Arise, My Love (1940): Milland and Colbert

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“Arise, my fair love and come away” – Song of Solomon 2:13

The screenplays of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder are often literal master classes in hooking the audience. They understand intuitively the construction necessary to bring us into a story so we’re invested. Take the opening of Arise, My Love. Yes, there’s some throw-away text about the Spanish Civil War in the summer of 1939. It’s in the aftermath, but then we’re introduced to a telling scene.

One of these soldiers of fortune, American Tom Martin (Ray Milland) sits in confinement as a father (Frank Puglia) from the local monastery pays him a visit. The firing squads right outside his annex make it painfully clear the hour of his own execution is imminent. Those aren’t rubber bullets. The man of faith feels some urgency to ask the prisoner if he even feels penitent — if he needs to clear his chest of anything.

All this sounds rote so far. Anyone could write this scene like so. Then, individuality sets in. Instead of contrition, he bemoans the fact he didn’t get into the action with Chamberlain and Hitler nor has he gotten a chance to take potshots at Nazis. It has the vitriolic gallows wit of Wilder setting up the gag.

Here’s the kicker. The inevitable is whisked right out from under Martin by the most unexpected of Providences. He’s been granted a pardon! It came through the pleading of his wife! It’s an obvious punchline if I know Wilder (and Brackett): he has no wife!

This plucky mystery woman (Claudette Colbert) is a reporter out for a story and boy does she has a way of making a doozy of a spread. They get out of the scenario thanks to her charm, his flying, and a bit of luck.

We are reminded the movie is planted squarely in its moment from the headlines about the Yankees in the World Series and the hunt for Scarlet O’Hara finally being over. Tom was among three American flyboys, who are a group of idealistic interventionists siding with the little guys against the big boys.

Paris, the city of amour, is still free from Nazi influence, and the pilot does his best to channel what’s already in the air. “Gusto” rebuffs him — albeit good-naturedly — because she’s an all-or-nothing gal. She knows if she says “yes” she’ll be head over heels. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. But she’s a career woman.

Now Claudette Colbert doesn’t quite strike me as a typewriter-plunking type like Rosalind Russell or Barbara Stanwyck — one of the boys as it were — but she comes off as deliriously happy. Because it feels like she’s in her element again in this world, whether or not it’s totally manufactured by Hollywood. As her slighted suitor sits in the Cafe Magenta just betting she’ll walk over from her hotel, she looks to climb the journalistic ladder.

She’s dropped with quite the gig: Special Berlin Correspondent. The previous correspondent was kindly asked to leave by the Nazis. Among other infractions, he went to a reception for Herr von Ribbentropp and yelled “Gefilte Fish!”

The agitated editor (Walter Abel) is a long-running trope, but here it works as well as it did anywhere else in that he provides yet another antagonistic force to push against our heroine. Although, given the state of the world, she hardly needs it. He more likely serves as a bit of comic relief.

Because while Tom decides to go off to Warsaw, Poland to fly with his buddies (“I’ve always wanted to drop something on Hamburg after I got ptomaine from that hamburger”), while simultaneously stealing a few more hours with Gusto, Hitler rudely kicks off WWII. They plan to get out of town on the fated S.S. Athenia. No one told them the battle for the Atlantic has already geared up. Though hit hard, they are luckier than most. At the end of the day, Tom and Gusto are still together (and alive)…

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If you humor me for only a moment, there is a habit that can get me into trouble. Reading other people’s reviews. I’m as insecure as the next fellow about my writing. I could never do it as good as so-and-so or why didn’t think of that! That’s all that comparison gets you. Worse yet it can start infecting your own point of view if you consider other voices. Usually, I hold off until after my words are set in cement.

However, in a rare instance, I happen upon a contemporary review of Bosley Crowther, and it gave birth to some thoughts. He ends his piece on Arise, My Love in this manner:

“It is simply a synthetic picture which attempts to give consequence to a pleasant April-in-Paris romance by involving it in the realities of war — but a war which is patently conceived by someone who has been reading headlines in California. Miss Colbert and Mr. Milland are very charming when tête-tête. But, with Europe going up in flames around them, they are, paradoxically, not so hot. Same goes for the film.”

While I understand where Crowther is coming from, I will politely dissent, armed with hindsight as I most conveniently am. I’m often of the mind Hollywood folks are too self-important. How much influence do they really have? And yet even to look back at cinema in 1940 there is a sense there was real social importance in the movies being made — at least the ones that were truly aware of the cultural moment.

I am reminded Hitler was a cinema nut and Goebbels (derided briefly in this film) was deeply engaged in harnessing film for propagandistic purposes. Hitler even had a special prize for capturing Clark Gable. They really could be taken down a few pegs by the medium they too seemed to admire in spite of all their dementedness, and it’s quite a fitting mode of attack.

Think of Chaplin’s lampoon. Think of the various contours of Nazi menace explored in the likes of The Night Train to Munich, Foreign Correspondent, and The Mortal Storm from both inside and out. Hold Back The Dawn shows the implications on the American homefront. Even the passing remark from Cary Grant in His Girl Friday to stick Hitler on the funny pages brandishes something momentarily powerful.

If Billy Wilder is not considered to be an integral part of this company, he deserves to be. Because Arise, My Love taps into the same immediacy available only in those uncertain months. He gladly sticks his nose out to be bitten and whether it was from the relative comfort of California, Wilder was not a stranger to personal heartache. He lost loved ones at the hands of the Nazis. It’s a personal context I doubt Crowther could have been aware of. Arise, My Love was promoted as a romance that could only happen in 1940, which is a key to its resonance; it’s effectively encased in the amber of the times.

The final interludes are in a forest, a pasture, as Colbert stands on her soapbox, as it were, in a lasting embrace with her love. It’s not as stunning as Joel McCrea’s delivery of Ben Hecht’s prose in Foreign Correspondent, nor is it Wilder/Brackett’s finest hour. But that’s just it.

For an effort that’s not even that well-remembered in Classic movie circles, Arise, My Love is a charming picture. The word proves apt for much of Mitchell Leisen’s filmography. And yet there is the undeniable wit and sophistication of its writers. Right down to its title. The full passage reads like this:

My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away,
11 for behold, the winter is past;
the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree ripens its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away.

So you see, it’s not only an inflection of passionate love but also naturalistic hope.

3.5/5 Stars

Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938): Coop and Colbert

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The whole glorious entangled mess of the story feels like an obvious antecedent to Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon (1957), which is one of his lesser films (even with the redeeming presence of both Hepburn and Chevalier). It seems like a fairly obvious observation to make because Wilder deeply admired  Ernst Lubitsch. Love in The Afternoon was an ode to his hero. Although it didn’t quite come off.

I have similar feelings about the screwball comedy Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938). It doesn’t quite gel. But first let’s turn our attention to the illustrious opening gambit which, like many of the great Lubitsch beginnings, is too exquisite to pass up as the dramatic situation is brought to the fore.

Gary Cooper staves off the sales floor spiel of the pertinacious shopkeeper with a touch of Parisian charm. All he wants are pajama tops. No bottoms. But in France, this simply is not done. It’s unheard of. The chain reaction is set off from clerk to head clerk — rushing up the stairs to the manager, regional manager…all the way up the president! In a moment of incredulity, the disgruntled fellow rushes out of bed at the words. He yells, “Communism!” only to reveal he has no bottoms. And we’re hoodwinked from the outset as only Lubitsch could do.

It all amounts to a national calamity. You can just imagine the papers printing up a nice spread on the scandal. But none of this happens thanks to a most propitious solution in the form of a woman; she only requires bottoms for her man. If it’s not apparent already, Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s script might as well have written the book on the rom-com meet-cute.

They’ve piqued our interest and pricked up our ears. If nothing else, thanks to some talk of “Czechoslovakia” in the dark. Far from being risque, it’s supposed to be a handy antidote to insomnia.  The man is obliged to the woman, and they go their separate ways.

The story too moves on from a department store to a hotel hallway where Gary Cooper is still being hustled and harried, this time by none other than the perennial Classic Hollywood hotel clerk Franklin Pangborn.

Better still is Edward Everett Horton, the Marquis de Loiselle, a man squatting in the hotel with rent backdated for months. He’s trying to pawn off anything he can to anyone who will bite including Mr. Brandon (Cooper). He’s also connected with the same pair of PJs in another winking Lubitsch touch before the conversation suddenly switches to bathtubs.

If you want to get technical, the pajamas spell it out for him. It’s the reason why he’ll buy the man’s bathtub, already preemptively planning a honeymoon in Czechoslovakia. It’s Lubitsch shorthand for wedding bells. You see, Coop is intent with getting together with Claudette if at all possible, and it is. She’s the marquis’s daughter.

These elements are wonderfully conceived and textbook Lubitsch execution making the most of the script. However, I failed to feel the same way about the entire movie. If you’ll permit me a digression, I recently saw Paris When it Sizzles and there’s no doubt Lubitsch’s film is head and shoulders above the later picture — more lithe and clever at any rate — but there is the same problem at its core.

It ‘s almost counterintuitive to acknowledge this. The premise in each case feels almost too inventive for the story’s own good. However, it’s rather like we are following the mechanisms of a clever bit of story structure instead of really getting to enjoy the out-and-out thrills of romance, be they comedic or overly dramatic.

We never get past the stage of logline, hook, or gimmick into truly uncharted territory where the two characters are allowed space to breathe and do things that feel, well, natural.

The remaining elements are intriguing enough. She finds out he’s been married so often. Thus, Nicole’s ready to call the whole thing off. Instead, she decides to make him suffer. No divorce, just prolonged separation. It galls him to be so close to his wife and yet so far. He mounts an offensive inspired by Shakespeare.

What follows is a barrage of slaps, spankings, and iodine for bite marks. Colbert is able to out duel him with her onion breath — his fatal flaw is that he positively abhors the miserable vegetable. It’s all potentially brilliant stuff and a lot of it truly diverting with David Niven and a private investigator thrown into the mix. However, the pieces somehow don’t fit together in a manner constituting a decisive story, beyond some hilarious premises and snappy dialogue. Rest assured the film has both.

If we’re able to consider where it goes wrong, we can look to Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert sharing the screen together. There’s no clear antagonism between them per se. Instead of antipathy, they have a kind of anti-chemistry. That is, they’re meant to be opposites. But there must be a sneaking suspicion on the part of the audience that they do really have feelings for one another. At least, this is what all the great screwball comedies of remarriage banked on.

Coop and Colbert never manage the same kind of underlying inertia. I never feel like I’m sitting back and having a grand ol’ time gallivanting through escapades with them. In other words, it’s not quite screwball. That was never the Lubitsch calling card. That’s not what his Touch is about.

Admittedly, I had a similar issue with Design for Living (1933) a film that was quite good on paper (and even in technical conception. The acting talents are to die for. The director one of the greats of visually intuitive comedy. Here we even have a script from Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.  It all comes to naught if the parts don’t completely mesh.

One idea I would like to court has to do with the point of view of the story. Obviously, Gary Cooper’s our lead, and he’s far from a virtuoso comedic wit. He is a movie star. Still, what is the essence of the story?

Is it about a woman winning her man over under the most absurd circumstances? The Lady Eve did that quite well: Barbara Stanwyck taking in Henry Fonda. But that will never do with Coop (Then, again there is Ball of Fire). He began as our focal point, and he’s the main focus until the end. Even with a straitjacket gag, he gets the final kiss.

Really this should be Colbert’s movie to win over, where we get to cheer her on and relish her amorous conniving. Heaven forbid our leading man be upstaged (Then, again there is Midnight). Instead, Claudette felt like the enemy, a bit annoying, and because Gary’s strung out a laundry list of wives and meets everyone with a scowl and a brusque dismissal, there’s not much to like about him either.

Maybe the film’s take is too modern or my sensibilities not modern enough, but I couldn’t help feeling letdown. I’m not sure if doing a more thorough anatomy of the screenplay will change this, and I’m okay with that. It’s only a shame I don’t like this movie more. I wanted to. At least I know Gary and Claudette won’t hold it against me.

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

Five Graves to Cairo (1943) and The Desert Fox

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For modern audiences especially, the movie’s opening crawl gives us a bit of helpful context. It’s June, 1942.  Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps was pounding the Brits back toward Cairo and the Suez Canal. His notoriety as a tactician and “The Desert Fox” is already spreading. That’s enough on the historical moment.

However, as far as the film is concerned, this was Billy Wilder’s second film behind the camera. Not only is Charles Brackett producing, but he also shared script-writing duties with Wilder, deep into their lucrative, if complicated, collaboration. With the gorgeously perfected cinematography of John Seitz, it’s hard not to consider what was just around the corner. We can almost feel Double Indemnity peeking through. But we’re not quite there yet. There is still space to grow.

Wilder’s opening image is a fine vision: a phantom tank trawling across the sands driven by the dead weight of a corpse. Except, there is one survivor inside the rolling tomb; his name is Corporal John Bramble (Franchot Tone), of the British army. He’s exhausted and terribly disoriented trying to make sense of his curious predicament just as we are.

In the end, the tank gets away without him, leaving the corporal to wander through the desert in a one-person exodus. Plagued by sunstroke, he eventually trades the vast arid emptiness for a ghost town, the former regimental headquarters for the British forces. They have long since left the premises.

One of the only people left in The Empress of Britain Hotel is Farid (Akim Tamiroff), a bumbling wreck of a man, trying to keep his neck and assuage all parties at every turn. The other is Mouche (Anne Baxter), a Frenchwoman in the middle of nowhere, serving as a maid. His cook ran out on him and his only waiter got it in the most recent blitzkrieg.

There’s no time to form a decision about the delusional Brit because just to make things more tenuous German forces roll into town, in preparation for the high command. It’s enough to make any man cave, much less a pile of perpetual nerves, wearing a fez, like Farid.

He obviously acquiesces to their every whim, except giving away their newest guest, currently stowed away behind a counter. He gets by on the skin of his teeth and through the clemency of his newfound benefactors as they vouch for him in his position as their waiter. For the time being, no one can catch them in the lie.

In full transparency, I’m not quite sure what to make of Baxter’s performance — that of an American playing a Frenchwoman, however, I’m rather hesitant to admit she does a fairly spot-on approximation of a Simone Simon or other French contemporaries speaking in English. Truthfully, the whole picture brazenly scrambles all the nationalities, somehow normalizing all the casting. Another American as a Brit. A Russian as an Egyptian, An Austrian as a German, and so on.

Italians come in as well, represented by the boisterous baritone, Fortunio Bonavova, grumbling about the state of affairs for his army. There proves to be a testy relationship even within Axis allies. As always, the Italians feel like the comical little brother in the scenario. If we take the Germans nominally serious — as a kind of threat — the Italians are all but dismissed.

Erich Von Stroheim gives a blood-chilling introduction, back turned completely toward the camera. One thing he doesn’t lack is stage presence, capturing the screen with the entirety of his entrance. While he’s not doing an imitation of the real Rommel, it seems Von Stroheim does us a greater favor by being a version of himself. After all, this is the same hallowed figure who gave us Greed, showed up in Renoir’s Le Grande Illusion, and subsequently Sunset Blvd (1950). He is a worthy enigma in his own right.

The story twirls on a peculiar, if not altogether compelling, coincidence. Bramble takes on the persona of the crippled waiter as a pure survival tactic, only to find out he’s not what he seems. The Germans are the ones who make him realize this, by bringing him into their confidence. They seem in one sense highly rational — at any rate, not utter buffoons — and yet would they have actually been so stupid? We can only conjecture. Regardless, here we are. He’s been given an invaluable if precarious, opportunity.

With an influx of British prisoners, there’s a fear that the jig is finally up. They only need give the word, and he’s done for. Instead, they too play along, realizing their brilliant luck. 20 questions over dinner with The Desert Fox only elicits more riddles when it comes to his plans and unparalleled success.

Even more so than Stalag 17, Wilder’s picture is a small-scale war film. What’s present is a decently solid script by he and Charles Brackett. While it doesn’t always jump off the page, there are frequent lines, giving a stirring reminder of who is penning this story. These are the men behind Double Indemnity.

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It also becomes obvious the battles have been left for others to reenact. At its best, Five Graves to Cairo is about character and with it, cracking the code of Rommel. It might seem like an insignificant victory but the implication for the broader war are made obvious. It’s easy to admit lives are at stake, even as Bramble teeters precariously close to being ousted. Mouche has no allegiance to him or the country that left her countrymen stranded at Dunkirk.

Instead, Wilder uses the bombers overhead as a bit of a tumultuous symphony for what is going down in the bomb cellar. Chiaroscuro is most boldly on display as our hero must flee for his life. If any character is redeemed, it is Mouche, but for the narrative to function, she is also forced to pay the consequences.

The ending is nothing to bat an eye at — certainly no extraordinarily inventive digression — but it suitable enough for its purpose. There’s a bit of satisfaction as Tone returns back to the place he once stumbled into, now victorious. There’s time for a laugh or two, even as a hint of somberness sets in. In the end, a new resolve has been instilled. We’re ready to go out there and do our part. It fits conveniently enough into the contemporary propaganda machine.

It left me thinking, what’s really missing is the trademark Wilder wit, whether trenchant or wholly subversive. Thankfully, there was still ample time for this to come to fruition. There’s certainly no illusions about war smelling like honeysuckle with enough sand, killing, and residual dead to rule that out completely.

But this early in his career, it still feels like Wilder willingly propagates an ongoing idealism about the Allies and America — the country that openly took him in when he needed a place. He would never lose his gratitude, even as he began to subvert convention soon enough. One could contend Wilder started to understand his adopted nation to its core — warts and all — and still managed to love it. This is one of the true marvels of his career.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Love in The Afternoon (1957): The Wilder Touch

220px-Love_in_the_afternoon_(1957)_-_movie_poster.jpgBilly Wilder, more than any screenwriter I’ve ever known, has a knack for voiceover narration. What other novices consider a crutch to feed us information, he uses as an asset to set tone, story, and location, while offsetting the image with the spoken word.

Take the beginning of Love in The Afternoon, for instance. The voice is unmistakable. The place too. The tone, typical Wilder. We are given a tour of the Left Bank, The Right Bank, and in the in-between, where men and women can be seen in the throes of “amour,” as it were.

The presence of Maurice Chevalier is unquestionably a nod to Wilder’s hero Ernst Lubitsch who utilized the dashing Frenchmen in many of his most successful operettas. Now, although graduating to a more mature part, he nevertheless maintains a similar persona. He is suave, charming, and still embroiled in romantic trysts, albeit on the outside looking in, literally — as a highly adept private investigator.

Already in the opening sequence, although this might be the closest Wilder ever got to his idol in content, it becomes obvious their definitive styles could not be more diametrically opposed. “The Lubitsch Touch” was very much trying to put a name to an impeccable sense of visualizing comic situations with a kind of shorthand, provided the audience is in on the joke as well. Not that Lubitsch’s work with screenwriter Samson Raphaelson lacked verbal wit or that the younger filmmaker’s oeuvre lacked visual flair. Far from it.

However, Wilder’s style is predominantly devoted to the written word, imbuing the comic situations with a bite and wittiness, which under other circumstances might be stale. The beauty is one approach is not inherently better than the other and as time has been fairly good to both men, it’s needless to pick favorites (though I do love Wilder).

John McGiver, by all accounts, is in his debut, but he’s got the flustered British husband down, fully intent on finishing off his rival who has stolen away his wife from him. He called on the services of Claude Chavasse (Chevalier), and the man’s almost too successful.

Legendary international playboy extraordinaire Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper) almost ends up shot to bits, if not for Chavasse’s own daughter. His pride and joy, Arianne (Audrey Hepburn), is currently attending a music conservatory, and her father has kept her shielded from his sordid work life. This has hardly kept her from sneaking into his files and being enraptured by the romantic trysts and fairytale romances found within his records.

The cream of the crop is Flannagan who is experienced in the ways of the world and romancing — an attractive existence she can only dream of. It tickles her fancy and so she goes to save him. It’s her good deed, to allow his life to continue as is.

One invaluable component of his seduction is the four-piece ensemble “The Gypsies” and their tune “Fascination” becomes a bit of a code word for the certain je ne sais quoi that happens between two people caught up in passion.

Billy Wilder has an equally astute ability in using music to punctuate his comedy through frenzied strings, featured in everything from Love in The Afternoon to Some Like it Hot and One, Two, Three. If those tactics don’t quite pan out, he inserts a handy bit of Americana like Mickey Mantle’s batting average.

The greatest development in this rom-com occurs when Flannagan finds himself enthralled by the peculiar girl who wound up on his balcony and saved his neck. She is so sensitive, a wisp of a girl, so different than the women he has known before. He also knows very little about her but desires to entertain her along with his other conquests.

Not to be outdone, Ariane strives to play a part worthy of his reputation. She takes on the facade of a femme fatale with rows of lovers of her own to rattle off in her dictaphone for his bemusement — completely turning the tables on him. Truthfully, she couldn’t be more in love with him, but she suspects a man of his reputation is not quick to change his womanizing ways.

Before getting to the goods, it seems necessary to mention the elephant in the room. Gary Cooper was about 56 years old when this picture came out, and Audrey Hepburn was 28. Just looking at the numbers makes one cringe a bit, and the most uncomfortable thing is how it shows up onscreen.

I do adore Audrey Hepburn. She’s so innocently sweet with the same demure eloquence and pristine diction exhibited in every one of her pictures. Crawling around in her elegant attire looking for her lost shoe is as endearing as any moment she has. It makes us appreciate her all the more. Because she is so very lovable.  And Gary Cooper is usually fine — everyone knows him as the 20th-century representation of All-American manhood — but together it does feel a bit stiff and uninspired.

Our star does his best but he was never a romantic comedy lead in the manner Cary Grant was. There you have part of his problem. Because even the two Lubitsch comedies he appeared in — Design for Living and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife — were hardly the preeminent offerings from either man.

In some cases, one plus one does not always add up sufficiently. Although it’s the greats who often transcend such equations to give us something of exponential worth. Unfortunately, Cooper plus Hepburn is fine but never enters any purely magical, uncharted territory. Like she did with Gregory Peck or maybe even Cary Grant. It’s not simply a matter of the uncomfortable age discrepancies. It has to do with out and out compatibility.

There is another major qualm too. Namely the mammoth length of the narrative seemingly dragging leaden in the middle. Because it relies on the chemistry of our leads more than any other element or supporting character, the subsequent weaknesses become all the more evident.

However, you might remember a few years after starring with Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant had one of his first non-romantic rolls playing matchmaker in Walk, Don’t Run. Maybe it’s a thankless job, but without the piece (seen also from Charles Coburn on occasion) you would not have the glue to hold the movie together. Here Maurice Chevalier swoops in lithely again to bring the story to its closure.

He puts the ball in Cooper’s court, to evoke an American sporting metaphor, giving the man his daughter is in love with the license to play with the dramatic irony. Their relationship is only resolved in the last possible moment. In the nick of time, Frank Flannagan saves his reputation — maybe he’s not a bad sort after all — though the final kiss is still a bit disconcerting. (What I wouldn’t give for Jack Lemmon right about now.)

We can concede Love in The Afternoon comes in for a final landing tying everything together along those two lines, with the Parisian passion shrouded by the Wilder malaise and yet supplied a touch of tearful sentimentality. In the end, Ariane and Frank spend a life sentence together of the best sort. If you’ve been in love you know what it’s like. You don’t need this movie to show you.

3.5/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: 1940s Film Noir

In our ongoing series to help budding classic movie fans know where to start, I thought it would be fitting time to offer up 4 movies to try and summarize the film noir movement.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s literally the French word for “black” and it has come to describe mostly American crime films of the 1940s and 50s. Most people are probably familiar with archetypes like detectives in trenchcoats, deadly femme fatales, and brooding voiceover narration setting up flashbacks on dark and stormy nights.

It’s a foolhardy task to give just 4 examples, but we’ve done our very best here by following our gut:

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

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Often considered the origin of film noir, John Huston’s debut picture is the prototype for detective fiction, based on Dashiell Hammett’s pulp gumshoe Sam Spade. It made an icon out of Humphrey Bogart while the rogue gallery filled out by the likes of Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet is truly the stuff dreams are made of.

Double Indemnity (1944)

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Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) is among the preeminent femme fatales. Absolutely bad to the bone and deadly gorgeous. But she needs an accomplice, in this case, Fred MacMurray as the opportunistic insurance peddler Walter Neff. It’s film noir partially domesticated, channeling the sleaze of James M. Cain with a deliciously cynical adaptation by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Sometimes murder smells like honeysuckle.

Laura (1944)

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Laura is film noir at it’s most dream-like and illusory with our title heroine (Gene Tierney) mesmerizing everyone including the hard-nosed detective (Dana Andrews) bent on solving her murder. David Raksin’s score helps weave the magic placed against Otto Preminger’s impeccable mise en scene and a particularly petty ensemble led by Clifton Webb.

Out of The Past (1947)

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This one checks all the boxes. Laconic hero with cigarette and trenchcoat: Robert Mitchum. A beguiling woman of destruction and deceit: Jane Greer. Gloriously stylized cinematography from the master of shadows: Nicholas Musuraca, and all the digressions and double-crosses you might expect with a labyrinthian investigation. What’s more, the past always comes back to haunt you. Film noir is nothing if not fatalistic. 

Worth Watching:

Murder My Sweet, Woman in The Window, Scarlet Street, Mildred Pierce, Detour, The Big Sleep, Leave Her to Heaven, The Killers, Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Nightmare Alley, The Third Man, White Heat, Criss Cross and so, so many more.

 

Review: Stalag 17 (1953)

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I grew up with Hogan’s Heroes reruns on our Magnavox analog television. In fact, at one point it was my favorite show because it had such a colorful cast, it was perennially entertaining and utterly goofy to the extreme. But others have understandably decried the show because they see it finding humor in something that is not very funny. They contend it was making light of the Holocaust and WWII on the whole. Although I do believe this is an oversimplification and I don’t have time to tackle it right now, it’s still an important dialogue to have. I will defer to others for the time being.

The point of discourse I want to take up is Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 because it’s obvious there would be no Hogan’s Heroes without this P.O.W. comedy-drama. The plots, even the characterizations, are eerily similar, close enough to prompt plagiarism lawsuits. But the difference is Hogan functions as pure zaniness carried by the strength of its ensemble where the Germans are utter buffoons. That’s the hallmark of characters like Sergeant Schultz (John Banner) and Kommandant Klink (Werner Klemperer) who are both lovable imbeciles. They will never be allowed victory over Hogan and his allies.

In Wilder’s hands, a P.O.W. camp is silly and light-hearted at times, yes, but it’s also equally dark and cynical. Because what would a Wilder picture be without some pointed comic venom? Two obvious points of reference would have to be the wartime comedy directed by his idol Ernst Lubitsch, To Be or Not to Be (1942), which some would argue employs morbid humor. Then there’s Grande Illusion (1937) starring Erich von Stroheim (featured in Sunset Boulevard) as a prison camp commander who can easily be contrasted with Otto Preminger’s Colonel von Scherberg. In both, you have those evident counterpoints of humor and tragedy exquisitely executed.

Stalag 17′s opening escape attempt of two men is snuffed out by machine gun fire just waiting to mow them down. It’s the definition of unsentimental and it is the first of numerous breakdowns in communication. There is a rat somewhere. There has to be.

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Then, the picture is back to its belly laughs supplied most obviously by Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and his tubby, scruffy buddy Animal (Robert Strauss). They spearhead all of the shenanigans, including a daring attempt to break into the prison camp of Russian women to sneak a peek. You see, Animal’s deeply broken up by his unrequited love for Betty Grable. They bicker with the resident Sergeant Schultz (Sig Ruman), another Hogan’s Heroes precursor, who good-naturedly chortles at all their ribbing. Surely this isn’t anything like how Stalags actually operated?

Wilder’s trademark biting wit is most fully realized in Sefton. For the part he was initially reluctant to take, William Holden donned a crew cut and scruff generally masking his normally dashing features. But this was hardly the aspect making him uneasy about the role.

Sefton is a textbook undesirable. He openly trades with the enemy in an effort to make himself as comfortable as possible. He bets a boatload of cigarettes the two fugitives won’t make it out of the camp and when it proves morbidly correct, he makes a killing.

Likewise, he’s the local wheeler-dealer, maintaining the Stalag 17 rat race turf complete with betting for all the servicemen. His other enterprises include a distillery — a flamethrower of sumptuous potato peel schnapps — and “The Observatory” where all the boys eagerly line up for a tantalizing look at the Russian delousing shack. Conveniently, he’s also the obvious culprit when a stoolie is suspected within their ranks.

It takes all kinds to liven up the joint and make it into a space with real drama to go along with so many lighter notes. We already mentioned Harry and Animal but the Barracks chief is the always reliable Hoffy (Richard Erdman), head of security is Peter Graves, Duke (Neville Brand) is the rough and tumble one who’s not squeamish about having a fist fight. There’s a blond brainiac, the catatonic one, the amputee who uses his spare space to sneak materials in and out of the barracks, and the nasally mailman with a voice to top all voices.

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When a new prisoner named Dunbar (Don Taylor) gets brought in with his copilot (Jay Lawrence), who has a penchant for spot-on impersonations, they receive a hero’s welcome. After all, they helped to sabotage enemy armaments on their way to being captured. But the information leaks continue with their radio being confiscated and Dunbar being called in for questioning, due to his treacherous activities. The SS is coming to take him to Berlin for questioning. If he’s ever going to come out alive the P.O.W.s must make a last ditch effort to try and get him to safety.

Meanwhile, Sefton gets a going over by the whole barracks, which is quickly overshadowed by Christmas in the camp complete with carols, dancing, and parading full of gaiety. It’s meant to lull us into a false sense of security as Sefton is put in his place and things are good again. It all conveniently diverts from something else. Sefton’s not the culprit. Someone else has been communicating with the Germans and tipping them off.

The final confrontation is when the film really puts it all on the line. We find out who the perpetrator is and Sefton’s vindicated in everything, even going out as a kind of hero. Except to the bitter end, he’s never redeemed as a human being. He’s as hard-edged and acerbic as ever and yet to the folks at homes, he’s who will be cast a hero because he did something brave. Holden was uncomfortable with this as much as we are as an audience but Billy Wilder was unflinching and ultimately right in creating this dissonance.

If anything, Stalag 17 as realized by Billy Wilder and his team is a reminder of the harshness and utter absurdity of war. This is how he conceives it — a man who lost his parents to concentration camps and was sent over to his former land to help rebuild it. He probably knew as much as anyone how horrible the Nazi atrocities were but to memorialize every attribute of the Allies as noble would not document the whole truth.

If Sefton’s the poster boy of the war, then we have to take a deep hard look out our ideals and what we stand for. Because, of course, he was the only one not taken in. Everyone else was so quick to accuse him and to see what they wanted to. It’s almost as if a film documenting an aspect of WWII was in the same breathe suggesting what was afoot with the red scare in the rising fury of the Cold War. Heaven forbid a person we don’t like or don’t agree with is not so easy to demonize as “other.”

It’s far too scary to concede they’re probably just like us. They just didn’t have the decency to hide it. Perhaps they’re better because they were not swayed by the clouded judgment of others.

So if I watch Stalag 17 and become turned off by this incongruity between the historical setting, the lightness in tone, and the shock of a generally unsympathetic lead, maybe it says more about my conception of the world than anything wrong with Billy Wilder’s admittedly incisive picture. It’s a scary admission to make but it just might be true.

4.5/5 Stars

National Classic Movie Day Blogathon: 5 Favorite Films of the 1950s

Thank you Classic Film & TV Cafe for hosting this Blogathon!

Though it’s tantamount to utter absurdity to try and whittle all my personal favorites of the decade down to five choices (I might cheat a little), this is part of the fun of such lists, isn’t it? Each one is highly subjective. No two are the same. They change on whims; different today, tomorrow, and the next. But I will do the best to make a go of it.

If anything this is a humble beacon — a twinkling five-sided star — meant to shine a light upon my profound affinity for classic movies on this aptly conceived National Classic Movie Day. For those in need of gateway films, these are just a few I would recommend without deep analysis, solely following my most guttural feelings. Hopefully that is recommendation enough. Let the adulation begin!

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1. Singing In The Rain (1952):

Many classic film enthusiasts weren’t always so. At least, on many occasions, there was a demarcation point where the scales tipped and they became a little more frenzied in their pursuits. For someone like me, I didn’t always watch many movies. However, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds were household names even from my earliest recollections.

Singin’ in the rain with the giddy abandon of Don and bringing down the house with gags like Cosmo were childhood aspirations. Kathy, the young hopeful, aspired for big dreams, not unlike my own. They were idols because they made life and the movies — even song and dance — so very euphoric. It took me many years to know this was a part of a musical cottage industry or who Cyd Charisse was (because we’d always fast-forward through that risque interlude). Regardless of anything else, the film effects me in the most revelatory way. You can barely put words to it. You need simply to experience it firsthand.

After seeing it so many times it becomes comforting to return again and again. What’s even better is how the magic never dies. We lost Stanley Donen this year but this extraordinary piece of entertainment will live on for generations to come.

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2. Roman Holiday (1953)

I distinctly remember the first time I ever saw Roman Holiday. It was on an international flight to England. I was young and ignorant with not the slightest idea who Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck were. You can determine whether or not I was living under a rock or not. However, what did happen is a young kid was decisively swept off his feet by a film. Those were before the days I gave even a moderate consideration of directors like William Wyler, much less debated or bandied about terms like auteur.

What does become so evident is the chemistry between our stars, hardly manufactured, even as the setting, placed in living, breathing Rome, imbues a certain authentic vitality of its own. Vespa rides are exhilarating. The sites are still ones I want to see and haven’t. And of course, I’ve only grown in my esteem of both Audrey and Mr. Peck as I’ve gotten older.

It’s crazy to imagine my only point of reference for such a picture was Eddie Albert (having been bred on more than a few episodes of Green Acres). Any way you slice it, this is, in my book, the quintessential romantic comedy because it is part fairy tale and it comes with all the necessary trimmings, while still planting itself in the real world. I always exit the halls of the palace feeling rejuvenated. Each time it’s like experiencing wonderful memories anew.

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3. Rear Window (1954)

It’s a weighty task to even begin considering your favorite film but to make it easier on myself whenever the inevitable question is dropped in my lap, I’m quick to reply: Rear Window. The answer is actually quite an easy one. Alfred Hitchcock is as good a reason as any. Add James Stewart and Grace Kelly and you’ve entered the gold standard of movie talent. They don’t come more iconic.

The Master of Suspense’s chilling thriller was another fairly early viewing experience with me and it immediately left an impression. Again, it’s another example of how appreciation can mature over time. Thelma Ritter is always a favorite. The use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound throughout the picture accentuates this artificial but nevertheless meticulous sense of authenticity.

How Hitchcock utilizes the fragments of music and the supporting characters in the courtyard to comment on these secondary themes of romantic love playing against the central mystery is superb. It’s a perfect coalescing of so much quality in one compelling cinematic endeavor. Even down to how the opening and final scenes are cut perfectly, introducing the story and encapsulating the progression of character from beginning to end. It is pure visual cinema.

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4. 12 Angry Men (1957)

I care deeply about interpersonal relationships and as movies have become more a part of my life it has become increasingly more important for them to hold a microscope to how we interact with one another in the world at hand. For me, there are very few films that channel real human relationships in a meaningful way as effectively as Sidney Lumet’s debut 12 Angry Men. Like Rear Window, it is developed in limiting environs and yet rather than such constraints leading to the stagnation of a story, it only serves to ratchet the tension.

Because the ensemble is an impeccable range of stars spearheaded by Henry Fonda and balanced out by a wide array of talent including a pair of friends from my classic sitcom days John Fiedler (The Bob Newhart Show) and Jack Klugman (The Odd Couple). However, all of this is only important because the story has actual consequence. Here we have 12 men battling over the verdict on a young man’s life.

But as any conflict has the habit of doing, it brings out all the prejudices, inconsistencies, and blind spots uncovered and aggravated when people from varying points of views are thrust in a room together. it’s an enlightening and ultimately humbling experience for me every time because it challenges me to actively listen to where others are coming from and empathize with their point of view so we can dialogue on a sincere level. It’s also simultaneously a sobering analysis of the gravity of the American justice system.

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5. Some Like it Hot (1959)

I most recently saw Some Like it Hot as part of a retrospective across the globe from where I usually call home. But what a wonderful viewing experience it was. Again, it’s akin to getting back together with old friends. I personally love Jack Lemmon to death and paired with Tony Curtis and the incomparable Marilyn Monroe, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more hair-brained, raucous comedy coming out of Hollywood.

Billy Wilder is certainly one reason for this and I’ve always come to admire his ability for screwball and often mordant wit. There is arguably no higher watermark than Some Like it Hot and the script is wall-to-wall with hilarious gags and scenarios. Like all the great ones, you wait for a favorite line with expectancy only to be ambushed by another zinger you never found time to catch before.

But there is also a personal element to the picture. Many might know the Hotel Del Coronado in sunny San Diego filled in for the Florida coast and having spent many a lovely day on those very shores, I cannot help but get nostalgic. Not only was this film indicative of a different time — the jazz age by way of the 1950s — it also suggests a very different juncture in my own life. While I cannot have the time back I can look on those memories fondly just as I do with this film…

So there you have it. I gave it my best shot pulling from personal preference and the idealistic leanings of my heart of hearts. I hope you enjoyed my Top 5 from The ’50s!

But wait…


james shigeta and victoria shaw embracing in the crimson kimono

Honorary Inclusion: The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Full disclosure. I know this is cheating but I take any occasion I possibly can to promote Sam Fuller‘s gritty Little Tokyo police procedural. For me, it deserves a special acknowledgment. As a Japanese-American and coming from a multicultural background myself, it was a groundbreaking discovery and an unassuming film with a richness proving very resonant over the recent years. It blends elements so very near and dear to me. Namely, film noir and my own heritage — all wrapped up into one wonderful B-film package. Please give it a watch!

THE END