The Sea Wolf (1941)

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“Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven” – John Milton in Paradise Lost

Though some noir film layered in London fog is probably up for contention, otherwise, there’s arguably no movie murkier than this atmospheric sea-faring delight from Michael Curtiz. But what puts it above and beyond some of its contemporaries, especially swashbucklers like a Black Swan, has to do with a variability and surprising depth of characterization for what feels like such a minor vehicle.

From the framework of Jack London’s novel, screenwriter Robert Rossen has cleverly repurposed the material and made it thoroughly well-suited for the cast at hand, expanding the roles for his stars. For most of its running time, in fact, the story is aboard the ominously named vessel, “The Ghost,” while maintaining an unwavering level of intensity.

Certainly the aforementioned climate plays into it because it can exude a level of impending menace. Still, you can only get so far on that. There needs to be legitimate emotional resonance and some amount of real even complex conflict at the core if a glorified chamber piece like this is to stay afloat. Thankfully, due to its characters, it does. At any rate, we are provided several fascinating figures to try and comprehend.

John Garfield is one of them, a fiery sailor named George Leach who is on the run and he doesn’t care where he ends up. In his case, he winds up a lowly cabin boy. Again, he doesn’t care.  Meanwhile, Ida Lupino is escaped from a woman’s reformatory and seeks the corroboration of a fiction writer named (van Weyden) as it ends up, their voyage is ill-fated following a collision that sets off a deluge of water leaving them hopelessly shipwrecked.

In the aftermath, they are picked up by the schooner “The Ghost,”  its tyrannical captain Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) leading a crew of no-good and hard-bitten seamen. Barry Fitzgerald excites as the knife-toting cook who’s as ornery as you’ve ever seen the plucky Irishman. The writer is brought on as cabin boy given the rude awakening that the captain has no designs to drop him off onshore. His vocation and unwavering monotone are perfect for conveying this impartial point of view for the benefit of the audience. Meanwhile, John Garfield embittered with a chip on his shoulder is forced to take on harder labor and his anger smolders against everyone.

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The girl, Ms. Webster (Lupino) is deathly sick and the swacked and constantly unstable doctor (Gene Lockhart) seems to be of little help. His nerves as a physician look completely shot. By some miracle, he’s able to get sober enough to nurse the lady back to health, of course, when she makes her first public appearance looking to be the picture of propriety, the seafaring men are quick to see through her. She’s another unwanted sea rat just like all of them.

It’s plain to see she’s not about to earn any favors and the same goes for the other newly acquired deckhands. They have few rights as the sea captain runs the ship with a dictatorial hand. In all affairs he controls everything and he can be a ruthless taskmaster with his boys carrying out his every order with a rowdy mania, even turning against their own when given a chance.

However, although Wolf is a tough man, he nevertheless has an inscrutable side well-read in Milton and knowing a past of innumerable hardship. It’s these very traits that make van Weyden crucial as someone who is able to get closer than the others in order to try and tease out who Larsen really is.

A mass of contradictions, with a brain and a need for dignity in a harsh world but he also has a vengeful brother hanging over him, avowing to blow him to smithereens. If there is any regret in Larsen, he’s resolutely set his course and rarely looks back, making sure to maintain his supremacy over his men in all circumstances. His philosophy is purely self-serving.

But even he begins to crack. The film is laden with claustrophobic and seasick-inducing interiors depicting living hell on the waves with Larsen lording over it with an iron fist. Of course, with mutiny afoot instigated by Leach, finally able to exercise his lust for authority, there’s bound to be drama, even as he begins to carry a torch for Ruth.

Because later he, Ms. Webster, and van Weyden look to escape only to have their provisions sabotaged by Larsen, and “The Ghost” is ultimately ambushed by its mortal enemy. The hourglass is running out. But even as the captain goes down with his ship, a near pitiful figure now, he looks to take as many others down with him as he can. In opposition to such selfishness, a contrasting force of sacrifice is called for.

4/5 Stars

Note: The cut I watched was the shortened 1947 cut. The restored cut was reissued in 2017 at its full length of 1 hour and 40 minutes. This was the theatrical cut before it was edited to fit on a double bill with another Curtiz picture The Sea Hawk (1941).

 

Review: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

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From its opening motif of a man nitpicking the arrangement of reindeer in a shop window, Miracle on 34th Street skates away on a delightful journey that evokes both fanciful whimsy and a liberal amount of holiday sentimentality. However, it’s also one of the finest examples and greatest purveyors of holiday cheer ever and that’s in spite of an original theatrical release that Daryl Zanuck slated for the summer of 1947.

Still, all of this aside, the major heartbeat and the effervescence of the picture falls on the shoulders of that precocious gentleman Edmund Gwenn in the most iconic performance of his career. No matter your leanings, be it a sentimentalist or a pragmatic realist, at the very least, he makes you want to believe in Santa Claus. And what’s striking is how he embodies such a man.

Because we could get into a debate on whether he is the real thing or if he truly is delusional and thus, we would have to be alarmed by this entire ordeal. Yet the results speak for themselves as do the fruits of his labor which help to uplift an entire city.

It’s true that he lays down a trail of hints from the outset at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade about his origins. If you’re paying attention and know the score they are easy enough to notice. However, he’s never pompous in proclaiming his exploits.

What draws everyone to him is this genial charm that cannot be fabricated. It’s all him.  There is no shred of an egomaniac or a mentally disturbed person. In fact, he feels the complete antithesis of many of the adjectives we might toss out to describe the commercialized Christmas so prevalent today (and even back then).

Alfred, the young janitor, and a personal favorite expresses the sentiment aptly. “It’s all about, Make a buck. Make a buck. There are a lot of bad “isms” to choose from but arguably the worst is commercialism.”  And it’s Kris who helps to rail against that holiday status quo when he finds himself working as Macy’s floor Santa.  In fact, it almost feels like a necessity that all these things come to pass because not only are people forgetting about him but more importantly, they are forgetting the core tenets of the season.

There are several scenes in particular that put a heartbeat to a little bit of the magic that courses through this picture — a picture that director George Seaton dearly wanted to make as did John Payne. Because it exudes something so remarkable that has proved timeless in years since. Even Maureen O’Hara, though initially skeptical of returning to Hollywood from her oasis in Ireland, relented because she was taken by the story.

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As someone always interested in the periphery, one of my favorite moments involves Thelma Ritter. It’s only a small sequence but she plays a harried mother who wants to go home and soak her feet after struggling to find her son a toy fire engine. The joy is watching Santa put the color back into her face when he incredulously evokes the spirit of giving. She’s flabbergasted by this unprecedented piece of goodwill. It’s the calling card of a true Santa.

Then there’s the little Dutch girl who pleads with her foster mother to see Santa. And it’s pure magic, again, because they form a connection when Santa breaks out into her mother tongue and they’re able to sing a Christmas song together. There’s so much underlying context made beautiful by the fact that we have to read deeper to extract the meaning. Surely viewers knew this girl was a casualty of WWII but beyond that, the fact that Santa is able to cross this perceived language divide is in itself a near miracle.

As someone who does not speak Dutch, I’m not privy to the precise conversation but it’s easy to empathize because here Santa Claus has made someone on the outside feel known and loved. It’s telling these precise events strike a chord with young Susan (Natalie Wood) also.

Certainly, it’s about time to fill in the story’s nucleus and of course, sandwiched in between this broader narrative, involving so many people, is a very personal one. It really is a case study and it’s noted as such by Kris Kringle and his devoted follower Fred (John Payne). They fight a two-front war to work on the most obdurate, rational minds in New York, Doris (O’Hara) and her pragmatic little girl Susan (Wood) who has been trained up by the best.

Ironically, Kris’s war on commercialism very much subverts the longheld spirit of capitalism as we watch the foremost toy companies, namely Macy’s and Gimbel’s pitted against each other looking to outdo one another in the realms of helpfulness and good cheer.  It’s simultaneously hilarious and downright uplifting.

But there must be more because goodness very rarely moves forward wholly unimpeded. The antagonist in this scenario is a curmudgeon, insignificant company psychologist named Sawyer (Porter Hall in a particularly testy role) whose own misgivings about holiday cheer cause him to suggest Kris be put in a mental institution. The case of the holiday season begins when Santa is put on trial.

There is a logical conclusion with a respected judge (the character journeyman Gene Lockhart) presiding but don’t expect it because this is a story about miracles and a film about intangibles and a jolly old man spinning his spellbinding magic for the good of mankind.

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To the last knowing wink, it tests our faith in the man but even today it never seems like a picture to outright shirk reality. Instead, it’s more founded on cultivating all that is good and life-giving when you tone down the hard-edged pragmatics that leave no room for imagination or faith of any kind.

Because oftentimes, when those reservoirs are sucked completely dry, you are left with people who lack joy, contentment, charity, and goodwill for their fellow man. From such wastelands come the Mr. Sawyers. If you close yourself off completely to this season or this film, you might just feel yourself left a little empty inside.

More than anything else, Miracle on 34th Street is a story of childlike faith as this is much of what the season is supposed to be indicative of. The ultimate gifts of love, joy, and peace require an openness in order to receive them fully.

All there is left to do is to close with an excerpt of prose far more learned and impassioned than my own, penned to an inquisitive girl named Virginia. Because this film very well could be the proof behind the words:

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.

We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished…Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

5/5 Stars

Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

Hangmen_Also_Die_1943There are some fine pieces of intrigue in this modest WWII period film from Fritz Lang. The plot is based off real events in Czechoslovakia surrounding the assassination of Nazi Holocaust proponent Reinhold Heydrich. Mascha (Anna Lee) finds herself admidst a web of trouble when she helps a member of the underground after he commits the killing. But the Nazis are soon hounding her and it brings danger to her father’s household (Walter Brennan) . Ultimately she is forced to choose where her greatest allegiance stands.The film features Gene Lockhart playing the Nazi collaborator Czaka. Perhaps this film is not all that realistic and the casting is not perfect (although I did enjoy seeing Anna Lee in a leading role). At the time it came out this movie functioned as an anti-Nazi film and it still packs a decent punch from that perspective. It deserves some acknowledgement at the very least.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Miracle of 34th Street (1947)

703c5-miracleon34thChristmas movies do not get much better than this. What a concept! Here’s a film about a man who really is Kris Kringle aka Santa Claus. He gets picked up by Macy’s department store to be their Santa Claus, and he winds up facing a hearing to decide whether he is legitimate or not. His pet project is to make an unsentimental little girl (Natalie Wood), and her practical mother (Maureen O’Hara) believe in him. He finds an ally in a young lawyer (John Payne) who believes in his holiday cheer and is also smitten with the girl’s mother.

Some people would undoubtedly say it’s a bunch a hogwash to make a movie about such a topic. Maybe it is only holiday tripe, but I find it is very hard to refute this “Miracle” of a Christmas classic. The characters portrayed are so spot on and heartfelt it is so easy to get pulled into their story. At the same time, it’s difficult not to like a film where department stores help each other, the hustle and bustle is toned down, and for once mankind has faith in each other for awhile.

As an audience, we gravitate towards Edmund Gwen because he represents the Santa we all wish to know. He is kind, thoughtful, generous, and above all a magical gift giver. Maureen O’Hara goes through a character progression that mirrors that of her daughter, except it is perhaps a little more poignant in her case due to her maturity. It would seemingly be easy to dislike her and yet thanks to O’Hara we cannot help but feel for her. She is also extremely beautiful, even in black and white. Although young, Wood proves to be a memorable little girl in this one, and she was just getting started. Payne is a good addition in his own right — a highly underrated actor.

The film is rounded out by a wonderful array of characters in the Macy’s store like magnate R.H. Macy (Harry Atrim), well-meaning Mr. Shellhammer (Philip Tonge) and friendly young janitor Alfred (Alvin Greeman). Shoppers such as the one and only Thelma Ritter in an early role, and civil servants like Judge Harper  (Gene Lockhart) round out New York’s population with generally decent people who we can relate to. The one exception is Dr. Sawyer (Porter Hall), the company psychologist, and greatest villain of the film, who is the antithesis of Kris and his Christmas spirit.

My hope is that this one never pales, never loses its cheer, and maintains its timelessness for many Christmases to come. Until the next Macy’s Thanksgiving parade comes along have yourself a merry little Christmas and remember all psychologists are not evil jerks looking to ruin the holidays!

5/5 Stars

Review: His Girl Friday (1940)

25148-hisgirl1It all happened in the “Dark Ages” of the newspaper game — When to a reporter “Getting that story” justified anything short of murder. Incidentally you will see in this picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press of today.”

Hildy Johnson (aka His Girl Friday) is making her return to the Morning Post but not to get her old job back. She came to pay a visit to her former husband (and paper editor) who she divorced because she is newly engaged and wants to break everything off for good. It means she can go off into the sunset with her new beau, but it also means no more paper. She drops the news and it turns out the wedding is set for the next day so Walter has very little time to go to work. He soon begins a sly barrage of subtle and not so subtle jabs, ridicules, and put downs aimed at the easy target Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). Walter cuts him off, plays dumb, and is in general condescending and conniving. Hildy sees it all unfolding and half watches with bemusement, while also trying to stop Walter from causing any major trouble.

You see he’s a wonderful fellow in a loathsome sort of way, but you cannot help but like him. Because as Hildy notes he comes by charm naturally since “his grandfather was a snake.” These are the kinds of barbs and witty put downs we deal with the entire film. Besides being good fun, it also is quite extraordinary, since they never stop coming. It’s also fascinating to simply watch the many expressions of Cary Grant, whether it is a smirk or straight face, it always has a tinge of mischief which suits his character just fine. He seems more like a little boy at times, trying to win back his girl, and in many ways, that’s what he’s trying to do. But back to the action.

Hildy unwittingly falls into Walter’s trap, and from that point on there’s no stopping her, or Walter’s scheme for that matter. When the wheels of journalism start turning there’s no stopping someone like Hildy with newsprint in her blood. Walter lets her catch wind of a man who pleads innocence though he is to be hung for shooting a black policeman. Hildy puts up a fight, but she doesn’t last very long.

Soon she’s gotten into talk to the nervous prisoner Earl and gets his point of view on the whole messy ordeal. The other newsboys are callous to the world, and as the gallows goes up outside their window, all they can do is play cards and think about the best scoop. Hildy is a little different but she’s still leaving…or is she?

Next, Williams escapes and the mad search for the fugitive is on as the newsroom goes into an uproar. The mayor and sheriff are in a tizzy and then a reprieve for Williams comes, but they ignore it because they need this hanging in order to get re-elected. By a stroke of luck, Hildy finds Williams and stashes him away in a desk. Now she is hooked, and when Walter hears about her stroke of luck, everything begins again like old times. Bruce and his mother are soon disregarded as Hildy types feverishly, and Walter wheels and deals on the telephone. Then, the sheriff and mayor burst in with the rest of the boys. Williams’ hiding place is uncovered and the two reconciled lovebirds look like they might wind up with a jail sentence. But the honorable air-head Mr. Pettibone saves the day. All that’s left to do is depart on a two-week honeymoon to Niagara Falls or maybe a workers riot in Albany. All is right with the world again. Walter’s got His Girl Friday, and she’s got her lovable wiseguy husband back.

I’m not quite sure why I am so often drawn to this movie because it is more than it being readily available in the public domain. The dynamic of Grant and Russell is certainly superb. Walter can be an absolute cad, but Grant’s charm makes him bearable to the end. Russell is the true star of this film and she deals the punches with the rest of the boys. It really is the perfect role for her. The film is blessed with the great supporting cast including Porter Hall, Roscoe Karns, Gene Lockhart, Billy Gilbert and a host of others who populate the film with colorful faces and voices.

After seeing Nothing Sacred (1937) it was also interesting to see another script from Ben Hecht about journalism. Again, it might be a screwball comedy but there are also political undertones. Most blatantly about journalism itself, but also about corrupt leaders (like the mayor and sheriff), the Red Scare, gender roles, capital punishment, and even WWII.

Of course, it must also be noted that this is a film directed by the great Howard Hawks. I have always had difficulty pinpointing his trademarks, because the reality is, he was so versatile, trying his hand at so many different genres. All I know is that I more often than not enjoy his work behind the camera because it is seamless and it feels quintessentially American. His Girl Friday is no different. Although, this one is just a tad faster than most. It’s sure to raise your blood pressure so be warned.

5/5 Stars