Thursday, May 28, 2009

Cape Cinema - Dennis, Mass.

Unlike some of the old movie houses we’ve featured, the Cape Cinema in Dennis, Massachusetts is still an operating, vibrant theater, and has its own website (see here).

Raymond Moore, who founded the Cape Playhouse in 1927 (see this post on my Tragedy and Comedy in New England blog), three years later established this movie theater across the way in June 1930. Here we have the movie listings for the month of August 1935, and the month of August in 1940.

Architect Alfred Easton Poor modeled its facade on the Congregational Church in Centerville, Massachusetts, but its Art Deco interior was modern, with 300 arm chairs of black lacquer, with tangerine suede seats and a huge mural by Rockwell Kent across the curved ceiling, claimed at the time to be the largest single mural in the world.

According to the website, Scenic artist Jo Mielziner installed the mural “since Kent had vowed never to have anything to do with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts after what he felt was ‘the murder of Sacco and Vanzetti’ in 1927, although Kent did attend the opening of the cinema and was photographed signing the mural.”

It shows the sky in shades of blue, gold and orange. The Milky Way, comets, galaxies and constellations, pairs of embracing lovers and free-flying individuals. On the stage Moore had a curtain installed which opened and closed like a Japanese screen. Kent decorated it with a gold painted sun with wavy rays, and rays emanating from the projection booth representing the rays of the moon.

In his lifetime Kent did only five murals of which three are still in existence: two for government buildings in Washington (the Post Office and the Marine Bureau of Fisheries) and this movie theater on Cape Cod.

The Raymond Moore Foundation today owns both the Playhouse and the Cinema, and restored the mural in 1981. The movie theater also now include a modern concession stand which features gourmet food items as well typical movie snacks, a heating and air conditioning system and Dolby® Digital surround sound.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Friendly Persuasion - 1956

On this Memorial Day here in the US, we turn to a unique kind of war movie.

“Friendly Persuasion” (1956) shows the face of war, in the face of the quest for peace. It gently manages to be an in-your-face kind of movie. Last year our Memorial Day post discussed Hollywood’s treatment of the American Civil War on this day when so many World War II movies are shown on television (see here). Today we return again to the Civil War, to have an about-face look at Hollywood’s version of war. It was the Civil War, after all, that gave us Memorial Day.

The plot of the movie is taken from Jessamyn West’s “The Friendly Persuasion”, a novel made up of a collection of vignettes or short stories about one Quaker family in Indiana around the time of the Civil War, and afterward. The characters actually age quite a bit as individual scenes from a span of decades are depicted. At the heart of the book is the strong marriage between two compatible if very different individuals, Jess and Eliza Birdwell. Played by Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire in the film, the actors seem to capture really pretty much how the characters are described in the book.

One chapter in the book that is not depicted in the movie is called “The Vase” and illustrates the flow of their marriage through the years bumping along against their individual personalities, told through a vase Eliza has made from an old broken glass oil lamp chimney. It covers everything from the deeply personal sorrow of failing to be understood, to the most joyful gratitude of shared experience in such deft strokes that it’s no wonder that it’s not in the movie because I don’t think anything this subtle and deep could be transferred to screen. It’s not visual; it’s ethereal, and it is one of the most lovely pieces of writing I’ve ever read.

I refer to the book because in descriptions I’ve read of the movie many seem to fault director William Wyler for somehow sugarcoating the pacifist Quaker experience to produce a blithe family film, or somehow failing to resolve the quandary between fighting for one’s beliefs and very freedom, and refusing to fight from principle. I would suggest Wyler finds no solution because there is no solution.

Wyler is neither preaching nor damning; he’s telling a story. Even the author of the novel, a Quaker herself, does not preach or damn. She just tells a story. Interestingly, the warlike expressions of the Quaker couple’s teenage son who longs to fight are much stronger in the book. In the movie, Anthony Perkins is very moving as the young man torn between his Quaker upbringing and his desire to be a soldier. He is torn and anguished, taking a stand against his parents and ultimately joining the fight. In the novel, he speaks much more harshly to his mother, throwing the Bible right back in her face with the comment,

“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars’…my town is Vernon. The Governor said to defend it. My body is my country’s.”

“Thy soul, son, is God’s,” she counters. They debate not just about his being too young to fight, or that he might get hurt, but on the very nature of man’s responsibility to his fellow man versus is responsibility to obeying the sixth commandment. It might look more like teenage rebellion in the movie, but the issues discussed in the book cut to the core of what has troubled human beings for thousands of years.

When finally faced with the enemy, the novel describes the boy’s mindset in wonderful clarity about killing, “My God, Josh thought or prayed -- he didn’t know which -- I hope it’s no boy nor old man. I hope it’s some hard slave-driving bugger.” Josh needs his enemy to be evil. The thought of killing somebody just like him makes him sick.

Part of the impetus of going to war is needing to be the hero. We must imagine our enemy as evil, or we do not have the drive necessary to fight. If we do not believe our cause is right, we cannot defend it, and if we are right, our enemy must be wrong. The commitment it takes to lose our lives depends on that simple logic.

Out of this logic we created propaganda posters in World War II showing the enemy, usually Japanese, with hideously exaggerated features to depict them as monster-like. Perhaps if we had a poster hanging up in the factory break room of a happy Japanese family featuring mother, father and children sitting down to breakfast, we might have wondered why we were fighting. Propaganda is so insidious because it exploits this human quality.

President Abraham Lincoln once remarked to author Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” inflamed the abolitionist movement in the North, “So, you’re the little woman who wrote that book that started this great war.” For many, her book about evil slave masters was their propaganda poster.

Not that Josh needs a book or a poster to tell him slavery is wrong. He has two examples leading him to that conclusion. First, the longstanding Quaker conviction against slavery upheld by his family for generations. Secondly, the presence of Enoch, their hired hand.

Enoch, played by Joel Fluellen, has escaped slavery in the South and lost his family. When their town is threatened by a Confederate raid, Enoch, like Josh, joins the Home Guard. Unlike Josh, Enoch fights less for altruistic reasons; simply because if he is caught, he will either be dragged back into slavery, or murdered. Fighting for one’s beliefs is sometimes difficult. Fighting for one’s life makes things pretty clear cut.

William Wyler does not expend much on Enoch’s story. It needs no explanation. He focuses on the Birdwell family’s constant tightrope walk of maintaining their convictions and their lifestyle in a world fast changing around them. Every scene, even the silly and heartwarming, builds up to the final horrific struggle of what to do if people from the “other side” want to kill you.

We see challenges to the Quaker family’s convictions all along the way, large and small. A traveling salesman offers Jess Birdwell, played by Gary Cooper, temptation in the form of a musical instrument. He sells Cooper an organ, and sensitively tries to buck the Quaker man’s faith that dispels the frivolity of music.

“I want you to know, sir, I honor your prejudices…uh, convictions.” There are several such elbow-in-the-ribs jibes about the Quakers, and I sometimes wonder if members of the Society of Friends feel resentment at being treated in Hollywood films as a cross between somewhat na├»ve plaster saints (no pun intended regarding a religion which does not employ icons), and rather rigid fanatics. “Friendly Persuasion” is most remarkable at showing that the plaster saints and rigid fanatics are found equally among the non-Quaker community, and shows the Birdwell family as human, with faults and with quirks.

Richard Eyer plays their son Little Jess, a small boy with Great Big Talent, who is one of most natural child actors of the day. With Wyler’s legendary difficulties communicating what he wanted from grown up actors, one wonders how he got such a terrific performance out of Master Eyer. Eyer is as rambunctious as any little boy, whether in mortal combat with Samantha, his mother’s pet goose, or foiling the shell game of a county fair huckster. One of his funniest moments is when, ants in his pants, he shouts out loud in the silent prayer session of the Quaker service “GOD IS LOVE!” and the mixture of self-satisfied pride and sheepishness crosses his face as he tries to crawl back into a hole after doing so.

Phyllis Love is their teenage daughter Mattie, in love with the neighbor’s son who is a soldier, and not a Quaker. This scenario could have been explored more as a real threat to their family’s unity and identity as Quakers, but what is touched upon, and very sweetly, is a young girl’s trying to grow up and fit in with a big world outside her family farm. Miss Love was actually about 30 years old when she appeared in this film, only some nine years younger than Dorothy McGuire who played her mother, yet she plays young very well. She is gawky and awkward, daring to dance with her young man at the county fair, daring to kiss him in the attic over the keyboard of the banished sin-tempting organ, yet hesitant to appear before him in bare feet.

Mattie is working on a cross-stitch in her room on which is embroidered “God Is Love”, her younger brother’s attention-getter slogan. Later on in the film, it is finished and hangs a bit crookedly on the wall. After her first shared declaration of love between her and her beau, after she had stood upon his soldier’s boots in her bare feet to more easily reach up to kiss him, she sprawls on her bed contentedly and nudges the framed “God Is Love” to set it straight, swinging her naked foot off the edge of her bed. A sublime moment, and perhaps Wyler cannot communicate easily with his actors because some things are just beyond words.

The three Birdwell children play well against each other, poke each other and tease each other with a naturalness that does not look rehearsed. Anthony Perkins is troubled not only by war, but bedeviled by the man-crazy Hudspeth girls and their mother, wonderfully played by Marjorie Main. Perkins’ look of horror at his father when it is suggested they stay the night among these Amazons is priceless. It’s a shame he didn’t do more comedy.

Gary Cooper’s range as a comic actor is displayed with something so simple as his repeated careful attempts to say the name “Hudspeth”. Cooper plays the gamut here, he is Longfellow Deeds, John Doe, and Marshall Will Kane all rolled into one. The war causes him just as much crisis of conscience as his son, but Cooper is not a boy who can easily rebel. He sees consequences his son does not. His son shoots wildly, without aiming, at strangers. Cooper’s best friend dies in his arms.

Dorothy McGuire plays Eliza, in one of her best roles and demonstrates once again her versatility and impeccable instinct for drawing out a character. Unlike other prim movie Quaker wives like Gail Russell (“Angel and the Badman” - 1947) and Grace Kelly of “High Noon” - 1952 (who was Wyler’s first choice for this part), Dorothy McGuire strikes a cord as honest and many-layered, without any kind of posturing. Perhaps because author Jessamyn West did not write the character Eliza as anything but real, and warm, and independent, and intelligent, and somewhat hardheaded.

In the movie, Miss McGuire’s most memorable scene involves her defense of Samantha, her pet goose. (See here for Moira Finnie’s excellent review of “Friendly Persuasion”, but I still disagree with the conjecture that there was too much of Samantha in movie. I still think Samantha should have won an Oscar. And the Nobel Prize and perhaps the Croix de Guerre.)

Eliza, beyond being the heart and conscience of her family, the maker of pies, and the tucker-in of shirttails, is also a minister in their Quaker community. Possibly more could have been explored in the movie as well on this, that the Quakers were among the first to establish equality between men and women. Dorothy McGuire’s Eliza is a wonderful example of feminine intelligence and independence of spirit. She is also a woman who displays a passion for her husband that is most ardent and very human, and unlike what other virginal movie Quaker ladies seem to have had written into their roles. The romance and intimated sexual pleasure between the long-married characters of Cooper and McGuire is another testament to the fine acting instinct and knowledge of character they both learned over their careers.

However, being a Quaker minister puts Eliza square up against the debate about The War. She debates with her son and husband, prays and argues. But when the Confederate raiders of Brigadier General John H. Morgan cross into Indiana and overrun their farm, she displays both her Quaker resistance to fight, and her human frailty in forgetting her beliefs. This pacifist Quaker minister nearly clubs a man to death because he is about to kill and eat her beloved pet goose, Samantha.

It is one of the funniest moment in the film, and Wyler is perhaps taken to task for it too much by those who suggest that the scene either shows McGuire’s character as being hypocritical, or else that it is a watered down gesture demonstrating that pacifism is illogical and useless in the face of danger.

To be sure, if it had been McGuire’s daughter that had been taken by the Confederate soldier and not the family pet, we would have had a scene more serious and more challenging to her Quaker pacifism. She would have still committed violence against the soldier. Obviously, if one is willing to defend one’s pet, one is surely going to risk all to save a daughter.

The real difference would have been after the daughter had been saved from either being killed or raped by the soldier. Would we see the embarrassment and shame on Eliza’s face after whacking the Rebel on the head with a broom? Or would we see the intense satisfaction of having won the fight, that blood-thirst feeling of justification and victory?

That would have been an interesting scene. But that wasn’t the story of the Birdwell family of the novel, nor would it have solved the conundrum of being a pacifist during wartime.

The raid by the Confederates into Southern Indiana was an actual event. However, the movie is set in 1862, and the raid occurred the following year. That year of 1863 the South famously took the war into Northern territory, at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and here in Indiana.

Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan was a daring Confederate cavalry leader who brought around two thousand soldiers across the Ohio River, pretty much on his own initiative as his orders brought him into northern Kentucky only. They spent several days raiding supplies and horses from civilians like the Birdwells, a very common military activity during that war done by both Union and Confederate armies.

A battle eventually occurred when Union forces finally caught up with Morgan’s Raiders, which, though not destroying railroads or infrastructure or anything of what might be called militarily strategic, still gave a huge fright to civilians in Southern Indiana and made many young men, like young Josh Birdwell, ready to do something which had never occurred to them before -- become soldiers. Moreover, the stripping of farms of crops and livestock was devastating to those families who had worked for a year to fill that corn crib or that smokehouse, or that shelf of preserves. What happened next after the raiding soldiers left and everything was quiet, was that they starved. Perhaps that could have been illustrated better in the film as well.

Morgan himself escaped immediate capture, but was eventually killed later in the war. Here is a view of the equestrian monument of John H. Morgan in his home state of Kentucky, a state which did not secede from the Union in a war which clearly brought a crisis of conscience to just about everybody, Quaker or not.

“Friendly Persuasion” is a film that is sometimes very funny, at other times dramatic, but always showing the whimsical side of human nature and human circumstances. It should be considered a homefront movie about a war where the homefront was for some people in this country, especially South but sometimes North, also a battlefield.

The movie ends with a happier scene of amazing compromise. The sin-tempting organ is now allowed in the front room. The daughter is allowed to ride in the buggy of her non-Quaker beau. Gary Cooper jokingly refers to both his son, wounded in battle, and his Rebel-clubbing wife as “veterans.” For these last few moments of film, we abandon the crisis, and rest our conscience.

Permit me a personal note. I wrote this essay yesterday, Sunday. The church service I attended in the morning included the passage from 1 John 4:16 as part of the second reading, “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.” The service ended with “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. I had to smile at the coincidence of Little Jess’ favorite Bible quote, and one of the most famous anthems to come out of the Civil War.

Afterward, I went down the street to the cemetery to visit my World War II veteran father’s grave and noted, as I knew there would be, an American flag planted by the plaque in the ground noting his rank and branch of service, put there by a local veterans organization. I pulled away clumps of clover encroaching the plaque and threatening to cover his name.

On the way to church, at only about half a mile from my house, a family of Canada geese had just finished crossing the road. The mother goose led the way, with that regal bearing Dorothy McGuire’s Eliza so admired in Samantha, and the papa brought up the rear, nudging the stragglers among their children who bumped into each other as they followed their mother.

This is why I love William Wyler’s attention to the whimsical aspects of life. They’re so simple and so true.

Note: The portrait of Brig. Gen. John H. Morgan and of his equestrian statue are from the Library of Congress. The sketch of Morgan’s raid is from Harper’s History of the Great Rebellion originally published in 1866. For more on Morgan’s Raid, have a look at this website on Ohio history, and here at Civil War Home.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

They Won't Believe Me (1947)

They Won’t Believe Me (1947) is film noir without too many shadows, but with an interesting understated performance by Robert Young as a self-serving man who ultimately becomes more victim than victimizer in the ironic film noir jaws of fate.

Mr. Young, with his authoritative, yet soft-spoken low voice, is remarkably believable and natural. At times a surly cad, his jaded delivery is not forced or showy. A lot of other actors would play this heavy with a much less natural quality, but Young does no scenery chewing. I’m not sure if the ugly ties he wears in this film are meant to give us a clue to the rapacious and uncontrolled opportunism of the character, but Young needs no showiness to color this man a cad. He does all right in his own intriguingly quiet way.

Robert Young is a Wall Street broker we first see in a pleasant cozy lunch for two with Jane Greer, an elegant young professional woman. They are intelligent and charming, and the obvious pleasure they take in each other might indicate this film is to be a lighthearted romantic comedy. Mr. Young seems a good natured, decent chap so far, but soon we learn that he is married, and these are stolen moments with a young woman who has decided that being his mistress is not for her. She breaks off the relationship, but he insists that he will leave his wife for her.

However, once we follow him home to his ritzy apartment and meet his society wife, we learn that she is the one with the money, and though she cavalierly allows him to leave their marriage, she cleverly dangles a carrot. She will buy him a partnership in a west coast brokerage and a swell new apartment away from her busybody relatives.

Even by the expression in Robert Young’s face and the change in his tone of voice, we realize as he mulls this over that he’s not going anywhere. True love is swell and all, but money is what he really likes to cuddle up with. Off they go, marriage intact, to Los Angeles. Nice train ride here, with the passing scenery shown projected out their compartment window. (Have a look here for a previous blog post about some favorite train scenes.)

Another subtle mood change occurs as we see Mr. Young at work in the brokerage house in which he is now a partner. He is surly. He is bored. Enter party girl Susan Hayward who goes after him with everything but a harpoon.

As Mr. Young describes her, “She looked like a very special kind of dynamite neatly wrapped in nylon and silk.”

Typical of film noir, most of the story is told in flashback, with occasional narration from Young.

When, despite being the girlfriend of his partner, Miss Hayward propositions him, Mr. Young replies, “I thought Trent had the franchise.”

Hayward, whose performance is much less subtle than Young’s, is brazen, while he is utterly uninterested in consequences. A perfect match.

Miss Hayward shares an apartment with a professional woman who is a dietician. When Young asks her if the roomie is even prettier, Hayward responds sarcastically, “She looks like a dietician.” Thus, evidently dieticians joint the ranks of librarians in old movies as unmarriageable.

But Young’s cool, super-organized society wife played by Rita Johnson has caught on to his latest extramarital shenanigans, and relocates them to an isolated desert ranch, with no phone so he can’t call his girlfriends, and sells his brokerage partnership out from under him. She does not demand he stay with her. But if he leaves, he goes without her money.

This is Robert Young’s weakness, and he agrees once more to be put on a short leash. But Susan Hayward doesn’t go quietly. Both his wife and his mistress display more moxie than Young, but he is never played as a weak or even cleverly conniving man. Just a very lazy man who wants his various comforts without having to work for them.

There are some interesting twists in the plot involving a check made to cash he gives to Susan Hayward to entice her back, and a car accident and another separate freak accident which leaves both ladies dead. Young had been prepared, after the death of Hayward in which she was mistaken for his wife, to actually kill his wife. His motives, interestingly, having noting to do with hatred for her, only so that he can control her money himself and be free with what uncannily seem like a spoiled teenager’s desire to be free of parental rules.

But this is film noir, and the hand of fate, though uncredited, has a major role in this movie. His ex-brokerage partner is searching for the missing Susan Hayward, who though she had no family to mourn her demise, is owed $72 for almost two weeks pay and he hunts for information on her. Her dietician roomie, who we see indeed looks not unlike an unmarriageable librarian, shows up because Hayward owes her $84 for a month and a half rent.

His first mistress, the nice girl Jane Greer, who he “coincidentally” meets in the Caribbean where she is on a working girl’s $270 16-day holiday tour, is also part of the plot to uncover Robert Young’s responsibility in the death of Susan Hayward.

The cops get involved, and Robert Young tells us the entire plot of the movie in flashback from the witness stand at his trial, in rambling prose that would never be allowed in a real trial. The wonderful irony is that though Young is actually innocent, a surprise O. Henry ending seals his fate. Fate has decided he couldn’t be more guilty.


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.  Her new book, a collection of posts from this blog - Hollywood Fights Fascism - is available here on Amazon.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Drive-In Movies

Now that the weather’s warming up, let’s go to the drive-in. Nothing says car culture like a drive-in movie. Above is an ad for the Air-Line Drive-In in Chicopee, Mass. from May of 1950, featuring Humphrey Bogart in “Tokyo Joe” (1949). The excellent Cinema Treasures site notes that this drive-in was built in 1952 (obviously an error if the ad is from two years earlier), and closed in 1984.

Another great website “Drive-in” notes that Massachusetts had one of first drive-ins ever to open, the Weymouth in 1936, and during the peak years of the 1950s had 90 drive-in theaters. This astounds me considering our winters. Not only are drive-in theaters of necessity, seasonal, here, but must surely have required a great deal of maintenance in the spring after six months of weather havoc. Only about five remain in the Commonwealth today.

The ad boasted that the Air-Line had the largest screen in America, but I don’t know if that’s true. The second feature was “Make Mine Laughs” (194) with Ray Bolger, Dennis Day, Joan Davis, and Jack Haley.

On this day while you could see Humphrey Bogart at the Air-Line (so named for the thunderous military planes flying over from the so-close-you-could-spit-and-hit-it Westover Air Force Base), you could drive the family car over to Boston Road in nearby Wilbraham instead to the Parkway Drive-In (only a mile down the road from a Howard Johnson’s restaurant, yum) and see “The Untamed Breed” (1948) with Sonny Tufts and Barbara Britton in a double bill with “The Big Sombrero” (1949) with Gene Autry AND free Shetland pony rides for the kiddies. According to the Cinema Treasures site, the Parkway opened in 1948 and closed in 1987.

Another great site, “” posts this list of early drive-ins begun from 1933 through 1939:

Drive-In Theatre: Camden, New Jersey. June 6, 1933
Shankweiler's Auto Park: Orefield, Pennsylvania. April 15, 1934
Drive-In Short Reel Theater: Galveston, Texas. July 5, 1934
Pico: Los Angeles, California. September 9, 1934
Weymouth Drive-In Theatre: Weymouth, Massachusetts. May 6 1936
Starlight Auto Theatre: Akron, Ohio. Summer, 1937
Lynn Open Air Theater: Lynn, Massachusetts. July, 1937
Providence: Providence, Rhode Island. July 21, 1937
Miami Drive-In: Miami, Florida. February 25, 1938
Detroit Drive-In: Detroit, Michigan. June 2, 1938
Cleveland: Cleveland, Ohio. June, 1938
Shrewsbury Drive-In: Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. June, 1938
San-Val: Burbank, California. June 10, 1938
Merrimack Auto Theatre: Methuen, Massachusetts. Summer, 1938
Valley Stream: Long Island, New York. August 10, 1938
Corpus Christi: Corpus Christi, Texas. March, 1939
Saco Drive-In: Portland, Maine. July 15, 1939
Atlantic Drive-In: Jacksonville, Florida. December 6, 1939

Another source for information on drive-ins is this site at

What are your memories of drive-in theaters? To start the ball rolling, I recall sitting in the back seat with my twin brother, both in our jammies, reaching over the front seat for popcorn and watching the movie between our parents’ heads. We saw “With Six You Get Egg Roll” (1968) with Doris Day and Brian Keith, and “The Boatniks” (1970). My brother, John, remembers there were two cartoons, “Tiger Trouble” (1945) with Goofy, and “Donald’s Ostrich” (1937) with Donald Duck. I don’t remember these, but then, he’s the cartoon guy. This must have been the summer of 1970. I faded out halfway through the second one, which I think might have been “The Boatniks”.

When I was a child growing up, I can remember that if we saw any of our friends in the neighborhood walking out to their cars after suppertime in their jammies and bathrobes and slippers, carrying pillows, we knew they were going to the drive-in.

I always thought one of the most haunting sights is an abandoned drive-in. The huge screen shredded by wind and the elements, the clumps of grass growing between cracks in the asphalt, the posts for the speakers standing sentinel, rusting. Like an Old West ghost town, eerie.

Do you still go to a drive-in near you?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Secret Bride (1934)

The Secret Bride (1934) plants Barbara Stanwyck as a governor’s daughter who elopes with the charming, square-jawed do-gooder district attorney, played by Warren William. When Papa Governor is implicated in a murder, Miss Stanwyck and Mr. William must keep their elopement a secret so as not to show conflict of interest during the investigation, until justice is served.

The film does not equal the sum total of its parts, but its parts are pretty interesting. Directed by William Dieterle and made in the first year the Code went into strict enforcement, there is no sexy exploitation of the situation. There is not even a mention that the marriage has yet to be consummated; both William and Stanwyck seem more eager to play Nancy Drew and find the murderer than they are to start their honeymoon. With films such as “Baby Face” behind her and a reputation for more daring material, clearly Barbara Stanwyck’s wings have been clipped.

That leaves it to Glenda Farrell as Warren William’s smart-mouthed secretary with the sassy name of Hazel Normandie to provide the spice. Alas, she too becomes a victim when she is fingered for the crime, and gets interrogated by the coppers. She wins for my favorite line: Asked what were her relations with Mr. Breeden, she responds, “My relations didn’t like him. Especially Uncle Charlie.”

By far, the most intriguing aspect to this film is the surprisingly terrific performance by Grant Mitchell as an aide to the murdered financier. A character actor who appeared in films in bit parts as reverends, district attorneys, bankers, senators, Mr. Mitchell also played the kindly guy in a sweater welcoming the beleaguered Joad family to the nice clean New Deal campground at the end of “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939).

Grant Mitchell had been a lawyer before he quit that profession for the bright lights of Broadway, and was about 60 years old when he appeared in “The Secret Bride.” Here he plays a man stressed out, caught between powerful forces, and treated like a gofer. Indeed, we see him as little more than a harassed minion until the end of the film when we see he has a much more pivotal role in the mystery. The tension he carries and he creates is something marvelous. His strong performance is genuine, a refreshing contrast to the somewhat stiff performances by others in the film, including by the leads. The climatic scene of the film is all his, but that he carries each scene he is in throughout the film, no matter how brief his appearance in some of those scenes, is the wonder.

Lots of fun stuff like newspaper headlines, running presses, a surly prison matron, and a shot of Miss Stanwyck typing. She is, as was mentioned in this previous blog post, the silver screen’s most prolific typist.

As for zeitgeist elements, I particularly like the way the bank teller fills out the deposit slip himself, not the customer, and he does it with pen and ink. Also, there is an interesting scene in the jury room where the jurors vote guilty or not guilty by placing either a black or white marble in the draw of a wooden box. I don’t think I’ve seen this before. If anyone can enlighten us on this custom, please do.

The film ends with the NRA logo, though we need no reminders through this thoroughly “contemporary” film that it is 1934, where there is no past and no future, only the dreary present to endure. With a little more finesse, one could imagine what kind of film noir this would make if it were made 15 years later. There are certain nourish elements, like flashbacks, close-ups from interesting angles, shadows, everything but the feeling of being trapped in the jaws of fate. The mood here remains, as it did for most Depression-era films, decidedly upbeat.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Bowling Another Frame

Pushing the re-set button for a moment on our bowling alley theme (something you didn’t have to do in the days of human pinsetters, push any re-set buttons), here’s a look at Fred MacMurray getting his mind off his troubles in “Double Indemnity” (1944) as he takes off in the middle of the work day to go bowling. Such is the glamorous life of the insurance salesman.

In this scene, just as was discussed in this post from April, you can visibly see the pinsetters in the background jumping down to pick up the fallen pins. This film, however, though it was made during the war was set before the war. The director was careful to put male pinsetters in MacMurray’s pre-war bowling game and not the female pinsetters as was common during the war, shown in “Since You Went Away.”

And what’s that in the lane next to him? A woman wearing tailored trousers in public? Before the war? (Come to think of it, I always thought Barbara Stanwyck’s iconic tight sweater in this movie reflected World War II more than the pre-war era.)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

EXTRA! Newspapers and the movies

Above a newspaper spread wide in the murderous hands of Joseph Cotten hides Mr. Cotten’s face from us as he intends to hide his crimes. But he is eventually revealed, at least to the trusting heart of his niece, Teresa Wright, through steadfast newspaper reporting that dogs him from town to town.

One of the most dramatic moments in this film, “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943) is when Teresa Wright goes to the library to read a copy of the newspaper her uncle has destroyed at home, to discover this haunting headline, and then the camera scrolls down the entire column to the thunderous strains of “The Merry Widow Waltz.”

Splashing newspaper headlines were a common dramatic device used in the old movies, sometimes to forward the plot, to explain a twist in the story, or to add a little humor. And it wasn’t enough to show us headlines; we were invariably shown a shot of the running printing presses, to boot. Though newspaper men and women were seen to be a fast-talking, cynical, and sometimes cagy lot, they were often represented as the last defense in a world of lies, soldiers against injustice, and the keepers of democracy.

Even the innocuous and heartwarming comedy, “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947), notes this aspect of gritty street journalism when the smarmy bully Mr. Sawyer, who as gotten Edmund Gwenn institutionalized, fears the power of the press. “We’re very anxious to avoid publicity of any kind.”

John Payne, Mr. Gwenn’s lawyer, realizes the power of the press is just the way to get his day in court, and we have the following parody of a newspaper headline in the days when editors had more puns up their sleeves than extra aces.

Other aspects to the old movie view of journalism, sidebars if you will, are guys like old Joe the linotype operator in “Meet John Doe” (1941), and this shouting newsboy who, flashing a newspaper full of that opposite pole of journalism we know as propaganda, storms into the crowd and brings an end to Gary Cooper’s crusade. The truth may set us free, but lies are mighty strong handcuffs.

Then there is the worst kind of free press, the kind that dies. We now live an age of many competing news sources, most wondrous and remarkable. No longer shackled to the printing press, we find ourselves in the curious position of losing the ability, or interest, in keeping a permanent record. The Internet is far-reaching, but hardly permanent. We may find ourselves irresistibly dawn, or pulled unwillingly, further into a world of up to the minute superficiality. Meanwhile, the solid bastions of democracy, the keepers of the record, morph into dinosaurs. The death toll continues.

Rocky Mountain News
Baltimore Examiner
Kentucky Post
Cincinnati Post
Albuquerque Tribune
South Idaho Press

These are only a few of the dinosaurs now extinct. For more on the state of the press, have a look at this website called Newspaper Death Watch. Morbid title, but in the tradition of splashy newspaper headlines in the movies, it gets your attention.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Horror Movies - May 1945

Newsreel footage of the Nazi concentration camps were “generally received by audiences in silence or with muttered expressions of outrage,” according to the New York Times May 2, 1945. It was the first time these films were shown, and the first time the most of public had become aware of the mass exterminations.

The film was shot by Army Signal Corps cameramen accompanying the Allied armies now pouring over the Rhine and liberating these camps at Nordhausen, Buchenwald, Ohrdruf, and Hadamar as they went.

“…Piles of the dead, pitiful specimens of the ‘living dead,’ the crematoriums in which victims were disposed of and other bodies exhumed from graves for identification…”

Some of the reels were preceded by warnings to the audience not to look “if you are susceptible to gruesome sights.” Most people, thankfully, are sensitive to cruelty, but many in these audiences still had the courage and the determination to look.

“There were no indications that many persons took refuge in shutting their eyes, and the response apparent in theaters indicated that the patrons were determined to see.”

Radio City Music Hall opted out of showing the newsreels, where the manager explained that he did not want to shock or sicken the large proportion of women and children among his patrons.

Adolf Hitler, who evidently feared criminal punishment worse than he feared hell, committed suicide only a couple days before, and what was left of the Nazi military government would surrender in another five days. V-E day followed next, a wild day of celebration over much of the world, but these newsreels of the death camps put perhaps even the celebrations into perspective.

For many after seeing these newsreels, as for the astonished and disgusted Allied soldiers who stumbled horror-stricken upon the extermination camps, it was not so much “hurray for us, we’re number one!” like fans of champion sports teams who overturn cars in a “Bizarro World” simulation of V-E Day. For these liberators of the camps, and the sensitive audiences in the movie theaters watching the newsreel, it would always be a spine tingling, sweat-soaked realization of what the world would have been like if we had lost.

“They are probably the most frightful pictures of death and woe ever exhibited in American newsreels.”

Before television, before the Internet, movie theaters were more than just a place of escapism. They were the spirit of their communities, and a gathering place for shared human experience, and sometimes even the conscience of the neighborhood that led the blood drives and the bond rallies and the Red Cross donations.

And the feature films that followed the newsreels and the B-movie, and the cartoon ever after this would have a bit more realistic viewpoint to them, a grittiness borne of wretched experience, a cynicism the result of innocence lost. Even the old movie monsters like Dracula and the Wolf Man seemed like foolish creatures from fairy tales.

We had seen real monsters now. There was no comparison.

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