Monday, November 29, 2010

War Stories - Intro

For the next two weeks we're going to be discussing three movies that tell war stories. By “war stories” in this case we mean what are typically called home front movies. I think that the term home front usually implies a lack of conflict or danger. During World War II, most home fronts around the world were in a very great deal of danger, except for the United States. Our conflict was internal.

Without wanting to be too pedantic about it, I’d like to emphasize that The War (one senses when a member of that generation speaks about it, it’s always in capital letters), was more than setting or timeframe in these films; it was another character, like The Fates proclaimed by an ominous Greek chorus back in the days of Aeschylus. One railed against it, plotted to deceive it, tried to escape it, but in the end, The War determined everyone’s fate.

A typical “war movie” that shows battle is its own milieu. There are many fine battle films we can cover at some time in the future. But battles, however dramatically staged, are still staged. I believe the home front movies are the “war movies” that really show with a degree of reality what The War did to define that era.

Hollywood’s interesting conundrum was to address The War through an industry that was largely devoted to fantasy and entertainment. Far from looked upon as good material from which producers could prospect for stories (too much political tightrope walking, too great a risk for offending the public), nevertheless Hollywood was forced to acknowledge the elephant in the room. But the movies interpreted The War on its own terms: the war as melodrama, the war as romance, the war as comedy.

This blog, because it examines old movies within the context of the times in which they were filmed, shovels around a lot of history, which I know may be off-putting for some old movie buffs who just want to reminisce about favorite films or actors. But, I think without the history background, a good chunk of the pleasure of watching old movies, i.e., really understanding context, is lost. Many plots and conflicts transcend time. Many just don’t, and to appreciate them we need to bend their way rather than require they conform to our modern understanding.

Imagine sitting down to eat a pizza, everything on it you like.

Now imagine you have no taste buds.

If you eat it, you’ll still get all the calories. You won’t feel hungry anymore.

But you will have tasted nothing. It will be like eating the box it came in.

Watching an old movie without “getting it”, is like eating a pizza when you have no taste buds.

Understanding the background is what puts the color in a black and white movie.

Almost every line of dialogue, every costume or set piece in any old movie you’ve seen was for calculated effect. This is especially poignant when we watch “war stories”.

These three films for the next three posts are: “Mrs. Miniver” (1942), “The More the Merrier” (1943), and finally “Love Letters” (1945).

“Mrs. Miniver” starts our home front experience in England in the early days of World War II. The United States was not involved in the war at the time of the setting of this movie or even when filming began. Yet by the time the movie was shot and in the can, we were at war. It is famously and repeatedly referred to as propaganda, though in another post we discussed that this label is not entirely fair or accurate. We'll get a little more into that on Thursday.

The next movie, “The More the Merrier”, finds us in Washington, D.C. during the middle of the war. This film is a romantic comedy, but it shows some enlightening aspects of wartime tension, and entertaining scenes of sexual tension.

We see a decidedly different skew on home front patriotism in this movie. Where “Mrs. Miniver” gives us a certain stiff upper lip British pluck, “The More the Merrier” shows a more quintessentially American attitude that was evidenced during World War II. It's not exactly laid-back, and it is certainly just as patriotic, but there's a more chip on the shoulder attitude. We get repeatedly, if subliminally, the message that strife is congenial and that real patriots don't whine. An attitude we might benefit from today.

Both attitudes, to some extent, were whistling in the dark.

The final movie, “Love Letters” takes us back to England in the later days of the war.

This is also a romantic movie, but it is not a comedy. It is a melodrama that involves amnesia, and mixed up identifies and murder all against the backdrop of that peculiar fatalistic weariness that happened at the close of the war when everyone was not so much looking not for victory, but for a little peace and quiet. These characters just want to go to sleep for a little while. And forget everything that happened.

So join us on Thursday for “Mrs. Miniver” and the other two movies following next week. You won't need to pack up your troubles in your old kit bag, but you will need to bring along your ration books, and your patience, and your empathy.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

On this day of Thanksgiving here in the U.S., may I wish the peace and benevolence of the season to you all.  And a big nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Thanksgiving 101

For those of us in the U.S. about to celebrate Thanksgiving, we here at Another Old Movie Blog would like to help make your holiday preparations more successful. Last Thanksgiving was long time ago, and you’ve probably forgotten a lot about what to do.

Here is an informational film from our good friends at Instructional Films, Inc. to help you create the perfect feast and a most pleasant holiday. It was made in 1950. Take notes.

(Remember to scroll down to the bottom of the page and mute the music so you can hear the video.)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Roz Russell Leaves Her Mark

Rosalind Russell left her mark in cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, February 19, 1959. Above her name she wrote “Auntie Mame was here”, so even then perhaps she knew it would be her “signature” role. The movie “Auntie Mame” had been released about six or seven weeks before, in December 1958.

In this post we covered another honor for Roz, under much more harrowing circumstances that happened three years previously in her hometown of Waterbury, Connecticut. No cement then, just a lot of water over the bridge.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Superman's Early Fans

“Where is Superman?” Monty Woolley irritably rustles the pages of his newspaper in “Since You Went Away” (1944) - covered in this previous post, and we might answer rhetorically that in the 1940s, Superman was everywhere.

Above see the always-alluring Olive Oyl from “She-Sick Sailors” (1944), reading, and fantasizing, over a Superman comic book. We see her boyfriend Popeye, below, taking a break from swabbing the deck in “Fleets of Stren’th” (1942) to catch up on the latest adventures of the Man of Steel. And Popeye himself had been featured in newspaper comic strips since 1929. There’s nothing like the admiration of your peers.

Over the past several decades, Superman has firmly established himself as an American cultural icon. We’ve seen him in enough films, TV, toys, etc., to make him as common as the American flag.

What’s amazing is that it didn’t take long for Superman to achieve this exalted status. Created during the Depression by Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel, Superman first reached large distribution when he debuted in Action Comics in June 1938. A year and a half later, he was a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloon. That’s a mighty leap.

By World War II, when we were looking for all the help against the Axis we could get, Superman was everywhere, and when he couldn’t be there, he was parodied by Bugs Bunny, Private Snafu, and anyone with a dishtowel cape. We mentioned in this previous post on “super” markets how Mighty Mouse began as a parody and developed his own following.

Below we have Charles Coburn and Joel McCrea reading the funnies out loud together from “The More the Merrier” (1943). We’re going to be discussing this movie in a few weeks, by the way. Bring a friend.

Mr. Coburn remarks in all seriousness, “I missed ‘Superman’ two Sundays in a row once, and I’ve never felt right since.”

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Heroes for Sale - 1933

We mark Veterans Day today with the film “Heroes for Sale” (1933), which was produced in that era when Veterans Day was Armistice Day and the prevailing view of Armistice Day and World War I was pacifist. By the end of the decade, war returned and pacifist sentiments would be something akin to treason.

Gone finally, or overwritten at least, was that era, not innocent, but world weary, when the loss and the futility of war was still felt so keenly. Richard Barthelmess shows the many sides of being a veteran. This is not so much a welcome home story as it is a what do you do now story. We begin in the trenches, and we end on a long lonely road to nowhere.

Richard Barthelmess and Gordon Westcott are part of the platoon that is engaged in a raid on the enemy. We are with them in the mud soaked trenches. We crawl along the barbed wire of No Man's Land in the night, in the pouring rain with cannon fire all around us. Mr. Westcott perhaps reflects our sentiments more purely when he has a panic attack and refuses to continue. He hides in the trench, while Mr. Barthelmess moves forward and captures the enemy. He brings the German officer back to the trench, a valuable prisoner to be interrogated. But just after he gets the German officer to safety, Barthelmess is shot and collapses.

Westcott brings the German officer back to headquarters and is proclaimed a hero. This is a film that could have been divided into two or three different movies, because there's a lot happening that is very interesting in terms of the illustrating great demons we carry around. Mr. Westcott is a perfect case study. He is a poster boy for that old line from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, “cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.” Westcott’s fear at being found out dogs him this entire movie.

The first time we think he might be exposed is when the German officer is being interrogated in German by an American officer, and the German glances at Westcott with a wry, mocking smile, as if he knows that this coward, who did not capture him, is getting the credit for being a hero. We wonder if the German will tell. Westcott suffers agonies wondering.

There are several times when someone could spill the beans and Westcott’s dirty secret will be out, which lends a great deal of dramatic tension as we wait for his inevitable humiliation. It also reminds us throughout the film that the War, and its various consequences, is never over for these vets.

Meanwhile the valiant that taste of death but once, Barthelmess, we discover is not dead. Westcott thought he was and we thought he was, but he was captured by Germans and he was brought to a hospital behind enemy lines.

Here we see another aspect in a war movie that we would not see again for many, many years, and that is a humanistic, if not exactly empathetic view of the enemy. We see the Germans have their hospital and they treat the enemy as they would their own soldiers. They are not the monsters we seen the World War I posters. They are overburdened and overworked and desperately trying to save lives.

After the Armistice there is a prisoner exchange, and the German officer in charge of the hospital tells Barthelmess that he may go home. He gives him morphine to take because Barthelmess still has slivers of schrapnel in his spine which causes him great pain. Barthelmess is thankful, respectful, and they part like gentlemen.

We see what is probably a newsreel shot of a troopship coming home. Here, Westcott meets up with Richard Barthelmess again unexpectedly. The sick expression comes over Westcott’s face and he knows that he will have to come clean with this secret he carries, if not with the world, at least with Mr. Barthelmess. He confesses what he did, but Barthelmess has a nonchalant attitude towards it and lets him off the hook. He doesn't care. He says, “I've been in the shadow of death so long. Nothing seems very important anymore.”

It is an admirable sentiment and probably common to most soldiers after seeing absolute hell. They've seen the worst in they are not looking for the best anymore, just a little peace.

In a cameo role on this troopship we see James Murray, who we last saw in this post on “The Crowd” (1928). We mentioned the unfortunate circumstances of both his career and his life that took place a few years after this film was made. Since “The Crowd” was a silent movie, this film is the first time I've heard him speak. I was surprised to hear he sounds something like George Brent.

Westcott the hero goes home to a hero's welcome and Barthelmess goes home with a dependence on morphine. Westcott is a rich boy; his father owns the bank. Barthelmess works as a teller, and we see him behind the bars of his teller's cage looking for all like he is in jail.

He is struggling at work, he needs a fix, and he sneaks out of the alley to see the drug pusher. But the pusher has raised his prices, and Barthelmess can't afford it. We think for a moment that he might steal from the bank, but he doesn't. He goes to a doctor and the doctor reports him to the public authorities. His boss is unsympathetic. When Westcott tries lamely to defend Barthelmess the boss says, “You fellows forget the war is over. It's time to quit beating the drum and waving the flag.” The boss wants to fire him for his “loathesome cowardly habit”.

We see how these words sting his son, who is the real coward. Barthelmess finally does hysterically spill the beans when he is cornered, about the son’s cowardice, defending his drug habit by saying he got wounded while his son did nothing.

For a moment we think Westcott is finally exposed, but his father won’t believe the accusation. Westcott won’t admit to it, either. He dismisses Barthelmess’s words as the “ravings of a dope fiend.”

Barthelmess is sent to the state narcotics farm for several months. When he is released, we see by his file card that his morphine habit is cured, and we see from Barthelmess’ stroll around the cemetery that his mother has died in the meantime.

Now he heads to Chicago for a new start, and now we have what could be a completely different movie. Some aspects of this film are very similar to Paul Muni's experiences in “I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” (1932). One could make a lot of comparisons.

In Chicago, Aline MacMahon, who we last saw as a chorus girl in this post on “Gold Diggers of 1933”, and her father, Charley Grapewin, run a small hole-in-the-wall diner and a rent rooms upstairs. Aline is her usual sharp but nice girl with snappy dialogue and a heart of gold. A plain Jane in whom no one is interested romantically, but probably should be. When Barthelmess comes in asking for a room, she brings him upstairs and tests the mattress out for him by vigorously bouncing on it, while Barthlemess watches incrediously in one of those naughty/innocent moments.

Loretta Young, with her large pale eyes and enormous smile also rooms here, Barthelmess, no surprise, is smitten by her. Another roomer is a German Communist, played by Robert Barrat who was probably one of the funnier people in this movie.

He is one of the gang here, and he always rants about the doctrines of servitude in a capitalistic society. But nobody dislikes him for his political leanings; they take him with a grain of salt. He is an equal here, even if he is a “Red”. They see him only as an obnoxious loudmouth. He could be just a minor character in this movie, but he actually ends up having a pivotal role. Cleverly though, his presence is meant more for comic relief rather than to nail the audience on the head with a social message.

Loretta works in a laundry, and Barthelmess gets a job there. He starts at the bottom and works his way to the top. Grant Mitchell is his boss.

Life is good for a while for our Mr. Barthlemess, coming home to the rooming house where the gang, who have become like a family, await him. Especially Aline MacMahon, whom pa Charley Grapewin teases for looking like she’s primping for Barthlemess.

She says no, “just trying not to look like the family”. A great line, and a great delivery.

In a bittersweet scene, Loretta and Barthelmess are preparing to go out on the town and they ask Aline to come with them. She is excited about going out, leaving the drudgery of running the place and looking after pa for a few hours to be with people her own age.

She goes off to get her hat and coat, but she sees Barthelmess and Loretta hugging, and she closes her bedroom door in a private moment of agony, being tactful and noble and crushed all the same time. Three is a crowd. She tells them to go on without her, and we see that not only has she lost what she thinks might have been a romantic relationship with Barthelmess, she has lost their companionship as well. Miss MacMahon is very good, very subtle in this scene. She is clearly one of those actresses who can do a whole lot with very little.  The director lets the camera linger on her while she works through her emotions.

Loretta and Barthelmess marry and they have a little boy. Barthelmess is a success in business. Communist Mr. Barrat, who is an engineer, invents a machine to use in the laundry business. It will increase production. He comes to Barthelmess for help to promote and to get investors. Both see this wonderful machine as a benefit for employees. They will have more leisure time, and their work will be easier. They sell this machine to Grant Mitchell, and he agrees that no one will be fired, no salaries will be cut. A little Depression-era message.

But the illusion of utopia is shattered when a new owner takes over and does what new owners do: fires employees because who needs them with this great new machine?

We get a shot of the factory. There are few people at work, and those that are working at menial jobs, which do not require their intelligence or their creativity. They push buttons.

A riot of unemployed workers breaks out. I've read where director William Wellman hired real hobos for the fight scene, which one can believe because it is very realistic. There is one shot of Loretta Young, trying to struggle her way through the crowd looks as if she's in real danger. Barthelmess tries to stop the riot. Loretta gets beaten and trampled to death in a shocking scene of implied violence hidden by some quick cuts.  Several others are killed, and Barthelmess is sent to jail for five years for being an agitator.

Good old dependable Aline MacMahon takes his son and raises him and tells him his father is in Alaska. There is a sweet goodbye scene when the little boy, sitting on his lap playfully pokes Barthelmess's tear-streaked face. When Barthelmess is taken away by the police and the child comes fretful, Aline tells the little boy soldiers don't cry.

They don't get much of a break, either. After five years, Barthlemess is released, but in the meantime, the Communist has sold many of his machines to many laundries and has gotten filthy stinking rich. He doesn't care if people are being thrown out of work because of his invention. He's made an amazing and humorous change. He turns from Communist to capitalist.

Conversely, Barthelmess's conscience is weighed down by the idea of people being thrown out of work. But the Communist has proven a valuable and trusty steward, because he saved Barthelmess’ royalties for him in a bank account, and now Barthelmess has a nice nest egg for the rest of his life.

They do a nice job aging Barthelmess. He looks haggard, not so baby faced when he was a young soldier out of the trenches. It's not too much or overdone, but you can see the lines in his face, the dark circles under his eyes.

The Communist is now wearing a millionaire’s tuxedo and derby, and attending University Club suppers. All this time Aline has been taking care of the boy. And now it is the Depression, and she and Charley Grapewin run a soup kitchen. When they run out of soup, and they must close the door to the next people in line, men and women, old folks stare desperately through the window.

Barrat calls them lazy moochers. Barthelmess gives Aline his bankbook and tells her to run her soup kitchen with his money. But the Communists has no use for charity. He says it is like a snowball that keeps growing and growing. If you feed them once they will always return. He says, “If I was running the world I would kill anybody that needed anything.”

This character has made the most amazing transformation in the history of the movies since Scrooge became a good guy. Communist, to capitalist, to fascist. A little more movie message here, but couched in clownishness.

Barthelmess, an ex-convict now smeared as a Red for having been involved in the labor riot, becomes the target of vigilante squads, self-important bullies with too much time on their hands, who run him out of town and grab a few Italians, too, because most likely they are Reds. Proof is not essential when you hate.

Barthelmess leaves Chicago, and like many other hobos in the Great Depression, rides the rails from one hobo jungle to another. In one he meets up again with Gordon Westcott. The “hero” is just out of jail for bank fraud, and his father who had been stealing from the bank for years, has shot himself to avoid prosecution. Westcott explains his father's thievery “is just one of those things. When you start, you can't stop.” It is ironic, and we think of Barthelmess’ drug habit long ago.

Ward Bond has a small cameo as one of the hobos in the jungle. It is rainy and muddy, just like when they were in the trenches years ago. The end of the movie is like where they began. Westcott still carries on his shoulders the guilt of his cowardice. But Barthelmess no longer cares, and if Westcott ever gains any absolution it is in the way his long ago human act of fear no longer matters in a world where even the World War no longer matters.

Westcott glances around, the rain dripping off his battered fedora, and mumbles, “This country can't go on this way. It's the end of America.” How many times have we heard that?

But Barthelmess, though not exactly an optimist, has a more fatalistic and practical approach. He brings up FDR's inaugural address (President Roosevelt was just beginning his first term when this film was released), and thinks things will iron themselves out in the end.  He thinks America will come back stronger than ever.

And when the police raid their hobo jungle and move them on farther down the road, Barthelmess looks up and notes happily that it has stopped raining. He has a soldier’s fatalism, the kind you get when you've seen the worst. And you don't expect the best anymore, just a little comfort will do.

As the movie ends, we look into the eyes of his son. A boy who idolizes his father, a distant figure who supports the soup kitchen where Aline is raising him. We look into the eyes of the future. He says he wants to be just like his dad.

We know he probably won't be, because the circumstances of his life will be different. The circumstances in which we live have a way of making all of us who we are, for better or for worse, some of us rise above it and some of us do not.

He will be old enough to fight in World War II, but they don’t know that yet, because this movie was made in 1933, and we all knew that there wouldn’t be any more wars after the War to End All Wars.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Victory Theatre - Holyoke, Mass. - A Tour Before Renovation.

This time not off topic, but certainly off blog. Another in our series of old movie houses takes us to the Victory Theatre in Holyoke, Massachusetts. The Victory was built about 1920 and showcased both silent films and vaudeville, until the early 1930s when it switched exclusively over to sound movies.

Like so many downtown movie houses of the day, the Victory has been closed and shuttered for decades, but it has not been demolished. There has been an effort, slow moving and complicated, and of long duration, to restore this theater.

Recently, our friend Tony of “In the Valley” took a tour of the Victory on a rare open house day, and includes fascinating pictures on his blog of what the interior of a nearly 100-year-old theater looks like when it’s left alone.

A strange combination of eerie, depressing, and intriguing. You can’t quite see the future possibilities of greatness for this house, but neither do you have quite a grasp on what the past might have been. It is stuck in a kind of limbo. It is in filthy disrepair, from the balcony to the stage, to whatever lurks under the stage. But, the architecture, of a grandeur we no longer see in our utilitarian theaters, shows a tantalizing peek at what has been.

Have a look here at the tour of the Victory Theatre at “In the Valley.”

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Off Topic and Off Blog

Your friend and mine, John Hayes of “Robert Frost’s Banjo” is running an interview with me today.  My sincere gratitude to John for showcasing my work and others on his "Writers Talk" series.

Bonus points:  Who is in the above photo and what's she doing?   I'll give you  a hint.  It's not me.

(Drop Page)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Jo Stafford - "The Gentleman is a Dope"

(Don’t forget to scroll down to the bottom of the page to mute the music so you can hear the video.)

Jo Stafford sings “The Gentleman is a Dope.” We discussed Jo’s career in this previous post. You can never have enough Jo Stafford.

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