The Eagle and The Hawk (1933): March The WWI Flying Ace

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There are two elements in the opening of The Eagle and The Hawk that might catch some viewers off guard. First, is the matter of a plane landing upside down. Second, being the fact the pilot is an uncharacteristically abrasive Cary Grant. He’s still playing support to our true lead Fredric March.

It’s alright to admit the shoe never quite fits and, thankfully, Grant was not forever relegated to such unseemingly roles again (well, there is Suspicion or Notorious). Regardless, in this WWI picture, a group of American aviators ship out from London to give their British allies a lift in France.

New forms of technology like aeroplanes still feel a bit rudimentary, yet to be time-tested, and therefore they carry with them a bit more danger. They must take recon photos flying close to the ground and often engage the enemy in aerial combat. The footage of the dogfights is lively if equally rudimentary.

It’s Grant’s Lt. Crocker who has aspirations to be a pilot, not an observer — the less glamorous posts going to those who take pictures and gun. Cary’s got a chip on his shoulder, and it’s turned him sour. Jack Oakie is the complete opposite — chipper, well-liked by all, and conveniently supplying comic relief.

However, it is the final star, the leading man, Fredric March who stands head and shoulders above the rest, at least on this occasion. He goes through a startling transformation over time. He soon learns the hard lesson. For every two kills of a jubilant Jerry Young (March), there’s the searing reality of a comrade dead.

We are instantly reminded war never allows a man to rest on his laurels before inundating them with the sheer callousness of such a conflict. It shows no favoritism. Officers or enlisted men alike. Doughboys or flyboys. It makes no difference. Everyone is susceptible.

In a matter of minutes, the weight of war is made obvious. It happens between a letter written to a dead man’s spouse and a blackboard with names constantly being erased and added.  Beyond being indiscriminate, war also waits for no man.

As time progresses, the dogfight sequences maintain quite the impressive pace for their day and age. The sequences use the resources at their disposable and varied shots to develop something fairly immersive beyond mere back-projection fillers.

Finally getting his first go, Grant shoots down an unarmed parachuter with great relish, his first day on the job, only to kill the mood after hours. They say he’s a “dirty deuce,” but perhaps he’s the only realist around. He treats it like war. They treat it like an exhibition in some contrived form of chivalry.

There are rules to war and gentleman’s agreements to be abided by on one side and then the “killed or be killed” mentality of Grant. And yet even as March remains one of the righteous ones, he starts medicating with alcohol to get over what he’s been privy to.

Soon he can’t get over the insanity or reconcile with the consequences set before them. They are bestowed medals by the French military with the rain pouring down — it’s a wet affair — and he’s still soused. 

A new batch of fresh-faced youngsters come to replace those who have already expired. He’s enlisted to speak to the new recruits, sharing a message for the sake of moral, though it’s evident he barely believes what he’s spewing. Because some of them will die before even getting to the front. What’s the purpose of it all? So the folks back home might cling to some misguided patriotic fervor?

The night terrors begin — Jerry’s mind now filled with burning, blood, and snipers at night. A change of scenery is suggested and so he’s given leave.  But in the households, the conversations are boorish and needlessly taken with the romanticism of war and glory.

Here are people drunk on the same wine. Men laugh about the enemy going down in flames. Curious young boys ask questions about what it’s like to meet the enemy with hopes to be up there one day. No one seems to understand, and how can they. They haven’t been there.

Watching from a distance, there is at last one pair of perceptive eyes. They belong, of course, to Carole Lombard. She slides her way into Jerry’s cab as he tries to leave the idle chatter behind. Instead, they find a quiet park, out of the way, to share some champagne and engage in genuine conversation.

She has only a momentary part — it really is a glorified cameo if we should call it that — and this is a movie that’s already so succinct. Still, it’s a memorable spot, and she offers a sympathetic countenance in a world all but lacking such consideration. It makes her all the more attractive.

Still, Jerry must go back to the lines and maintain the burden of being a shining example for others. After all, he is the fitting emblem of what a military hero should be. Fearless in the face of the enemy. All but indestructible with a stirling flying record.

However, we become jaded with the same persistent cynicism of Jerry pulling him from the airs above back into the parties and routines down below at the base. He can’t even manage to muster any kind of good-natured sentiment in such a jocund company.

All he sees are the chunks of flesh and bone on his chest in the form of medals. And all he can think about are the boys who have died either by his hands or at the hands of others. He’s gotten his medals, gained hero status and adulation from his peers, for killing kids. What’s worse, few seem to acknowledge him, going on their merry way. Surely he’s merely drunk. He’ll get over it in the morning. Except he doesn’t.

The film’s ending is a brutal shock to the system, but it settles into an honorable arc. If anyone was worried, Cary Grant is redeemed in the final moments preparing to soar off toward bigger and better successes.

What I’m most impressed with is how The Eagle and The Hawk does such a phenomenal job distilling some of the most pressing themes of war in its harshest and most bitter realities in such a meager allotment of time. It’s like All Quiet on the Western Front lite, and I mean this as the most sincere of compliments. It adeptly hones in on the essential elements of the prior film as another stark, unfaltering statement exploring human conflict on this seismic scale.

It comes not through heedless idealism but a sobering, unblinking examination of what war really is. Any pretense is stripped away in a matter of minutes while March gives one of the most piercing performances, arguably, of his entire career. If you haven’t already, go seek it out. My hope is that you’ll be glad you did.

4/5 Stars

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932): Directed by Dorothy Arzner

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Bubbly is flowing and the gaiety abounds. Alcohol is not an evil, just a tonic to loosen morals, tongues, and dour countenances. When Joan Prentice encounters Jerry Corbett for the first time at a party, she’s immediately taken with him. He’s a few drinks in and has let the merriment overtake him. It comes off charming if a bit dopey.

Merrily We Go to Hell feels like a provocative title, and it’s true this alcohol-drenched drama is a predecessor to the likes of The Lost Weekend and Days of Wine and Roses.

Sylvia Sidney is about as winsomely sweet as she ever was and ever could be playing a socialite at a party. Frederic March has momentary glimpses of warmth and allure, though it’s hardly his finest hour on the screen. However, it is a testament to how phenomenal his career was at points, and even a picture like this seems to suggest how often he is an underappreciated star of Classic Holldywood.

There’s also a third far more surprising presence in the movie filling what might be considered a minor bit part. Cary Grant is all there, but it’s a bit like seeing John Wayne in Baby Face or James Stewart in Wife vs. Secretary. We’re there but not quite there when it comes to their career trajectory. He still needed to meet Mae West and then Leo McCarey to really get the wheels rolling, thus entering the stratosphere of quintessential screwball suavity.

As it settles in, Dorothy Arzner’s picture is all for hitting the journalistic beats contemporary to the day and age. It’s a perfect arena for modern, capitalistic America. An arena of vocation, class, and in this case, alcohol. One easily recalls Platinum Blonde though March, despite all his able acting prowess somehow cannot muster the same fitting charisma Robert Williams managed as a newshound. The former performer lent almost a screwball sensibility to Frank Capra’s picture.

It’s the same kind of affable charm that made Jack Lemmon so effective even as he dipped into similar depths of hell in Days of Wine and Roses. But back to Platinum Blonde. It’s hard not to see the earlier movie’s imprint being reworked within this material (even unconsciously) with less handsome results. Because some of the same dynamics are present. We have a lead infatuated by a platinum blonde (Adrienne Allen) and then opposite him is the endearing “other girl” we know full well will actually win out his heart. At least, in theory.

And if that isn’t enough, both newsmen dabble in playwriting, suggesting the menial pavement-pounding, all for the sake of making a buck, giving way to a higher calling of art and patronage. It handily reflects rungs in the social ladder to mirror contemporary society, as the film’s of the Depression-era all have a habit of doing. Obviously, they can’t help it. This is their world.

However, in Merrily We Go To Hell, playwriting holds a more substantial role aside from being a narrative device for the sake of parallelism. It brings Jerry Corbett the highs and lows of such a career while throwing him back together with his former flame, the glamorous thespian Claire Hempstead. The scenario feels rudimentary and mediocre going through these typical dramatic progressions.

Before it becomes complicated, the film is a basic love story of the lowly working stiff smitten with the heiress, although not for money’s sake. As it predictably dips into drunken stupors, strained relations, and infidelity, the film actually loses some ground. Corbett rounds up his chums, partakes of some merriment, and resigns himself to the platinum blonde rival. In an act of preservation more than rebellion, his wife deflects by digging up her own beau (hence Cary Grant) in an attempt to be equally “modern.”

What resonates most fundamentally are some of the more curious shot selections by Arzner. She certainly manipulates the camera and the images in such a way we are aware of them as an audience, whether through early forms of product placement or a curious rear-view of two men sauntering through a mansion. It feels sporadically alive with invention and a very particular vision, even as it spirals toward an unimaginative soap opera denouement. The accompanying  Pre-Code elements are there, but the picture doesn’t entirely douse itself and drown in the melodrama.

This proves to be a key because any such digression could have been its final death. Instead, the sense of restraint and understatement proves a far more powerful tool of storytelling. It subtly undermines stock Pre-Code sordidness for something nominally more intriguing. This nor the actors, totally save the movie, but they keep it from completely sinking. More people are finally starting to talk about Arzner, and Merry We Go to Hell feels like a worthy touchstone in her career.

3/5 Stars

Topper (1937): Cary Grant’s a Ghost

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We know what kind of movie we’re in for upon meeting Cary Grant, whistling a merry tune, as he drives his fancy wheels with his feet. His wife — a quizzical platinum blonde played to perfection by Constance Bennett — stares up at him in amusement. They are a picture of fun-loving decadence out of The Nick and Nora Charles mode.

Understandably, they are the main draw in Norman Z. McLeod’s corkscrew fantasy comedy but like its distant relative, The Thin Man, someone else’s name actually garners the title. In this particular instance, it is Mr. Topper (Roland Young), a highly successful businessman who is, nevertheless, enslaved by his rigid regimen, and it’s not of his own accord. His stifling spouse has cultivated his humdrum life like clockwork to her own liking. We don’t envy the man, hustled and harried as he is every day, with his breakfasts and innumerable sensibly scheduled appointments.

You quite forget Billie Burke can be insufferable in a different manner as the quietly exacting wife, giving the impression of a woman constantly on the verge of indignance, her voice teetering on the edge of fragility. I hardly believe myself saying this, but I like her at her more titteringly giddy spectrum. At least she’s allowed to be sympathetic; bubble-headed but sympathetic. If the point hasn’t been made apparent already, this enforced tedium is the baseline of the cinematic world needing to be spiced up by the Kerbies and their happy-go-lucky prodigality.

If we can hone in on a turning point, Topper really hits its stride in death — the death of Mr. and Mrs. Kirby, that is. Because as is the habit in the fantasy mills of Old Hollywood, our couple dies only to come back as ghostly versions of themselves, appearing and reappearing as easily as a snap of the figure.

They pull themselves away from the wreckage of their automobile and have their first out of body experience. Played straight, it would seem ghastly, but they are as gay and chipper as ever, nonchalantly debating how they’ll get through the pearly gates. Everything they did (or didn’t) learn in Sunday school says they need to do some good deeds. Regrettably, they’ve been living on the high horse for too long; they haven’t actually gotten around to the greatest commandment: loving their neighbors.

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Their pet project is “Toppy,” and he’s in need of vivification. His one act of rebellion against his wife is purchasing George Kirby’s old automobile. This is the foot in the door after he gets into a near-death fender bender of his own. It leads to his first out of body reunion with his old friends.

The movie effectively utilizes old-fashioned special effects dating back to the days of George Melies, making it effortless for Toppy’s two guardian socialites to drop in and out of his visual field. As an invisible Mr. Kirby makes himself useful changing the tire, Toppy is teased by the lady Kirby as she blows on a blade of grass like a giddy schoolgirl. It’s our first chance to play with the logic, the fact only the audience and Toppy are availed of seeing the deceased.

Because what’s really a treat are the ghosts and the ghosted. The ones who are oblivious to the somewhat explainable supernatural acts around them. We get similar moments in Here Comes Mr. Jordan and even It’s a Wonderful Life when the concrete and ethereal collide in a most comical fashion.

Roland Young does an admirable job in the part, and he’s on par with any number of the comparable characters of the day and age whether a Charlie Ruggles or Leo G. Carroll, though slightly less well-remembered for whatever reason. He finally has some pizzazz injected into his every day as the Kirby’s indulge his budding interests in wine, dancing, and song. He’s hardly a party animal, still, he gives it a go.

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It leads to a brawl in front of a restaurant that they must bail him out of and then a handful encounters with a hoodwinked doorman. At best, Mr. Topper is the hapless figure caught in the spectral screwball chaos with the Kirbys pulling all the strings for him. Unfortunately, the storyline becomes too stagnant without the constant presence of Grant and Bennett, visually or otherwise.

Toppy finds a new standard of living and comes to reconcile with his wife. These are wonderful things, mind you, but it feels like the movie itself has compromised and gone away from what really makes it zing — that is the screwball antics of its true leading couple. Without them, it feels insipid and frankly trite, arriving at its unequivocally saccharine ending.

He is the one playing it straight, in a boring perfunctory manner because this is what is requested of him. But there are a handful of quality character moments of note. Certainly, a befuddled house detective played by Eugene Palette is always good for a lark. Alan Mowbray is his typical snooty Jeeves-like valet and even Hoagy Carmichael shows up (in his screen debut) to knock back a tune on the honky-tonk with Cary and Constance.

I couldn’t help thinking, I wish our two dazzling leads had partnered in another rom-com. After all, Powell and Loy got together for over 12 offerings. Alas, it was not meant to be. It makes Topper even more crucial in charting the rise of the Cary Grant we would come to know and also an oft-forgotten starlet in Constance Bennett.

3/5 Stars

Operation Petticoat (1959): Blake Edward’s Cheeky Service Sit-Com

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“On a sub you have to operate in close quarters.”

Operation Petticoat positions itself as an easy film to enjoy and a difficult one to love. It’s true Blake Edwards was capable of stirring up breezy even wacky entertainment, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to The Pink Panther to The Great Race. Even this is only acknowledging a very small subset of his filmography without consideration of the several exemplary dramas he directed.

He was usually aided by fine casts, who could carry the material smartly, and it’s little different here. Cary Grant was hardly ever ruffled nor stretched in his later career, and Operation Petticoat could hardly be considered more than a lark for him. He plays his quietly bemused self — this time a submarine Lt. Commander, who must make the most of a wonky situation following the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

For his part, Tony Curtis is all but at ease as the wheeler-dealer with a touch of sleazy class. Let’s just say he’s got an affinity for the finer things in life and the ladies who can give it to him. It’s generally a delight to see Cary Grant return to a sub after Destination Tokyo, this time joined by Curtis, who looks to be relishing going toe-to-toe and rustling the feathers of his boyhood idol.

Forgiving the shameless pun, without its two stars, the movie would be sunk by mediocrity. If we want to give a slightly backhanded compliment, Operation Petticoat is a fitting precursor to some of the popular sitcoms of the ’60s.

Helping the argument are the presence of Gavin MacLeod, Marian Ross, and Dick Sargent representing, of all things, McHale’s Navy, Happy Days, and Bewitched. And of course, although it transposed the action of a submarine crew to a rural locale, one cannot forget Petticoat Junction.

Like McHale’s Navy, it would be all but impossible to pull off the wartime comedy set in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor if we hadn’t at least won the war. This gives freedom for some creative license and a bit of zaniness sprinkled in with the typical military fare. One must only remember one gag recycled in the TV show, namely, sinking a truck with a torpedo.

Before they can even get afloat, they have to put their belching sub back into working order. The man up for the task is their latest addition Lt. Holden. Though the commander doesn’t relish the idea, he turns the other way and lets his junkman get to work pilfering everything he can get his grubby hands on. He’s able to do what no one else could, securing all the parts (by dubious means) to get them back in commission.

If we want to point out the film’s flaws, it takes about an hour to really churn up some steam by entering the waters of a 50s era rom-com afloat in awkward waters. Because once they get past the fear that the Sea Tiger will fall apart around them, they find their newest conundrum. They are being tasked with accommodating a batch of stranded nurses. It just isn’t done. It isn’t decent. And yet somehow in this film it happens and, subsequently, becomes the source for most of the comedy.

Quite mysteriously, all the shipmen aboard fall ill and need medical attention from the nursing staff. Their commanding officer all but scares them back to perfect health. Holden is all but smitten by bodacious blonde, Dina Merrill, who has the ill-fortune for always falling in love with Mr. Wrong. He’s not exactly the prototypical image of the upstanding, clean-cut boy next door.

Major Heywood (Virginia Gregg) strikes up a boiler room romance with the local fix-it man (Arthur O’Connell) because she proves just as resourceful as he is. He’s forced to mince every small-minded word he ever said about women and washing in his workspace. Commander Sherman is hardly on the lookout for such flings, simply trying to navigate their highly irregular and awkward situation and the perpetual clumsiness of Nurse Crandall (Joan O’Brien).

Between designated shower times for the ladies, the sharing of pajamas between co-eds, and allowing for Lt. Crandall’s curvaceous figure in the tight quarters of the submarine, he gets more than he bargained for, all played for wry comic effect, of course. It’s these later interludes milking the sheer awkwardness that exhibit touches of redolence on par with Pillow Talk or any such brethren. It’s a reason to miss the films of old. Cheeky and more brazen than expected, but mostly good-natured, especially compared to the hypersexualized culture we now live in.

operation petticoat 2.pngVarious scenarios spring to mind of farcical hijinks worthy of McHale’s band of Eight Balls. Prime examples are Holden setting up a supply depot casino to wrangle parts and even resorting to pig-napping to augment their New Year’s festivities. Seaman Hornsby causes quite the stir and in order to hold onto the plump porker, Commander Sherman generously opens up his subordinate’s quarters so a disgruntled native can raid them in recompense. He comes away with a golf bag, tennis rackets, and all the doodads you can imagine.

In another stroke of brilliance, some Einstein has the foresight to mix white paint with the red so they have enough for a new coat. For any of those who passed preschool, that makes — not gray — but pink. When they’re not picking up more passengers and wayward goats, babies are being born in the makeshift ward.

 The most cringe-worthy moment comes when they get caught in the crosshairs of a friendly battleship looking to sink the unidentified, highly irregular submarine. As one last resort, they signal their allies with a trail of women’s undergarments. Surely the Japanese would not resort to the same tactics. 

The resolution to the story is fit for the crowd-pleasing, sunshiny rom-com we’ve been offered. Cary and Tony say a cheering goodbye to their old friend The Sea Tiger, and we get some novel if unsurprising exposition about their love lives. In case you didn’t guess as much, a movie about a pink co-ed submarine is not going to push your brain or the envelope. For the generous viewer, it’s intermittently mirthful and relatively harmless amusement not to be taken too seriously.

3/5 Stars

Destination Tokyo (1943) and There’s No Place Like Home

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“This is sort of a blind date. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.” – Cary Grant as Captain Cassidy

No pretense can be made to suggest Destination Tokyo functions as an original entry of a “men on a mission movie” from a couple decades later. For one thing, Cary Grant doesn’t strike one as the soldiering type. He’s not Lee Marvin or Charles Bronson.

However, it must have worked on at least one kid. Years later Tony Curtis would recount how he saw the picture in theaters and the images of Grant looking through the periscope inspired him to enlist (and maybe become an actor).

He ultimately realized both aspirations — even starring with his hero in the Blake Edward’s comedy Operation Petticoat, which ironically, is set aboard a submarine! In Destination Tokyo, Grant is more business but an amiable skipper nonetheless, with a family waiting for him back home. Still, he’s more than prepared to face the task at hand.

Although they are not much of a secret, thanks to the built-in spoiler in the title, Captain Cassady (Grant) waits the designated 24 hours into their excursion before opening their orders. Obviously, they’re headed to Tokyo. They are also required to pick up a package en route: a meteorologist named Raymond (John Ridgely).

What the film does well is creating an ecosystem for characters to be empathized with because once we have the framework of the task at hand, we can readily spend our time getting to know the men onboard.

There always must be the callow recruit and this story is no different with Tommy Adams (Robert Hutton) stepping into the role. Meanwhile, John Garfield has a fine time hamming it up as the spirited Wolf enthralling the stir-crazy crew with his exploits with the fairer sex. His active imagination fuels their own hopes and dreams about sweethearts all across the sea, whether they exist or not.

Dane Clark readily complies to the rank and file with his own average G.I. Joe, “Tin Can,” an equally spirited Greek-American intent on getting his chance to make the “Japs” pay. Alan Hale, always counted on for comic relief, is little different here as the bubbly chef Cookie doing his best not to clang pans when they’re diving deep to evade the enemy.

Otherwise, he’s a handy fill in for Santa Claus for a Christmas spent 20,000 leagues under the sea, metaphorically speaking, of course. For someone like Adams, this is his first Christmas away from his family and the accordion accompanied quartet singing out “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and a few other yuletide favorites is a much-appreciated touch of home.

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The crew begins to truly feel the weight of circumstance when a pair of Japanese zeroes come upon them on the seas. They let ’em have it with their anti-aircraft deck guns firing into the sky.

One curious stylistic choice is to actually show the enemy pilots raining hell down on them. It hardly feels like an empathetic turn, however, and more of an easy way to label them. If you see someone like this, know they’re the ones doing injustices against us. We’ve got to stick it to them whatever the cost. It becomes more blatantly clear only minutes later. They’re backstabbers.

In a film with an understandable but generally misguided sense of Japanese culture, it does become an intriguing task to begin to unwrap the ideologies being promoted. One cannot quickly forget this is propaganda meant to mobilize mom, dad, and everyone else back at home.  It makes it easier to comprehend how ignorance and general misconceptions can be so widely propagated.

Delmer Daves would soon become well-versed in these kinds of wartime tales from The Very Thought of You to Hollywood Canteen and The Pride of The Marines. One can note actors like John Garfield, Dane Clark, and John Ridgely readily being recycled throughout. However, to its credit, instead of merely painting all Japanese people as terrors, it frames them as victims of a broken system of government.

The token metaphor alighted on are roller skates — those vehicles of carefree child-like recreation — we need more rollerskates in this world including the next generation of Japanese kids. Because it’s a far better alternative than more international conflict.

In the most harrowing interludes, the crew of the USS Copperfin surreptitiously sneak into the minefield of Tokyo Bay under the cloak of an oblivious enemy cruiser. They squeak past the enemy netting and hold their breath as they move into the heart of enemy terrain. Their covert mission continues with three men, including Wolf, going ashore to undertake reconnaissance. It feels somewhat eery for the very reasons two years later nearby locales would be absolutely obliterated by Big Boy and Fat Man.

The balance of the human drama with wartime objectives remains the film’s greatest strength. It’s not all pulse-pounding action necessarily, but it maintains interest through the investment in its characters over the long haul.

An unexpected complication involves an impromptu appendicitis operation. A former pharmacist student, not formally trained as a surgeon, is given the unpleasant task of removing the burst organ based on the written procedures in a textbook. Meanwhile, on land, Tokyo Rose jeers the Allies only for our protagonists to send vital weather reports over the radio to waiting Allied receivers. This entire operation is purportedly under the nose of oblivious Japanese operatives.

The most laughable reaction comes from an incredulous Garfield, “If the Japs pick it up, they’ll think it’s one of their own guys.” He didn’t take into account how stifled John Ridgely’s pronunciation sounds. My Japanese is abysmal, but it doesn’t take a linguistic genius to know he’s probably never spoken a lick of Japanese in his life. But I digress.

The return trip is fraught with bombardment from above as the Japanese get wise and in the ensuing pursuit, the sub gets hammered. The situation is dire with the interior leaking and filling up with water. It’s all hands on deck just to bail them out.

However, when the proverbial fog clears, miraculously, they’ve got off scot-free. The next prominent landmark they see is the Golden Gate Bridge, and it triggers all their fluffy feelings of Americana. After being in foreign waters, the relief of being back home in the good ol’ U.S.A is too great to pass up. As an American who has lived for an extensive period of time in Tokyo, somehow I can relate, though for very different reasons. There’s no place like home.

3.5/5 Stars

Classic Hollywood Baseball Movies

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Given its hallowed place as American’s original national pastime, I thought it would be worthwhile to share some of the best baseball movies classic Hollywood ever offered during its heyday.

I’m not sure if the industry ever made a baseball masterpiece during the Golden Age, but it did highlight some of the great talents of the era both on the field and in front of the camera.

If nothing else, they play a bit like comfort food, between fairy tale romances and warm humor, highlighting men who overcame obstacles to become world-class talents in the Major Leagues.

Pride of the Yankees (1942)

Here is, arguably, the standard-bearer of all baseball movies of a similar ilk. Gary Cooper stars as another famed All-American superstar, Lou Gehrig. Teresa Wright costars as his loving wife Eleanor. The Iron Horse became one of the most formidable ballplayers ever, despite being overshadowed by Babe Ruth. His final days, stricken with ALS, remain a stirring tragedy to this day. There’s hardly a dry eye as he “considers himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth” only to walk off the field for good.

It Happens Every Spring (1949)

This unabashed comedy relies on a crackling premise: a university professor comes upon a curious new formula in his laboratory. No, it’s not flubber but methylethylpropylbutyl. It’s most noteworthy trait is its repellence of wood! Soon the bookish baseball fan is touting his pitching abilities and goes from a nobody to carrying his ball club toward the pennant. Ray Milland stars alongside Jean Peters and Paul Douglas.

The Stratton Story (1949)

Here is a picture certainly in the mold of Pride of The Yankees. This time it’s James Stewart playing Monty Stratton with June Alyson as his crush and future wife. Although Stratton is hardly as well-remembered today, the heart of the romantic drama involves his rehabilitation after he undergoes an amputation. Through grit and determination (and the support of his wife), he made a comeback from his injury to pitch another day.

Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949)

Although it has much more in common with the other MGM musicals of the day, between Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra on the ball field (making up a Tinker to Evers to Chance combo with Jules Munshin), and Esther Williams, it’s hard not to enjoy this bright and cheery Technicolor singalong. The shakeup of new female ownership is a good excuse for sparks to fly and quality entertainment to abound courtesy of Busby Berkeley and Arthur Freed.

The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)

There are not necessarily a lot of dramatic thrills to this feature adaptation of Jackie Robinson’s life, but unlike all these other movies, there’s something distinctly special about Jackie portraying himself. With Ruby Dee as his steadfast wife Rachael, we watch Jackie as he is signed by Branch Rickey and rises up the ranks to break the color barrier in baseball, becoming a stalwart of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ team even as he faces an onslaught of prejudice and intimidation. He’s the definition of a sports hero.

Angels in the Outfield (1951)

It plays as a slight and fluffy fantasy story with a demonstrative big league manager (Paul Douglas) receiving some angelic intervention only if he agrees straightens up his act. He goes from being universally reviled by the world to a newsworthy curio. As he starts to change, the team’s fortunes pick up, and romance flowers between him and Janet Leigh. There’s not too much more to it. Donna Corcoran gives an adorable portrayal of a young girl who can see the angels.

The Pride of St. Louis (1953)

The arguments for making a movie about the life of Dizzy Dean seem somewhat slim. Granted, he was a thoroughly colorful figure, born in the backwoods of the Ozarks only to become one of the big leagues preeminent pitchers along with his brother Paul. Dan Dailey and Joanne Dru form a chemistry of contrasts, as Dizzy learns what it is to love someone else and have his will crossed. It’s hardly on par with Gehrig’s or even Stratton’s career trajectory, at least in purely Hollywood terms, but it’s an agreeable story from top to bottom.

Fear Strikes Out (1957)

Here is a baseball biopic that takes the conventional formula while slotting in a younger star in Anthony Perkins to portray up-and-coming outfielder Jimmy Piersall. Far from having his career behind him, it was very much a current event highlighting the ballplayer’s battle with mental health problems, in this case, bipolar disorder (although it was not described as such initially). The two crucial relationships in his life are with his overbearing father (Karl Malden) and his wife (Norma Moore).

Bonus: That Touch of Mink (1962)

While it’s not explicitly a baseball movie, this New York Rom-Com has one of the great baseball cameos with Cary Grant and Doris Day joining the Yankees’ dugout only to see their famed trifecta of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Yogi Berra all unceremoniously tossed from the game by the agitated umpire. Although it’s hardly as enjoyable, Jerry Lewis’s Geisha Boy similarly features cameos from some of the LA Dodgers’ ballplayers from 1958 for the west coast aficionados.

In Name Only (1939): Carole & Cary

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If you know very little about In Name Only and only see the two acting forces who lead the charge: Cary Grant and Carole Lombard, you would come to expect a comedy on almost any given occasion. Oddly enough, this movie is very much a melodrama, though our two stars have fine chemistry and meet in what very well could have been the beginnings of a fine screwball romance under different circumstances.

Julie Eden (Lombard) is doing her best to fly fish, but the overhanging trees are trying even harder to impede her progress. The typical scowling Lombard stanky eye is hard at work, while another familiar face wonders into view from on horseback — only to have her line snag on the tree right near him. He eyes it wryly.

A moment later Alec Walker (Grant) introduces himself as she sheepishly continues — this was all perfectly normal and she meant to do everything — only for him to tell her there hasn’t been any fish in the pond for 20 years. They are one pratfall away from screwball comic proportions, and yet they chart an alternative course.

She has a young daughter. Her husband has died and so she gets by on her own. And Alec, while it’s easy enough to surmise he’s yet another happy-go-lucky Cary Grant playboy, not so fast with your judgments.

He wanders back to a family estate, uncomfortable in the rooms, dodging the needling questions of his concerned father (Charles Coburn), and avoiding the gaze of his perfectly upstanding wife (Kay Francis)…That’s it, isn’t it? He’s already married and these first impressions suggest, unhappily so.

Ironically, divorce proves a crucial element of the plot on this occasion like its counterparts within the subset of “Comedy of Remarriage,” most of which came into being solely because of the rigid structure of the Production Codes. The fact divorce is uttered at all — beyond simply a euphemistic trip to Reno — is, in itself, slightly novel.

If one is to find fault with In Name Only, in retrospect, the plot feels akin to putting such talented actors as Grant and Irene Dunne in a drama like Penny Serenade when you already had them together in such an uproarious movie like The Awful Truth.

In other words, despite the quality of the movie,  it’s a minor letdown because, in this case, we don’t even have another hilarious pairing of the two heavyweights to fall back on (although they were paired in two earlier dramas).

Regardless, we must take it for what it is and enjoy what does work. To dispel any fears, In Name Only isn’t primarily a sudser — at least not in the beginning. In fact, with a pair such as Grant and Lombard as they drum up their romantic rapport together, they can’t help but be sweet, sprinkling in their normally humorous proclivities.

It comes naturally when dealing with the situations around them. Namely, for Grant, it involves the gossips and snooty company he’s forced to parley with — folks he has no tolerance for. On one occasion over Thanksgiving, he very blatantly requests the waiter to bring a very sharp knife with his steak. All the better to poke or, better yet, cut the throat of the insufferable Suzanne (Helen Vinson).

For that matter, it’s a positive delight to see Kay Francis make a prominent return to the screen. Her box office pull had waned significantly since the first half of the decade. Still, despite the change in genre, she comes to play. Francis proves wonderfully manipulative — positively lowdown and conniving — those iconic features of hers intent on any cold mode of deception to get their way.

As Alec’s wife, she’s constantly nettling him in subtle ways — playing mental games to make his life miserable — as he’s made to look the cad. However, she hides her perfidiousness between a perfectly manicured matrimonial mask. The in-laws remain constantly on her side as she easily casts herself as the victim and makes her husband the unsung villain. But for the movie to work, we must be in his corner, despite all else. Who are we kidding? He’s Cary Grant. Despising him is a tall order (Notorious wasn’t released yet).

Mere friendship cannot be maintained under such conditions. Not only does society frown upon it, Julie cannot bear to exist in such a manner. Instead, she desires to never see him again, in an effort to not make life any harder and the feelings more complicated than they already are.

Because left untethered, humans can always play the wishful what-if games until you must actually deal with cold, hard reality. In this story, Grant is married and there’s no dismissing the facts.

Remember these were the days when the institution of marriage was taken very seriously (which is not necessarily a bad thing), but it does become an issue when people get into it who never seemed to love one another in the first place — it’s a bit like living a lie. The solution seems easy enough. They aren’t happy together. Surely an amicable split is in order. Cary asks. Kay condones it. Easy as pie…

And thus, the film lulls into an interim period that all comes too easily — no kicking and screaming spouse, no broken furniture or anything like that. After all, Maida’s M.O. is far more cunning. She has an altogether more insidious plan laid out for her husband, who is thanking his lucky stars he’s had such an easy time of it. He could not be more mistaken.

As alluded to, Maida is prepared for the long haul. She drags the proceedings out, tying them up with “red tape,” and handcuffing Alec and Judie in a constant state of prolonged limbo, month after month. It’s no life existing in purgatory. One after another, holidays come and go without any change, capped off with a Christmas surprise.

Narrative logic says reality must get worse before it can get better. In Name Only goes for the jugular. Maida seems to have achieved a satisfactory victory. Then, a defeated Alec goes on a binge and comes down with a horrible illness in the aftermath. It’s uncertain how any amount of solace or romantic equilibrium can be reestablished.

Gratefully, in one final moment of catharsis, she is ousted in front of the parents. We’ve waited long and hard for this justice, and it feels good. One is forced to ask, “At what cost?” The credits roll in providentially so we don’t have to linger on the consequence, only the emotion. Cary Grant on his deathbed isn’t an altogether familiar image or a welcomed one, for that matter. Still, this drama has its share of welcomed interludes bolstered by the main triumvirate of talent.

3.5/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Joan Fontaine

Although she probably wouldn’t like it one bit, with the recent passing of Olivia de Havilland, it seems necessary to acknowledge her sister and fellow actress Joan Fontaine.

Their sibling rivalry became the stuff of legend when they were vying for the same Oscars throughout the 1940s. What Fontaine portrayed on camera was this kind of alluring timidity, and her early work with Alfred Hitchcock remains one of the lasting creative partnerships of her career.

Her life off screen is more difficult to reconcile with her image, but regardless, here are  a handful of her films worthy of searching out:

Rewind: Rebecca (1940) | The Medium

Rebecca (1940)

Joan Fontaine was a part of a couple epic ensembles with The Women & Gunga Din, but it was the early American classic from Hitchcock the following year that cemented her stature. Opposite the gail force of Laurence and Olivier and Judith Anderson’s ghostly Mrs. Danvers, she gets positively blown over. But part of the brilliance is how Fontaine plays the breathless young bride so effectively haunted by her husband’s past.

Suspicion. 1941. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock | MoMA

Suspicion (1941)

Hitchcock exploits Fontaine’s persona beautifully in this home thriller where her docile wife suspects her dashing husband — played by none other than Cary Grant — is out to murder her! It’s a tense set-up fraught with romance and peril. Both performers carry their assignments with impeccable aplomb although the ending might ruffle some feathers.

Jane Eyre spotlights Orson Welles' perfect romantic antihero

Jane Eyre (1943)

Joan Fontaine once again establishes a role pulled out a literary adaptation, and the parallels to Rebecca are quite strong. Orson Welles give the kind of brooding giant performance easily overpowering Fontaine. But it’s in her very reticence onscreen where she attains power and builds a sympathy with her audience, despite all the trials thrust upon her in Charlotte Bronte’s novel — adapted by none other than Aldous Huxley.

Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)

Within the spiraling pirouettes of Max Ophuls and the tragic loves story of Stefan Zweig Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan take up their posts amicably. Fontaine’s performance runs the gamut of youth to adulthood as she falls in love with a famed pianist from afar and finds herself entwined in one of the most piercing love stories of the era. It’s a heartbreaker.

Worth Watching

You Gotta Stay Happy, The Bigamist, Othello, Island in the Sun, Beyond Reasonable Doubt

 

Indiscreet (1958): In Honor of Stanley Donen

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Note: This post was written soon after the passing of Stanley Donen.

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman on adjacent title cards is all you should need to watch the movie. Although I came for an entirely different name because this past spring we lost Stanley Donen — the last remnant of Hollywood’s Golden age — and it seemed necessary to pay him the highest tribute I can. It’s not with words, no, but by actually sitting down and enjoying one of his films.

Ingrid Bergman is one of the sweetest screen stars. She’s not altogether impervious to vengeful thoughts, but you never see her taking it too far.  We always want the best for her, and it’s little different here. Her preexisting life is utter humdrum. Everything about it is just too immaculate.

As a well-to-do, internationally acclaimed actress, she is, nevertheless, a woman who comes back from a tour abroad totally dissatisfied with the men she’s been able to come across. It’s not that they aren’t handsome, rich, good dancers, or the like. But she wants someone interesting, an intellectual equal, and a little old-fashioned charm wouldn’t hurt. Her usual circles don’t appear to be a ready breeding ground for such types.

Anna’s emotionally involved sister — married to a high-ranking official — questions why she has never settled on a man. Perhaps her standards are just too high (don’t listen to her Ingrid!). No matter, it looks to be another dull evening out on the town at a foreign dinner. The speaker is no doubt a snooty new candidate for NATO. It’s a high-class bore.

However, the stuffy ordeal all of a sudden gets a lot more swoon-worthy for everyone involved when Cary Grant walks through the front door. We’ve all but been guaranteed a diverting evening. So Margaret, ever prying into her sister’s affairs, gets set to play a bit of a matchmaker, relishing the setup, and the predictable outcomes. We have our story. Grant being charming and Bergman enjoying his company while still remaining aloof. He’s almost too good to be true. What of skeletons in his closet?

Dare I say, it’s all inconsequential, lest you get the wrong impression? Because there’s no doubt about it. The plot is facile. The conflict is thin. On the other hand, the tete-a-tete is most agreeable. One would habit a guess, without our stars, the picture would be quite flat. With them, all of a sudden, characters and the subsequent story is given texture. Their chemistry is present before the picture begins, and it exits with them after the final curtain. This is one of the keys.

Stanley Donen doesn’t have to do too much touch-up around his already spectacular talent, but he does utilize a split-screen to conveniently mollify the production codes, with the two lovers sharing a telephone conversation in their respective beds. Nora Ephron purportedly loved this movie thus, When Harry Met Sally got much the same treatment. It can be seen as another homage just as Sleeping in Seattle came out of the tradition of An Affair to Remember.

In Indiscreet they occupy themselves talking about the mundane things from the weather, to playing the violin, elder statesmen, and lamb chops. We don’t care all that much because the bottom line is spending time with Cary and Ingrid. There is Grant’s mild reveal. He’s got a big secret. Well, it’s not too big, but I’ll avoid spoiling it all the same.

If Fred Astaire’s dancing is immaculate, then Grant’s is equally so for entirely different reasons.  It’s not from any amount of meticulous choreography, but his spry and innumerable graces. He always walked this phenomenal thin line between suavity and comic pratfalls, no doubt learned in his early days as an acrobat.

His physical prowess hasn’t atrophied, aiding him splendidly on the dance floor in Indiscreet, through every step of his flailing, jumping jig. What’s more, Bergman, eyeing him with an unfettered look of disdain, is equally important. There’s no question it’s a defining scene in an unassuming trifle of a rom-com.

The final act is consumed with Anna’s attempt at a bit of friendly revenge. She puts on a pitiful charade to get back at her masquerading lover, engaging the services of her in-house help. The final punchline is a genuine amount of sincerity coming over the man as the clock strikes 12. Why you ask? Because we want a happy ending.

It’s a strange sensation to see Cary Grant’s profile in an embrace, with Ingrid’s head nestled on his shoulder, smiling off past the camera. I felt like I’ve seen this all before somewhere. Was it in Notorious, An Affair to Remember, North by Northwest, Charade? Maybe it was all of the above. It never gets old. When the greats get together, it’s not always perfection; sometimes all we’re looking for is diverting entertainment.

It seems apt to call upon a line Cary Grant sneaks into the end of the film. He’s harried. It seems like he’s being laughed at for being vulnerable. He hasn’t understood the underlying joke.

So pacing around in front of his giddy romantic partner, he surmises men are the true romanticists. I cannot corroborate if this is true or not, but there’s a sneaking suspicion that Stanley Donen might believe this as well. It’s hard to dispute when you watch his movies, as buoyant and propelled by romantic fancy as they are. Indiscreet is little different. It’s a fitting testament to one of the unsung greats. He will be dearly missed.

3.5/5 Stars

National Classic Movie Day Blogathon: 6 Favorite Films of the 1960s

Thank you to the Classic Film and TV Cafe for having me!

Following-up last year’s ode to the 1950s, I secretly relished the addition of another film to make already tough decisions even a little bit easier. But let’s be honest…

All my intellectual posturing and punditry must go out the window. This is not about the best movies alone. It is about the favorites — the movies we could watch again and again for that certain je ne sais quoi — because they stay with us. They always and forever will be based on highly subjective gut reactions, informed by personal preferences and private affections. As it should be.

Drum roll please as I unfurl my picks. Each choice says as much about me as the decade they come out of. Here we go:

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1. Charade (1963)

Charade has always been a highly accessible film and not simply because it’s fallen into the public domain. Its elements are frothy and light calling on the talents of two of Hollywood’s great romantic charmers: Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. Their rapport is lovely, and the spy thrills are surprisingly cogent for a romantic comedy thanks to Peter Stone’s script.

Last year I acknowledged the loss of Stanley Donen, but this picture reflected his range as a director, taking him beyond the scope of musicals. By this point, it’s positively twee to acknowledge his movie verged on a Hitchcock thriller like To Catch a Thief. I am also always taken by the supporting cast. Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and George Kennedy all had more prominent performances throughout the 1960s, but they supply a lot of color to the story.

Likewise, as amiable as the chemistry is to go with the blissful French streetcorners and Henry Mancini’s scoring, there is a sense Charade represented the dawn of a new age. It came out mere days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The happier times were snuffed out, and we could never go back. The decade would be forever changed in its wake.

a hard days night

2. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

The Beatles were the first band I could name at 4-years-old. A Hard Day’s Night was probably the first album I could sing along to. So already I have such a significant connection with it, recalling bumpy roads in the British Isles on summer vacations. And that has little to nothing to do with this film. It only serves to evoke what the Germans might aptly call sehnsucht. Warm, wistful longings for the exuberance of youth. At least that’s what I take it to mean. But we must get to “Komm gib mir deine Hand!”

Because, all levity aside, A Hard Day’s Night is the best Beatles “documentary” any fan could ever ask for. Not only does it showcase some of their greatest music, but Richard Lester’s style also keeps the story feeling fresh and free. Even as the schedule and hysteria of Beatlemania look to suffocate the boys in their own stardom, the film is the complete antithesis of this rigid mentality. It goes a long way to showcase their individual personalities, real or mythologized.

What’s more, it’s simply loads of fun, packed with Liverpoolian wit, shenanigans indebted to the Marx Brothers, and a certain lovable cheekiness helping to make the Beatles into international sensations. Again, it’s a film on the cusp of something new. They would kick off the British takeover of American music and usher in a cultural revolution up until the end of the decade. When they disbanded in 1970, the world had changed, and they were arguably 4 of the most influential cultural catalysts.

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3. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Jacques Demy began as a revelation for me and quickly evolved into one of my most treasured directors. What makes his film’s magical is how they truly are incubated in their own self-contained reality influenced by near-Providential fate and unabashed romanticism. They too can be wistful and heartbreaking, but equally spry and joyful — maintaining a firm, even naive belief in humanity and love.

The Young Girls of Rochefort is no different. In fact, it might be the great summation of all his themes. Umbrellas of Cherbourg shows the tragedy, but Rochefort is merry and light in a way that’s lovely and intoxicating. The palette is a carnival of color, and real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac are incomparable in their title roles.

As someone who appreciates contextualization, Demy populates his films with footnotes to film history among them Gene Kelly, who was a beloved figure in France, then Michel Piccoli and Danielle Darreux who might as well be considered national institutions for the substantial bodies of work they contributed both domestically and abroad. Even his wife, 21st-century celebrity Agnes Varda, helped choreograph the movie’s action from behind the scenes. It’s a positive delight.

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4. Le Samourai (1967)

If I have a deep affection for Jacques Demy, my affinity for Jean-Pierre Melville runs deep for entirely different reasons. Like his fellow countryman, he had an appreciation for a subset of American culture — in his case, the pulp crime genre — so it’s a fitting act of reciprocation for me to enjoy his filmography.

Le Samourai is without question his magnum opus, at least when his noir-inspired crime pictures are considered. Like Demy, his images are distinct and particular in their look and appeal. Cool grays and blues match the clothes, cars, and demeanors of most of his characters.

Alain Delon (along with Jean-Paul Belmondo) was one of the great conduits of his methodical style, clothed in his iconic hat and trenchcoat. Anything he does immediately feels noteworthy. While it’s never what you would call flashy, there’s a self-assured preoccupation about Le Samourai.

You can’t help but invest in both the world and the story of the characters — in this case a bushido-inspired assassin: Jef Costello. With hitmen, gunmen, and gangsters given a new lease on life in the 1960s, Delon’s characterization still might be one of the most memorable.

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5. The Odd Couple (1968)

Here is one that’s stayed with me since the days of VHS. I’ve watched it countless times and always return to it gladly like time away with old friends. It just happens to be that one friend is fastidious neat freak Felix Ungar (F.U. for short) and the other a slobbish couch potato Oscar Madison.

Despite being one of the great onscreen friendships across a plethora of films, The Odd Couple is Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau’s most enduring film together from purely a comedic standpoint. They bring out the worst in each other, which subsequently supplies the conflict in Neil Simon’s smartly constructed tale, as well as the laughs.

I must admit I also have a private fascination with cinematic poker games. The Odd Couple has some of the best, bringing a group of buddies around a table, with all their foibles and eccentricities thrown into a room together to coalesce. John Fiedler and Herb Edelman are great favorites of mine and The Odd Couple has a lot to do with it. That Neal Hefti score is also just such an infectious earworm. I can’t get it out of my head, and I hardly mind. What better way to spend an evening than with Felix, Oscar, and oh yes, the Pigeon sisters…

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6. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid

You can tell a lot about a person depending on what western they pick from 1969. There’s True Grit for the traditionalists. Then The Wild Bunch for the revolutionaries. And Butch Cassidy and Sundance for those who want something a bit different.

Because out of all the westerns ever made, it doesn’t quite gel with any of them. William Goldman writes it in such a way that it feels like an anti-western in a sense. His heroes are outlaws, yes, but they are also two of the most likable anti-heroes Hollywood had ever instated. Whether he knew it or not, Goldman probably helped birth the buddy comedy genre while the partnership of Paul Newman and Robert Redford fast became one for the ages.

My analysis of the film has waxed and waned over the years and not everything has aged immaculately. However, at the end of the day, it’s one of the most quotable, rib-tickling good times you can manage with a western. I’ll stand by it, and when we talk about endings, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid is as good a place to end as any: immortalized on tintypes for all posterity. What a way to go.

Thank you for reading and happy national classic movie day!