Johnny Eager (1941): Taylor and Turner Spark Dynamite

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“Are you thinking of allowing her to play Roxanne to your Cyrano?” – Van Hefflin to Robert Taylor

Pretty faces don’t always add up to a quality movie and if you want to find where the faults lie, you might look between the players and the script then split the difference. Johnny Eager has all the Classic Hollywood trappings that very well could have made it dead on arrival — especially years later.

Because our protagonist has a name that only exists in the movies (or Hollywood for that matter). He’s a gangster from the old days formerly clad in the finest of threads and raking in the dough. To this day, he’s unrepentant or at least blatantly honest about how he feels; he’s no chump, even despite a stint he did behind bars.

Now he’s on the outside on parole making a go at propriety as a cabby. After this preliminary bit of eye-opening exposition, the story has all but telegraphed its intentions, really no fault of its own. It doesn’t take much imagination to put a reformed Robert Taylor and a curious young sociology debutant like Lana Turner together.

They meet through his parole officer: a white-haired, benevolent picture of authority. He seems to believe every man is capable of reform and human goodness if only given a chance. His secretary, on the other hand, gives Johnny the stink eye. Lisbeth Bard can hardly take her eyes off of him.

Of course, none of this is on the level because Johnny is busy getting into his old rackets, including an ambitious plan to resurrect the Alongonquin dog races to make a killing out of it. Simultaneously, he’s double-dealing, getting his sister and bratty niece to masquerade as his alibi. They’re nicely compensated of course to play up a squeaky clean picture of domesticity.

One has to laugh. The authorities must be idiots and Johnny accordingly plays them for fools. He’s a modern-day Machiavelli and this combination of authority, guile, strength, and charm makes Johnny Eager come off a bit more significant than a walking caricature.

It’s true Taylor had caught ahold of something in his career and whether or not he was considered a negligent actor and merely a pretty face, he brings a definite machismo to the screen more than capable of knocking off everyone else around him. He’s without a doubt the center of the action despite the plethora of scene stealers around him.

But one cannot forget the diffident school girl played by Turner, quoting Cyrano de Bergerac and sporting a hat to beat them all. What overtakes her exactly? Is it some compulsion to flirt to convert a wayward soul? Is it simply yearning passion? Whatever the reason, the film is full of “inamorata” — men and women lovers.

Not least among them is Van Hefflin who’s quite the educated fellow, quick and rich on the prose, especially when he’s soused with liquor. Jeb is Johnny’s most faithful friend for reasons the movie never puts to words. But whereas everyone else is either a hired ally, a paid stooge, or an easy rival, Jeb stays by him because he has no one else.

The film is at its most engaging tracing the lines and mixing its reference points between literate dames and men pontificating with a grandiloquent verbosity while the thugs rattle off their own barb-wire jargon prickling the ears. They tumble around inside the head as the most unrealistic and simultaneously peculiar cocktail of discordant voices.

Hefflin does very little compared to the other forthcoming gruff, garble-mouthed, shifty-eyed types, and yet he doesn’t need to because the words flowing off his lips play like riffs off the rest of the film. He seems to relish every soliloquy he gets to run off, and it definitely leaves an overall impression.

But the real fire is between Taylor and Turner for as long as they get on screen together. Aside from Johnny’s clandestine activity, Lisbeth Bard’s step-father happens to be a crucial man. Edward Arnold aptly plays the domineering and vengeful district attorney, who just so happens to be situated in the most convenient place in the movie. He helped put Eager away in the penitentiary as a service to the public. Now Johnny’s looking to stick it to him with Lisbeth implicated in his own crimes.

Could it be he never loved her at all? It always functioned as business over love? Regardless of his motives, enemies become accomplices as he leverages his new position to open up the long-dormant dog racing track. Everyone across the board has got an angle. What sets Johnny apart is his self-serving shrewdness, never blinded by sentimentalities such as sacrificial love, grace, or a guilty conscience.

Meanwhile, Lisabeth is overtaken by mental frailty and paranoia. She’s not bred for the cutthroat gangster’s life like Johnny. Her tragic hysteria forces him into a type of hero’s choice. It’s what all Hollywood movies ask of their protagonists. Something is required of them in the end.

In its day, Johnny Eager was a stirling success, and if history is any indication, it might have one of the most tragic days in American history to thank. It premiered in Los Angeles on December 9th, 1941. For those keeping tabs, this is two days after Pearl Harbor.

It heightens the dramatics just enough to bring out of the realm of reality and into the spaces of escapism. Where illicit romance can shoot off like fireworks on the screen between two scintillating specimens like Taylor and Turner. They were TNT as the contemporary advertisements so aptly framed it. They were the eye candy; they were the distraction to take the masses away from the tragedy right outside those cinema doors.

In a short time, the movies would be acting as a comment on the world at-large and the war at-large with propaganda machines spinning on all cylinders. For now, they still act as a counterpoint saying something about the state of a nation by not saying anything at all.

The story ends in a somewhat comforting manner, ultimately capping off with a Hollywood moralism that made sense, creating heroes out of gangsters far away from the chaos of sneak attacks and brazen days of infamy. It just goes to show life is more ambiguous and thus more complex than a movie.

3.5/5 Stars

Waterloo Bridge (1940) and The Farewell Waltz

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If you’re like me, Waterloo conjures up a limited array of mental images. Napoleon and The Battle of Waterloo. The Kinks and Waterloo Sunset. That’s about the extent of it. Now I can add Vivien Leigh, Robert Taylor, and Waterloo Bridge to the list.

Fittingly, our opening prologue begins at the titular location, as a handsome man with a touch of gray, dressed in military attire, makes a ponderous appearance. The place holds an obvious resonance for him even as he holds an unnamed token in his hands. This is Robert Taylor. He probably looks too virile to be an old man, but that’s hardly his fault. At any rate, he’s preparing to give one of the most continuously amiable performances of his career.

Then, we’re back in time. For a minute the cultural moment caught me off guard. Even though the flashback seemed to denote the first war to end all wars, how our star couple first meets, heading to the Underground for an air raid, feels like a distinctly World War II-era image. However, it happened earlier as well, and it makes for a very practical meet-cute.

With the Germans threatening to rain down their ammunition, the Underground is stuffed to the gills with all sorts including Captain Roy Cronin and Myra Lester (Vivien Leigh), a member of a ballet troupe. This might be their first and last meeting, but the spell between them is too bewitching. The cinematic mechanisms of star-crossed love are at work.

There’s a warmth and romantic civility bathing the picture, and it’s the kind of feeling you often seem to get in pictures of old — at least the most supernal ones. I can think of a handful: Random Harvest, Love Affair, Now Voyager, maybe The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. In a word: Stars. Because the scenario can change and yet when the talents fit together, there’s just something so disarming and delightful released into the atmosphere.

We want to soak it in and be in the moments with them to feel the same swells of emotion. Whether war or some other force pulls them apart or gets in the way of their love, they always face it with a good humor and a grace that we can live vicariously through as the audience out in the dark.

All of this might see like an admittedly surprising proclamation because anyone who knows anything about Leigh will first consider Gone With The Wind from the year before and then her larger-than-life relationship with Laurence Olivier. He was the man she wanted for this picture. Alas, he was called to make Pride and Prejudice (1940). What came into being with Waterloo Bridge is probably better.

Oh that we could be as handsome a Scotsman as Robert Taylor (with a better accent) or such an immaculate and gorgeous ballerina as Vivien Leigh. As such, their romance is set in this heightened supercharged arena created by wartime.

The film’s most illustrious scene is the “Farewell Waltz” by candlelight, played to the soft melancholy tones of “Auld Lang Syne.” In the silence or, rather, without dialogue, the magic of the moment is the film’s apogee. That song becomes one of the strongest motifs at the movie’s disposal.

It might have been the most bittersweet short film of all time if the first 30 minutes were all we got. All things considered, it wouldn’t be a bad place to end allowing the pleasantness to waft over us and invade our collective hearts and minds.

Still, their story continues for over an hour more. There must be complications. Robert Taylor is soon on the train platform, a fellow soldier holds a bawling son amid the hubbub, and our protagonist’s head is on a swivel as he moves down the platform. The camera follows close behind; he’s anxious to see his love just one last time before he ships out for what may as well be forever. It sets the tone going forward.

Their joint life together suffers in the wake of his departure and we can say “departure” because the movie stays behind as he goes overseas. It works in the story’s favor not to break off and try and tell both sides because this way it gets at the feelings of those left behind fretting on the home front.

Still, the final act needs something more. In comparison, it feels like a bit throwaway as if the movie is coasting on the power of those first minutes of romance and quite literally that haunting chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.”

You can write it off as sanitized rendition of its 1931 brethren or otherwise call for a perceptive reading between the lines, but what the picture must resolve once and for all is Myra’s shame — the guilt she holds onto while her man is gone.

Because even with the spunky support of her best friend Kitty (Virginia Field), she is left destitute without the lifeline of her husband. Whether he lives or not, she must subsist someway, and she chooses the only conceivable path, prepared to live with the ignominious consequences.

The only way to redeem the ending is to reflect it back at the audience — back at all of us — because it’s indicative of what many of us deal with. It consists of the lies we tell ourselves when no one is around. We’re unlovable. We’re too far gone. We’re the Judas. But the movie fails to go anywhere creative and poor, downtrodden Myra hardly fits the description of a loveless tramp.

The final saving grace is Vivien Leigh. Her quizzical right eyebrow gives all of us lacking perfect facial symmetry hope. Despite her final moments being trance-like, she is more than capable of the art of captivation even in her character’s execution of the inevitable. If I don’t quite buy her convictions taking her to such a sorry conclusion — the logic seems a bit drastic even for the time period — it’s easy enough to get swept away by her emotion alone.

Robert Taylor for one, gives a performance brimming with vitality, and he feels like more than a chiseled block of wood. He reminds us that in order to have true love there must be two involved. That place. His token. They only maintain their meaning because he shared them with someone else. We get the privilege of being there with them both.

4/5 Stars

Unfinished Business (1941) for Irene Dunne

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Unfinished Business commences with a wedding ceremony we’re trying to place. Because it is not Irene Dunne getting married, although she stretches her famed vocal cords in lieu of a wedding march. It is her baby sister — the girl she’s mothered her entire life up to this point. Now that the responsibility is over with, she wants to give up motherhood to be herself. After all, she’s been settled down her entire life and now she wants to get unsettled.

She’s a rural Ohio gal and intially feels like the most simplistic, idealistic I’ve ever seen Irene Dunne in a picture. However, this might establish the wrong impression. Because Unfinished Business gives an inclination of being in the mold of Theodora Goes Wild, though it does make its own digressions in favor of a softer even sadder tone. It’s actually more complicated than it appears, and Dunne’s character is very much the same.

The whole conceit is in the title really, although it takes on multiple meanings. First, there’s the unfinished business in reference to her life thus far. And then, when she has a romantic encounter rudely sidelined and left unrequited, it’s quite something else entirely.

The heart of the story starts aboard the train she boards to who-knows-where to live a little. Instead, she gets seduced by a handsome man who’s waging a bet he can find the most attractive conquest on the train. Their expectations and the meaning of the encounter mean two very different things to both of them. She will never forget him with a starry-eyed infatuation. He’s moved on to other things and over women soon thereafter because that’s who Steve Duncan is.

Not to be totally paralyzed by love, Nancy, endeavoring for an opera career, spends her waking hours on her arias. By day she must settle for singing telephone messages to customers, a rather demeaning art compared to what she’s used to. Though it does wind up getting her a new job; the pays better even if it’s hardly a more glamorous turn.

Billy Ross is the first truly curious character actor out of the rank and file old Classical Hollywood normally bequeaths us in pictures like these. He has this sense about him that screams screwball comedy as does Eugene Pallete, though he comes later. But the distinction is how La Cava’s film never resorts to this plane of existence. This is a far cry from My Man Godfrey. At first, it seems like this is a bad thing.

Nancy’s still a few rungs below hatcheck girl hidden behind a counter at a switchboard still singing messages. At least this time she gets some company with a touch of humor in the form of Tommy Duncan (Robert Montgomery) who is, among other exploits, a noted alcoholic.

Montgomery’s delivery always feels abrupt and unsorted to me. Though I’m admittedly coming around to him because in this picture, in particular, he’s the one man who notices Nancy’s tears — going so far as to commandeer the switchboard for her. If you’re beginning to connect the dots, you’ll realize his older brother is Steve, her one-time, one-day love.

Nancy and Tommy prove to be a strange company going out together. It’s almost like they have a shared camaraderie however thinly connected. He can’t stand his brother with typical sibling syndrome, and she still harbors a melancholy flame. At any rate, they drown their sorrows with some extra hard milk.

They wake up in the morning — the valet (Eugene Pallette) calling on Mr. Duncan, his musical shoes needing a grease — and they have flown to South Carolina and gotten themselves Married! But it almost plays as matter-of-fact, not one of those wonky sitcoms episodes. The whole movie functions like this.

Nancy dresses up and goes “wild” in an effort to make up for her ho-hum existence thus far. It comes with mixed results, eliciting the grouchy contempt of their sleep-deprived butler Elmer. Part of the issue is how we only hear word of her merriment after the fact. We are robbed of the delight of Dunne going a little ditzy and a little wacky and breaking up the screen. This is not that kind of movie (although Montgomery does get an extended number with a pair of opera glasses).

Otherwise it feels subdued in comparison to other contemporary examples like My Favorite Wife or Here Comes Mr. Jordan. It’s very possible La Cava’s film was striving for a more delicate tone somewhere in between, which is certainly admirable, but it never seems to reach its optimal effectiveness.

While Dunne is always lovely and we do appreciate here more often than not, somehow the movie never feels centered even as Preston Foster and then Robert Montgomery drift into her life for different reasons. There is an emptiness to it. Can we say purposelessness?

But then maybe there you have a bit of Dunne’s predicament. Shall she wait around for love, focus on her career, marry for money? The options are in one way bountiful but no less restricting for a woman in her position.

One visually impactful scene comes right after the wrong Mrs. Duncan kisses the wrong Mr. Duncan. That is Dunne and Foster. The catty blonde at the party passes what she’s witnessed along gleefully, and the camera takes a hop, skip, and a whip across the various partygoers as the words catch like wildfire. It’s the most blatant of ripostes in a film where stories begin to quietly overlap. Still, it hardly unloads on the drama.

What sets the movie apart is probably the honesty — this underlying sense of pragmatism. I have no illusions that it is similar to Daisy Kenyon, but I remember watching that film and Joan Crawford’s role in it, which somehow felt unextraordinary. And yet I realized it was extraordinary for the ordinariness, at times, because it was so very unlike the cultivated or perceived Hollywood of the 40s, not to mention its lack of emotional hyperbole.

I’m curious if my gut reaction to Unfinished Business is very much the same. There’s an undue skill and finesse to it no doubt, but this never moved beyond observation and then admiration for an underrated director. It didn’t get to my core through laughs or drama like My Man Godrey or Stage Door, and I must simply come to terms with it.

3/5 Stars

A Foreign Affair (1948): Billy Wilder and Post-War Germany

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What A Foreign Affair offers is a curious mix of Billy Wilder’s brand of gleeful satire with docudrama. In this regard, it stands alongside the likes of The Search (1948) as one of the earliest American films to explore the world of post-war Europe with so much rebuilding to do both physically and emotionally. It plays as a precursor to One, Two, Three (1961) certainly, offering contemporary observations of the new world order. Still, one cannot even consider these films without acknowledging Wilder’s own background.

He was an exile from Nazi Germany who was welcomed into the American film industry with a myriad of emigre filmmakers, who, subsequently, helped fashion Hollywood into the worldwide powerhouse it would become. He was eternally grateful but never allowed that to totally cow his pointed barbs aimed at America’s inherent flaws.

During the dwindling days of the war, he even served with the Psychological Warfare Department to help develop propaganda material about the concentration camps. His time abroad and the securing of funding launched A Foreign Affair as his latest project.

In the opening moments, a Senate Committee is preparing to make their official visit to observe the current climate. The script’s aims are twofold, setting up the story while also bringing audiences up to speed about the bombed-out world below.

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Jean Arthur is more repressed than she’s ever been in her life with some license for her typical comedic chops written in as the narrative progresses. For now, she is a methodical taskmaster very cognizant of her constituents’ tax dollars. Perhaps we need more like her, but for the butt of a comedy, she’s an easy target. The congresswoman entreats her venerable colleagues that they must eradicate moral malaria once and for all as she’s increasingly wary of what they might uncover.

Col Rufus J. Plummer (Millard Mitchell) shows them the sights, stroking his cheek with bemusement (a recurring gag), as he catches everyone up on current events with his wry bent. Meanwhile, serving under him is Captain John Pringle (John Lund), one of the brave boys from home who has taken it upon himself to help rebuild the new world order on the liberating tenets of capitalism.

His typical hobbies include fraternizing with black marketeers to haggle for mattresses using chocolate cakes as collateral. As it turns out, it’s for a girl who drops her key out of the window every time he honks the horn of his jeep. Suddenly the film’s title has become an overt double entendre, and we have our movie.

John Lund is not without charisma and yet somehow the way he goes about this characterization feels all wrong. There’s nary an ounce of genuine charm conjured up by his faux tough-guy persona. It seems ill-fitting. At least he was likable in The Mating Season. Here he can barely hold a candle to the luminary talents of Marlene Dietrich and Jean Arthur no matter how different they might be.

As the Americans make the rounds on their carefully curated sightseeing tour, the representative from Iowa is positively scandalized by all the soldiers with their German gals. She makes a brazen decision, going undercover and winding up at a Hofbrau with a couple of lug head G.I.s,, posing as a reticent German fraulein named Gezeuinheidt.

In the process, she gets the poop on the sultry songstress formerly purported to be in cahoots with Goebbels or Gohring — one or the other. Her gabby companions surmise she still has big brass running interference for her. They’re not too far off and her Phoebe’s detective work brings her even higher up on the totem pole. The very top actually. The Fuhrer himself.

In danger of being ousted in his little arrangement, Captain Pringle starts romancing the congresswoman to keep her off the trail. If the dilemma’s not already obvious, it becomes even clearer in time.

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Unfortunately, A Foreign Affair drags a bit in the middle, and the plot doesn’t always maintain the usual self-assured zip of a typical Wilder picture. There are lulls and distractions, which can be enjoyable in their own right, though hardly bolstering the drama. The core issue is a lack of emotional investment in the characters. I love Jean Arthur to death, but her role flip flops too easily on its axle. Dietrich is striking as she ever was, but, again, she is larger-than-life, while the contours of the role itself feel ill-defined and uninteresting. At the very least, the stars the one making it worth it.

There was some talk that Dietrich got all the attention and the favoritism of from her director. And it’s true that she is beguiling even in this latter portion of her career. Arthur felt undercut. It starts with how the script is laid out. However, as she becomes more daring and uninhibited, one could argue Arthur gets the most out of her performance, even down to her always hilarious facial expressions.

Certainly, the camera loves Marlene Dietrich, her sleepy eyes, the husky yet sensual quality to her singing voice. That was her persona. Still, she’s the one playing mistress to an ex-Nazi so that’s not exactly the most flattering part.

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Consequently, the denouement doesn’t quite sit right with me. It feels like a muddled conclusion where events just happen, winding up in a manner that tacks on a convenient rom-com ending, instead of leaving us with something that feels truly cynical in the vein you grow accustomed to with the director.

What’s most compelling is the intersection of Billy Wilder and the world of post-war Berlin. Others could have told this story, but he seems uniquely positioned to offer a very personal perspective. The curious clashing of his typical tone of trenchant comedy somehow matched with the war-torn panorama. And there are intermittent moments where this is the case.

Namely, how he’s not squeamish about showing the aftermath, nor poking the beehive of Nazism with his stick. In one scene a heel-clacking father is having trouble with his little tyke who can’t stop habitually chalking swastikas on everything. For a brief moment, we are given a reprieve and license to laugh at such a horrible ideology. It’s almost cathartically hilarious.

In another scene, Colonel Plummer notes in passing how there is rubble of all kinds, be it mineral, vegetable, or animal. We know it to be true, but what an opportunity it would have been to see more of it. I’m reminded of the scenes in the Hofbrau with song and dance and cigarette smoke or the bombed-out streets crowded with black marketeering types. I recognize these are spliced together scenes between Berlin and a Hollywood backdrop.

But this is the exact reality that feels like such a ripe birthing ground for Wilder’s comedy. I never thought I’d be the one to say this; the roots of his romantic comedy all but got in the way of what could have been.

3.5/5 Stars

The Lost Weekend (1945) and Alcohol The Femme Fatale

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It might be a futile exercise but at least for a brief moment, I will attempt to get back into the headspace from when I first came upon Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. I was younger then. Bright-eyed and a budding cinephile. It is the film that defined Ray Milland’s entire filmography for me as I had never seen another one of his pictures (although Dial M for Murder followed soon thereafter).

Now I understand the crucial context. To say Ray Milland is defined by The Lost Weekend is analogous to attributing Anthony Perkins’s entire persona to Norman Bates and Psycho. You wouldn’t be wrong but in order to understand this inference, you have to understand how the viewing public viewed them in the moment. They were matinee idols and boys-next-door. They fit in comedies and as youthful love interests.

It takes a subversive and inventive mind like a Wilder or a Hitchcock to take the inherent expectations provided by an actor only to toy with the audience. Milland, in his early years, could be defined by the likes of Easy Living or The Major and The Minor. Even noir like Ministry of Fear and The Big Clock, though clouded by menace, rely on the inherent likeability of our hero thrown into trauma though he maybe.

The Lost Weekend was an unequivocal gamble for Milland, in particular, and history has proven to be on his side. He gamely throws himself wholeheartedly into the drama, and it pays heavy dividends.

Don Birnam (Milland) is a struggling novelist with a persistent drinking habit. He’s playing at being reformed, about to go on a trip to the country with his pragmatic brother, but just out of sight and out of reach is a bottle. He’s still beholden to the stuff. It’s a hidden cache of security just in case he needs a nip.

His concerned girlfriend (Jane Wyman) has the cutest way of remedying their height disparity when it comes to kissing (bend down). Even as I’ve gained a more full-bodied impression of Ray Milland, I would like to believe I’ve also reappraised the stardom of Wyman with newfound respect.

She’s not merely an ironic Sirkian pawn in melodrama. During the bulk of the 1940s, she more than asserted herself as a quality performer.  In retrograde, the likes of The Yearling and Johnny Belinda show an extraordinary range, redefining how I perceive her for the better. The Lost Weekend exhibits her at her most likable while still being bolstered with personal resolve.

This is evident even as her boyfriend so quickly falls into outrage as if the people who love him most are turning against him. It all plays as a symptom of the real problem. He feels hemmed in or could it be the withdrawals from the alcohol crying out?

Regardless, the theremin has never used as effectively to denote menace in such a different context than the ubiquitous Sci-Fi trope it would soon become. Because one bottle is snatched away and yet it’s simply indicative of a far more pervasive problem. Don has stashed alcohol all over his apartment in the most ingenious hiding places though his brother is equally adept at hide and seek.The premises are really and truly dry. That is until the cleaning woman unwittingly tips him off to $10 he can splurge on. He’s up for a perilous road ahead.

John Seitz photographs the drama like a brooding noir, and it is as if alcohol — the siren on the shelf — is the deadly fatale entrapping Ray Milland in its web. His girlfriend even goes so far as to label the “other woman” and confidently intimates she’s not going to go down without a fight; she’ll help him beat it and keep Birnham for her own.

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Eventually, he succumbs to a bender of a weekend, caught as he is within his own self-exile. What becomes so very evident is how isolating addiction becomes. His only confidante is the local bartender (Howard da Silva in an uncharacteristically sympathetic part).

As Don spirals back into his destructive habit, he recounts how he managed to meet a girl like Helen even in the throes of his alcoholism. There he was sitting in the theater like a fine thespian and yet he couldn’t get it out of his mind. Even the play reminds him of the bottle he has in his jacket pocket, currently stashed out in the coat check. It proved a fortuitous evening as his petulant first impression gave way to charms that won his girl over.

However, it is a portent of all his recurring troubles. The want of liquor leads him into distancing himself from the community just so he can get alone with his bottle. Companionship seems so much more vital and yet we tell ourselves backward lies to rationalize our decisions.

He is a man who suffers from the age-old affliction of Jekyll and Hyde syndrome. He even admits there are two sides to his persona. The man about town with a charming public persona, and then the other Don Birnam. The drunk who remains a tortured writer.

He hits the pits of despair, wandering the streets, desperately looking to hock his belongings for one last satiating drink — even a handout if he can get it. But that’s the lie, isn’t it? Just one more time and we’ll reform. Just one more and never again. We gather together the willpower for an hour, a day, a week, a month, until it comes back with a vengeance.

Birnham’s life is indicative of a whole caste of society. The silent and the forgotten in dark rooms and lonely bouts of aggravation. His brother has turned his back, and he won’t respond to his girlfriend. It quite literally feels like a little slice of hell.

The film makes one harrowing detour to an archaic-looking drunk ward where a sardonic Frank Faylen takes care of the jittery new arrival inside the booze tank. He’s confident Birnham will be a regular customer soon enough. It feels like a harsh and unfeeling extension of the world.

For some, The Lost Weekend might be a tempered now antiquated exploration of alcoholism firmly planted in the past. However, I would like to push against this preconception slightly.

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Wilder purportedly penned the piece with his writer partner, Charles Brackett, as a way to explore his relationship with Raymond Chandler and how alcoholism affected their art — the processes of a writer being derailed by drink.  So in this regard, it too is personal and yet about as universal as a picture can be. There is this obvious duality of art and alcohol where one impacts the other in highly detrimental ways.

Wilder’s not always known as a technical director but, if nothing else, he surrounds himself with competent people. A couple names that come to mind in this picture, in particular, are cinematographer John Seitz and then his editor Doane Harrison.

One is reminded of the shots of the overturned lamp repeatedly reflecting the shambles of Birnham’s current life, derailed by drunkenness as it is. In another, it’s Milland’s eyeball spinning psychotically inside its socket. He’s more alive than Marion Crane on the bathroom floor, but we can hardly deign to call this life.

Each of these elements, even the more blatant evocations of his delusions, illustrates the torment of human beings stricken by addiction. It saps our creativity and our energy. It can take away a want for relationships and, in some cases, our desire to live.

The Lost Weekend is a reminder sometimes we need to enter into the storm of our struggles so we might come out on the other side. When you’ve hit rock bottom, the tap is dry, and your body is shaking, the only place to go is up.

However, sometimes we’re not strong enough to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Grit, determination, and resolve only get us so far. We have nothing left. We’re broken, alone, destitute.  Utterly defeated. It’s in this place of helplessness when we are forced to look outside of ourselves…to something or someone else. To reclaim all that is lost and be found again.

4.5/5 Stars

The Major and The Minor (1942) and The Taking of Sudan

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Billy Wilder obviously got his start in screenwriting but much like Preston Sturges before him, he desperately wanted creative control to sculpt the vision of the meticulous scripts he helped forge with writing partner (and producer) Charles Brackett.

He got his breakout chance with The Major and The Minor and hardly squandered the opportunity. This might sound silly and high-minded given the plot of the picture:  a young woman posing as a child to claim half-fare on the train to her home state with ensuing complications…

However, the film flows not only out of the script but the execution and total commitment to the gag by Ginger Rogers. At first, it seems like a curious decision. She went from lavish musicals and heady drama to something so zany. Even today her legacy is first and foremost galvanized out of the magic she created on taps with her legendary partner Fred Astaire.

And yet, she took a chance on the neophyte because he had charisma and a gentlemanly manner, and she wholeheartedly believed in his talents. If you take a look at his trajectory after The Major and The Minor, her observations were very well-founded. From these promising albeit still humble beginnings, Billy Wilder shot to the top of Hollywood remaining one of its premier storytellers for decades.

It comes down to his almost holistic approach to comedy and drama. Somehow they become one and the same, tackled with the same gleeful, frequently trenchant wit no matter the subject matter.

This one begins with a typically pointed tagline: “The Dutch bought New York from The Indians in 1626 and by May 1941 there wasn’t an Indian left who regretted it.”

To put the statement in context, we get to know jaded and long-suffering Susan Applegate (Rogers) as she pays a visit to her latest client for a reinvigorating scalp treatment. Everyone including the bellboy gives her a whistle or a fresh word. It’s little better meeting Albert Osborne (Robert Benchley) as he offers her a martini, and she retaliates with an egg shampoo. While she maintains her business-like demeanor, he begins to flirt, mix martinis, and tell a string of increasingly lame cracks, making her fume.

It’s the final straw. She’s had it with the Big Apple and is now prepared to catch the first train back to the welcoming cornfields of her native Iowa. Here’s the catch. They’ve upped the fare, and she doesn’t have the funds to cut it. This calls for a creative solution.

All these types of screwy comedies have to involve some harebrained scheme, the type of fodder made to order for some of the best I Love Lucy episodes. In a similar manner, what is a screwball comedy without a train?

Since she can’t swing a ticket back to her hometown, she dreams up the wackiest solution. Pose as a child… It’s just about as outlandish as it sounds and looks just as strange.

Ginger goes into the Women’s Lounge and comes out a certified bobby soxer no doubt ready to swoon over Frank Sinatra. It becomes increasingly evident we are witnessing a forerunner to Some Like it Hot, as she pulls off the shenanigan with the help of a purloined balloon, a willing accomplice, and an extra high-pitched tone.

As an added alibi for the conductors, she fibs being of Scandinavian stock even speaking Swedish like the great Garbo (“I Want to Be Alone”). Wouldn’t you know, they catch her smoking underage, setting up the obligatory chase scene giving way to the ever-necessary meet-cute.

Enter Ginger Rogers into Ray Milland’s compartment. In a film crammed with cringe-worthy awkwardness, it has to be one of the definitive moments. To his credit, Milland does the storyline a service by committing to the setup in all earnestness. It’s possible to accept his candor, in various moments, chiding her for using her spare change to buy sweets or stumbling through “The Facts of Life.”

He legitimately believes this is a young girl he’s happened upon and treats her accordingly, even as the irony sets in. His one footfall is failing to defend her better against the ravenous boys under his tutelage.

Because he is a military man with a sterling record who, nevertheless, feels stuck in his current post at the military academy. His fiancee’s daddy is his commanding officer and Pamela (Rita Johnson) is used to having everything her way. So when she comes aboard the train to welcome her man home, boy, is she surprised to see another “woman” in his room (unbeknownst to him, of course). In jealous retribution, she sends a tray full of breakfast clattering into his face, which is more worthy of a few hearty chortles. The game is afoot now.

“Susu” as she’s now called is able to smooth things over while maintaining her cover and keeping the good major from public disgrace. As a reward, she gets to experience all the pleasures and perils of Wallace Military Institute, including Rita’s baby sister. However, the aspiring Madame Curie named Lucy, though initially skeptical becomes a willing accomplice in the other “girl’s” ever-evolving plans.

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What begins as a fundamental story of escape morphs into a mission of mercy to salvage the life of Phillip Kirby from soul-crushing mediocrity. On his behalf, “Susu” weathers an army of handsy young Cadette Adjutants, who have been trained in, among other things, “The Taking of Sudan,” a handy piece of history if you want to kanoodle.

Using her beguiling feminine wiles to her advantage, Applegate tries to snag the switchboard to send an outbound phone call to get Uncle Phillip’s orders altered. Not only does her ineptitude throw the camp into an uproar; she also raises suspicions.

It only makes sense that the academy’s ball is a space for everything to implode. But first, we must take a moment to acknowledge what a peculiar pairing it is having all the kiddos dancing with Ginger Rogers. Again, she takes it like a sport sans feathery boa or suave dance partner.

Although this is the least of her worries. Something is fated to go awry. It comes in the form of a ticking time bomb of a man who finds little Susu very familiar indeed. The final act falls heavily on the shoulders of the leads’ charismatic powers to rescue it from utter triteness.

Since I’ve been in the habit of mentioning Wilder in the same breath with Preston Sturges as of late, it’s fitting enough to note how The Major and The Minor steals liberally from The Lady Eve‘s playbook. In the end, the after-hours military maneuvers and “The Taking of Sudan” are its own contributions to the screwball genre courtesy of Brackett and Wilder.

3.5/5 Stars

The Palm Beach Story (1942): Another Screwy Sturges Freight Train

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“After you’re married… That’s a funny thing to hear your wife say!” – Joel McCrea as Tom Jeffers

All the timeless Preston Sturges pictures have the pace of a freight train barreling down the tracks in loop de loops and figure eights. The Prologue of The Palm Beach Story sets up a raucous race to make it to a wedding ceremony involving a bride and a groom…and a woman tied up… It’s gone in a blink. Hold that thought.

Cut to present. There’s Franklin Pangborn, always hustled and harried. This time as an apartment manager trying to show off the new apartments he has for lease to the grouchy, incessantly deaf Wienie King and his bubbly wife.  These two initial scenes are textbook examples of how to juxtapose people and places for comic effect. In fact, sometimes Sturges will gladly lean into the joke before giving us any indication of what his story really pertains to.

When we finally find a premise, he’s already taken us for a spin. Because the previously revealed bride and groom, Tom and Gerry Jeffers (Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert), sunk all their money trying to get a bite — namely the $99,000 he needs to get his suspended airport project off the ground. As of right now, there are no takers, and their marriage has tanked. Strangely enough, they still love each other madly. At the very least, their constant quarreling seems to hint at their continued devotion. That’s the wrinkle.

She wants to get a divorce (sacrificially, of course) so she might hook a rich husband to pay for his pet project. He selfishly wants to stay married to her. He tries to hold onto her, racing out of their apartment, in only the bed linens, as she resolves to go to Palm Beach — to find herself a millionaire — for him.

Sturges relishes the comic situation, which verges on the risque, especially for the day and age. The script was even repeatedly balked at by the Production Codes for the very same reasons and still they manage to mention the word “sex” quite frankly (Gasp)!

What becomes most evident is this increasingly flippant disregard for the institution of marriage. The ensuing world and the situations arising make sense originating from a man who himself came out of affluent circles with a row of marriages left in his wake. He’s in a sense writing what he knows intimately while still utilizing his own idiosyncratic perspective.

It’s a glorious trip to Palm Beach as he loads the cars end to end with his stock company, comprising a traveling circus of dopey millionaires making up the Ale and Quail Club. Gerrie gratefully becomes their mascot as they pay her way to the far off land of the Florida coast.

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In typical Sturges fashion, he overwhelms the screen with the sheer force of bodies and figures from the likes of William Demarest, Al Bridge, and just about anyone else you’ve ever seen in a Sturges film before. They divert themselves with any number of dalliances including hiccups, trap shooting crackers, and nighttime serenades of “Sweet Adaline.”

What’s even more hilarious is how we never actually see these characters again. They serve their purpose and service the writer-director’s scatterbrained devices. The extended sequence functions as its own standalone vessel of amusement.

He really is the king of writing robust character parts that, while never throwaway, need not be overly important. Today it feels like every bit role must be functional. For Sturges, a character functions, first and foremost, if they add to the comic maelstrom he’s whipping up. When they serve their purpose he can zip onward toward further zaniness.

Likewise, aside from being entertaining, The Wienie King is Sturges’s great enabler within the entire picture, gladly shoveling out money as if it were nothing, for rent and plane tickets — whatever the story requires — and despite his apparent obliviousness, he has these near-surreal bouts of hyper-lucidity. In considering his character, one cannot help surmising a stopped clock is right twice a day – even a tone-deaf one.

There must be a story, but the script gladly supplies a vehicle full of hilarity to deliver the goods for the benefit of the audience. As we progress with the ever-whirling thingamajig of wackiness, there’s the introduction of Rudy Vallee. The former matinee idol shows a certain penchant for comedy in his own right, added to the Sturges hall of fame of crazy aristocrats.

His dry idiosyncrasies serve him well, from the methodical removal and placing of his specs to the ongoing accounting he does in his little black book. Even a couple rueful in-jokes to his earlier crooning days, including “Isn’t It Romantic?,” send a few knowing winks toward the perceptive viewer.

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Although she purportedly struggled with her director’s style of mile-a-minute dialogue, Mary Astor, nevertheless, does the corkscrew language a major service as the ably speedy-mouthed Princess Centimillia, who bowls one over with her mixture of glitzy upper crust exuberance and ready-made amorousness. The perfect foil for her dry brother dear “Snoodles.”

To round out the quartet (quintet if you include the single misfire Toto), Tom Jeffers arrives to reclaim his wife but finds himself being turned into a brother named Captain McGlue before he can get in a word edgewise. The quarreling goes on behind closed doors as estranged husband and wife both find themselves romantic objects — currently pursued by other people.

One can’t help to compare it to Midnight, the Billy Wilder penned film with all sorts of little white lies and shenanigans being pulled to keep the charade going for as long as possible. It’s true often the best screwball farces — including some of Sturges’s successes — involve people donning aliases with highly comic ends, of course. Even in this frenetic company, The Palm Beach Story might be more outlandish than most, on par with the rambunctious insanity of Some Like it Hot.

What a glorious wisenheimer Sturges is holding off on the one loose end we’ve been wondering about since the outset of the movie only for it to be the final payoff, setting in motion another story that we’ll never hope to see. Everything is bookended by this ultimate gag that plays as pure Sturges. He’s shoehorned the whole story just so he can swoop in from left field with the most propitious footnote.

At its best, The Palm Beach Story exudes all the zany charms of Sturges’ screwiest works between a finely wrought cast with plenty of whiz-bang patter that time and time again gladly succumbs to silliness. Preston Sturges does his secondary characters a major service, and they more than return the favor. It’s a picture totally stolen away by the supporting cast and rightfully so.

4/5 Stars

 

The Great McGinty (1940): Preston Sturges & Politics

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“If it wasn’t for graft, you’d get a very low type of people in politics!” – William Demarest

The Great McGinty feels like a film of many notable firsts. The two most prominent ones being Preston Sturges’s first time in the director’s chair, famously agreeing to a salary of $10 for creative control of his screenplay. The second first has to be Brian Donlevy getting a break at a starring role, even if the picture itself was an inauspicious beginning. As an in-joke, he plays into his image as a heavy only to turn that on its head for something far more intriguing and intermittently hilarious.

We wind up in a banana republic for a hot minute. There’s the usual melange: dancing girls, sailors, drunks, and behind the bar is a very familiar face indeed. It’s the strangest of interludes for such an expedient picture and for a satire that will wind up whipping us all the way around the world to the grand ol’ United States of America. However, one should admit in the mind of such an inspired looney as Preston Sturges, the progression is as natural as X, Y, Z.

Because, formerly, Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy) was no better than a tramp before his bartending days.  However, even someone like him was a vital cog in the crooked methods employed by a dirty political machine. Led by a bigshot shyster (Akim Tamiroff), they conveniently pad the ballot boxes in the favor of their rather limp candidate.

In fact, they finagle the homeless vote in return for some hot soup and a couple of bucks in their pocket, getting it down to a very dubious science. Each ballot box is manned by an inside man who supplies a name to each new recruit with the deceased, the elderly, and the chronically infirm played by masquerading vagrants.

They’re an easy market to exploit because when desperation is your only guiding light, you’ll bend to any low for some grub. Only one man is cunning enough to take advantage of their shady business for his own benefit. Soon McGinty’s weaseled his way into over $70 bucks and his tough-guy act gets him in with the boss.

He starts out on the lowest rung as an enforcer but soon works his way up thanks in part to his self-assured charisma and the built-in brawn to back it up. When the old mayor gets tossed out on the waves of scandal, the time is ripe for a new up-and-comer. The recurring farce of the movie is how easily the Boss shifts between tickets and candidates with the system all but rigged his way regardless of political affiliation. Is it some uncanny portent Tamiroff originated from the Russian Empire by birth?

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The Great McGinty might feel like a one-joke pony if it solely relied on the ludicrous premise of a nobody jumping through the hoops to become mayor and then governor. Instead, Sturges fills out his story with the details of a real life, including the highlights of marriage to his secretary, the new home they purchase together, and the mammoth parade that is thrown in his honor to celebrate his ascension.

Muriel Angelus’s name has been all but buried under years of celluloid — this was her last picture in a truncated career — but she has surprising bearing and charm throughout the picture. One is briefly reminded of Madeleine Carroll. But either way, it serves the movie well to lean into this highly irregular and totally ill-proposed couple. Somehow she manages to be well-suited for Donlevy because they appear so diametrically opposed. His hard-nosed rough and tumble bravado constantly chafes against her inbred propriety and ready-made home life with two kids.

After all, their subsequent marriage is only meant to be a vehicle of convenience although it’s easy enough to infer…perhaps she loves him dearly but is also too proud to force her affections on him. He’s a numbskull, yes, but perhaps there’s some deep-rooted affection in him as well.

They shape one another. He becomes a father figure. Catherine encourages him to tap into his inherent decency and the slivers of goodwill she’s seen glimpses of, even as he feels content to let well enough alone, riding the machine all the way to the governorship.

On the other hand, sweatshops, tenements, and child labor all need a champion to hasten their demise. He has the chance to actually stand for something of substance, and Sturges suggests behind at least some cutthroat half-rate men stands a great woman. They can change for the better.

Admittedly, The Great McGinty is actually a much darker, more foreboding film than we might be initially be led to believe from a production headlined by Preston Sturges. It’s easy to start cross-referencing it with the political graft featured in some of Frank Capra’s notable works, even as the wit and jabs of cynicism of a similar nature would also find their way into the work of Billy Wilder.

Capra’s pictures like Mr. Smith and Meet John Doe probably lay into the graft and corruption harder, but they grant us a sincere happy ending to smooth everything over. Wilder would have to subvert everything to the very last line. And Sturges is more so in this camp although Wilder would come in his wake as another prominent writer-turned-director.

But the stock company is his alone, and he is totally devoted not only to the word on the page but the utter mayhem of it all. It’s a story of graft and corruption where the “bad guy” winds up playing barman alongside the man he was looking to bury earlier on. That in itself is the grand joke Sturges gives us as a parting gag. Thankfully, it doesn’t kill the satire of this otherwise unheralded comedy. In fact, it helps punctuate the utter lunacy of it all. 

3.5/5 Stars

Meet John Doe (1941) and The Woman Who Made Him

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“You don’t have to die to keep the John Doe ideal alive. Someone already died for that once. The first John Doe. And he’s kept that ideal alive for nearly 2,000 years.” – Barbara Stanwyck as Ann Mitchell

In their final collaboration, Capra and Riskin draw on the same cisterns with their usual success. Even the opening images matched with music, summons strains of unmistakable Americana from “Take Me Out to The Ballgame” and “Oh Susanna” mixed with “Roll Out The Barrel.”

It taps into the precise sentiment all but embodied and propagated by all their pictures together. There’s always a point of inception. In this case, it begins with something bad. The Free Press gets axed for a new and improved streamlined paper and with the changes, some of the faithful employees get knocked off too. Among them is feisty newspaperwoman Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) supporting her family on her measly paycheck. Now the new regime wants to take that away from her too.

I must open with this. I love Barbara Stanwyck to death. There’s something so energetic and alive about her, even the tonalities of her voice feel fresh and appealing. 1941, without a doubt, was a bumper crop of a year for her — the finest of her career — and she churned out three classics. The Lady Eve, Meet John Doe, and Ball of Fire all capitalized on her ready-made brand of wit, strength, and innate beauty.

Twice she plays Gary Cooper, once it’s Henry Fonda, and yet in all cases, she falls in love with the man. So much so she’ll fight to get them back. And they can be fiery in other movies, but when she shares the screen with them, they don’t have to be. She can supply enough verve and vivacity to cover both of them. It’s phenomenal to watch how she effortlessly commandeers scenes.

But this is jumping the gun. For the time being, she hasn’t met her man yet. She’s too busy being miffed, trying desperately to dream up one final hair-brained idea to reclaim her job. It comes with dreaming up an idealized man — the man she will come to fall in love with.

The origins are innocent. She wants to get back at the brusque editor (James Gleason) trimming the fat like there’s no tomorrow. Her Lavender and Old Lace column is too blase for what they’re looking for. They want fireworks. Well, she’s prepared to give them absolute dynamite. Because in a Capra-Riskin picture, ideas can flip the world upside down.

This one involves a universal “John Doe,” who has sent a letter to the editor to protest the state of the world and the lack of brotherly love. As an act of protest, the mystery man asserts he will commit suicide by jumping off a government building on Christmas Eve merely on principle. While it’s one last feisty stab at keeping her light burning, the John Doe column starts a wildfire across the country.

It’s a national phenomenon. People are clamoring for action to stop this preventable tragedy. They want John Doe to be reinstated into society, even bending over backward to offer charity. The idea is almost too big. The paper is forced to back up the lie by instigating a national search for the one and only John Doe.

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Wouldn’t you know it, among all the bums and vagabonds is Gary Cooper, tall and self-effacing as ever, accompanied by his buddy, The Colonel (Walter Brenan), a man continually suspicious of the helots. Moments later, Stanwyck beams up into Coops big brown eyes forming an instant connection. He’s the one.

With their substantial public support and the silent backing of a perfidious magnate D.B. Morton (Edward Arnold), Meet John Doe fits easily on the same plane with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and A Face in The Crowd.

Long John Willougby (Cooper) looks to be propped up as a spineless ‘yes man’ and yet even with his national sway, he’s hesitant to use it. This makes him the utter antithesis of Lonesome Rhodes. He has his own choices to make because as it goes, indecision is a decision in its own right.

Thankfully, the flimsy gimmick deepens as Stanwyck humanizes it with her deceased father’s words. It’s no longer a totally phony-baloney stunt. She legitimizes it and falls for the ideal she’s created in its wake. The man standing in for her vision is the washed-up big-league pitcher who is simultaneously falling for her.

It’s pure Capra, pure Riskin, even as a rival newspaper tries to bribe him with 5,000 clams to read an alternate speech, effectively ousting himself as a phoney. He’s can’t help but be smitten so he goes forward as planned, and there’s arguably no better man to orate the words than Gary Cooper. He calmly calls on his fellow countrymen to tear the fences down between neighbors because the trouble with the world is people being sore at each other.

A grassroots populism shoots up across the country in response to his amicable radio rally. John Doe clubs dotting the country are almost a kind of humanistic church meeting ground, altogether apolitical and not overtly religious.

Regis Toomey represents the masses as one of the many folks taken up by Doe’s words. Ann Doran is all but uncredited as his doting wife and the guiding light behind his resolve. His candid soliloquy speaks to the same messages of brotherly love. It’s Williloby’s first realization that he’s a part of something far larger than himself. He has some sort of concrete responsibility to these people, whether real or imagined. 

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The story could end here on this most saccharine note if not for the customary sinister twists alluded to by the foreboding closeup on Mr. Morton as he eavesdrops on his help. He knows he’s in on something that he can use for his personal ends. The greedy are capable of taking something pure and twisting it with their duplicitous intentions.

He proves just how Machiavellian he is willing to stoop, ready to kill an idea when it gets in the way of his political ambitions. Prepared to ground Doe into the dirt and turn the whole nation against him with his amble sway in the media. The man who once promoted him, calls John out as a fake, a man paid off with 30 pieces of silver like Judas Iscariot — the most ignominious traitor the world has ever known.

Stanwyck can’t save him in the moment and she cries out, “They’re crucifying him!” The same people who loved him. A fickle generation fed on lies. Now with the biblical imagery increasingly clear, John Doe is prepared to be the sacrificial figure they don’t deserve.

The following Christmas Eve is understated and dismally captured. Instead of a bridge in Bedford Falls, it’s the top floor of City Hall where our man bides his time, resolved to jump to his death as not only an act of silent protest but sacrificial love.

Capra famously shot about four or five different endings to the picture trying to figure out how to resolve the story in a satisfactory manner. Whether you agree with the choice or not, one must admit he kept with the unifying thematics of his oeuvre. For me, Stanwyck is the standout MVP to the very last scene.

4/5 Stars

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