Thursday, August 24, 2017

For each man, his own hands - Watch on the Rhine - 1943

Watch on the Rhine (1943) is a tale of resistance against fascism and the price of commitment.  In its drawing-room intrigue on the showdown between Nazis, enablers of fascism, those who resist, and those who are completely naïve about the evil forces around them, it focuses on the motivations, regrets, and fears of a single resistance fighter.  Paul Lukas, who won the Academy Award for his sensitive portrayal, is asked by Lucille Watson, his American mother-in-law, who gives his family refuge, about why he must always sacrifice for the cause against fascism?  Why not leave the job to somebody else?

“But why must it always be your hands?”

He answers, “For each man, his own hands.  He has to sleep with them.”

A day of reckoning comes to each person, for different reasons, and at different times.  What we see today in American society commonly, and not so furtively called The Resistance is also a fight against fascism, but it is taking the form of a social movement, with brave public protests, and sometimes with casualties, but for everyone there is a price to pay.  Watch on the Rhine has always been one of my favorite movies, and one of the aspects of the movie which I find so fascinating is the treatment of the Paul Lukas character.  He is both a hero, and a fanatic, and yet he is a most mild-mannered gentleman, loving and kindly to his wife and children, rather beaten and weary in middle-age, and by his own admission, fearful.  He is an unlikely hero, and his very gentleness and empathy, his being haunted over his resistance activities and what harm they do to his family makes him a very compelling character. But he has a backbone of steel and snaps into action like someone who never questions his own motives.

We have discussed Watch on the Rhine in previous posts: in this one centered on George Coulouris’ villain who is the greatest threat to Paul Lukas, and in this post on American idealism.

Ann Blyth performed with the original Broadway cast (not in the film), with Paul Lukas, George Coulouris, Lucille Watson, Frank L. Wilson, and Eric Roberts.  In my book on Ann’s career, Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star., I go into more detail on the stage play and its impact on American theatre – it was a tremendous hit.  The eloquent script was by Lillian Hellman, and its director, Herman Shumlin, also directed the 1943 film.

We meet the resistance fighter in the very first moments of the movie. He does not look anything like a fighter of Nazis. He is a timid, shuffling family man, shepherding his wife and three children to the United States border with Mexico. They are coming to the United States as refugees from a war-torn Europe. They are nervous about going through customs. We see among the stack of passports stamped by the official that four are identical, and the top one is different from the others. That one is a United States passport because his wife, played by Bette Davis, is an American citizen. The first thing he says when they step over the line into the United States, “And now you are in your own land, Sara, and that is good.” 

Just as the hero of the story does not look like a hero, the bad guys do not look like typical Hollywood Nazis. George Coulouris is a dapper Romanian ex-diplomat. We see him mostly in evening dress, and he is charming, well educated and well spoken. This movie shows us that the real evil are not the Nazis in uniforms, but the parasites among them who use those who are more powerful to get money, favoritism, and some of that power for themselves. Eventually, we get to see the local Nazi ringleader played by Kurt Katch, but he is not a smartly dressed in a commandant’s uniform. He is sloppily dressed in an old sweater playing poker. So far nobody looks as they should.

But he is really quite sinister because he is soulless and crafty. He sits in an office in the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. The Nazis are in the American homeland, close to the center of government. They are close to the bankers, the industrialists who support the regime. This Nazi shuffling cards is far more dangerous to our government than Panzer units.

We then see, in comparison, that George Coulouris is just a pawn. He is most certainly a danger to Paul Lukas, but he is fighting for his own rank and survival as well in a world of fascism. As we noted in our series of posts last summer (The Mortal Storm (1940),  Address Unknown (1944),  Storm Warning (1951),  Keeper of the Flame (1942), and Seven Days in May (1964)) that fascism is cannibalistic. Fascists always eat their own. We may see the correlation in our own time with the co-dependent, but adversarial relationship between Trump and Bannon, between Trump and Mitch McConnell, between Trump and every conservative Republican who needs him to put forth their agenda, but who will inevitably be stabbed in the back by him and possibly even share his fate if they do not shed their complacency.

The play, and the movie, is an examination of America’s innocence and naïveté not just about evil and our impending doom, i.e., entering the war, but the evil whirlwind that created it.

Complacency is the greatest evil in the movie. One of its representations is in the lovely Geraldine Fitzgerald, who plays George Coulouris’ wife, who hates him on principle but who puts up with him for much too long, until it’s almost too late. They sit in the garden as guests of Lucille Watson, themselves refugees from Europe, and Geraldine says, “I just lie still now and hope... Maybe something good will happen.”

There is the complacency of Lucille Watson and her son played by Donald Woods, who will have put Bette Davis and Paul Lukas in danger simply by having a sneak like George Coulouris in their home and giving him shelter; aid and comfort to the enemy, if you will, but also by not resisting. They have embraced American isolationism. They have not taken the moral step of resisting evil.

Paul Lukas resists evil at every turn, because he is practical and knows that fascism will devour his children and others if he does not fight it, and also because he is an idealist who believes that the world can be better. It is the fascinating picture of a sane fanatic, though he does worry, “Maybe now I am sick, too.”  He has risked all to fight the Nazis, given up his engineering career, put his family in danger numerous times, they must always be on the run, and are often hungry. Is this the picture of a responsible husband and father, a protector and provider? He struggles with this dilemma.

There is, despite its sober message, a great deal of humor in this movie, and inspiration. But it is the discussion of one’s personal commitment to ideals that is most interesting to me. There is much food for thought in this movie.

The play and the screenplay are very neatly and intricately constructed. The cast are all splendid. The arrangement of the characters on screen to show their power struggles, their weaknesses in relationship to each other is excellent work by Director Shumlin, and it is quite interesting to see that though this is his first motion picture, he was as adept at understanding the perspective of the camera as he apparently was the power of stage blocking.

We can also incidentally note that Lucille Watson was a conservative Republican and Bette Davis was a liberal Democrat, but they could both contribute their talent to this noble Hollywood film that challenges American ideals and American commitment.

When Paul Lukas remarks to Lucille Watson that each man must decide for himself the level of his own commitment, “for each man his own hands. He has to sleep with them,” Donald woods replies, “I guess that’s how we should all feel. But you have a family. Isn’t there someone else who hasn’t a wife and children?”

Lukas replies, “Each could find his own excuse. Some have bullet holes. Some have fear of the camps, and many are getting old. Each could find a reason; many find it. My children are not the only children in the world, even to me.”

There were at least three radio versions of this play and movie of which I am aware. The first, which contains only scenes, is part of the 15 minute Treasury Star Parade promoting the selling of war bonds. The host is Fredric March. Paul Lukas and Mady Christians, who played the Bette Davis role on Broadway, play their characters and also have a brief interview with Fredric March. It was done during the road show of Watch on the Rhine in 1942 after it closed on Broadway and just before the motion picture was made.

Another version was made for Screen Guild Theater October  1, 1944 to promote the film. It stars Paul Lukas, Bette Davis, Lucille Watson, George Coulouris, and Donald woods, who all appeared in the movie.

Yet another version was made for Academy Award Theater August 7, 1946 again with Paul Lukas as the only member of either the original Broadway play or the movie to appear in this particular cast.

The play, when it was first produced in 1941 before we entered World War II, was a lightning rod for discussion on our susceptibility to fascism, not just homegrown Ku Klux Klan clowns and German-American Bund rallies, but also brought speculation on our possible insidious adoption of authoritarianism to which Europe seemed so susceptible. Would foreign agents be able to introduce that kind of corruption here, using our own isolationism, our apathy and disinterest for political intrigue against us? The banker, the industrialist, the press, sit like automatons around the poker table and watch the soulless Nazi deal them cards. 

Lucille Watson and Donald Woods play host to a viper in their midst. Geraldine Fitzgerald stays with her husband, knowing he is evil, because standing up to him is too unpleasant. Then Paul Lukas, Bette Davis, and three kids straggle into the room after an exhausting journey of possibly 7,000 miles, thinking they are on a holiday in America, the safest place on earth. It would be difficult to pick out who in this cast of characters is the most gullible of all.  One by one, each in his or her own way, become resistors.  We don’t know the end of that story.

The play, incidentally, was produced again in Washington, D.C., this past February at the Arena Stage with Marsha Mason in the Bette Davis role.  Read the review here by John Stoltenberg.  The first paragraph indicates this story is still relevant:

Whatever this play meant to Broadway audiences when it debuted in 1941, just prior to America’s entry into a war of resistance to fascism abroad, what matters now is what it means to audiences just as America has entered a war of resistance to fascism here at home. Does Lillian Hellman’s principled script—now in a praiseworthy production on the waterfront at Arena Stage—stand the test of time? Does it warrant viewing, in other words, as a Watch on the Potomac?

Judging from audience response on opening night, the answer is yes.

"Watch on the Potomac," indeed.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Punching Nazis in the Face - The Best Years of Our Lives - 1946

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) is rich with profound and moving scenes.  The current events of the past week bring to mind the scene with Ray Teal in the drugstore.  He is, as we learn by his conversation, a far-right fanatic, one of those who believed President Roosevelt started the war, and that the Nazis were the good guys. 

Harold Russell stops in the drugstore to visit Dana Andrews, who works behind the counter as a soda jerk.  Ray Teal notices Harold Russell’s prosthetic hooks:

He says, “Terrible to see a guy like you that had to sacrifice himself, and for what?”

Harold Russell responds, “’And for what?’  I don’t get you, Mister.”

“We let ourselves get sold down the river.  We were pushed into the war.”

“Sure, by the Japs and the Nazis.”

“No, the Germans had nothing against us.  They just wanted to fight the Limeys and the Reds.  And they would have whipped them, too, if we didn’t get deceived into it by a bunch of radicals in Washington.”

“What are you talking about?”

Ray Teal taps his newspaper, likely a publication that fans his views and his inbred ignorance, and strokes his arrogance.  “We fought the wrong  people, that’s all.  Just read the facts, my friend.  Find out for yourself why you had to lose your hands.  And then go out and do something about it.”

Dana Andrews, who has been listening, interrupts.  “You’d better pay your check, Brother, and go home.”

Ray Teal, insulted, fires back to the hired help, “Well, who do you think you are?”

“Pay the cashier right over there.”

Ray Teal huffs, “That’s another thing.  Every soda jerk in this country’s got an idea he’s somebody.”

Teal goes to the cashier.  Homer follows him, wanting to pursue Teal's meaning.  “Look here, Mister what are you selling anyway?”

Teal proudly, stubbornly announces, “I’m not selling anything but plain, old-fashioned Americanism.”

Homer replies, angrily, “Some Americanism.  So we’re all a bunch of suckers, hey?  So we should have been on the side of the Japs and the Nazis, hey?”

Teal taps his folded newspaper, “Again, I say, just look at the facts.”

Homer blows up, they argue.  Homer wants to punch him, but can’t because of his prosthetic hooks.  So Dana Andrews sails over the lunch counter to break up the fight, and punches the American Nazi in the face.  It is a satisfying thing to watch.  

It will not change Teal’s views, however.  We probably know that even though we never see him again in the movie.  We can imagine he will avoid Andrews on sight from now on, and feel himself to be a victim, not just of Dana Andrews, but of a society where his dumbass and putrid views are polar opposite to what the Constitution prescribes. 

Neither do we see any resulting lawsuits against Andrews for the assault, but then the movies like to end arguments with punches, and end bad guys with instant death; the courtroom that should be the final arbiter usually isn't dramatic enough for Hollywood.

It is a brave and prescient scene for the day, acknowledging that not all Americans were united about the war, and that being anti-Nazi was going to have to be a stance we would need to continue to take if we wanted to keep ourselves free.

The bitter scene is followed by a tender, touching scene, as Homer notices the flag pin that fell off Teal’s lapel and landed in the floor.  Homer picks up the flag pin with remarkable dexterity with his hook, and puts it in his jacket breast pocket, near his heart.

Dana Andrews may have landed the punch, but Homer saved democracy by scooping it up off the dirty floor and protecting it.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

We Hold These Truths - Hollywood Broadcast

A week after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a program celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights was produced on all four radio networks of the day – CBS, NBC Red and Blue networks, and the Mutual network.  It was narrated by James Stewart, and a host of Hollywood players joined him in bringing to life not only the struggles of post-Revolutionary War America to come up with this Bill of Rights, but how important it was to reflect on it, and rely on it, in a time of modern troubles.  The program was performed live.

It is a remarkable and deeply emotional dramatization that not only speaks to us today, but sings, shouts, cries, and cheers.  Norman Corwin wrote the beautiful script, performed on December 15, 1941, and it is estimated over half the U.S. population listened to it.  Performed in a Hollywood studio, live hookups also included performances in New York City, and an address by President Franklin D. Roosevelt from Washington, D.C.  Bernard Herrmann composed original music for the program, and at the very end of the show, Maestro Leopold Stokowski conducted “The Star Spangled Banner.”

James Stewart was, at that time, a corporal in the Army Air Corps, loaned to the project for the occasion.  His fellow players included Edward Arnold, Lionel Barrymore, Walter Brennan Marjorie Main, Bob Burns, Walter Huston, Edward G. Robinson, Rudy Vallee, and Orson Welles.

Walter Huston, rolling his r’s, introduces the program.  Then, the familiar voice of Lionel Barrymore is brought to the mic.

“My name is Barrymore. I’m one of several actors gathered in the studio in California….”  He joins 130 million fellow Americans in praise of a document “that men have fought for, that men are fighting for…”

He announces the cast, and adds, “Our names are meaningless unless your names are added.”  

Then one by one, the cast fills in, leaving their Hollywood personas and adopting the guise, in our imaginations, of post-Revolutionary Americans.  Jimmy Stewart like his character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939),which we covered in this post, leads us on a tour of modern Washington, D.C., and as he describes monuments and their inscriptions, we are reminded of the movie, for he is intentionally channeling Mr. Smith’s awe and wonder.  

Not only the message, but the script beams with elegant writing, no longer in fashion.  Perhaps it is too idealistic, and we have learned to distrust everything.  

On the National Archives building it is written,  “ What is past, is prologue.”  We hear the clicking of footsteps as Stewart climbs the stone steps to see the Bill of Rights in glass – the old parchment with faded writing.  Then Stewart and the other actors proceed to bring it alive.  “The words are dim, but not the meaning of the words…”  Perhaps not.  Perhaps we need this lesson.

Stewart brings us to the hall as the great men rise to speak and call the roll, to sign their names the draft when Constitution is written, which is then brought back to the states for review, but the people are suspicious.  They want guarantees of certain protections.  And so, this is the story of how the Bill of Rights came to be added as the most important addendum in history.  

Other actors jump in to be those common people in the different states who express their curiosity for the new document, but who want more guarantees, more explanations of just what they have won in the Revolutionary War.

Walter Huston is a blacksmith.   He doesn’t want anyone telling him he has to pray the way somebody else tells him.  Doesn’t like state religion.  Wants to make sure there won’t be any.

Others are suspicious of authority.  They know that just wanting law and order isn’t enough—Nero had such.   

Marjorie Main plays a woman whose husband died in the war.  She wants guarantees that he didn’t die  in vain.

Edward Arnold is a bricklayer who argues that the work is unfinished.  There’s only a foundation and no house.

So many voices, so much dissent, so much yearning for rights.   We are taken on a journey not only through history, but through the minds and souls of this nation.

Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, James Madison lend their voices, and George Mason warning us not only about a monarchy, but a “tyrannical aristocracy” taking over, the monied class.

Now the First Congress begins sifting through the amendments to the Constitution and hammering them out for the future.  It’s not an easy job, but it’s important and they persist.  Stewart passionately narrates, cajoles, shouts.

Most profound is Orson Welles’ impassioned speech.  He takes over at this point and adds the other voices to the founders of the Bill of Rights – not just the men in Congress, but from the victims of the ages – “They had much help, the many nameless and unknown – from bleeding mouths, burnt flesh – from numberless and nameless agonies.  The delegates from dungeons, they were there.  The delegates from ashes at the bottoms of the stakes were there.”

We hear a voice, weak, pleading.

Orson continues, “The gallows delegates, whose corpses lifted gently in the breeze, they too…”

His voice grows booming, horrified:  “The Christians killed for being Christians, Jews for being Jews, the Quakers hanged in Boston town, they made a quorum also… The murdered men, the lopped off hands, the shattered limbs, the red welts where the whip lash bit into the back.  Must you know what they said?  Must you know how they argued?  Must you be told the evidence?

“Listen, then!”

We hear a blood-curdling scream.

“That was an argument for an amendment.”

They are words for our times, how shockingly, sickeningly current.

“How much of all this must be told to be believed?  How much of this must be diagramed: X marks the spot where decency was last observed?”

Nero was there, Caligula, Cotton Mather, all the tyrants were observing in the hall.  “All the long and bloody history of fanaticism, murder in the name of God.”  

Christ was there too.  “He, too, sat in the Congress, the mild Man, with scars in His hands and feet where the spikes went through.  He was a consultant in the business at hand.  Had He not died because the rulers of the realm denied free speech?  Was He not nailed up on a cross between two thieves because His preachments were considered treason?”

Orson growls, wails his words.  “Out of the agonies, out of crisscrossed scars of all the human race they made a Bill of Rights for their own people…To stand against the enemies within, connivers, fakers, those who lust for power, those who make of their authority an insolence.”

Listen to Orson’s impassioned speech, and think of now.

The Bill of Rights “Threw up a bulwark…and made a sign for their posterity against the bigots, the fanatics, bullies, lynchers, race haters, the cruel men, the spiteful men, the sneaking men, the pessimists…”

The Bill of Rights is ratified!  Jimmy Stewart breathes easier and brings the document to the thirteen states.

Then Edward Arnold, Walter Huston, Marjorie Main, Walter Brennan and others join in as the amendments are read, each one, and voices answer to illustrate what each one means.  We go to the homes of farmers, the blacksmith shop, all the new citizens.  The war gave them separation from Great Britain, but the Constitution and the Bill of Rights makes them citizens.

We hear a woman tending the grave of her soldier husband.  We hear a Colonial folk tune.  Through all, James Stewart’s folksy ruminating weaves a thread to guide us to the present.  Edward G. Robinson is a political protester who praises the rights that allow him to speak and fight corruption in city hall.

“A promise is a promise,” Jimmy Stewart says, “Has America’s been kept?”

It is a fair question, but in only a short time Japanese Americans would have their rights taken away by virtue of their ethnicity.  It was not the Bill of Rights that failed them; it was their fellow citizens and a president and government who shamefully allowed their mistreatment.  Even in those days when war was declared and Americans were coming together for mutual support, even in times of great pride, patriotism and cheerleading, something monstrously unfair could occur.  How much easier it is to occur in times when we are not one, when we are fighting amongst ourselves?  When a foreign enemy knows how to divide and conquer.  Abraham Lincoln said:

“From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia...could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide.” 

We've come to that suicidal brink, however, with the aid of Vladimir Putin’s mafia, and the fascism that is rotting our government. We have far superior technology in our media than they did when this radio program was broadcast in December 1941, but we have lost the gift of eloquence that they possessed then.  Such well-written and carefully crafted words would today seem to be talking above the heads of the crowds whom the spokesmen try to reach.  Maybe because they are above the intelligence of the spokesmen.

This was a live program, so neatly coordinated, so passionately and intimately put together.  Listen to this program and marvel not only at how it was written, acted, and produced according to the technology of the day when we were only a week at war, but marvel – for God’s sake, marvel at the message of warning, of love, and of integrity, of pride for our Bill of Rights.

At the end of the program, James Stewart introduces in a soft, gentle voice President Roosevelt, who then speaks live from Washington, D.C.   “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the people of the United States.”

Of the people.

It was reported by Screen Guide magazine in the March 1942 issue, from which some of these photos are taken, that after James Stewart introduced the President, he ripped off his earphones at the mic, and burst into tears.

Listen to We Hold These Truths or download at the Internet Archive, or here at YouTube.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Requiescat in pace - June Foray - 1917-2017

Animator and director Chuck Jones said of June Foray, "June Foray is not the female Mel Blanc; Mel Blanc was the male June Foray."

For a cartoon voice artist, there can be no greater tribute.  There were other tributes as well during her long career, many awards, among them she holds the honor of being the oldest person--at age 94--to be nominated for, and win, an Emmy.  June Foray died last week just shy of her 100th birthday.

I take particular pride in noting that she came from my neck of the woods, western Massachusetts.  She was born and raised in Springfield, graduated from Classical High School in that city, and her first work as a voice artist came on the local Springfield radio station WBZA.

Fortunately for us, her work was recorded on video, audio, children's records, a wide array of media--and the sound media that gave her a career will continue to give us enjoyment of her talent.   She lived a century, and her work reflects the media explosion of that remarkable century.  Here is a clip on YouTube of only some of her voice characters.  Have a listen, and look at her cartoon characters.  You can't help but smile.

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