Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Town Like Alice (1956)

A Town like Alice (1956) is a fine, if incomplete, version of the novel by Nevil Shute. Many of us may be more familiar with the five-part miniseries that was shown on Public Television’s Masterpiece Theatre in 1981. It is the story of how lives can be changed by the intriguing combination of love…and economics.

The novel explores the aspect of economics in the story more fully than this film does. A young Englishwoman is the heir to a relative’s fortune, which he acquired in Australia, exploiting some that country’s mineral worth and taking it back to the UK (or Pommyland, as the case may be). Because of the prejudice this chap had for what he felt were the limited abilities of women, insisting that “a lassie is at the mercy of her sex”, this money was left to his female heir only at the discretion of a male solicitor, who was in charge of how she could spend it. When the solicitor informs Jean Paget of her legacy, she informs him she wants to go to Malaya and dig a well for some poor villagers. Then she tells him why, and here we have the unfolding of the story.

The Australian-produced TV version, as is typical with a mini-series, had the luxury of time to spread the novel out over several hours in several episodes. This 1956 British-made film is a more capsulated version, and ends before the story really carries us to Australia. Despite that, it is striking for showing the consequences of the 1941 Japanese invasion of the far-flung British Empire as it was in Malaya, and filmed only a little over a decade after the setting of the story. This is what gives this version a kind of authenticity. No matter how good or realistic a film is made today about a past event, it always carries a telescoping view of it.

Virginia McKenna is radiant as Jean Paget, a young Englishwoman working in an office in Malaya before the outbreak of war. Peter Finch plays the Australian soldier Joe Harman, whom she meets when they are both prisoners of the Japanese.

Much of the film is devoted to the scramble of the English in their self-made British colony to escape the advance of the invading Japanese, and then how they make do as prisoners once they are caught. We are shown how the women, separated from the men, are forced marched for several hundred miles, crisscrossing the Malay Peninsula because the Japanese Army has no camps for them and no one wants to take responsibility for them.

We are shown how these women, who in peacetime were separated into class divisions by wealth and pedigree, are now thrown together with no class distinction, how they must cooperate or die. We see how former relations with the Malays, whom they once regarded as their social inferiors, are now humbly appealed to for help. Jean is the most successful at this, as she appears to be a woman who, more than level-headed and resourceful, is also gracious and courteous. Her humility might have once made her a wallflower at a governor’s dance at Singapore’s old Raffles Hotel, but now it makes her a successful prisoner and admired among the native population who want to help her. This is truly a case of where the last shall be first.

This is also the story of the peculiar strength of women which springs from their empathy for one another. As some of the women die, the others assume responsibility for the orphaned children, just as Jean has taken on three of them. The women comfort each other, and even take care of their Japanese guard when he falls ill. A Malay woman bullies her merchant husband into giving Jean precious cans of condensed milk for the baby Jean lugs on her hip. We are shown the female bond is stronger than class distinction, nationality, or war. Their capacity for nurturing saves them.

I find amusing one scene this film which bears (or bares) I think an ironically Victorian outlook, and that is the representation of the women as they stumble upon an abandoned complex in which there is running water. So joyous are they to be able to bathe after weeks of marching through swamps and jungle that they strip and succumb to the comfort of showers, while carefully placed camera shots infer that they are naked. We are shown legs and underarms without body hair. As illogical as this is, evidently, the producers feel impelled to try and shock us with the brutality of a prison camp, but seem to think body hair would somehow offend us. It is not to be shown. We could chalk it up to being a 1956 film, except that I’ve seen this same thing in some other present-day made dramas about similar experiences of World War II female prisoners of war. There might be something here about a preference for idealizing women protagonists with flattering photography. There is more than one way to “sanitize” a story. Maybe you have some ideas on this.

Having lost all their belongings, including razors, the ladies remain sweaty, but hairless. Mrs. Frith, played here by Nora Nicholson, is a hypochondriac who proves to be more physically fit than anybody. Another lady, aghast at Jean’s wearing a sarong, scoffs at the notion of an English lady letting down her standards. She is aped by little Malay boys who laugh at her in her proper suit and hat, carrying her luggage. The musical score playfully launches into a bit of “Rule Britannia” to underscore the lady’s foolishness and the irrelevance of her self superiority.

Perhaps no other culture can top the English for their admirable ability to make fun of themselves, particularly at a period when the sun did not set on the British Empire. We Americans do not like to think of ourselves as empirical and are sometimes annoyed when others do consider us an empire. Invariably, we are better at laughing among ourselves at ourselves, than laughing when other nations laugh at us.

Another part of the British Empire comes to the rescue of these women, when a couple of Australian soldiers, also prisoners, pull tricks to get them some food and medicines. Joe Harman, played by handsome and charming Peter Finch, is immediately taken with Jean, and goes out on a limb to get her more supplies. The chemistry between Mr. Finch and Miss McKenna is something terrific, and when they sit quietly in the dark, after the standard erotic lighting of her cigarette scene, he tells her of his home deep in the Outback, in the middle of Australia, on a cattle station near a town called Alice Springs. Her eyes are riveted on him as he speaks. Her cupping of his hands as he lights her cigarette is the only physical contact, but the scene is intense.

Though they sit together and whisper in the dark, there are still walls between them. They are prisoners, their moments together are stolen. They are of different nationalities and likely would never have met but for their subjugation by the Japanese. He also believes she is married, because she always carries a baby. When he talks of Alice Springs, it sets them both free from all that for a moment. They are free among the red earth of the mythical Outback.

Ultimately, Mr. Finch pulls one hat trick too many for Miss McKenna’s behalf, gets caught, and is tortured by crucifixion. The women are whisked away on another march, and their guard, now in disgrace, an outcast among his fellow soldiers for innocently eating chicken stolen for the women, is left by himself to shepherd them to nowhere. Played by Kenji Takaki in this 1956 film, the guard is shown to have helped the women, to have watched over their children, and mourned with them. Had this film been made during the war, we would have seen a wicked caricature instead of a human being.

Even Jean, with her graciousness and humility, succumbs to hatred for the kind guard after the torture of Joe, panicking when he goes near her baby, and calls him a Jap.

But when he dies, the women find themselves in an even more precarious state. Jean appeals to the headman of a village, asking that the English women be allowed to work in their rice fields in exchange for a place to stay until the war is over. She approaches him respectfully, and asks permission to speak with him as woman on behalf of women, since their guard is dead and they have no man to speak for them. She squats in the dirt as they do, a little away from them to emphasize her unworthiness, and the village elder considers her outlandish request.

She adds, cleverly quoting from the Koran since he and most of the Malay people are Muslim, “Is it not also written that ‘if ye be kind to women, God is well acquainted with what you do’?”

“Are you of the faith?” he asks, amazed.

“No, but wise words are well in any faith.”

We see that Jean is a survivor, not the kind that clings and scratches, but one who makes a gift of her dignity and kindness, and thereby survives with her humanity intact. One day the village elder will refer to Jean fondly as “Daughter.” Again Nevil Shute examines the inconvenience of being a woman and turns it into strength, displaying his own remarkable empathy. This novel could not be more understanding of a woman’s place and prospects in that era if it had been written by a woman.

The war ends, and Jean must hand the baby, now a four-year old, back to a father he does not remember. And she discovers by accident that Joe Harman had survived his torture. She thought he had died. She asks for her lawyer’s permission for more money to go to Australia to find him. In the meantime, Joe has won a lottery, uses the money to travel to England and is in her lawyer’s office seeking her. Surely a twist on the interdependent relationship between love and money.

It makes a wonderfully ironic finale, and when they reunite in Alice Springs, this is where the film ends. There is a tentative, shy hesitation, and then a breathless hug as the old walls between them crumble. It’s a romantic ending, but leaves the novel truncated. In the novel, and in the 1981 miniseries, the story continues in Australia, as Jean aids the lonely dying outback town which is losing men because there are few women, by establishing a business, and then another, giving jobs to women. Again, women are the focus as they achieve financial independence and empowerment, and nurture the community into thriving.

Through her enterprise, she has revived the town, which brings the story full circle. Her relative who left her the legacy took wealth from Australia, and in her way, she returns it.

There is a shot in this 1956 film from what would appear to be the top of Anzac Hill in Alice Springs. It shows the distant

McDonnell Ranges, and below the grid of three or four streets which make up the town. What struck me upon seeing this film was how familiar the view was to me. Captivated by both the book and the 1981 miniseries, I went to Alice Springs some years ago. I had business in another part of the country and this was a side trip, an opportunity I couldn’t miss. It is a long way to go because of a book you’d read nearly a couple of decades ago. It’s that kind of book.

I’m not the only one to think so. Also pictured here is the plaque dedicated to British author Nevil Shute on the Australian Writers Walk in Sydney. Among other literary heroes commemorated here is Banjo Patterson, who wrote “The Man from Snowy River” and the lyrics for “Waltzing Matilda.” Shute, a non-Australian, is included in the Aussie pantheon, honored specifically for A Town Like Alice.

Alice Springs is a bit larger now, and the McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken are businesses that would not have been frequented by Jean and Joe Harman back in the day, but the view from Anzac Hill is strikingly similar.

On the top of Anzac Hill, which is only a small hill but because of the immense flatness of the landscape, it seems much larger and gives an incredible view, there is a monument, an obelisk dedicated in 1934 to the fallen of World War I. Since that war, plaques have been added to commemorate the service of Australian military personnel in other conflicts, World War II, the Korean War, the Malaya conflict of 1950 to 1963, in Borneo from 1962 to 1966, and the Vietnam War.

We don’t see the monument in the 1956 film, and neither would have Virginia McKenna or Peter Finch, for I believe a second film unit took the few establishing shots of Alice Springs. I don’t believe the actors even went there.

The film has, despite its limitations, an intriguing freshness that even the excellent 1981 miniseries lacks. Perhaps it is the lack of innocence in the 1981 film. Perhaps it is just the telescoping of so many more decades, a wall between our interpretation of the past and what the past really was, not unlike the tantalizing wall between Joe and Jean talking in the darkness about a town like Alice.

All color photos in this post by J.T. Lynch.  All rights reserved.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Let's All Go to the Lobby

Popcorn, and Junior Mints for me. Name your poison, as they used to say in the B-westerns. What’s your movie snack bar vice? Or, what was it when you were a kid and didn’t know any better?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Good News (1947)

Good News (1947) presents a 1920s college campus, taken from the 1927 Broadway musical and revived in this MGM treatment. One notable aspect to this film is that none of the featured players is able to sing on key.

In some perverse way, I find this endearing. June Allyson’s and Peter Lawford’s singing limitations are by now legendary, but I especially like Joan McCracken in the comic role of Babe Doolittle. Even her speaking voice is slightly off-key, and that is just cute.

The exception to this vocal limitation among the musical stars of Good News is Mel Torme, but The Velvet Fog’s role as one of the students is so minor that he can’t help them much.

Just when did “Babe”, as in Babe Ruth and Babe Didrikson stop being a popular nickname? Oliver Hardy’s nickname also was Babe. An innocent moniker that must belong to innocent times.

Cute as a button June Allyson is the corn-fed All-American Girl working her way through college in the campus library. Peter Lawford is the handsome Big Man on Campus, and we have our usual cast of brawny but dumb athletes, wealthy kids, poor kids, kids with witty sayings inked on sweatshirts, kids with witty sayings painted on jalopies, and kids with witty sayings on rain slickers.

The big number seems not to go to star June Allyson, but is thrown to Miss McCracken in a zippy rendition of “Pass That Peace Pipe,” where she dances up a storm to a faux-Indian war dance. Such a show-stopper, it is also featured in That’s Entertainment Part III (1994). Some of the tribes she rattles off so impressively are not the names of tribes, but rather are place names. One assumes these words are used to conveniently complete the rhymes, or perhaps the writers did not realize that American Indians had names for things other than themselves. A small point, but file this under my unfortunate fascination with the mundane. Nice touch that her dress, while, with its geometric pattern meant to invoke an American Indian motif and make her stand out from the rest of the dancers, still manages to look like a street dress and not a costume.

A note on the costuming and hair: only some of it seems to accurately depict 1920s styles. The rest is straight out of 1947.

Joan McCracken was featured in a Life magazine article of October 2, 1944, three years before this film was made. She had just made waves with a brief but featured role as a dancer in the enormous Broadway hit Oklahoma, and had captured the media’s attention. It was a breakout role for her, and Good News with her energetic dancing likewise could have been a breakout role for her. Unfortunately, it was to be her only film. With a handful of Broadway credits, and handful of television appearances, Joan McCracken died at 43 years old of heart disease related to diabetes.

Behind the college high jinks, we have a couple of other likewise more sober aspects to consider. First, is that Good News appears to be another in a string of “good old days” examinations of the 1920s that came out of Hollywood in the post-war era. Evidently the Depression, the war, and the new eerie landscape the Cold War was beginning to represent was enough to make the public (at least in Hollywood’s eyes) long for days of sweet innocence and unabashed craziness of a less lethal sort.

Singin' in the Rain (1952) was more successful at this, using parody to cozy up to a time long past, and even Sunset Blvd (1950) discussed with Singin' in the Rain here, though a dramatic turn, managed to cast a light on the supposed glamour of a bygone era a few decades ago.

The second aspect interesting to consider is that Good News would likely have had little appreciation among the modern college student of that time, many of whom were returning World War II veterans. These “kids” had already matriculated on Tarawa, the Battle of the Bulge, Iwo Jima, and all points in between. They were serious students such as college campuses had never seen before, and have not seen since. June Allyson singing “The Best Things in Life Are Free” is sweet, but likely none of these Big Men on Campus would have cared if Tait College won the football game or not.

This was a film for younger kids, high school kids probably, and older people, who were shying away from the more realistic films coming out of Hollywood, and looking for something akin to a family film. Good News, the Broadway play of 1927 might have been current events, but Good News the movie of twenty years later is fantasy, and its message, if it had any, like the singing, was slightly off-key.


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.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Now Playing - 1943

Those of us who battle cabin fever this time of year in the snowier regions of the country may relate to “Hit the Ice” (1943), which many of us are doing literally. This is Abbott & Costello’s escapade in a Sun Valley winter resort. If it was good enough for Sonja Henie, it’s good enough for our boys.

For those of you who are not currently dwelling amid snow and ice, you may relate to the fact that this move was actually released in the summertime. Unless living in the southern hemisphere, or high in the Himalayas, likely few people were dealing with snow and ice when this movie was released, and so it might have appealed as an exotic escape rather than a reminder of omnipresent and treacherous ice.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello are hapless photographers who become involved with gangsters, one most typically played by Sheldon Leonard, the cuddliest gangster of all time. We have the pack/unpack routine in this one.

As you can see by the ad, it’s shown on a double bill with “Wings Over the Pacific.” We might escape our troubles with a carefree holiday with Abbott & Costello, whose troubles always seemed worse than ours, but we cannot escape the war.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Lincoln’s Birthday, having been usurped by the all-purpose Presidents Day, is no longer the block on the calendar it once was, but with the many references to President Abraham Lincoln during the inauguration of President Barack Obama, Honest Abe seems to be more in the news than ever.

The connection between Lincoln’s legacy in popular history as it pertains particularly to African-Americans remains at the front of his memory. Today on the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, we have this clip below from “Holiday Inn” (1942) to examine one Hollywood interpretation of that relationship.

The clip is cringeworthy camp. I can remember broadcast television showings where this scene was omitted, and not just to fit in more commercials. It is, after all, a bit uncomfortable to watch. Leaving it out may make watching this otherwise lighthearted froth of a movie less offensive, but leaving it out is a lie. By watching the scene carefully, we can learn a bit more about a wartime era when our armed forces were still segregated, when popular entertainment leaned heavily on exaggerated stereotypes.

The song is pleasant, another one of Irving Berlin’s patriotic tributes to his adopted country that make up this movie. As illustrated by the photo above, it was also released on a 78rpm. Listen only to the song and you have a stirring tribute in a big band flourish, and Bing Crosby’s steady baritone.

Open your eyes to watch the film clip, and you must really open your eyes to some other things. The stars in blackface, giving it their all as it once was performed in hokey minstrel shows from the 19th century up through the middle 20th century in vaudeville. The chorus in “mulatto” makeup and costumes meant to turn Holiday Inn into a cartoon plantation setting where happy slaves evoke the name of their savior, Abraham.

The only thing more ridiculous looking than Bing Crosby in this scene is the unfortunate Marjorie Reynolds, who bounds out like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Topsy” having just ingested some mind-altering substance. It may be laughable, but becomes all the more embarrassing when one realizes this performance is not meant as an insult, but intended as good-natured parody. The condescension in this scene does not seem to be apparent to Bing or Marjorie, the chorus, or the director or studio.

We see it. Many others saw it as well in the era when the film was made; not everyone was so blind. This kind of entertainment was already on its way out. The explanation in the plot for the use of blackface was to hide Marjorie Reynolds from being recognized by Fred Astaire, but the “cover story” if you will, is just to give credence to a typical Lincoln’s Birthday minstrel routine that was now becoming passé. This scene is a museum piece in more ways than one. The “Abraham” number was reused as an instrumental piece in “White Christmas” (1954) some 12 years later, for a fast-paced dance featuring Vera-Ellen. A big production number in “White Christmas” also salutes the days of minstrel shows. Nobody wears blackface.

But keep watching the original “Abraham”. Louise Beavers turns the scene on its ear. The warmth and sincerity she exudes singing to her children is what makes Bing and Marjorie all the more silly. She has dignity, and this was Abraham Lincoln’s great gesture to his fellow Americans of every race, the idea that human beings were born with innate dignity, and nobody could take it away from them, even if they took away their freedom. People can only give up their dignity willingly, which is what Bing and Marjorie are doing in this scene.

No matter that Miss Beavers has only a couple lines to sing in a movie that is a musical; no matter that one line includes the word “darky.” She’s got dignity to spare, which is good because Bing and Marjorie can really use some help to save this number.

I like to think that director Mark Sandrich saw that too, and that was his intention, this striking and moving comparison between the black lady and the white stars in blackface. Perhaps not, perhaps he was as blind to the dignity as he was to the indignation. But the studio left the scene in, and now so does cable television.

Have a look at the clip of “Abraham” below. Enjoy the song, but don’t close your eyes.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Majestic Theater - Massachusetts

The Majestic Theater in West Springfield, Massachusetts thrives not through nostalgia, but through adaptation. Once a neighborhood second-run movie house, the Majestic is now one of the best places in western Massachusetts to see live theatre.

Because of the coincidental overlapping of blog subjects, this post will be featured on all three of my blogs this week precisely because it conveniently (for me) dovetails the purposes of discussion of old movies (Another Old Movie Blog), New England history (New England Travels) and theater in New England (Tragedy and Comedy in New England).

At the informative Cinema Treasures site, the Majestic is noted as opening in the 1920s. The ads here are for second-run films in the 1940s when the Majestic continued to be a popular neighborhood movie house. The top ad for “Brewster’s Millions” on a double bill with “Alias Billy the Kid” is from April 1946. Note how though the war has ended, we are still encouraged to buy war bonds.

The ad for “Good Morning Judge” and “Gorilla Man” is from October 1943. Note the “vermillion rose dinnerware for the ladies” at the top. For our past discussion on Depression glass and movie “dish night” please see this post from February 2008.

The third ad features Gary Cooper in “The Westerner”, along with “The Mummy’s Hand” and a “The Adventures of Red Ryder” short. This is from January 1941

The Majestic re-opened as the Paris Cinema in the 1960s showing foreign films, and became the Elm Cinema in the 1980s, but the mid-1990s brought its most drastic, and welcome, change. Danny Eaton, who brought his Theater Project to a new home here in West Springfield, became the founder and artistic director of a re-born Majestic Theater.

Later this month, their production of William Inge’s “Bus Stop” opens.

Nostalgia for the past is a wonderful thing, but without the vibrancy of modern purpose, we are left with little more than an entertaining scrapbook, as fun to look at but as out of date as these movie ads. We’ve seen on this blog how many old-time theaters are demolished. It is pleasing when some can be converted to modern use either as movie theaters or as small businesses.

But when they can be successfully transformed into theaters for stage plays, then the theater building becomes more than a beloved town relic. The production of stage plays involves a lot of people. People working on and off stage, people spending, people volunteering, a community that comes together when people are the engine that drives the product. People have always been the business of show business.

For more on the current season of the Majestic Theater, here is their website.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), though it starts with the strains of early 1900s hurdy-gurdy music and ends with a young brother and sister looking back on their childhood, is almost startlingly free of nostalgia.

Continuing with our look at two poetic but very different films that were made on the heels of each other, “Brooklyn” takes a more somber view, is more intimate where My Darling Clementine (post here) is painted with broader strokes. One is an innocent look at a rough place. One is a tough look at a rough place, though the eyes of innocents.

This is not a “how it was in the good old days” movie. This is an honest, unsentimental dramatization of a poverty-stricken family that ennobles this struggling family even while exposing it. This film is being shown on TCM this coming Sunday, so today seemed like a good opportunity to discuss it. If you’ve not seen it, here’s your chance.

The novel by Betty Smith, rich with memorable minor characters and anecdotal history of Francie Nolan’s world, is not replicated detail for detail in this film. It can’t be; there’s too much of it, and the book covers too much time. Elia Kazan, in his directorial debut, does a magnificent job lifting only bits of the book, and using the imagery of film like mortar between the bricks of Betty Smith’s story.

However, Mr. Kazan, in his autobiography A Life (Knopf, NY, 1988) expresses dissatisfaction with the film, complaining that it was not realistic enough. He remarks: “It was just another movie…it was mushy. I did think Peggy was fine and Jimmy the real thing and Lloyd Nolan marvelous and Dorothy McGuire valiant, but the whole thing was poverty all cleaned up (emphasis his).”

I can’t explain his disdain for his brilliantly and sensitively directed film, nor can I understand it. The realism that became the trend in films in the next decade and which remains today might have shown us an uglier film, but it would not have shown the Nolan family any more pitiful, their world any more harsh than what was achieved so beautifully in this film. Perhaps it is the film’s incongruous beauty which Kazan disparages decades later, the way an accomplished writer might look ruefully back on a high school essay as too immature and innocent.

Francie reads aloud an essay she wrote about her alcoholic father, and in her innocence, giving him the nobility of a king, and it nearly tears our hearts out.

James Dunn deservedly won a Best Supporting Academy Award for his role as Johnny Nolan, a singing waiter who destroys himself with alcohol. He is unable to support his family, but his dreamer’s passion for life makes him beloved among his neighbors and especially his adoring daughter, Francie. He fills her head with stories and songs, and promises he cannot keep.

Francie is played by Peggy Ann Garner, probably the best child actress of the day, with her expressive face, a natural delivery, and a seeming mature understanding that belies her woeful innocence. Her brother Neeley is played by Ted Donaldson, who is also natural and at times, genuinely funny in his role. My only criticism of him is that he looks too healthy and well fed. The Nolan children, according to the book, were starving a good part of the time. In the scene where Dunn brings home, in the wee hours of the morning, leftovers from a wedding for which he was hired as a waiter, the children rise from bed and dig in. The movie turns this into an impromptu party for the family. The books makes it appear more desperate, perhaps not unlike dogs eating out of the garbage.

Their mother is played by Dorothy McGuire in one of the most challenging roles of her career. The complex Katie Nolan, a woman beaten down by life and her husband’s alcoholism is the spine of her family if not always its heart. There is a keen precision to her performance, an intelligent use of individual moments to pinpoint who Katie is and what she is feeling. We learn Katie is multi-faceted, that her mind is always working, conniving to survive, calculating, and constantly evaluating herself, mostly to her own dissatisfaction.

The wonderful Joan Blondell plays her sister, the loving, effusive, devil-may-care Sissy with warmth and earthy charm. She is all heart and no prudence. James Gleason has a brief role as the awkward and apologetic bartender friend of Johnny’s. Lloyd Nolan, whose depth and strength as an actor is probably not as lauded as it should be, plays the cop on the beat who lives his lonely life on the fringes of the Nolan family, a stranger on the outside looking in, until at last he gratefully becomes part of it.

Despite the memorable character actors and a surprisingly huge cast of extras playing the neighbors in the claustrophobic alleys of this depressed Brooklyn neighborhood before World War I, the main story is the triangle between Katie and Johnny Nolan, and their daughter Francie.

Their struggle, separately and together, is one not just of survival, but of their chosen methods of survival, how their methods clash, and how they are, ultimately, inter-dependent on one another. Dignity is the theme. Balance is the goal.

Dorothy McGuire survives by taking control. For her, control is her peculiar comfort. She cannot depend on her husband to provide, so she works as a charwoman for their tenement building, and saves pennies in a tin can nailed to the closet floor. Every penny plunked into the can gives her a sense of preservation, of satisfaction, a few seconds of a sense of freedom.

James Dunn survives by escaping their poverty in pipedreams, and sentimental ballads, and looking for luck in all the wrong places. And copious amounts of alcohol to wash it down.

Peggy Ann Garner is the linchpin between them. She is closer to her fanciful father, whom she prefers. He is more fun, more gentle, and more understanding. Papa tells her to dream. Mama tells her to stop dreaming. Papa tells a dying child in the building that her expensive new dress makes her look beautiful. Mama says her parents are foolish to spend money on clothing that will last longer than the child, that they will suffer the ignominy of burying her in a potter’s field because they throw their money away on trifles.

Young Miss Garner is awash in a sea of pre-adolescent emotions, desires and terrors, thrives on the stability her mother represents, but needs her father’s buoyant hopefulness. It is Papa who comforts her that the scraggly favorite tree outside their window that is cut down will grow again, because it is tough. The tree becomes the metaphor for Francie. She is tough, as tough as the tree, as tough as her mother, but it will take a lot to make her discover this.

Dignity is as important to poverty stricken people as money is. McGuire hands precious dimes and nickels over to the insurance man to ensure that she, her husband, and her children will have a proper burial. She admonishes her sister for her carefree attitude to her multiple romantic relationships, because she will shame the family. McGuire is obsessed with avoiding shame as much as avoiding the wolf at the door. Garner unwittingly has inherited this trait, proudly showing her handful of pennies to a suspicious floorwalker at a 5 & 10 cent store, proving that she has a right to be there because she is a customer.

They are so proud, mother and children that they express concern only in their eyes when the visiting insurance man pours too much of their precious condensed milk in his coffee. McGuire stiffens when she sees him explore with the toe of his shoe a tear in their torn carpet. We see a room without curtains, a Christmas tree with paper ornaments that was salvaged from being literally thrown away, rough dirty bricks framing Francie’s sensitive face during her fire escape library book reading, the peeling paint on a metal bed frame. These speak eloquence.

The use of rain and snow in the movie to evoke atmosphere reminds me a lot of director Frank Capra. It has an emotional quality.

One of the strengths in the film is the long scenes, with not a lot of cutting between shots. Many scenes have the feel of a play. The scene when Francie ministers to her mother in labor shows us the child-woman Garner playing with equal strength to McGuire. This is not a scene between a veteran actress lending benign support showcasing a kiddie cutie pie, as in so many other films with children. They are equal scene partners, fellow actresses in an intimate world of their own, masterfully surfing each other’s waves. In this scene, they create tsunamis. And they hardly move.

Katie and Johnny Nolan love each other, but lament over each other’s faults, and brood over their own. McGuire will not let her children call Dunn drunk, telling them instead to refer to him as “sick.” But she tells Dunn bluntly that she cannot depend on him. She complains to her sister that she wishes she did not love Dunn so much, confesses how much she bitterly regrets the course her life has taken. But when Mr. Dunn tips his rakish derby to every neighbor and makes courtly bows to every old maid in the hall, McGuire follows him with her eyes, marveling over the magic he spreads.

She is anxious over criticisms by her mother and her sister that she has grown hard and heartless over the years in her struggle to survive. McGuire is hurt, and even frightened at becoming a harsh embodiment of the harsh life she has known.

(This reminds me a bit of Alexandra’s mournful defense at being called hard by her resentful and weaker brothers in Willa Cather’s novel, O Pioneers. She counters, “I never meant to be hard. Conditions were hard. Maybe I would never have been very soft, anyhow; but I certainly didn't choose to be the kind of girl I was. If you take even a vine and cut it back again and again, it grows hard, like a tree.")

Still, it is her protectiveness for her children as much as her bitterness over her husband’s failures that makes her exclaim, “My kids is gonna be something if I have to turn into granite rock to make them.”

They read a chapter from the Bible and from Shakespeare every night, and when her son balks, she insists that education will help them get a good job. Her immigrant mother exhorts them to continue reading, but not just for the opportunities that education will give them, but reminds McGuire sternly it is for “the thing inside of us. You don’t think well about this.” She remonstrates her daughter for being so neglectful of feeding the soul, and McGuire shoots the humbled glance of a chastised daughter, then drops her eyes back to her darning. McGuire is always scrubbing, cooking or occupied in some manner with her hands as she speaks. She rarely has a line where she is not doing something.

A pivotal scene, and one of the film’s best, is when Dunn returns home to find his family has moved upstairs to a smaller, cheaper apartment. The little dying girl has passed away, and when he wistfully offers the comment that at least the little girl had a pretty dress, McGuire rebuffs him with the disdainful criticism of the girl’s pauper’s grave as a trade for the dress.

There is a piano in their new apartment, left by the tenant (played by Adeline DeWalt Reynolds, discussed in this past blog post ) who could not afford to have it moved. Dunn sits down and plays and sings the old Scots love song “Annie Laurie,” trance-like, almost as a kind of funeral dirge for the neighbor girl. McGuire watches, charmed, and her expression softens. When she attempts to compliment him, he angrily ignores her and plays on, singing another chorus with heartfelt belligerence. Rebuffed by his unspoken criticism of her as she was by her mother’s remonstrance for her lack of soulfulness, McGuire resentfully seeks comfort in the tin can coin bank, which she hammers into the floor of their new apartment. She pounds over his song with a stroke of independence and bitterness.

In such a manner, the movie is lyrical, and perhaps this is what discomforts director Mr. Kazan, in his complaint that the film was not realistic enough. But there is sometimes a poetic aspect to even our most wretched experiences, probably having to do with those gossamer qualities we call being human. It does not mean there is an absence of realism. It means only that there is more to reality than cold hard facts.

Francie’s new teacher, played by Ruth Nelson, provides her with the key to balancing her father’s lovely pipedreams with her mother’s somber practicality, and that is to turn her fanciful exaggerations, or sometimes outright lies, into stories. She has a gift for writing, and in this way Francie will be able to express herself, take purposeful flight to her imagination, and possibly earn a living, too.

“Pipedreamers can be very lovable people, but they don’t help anyone, not even themselves,” the teacher tells her, and it begins to dawn on Garner that her father is such a person.

Another pivotal scene is Christmas night, when McGuire tells Dunn she is pregnant again, and that their daughter will have to quit school to go to work because they cannot continue they way they are with another mouth to feed. Dunn is shattered, horrified that they should deprive school to a child who loves it as much as Francie does. Dunn’s desperate, stuttering agony is heartbreaking, and McGuire’s steely resolve not to lament over the decision is like the way a person rips a band-aid off all at once. From that point Dunn morphs into the granite of his wife, and walks out of the apartment and out of their lives. In a few days, stone cold sober, he will have died of pneumonia looking for a job as a sandhog.

The scenes dealing with his funeral and their grief are finely detailed, and never melodramatic, but subtle and revealing. When Garner hears of her mother’s plan to remove her from school, she also morphs into the granite of Miss McGuire, shooting such looks of hatred at her that it does not seem to be the same child at all who shyly whispered, “My cup runneth over” to her father when he hatched a plan to send her to a better school. It isn’t the same girl. She’s grown up, even before her 8th grade graduation.

When James Gleason, in a lovely brief appearance as the diffident, stammering Irish bartender, hires the Nolan kids to work for him, the money will allow Garner to continue school. (In an age where few children went to secondary school, eighth grade graduation was a big deal. For many, it literally signaled the end of their childhoods.)

The flowers she receives from her now deceased father at graduation, who had arranged while he was still alive that they be sent to her on this day, leads to another memorable scene when Blondell takes the child to the school’s girls’ room to cry in private. All the unspent grief of the previous months erupts into an hysterical crying jag an adult actress would have difficulty conjuring. Young Miss Garner is amazing.

The scene where McGuire squirms uncomfortably on her bed in the throes of labor, having scrubbed the hall stairs literally until the last moment, brings an angry Garner, still struggling with hatred for a mother who seems to have no pity and no affection for her, to McGuire’s bedside to help because she is the only female around. There is no money even for a midwife, let alone a hospital. While her brother is sent to fetch their aunt and grandmother, McGuire’s anxiety over who she is and what she has done to her sensitive daughter battles with her latent grief over her husband’s death.

She still marvels over Dunn’s easy way with people. “Who’ll cry for me like that if I died? I never did a wrong thing in my life, but it ain’t enough!” (the common fate of dull, responsible people who are not appreciated) she wails piteously, and the two discover each other in a way they had not before. McGuire asks the painfully reluctant Garner to read her essay on her father, delighted at her daughter’s talent with words just as she marveled over her husband’s talent for happiness. Garner discovers there are chinks in her mother’s granite façade. She also takes on her mother’s sense of freedom through control when she becomes her mother’s caretaker. She is empowered by the ability to roll up her sleeves and do the unpleasant tasks. All this is accomplished without maudlin confessions or saccharine promises. It’s very raw simplicity hurts and heals at the same time.

For all Katie Nolan’s granite, it is she who notices in a calm moment between contractions that the candle by the bedside is pretty and looks like Christmas. It is she who decides to name the new baby daughter Annie Laurie after the song Dunn sang. It is she, for all her habit of facing hard facts, who insists that the word “alcoholism” be omitted from her husband’s death certificate.

In days of such economic turmoil as we now experience, we might take notice of the tin can coin bank, and how she saves her pennies, against amazing odds, with a soldier’s discipline. Theirs is a world without retirement plans or health insurance, just the hope of a can full of coins if they persevere, and the cushion it will provide if no money comes in for a week or so.

This is, in its lyrical quality, as hard-edged a film as has ever been made about such sad and desperate people. It is a black and white snapshot, nothing sepia-toned or gingerbread about this tale. The only nostalgia present in the film, curiously, is at the very end, when brother and sister talk on the roof of their building. With a gray and smoky Brooklyn at their feet, they discuss how their mother is to marry the kindly cop played by Lloyd Nolan, who will adopt the baby daughter. They acknowledge that Annie Laurie will have it much easier than they did…but that she probably will not have as much fun. They have learned the wild pleasure of living life to its fullest, a perspective which, ironically, security and a full belly do not always lend.

Though they have just graduated eighth grade, they talk of the olden days of their childhood as if they are middle-aged. They are very knowing children by now. There is nothing innocent in that.


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.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

This Just In...

For our friend John, my 78rpm of “Clementine” features Bing but not the Andrews Sisters. It’s still pretty zippy and self-mocking as Bing asks at one point “Do I sound like Gene Autry?” I still think he did another one with the Andrews Sisters.

Also, Mr. John Hayes, whose excellent blog, Robert Frost’s Banjo, having recently received the Superior Scribbler’s award, has passed it along to me.

My sincere thanks to John, and to the blogs named below to which I now pass along the Superior Scribblers award.

Here are the rules:

1. Name five other Superior Scribblers to receive this award.
2. Link to the author and name of the blog that gave you the award.
3. Display the award on your blog with this LINK which explains the award.
4. Click on the award at the bottom of the link and add your name to the bottom of the list.
5. Post the rules.

To Campaspe at the Self-Styled Siren for her wit, her intelligence, and her stunning prose on the subject classic film.

To a newer blog “Silents and Talkies” where the artistry of film is so deftly interpreted by the artist Kate Gabrielle.

To a couple of regional blogs which are so important on this world-connected Internet for keeping alive and vibrant our local identities:

In the Valley and…

Exploring Western Mass., which both deal with the sights, the histories, and the current state of western Massachusetts.

Finally, to Rand’s Esoteric OTR, an excellent resource on classic radio programs, and the many he provides for download from their original transcripted recordings.

Congratulations to all, and thank you for your wonderful blogs.

Monday, February 2, 2009

My Darling Clementine (1946)

This week we’ll discuss a couple of movies that, while both of wildly different subjects and settings, are similar in the poetic way they tell their stories. The poetic quality in the first, “My Darling Clementine” (1946) is blatant and on purpose. Director John Ford, however hard-nosed he preferred to appear in real life, had a romantic view of the West. He does not trouble to conceal the rhapsody of his storytelling. He exploits it.

In the second film that we’ll save for Thursday, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945), novice director Elia Kazan tells a gritty, unsentimental story in a manner that is both beautiful and memorable. Curiously and ironically, he later expressed disappointment in what he felt was a lack of realism.

Beginning with the weathered signpost style credits in “My Darling Clementine”, and the song played as part of a medley of American folk music and hymns we will hear in the background of this film, Ford launches a tale of the Old West that uses familiar themes and settings, but is never cliché.

The true story of Wyatt Earp, his brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Clanton gang facing off in a gunfight at the OK Corral is gussied up with a lot of incidents and subplots that are not true. Ford is a storyteller, not an historian. We might note here with tongue in cheek on behalf of Mr. Ford’s Irish roots that a word for both storyteller and historian in Irish (and Scots) Gaelic is Shanachie, an economy of language which might intimate the ability to get the facts right is not necessarily held higher than the ability to tell a story.

Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp, a famous lawman who for the moment has given up being a sheriff for driving cattle with his three brothers on their way to California. We are shown a large herd of cattle crossing the favorite Ford setting of Monument Valley, a harsh and barren country Fonda remarks is “like no country I ever seen.” We have the chuck wagon, the guitar plucking in the background, the sage brush, and the raucous town of Tombstone, Arizona, where three of the Earp brothers head for a shave.

We get a first glimpse of the fastidious barber at the Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor who will return later in the film for a funny bit with Fonda. While they are gone, their cattle are rustled and their brother who remained guard is murdered. Now Wyatt Earp takes for himself the job of sheriff of Tombstone to get some justice.

Gunslinger Doc Holliday haunts a local gambling parlor. He is played very well by Victor Mature, whose performance as the doomed man is understated, brooding, and emotional despite the mask of fatalistic acceptance. He and Fonda have a relationship that is adversarial and also one of comradeship, a terrific balance of male bonding and suspicion of each other. When Mature and Fonda share their first drink together at the saloon, Mature erupts into a coughing fit, whipping out a white handkerchief and hacking ferociously into it. This is our signal that he is a dying man.

Whenever somebody coughs into a hanky in the movies, they’re going to die. It happened to Greta Garbo in “Camille”, it happened to Victor Mature in “My Darling Clementine.” Just make sure it doesn’t happen to you.

Mr. Ford treats us to long slow shots of the wide open spaces, the clear sky, and a western town with growing pains. The town actually looks authentic, without that movie set look that a lot of towns have in western films. We are also treated to a lot of wonderful close-ups, studies of grizzled beards in the rain, of the complex emotions of Victor Mature and Henry Fonda, and of the simmering Linda Darnell, who plays a feisty saloon singer with the irresistibly funny name of Chihuahua.

Miss Darnell, who is Doc Holliday’s lover, gets some competition when his former love arrives, a respectable lady from Boston, whose name is Clementine. Mr. Mature, knowing his ultimate fate from coughing into his hanky, tries to save Clementine, played by Kathy Downs, by driving her away. Mr. Fonda, meanwhile, is smitten with her.

In between all the justice seeking and whiskey drinking and poker playing and wooing of females, there is the subliminal message that the West is changing. Towns like Tombstone are becoming civilized. As much as the inhabitants of these towns long for the same stability they had Back East, there is a mournful note as well. The irony is that the West represents individualism and freedom, but without laws and rules, it is also seen as a cesspool of anarchy.

Fonda sits at the grave of his murdered younger brother and says to the name carved on the wooden grave marker, “Maybe when we leave this country young kids like you will be able to grow up and live safe.” This could be a cheesy scene, but Ford handles it beautifully, with the help of cinematographer Joseph MacDonald. In their hands, this is not a saccharine sentiment. Intentionally poetic perhaps, but also realistic. How many of us have spoken aloud our thoughts to headstones in moments of grief? It’s a cheesy thing to do, but we do it.

There are many moments of humor interspersed as well, when Mr. Fonda dumps his poker chips into his hat, and then puts the hat on, and then proceeds to his first encounter with Doc Holliday. The scene where the barber, played by Ben Hall, sprays a startled Fonda with cologne, and when anyone thereafter remarks about the scent of honeysuckle in the springtime air, Fonda must abashedly confess that the lovely smell is him.

Later, when walking with Clementine on his arm, Fonda passes the barber who gives him a brief but very funny “I told you so” look of satisfied superiority, as if the cologne is responsible for Fonda’s success with females.

One comic moment turns in to a powerful scene of longing, and sadness, and pondering the meaning of life. A traveling actor drinks a bit too much, and then stands upon a poker table in the saloon while the wonderful Walter Brennan, father of the Clanton thugs, and his mean spirited boys, who all seem to resemble Bluto, threaten the actor into entertaining them. The drunken tragedian proudly launches into Hamlet's soliloquy.

Mature and Fonda come to rescue him, and watch. We see that Mature is fascinated by the actor’s performance. When the tired old Hamlet cannot remember the rest of his lines, Mr. Mature takes over, delivering Shakespeare’s words with simple dignity. Since we have already seen him cough into his hanky, we know that the lines about whether it is nobler to take arms against of sea of troubles, about dying and sleeping, has a deeper and more profound meaning for the doomed Doc Holliday. Fonda sees it, too.

More reminders that the West is changing occur when a flurry of activity assembles at the new church in town. Just the floor is completed, and a dance is held to raise money for the rest. After a bit of square dancing, Fonda leads Clementine in a spirited Texas two-step, while a couple of American flags flutter in the breeze. It is pure American tableau, and Mr. Ford knows that, that’s why he does it.

“Church bells in Tombstone!” is exclaimed with disbelief, another sign of the encroaching civilization.

Mac the bartender, played by J. Farrell MacDonald, who we’ve seen in a number of films, is one of those stalwart character actors without whom no film of Hollywood’s heyday could have been made. There are a number of them in the Ford gang, including Ward Bond, Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson, and former silent star Mae Marsh in a brief scene. We will see Mr. MacDonald in another bit part on Thursday in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” where he played Carney the junkman.

“You ever been in love, Mac?” lovelorn Fonda asks the bartender.

“No, I been a bartender all me life.” Not quite. Mr. MacDonald’s been a lot people, in a lot of movies but only for bits of screen time in each one. Still, he is noticeable and we remember him when we see him.

Judgment day at last arrives, and a showdown between Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and their men against mean old Walter Brennan and his boys. When Victor Mature is shot down, his hanky, which he always carries in his right hand, gets snagged on the rail fence, and hangs there, fluttering in the breeze like a flag of truce.

When peace is restored, Fonda bids goodbye to Clementine with a chaste kiss on the cheek and the hope of returning someday. She will remain here, this transplanted Bostonian who was told earlier that her kind did not belong here. She is to be the new schoolma'arm. Another sign of encroaching civilization. Clementine brings an end to the roughness of Tombstone not with a pair of six shooters, but with perfumed toilet water and soft spoken manners.

It is not an historically accurate film, but it is a tidy story, well told, and at times, quite beautiful.

We will see on Thursday that though the veteran director Ford seems to embrace poetry; the novice Kazan, whose films will launch a new style of movies in the coming decade, eschews it, yet manages to create a most beautiful film himself.

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