Thursday, December 20, 2018

Office Christmas Party - The Desk Set and The Apartment

No one ever sings, “Oh, there’s no place like the office for the holidays…” but that is where we visit this Christmas, the office parties in two movies: The Desk Set (1957) and The Apartment (1960).

These movies, made a few years apart in the “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” (another movie) era of America’s booming economy on the shoulders of big business, reflect an age where large companies truly had a paternalistic hand in the lives of their employees.  It was the era of pensions, medical coverage, and moving up the ladder to covet the corner office.  Men benefited more than women in this old boys’ environment; they created the glass ceiling, but independent women, too, made careers in this fast-paced if regimented world.  Some, like Katharine Hepburn in The Desk Set rose to positions of responsibility and authority; some, like Shirley MacLaine, who failed her typing test and could not meet the requirements of a clerical worker, were relegated to the bottom rung as elevator operators.  Both women became involved in office romances and both ill-used by them.

For both men and women, in an era when suburbia was the ultimate goal and haven, the office remained the focus of their social contacts. 

The Christmas party scenes in these movies were all-out bacchanalias, where unleashed Yuletide revelry revealed the wanton excesses of the most regimented office worker.

Jack Lemmon’s corporate insurance office houses over 31,000 employees in New York City.  His desk on the 19th floor is among rows of others in a seemingly endless pattern that illustrates the orderliness, the discipline, and the drudgery of their work.  Though the theme of The Desk Set, made three years earlier, is the introduction of a computer to replace office workers, the only reference made to computers in The Apartment is Lemmon’s joke at the Christmas party that drunken office workers are being ritually sacrificed and punched full of holes like the computer punch cards of the day.

On his desk is a phone, in-basket, and a large electric adding machine that makes a racket like a machine gun while performing calculations.  The transformation of his office from quiet soulless cavern to party central begins when we see a group of telephone operators abandon their switchboards when one of them yells, “There’s a swingin’ party on the 19th floor!”

Suddenly, we are on the 19th floor where riotous dancing on desks to a tribal chant of “Jingle Bells” and couples kiss in semi-private corners and the alcohol flows freely into paper cups from the break room.  

In The Desk Set, Katharine Hepburn’s department, the research room of a television network in what was really the RCA building has its own Christmas tree with presents exchanged by her staff: Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill, and Sue Randall.  Just as at Jack Lemmon’s office, the daily grind is called off this last working day before Christmas.  Each department has its fling, and the workers wander from one office to another like night club table hoppers.  Spencer Tracy, a visiting efficiency expert who is slated to bring a large computer to Hepburn’s research department, notes the obvious, “Nothing very much gets done around here today, does it?”

They present him with a long scarf of his old school colors, and their party is interrupted by phone calls asking for the names of Santa’s reindeer and Christmas trivia.  A piano is hauled up from one of the studios and Kate sings a verse of “Night and Day” while Spencer accompanies her on bongo drums.  I love her snorting laugh. The corks pop, the champagne flows into paper cups, and the office is the place to celebrate Christmas in a way no one does at home.

But in both movies, the celebration is rocked by sadness.  In the middle of his party, a slightly tipsy Jack Lemmon discovers that Shirley MacLaine, whom he loves, is romantically involved with his boss and having trysts in Lemmon’s own apartment.  He drowns his sorrows in a bar that Christmas Eve, and returns home to discover Shirley there, unconscious from a suicide attempt.  He saves her life, with the help of the doctor next door, and spends a quiet Christmas Day tending to her and worrying about her.  

In The Desk Set, their gaiety is a little forced, because when they return to work after the Christmas holiday, they know that Spencer Tracy will have his computer system installed by then, and they fear for their jobs.  “I understand thousands of people are losing their jobs because of these electronic brains.”

The enormous blinking, buzzing, punch card spitting EMERAC may mean the death knell for their careers and a cozy office life of doing work by hand, being able to work at their own pace, eating, drinking, and smoking in their office as if it were their living room at home, and the loss of a sense of ownership of their office.  EMERAC will rule the roost when they return.

It predicts the future in the American workplace in that respect, but from her worries about her career, Kate drifts to another worrisome topic, the romance with exec Gig Young that seems to go nowhere after years.  In the end, Spencer Tracy will shake up her world in more ways than one; and Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine have also, in a crazy way, been brought together by the office.

Holiday office parties tend not to be carried on with such wild abandon these days, most are likely nothing more than pizza in the break room during lunch hour.  In what has been termed our “gig economy,” millions will spend the Friday before Christmas alone at their computers in a home office, a library or coffee shop, on an iPad or a phone at a mall food court, wistfully thinking about the line, “There’s a swingin’ party on the 19th floor!”

From my home office to yours, Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 14, 2018

Walter Abel

“Boy!  Are we happy!” Walter Abel yells during yet another clutch moment in Holiday Inn (1942) as the conniving, frenetic talent agent in a performance that is delightful and exhausting.  In contrast, his scene in So Proudly We Hail! (1943) as the chaplain is controlled and deeply emotional for being so.  Both roles leave us with a Christmas theme appropriate to this time of year.

This is my entry into the What a Character! Blogathon hosted by those wonderful classic film bloggers Aurora, Kellee, and Paula.  See the link for details and please visit the other great blogs participating in this fun event.

Walter Abel was in his forties at the time he
performed in those two films, with a long career of varied roles behind him.  His first film was in 1918, but he spent the 1920s on stage and appeared in many prestigious Broadway hits by the time the Great Depression rolled around, and Hollywood provided a safe haven for many out-of-work stage actors.

One of his most important roles in that period is in The Three Musketeers (1935), in which he played the swashbuckling and romantic D’Artagnan.  Those of us so used to seeing him in a variety of comic or quietly authoritative roles—which seemed to suit him equally like the toggling of switch, might well be surprised to see him as a young, athletic heartthrob.  He was worthy of lead roles, but he was one of those actors who managed to turn even a small character part into the lead for even just a few moments.

Take his scene in So Proudly We Hail, which we previously discussed here:  A group of Army nurses are on a ship bound for the Philippines during World War II, and he is the company chaplain.  On Christmas Eve, 1942, only a few weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor that has dropkicked civilian America, and its previously peacetime army, into a frightening new sphere, Walter Abel conducts a makeshift Christmas party on board ship.  Standing next to a goofy-looking rope Christmas tree in a lounge cabin cramped with service personnel, including rescued crew of a torpedoed ship, the chaplain starts off the party with a few words of encouragement, wrapped in a kind of prayer. 

“You must forgive me for being sentimental. We’re a sentimental people, and I think we’re proud of it. Despite the fact that our enemies deride us for it, it makes us stronger… All I want to say in the tragedy all about us is—have faith. Not a blind faith, but a faith in those things in which we believe.  We must have faith in these things, such faith in ourselves, such faith in mankind…that we will fight to the death to make those tender and sentimental beliefs like Christmas a reality forever.  Now, God Bless us, everyone.”

His delivery is measured, with a slightly wavering voice that is tender and emotional.  Later on in the movie, he will perform a marriage ceremony between Claudette Colbert and George Reeves in which his delivery and diction is so precise it sounds almost Shakespearian.

But the Christmas party speech, a kind of Cliff Notes of the “Wilcoxon Speech” from Mrs. Miniver (1942), is quickly followed, characteristically, by a rousing instrumental swing version of “Jingle Bells” just so we aren’t embarrassed.

In Holiday Inn, he must have dropped 20 pounds for all the running he does, and he illustrates his character’s excitement with his whole body, jerking, shrugging, throwing himself into double-takes.  One of my favorite lines is when he attempts to describe an arrangement of orchids he orders from a florist, “A dozen, loose, looking like they don’t care.”

And his covering for yet another lie, “But now I’m sincere!”

In the 1950s, Walter Abel, with that marvelous speaking voice, performed as a concert narrator for the Philadelphia Orchestra under conductor Eugene Ormandy in Aaron Copland’s Portrait of Lincoln.  I wish I could have seen that.  If anybody knows if that was recorded, let me know.

Please visit the other blogs participating in the What a Character! Blogathon hosted Aurora, Kellee, and Paula.  

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Prelude to War - Requiescat in Pace, Greatest Generation

Tomorrow, December 7th, marks the 77th anniversary of the day America stood on the precipice of World War II, and a generation -- now referred to as The Greatest Generation, faced another moment of destiny.

Yesterday, we held a national day of mourning for former President George Herbert Walker Bush, who was our last president to have served in World War II.  Characteristically of that generation, he enlisted on his eighteenth birthday.

Here is archival footage of twenty-year-old  Lt. J.G. Bush being rescued after being shot down.

To keep faith with that Greatest Generation and the continuing gift of freedom they have left us, we need to remind ourselves of the reasons they had to give up their youth, in many cases, their lives, to a higher purpose.

Hollywood contributed a unique perspective and legacy of that era.  We classic film buffs are familiar with the wartime dramas, the musicals, the patriotic messages, as well as the number of actors who left their careers to enter the military and the hundreds of others who supported the nation's war mission by entertaining troops, appearing at bond drives, and volunteering in many ways.

We've discussed in this previous post about the Hollywood Commandos or the FMPU which produced wartime training films.  One of the most important projects made by this unit was director Frank Capra's Why We Fight series.  This was meant to inform, inspire, and provide the necessary background to the purpose of why the service personnel were required to fight.  Training them to use certain weapons, or how to act in certain situations was not the only important education they received in boot camp.  The fight against fascism was as intellectual and emotional as it was tactical.

The first film in that series, Prelude to War is up at the top of this post.  One hopes that in an era where fascism has found a foothold in our country, and young people know next to nothing about World War II, that an imperfect, decades-old training film, called "propaganda" today, is not so remote that it would not touch even the most stupid and cynical teenager posing for a class photo while giving the Nazi salute, or painting swastika graffiti, or draping a rope noose where it will be noticed.

Requiescat in pace, President Bush.  Requiescat in pace, Greatest Generation.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Movies in Our Time - On sale!

A holiday shopping announcement!

Now through December 31st, the eBook version of my collection of essays on classic film, Movies in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century, will be on sale for $2.99 on Amazon.

The book is also available in print.  

Thursday, November 22, 2018

An Underdog Thanksgiving

When I was a child, I was a big fan of "ace reporter" Sweet Polly Purebread.  As an adult, I occasionally find myself singing the "Oh, where, oh where has my Underdog gone, oh where, oh where can he be?" when I am roaming around parking lots trying to remember where I left my car.

Admittedly, it I cannot say with certainty it has ever helped me find my car; and a flying dog wearing a red union suit never showed up to guide my way, but it did pass the time until I found it.

Underdog was always my favorite hero: brave, gallant, extremely humble and well-mannered, and spoke in rhyming couplets.  If he were real, I would have asked him to marry me.

When he became a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1965, my world was complete.  He remained my favorite part of the parade until he was retired in 1984.  I still miss him.

The series Underdog ran from 1964 through 1967, and then in repeats in syndication for a few more years after that.  He did not outlive my childhood, and yet, he lives on in golden memory.  

Wally Cox voices Underdog, and Norma MacMillan is the career-woman, Sweet Polly Purebread.  She did a number of voice roles in cartoons, some television shows, but you may also remember her from Vaughn Meader's 1962 hit comedy album parodying President John F. Kennedy and his family, The First Family, where she voiced the children, John-John and Caroline Kennedy.  (The 22nd of November will invariably bring to mind other memories today.) She was also the mother of Alison Arngrim, who played Nellie on Little House on the Prairie.

The above episode is a Thanksgiving-themed adventure where one of show's villains, Simon Bar Sinister (whose speech is meant to mimic Lionel Barrymore. Another villain in the series, gangster Riff Raff, is meant to parody George Raft), tries to take over the city in another evil plot, but he can't get through the Thanksgiving parade.  So he invents a time travel device "a time bomb" - how clever is that -- to go back to the First Thanksgiving and cause discord between the Indians and the Pilgrims.

Of course, the Pilgrims do not sound like the Pilgrims of 1621, and their "fort" is rather grand; and the native Wampanoag people did not have teepees or sound like Jay Silverheels reading the part of Tonto on The Lone Ranger.  Still, it's a masterful plot with modern lessons of not so much brotherly love as the more practical advice of not allowing your enemy to divide you.  It's a lesson for our times (and pre-dates any elaborate plot on Pinky and the Brain by decades).

When you watch the above episode, you will not be transported, like Simon and his toady, Cad, to 1621 Massachusetts; you'll be sent back only as far as the mid-1960s of my early childhood.  

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Desperate Hours - 1955

The Desperate Hours (1955) brought the escaped convict genre to suburbia. That’s where everyone else was headed in the 1950s, and the house in the neighborhood is as much a character in this film as the three outlaws and the family they terrorize.

This is our entry into the Outlaws blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Please check out this link to read some other great blogs on this sinister subject.

In The Desperate Hours, Humphrey Bogart plays the lead bad guy in his second-to-last film and the very last bad guy role he was to play in movies. He shows he’s still got it.

Dewey Martin plays his younger brother who has broken out of prison with him. The third member of their gang is played by Robert Middleton, who is arguably the most frightening member of the trio.

The movie begins with an audience perspective shot as we move down a suburban subdivision. There are lawns and trees, children, a dog or two, people walking on sidewalks. It is deceptively peaceful. The camera moves very quickly to one particular home on the block. If the house looks familiar to you from the outside that’s because two years later, Beaver Cleaver lived here. The television sitcom Leave It to Beaver (1957-1963) used this exterior for the Cleaver home.

Fredric March is the head of the clan, doting father and husband and executive, who works “downtown,” a place which with the settlement of suburbia has become more distant and vaguer to us.

Martha Scott is his wife; Mary Murphy is his grown daughter; and the wonderful Richard Eyer, who as we’ve seen was such a standout in films here like Friendly Persuasion (1956) and here in Slander (1957), plays his young son.

Though we see the family gathered together for a cheerful, if rushed, breakfast, it is not all idyllic on the home front. Fredric March does not approve of his daughter’s latest boyfriend, a hotshot young lawyer played by Gig Young. She is rebellious and they argue in the car when he drives her to work “downtown.”

Young Richard no longer wants to kiss his father goodbye when he leaves for school; he’s too man for that now and he does want to does not want to be known by a nickname anymore. He’s an All-American boy, pretty much goes his own way and his sudden streak of independence, while cute in this scene, is going to prove to be a greater problem later on when he tries to rebel against their captors.

The story was written by Joseph Hayes from his novel and his original script which was performed on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre from February to August 1955, the film’s release year. For some years thereafter, it was a popular summer theatre play and the two-level set which was required to tell the story of showing the family in different rooms with the bad guys was always a challenge and always a hit on stage. We take things for granted like a two-story house in the movies, but on stage we appreciate more the architectural skill it takes to build and to work on a two-level open set.

The Broadway version was directed by actor and director Robert Montgomery. Karl Malden played Fredric March’s role as the suburban husband and father, and Paul Newman played the Humphrey Bogart role. We can imagine that the younger gangster in the mid-1950s might have carried a more sinister suspense story because the brothers would have been contemporaries and because they might have appeared more violent and impetuous.

Though Bogart is a generation older than his brother played by Dewey Martin, we can accept them as brothers and accept that Bogart, even though famed for playing dangerous criminals, serves a different function in the screen version. His is rather like a parallel to Fredric March, than to his partner younger brother.  Like March, he is the head of his family, or his gang, and he sometimes has trouble keeping them in line. Fredric March bristles at his daughter’s romance, believing her to still be a kid. Humphrey Bogart is stumped when later in the film his brother rebels not just against his authority but against the whole way of life in which his big brother has raised him.

Bogart and his gang have chosen this house at random, which is certainly an eerie aspect about the story, it could have been any home—maybe even yours. Bogart’s reason for choosing this house was that Richard Eyer has left his bicycle on the front lawn. Bogart knows he would be able to make the family more fearful and more easily cooperative if they have to protect children. This tells us that he has some experience and logic in his craft, and also that he would prefer not to have any trouble if he could avoid it. He intends to hole up here until he can arrange for a former girlfriend to bring them money to escape.  But he also wants to go after the deputy sheriff responsible for putting him in prison.

Arthur Kennedy plays the deputy sheriff, who is the only one among the police officials to take the news of the jailbreak seriously, feeling certain that Humphrey Bogart is coming straight for him. He is not so paranoid as he is analytical, just as logical as Bogart or Fredric March is in this scenario. There is an attempt to turn the story into more or less a triangle to include the efforts of the police to trace Bogart’s whereabouts. This is obviously not something that would have been easily done on stage where the whole story was pretty much set in the home.

Note Bogart’s disgust when he sees that March, whom he resents for his middle-class respectability, has only $800 in his bankbook.  In that era, it would have represented probably something like three or more months’ wages saved.  That may not be terrific in Bogart’s eyes—he’s after all the marbles—but today when it is estimated that only about 18 percent of Americans have three-to-five months’ savings in the bank, then this family is doing okay.

The movie also gives us a lot of familiar faces to pick out in the crowd, Ray Teal as the state police detective, Alan Reed (Fred Flintstone) is another officer, Ray Collins, Simon Oakland will also play police officials, Whit Bissell plays a pensive and intellectual FBI agent. Beverly Garland plays the teacher who drops by and in front of whom March must pretend to be bringing home drinking buddies to cover for her seeing the bad guys. Joe Flynn plays a panicky motorist taken hostage, and poor Walter Baldwin plays the junkman in the greatest danger of all of them.

Shortly after father and daughter leave for work, and Junior’s off to school, mom Martha Scott begins her housecleaning. She brings along a portable radio into every room to listen to music and, of course, to give us the opportunity to hear the news bulletins about the escaped convicts. Later on in the movie, Humphrey Bogart will smash the radio in a fit of anger.

It is interesting that even though this film was released in 1955, we see no television set in the home. It is more than likely that by the mid-1950s, a middle-class home such as this would have a television. I’m not sure why they don’t include one, either because it didn’t figure into the plot, or because the film industry was still chafing with resentment over its new competitor and didn’t want to acknowledge its existence?  Though Fredric March drives an older model car, the movie is not set in the late 1940s—Gig Young’s flashy sportscar alone tells us that.

We might think today that the TV would be a better place than the radio for news bulletins, but this was long before 24-hour news and also it was an era where news broadcasts were infrequent and brief. There were usually only one or two news programs lasting all of about 15 minutes from the 6 o’clock to the 7:30 time frame in the morning, and it was much the same in the early evening from 6 o’clock to about 7:30. We might have one or two news programs 15 minutes in duration. Television news did not really come of age until the 1960s, and much of that, sadly, was launched in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. Newspapers were still king of the news--even of bulletins, with the ability to produce "extras" several times a day.

Robert Middleton, the large hulking Neanderthal of the bad guys with one presumes the IQ of a child, plays with Richard Eyer’s toys in his room and break some of them in frustration when he smacks his head while looking out the window.  He fumbles with a toy bank that looks like a little safe, and he cannot open it. At one point he takes a toy gun and blasts it around the house until Humphrey Bogart tells him knock it off. In one scene—one of director William Wyler’s touches, while Bogart is terrorizing Martha Scott in the foreground, in the background we see Middleton drinking from a milk bottle and spilling it down his chest (just as the boy will do later).  These images of the buffoon are only half-comic.  They also point to Middleton’s mental instability, which is the most dangerous thing about him. These fellows had been in prison, we don’t know for how long, but it’s possible that television would have been a complete novelty to them. I imagine if Robert Middleton’s character was so enthralled by Richard Eyer’s toys, then he might have enjoyed CaptainVideo or Hopalong Cassidy.

Bogart snidely says of Middleton to Martha Scott, “Crude, ain’t he?”

Bogart is commanding in his sneering, angry role, indeed, it is a role he has played many times. There is stubble on his face and over the phone he calls his gun moll “Doll,” like a man from another era, and he is supposed to be. He has no place in modern society.

His younger brother, Dewey Martin, feels this more acutely than Bogey. He is more wide-eyed at the appearance of the house, and at the nubile young daughter. At first, when he enters the daughter’s bedroom while she is at work and sees her canopy bed, he touches the frills on the canopy and brushes his face seductively on them.  It is an image which causes us to think he will present a sexual threat to her, but when he meets the girl and examines the whole house more closely, there is an unexpected change in him.  He is strangely awed and respectful of this world and its people.

Interestingly, the scene with her canopy bed reminds me of the scene in Wyler’s other film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) when Dana Andrews wakes after a drunken night in Teresa Wright’s canopy bed, and he amusedly blows on the canopy’s frills, surprised to find himself in such a feminine haven.

When father and daughter come home from work, and Junior comes home from school, the entire family is held hostage and they are moved from room to room at gunpoint. In some scenes, it even looks as if they are camping in their own home as they try to stay together.

Martin seems more than attracted to daughter Mary Murphy; there is a shy, almost boyish crush he exhibits for her. Bogart notices the attraction and jokes that when they leave, they will take the daughter with them as a hostage just as a present for his younger brother. It is a chilling moment.

But the brother protects the girl from Robert Middleton, who is a far greater danger not only to her but everyone in the house, even to Bogey, because he is so undisciplined and so mentally unstable.

The real terror in the film comes from the sudden destruction of the blessed normality of their everyday lives. They live in a world of 1950s conformity, and though it may get a little stale sometimes, they know they are safe there. Their safety has been shattered not necessarily by three escaped convicts, one of them with a gun, but that the normality is gone and the unknown has entered their lives.

One gun becomes two as Bogart discovers that the family keeps a pistol in the house. This evens up the score a little and makes Bogart happy because Middleton has the other one.

But there is an even greater danger to Bogart than Robert Middleton’s instability. It is his younger brother. Dewey Martin doesn’t want to take over his brother’s life of crime anymore. When Bogart tells him to stick with him, that he got them out of prison and he will take care of him, that he taught him everything he knows – a common manipulation used by the heads of families to keep the younger in line – Dewey Martin disgustedly replies, “You taught me everything, except how to live in a house like this.”

If Dewey Martin was not dissatisfied with his life in prison, he certainly is now because he sees a glaring comparison to how his life has gone. This is a nice home, with a nice family. If Mary Murphy’s beau, Gig Young, is not welcomed by her parents, then what chance would he have? Even though he respectfully calls her, “Miss,” and calls Fredric March, “Sir.”

The family has its own struggles, its own splinters and breakdowns, and coming together. Unfortunately for Fredric March, who tries to shepherd his family through this terrible experience and proves himself to be courageous and very intelligent in how he manages to outmaneuver the bad guys, his greatest handicap is also his greatest treasure – his family. Neither his daughter nor his son obey his explicit instructions and they mess things up, even his wife rebels and throws a monkey wrench into the works. At some point we have to wonder if March just wants to throw his hands up and yell, “All right then, go get yourself killed! I’m sick of talking to you people!”

But he doesn’t. At one point when he is allowed to leave the house on a mission for the bad guys, he stumbles onto the dragnet by the cops who have traced Bogart’s whereabouts, and he has to plead with them to allow him to go back in to mediate the situation because he doesn’t want them shooting up his house and killing his entire family. They reluctantly agree, but give him a gun. He empties it of all the bullets. He takes it with him. The cops think he’s nuts, but we see in the course of his last gambit that he is more clever than anybody.

It is an intricate and interesting movie and fast-paced but I won’t linger too much on the heroics of the family. This blogathon is about outlaws. In the tradition of classic films, none of these outlaws comes to a good end.

We may not mourn Robert Middleton, he’s just too scary and too bad, and has already committed one murder right before our eyes.

Dewey Martin has the greater share of our sympathy and how he meets his end is entirely accidental and tragic because he is escaping his brother and a life he does not want.

Bogart plays his cards all the way to the end, and it’s just March and Bogart at the end. March has outsmarted him because he has managed it so that Bogart holds the gun with no bullets in it.

When March has his own gun, Bogart sneers, “You ain’t got in you.”

March growls, “I’ve got it in me. You put it there.”

Then March does something so effective and perhaps even cruel, to get back at Bogart. Having heard the news about Bogart’s brother’s death – which Bogart doesn’t know – March tells him how his brother died and he sneers and shouts, “You did it! How do you like it?”

This is really the end of Humphrey Bogart. Yes, he has a few more minutes in the film, and yes, he rushes out into the police spotlights and drops down on their front lawn only a few feet from the boy’s bicycle that had brought him to the house in the first place, but it was really upon hearing of the death of his brother, the end of his family, and the collapse of his authority that kills him.

Some may say that Bogart was a little too old to play this role, especially if they had seen Paul Newman play it on Broadway, but this is a different interpretation. Movies are different from plays. We wouldn’t have had all the cops in the play, we wouldn’t have all the bicycles, the milk delivery trucks and the sound of crickets in the evening. We wouldn’t have had March’s bewildered office staff in front of whom he has to pretend, we wouldn’t have had the roadhouse where Dewey Martin tries to escape. We wouldn’t have had the town dump where Robert Middleton commits a cruel and vicious murder.

Bogart was in his element in this role because Bogart was in his own world. Hollywood at this time took its gangster movies from the faux city streets of its backlot and soundstages, to a wider and somehow more complex world on a backlot suburbia. The Cleavers would move into that house – on television of course – and the conformity of suburbia would cover over Bogart, Dewey Martin, and Robert Middleton, like a blanket of snow, masking the ugliness, but not obliterating it.

The 1950s introduced us to new bad guys – psychos, rebellious youth, juvenile delinquents. They would be more at home here in suburbia. They could not be gotten rid of so easily, like the crabgrass on the lawns of the middle-class homeowners; they were rooted and endemic.

Please visit the Outlaws blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association for more great entries on bad guys in film.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Long Live Democracy - Casablanca (1942)

A pivotal moment in the film Casablanca (1942) occurs when Major Strasser and the other Nazis are drowned out in their singing of “Die Wacht am Rhein” by everybody else in the café singing “La Marseillaise.” It is a stirring scene, and one that never fails to bring some of us to tears. It has been reported that the much of cast in that scene were brought to tears as well. In one of those almost supernatural moments when art really does reflect life, the desperate European refugees in the café were played by actors who actually were European refugees. It is a spine-tingling moment of reality in an otherwise not very realistic film.

We revisit Rick’s Café Americain with the bulk of this essay having been previously posted on this blog in 2007, the first year of Another Old Movie Blog.  A great deal has changed in the world since then, though the most comforting aspect of our love of classic films is that the world we explore in them never changes.  We can visit a place and time and it is ever the same, and ever fresh.

Casablanca has become larger than life for us, a film whose reputation has grown with the decades. It will likely always be a favorite for its witty dialogue, its charismatic actors, and its fast-paced plot. It has the irresistible veneer of glamour in an otherwise dark and frightening time.

But, even those of us who love the film cannot overlook the fact that Victor Laszlo and Ilsa Lund would not have played a cat-and-mouse game of hidden threats over cocktails with Nazi officers in French-occupied Africa. The Nazis would have taken both of them into custody the moment they arrived in Casablanca, tortured them, and filmed their corpses with newsreel cameras. The movie would have been over in ten minutes. No cocktails, no white dinner jackets, no game of hide and seek with omnipotent “papers” that will set them free.

In this respect, Casablanca could be called an escapist film, because it gives us heroism and hope, redemption, a fairy tale of intrigue. The most fanciful scene in the movie, carrying this fairy tale along, is the scene with “La Marseillaise” trumping “Die Wacht am Rhein.”

And in that same scene, ironically, we see the real truth of the film, not always recognized, but there. S.Z. Sakall, who plays Carl, fled Hungary in 1939. His three sisters didn’t make it and died in a concentration camp, along with other relatives.

Madeleine LeBeau, pictured above, who played Yvonne, who pines for Rick and who is fought over by the Nazi soldier and the French soldier; and her then real-life husband Marcel Dalio, who played Emil, the gambling room croupier, both escaped from Nazi-occupied France through Lisbon, just as in the film. Reportedly, the visas they obtained for Chile were forgeries, but they managed to arrive in the U.S. through hastily arranged temporary Canadian passports.

Curt Bois, who played the pickpocket, fled Germany in the early 1930s. Helmut Dantine, who played the young Bulgarian man losing at the gambling tables, whose wife beseeches Rick to help them, fled Austria. Dantine was an Austrian who was put into a concentration camp after the Anschluss. He was arrested for leading an anti-Nazi youth movement. He was then nineteen years old.

Mr. Leuchtag, who practices his English by asking his wife the time, “What watch?” was played by Ludwig Stössel, another Austrian who fled after the Anschluss.

Ilka Grünig, who played Mrs. Leuchtag and replies “Ten watch,” escaped Germany in the early 1930s after the Nazis came to power.

Even the Nazis were played by actors who escaped real Nazis. Richard Ryen, who played Colonel Heinze, was a Hungarian-born actor who was actually expelled by the Nazis from Germany. Hans Twardowski, who played the Nazi officer who fights with the French soldier over Yvonne, fled Germany in the early 1930s.

Even Major Strasser, played by Conrad Veidt, escaped the SS, who pursued him for anti-Nazi activities, and he fled to England where he became a British citizen and supported Britain’s war effort with his salary.

There were actually very few American-born actors in the cast of Casablanca and not all of the rest were refugees, but a good many of them were. This gives the film a legitimacy that certain fanciful elements of the script did not.

When you watch the “La Marseillaise” scene, think of the refugee actors with genuine tears in their eyes, and remember that the Nazi regime had not yet been defeated at the time this film was made. It was not known then if they would be.

It was certainly never imagined that we’d be fighting them in our own country in the next century.  This is why we must vote on Tuesday.  At the very end of the “La Marseillaise” clip, Madeline LeBeau shouts, “Vive la démocratie,” and it is almost drowned out by the jubilant crowd triumphing over the smug, cruel Nazis in a nightclub songfest.  But it’s there, and it’s the whole point of the song.  

Vote for every Democrat on the ballot next Tuesday, in all local, county, and national categories.  Voting is no longer an expression of political opinion in this country; it's a chess game.  The politicians know that, and so do the pundits.  The voter has yet to realize how we are being played, and we must use our vote -- while we still have it -- to block the machinations of our impending doom.  Halting the progress of a corrupt and vile administration that now controls the executive branch, both legislative houses, and the Supreme Court can only be done now by making the Republican Party, which has ceased to be the Republican Party, fear more for their jobs than they fear the evidently powerful influence of a shameless grifter, the NRA, and the Russians from whom they have accepted bribes, and indeed, several corrupt members of their party, whom they’ve chosen to embrace and blindly support in the unholy name of holding power.  

When I think of the “La Marseillaise” scene in Casablanca, I also think of my father, who, still in his early twenties, left his wife and baby and fought in the South Pacific during World War II for over three long years.  No furloughs, no coming home until it was over.  When I was young, we watched Casablanca together, and he surprised me by belting out the French national anthem during this scene in his powerful, resonant bass voice.  He really had a very good voice, sounding a lot like Tennessee Ernie Ford only with a New England accent, but we used to tease him because he could not remember the words to anything. But like an automaton, he launched into “La Marseillaise” without any effort, and I think he even surprised himself that he remembered it.  

He explained, in that somewhat reluctant way all men of his generation did when talking about the war, that when he was stationed for a bit in that island-hopping campaign on the French colony of New Caledonia, they were required to stand at attention for the raising of the French flag and playing of their anthem in camp, as well as the American.  He also related the mournful tradition of answering roll call in their memory for pals who had just been killed.  The Vichy government was chased off the island and like the struggle in Casablanca, became Free French. Their symbol is on the paper money above, a souvenir my father brought home.

My father and his surviving comrades; and my mother, who was Rosie the Riveter in a war plant making parts for PT boats, thought their job was done on V-J Day.  

I mourn as much for the memory and the inspiration of that generation as I do for the future of this country if we do not remember the lesson that was so easily absorbed in Hollywood films of the 1940s:  The authoritarian fascists were the bad guys.  Frank Capra explained that to us, if we didn’t know already, in Prelude to War (1942).

How many Trump supporters and apologists would root for Bogart, Henreid, and Bergman today?  How many would look at those refugees with loathing that filled the Café Americain?  How many would turn Madeleine LeBeau away at the border today?

We already know from surveys done that many Millennials cannot even name who fought in that war and on which sides.  Right and wrong has become lost, and history, which should be a compass, has become a muddle.

Fans of classic films inevitably adore them for a world that is, among other things, rife with moral clarity.  We have lost that in our society, probably for many reasons, but one of the things I admire most about classic films is the courageous idealism.  It seemed to stream from the directors.  Frank Capra, a conservative Republican such as they used to come in this country, gave us Meet John Doe.  William Wyler, who gave us Mrs. Miniver; and the man who directed Casablanca, Michael Curtiz, were refugees, as was Billy Wilder.  John Ford, like Wyler and Capra, served in the military during World War II.  They had no patience for Nazis.  Ford would have punched them in the face.

Frank Capra & John Ford

The word Nazi is not bandied about carelessly when it is used correctly.  It is the word Republican that has lost its meaning.  The Grand Old Party surrendered and became complicit to survive in a more vicious environment, like the capitulating French Vichy government.  

When you vote on Tuesday, remember that Hitler was elected to office, and that was the last election.  He killed democracy in Germany.  Putin is angling for the same result here  by remote control and he has already lined the pockets of several Republicans to that end.  Unlike the troubled conquered countries in World War II, we will have no one to save us.  We have to do it ourselves.  There have never been higher stakes than this coming election.

Vote Democrat on Tuesday.  If the Republican Party regains its soul in having lost the election, that will be for the benefit of all of us, because nobody, including intelligent Liberals, want a one-party government, even one of Liberal Democrats. We need the vibrancy of differing opinions and perspectives.  

But first, we have to rid ourselves, democratically, of the traitors to our democracy who gerrymander precincts; who scrub voters off the registration lists; who cheat to deny the vote to African Americans, Mexicans, and Hispanics and other minorities; who attack the free press and shout that truth is not the truth, who praise Nazis and even become them. Vote Democrat.

Vive la démocratie.  Long live democracy.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Book sale at fall craft fair!

I’ll be selling my books at the Knights of Columbus Hall, Granby Road in Chicopee, Massachusetts, on this coming Sunday, October 21, 2018.

I’m very happy to be taking part in the St. Joan of Arc School P.T.O. Fall Craft Fair. 

There will be a variety of vendors selling their craft items for the upcoming holiday season, and my twin brother John and I will have a table for our books.  Please come down and say hello, have a look around, and maybe even get a jump on your holiday shopping.  There will also be a raffle, and lunch options and baked goods will be available.  Come out and help the P.T.O. support the students!

The event runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday, October 21st.  The K of C Hall is at 460 Granby Road, Chicopee, Massachusetts.

See you there!

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