enhance the male libido.  McGrath will end up in the hospital from a heart attack when Griffith has destroyed his career.

Cameos by real-life journalists and media figures of the day such as John Cameron Swayze, Mike Wallace, and Walter Winchell stamp the movie with topical cachet, and even Edward R. Murrow’s name is bandied about. Lonesome Rhodes gets his picture on the cover of Life and Look magazines.

Griffith’s ego climbs with his ratings.  The man behind Vitajex, retired General Haynesworth, played by Percy Waram, who has king-making aspirations, wants Griffith to do the same for the general’s chosen presidential candidate, right-wing Senator Worthington Fuller, played by Marshall Neilan, as he did for Vitajex. 
General Haynesworth believes the masses need to be led by a strong hand.  Fifth Avenue and Big Business join hands to utilize the entertainment media to make their candidate President, with graft, favors and kickbacks to follow, and a social reconstruction that serves only the right people. We’ve seen it happen in presidential races, but A Face in the Crowd gives us an uncanny simplistic blueprint as to how it’s done.

We realize the fun and games that has amused and diverted us has led to the potential for serious evil, especially as Lonesome Rhodes, unchecked in his self-absorbed quest for power, is not merely content with making anyone he chooses President, but he wants a place in the cabinet for himself. The money isn’t enough, the fame isn’t enough, the power isn’t enough.  Having a war ship and mountain named after him isn’t enough.  He wants everybody to love him, to give him absolute adoration. He invents a canned laughter and applause machine for his program, and has one installed in his apartment. We see he is a sick man, but he always was, even back in the sweaty jail cell with his guitar.  He was harmless then; someone else had to launch him and profit by him.  Who is the guiltier?

He has left a trail of enemies along with his cult fans, plenty of people to whom he has done dirt, but none more so than Patricia Neal, who keeps coming back for more.  Walter Matthau, who abandoned ship months previously to maintain his integrity, returns, having left to write a book on the phony rise of Griffith (another foreshadowing of our modern era of tell-all political books). He finds Miss Neal in a bar, nervously smoking and sipping her drink while morosely watching Griffith on the TV over the bar.  He frankly points out Griffith’s manifold sins, and she weakly defends him, and herself, by saying she keeps him from worse impulses, in effect, she is, as the modern phrase goes, “the adult in the room.”  She is practically a shaking wreck over the moral morass she is beginning to acknowledge.

Only in the final moments of the film will she accept responsibility for the monster she has made when she realizes the fascist horror about to be unleashed upon America as can only come from the hand of a demagogue.  She flees her apartment when Griffith, weary and half-crazed, expects to return to her bed now that he has thrown out Lee Remick.  He discovered his child bride having an affair with Mr. Franciosa, who throws it in his face.

The next evening, Griffith will perform his show live as usual, and afterwards, he plans to attend a political dinner where the sponsor’s chosen presidential candidate will crown Lonesome Rhodes Secretary of Morale, something we will need in time of war. Senator Fuller, the “isolationist” who says he knows what is best for America, is evidently full of big plans, including getting rid of Social Security because Daniel Boone didn’t have unemployment insurance and social security benefits.

Patricia Neal, desperate and nearing a nervous breakdown, hides in the dark control booth watching the show, because she cannot face Griffith’s overbearing personality to tell him she wants out, knowing that even if she had the strength to leave, she would still be responsible for the monster she created.

When at the very end of the show, as the credits roll over the recorded theme song (which, without shame, is a hymn), Griffith is still on set, aping for the camera to play the show off, and mocking and belittling Senator Fuller, mocking the millions of “stupid idiots” who watch his show, showing off for the cast and crew like a class clown looking for attention. The television audience cannot hear his words because Griffith’s mic is dead as the theme song plays over the rolling credits, so he knows he is safe.

The control booth technician, disgusted by months of working behind the scenes for the bullying star, wishes aloud that the public could only hear that.

In a flash, the remark wakes Patricia Neal out of her inertia, and she lunges forward and thrusts the control to turn on Griffith’s mic.  His words, his hypocrisy, his cruelty, his abominable ego pours out over the airwaves.  The techie tries to stop Neal, but sobbing, she has thrown her body over the console and will not relent until the show has ended.

The sponsor is aghast.  The Senator is insulted.  The millions of “stupid idiots” who adored him are incensed.  When Griffith, not knowing he was caught by a hot mic (another foreshadowing of modern political realities), heads for the elevator so he can rush to the political dinner, the elevator operator calls out, “Going down!” and we know there is a double meaning.  In a rush of calls to the network switchboard, we see the career of Lonesome Rhodes taking a very public, real-time nosedive.  Anthony Franciosa, even now, is grooming a new “country boy” for a replacement.  The sponsor, the network, and the public will abandon Griffith.

Will Patricia Neal abandon him at last?  When Walter Matthau finally finds her still hiding in the control booth, she is emotionally helpless, as one in shock.  Griffith calls on the phone, pleading for her support because nobody has come to his party, everyone has called to cancel.  He is bewildered and needs her to put things right.

Matthau insists that she tell him she’s through with him, to have the courage to tell him that she was the one that turned on the mic and betrayed him.  He takes her to the hotel ballroom where Andy Griffith paces like an animal in a cage, frothing at the mouth and demanding revenge for whoever scuttled him.  It takes the last bit of strength she has, but Miss Neal claims responsibility not only for the creation of his career, but for the ending of it.

It is this emotional climax, this roller-coaster ending to the film that sweeps away the moody, menacing film noir aspect to this movie and to the genre and replaces that genre with something noticeably different about movies in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  There is no name for them, at least not that I know of, but they are pointedly liberal in their message.  Films like Inherit the Wind, Twelve Angry Men, Judgment at Nuremberg, The Miracle Worker, To Kill a Mockingbird, Seven Days in May, are different from the cynical noir of the late 1940s and early 1950s, as if in the wake of crumbling of McCarthyism, an era when liberals were politically and legally persecuted, when the Silent Generation marched cautiously, blindly toward the New Frontier, the writers—who were the most persecuted under McCarthyism, came out from the noir shadows and said, “Enough.  Our turn in the sun now.”  Ironically, both director Kazan and writer Schulberg participated in the witch hunts by naming names to save themselves, attempting to expunge their own earlier communist affiliations.  They knew something about being compromised and compromising others.

Such films of this movement, if it was a movement, explored social issues with strong writing, a breath of fresh air in a stagnant, repressed era.  These introspective, thought-provoking, soul-stirring, and conscience-poking liberal-message TV shows and movies would form a brief, if brilliant period.  Maybe it was the Kennedy assassination that brought it to an end, for after that came a period of films where predominantly there was no message, no great theme, and women’s roles were weakened and diminished. The most successful films were mega-expensive blockbusters, the ratings system was created to categorize films that increasingly featured coarse language and explicit sexual scenes, and if there was a point to the film, it was only to shock and to dare the audience to be entertained by it. Most films did not strive for a lesson learned, or an inspirational message, lest they risk being labeled unrealistic, or even more damaging at the box office: family friendly.

Looking back on A Face in the Crowd from an era where the story came true, we may marvel with condescension on the naïve conclusion to the parable that a megalomaniac could be rendered harmless by a changed public opinion, or that public opinion could even turn sour on such a folk hero manufactured to custom fit the most base, coarse, and ignorant instincts of millions of Americans, who by their fecklessness hold the lives of millions of other Americans in their guilty hands.  However satisfying Lonesome Rhodes' comeuppance may be, it doesn't ring true. 
Senator Joseph McCarthy, to be sure, did have his downfall at the hands of such as Murrow, and a courageous Republican Senator who defied her party: Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, the first to publicly denounce McCarthy on the Senate floor.  If this, along with the careers of Will Rogers and Arthur Godrey were influences for A Face in the Crowd, the movie nevertheless uses Neal and the audience as those most culpable and therefore to be ones who right the wrong.

But how often does that happen in real life, let alone in the area of public opinion where being wrong is so humiliating that we can never admit to it?

We have a greater appreciation for film noir these days, rediscovered and named in the 1970s.  Our cynicism today is less articulate and less stylish than in those gritty/glamorous films we love, but we have experienced disillusionment, and so we these days we identify with that darker world of film noir. 

To be idealistic and progressive requires courage, a respect for humanity and for human intellect, to prize compassion above all else, and a willingness to stubbornly try, try again.  It is often irascible, and certainly nitpicking.  It also requires a leap of faith that a better world is even possible.  Noir has no use for this dreaminess, and so the stark black-and-white world fades in the new liberal message films.  But even A Face in the Crowd is not so optimistic, and does not extend its message of a lesson learned beyond Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau.  It does not stoop to that level of naiveté. The powerful triumvirate of politics, big business, and the media has not been changed by the revelation about Lonesome Rhodes. Probably not the public either, who are not really chastened, just mad at being played for saps.  They will be back.

Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Public Domain Day - 2020

January 1st has become yet another reflection of our media-conscious society in its being heralded as Public Domain Day.  

This achieved widespread attention last year in 2019 when the creative works of 1923 passed into public domain (in the U.S. and many other countries--not all nations have uniform copyright codes). There had been a period between 1998 and 2018 when, in the U.S., the Copyright Term Extension Act kept works from entering the public domain.  With that expiration, it is expected that each year will bring a new crop of creative works -- books, music, art, and film -- into public domain.

This year, we welcome the works of 1924 into public domain.  For us classic film fans, that includes the following films:

Harold Lloyd's Girl Shy and Hot Water (which we discussed here)
Erich von Stroheim's Greed
Buster Keaton's The Navigator and Sherlock, Jr.
Raoul Walsh's The Thief of Bagdad
Herbert Brenon's Peter Pan starring Betty Bronson

To enter into public domain is a double-edged sword, as we know.  It can mean more accessibility to films and thereby increasing their popularity (perhaps the most famous example of this is the annual showing on TV of It's a Wonderful Life when it had been previously listed in public domain -- it is no longer), but it can also mean a lower likelihood to be restored and preserved if being in public domain appears to devalue it.

In an era where it seems much of our cultural heritage on film is being preserved by classic film fans and bloggers, we can be happy that a little more classic film is in our hands.

Wishing you all a very Happy New Year, and thank you again for the pleasure of your company.

Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Lionel Barrymore - The Spirit of Christmas Past and Present

Lionel Barrymore was Ebenezer Scrooge for a generation.  For another generation, he became Mr. Potter, perhaps a deeper, more disturbed, and more modern Christmas villain.

In 20 years, he was absent only twice from playing Mr. Scrooge on the radio every Christmas Day; once because of tragedy, and once because of his great generosity.

He began the role on radio in 1933.  He admitted in his crusty fashion that he took the job because radio work paid well, but according to author Hollis Alpert in his biography of the three Barrymore sibling actors: “But it was customary for Lionel to mask the sentimental side of his nature.  Not only did he like Dickens as a writer, but he harbored hopes that Scrooge’s transformation might spark a few good or noble impulses among his hearers.”

In 1936, however, his fortitude was tried and his sentimental side nearly destroyed him.  His wife Irene, to whom he was deeply devoted, died on Christmas Eve. His brother John Barrymore stayed up with him that night to comfort him, and then he took Lionel’s place the next day at the microphone to play Scrooge.  The annual radio event was done live.  Lionel attended Christmas Mass, then collapsed from grief and spent several weeks in isolation at a sanitarium.

It was a horrible end to a bad year.  It was in this year that Lionel broke his hip at home while leaning on a metal drafting board on which he was working, pursing his other interest and talents as an artist.  The board was heavy, and toppled over, and Lionel fell.  His recovery period was long and painful, but though he managed to walk again with a limp and with a cane, it would be the beginning of his handicap that would eventually put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. 

He worried most about his career, expecting this would end it.  MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, whose reputation for ruthlessness is the stuff of legend, was truly kind and magnanimous to Lionel Barrymore, keeping him on the payroll when then the accounting department questioned it, and found him work in movies simply as a wheelchair-bound character, first in the Dr. Kildare series, and then in a number of other major films. Not only did Lionel’s career not end, it actually thrived and he arguably became the most famous and successful wheelchair-bound person in the U.S., especially when we consider the irony that most Americans in the 1930s were not aware how dependent President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was on his wheelchair.

In 1938, Lionel Barrymore had the second accident that was to put him in a wheelchair for good this time.  Once again, Louis B. Mayer came to his rescue and promised that the screen version he intended to make of A Christmas Carol would star Lionel as Scrooge as soon as Lionel was able to do the picture.

Lionel knew there would be no recovery this time.  He also had a generous streak behind his famous crusty exterior, and suggested that MGM go ahead and make the movie on schedule but with Reginald Owen in the role.  Lionel made himself available on set to coach Owen.  To help promote both the film and Owen in the role, Lionel insisted Reginald Owen do the Christmas radio broadcast as Scrooge that year.

The following year, 1939, Lionel was back at the mic for A Christmas Carol and would continue this annual role for the remainder of his life.  He died in November 1954.  

Today, Christmas for classic film fans is more to be identified with Lionel Barrymore in another role:  the evil Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).  Unlike Scrooge, Mr. Potter never had an epiphany or change of heart.  Interestingly, author Hollis Alpert’s book, The Barrymores, which is a wonderful collection of research and stories of John, Ethel, and Lionel Barrymore, was published in 1964, long before the annual Christmastime television broadcasts of It’s a Wonderful Life, so the author was just as ignorant as Lionel was of his future importance to classic film fans as Mr. Potter.  The film does not even rate a mention. It was Mr. Potter, and not Mr. Scrooge, that became Lionel Barrymore’s Christmas legacy.

Scrooge embodied a Victorian Christmas, and Charles Dickens is often said to be the creator of the modern Christmas, but Mr. Potter, perhaps, is a figure much more symbolic of our 21st century era—cynical, greedy, unrepentant, and unpunished, reveling in his meanness and feeling that his very self-interestedness gives him actual omnipotence. It is a veil he dare not drop lest he lose his power.

George Bailey is the one with the epiphany in the movie, and if he does not vanquish Mr. Potter in the old-movie fashion of destroying the villain, he does something through his epiphany which is perhaps more realistic—he renders Mr. Potter totally irrelevant. 
Becoming irrelevant is a deeper punishment to someone as power-hungry as Potter than even time in prison.  

Here’s wishing you all a very happy holiday season and in the happy new year to come, may all the villains become rendered irrelevant.

Listen here for Lionel Barrymore's final radio performance as Scrooge.

Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

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