Thursday, May 29, 2008

Moon Over Miami (1941)

“Moon Over Miami” (1941) arrived on the scene in the last few months before Pearl Harbor changed America forever, and while World War II had for nearly two years been destroying the lives of millions overseas. Everything’s okay in Betty Grable’s world.

Betty and Carole Landis play waitress sisters in the film that opens with a sprightly song and a couple of roadside cafĂ© carhops in cowgirl suits. Can’t get any more promising than that. If Shakespeare had thought of opening a play like that, he would have done it. It just probably never occurred to him.

Charlotte Greenwood, reliably funny and dear (see this previous entry for an interview with Miss Greenwood’s biographer) is their aunt who slings hash in the kitchen. The three of them dream of marrying rich men, and take off to Miami to hunt for some.

Don Ameche and Robert Cummings, boyhood rivals, are the rich fellows. Since the girls do not want to appear as golddiggers and because they have very little money between them, Betty gets to pretend to be the wealthy heiress, while sis Carole plays her secretary, complete with unflattering glasses because she is not supposed to outshine Betty, and Charlotte gets to be the maid. Lanky Miss Greenwood, with the most eloquent posture in Hollywood, can make her point or just get a laugh by standing or leaning, or taking a deep breath.

Both the dapper young white dinner jacketed rich fellows chase after Betty with her deep red lipstick and her blonde hair pulled off her face in the impossible upsweep. With giant stars on her dress and a giant bow in her hair, she is a walking exclamation point.

Cummings is the goofier, more hapless millionaire’s son, and Ameche is the more suave and savvy. We know who’s going to end up with Betty when we hear Mr. Cummings sing. He lumbers on bravely, but it’s a good thing he’s rich because he’ll never make any money singing. Ameche’s smooth, gentle tenor is always a surprising contrast to his rather gravely speaking voice. He could be the last man sporting a pencil thin mustache at this period. (See the blog "Allure" for photos of some famous mustached actors of Hollywood's Golden Age).

After some trickery and water sports shot on location in Ocala and Cypress Gardens in Florida to give the film a hint of travelogue, each girl walks away with her rich fellow, though Miss Greenwood is improbably paired with hotel barman Jack Haley. Miss Grable comes off as a bit of a petulant heel, and a spoiled brat, but it’s her movie.

Frank and Harry Condos are the pair of specialty dancers who flank Miss Grable in a couple of numbers, and take the lead themselves in the “Seminole” number where a huge troupe of dancers dressed in patterns emulating the traditional clothing of Seminole Indians takes off in a colorful and not terribly PC tribute to something sort of Florida-ish.

It’s a frothy vacation with glimpses of Florida in an era when location shooting was not the norm, a glimpse of Betty Grable in a white bathing suit, which is a precursor to her famous image as a war pinup, and a fantasy of what it might be like to leave your lousy job and travel to an exotic place where everybody is having fun. The vacation only lasts 90 minutes, but you can’t beat the price.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Civil War Movies and Memorial Day

On this Memorial Day holiday, a marathon of World War II movies is the typical fare on television. But we could note with irony that though Memorial Day was created from the wild bereavement and need for reconciliation over the American Civil War, Hollywood’s classic era has given us few Civil War movies. It does not seem to be a subject they wanted to touch.

Four films on the American Civil war we may use as examples both of the scarcity of film treatment of the war and this nation’s or Hollywood’s discomfort with the war itself. These are “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), “Gone With the Wind” (1939), “The Red Badge of Courage” (1951), and “Shenandoah” (1965). Just the years’ distance between each of these films is an indication that the Civil War has not been popular subject matter.

This is amazing when we consider that this war did so much to create a modern nation from a struggling democracy cobbled together from former possessions of the British, Dutch, French, and Spanish empires. The Civil War was not only a turning point in our history; it created “a” United States from “these” United States. No small feat; and it came at horrific cost.

Hollywood easily churned out costume dramas of European monarchs and revolutions, tales of Roman Empire vice and grandeur, and many Biblical epics. The American frontier was occasionally visited, but most film tales of American past seemed to be rooted in westerns. Westerns were easily and cheaply produced, and the idea of the cowboy as an American icon was a thrilling and comfortable topic. White hats and black hats were easily distinguishable and we knew who the villains were.

Likewise during World War II, when Hollywood did much to unify the nation and serve as a kind of arm of the government to bolster morale, the films were churned out by the dozens and the good guys and bad guys were easily distinguishable.

But the Civil War, an era made for storytelling, filled with dramatic events and bigger than life personalities, this was touched upon lightly, with seeming awkwardness.

Both “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind” deal with the Southern point of view of the war, and include the Reconstruction period, which was as wretched an experience for the defeated South as the war had been. “The Birth of a Nation” took a defensive stand on both the South’s desire for political autonomy as well as the racism that created, promoted, and defended slavery. “Gone With the Wind” was a romantic tale, less of battlefield horrors than of the always-fascinating look at the downfall of wealthy upper classes, with a twist. Here they become dogged survivors in a strange new world.

Both “Gone With the Wind” and “The Red Badge of Courage” came from popular novels, the former having won the Pulitzer Prize. “Red Badge” follows one young Union man’s emotional trial in his first taste of battle. It is not about politics or good guys or bad guys. It is personal, and could be about anybody, anywhere, in any war.

“Shenandoah” features James Stewart as the curmudgeonly widowed father of a large Virginia farming family, who refuses to support Virginia’s militia or to pay any mind to the battles raging around his farm. He has created an improbably safe island in the midst of chaos, until his teenage son is mistaken for a Confederate solider, and multiple tragedies strike his family. This is more a tale of war being bad than of personal conviction. There are also a few historical inaccuracies in this film, but that is what sometimes happens when producers are businessmen and not historians.

However, the few and far-between modern films of the past few decades that have addressed the Civil War, though they may be filled with impressive accuracy on weaponry, tactics, and costumes, still shy away from displaying accurately the vehement politics and social mores of those days.

Perhaps it is simply impossible to re-create the emotion like we can the battlefield. Our look at the American Civil War is self-conscious, at arm’s length, and perhaps with some embarrassment. An earnest desire to see all sides sometimes leads to a diluted image.

At the time, the Civil War (which is actually a technically incorrect term, but has become the most accepted title), was called The War of Southern Rebellion by the North, and by the South was called The War of Northern Aggression. This was being polite.

Is it possible for us to understand a world in which thousands of men volunteered with idealism even after battles where typically thousands would be killed in minutes? Is it possible for us to understand why slavery was not abolished sooner, or how it could be logically defended by anyone? Northern and southern soldiers came to have regard for each other’s abilities and steadfastness, but the North and the South hated each other. There was a crude, murderous feeling rampant in the land. Is it even possible for us to understand such bitterness?

Perhaps this is why so few movies were made about the American Civil War. First, the cost of depicting the era accurately has become more and more prohibitive. Secondly, the passions which fueled the war have been spent, and we are invariably revisionists when it comes to history. We may not want to be. We may sometimes disdain revisionist history, but we are often powerless to do anything other than look at the past with our modern perspective.

One might wonder if it’s not for the best. Some things are best left behind us.

Also, in an era when Hollywood preferred not to alienate their southern film distribution market, an area of the country where movie theaters were segregated, blacks were carefully used and exploited in roles of stereotypes comfortable to bigots. “Birth of a Nation” aroused perhaps the first organized outcry against this, and the film became a museum piece from practically the moment it was made. Director D. W. Griffith spent the rest of his life defending the film, and the American Civil War was seen ever afterward by Hollywood moguls as possibly too hot a topic to touch.

“Gone With the Wind” sweeps us away in a romantic fantasy during the last days of grim Depression and the opening salvos of World War II. It nearly killed producer David O. Selznick, his team of revolving directors, his tormented writers, and his bewildered cast to make it. If it occasionally pulls punches, at least it made a grand effort. The film succeeds just as the novel did largely because we are taken with Scarlet and Rhett as characters. They could be southern aristocrats or London street thieves; it makes no difference as to time and place. They may talk about “the cause” but they serve no cause but themselves, and their personalities are irresistible.

“The Red Badge of Courage” sells itself to a Post-World War II audience with Audie Murphy in the lead, the most decorated American soldier of World War II, whose citations included the Medal of Honor. Bill Mauldin, “Stars and Stripes” cartoonist who created the beloved “Willie and Joe” characters in the army newspaper, plays another Union soldier. Even this obvious attempt at transference of the shine of World War II onto a Civil War epic made from a book we read in high school was unsuccessful. The film didn’t do well at the box office. Perhaps no one believed real-life hero Murphy was really a coward who could “skedaddle.”

“Shenandoah” skirts the political edge of the war just as James Stewart’s farm skirts the edge of the battlefield. Stewart was another World War II decorated serviceman. When he expresses disgust for the war and everything about it, we believe him. His own real-life experience lends cache. But where is the wrong and the right of it his character’s world? Where is the message? That war is bad? We already know that. But if a man expresses a couple of film hours’ worth of a lack of conviction, how are we supposed to care about him?

So, Memorial Day comes around, and World War II becomes our film focus for it. It’s easier that way. We knew who the bad guys were, and we’re not ashamed to point them out. It’s easier to find our heroes, too. They were everybody who served.

But the holiday actually began as a thoughtful, careful, tenuous gesture to reconcile the war-torn nation. It was slow to be accepted. Most of the nation did not adopt the holiday until after World War I, and many southern states still hold separate Decoration Day events for Confederate soldiers. World War II, though there are many still living for whom memories of that war are deeply painful, is a more comfortable subject, both in film and in real life. We know where we stand. We all stand together. Roll camera.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

No Highway in the Sky (1951)

“No Highway in the Sky” (1951) shows James Stewart in perhaps his most emotionally repressed role. If he were more withdrawn, he would be invisible.

This film, a kind of precursor to “The High and the Mighty” (1954) and the “Airport” films of the 1970s, plays on our anxiety over flight malfunctions but also probes the idea of responsibility for our fellow man. There is no real disaster shown in the film, just the looming specter of one about to happen.

Stewart plays a scientist who is involved in the British aircraft industry. He has been making tests which, mathematically at least, indicate that a new fleet of aircraft will suddenly lose their tailpieces in mid flight, and crash. The new plane is called the Reindeer, and the unusual tailpiece with the double row of wings does sort of resemble an antler. It’s a prop job, no jet engines.

Mr. Stewart is a widower, whose late wife was killed by a V2 rocket in the war. His young daughter is played by Janette Scott, who shows remarkable maturity and an engaging natural quality as a little girl almost as intellectual and emotionally guarded as her father. Her long precise speeches with big words are almost comic except for the sadness she displays in her bewilderment of the world. As an adult, Janette will battle greater anxiety in the sci-fi horror film “The Day of the Triffids” (1962).

For her bumbling professor father, it is much the same. He does not relate well to people. “People must be someone else’s concern. It can’t be mine,” he says when he brings his frightening hypothesis on the soundness of the plane to a government representative, and prefers to have nothing more to do with it. It is all numbers and equations to him; not human lives.

However, he is sent on a flight to Newfoundland, where another Reindeer crashed, to located wreckage that will prove his assertions of the weak stress points of the tailpiece. His awkward goodbye to his daughter is played with finesse. Stewart walks a fine line. He cannot bring himself hug or kiss her, but this is not due to a rejection of her; only his aching inability to make an emotional connection with another person, even his daughter, whom he clearly loves.

On board the commercial flight to Newfoundland is Glynis Johns, who plays a capable and ultra-friendly stewardess in a military-style uniform. Marlene Dietrich plays a Hollywood film star, plays it to the hilt, her inscrutable mask the result of her own mystique and a busy makeup department. Bessie Love, who herself had been a big star in the silent film days of the 1920s ironically is relegated to a bit part as a passenger. Kenneth More, who later became the hero of many a British film, is a co-pilot.

A reminder of the previously mentioned film “The High and the Mighty” is the importance stressed on the plane’s having reached THE POINT OF NO RETURN over the Atlantic, where it is explained that it is too late to turn back if anything goes wrong. Stewart has informed the doubtful but concerned captain of his belief that they will soon crash, and the stalwart Mr. More thinks Stewart is a loony.

Stewart’s anxiety for his own life deepens as he realizes he is on a doomed plane, which pulls at our sympathy since everybody on board thinks he’s nuts. In an unaccustomed gesture of reaching out to another human being, he tells Miss Johns, who has been nice to him, and Miss Dietrich, whose movies his late wife admired, where to hide in the plane if they crash, that they might be found and rescued (turns out to be the men’s room).

Marlene Dietrich, from the moment we first see Glynis Johns subserviently lighting her cigarette for her, seems to hide behind a similar emotional wall as does Mr. Stewart. She can play to her audience, but has trouble relating to people as individuals. She warms in the company of Mr. Stewart, but when the plane lands safely and her death is no longer imminent, she dismisses him as if he betrayed her by making her feel emotion.

The plane landing safely does not dissuade Stewart from his belief that something is wrong with the plane. Though he is sent to sit by himself in a separate room of the Gander airport, away from the other passengers where he will not distress them, he rushes onto the parked plane, and manipulates the landing gear so that the entire plane collapses on its belly and can not be flown any farther.

The RAF muscles him back to England where he is in really big trouble.

Here the film opens up, the chaos instigating a change in everyone. Stewart is now fighting Big Business, as the airline does not want to publicize a possible flaw in the design of their new plane, and the government tries to disassociate itself with Stewart because he is a loony. Glynis Johns shows up at Stewart’s house while he is being psychoanalyzed, and takes care of his daughter. Marlene Dietrich, after defending Stewart to a committee of government men who are only too happy to light her cigarette for her, also heads to Stewart’s house to buy presents for his daughter.

Stewart’s doubtfulness of his own sanity is heartbreaking. There is an intriguing scene where Dietrich and Johns, who may at this point be called the two women in his life though they are both strangers to each other and to him, tidy his home and iron his trousers, and mother his child, almost like his harem, but they eventually decide themselves who will end up with him. When his daughter, pleased at the new dress Miss Dietrich has bought for her tries to approach her, as if to kiss her, Dietrich pulls helplessly back, echoing the previous scene when Stewart could not hug his daughter goodbye.

Dietrich leaves, for good, and quite rattled. She tells Glynis Johns, “Keep telling her she’s pretty, will you?” She finally lights her own cigarette.

When Stewart finally returns to hearth and home and finds Glynis appointing herself lady of the house, he is baffled but accepts it. In a tearful and frustrated manner, she insists upon marrying him. She has helped him find the strength to defy the board that will crucify him, and he does tells them off in a crazed, but dazzlingly brave manner.

His theory is proved right, and he is vindicated, and many future passengers will be saved because of it. However, we never see a resolution with his daughter, except that, like Johns, she too has erupted in a flood of tears that perhaps may keep her from following too closely in her father’s emotionally isolated footsteps. Now they have all opened up a little, we are left guessing at any real healing.

Monday, May 19, 2008

James Stewart 100th Anniversary

Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of James Stewart. TCM will be showing several of his films. Though the stammering Boy Scout of his earlier films like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) etched out for Stewart a career persona like none other at the time, one of the most interesting aspects to his career is how he aged.

When Mr. Stewart came to Hollywood it might have been clear what he was not, but not so clear on what he was. His all-American lanky “aw shucks” personality was unlike that of perennial hero Gary Cooper, even if Cooper wore that mantle first. Stewart lacked the sexuality of Clark Gable, and Errol Flynn. And though his friend Henry Fonda may have given him a run for his money in the slapstick department, and in the serious-young-man-fighting-against-the-odds department, Stewart was still different.

Though he could appear cynical and witty, such as in the role which won him his Academy Award, “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) it was ultimately his vulnerability that may have given him a career longer and more productive than most.

Consider how James Stewart’s films of the 1950s stand out from his earlier movies. What may have begun in the post-war “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946), a heartwarming movie that actually spent most of the film showing a man becoming completely unhinged, ultimately led to “Rear Window” (1954), and the penultimate, “Vertigo” (1958).

In a decade when matinee idols Gable, Cooper, Flynn, and Tyrone Power were becoming puffy, flabby, and aging beyond their years, James Stewart, though possessed of a hairpiece and a hearing aid, appeared more vital. His appearance was not of a young man, yet he had reached a stage where his maturity suited him and gave him an authority he did not possess as a lanky 30-year old. By the time he did “Vertigo”, Mr. Stewart was 50 years old and still playing a romantic lead, unusual for the time. By the 1960s he may have been relegated to character parts, but even these were still lead roles, such as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962) and “This Rare Breed” (1966).

James Stewart aged well, and more importantly, continued to grow emotionally. He was able to tap into sick fear and animal rage, and poignant tenderness far better than he could at 30, and far better than those other actors mentioned ever could. He played comedy and drama with equal skill. He was believable in westerns, which not all actors plunked into them were. More than most actors of the day, he made growing up and growing old something to admire.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Now Playing - 1950

Forgive the unannounced intermission between this and my last post of two weeks ago. We’re back with another magazine ad, this time for “Father of the Bride” (1950). Directed by Vincente Minnelli, starring Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, and Joan Bennett, we see that the ad mentions some names, but does not flood the graphics with paragraphs of superlatives or critics’ “thumbs up” the way a lot of modern ads do.

Here we have what was usual for those days; an artist’s rendering to capture the essence of the movie. No actual photographed images of the stars, but a stylized drawing. The film, appropriately, was released in June of that year.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Movie Horses

Tex Ritter rode “White Flash.”

Gene Autry rode “Champion.”

Tom Mix rode “Tony.”

Roy Rogers rode “Trigger.” (Here’s a short piece from YouTube with Trigger doing a little dance.)

The Lone Ranger rode “Silver.”

Hopalong Cassidy rode “Topper.”

Can you take it from here? What about the Cisco Kid? What about Red Ryder? What are some famous horse sidekicks you remember?

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