Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Best Years of Our Lives - 1946

The Best Years of Our Lives, released in 1946 was, essentially, about 1946, illustrating a year ironically more tenuous than celebratory, in a victorious nation etched with anxiety about its future. The year 1946 means a little less to us today, except as the start of the Baby Boom. We are fairly egocentric about things like that.

Director William Wyler shows the problems of three veterans: of Homer’s prosthetic hooks; of Al’s restless dissatisfaction with his bank job and his ready relief in drink; and of Fred’s disillusionment that the wife, home in the suburbs, and good job he thought would be waiting for him after the war have fizzled out, one by one. Dana Andrews plays Fred, spending much of the movie lugging around an overstuffed army suitcase, trying to find “home.”

Wyler’s treatment of Homer, played by amputee Harold Russell, was sensitive and straightforward. Homer pulls his hooks out into view early in the film when he signs his name on a paper. We see Homer shaking “hands” repeatedly through the film, knocking on doors, drinking, eating, handling money in a billfold, never hiding his hooks but using them as naturally and as often as he would his hands, even playfully banging out “Chopsticks” in a piano duet. Wyler forces us to look at the hooks. In one splendid scene, Homer visits his uncle’s bar, and feeling at home with his pals and away from the nervousness of his family, proceeds to hold a conversation while pushing his sailor hat back farther on his head, handling a beer in a pilsner glass, shaking “hands,” and slamming his hook down on the bar as a man might slam his fist to make a point. It is stupendous for its very naturalness and simplicity.

The minor actors in The Best Years of Our Lives tell us even more about the three veterans. Fred’s father, played by Roman Bohnen, has a very brief but exceptionally moving scene as he reads aloud his son’s war citations. Homer’s younger sister, not uncomfortable with his hooks like the grownups, stares openly fascinated at them as children will. Ray Collins is both pompous and subtly sinister as Al’s hypocritical boss. Hoagy Carmichael plays the easygoing Uncle Butch, who gives Homer a sense of perspective.

It is left to the minor characters of Butch and Al’s son, Rob, to introduce the post-war world for us by discussing the atom bomb. The central characters are too preoccupied with jobs, and fitting into their families, and fitting into their civilian clothes to care about the new geopolitical realities. Rob refers to the recent enemy as “Japanese” with a delicacy that eludes his veteran father, who persists in referring to them as “Japs.”

Wyler, with subtle observation even manages to put a toe across Hollywood’s color bar by training the camera’s eye on the African-American ex-GI who waits to go home just as Al, Homer, and Fred must wait at the ATC depot. A black soldier brings his family into Fred’s drug store and is seen buying candy for his two children. The man standing in line next to Fred at the unemployment office is an African American. It is as if Wyler hints there is a parallel story here to the one of Al, Homer, and Fred, but we only get a peek.

Another legacy to us comes from the man with the flag pin on his lapel who challenges Homer to consider that a left-wing conspiracy brought the nation to war. Al, played by Oscar winner Fredric March, chides the stuffy bankers at his welcome home banquet of their suspicion of “do-gooders” and “radicals.” Today, these salvos between right and left have been diminished to a toxic cliché about blue states and red states. We are a nation fighting a nearly 20-year-old war today, and many of us wear flag pins on our lapels, but the civilian population has not been called upon to make sacrifices. Only civilians who have loved ones in the military have made sacrifices. The rest are untouched and uninvolved. It was not so in World War II.

In this film, the women the three men have come home to are not diminished; is it their story, too. Al’s wife Milly, played by Myrna Loy, and his daughter Peggy, played by Teresa Wright, display heartsick fears and frank desires. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is Fred’s nightmare, when a drunken Fred is put to bed by Peggy, a young woman he met only hours before, suffers a nightmare from what today would be called post-traumatic stress, and is comforted by Peggy, in her bed, yet there is nothing sensationalized or exploitive about it.

It is a movie whose musical score, composed by Hugo Friedhofer did not produce any catchy pop tunes, but captured each moment of conscience the way a shadow follows a body. The otherworldly sensation of Al’s first waking in his own bed after years of jungle is punctuated by the musical score; the delicate strains of the refrain that opens the film and reprises through every moment of tenderness or tension, a piece of music unnamed but unmistakable, captures the moments and meanings that makes mere lyrics inarticulate. The astonishing burst of brass ripple that begins the airplane engine noise as Fred sits in the nose of a trashed plane, experiencing a wartime flashback, all these musical incidents are by turns touching and devastating.

The Best Years of Our Lives was made in the first year of the Baby Boom, and now the Boomers are retiring, those that can. Their parents’ generation could be no better represented than by Harold Russell, who enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor, and later lost his hands. Two of the many Academy Awards won by that film were won by him. As a senior citizen, he sold them both in 1992, to pay for his wife’s medical bills. Retirement, as the Boomers are learning, also has its horrors.

We can only imagine what lay in store for the characters. There is no hint of the space race, the Civil Rights movement, or Vietnam, and perhaps it is just that very perspective knowing what we know now about the peace after the war, where we have succeeded as a nation and where we have failed, that adds a certain eeriness of hindsight that matches Hugo Friedhofer’s music.

There are no sure happy endings in this film. We are never told if Al is going to get a grip on his reaching for a drink in an awkward situation, but we know Milly will be there to support him. We see Homer marry his sweetheart, but his triumph in adjusting to civilian life is tempered by the real knowledge that he will never be able to turn a doorknob or button his own shirt. He will always need a little help with some things.

We are never clearly told when the “best years” were, if it was before the war, during the war, or the years yet to come. The title is ambiguous. There is no fairy tale ending for Fred and Peggy, either. Fred is the last one of the three to take off his uniform, when a job offer in construction is finally made to him, and he symbolically puts the war behind him by stripping off his bomber jacket to go to work.

When Fred and Peggy finally embrace at the end of the film he tells her that it won’t be easy, that they will have to work, “get kicked around.” It is the last line of the film, and not very romantic. She beams a radiant smile, wondrous at only the positive side of his double-edged declaration, completely ignoring the warning. We see the warning. We are still imagining their uncertain future more than seventy years after the first year of the big peace.


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.

Only Angels Have Wings - 1939 repost

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) is a quintessential film of 1939, I would suggest for two reasons. First, its “boys’ own adventure” type story of a band of mail flyers in South America would be the end of the Depression era adventures, the last bit of intrigue in a far away land before World War II, a more gruesome adventure which would turn very young real-life fliers into men under horrific circumstances and in which many were killed -- not because the luck of the draw or the stern mistress of fate as in this movie, but because an enemy nation just as well equipped and just as determined, destroyed them. The aimless flyers in Only Angels Have Wings haven’t any such worries. They are not responsible for a nation’s freedom. They can’t even be responsible for themselves. Somewhere out there in the tropical mist, we are on the cusp of a more treacherous world, a more grown-up world. One gets the feeling Cary Grant is trying to hold it off as long as possible.

The second element that makes this movie such a prime example of 1939 is the presence of character actor Thomas Mitchell, who played in five of the top movies that golden year, all winners. Besides this one, he was in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which we covered here), Gone with the Wind (which we covered here), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (which we covered here), and Stagecoach, for which he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. It’s not a 1939 film without Thomas Mitchell.

For classic movie buffs, 1939 has always been regarded as the banner year, when the Hollywood movie factories churned out on their assembly lines a greater than usual number of excellent films. This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association “Classic Films of 1939 Blogathon” which runs from May 15th through the 17th. Have a look here at the website for a listing of bloggers and their 1939 films. Looks like a lot of great reading.

In this essay, I’d like to look at Only Angels Have Wings through the prism of 1939 and not so much about what we know about that year, but what we may have forgotten about it. The biggest thing we often forget is that we’re watching current events. This film marks the end of a timeline in an era, though I rather imagine director Howard Hawks, himself a former flier, would not have recognized that when he made it. It had only been some 12 years previous to the making of this movie that Charles A. Lindbergh, “Lucky Lindy” flew the first non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. That generation of seat-of-the-pants fliers like Lindy and Amelia Earhart, the Granville Brothers, and Bessie Coleman, were still part of the American popular culture; though some of them had already been killed in their daring exploits, their fame had not yet flown into history. These were still the days when airplane flight brought out the press and the newsreels cameras, where records made for huge headlines and parades. Most people alive in 1939 could remember a time when there were no airplanes.

A week or so after Only Angels Have Wings premiered in May 1939, an unusually large number of the original cast, including Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Richard Barthlemess, Rita Hayworth, and Thomas Mitchell, and even some original actors in very minor roles, appeared in a radio script version broadcast by Lux Radio Theater. Have a listen to the show here, now in public domain, at the Internet Archive site. Scroll down the year 1939 until you get to May 29th.

Between the 2nd and 3rd acts, the show’s producer and host, Cecil B. DeMille, interviewed on radio hookup from New York City the captain of the Yankee Clipper that had just that week made headlines by inaugurating the first commercial airline service from the United States to Europe. This was not a movie stunt, this was real life. The four propeller engine plane held a crew of 14 and could carry 74 passengers, and the mail. The captain announced, “That means we have at last conquered the Atlantic.” The flight took 25 hours.

Here is a newsreel of the event (Remember to scroll down to the bottom of the page to mute the music so you can hear the video):

The world suddenly got smaller, and inter-continental travel got easier (if you consider a 25-hour flight in a propeller plane easy). Only Angels Have Wings, is a product of this world where pilots were regarded as daredevils and pioneers, not yet corporate executives or administrators.

There is an inherent comic book feel to this movie, though again, I’m sure Mr. Hawks did not intend that. Consider how the pilots wear their holstered side arms below the belts of their high-waisted pants, their cuffs rolled up to show their boots. Black leather jackets with faded World War I insignia, and broad-brimmed straw hats to suggest a rakishness that is permissible in a area of law by mutual consent, opportunities built on enormous risks, too much liquor and a few carefully chosen (by the director, at least) women. Except for these last two points, we might be watching a film version of the popular comic strips Terry and the Pirates or Smilin’ Jack.

Here in this world of rattan shades and bamboo furniture, tropical birds and strumming guitars, Cary Grant is boss of a fledging airline running mail from a small port city of Barranca (you know you want to say it. Go ahead: “Calling Barranca, calling Barranca!”) to villages and mining camps far up the Andes. We are in South America, and the only premonition we get of the war to come is the Latin American music, which will have a huge impact beginning in the next year when after war broke out in Europe, we strengthened military and commercial ties with Latin America. The samba and the rumba were not far behind.

Jean Arthur stumbles into Barranca off a tramp steamer one tropical night that delivers a handful of passengers, and cargo, and mail for the plane. She is a piano player, who has left her last troupe of entertainers in Panama. She’s on her own, as free, or as lost, as the men she encounters in the base camp run by Dutchy, played by Sig Ruman. Most of the action of the film takes place in his bar/restaurant/hotel/air field. It is almost like Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca (which we discussed here) only without the Nazis, or the refugees.

Casablanca, despite being almost entirely confined to Rick’s, gives us a closer look, and better acquaintance with the local setting and people. Only Angels Have Wings gives us only a brief look at the locals, when Jean Arthur enters another saloon that seems to cater only to them, and enjoys, and sings along with, vibrant Spanish music and dance. She is courageous enough to explore and appreciate. Cary Grant and his boys only buy drinks for, and we assume, sleep with, local girls from time to time. They don’t bother with the local culture too much. Their clubhouse is an island unto itself. An American 1939 fantasy.

Two happy go lucky fliers chat up Jean and bring her to their clubhouse for drinks and steaks, and take turns flirting with her. One, played by a young Noah Beery, Jr., is sent by the boss, Cary Grant, on a late night mail run, but there is bad weather and he returns in a risky landing. The film is barely ten minutes old and we have a ghastly crash while Grant, Miss Arthur, and Grant’s best pal, Thomas Mitchell look on, horrified.

Jean Arthur, sassy and street smart, is crushed by this tragedy, and finds herself equally exasperated with, and attracted to, flippant Cary Grant. In matters of everyday living she is in firm control and nobody’s fool, but in love…she is utterly helpless.

Mr. Grant plays the cynical, smart aleck leader. It would be interesting to have seen Humphrey Bogart in the role, to have his calm stoicism play against a jittery Jean Arthur. He would have given the character a soulfulness, a back story of pain and hard luck just in his glance. Bogie always walks in the door with his own back story, the way some actors might show up for auditions with their own costumes. Despite his veneer of danger, he has a code of honor, while Cary Grant has no such nobility. He is really a condescending rogue. He sizes up Jean Arthur with the taunting remark, “Chorus girl?”

But Cary Grant, as handsome as it gets and just coming off his hero-adventurer stint in Gunga Din (1939) is right for the role in his charm, his boyish devil-may-care attitude, and especially his under-the-surface neediness. There is an inkling of brittleness to his bravado that is intriguing. He talks a great game of fatalistic acceptance of risk and death, but he clings to Thomas Mitchell as his chief emotional burden and his greatest friendship, for whom he takes heartsick responsibility and from whom he receives love and understanding he gets from no one else…until Jean Arthur comes along.

She is the lone woman who infiltrates the boys’ clubhouse. She says “Down the hatch” when she drinks her bourbon with Noah Beery, Jr. and Allyn Joslyn (for more on Allyn Joslyn, have a look at Caftan Woman’s recent post here), but she’s still a lady. She bristles at being passed along, and at being taken for granted. Eventually, she starts to blend in with the boys, after Cary Grant has shaken her, physically as well as emotionally, bawling her out for bawling the boys out when they display no mourning over the death of the flyer Joe Souther.

“Who’s Joe?” they scoff.

In a sweet bit of consoling, which is reprised later in the film, Victor Kilian, who plays the radio operator “Sparks,” confesses he got the same treatment when he was a newbie. Jean unburdens herself to the gentle, sad-faced Mr. Kilian,

“You know, all my life I’ve hated funerals. The fuss and bother never brings anybody back and it just spoils remembering them as they really are. And when I see people actually facing it that way, I act like a sap.”

She remembers the pain of her father’s sudden, violent death. She is alone in the world and so she grabs onto life with both hands, traveling by herself, not fearing to explore, or expose herself to emotional commitment. She is braver than Mr. Grant in this respect.

To make amends for her “unmanly” outburst of grief at Joe’s death, she wanders back into the bar and interrupts a jam session at the piano, taking over the keys herself, and banging out Sophie Tucker’s old theme song “Some of These Days.” Jean Arthur actually looks like she’s playing the piano here; she fakes it well. Most stars tinkling the ivories for a film role usually looked like they are mixing meatloaf with their hands.

Here’s the clip:

“Who’s Joe?” Grant tests her.

“Never heard of him.”

Later, alone at the piano as the bar empties out, she begins the leaden strains of “Lebestraum,” but catches herself before she gets too maudlin. Joe’s personal effects are brought in, only a handful of trinkets, and Cary Grant, per their ritual, allows anyone to take what they want. He offers the trinkets to Jean, and she takes a watch, the most expensive thing.

“You’ve got a good eye,” Grant sneers at her, insinuating that she is just a gold-digging chorus girl after all.

She gives him a look of disgust and mutters in a low voice, just short of growl, “Say, somebody must have given you an awful beating once.” It’s as good a putdown as anybody ever gave to Grant, and as truthful. He begins to change his opinion of her, for her honest challenge, and because she immediately gives the gift to the local girl who grieves the most for Joe. Grant is rebuffed, and impressed.

Miss Arthur is not far from the mark when she suggests someone has treated him badly. We get his version of a former love who tried to ground him with her possessiveness. It is also a warning to Jean not to try to do the same. He invites her to his room, and she accepts, but then he steers her out the door back to the boat. It’s a teasing game, and he blinks first. But when the fog clears and he must take the next mail plane out, he grabs her in a hasty kiss, and she is hooked. We know this, because she’s still there when he returns in the morning.

He irritably puts her off again, and she questions her own mixed up feelings and lack of judgment, “I don’t know whether this is me or another fella.”

Only Jean Arthur could say a line like that and be believed, just like she’s probably the only actress who can use interjections like “Hey!” “Say!”, “Gee whiz!” and “Jeepers” and have it sound profound.

There’s nobody that does that uncomfortable, “caught in the act” look quite like Jean.

But Grant is chafing over this clingy female, and the fear of commitment, and he demands she take the next boat, which won’t come until next week because, “Yes, they have no bananas” as Thomas Mitchell points out. Grant stomps away, and Jean is embarrassed and crestfallen.

“I’ve never quite made such a chump of myself.” Fortunately, Grant’s buddy becomes her buddy and he comforts her. Too bad she didn’t fall in love with Thomas Mitchell. (During the Lux Radio Theater broadcast of “Only Angels Have Wings,” Mr. DeMille thanked Jean Arthur and Thomas Mitchell for taking a week off from their current filming of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to do the radio show.)

The movie shifts gears and we have the introduction of Richard Barthlemess, last seen here in Heroes for Sale (1933), as a new flier with a fake name and a mysterious past. Rita Hayworth is his pretty young wife. She doesn’t know that years before he piloted a plane that was going down in flames, and he bailed out, leaving his mechanic on board to die. Ever since then he has been shunned by other fliers.

He doesn’t know that she is Cary Grant’s former lover.

The subplots of this movie keep the pace moving nicely. Another subplot is Thomas Mitchell’s fading eyesight, which prompts Cary Grant to ground him. Mitchell is noble about it, accepting, and Cary Grant is torn up. His booting a chair across the room is his only expression of emotion about how badly he feels.

The mechanic who died in Richard Barthlemess’ plane was Thomas Mitchell’s younger brother. When Mr. Barthlemess is found out, he is shunned here, again, by these pilots, as he always is wherever he goes from job to job. He withstands Cary Grant’s barbs with stoic, self deprecating sarcasm, but Grant offers him a few dangerous jobs one else will take to earn his boat passage out of here. Including flying nitroglycerin, which he drops on condors.

Barthlemess is great in this role, a man doomed by his own guilt, haunted and too self-punishing even to look for redemption. We look in his expressive dark eyes and maybe we recall the The Dawn Patrol (1933) and other hero roles not so many years ago, but seemingly a lifetime for this now middle-aged man.

Another element is keeping up the pace is the constant and subtle shifts into humor. There are glib remarks and pratfalls. The proud Spanish-speaking company doctor, played by Lucio Villegas, who Barthlemess is ordered to fly up to a mining camp to treat an injured man is insulted by the suggestion that it might be too dangerous, and spouts a soliloquy from Shakespeare about courage while Grant tries to placate him and shut him up.

Another element is the periodic flying scenes that take us breathlessly up the mountain passes and across rugged terrain in a craft that looks like to be little more than a wood crate with wings. The aerial photography is spectacular. Though some of it is models, it’s all breathtaking action. At one point, Barthlemess must take off from a narrow cliff with not enough room to taxi, so he taxis the plane right off the ledge and picks up the wind currents on the drop, like a kite, in a stomach-turning descent.

It is these successful daring tasks and precise flying that earns Barthlemess Grant’s grudging respect. Eventually, however, Rita Hayworth (Judy, Judy, Judy) wants to know why her husband is always treated like dirt. She is still in the dark about his past. We have a reunion scene between the former lovers Hayworth and Grant, but we can see that there are no more sparks between them. Miss Hayworth is in love with her husband, and Mr. Grant is just as fed up with her as when she tried to tame him.

It would have been more interesting, I think, to have Grant and Hayworth still attracted to each other, then the foursome would really be caught in a dilemma; each would be forced into making decisions about their lives instead of just letting things happen.  Perhaps Howard Hawks felt he had enough subplots.

More humor when Grant catches the stumbling Jean Arthur eavesdropping on their conversation, and Jean slowly starts to enter the picture again, waiting out a nail-biting test flight of Grant’s that has her getting sick to her stomach. Again, comforted with kind words and a Bromo-Seltzer from Thomas Mitchell. She confides again her love of Grant to him.

“I know I’m a fool, but I can’t do anything about it,” she whimpers. She recognizes, and envies, Mitchell’s close relationship with Grant.

“You love him, don’t you, Kid?”

“Yes, I guess I do.”

“Why can’t I love him the way you do, sneer when he tries to kill himself, be proud when he doesn’t? Why couldn’t I be there to meet him when he got back? What do you do when he doesn’t come back when you expect him to?”

Mitchell’s tortured expression and body English tells us there’s been many a time he got sick with worry over Grant. “I go nuts.”

Another comic, but sexy scene is when Jean Arthur sneaks into Grant’s room so she can use his bathtub. Grant enters, and they bristle and irritate, and flirt, and laugh. Rita pops in, and a terrific jealous exchange between her and Jean:

“Maybe I’d better go,” Jean offers.

“No, please don’t,” Rita replies, with raised eyebrows and an arch expression.

“I really didn’t intend to.”

But Rita is not really jealous, she’s affirmed that she loves her husband and will let the past go.

Another comic bit when Grant sees Arthur limping and he picks her up in his arms. She tells him she’s not hurt, she just broke the heel of her shoe.

“Imagine,” she says, “Losing one heel right after another.” They kiss, and she promises there will be no tying him down or asking him to give up flying.

“You don’t have to be afraid of me anymore.” What a line, as comforting as it is accusing. The screenwriter gives her more gold,

“There’s nothing I can do about it, I just love you. That’s all. I feel the same way about you the Kid does.”

It’s an honest assessment of his relationship with Thomas Mitchell, who puts a coat over Grant’s shoulders on a chilly night, brings him coffee and worries that he doesn’t get enough sleep, lights his cigarettes. (Everybody seems to light Grant’s cigarettes in this movie.) He does what he can do for his chum, then he wanders into the background. It’s the kind of relationship with which Grant is comfortable, and the only kind he can accept from Jean.

He’s still not a committing kind of guy, but something happens to open up a place on Grant’s dance card.

Yeah, a great big old cast-iron spoiler here. Read on at your peril.

Another flight must be undertaken to meet a needed contract, but the only ones who can take this assignment are Barthlemess and Mitchell. Destiny takes a hand, and the man with the guilt, and the man with the hatred for the guilty party who got his kid brother killed are riding the skies together.

The plane runs into trouble, a fire on board, and they crash, but Barthlemess will not bail out this time. With superb flying, he brings the plane to the ground. He is badly burned, but Thomas Mitchell is fatally injured.

Afterwards, the fliers welcome Barthlemess into the fraternity and place a drink in his bandaged hands. Manuel Alvarez Maciste plays guitar and sings a sad Spanish tune that soothes and laments at the same time. Mitchell’s personal effects are laid out on the bar in a handkerchief. This time, Cary Grant does not cynically offer the goods to anyone. He takes the small bundle to his room to be alone with them.

It’s different with Mitchell. Nobody’s going to say, “Who’s the Kid?” at his death. Mr. Grant’s manly code of élan in the face of death does not extend to his dearest friend. Maybe he’s a hypocrite. Maybe he’s human. The men who call him “Papa” because he is their leader in their tight-knit male hierarchy will not see him cry, but Jean does.

Another smoothly comic bit when Jean, antsy and pacing outside Grant’s office just before she leaves for the boat meets with Victor Kilian again, who whispers to her,

“Aren’t you going to say goodbye to him? I think you ought to.”

Jean, surprised, clinging to hope, “You do?”

“I think he’d want you to.”

“You sure? I don’t mind doing it if you say so.”

“I do say so.”

“You do?”

With Kilian’s blessing, she enters Grant’s office, mumbling defensively that Kilian wanted her to.

It runs that knife edge between silliness and deeply touching.

She practically begs Grant to ask her to stay, but he vacillates. He wants her to stay, because he needs somebody. He’s just about to say something, when we hear from the radio once more:

“Calling Barranca! Calling Barranca!”

The weather clears, and there is one last chance to make their contract, so Grant scrambles to his plane. This time Jean’s plea has a disgusted, angry tone.

“I’m hard to get Geoff. All you have to do is ask me.”

He can’t, but he suggests they flip a coin, and it is not until after he leaves that she realizes it is Thomas Mitchell’s two-headed coin.

It’s the closest he can come to asking her to stay, and she does. We may wonder if she’s getting the short end of the stick staying with a man so emotionally close, or so proud, or so hurt, or so juvenile he cannot comfort her with a simple “I love you.” Maybe it’s because he doesn’t. If he’s inscrutable to Jean, he is to us as well.

But this is not a world of commitments, because commitment suggests the possibility of a future, and in Barranca we are only concerned with the here and now. There will be many hasty commitments made, clung to, and perhaps regretted during the war that will follow in only a few more months.

Does anybody else feel sorry for the guy in the mountain lookout post, all by himself through the entire movie? Played by Don “Red” Barry, poor “Tex” never gets any company, except his mule.

Only Angels Have Wings made such an impression of movie audiences of the day that “Calling Barranca!” was a punch line for a while. A few cartoons used the gag, including Tex Avery’s Ceiling Hero (1940) and Saddle Silly (1941).

Perhaps some of you will remember the early 1980s TV show Tales of the Gold Monkey starring Stephen Collins. That was inspired by Only Angels Have Wings.

The banner year of 1939 gave us movies that were escapist in many ways, but inevitably truthful about who we were, and what we imagined about the world. Please have a look at the many other blogs participating in this blogathon. Special thanks to Becky of “Classic Becky’s Brain Food” and Page of “My Love of Old Hollywood” for organizing the fun.

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.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

No more keepers - recording from digital TV

Digital high-resolution television allows us to see every tiny flaw in the human face, and large-screen TVs let us see them really, really big.  It's a kind of metaphor for the highly technological world we live in: the flaws and cracks in society are exposed, but with greater speed and convenience.  And cost.

Personally, I was okay with a 13-inch black-and-white TV to watch old movies on back in the day.  I considered myself lucky to have a second TV in the house when somebody else wanted to watch football.  When VCRs came out -- any old movie fan of a certain age will tell you that was nirvana.  I could collect my favorite movies and keep them "forever."  No more waiting for Christmas to watch White Christmas.  Then DVD, and the AMC and TCM channels and it seemed like the world was your oyster.

Now we have entered a Twilight Zone world where one cannot record off digital TV without a DVR. It is another sign of our growing service economy, where we do not own; we rent. A DVR is very convenient to use, but it is just another monthly bill to surmount.  We cannot own our favorites "forever" anymore, and we have a limited number we can keep at one time, and recording anything off TV has become a decision of what do I want to jettison to catch this program for watching later?

For those of you who have become curators of your own classic film libraries, what is your reaction to discovering a rarity on the lineup of TCM and not being able to record it if you don't have DVR, or if your DVR is getting a little full?  Wait for the entire "Joe McDoakes" series of shorts to come out on Blu-ray?  (Okay, bad example.  Nobody kills themselves scrambling to record Joe McDoakes.)

I wonder if there is more purchasing of titles on DVD and Blu-ray, or renting, or other services like Netflix?  In using Internet services, are you concerned that your movie choices will ultimately be tracked and not just for advertising purposes?  ("Watch this lady, Agent Smith -- she's seen White Christmas six times this month.  Must be a radical.  Keep an eye her.")

Do you feel as classic film fans this has reduced your autonomy, obviously your anonymity, if not your options?

What do you think about this, and what do you do?

Thursday, May 16, 2019

5 Favorite Films of the 1950s Blogathon

In celebration of National Classic Movie Day, we join the 5 Favorite Films of the 1950s Blogathon hosted by Classic Film & TV Café.

To pick five favorite films is akin to limiting oneself to only a few items on a buffet when you really want to eat everything.  So I won't suggest these are my only favorites, but I chose them because they represent something about that "mid-century" decade known for conformity and perhaps complacency, when really a lot more was going on under the surface, even though two of them are musicals, and two feature the loveliest new faces of the decade who would come to be icons--Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly.

Even in a delightful romantic comedy, Roman Holiday (1953) here, we get a glimpse of post-war Europe, of Rome, "The Eternal City" that had suffered under a fascist dictator, had endured the chaos and destruction of war in its villages, and yet mustered that, now tired, elegance of its monarchal past (and called out some real-life royals to play bit parts and wear their jewels).  To the mix, we add a spritely modern princess who must balance her "untouchable" grace with a mission to "improve trade relations," and an American journalist whose cynicism takes a dive when his mission turns from exposing her to protecting her.

We linger on the post-war world again, this time in the U.S., with our next two films.  First, White Christmas (1954) here, and then It's Always Fair Weather (1955) hereWhite Christmas, a lighthearted musical, still conveys home truths about the postwar world and the adjustment of veterans--even after a decade--to fit in with civilian life.  This, and in It's Always Fair Weather show the comradeship of service buddies who find themselves husbands and fathers, trudging toward a new battle of finding fulfillment and success in an ever-stranger new world.  They are no longer the young, innocent, and carefree recruits who gambled their lives on a better world.  They won--the war and their own survival in it--but are they in a better world?

The theme is carried further with No Down Payment (1957) here, where the ex-servicemen grapple with suburbia and new frontiers of corporate opportunity and enslavement, of fitting in and never fitting in, and losing precious time.

Rear Window (1954) here shows another ex-vet whose once exciting life (as James Stewart and former Air Corps buddy Wendell Corey reminisce) has been reduced to four walls and a peek at his neighbors--and the sinister world he discovers there.  I also like it because it's glamorous, sexy, and has one of the best sets in the movies.

Have a look at the other great blogs participating in 5 Favorite Films of the 1950s Blogathon celebrating National Classic Movie Day.


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.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Music from the movies at Symphony Hall

Watching a symphony orchestra at work is like watching a magic trick explained and yet still retain the mystery. One sees the component parts of the music put together, each musician’s contribution to the whole, and being able to see the machinery of it, if you will, is wonderfully dramatic. Music from classic films, removed from their films in the setting of a symphony performance, is revelatory.

I recently had the pleasure of attending an evening of theme music from the movies—mostly classic films—performed by the Springfield (Massachusetts) Symphony Orchestra, which is currently celebrating its 75th anniversary.  My thanks for the comp ticket to my friend Shera Cohen, whose company, In the Spotlight, reviews the arts in western New England.

Fans of classic films are usually extraordinarily well informed about pretty much every facet of filmmaking in the studio era, and the music—whether a sweeping theme or even incidental background music—is as important to them as a favorite actor or director. Unlike other elements of film, rather than intellectual analysis, the music evokes a purely emotional response.

So it was at Springfield Symphony Hall and “Music Night with Maestro Rhodes.”  Along the same lines as big-screen showings of classic films, this evening brought out not only symphony regulars, but clearly an enthusiastic audience who recognized the film scores.

Maestro Kevin Rhodes conducted and also interspersed between the selections a bit of background information on the composers.  His style of presentation was breezy, lighthearted, and quite funny at times.  When he introduced composer Alex North’s “Prelude” from Cleopatra (1963), he remarked of its suggestion of an exotic ancient world—and Elizabeth Taylor’s presence— “You can just see the blue eyeshadow when you hear this one.”

Other composers included Alfred Newman, who was represented not only by his music from Street Scene of 1931 (which found its way into other films), but the familiar “20th Century-Fox Fanfare,” which was a delightfully whimsical way to begin the show.

Max Steiner’s Warner Bros. fanfare, and theme from Gone with the Wind (1939)—of course—and Casablanca (1942) were favorites.  The latter was especially stirring for its intricate suggestion of Moroccan intrigue and the sudden swell of “La Marseillaise.”

Works from greats Bernard Hermann, Elmer Bernstein (the theme from The Magnificent Seven tends to raise people out of their seats by at least a foot, and his “Suite” from The Ten Commandments of 1956 concluded the program), and Miklos Rozsa—the percussionist’s lengthy solo on the chimes in the “Prelude” from Ben Hur (1959) is something I’ll remember the next time I see the film.  Likewise, the kettle drums from the music from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and a light sensation of dancing on the tambourine in Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) kept our attention on the percussionists, whose effort we can see more vividly perhaps than the player of a woodwind instrument.  There’s a certain gallant dash about smashing a couple cymbals together.

Films from later decades included the “Love Theme” from The Godfather (1972), Titanic (1997)—which included a stunningly haunting refrain from the women of the Symphony Chorus first from up in the loge and then on stage (I had no idea the Irish penny whistle ever made its way into a symphony orchestra), and other modern hits, but probably the most charming was when the maestro played a piano solo of the “Ragtime Medley” from The Sting (1973) and then joined by a single clarinet, piccolo, trombone, and tuba to playfully embroider the delicate ragtime theme.  They were brought out to the apron of the stage as if to delightfully demonstrate that only these handful of musicians were required despite the complexity of the arrangement. They belonged on a gazebo in a park in summer.

It was an evening of tribute to these composers whose majestic music is so part and parcel of the films that one cannot be thought of without the other.  Watching people make the already fondly familiar music in front of you makes the experience still more intimate.

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