Monday, March 28, 2011

A few odds and ends...

A few things to clear off my desk today:

First, this is to give a promo for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s 1939 Blogathon coming up in May. I’m participating as well, and looking forward to all the great blog posts of the Association members on that special movie year.

Second, Zoë of “The Big Parade” passed on a “Stylish Blogger Award” to me, and I’ll keep my acceptance speech short and just comply with the rules of the game:

I must pass it on to 7 other stylish bloggers, and I must write 7 random tell-all facts about myself.

Now, “tell-all” facts is going to be pretty nearly impossible. I come from a long line of rather reserved people, who mostly do nothing worth the telling.  And, as Zoë hopes to travel to the U.S. sometime, I will tell her now that people in New England, the part of the country where I live, do not even make eye contact. It’s nothing personal. And that’s the whole point.

Here, then, a very spare list of random facts:

One: I have three novels indie-published as ebooks. So far. Stand by.

Two: I worked as a newspaper columnist, assistant editor for a history magazine, and also freelanced for years.   For many years I worked on a manual typewriter.  My fingers are so strong I could crush you like a bug.  I have gone through several computer keyboards.  Plastic is sissy stuff when you're used to plunking metal.

Three: I’ve been watching old movies since I was old enough to blink. I can remember feeling shocked and alienated as a teenager when my friends did not know who Zasu Pitts was, or had never heard of James Wong Howe. I figured it was their loss.

Four: I once rode a mule on one of those trail rides for tourists along (but not down) the Grand Canyon, while a cowboy named Bill rode his horse alongside me and recited his own cowboy poetry to me. It was one of the best vacation moments I’ve ever had.

Five: I like blogging better than Facebook or Twitter, possibly because I like a slow pan across a scene.  I dislike quick cuts and that attention deficit disorder-type film style so prevalent now in everything from movies to commercials, to television news graphics and titles.

Six: I’m having trouble thinking of random facts. All these awards seem to require them and I’ve run out of interesting material. Also, a few people I was going to tag for this award were given it by others who beat me to the punch.

Seven: In tribute to Zoë, who graciously presented me with this award, I will confess that New Zealand is one of my favorite places. Even though I was almost swept into the Pacific Ocean during gale-force winds while attempting to have my picture taken at the signpost on the tip of Cape Reinga.

Now, my seven nominees are (if you’ve already been tagged, excuse me):

“Allure” - which is nothing but stylish,

“Skeins of Thought” - by that classy dame, Moira Finnie

“Shopping Days in Retro Boston” - some of the clothes in those terrific old ads are stylish. Some…eh.

The contributing staff at “Limerwrecks” for making me laugh and just being so entertaining.

"Noir of the Week" - yikes, this is stylish.

Dorian at “Tales of the Easily Distracted”, a new and very interesting blog.

And my dear “Caftan Woman”, for every classy observation.

Congratulations, all.

Now all that’s left for me to do is to announce that this blog will be going on hiatus for a couple of weeks. I’ll still respond to comments for a few days, but I’ve got some other work to tend to, and I’ll be back with a new post on Monday, April 11th.

A play of mine called “One Good Turn” was chosen as a winner in the Northern Kentucky University Y.E.S. Festival of Plays, so if any readers down in the Cincinnati area have some free time the weekend of April 9th through 10th, this and two other winning plays, one by Kelly Kingston Strayer, and one by Karla Jennings, will premiere. Maybe I'll see you there.  The festival runs through April 17th. 

So long for now.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Beside the Still Waters - A novel on the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir

This is to announce the release of my latest novel, “Beside the Still Waters”, available as an ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. (Yeah, I know. It seems like we just did this.)

Four towns, gone. Dismantled slowly while their inhabitants grieve for a history and heritage that has been voted away from them. The present threatens; the future belongs to the fearless.

“Beside the Still Waters” is a family saga based on an actual event which displaced four entire towns in central Massachusetts for the construction of a reservoir. Today, the Quabbin Reservoir provides water for millions of citizens, primarily in the greater Boston area.

Families are divided between those who protest the construction project, those who give up and leave, and those who help to build it. The central character is Jenny, a girl who comes of age facing the extinction of her community, who becomes the guardian of her family’s heritage, and ultimately, the one to decide what happens to them.

A rift between two brothers, Eli and John Vaughn, at the turn of the 20th Century continues through to the next generation as John tries to use Jenny, Eli’s daughter, in a plot to regain the family farm from Alonzo, who now runs it, who is Jenny's love. John is broke and eager to sell the farm to the state, which is buying up area property for the coming reservoir. Both Alonzo and Eli refuse to sell their properties, and protest removal by eminent domain. Torn between loyalty to her family and heritage, and the allure of a future beyond the valley, Jenny refuses to remain powerless like the men she loves, but looks for a way to take control. A disastrous decision may prove fatal in a race against time.

This ebook is currently available for 99 cents for a limited time at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. For those without a reading device like the Kindle, Nook or iPad, ebooks can be downloaded and read on your computer through a variety of formats from Smashwords, and the Kindle software can be read on your computer with a free download from Amazon.

Monday, March 21, 2011

History is Made at Night - 1937

“History is Made at Night” (1937)…well, then. Here we are.

We film bloggers can easily ignore movies we don’t like, but I’ve been avoiding this one because I like it so much. Sometimes you destroy something mysterious and lovely when you look behind the curtain. But, ever since this post from our friend Laura at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings and the comments, (Laura blogs on this film here.)  I’ve been brooding over blogging about this movie. Brooding. Brooding some more.

I think the deciding factor was when TCM yanked “The Public Menace” that was supposed to be on last night and changed their schedule. It put me over the edge. Now you’re going to get “History is Made at Night”, ripped to shreds. Muwaahaaahaa!

But first, the obligatory warning. There will be spoilers. I am going to discuss every frame of this movie (well, almost), for two reasons: one, I am by nature a little too analytical (stop snickering). Put a steak dinner in front of me, and I will analyze it, draw graphs, and make comparisons to Yeats’ poems and the history of Thailand, with little known facts about the modern combustible engine.

The second reason is because it occurred to me, after much brooding, as I have already mentioned, that the manner in which the plot is tossed at us is a key factor in why this movie, with such an improbable plot, seems to work.

Right, then. Do not go beyond this point if you do not want spoilers.



And one more…


That ought to be enough warning for anybody. Oh, one other thing: this might take a while, so go to the bathroom now.

Ready? You by the windows, draw the blinds.

“History is Made at Night”, an unusual title for an unusual film, features Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur. Their chemistry in this film is something remarkable, and it is an oft-repeated story that a visitor to the set wondered if they were having an affair off camera because their work in this film was so intimate. Even more remarkable to this and other visitors was the professional manner of the two stars when the cameras were not rolling. This demonstrated that not only were they not having an affair; they were two of the most empathetic actors of that period. They became who they were playing and for those moments, seemed to shut out everything else.

It is one of the most romantic movies ever made, and much is credited to director Frank Borzage’s “love conquers all” canon. Something else, though, happens in the direction of this movie that keeps us interested, and believing, in the sometimes unbelievable events. Another director, another cast in this film might easily make us holler, “Oh, PUL-L-E-E-ZZE!” when we are asked to accept what is happening. Somehow, the lustrous magic of this film pulls us along. I think the intimacy of this movie reaches the audience on a personal level.

How it does that is by keeping us completely in the dark.

That’s unusual. The normal routine in films, especially of that period, is to set us up for every scene. For instance, take the old gag about somebody slipping on a banana peel. We see the character eating a banana. We know that he is going to drop the peel on the ground. After that, someone will come along and slip. Before the action ever happens, we know what is going to happen and our enjoyment of the gag is based on, not surprise (ironically), but on being clued in beforehand.

Comedies, dramas, horror movies (think of the scary music that precedes the attack), this foreshadowing happens in most films to help the audience accept what is being told to them -- though not always as obvious as the banana gag.  And an abundance of plot exposition. “History is Made at Night” takes the opposite track and makes the audience experience without any warning what the characters are facing, and makes the audience face it at the same time.

In the above-mentioned comments section in the post by Laura, we discuss the remark by Nick Pinkerton who notes: "to watch her dance with Boyer is to witness a woman falling in love in real time." I love that quote, it’s a great observation. On one level, this is a tribute to Jean Arthur’s charming power on screen, but on another level it is a tribute to Frank Borzage’s delicacy and how much he holds back, giving us a little at a time.

He gives us so little at a time that we are never sure if this is a melodrama, a romantic comedy, a suspense film…and then turns it into one of the very first “disaster movies”. Such sleight of hand is astounding. It almost seems as if they are all making this up as they go along, (and to some extent probably were) yet it is carefully orchestrated.

Mr. Borzage gives us only one set-up at the very beginning of the film. Colin Clive, who most remember as Dr. Frankenstein (“He’s alive!”), is a successful shipping magnate preparing for the maiden voyage of his splendid new passenger liner, the Princess Irene. It is named for his wife. A reporter, one of those scandal-mongering types, asks him to confirm a story that he and his wife are having marital problems. Mr. Clive dismisses him and goes to his Art Deco cabin, which he finds empty. A note is left by his wife, defending herself against his jealous rage, and requests a divorce.

Cut to a shot of Jean Arthur, his wife, on a train to somewhere, with a blank, cold, unblinking stare through the netting on her hat. She is resolute, but emotionally empty. Jean Arthur is photographed beautifully in this film. She masterfully plays an elegant, glamorous society woman, a complete turn from the down-to-earth shop girls or wisecracking reporters she made famous.

Headlines about the split between Clive and his wife.

Cut back to Mr. Clive in a meeting with his lawyer. He wants to scuttle (remember the word, we’ll need it later on) his wife’s divorce proceedings by catching her in a compromising situation with his chauffeur. Michael the Chauffeur, played by Ivan Lebedeff, needs the money, and is hired to enter Miss Arthur’s hotel room that night and “compromise” her.

That’s all the set up we get. From here on, we’re on our own.

Keep together. Hold hands.

Cut to Charles Boyer chattering glibly to an unconscious man in a darkened room. Boyer wears a dark overcoat, with a Fedora low over his eyes. He looks like Lamont Cranston as “The Shadow”. Is he a cat burglar, robbing this defenseless man? Sounds from the room next door, Jean Arthur pleading. Boyer watches from the terrace as Michael the Chauffeur takes liberties. M. Boyer socks him on the jaw and knocks him cold, then shoots a dismissive glance at Jean, surveys the room, and turns off the lights.

Is he going to attack her? Subject her to A Fate Worse Than Death? Colin Clive enters with his hired detective to catch Jean and Michael together, but Boyer threatens them with a gun in his coat pocket, yanks the pearl necklace off Jean’s neck, demands her other jewels, and locks Clive and his henchman in the closet. Oh, yeah, Boyer is a burglar all right, and worse…he’s taking Jean with him as insurance. Now she pleads with him. Both her husband and her chauffeur have been deaf to her entreaties. Will he?

Cut to a cab ride, where Jean, shell shocked and rigid with fear, eyes Boyer, who seems to sneer with arrogance. He leans over her, to place her pearls around her neck, and then ties up the rest of her jewels like a little package in his handkerchief, dropping them in her lap.

Hold the phone. He’s not a thief or kidnapper.

The sneer is a secret smile because he knows something she does not, and playfully confesses that he was putting a drunk friend to sleep in the next room when he heard the commotion. He pretended to be a thief to get her out of there and not compromise her any further in front of her jealous husband.

She is bowled over by this, and begins to chill out, not easy after what she’s been through.

He takes her to a café, which is closing, but he charms the bombastic chef, played with noisy aplomb by Leo Carrillo, by introducing Jean as Miss America, “from America”, and likewise ingratiating himself to the tired musicians to stay a little longer for a nightcap. In another moment, the egoistical Italian chef is creating Lobster Cardinal with Salade Chiffonnade (something you’re going to be hearing a lot about in this movie), and the musicians play while sipping champagne (Pink Cap 1921), and Boyer and Arthur get acquainted. She tells him she is originally from Kansas.

“You are the first Kansas I have ever met.”

Wait a minute. This isn’t a melodrama; it’s a romantic comedy.

Boyer playfully draws a face on his hand, calls his “girlfriend” Coco, and talks to Jean about the events of the evening in much the same way a child psychologist would use crayons and paper with a traumatized child. It reminds you of Señor Wences, doesn’t it? That’s because it is Señor Wences, in the close-ups and his voice. The famed Spanish ventriloquist was wowing them in the mid 1930s at New York’s Club Chico, and evidently got tagged to help with animating “Coco”.

Coco sidles close to Jean’s cheek and confides,

“I hate men. Don’t you?” Coco wants to know why Jean got married, why her husband did that terrible thing to her.

Jean loosens up, shares a little girl talk with Boyer’s hand, and tells Coco to get Boyer to ask her to dance. In a moment, with her fur coat draped modestly around her shoulders, Jean and her hero are taking soft, tiny steps to a quiet tango. She keeps tripping on her slippers. At first, he replaces her shoe like the prince in Cinderella. They talk while they are dancing.

“Would it help if you told me about it?” he asks her and here is where we begin to see her falling in love a little with him, because we are, too. He does not sweep her off her feet or romance her in the manner of the ardent French lover. With exquisite gentleness, he invites her to only to trust him in a leisurely scene that makes no demands on her, and we watch her brittle nerves disappear like a tense body being massaged.

Cut to Colin Clive. He busts out of the closet. Michael the Chauffeur wakes up. His boss interrogates him, wants to know if Boyer was here all the time, if Boyer is her lover. Michael, just wanting out of a bad situation, tells Clive what his jealous, sick mind wants to hear.

Colin Clive plays it sinister in this role. Anyone might play the jealous husband with a kind of mustache-twirling “mellerdrammer” villain, but he is like a ticking time bomb, controlled and calculating. This is what makes him really frightening. He is an intelligent lunatic. He knows that Michael was still unconscious when Jean and Boyer left. If Michael were dead, Boyer would be arrested for killing him in the fight.

Clive smashes Michael’s skull.

Whoa. We were wrong. It’s not a romantic comedy. It’s a suspense story. Colin’s going after Jean, and cops will soon be after Boyer.

Cut back to the café. Jean and Boyer are still dancing, just barely, mainly they cling to each other and whisper over each other’s shoulders, while master chef Leo Carrillo pours out his indignation in a burst of Italian invective.

Cut to Colin Clive, calmly reporting the murder of Michael the Chauffeur to the police.

Cut back to the café, Jean has kicked off both her slippers and her coat has fallen to the floor. She has exposed herself to Boyer, emotionally speaking. Nothing says trust like dancing with a man in your bare feet.

“Tonight’s what I’ve waited for,” she confesses, “Maybe because I’ve needed tonight more than anything in my life, because I’ve never been happy before.”

They look as if they are comforting each other, and we see Boyer is falling in love with her as well. It is now morning. They make plans to see each other tomorrow afternoon.

Boyer brings Jean back to her hotel room, and she skips happily, a far cry from the thoroughly demoralized woman we saw earlier. Uh-oh. In her room are the cops, and Colin Clive pretending to be so worried about her.

Jean is interrogated and tap dances her way through an explanation of how the kidnapper let her go. She does not tell them about Boyer because she thinks his punch must have killed Michael. Colin Clive notes she is still wearing her pearls, the ones Boyer ripped off her neck. He is sure now that his suspicion was right, and that Boyer was her lover all along.

When the cops leave, Clive cuts the phony worried husband act and accuses her of taking Boyer as a lover.

“I ought to kill you for this!”

“Why don’t you? Then I’d never have to see you again.” It is a flat response, not at all hysterical, but the terse reply of someone who has borne too long an abusive marriage.

But Clive holds the whip hand. She knows it. He will turn in Boyer if she doesn’t come back to him. She agrees, and they sail for New York.

Are you still with me? Good. Please, no flash photography on this tour.

The next afternoon, Boyer heads back to the café. The workers there seem to know him. A waiter hands him a menu for his approval. Boyer walks confidently back to the kitchen and checks the meal preparations. He slips into a white dinner jacket, and looks like Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca.”

Oh, he OWNS this joint. That’s why he brought Jean here and why he was so easily able to make the chef and musicians stay all night.

He tells Leo Carrillo he is in love with Jean and he will marry her.

“You gonna marry with that silly girl who danced with the naked feet?” Leo cannot believe it. The glamorous Jean is not good enough for Boyer.

“You act like a love-sick schoolboy instead of the greatest head waiter in Europe.”

The greatest HEAD WAITER in Europe? Our hero is just a waiter?

We see him next greet the dinner crowd, lighting the cigarettes of patrons, making things run smoothly with an eye for detail and a deferential manner. But something else -- we see he is not cloying or insincere in his attentions to the customers. He is no sycophant who turns tricks for tips. He is elegant and dignified, and controls the dining room like a captain controls his ship. He placates a fussy lady and we see he enjoys making things all right again, and perhaps this is part of his love for Jean. He gets to be the hero by making things all right again, and the love and gratitude in her eyes is bigger than any tips he’s ever gotten.

The drunk he put to bed the night before comes in with a hangover, and starts talking about the cops and some murder that happened in the next room, but Boyer gets distracted by other customers and does not hear him. The suspense makes us grind our teeth.

He goes to meet Jean at the appointment time, but she is not there. He learns from a headline (thank heavens for headlines, they tell us everything, and so quickly), that she is the wife of this great shipping magnate, and she is sailing with him to America that day.

He calls the ship. Cut to Jean, sitting in the half dark, alone in her cabin. She has been crying, and despite the brief ecstasy of hearing his voice on the phone, tells him in her own shaky voice not to try to contact her again.

It’s not a melodrama. It’s a tragedy.

Colin Clive enters the cabin, ready for romance as he slinks his arm around her neck more like a strangler than a lover, and she withdraws from him. Instantly his jealousy spikes again and he taunts her about her Boyer. He asks what she would give to be alone on the sea with Boyer now, instead of with him.

“I’d give my soul!” Another frank, bitter, and excellently executed line. Then she laughs a little hysterically through her tears and points out that though she never had a lover, her husband’s jealously brought Boyer to her aid. She loves Boyer, and Clive made it possible.

He threatens to kill her and knocks her to the ground, but she revives with that cold determination to leave him again.

Cut to another ship. Boyer and Carrillo watch the New York skyline slide by as their ship is about to dock. He has come to find her because he knows she must be in some kind of trouble. Carrillo refers to the skyscrapers as “sky wipers”. It’s okay to laugh, I did.

They don’t know where to find Jean, since she has left her husband. It’s a big town.

Cut to Colin Clive. He knows where Jean is, and where she works now as a dressmaker’s model.

Who will get to her first?

Cut to Boyer and Leo brooding in a New York café. In one of the most improbable, but entertaining subplots of this movie, Boyer notes the crappy service in this café and the lousy food. He decides that he and Leo must use the weapons available to them to lure Jean out. They will take jobs in this café and turn it into one of the best run night spots in New York, where everyone…including Jean, will want to be.

Note to restaurateurs, store supervisors, and pretty much anyone in the service industry. The next few scenes show Boyer whipping this lackluster staff into a crackerjack team of professionals. This is how it’s done. Train your staff like this. The service is improved and you can better be sure that no waiter is ever going to call a table of patrons, “You guys”.

And the comedy has returned to the script, except for one poignant moment. He leaves one table reserved for Jean. No one else may sit there.

Cut to the dress shop where Jean models clothes for rich customers. A hired goon tells Jean that her husband wants a meeting. The murderer of Michael the Chauffeur was caught by the Paris police. Jean thinks, of course, that he’s referring to Boyer. Panicked, she meets with her husband in his New York office where there is a large painting of her. He tells her he is going to hang it in the royal suite of The Princess Irene.

“By the neck until it dies?” she responds. There is nobody that can deliver a line so full of that bewitching combination of pathos and sarcasm than Jean Arthur.

Colin Clive tells her that if she comes back to him, they will go to Paris together and testify on Boyer’s behalf to get him free. She agrees. They will fly back on the Hindenburg tonight.

Yeah, that Hindenburg.

“History is Made at Night” was released March 5, 1937, when The Hindenburg was to start her second year of commercial trans-Atlantic flights. Two months after this film was released, on May 6, 1937, The Hindenburg exploded. For more on that event, have a look at this previous post.

One wonders if the film was altered in any way after the disaster to omit reference the doomed airship, or pulled from the market. I don’t know. Colin Clive, it could be noted here, faced his own private disaster. His wan, strained appearance in this, his last film, might indicate his struggle with tuberculosis and chronic alcoholism. Mr. Clive died three months after the film was released, in June 1937.

For the moment in our film, melodrama has morphed back into comedy…no, wait, tragedy…no, wait…I don’t know…when Colin Clive takes Jean out for supper on their last night in New York. Of course, he takes her to that popular place where Charles Boyer works.

When Boyer sees her from across the packed restaurant, it a miracle moment. His expression is enough to make your heart melt, until she spots him, and starts to laugh hysterically. Jean’s lost it, because her worst nightmare is now officially over. Boyer is not captured by the police, he is here in front of her and she doesn’t have to go on The Hindenburg, or even as far as Brooklyn, with Colin Clive.

But Boyer takes her laughter for mocking. He thinks she is happy with her husband, and that her moment in his Paris café was nothing more than a rich woman slumming. He is hurt, and angry, and seethes as he shows them to the table he has reserved for her all these weeks, and he bitterly suggests Lobster Cardinal and Salade Chiffonnade. And the champagne? Pink Cap ’21.

Tragedy, tragedy, tragedy.

But, wait, it’s a comedy again when Jean rides in the cab with Colin Clive after dinner and rips up her Hindenburg ticket into tiny little pieces. She jumps out and runs back to the café.

Here, she catches up with Boyer, and to reach beyond his hurt feelings and misunderstanding, draws Coco on her own hand and talks to him. I swear, the United Nations ought to get Coco to mediate between warring factions.

I mentioned “Casablanca” earlier, and in this scene where she enters the café at night, and Boyer is sitting dejectedly at a table, alone with a bottle and a glass, it reminds me of when Ingrid Bergman snuck back into Rick’s Café Americain to wheedle the documents from him.

Like Bogey, Boyer is choking on his pain and sarcastically replies, “Madame forgets herself. I am only a waiter.”

She asks him to trust her, and gets Coco to ask him to dance. Soon, we are back to romantic comedy again, and they head to the kitchen for scrambled eggs and pretend to be husband and wife.

Another morning, like that morning after in Paris, when the world wakes up and the dangers of the night are past. She wears his large overcoat to cover her evening gown. She reluctantly breaks it to him that they cannot return to Paris because he is wanted there for murder.

Boyer is shocked. He had no idea he’d hit Michael the Chauffeur that hard, and is even more appalled that another man is being held for the crime.

They walk the streets talking of fleeing to Tahiti or facing the music in Paris, while the New York rear screen projection slips by them.

Cut to the moonlight on board ship, and our two lovers standing at the rail. Where are they headed? The safety of the south Pacific? (First class ticket to Tahiti is $725, it says in the travel bureau window.)

The camera pans to the clock on the wall with the ship’s name. The Princess Irene. They’re going to Paris to see this through.

Now it’s a race against time, for if they are not able to convince the authorities of Boyer’s part in the murder, perhaps have the charges reduced to accidental death or manslaughter, he will not avoid the guillotine.

It’s a suspense movie again.

Cut to Colin Clive in his Paris office. Surrounded by employees, legal retainers and advisors, and newspapers, he learns that Boyer and his wife are returning to testify. Their romance makes the front page.

Mr. Clive’s jealously takes it up a notch and he calculatingly plays his final hand. He puts a call through to his ship captain and orders him to push the envelope and break the speed record for the maiden voyage. The captain tells him that is impossible, there is too much fog this trip, and the northern course puts them in danger of icebergs. But, Clive is the boss.

Avoiding safety procedures to make the boss happy and improve the bottom line is not something new or unbelievable, despite the captain’s willingness to put his passengers at risk and Clive’s frothing at the mouth. It happens too often. This is one improbable scene in the film that is not so improbable.

The captain passes along the orders to a group of surprised and disgusted officers.

Hold the phone. This has now become a disaster movie, and I think possibly the first of its kind (maybe somebody can correct me on this).

Wait, first a little more comedy. Leo Carrillo is a stowaway on the ship and is taking over the ship’s kitchen. He makes -- yeah, what do you think he makes?

A. Grilled cheese sandwiches.
B. Opens a can of ravioli.
C. Orders take-out pizza.
D. Lobster Cardinal, Salade Chiffonnade, and Pink Cap ’21.

Cut to Boyer and Jean in her (their?) cabin. They are getting closer to Paris and running out of time. (They don’t know the half of it.) She kicks off her shoes for old time’s sake and they hold each other. Sublimely sad and romantic.

Then eating the food Leo has cooked for them, Boyer realizes his pal must be on board ship. He goes to find him.


This ship set is great. Suddenly the camera pans back in the fog and we get shots of a huge deck listing, of a monstrous gray iceberg cutting into the bow, of a shower of ice. A hundred extras running, screaming, bulkhead doors straining to be shut as the unrelenting ocean gushes into the lower decks. Sailors running for their lives, and the piercing shriek of the siren.

Jean is lying unconscious on the floor of her cabin, knocked there by the force of the collision. Boyer gets Leo to safety in one of the lifeboats, and then goes back for Jean.

Radio distress calls go out to other ships, and many respond, but they are far away. There is nobody close to help.

Elderly couples say goodbye to each other, children are separated from parents. Boyer gets Jean to a lifeboat, but she won’t stay. She goes back to him.

He screams at her, “We would only have a moment together!”

All the women are being evacuated to lifeboats. She will stay and die with him.

Remember when Colin Clive asked what she would give to be alone with Boyer on a ship at sea, and she responds, “My soul”? She gives her life.

Does anybody have a hanky I can use? No, not if you’ve already blown your nose on it. Oh, forget it.

Cut to Colin Clive listening to the radio reports of the tragedy. The ship’s power is cut off and no rescue vessels are close. Likely, the ship has gone down.

His two greatest passions: love and jealously, now have no object of obsession since both Boyer and Jean are evidently dead. He writes a suicide note confession he killed Michael the Chauffeur, and since he knows the investigation of the ship sinking will lead to jail time for him, he goes off screen and shoots himself. There is a close-up on the portrait of Jean, the sound of a shot, and a drifting wisp of gun smoke.

Cut to Leo in the lifeboat making a tearful prayer.

Cut back to the ship, listing in the water, slipping slowly. Doomed men wander on deck.

Boyer and Jean sit perched on the iron steps, barely distinguishable in the fog, and talk of their childhoods, and some of the men start singing “Nearer My God, to Thee.”

If you ever hear that on a ship, it’s not a good sign.

Cut to the main salon of the ship, some men grouped together, singing. The one I find most moving is the fellow off by himself, standing with his face to the wall, slumped heavily to the wall as if he so heartsick and frightened he cannot even move.

Cut back to Jean and Boyer, who have a few more minutes to talk about when they fell in love. They are trying to commit everything to memory because there is so little time.

Then an announcement from a crew member. The forward bulkhead doors seem to be holding. The ship will not sink. They will have time to wait it out until help arrives.

Stunned disbelief at first, then weak, hysterical cries of joy. Some of them are fairly crazed with relief.

Cut to Jean and Boyer, and a final kiss. No need to fade out, there’s too much fog.

What is Director Borzage’s message in this? True love conquers all? True love and good strong bulkhead doors, maybe.

It’s a surprising little movie simply for the way Borzage keeps playing with our assumptions and never lets us get too comfortable. I don’t think the improbability of some of the events is necessarily a weakness of this film, though I do think our final look at Boyer and Jean could be a little stronger, with a more powerful realization that time is no longer their enemy, and that their own courage brought them safely home as much as twist of fate or the screenwriter’s whim.

And I like to think Coco gave up her seat on the lifeboat, too, and stayed with Boyer like Jean did.

A final note: we commented in this earlier post on “Shane” where Jean Arthur’s male leads were often much younger than she. In “History is Made at Night”, all her co-stars, Charles Boyer, Colin Clive, and Leo Carrillo were older than she by a few months to a few years. I don’t think that ever happened again for the remainder of her career.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Beloved Enemy - 1936

“Beloved Enemy” (1936) attempts to dramatize the events that led to the establishment of the Irish Free State in the early 1920s, and at the same time, spin a “Romeo and Juliet” fairy tale of two star-crossed lovers who bring together two nations.

It’s easy to point out where this film fails. “The Troubles” as those times are called of Irish civil unrest against the British Empire, and then civil war amongst its own people, is captured in too simplistic a manner. Hollywood shunned complications, particularly in a 90-minute script.

Both the British characters and the Irish characters are represented in varying degrees of stereotype.

Most obviously, the lead character played Brian Aherne is meant to be a take-off on Michael Collins, the Irish leader who engaged in diplomacy with the British and won self-rule under dominion status for Ireland, except for the six counties in Ulster which opted for membership in the United Kingdom. Many of his countrymen felt Collins had betrayed them, and Collins was murdered by an Irish assassin.

In the movie, not only is Mr. Aherne successful at bringing peace and independence to Ireland, under so vague a set of terms we are not allowed to know them, but he survives an assassin’s bullet and he and Merle Oberon live happily ever after.

Oh, and Omar Kiam’s costumes for Merle Oberon are a bit off, too 1936 and not enough 1920.

All right, that’s off our chest. What is more telling about this film is what they somehow got right.

The movie, directed by H.C. Potter (thanks Caftan Woman), begins with one of those scrolling narratives in some script font that sets us up for what we’re about to see. In historical movies, it often seems like these narratives are really just disclaimers. That’s what this one sounds like. Part way into it, we are informed that the events we are about to see reflect “A time of horror and heroism, with men on both sides dying bravely for what they believed was right.”

It is a cleaned-up judgment that tells us nothing of the filthy side of The Troubles, with men on both sides committing soulless acts of revenge, of cruelty, of dirty political self-interest.

We are then told that what we are about to see is “not taken from the pages of history” because we are supposed to be reminded of Michael Collins, but not get close enough to the real story to either alienate the British film market or the quite large number of Irish American filmgoers -- but that the film is “legend inspired by fact.”

Nice and vague.

Fortunately, the sharp black and white cinematography of Gregg Tolland gives us some focus, a glimpse into a world without complete right and wrong. What this movie lacks in script is made up for in atmosphere. Set in Dublin, but filmed entirely on the back lot, we have the dark, wet streets, the soft flat caps of brooding men in trench coats, and the widows and orphans.

Brian Aherne is the ringleader of a political group whose paramilitary function is discussed, but we never see the violence. One scene shows his band about to stage a guerrilla attack on a British convoy, and he steps between the truck and the machine gun to save the Brits, to save his plan for diplomacy. It’s a nice scene, a bold move, but too tidy to really tell the truth. The truth, after all, is complicated, for where does freedom fighter end and terrorist begin? It’s a question that gets asked repeatedly in just about every culture.

That Hollywood even attempts to show this subject and this foreign culture is laudable. Here is one of the few films of that time I can think of about a foreign war or political strife where no American character is the center focus, nor American connection involved. All the characters, and most of the actors and actresses, are all either Irish or British. There is no intended American slant here. Except of course, for being made in Hollywood and carrying with that the usual Hollywood inability, or unwillingness, to authentically capture another culture. Whatever American slant here is organic, but not purposefully skewed to tell the story through an American viewpoint.

Brian Aherne is the rebel, Merle Oberon is the English Lady, daughter to the English Lord who is appointed to travel to Dublin, sort out the troublesome Irish and tidy up the Empire. Aherne and Oberon are beautiful people, and the camera loves them. They love each other, eventually. At first it is snarling and verbal swipes until they make the astonishing discovery that (Irish, English -- fill in the blank) people are people, too.

The film tries to keep us on an even, serious keel with the political strife at hand. We open with a British raid on the secret offices of the Irish resistance, and men are killed. We meet the widow and young son of one of them. The son, played by Ronald Sinclair, and his buddies paint “Up the Rebels” on the back of Miss Oberon’s official government car. He hurts himself running away and she takes care of him and brings him home.

It’s a scene meant to bring the enemies together through empathy, and it’s a tale that’s been told ever since Aesop wrote about Androcles and the Lion.

There’s a bit more here, though. The scene with the boys painting their graffiti to the consternation of the bumbling British soldier assigned to be Oberon’s driver is comic. They are like the Little Rascals, briefly. But we realize after a moment that these boys’ street games are really training for the young men they will one day be when vandalism turns to violence.

Aherne, friend of the boy’s widowed mother, played by Cathleen O’Brien, has been earlier chastised by her when he tries to comfort her on the death of her husband, “What do you know about love? You never let it come near you. You’re married to a cause.”

But he meets Miss Oberon when she brings the widow’s boy home (which is too nice looking, hardly the simple, and possibly impoverished-looking flat it should be), and his fidelity to the cause becomes compromised over his love for her.

We have the often repeated refrain of the old Irish folk song:

“She had a dark and a roving eye,
And her hair hung down in ringlets,
She was nice girl, a decent girl, but
One of the rakish kind.”

(Anybody remember Guy Mitchell’s recording, “The Roving Kind”, B-side to “My Heart Cries for You”? 1950, I think. Much jazzed up, of course. With Mitch Miller’s orchestra. Ah, well, that’s neither here nor there. Just rambling. Come to think of it, anybody remember Guy Mitchell?)

Here, it’s a slow chant, wafting from jaunting carts and upstairs maids, and greengrocers, like a secret code of unity. A comforting musical buffer against “the strangers.”

When Lady Oberon and her father, played by Henry Stephenson, who are the strangers, cross the Irish sea on a dreadnought, we hear instead the majestic strains of “Rule Britannia.” (I’m pretty sure neither Guy Mitchell nor Mitch Miller ever did an up tempo recording of that one.) Her lament, “One nation and one people divided by a strip of water,” is naïve in that the label of “one people” would be balked at by both sides.

However, her naiveté is also appropriate for her character as a representative of the British upper class, insulated and remote. Such foolish myopia denies the bitterness at the root of problems, and also is often taken for insult by people whose national pride is built up by collecting perceived insults against them. This, too, has happened in culture after culture. Condescending assumptions can ignite trouble as well as weapons do.

David Niven is along for the ride as her father’s military aide, and he represents the kind of nice young chap of her own class that she should marry. He’s not in the running for long, though, and it seems almost a cop-out for him to lose interest in her and find someone else, someone to whom we are never introduced. A romantic triangle would have been more interesting. However, he does have a very funny line that he delivers charmingly when he asks Merle how to handle his new girlfriend, who wants him to join her for breakfast:

“I’m not sure if she means me to drop in for breakfast or…be there for breakfast.” The censors were evidently charmed into leaving it in, or they weren’t listening.

Among Aherne’s gang is the old reliable Donald Crisp, who is distrustful of any diplomatic overtures by the British, and who is distrustful of Aherne now that he has a British girlfriend.

Jerome Cowan, who we last saw in “Cry Wolf” (1947), and who made a career of playing stuffy, uninteresting lawyers and businessmen, often in B-movies, has a good role in this, his first film. He is one of the rebel gang, Aherne’s right-hand man. His accent is credible, and his close-ups show the intensity of a hard, hungry, angry man of action.

In one scene, he and Aherne are escaping from a British raid, and they scurry along the rooftops, tumbling down the sharply pitched slate roofs in the darkness. They manage to hang onto a drain pipe to hide, and then after a very long time, pull themselves up, exhausted, to the rooftop when the British soldiers have left. Cowan, sensing Aherne’s loyalties and his good judgment are wavering, makes him promise to never see Merle Oberon again.

While the film misses the gritty authenticity of “The Informer” (1935), made the year before, it has scenes like these to illustrate the complexity of loyalty. Another attempt at honestly depicting the events of the day is to show many scenes of diplomatic negotiations. Aherne heads an Irish delegation to London under a flag of truce to discuss options for ending the violence. He and Henry Stephenson are seemingly the only ones who push for peace. All around them are their English and Irish colleagues who argue and will not compromise.

Negotiations do not make for exciting scenes, but they do honestly depict the real difficulty of the situation. People venting problems, people trying to solve problems through talk. Realism without the explosions.

We drift back into comfortable Hollywood fantasy, however, when peace is declared and truck after truck of British soldiers leaves Dublin, with Irish crowds cheering them and the end of The Troubles, jolly Tommies waving back. Wish fulfillment is one thing, but this is ridiculous.

However, we smack head-on into grisly realism again, when Merle gets wind of the plot to murder Aherne because he made a deal with the Brits for peace. Jerome Cowan, full of the unreasonable, ugly, and long-familiar rush of revenge, takes on the job of assassin. Loyalty for these rebels is really just a game of musical chairs.

When Merle barges in on the men making their murderous plans, to beg for Aherne’s life, there is a moment when they slowly rise to their feet, and one of them sneers, “I think we’ve heard enough from this alien.”

It is a tense moment when we see in their faces, and especially in Miss Oberon’s suddenly knowing expression, the possibility that they are about to assault her. So quickly do the charming Irishmen who sing silly songs and ride in jaunting carts turn to animals. Fortunately, the young Irish widow she earlier befriended, who brought her to this meeting, gets her out.

We see Aherne in his Irish military uniform, making a victory speech before a cheering crowd, and we see for the first time the Tricolor (yes, it’s a black and white movie). Ahearn ends his speech with a flourish, “Erin Go Bragh!” and Cowan pulls the trigger.

The Irish Free State was born in 1922, but this film is more a product of the pacifism of the 1930s between the two wars. Fairy tale, and historical events, and Hollywood. An uneasy mix at best, but considering the complex subject, “Beloved Enemy” is at least an introduction, not so much primer as a pop-up book, on The Troubles for outsiders like us in the American audience.

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