Viva Zapata (1952): A Mixed Message of Revolution

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The place is Mexico City. The year 1909. A contingent of rural farmhands pays a visit to their eminent leader to intercede on behalf of their neighbors. They live a life of poverty and injustice as others gorge themselves on the riches of the land.

For all his progressive well-meaning, it still is a rather sour note seeing Marlon Brando playing national hero Emiliano Zapata,  especially with Anthony Quinn just left-of-center as his brother Eufumio. It seems like a casting opportunity missed just as the movie itself has so many blatant blindspots.

From the outset, these underlying issues slightly neutralize everything Vivia Zapata tries so desperately to embody, a lot of which is of a visceral nature. An old man is dragged across the dusty roads with a rope around his neck by government soldiers. He’s finally hacked free with a machete only to go careening into a cornfield — one of the first visual casualties onscreen.

Likewise, the peasantry begins clacking pebbles together ominously in the wake of horsemen taking their leader away. They are starting to mobilize and unite under a banner of liberty and equality. The grassroots are surging into action.

It’s evident Elia Kazan is searching out a sense of realism between old-school tintypes and post-war neorealism. He’s navigating a way to humanize Zapata as a sympathetic champion of the rural farmer but also make him seem authentic in his visible plight.

Despite its vast reservoir of talent, it falls flat or at least becomes undermined by the faces in the picture that look anything but realistic. It stands out sorely (even comically) against a canvass striving for this intimate, engaging paean of the Mexican revolution.

Furthermore, the story feels like it falls on the wrong side of the border for John Steinbeck who might know the migrants and cannery workers of Salinas and Monterey well, but the universality of that experience doesn’t always directly translate to the aspirations or patois of Mexican farmhands.

Jean Peters is someone I’ve grown to admire and yet as a virginal love interest, although she’s candid enough, the part still feels compromised. The worst infraction goes to Joseph Wisemen, in particular, who sticks out like a sore thumb or for that matter Mildred Dunnock who would do better in John Ford’s pictures. However, now that the air is cleared, we can leave these grievances where they lie and move forward to something more optimistic.

Like all revolutions girded around a cause, we witness how it ably mobilizes the entire population because they are fighting for something they’d willfully die for while their adversary is just striving for containment and holding onto what they already have. They’re radically different perspectives.

My knowledge of Mexican history is so woefully superficial having Zapata and Villa in the same film does me a service. Otherwise, I would probably have them confused. What’s curious is how the film works in passages of time — these almost elliptical increments — where we see more of the aftermath of each subsequent stepping stone in the struggle than grasping the moments themselves.

There are skirmishes in the cornfields and the forests — merciless executions carried out on both sides to enact discipline and reign in radicals, but most of the movie is a social and moral exercise.

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Zapata aligns himself with land reformer Francisco Madeira who, for all his idealistic shortcomings, seems relatively sincere in returning the land to the common man. However, he comes up against a self-serving mentality embodied by the tyrannical General Huerta.

The themes to be explored are of a valiant nature. Zapata’s trying to raise up a society and a world for his people of freedom only for it to be dictated by war, continual violence, and national corruption.

There’s this very cynical undercurrent to it as well even as Brando’s protagonist fights with a certain dogged and principled idealism. For him, this is a righteous war never sullied by personal gain or public veneration. And yet other men on both sides are only out for their own consolidation of power and their own vainglory. The few allies Zapata has are either compromised or killed.

One thinks of his own brother, Eufumio, who becomes disillusioned by their continual crusade never seeming to end. And sob driven by desperation and drink, he sets himself up as his own private dictator exasperating the mechanisms they had long been warring against. It signals the beginning of the end as their relations splinter at the seams.

Because one cannot live a life like Emiliano Zapata’s without expecting some form of vindictive retribution. For every man who cherishes his name, exulting him as some kind of national savior, there are still more who censure him as a degenerate outlaw.

Although Pancho Villa (Alan Reed) suggests some kind of middle ground — a way to fade off into the background — though this in itself even feels like an illusion. What little I know about Pancho Villa tells me he did not reach the ripe old age of a white-haired man.

However, in its final push, Viva Zapata does not totally repudiate its own message as the name Zapata becomes the ammunition — the brush fire to set the whole countryside alight — so the revolution might continue in the hearts and minds of the common man. It’s a stirring idea just as this film has a great deal to offer in terms of both talent and theatrical motifs.

Ultimately, it proves a mixed message between its roster of dated performances and conflicting aspirations to appeal to a certain progressive ethos. What helps take the sting out of it comes with the realization Kazan and Brando’s collaboration in On The Waterfront was just around the corner.

And Anthony Quinn, though he faced hardships in his career, didn’t do too bad for himself going forward. He was, after all, one of Hollywood’s most unique and versatile talents and a served him well in a truly serpentine career. At the very least, Zapata should lead to a fitting appreciation of him to go with some of its most admirable ideas in service to the downtrodden.

3/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Method Actors

Since we will be reviewing some films from some of the so-called Method actors, who were prevalent in the 1950s, we thought it would be good to do something a little different and pick four actors who are normally associated with the movement.

The Method was an approach to acting first conceived by Konstantin Stanislavski. However, his ideas were disseminated and widely influential thanks to the work done at New York’s Group Theater and then later the Actors Studio. Three prominent teachers who followed in his footsteps were Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner. Other noteworthy early figures were Elia Kazan and James Garfield.

A wave of younger actors would be flagged for bringing an exciting rawness and emotional vitality to Hollywood movie acting that was as revered as it was belittled and misunderstood. Let’s meet four key figures.

Montgomery Clift (1920-1966)

It’s difficult to understate how big Clift was when he made his auspicious transition from stage to screen. He chose his roles carefully and gained a reputation for not only his authentic emotional vulnerability on screen but also the meticulous time and preparation he put into his craft. A Place in The Sun and From Here to Eternity are as good a start as any.

Marlon Brando (1924 – 2004)

Brando often ranks as one of the greatest actors of all time and for good reason. He took the rules and generally assumed conventions of acting and gave them an animal magnetism and a kind of ever-present honesty that represented something entirely new and daring. It’s so easy to parody his mumbling delivery, but hard to replicate the breadth and import of his work especially early in his career. A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront are good starting points.

James Dean (1931 – 1955)

James Dean only has three starring roles to his name, and yet it’s a testament to his stature on screen and his lasting impact that he’s still talked about to this day. He doesn’t have the presence of Brando or the poise of Clift, but in his own flighty even standoffish temperament there was something truly mesmerizing for countless generations. East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant all feel like must-sees.

Paul Newman (1925 – 2008)

Like Brando, Newman had a long and varied career, but in the ’50s fresh off his time at the Actors Studio, he found himself in any number of heady dramas from the likes of Tennessee Williams. He also partnered with fellow student (and future wife) Joanne Woodward and the socially-minded actor’s director Martin Ritt. With the hole left with the tragic death of Dean, he was one of the young upstarts called on to fill the void. The rest was history.

Do you have a favorite out of these four actors or some favorite films they starred in?

Splendor in the Grass (1961): Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty

Splendor_Sheet_ALike William Inge’s earlier piece, Picnic, or some of Tennessee Williams’ most substantial work, Splendor in the Grass seems to hinge on the fact its content is in some way pushing the envelope as far as social issues and subsequent taboos go. It’s no surprise Elia Kazan was often drawn to such content over the course of his career on stage and screen. Hence his numerous collaborations with some of the landmark playwrights of the mid-20th century.

But again, in spite of being a Depression-era period piece, Splendor in the Grass comes off as a bit dated for how it’s trying to grapple with its contemporary moment — at least to begin with.

Our protagonists Norma Dean (Natalie Wood) and Bud (Warren Beatty) are coming of age in a society with a curious way of making sense of sexual mores. They are so confusing and no one seems willing to talk about them. When they do their advice only complicates matters.

Because the two teens look into each other’s eyes lovingly in the hallways at school. The affection is palpable and they want to do it right. They believe that the other is probably the “One.” Norma Dean has a Bud triptych up in her bedroom. Her devotion verging on obsession. Bud tells his boisterous father (Pat Hingle) he’s bent on marrying the girl.

They want to have intimacy but no one seems capable of dispelling the myths for them. Mrs. Loomis is quick to make sure her daughter hasn’t gone too far with her beau. She doesn’t want her daughter to be one of those girls — easy pickings with no respectability. It’s like a death sentence in a small town like theirs.

Kazan also captures the almost incoherent whisperings of bystanders whether concerned parents, students, neighbors, or partygoers. Because it’s true every slight tilt toward something “abnormal” gets the whole community talking. There’s a stigma attached to so many things.

The perfect example is Bud’s own sister, a prototypical floozie named Ginny (Barbara Loden), who is used to a good time and cavorts with nearly any man who will take her. Her father tries to keep a rein on her and Bud begs his sister to pull herself together. You can tell he’s genuinely worried about what she is willfully doing to herself.

Whereas Norma Dean’s mother preaches chastity to her little girl, Bud’s own father encourages him to find another type of girl — a girl in fact not unlike his daughter — someone who is easy. He preaches a gospel of sowing his wild oats before settling down to a life of prosperity and a Yale education. Bud eventually takes the advice and generally finds it lacking, though he still winds up terminating his relationship with Deanie. His experiences in college aren’t much better as he’s always maintained humbler aspirations.

Already so devoted to him, Deanie is emotionally torn apart by the separation, going so far as to teeter on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Her mother encourages her to court another boy named Toots (Gary Lockhart) who comes a calling, but it literally drives Deanie to the brink where she looks to jump off and save herself any future heartache.

When she enters her home and her parents seem oblivious to her feelings, bombarding her with happiness, it somehow feels like a precursor to Benjamin Braddock’s suffocation. It’s not simply that we begin to take on Deanie’s point of view, but there’s such a relational disconnect. Parents have no idea what their kids are going through and they seem hardly capable of empathizing with them.

So they go it alone. Natalie Wood soaking in the bathtub. Her voice gets more airy and unsettled by the minute. She’s the epitome of fragility. Bud struggling away from home and looking for understanding in another girl (Zohra Lampert) or a benevolent school official who actually chooses to listen to him, unlike his father.

However, far from demonizing parents, we realize just how much pressure there is on them, so many mistakes to be made, ways you treat your kids, which unwittingly affect them in their future. It’s just the way it is. Art Stamper cares so much about the success of his kids and he’s put his entire life into setting up their good fortune. Where does it get him in the end? Likewise, Mrs. Loomis dotes incessantly over her daughter confessing she did her best as a mother, afraid Norma Dean holds past failings against her.

Then, her parents make the heady decision to send her away for therapy and things begin to reach an equilibrium. The plot feels like vague fragments rather than a fully cohesive narrative from start to finish, but it gives us hints and contours of our main characters trying to decipher their lives.

As times passes, there’s less and less of Kazan’s more dramaturgical entries and more of Wild River another Depression-era drama, which was equally blessed with understatement in its most crucial moments. I think Splendor in The Grass does well to ditch drama for a near wistful milieu feeling at home in the poetic romanticism of William Wordsworth. Regardless, it proves a healthier place to wind up.

It’s a more hopeful rendition of Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The romance we thought would be something — even marred by scandal — was nothing of the sort. It just dissipated and with the passage of time two people found others and it seemed right.

When Bud and Deanie meet again, in the end, they muse how strangely things work out sometimes. Neither of them would have foreseen things this way. He’s a farmer now, with a kindly wife, and a boy with another child on the way. She’s to marry a successful doctor whom she met while she was in the care facility. It really is a satisfying denouement.

Instead of thinking about happiness, they take what comes and find contentment wherever life leads them. For people so young, they seem to have a fairly clear handle on doing precisely that.

With his debut, Warren Beatty readily became another protege of Elia Kazan gleaning anything he could, serving him well in a diverse career as an actor, producer, and director that is still going to this day. Meanwhile, Natalie Wood benefited as well in a performance that though it borders on the spastic, nevertheless seems to cull depths of emotional instability yet untouched in her career.

Now we cannot immediately label those the hallmarks of a great performance. Yet maybe the vulnerability brought on makes it so. The film is at its best in its innocence and transparency finally giving way to a newfound maturity. The old maxim manages to ring true; time heals all wounds.

3.5/5 Stars

Wild River (1960): Elia Kazan and Monty Clift

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“You’re getting awful human aren’t you Chuck?” ~ Lee Remick as Carol

“I was always human, wasn’t I?” ~ Montgomery Clift as Chuck

With the mention of the Tennessee Valley Authority and what feels like Depression newsreel footage suggesting the work they are looking to do in the face of poverty, it becomes immediately apparent Elia Kazan’s Wild River feels very much like a docudrama.

Despite the raging water in the title, this is a surprisingly subdued picture especially given Kazan’s credentials. But there you have a dose of its enticement as a film that all but flies under the radar because it cannot be so easily attributed to the Method due to theatrics like a Streetcar Named Desire or East of Eden.

And yet there is no doubting the capabilities of a now weathered Montgomery Clift in this latter stage of his career. Fitting, as his name is linked, deservingly so, with the Brandos and the Deans for the jolt of newfound authenticity and masculinity they helped usher in within the Hollywood community.

However, unlike his compatriots, Clift was not a rising star partnering his talents with Kazan’s own intuitive handling of actors. He was a highly established and ceaselessly ingenious talent already. Clift never seems prone to histrionics but more crucially proves invested in emotional authenticity.

In this case, he is a man with an obvious task at hand. With a new TVA dam going in to provide electricity for the surrounding community, Chuck Glover is called upon to clear the area of all its occupants so the river valley can be completely flooded. The area has been all but vetted except for one lifelong unwavering inhabitant, Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet) who lives on a solitary island with her grown sons and granddaughter.

She’s not too favorable toward TVA men and Glover’s predecessor gave up, finding the old lady unyielding. Still, the new man’s got to at least try because the Tenessee Valley Authority is intent on moving forward with progress.

As she showcased in everything from East of Eden and Cool Hand Luke, Jo Van Fleet could be a scene-stealer in her own right and she was consequently an adherent to a “Method” style, gelling with her director. Hence Kazan’s eagerness to cast her again. She doesn’t disappoint with her 45 years all but disappearing behind her performance filled with a resolute obstinacy, which is neither wholly bitter or overly pious.

One could situate Wild River as a Grapes of Wrath story from a sympathetic perspective.  The wheels of progress are more of a benevolent aid to the public rather than an unfeeling force bulldozing the old for the new. The delineation is purposeful even as it leads to obviously divergent conclusions.

Chuck does not want to use force and he is looking to understand the local inhabitants so he can help them the best he can. Though the eldest Garth rejects his initial inquiries, he does find a sympathetic spirit in Carol Garth Baldwin (Lee Remick) who raises two children following the premature death of her husband. As the story progresses and Chuck keeps on plugging away in his mission, he and Carol slowly grow closer even as their worlds seem so far apart. There’s a glint of Norma Rae in how they come together. What matters is people’s convictions rather than their environment.

But to a slightly lesser degree, there’s the racial element as it seems like it would be ill-advised to draw up a story such as this without a certain enmity. Chuck just wants his job done and he’s ready to use black labor to do it. All the local southern white folks aren’t about that, much less equal wages.

He meets particular pushback from a local cotton plantation owner named Bailey (Albert Salmi) who doesn’t look on his presence too kindly. The same might be said of Walter Clark (Frank Overton) who has been Carol’s beau for some time. And yet their characters could not more starkly different. We get to understand them more deeply in due time.

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One of the greatest pleasures of Wild River is the opportunity to study the faces of our leads in-depth. Lee Remick’s performance alone abounds with the unspoken feelings behind her eyes.  It’s as if her eyes are the windows into her every emotion. Bright blue, at times pleading, other times aloof with a sadness we can only attempt to understand. But the film is made by its warmth and its subtleties, far more than any amount of blundering brutal magnetism. It comes out aging like a fine wine compared to some of its hothouse contemporaries.

The galvanizing moment comes when the local yokels try to scare Chuck off and have themselves a time goosestepping on the roof and ramming a truck into the side of a house; a shotgun even gets brought to the proceedings. The sheriff observes from a measured distance with mild amusement.

And yet when Chuck wanders out to face his perpetrators, there’s a resolve in his eyes. Surrounded by all these folks, he goes up to the spiteful man who is behind it all and proceeds to get wailed on. It’s almost pitiful. Our hero goes flailing, his girl starts climbing and clawing over the guy only to wind up in the mud right next to her lover.

It’s hardly a cinematic moment but it feels like a real one and the fact that our hero, Monty Clift, winds up so pitifully is a testament to this story. For the record, I’ve never gotten into a fist-fight. I’m a very flighty non-confrontational fellow but regardless, there’s something honest about how this one goes down.

One of the final shots is an equally fitting testament of what we have just witnessed. A solitary house on an island is set ablaze surrounded by water with an American flag dancing in the breeze. Maybe others feel the same emotion but the flag all but suggests this nation of ours has a complex relationship with progress. Where we must let go of the old to make way for the new. However, we must also reconcile each with the other.

Is it simply a part of life — the inevitable — or are there truly righteous and detrimental ways to go about it? The film is not forthcoming with its own answers. All we can do is sit back and ruminate. With a smile on our faces looking forward but nevertheless a lingering wistfulness for the past we left behind.

4/5 Stars

 

A Face in the Crowd (1957): Lonesome Rhodes is No Andy Taylor

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It begins unobtrusively enough. In a backwater Arkansas jail, a drunkard plays his guitar on a radio segment of “A Face in the Crowd” being broadcast from his cell. They don’t know it quite yet but soon the host who found him, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), and Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith) capture the public’s imagination. Far from just plucking Rhodes out of obscurity, Jefferies also rebrands him with an off the cuff remark and uses her daddy’s radio reach to broadcast him all around.

With such a platform, Rhodes does the rest with his wild whoops of down-home charm and strangely beguiling magnetism. He’s a natural performer and showman who knows how to form a connection with the folks at home. Soon they have created a following or as is popular in the lexicon these days a “tribe” giving him real media presence in the cultural conversation.

Someone asks him the question, “How does it feel to be able to say anything that comes into your head and be able to sway people?” But it’s true. He’s at the forefront of a grassroots democracy turning into a television phenomenon.

Meanwhile, Jefferies watches it all unfolding with bright-eyed awe and deep enthusiasm. It’s absolutely rich seeing it sweep over the country. One of the cogs in the machine is a jaded writer named Mel (an early Walter Matthau) who watches the unfoldings with grim amusement. Meanwhile, Lonesome’s ever-ambitious and cutthroat promoter (an even younger Anthony Franciosa) positions his man to continue broadening his success. Everyone’s trying to get a piece of this new pie. Because what’s more American than pie?

Rhodes keeps up his side of the bargain by purveying his own brand of “authenticity.” On one show he brings on a destitute African-American woman and gives a call-to-action and the money comes pouring in, in response. Another week he crosses a mattress sponsor and subsequently raises the man’s sales all across the country simply by belittling his product.

Soon he’s brought on to promote the product of the stuffy Vitajex company and he takes their pride and joy, disregarding their focus groups and tradition, selling the pill straight to the public. By the time he’s done with them, the public’s buying them up by the barrelful.

He also captures the imaginations and the fancy of all the young girls all across the nation — soon has them all swooning over him — but one lucky girl wins out (Lee Remick) with her baton twirling during the Ms. Arkansas Majorrette competition of 1957. Of course, Lonesome Rhodes is made the judge and after getting mobbed by the girls, he takes a shine to Betty Lou.

Marcia gets pushed further and further into the periphery of his life as Rhodes weds the frisky twirler and sets his sights on the next domain to be conquered. Politics have entered a new stage — the television age — and no man is more beloved than Lonesome Rhodes. “You gotta be a saint for the power the box can give you,” as Mel notes, and in the wrong hands, this immense power is dangerous.

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Rhodes throws his support behind a stodgy old lawmaker giving him advice in the process. The film was already predicting the famed televised debate between Nixon and Kennedy. Where campaigning is about punchlines and glamor; it becomes a popularity contest and an advertising endeavor as much as a smear campaign. He uses his Cracker Barrel Show to promote the senator in a more relaxed atmosphere and has the position of Secretary of National Morale waved in front of him.

He even notes his candidate should get a dog, observing that it didn’t do Roosevelt any harm or Dick Nixon neither (referring to the well-received “Checkers” speech in 1952). Because these events begin to hint out how corruption, even double talk, begin to make the general public question “authenticity.”

In one off-handed remark, Lonesome crows, “This whole country is just like my flock of sheep.” However, like Arthur Godfrey, his downfall (though more rapid) occurs after an onscreen incident that removes his mask and undermines his image before the people. They can never see him the same way. The saboteur, as it were, is Marcia for she cannot bear to see the people taken in.

So the final trajectory is obvious — the ascension and the dethronement — but that can hardly neutralize what we have already witnessed. A Face in the Crowd lingers with fair warning, relevant to any analogous situation in the modern landscape, only magnified to the nth degree.

Earl Hagen’s down-home waterhole tunes fit The Andy Griffith Show just as this arrangement from Tom Glazer gels with A Face in the Crowd. Speaking of, I must insert a thought on what I know more about, as I grew up watching countless hours of The Andy Griffith Show.

The character of Andy Taylor obscures the fact of what a fine actor Andy Griffith was. To some extent, the same can be said of No Time for Sergeants because like the early seasons of his show, he’s just playing a bubble-headed hick. Later on, he became more of a straight man and after Barney Fife left, he settled into a more irascible role so there was an evolution.

Regardless, Lonesome Rhodes turns the overarching stereotypes of the man on their head. You can still see him as the benevolent Sheriff of Mayberry but this certainly lingers in the back of your mind. Take away the moral integrity and others-centric mentality of Andy and you wind up with Lonesome.

Given its themes about media and television, which seem like a cutting-edge indictment in their contemporary age, it seems logical to lump A Face in The Crowd with Network. Similarly, though technology and advertising continue to become more advanced and invasive, the themes explored feel, not less relevant, but more so.

We simply have to magnify them. Instead of television, we have Twitter and smartphones. Instead of people who willfully hide their intent, we have people in power who seem to blatantly disregard moral uprightness.

I want Lonesome Rhodes to be outdated and immaterial but to make such a claim would be an immense act of folly. It would cater to the same sense of ignorance and sway in all sectors of society, which led to the rise of such a person in the first place. Then and now…

4.5/5 Stars

Note: An earlier version of this review erroneously said Rip Torn instead of Anthony Franciosa (He was featured in an uncredited role).

Baby Doll (1956): Elia Kazan Does Southern Comedy

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Elia Kazan had a fairly lucrative partnership with Tennessee Williams and the same could be said of his ongoing working relationship with Karl Malden. It’s fitting that all three are back for Baby Doll and yet it still manages to feel like a bit of an outlier in Kazan’s oeuvre thus far.

As per usual, Kazan invests great commitment in his actors and the emotional richness of their performances, which enter near hyper-realized heights. Because there would be no Baby Doll without Malden, Eli Wallach and of course, Carroll Baker. They must carry its weight and for what it’s worth, they manage the task quite well.

Malden is the bug-eyed hick, Archie Lee, who made a pact with the dying pappy of his virginal bride that he would take care of her. Whether he’s held sway on his side of the bargain is up for debate, as Baby Doll and he live in a home literally crumbling around them by the hour

He’s a narrow-minded cotton gin operator who has recently been hitting the skids due to competition. If you are looking for the bare minimums of the story, there you have them. The situations themselves venture on the absurd in this hardly fully-realized plot.

With their house a decrepit eyesore, the furniture soon gets taken away. Archie Lee’s just about at the end of his tether and so he sneaks out one night and commits an act of arson on a whole silo full of cotton. It’s a desperate attempt to give himself an advantage and direct some business his way.

It’s true many might be unaccustomed to comedy in a Kazan film because though it’s masked by typical antics, melodrama, and the risque veneer that precedes it, the humor is unquestionable. If it sounds like melodrama you only have to look at the performances to crack a grin because they do feel like over-the-top exaggerations.

The galvanizing moment, of course, is our first view of Baby Doll lounging in a crib-like bed, sucking on her thumb. Her husband peeps on her through a hole in the plaster giggling like a lecherous schoolboy when she wakes up. We have a Lolita archetype and no doubt the source of its censorship woes, which elicited a “Condemned” rating from the Catholic League of Decency.

What always stings more is hearing the N-word bandied around so inconsequentially as the African-American characters play an unheralded supporting role in the far-off periphery. There you see the hypocrisy. No one in the Catholic or Southern Christian communities probably saw it fit to condemn this element, no doubt considering it acceptable, even commonplace. It’s at least something worth acknowledging soberly.

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If Archie Lee is our entry point into this asinine world, then Baby Doll and Vacarro (Wallach) have the presence to keep us watching. In a momentary lapse in judgment watching Long Hot Summer, I mistook Lee Remick for Carrol Baker because they look vaguely similar at first glance. However, Baker does more than a southern belle here full of sing-song dialogue. There’s a tremor, an impediment to her speech which, comes off as strangely childlike. She boasts a cutesy name and enticing sensuality akin to Darling Jill from God’s Little Acre and really there’s the film we can draw the most parallels between.

Because Eli Wallach plays the other man who pays Archie Lee a visit the following day after the conflagration at his place. He’s derisively referred to as a “Whop” and so it’s easy for him to become the outsider with a chip on his shoulder. He’s willing to do what he needs to do in order to get back on top of the heap. Ironically, he lets Archie Lee in on his philosophy.  He’s a proponent of “biblical justice,” an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, though he obviously didn’t read the scriptures too closely.

Instead, he implements their “Good Neighbor Policy” and while the other man is out fixing his machines to take on a new cotton crop, Silva starts playing with his wife even sneaking into the house to toy with Baby Doll. But remember this is not A Streetcar Named Desire. Wallach has his own inner demons but he’s no Stanley Kowalski and Baby Doll’s no Blanche.

Their trajectories take them into different places as a drunken Archie Lee gets jealous of his wife’s suitor, going after his adversary with his shotgun. However, in the end, the stakes are slighter than its predecessors and yet there’s something novel and slightly refreshing in this. While Baby Doll is nowhere near the best of Kazan’s work its “otherness” makes it a risible endeavor out of left field.

3.5/5 Stars

A Tree Grows in Brookyln (1945): The Precursor to I Remember Mama

ATreeGrowsInBrooklyn1945Poster.jpgThe reveries of a Saturday afternoon in childhood are where A Tree Grows in Brooklyn chooses to begin and it proves a fine entry point, giving us an instant feel for the world the Irish neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Its contours are impoverished, even harsh, but also richly American.

There is a mother (Dorothy McGuire) who is practical and ever-resourceful, scrimping and saving to eke by an existence for her family. She faithfully pays her family’s due to the door-to-door insurance man Mr. Barker, who is always ready to sow some juicy gossip around the community.

It occurs to me that Katie Nolan (McGuire) is a precursor to Irene Dunne’s role in I Remember Mama. But there is also a near-callousness that is lacking in the latter part, which is mostly sunshine. In this regard, it gleams with a certain individual truth. Struggling  to make ends meet, Nolan asserts, “My kids are going to be something if I have to turn into granite rock to make them.” She dishes out tough love and makes difficult decisions in what she deems is their best interest — an extension of her undying love for them.

There’s an extraordinary shot showing bickering wives, stories up in their apartments, with clotheslines strung up every which way and a man trying to fix the source of their problems.

Nearby sits the little girl enthralled with her book and you understand first hand the power of the library. Because with the internet, television, and movies we’ve deluded them but, at a certain time, books were a way of escape, of learning, and open avenues to distant places.

Francie (Peggy Ann Garner) is, without question, the emotional center and if we are to extend the earlier juxtaposition further, she is an analogous version of Barbara Bel Geddes’s character in I Remember Mama. We view the memories of the past through their impressionable eyes.

She too is captured by her imagination — the rapturous escapes that stories and music can provide a fanciful mind like hers in the station of life she finds herself in. Francie’s deepest wishes are granted when she is able to attend a fine school where her benign teacher gently cultivates her passions.

The advice passed down to her is empowering as Francie is inspired to be a writer. She must write about the things she knows imbuing them with truth, which can then be dressed up with the whims of her imagination.

It’s true Francie maintains an underlying sweetness and innocence even in the midst of heartache. For instance, there is the annual Christmas ritual retrieving discarded trees and boy do the kiddies bring home a whopper. Its presence alone puts some yuletide cheer and the smell of evergreen into their holidays.

It only takes such a minor yet meaningful Christmas scene to humble us in our modern tendencies so that we realize how off-base our modern celebrations are. These folks have nothing and yet to look into their eyes you see such contentment in the singing of a song and quality time spent together.

However, the most debilitating ideology in the film is the concept of neverending cycles — believing the lie that change is impossible and things will never be different. Because already you have a self-fulfilling prophecy. We see it most obviously in the marriage of Francie’s parents.

Johnny Nolan is an ebullient father bred on dreams and singing. There’s always a song in his heart whether “Swanee River” or “Sweet Molly Malone” and unfortunately, for the sake of his family, a bottle in his hand. His daughter memorializes him aptly, “He had nothing to give but himself but this he gave generously like a king.”

The words stand tall and true. To my mind, I have not seen such a compelling father finger as Johnny Nolan in some time and the reasons are as obvious as his flaws. He’s an alcoholic. He makes promises he can never keep. He’s practically useless when it comes to providing for his family. And yet through all his shortcomings shines a light of generosity and geniality that positively warms the cockles of our heart. We cannot condemn him without loving him just as deeply. There you have the testament of a truly impactful character.

Aunt Sissy (Joan Blondell) proves another bright spot in the film and her vivacity, much like her brother-in-law’s, injects the film with a buoyancy making us grow fond of them even as their flaws are laid fully bare. Sissy has her own struggles holding onto a marriage with a couple of husbands already coming and going. Her escapades leave her baby sister shaking her head and hoping to shield her kids. And yet even Aunt Sissy has her admirable qualities.

The local police officer Mr. McShane (Lloyd Nolan) walks his beat with a quiet integrity, disregarding any stereotypes of policemen and fashions them into compassionate people the world could probably use more of. Meanwhile, kind old Mr. McGarrity (James Gleason) heaps neighborly generosity on the Nolan’s in an effort to help the overextended Mrs. Nolan make ends meet.  It’s the benevolent spirits in the film who are quietly memorable.

Too blinded by the resonating sentiments, I failed to see the obvious denouement of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which nevertheless proves deeply satisfying. As its title suggests, out of death and decay can grow new hope. It comes from hardy stock and dutiful cultivation, which all seem integral to the American way of life.

For me, it’s almost unthinkable to think the man who played a small part as Googie in City for Conquest only 5 years letter would alight on a directorial career that shook Hollywood over and I don’t think that’s hyperbole. He brought us Brando and Dean, conquered stage and screen and left an indelible mark on film acting forever. Of course, we’re talking about Elia Kazan and here he has his first prominent muse Dorothy McGuire (a founding member of the La Jolla Playhouse) who is often an unsung star fitting as she’s playing an unsung heroine

It seems a fitting entry point into Kazan’s career as it is an immigrant story and he came from such a family. It makes no difference that he wasn’t Irish because we can surmise the essence is much the same. He believes in the American dream no doubt and the love and integrity that can see people through the turbulence of life.

However, perhaps the most striking acknowledgment has to do with the fact this story does not thrive on intensity — one might see that as being a marker of Kazan’s most noted works — it’s tenderness mostly. But then if you stop a moment and think of Brando slipping on the glove belonging to Evie (Eva Marie Saint) or James Dean crying to his father (Raymond Massey), you realize he never lost those sentiments. What made his films was the real emotions that reach out to us. He never allowed for those sensations to waver. There you have an integral element of his success.

4/5 Stars

Boomerang (1947)

Boomerang!Boomerang shares some similarities to Call Northside 777 (1948) and Panic in the Streets (1950). Like the latter Elia Kazan film, this one boasts a surprising amount of real-world authenticity and a loaded cast of talent. Those are its greatest attributes as Kazan makes the bridge between the stage and the silver screen. He brings with him a sensibility for a certain amount of social realism matched with quality acting connections he had accrued in his career thus far.

The only problem is it’s not very compelling just a good, solid, well-made human drama without much fanfare. At the very least, it hits all the procedural beats it’s supposed to. Sometimes that’s alright and it is interesting the narrative goes fairly in-depth into actual events which occurred back in 1926.

In that year a beloved local preacher in Connecticut was gunned down by a fugitive who ran off in the night before he could be apprehended but not before seven witnesses caught a glimpse of his face. The rest of the film is a buildup of the frenzy churned up in the aftermath. The police frantically try and catch the man-at-large with the papers on their back and several political reappointments hanging in the balance.

It’s true Boomerang does become a more interesting exercise once we’ve entered a courtroom and a man (Arthur Kennedy) is put on trial for the murder of the aforementioned minister — a defendant who has pleaded his innocence since the beginning although the evidence is stacked up against him including a vengeful witness (Cara Williams). Except the district attorney (Dana Andrews) takes a stand to promote his innocence. In this case, it’s not quite so straightforward.

True to form and all parties involved, the acting is a great joy to watch with a mixture of untrained actors filling in as the locals of a sleepy Connecticut town and then bolstered by a formidable supporting cast.

We have Dana Andrews at the center but he is buttressed by some quality performers who would make a name for themselves in subsequent years on the stage and screen. These include Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, Karl Malden, and, of course, Arthur Kennedy.

Not one of them is a classically handsome or groomed Hollywood star but in the post-war years, they would be crucial to the trajectory of noteworthy films of the decade. Look no further than Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), or 12 Angry Men (1957) as living proof.

The underlining moral conundrum of this film is evident as Henry Harvey is faced with political opposition and heady threats with his doting wife (Jane Wyatt) acting as his pillar of strength. The sides begin to get drawn up as the District Attorney takes a stand to uphold real justice and not just win another conviction and approval from the local populace. It’s a risk but also a move of immense integrity.

The real-life inspiration for this man, Homer Cummings, far from becoming governor took on another position instead, as Attorney General of the United States under FDR. Not too shabby.  The same can be said of this picture. Not too shabby as far as docudrama noir go.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Brando_-_Leigh_-_1951Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski. They’re both so iconic not simply in the lore of cinema history but literature and American culture in general. It’s difficult to know exactly what to do with them. Stanley Kowalski the archetypical chauvinistic beast. Driven by anger, prone to abuse, and a mega slob in a bulging t-shirt who also happens to be a hardline adherent to the Napoleonic Codes. But then there’s Blanche, the fragile, flittering, self-conscious southern belle driven to the brink of insanity by her own efforts to maintain her epicurean facade. They’re larger than life figures.

In truth, A Streetcar Named Desire is one of those cases where play and film are so closely intertwined it’s hard to pull them apart. And there’s so many connecting points. Tennessee Williams helped to adapt his initial work and Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden all transposed their original stage roles to the screen while Elia Kazan took on direction once more.

As such it became the showcase of The Method, the shining beacon championing that long heralded yet controversial movement born of Stanislav Konstitine and disseminated in the U.S. by such instructors as Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. It was from this latter teacher from whom Marlon Brando honed his craft and it’s true that he was one for the ages. The Greatest by some people’s account.

But before this film, Vivien Leigh was the biggest name on the marquee and she, of course, had ties to Laurence Olivier, the apex of Shakespearian actors and arguably the most reputed actor of the age until Brando came along. In Streetcar, you can invariably see the thin link connecting such luxuriant Hollywood offerings as Gone with the Wind to the evolution of cinema with later classics like The Godfather because it’s physically there on the screen.

Vivien Leigh, forever synonymous with Scarlet O’Hara and Brando’s own brand of sometimes brutal authenticity. She wavers and sashays through her scenes, clinging to the set and delivering her lines as pure searing drama. Whereas Brando just is. This animalistic force of brawn stuffing his face with chicken and moving through his home like he actually lives there. It’s social realism but it’s also a conflict on multiple levels that goes far beyond the main tension within the film itself.

Within the narrative, it is certainly a clash of culture, dialect, and acting styles and we’re never allowed to forget it anytime Stanley (Brando) or Blanche (Leigh) are in a room together. Still, they are not the only players in this film and Kim Hunter lends an added layer to the conflict as she simultaneously yearns for the romantic passion coursing through Stanely while wanting to protect her sister from harm. It’s a precarious tightrope to walk and Hunter makes it heartwrenching. Beyond her, Karl Malden plays Mitch, one of Stanley’s old war buddies who nevertheless exhibits a softer side that is easily taken with Blanche’s cursory level of class.

So in the end, Blanche’s fall not only harms Stella but Mitch too as he sees his heart get hurt and he feels lied too. But the one who fairs the worst is, of course, Blanche herself as she becomes completely overtaken by her delusions of grandeur. The fact that she goes for magic over reality ultimately becomes her undoing.

Today Streetcar does come off as stagy and yet Kazan is still able to personify the sticky, grungy, sweaty atmosphere of New Orleans — palpable with its billowing cigarette smoke and humidity. It somehow functions as this odd dichotomy between the theatrical and utter realism. In one way at odds and in another married perfectly because the juxtaposition only draws out the drama even further.  And the fact that the film pushed the boundaries as far as content easily heightens the drama. Stanley’s attack on Blanche is not only in a verbal or emotional sense but physical as well and we have little problem believing Brando in his role.

It also struck me that in her final moments Blanche feels hauntingly reminiscent of Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd only a year prior. But her delusions are far more pitiful because she never was anything and yet she still tries to cling to this sense of pride in her upbringing and the looks that once were. She constantly needs the affirmation and adulation of others to reassure her in her fears and frailties. Always putting on a pretense — a face to get by — but she’s the only one she’s able to deceive in the end. It’s one of the preeminent tragedies of the 20th century and its actors guide it into transcendent territory.

4.5/5 Stars

Panic in the Streets (1950)

panic_in_the_streets_1950It disappoints me that I was not more taken with the material than I was but despite not being wholly engaged, there are still some fascinating aspects to Panic in the Streets. Though a somewhat simple picture, it seems possible that I might just need to give it a second viewing soon. Let’s begin with the reality.

This noir docudrama is somehow not as tense as some of Elia Kazan’s other works. In fact, it’s port locale anticipate the memorable atmosphere of On The Waterfront, although it’s hard to stand up to such a revered classic. Still, the film does have its own appeals.

It begins with a gritty setting full of grungy character and New Orleans charm that continues the trend of post-war films taking the movie cameras to the streets and to the people who actually dwell there. In this way, the film shares some similarities to The Naked City.

The acting talent is also a wonderful strength with Richard Widmark playing our lead, Lt. Commander Clint Reed, this time on the right side of the law as a Naval Doctor trying to contain an outbreak of pneumonic plague before it spreads exponentially. His compatriot is played by the always enjoyable Paul Douglas a world-wearied police captain who must grin and bear joining forces with Reed.

The film is full of seedy undesirables and the most important and memorable one is Jack Palance (in his screen debut) showing off his tough as nails personality that was certainly no fluke. His right hand blubbering crony is the equally conniving Zero Mostel and together they make a slimy pair for the police to close in on. Because it’s one of their associates who ends up murdered but it’s only in the coroner’s office where they find out he was infected with something fierce.

This sets the sirens going off in Reed’s head and while not an alarmist, he wants everyone to consider the gravity of the situation. He has some trouble working with the police but he also seems to understand that this is not an isolated issue but it can affect his family — his wife Nancy (Barbara Bel Geddes) and his precocious boy (Tommy Rettig). But not just his immediate circle, but his entire community. And so he and Captain Warren race against the clock to not only to prevent an epidemic but solve a crime and apprehend the perpetrators. So this is undoubtedly your typical police procedural enlivened by New Orleans but there are also different layers to what is going on that have broader implications.

For instance, what do you tell the press? Do you keep it under wraps or let them shout it from the rooftops so the criminals get away scot-free — like rats fleeing the scene of the crime? Are you just looking for the murderers or are you considering the entire community at large? These questions deserve to be parsed through more thoroughly than I possibly can. So while Panic in the Streets is more methodical than a tense drama there are some very good things to it. Namely its location, its cast, and the universal nature of its central conflict.

3.5/5 Stars