American Madness (1932) and The Capra-Riskin Connection

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The entire premise is set around National Bank in New York City during The Depression. If it’s not enough explanation already, at least we have some hint of where we might be headed.

American Madness is an obvious relic of the saucier years of Capra and Riskin before the production codes set in and a movie like It Happened One Night dreamed up the “Walls of Jericho to maintain propriety between the sexes. In this picture, they kiss right out in the open and behind closed doors too. It doesn’t much matter.

With switchboard operators, secretaries, and people bustling every which way, there are also shades of Counselor at Law here. Again, we are dealing with a fairly limited space depicting working America in the 30s set against the backdrop of a Depression-era world. However, Capra’s picture appears more cognizant of its time and place, self-aware when it comes to poverty and the hard times hitting just about everyone.

The morning crowd comes in to open up the bank bemoaning one of their members who always finds a need to open the day with a corny joke out of his repertoire. His most pressing problem is owing $10 to someone else. That’s a lot of dough in the throes of the Depression!

The interest in these characters or their lives is not immediately apparent, and yet the story does pick up its steam borne on the shoulders of characters, dialogue, and a bit of drama.

There’s a joy in seeing fresh faces who became all too familiar friends in subsequent years. Sterling Holoway is one employer who gladly plays the gossip, supplying everyone else with his juicy tidbits over and over again (“You could have knocked me over with a pin”). Likewise, the obliging Principal at the It’s a Wonderful Life pool party (Harry Holman) passes through the bank seeking a loan. These are secondary pleasures of watching a film from an earlier decade like this.

Meanwhile, front and center is Matt (Pat O’Brien) a bank teller who the incumbent Mr. Dickson (Walter Huston) has set up with a job out of good faith. Everyone else seems to have given the man a bum steer because he served time once, but he’s been granted a second chance. With his sweetheart working under his boss, he feels beholden to his benefactor and maintains an unwavering loyalty toward him.

Because even as he mans his post and snatches kisses from his girl, a big to-do shakes the boardroom behind closed doors. “The four horsemen” and Dickson’s other partners have met on their own to discuss a merger. They want their other member to relinquish control of the company. They see the laundry list of outstanding loans and the needless hunches he’s backed as living proof. He’s sinking their upstanding institution into the ground. They’re all in agreement. It doesn’t help that the kindly Mr. Ives is always being cut off.

One has to admit, in a world sans Capra — gutted by the Depression — it seems like they have a valid point. Even this earlier rhetoric hints at a precursor to the Building and Loan that the Baileys famously ran. But when Walter Huston finally comes to the office with his affable charisma accommodating to all, we get something far more concrete.

Like any Capra/Riskin hero (George Bailey, Mr. Smith, Mr. Deeds, etc.), he finds his ideals under attack and makes a valiant effort to articulate why he feels so strongly about his convictions.

In his book, he’ll take an honest businessman against any amount of bad luck. To him, that is no risk and the way he sees it, it’s up to the bank to give people a break. He speaks in terms of relational capital where security is founded in quality character rather than stocks and bonds, even evoking one of the pillars of American banking, Alexander Hamilton.

Dickson readily invests in character that can pull the nation out of the doldrums, striving to keep cash liquid instead of allowing it to sit around in the vaults. It’s precisely because he runs their bank on such a flimsy thing as “faith,” he receives opposition. It’s true this point of contention really is an affront to all the “rational” sensibilities.

However although American Madness certainly acts as a platform for a certain call-to-action, in favor of the American everyman, there are mechanisms within the plot providing something to sink our teeth into.

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Even as Dickson fights for his company, a blubbering inside man (Gavin Gordon) has found himself caught up with a noted gangster. However the spineless cad, also finds time to flirt with the boss’s wife. To him, it’s a bit more substantive and when Matt walks in on their would-be tryst, you can imagine his misgivings.

Then, a bank job goes down. Matt is a major suspect; he has a record, after all, and he doesn’t even try to exonerate himself. Of course, he’s covering for his boss, not that Dickson is guilty by any means. Still, it might kill him to find out his wife has drifted away from him, even as the bank begins to fold around him.

The once-formidable institution has its reputation steamrolled as the gossip makes the rounds. A “run” on the bank follows. This in itself is striking, not only as an early forerunner, again, of It’s a Wonderful Life, but also because, unlike that film, there is not the benefit of hindsight. These moments are being documented as close to real-time as you could manage. These are contemporary concerns laid out right in front of us.

Thus, the Depression is still fresh in the public consciousness; it still is a universal reality, and it shows me that the scene out of Capra’s later film was tapping into something real and profoundly relevant. My appreciation for both depictions broadens because of it. Although the ending is firmly planted in the Depression, it still manages to evoke the very same sentiments Capra would go back to in the final act of his greatest achievement after WWII.

But a short aside is in order. Because we can often quickly analyze someone like Alfred Hitchcock’s work and the through lines from 39 Steps to North by Northwest or even the evolution between his two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much are easy enough to acknowledge. These happened over a period of decades.

We have the gestation period and the reworking of old ideas to garner more substantial results. However, even in a slightly less amount of time (about 14 years), Capra and Riskin managed a formidable collaboration with thematic elements that are also overtly visible.

Because fewer viewers are familiar with American Madness, less is made of the comparison, but the similarities are still uncanny. I’m not sure if it lessens the impact of the later film as much as it provides a blueprint and further proof that filmmakers often return to familiar themes to flesh them out even more.

In this case, going back to the well works because the culminating message champions the human spirit as Capra and Riskin always had a habit of doing. It’s smaller potatoes but still intermittently powerful blessed by Walter Huston’s own flawless magnetism. What’s more, Capra was on the cusp of his most fruitful period. It’s as if he would break out of the Depression into full bloom along with the American populous. For now, he and his collaborator were resigned to find a crevice of hope in the midst of the madness. It’s uplifting as only they could muster.

3.5/5 Stars

My Top Films of 2020

These are some of the films that I enjoyed from 2020. Because I watched more new releases than is typical in the last few years, I went ahead and wrote capsule length reviews to keep it more manageable. Enjoy!

Minari 

Minari plays as another perspective on the American Dream. It’s an immigrant story insulated by the family unit. You have a melding of cultures born across a smattering of languages and cultural references from Mountain Dew to the resilient minari plant. I can’t think of anything more resolutely American. Any conflict comes from within and there are real decisions to be made, whether it’s in service of a father’s compulsion to provide for his family or a mother’s commitment to stay together at all costs. Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri are wonderful, but it’s just as much a story about their children or about the spirited grandma who comes to live with them.

These are living, breathing folks inspired by Isaac Lee Chung’s own experience and colored with the deep affections of personal filmmaking. There’s a tranquility about the film that feels like some sort of balm for the world we live in — if not this entire year — because hardship besets them as it does us. It’s taxing and dire. This is all but inevitable. This is life. Our only true sustenance comes from bringing family together, holding onto our loved ones, and praying for God’s daily mercies as we push forward. Though our experiences all differ, they converge at this one vital crossroad of understanding. Notice there is no “ending” to Minari. The fact that this lowly water wort flourishes, only after hardship, provides a symbolic glint of hope. 

Nomadland

There’s a reassuring shorthand that comes with Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again” familiar to anyone who has ever trekked across America or been on a road trip. Chloe Zhao’s film is cinema, travelogue, and National Geographic all rolled into one with spectacular images of both intimate and indescribable beauty. Because they are snapshots of life imbued with a resolute empathy. What an incomparable and honest treasure Frances McDormand remains fully humanizing this itinerant lifestyle. There’s a striking a cadence between Fern and the flora and fauna of the world around her. It joins the lineage of meditative, hypnotic moviemaking that’s come before it — films collaborating with nature — and thus blending God’s green earth and the human experience. By the end, we come to realize how unified they really are. 

Wolfwalkers

Draped in folklore and armed with long-held political division, Tomm Moore’s latest with Ross Stewart is as visually resplendent and verdant as ever with its golden hues of green. The fact that the local city is the picture of Cromwellian drudgery and repression only puts the adjoining forest in sharp relief. The populous is made to fear it and the wolves that live there, but it’s also a space of unimaginable magic.

Myth is effectively brought down to its most relatable and intimate. It becomes a war between worlds and ideologies made tangible through the trials of an intrepid girl and her hunter father. There’s a debilitating fear in the face of the powers that be and religious faith is militarized. Life is man vs. wolf. And yet in the face of this unyielding landscape, something extraordinary is born. Fairy tales become fact. Resurrection is real. Grief is ultimately supplanted by newfound joy.

Sound of Metal 

Riz Ahmed proves himself to be thoroughly committed to his role as a drummer who is impacted by a sudden loss of hearing. The premise is immediately intriguing, but he busts the story wide open as it becomes far more than a handy idea. We get so much in the realm of performance and sound, existential weight, and deep wells of human empathy. Olivia Cooke is in a symbiotic relationship with him — his fellow bandmate and lover — and as the movie evolves what a revelatory thing it is to see them both change. He finds a community that he can grow into even as he comes to terms with his hearing and the distant hope of regaining his senses through the latest technology.

She also has facets of her character and background that we only understand when they reconvene overseas. But we also witness how lives can go in different directions, and that’s not always a bad thing — it can somehow be cathartic even in the waves of ambiguity. The same might be said of silence in the face of noise. That stillness can be the Kingdom of God for some people. It’s not a deficiency or a tragedy, but an entirely new beginning. Sound of Metal also featured one of my favorite extended cameos of the year. 

Small Axe: Mangrove

I’ve seen In the Name of the Father and I’ve seen Notting Hill, but what Mangrove gives us is a powerful portrait showcasing another facet of this world. That is the rich Trinidadian culture that holds its rightful place in the ecosystem of mid-century London. Steve McQueen’s film makes it more about the world than the words spoken. We have the privilege of existing in a neighborhood, frequenting a local establishment fraught with all sorts of opposition.

Mangrove is a validation that big historical events are not the only way to galvanize — though the movie does evolve into a stunning courtroom drama. Still, this only reaps fruit when the grassroots ambitions of everyday people standing up for what they see as justice, join together as one. Self-representation is a powerful thing indeed and there’s something extraordinary about McQueen bringing to life a world that is so near and dear to his own heart. 

Small Axe: Lovers Rock

It feels like such an unassuming picture. We’re accustomed to blockbusters or Oscar hopefuls with often gluttonous runtimes. Lovers Rock is nothing like that. It’s lithe and exuberant in all the best ways, identifying this universal sense of burgeoning romance. And yet it plays as such a full-bodied, deeply engaged, and present evocation of a specific moment. This specificity is key, supplying its vital life-blood and culture while allowing it to be a fitting ode to a bygone era.

However, director SteveMcQueen also allows time to flow at its own pace, capturing the vibes in a room alive with black joy and a myriad of a cappella voices. It’s so easy to get lost in it as if we are in that very room experiencing the tremors and pulses making their way across the dance floor. Far from being a mere jukebox movie, it has a kind of real-world substance about it that feels genuinely pure and honest. For the uninitiated, it’s a pleasant surprise and no doubt worthy of future viewings. 

The Assistant 

Kitty Green’s film shies away from sensationalized drama and settles into a far more harrowing and morose sense of powerlessness. I’ve had the ability to stay well outside the film industry so it’s never been able to fully envelop me. But here there is no place to hide. We imbibe the weight of depression and helplessness piled on Julia Garner. One particularly excruciating scene with an HR rep turns painfully cruel.  However, this is not only a film about sexual harassment — although this is a crucial piece — it’s indicative of a toxic culture and mindset from the top down. 

Still, in showing her plight and the network of similarly situated co-conspirators, it doesn’t so much provide them greater agency as it shifts the story away from the bosses. It also provides some much-needed empathy. In the quiet rhythms of an oppressive job, undertaken by aspirational people who feel like they’re trapped and their dreams have turned into a nightmare, suddenly we’re there with them. It’s a powerful film just as it is pressing. It speaks into our cultural moment not with a blaring megaphone, but a whisper we would do well to heed. 

Collective 

This Romanian documentary exposé lays out the groundwork for the story ahead of us so there is no initial confusion. That comes later when we are enveloped in a harrowing world that feels akin to the “follow the money” moments in All The President’s Men and even takes cues from the dirty black marketeering immortalized by Orson Welles’ charismatic cad Harry Lime in The Third Man.

Here everything is current and fresh happening in front of us. First, a horrible fire and then incompetence throughout the national health system that leads to greater human tragedy. The aftermath brings out shockwaves of negligence within the government and more sinister intentions with national implications. It’s worthy of righteous anger from us all, but what’s greater and more profound is this pursuit of veracity in the face of deception. Transparency and truth are still powerful instruments for good. 

Farwell Amor

The movie begins with the kind of opening shot that makes you hold your breath. Long takes can be boring, but they can also imbue scenes with such a greater understanding. Farewell Amor is about a family living in the transitory state as immigrants reunited after many years apart. It becomes increasingly apparent that they must now cross another great divide. It’s no longer geographical but beholden to cultural differences and lost time. A husband and wife hardly know one another. Religious faith does not hold the same import in their lifestyles.

Meanwhile, a daughter must acclimate to a father who she has not seen since her youth. Through its Rashomon structure, we are privy to three empathetic points of view, and it makes for a powerful experience. How lives can be outwardly connected — sharing the same space — and somehow disengaged and aloof. You have three people living in their own worlds, coming to terms with what it means to be a family again. There’s such care and sensitivity, when it falls apart it galls me. There’s not so much a Pollyanna happy ending to the movie. Rather it’s a vow to abide and share each other’s burdens. After all, that’s what families are meant to do. 

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

The film title remains effectively obscured until a pivotal scene where the submerged depths of the iceberg are unearthed and human frailty is made fully known to us. But until that point, the movie is defined by this overarching bleakness — a high schooler’s slice of life — inundated with the numbing rhythms of work and school. Sidney Flanigan brings so much to the young woman even as she bends away from us. A pilgrimage to New York with her cousin to take care of an unwanted pregnancy makes us come face to face with her innate wounds.

Suddenly the movie unravels and becomes one of the most emotive empathy machines of the year. It breaks your heart. It’s so vulnerable. But the bottom line, the song she sings, is “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying.” The very same issues at the core of this film are full of emotional baggage in both religious and social spheres, but here they are allowed to be fully human, and I won’t say anything more for the time being. Broken people deserve dignity. This film looks to extend them this basic courtesy even as we can still question the outcomes. 

Beanpole 

Set in the context of post-WWII Russia, more so than almost any other country, you feel like these people know what hardship and tragedy engenders. There’s a matter-of-fact immediacy to everything that happens to these people — two young women who fought in the antiaircraft during the war and now serve the wounded as nurses. Of course, they have their own wounds both physical and emotional. Written on the page, moments of grief, pain, and blackmail feel like high drama, and yet here they are distilled into something both mundane and vulnerable. What a beautiful cast of characters they are and by this I mean in a way antithetical to conventional Hollywood glamor.

They feel real and honest with bodies and features that take on almost classical dimensions. Eyes say so much as do silence or an uninhibited, frenzied twirl in a dress. Against the rigidness and the jadedness of the world, there are these tiny acts of rebellion and by that I mean humanity. What does it mean to try to condone their behavior? Far more than that, it starts with beginning to understand even an iota of what they have experienced. 

One Night in Miami…

There are four men at the center of Kemp Howard’s reimagination of a fateful meeting: Malcolm X, Muhammid Ali, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown. It’s sobering to acknowledge that only one of them is still living and only two lived into old age. It’s talky and stagy, for good reason, but it’s also a film about those core issues at the very fabric of America’s tumultuous heart. There’s a moment late in the movie where Leslie Odom Jr. as Cooke sings “A Change is Gonna Come.” It signals a change in Cooke’s ambitions as an artist — more in the vein of a Bob Dylan perhaps — but I wasn’t thinking of that. I was nearly moved to tears. It’s moments like these I turn out to movies for — to be moved in unexplainable ways — but what is this emotion if it doesn’t lead to a visible change in my own life?

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Denzel Washington has shouldered a sacred mission to introduce the works of August Wilson to the uninitiated such as myself. What Ma Rainey has to offer has much to do with performance and a dialogue with heady topics, nevertheless carried out in a kind of cajoling, free-flowing style brimming with life, laughs, and animosity. It’s a film born on the stage and as such, it utilizes a limited, intimate space to navigate the cultural climate of the Jazz Age for black folks in particular. Conversations of cultural clout, the arts and ambitions of blacks in a white man’s world remain pertinent to this day.

While Viola Davis feels like the obvious standout as the eponymous, irascible, unfathomable Ma Rainey, it’s equally easy to be entranced by Chadwick Boseman. His spiritual anguish is probably one of the most affecting and terrifying cinematic experiences of this year. Oftentimes we are quick to heap praise or christen a posthumous performance a triumph, and yet in Boseman’s case, it feels true. He tears through his role with relish, alive with an irrepressible vitality and plagued with the kind of demons that make the film burn with a fire far greater than its simple premise. It’s the kind of characterization that sears into your mind’s eye, not soon to be forgotten. The same might be said of him. 

News of the World

Paul Greengrass hardly feels like a director of westerns, but here he helms one that takes the grand, blustering landscapes of the West and somehow makes them feel slight and less consequential. Try as I might, this is meant to be a compliment. Because at its center is Tom Hanks and a perfect riding companion Helena Zengel. Although, as the modern generation’s Jimmy Stewart, I would love to see Hanks dip into his vengeful side out on the range, his steady candor provides a disarming uprightness.

He need not revise the West just as he doesn’t rewrite his persona. Aside from his trade, he’s no Herculean gunslinger, and there are few grandiose moments, but the bits of characterization give us something to be relished for their universal humanity. Sometimes all you need is an actor set against a cinematic panorama and being rapt up in the moment is enough. It’s not quite John Ford and hardly Anthony Mann and yet it’s still a distinct pleasure to have a western again. 

On The Rocks

What a light and marvelous film this is because it’s not trying to be anything more. It’s about the mid-life malaise, it’s about a wife’s (Rashida Jones) suspicions of her ambitious husband (Marlon Wayans), and fathers and daughters, but it never aims for anything sordid. The streets of New York feel out of reach to me, but they are magical, and Coppola looks to be in love with the world as she is with Bill Murray. He has that same winking charm, older now (aren’t we all); always incorrigible, but real and honest. When he and Jones whistle “Laura’s Theme” in the back of a limo, I knew I was invested in the ride. It’s not Lost in Translation, and I’m thankful for that. 

Recommend: Driveways, I Used to Go Here, The Personal History of David Copperfield, I’m Your Woman, Boys State, Athlete A, Apocalypse ’45,

Johnny Belinda (1948) and Evoking Silent Cinema

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I must admit to committing an unforgivable fallacy. Maybe I’m the only perpetrator, but there might be others too. In my own mental computations, I often attribute Jane Wyman as the first wife of Ronald Reagan more than I equate her with her acting career. And though Nancy Davis hardly built such a substantial Hollywood career, I am quick to remember her because she was, after all, the First Lady.

However, with viewings of the Yearling and especially Johnny Belinda, I hoped to remedy this by recalibrating my brain’s gut responses. It was a stunning success. I’ve never been more mesmerized with Jane Wyman, and the core of Johnny Belinda’s merit lies in how simple it is. She does so very much with so little and in a medium often hampered by excess, Johnny Belinda is, in its finest moments, a quietly moving examination of a human being.

Cape Breton can be easily placed. There’s a wharf and a cannery. Men work at sea bringing in the days catch, and there’s nothing glamorous about their existence. The work is hard and the people blue collar. It’s the wrong coast, but these are the kindred of Steinbeck and certainly, you cannot help but think of Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night with its seascape and gale of drama.

However, I happen to think Johnny Belinda weathers the drama with a more delicate touch. We must turn to the characters to understand how this really happens. Because the small-town setting is stocked up with all types and shades of people. An amiable doctor named Richardson (Lew Ayres) has recently set up practice on the island making housecalls aided by a pleasant bedside manner. His swooning young housekeeper (an oft-forgotten Jan Sterling) is smitten and wishes above anything to be noticed.

It’s true he’s both a generous and obliging fellow though he doesn’t go to church on Sundays. It’s one reason for the old ladies in town to still somehow doubt his sincerity. He certainly can’t be familiar with “Christian charity” as they are!

Aside from the run-of-the-mill gossips, there’s the slimy reprobate Locky McCormick (Stephen McNally). Presently we might label him rightly as a bastion of toxic masculinity. However, the bottom line is he’s a vain and destructive human being who is able to fly under the radar due to the town’s hypocrisy. In other words, he goes to church on Sundays and manages to be romantically linked to the aforementioned housekeeper Stella.

We must also mention the gruff but not unkind farmer Black MacDonald (Charles Bickford). In fact, over time, he starts looking better and better as his work ethic and old-fashioned decency begin to let slide his affection for his daughter (Wyman). Meanwhile, his sister is played by Agnes Moorehead, a criminally underrated actress, perhaps because people do not superficially tout her looks. And yet she is a remarkable performer bringing strength and an acerbic edge to her part.

Even with these people, the spokes of a story aren’t altogether obvious as the kindly doctor takes the dumb and mute young woman under his tutelage, perceiving her intelligence and the dormant curiosity inside of her.

Wyman models her transformation exquisitely, first, picking up signing, then learning basic gestures of communication. However, in a town like this, there are certain types of ignorant people. People who will only ever see her as a “dummy.” There is no beauty or intelligence to unlocked inside her countenance because they can only comprehend the physical.

One prime example is when some merrymakers have an impromptu shindig at MacDonald’s barn fater picking up their weekly order of flour. The good doctor stands by Belinda beaming, showing her a fiddler plucking away joyously on his strings. The discovery is manifested on her face as she touches the violin with its vibrating strings and her feet begin to patter modestly. Her legs move tentatively but sweetly as if unshackled for the first time.

Others see it too. First, Locky his eyes burning with lust and then his jealous girlfriend trying to win back his affection with a carnal kiss. These are the only things they know about passion and romance. Add alcohol to the mix and it’s a volatile cocktail.

The film’s most helplessly terrifying moment comes when the belligerent thug wanders off from the party and finds a peaceful Belinda. His eyes burn with malicious intent. She has only innocence which quickly turn to fear as he encroaches. The subsequent inference of images and cuts speak for themselves as do ensuing events…

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Recently I’ve been pushing back against the era’s tendency toward over-illumination when it comes to spelling information out. However, some of the greats, Hitchcock and Lang among them, were able to imbue sound films with a certain silent sensibility where passages rely on the primacy of image over sound.

I won’t put Jean Negulesco in the same group as these others, but nevertheless, his premise necessitates a certain amount of nuance in order to approach the subject matter. It’s a tact that I very much appreciate because the film ably takes on the restraint and the functionality of a silent film especially when considering the subject of Belinda.

Consider, for example, a near-wordless entrance into the church with the stunned congregation looking on as a lovely Belinda enters in her Sunday best. In the same sequence, Dr. Richardson watches Belinda’s face swell with apprehension upon seeing McCormick for the first time. The power comes in this unspoken revelation.

The story must progress, and it evolves into a modern play on The Scarlet Letter with pernicious scandal digging in. You must remember this is the same small town with ears and eyes on every street corner. News travels fast that Belinda has a child and everyone has their preconceived notions on who the father is. They are intent on taking matters into their own hands. I need not expound upon this anymore.

More useful still are the impressions of the following scenes. In a strikingly poignant interlude, Belinda signs “The Lord’s Prayer” as the solemn bystanders join her in grieving the dead. We are reminded this is a different era imprinted with Christianity and a God who was a present comfort in the face of adversity.

Her moments taking care of her baby are also so tender and one is reminded of the universal experience of parenthood. Belinda might not be able to speak or hear but she feels and becomes both guardian and protectorate of that little bundle of joy no matter the cost.

An ensuing trial has her in the defendant’s seat and these scenes are generally conventional. They crop up in any amount of noir, melodrama, screwball comedy, whatever. It’s the precise circumstances that make it an engaging end. Because court is all about testimony and defense. What if someone is barely able to defend themselves?

They require others to intercede on their behalf. The final safety valve providing the audience a release is overblown and a foregone conclusion, but up to this point, what a joy it is to watch events unfold moment after moment.

This is a fine turn by late-period Lew Ayres although he is nothing without the quiet dignity and sprightly inquisitiveness of Jane Wyman. Johnny Belinda is a stunning reminder truth need not only come in the powerful wind or the quiet whisper. It can come in silence as well.

4/5 Stars

The Yearling (1946): A Boy and His Deer

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“When I was a child I spake like a child…” ~ 1 Corinthians 13

Like the previous year’s Valley of Decision, The Yearling opens with an establishing shot paired with Gregory Peck’s voice, this time in a folksier register. Aside from being unoriginal, one can hardly condemn director Clarence Brown for an act of plagiarism.

However, what it does go to exemplify is a certain amount of unspoken structure supplied to Old Hollywood films. This shorthand, along with needlessly informational title cards, feel very much like the bane of the era’s filmmaking. It’s as if with the age of the talking picture, film’s forgot about the primacy of the image and as such, they dumbed down movies for their audiences. After all, it’s so easy for dialogue to become a constant crutch to fill in any ambiguities.

Even despite this aspect, The Yearling still has innumerable elements going for it. Gregory Peck is a fine actor, even making ho-hum voiceover moderately palatable, and the gorgeous Technicolor tones of nature within the film are breathtakingly resplendent. In fact, the movie proves a well-situated follow-up to Brown’s earlier success, National Velvet. It is a portrait of pioneering before the days of Old Yeller, joining together such lucrative elements as adolescence and animals.

The adolescent in this tale, adapted from Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s eponymous novel, is Jody (Claude Jarman Jr.), and the fauna deserves mentioning later on (although you probably already know what it is).

For now, the amiable Penny Baxter (Peck) and his boy form a bit of a good-natured partnership, sticking together as the men of the house. Their chemistry is undeniable making their onscreen pairing as father and son ripe with all kinds of affection. None of it feels like a fake veneer plastered on for the benefit of the audience.

The third member of the Baxter household is Ora (Jane Wyman), the no-nonsense wife and mother who’s both homely and severe, completely different than her kinfolk. Still, there’s something within her that Wyman does so well to intimate through her characterization. Thus, despite all she says and does that under normal circumstances might make us dislike her, most will find it within themselves to give her the benefit of the doubt. So much of it is understated and unspoken even as she never gives an inch. Her maternal heartbeat is undeniable although it maybe periodically obscured.

The Yearling really is fable-like by providing an impression of a way of life focused on a frontier family and more directly, the young boy who grows up right before our very eyes. While there is a narrative of sorts — all the events can be strung together as subsequent rungs in the journey — it’s mostly a vignette-driven piece meant to reflect the vicissitude of life.

One moment father and son are streaking through the forest with the family dogs to subdue ol’ Slewfoot, the ornery bear who mercilessly slaughtered one of their livestock. It becomes a lively jaunt and the first lesson in the boy’s nascent repertoire.

Due to the utter uselessness of his firearm in the tense encounter with the bear, Penny takes it upon himself to acquire a new weapon, and he manages quite ably through a bit of horse-trading with the nearest neighbors. One of the bunch is an ornery fellow also easily duped. By the end of the confrontation, he’s given up a beautiful rifle for an underperforming pooch.

Then there are the momentous trips into town to pick up materials at the general store. Mama is still dreaming of a well someday, and the obliging shopkeeper (Henry Travers) offers the boy a mouth organ as he comes face to face with a girl his own age. It’s hardly young love.

Instead, father and son get involved in a right neighborly brawl in the center of town, which is yet another of the film’s more jocular moments. It’s not afraid of the humor to punctuate the drama of life.

Because the next scene of note is really the turning point. Out in the forest, Penny is bitten by a rattler and fortuitously he’s able to shoot a nearby doe using the bodily organs to draw out the poison. It’s a scary incident leaving the man of the house weak and his son aims to take the orphaned doe as the pet he’s always been begging for.

The rapturous crescendo of angelic audio grandeur introducing our true main character is laid on a bit thick. However, if your heart is ready to be melted and you have held onto a shard of childhood innocence, The Yearling can remain a powerful tale of youth. No scene is more emblematic than this one.

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The film’s title comes front and center once again as we watch the parallel characters of a growing boy and his growing companion. He dotes over the little deer taking him to bed and imploring his mother not to take his pride and join away from him. Though the animal ruins them on multiple occasions trampling their crops.

If it’s not the fault of a creature, then nature whips up its own retribution. Their next tribulation is carried out by a torrential downpour decimating their hard-earned crops and sending emotions to a fever pitch. Evoking the sufferings of Job hardly seems a welcomed antidote to their plight.

But then, something begins to happen. A boy is becoming a man as he begins bearing the load of toil normally carried by his obliging father. He builds a fence to keep his deer out while fixing up their camp.

Then, they must say goodbye to a newlywed bride and groom. We don’t know them well but the family is deeply affected. Their exit by sea is a bittersweet departure, and as they ride back home Jody glumly notes, “I don’t like people going away it’s like they were dying.” His father only condolence is an honest observation, “That’s life boy. Getting and losing.” He must come to accept it. Death, goodbyes, trials; they never exactly get easier, but we must do our best to push through them with the support of our loved ones.

The Yearling might seem lightweight compared to some similar stories, but one must try and recall our own childhoods, where any number of thoughts and feelings experienced for the first time became monumental markers of life. That first pet you had. The death of a friend. The first girl you ever had a crush on. Each takes on varying degrees of importance in The Yearling and even for a story rich in sentimentality, these really are moral parables at their core.

Because it strikes some balance between maintaining a child-like wonder and zest for life while also understanding sometimes we must literally put to death our former ways. Finding that balance just might be one of the keys to a meaningful existence.

3.5/5 Stars

Valley of Decision (1945): Greer Garson & Gregory Peck

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Gregory Peck’s pleasantly resonant voice brings us into the moment. The scene is unimaginative yet unmistakable with its obviously scaled-down establishing shot. Pittsburgh. Smokestacks and steel. These are the days of Andrew Carnegie and the transcontinental railroad wrapping its way east to west, making mythical magnates out of mortal men.

Valley of Decision is about this same monumental national narrative albeit stripped down to a microcosm meant to be far more intimate. In a manner of speaking, it succeeds by first setting our sights on a group of Irish immigrants. They are stereotypically spirited with a brogue to match.

Mary Rafferty (Greer Garson) makes her way home through the humble neighborhood she calls home to announce the latest piece of news. Amidst tough times, she has found herself a decent wage! The only complication is that she’ll be serving as maid to the Scott family, owners of the town’s local mill. Although Mary’s not a girl to turn down a job, her curmudgeon father (Lionel Barrymore) has maintained a lifelong grudge against Mr. Scott, seeing as it was the factory that lost him the use of his legs. He’s never forgiven them even with the recompense they’ve provided.

This is an instant source of conflict although it’s initially unrealized. Because given how they are built up, it’s rather surprising how everyone in the Scott household seems generally benevolent, if not a bit stuffy.

Mary arrives and we’re curious to know her place. We get our first look at Gregory Peck. He sneaks up the stairs to be rushed by his affectionate siblings. His mother (Gladys Cooper) follows in all civility. Each moment is taken in by the new help, perched in the drawing-room with each reaction made blatantly obvious. This is her first impression as well as ours and she beams ear to ear.

Garson’s character girds a spellbinding wit of the Irish about her, settling into her new occupation for the Scott family quite seamlessly and casting off her early nerves. Between the dishes and the spoiled children, she handles it with disarming aplomb and a certain bright-eyed reverence as only Greer Garson can supply.

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If it’s not obvious already, Valley of Decision is a social drama with characters tied closely together. There’s the sectioning off of social spheres between the affluent and their more humble help. Then, you have the meeting of the men over cigars and business as the women busy themselves with frivolities. Curtains, for instance.

Tiptoeing through all these spaces like a fly on the wall is Mary Rafferty. Certainly, her place in this world is obvious, and yet she is accorded a very unique role walking through the parlors and dining rooms of the elite — privy to their conversations and activities — and an integral part of every part of her lives. No matter her family background.

It’s no secret a burgeoning romance starts in on her innocently enough. She’s a fine and glowing conversationalist. He’s charming and handsome. How could they not get together? But she dutifully understands her place. It wouldn’t be proper and with no prompting, she makes her way across the Atlantic in service of Ms. Connie (Marsha Hunt), effectively increasing the space between them. The mistress of the manor understands her predicament and privately pities her.

Then, one day there is a strike at the factories. Again, it’s no shocking epiphany. Anger and discontent are churned up and the bullish pride of Mr. Scott (Donald Crisp) and the sense of license for better wages by the unionizer Jim Brennon, looks to be at an impasse.

The true “valley of decision” (an allusion to the Old Testament’s admonition from Joel) is when all the events come to an inevitable head. A fragile peace can be maintained no longer, and all sides suffer calamitous devastation. Because the consequences are great when the Scotts and their opposition come face to face to have it out for good. Not even Mary nor her relinquished lover can make it right again.

Whether torn from the pages of the book or dreamed up by the screenwriter, Valley of Decision is very much a stilted melodrama with all sorts of manipulative twists coming at us with such continued force, it gets to be wearisome. It never ends.

The narrative flits so undecidedly between the warm chemistry of the leads and this overly theatrical landscape played out against the family’s steel mills. You might blend How Green is My Valley, King’s Row, Giant, Home for the Hill, and other analogous films, but somehow Valley of Decision still comes out the weakest of the brood. It cannot seem to reconcile its main conceit to a satisfying end.

It’s assembled with all the trimmings people might easily turn their noses up at when considering Hollywood movies of old. It boasts sentiment and courts melodrama. There’s the aforementioned voiceover to set the stage and stirring crescendos of mighty music in love and in tragedy. Characters can easily be pigeon-holed by their types all the way down to a spoiled Marsha Hunt, the insufferable childhood sweetheart played to a tee by Jessica Tandy, and Dan Duryea, not quite having found his more suitable niche as a noir baddie.

There’s also the underpinnings of Mary courting on the side of the wealthy and well-to-do. She sympathizes with them, making them seem like the victims of a system more so than the destitute bottom dwellers. I’m not sure what to do with this.

Because it’s true Mr. and Mrs. Scott are a most benevolent pair, and we grow to love them. Crotchety Lionel Barrymore, sulking in his wheelchair, doesn’t do much for the P.A. of the common man, but nonetheless, it’s a startling turn.

Taken as these disparate pieces placed together, the movie is an uneven compilation, all but borne on the shoulders of Greer Garson and Gregory Peck, who by any cursory glance, seem ill-suited as romantic partners. At the very least, they’re disparate figures.

She was a mature star, finally coming into her own as one of the prominent performers from the U.K. now making it big in Hollywood. He was an up-and-coming stage actor with the formidable build and roots in La Jolla California then Cal. Yet they share an amicable spirit somehow allowing them to fit together due to their mere ability to counter one another’s playful ebullience.

It does feel like a remarkable crossroads in careers. Garson was beloved, but would never regain her major box office with the dawning of the 50s and new tastes (even with a resurgence of success in the 60s). Gregory Peck was just beginning. One wonders what Greer thought of Roman Holiday and To Kill a Mockingbird? It’s easy enough to believe she would have liked them.

3/5 Stars

Madame Curie (1943): Starring The Indomitable Greer Garson

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Physics and Mathematics are the two primary focuses of Marie Curie’s life. In the early days, when she was one of the few solitary women in a Parisian sphere of academia, dominated by dismissive men, she still went by her maiden name and took on the rigors of study with ardent relish.

Thus, when her kindly professor (Albert Basserman), the prototypical white wizard with a likable twinkle in his eye, invites her over to his home to meet famed professor Pierre Curie (Walter Pidgeon), she jumps at the opportunity, purely on a professional basis. However, I will not suggest for even one moment Madame Curie takes its material into anything close to unconventional territory.

What looks to be an intimate affair turns out to be a bustling party packed with people. The two academics feel sorely out of place amidst the socializing and gravitate toward one another even more dramatically. There’s nothing concrete at the moment because we must remember these are two people with the utmost sense of dignity. They’re able to counter one another with a certain genteel propriety, not the klutzy screwball meet-cutes of some of their contemporaries. This no doubt plays to their personal advantage.

Time passes and Pierre grants the ambitious woman to set up shop in his laboratory, tucked away in a shabby little corner. Once more she jumps at the chance, seeing the space, completely devoid of any sort of facilities, as the perfect proofing ground for her ideas.

She immediately leaves an impression on the youthful lab assistant (Robert Walker). However, it’s her inexhaustible work in radiation that leads Pierre to revere her. Because over time he grows accustomed to her, at least in a professional sense.  While shrugging off her graduation initially, he finds himself making an appearance all the same. He’s compelled to.

The next course of action is his hesitant invitation on a weekend away, and she gladly accepts, meeting his parents out in the country over croquet, including an uncharacteristically bristly Henry Travers playing the elder Curie. The budding romance is obvious, and it’s convenient for our stars.

Mervyn LeRoy’s film, on the whole, is a lightweight, cordial biography working loosely with facts to draw up the life of Madame Curie and her future husband. It’s just as much a vehicle for the lasting chemistry of Garson and Pidgeon as it is an ode to one of the most renowned scientists of the turn-of-the-century. While I’m not exactly the most gifted empiricist, even I am aware of the substantial shadow the Curie name casts over the discipline. In some small manner, this movie allows them to be appreciated and palatable for a mainstream audience, albeit an audience of wartime viewers.

Even this admission is telling, suggesting this tale of romance and biography functions as a bit of timeless morale boosting. It showcases love and the triumph of the human spirit, even in the face of bitter tragedy. Still, it does not immediately signal propaganda like Mrs. Miniver or other such entries. This might be to its benefit.

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Taking everything into account, what makes it rather extraordinary is Garson’s heroine because certainly, Marie Curie is well-deserving of a biographical treatment and in an age where women were kept out of such positions, she provides a paradigmatic example for future generations. (No one can rebuff her two Nobel Prizes!)

Both her work and her career are important to her. The same goes for her future husband. But even with their work as a constant distraction, they realize in between the long lab sessions, living life without one another would leave a void. Beyond this, their work would be far less meaningful. In his rather roundabout manner, Pierre professes his need for her, comparing their marriage to NaCl. It’s not exactly romantic to be table salt, but they work well together, and they do form a solid union.

While the scientific jargon, filled with chemical elements, feels a bit clunky, it’s admittedly difficult to figure out a way to make their regimen of uranium-based experiments riveting. The major takeaway is the uphill push for funding since Curie is dismissed on all sides, not only based on her unprecedented research, but also for the arbitrary fact, she’s the opposite sex of every stodgy member of the scientific board.

Not to be daunted, the couple sets up business in a shack, and the Curies take on the task with their usual tenacity, their sole objective: separating barium from radium. This is Madame Curie in its stagnant phase and yet no one can doubt Greer Garson’s candor. One is reminded of the crushing moment she thinks the radium has all but evaporated and with it four years of toil. She’s nearly inconsolable.

Then, when their success is finally validated, she’s looking into her husband’s eyes and commending him as a great man, not by the standards of the world, but due to his kindness, gentleness, and wisdom. It’s a striking moment because this is no doubt her story, but as with any union, it takes two people to make it work.

But she subsequently has another sublime moment of indescribable vulnerability, pained to her core by the most grievous loss of her life thus far. She is a woman of science and of great intellect, but the service Garson does for Curie (authentic or not) is making her all the more human at her lowest point.

The final verdict remains that Madame Curie is an unimaginative bit of hagiography, but for the faithful fans of Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, it is another fitting eulogy to their joint talents. For some, this might be enough to charitably see past what flaws there are.

3/5 Stars

Pride and Prejudice (1940): Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson

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When you grow up with a sister, I imagine most people are aware of books like Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, Anne of Greene Gables, and Little House on The Prairie. However, especially when you’re young, you rarely appreciate them fully or comprehend how notable they are as cultural artifacts.

It’s my ever-growing esteem for Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice that makes me hold any adaptation to a higher standard. Otherwise, it would be easy enough to settle. But the coloring of the characters, their tete-a-tetes, the comic orchestrations, and the explorations of themes inherent in British society, make the material that much more sacrosanct. As time grows older, her works seem to draw more audiences, not less.

Thus, I’ve found myself not so much a stickler for out and out faithfulness to the source, although if it’s not broke, why fix it? Still, I desire these adaptations to stay true to the essence of what the author created.

It’s true Hollywood has always had an affection for its literary adaptations, and it was little different in the olden days of the studio system. Because what any book or intellectual property essentially guarantees is some kind of preformed fanbase to pull from. However, these attempts to capitalize always come with widely varied results. This MGM version, helmed by the all but forgotten Robert Z. Leonard, falls somewhere in the middle. It’s hardly forgettable and yet it lacks the required magic to send it in to the pantheon of Austen cinematic transcendence.

For those left unawares, Pride and Prejudice is a story of the Bennett family, consisting of five sisters, their benevolent father, and a hyperbolic mother looking for every opportunity to marry her daughters off to the man with the largest inheritance.

When two eligible young men, a kind-faced Mr. Bingley (Bruce Lester) and the rather more curt and severe Mr. Darcy (Laurence Olivier), rent the grand estate of Netherfield, along with a haughty sister, Ms. Bingley (Frieda Inescourt), it causes quite the stir in town.

The matriarch, Mrs. Bennet (Mary Boland), is the epitome of a fussy busybody who, nevertheless, has draped about her a certain maternal charm. Edmund Gwenn calmly uses his bright-eyed wit to upstage his wife’s blustering. They make a formidable pair of comics.

Among their children, Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) is the perfectly docile beauty with the richest prospects of marriage. Elizabeth (Greer Garson) is proud and passionate. Mary (Marsha Hunt) is bespectacled and depicted as a bit of an oddball. The two youngest, Lydia (Ann Rutherford) and Kitty (Heather Angel) are tittering adolescents swayed by a dashing manner and a handsome uniform.

The story is conveniently recontextualized for the Victorian-era and the main purpose served is in the costuming department. Not only could the studio save money by repurposing some of their wardrobes, but they could also lean into a greater level of opulence that would not have been available in the actual day of the Bennetts. Except for absolute purists, I see no way in which this historical inaccuracy harms the success of the picture.

It is also the opening ball reinforcing the ensuing conflict by introducing Elizabeth’s genuine distaste that she harbors for Mr. Darcy, perceiving him to be a total supercilious snob. What’s more, her feelings are not entirely unwarranted. This dissension is borne in the title itself: The pride of Elizabeth and the prejudice of someone bearing the breeding of Mr. Darcy. For that matter, it could be the other way around, Elizabeth’s prejudice toward the upper echelon and his own inbred pride.

Every successive encounter between them, Elizabeth does everything to confirm her assumptions about him. It means they are never on amicable terms with one another, no matter the words that might leave their lips. She is hardly reticent about airing her contempt for the man.

Every slight dispensed by those purported to be above her in status is further internationalized and often finds its way out in a barbed attack on Mr. Darcy since he proves to be the easiest target of ridicule. Even as Darcy’s romantic advances continue in earnest, Elizabeth has great relish in embarrassing him over a bout of archery. The consequence is understood, but somehow it feels a bit foreign to the propriety of Austen’s universe.

In parallel and, ultimately, intertwined romances, Jane and Mr. Bingley incur and off and on relationship defined not so much by grating behavior between the two of them but the forces of inertia working around them.

Following her own flight of fancy, Kitty winds up running off with a soldier named Mr. Wickham, who seems charming enough. However, it conveniently shrouds a past of ill-repute that Darcy holds against the man while Elizabeth gives Wickham the benefit of the doubt. It’s yet another grievance she can hold against the stuffy aristocrat.

These paces are all Austen, but similar to the numerous versions of Little Women, it’s the performers who really mold it into their own. I love Greer Garson to death, and she does an amiable job but it’s hard to dismiss her predetermined disposition. She is always one of the most vivacious screen personalities and though she gets to shine in the final act, up to that point, she’s meant to be proud and brazenly foreright in the mode of her literary counterpart. It doesn’t feel quite like her temperament.

On his part, Olivier does well enough as Darcy; he certainly has a presence about him and the repute to make it seem viable. However, the romance is not as vibrant as it might have been. It feels a bit stunted, and it cannot be conveniently attributed to the social context.

Like its successor Jane Eyre (1943), it’s also rather jolting to see Aldous Huxley’s name in the screen credits. My high school days of reading A Brave New World make any period piece feel like a blatant anachronism on his repertoire. Still, this alone can hardly stand as a substantive piece of criticism.

It does feel some of the best and most well-regarded lines are not emphasized enough within the structure of the scenes and while there are certainly considerable elements of the original story, they are never done too many favors.

Mr. Collins feels like a miserable sot and a bore of a man and with the screwball caricature of Melville Cooper, it feels all the more like miscasting. Meanwhile, Mrs. Bingely has a lacerating post to maintain as the picture’s snide gossip. It appears her only function in the plot is to be mean-spirited, making Darcy incrementally more tolerable.

Edna May Oliver for one is always prepared to play a no-nonsense patroness, in this case, Lady Catherine, who orchestrates events so her dear nephew might test the waters of romance.  Because Mr. Darcy and Ms. Bennett are meant to be together and they are both able to cast aside their own issues to recognize just how much they care for one another.

Finally watching Olivier and Garson in a passionate embrace is a dream come true but, as for myself, I couldn’t help but get distracted by fond memories of Wuthering Heights and Random Harvest. How I wish I could same the same of this movie. Still, I’m clouded by my own blind spots and personal hangups. You must make your own judgment.

3.5/5 Stars

Cheyenne Autumn (1964): John Ford’s Western Swan Song

If we had to provide a broad sense of Cheyenne Autumn, it would be all about the mass Exodus of the Cheyenne in 1878 as they journey from the arid land they’ve been subjugated to back to the land the white man had promised to return to them all along.

This is a Hollywood rendition so, obviously, it’s not expected to stick strictly to facts nor does it. The extras John Ford used throughout the picture were in fact Navajo, who spoke their native tongue. He also loaded up on a Hollywood cast headlined by Richard Widmark returning after Two Road Together, portraying an officer in the U.S. Army, Captain Thomas Archer, far more disillusioned in his post than his predecessor.

In the film’s opening grand gesture, the Cheyenne make the long trek hours early, in preparation for their meeting with the white man — a meeting that was supposed to come through on a wealth of promises. Everyone is there waiting anxiously at the military encampment. Among them, Deborah Wright (Carroll Baker) and her uncle have made it their life’s work to minister to the Native Americans as suggested by their benevolent Quaker faith.

The only people who don’t show up are the big wigs from Washington, offering yet another rejection and another sign of disrespect. As they leave the encampment, empty-handed once again, there’s in a sense of unease about it. Though the pompous blaggards back east have no concept of their egregious blunder, there’s no question reckoning will come in some form.

This is made apparent and for once in a Ford picture, beyond simply casting a sympathetic eye, the director finally seems to be acknowledging the grievances against the American Indians. Because they have to face arrogant, deceitful men who fatuously believe they have a right to everything they touch. They have no respect for the land, only what they can acquire from it. Soldiers who are supposed to be peacekeepers, as well as tacticians, are equally suspect.

In a fine bit of casting, Patrick Wayne plays a young upstart who has waited his whole life to have it out with the Cheyenne, and the circumstances make no difference to him, even if he has to create them himself. Other soldiers like Karl Malden’s commander espouse unprejudiced mentalities only to be frozen by the chain of command. It proves equally inimical, if not more so.

Under Archer’s command are also numerous steady, career soldiers like Mike Mazurki, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. To have the latter two in yet another Ford picture is certainly a fitting remembrance. They were as crucial to his work as any of the larger stars like John Wayne or James Stewart (more of him later).

Wagon Master and Rio Grande, from 1950, would be enough for many actors to build a reputation on. Even over a decade later, it’s a testament to this close-knit bunch that they still remained steadfast to the end. These are when the sentimentalities of the picture are most apparent.

In all candor, Cheyenne Autumn is long, at times arduous, but within that runtime, it speaks to so much, including Ford’s own legacy. This is what makes it such a fascinating final marker in his career. Again, it’s the side of the western movie he never truly showed before. It’s as if age has softened him to what he did not see before.

We’re in Monument Valley on the eve of a skirmish. We’ve seen this scene before but from the other side. Native Americans digging in to fight the cavalry on the other side of the canyon. This is not a battle between the heroes and villains but the victors and the victimized.

Whatever flaws come to the fore with a white director making a movie about Native Americans, so be it. They are present, but none of this can totally discount the interludes of natural beauty and deep affecting sympathy on display.

Initially, Ford had wanted to cast some version of Anthony Quinn, Richard Boone, or Woody Strode in the roles of the Indian chiefs. All men consequently had some Native American heritage. The parts of Little Wolf and Dull Knife ultimately were given to Mexican-American actors Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland. The addition of Dolores Del Rio and a wordless Sal Mineo also feel equally peculiar. Mind you, these are only caveats mentioned in passing.

Cheyenne Autumn feels like a glorious mess of a film. It’s as epic as they come and striking for all its splendor; it’s also all over the place in terms of narrative. Perhaps Ford’s not totally invested here. This was never his main concern nor his forte. And in his final western, he does us a service by coming through with what he does best.

What else can we mention now but Monument Valley — the locale most closely identified with him — and yet it could just as easily be turned around and commended as the place he most identified with. Again, we can almost speak in parables because it can represent so many things from beauty to ruggedness from life and then death.

Take, for instance, when the chief elder is finally laid to rest, and the rocks are dislodged to form his burial chambers — off in the distance more of his people ride across the plateaus — it says everything that needs to be said. It is a moment of closure on all the images Ford himself ever captured in his home away from home.

As a short respite, John Ford provides a highly comedic Dodge City intermission with Jimmy Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, and John Carradine among others. You’ve never seen Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday quite this jocular as they play poker, ride around in a buggy, and help rescue a floozie (Elizabeth Allen) running around with a parasol and a ripped dress.

Now it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It would be easy to cry foul for mixing disparate tones and totally flipping the script of the movie. This isn’t wrong, but it doesn’t fully take into account Ford’s intentions. He knows full well what he is doing, using the language of the moviegoing public bred on the epic. It injects brief levity into an otherwise dour picture. In fact, it might be too much levity, although it could make a fine comic western all its own.

Because I won’t pretend the drama doesn’t wear on. The beginning is far more compelling than the end, but the journey is of paramount importance and what it represents. Although Edward G. Robinson plays one voice of reason back east and Widmark plays another enlightened savior out in the field, not to mention Baker’s tireless quaker acting as a protector of the Cheyenne children, they are not all-powerful.

It’s as much a story of loss and failure as it is of tragedy and miscommunication. Again, this is not to say any of this is to be taken as truth and lines drawn in the sand when it comes to what the history books say. But Ford is working the only way he knows how, with the strokes of a painter on this canvas illuminating a story. He is making amends in an imperfect, fragile way. Do with it what you will.

While it’s not the glorious heights one might have guessed for John Ford’s final picture in Monument Valley and his final western, somehow it feels like a fitting capstone just the same. The tone says as much as anything else in the picture. It’s yet another elegy reminiscent of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and many of his earlier works. Except this would be the last one. It was the autumn of his career as well.

3.5/5 Stars

Sergeant Rutledge (1960): Starring Woody Strode

“It’s alright for Mr. Lincoln to say we’re free, but that ain’t so. Maybe someday, but not yet.” – Sergeant Rutledge

Sergeant Rutledge rarely gets talked about with the greatest westerns or even the greatest westerns of John Ford. Without getting overly effusive with my praise, it should be heralded as an underrated gem worthy of far more scrutiny. History is more than on its side. The movie preceded To Kill a Mockingbird by at least a year while examining similar themes of a black man on trial for rape, albeit through the specific settings (ie. Monument Valley) and lens of its director.

As purely a courtroom drama, it’s probably more engrossing because the other film is just as impactful for its relationship outside the court’s walls. The familial relationship is the core of the story. In Sergeant Rutledge, Ford gladly builds up the atmosphere of the courtroom while allowing it to bleed out and color the rest of his narrative, set against the backdrop of apache raids.

Willis Bouchey stands out as the demonstrative head of the court marshall tribunal, Lt. Col. Otis Fosgate. The turn might be one of his most substantial and enjoyable roles on the big screen. Not only did he have an extraordinary career on the small screen, but he was an often called upon member of John Ford’s stable of actors. His foray in this picture makes it plain enough. Every time he asks for “water” or scolds his wife, it provides instant texture.

Because his wife, Billie Burke, is one of the goody-two-shoes in the peanut gallery, prepared to watch the court case in their finest clothes with their mouths agape and their eyes agog. Meanwhile, the rowdiest fellows stand impatiently in the back smoking their pipes and raising a brouhaha. The judge has enough gumption to clear them all out.

There’s no doubt Ford is in control of the courtroom scenes, from its initial clearing to the subsequent stage lighting to highlight witnesses on the stand. It’s quite extraordinary rather like when Hithcock worked through The Paradine Case breaking the stagnant sequences up with purposeful moments. These are bulked up through substantial flashbacks where we are allowed to invest in the drama firsthand, becoming involved more in more in something that feels like a traditional murder mystery.

The first to take the stand is Mary Beecher (Constance Towers), a quivering young woman who caught Sergeant Rutledge in a compromising and nevertheless now comes to intercede on his behalf, not to accuse him. She recounts how, left in a deserted town, it was the honorable soldier who willfully saved her life.

Next, Fosgate’s own wife (Burke) takes the stand with her usual tittering mannerisms, relaying the last time she saw spunky young Lucy Davenport alive, before she was brutally raped. She came to the general store and shared a conversation with Rutledge. This was no surprise as he was the man who taught her how to ride a horse and practically raised her. To the eyes of all those on the outside looking in, it leads them to burn with indignation.

The dialogue throughout is often curt if not altogether mundane, even overly twee in the lightweight moments, but the scenario itself and Ford’s interaction with it, make it worthwhile viewing. It’s what he’s able to build up around them, devolving into a fairly unheard of exploration of racial tensions on the range. When it gets talky and the message is made obvious, it loses its impact — looking all the more of its time.

What builds a lasting impression are the images — watching the 9th Cavalry of Buffalo Soldiers — appreciating their discipline and fortitude. Surely seeing these representations say enough about how American society treats non-whites, both in life and on celluloid. They are deserving of the same amount of human dignity and not having the burden of proof thrust upon them merely based on the color of their skin.

Because this is what it comes down to. Sergeant Rutledge (Woody Strode) is on trial to be hung, accused of rape and murder. This is not a pleasant affair whatever the outcome might be. As Jefferey Hunter headlines another Ford Western (following The Searchers), he holds a crucial stake in the case as both one of Rutledge’s superiors but also his defense counsel, and, ultimately, his friend.

Woody Strode might be buried in the credits, but there’s no doubting his prominence at the heart of the drama. It’s his stalwart characterization that allows it to stands out from the crowd of westerns from the era — and in Ford’s own lineage — because it gives him a place of cinematic significance. One scene, in particular, is easy to call upon.

In the dead of night, there’s a refrain of “Captain Buffalo” as Sergeant Rutledge stands on the ridge, the moon in the foreground behind him, looking down at his men; it’s only a brief aside, but something in me stopped still because these are the kinds of moments, if you’re lucky, you’ll see in a Ford picture. How do we quantify them? They’re a feeling, a sense, speaking to so much of who we are and what our country means. It’s history, both rich and also riddled with honor and disgrace. I look at Rutledge and I’m proud and a moment later ashamed for how a man such as this is treated.

Woody Strode was used quite well by John Ford on several occasions; he gained some repute for his role in Spartacus; but to my knowledge, he never had a role more extraordinary than that of Sergeant Rutledge. It’s indicative of the industry that Strode — once a football star alongside the likes of Jackie Robinson — was never a bigger movie star.

Here is a picture that allows him the opportunity to show his talents, and he does so with unsurpassed strength and dignity. Captain Buffalo, as eulogized, is a mythical figure surpassing John Henry in his larger-than-life gravitas, and Woody Strode is as close as we could have gotten to seeing him in the flesh.

Part of this is the man himself, quiet yet formidable, and of course, Pappy Ford does him the greatest service. He allows him to be great and sets him up in such a sympathetic yet empowering light.

I’m glad we have this movie, and I’m delighted Ford had the guts enough to make it. Woody Strode deserved many more pictures like this one. For that matter, so did the eminent Juano Hernadez and all these men. It has to do with what this film represents.

We rarely get to see eulogies to the Buffalo Soldiers and this one is as good as anything I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. It’s captured as only John Ford can do it — enamored with the American myth — while still beholden to our own hardened reality. To come to terms with both is one of Ford’s great gifts.

4/5 Stars

The Music Man (1962): 76 Trombones and Robert Preston

In my youth, Robert Preston always struck me as a Hollywood superstar because he so lithely and unequivocally commands the center of this grand production. There is no movie without him, and he pretty much captures the imagination of the audience.

As I’ve grown older, logged more movies, it always surprises me that Preston was never a more prominent star, at least in the movies. Instead, you see him in the periphery in films like Beau Geste or This Gun for Hire, then later in his career in Victor/Victoria, but it’s never as much as I would expect, given his obvious talents used so effectively here.

We find him hop, skipping, and jumping through the movie with a winning vitality. Set aside his occupation for a moment, strip that away, and the performance itself is a thing of beauty indeed. There is no movie (or stage production) without his engine to drive the story and charm the audience. He has the task of making us like a cad, and he does it from the very first moment he steps off the train in River City, Iowa.

The first thing he does when he gets into the new town is meet an old friend (Buddy Hackett), then, right after that, he drums up the publicity for his latest scheme. He’s perfected it to a tee going from town to town. He’s confident it will work here as well as anywhere else. The youth of River City obviously need their own marching band — complete with instruments, uniforms, and all the trimmings. He’s going to give it to them.

As a side note, The Music Man plays as an oddly complementary piece to Elmer Gantry (also featuring Shirley Jones) if only to have con men try and peddle their trades to small, unsuspecting communities. Obviously, there’s not much nuance in this observation, and it fails to take into account the breadth of genres. This is what sets the pictures apart and allows them to excel.

If you wanted to simplify the story down to its essence, this is really what it’s about as Harold Hill convinces the mayor, his easily-flattered wife, and a whole host of others that their kids are all up-and-coming prodigies. For those already familiar with this classic from Meredith Wilson, the key is how Hill’s scheme turns into a source of joy and excitement throughout the town.

Their invisible performance of “76 Trombones” in the school auditorium is the movie at its best, showcasing this kind of “Emperor’s New Clothes” theme to its fullest. Meanwhile, I had all forgotten a crucial number like “Ya Got Trouble,” which sets Preston off on his whirlwind performance, tipping off all the mothers and fathers that pool tables spell the end of decent and upstanding living for their youth.

If Hill is able to distract, butter up, and pull the wool over on the general populous, Marianne Paroo (Shirley Jones), is the one person who is not about to be taken in by him. He makes a habit of ingratiating himself to librarians as part of his business model, and yet she’s not about to cave to his advances. They’re played up to their most marvelous extreme in “Marian The Librarian” as he cavorts and climbs all over, much to her chagrin.

But as she slowly watches her young brother (Ronnie Howard) gain a newfound confidence in himself and the whole town subsequently becomes reinvigorated and alive, she comes to realize that for all his put-ons, Harold really does have a knack for bringing people together. She comes to appreciate him and by proxy also fall in love with him.

Their grand moment comes during the summer sociable, hidden away at the secluded footbridge, where they share an embrace and Jones sings one of the most iconic tunes “Til There Was You.” Alas, it is the beginning of the end for Harold. He’s about to be ousted by another traveling salesman as a fraud, but instead of fleeing for the next train out of town, he vows to stay and stand trial. With Marianne in his corner, the final moments give us the kind of euphoric comfort and fantasia only musicals can offer up.

The Music Man runs at a hefty 2 hours and 35 minutes, and it’s true the musical genre often falls under criticism for being bloated or uncinematic. But at their best, they are characterized by passages of joy we can all appreciate as they swallow us up and allow us to become lost in the pure theatrics. This holds true after all these years as my youthful memories come flooding back in the wake of “Gary, Indiana” and several other tunes.

The show’s original director Morton DaCosta does an admirable job in translating the material to the screen without losing all the magic, and with a veteran cinematographer like Robert Burks, it’s hard to go wrong with the Technicolor.

For some, this might seem like a superfluous aside, but I am also indebted to this picture for what it did in the career of a little band from Liverpool. It’s true The Beatles recorded the ballad “Til There Was You” and as a counterpoint to their other material, it became crucial to them being signed to a record deal. They even performed it quite prominently on The Ed Sullivan Show along with more overt hits like “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” And we would have had none of their wonderful music if not for a flim-flam man stopping off in Iowa. At least, that’s what I like to think.

4/5 Stars