Mogambo (1953): John Ford Updates Red Dust

Mogambo

Whether it’s apocryphal or not the term “Mogambo” is purported to be the Swahili word for “passion,” although it’s difficult to know if this was only hearsay propagated by westerners (now including myself).

Regardless, it boasts an intriguing if altogether curious assemblage of talent. One would be remiss not to acknowledge John Ford as the story looks ripe for his kind of gripping panoramas. What’s lovely about the exterior shots is how it feels like a new prairie — a new landscape for Ford to photograph and bring his exemplary eye for portraiture and compositional space to.

Against this backdrop you have both people and animals living in this symbiotic give and take of aggression and nurturing — in some ways hearkening back to the primordial roots of Adam and Eve taking care of creatures in the Garden. Is it a stretch to wax lyrical in such a way? For another director, it’s quite possible, but because Ford was always the propagator of myth and parables it seems only fitting to use this language to describe the picture.

On a more pragmatic note, Mogambo is Red Dust transplanted to the African plains and maintaining the heavy influences of Western Imperialism. Though there is one fine concession, a “score” made up entirely of Congolese tribal music providing what feels like an authentic backbeat and rhythm to the movie. Otherwise, it’s a Hollywood Technicolor extravaganza in toto, albeit one delivered courtesy of Pappy Ford.

The plot isn’t of exceptional interest given the fact it already has antecedents in other movies, and it feels especially antiquated now. However, it’s also a double-edged sword as they don’t make any movies quite like this anymore, and so there’s a certain amount of novelty in the established panoply.

Vic Marsell (Clark Gable) is a big game hunter for pay in the modern world. Eloise “Honey Bear” Kelly — a real firecracker of a woman (Ava Gardner) — winds up at their secluded outpost on the invitation of a maharajah. The main problem is the man picked up and left without bothering to tell her. She’s good and stranded.

Her attempts to make her way back to civilization don’t work so well, and their outpost becomes quite the mating ground with the arrival of a callow man of learning (Donald Sinden) and his wife (Grace Kelly). You need not be a soothsayer to wager a guess what might happen in this sweltering country.

Ava Garner’s no Harlow gold, and she doesn’t have to be. If it’s not plainly obvious, she’s Ava Garder, a cloying, sassy icon in her own right more than capable of finding her place among the animals and everyone else on the African Safari.

She’s a barrel of laughs to have around, and she has a quip for every occasion be it Secretary birds or (Bobby) Thompson’s Gazelles. Consequently, she also proves herself to be an incorrigible pot-stirrer and, thus, the film’s most enchanting asset.

While Gable still feels adequate doing the rounds as his prototypical gruff hero (over 20 years after his initial success), Gardner gives off this sensual aura of sport and irreverence. Grace Kelly has the naive sheen of a prim and proper anthropologist’s wife out for an adventure, which of course, she is.

Given our players and Ford’s manning of the romantic drama, it’s the broader themes paired with the laid-back sense of fun — reminiscent of a Howard Hawk’s picture — that become the most agreeable moments.  This is before it burns with the imminent flames of passion.

Every detail and accent of the environment seem to reinforce the romantic tensions creating these parallels between mating rituals out in the wild and their human equivalents. It’s an open-air Noah’s ark. Every creature is looking for its respective mate.

Ava Gardner pacing with her parasol joined by the Leopard pacing in its cage. A lion in the bush growling for a lioness. Hippos fighting in the local riverbed no doubt over a female companion. There are even polygamous males in the local communities with tribal premarital rituals to guarantee fidelity.

In lieu of a flood, Mogambo swipes the famous storm scene from Red Dust, but it’s punctuated by a singular moment of its own. It’s the first sign of electricity. Gable yanks off Grace Kelly’s headscarf and brings it about her neck with a forceful tug. Nothing else happens, but the animalistic fury and the passion is obvious, matching both the animals and the weather right outside the window.

There is another element we could consider and as I don’t like to spend too much time on these things, I only mention it in light of the film. Garble and Kelly famously had a romantic fling on set. Far from being a real-life love triangle — Gardner was still married to a devoted Frank Sinatra at the time — the younger starlet went to her elder for worldly counsel. And she provided it. If intuition proves correct, Gable wasn’t a far cry from the man he portrayed in this film, at least when women were concerned.

It’s no coincidence, the final act takes them out into the jungle in pursuit of gorillas, “the truest link between man and his primordial derivation,” although a local father might have a word or two to say on the origin of species — Man in particular. Soon thereafter, relationships get more complicated and they begin to splinter under pressure as per the expected conventions.

If I can make a summation, you come to Mogambo for how the milieu informs the romance and not the other way around. Length catches up with it in the end with the steaminess slowly burning off. What we are left with are the palette and the performances. It’s well nigh enough to make this movie spectacular entertainment. Fans of either Ford, Gable, Gardner, or Princess Grace should at least prick up their ears. Although, in the end, Ava steals the show.

3.5/5 Stars

Mutiny on The Bounty (1935) with Gable, Laughton, and Tone

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More recently I’ve found myself straying away from period pieces and epics and not necessarily because there is something fundamentally off-putting about them. Nor do I think it can solely be blamed on my admittedly short attention span in this increasingly inane and vapid social media-fueled society we live in.

To prove my reasoning, I only need to express a couple of repurposed lines, “To whom much is given, much is required.” It’s not from Spider-Man, no, but it does suggest a movie like Mutiny on the Bounty already has a mountain to climb. It needs to do more to wow me than one of its shorter more economical brethren. Therein lies the issue at hand: greater expectations.

The year is 1787 and the Royal Navy is on a mission to acquire breadfruit trees as sustenance for slaves in the West Indies. This is implied to be a tale about how a mutiny led by a man named Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) laid the groundwork for modern British sea law still ruling the seas to the present day (that is, 1935).

Thankfully, it never feels quite like we are being taught a moral or a lesson of social significance. It’s nothing more than entertainment, though it’s still one of the great seafaring epics (not starring Errol Flynn).

A handful of hapless men are pulled out of a tavern away from their wives and loved ones and conscripted into a two years voyage with a Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton). Another man of privileged stock takes his post gladly (Franchot Tone).

When his crew is finally aboard and assembled, Bligh sets the precedent of unyielding discipline with a flogging of some poor unfortunate chap. His men look on gravely, no doubt questioning what they’ve gotten themselves into. It’s true the sea is a fierce adversary with gales whipped up and immersive wave-drenched decks swaying madly under their legs. However, if there is a touch of man vs nature in the drama, it’s even more vehemently about bouts of human conflict and insurrection.

Director Frank Lloyd makes liberal use of claustrophobic close-ups played in sharp juxtaposition to the more grandiose naval imagery. It signals the tone of the world even as this grand scale is made tactile through the onscreen relationships. Namely, that of a tyrannical captain and his hapless crew as he ceaselessly dishes out lashes and other sordid punishments indiscriminately even unto the point of death. There must be a breaking point. For now, we wait as they grin and bear their taskmaster.

One of the few sources of jocularity is the ship’s surgeon (Dudley Digges) a blustering old sea dog who dubiously lost his leg — the story of how it happened is the source of many of his largest yarns. Still, he too is in danger of being a casualty. No one is safe on a boat where the most precious cargo is botanical and not human. It’s these plants that are given preferential treatment when rations are concerned.

The crew is half-raving, stir-crazy as they finally weigh anchor on the shores of Tahiti — taken by the country’s beauty, coconut milk, and native girls. Our voyage has reached its midpoint and dipped its toes into what feels like paradise. Is it a coincidence that Bligh seems to all but disappear? Instead,  Tone busies himself picking up as much of the dialect as possible, and then Gable is taken by the pretty woman making eyes at him; they don’t need language to communicate.

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It’s the interim period of leisure and romance. But this respite must come to an end and with it, we arrive at the beginning of the end. After all, the whole story has been mounting to this precise point as we’ve all but avoided the inevitable.

If I’m to engage with my boyhood proclivities, Mutiny is not much of an actioner or at least not in the sense of a rip-roaring swashbuckler. It’s a war between titans, men of differing ideals, only to be interrupted by the unpredictable ferocity of the sea. So in this way, it’s more of a character piece injected with action. Still, this is not the bottom line.

The conflict is in staying the voyage (and the film) to see whose will is enacted in the end: Bligh’s or Christians with Byam forced to navigate the turbulent waters of ambiguity in-between. One positive of the picture is how none of the three men seem to entirely steal the show; they seem to be on surprisingly equal footing.

Yes, Laughton is an impudent, bull-headed taskmaster but hardly one of the most nefarious villains of all time. This is a tribute to the actor. He sculpts Bligh into a wretched, small-time human being who’s too big for his britches.  A paranoid weasel blinded by his devotion to duty and the sound of his own voice. He doesn’t forget those who revolt and his retribution is swift.

However, he is all but cast aside and forgotten, an insignificant little man, who knows how to make his way amid the rules and regulations of the Navy. It’s a more galling ending than if he had been lost at sea or most preferably eaten by a shark. But Laughton is a credit to the role showcasing his mind-boggling dexterity and range among actors of his day and age.

Gable is ultimately made into a kind of mythical figure out there on the ocean somewhere, but he is not destined to wander aimlessly — he and his rag-tag crew find a place to rest and call home. He wears the fierce, proud masculinity of Fletcher Christian just as you would expect him to (with our without his trademark pencil-thin mustache).

But if they are the two behemoths doing war against one another with the ship and the sea as their arena of battle, it is Tone who actually gets the final word as our initial in to the story. He is the every man, and therefore, the voice of reason for all of us. While I wouldn’t go out on the plank to say The Mutiny on The Bounty is a so-called “great film,” it does a service to its genre as one of MGM’s most prominent period pieces of the decade and a fine showcase for some of their most acclaimed stars.

4/5 Stars

It Happened One Night (1934): Carrots and The Walls of Jericho

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When I was growing up we had a VHS of Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny cartoons and like any lad my age, he was an immediate sensation. Casual, mischievous, and yet generally good-natured and out-and-out hilarious. I had no concept of cartoon logic and what made him so memorable as a cartoon character; you didn’t have to tell me. I knew he was because he made me laugh.

Well, it turns out I must attribute some of this childhood entertainment to It Happened One Night because, without the inspiration of its own fanciful whimsy, Bugs Bunny as we know him might never have been born.

But let us rewind for a moment. The movie itself is conceived with one of the great screwball openings as spoiled Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) quarrels with her protective father (Walter Connolly) about being held against her will on his yacht. Not to be outdone, she dives off the side of the boat and swims away ready to join her suitor.

Meanwhile, Clark Gable is Peter Warne, a man of the people — drunkards, vagabonds, and newspapermen — recently fired from his paper and looking for a way to get back in his editor’s good graces.

There’s a sense he would not have gotten this kind of rounded, contoured part at MGM, which was more intent on casting him as their ever-reliable, hard-edged he-man keeping all the hearts of their leading ladies palpating. It has to do with audience supply and demand. It Happened One Night allows him to live a little — to burst out of the mold created for him at his home studio — and the results are a divine departure.

Today the night bus circuit feels like an antiquated or at least a bygone segment of society. Not that Greyhounds don’t exist, but the world’s been proliferated with commercial air travel made available to the economy classes over the past 80 years.

In It Happened One Night, it’s a convenience only to be utilized by those affluent enough to afford such luxury. Hence, the reason Ellie’s father goes searching for her by aeroplane.

What the road trip becomes is a kind of universal equalizer where everyone is on the same playing field, low on money and just getting by. As an audience, for the majority of time, we are resigned to view life from the cheap seats with everyone else. It breeds this kind of communal rapport that only builds over time. Because, of course, two of our co-passengers wind up being Colbert and Gable.

So we have an element of class injected into the action as Ellie is forced off her high-horse. She gets a reality check of how real people live and what life’s like with moderate inconveniences and discomforts. These are sensations she has never experienced. They are foreign to her world. She’s also an easy target getting her suitcase swiped from under her nose.

Being on the lam, it’s not like she can wire dear old dad for more funds. Likewise, lowlifes like the skeezy Roscoe Karns, one-on-the-side Shapely, with an accent on fun, are on the prowl for a pretty dame to annoy. However, it’s Karns portrayal giving the world one of its other foremost cultural icons. That’s right, doc. Bug Bunny!

In the end, Gable dreams up a farfetched gangster plot to keep him quiet sending the spineless sot fleeing for his life. Because this is the role of Peter. He’s a real person; he’s seen the world and knows how to take care of himself. So despite their initial antagonism, Ellie sheds her ignorance and grows to appreciate the man’s watchful eye verging on moments of brusque thoughtfulness.

He sets them up with two separate beds at Dyke’s auto camp when they are forced to take a rainy evening detour. For Ellie, she has the unpleasant sensation of playing his wife, and it adds the tension to the preempted romance.

Gable dominates the evening when he strips down to his bare chest and supposedly helped increase the mortality rates of male undershirts all across the country. You can’t say people didn’t notice, Ellie included. So she joins the Israelites on the other side of “The Walls of Jericho,” the blanket keeping them at a respectable distance.

This scene is a lynchpin moment based on what happens the following morning. Ellie wakes up, and it’s like a switch has gone off. She meets the day disgustingly cheerful as if a screwball dame has replaced her formerly socialite self. We’ve entered the role reversal.

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At first, it’s all fun and games as we witness the utter lunacy of their escapades, maintaining the charade for a couple of detectives nosing around for dear old dad. Peter teaches his travel companion about a real piggyback ride — a pastime for the humble and the poor. Low on money, they hitchhike and gnaw on raw carrots by the roadside (like a certain looney tune).

It turns into the Indianapolis speedway as he attempts unsuccessfully to hail a ride. His thumb proves ineffective. Claudette Colbert has a far more viable solution. It’s yet another turn in the story — from helpless waif to resourceful daytripper.

The joy of the movie is how there is a pace to it because we all know intuitively we need to get to New York with Claudette. Capra mimics the continual movement of the film from town to town with his camera set on a crane to follow his couple on their road together. And yet as she begins to soften and warm to her co-companion, some of the urgency is lost but not the delight of the film.

Because we’ve already had time to grow with the characters, appreciate what they’ve drummed up together, and desire to spend the rest of our time with them. Anything else would feel like an early and highly disagreeable end to our time together. What’s marvelous is how Claudette doesn’t want it to end either. The three hours to New York never felt more infinitesimal.

Peter’s exclusive story feels immaterial; he’s certainly not taking any notes to develop copy, and the nightly rituals, The Walls of Jericho et al. feel rote at this point. Where might they go from here? It calls for some kind of emotional response.

Colbert obliges. The love is there. He just needs to respond — to understand there really is something fundamentally different about who she is as a person. Still, fate gets in the way as it always has a habit of doing in rom-coms. There would be no final act otherwise.

The most glorious discovery is not solely our leads but Walter Connolly who is granted a change of heart, one that the final act requires, I might add. Suddenly, we have a new screwball wrinkle: a father who is benevolent and understanding nudging his daughter on to ditch convention and the foregone wedding march for someone she really loves.

Why does this change happen you ask? Much like Colbert’s evolution, I’m not sure we can pinpoint it specifically, nor do we care. The only thing that matters is the inevitable: The Walls of Jericho come tumbling down. Ellie and Peter are finally allowed to know one another in the Biblical sense.

5/5 Stars

Dancing Lady (1933): Joan Crawford & Clark Gable

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You know the drill. In the throes of the Depression, the idle rich fritter their wealth away at such social events as striptease and then attend the ensuing night court until they get bored with the whole affair. Tod Newton (Franchot Tone) is one of their ilk, but he’s more engaged than others thanks to the pretty girl on the other side of the courtroom.

Down-on-her-luck Janie Barlow (an effulgent Joan Crawford) is a casualty of a police raid undertaken on the saucy dancing joint she’s been working at. Beyond being smitten, Tone (Crawford’s real-life husband for a time), is invested in helping give her a leg up, ulterior motives notwithstanding.

If it’s not obvious already, Dancing Lady has a premise to rival Warner Bros’ superlative successes with risque backstage, rags-to-riches musicals like 42nd Street. So, while the plot is nothing special, it somehow taps into Crawford’s innate sense of ambition as an actress.

There’s a feeling she’s not entirely acting a part; she’s driven to make it to the top. It’s this impetus that leads her to stick to “thousand-to-one-shots” over any man — even Park Avenue know-it-alls swimming in cash. She’s going to make it of her own accord. She’s going uptown toward the art world.

The script purposefully bears down on the vernacular to differentiate the patricians from the plebians and with it Janie’s attempts to make something of herself — first, through improved diction and then a newly cultivated wardrobe.

Without knowing it, she’s probably aspiring to the entertainment funded by such nincompoops as Mr. Bradley and his roly-poly walking gag of a son Junior. They are a father and son comic echo chamber if you will, and they also hold the purse strings for one of the industry’s latest productions.

It’s not altogether glamourous stuff but Patch Gallagher (Clark Gable) and his taskmaster-like regimen, turning chorus girls into a full-fledged production, is the “big time” for someone like Janie. The only problem is getting an audition. The head honcho has his right-hand man Steve (Ted Healy) run interference for him — it didn’t go so well for a wisecracking Eve Arden. Still, the “Dutchess” is an assiduous gal if there ever was one.

Director Robert Z Leonard is evidently enamored with his whip pans, but he does evoke pace rather well, especially when Crawford tries furiously to catch up with Gable as he streaks down the sidewalk. While it’s a cliched rom-com montage that would be recycled time-and-time again, it still stands out within the context of the film. The leads don’t speak a word to one another for several minutes at least.

In what feels like a non-sequitur, the Three Stooges make a lightning-quick cameo. Well, they actually show up twice, posing as stagehands. It’s true they feel completely at odds with Joan Crawford’s story arc, but it’s delightful to see them, even momentarily, as she continues her ascension. This is only to be surpassed by the appearance of Fred Astaire! (And I nearly forgot to mention Nelson Eddy, so there you go).

Tone continues to go to great lengths to win her affections, secretly bankrolling her star vehicle, dancing and dining her, and flaunting his swimming pools. When all else fails, he resorts to taking her to Cuba, conveniently far away from the other man in her life and the career she’s chosen.

The red-hot sparks are given a literal gymnasium to work themselves out in — positively buzzing between Crawford and Gable — as they get in their morning exercise to keep their svelte dancing figure and brawny physique respectively. It goes unspoken, but an unwritten rule of storytelling tips us off that antagonism usually denotes love. They have copious amounts ready-made to dish out at one another.

Unfortunately, by this point, the story gets less and less interesting by the minute as it continues to sink into the preconceived notions of the genre. In other words, what we suspect to be derivative proves itself to be precisely that. It speaks to the charisma of the stars who make the well-trod paces watchable, even engaging, and there are a few momentary delights around the fringes.

The final extravaganza is a not-too-veiled Busby Berkeley knockoff infatuated with beer. The surreal foray that follows offers up a luxuriant carousel of beauties and giant fan blades strapped with women — not to mention the surreal moment when a host of old maids go behind a curtain only to be dismantled to come out as gorgeous dancing ladies.

With Fred Astaire showcased prominently alongside Joan in a very fluffy ensemble, it felt strangely out of place. Astaire and Rogers had yet to be placed together and it’s true their trajectories could have been so much different. I don’t know a thimbleful about dancing, but at the very least, Crawford has an earnestness on taps. Though, she’s not quite Ginger Rogers either. No one ever said she was.

With Tone’s gigolo scorned and “The Duchess” going in to check on her dejected “Duke” after their stunning success, there’s a sense the working-class heroes are being reunited in a triumphant victory for all the blue-collar folks in the audience. In other words, it’s not just Depression-era pap, there’s this genuine element of wish fulfillment.

The movie is gracious enough to supply one last obligatory scene between Crawford and Gable for contemporary audiences. Because there are a lot of distractions (and some unique surprises like Astaire), but the romantic chemistry is present and delivered on a silver platter with the kiss that the whole movie’s been culminating to. Surprising, I know. What’s the axiom? Give the people what they want? Dancing Lady is case and point.

3.5/5 Stars

Possessed (1931): Joan Crawford and The “In” Crowd

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We open up on the Acme Paper Box Co., which has a down-and-dirty industry strewn about its edges. If the people flooding out of the factory are any indication, this will be a dusty, grubby, little picture.

Two of their employees are Al Manning (Wallace Ford) and Marian Martin (Joan Crawford). He’s a concrete worker with a penchant for bricks, and he’s also positively smitten with her. Meanwhile, her gaze is focused somewhere else. She’s not about to settle for “happiness on an installment plan.”

It’s summed up by the train tracks — a handy conduit for the luxurious upper classes who coast by with their dancing, music, and cocktails. They have no idea about a life like Marian’s, nor do they have any reason to care about it. However, she gravitates toward them, peering in at their affluence from the outside. She would do anything to breach the space in between.

She does meet one fellow as he knocks a few drinks back and stares out at the sorry landscape. They strike up a momentary conversation; it’s nothing more and nothing less, but it leaves an impression. Among other things, he tells her there two kinds of people: those who are “in” and those who are “out.” And before he’s whisked away, he offers her one of his cards like a (drunk) gentleman.

Richard “Skeets” Gallagher, a character who ultimately becomes of minor importance, nevertheless fascinates me for some unequivocal reason. As best as can be described, he is the kind of actor who feels stuck in the 1930s, and I mean it as a kind of backhanded compliment. There’s a frequency to his voice perfect for radio tones but somehow it’s hard to see him existing outside the era. That’s perfectly alright.

At any rate, intrepid Marian having eaten the fruit, so-to-speak, and gained knowledge about their world, can never go back to her simple ignorance. Instead, she returns to her mother and Al telling tales of what she’s just seen.

In the city, folks see the world as a woman’s oyster. Poor folks think men are meant to go out and get whatever they can out of life; women are meant to stay where they and get married. If anything is obvious, Joan Crawford’s not one for the shabby status quo. So she goes out and does something about it.

However, she really is in a sorry state, showing up on the doorstep of the one man she knows in town. With nothing else to lose, she tries to sneak her way into a lucky break, fumbling around brazenly, foot in her mouth, but she’s definitely got guts. There are no pretenses when she tries to get in with his friends; she’s a straight-forward gold digger and she knows what she wants.

For some, that’s a turnoff. For self-assured up-and-coming statesmen Mark Whitney (Clark Gable), he finds it oddly attractive and so he gladly leads her by the arm and allows her the benefit of his bounty. A few years down the road she’s made strides in the life of a social hostess. For all intent and purposes, she acts as the perfect wife. Directing the servants, choosing the wine, throwing dinner parties like a seasoned professional.

What’s the big reveal, you ask? They’re not married. They have a mutual agreement and being pragmatic seems to have paid off. Even as she continues to educate herself in the finer things, including French and German loves songs, there’s still something in her upbringing that sympathizes with a lowly tramp brought to one of their gatherings. The woman feels woefully, even uncomfortably, out of place, surrounded by so much class.

Marian realizes no manner of jewels or perfume can totally cover her own genetic makeup. The gravest development in the story starts in Crawford’s own character. She settles in and softens up. In some ways, she wants marriage, because she’s gone and fallen in love. It’s no longer a convenient relationship with fringe benefits.

Right here, it’s evident how it courts similar themes as Back Street or any movie about women trapped in somewhat unenviable positions in a society where their only recourse is to take what they can get by any means necessary. We pity them even as some of their actions feel unfortunate.

Al comes to the city bitten with the same bug that once got her, with the goal of making “the big time,” asking favors from the man she’s already attached to. He’s utterly ignorant of what he’s stepped into — what Marian’s arrangement entails — still, he knows what he wants.

It should be noted Clark Gable never gets a lingering closeup as fine as the ones extended to Crawford. After all, her name is over the title credits, not his. But what’s refreshing about his character — he doesn’t feel like an out-and-out cad — there’s some integrity to him. Still, life must complicate everything. Their relationship begins to disintegrate, on the behest of friends and advisors, as he must make a choice between a political career a woman.

A new normal is soon established. The wheels of the political movement begin to spin, unnamed naysayers look to stir up scandal against him, and Marian somehow evaporates into the background. The final scene is the lynchpin of it all. Joan Crawford feels like an anonymous civilian walking through the rain with her umbrella and mac amid the usual foot traffic. They all make their way to a grand pavilion with posters of her man plastered on all sides.

In a purely cinematic moment, she takes the stand on his defense and gives a tearful, overly sincere annunciation of his character. It wins over the audience as she’s overcome with emotion and stumbles out in tears.

Again, the key is that we follow Joan. We are with her as she bursts through the doors and totters her way out onto the street with the rain pelting her as she labors up the stairs…That’s when her leading man comes and wraps her up in his arms. It’s what these old movies were made for. The final embrace propelled by emotion and buoyed by the attractive glamour of their stars.

Enough films of the era take a bleaker road; it’s safe enough to give this one its Hollywood ending. It is Hollywood after all, the land where Lucille Laseurr could become Joan Crawford: one of the most indelible figures Hollywood ever created.

3.5/5 Stars

Run Silent, Run Deep (1958): A Streamlined Submarine Drama

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Run Silent, Run Deep features what amounts to a cold open, set in the Bungo Straits, near the coast of Japan in 1942. The foreboding sonar-infused score by Franz Waxman suggests this will be a no-nonsense war drama and sure enough, within the first 5 minutes, a submarine commanded by one P.J. Richardson (Clark Gable) has been sunk in its mission to destroy an enemy ship, leading to the capsizing of the entire crew.

As Richardson looks back at his receding enemy, we see the film’s objective right before us. He is bent on revenge. Given the situation, this is not a film so much about survival but returning to finish a job no matter the circumstances, dangers, or counter-orders standing in the way.

After a short leave of action, Richardson talks his way into another command, this time taking over from Jim Bledsoe (Burt Lancaster) who has already formed a close-knit rapport with his men. They don’t look too kindly on a new man taking over and Bledsoe broaches the subject bluntly with his new superior.

Richardson is hardly going to be dissuaded by a minor thorn in his side and his new crew begrudgingly take to the grueling regiment of drills he has them on. No one is looking to make any friends. This is hardly a film about buddy, buddy or camaraderie. There isn’t time. The one thing the commander does instill in them is discipline and well-oiled efficiency. It’s probably the greatest gift he can give them based on the circumstances.

The stakes are obvious as the death trap, Area 7, has led to the loss of four separate Allied subs, including Richardson’s previous command. What the story devolves into is a fairly straightforward WWII drama which is nevertheless riddled with tension as they knowingly enter perilous waters.

It’s true a submarine serves as an impeccable locale because its very form functions in constraining the action and ratcheting up emotions. There is no release valve and all these crewmen are literally submerged underwater for hours at a time. If that isn’t nerve-wracking I’m not sure what else qualifies.

Combine this environment with men who are already in tight quarters only to become more contentious over a major distaste in their commanding officer. It’s easy to envision him as a modern-day Captain Ahab. His white whale is the infamous Japanese Akikaze, Bungo Charlie, that he’s already has a deadly history with. The seafaring setting and power dynamics also hint at the traditions of The Mutiny on The Bounty though the story foregoes this exact demarcation.

While there are few flourishes or subsequent surprises from director Robert Wise’s film, there’s no question in labeling Run Silent, Run Deep an immersive experience, even for such a streamlined endeavor. In fact, that more than anything plays to its advantage. This allows it to be compact actioner extremely aware of its outcomes and not content until its mission has been accomplished. While it does not leave a great deal of leeway in the area of character development, our cast is a varied and compelling ensemble.

Obviously, the central figureheads are Gable and Lancaster, two hard-bitten battlers who are also consequently, far too old to be playing their parts. But this is Hollywood, after all, so it’s easy enough to make allowances when you’re getting top tier talent.

However,  surround them with the likes of Jack Warden, Brad Dexter, Don Rickles (in his film debut), and Lancaster’s long-time collaborator Nick Cravat, and you have something quite engaging.

The key to the success of both the mission and the film is that it ends as quickly as it begins. It gets in and gets out with striking precision, taking little time to rest too long on its laurels. Between the flurry of malfunctioning torpedoes, the barrage of enemy depth charges, and bombs raining from up above, there is plenty of flack to provide antagonistic interference. By the end, it seems a miracle our men get through at all but of course, it’s not without a toll, both physically and mentally.

Because even when you cannot see the enemy in the flesh, the capability to do harm hardly slackens. In some cases, it proves even worse. What is easier to exterminate, an enemy who lacks any type of form or personage or one that is living and breathing? In this regard, Wise’s picture is sterile and impersonal. It’s not so much a flaw as it is a sobering reality.

3.5/5 Stars

Night Nurse (1931)

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We’re introduced to the day-to-day in a hospital ward with mothers giving birth, delinquents under police custody, and bootleggers coming in on the lamb with mysterious ailments. Barbara Stanwyck arrives in the office inquiring about a position as a nurse and she is flatly rejected for her references and lack of a full high school education.

Reluctantly she exits only to make a connection in the revolving door with a white-haired genial doctor (Charles Winninger) who pulls some strings and lands her a spot as a trainee. Her roommate and guide to this new existence is the lively Maloney (Joan Blondell). The male interns send her a warm welcome too. Namely a skeleton in her bed which gets her in particular trouble during a late night bed check from the head nurse who rules the nurses quarters with an iron fist.

This is all only a setup of the films main concerns which have roots in sordid drama and soap opera-like thrills. The melodrama comes into full view as we are introduced to none other than a mustache-less macho Clark Gable who upon being asked who he is, replies “Nick the Chauffeur” only to be captured in closeup while eliciting a gasp from a night nurse.

It’s textbook stuff and then he proceeds to wallop her as she tries to use the telephone. But a smidgen of context is in order. Lora starts her first shift as a night nurse looking after two darling little girls. But from what she can tell they are systematically being starved and their perpetually tipsy mother, Mrs. Ritchie, seems to have very little input. Meanwhile, the doctor who took over the case when Dr. Bell was deposed is shady at best. All the while, Nick leers and strong arms his way around, making sure that Lora doesn’t do anything against the doctor’s orders. Conveniently that means no nourishment.

But “Little Miss Iodine” doesn’t go down without a fight. With the girls slowly wasting away upstairs and needless extravagant parties being held continually downstairs with booze freely flowing, Lora lays down the law. She smacks the girls’ mother around a little for her parental negligence. Also, it turns out that Lora’s new boyfriend comes in handy when he’s not bootlegging. They make a swell couple.

On the whole, this picture of emaciation is slightly disjointed and hyperbolic in its own right. There’s also probably too liberal an amount of undressing on camera. Because it’s only purpose is to be provocative.

I’m not quite sure if I ever figured out the mechanics of it all but there is an undeniable fury to it and William Wellman directs it as such through every beat from comedy to romance to mystery thriller. So with stalwart performances by Stanwyck and a no-good Clark Gable on the rise, matched by a certain enigmatic potency, there is enough meat here to make it a mildly diverting Pre-Code effort.

3/5 Stars

Boom Town (1940)

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Clark Gable was anxious to do a movie about oil — wildcatters as they call ’em — because his father had been an oil man. Of course, MGM was looking to put him in such a picture too and when a certain story was published in Cosmopolitan it would prove the inspiration for Jack Conway’s Boom Town.

The most obvious attraction to this picture then and now is the copious amount of star power. We already mentioned MGM’s beloved Gable but Boom Town has Spencer Tracy, Claudette Colbert, and Hedy Lamarr all readily available. This would be the two men’s final film together out of three outings. It’s not so much that they didn’t like each other but the fact that they were both formidable attractions and Tracy was starting to command top billing.

In an industry consumed with A-list and B-list stars, MGM didn’t quite know how to go about keeping them together and so they never appeared in the same film again. I can’t say that it leaves me heartbroken.

They meet on a plank crossing a muddy mining street. Whether it was purposeful or not you can’t help but recall the fateful meeting of Robin Hood and Little John. Except these two men share the same name. The local saloon keeper christens them Big John (Gable) and Square John (Tracy) respectively. They’re none too amicable at first but after a bar brawl that looks more like lawn bowling, they’re pals enough. Those type of things builds camaraderie in hard-bitten men like these.

Soon enough they are going halfsies on a piece of land “Shorty” has been aiming to drill on. Frank Morgan isn’t much help as the begrudging equipment salesman and so they take matters into their own hands. A lovable Chill Wills plays a drawling Sheriff with a penchant for cookbooks and a decent shot with a rifle.

The film could have been a gusher laden with drama but most of the blasts of energy are few and far between hidden under layers of good luck and hard luck, romantic interplay, and the ever-changing tides of the oil business. Some of these themes would be echoed again in works like Giant (1956) and There Will Be Blood (2007).

The most rewarding scene by far is watching Gable and Tracy brawl it out in an office. By now they’ve both been big men who have known both failure and success. But this strips everything down to the two of them and the woman caught between them.

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I must admit that Hedy Lamarr’s part is rather uninteresting — little fault of her own — though most would note that she is as alluring as ever as the ingenious socialite and serial eavesdropper who helps McMasters take over the New York market.

Claudette Colbert is compelling enough in a role that reunites here with her It Happened One Night (1934) leading man, though the role was written initially for Myrna Loy and there is an innate sense that if she could have repeated her spectacular turn in Test Pilot (1938), this picture now transplanted to the oil fields would have been better for it. As it is Gable and Tracy do seem to command most of the attention. After all, this is really their story as we watch them rise, fall, and come back clawing again and again.

The final big moment, however, goes to Tracy standing up at the witness stand and even though he and McMasters have long since parted ways, pushed each other out of business, and even come to blows, he still manages to exonerate the man of any wrongdoing.

Because if nothing else they are both oil men with ideals of what the country might be if we take care of our limited resources for our children. You might call “Hogwash” but it’s a nice sentiment anyways and as usual, Spence delivers it with his typical candor that silences any naysayers. However, one wonders what the picture might have been if Colbert and Lamarr were given a bigger stake.

3/5 Stars

Test Pilot (1938)

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Test Pilot is a fine piece of time capsule filmmaking and there’s little doubt that the film showcases a dizzying array of airplanes that we very rarely see today. In that sense, it’s an aerial picture with some truly dazzling footage.

By 1930s standards, this is also an action picture, a sprawling exhibition that simultaneously has a pretty thin story in some patches. In fact, it’s too long for its own good. But it’s a character drama as much as an aerial show, which takes precedence over anything else, narrative included.

The screenplay was forged by Howard Hawks (who worked on several other flight films) and a whole host of others. Its overall success is not necessarily in any amount of tension that is created or a certain brand of visceral storytelling though there are undoubtedly some emotional moments, the brunt of the heavy lifting comes from the cast as they articulate the beats of the script.

It’s true that under veteran director Victor Fleming and a cast including Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Myrna Loy, it’s difficult to find a more prestigious partnership out of MGM in the 1930s. This was pretty close to tops. Still, even in this dynamic, there were foreseeable problems. Spencer Tracy has a bit of a thankless job playing the faithful mechanic Gunner Morris, the character who is there to support his friend and he conveniently never gets the girl.

You can understand why Tracy could get a little tired of such roles because there’s no doubt that Gable is in one sense the main attraction as the eponymous “Test Pilot” Jim Lane. He was the great movie star of the age.

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However, Tracy was the acting powerhouse of the two and that’s the chafing at work once again in this picture. The stellar personality and the quality talent seesawing back and forth. Except Tracy’s stock had been rising year after year and by now he was a solid draw in his own right. It’s evident that he’s a formidable third wheel in the picture though he had his sights set on something slightly more gratifying.

In fact, he’s nearly invincible. Gable famously implored “Spence” to go ahead and die already because the actor milked his last words for all they were worth. However, even if this jousting match between the two male stars is most visible, out of the three I think Myrna Loy comes away having the most fun and getting the most out of the picture. It’s completely understandable why she cherished her work here.

She is the Kansas girl who has her head in the clouds like a ditzy farmer’s daughter watching as a man brings his plane down on her family’s land. He’s simultaneously an ungrateful lug and her shining knight. There’s something whimsical and wholly uninhibited about her that lets her meet a grouchy pilot out in the pasture with a wit of her own and yell her head off at ballgames like a seasoned fanatic.

Her performance runs the entire gamut from near screwball antics to deep heartfelt emotion. The dimensions there are at times difficult to read — even enigmatic. I think that’s why Jim falls for her. She’s in some ways just as tantalizing and fascinating to him as the air above.

Test Pilot also examines tragedy of such a pioneering and devil may care lifestyle — themes that Douglas Sirk would streamline in a picture such as Tarnished Angels (1956). Here we get the alluring frolicking fun of going where no man has gone before until it is tapered by the stark reality at hand. Icarus had the thrill of his life but it’s possible to fly too high or for your engines to blow out or for your instruments to fail. It’s a part of the lifestyle that pilots come to accept. They take the risk because the skies call out to them so earnestly. It’s their obsession.

Jim is one of those who has always followed that call. His story is really about his romance with two women. His wife waiting for him on the ground and the blue heavens which call out to him from above. It takes a reality check ripping something so dear away for him to realize he doesn’t mind being grounded. It was the one thing he swore he would never do and yet, in the end, he gladly does it.

3.5/5 Stars

San Francisco (1936)

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There was a time when San Francisco was synonymous with the earthquake. Before Rice-A-Roni, The Golden Gate, Bullitt, or heaven forbid, The Giants. For me, it’s hardly a major spoiler to say this film revolves around this tragic date back in 1906 (a strikingly recent 30 years before the film came out).

What the film does for most of its runtime is stack the bricks of the foundation while developing some kind of connection to the material through the world of that age. Because for destruction to mean anything there must first be context.

Clark Gable is Blackie (a name he also carried in Manhattan Melodrama), a man who runs a club in the dubious Barbary Coast sector of the city. It’s not a ritzy joint by any means but due to his outspoken nature, he’s a beloved pillar of society — especially when the society is a difficult place to live in.

Similar to the earlier film, it’s about people on the opposite side of the railroad tracks at least when their vocational calling is concerned. You see, Blackie can at best be called a saloon keeper moonlighting as a gambler and his best bud from childhood just happens to be a priest — Father Mullins (Spencer Tracy) — who runs the local parish.

An up-and-coming Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) is hired on to sing San Francisco honky-tonk by Blackie because she needs work bad. Despite the prominence of the male actors, this was actually meant to be a vehicle for MacDonald and though she is no doubt vocally powerful, she’s not my favorite, blasphemous as it might be. Clark Gable didn’t like her much in real life for some reason.

Their relationship within the film proves to be a complicated one because she is a preacher’s daughter and her style of singing cannot find its true audience in Blackie’s place. She has the training of an opera singer who is far above the trash that’s she’s expected to peddle. But she is loyal to him and the favor he has shown her. She becomes a fan favorite.

That doesn’t make the tantalizing glow of the opera any less seductive nor her relationship with the man who made her any less difficult. Father Mullin tries to reform his good friend and he sees Mary as the perfect figure to help him in his crusade and yet in the same instance, he wants her to get away from Blackie’s influence. There are some happy times dancing in the park (“Would You”) but ultimately it seems she can find nothing but heartbreak in his presence.

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Meanwhile, Blackie is coaxed into making a run at the position of local supervisor to finally get some reforms including fire regulations. Father Mullins has long been trying to scrimp and save for an organ to have at the church. Without batting an eye Blackie donates one to his old pal. And that’s what makes this character fascinating given his paradoxical qualities.

He’s a tremendous force. He lives by a code and always has. But to him, religion is just a bunch of hocus-pocus making monkeys out of everyone. He’s a relativist. If that’s what you believe it’s alright by him. He won’t hold it against you for being a sap. But in his world, Blackie is number one.

Now that the context is set, the forthcoming impact is inevitable and it’s one of the great setpieces of its day. In fact, it’s a sequence so overwhelming even today and that import is placed on it because we have been so conditioned; it leaves us feeling truly shaken to the core. Yes, it’s a visual feat, to be sure, but there’s an equally crucial understanding to be had. There are consequences to this horrendously devastating disaster. It matters deeply. Not just the damage from the earthquake but the ensuing rash of fires that broke out all over town too.

I must admit I balk slightly at the film’s finale, however, as we see Blackie fall to his knees and pray to God after all the destruction he has experienced first hand. I want this transformation to be true as much as the next person but I couldn’t help thinking that this is often not how the world works or at least based on the little I know of humanity. Would a man who has no belief in a God all of a sudden drop to his heels and be made prostrate?

If anything he would seem more likely to lash out in anger. How could a loving God let this happen? How could He be silent with so much suffering? Those are the questions that ring out within me. Those are the burning thoughts that need an answer. And usually, I get them but in my own way. Still, what do I know?

Each person processes through grief and tragedy in different ways. I’ll begrudgingly give the film San Francisco its happy Hollywood ending. That might speak truth to somebody. There’s no doubt powerful emotions course through the scene based on all we have already witnessed thus far. I’ll willingly concede that. The emotional resonance in the wake of the visual horrors is unparalleled. It actually does make me feel something. That alone is something to marvel at. Not whether or not those emotions are logical or so-called correct. They very rarely are. I’m realizing now that that is okay.

Although I must admit it’s rather strange that MacDonald belts out a few rallying lines triumphantly as Clark Gable holds onto her and he just walks forward silently. Somehow it lacks camaraderie. It was as if he was implicitly saying, “You can sing but you won’t get me to do it in a million years.” However, don’t let this completely detract from the moment.

3.5/5 Stars