Hombre (1967)

hombre1“You don’t get tired, you don’t get hungry, you don’t get thirsty. Are you real?” – Jessie

“More or less” – John Russell 

How to function within Western culture. That’s what John Russell must figure out as a man who was raised by Apache and then is forced to enter the “white man’s world” to collect his deceased father’s possessions (a watch and a boarding house). He starts out complete with long locks and a bandanna but soon switches over to more traditional western wear in a way blending into society — while simultaneously beginning to look more like the Paul Newman we know.

But he’s far from the affable ne’er do well. In fact, he hardly even utters a word. He’s not agreeable and about as terse as they come. He’s not looking for any favors and he’s not looking to hand out any charity. He’s also not going to take the white man’s flack. But his decision to sell his boarding house for horses is not too popular with the home’s residents, including the fiery Jessie (Diane Cilento).

hombre2Ultimately, Russell boards the local stage with a few other individuals. The destination doesn’t seem to matter much, but the people do. Leading the coach is affable Mexican Henry Mendez (Martin Balsam) and along with the two aforementioned, the other two misplaced tenants, young Billy Joe and his wife join the contingent. The coach is rounded out by Indian Agent Alexander Favor (Frederic March), his well to do wife, and finally, the vulgar tough-guy Cicero Grimes (Richard Boone).

When Dr. Favor learns of Russell’s background he requests that the Indian sit up top and such a reaction embitters Russell. But there’s not much time to worry about the prejudice because Cicero’s cronies hold up the stage in an effort to swipe some ill-gotten gain from the esteemed doctor. The survivors are left to die and Russell heads off on his own with a few stragglers trying to catch up with him. He has no sympathy to offer, but they follow him because he is the most knowledgeable among them.

Of course, the film must reach a crescendo and it occurs with Russell dealing with Dr. Favor and then Boone. Both men are crooked in their own ways. Grimes is sadistic in nature, but Favor is also a despicable and sorry excuse for a human being. And yet Russell himself has his own streak of heartlessness. What it means is that each man must face justice and in some way, shape, or form pay for their deeds. Just as the men come in different incarnations, they are complemented by varying degrees of women from all across the gamut.

Director Martin Ritt’s Hombre really feels like a riff off of Stagecoach and feels somewhat reminiscent of Boetticher’s western The Tall T (also featuring a no good Richard Boone). But it’s no doubt a western for the 1960s, coloring the West with more liberal and revisionist tones. However, the film deals not only with prejudice but morality. For although John Russell has a gripe with the world and its hypocrisy since his people are getting pushed out by men who call themselves “Christian,” he’s not without fault. Jessie so rightly points out, that if the whole world didn’t lift a finger then the whole world would go to hell in a hand-basket. And in many ways this world does.

3.5/5 Stars

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946): The Forgotten Counterpart to George Bailey’s Story

The_Best_Years_of_Our_Lives_film_Inherent in a film with this title, much like It’s a Wonderful Life, is the assumption that it is a generally joyous tale full of family, life, liberty, and the general pursuit of happiness. With both films you would be partially correct with such an unsolicited presumption, except for all those things to be true, there must be a counterpoint to that.

Upon watching both these films on subsequent days, that became markedly evident. George Bailey (James Stewart), of course, must go through a perturbing alternate reality where he never existed, and the consequences are catastrophic to all those he knows and loves in his community. But such a paradigm shift or new perspective, does truly revitalize his entire existence. It’s as if he sees the whole world through an unfaltering lens of hopefulness thereafter.

Although it lacks the dark fantasy that engulfs the latter half of It’s a Wonderful Life, Best Years has its own heavy dose of foreboding, that while more realistic, is no less disconcerting. All the boys have returned from the theaters of Europe and the Pacific, including our three protagonists Fred (Dana Andrews), Homer (Harold Russell), and Al (Fredric March). Upon getting back to their old abode of Boone City, sons talk about nuclear fallout in Hiroshima and men at drug store counters warn of the imminent threat of “The Reds.” Some soldiers like Fred have trouble landing work. Others struggle with getting the necessary loans from banks like the one Al works at,  or they come back to far less glamorous lifestyles. Homer copes with being a double amputee and simultaneously closes himself off to all those who love him, including his longtime sweetheart Velma (Cathy O’Donnell). He must learn not so much how to love, but the equally difficult life skill of allowing others to love him.

Derry also struggles in a loveless marriage with his superficial wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), while also battling with PTSD symptoms like recurrent nightmares. Even the subtle reality that the only African-Americans in the film work behind soda fountain counters or in nightclub jazz bands has greater implications. Theirs is a relegated status, even in a country of liberty like America. Unlike the former film, we do not see any ghoulish human cemeteries, but we do see plane graveyards like ghost towns where metal is slowly rusting just waiting to get demolished and re-purposed. At this point, it is only a sobering reminder of all those who fought and died in the war years.

Many of these topics are only mentioned for a brief moment or we can only infer them from visual cues, but still, they lurk there under the surface or better yet, right in plain view. These real-life unsettling concerns are worse than It’s a Wonderful Life because they fall so close to home even today.

Wounded veterans are still coming home to a country that doesn’t know what to do with them, or a country that seems ungrateful for their service. Married folks still struggle through marriage and divorce. Single people still struggle with figuring out if they should get married and so on.

I think part of the reason I admire The Best Years of Our Lives so much, despite its nearly 3 hour running time, is its ability to captivate my attention rather like a day in the life of someone I would meet on the street. Although Virginia Mayo and Mryna Loy seem the most Hollywood, most everyone feels rather ordinary. Certainly, Dana Andrews is handsome and Teresa Wright, as well as Cathy O’Donnell, are wonderful as multidimensional girls-next-door, but I feel like I could potentially know people like them. And of course, Harold Russell was unusual since he wasn’t a trained actor. That casting choice pays off beautifully in moments such as the final wedding scenes where in a dyslexic moment he switches up his vows. But it works wonderfully as an authentic addition.

Although Gregg Toland worked on revolutionary fare like Citizen Kane, and William Wyler dabbled in all sorts of genres from westerns to period dramas, they have all the necessary sensibilities for a perfect presentation given the subject matter. The visuals are crisp and beautiful, but never flashy or overly conspicuous. The use of deep focus concerns itself with the overall composition of the frame -never attempting to focus our attention on any singular action.  It all becomes equally important. Meanwhile, Wyler directs with a sure hand that makes the actions flow organically and at the same time his ensemble is given the space and the time to grow and evolve before our very eyes.

It’s a timeless film for what it brings to the forefront and also because of what it evokes out of the audience members themselves. There is an underlying somberness to it at times, but most importantly it rings loudly with the high unequivocal notes of hope. In the post-war years, it was a pertinent film, and it still has something to offer even now. More people need to know about The Best Years of our Lives.

5/5 Stars

I Married a Witch (1942)

I_Married_a_Witch_posterDirected by French emigre Rene Clair, I Married a Witch is a surprisingly cheeky comedy for the 1940s. The plot opens up with the Salem Witch Trials where a male and female witch are both to be burnt at the stake. However, before dying they cast a curse on the lineage of one Jonathan Wooley (played in Puritan garb by Fredric March), and so going forth all his ancestors are doomed to accursed marriages.

Now in the present (1942), the current ancestor Wallace Wooley (March) prepares for a run at the governorship as he also prepares to marry his disagreeable fiancee (Susan Hayward) to bolster his appeal on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, the spirits of Jennifer (Veronica Lake) and Daniel (Cecil Hathaway)  are finally released from their prison and they head out ready to cause all sorts of mischief. At first, they travel as smoke floating through the air and residing inside bottles. However, Jennifer has the brilliant idea of taking on human form so she can torment Wooley even more.

They follow to burn down the Pilgrim Hotel and then Jennifer gets Wooley to unwittingly rescue her from the burning remains, a hero. Little does he know what’s he’s done. She pulls all sorts of pranks on him that leave a bad impression on his housekeeper and are bound to get him in the doghouse with his fiancee. Veronica Lake is very alluring in a sing-song sort of way as her character tries to playfully seduce Wooley. She even crafts a love potion, but plans go awry when she actually ingests it. Now she’s hopelessly in love and she must try and crash Wallace’s wedding to win him back.

Joined by her father in physical form, they put the proceedings to a halt with a gust of wind and then Daniel tries to impede Jennifer by turning her into a frog, but he ends up drunk instead. Of course, Wallace is caught in yet another awkward spot with the witch. The wedding is off (along with the dreadful song “I Love You Truly”) and the campaign is done for…or is it?

imarriedawitch1

In the end, it looks like Wallace might lose his new found love, but she comes back to him, the moral of the story being, “love is stronger than witchcraft. It conjures up a Frank Sinatra song right about now.

This film has a whimsically absurd scenario bolstered by simple special effects that allow buildings to burst into flame, Jennifer to slide up the banister, and Daniel makes the car levitate. This is an obvious precursor to a pair of 1960s sitcoms. Veronica Lake’s performance is very reminiscent of Jeannie in I Dream of Jeannie and the plot feels like a plot line out of Bewitched since our heroine is also a witch. Too bad Robert Montgomery was not in this film. His daughter was a witch after all.

3.5/5

Nothing Sacred (1937)

 13094-nothingsacred2Before His Girl Friday (1940) came, there was another screwball comedy about journalism, the perfect scoop, and deception. After getting on the bad side of his boss, newsman Wally Cook (Frederic March) is demoted from the living and forced to write obituaries. It’s quite the awful setup and Cook desperately looks for another story to get him in the good graces of the Morning Star’s editor.

The perfect news flash has just come up in the form of a woman who is soon going to die of radium poisoning, and so Wally Cook goes to meet her. Heading up from New York, he ends in the one horse town in Vermont. He meets a lot of unobliging people whose vocabulary is limited to “Yup” and “Nope.” He finally comes across the crying girl who has just left an appointment with a doctor. He comforts the girl cheering her up by promising a trip to the big city where she will be treated like royalty (And he’ll get his story). So Hazel Flagg soon becomes the sweetheart of New York with public appearances at Madison Square Garden, parades, poems, articles and special honors. It’s all going according to Cook’s plan, the only thing is that Hazel is not actually ill.

That’s a wrench in the plan and soon it becomes evident that Cook will look like a cad. To make matters worse, he’s falling for her and his editor Oliver Stone is all over him. Now he must take part in Hazel’s charade, despite his annoyance. She too is annoyed and ends the game so the two lovebirds can elope. Still, the story of Hazel is given a romanticized ending that the public deserves.

Frederic March is decent as the desperate and long-suffering journalist. Carole Lombard is her typical light-headed, whimsy, high-strung, scatterbrained, sniveling self. It proves to be a volatile combination partnered with Ben Hecht’s script. The news industry loses a lot of its self-respect for the sake of laughs because nothing’s sacred. Some might be interested to know that it was shot in glorious technicolor and it was the only time Lombard would appear in a technicolor film. She would, of course, die in a tragic plane crash in 1942.

This film was quite short so the story moved quickly and there were definitely some screwy moments. I am however partial to His Girl Friday and some of the other more well-known screwballs.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

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Who in their right mind would make a film like this today? I mean it’s nearly three hours of incessant talking and character development. There are no explosions or special effects. There are not even any war scenes! And yet it is pure gold from William Wyler. He forces us to get to know these characters — all the details about them — and it is a pleasure.

In a year that boasted the likes of It’s a Wonderful Life, it is not simply a testament to the post-war sentiment, but also the power of this film, that led it to garner so much praise including a Best Picture Oscar.

Like Capra’s film, WWII plays a role here without actually focusing on the fighting. The effects of such a cataclysmic event were enough on their own.  The Best Years of Our Lives chooses to focus on the point of view of three returning servicemen. However, it would be selling the film short to suggest that is all the film is about. It revolves around deeper issues such as family, camaraderie, patriotism, and of course romance. Over the course of the film each man must navigate his own path, and much of those pathways have to do with their romantic relationships.

Al (Fredric March) has been married 20 years and yet he returns to a home with a wife and kids who seem more foreign than the battlefronts he fought on. His loving wife Milly (Myrna Loy) patiently allows him to become acclimated and stands beside him as he stands up for his convictions at his bank.

Then there is Homer (Harold Russell), the double amputee, who is bracing for the worst as he returns to his family and the girl next door named Wilma. His way of dealing with the situation is to avoid those he loves because by not letting them get close he thinks that will allow them to move forward with their lives. However, Homer completely misjudges just how much his girl loves him. Wilma is the real deal, and she is prepared to remain faithful to Homer no matter the circumstances.

The final relationship is perhaps the most complicated of the lot. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) is the complete antithesis of Al. He has little work experience, and he was a young man who only knew his wife for a handful of days before he went off to war. Now it is all coming back to bite him because Marie (Virginia Mayo) is not ready to patiently wait around while the former soda jerk tries to find a job. She wants money, nights on the town, and good times. Sparks fly and Fred finds himself drawn more and more to Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) since his marriage is a loveless one. This relationship is perhaps the most agonizing to watch as Fred is torn apart, but he ultimately gets the girl who will accept him for who he is.

“The best years of our lives” may have been during the war for some, but that really does not matter, because with the right attitude humanity is able to move forward to make the best of the future. That is one of the merits of this film, it exudes hopefulness and despite their different lots, each character is able to find a little slice of joy.

No one personality outshines any of the others, but on the contrary, all the players add up to the perfect combination. I will shamelessly acknowledge that Teresa Wright is one of my favorite actresses and over the last few years I have come to really appreciate Dana Andrews. They really do deserve more credit and I hope this film continues to get the praise it deserves. It is a delectable slice of cinema and Americana.

5/5 Stars

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Directed by William Wyler, the film chronicles the lives of three men as they return from World War II. They feel joy and then angst trying to integrate back into society  with lives that are strangely different from when they left. They face various struggles like finding a job, holding a marriage together, to just trying to get used to a disability. Although they each have their own lives which we get to see first hand, they are still intertwined. Together these three men find it within themselves to make these the best years possible. Full of both highs and lows, this movie is extremely touching and leaves you with a smile. The cast is superb including Dana Andrews, Fredric March, Harold Russell (real life amputee), Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, and of course Hoagy Carmichael. This film is great because it does not try to glamorize and it stands the test of time in my mind.

5/5 Stars

Inherit the Wind (1960)

Starring two battling greats in Spencer Tracy and Frederic March, with Gene Kelly as well, the film chronicles a fictitious version of the controversial Scopes Monkey Trial which acted as an allegory for the McCarthy era. March is the prestigious prosecutor on the side of Creationism and Tracy is the famed defense attorney fighting for a young schoolteacher (Dick York). The two spar back and forth on the touchy subject while staying friends outside the courtroom. The whole town backs Brady, condemning Cates and Drummond as evil. However, despite all that is against them, Drumond saves the case by bringing Brady to the stand. The two stars have commendable performances if not their best. Gene Kelly proves he can be a serious actor, playing the cynical newspaper man. The cast is rounded out nicely by Harry Morgan and Claude Akins. Here Stanley Kramer puts together a respectable movie version of the stage play.

4/5 Stars