Category Archives: Studio Era

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

AJ Hiding Police

John Huston loved losers. While he worked in a range of genres and told all sorts of stories, he seems to have a had a special affection for the people who just couldn’t make it. Desperate prospectors looking to strike it rich. Cowboys trying to live in the past when the world was moving on. Fighters who kept climbing back in the ring after everyone else knew they were finished. Huston kept coming back to these people, following them as they lived their lives in the margins, fascinated by the way they kept hanging on after the world had given up on them.

Huston’s 1950 adaptation of W.R. Burnett’s novel The Asphalt Jungle is a terse and unsentimental look at a handful of thieves who plan a jewelry heist. But this isn’t a movie about criminals. It’s about people. These are guys who are trying to make ends meet, one way or the other. They may live on the wrong side of town, but they’re just trying to get by like anybody else. And as the story unfolds, we see that they’re not so different from the guys on the right side of town.

Huston doesn’t preach. (With one key exception, which I’ll get back to.) He just follows the characters as the heist unfolds, letting us get to know each of these men, allowing us to learn what makes them tick, what their frailties are. The director worked closely with screenwriter Ben Maddow on crafting the script. In his autobiography Huston says he had great respect for W. R. Burnett’s novel, and consulted with the author repeatedly while writing the screenplay.

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James Whitmore and Sterling Hayden

The story centers on Dix, a tough guy from the rural South. He has fond memories of the farm he grew up on, but he’s filled with anger over the way that life was taken away from him. The jewel heist could be the big score that allows him to get it all back. The plan is set in motion by Doc, a courtly German immigrant who’s just gotten out of prison. Doc is the mastermind, the man with a foolproof scheme for the perfect job. On arriving in town, he immediately connects with an underground intermediary and sets about choosing his team and finding someone to front them the money they need to get started. The backer they find is Emmerich, a well-respected lawyer who’s having cash flow problems, which seem to be tied to his young mistress.

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Louis Calhern and Marc Lawrence

The Asphalt Jungle is filled with character actors you may have seen many times, but you’ve probably never seen them better than in this film. Cobby is your classic simpering gangster tool, but Marc Lawrence makes his weakness seem all too human. James Whitmore and Anthony Caruso are both in fine form playing ordinary guys who are just trying to make living. To them the jewel heist is just a job. Jean Hagen’s performance as Doll is impressive in its directness. She doesn’t hide behind mannerisms or theatrics. She seems totally vulnerable, completely exposed. It’s a moving performance. Veteran Louis Calhern plays Emmerich, the crooked lawyer, with a degree of polish that speaks of his many years of experience on stage and screen. To put it simply, he’s a total pro. But he also lets us see the cracks in the smooth veneer, the brief hesitations where we glimpse his fear, the deep sadness in his weary eyes. In contrast to this seasoned pro, Emmerich’s mistress is played by newcomer Marilyn Monroe in her first significant role. She’s fine, but she doesn’t make much of an impression here. You don’t get a sense of the personality that would make her a star just a few years later.

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Jean Hagen

As Dix, Sterling Hayden is forceful and intimidating. In this film just his presence on the screen creates tension, in large part because of the anger burning inside him. It doesn’t take much to set him off. The threat of violence is always just below the surface. This makes for an interesting contrast with Doc.  Sam Jaffe plays the older man as a thoughtful, businesslike planner, who (almost) never acts on impulse.  The actors have an excellent rapport, and this makes their friendship believable.  In spite of their profession, they’re both men of honor. They both have a code.

Huston respects these men, regardless of their faults. They may live by a different set of rules than you and I, but they do have a set of rules, and Huston doesn’t care which side of the law they’re on. Which is why the Commissioner’s stern speech to the press at the end of the film, where he lectures them on the importance of law enforcement, seems so completely out of place. The scene was so out of character for Huston that I wondered if he’d been pushed to insert it by the studio, possibly to counter the film’s portrayal of a crooked cop. But a look at the pages in the director’s autobiography that deal with The Asphalt Jungle don’t reveal any mention of studio interference. Whatever the reason for this scene, it’s a sharp departure from Huston’s usual perspective, and to my mind it’s the film’s only real flaw.

But in scanning Huston’s autobiography, I found out that he did run up against the censors on another scene. When everything comes unravelled and Emmerich is facing arrest, he decides to end it all. Huston initially had him going to his study, pulling out a gun, and blowing his brains out. But depicting a suicide onscreen was not allowed by Hollywood’s production code, unless the character was mentally ill. In order to appease the censors, Huston tweaked the scene to show Emmerich sitting down at his desk, starting to write a suicide note, tossing it away, starting another note, tossing it away, and then finally just pulling the trigger. This satisfied the censors by indicating that the character was unstable, and they gave it the go ahead. The way the scene plays out is a classic example of Huston’s laconic, hard-nosed approach, and he actually felt the changes made it stronger. We see a tight shot of the desktop as Emmerich makes his first, then his second attempt to leave a suicide note. Then his hand reaches into a drawer, removes a gun, and a second later we hear it go off. This one brief shot is an intimate glimpse of a desperate man’s last moments.

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Marilyn Monroe

One of the ways Huston avoids sentimentality is by keeping the music to an absolute minimum. Miklós Rózsa’s score is limited to brief cues at the beginning and the end. The film has a spare, stark quality to it. Certainly most of it was shot on sets, but Harold Rosson’s visuals give the impression that the run down diners and cheap hotels are defined by whatever light happens to be in the room. And the people are defined by the rooms they occupy. The art direction, by Randall Duell and Cedric Gibbons, gives every space a distinct character, from the bare walls and wooden chairs of Cobby’s office to the lush comfort of Emmerich’s home.

Huston may be telling the story of a handful of criminals, but really he’s letting us take a look at ourselves. These men may be on the wrong side of the law, but they’re trying to find the same things we’re all looking for. They want to pay off their debts, buy a piece of land, escape to a place where life is easy and the sun is always shining. And they make terrible mistakes, because, like us, they’re blinded by pride, overconfidence, and greed. Huston would probably be the first to admit he was guilty of all three of these sins. Watching the films he made about frail, fallible, foolish people, we may end up thinking about our own lives. All our dashed hopes. All the mistakes we’ve made. All our plans gone wrong.

AJ Horses

Detour (1945)

Tom Neal

Tom Neal

The movie Detour has long been considered a film noir classic. Reams have been written about director Edgar Ulmer’s amazingly terse, unnervingly intense exploration of alienation and despair on the lonely stretches of the American highway. Ulmer was certainly a gifted filmmaker, and Detour is one of the high points of his career, but it’s odd that in the seventy years since it was made, almost nobody has talked about the novel it was based on.

The novel Detour was published at the end of the thirties, and in many ways seems to be a distillation of the period it was written in, the tail end of the Depression. Like Alex Roth, the luckless musician at the center of the story, author Martin Goldsmith had spent some time hitchhiking, no doubt getting well acquainted with hunger and hardship. The film’s screenplay is also by Goldsmith, and almost everything in it comes directly from the book. It’s an unusually faithful adaptation.

There are some major differences. In turning his slender novel into a surprisingly spare film, Goldsmith cut one of his characters almost entirely. While the book is framed by Alex’s story, starting and ending with him, the chapters he narrates alternate with chapters narrated by his girlfriend, Sue. The two met and fell in love working at a club in New York. Determined to become an actress, Sue left for Hollywood, postponing their marriage indefinitely. Desperately lonely, Alex decided to hitchhike to LA so he could rejoin his girlfriend. The book goes back and forth between the two of them, giving us an intricate portrait of their tangled relationship.

While Alex and Sue are basically decent people, they’re both driven to degrading acts by loneliness and lack of money. Goldsmith lets them explain themselves in their own words, and their stories are a mix of desperate self-deception and brutal honesty. Alex knows he’s basically a bum, but he can’t let go of the idea that some day he’ll become a successful musician. Sue realizes she’s just another star-struck fool scraping by as a waitress, but she keeps telling herself that somehow she’ll break through in Hollywood. They’ve both done things they’re not proud of and spend a good deal of time trying to justify their actions. Bottom line, neither one of them is perfect, and they know it all too well.

In the movie Sue is pretty much gone after the first reel. The screenplay gets her out of the way to focus on the poisonous relationship between Alex and Vera. This makes sense for a commercial feature, but it also makes the movie more conventional. Part of what makes Goldsmith’s book so interesting is the audacity of using a pulp thriller to dig into the maddening contradictions inherent in most relationships. Making Vera the central female figure brings the movie much more in line with the classic pulp framework, a more or less innocent guy dragged down by a scheming femme fatale.

Another interesting aspect of Goldsmith’s adaptation is the fact that he cuts out all of his rants about Hollywood. In the movie, pretty much all we see of Tinseltown is a series of rear projection shots, and the characters only refer to it in passing. In the book, the author spends pages describing his characters’ reactions to film capitol, and gives us a fairly detailed account of what it was like to live in the community at the end of the thirties. Goldsmith was living in Hollywood when he wrote Detour, and it’s clear that he was both horrified and fascinated by the place. His characters have wildly different reactions to what they see there. Alex arrives in Hollywood and likes it right away, describing how clean and sunny everything looks, admiring the people who look so healthy and tanned. But Sue, who works as a waitress because she’s had no luck with the studios, is bitterly angry that she was foolish enough to believe the hype. “I had arrived so thoroughly read-up on the misinformation of the fan magazines that it took me a full week before I realized that the ‘Mecca’ was no more than a jerkwater suburb which publicity had sliced from Los Angeles….”

The movie is just as relentlessly cynical as the book, but in a different way. Born in Vienna at the beginning of the twentieth century, Edgar Ulmer was steeped in the northern European traditions of romanticism and expressionism. Before he started his career as a director, he had worked as a designer in stage and film, assisting Max Reinhardt, Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau. In making a film out of Detour, he brings a significant shift in emphasis. Goldsmith’s book is rooted in gritty reality, and in their moments of honesty the characters acknowledge that their lives were shaped by the choices they made. In contrast, Ulmer’s movie is about an innocent man whose life is completely derailed by fate. He has no choice. And there is no escape.

Ann Savage and Tom Neal

Ann Savage and Tom Neal

Ulmer spent most of his career working on low-budget and no-budget productions. At the time he made Detour he was under contract at PRC, possibly the cheapest outfit in Hollywood at the time. Most of PRC’s output was shot in six days and cut in one, an outrageously short schedule for making a feature film. In spite of these extreme limitations, Ulmer charges the movie with powerful imagery, making the visuals more striking and expressive than almost anything the major studios were doing at the time. Whether hitching a ride through the burning desert or brooding over a cup of coffee in a tiny diner, Al Roberts* is travelling through a dark psychological landscape. It often feels like the movie is taking place in his mind. Al is briefly enraged by a jukebox song that reminds him of his girlfriend. When he calms down again, the camera dollys in quickly to a tight close-up and the frame suddenly grows dim except for a small patch of light illuminating his eyes. Ulmer has no qualms about using a blatantly artificial effect to show the character’s emotional state. When Al stands over Vera’s corpse on the hotel bed, we see the room from his perspective, the camera panning slowly over various random objects, bringing them briefly into sharp focus, then allowing them to go hazy. We’re brought into the room with him, we share his feeling of stunned disbelief.

Another major difference in the movie is the way Vera dies. In Goldmsith’s novel, Al is so maddened by anger and fear that he strangles her when she tries to call the cops. It may not have been premeditated, but it’s definitely murder, and while Al is shocked by what he’s done, he doesn’t spend much time mourning. He runs. In the movie Vera’s death is definitely accidental. Having decided to call the cops, she grabs the phone, runs into the hotel bedroom and locks the door behind her. In total panic, Al grabs the cord and pulls with all his might, hoping to rip it out of the phone. Then he breaks down the bedroom door and finds Vera dead, the phone cord wound around her neck. There’s no knowing how this change came about. Did Goldsmith alter the scene on his own? Did Ulmer ask for something different? Was the production code a consideration? Whatever the reasons for the change, it definitely alters our perception of Al’s story. In the first version, he’s a murderer, even if he didn’t consciously choose to kill Vera. In the second version, he’s a helpless victim of forces beyond his control. After Haskell’s sudden death, Al’s chance encounter with Vera, and then her death in a freak accident, there’s no question that fate has taken a hand. He can run but he can’t hide. It’s only a matter of time before the darkness closes in.

Tom Neal has a forlorn charm that’s perfect for Al, an ordinary guy who’s trapped by an extraordinary set of circumstances. He just wants to get by, and at first he thinks everything will be okay if he just plays it cool. As things get worse and the pressure grows, Neal shows us Al’s nerves go from ragged to raw. He goes from ranting and raging to bargaining and begging, desperately trying to claw his way out of the mess he’s in. As Vera, Ann Savage burns a hole in the screen. It’s easy to believe that Al’s afraid of her. She’s a bottomless pit of anger and bitterness, and her intensity is scorching. But unlike the book, the movie gives us brief glimpses of another side of Vera. In her own way, she’s just as lost as Al. Vera’s led a hard life and probably doesn’t have long to live. In the few moments that Savage lets us see flashes of insecurity and desperation, it makes the character more than just another femme fatale. She seems vividly, pathetically human.

In the book, Alex manages to evade the law, but he can’t go home and he can’t go back to his girlfriend. He’s haunted by the memory of Sue, and tormented by the fact that his musical career has ended before it began. Goldsmith leaves Al stuck in limbo, bumming rides from one small town to another, earning a buck whenever he can. Still, he keeps moving forward. Life goes on. Ulmer’s ending is much more bleak. Al may have momentarily slipped free of the hangman’s noose, but he knows it’s only a matter of time before he’s caught. It’s not just bad luck that’s sent him on this detour. A mysterious force has singled him out, and there is no escape. When the highway patrol car pulls up alongside him at the end, he doesn’t struggle or try to run. He meekly steps inside. Because he knows it isn’t the police taking him down.

It’s fate.

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*
In the book the character’s name is Alex Roth, but in the movie it’s changed to Al Roberts, no doubt because nice “normal” Anglo names were always preferred for Hollywood heroes.

Getting ready to drop a dime.

Getting ready to drop a dime.

City Lights (1931)

Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill

Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill

In the twenties, Charlie Chaplin was sitting on top of the world. An international star and owner of his own studio, he had complete control over the films he made. Chaplin worked at his own pace, taking as much time as he needed to get things right. He might spend days on a single scene, and if later he decided it wasn’t right, he’d go back and shoot it all over again. If he felt like he needed a break in the middle of shooting, he’d shut the production down and go back to it when he was ready to resume. I can’t think of another commercial filmmaker who had the same freedom.

Chaplin started out making shorts in the teens. His early efforts were rough, but by 1920 he’d mastered the medium, and it’s important to understand what the medium was in those days. In the silent era, commercial filmmaking relied on characters that were easily recognizable stereotypes, and stories that were told in the clearest possible terms. Without dialogue to help define more complex characters and situations, filmmakers had to use a visual language that was simple and direct.

Harry Myers and Charlie Chaplin

Harry Myers and Charlie Chaplin

When Chaplin came on screen as the Tramp, audiences recognized the character immediately. He was the little guy, the ordinary fellow who didn’t want any trouble, and spent most of his time just trying to get by. Put him next to a burly roughneck or an elegant society woman and the situation was clear right away. Without a word being spoken, it was easy to see he was either dealing with an antagonist or an aristocrat, and audiences would naturally be rooting for Chaplin, the underdog. The plots were just as simple, setting up blunt contrasts between love and hate, kindness and cruelty, selfishness and self-sacrifice. They appealed to the audience’s most basic emotions, and at their best, the silent films of the studio era had a primal power that was irresistible.

City Lights is one of the prime examples of this kind of filmmaking. The story is real simple. The Tramp falls in love with the Blind Girl who sells flowers on the street. When he finds out she needs money, he (sort of) steals the cash to help her out, but ends up going to prison for the crime. You can’t get much more melodramatic than that, but Chaplin uses this soap opera storyline to create a film that’s funny, beautiful, and sometimes heartbreaking.

These days there are lots of people who complain that Chaplin’s work is too sentimental, and even in his own time there were critics who held that view. All I can say is, it works for me. If I thought that he wasn’t sincere, that he was just trying to manipulate the audience, then I’d be angry at this fraud who was tugging at my heartstrings. But I think Chaplin absolutely believed in the world he created on the screen. Not to say that he believed it was realistic, because he certainly knew that his movies relied heavily on artifice. The reality he was reaching for was an emotional one. Even if the situations were sheer fantasy, Chaplin tried to make the emotions ring true.

One of the reasons Chaplin was so good at putting us in touch with his characters’ feelings is that he understood the relationship between the performer and the camera. For his comic scenes, he spent endless hours shooting rehearsals so that he could fine tune every gesture, making it fit precisely within the frame. The sequence where we see him gazing at the statue in the store window is a classic example. The whole thing is shot from one angle, but it’s absolutely the right angle. Chaplin shot reel after reel of rehearsals, slowly working out a subtle choreography that can wring laughs out of the smallest gesture. In the scene where he meets the Flower Girl, played by Virginia Cherrill, it starts out sweetly charming, then there’s a sense of wistful longing, and suddenly we’re laughing at a slapstick gag. Chaplin accomplishes all this with the simplest set-ups, but he always makes sure that the camera is positioned to pick up everything the actors are doing. It’s not just the expressions on their faces, it’s the way they stand, the way they walk, the way they move their hands. The storyline may be pure melodrama, but scenes like this are a subtle, complex dance.

City Lights shows how completely Chaplin understood silent filmmaking, but he never figured out how to deal with sound. His art was built on the poetry of popular melodrama. The images were so simple you didn’t need words. When he finally started making films with dialogue, the words seemed like excess baggage, weighing everything down. He certainly has some interesting things to say in movies like The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux, but in those later efforts it seems like he’s trying to explain himself, rather than trusting us to understand. In City Lights he doesn’t need to explain anything. We don’t have to hear what Chaplin is saying. We can feel it.

The moment of recognition.

The moment of recognition.

What’s Opera, Doc? (1957)

WOD Bugs Pavillion

The animation of the studio era settled early on into a comfortable pattern. These short cartoons usually showed funny animals doing crazy things. While you might find a few examples of verbal humor, for the most part the comedy was intensely physical, with characters chasing each other, hitting each other, and sometimes blowing each other up. You really wouldn’t use the word “subtle” in talking about the cartoons of that time.

Until Chuck Jones came along. Jones started out in the early thirties on the bottom rung of the animation ladder, but by the end of the decade he’d become a director, working under Leon Schlesinger at Warners. His early efforts were uneven, with just a few hints of his personality showing through. It wasn’t until after WWII that he really hit his stride, but by 1950 he had created a style that was completely his own.

Every director who worked in the Warner Bros. animation department had their own take on the stock company of characters. Bugs Bunny imagined by Bob Clampett was not the same as Bugs Bunny imagined by Friz Freleng. But Bugs Bunny imagined by Chuck Jones was something else altogether. Instead of relying mostly on madcap slapstick, Jones imbued his work with subtle shadings you didn’t see in other cartoons. Daffy’s wild ranting would suddenly melt into a pathetic display of helpless incomprehension. Jones would take a moment between gags to show us Porky cock his eyebrow in a small gesture of weary disdain. In the split second before a bomb went off, we’d see the Coyote overwhelmed by total despair.

Jones reshaped the Warners stock company to create his own, very personal, fantasy world. His way of drawing the characters was distinct from the other directors at Warners. Instead of the crisp, sharp lines that previously defined Bugs, Porky and Daffy, Jones’ lines could be fragile, sinuous, twisted, eccentric. In the course of a seven minute short, Jones would take you from displays of raging hysteria to scenes that were oddly touching.

What’s Opera, Doc? is one of Jones most complete efforts. It’s certainly not the first time cartoons parodied the world of opera, but in Jones hands’ it’s not just a parody. Sure, he’s making fun of the mythic heroes and doomed romances, but with its vast landscapes and dramatic vistas, this short cartoon revels in the gorgeous excess of opera. Jones is in love with the very thing he’s satirizing.

WOD Elmer High

In the first scene we see a warrior’s majestic shadow cast on the side of a towering cliff. Then the camera descends to show us that the shadow belongs to Elmer Fudd, decked out like Siegfried in Wagner’s Ring cycle. In this case, Elmer’s not out to destroy the evil dragon Fafnir, but to hunt down Bugs Bunny. The story is the same one we’ve seen in dozens of other shorts that feature these two characters. The comedy comes from seeing them play out the same routines against the extravagant backdrop of grand opera. Instead of hunting Bugs with a shotgun, Elmer now summons the destructive forces of the storm to hunt his prey. When Bugs goes into his familiar drag routine, this time he’s not just a sexy vixen, he’s Brünnhilde, lying on a divan in an elegant pavillion.

In animation, everything we see on the screen has to be created from scratch, and the best animation directors have always relied on teams of talented people who make this happen. On What’s Opera, Doc? Jones had top-notch crew, all of whom had worked with him for years. It’s worth mentioning them all by name. The story comes from long-time Jones associate Michael Maltese. The animation was the work of Ken Harris, Abe Levitow and Richard Thompson, with Maurice Noble doing the layouts and Philip DeGuard taking care of the backgrounds. Editing and sound are by Treg Brown. Milt Franklyn did an excellent job of condensing the music from Wagner’s massive Ring cycle into just about seven minutes. Elmer’s voice is by Arthur Q. Bryan, and of course, Bugs’ voice is provided by the incredible Mel Blanc.

What’s Opera, Doc? came toward the end of Jones’ tenure at Warners. The studios that had animation departments were shutting them down, and it wasn’t long before Jones and his crew were shown the door. It’s a shame, but it was inevitable. Over the course of three decades the animators at Warners created an incredible body of work, turning out some of the most imaginative cartoons you’ll ever see. But making those cartoons was becoming increasingly expensive, and after 1950 the studios were doing everything they could to cut costs. Jones went on to some excellent work on television, but the golden age of studio animation was over.

As Porky would say, “That’s all, folks.”

"Well, what did you expect in an opera?  A happy ending?"

“Well, what did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?”

The Southerner (1945)

Betty Field and Zachary Scott

Betty Field and Zachary Scott

Jean Renoir was not cut out for Hollywood. Like many European directors fleeing the Nazis, he landed in LA around the beginning of WWII. And like many European directors fleeing the Nazis, he found himself faced with a choice between working on genre films or hardly working at all. He made a few movies that more or less fit the standard Hollywood mold, but that wasn’t really what he was interested in. The studios wanted movies about gangsters, dancers, cowboys and comedians. Renoir just wanted to make movies about people.

In 1944 he got his chance, but it didn’t come easy. According to the AFI web site, Renoir was not interested when he first read Hugo Butler’s screenplay based on the novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand by George Perry Sessions. But he must have seen possibilities in the project, because he ended up rewriting the script himself. Having signed Joel McCrea and Frances Dee for the leads, producers David Loew and Robert Hakim arranged distribution for the film through United Artists. But when McCrea bailed out because of creative differences, UA wanted to bail, too. Loew got them to reconsider by threatening to withhold other productions that the distributor was interested in. Zachary Scott and Betty Field stepped in to replace McCrea and Dee. And Renoir began shooting the film that was eventually titled The Southerner.

You can find a few different stories in The Southerner, but really it’s just about a family trying to scrape by living on the land. At the start of the film, Sam and Nona are picking cotton on a plantation, barely making enough to get by. Sam makes a deal with the boss to take over a nearby farm that’s been lying fallow for years. The film follows the Tuckers as they clear the land, plow it and plant it, always struggling to overcome the obstacles that life puts in their way. Instead of inventing an artificial plot to give the film structure, Renoir allows the passing of the seasons to give The Southerner its rhythm.

Husband and wife working the land.

Husband and wife working the land.

Apparently the director had wanted to shoot in Texas, but ended up having to find the locations he needed in California. Cinematographer Lucien Andriot’s handling of the natural light shows both sensitivity and subtlety. We can feel the heat beating down on Sam and Nona as they’re sweating in the dusty fields. We can see the sky reflected in a placid lake as Jot goes wading by the shore. And while there’s a fair amount of studio work, the sets blend almost seamlessly with the real locations. Production designer Eugène Lourié, a longtime collaborator of the director’s, not only makes the Tuckers’ scraggly house seem a natural part of the landscape, it also feels completely lived in.

The film has a wonderful ensemble cast. Charles Kemper disappears into the role of Sam’s amiable friend Tim. Veteran character actor Beulah Bondi is in fine form as Granny. If she’s cranky and difficult, it’s because life hasn’t been easy. Her face and her body appear to have been worn away by the elements. The child actors here don’t seem to be acting at all. Jay Gilpin and Jean Vanderwilt are surprisingly unselfconscious as the Tucker children, Jot and Daisy.

Beulah Bondi and Betty Field

Beulah Bondi and Betty Field

But the movie is centered on Sam and Nona, played by Zachary Scott and Betty Field. They’re an idealized vision of rural Americans, simple, hardworking people who just keep moving forward no matter how hard things get. Usually Hollywood turns characters like these into tedious clichés. Here Renoir uses his gentle, unforced approach to put this humble couple at the center of his poem about the rural South. Betty Field plays Nona with a straightforward simplicity that’s easy to take for granted. I’ve seen the film a number of times, but it’s only recently that I began to appreciate how good her performance is. Field had a long career on stage, screen and TV, but she never called attention to herself or her work. As a result, she was overlooked during her lifetime and now she’s pretty much forgotten. As Sam, Zachary Scott seems like an agreeable, easygoing guy, but there’s a toughness beneath the surface that gives the character strength. Scott was an intelligent, versatile actor, who, like Field, seems to have faded into obscurity. It’s too bad. They both deserve more attention.

While Renoir felt that The Southerner was the best of his American films, it’s never gotten the attention that his earlier work received. These days it’s fallen into the public domain. It’s available on DVD, but the quality isn’t great. My guess is that the distributor started with a faded sixteen millimeter print. This movie deserves better. I have no idea how many prints are out there, or what condition they’re in, and I know restoring and remastering a film can be costly, but I wish somebody would put together a quality re-release of this movie. The Southerner has been neglected for far too long. Won’t somebody adopt this beautiful orphan?

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Duck Soup (1933)

Chico Marx, Harpo Marx and Louis Calhern

Chico Marx, Harpo Marx and Louis Calhern

The Marx Brothers made only thirteen films as a team. Most of their fans agree that the first five they made at Paramount are the best. The other studios they worked at never seemed to understand them. The Marxes started in vaudeville where they gained a devoted audience by creating their own anarchic style of comedy, and that audience grew when they made the transition to Broadway. Like many other Broadway stars, they moved to Hollywood when sound came in. Studio heads were desperate to find talent for talking pictures, and successful stage acts seemed like a safe bet.

It would have been impossible for the Marx Brothers to make their early films anywhere besides Paramount. Many comics make us laugh by showing us their struggles as they try to keep up with the world. With the Marxes, we laugh as we watch the world struggling to keep up with them. At their best, they come across as manic madmen who get their kicks by trashing every convention that society holds dear. They needed to inhabit a world of their own, a world where they could gleefully shred the rule book and get away with it. Fortunately, Paramount allowed them to do just that. In the thirties the studio was known for producing eccentric fantasies like Million Dollar Legs, Alice in Wonderland and If I Had a Million.

The Marx Brothers didn’t write or direct their own movies. They had to depend on others to create the right setting for their antics, and it wasn’t easy to find people who understood them. Even in their films at Paramount you can see that the writers and directors behind the camera couldn’t always figure out what to do with them. The first two are basically filmed stage plays. The next two, while much more dynamic, are fairly chaotic and haphazard. The only one that totally works as a film, that has a look and a style and a rhythm, is Duck Soup. And that’s mostly because it was directed by Leo McCarey.

Leo McCarey understood film. His style was simple and direct, but at his best he had a wonderful gift for catching performers at their most relaxed and spontaneous. McCarey had supervised some of Laurel and hardy’s best silent films, often starting with a simple premise and making the movie up as he went along. He knew how to improvise. You can tell by watching his films that he’s willing to take the time to let the actors find their own rhythm. He had no problem letting go of the script and allowing the film to develop on the set.

Which is not to say that McCarey put Duck Soup together all by himself. According to Joe Adamson, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby wrote the first draft. Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin are also credited, but there were others involved as well. It was standard practice in those days to hire as many gag writers as you thought were needed to keep the laughs coming. But Adamson also says that McCarey made some major additions during shooting. He cites the mirror scene, the street vendor dust-up and an extravagant musical number, none of which appear in the final draft of the screenplay.

Though Duck Soup makes merciless fun of politics, it falls less into the realm of satire than surrealism. Groucho arrives at his inaugural ball by sliding down a fire pole. Harpo walks around with a pair of scissors, randomly cutting up ties, cigars and feathers. But there are some scenes with a sharp satirical edge, most notably the musical numbers. As soon as Groucho takes over as president of Fredonia, he outlines his plans for the country by singing a song….

If any form of pleasure is exhibited
Report to me and it will be prohibited
I’ll set my foot down, so shall it be
This is the land of the free

And at the moment when Groucho finally declares war, he and his brothers lead the people of Fredonia in a freewheeling musical parody, with the entire gathering raising their voices to sing the line, “All God’s chillun got guns.”

It’s not just the Marx Brothers who are in top form here. Duck Soup boasts a splendid supporting cast. Louis Calhern is perfect as the suave diplomat Trentino, putting out just as much energy as the Marxes and displaying a sharp sense of comic timing. As Trentino’s spy, Vera Marcal, Raquel Torres slips smoothly between her roles as conspirator and confidante. Margaret Dumont plays Margaret Dumont beautifully. In Coconuts and Animals Crackers Groucho’s antics might provoke her scorn or censure. In Duck Soup she seems oblivious to his barbs. Groucho is courting her one minute, insulting her the next, and she just takes it all in stride.

Duck Soup was the peak for the Marx Brothers, and from there on it was all downhill. They left Paramount and moved to MGM, where Irving Thalberg convinced them they’d do better if their films had a story with a love interest and higher production values, the upshot being that they became supporting actors in their own movies. After Thalberg’s death, they were consigned to routine vehicles that rarely allowed them to be themselves. The producers who handled their subsequent films apparently saw the Marx Brothers as just another comedy team.

But one of the great things about movies is that they can capture performers at the height of their powers. We’re lucky the Marx Brothers made the transition from stage to film. We’re lucky they had a few good years at Paramount. And we’re especially lucky that they teamed up with Leo McCarey. Whatever came later, we’ll always have Duck Soup.

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For anyone interested in finding out more about the Marxes, you can’t do better than Joe Adamson’s Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo. Adamson talked to a lot of the people who worked on their movies and his research in general is really thorough. He’s an engaging, insightful writer, and on top of all that he’s funny. The book has been out of print for years, but it’s easy to find copies on the internet. I recommend it highly.

Oz in 3D?

yellow-brick-roadI was standing on Hollywood Boulevard the other day, and I noticed that the Chinese Theatre was advertising a new version of The Wizard of Oz in 3D. I’ve gotta say, this really bugs me.

I have no problem with recent 2D films being converted to 3D, as long as the director approves. If James Cameron wants to re-release Titanic in 3D, that’s his business. But Victor Fleming and his numerous collaborators have been dead for many years, so there’s really no way of knowing whether or not the original creators would approve of this update.

It’s not just The Wizard of Oz I’m worried about. The thing that really concerns me is the precedent this sets. If the 3D Oz is a success, does this mean studios will start a stampede to do the same thing with other classics? I’m thinking back to the eighties, when companies were colorizing movies for release on video. Isn’t this the same thing?

If the theatrical re-release of Wizard of Oz in 3D makes a lot of money, what’s next? Lawrence of Arabia? 2001? Psycho? And now that technology has advanced to the point where 3D is available on home video, does this mean we’ll see “enhanced” versions of The Maltese Falcon? The Searchers? Rebel without a Cause?

Does anyone else see this as a problem? And if so, should we be doing something about it? I wonder if the DGA has this on their radar….

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Bette Davis

Bette Davis

Michael Curtiz and Errol Flynn made twelve films together. Mostly people tend to remember the rousing adventure tales like Robin Hood and Captain Blood, thrilling fantasies where Flynn played dashing, romantic heroes. But there’s another film they made together that stands outside the adventure cycle. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is radically different from the other lavish spectacles that Flynn appeared in during his heyday. In fact, we really shouldn’t look at it as a Flynn vehicle since it wasn’t conceived for him in the first place. The movie came about because Bette Davis had seen Maxwell Anderson’s play Elizabeth the Queen on Broadway. The actress was so taken with the play that she got Warners to buy the rights. It’s a sign of the clout she had at the time that the studio even considered the project. The film is nothing like your typical star vehicle, and in spite of Warners’ efforts to make it more conventional, it still stands out as an unusual film for its time. If it doesn’t work completely, it’s still compelling in many ways. Though the story and dialogue were substantially changed, it stays faithful to the brutal truths that are central to Anderson’s play.

It’s important to start by saying that Anderson’s version of events was not historically accurate, and that Warners’ took further liberties with the facts. What makes the play so compelling is the way the author digs into the two central characters, ripping away the layers of pride and pretense as Elizabeth and Essex battle for control of the relationship and control of England. The screenplay, by Norman Reilly Raine and Aeneas MacKenzie, discards much of Anderson’s dialogue and completely alters the structure, but actually ends up being nearly as complex and involving as the original play. The film is surprisingly literate for Hollywood, and what’s even more surprising is that the screenwriters manage to create a historical love story that is lively and interesting.

The film goes far beyond the narrow emotional range of most Hollywood films, and Curtiz is up to the challenge. He understands the possibilities in the material and uses his considerable gifts as a filmmaker to dramatize the screenplay. While the background is brimming with pomp and pageantry, in the foreground we see two people who are intelligent and passionate, vain and insecure, struggling to come to terms with each other. Art director Anton Grot creates spaces both vast and intimate, using vibrant color to set the emotional tone for each scene. Cinematographer Sol Polito finishes the job beautifully with his fluent use of light and shadow.

The heart of the film is Davis’ performance, and she is amazing. She was clearly fascinated by Elizabeth, and her commitment to the part is obvious. Her performance has nothing to do with Hollywood’s standard notions of romance. Her Elizabeth is not attractive or seductive. She does not try to ingratiate herself to us in any way. Davis plays the queen as a brilliant and neurotic woman, desperately wanting to be loved and absolutely determined not to show it.

Flynn, on the other hand, plays Errol Flynn. It’s not that he’s bad, but his performance isn’t in the same league as his co-star’s. He brings the same level of commitment to this role as he did to Captain Blood or Robin Hood, but the script demands more. He handles the dialogue well enough, but his performance is all on the surface. It’s possible that at this point in his career Flynn couldn’t dig any deeper. But the rest of the cast is solid, and there are a few standouts. Apparently the experience of making the film was traumatic for Olivia de Havilland, but she is excellent as Penelope. The role gives her a chance to step away from the wholesome, good girl image that Warners had forced on her. And Donald Crisp plays Francis Bacon with impressive skill and subtlety.

The adventure films that Flynn and Curtiz made all have simple, clear stories that outline a basic struggle between good and evil. Though they’re ostensibly about heroism, for the most part they’re really about exploiting our childish desire for reassurance. The leadership at Warners made an effort to fit Elizabeth and Essex into that mold, but the basic premise of the film defied that kind of simplification. Though not historically accurate, it’s a real story about real people and real human failings. We are made to see that the brave and dashing Essex is a vain, impetuous egotist who understands little about the realities of running a country. And we can’t even fully sympathize with Elizabeth, who is a jealous, neurotic egotist willing to sacrifice the man she loves to retain her power. It’s the antithesis of the standard formula, because it shows how empires are really built. And there’s nothing reassuring in the outcome.

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I’ve been interested in art director Anton Grot’s work for a while. He worked on many films with Curtiz, and is credited on numerous other Warner features in the thirties and forties. It’s been really hard to find information on Grot, but I did come across a blog which features several of his drawings. As far as I can tell, most of them were done for Captain Blood, but it looks like at least one was for Mildred Pierce, and the last one is probably for Elizabeth and Essex or The Sea Hawk (the two films share a number of sets). If you’d like to check the drawings out, click here.

The Breaking Point (1950)

Anybody who’s a fan of movies from the studio era probably has a soft spot for Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not. It’s hard to beat for sheer entertainment, taking full advantage of its charismatic stars and a top-notch supporting cast. It’s also totally superficial. We know from the start that the good guys are going to win and that Bogart is going to walk off with Bacall. It’s a classic example of the way the studios would take a book and transform it into something almost unrecognizable. In the case of Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not, Hawks took the premise of a guy on a boat in the Carribean and dumped everything else.

Really, he had to, because the original novel is extremely unusual and brutally cynical. Actually, I think the book is pretty interesting, but its fragmented narrative and strange digressions pretty much defy all the conventions of commercial filmmaking. On top of that, it was wartime, and the studios were determined to keep everything upbeat and positive.

But by nineteen fifty things had changed. There was a strong undercurrent of cynicism running beneath Hollywood’s glamorous surface. People were making films that not only questioned the status quo, but suggested that we were living in a world where the deck was stacked against us. That’s pretty much the thrust of Hemingway’s novel. The book is about those who have money and those who don’t. And the conclusion that the main character reaches by the end is “A man don’t stand a chance.”

According to Eddie Muller, it was John Garfield who suggested doing a remake. Screenwriter Ranald MacDougall was brought on board to do the adaptation. Though he moved the story into the present and changed the location to Long Beach, it’s much closer to both to the letter and the spirit of the book than the Hawks version. Harry Morgan is a fisherman struggling to support his family and hang on to his boat. The story shows how he’s driven to ever more desperate measures to make money, finally agreeing to take part in a robbery.

Juano Hernandez and John Garfield

Juano Hernandez and John Garfield

Garfield’s gripping, lively performance is the heart of the movie. Harry starts out as a fairly easygoing guy who just wants to make a living, but as he feels the screws tighten we can feel him tighten up as well. Garfield had a gift for playing average guys, and did it without sentimentalizing his characters. He doesn’t ask for our sympathy, he just plays the role as honestly as he can.

Harry loves his wife, and he works hard to provide for her and the kids. Lucy Morgan loves her husband but she’s slowly getting ground down by the stress of making do with almost nothing. Phyllis Thaxter plays the part with admirable simplicity and sublety. The one character that’s borrowed from the Hawks version is the sexy drifter, who in this case tests Harry’s commitment to his wife. The role was probably created to make the movie more commercial, but Patricia Neal is so good that it’s hard to complain. She’s tough, smooth, cynical, and still vulnerable in a way that makes her seem human.

Those who are mostly familiar with Curtiz’ polished films of the forties might be surprised by the gritty intensity of The Breaking Point. It has the energy and the tension you can find in some of his thirties melodramas, but here the characters are more complex. Curtiz keeps his camera close to the actors, and MacDougall’s script allows them to dig into their roles. We have no trouble believing that they inhabit this world, that their lives are rooted in this small seaside town. Cinematographer Ted McCord is amazingly sensitive to the ways in which light can define a location and the subtle nuances of mood it creates. He makes a working class kitchen and a waterfront bar equally real and vivid. Whether he’s shooting on location or on a soundstage the images have the same attention to texture and the same vibrant immediacy.

At the end of the film Harry has survived a shootout with the robbers, but it looks like he’s going to lose his arm. Delirious, he rambles on about how “a man don’t stand a chance”, but calms down when his wife arrives. She convinces Harry to let the doctor amputate, and she’s with him as they carry him to the ambulance. Not the happiest of endings, but we feel a sense of hope. Then the camera pulls back and we’re left with the final startling image. Harry’s sometime partner Wesley was killed in the shootout. As Harry and his wife, the police and the doctors exit the frame, we’re left with a shot of Wesley’s young son standing by himself on the pier. This image of a child, alone and forgotten, is the film’s most powerful moment. It’s totally unexpected, and the movie is over before we can absorb it, but it lingers in the memory. Hollywood movies generally end with the promise that everything’s going to be all right. The Breaking Point does not, and it’s all the more powerful because of its honesty. It tells us that everything is not going to be all right.

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Jack Carson and Joan Crawford

There’s no way to adapt a book or a story for the screen without altering it. Just the process of transferring it to a different medium is going to transform it, and if we’re talking about a Hollywood film there’s pressure coming from all angles to make it conform to certain standards. Often the results are disastrous, even when the makers try to remain “faithful” to the book. On the other hand, if the makers are wiling to rethink the book completely, to transform it into something that will work in a medium of images and sound, they might come up with something that’s successful in its own right.

When producer Jerry Wald read Mildred Pierce shortly after it was published in 1941, he knew it could make a good movie. He also knew it would be an uphill battle to turn it into a screenplay that would be acceptable by Production Code standards. Mildred’s divorce, her fling with a charming playboy, her daughter’s sexual escapades were just a few items that would be troubling for censors. And possibly more troubling than all the rest would be the fact that the author, James M. Cain, tells Mildred’s story without moralizing. He does not condemn her. He merely follows Mildred’s progress, presenting a detailed and convincing portrait of a woman fighting for success, while also exploring the reasons for her ambition.

The Production Code demanded that Hollywood films adhere to strictly defined standards of morality. So to satisfy the censors, Wald injected a murder into the story, and reshaped the ending to assure the audience that justice was served. According to Thomas Schatz’s book The Genius of the System, the producer struggled long and hard with the script. In order to achieve the right tone for a “woman’s” picture, he first assigned Catherine Turney to the project. But to get the tension he needed for a thriller, he had Albert Maltz work Turney’s material over. Other writers also took a shot at the script, but Ranald MacDougall received sole credit for his extensive work on the final version.

The film was directed with smooth precision by Michael Curtiz. By this point in his career Curtiz had refined his approach to the point where his films had a fluid, compelling visual style. He often follows the characters with his camera, using long takes and careful lighting to define space and create atmosphere. On Mildred Pierce he was aided by art director Anton Grot, who had worked on many films with the director. Cinematographer Ernest Haller also played an important part, giving the film the gloss the studio demanded, but still doing justice to the story’s grittier aspects.

The movie is also interesting for the way it portrays Los Angeles in the mid-forties. Cain had written the book as the Depression was ending, and his portrait of the city makes vivid the bitterness and despair of those times. Since Curtiz and his collaborators were shooting the movie a few years later, they captured a different Los Angeles. Granted, the studio would certainly not have allowed them to dwell too much on the city’s seamier side, but the war brought the economy roaring back to life and the film reflects the vitality that was in the air. Curtiz gives us a fascinating, if skewed, picture of Los Angeles as WWII was winding down. Customers eat in their cars in the drive-in dining area at Mildred’s restaurant. Sailors whistle at Veda as she sings at a seedy dive on the Santa Monica pier. Monty shows Mildred his house at the beach, revealing an interesting mix of rustic and modern.

Joan Crawford is excellent as Mildred, and the supporting cast is amazing. Jack Carson combines his usual energy with overbearing arrogance to make the lawyer/hustler Wally thoroughly repulsive. Eve Arden’s impeccable sense of timing and inflection make Ida a joy to watch. Zachary Scott is both seductive and appalling as Monte. And just as impressive as all these seasoned pros is the young Ann Blyth, who gives a chilling performance as Veda.

Cain’s novel is unsparing in its depiction of the characters, while the movie tends to smooth away the scarier edges. This wasn’t just the Production Code. A star like Joan Crawford would probably not want to play a character if it meant crossing certain boundaries. Even if they did, the studio would probably not allow them to play a part that might damage their image. In the film Mildred may be weak, may be fearful, but she is never pathetic or awkward as she was in Cain’s book. When Mildred looks for work in the movie, her voiceover narration accompanies a quick montage in which she rises to the challenge. In the book we accompany Mildred as she learns how difficult and humiliating it can be to work for a living. In the movie Mildred shows her anger at Veda with a sharp slap. In the book’s climax, Mildred is so consumed with anger she tries to strangle her own daughter. Most tellingly, in the final scenes of the movie Mildred acknowledges her mistake in divorcing Bert and they walk off together as the music swells. The book ends with the two of them clinging to each other in the depths of despair.