Review: Stalag 17 (1953)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.5/5 Stars

The Song of The Thin Man (1947)

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The Song of The Thin Man is really and truly the swan song of the series and while I did enjoy most of the additions, there is a sense that it was time to end the franchise. The year is 1947. The war is over. Things have changed. It really has little to do with William Powell and Myrna Loy being older or past their prime, because they are still a joy to watch working in tandem and they’re hardly over the hill.

But in some respects, society didn’t need Nick and Nora anymore. They were more like a touch of nostalgia than an up-and-coming force because they were born out of the Depression years and though they grew and matured as characters well after that, it seemed like as good a time as any to let them be.

Their son, little Nick Charles Jr. (a young Dean Stockwell) is a precocious lad like his father.  His behavior is deserving a spanking though his father is averse to giving it out even on his wife’s behest. But this was never meant to be a family comedy. Even Asta was always a sidekick and not a focal point.

Most of the film is conceived on a luxury liner, the S.S. Fortune amid nightclub musicians and patrons who have come out for a charity benefit put on by the wealthy David Thayer. It’s the perfect locale for, you guessed it, murder.

The center point of it all is Tommy Drake, the band leader scrapped for cash and with plenty of bones to pick with any number of people. He wound up gunned down from behind. In introducing all the players, it’s safe to assume they’re potential suspects too. There’s songbird Fran Page (Gloria Grahame), the ship’s proprietor Phil Brant (Bruce Cowling), and the soused musician Buddy Hollis (Don Taylor). It’s Brant and his forbidden fiancee Janet Thayer (Jayne Meadows) who come to the Charleses’ so that Phil’s name might be cleared.

Bess Flowers turns up in a fairly visible role given her usual penchant for bit parts in hundreds of high profile films. Leon Ames returns to The Thin Man universe in an unsual circumstance of the same actor taking on a different role. Helen Vinson who played his wife previously was not available for the picture and so the exquisite Patricia Morrison (currently 102 years young at the time of this viewing) filled the part instead. Even noir regular Marie Windsor shows up as a gangster’s moll although I’m not sure if she even utters a word.

Anyway, back to the business at hand, Nick and Nora Charles and the mystery. One of the best parts of the film is watching the Charleses be introduced to the jazz beatnik culture craze and their guide is none other than Clinker (Keenan Wynn) a real hip cat on the reed who happened to be aboard the liner when the murder occurred.

It should be noted that when rock n’ roll came Beethoven could be found rolling in his grave. Currently, his bust simply looks begrudgingly from his perch, given the state of affairs with the contemporary music scene.

Interestingly enough, there aren’t many police authorities running around to get in the way. It’s all Nick Charles joined by his wife and, in this case, Clinker who has connections to really help them understand the scene.

Although the setup and the characters are interesting enough, the film probably has the least satisfying finale of any of the Thin Man films. It winds up back on the ocean liner but it somehow doesn’t come off like its predecessors. Even the fact that the picture is a good 20 minutes shorter than the earlier films seems to suggest the beginning of the end. But on the bright side, for once Nick was able to retire for good — to his bedroom that is. Its fitting, really. Mr. and Mrs. Charles gave us plenty of laughs. They deserve to rest in peace.

3.5/5 Stars

The Father of the Bride (1950)

FatheroftheBride1950I’ve seen both versions of Father of the Bride and Steve Martin is fine and dandy but there is no better lovable curmudgeon than Spencer Tracy and he dons the role of the protective and skeptical father so effortlessly.

Furthermore, all down the line this production is an impressive gathering of talent with a radiantly young Elizabeth Taylor embodying the role of Kay, Joan Bennett leaving behind femme fatale roles for that of the level-headed mother and, of course, Vincente Minnelli positioned behind the camera. All in all, it’s a delightful light comedy that also finds time to say something heartfelt about the relationships of parents and their children, especially between fathers and daughters.

It’s rather like sitting back for story time as Tracy struggles with his shoes and begins to regale us with the recent happenings — the events that left his stately home looking like a hurricane disaster zone. It was all as a result of his daughter’s wedding. The event that is bound to challenge his sanity and bankrupt him in the process. But it’s for his “Kitten” so he’s willing to go through it out of his unwavering love for her.

First, he’s dubious of his future son-in-law, cringing at the thought as he shuffles through his memories of Kay’s many beaus. In his estimation, none of them was a winner, but then again, no one is good enough for his daughter. He’s not too excited about giving his daughter away nor by the prospect of supporting her good for nothing husband either. I’m sure most every father has the same conundrum to wrestle with. And it’s important to note that it’s played for comedic effect but never in a way that belittles these characters.

Minnelli was always a master of the color medium but here he still takes on the important role guiding us through the comedic moments with a deft touch and allowing us to track with the mayhem at large when necessary.

There are also some wonderful spots for veteran supporting players like the overly stuffy wedding coordinator Leo G. Carroll and the charmingly enthusiastic Melville Cooper as he guides the wedding rehearsal with a chaotic vigor.  Then, of course, there’s the prospective groom Buckley, played by the always affable everyman Don Taylor.

But everything must return to Tracy and Taylor because they are the nucleus of the storyline and as such, they work well together. Admittedly, Taylor might feel slightly out of place in such a family, but she is Elizabeth Taylor and she’s captivating all the same. Putting her together with Tracy means a lot of poignant sequences. Those moments where he comforts her, encourages her over a midnight snack at the dining room table, and finally, willingly gives her up to the man she has chosen to have and to hold for the rest of her life. To its credit, the film strikes a fine balance between comedy and heart always returning to this father-daughter relationship.

3.5/5 Stars

Japanese War Bride (1952)

Japanese_War_Bride_VideoCoverMuch like Sam Fuller’s Crimson Kimono (1959), Japanese War Bride’s title carries certain negative stereotypes, however, its central romance similarly feels groundbreaking, allowing it to exceed expectations.

The film opens during the waning days of the Korean War. A man lies incapacitated in a hospital bed, but he couldn’t be happier because he’s met the love of his life. Maybe it’s war fatigue or something else, but he simply cannot take his eyes off the pretty young nurse Ms. Shimuzu (Shirley Yamaguchi).

And although prospects don’t necessarily look that promising, since duty calls, Jim leaves that hospital bent on getting that girl for his wife. He’s serious. So serious in fact that he goes straight away to convene with Tae’s grandfather (Philip Ahn) that he might persuade him for Tae’s hand in marriage. Although warning that the road ahead will be a difficult one, the sagacious man, relents, reluctant to stand in the way of this blossoming love.

It’s after the happy couple is picked up at the train station by family and settle into the old family home, that it becomes obvious that things aren’t quite the same. They’ll be more difficult than they first appeared.

Jim’s parents and brother are welcoming enough, but there is still a necessary period of gelling as they get used to their new family member. Even Jim encourages his petite young wife to be more assertive and embrace American culture fully. She does her best.

japanesewarbride2Jim looks to build up a happy life with her as he looks to take some of his father’s land to keep a home of his own and raise crops. Tae begins to acclimate to her new life and gains the respect of the Taylor family while making a few friends including the kindly Hasagawa siblings (Lane Nakano and May Takasugi) who work at a factory nearby. The icing on the cake is when Tae announces she’s pregnant and Jim could not be more ecstatic.

Still, what crops up are the subtleties of racism through slight snubs and bits of insensitivity. First, the skeptical sister-in-law (Marie Windsor) drops pointed remarks towards Tae. At first, they are so veiled, they seem only a passing wisp of a word, hardly worth acknowledging. But following one of the neighbors confessing how much she hates all the Japanese, it becomes evident that all is not right in Monterrey.

One moment Tae is getting accosted by a drunken merrymaker at a party who jokingly calls her a geisha girl. Then the family is scared, rightfully so, when Mr. Taylor receives a threatening letter. It voices the opinion of an unnamed “friend” about the fact that there are rumors floating around that Tae’s baby looks fully Japanese and she has been spending time with Shiro Hasagawa. A scandal of this kind will ruin Mr. Taylor’s reputation among his fellow growers. It will ruin him period.

But most important to this story, it infuriates Jim with a fiery rage. He’s angry at all the narrow-minded folks he used to call friends. He’s mad at his family and most of all Fran for her part in Tae’s distress. It’s in these most tenuous moments that  Tae decides to take her baby and seek asylum somewhere else to get away from the cultural chasm that has formed. Of course, they are reunited and there is a version of a happy ending, but it does not take away from the bottom line. They’ll still have to struggle against societal pressures and flat-out bigotry. However, if you’re in love, there are many rivers you are willing to ford and the same goes for Jim and Tae.

japanesewarbride1Japanese War Bride is continuously fascinating for the presence of Japanese within its frames. First, we have a rather groundbreaking and relatively unheard of interracial romance between the always personable average everyman Don Taylor and stunning newcomer Shirley Yamaguchi. Their scenes are tender and hold a great deal of emotional impact. It’s the kind of drama that has the power to make us mentally distraught but also imbue us with joy.

The film carries even more sobering underlying tension given the relative freshness of World War II. Mothers are still bitter about the deaths of their sons and that righteous anger is not discriminating between people. It only sees race. Meanwhile, Shiro and his sister reflect the times as Nisei, who were affected by internment and increased amounts of prejudice. While Shiro was imprisoned in Japan during the war, his family was interned at Tulare near Sacramento and his resentful father nearly had all of his land taken. Many other Japanese farmers were not so lucky.

For her part Marie Windsor plays her prime role as the antagonistic woman to the tee, effectively embodying all the small-minded, underhanded folks out there that live life without a genuine kindness for their fellow man. Poisoning other people’s mind just as they are poisoned, and it’s this type of rancor that leads to fear and bigotry. A breeding ground for hatred. In some shape and form, it still rears its ugly head to this day. What makes this film special is how it reflects the realities as it pertains to Japanese and Japanese-Americans. Veteran director King Vidor’s effort is a generally authentic and nuanced tale that pays his subjects the ultimate respect even in its more melodramatic moments.

3.5/5 Stars

The Naked City (1948) – Film-Noir

58f41-nakedcityposterDirected by Jules Dassin and starring Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, and Don Taylor, this documentary-style police procedural is an intriguing film. It begins with an omniscient narrator explaining the setting in New York. Soon we witness the aftermath of a murder. Then, we are following the detectives in Homicide as they try to follow the case. A beautiful model is dead and the suspects are few. Furthermore, they must figure out how stolen jewelry and a drowned man fit into the case. As Lieutenant Muldoon suspects, everything leads to an unknown culprit, a McGillicuddy. Little does the perpetrator know the police are closing in on him and it is only a matter of time. I found this film to be unique because of it’s narrator, semi-realistic approach, and relatable characters. On top of that the progression of the story was interesting and the ending sequence was entertaining. There truly are 8,000 stories in the Naked City. Enough to make a TV show.

4.5/5 Stars