Monday, September 16, 2019

Bertha Kirk - a Studio "Extra" Mystery

In September 1928, a gentleman named H. J. Pepper, 60 years old, retired hotelkeeper from Manitoba, Canada, and now eager silent movie "extra," met character actress Bertha Kirk at a studio while working on a film.  Though married, he became infatuated with her, but stalked her and shot her, then turned the gun on himself.  She was 50 at the time. 

I recently received a request for info on this subject by a researcher named Scott who wanted to know if I could help him find the titles of the movies Bertha Kirk might have played in, or obtain a photo of her.  Unfortunately, I knew of only the bare facts of the case.

It's an intriguing mystery, and Scott adds a hypothesis from his research (his remarks are slightly abridged by me for brevity and clarity):

"Halsey James Pepper was promoted to “Gas Officer” during the First World War and joking, attributed his promotion not to skill but to his tolerance for high-fume gas. And in June of 1928 just 3 months before the shooting a short film was released titled “A background Extra” full title being “The Life & Death of 9413, a Background Extra” and the working title from the studio being “The suicide of a background extra.” Unlike most experimental films of that time, it was not shown in the living room of a producer or home audience, it was promoted by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, who saw the genius behind the film's portrayal of Hollywood and the never-ending loops you must jump through only to be disregarded altogether as background material. Nothing more than a prop. So it was shown in 300 select theatres across America that summer. The story is almost uncanny to the real-life event that unfolded...most bizarre is a small scene near the end where a “Captain” character is seen laughing at background extra 9413 in his grave. This character has no credit nor does he appear in any other scene. I’ve tried to find a reference to his meaning but nothing comes up about him. This to me is almost supernatural and I feel something more was at play but to conclude my current hypothesis, Captain Pepper was suffering from some form of brain deterioration caused by years and years of exposure to high-fume gases. The fact that he went 50 years living a relatively normal life managing hotels seems bizarre to up and leave for Hollywood and in his mid 50’s at that. The short film that came out right before this event unfolded could be the key that unlocked the insanity manifesting inside Captain Pepper." 

The newspaper blurb above is from a wire story printed in an Australian newspaper, so while it must have gained some notoriety at the time, the headlines were probably short-lived since the police case would have been closed due to Pepper's committing suicide.  Had they arrested the murderer and put him on trial, there would have been daily reporting and possibly some photos and more background on Bertha Kirk.

I'd like to turn this over to our classic film fan community and see if anyone can come up with any more info on Bertha Kirk or the story, especially those among you who know more about the silent film era.  Feel free to leave your comments on this post, or email me at, and I'll pass the word along to Scott.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Fred MacMurray sings "I'm in the Market for You"

Before he was a Hollywood actor, Fred MacMurray was a saxophonist and a singer who entertains us here with the timely tune from 1930:  "I'm in the Market for You"...

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Wretched Refuse of Your Teeming Shore - Since You Went Away (1944)

Since You Went Away (1944) is a tribute to the American home front during World War II, its cozy, meandering plot glowing with quiet moments of breathtaking truth. Sentimental, certainly, but no less truthful for its sentiment, and never more so than the important scene toward the end of the film when we see Claudette Colbert learning a lesson on what it is to be an American.

She takes a coffee break in the canteen at the shipyard where she is doing war work. Her co-worker, an immigrant from Europe, recounts of the terror of the old country, of clutching her child, hearing, "the sound of heavy boots marching down the street."  

We do not know the country, or her religion, or how she came to arrive in America, only that her little boy did not come with her. We cannot imagine the circumstances of what we presume was his death, or what happened to his father. 

"We'd pray together that God would let us go to the fairyland across the sea."

Nazimova plays Zofia Koslowska.  Her name, Claudette Colbert writes to her husband, "is nothing like we ever heard at the country club."  Nazimova describes her visit to the Statue of Liberty upon arrival in the country, and recites from memory over the lunch counter, over their coffee, as Claudette listens, watching her face with awe, the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on the bronze plaque on the pedestal of Lady Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

"I know it so well here," she points to her head, "because I feel it so much here," she points to her heart.

It was Nazimova's last film; she died the following year at 66 years old.  Another veteran of the European stage, Albert Basserman, plays another immigrant in the film, and producer/screenwriter David O. Selznick prefaces his appearance with the tender, and pointed, quote on a plaque by another American poet, Carl Sandburg, 

"America, thy seeds of fate have borne a fruit of many breeds..."

Then we see a university degree awarded to Sigmund Gottlieb Golden, M.D., a kindly psychiatrist treating a young serviceman in a veteran's hospital, played by Craig Stevens, who is suffering from what we today call post-traumatic stress.  The doctor's name, like Zofia Koslowska's, would never be heard at the country club.

But middle class WASP Claudette Colbert, and her daughter played by Jennifer Jones, embrace these "wretched refuse" as role models and as friends.  We next see Nazimova as a guest at a party at Claudette's home.

Selznick uses these inferences and examples of the strength, nobility, and virtue of a culturally diverse America -- and the white Christians openly accepting the newcomers who are different -- not as a shaft of conscience, but as a source of pride during a desperate war against fascism.  Our cultural diversity and our pride in that was one of our greatest weapons against evil.


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, July 18, 2019

One Small Step - The Moon Landing and the Movies of the Day

"Today's Headlines!" the ad above for 2001: A Space Odyssey announces, referring to the first moon walk by astronauts in July 1969.  Today we commemorate the enormity of the event, particularly for those of us who remember it, but also we look back at the movies playing at that time to see where America was, culturally, during that monumental moment when man first set foot on another celestial body outside the Earth.

This wrinkled front page is from the newspaper my family read and which my mother saved from Monday, July 21, 1969.  As we can see by other front page newspapers below, the moon landing was the biggest news of the day -- of all time, we thought.  I especially love this front page of the Springfield (Massachusetts) Daily News because, unlike the other newspapers, there is no headline and no story -- just the dramatic fuzzy image of two astronauts and their lunar module craft on the moon.  No words were needed.  No words could adequately express our awe.

The astronauts were, of course, Neil A. Armstrong, the civilian commander, and Air Force Colonel Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin.  Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Michael Collins remained in the command vessel orbiting the moon, called Columbia.  The lunar module was the Eagle, as in those triumphant words, "The Eagle has landed!"

The mission was called Apollo 11 and the Saturn 5 rocket was launched July 16th. People all over the globe watched excitedly and followed the progress of the mission.  On Sunday the 20th, a little after 11 p.m. EDT, Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder and onto the surface of the moon.

In commemorating that event, many will recall the inspiring pledge of President John F. Kennedy at the beginning of that decade that we would be on the moon by the end of the 1960s, and will recall a time when the  nation was more idealistic, more driven to setting technological and intellectual goals, and with a far more robust economy that would allow us to provide for the expenditure for such a space program.  

Those of us who were children in those days recall watching the series of Gemini and Apollo flights on TV at home and even at school.  We had our space toys, and believing we would certainly have a Jetson's car when we were grown.

But from the standpoint of pop culture as it is expressed in the movies, have a look at what we were looking at in the drive-ins, the neighborhood movie houses, and the new cinema complexes in the summer of 1969...

We were really more interested in the 2001: A Space Odyssey above, or was the topical comedy How to Commit Marriage more appealing? We see that in the late sixties, stars of the Golden Age like James Stewart and Gregory Peck, Doris Day, Anthony Quinn and Sir Lawrence Olivier were still starring in feature films, often now alongside younger box office stars and apparently trying to adapt to new subject matter and to new audiences.  Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason, and Jane Wyman starred, and in the movie at the bottom of that ad, we see Bandelero! with James Stewart and Dean Martin paired with Raquel Welch.

In this ad, another theater carries How to Commit Marriage, and a drive-in is showing Bullitt with Steve McQueen.

We seemed to have a greater variety in movies at that time -- dramas, comedies, westerns, sci-fi, Shakespeare, and musicals -- and a wider variety of venues in which to see them.

Note that the ad above stresses the theater is "air conditioned" and has "exclusive air-flo rockers."  

If we were glued to the TV for those several days the astronauts were on their trip to the moon, the movie theaters might not have gotten as much business.  In the next decade, many of the theaters above would close. It might have been the last time that stars of classic films and contemporary actors would have equal footing in pop culture.

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, June 27, 2019

Andy Hardy's Private Secretary (1941) and Spring Reunion (1956)

Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary (1941) celebrates the high school graduation of Mikey Rooney as Andy Hardy, a member of the class of 1941.  Spring Reunion (1956), starring Betty Hutton and Dana Andrews, is a look at another class of ’41 at their 15th reunion.  The first movie idealistically launches teenagers into their newly proclaimed adulthood at the first major accomplishment of their lives—commencement, and the latter film looks back with a wistful sadness and even frustration, questioning just what have they accomplished since.  

We’ve mentioned before the deeper meaning of being a member of a high school graduating class in the spring of 1941 in this previous post on Peyton Place (1957).  Though World War II had already begun and most young people were likely expectant that the U.S. would join the Allies sooner rather than later, it must have been a strangely unsettling feeling graduating from high school that spring of 1941.  Plans for further education, or job options, would have been made probably only tentatively, with an uneasy suspicion of the lack of permanence in a world catching fire.

Andy Hardy plans to go to college, but with his typically jubilant frenzy, he never gives the impression he suspects his plans might be knocked out by the war.  (We discussed his next venture in this post on Life Begins for Andy Hardy - 1941) Mikey Rooney, a workhorse actor whose well over 300 films began when he was barely old enough to tie his shoes, had traded a long run as “Mickey Maguire” for a long run as Andy Hardy by 1937 and Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary was tenth in the series.  He could play the part with his eyes closed, and the mugging all-American fella in the sweater vest was Louis B. Mayer’s schmaltzy paean to American boyhood, a mantle not always worn comfortably by Rooney.

Lewis Stone is his long-suffering pop, Judge Hardy; Fay Holden is his adoring and somewhat ditzy mom; Sara Haden is back as doting maiden Aunt Milly who lives with them, and who teaches English at the local high school.  Older sister Marian is absent from this entry in the series and it is explained that she’s away in New York City.

Ann Rutherford’s back as Mikey’s best girl Polly, and spends most of the movie in a jealous snit.  The main diversion for the Hardy clan, besides Andy’s struggle to graduate, is the Land family.  Widower Ian Hunter lives in a small cottage on the other side of the tracks with his son Harry, played by Todd Karns; and his daughter Kathryn, played by Kathryn Grayson in her first movie.  She is the reason Ann Rutherford’s in a jealous snit. The secondary characters are always more interesting in the Hardy series because we already know Andy’s going to be okay no matter what. His family will always bail him out, and he’s Uncle Louis B. Mayer’s pride and joy.

Young Miss Grayson is fresh-faced and natural, and I think her appearance here is actually less affected than some of her later performances when her career had hit its peak in the following decade.  Her voice, of course, is lovely and she gets to display her talent more than once in this film, most notably in selections from Lucia di Lammermoor.  Louis B. Mayer convinced her to turn down her dream of an operatic career in favor of the movies.  A purely unselfish act on his part, you understand.

Todd Karns, son of our favorite smarmy bus passenger, Roscoe Karns (“Shapely’s the name, and that’s the way I like ‘em”), also made his film debut in this movie.  It is never said that the Land siblings are twins, but they are both graduating, and because they are poor, Karns does not have the requisite white flannel pants, and Grayson does not have the requisite silk stockings (still available even with the war on?) to take part in the ceremony.  Mickey Rooney, their fairy godfather, will take care of that.

They had lived with their dad in Europe for several years, but the war has put a damper on his travel business (nobody wants to vacation in war zones, go figure), and working in a garage is the only job he’s been able to find.  His ability to speak nine languages will be just the angle for Judge Hardy to give him a hand up at the end of the movie.  Anybody who enters the Hardys’ magical sphere is always the better for it.  

There is something amusingly snobbish about Louis B. Mayer’s version of a perfect America where Andy Hardy, the son of a judge, and Polly Benedict, the daughter of the local banker, are regarded as typically middle class—both will be presented with brand-new cars by their dads—while Mr. Land, who must work in a garage as a mere “working man,” the expression used to be, is regarded as somehow pitiable.  Judge Hardy must remind his son to be nice to the Land kids and include them in their own graduation ceremony.

Kathryn Grayson is the private secretary in the title, assigned to help Mickey in his duties as class president in the final hectic weeks of senior year.  He has the ceremony to arrange, the yearbook, is writing the class play, and as a result of his over-extending himself, he flunks his English final.  Even Auntie Milly could do nothing to save him.

Todd Karns, who is understandably fed up with Mikey’s antics with the resentment a poor kid has for an upper-middle class kid who’s getting a brand-new car for graduation, nevertheless finds the loophole to get him a makeup test and together with Kathryn and Ann Rutherford, stays up all night and force-feeds English grammar rules into Mickey’s thick head.

Kids today might regard the importance of English grammar on the same level of unbelievability as the apparent social shame of not owning white flannel pants.

Todd is given the chance to pay off his graduation fee and contribute to the festivities by being allowed to decorate the high school auditorium for graduation.  Not only does he win the prestigious $25 prize for academics and citizenship, but his artistry is rewarded by being offered a job creating window displays for a local department store.  This is more than just a convenient happy ending or a deus ex machina, at least for our purposes in examining the cultural background of movies.  It tells us a little more.  These are kids who want to work, have seen their father struggle, and they want to help him and pay their own way.  The Great Depression is receding, but it’s all these teens remember and it will mark them for life, and a job, any job, made one a winner, at least in one’s own mind. We might wonder how Kathryn can have such a polished coloratura soprano voice with no mention of voice teachers, but we can accept that Todd might not have plans for college and be thrilled at starting a career in a department store.  

If you can find a department store in your town that is not a chain, they still likely may have an outside advertising agency handling that for them.  Once upon a time, retail was local, every facet of running the store, nothing outsourced, and the boss was the owner.

At one point, Mickey announces, “I don’t live in the present.  I belong to the future.”

The future, at least fifteen years down road, is where Spring Reunion takes us. The town of Carson might not be so very different from the Hardys’ town of Carvel, but the seaside burg has undergone a lot of real estate development in the backwash of the war. Jean Hagen, who plays Betty Hutton’s girlhood chum, returns to her old hometown for the reunion with the bemused, incredulous, “What happened to this town anyway?  Supermarkets, ranch houses….”  

The movie sinks us into sleepy springtime nostalgia with the opening credits taking the form of yearbook pages.  Betty Hutton had been “most popular girl.”  Dana Andrews had been “most likely to succeed.”  Jack Frazer plays the football hero.  Jean Hagen had a less stellar high school identity; she is comically noted as a chess club captain and assistant proofreader of the yearbook.  When she arrives to attend the reunion, she is on a much-needed vacation from her husband and four kids. She is perhaps back not so much to relive the glory of her high school days—they were not so glorious—as she is on much-delayed, last-chance at being the person she wanted to be then.

Betty Hutton is one of the organizers of the reunion, and it’s easy to see why she was voted most popular.  No “clique” is inferred here, her popularity comes from her genuine likeability and her friendliness with everyone.  Betty Hutton is really quite appealing in this quiet role.  Some of her other movie performances tend to jump into your face and choke off your air.  This role, her last film, perhaps because of the nuance of wistfulness, of sadness below the surface, is more intimate and draws our interest and our sympathy.

Betty’s problem, opposite from Jean Hagen’s, is that she is not married and has no children.  She helps her father run a successful real estate business, but the refreshing sight of seeing a woman in this period capably handle a business with authority is tempered by the sight of the woman questioning her self-worth because of not being in a romantic relationship.  Her bigger problem is one she does not see:  Her father, who calls her “Kitten,” is entirely too clingy.  Played by Robert F. Simon, Papa seems to enjoy his daughter’s company more than his wife’s.  She is played by Laura La Plante, and her eyes are wide open to the situation, and she tries to tactfully pull him away.  A subtle point made with the set decoration is seen late in the movie when we see two photos on either side of her father’s desk at the office.  One is a portrait of his wife.  The other, perched across the desk on the other corner as if in a world of its own, is a photo of he and his daughter together.

We see some old friends at the reunion, character players who would find more prominent places in pop culture in television: Irene Ryan as the innocent class advisor growing tipsy on spiked punch would later play Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies.  Herbert Anderson was the dad of Dennis the Menace, Ken Curtis was Festus on Gunsmoke, Richard Deacon came back as Lumpy Rutherford’s dad in Leave it to Beaver.  Betty Hutton would also make a break for the world of TV in her The Betty Hutton Show as her next gig.  It was a time of new beginnings.

Though she is mocked as a no-talent leftover from an old school show, voice actress Sara Berner is splendid as Paula Kratz, who does impersonations of movie stars being interviewed by Louella Parsons.

There are the usual jokes at the reunion about weight gain, hair loss, and the anxiety of not measuring up to who they thought they’d be fifteen years down the road, still dwelling in the identities they had in high school. The football hero is the only one who seems to be a case of arrested development, enjoying game reels of himself and reliving past glory on the gridiron.  The others are more uncomfortable with themselves.

Dana Andrews has no interest in the reunion.  He’s only in town to sell his family’s beach house, which Betty, as a real estate agent, is happy to handle.  It is only a desire to see her again that evening that he shows up reluctantly at the reunion.  The event fills him more with disgust than nostalgia.  He had been class president, but squandered opportunities through the years with an inability to be happy at anything.  Perhaps he could have used a secretary like Kathryn Grayson.

They leave for a long walk and what ends up being a long night of talking about themselves, escape on a sailboat, and renewing something of what could have been a romance in high school if either had been ready for it.  They may not be ready for it now, but their mutual attitude is they have nothing left to lose, and maybe nothing left to expect from life.

They end up on the rocks—literally, as the sailboat takes refuge below the lighthouse where the local lighthouse keeper, played by our old friend James Gleason, longs for company and card players. He and Dana are old friends.

Meanwhile the football hero, his wife out of town, cozies up to Jean Hagen, who is half excited and half scared to be finally paid the attention she never was in high school.  She comes daringly close to an affair, but will think the better of it by morning when she decides she wants to return to her family.

Betty and Dana have not come to their senses in the light of day.  They decide to run off to be married, but her dad makes one last ditch effort to keep her by dangling a job, a partnership for Dana. Dana walks out, because he always walks out on opportunities and doesn’t want to feel trapped, and it is supposed to be a moment of triumph for our Betty when she runs out into traffic with her suitcase to go with him.  Perhaps her first impulsive move will be his first effort at commitment and both will be happy at last.

Where were Kathryn and Harry Land fifteen years after graduation?  Did he make it through the war?  Did she ever sing in public again?  Did they go to their 15th reunion at Carvel High?


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, June 6, 2019

D-Day 75th anniversary - Earn This.

Marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day today, Turner Classic Movies is showing a roster of films related to this monumental event.  Probably chief among them is The Longest Day (1962), which is of special interest to classic film fans because of its large cast of notables from the heyday of the studio system. I'm not sure that even with the recreation of the most horrible moments of battle we have come to understand or appreciate the significance of the military effort, equally parts poignant and Homeric.

Saving Private Ryan (1998), made long after the studio system ended but still boasting Everyman/star Tom Hanks to head the team, perhaps makes the best show of recreating the chaos and horror of the landings.  Those sequences are heart-stopping.  But for me, it is the end of the movie when Tom Hanks (oh, look, if you don't like spoilers, why do you even read this blog?) is mortally wounded and, in a haze of sincere and almost sardonic acknowledgement of his circumstances, tells Matt Damon, the Private Ryan whom Hanks and his men have come to save, "James, earn this.  Earn it."

In the film's final moments, Harrison Young, who plays Ryan as an elderly man returns to the military cemetery at Normandy to pay tribute at the grave of Hanks's character, a scene which brings me to tears no matter how many times I've seen it. He speaks to the grave marker cross and, as if in defense, tells Hanks he has tried to live his life the best he could.  When he and his family are about to leave, he asks his wife to tell him he's a good man.

This hints at the larger message of D-Day, when U.S., Canadian, and British troops desperately hurled themselves against Hitler's "Atlantic Wall" in a campaign long planned and not without problems and tragic mishaps. Thousands of men died, and all who participated knew that would happen.  It was the beginning of the end of the grip of fascism on Europe, and Europeans, including young Anne Frank in her secret annex, prayed for the day to come, rejoiced when it did. Anne wrote in her diary,  “'This is D Day,' the BBC announced at twelve. 'This is the day.' The invasion has begun.”

Classic film fans are perhaps more aware than those who are not of the powerful idealism of that era, and of that generation that journalist and author Tom Brokaw justly coined, "The Greatest Generation."  We can show the recreations of explosions in a movie made after the fact, made more successful at the box office by using famous actors, but the best way to learn from and cherish the event is to remember the idealism that made so many give up everything, including their own futures, for us to have a chance at ours.

Now, fascism has taken foothold on our shores and in our government, even among some military personnel who dishonor their uniforms with political patches that announce their slavish allegiance to a man instead of the Constitution, and among civilians the Nazi emblems and thuggish imitators have unleashed idolatry unthinkable to those men struggling to reach the beaches, to stay alive a few more feet, and then a few more.  Private Ryan was warned to earn their sacrifice, and he worried that he had not.

We need to worry more about that.  We cannot honor the service personnel of D-Day if we have squandered the gift of freedom from fascism and the world they saved just for us.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Best Years of Our Lives - 1946

The Best Years of Our Lives, released in 1946 was, essentially, about 1946, illustrating a year ironically more tenuous than celebratory, in a victorious nation etched with anxiety about its future. The year 1946 means a little less to us today, except as the start of the Baby Boom. We are fairly egocentric about things like that.

Director William Wyler shows the problems of three veterans: of Homer’s prosthetic hooks; of Al’s restless dissatisfaction with his bank job and his ready relief in drink; and of Fred’s disillusionment that the wife, home in the suburbs, and good job he thought would be waiting for him after the war have fizzled out, one by one. Dana Andrews plays Fred, spending much of the movie lugging around an overstuffed army suitcase, trying to find “home.”

Wyler’s treatment of Homer, played by amputee Harold Russell, was sensitive and straightforward. Homer pulls his hooks out into view early in the film when he signs his name on a paper. We see Homer shaking “hands” repeatedly through the film, knocking on doors, drinking, eating, handling money in a billfold, never hiding his hooks but using them as naturally and as often as he would his hands, even playfully banging out “Chopsticks” in a piano duet. Wyler forces us to look at the hooks. In one splendid scene, Homer visits his uncle’s bar, and feeling at home with his pals and away from the nervousness of his family, proceeds to hold a conversation while pushing his sailor hat back farther on his head, handling a beer in a pilsner glass, shaking “hands,” and slamming his hook down on the bar as a man might slam his fist to make a point. It is stupendous for its very naturalness and simplicity.

The minor actors in The Best Years of Our Lives tell us even more about the three veterans. Fred’s father, played by Roman Bohnen, has a very brief but exceptionally moving scene as he reads aloud his son’s war citations. Homer’s younger sister, not uncomfortable with his hooks like the grownups, stares openly fascinated at them as children will. Ray Collins is both pompous and subtly sinister as Al’s hypocritical boss. Hoagy Carmichael plays the easygoing Uncle Butch, who gives Homer a sense of perspective.

It is left to the minor characters of Butch and Al’s son, Rob, to introduce the post-war world for us by discussing the atom bomb. The central characters are too preoccupied with jobs, and fitting into their families, and fitting into their civilian clothes to care about the new geopolitical realities. Rob refers to the recent enemy as “Japanese” with a delicacy that eludes his veteran father, who persists in referring to them as “Japs.”

Wyler, with subtle observation even manages to put a toe across Hollywood’s color bar by training the camera’s eye on the African-American ex-GI who waits to go home just as Al, Homer, and Fred must wait at the ATC depot. A black soldier brings his family into Fred’s drug store and is seen buying candy for his two children. The man standing in line next to Fred at the unemployment office is an African American. It is as if Wyler hints there is a parallel story here to the one of Al, Homer, and Fred, but we only get a peek.

Another legacy to us comes from the man with the flag pin on his lapel who challenges Homer to consider that a left-wing conspiracy brought the nation to war. Al, played by Oscar winner Fredric March, chides the stuffy bankers at his welcome home banquet of their suspicion of “do-gooders” and “radicals.” Today, these salvos between right and left have been diminished to a toxic cliché about blue states and red states. We are a nation fighting a nearly 20-year-old war today, and many of us wear flag pins on our lapels, but the civilian population has not been called upon to make sacrifices. Only civilians who have loved ones in the military have made sacrifices. The rest are untouched and uninvolved. It was not so in World War II.

In this film, the women the three men have come home to are not diminished; is it their story, too. Al’s wife Milly, played by Myrna Loy, and his daughter Peggy, played by Teresa Wright, display heartsick fears and frank desires. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is Fred’s nightmare, when a drunken Fred is put to bed by Peggy, a young woman he met only hours before, suffers a nightmare from what today would be called post-traumatic stress, and is comforted by Peggy, in her bed, yet there is nothing sensationalized or exploitive about it.

It is a movie whose musical score, composed by Hugo Friedhofer did not produce any catchy pop tunes, but captured each moment of conscience the way a shadow follows a body. The otherworldly sensation of Al’s first waking in his own bed after years of jungle is punctuated by the musical score; the delicate strains of the refrain that opens the film and reprises through every moment of tenderness or tension, a piece of music unnamed but unmistakable, captures the moments and meanings that makes mere lyrics inarticulate. The astonishing burst of brass ripple that begins the airplane engine noise as Fred sits in the nose of a trashed plane, experiencing a wartime flashback, all these musical incidents are by turns touching and devastating.

The Best Years of Our Lives was made in the first year of the Baby Boom, and now the Boomers are retiring, those that can. Their parents’ generation could be no better represented than by Harold Russell, who enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor, and later lost his hands. Two of the many Academy Awards won by that film were won by him. As a senior citizen, he sold them both in 1992, to pay for his wife’s medical bills. Retirement, as the Boomers are learning, also has its horrors.

We can only imagine what lay in store for the characters. There is no hint of the space race, the Civil Rights movement, or Vietnam, and perhaps it is just that very perspective knowing what we know now about the peace after the war, where we have succeeded as a nation and where we have failed, that adds a certain eeriness of hindsight that matches Hugo Friedhofer’s music.

There are no sure happy endings in this film. We are never told if Al is going to get a grip on his reaching for a drink in an awkward situation, but we know Milly will be there to support him. We see Homer marry his sweetheart, but his triumph in adjusting to civilian life is tempered by the real knowledge that he will never be able to turn a doorknob or button his own shirt. He will always need a little help with some things.

We are never clearly told when the “best years” were, if it was before the war, during the war, or the years yet to come. The title is ambiguous. There is no fairy tale ending for Fred and Peggy, either. Fred is the last one of the three to take off his uniform, when a job offer in construction is finally made to him, and he symbolically puts the war behind him by stripping off his bomber jacket to go to work.

When Fred and Peggy finally embrace at the end of the film he tells her that it won’t be easy, that they will have to work, “get kicked around.” It is the last line of the film, and not very romantic. She beams a radiant smile, wondrous at only the positive side of his double-edged declaration, completely ignoring the warning. We see the warning. We are still imagining their uncertain future more than seventy years after the first year of the big peace.


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.

Only Angels Have Wings - 1939 repost

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, a more gruesome adventure which would turn very young real-life fliers into men under horrific circumstances and in which many were killed -- not because the luck of the draw or the stern mistress of fate as in this movie, but because an enemy nation just as well equipped and just as determined, destroyed them. 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 (which we covered here), Gone with the Wind (which we covered here), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (which we covered here), 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, their fame had not yet flown into history. 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 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 (which we discussed here) 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. An American 1939 fantasy.

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 veneer 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. 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, and Cary Grant is torn up. His booting a chair across the room is his only expression of emotion about 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.

Another element is the periodic 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 enough 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 his 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 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.

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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