Thursday, August 14, 2014

All the Brothers Were Valiant - 1953

All the Brothers Were Valiant (1953) is a snapshot of the studio system assembly line.  It was a routine picture; a remake of a movie that had been filmed twice in the 1920s; a routine assignment for male leads Robert Taylor and Stewart Granger, men who typically followed studio orders—Mr. Taylor in particular, who never squawked at a role but did what he was told; and it was Ann Blyth’s first movie under her new MGM contract.  Hollywood’s largest studio chose a vehicle for their new star that was no challenge for her considerable dramatic abilities, but rather treated her as little more than a pretty ornament. 

However, even the most routine films in Hollywood’s golden years had a way of containing treasures.  That is the wonderful contradiction here.  There is much to like in this movie, even if these shining moments are incidental to the overall feeling that the film is running on autopilot.

In an interview for Classic Images in February 1995, Ann Blyth recalled of co-stars Taylor and Granger:

Who wouldn’t be happy with those two good-looking men around you?  It was just lovely.  They were both so sure of who they were, there was never an issue of one fighting for more attention than the other.  The feeling on the set was terrific.

Indeed, the viewer may see that it was just another day at the office for Taylor and Granger, but they are successful in their roles because of that well-oiled studio machine that took care of them in a manner that made many actors feel stifled, casting them in comfortable roles.

They play brothers at odds over command of a whaling ship in the late 1800s, and at odds over a young woman, played by Ann.  One can see how important casting was in this era where a studio could have its pick of any number of actors to plug into different roles.  Robert Taylor is the calm, introspective brother whose careful and prudent command of his ship will earn him an accusation of cowardice by his brother, who leads a band of mutineers against him. 

Taylor’s quiet style is perfect for his character.  Though he appears too old for the role, and too old to be referred to as Stewart Granger’s younger brother, nevertheless, there is a quietness, a self-assured serenity to the way Taylor takes command of his new ship at the beginning of the movie, and his warm relationship with the elder Lewis Stone as his former captain, and most especially, in his indulgent amusement with his bride, Ann Blyth—especially when she is climbing the rigging to the crow’s nest—that speaks volumes for this character whose good nature will be taken advantage of by his reckless brother. 

He is not a talker, but keeping his own counsel will prove his undoing in the face of dangerous assumptions by his men and his new wife.  It is a paradox that his greatest strength will be his downfall.

Ann goes with him on his long whaling voyage.  There is a poignant scene when they are pulling away from the wharf in New Bedford, Massachusetts, as Ann watches the town grow smaller, and we are impressed with what a shock it must be to her to leave her home for the first time, that she will be at sea for probably three years, and almost all of that time in the company of only men.  More could have been done in this movie on that point, but Ann’s anxiety and deeper issues as a woman on board ship is swept aside in a character that is shown as chipper, spirited, and almost childlike in her bravado.  

This attitude of vivacity will get her into trouble when Taylor’s long-lost brother appears.  (By the way, it was not unusual for wives to accompany their captain husbands aboard whaling ships, though obviously, for various reasons, not all chose to do so.)

Stewart Granger, the former master of the ship, was reported as lost at sea, though his men grumbled that he deserted them.  He had.  Stewart tells of a period of sickness when he was cared for by an island native woman, played by Betta St. John, and while on her island stumbled upon a great stash of pearls.

This episode is told in flashback where we meet Kurt Kasznar and James Whitmore as a couple of scruffy brigands who plot to steal the pearls.  Though these fellows have strong, and sinister, roles, I would suggest this flashback scene is really too long, as it takes us away from the triangle tension of Taylor-Blyth-Granger, and because the three principals in this scene: Kasznar, Whitmore, and St. John, are not seen again.  They are in the past and do not reappear. 

Betta St. John has the thankless role of playing the stereotyped native girl.  However, it is refreshing that she does not speak in a kind of movie pidgin-English, but rather speaks in a (probably made up) dialect that sounds as if it could have been a lingo from Micronesia.  She chatters to the recovering Stewart Granger constantly, and protects him.  We can relate to her, and she draws our sympathy, though we never get to know her very well.

It is a telling aspect of Granger’s self-serving character when he muses, “I never learned her name.”

Stewart Granger plays a sneering, greedy rascal, and so deadly charming that Ann Blyth cannot help but be attracted to him and utterly innocent to the kind of con game this guy is playing.  Granger is good in this role of bad boy adventurer, so sexy that he commands every scene he’s in.  Ann’s relationship with husband Robert Taylor is warm and tender, but placid compared to the energy Granger brings.  When Granger steps in and plants doubt in her mind as to Taylor’s worthiness as a man, she is caught between a man she loves and a man who excites her.

A striking scene when Granger takes her in his arms, and she forgets all about Robert Taylor, until she glances over Granger’s shoulder and sees her husband watching her. 

She is shocked at how the scene must look to him, and she when she returns to their cabin, she cannot even adequately apologize, overwhelmed by shame.

The title is a phrase and family motto in the ship’s log, “All the brothers were valiant…and all the sisters were virtuous.”  She will have to earn back her husband’s trust, as he will have to earn back her respect.

Directed by Richard Thorpe, the move is punctuated by some excellent scenes—as simple as the sunny morning Mr. Taylor visits his old captain, Lewis Stone.  Now retired, Stone clearly savors his quiet life on land after a long career at sea.  He lifts a small cluster of flowers from his garden for Taylor to smell, regarding them as a kind of wondrous miracle.  He was without flowers for three years at a time at sea.  It’s a touching moment. This was the wonderful Lewis Stone’s last film.  He died suddenly of a heart attack two months before it was released.

Other great scenes are far more technically complicated, such as the storm where Taylor and his mate fight the ship’s wheel to keep the ship steady, while Ann Blyth steps out, dressed like the men in a coat and Sou’wester, because she wants to share her husband’s experience. 

“We must never leave each other alone.  We must always keep close to each other.”

Obviously, the scene was done in a controlled environment in the studio, but this makes it all the more worth admiring.  There is no CGI here, no real ship at sea, but a set that is tossed and drenched in gallons of pouring water and spray that evokes the experience that we can share on a human level, and does not remove us from the human emotions with a lot of technological razzle-dazzle.

Another is the scene where the longboats go out to harpoon the whale.  Most of this is rear-screen projection, but it’s done extremely well.  The whale is pierced with the harpoon, and takes off, his great tail rising into the air and pounding into the sea, pulling the men on the rope in what in my neck of the woods is called a “Nantucket sleigh ride.”  It’s a thrilling scene, where danger faced by these men includes the high risk of failure, the risk of injury and losing their lives in an instant.

(Speaking of my neck of the woods, they pronounce the name of the ship, Pequot, as pee-co.  It’s supposed to be pee-quot, after the Indian nation hereabouts.  Somebody seemed to have thought it was a French word.)

The scene where they are successful in bringing a whale aboard and we see, without a lot of words or explanation, the fascinating process of cutting up the whale blubber, boiling it for oil, and storing the oil in casks below decks in this era where whale oil was as important a commodity as crude oil is today. 

We see the hard work involved, and Ann Blyth demonstrates the abominable smell of the process.

A great shot where, having arrived at an island, Ann and Robert Taylor look forward to going ashore for a little down time, and in the window of their cabin, we see a man rowing towards the ship.  It is long-lost Stewart Granger.  A foreshadowing of trouble, he will turn their tidy little world upside down.

Finally, a shocking fight scene at the end between Stewart Granger, brandishing our old favorite, a belaying pin… (We haven’t seen one of those since our discussion of The World in His Arms – 1952, here.)…and Keenan Wynn, who comes at him a harpoon.  

It’s quite graphic, especially the sound effect of the hollow, stomach-turning thwunk of the belaying pin smashing on Keenan Wynn’s forehead and the swatch of red blood pasted there in a sickening instant.

I won’t tell you how the story ends, though it’s fairly predictable—again, like a routine assignment off the filmmaking assembly line.  One routine aspect of the movie that is such fun is the cast of familiar character actors who populate the rowdy crew, including Keenan Wynn as a really nasty guy, Peter Whitney in a strong role as a turncoat, and a couple of fellows we meet in other posts in this series: Michael Pate, who would play the village idiot in Thunder on the Hill (1951) which we discussed here, and John Doucette, so terrific as the post commander in the Wagon Train episode of “The Fort Pierce Story” which we discussed here.

One scene that the preview audience responded to in July 1953 was the brief sight of Ann and Robert Taylor getting married in church before the voyage.  According to Hedda Hopper’s column:

Ann Blyth got a special hand when she appeared on the screen in a wedding gown.

She had been married in real life the month before.

Have a look here at the trailer for All the Brothers Were Valiant:

Here is a neat set of  "liner notes"for Miklós Róza’s score for this movie here at Film Score Monthly.
If All the Brothers Were Valiant was also a routine assignment for Ann Blyth as well as her male co-stars, Rose Marie, which we discussed here, was slated next and filming began shortly after her wedding, with the hope that MGM would now showcase their new star in the big-budget musicals that were this studio’s specialty.

Happily, All the Brothers Were Valiant is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.

Come back next Thursday when we continue our look at Ann Blyth’s historical costume dramas, and go farther back in time, with The Golden Horde (1951) where she is a Persian princess guarding her kingdom from attack by the forces of Genghis Khan.  She does not use a belaying pin.

Classic Images, February 1995, “Ann Blyth: Ann of a Thousand Smiles” by Lance Erickson Ghulam.

Milwaukee Sentinel, December 2, 1952, syndicated column by Louella Parsons.

Toledo Blade, July 21, 1953, syndicated column by Hedda Hopper.

 THANK the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

TRIVIA QUESTION:  I've recently been contacted by someone who wants to know if the piano player in Dillinger (1945-see post here) is the boogie-woogie artist Albert Ammons. Please leave comment or drop me a line if you know.
UPDATE:  This series on Ann Blyth is now a book - ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR. -

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.

 "Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey

"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films

"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings''

"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood

Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. 
by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.

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.

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