Thursday, August 27, 2020

Three Came Home - 1950

Three Came Home
(1950) is notable for its presentation of courageous women struggling to survive in a Japanese prison camp during World War II, and for its presentation of their captors in a way that is not a racist caricature.  Both are a big accomplishment for Hollywood at the time.

Claudette Colbert stars as Agnes Newton Keith, on whose memoir, Three Came Home, the movie is based. Miss Colbert had long since been a giant in Hollywood, whose ability to play drama or comedy was equal and impeccable. This movie benefitted especially from another quality she displayed which was more subtle: a kind of impression of being unassuming. Another actress might have played this role chewing the palm tree and barbed wire scenery, but Colbert moves from one incredible situation to the next like a person who at once has no idea how she got here, but is intellectually open to every experience. As such, she is our stand-in.

Today we celebrate TCM’s star of the day, Claudette Colbert, in the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Kristen Lopez over at Journeys in Classic Film.

Agnes Newton Keith, an American, is the wife of a British official, the Conservator of Forests and Director of Agriculture, in Borneo. Agnes herself is a writer, having authored a book on her experiences as a Yank in Borneo. She is the only American among a colony of Dutch and English government workers and their families.  It is a world of wearing tropical whites and delegating labor to native servants. War breaks out, and the Japanese Army reaches them far sooner than they’d imagined.

Patric Knowles plays Colbert’s husband, and little Mark Keuning plays their son. He was about six when he did this role, and played in only one other movie, in the same year.  When it appears the Japanese are on their way, Mr. Knowles encourages his wife to take their son and leave for her home country, the U.S., but she wants to stay.  We listen to the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the radio, and a month later, everyone in their small community is taken prisoner.

Sessue Hayakawa, whose film career dates back to the ‘teens when he was a matinee idol in silent movies, appears as Colonel Suga, who will figure prominently as Colbert’s counterpart in the story. Hayakawa has read her book on Borneo, and he is very impressed with her, “You were very sympathetic with Orientals,” he remarks, “It’s not usual, you know.”  We have the suggestion that racism is a subplot to the story.

Mr. Hayakawa’s character studied in the United States as a young man, and he and Colbert reminisce about their college years.  It is one of those moments where Colbert’s quality of being unassuming makes the scene almost otherworldly for her being able to take in his surprising words and gentlemanly behavior (he lights her cigarette) while being scared to death at the soldiers with their bayonets about to herd them into a concentration camp.

The Japanese soldiers are present everywhere, some are stony-faced and stoic, some are cruel, some are bumbling, but all are human. That is one of the achievements of this movie, made only five years after the war ended.  Agnes Keith in her book was clear that she felt barbarism was to be found not in people, but in war, and the movie seems to have followed the spirit of her book.

The other aspect of Keith’s book well replicated in the film, as Colbert remarks, “Life was reduced to one simple, stubborn purpose – to keep alive.” 

They are brought on trucks down the jungle island to a camp where they spend nine months, the women and children separated from the men.  The men’s camp is nearby and they sometimes catch glimpses of them out in forced labor parties or are left notes.  There is a harrowing scene where Colbert sneaks out at night to meet her husband in the bush, while she is weak with fever, having not seen him for five months.

There are scant rations, working in rice paddies, beatings.  Colbert clings to her son and cuddles him.  Her friend Betty, played by Florence Desmond, sneaks her food from the garbage.  There is more in the book about the Dutch and English communities and the sometimes rancor between them, but the movie flows along quickly and with dramatic visuals of the muddy camps in the rain, of a group of British women singing “God Save the King” in their bunks at night while Colbert and her son, giggling, substitute the words for “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” of the threat of death always present.

They are moved to a new camp where they will spend the rest of the war, and will not be near the men anymore. They are allowed a distant goodbye with a ditch between them, barely allowed to touch their fingers if they can reach far enough.

The commander at the new camp, Lt. Nekata, is played by Howard Chuman. He is sadistic.  One night, Claudette Colbert is outside the hut retrieving laundry when a guard tries to rape her.  She reports the incident to Mr. Chuman, who wants her to sign a confession that nothing happened and that she lied.  She refuses, and Chuman has one of his men beat her.  The scene is about to be repeated the next day, when Sessue Hayakawa shows up unexpectedly, is delighted to see her, and he seems like a hero because we know she will be safe if he is near.

Though he is obviously strict and authoritarian, he behaves kindly to the children in the camp, and insists Colbert sign a copy of her book to him.  Toward the end of the war, in August 1945, they know that Allies will eventually arrive.  Hayakawa is stunned, almost somnambulant, but not because the Japanese have lost the war and he will likely face retribution; it is because, as he confesses to her, his family have all died at Hiroshima.  He says of his three kids, “Three of the dearest children you ever saw.”  Later, while watching Colbert’s son and some other kids playing in his garden and eating fruit he gives them, he will break down and sob.

A month later, in September, 1945, they are liberated, with a long scene of reuniting with the men prisoners that is more suspenseful than jubilant as we discover some of the women will not see their husbands again. Colbert at last spots her husband, stumbling down the dirt road on crutches.

The film was directed by Jean Negulesco with a smooth, rather quick pace and many dramatic visuals, but one aspect to the book was left out of the movie.  It is not dramatic, but it is important to the character Colbert plays.  Agnes Keith made secret notes and left them on bits of paper stuffed into cans, buried in the camp, sewed into her son’s teddy bear, hidden all over, and when she was liberated, she made stubbornly certain that she was not going to leave this part of her behind.  She was a writer.  She scrounged up all her notes and took them with her, and they eventually became her book.

The story of women in a Japanese concentration camp is reminiscent of our look here at A Town Like Alice (1956), which took place on the Malay peninsula.  Nevil Shute’s novel was based on stories of women’s real-life experiences as prisoners of war, but because he was a novelist, that story made more of a full arc in the telling.  Agnes Keith’s memoir was nonfiction, so it was detailed and precise, and less concerned with dramatic arcs, more concerned with chronicling a record. Nunnally Johnson’s script is necessarily episodic.  The movie does not tell us, as the book does, that Colonel Suga committed suicide in his Allied cell by cutting his throat on the day Agnes Keith, her husband, and son, left for the United States.

Claudette Colbert, despite her reputation for crisp, aristocratic elegance, had an everywoman quality that lent itself to her achieving a full spectrum of strong women’s roles during World War II: A nurse on Bataan here in So Proudly We Hail! (1943), a wife and mother keeping the homes fires burning—and eventually going to work as a Rosie the Riveter here in Since You Went Away (1944), and in this film, certainly an impressive trilogy. 


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, August 20, 2020

The Shocking Miss Pilgrim - 1947

The Shocking Miss Pilgrim
(1947) is an affectionate spoof of a suffragette (or suffragist, as they actually called themselves) and her mission to become independent and self-supporting as a first step to gaining the right to vote, which, as we know, was a long way off.  We celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment this week, which gave women the right to vote in all federal and state elections.  It was not “universal.”  The poll tax and civil rights abuses kept women (and men) of color, and Native Americans, from voting in certain parts of the country until the late 1950s and finally, until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited discrimination in registering to vote and being able to vote.

The real story of the fight for women to achieve full voting rights in this country, which took several generations, is a frustrating and often harrowing, even horrific, series of events. Recently, PBS tackled the subject in an excellent two-part documentary, “The Vote,” as part of its American Experience series.  Have a look at the clips on the website, and don’t miss the chance of watching it the next time you see it scheduled on your local PBS station. It is a well-told examination of the truly dramatic and inspirational fight that women endured to gain this most basic right of citizenship.

The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, obviously, does not tell the story of women’s suffrage in all its fullness, or grim realities.  To give it its due, it does show strong, intelligent women bucking the powers that be to gain respect (which, without civil rights, no respect would be required), and it shows the men to be grudging, but ultimately won over by the ladies’ perseverance.  And charm. That, it seems, would always be a necessary element. Hollywood was certainly frank about that.

Classic films were not dismissive of the 19th Amendment, but on the few occasions Hollywood tackled the subject, it was always in this quaint, stereopticon view of The Good Old Days and my, wasn’t Grandma spunky?  We covered The Strawberry Blonde (1941) here, which showed Olivia de Havilland’s suffragette as a foil and a mere subplot to James Cagney’s aspiring dentist dealing with legal issues who didn’t get the girl of his dreams. Again, the story is quaint and affectionate, down to the singalong ending.  The suffragette theme is mere window dressing.

When it comes to this cozy view of the fight to gain suffrage, I think my favorite example is from Mary Poppins (1964), where Glynis Johns sings with ladylike gusto, “Well done, Sister Suffragettes!”  My favorite line, delivered with gentle sincerity: “Though we adore men individually, we agree that as a group – they’re rather stooopid.”

Her jubilant, sunny, marching rant in the foyer of her home is turned into a party when the servants, Reta Shaw and Hermione Baddeley join in, dragging into the chorus the reluctant Elsa Lanchester (the children’s nanny who is about to quit, thereby creating a job opening for the new nanny, Mary Poppins). 

The background to Glynis Johns’ suffragette activities is sketched out for us by her husband, played by David Tomlinson, who sings with self-satisfaction, “King Edward’s on the throne; it’s the age of men!”  He is lordly, and therefore is somewhat clownish, but his wife is equally clownish, hiding her activities from him, stuffing her sash in a closet before he comes home. “You know how the cause infuriates Mr. Banks.”  At the end of the movie, she will give up her sash to make a tail for her son’s kite.

Interestingly, the magical, yet no-nonsense Mary Poppins is the ultimate feminist in the movie – independent, self-assured, not taking orders.  But she is humanized for us by being vain in a typically feminine manner.

It is 1910 in Mary Poppins, but The Shocking Miss Pilgrim takes us back to 1874.  Female independence from men is tied to, for me, a beloved object—the typewriter.  Betty Grable stars as Miss Cynthia Pilgrim, a new graduate of a business school in New York which has admitted women for the first time.  She and the other female students are admonished at the beginning of their course of study: “Until now, the business world has been a man’s world. If you fail, it will remain so!”

That’s quite a burden on their shoulders, but they are courageous pioneers, and Betty becomes the class champion at typing.  The students are referred to prospective employers (in an immediate job placement program that might be enviable for any college student today) and Betty draws a shipping company in Boston run by Dick Haymes.

Mr. Haymes runs his family firm, which is actually owned by his suffragette aunt, played by Anne Revere.  Haymes, however, thinks that women do not belong in the workplace and is surprised when Miss Grable shows up for work, as he thought he would be sent a male typewriter (or typist, when the person doing the work was finally viewed as separate from the machine).

Another person in the all-male office who disdains women in the workplace is Gene Lockhart, who plays the office manager.  The guys at first mock her, but her moxie, and her good-natured ability to take kidding endears her to them.  They put on their suit coats in a gentlemanly effort to not show her disrespect by working in the same room with her in their shirtsleeves.  Ah, me, but such niceties are lost to us today.

All are fascinated by her clatter on the typewriter, which was introduced in this same year of 1874 to commercial offices, though it would be a long time before they became common in workplaces or even had a standard keyboard.  Though Betty was the class champ in typing, we can see she does not know how to touch-type.  She does the old hunt-and-peck with two fingers. Actually, the touch-typing system was not invented until 1888, so this is not an error.

You will notice also that her typewriter appears to be operated with a foot treadle; this is because the first typewriters put out this year of 1874 were mounted on sewing machine stands and the foot treadle operated the carriage return.  They typed only in capital letters. So all your business correspondence would be screaming.

Betty takes a room at one of the few lodging houses in Boston that accepts women office workers, who are shunned as undesirables, women of probably questionable virtue.  Like actresses.

Elizabeth Patterson is her kindly landlady who takes her in and who belligerently accepts all outcasts from Boston society, including artists and writers.  Gad!  Arthur Shields and Allyn Joslyn are two of her vagabond lodgers, and together they make up a happy family.

Anne Revere recruits Betty into the local suffrage movement and Betty makes a hit making speeches. She drags the reluctant Dick Haymes along, and we have our obligatory, if clunky, romance budding between them. Dick introduces Betty to his mother, a high society lady played by Elisabeth Risdon, who is also a closet suffragette and who will, at the end of the film, buy her own typewriter.  I love the line when Betty, who is surprised to discover the great lady is a kindred spirit, is answered by Miss Risdon, “You expected to find a witch burner.”  This, of course, a nod to a period in Massachusetts history when intolerance, as it will, brought ghastly tragedy.  (It’s a common euphemism, of course.  Nobody was burned in Salem for witchcraft; nineteen were hung, one was pressed to death, and others died in jail.  Burning at the stake in Europe, of course, was another matter.)

As long as we’re being sticklers on accuracy on my home state, I’d like to congratulate those responsible for this film for the correct pronunciation of “Peabody.”  Hereabouts, it is not pea-body.  It’s PEAbudee. One of the men in the office, Mr. Peabody, who presents her flowers, corrects Betty on her pronunciation. 

Like Glynis Johns, Betty Grable dons her “Votes for Women” sash and heads out for another rally.  True love does not run smooth, especially when the ardent young man thinks suffragettes are frustrated old maids. But Betty is sensible, not flighty or shrewish.  She thinks women should gain equality by entering many careers, rather than just protesting. When he tries to replace her with male secretaries, he finds them lacking in…uh, charm.  Finally reverting back to female secretaries, he finds them plain, unattractive, and none suit him. He goes to the Boston Academy of Typewriting for a new graduate.  Our old friend Mary Field is the receptionist who refers him to the manager—Betty Grable.  Ah, Dick Haymes sees the light.  It is implied, rather than stated, that he has come around to the idea that women are just as capable in business as are men. Will they marry?  Will she give up her job if she does marry him?

How old will she be when she finally gets to vote in 1920?

Many social issues were covered across a broad spectrum in films from the 1920s through the 1950s, yet women’s suffrage was not really addressed except in parody.

There is a line in the “Sister Suffragette” song from Mary Poppins that Glynis Johns sings: “Our daughters’ daughters will adore us, and they’ll sing in grateful chorus, ‘Well done, sister suffragette!’”

Hollywood has never really said, “Well done,” or given them their due, and perhaps even today, neither have we.  Watch the PBS documentary.  Then go vote, each and every election you can. It took a lot of sacrifice and fighting to get that right.  If circumstances arising from the pandemic makes it more difficult for you to vote, or the current traitorous administration of criminals tries to stop you, then move heaven and earth to do it.

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.




Friday, August 14, 2020

SALE - Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star.


Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star., my book on the career of multitalented actress Ann Blyth is on SALE until Monday, August 17th (in celebration of Ann Blyth's 92nd birthday on August 16th). The eBook is reduced to $4.99 (regularly priced at $9.99), and the print book is reduced to $19.99 (regularly priced at $25.00)

Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's WATCH ON THE RHINE, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in MILDRED PIERCE (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals.

Get your copy of the eBook at Amazon here.

Get your copy of the print book at Amazon here.

I hope you enjoy it. Thanks for reading!

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