Hell to Eternity (1960): The Story of Guy Gabaldon

Helltoetpos.jpgAs someone of Japanese-American heritage, it’s become a personal preoccupation of mine to search out films that in some way represent the lives of my grandparents and their generation. This means the rich Issei and Nisei communities of Los Angeles, the subsequent internment camps, and even the famed 442nd Infantry Battalion.

Obviously, Hollywood has always had a complicated history with minorities, mirroring broader historical context. Thus, the opening images of Hell to Eternity feel like a bit of a surreal pipe dream — something I’ve looked for a long time and finally discovered. You almost have to pinch yourself into believing the industry actually made this movie.

A young punk (Richard Eyer) and his friend (George Matsui) stare down a trio of thugs who look ready for a fight. Its fitting proof Phil Karlson’s bloody knuckles aesthetic can enter the schoolyard as the two battling adolescence are pulled apart by their physical education instructor (George Shibata)

Japanese-Americans and their culture play a rich and integral part in this biography of celebrated war hero Guy Gabaldon. No, he was not one of them, but he might as well be. Coming from a broken home, his only place to turn is the Une family who gladly welcomes him into their home.

In some small regard, these scenes play out quaintly if not altogether conventional. Guy begins to pick up Japanese quickly and even teaches his benevolent “mama-san” a few terms by pointing to objects around the house. Despite, the stilted acting and out-and-out authenticity aside, the images themselves are powerful. And some background is in order on multiple accounts.

We have George Shibata who was the first Japanese-American graduate out of West Point. Then, Tsuru Aoki was one of the premier stars of the Silent Era even before Sessue Hayakawa. But the connections run deeper still because due to their Hollywood roots and the anti-miscegenation laws at the time, Aoki and Hayakawa wedded and remained married until her death in 1961.

The slightly older George is played by an extremely youthful George Takai. Meanwhile, there’s further Japanese-American representation in Papa-san, Bob Okazaki, and the likes of Reiko Sato and Miiko Taka.

It should be noted the Unes are some sort of amalgam of the real-life Nakano family whose son Lane fought in the 442nd and later become a short-lived actor in the likes of Go For Broke! and Japanese War Bride (1953). All of these basic details are based on fact.

However, with this necessary context in tow, it’s about time to turn our attention to the man himself who held such a unique background in his own right. Because make no mistake, Guy Gabaldon is certainly worthy of the biopic treatment even if a picture like this can’t quite do the man justice. That’s fine.

Although what it develops into is an unwieldy drama and having Jeffrey Hunter portray Gulbadon is one of the most hilarious examples of overstated Hollywood casting.  It feels like having John Wayne play Audie Murphy. However, what Hunter lacks in similar likeness and physique, he more than makes up for by capturing the resiliency of his subject. He offers believable candor and the embodiment of American exceptionalism.

Allied Artists was a B movie mill and Hell for Eternity was their wealthiest, most expansive undertaking to date, with their number one moneymaker on assignment: industry workhorse Phil Karlson. In one sense, Karlson seems well-equipped for some elements and then woefully disadvantaged for others.

Hell to Eternity proves itself to be wildly uneven because without jumping the gun, the opening scenes are quietly revolutionary and truly unprecedented when you consider Hollywood’s track record. Then, there’s a shift as his family is unceremoniously shipped out to internment camps, and you have Guy rushing to every branch of the service only to be rebuffed at every turn. Still, his remarkable qualifications — namely his Japanese abilities — gain him an in-road.

We also have the introduction of his buddies. Despite getting off on the wrong foot, Sergeant Bill Hazen (David Janssen) proves himself to be an intense adversary and an even fiercer companion. As they foster mutual respect and camaraderie, it becomes evident he’s the type of buddy you want in your corner. And if he’s too intense, the swinging, snapping, undulating lady’s man, Junior (Vic Damone), more than brings the party.

It’s around this time where the film reimagines itself as what could easily be considered an entirely different movie. The midpoint in Hawaii has them left entirely to their own devices with one glorious night of freedom out on the town before they ship out. Not to be disappointed, they are treated to a titillating striptease show, courtesy of Sato, with the steamy hot jazz cutting through the night. The men cheer on the women with a rueful round of inebriated leering.

Where does this all end? How does this tie into Guy Gulbandon’s story; in short, it doesn’t. What does happen is the softening of the so-called “Iron Petticoat,” a woman journalist, who has gained notoriety for her prudish ways. It’s by far the most cringe-worthy sequence as Ms. Lincoln (Patricia Owens) lets her hair down, as it were.

What follows is a barrage of lingering shots over heels, tights, legs — you get the salacious idea — and from a distance, we can admit to it being fairly risque for the 1960s. It becomes amusement for their entire company. The woman’s impregnable defenses have finally been conquered. Whatever that means.

However, with a few abrupt cuts the whole meaning of these scenes is almost salvaged. Effectively, there is no interim. We get thrown directly into the campaign and their wild bender of an evening is only a distant memory as they cut their way across the shores toward the enemy embankments.

Even as Karlson isn’t able to make every crosscut of action fundamentally compelling, he’s far more in his element amid the volatility and constant barrage of bullets and bodies. What felt initially so quietly groundbreaking and devolved into needless exhibitionism, finally settles into his forte.

Here he can dig knee-deep into the nitty-gritty and give us something that packs a wallop. Hell to Eternity is a lot less sanitized than I would have surmised, especially given its era. However, there is no mincing when it comes to what we are privy to on the simulated battlefield. He capably mobilized thousands of extras from Okinawa for some of the most spectacular scenes where the large scale is matched with tumultuous elements of very intimate trauma.

And even as the skirmishes settle into a kind of chaotic equilibrium, Galbadon — using his Japanese skills — earns his moniker as the “Pied Piper of Taipei.” Using the talents he’s been gifted by his incredible upbringing, he does his best to coax the already cowed but testy enemy to surrender using their native tongue.

The one foe emblematic of the proud enemy is portrayed by Sessue Hayakawa, emulating his similar role from Bridge on the River Kwai as a derisive Japanese officer. Once Galbadon can conquer him, he’s all but won the fight behind enemy lines. More than anything, I’m disappointed in the fact that we never circle back around to his adopted family nor the exploits of his brothers. Still, for more context, Go For Broke! plays as a decent companion piece about the 442nd.

So although it’s an imperfect and often befuddling vehicle, Guy Gulbadon was a hero more than worthy of a biopic. Regardless of any faults, Hell to Eternity is bristling with not only action but specific depictions of a historical time and place that often remain overshadowed in Hollywood to this day. It’s been one of my missions to discover more representations of Japanese-Americans in American cinema, and in this regard, Hell to Eternity is a stirring success. It can’t help but be groundbreaking even in spite of its unassuming nature. I look up at the screen and there’s a personal connection.

3.5/5 Stars

Winchester 73 (1950): James Stewart The Western Antihero

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Winchester 73 has the initially dubious reputation of being a portmanteau western. Whether or not this is a one-of-a-kind distinction, any number of popular culture vehicles have employed the device in often gimmicky fashion. It makes for a La Ronde-esque sitcom episode in a pinch.

However, this James Stewart-Anthony Mann collaboration succumbs to no such fate. It’s positively stuffed with quality talent and vignettes woven quite closely together. There is a compounding weight to them even as characters both minor and substantial all but stand on their own two feet.

Equally compelling is Anthony Mann’s usual dynamism — continued from his film noir days — and also the very specific mise-en-scene he develops. The opening shot behind the credit is an exquisite first impression with a pair of silhouettes trodding along the ridge in a perfect arc off into the distance. It’s a type of instant exposition in the most primal sense: two men riding toward their unseen destination.

The two strangers sidle into town, the hard-bitten gentleman Linn McAdams (Stewart) and his trusty sidekick (Millard Mitchell), who takes a calculated stance on just about everything. We know they’ve seen a lot of the world together and all sorts of people…

One of them just happens to be Dutch Henry Brown (Stephan McNally, who they happen on in the local watering hole. In another western, guns at the ready, they would have obliterated each other on the spot. However, in this picture, where a fairly obstinate rein of law and order rules, they are forced to bide their time outside the watchful eye of the city limits.

Will Geer does surprisingly well as a wry and affable Wyatt Earp. His characterization is just personal enough to take some of the mystique out of the legend and make him into a real human being we can appreciate in relatable terms.

But these scenes are a mere setup for a whole slew of encounters. It’s as if we lose our characters for a time as McAdams and High-Spade ride along the trail. However, Mann has a lot of fertile material to work with.

It transcends the simple conceit and builds into a genuine story rife with conflict, both personal and circumstantial. The story obliges by rolling over on itself as it continues to introduce new players at its own leisure.

In one roadside establishment, an insouciant horse trader (John McIntire) sits at the table playing solitaire. He sits by ready to play middle man to the Indians emboldened by Crazy Horse’s victory at the Little Bighorn, while gladly supplying Dutch Henry and his cronies desperately-needed weapons of their own.

It just so happens a Winchester becomes a fine bargaining piece. And yet even a secondary character like him is provided subtext. A man like him — a purported half breed — is deemed as an outsider by two nations.

Certainly, the Indians always carry the subjugated and degraded station in the western. Winchester 73 has its own issues assuredly, starting with Rock Hudson playing a Native American. However, the one equalizer is the universal avarice for the Winchester Rifle. Everyone wants it; some even to the point of death.

Other involved parties are a couple fleeing for their lives — a forthright woman with a gleam in her eye (Shelley Winters) and her craven man (Charles Drake). Alongside our heroes, they find some shelter in the company of a cavalry unit pinned down by the same Indians (a youthful Tony Curtis among them). Their leader, a crusty old vet (Jay C. Flippen), is astute enough to take advice from the men around him, and they make a valiant defense of their position to live another day.

It’s about this point in time where a viewer might realize we still have yet to see that perennial sleazy scene-stealer Dan Duryea and he makes his auspicious entrance as his usually snide gunman, the left-handed Waco Johnnie Dean pinned down in a farmhouse with his gang. There’s more hell to pay.

The glorious fact is how the film peaks at so many points. We have the battle over the rifle’s rightful owner in town, first, through competition then treachery. What follows is a Custer-like resistance with far better results, a homestead hostage standoff against authorities, the makings of a bank robbery, and, of course, the ultimate showdown on a craggy rock face.

These moments are easy to acknowledge because they are so prolific but what makes these exclamation points are the very fact the script knocked out by Borden Chase and Robert L. Richards and as executed by the actors and its director, finds the time for conversation, lulls, and lit cigarettes.

By no means does it search out the utterly stylized extremes of Sergio Leone, but it understands the same dramatic gradient. Action means so much more if we have time and space to truly appreciate its impact.

What also matters are the stakes at play. Thankfully, Winchester ’73 makes itself about more than just a gun. A gun is a stand-in and indication of any number of grievances and human vices. It brings out all the issues already in play.

James Stewart was still fairly fresh off WWII. He was a different man from the gee-shucks everyman — more complicated and torn than he had ever been before. The films he made upon his return had yet to truly catch fire until Winchester ’73. It was a portent and signaled a true resurgence for the actor. Joining with the likes of Mann and Hitchcock, he very effectively redefined his image in a fundamentally intriguing way.

He became a man of vengeance with goodness soured by hate and desires tainted by darkness. When you look into his eyes in any of the number of pictures he made with Mann and Hitch, you begin to recognize something else. It’s not unadulterated innocence or even indignance. His eyes now burn with fury and genuine malice. His hands are calloused, comfortable cramming bullets into the stock of his gun. Because he’s not afraid of using it.

Reconsidering the mise-en-scene, it’s a joy to watch how Mann handles shots in such a blistering manner. But there is also a closeness and with it a violent intimacy to his direction. One scene might have a sleepy-eyed cowboy all but stretched out in the foreground as the camera peers over him into a cabin as two men converse.

Then, we have a bar room mauling in the most claustrophobic manner. Foreheads sweating, bodies writhing in palpable pain, and blood-vessels bulging with rage. It’s astounding how the man’s films almost inevitably feature such images and yet, despite their prevalence, I never grow tired of them.

They put many more technical or cashed-out sequences to shame because what is not scrimped on is the very transparent humanity in its most righteous and ugly iterations. Mann understands that there is not only primacy in the images of the West — we often think rolling plains and panoramas — but the western would mean nothing without morality. Hard unyielding codes, or a lack thereof, warring against each other. Where do these originate from if not the hearts and souls of men?

What Winchester ’73 hints at is how even a man like James Stewart can be consumed by demons. Over the course of a film, a story of a mere rifle, repeatedly develops character until it settles on something splitting right to his core identity. The beauty is in how swatches of dialogue, interweaving character arcs, and splashes of light and dark help in illustrating his singular journey.

This was the first in a thoroughly distinguished partnership between the western’s newfound antihero, Stewart, and one of the genres unsung mavericks in Mann. It just might be the best of the batch, which is saying something.

4.5/5 Stars

Departures (2008): Agents for The Dead

Okuribito_(2008)One could choose any number of labels to attempt categorizing Departures. It’s a film indebted to the rapturous compositions of the past. It shares elements akin to any police procedural ever made or for that matter, the veterinary antics from a British gem like All Creatures Great and Small.

They are admittedly disparate reference points, but they seem fitting given Departures subject matter. No, not a travel agency as our main character Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) supposes.

The job title of NK Agent, picked out of the local ad section, relates to something entirely different. They take care of the dear departed — that is — they work with dead bodies.  There’s the aloof veteran trained in all facets of the trade and the young newcomer aching to prove himself.

Each case brings with it, its own unique complications. It’s not a common art nor one that is held in much regard. But as the film explores over time, it plays a crucial role in a society that must grapple with death and bid adieu to loved ones like everyone else.

In his former life, Kobayashi had a position of repute. The Greeks might have liked him. He didn’t denigrate himself with toil and sweat as much as the common man. He was an artist; a cellist to be exact, and he brings joy to the masses and swelling pride to his devoted wife Mika (Ryōko Hirosue). The only problem is no one is showing up to their concerts and so the orchestra is unceremoniously dissolved.

In keeping with spousal protocol, Mika stays supportive and suggests they move to his old family home in the country where they might live for free as he figures his affairs out. But as one who is even only minorly familiar with Japanese culture, there is an inkling something else dwells hidden from view — just waiting to reveal itself.

Daigo answers a job description on a whim and finds himself greeted by the quizzical secretary (Kimiko Yo) and a boss (Tsutomu Yamazaki) who has an unorthodox manner of doing business, especially in such a highly methodical, procedure-heavy culture like Japan.

Needless to say, the new hopeful sits down for about two seconds and comes home with the job and his first bonus. It’s a hilarious initial interaction setting their relationship in stark relief. We like his workplace for how very unique it is. Because these people feel like they might easily be punchlines and nothing more, and yet we grow to appreciate them even as Kobayashi remains our protagonist.

This is what Departures is able to manage. It’s drama but never squeamish about utilizing comedy. Take, for instance, the moment he’s called on to play a cadaver in his senpai’s sponsor spot or when he throws up in the presence of a particularly grizzly undertaking. In the aftermath, some schoolgirls comment on the rancid smell on the bus leading him to take an expedient trip to the local bathhouse to clean up.

But in contrast, Departures is full of all kinds of emotion and soft strings of pathos, whether hyper-realized or not. In between the lines are complications and relationships wrought with both warmth and the tension of lives shaped by regret. The best moments are unspoken, reflected by totems or actions. The handling of a weathered stone, the heart-rending notes of a cello, and certainly the ceremonial burying of bodies.

Even the moment where Daigo must fess up and tell his wife what he’s really been up to, it tears her apart; she’s so very ashamed that he would take part in something so defiling. It bores into the heart of this narrative.

Because to its very essence, the movie not only puts words to a very archaic Japanese art no one wants to acknowledge, it also supplies a space in which to grapple with death and how we grieve — how we let our loved ones go into the great beyond.

Since the dawn of man, it has been a prevalent theme throughout the ballads and religious convictions of mankind, whatever the background. Even a basic deist like Ben Franklin noted that the only things we may count on are “death and taxes.”

Egyptians were embalmed for a future afterlife with relics now found in the British Museum for us all to fawn over. Norse heroes dreamed of Vahala, a place to glory over their valorous feats with their countrymen.

Christians believe in not simply an afterlife but a new heaven and new earth where this current world, with all its flaws, will pass away. On a cursory level, varying strains of Buddhism and Hinduism often delve into issues of rebirth in further pursuit of nirvana or enlightenment.

For Japan, in particular, death is so closely tied to family. Rather like Latin culture, there is this extension of the family unit reaching out into the great unknown where saying goodbye and keeping constant communications with dead ancestors is a part of culture, albeit a dying art.

Taking stock of these themes, it makes sense many have decried the film for its sentimentalities. Yes, there are touches of the saccharine, but what resonated with me most was something else. When it counted most, Departures managed to be a delicate drama in a manner suited to Japanese society where quiet strength is prized and benign tranquility highly sought.

And if you guess the plot points — not an altogether difficult task — it means very little to me. Because for many meaningful movies, these narrative elements are only employed to hang your hat on. What really matters are the characters, the emotions they exude, and whether or not they can reach out to the audience and induce a reaction.

Departures was such a film for me. One of the miracles of life is finding some semblance of humor in the darkest, saddest parts. Death is undoubtedly one of these. However, it begins with coming to peace with the future. Knowing that we were made for something more than this world of ours. We are not destined to be creatures of death, but creatures of life. Of course, that’s only one man’s opinion. We all deal with departures differently.

4/5 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

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

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

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

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