Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hog Wild (1930)

“Hog Wild” (1930) is a Laurel and Hardy short that has nothing to do with hogs and restricts itself to how many awful things that can happen to you putting up an antenna on your roof.

With sparse dialogue and inventive gags, the team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are free to create in pantomime what other artists may express in free verse or abstract painting. They go hog wild in their limitless imaginations to find our funny bones and extract from us our empathy for these two hapless but well-intentioned men.

After a slow start with a routine about Hardy not being able to find his hat, the job before them is to string an aerial on the roof for the radio because “Mrs. Hardy wants to hear Japan.” We, who are about to slip into a world where television aerials will be useless without a digital converter box, and despite all our technology usually hear anything about Japan or any other distant country only if there is an Olympic Games being held there, can only imagine the wondrous world where a bit of wire on the roof can pull in the other side of the world. No wonder the boys are so anxious to pull off this accomplishment.

The other wonder is watching Laurel and Hardy performing very athletic stunts. This is not a studio set. The film production crew built a house on a rented lot on Madison Avenue in the Culver City section of Los Angeles, and the boys are actually leaping, hopping, stumbling on a real roof. The breeze is rippling through their clothing. We can see from the camera angle that this is a much more sparsely settled neighborhood in 1930 than it is today, and we can clearly see that the action is taking place one story above the ground.

Sometimes the simplest gags trigger the most laughs. Such as when Hardy’s bottom catches on fire from the backfire of Stan’s auto, and Stan, coming to his aid with a bucket of water, throws it on Hardy’s face accidentally instead of the part of him which is smoking. It’s a simple and obvious gag, but timed so well, it’s very funny.

The finale comes as Stan accidentally puts his car in gear. The ladder upon which Hardy has been standing is placed on a board on top of the open car to make it taller so he can reach the roof. With the car thrust into drive, the ladder pulls away from the roof, Hardy hollers in distress, and Stan shrieks in terror, hugging the ladder to keep Hardy aloft, as the car plows down was must be Wilshire Boulevard, because the trolley they smash into has a “Wilshire” placard on it. Another trolley smashes into them in front of the Bank of Culver City. Part of the fun of these early shorts is seeing the actual city streets of the day, a real playground of the movie world of actual near-car crashes, not real crashes enhanced with computer generated mushroom clouds of fire, not fake ones with rear-screen projection, but real cars almost -- and the almost is what is funny, crashing. A world of possibilities around every corner for instant failure or instant success. A world where a wire strung on the one-story roof of your house can bring you Japan.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Not off Topic, Just off Blog

I must humbly turn the floor over today to Thom at Film of the Year because this blog entry demonstrates both a thoughtful analysis of Hollywood film as part of American culture, and is a clever parody of it at the same time. I only wish I wrote this well. Kindly have a look at The Final Thoughts of Joe Gillis.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Movies About Movies Blog-a-thon

“Movie Crazy” (1932) gives us Harold Lloyd in an interesting and effortless transition from his silent movie comedy techniques to the world of sound. Probably because he brings his sight gags with him, some of them tried and true, and some of them delightfully unexpected, but with the addition of some witty dialogue.

Lloyd is fortunate to have Constance Cummings as his leading lady, and her early departure from Hollywood after a handful of movies in the early 30’s was Hollywood’s loss. Here she gives a performance that is natural, engaging, and free from the typical affectation of the period.

Back home in Kansas, small-town, star-struck Lloyd exasperates his parents with his dreams of movie stardom, playacting a topical scene of the day about a man losing his money in the Wall Street crash, as he imagines the coffee grinder his mother is turning is really a camera. A mistake and miscommunication lands Lloyd his Hollywood contact, and he dreams of fame.

When Lloyd arrives on the Chief (of course, like all hopeful movie actors), he stumbles, literally, upon a film in progress on the station platform. An elegant Spanish lady emotes to her leading man, played by Kenneth Thomson. After bumbling through a disastrous walk-on part, our over-eager Harold gets kicked off the set. As the cast disbands, the Spanish lady tosses a stray rose to the props guy, but Harold catches it instead, thinking she has thrown the rose to him as a love offering, and he is smitten.

But his career comes first. He doggedly pursues his screen test, which is then viewed by the execs in the screening room. Harold could not be more inept, but what is engaging about his character and this film is the refusal to make Harold a pathetic object. He is as much a victim of his own flaws as this confusing and sophisticated new world of movie making. He is just as full of actor’s pompous conceit as he is charmingly unassuming while becoming buddies with Constance Cummings.

They meet in the rain, after a very funny bit about losing his shoe down a storm drain leads one thing to another. She tries to put up the convertible roof of her roadster and he unsuccessfully tries to help is a fine bit of comedy from them both. They are a perfect blend of his silent physical comedy and her witty 1930s screwball sarcasm, as she finally in desperation hollers at him, “Will you do me favor? Will you just walk away?!” And when he all but destroys her car she sarcastically retorts, “Can I go now?”

She ultimately takes pity on him, takes him into her home and allows him to change into one of her pants outfits while his clothes dry, which shows her and us that Harold is both a good sport and more comfortable about himself than most of the actors with brittle egos she has known in Hollywood. This includes the leading man with the drinking problem, played by Thomson, whom she would like to discourage. When Thomson visits, begging her to take him back, Cummings asks Harold to remain as a kind of chaperone. It’s a funny scene, as he sits in the background stone still while a scene of movie-quality angst is played before him. We are fascinated by his fascination.

Eventually, this lout Thomson becomes Harold’s rival. There is a sweet and charming moment when, in the middle of an argument, Cummings and Harold kiss and are stunned to acknowledge their attraction for each other. We also see, in a clever scene when the Spanish lady removes her wig she is actually Constance. When she discovers Harold is smitten with the Spanish lady, Constance becomes jealous and plays tricks on him to get him to choose between them.

The climax is a scene within a scene, as Harold stumbles upon a movie set with Constance and Thomson playing at being victim and villain. The camera pans back as an enormous ship’s hold becomes not a thing of grim, rugged reality but an illusion, with the set of a city skyline behind it showing that there are other films being shot all around, and none of those worlds are real, either.

Harold, at once amazed and taken in by this, is nevertheless duped into becoming emotionally involved in the scene on the ship when Thomson threatens him to stay away from Constance, and then dramatically declares he would kill Constance before he let another man have her. When Thomson takes his place on the set and Constance plays at being his prisoner on board the ship, Harold cannot help but try to save her. The movie world has become real. There is a prolonged, athletic, and inventive fight scene between Thomson and Harold, as the ship’s hold fills with water. Popeye and Bluto never duked it out so outrageously.

This is a film where were are reminded in visuals that this is a fake world, and that stardom is rare, and that there is more heartbreak in Hollywood waiting for the stranger who comes here than there is the chance of a break. This is merely a public service announcement. Instead, in true move fairy tale fashion, Harold gets the fame, gets the girl. A movie exec sees his “fight scene” and decides to give him a contract to play not heroes, but comics because that is where he is most talented.

We can only agree. And the message of heartbreak for anyone bound for Hollywood is rescinded. Dreams do come true here after all. It’s the bread and butter of the industry.

For more blogs on movies about movies, kindly have a look at Goatdog's blog-a-thon this weekend.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Movie Blog-a-thon

Stay tunned for tomorrow's contribution to Goatdog's "Movies about Movies" blog-a-thon entry, and kindly have a look at Goatdog's site for more participating blogs.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Theme From the Movie

In the 1950s, when the movie musical blossomed into its golden age, another phenomenon occurred in tandem that had to do with movie music. This was The Theme from an otherwise non-musical movie that was played all through the film, flicking us like a wet towel snapped at the back of our legs. Then it morphed into a popular song, made the Hit Parade, and took on a life of its own.

Think of “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” (1955) and “Picnic” (1955) and we think of the song from the movie that takes us by the hand and gently leads us into romantic undercurrents. Sometimes it grabs us by the neck and throttles us into paying attention, sternly reminding us that This Is the Pivotal Moment. Both songs leapt off the screen and dashed down the street to the recording studio. Here are The Four Aces taking a crack at “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” and the McGuire Sisters having a go at “The Theme from Picnic.”

The Four Aces made a career covering movie theme songs, and here they are with “Three Coins in a Fountain.” That film, produced in 1954, featured Frank Sinatra’s voice launching The Theme. But most movie themes seem to have had less auspicious origins. The decade’s fascination with The Theme From the Movie might have begun with “The Third Man” (1949) and the needling zither of Anton Karas. The zither music has become as identifiable with that film as Orson Welles.

And one guy on a zither was a lot cheaper than hiring an orchestra. Along the same lines of economy in the form of a distinctive sound, we have the theme from “Ruby Gentry” (1952) played by George Fields on the harmonica. Fields also did the harmonica solo on “Moon River” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).

A single guy whistling made the theme of “The High and the Mighty” (1954) memorable. He was Muzzy Marcellino, who whistled in a handful of movies in what one imagines must have been a career of fairly limited opportunities. Here is Mr. Marcellino at work.

“Moulin Rouge” (1952) gave us “It’s April Again” which was also called “The Song from Moulin Rouge”, which was also called “Where is Your Heart?” Not being able to decide on a title did not keep Percy Faith and his orchestra having a hit with it.

Dimitri Tiomkin, prolific composer for the movies probably did not expect to join the pantheon of the Hit Parade with his cowboy song, “High Noon” or “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh, My Darlin’” from “High Noon” (1952). Tex Ritter sang it in the film, but Frankie Laine lassoed it and made it his own.

Except for the anomaly of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, most of these theme-from-the-movie songs were from the early 1950s. Popular music tastes changed for a younger record buying audience in the later part of that decade. We still have the occasional hit song from a movie, but never one that is so threaded into the film like a tapestry, where we are inspired, enthralled, and beaten over the head with it. And yet, like the victims of a slapstick thump on the head, we may be left with a warm and goofy smile from the assault as the music swells.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


“Olympia” is not a classic Hollywood film, but with the Olympics upon us again, it is a good topic to discuss. Director Leni Riefenstahl’s film tribute to the 1936 Berlin Olympics is a masterful work, but so mired in controversy. Filmed beautifully, its poetic visions of the human form are chained to that other reality, the elephant in the room: the swastikas in the background.

The film begins with idealistic Greek statues in a setting of ancient ruins coming to life, of naked men and women appearing both god-like and human, and bringing forth the divine fire that will light the torch. The torch relay, a feature of the Olympics which has become standard, originated at the 1936 Berlin Games, and we see the torch passed to a modern runner in his less than god-like baggy shorts. An animated map shows us the journey from Greece up the Balkans to Berlin. Despite the controversy of allowing the Games to continue in Hitler’s Germany after his rise to power (it had been awarded to Germany before Hitler came to power), there did not seem to be the same disruption over the torch’s journey as there was this year in protest to China’s human rights violations. However, many countries considered boycotting.

From the viewpoint of popular culture and sports history, we see that the athletes wear saggy uniforms in this Spandex-free world. The crowds in the stands are well-dressed in their suits and hats, and the equipment the athletes use might be considered dangerous now.

The gymnastics events were performed outside on the open field of the track and field stadium. The athletes performed simple moves, and the women gymnasts appear to be women, not very young girls too small to even menstruate. It is not yet a world where arthroscopic surgery for ACL repair is a rite of passage.

There is obviously an ominous undercurrent to this joyful world of drug-free sport when the athletes really were amateurs, and nobody wears a corporate logo. Some of the teams marching into the stadium in the opening parade of nations, including Germany, wear military style uniforms. Director Riefenstahl always maintained in later years that she had no interest in politics. Unfortunately for this talented woman, being a Nazi, and being apolitical while selling one’s soul to the devil for artistic patronage, may not be the same sin of equal proportion, but it does nothing for one’s resume.

What is most striking about this film is what we know about it, and the world, in hindsight. We have discussed on this blog before how our viewpoint is tainted watching World War II era films because we know how the war ended. We cannot have the same sense of anxiety and passion that wartime audiences did when watching these films. We have decades separating us from their experience. We are safe.

Yet that same distance that lessens our emotional experience in watching World War II films actually increases our emotional experience watching “Olympia”. It is what we know now about what happened then and afterward that makes the film remarkable.

We know that in only three years, most of these athletes and the cheering crowds will be in the horrific grasp of war. Some years ago, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. had an interesting exhibit of the 1936 Games which featured the many athletes from that Olympics who died in the war, either as soldiers, as civilian victims, as concentration camp inmates.

The film shows us the arrogant dictator posturing in his box. We know he died a coward’s death in a bunker nine years later, after setting the world on fire and misery. We know his clean and spacious Berlin shown pristine in the aerial shots was bombed and in a post-war world, was bisected and kept alive on Allied charity.

We see the lean and muscular American Jesse Owens winning his four events. We know that when he came home, he struggled to support himself and his family in a United States not ready to accept a black man as a national hero, let alone an equal citizen before the law. We see in one of his competitions, how he defeated the German Luz Long in the long jump. Long, handsome, looking contemplatively from the sidelines on Jesse’s next attempt, was killed in the war as a soldier in the German army fighting in Italy.

We see Son Kitei of Japan win the Gold Medal for the Marathon. We know now that he is really Kee-chung Sohn of Korea, and that his nation was occupied by a Japanese Empire already stretching its muscles and testing the limits of its expansion. We know that he fought for years to have his real name and his real country listed on his Olympic records, and that after many decades, he finally won. We saw him again, an old man jumping for joy, as a torch bearer in the 1988 Seoul Games. Most other athletes in that tumultuous Olympics of 1936 did not have such happy endings.

We know that Jesse Owens ran two team events and won medals because Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, the only Jews on the American track team, were removed at the last minute to appease IOC president Avery Brundage. We know that German track star Gretl Bergmann was kicked off her national team at the last minute, also because she was a Jew.

We know that the Silver medalist of the women’s 100 meter dash (also a medalist in the 1932 Los Angeles Games), Stanislawa Walasiewicz of Poland, was discovered decades later upon her death to be a man. “The Games of ‘36” by Stan Cohen (Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1996), the source of some of these facts, has more interesting information on the 1936 Summer and Winter Games.

We know that the next Olympic Games in 1940, scheduled to be held in London, were cancelled because of the war. Our next Games after Beijing, in 2012, are also scheduled for London. Let us hope, as we always seem to hope, that history does not repeat itself, and there will be no cancellation ever again for war.

There is much nonsense in the overblown modern Games, but there is a kind of salvation, too. There is nothing else that brings the world together so regularly and so well, with so much promise of peace. It’s far from perfect, but it’s a noble attempt.

The “Olympia” which may be seen today is a different version than the one Leni Riefenstahl first produced. She had edited it and re-edited over the years, mainly to lessen the Nazi images. After the war, she attempted to interest Hollywood in distributing the film to American audiences. Not one studio would touch it.

Hollywood’s contribution to Olympic sport at that time was “Charlie Chan at the Olympics” (1937) when he and Number One Son foil some spies at the Berlin Games. It was innocuous, but “Olympia” gives us something more profound.

Have a look here at the beautiful diving sequence from “Olympia”.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Now Playing - 1945

This ad for “Captain Eddie” (1945) seems to encapsulate the entire film with scenes from the life of the Eddie Rickenbaker, the American World War I flying ace, and with gushing superlatives.

Like many biographic films of the day, some of it is fact, some of it invention. Perhaps the film needed a little publicity push, as the end months of World War II may not have been the most opportune time to make a film about a World War I hero. It worked with “Sergeant York” (1941), but there was a huge gulf in the span of four years between films. The innocence of an earlier age and the idealism of an earlier war had possibly worn thin after the brutality of World War II.

Fred MacMurray starred, along with Lynn Bari, and three of the finest charmingly crusty old fellows: Charles Bickford, Thomas Mitchell, and James Gleason. To balance this curmudgeon convention, Spring Byington lends her customary comfort.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Gas Rationing in the Movies

In this summer of our discontent when the price of gasoline dominates our conversation, and perhaps our lives, we might care to look back on the era of World War II gas rationing, at least as it was presented in the movies.

The purchase of war bonds and scrap collection were promoted with cheerful and unrelenting vigor to the public, but the rationing of gasoline, which wasn’t any fun more fun then than the high price of gas is now, received treatment which was, perhaps, a bit less in-your-face than the war bond drives, at least by the movies. No need to antagonize an already grumpy audience about doing the right thing when the government was making them do it anyway.

In “Since You Went Away” (1944), Claudette Colbert and Joseph Cotten take a moonlit drive and she remarks,

“It’s pleasant being in a car again, isn’t it?” To which Mr. Cotten replies,

“Yes. We used to take everything so for granted. Now I feel like a king just because I can rent one for a week.”

Soon a motorcycle cop stops them to chat because, “It gets so lonely along this road since gas rationing.”

The gas rationing in the US during World War II was really more to conserve tires than it was to save gasoline. The Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies and their rubber plantations cut off our supply of rubber. Rationing began on voluntary basis, but by spring of 1942 much of the eastern seaboard states adopted mandatory rationing. By December of 1942, it went national and continued until August 15, 1945. (Rationing ended when the Japanese surrendered, and as noted in Life Magazine of August 27, 1945, the end of rationing received as much joyful hysteria across the nation as did the end of the war.) And, for speed demons out there, the speed limit was set at 35 mph for the duration of the war.

Car pools were the order of the day. Motorists were issued ration books and stickers to place on their cars which determined how much gasoline they were allowed to purchase each week. If you were given a sticker with the letter “A” on it, you were allowed three to four gallons per week. As we can see in this Bugs Bunny cartoon, “Falling Hare” (1943), directed by Robert Clampett, in which an airplane runs out of gas because it has only an “A” sticker on its fuselage, the “A” sticker didn’t get you very far. (Special thanks to my cartoon expert twin brother for informing me about this one.)

This MGM cartoon directed by Tex Avery, “Swing Shift Cinderella” (1945) depicts a scooter on which the fairy godmother is riding also has an “A” sticker. You couldn’t get to the ball on an “A” sticker, in fact, the police might even stop you for pleasure driving, which wasn’t allowed. But an “A” sticker could get you to work, at least if you didn’t live 50 miles from your workplace, the way some folks do today.

The “B” sticker got you a little more gas, eight gallons a week. Here in this screen capture from “I’ll Be Seeing You” (1944) we see Joseph Cotten and Ginger Rogers getting into an automobile with a “B” sticker on it. Spring Byington is in the background. Most often the influence of gas rationing on America is shown in films in this kind of almost subliminal way. The movie shows you there is a sticker on the car and these characters in the movie are observing their patriotic duty, but it’s not even mentioned.

However, in another scene where they take a bus to the country, two men stepping down from the bus behind them with golf clubs remark cheerfully, “I told you it was no use wasting any gas.” They have done their duty by leaving the car at home and taking public transportation to the golf course.

“C” stickers were for physicians, clergy, mail carriers, and railroad workers. “T” stickers were for truckers, and they were allowed unlimited amounts of fuel. An “X” sticker went to members of Congress.

In this screen capture from “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945), we see the “B” sticker on the sheriff’s car after he has brought Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan home after a night in jail. One would think a sheriff would get a “C” sticker, but perhaps the use of certain cars and stickers on the back lot was rather spurious. When Mrs. Gerseg arrives in her Tin Lizzie to pick up her baby, we see no sticker at all on her windshield.

In “The Big Sleep” (1946), you can see here the “B” sticker on Humphrey Bogart’s car. The “B” doesn’t stand for Bogie. Or Bacall, who’s there in the passenger seat. The film was completed in early 1945, but wasn’t released until 1946, so there’s lots of gas rationing stickers in this film. Anachronistic the moment it was released.

When Bogie tells the DA he earns $25 per day on the job he’s doing, plus expenses, the DA responds, “That’s $50 and a little gasoline.”

I’m uncertain as to how the film industry at large handled the gas rationing, with all their vehicles, both cars which were used to appear in films and for their off-screen utility vehicles. I’d love to know more about that. In my unfortunate fascination with the mundane, I find myself always looking for the windshield gasoline sticker when watching World War II era films.

Monday, August 4, 2008

We Were Strangers (1949)

“We Were Strangers” (1949) is poetic homage to failure perhaps even more than it is to the fight for liberty, and seems to be one of director John Huston’s more neglected films. It is a good film.

A group of strangers are brought together in 1933 Cuba to form an arm of the revolution against the corrupt government. Only one, played by John Garfield, is what we may call a professional revolutionary. The rest are common people who have lost loved ones to the government’s oppression. Among them are four other men, including a dock worker, a bicycle mechanic, an academic, and one woman played by Jennifer Jones.

Here again she displays her knack for losing herself in a role, and is believable as a young Cuban woman who struggles with her desire to revenge the murder of her university student brother, and also her desire to simply escape the madness around her and live a normal life. She attempts a very slight Cuban accent which is quite natural sounding, down to the cadence and inflection of her voice and not simply playing at a caricature of rolling Latin consonants. However, she’s able to hold the accent better during longer bits of dialogue; she tends the lose the accent when she has only brief lines to say. All the other members of the group are well-known actors of Spanish heritage. Only John Garfield makes no attempt to speak with a Cuban accent. His character is a Cuban exile who has lived in the United States for ten years. Though he would likely continue to have an accent, I suppose if you want John Garfield for a role, you’re willing to take him as he is.

This group of five men and one woman are brought together in the family home of Jennifer Jones’ character, who is called China or Chinita, the diminutive of her name. Her mother and sisters are removed to a safe location by the revolutionary organization so that the men may dig a tunnel from her cellar across the street to the cemetery. It is the group’s intention to assassinate a powerful member of the government, and when all the rest of the government members gather at his grave for the pomp of a state funeral, the revolutionaries will set a bomb to go off at the gravesite, thereby killing everybody and toppling the government.

The film shows many outdoor shots of Havana, which evokes the story’s setting well. However, the principle actors remained in Hollywood shooting interiors. That they are superimposed with Havana shown as rear screen projection behind them is more obvious in some shots than others. It’s interesting to see how they match up the shots. One such scene has Garfield and Jones strolling through the cemetery at night. Perhaps because the scene is dimly lit and we see the shadows of tree branches across their faces, and the omnipresent sound of crickets, the rear screen projection is not as obvious here.

The action flows well, filled with tension and the threat of danger, yet the film has an ironic lyrical quality to it, a strange tenderness. We seem to get to know the men better than we do leader John Garfield. He is stoic, inscrutable, iron-willed and not given to sentiment. His men are more apt to reveal their feelings. Gilbert Roland plays the easy-going Guillermo. Though his matinee idol days are behind him, Mr. Roland, with his lined, middle-aged face, is still the handsomest, sexiest man in the room. He charmingly steals every scene he’s in, whether it be strumming a guitar (or pretending to), or eating a guava.

The sensitive post-graduate student Ramon, played very touchingly by David Bond is from a good family and suffers acutely the agony of moral struggle. All the men discuss whether it is right to kill innocent people to free Cuba. Each, except for Garfield, fights within himself to stay focused on what they believe in their hearts is both a blow for freedom, and yet also a sin.

The men dig the tunnel in round-the-clock shifts for a month. They are constantly filthy and glistening with sweat, their undershirts clinging to them, grimy with dirt. When they are most weary, they make jokes, black humor, and then conscience-stricken, immediately repent. Jennifer Jones is their front person. She works in a bank and slips documents into files that make Garfield’s assumed guise legitimate, as a traveling talent agent booking Cuban entertainment acts. She is their eyes and ears in the outside world, picking up information, while they are confined to the tunnel.

Though as children she and her brother stole flowers from the graves of the rich people and sold them in the evenings to strolling tourists to buy food for their family, Jones represents not a poverty-stricken class of desperate malcontents, but a family struggling to enter the middle class. They have sacrificed to send her brother to university. She works an office job in an American bank. She is mannerly, soft spoken and professional. The seams on her stockings are straight, and she kisses her crucifix when she has a nightmare. We see she is a good girl, not prone to hanging out with revolutionaries.

Even the revolutionaries are a gentlemanly bunch, cordial with each other and with her. There is no flirting, no familiarity with the proper young woman who cooks their meals and sleeps alone in a curtained off room by herself. Yet when Gilbert Roland’s character takes his guitar and sweetly plays an improvised calypso song of his own invention, with the chilling verse,

“What is wrong and what is right
Will be decided with dynamite,”

also contains as his second verse, a tribute to the lone woman whose days and nights they share for a month.

Roland, standing outside in the courtyard, sidles up to the wall of her bedroom and softly sings,

“Chinita is so beautiful.
Chinita is so very good.
Five men adore our sweet Chinita.”

Sleepless, she has been lying on her bed in the dark and listening to his song. When she hears herself mentioned in the verse, her features soften into a thoughtful expression. It is not even a love song, only a chaste lullaby, and it is the first comforting she has had in the past hellish weeks when she watched her brother gunned down and decided to become a killer herself in his name.

Incidentally, and this is a very small point, but when she is roused from sleep by Garfield, the camera shows her from the back, and we see that her crucifix has flopped over her shoulder. Anyone who sleeps with a crucifix or medallion, or some jewelry on a chain will know this sometimes flops around the neck when sleeping. Possibly Huston wanted to show the crucifix in the shot, as he tends to give much notice to the religious icons in the house. Whether or not, this shot has a very natural quality and looks like she has really been asleep for hours.

Chinita is pursued by local police inspector played wonderfully by Pedro Armendáriz, a sinister thug who revels in his power. Armendáriz plays his role masterfully. He believes she will lead him to the ringleader. He also desires her.

A standout scene in the film is when Armendáriz arrives with flowers, and a meal of fresh fruit and crab to charm her and wear down her defenses, also to intimidate her. Her men scurry away into hiding, and Garfield reminds her to shout for help if Armendáriz molests her.

The arrogant, bullying official philosophizes on his power and how all, even his own mother, are afraid of him. He sits himself down at her table and eats his meal, lustily enjoying the crab, smacking the shells open against the table, sucking the meat out of the legs, ripping the meat from the shell with his hands and stuffing it into his mouth while he continues his boastful soliloquy.

One hopes Mr. Armendáriz actually did like crab, because he ends up scarfing it down like the Cookie Monster. I’d love to know how many takes this scene took. We see the palms of his hands and his fingers slick with the moisture of the dripping crab, and the bits that fall through his fingers, dangle from his lips, as he knocks back glass after glass of rum.

Satisfied he has impressed her, he begins an aggressive seduction, and pours a glass of rum into Chinita’s mouth. Jennifer Jones plays the scene with nervous intensity. This is the man who shot her brother. She walks a tightrope, as some women must do in certain threatening situations, not to appear to reject the man, and yet not to be too encouraging, either.

As much as she loathes and fears him, she has five protective men in the cellar waiting on her word to come out from hiding and defend her. If she does, their plan, their tunnel, and the lives of these men, are over. She cannot call for help without endangering them. It seems she must let happen whatever is going to happen.

Fortunately, he has gotten himself so drunk, his servant ends up dragging him away. He will remember this humiliation when he meets her next, and will make her suffer for it. He also warns her that Garfield will be shot by firing squad, that his American passport will not save him, “Perhaps the rifles will be American.”

Only his anxiety over the consequences of Armendáriz’s lust for her makes Garfield reveal his own passion for Chinitia, and through a cannonade of thunder in the middle of a storm, they map out a future life together of home, children, and a free Cuba. He is such a revolutionary that even his romancing must include Cuba.

The work of the six strangers has been so hard, so fraught with danger they begin to crack, and the sensitive Ramon feverishly rants his anxiety over the morality of killing. At one point, Gilbert Roland, ready to crack up himself, shouts that he will kill Ramon if Ramon doesn’t shut up. Garfield tells him to go ahead. It is not an order, it is not a dare; it is a laconic sort of “I don’t care what you do. It’s up to you.” Of course, Mr. Roland calms down and does nothing. These neophyte revolutionaries take orders with devotion, but left to their own decision making, they still display conscience, which for revolutionaries is a weakness.

Here is where the film itself displays a weakness. Instead of dealing with the risk Ramon represents either by killing him or taking him to a safe place, or getting him out of the country, they are saved by a deus ex machina. Ramon is accidentally killed and it is no one’s fault. Convenient, and kind of a cop out.

Chinita helps dig in the tunnel with the men, because they are falling behind. Their tunnel has reached the poor part of the cemetery, where there are no marble crypts. To their horror, they shovel remains of decaying bodies along with dirt. Still, they plod on in desperation, losing their optimism over their mission, replaced by grotesque, sickening dread.

A twist of fate makes their tunnel useless and their plan has failed. The revolutionaries, worn out and just wanting to go away, disband, as cordially as they came together, and want to use the underground’s money to get Garfield out of the country. Garfield reviles the ignominy of this, but he agrees to leave and take Miss Jones with him. She has also given up her revolutionary zeal and just wants to get away. But the cops are still after them. A last-minute sacrifice each makes for the sake of the other lands both of them back at Chinita’s house defending themselves in gunfight against the police.

We have by this time come to know each corner and cranny of her home very well, its crude furniture, the heavy wooden doors, the cement walls adorned with a large print of Christ and one of the Virgin Mary, a rosary on the wall, the courtyard and the cellar. When the battle begins, the home is ripped up by machinegun fire, and the picture depicting Christ falls to the floor, the picture tumbling out of the broken frame.

Miss Jones handles a machinegun with astounding competence, considering she is supposed to be such a nice girl.

The end scene also has its weakness. As Garfield dies in her arms, a revolution finally erupts in another part of the city and the bad guys are defeated by happy, boisterous crowds. Mr. Armendáriz’s body is briefly depicted as begun hung upside and set aflame, as if foretold by Chinita’s earlier nightmare. We are left with a successful revolution, but with our group of despondent revolutionaries who have failed. It is suggested that failure at least represents an attempt, and that the attempt must be honored, even if resulting in failure. Perhaps. Sometimes failure is just waste. Chinita’s final words of tribute ring a bit hollow.

Despite these holes, the film is typical of Huston’s vigorous style of direction. He also has a Hitchcock-like cameo as a lovelorn bank teller pining over Miss Jones.

Sometimes movies reflect the times in which they are produced, and sometimes the times in which they are produced impact on a film’s success or failure. It is so in this case. Released in 1949, the film was a kind of affront by Huston to the political witch-hunt going on in Hollywood. His own little reminder to them that it is oppression that breeds revolutions in the first place. Stories of revolution, and actors, writers, and directors of politically liberal bents were grist for the mill that ground down the careers and lives of those unfortunate to get in the way of that infamous committee. Dubbed by some as Communist propaganda, the film did not do well at the box office, and was left to fade away, perhaps haunting the resumes of the people involved with it.

That an actual revolution did begin in Cuba within the decade might point to the film’s being rather prescient. Possibly. But Cuba has always been there, and we in the US have a complicated relationship with it, no matter who was in power. At the end of the 19th Century we fought a war there with global repercussions. In effect, the Spanish-American War determined the coming century would be the so-called “American Century.” In the mid-20th Century we faced down a nuclear standoff over Cuba, and a failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs. Now in the early 21st Century, our Guantánamo Bay military installation and prison in Cuba for suspected terrorists captures headlines around the world for its controversy.

Meanwhile, here is a small monument on Islamadora in the Florida Keys to the Cubans who died trying to escape Castro’s regime over the mere 90 miles of water that separates that country and ours. We have many links with Cuba.

“We Were Strangers” is not a revolutionary primer, nor a portent of things to come in the 1950s, however coincidental. It is less empathetic to revolution than it is to the six hapless strangers. Though today we live in an era where we understandably feel little sympathy with people who plant bombs for whatever reason, it is still a very good movie with the kind of storytelling that combines both simplicity and passion that we rarely see anymore.

For more on the background of the making of “We Were Strangers” kindly have a look at this article on the TCM website by Frank Miller.

Related Products