The Stratton Story (1949)

stratton story 1.png

If you’ve never heard of the baseball player Monty Stratton, you’re not alone. In my days of wanting to be a ballplayer myself, I knew quite a bit about baseball Hall of Famers going back to the genesis of the game. But Stratton was not a Hall of Famer like Honus Wagner or Ty Cobb, George Sisler or Rogers Hornsby or even the members of the Bronx Bombers including Lou Gehrig and Joe Dimaggio. Though famed Yankee Bill Dickey does makes a cameo in this one.

Stratton was not in the same category as these men and there is a reason for that. Tragedy struck his life. Interestingly enough, Hollywood looked to make a movie out of it calling on the talents of Jimmy Stewart as well as director Sam Wood. It’s Wood’s association with the picture which causes me to surmise it was meant to be another Pride of the Yankees (1942) with Wood taking up duties again and one All-American in Gary Cooper being traded out for another in Jimmy Stewart.

No disrespect to Monty Stratton or anything that he went through but at face value, his story is hardly that of Lou Gehrig. Still, maybe that’s the point and we can learn something from that. Generalizing and putting all baseball biopics together is in error and in this case, it feels callous. This is a film that makes Monty Stratton’s story into his own and it’s at times winsome in its simplicity and still equally moving.

Watching this picture anchored by James Stewart in another everyman role is as charming as ever. Equally enjoyable is Frank Morgan or even the budding romance with June Allyson coming to fruition within its frames. His brusque mother (Agnes Moorehead) who only knows the tough life of a farm woman even has her affectionate side; you simply need to get to know her. Also, having an old pro like Jimmy Dyke playing the big league manager is yet another touch of authenticity that might be easily overlooked in the modern day.

Through and through, this is Stewart and Allyson’s film as we watch Monty make a name for himself going from being an indefatigable farm boy with a cannon to the minors in Omaha, and finally to the big leagues where dreams are made. Equally important to his career trajectory is the parallel story of how a potentially disastrous first date turned into a lifelong romance with his girl Ethel.

She sees him through a great deal both the highs like the birth of their son to the lows, a fatal event that will change Stratton’s life forever. It’s in this portion where we could criticize the film for stalling but it does rightfully so as Stewart must make a decision whether or not he’s going to fight back to regain his life.

Eventually, he does, going further than any naysayer might give him credit for. Then again, you get the sense that Monty Stratton was the kind of ballplayer that most folks found it in their heart to cheer for. Part of that appeal is Stewart’s typical geniality certainly but the man he was portraying had to be fairly special too.

The spectator in the movie theater might remark Gable and Turner are better kissers on screen but I’d truthfully rather watch Stewart and Allyson. They’re more my type of people.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I would have liked Monty Stratton too. He seemed like a humble fellow who lived his life with everyday dignity. They don’t always make them like that now. The same could be said for this movie.

The film closes with the prototypical “The End” credit but that really was not quite right. Because Monty Stratton was still pitching and had a long life ahead of him just waiting to be lived. That’s the power of this story. It recognizes a man who did not let circumstance deter him from continuing to live a full life.

Stratton died on September 29th, 1982 and within that time he made a second comeback to baseball, moved back to Texas to start a farm team, and was deeply invested in his community until his final days both in promoting Little League and attending his local church.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Rope (1948)

rope 1.png

Rope’s title sequence is composed of your prototypically serene establishing shot. But really, you could not have a more unique and in some sense unnerving picture. It was Alfred Hitchcock’s first foray into Technicolor and it’s quite the looker as are the beautifully constructed backdrops that spice up the mise-en-scene for this glorified stage play.  He also busied himself with camera set-ups in an effort to shoot the picture as near to a single take as was possible with the technology of the time. He actually “cheated” a bit by splicing segments of film together at intentional breaks to give the effect of continuous motion. Still, it’s an impressive endeavor all the same.

But the experiment is twofold both behind and in front of the camera. It’s all a reworking of the murderers Leopold and Loeb, two affluent students who succumbed to Nietzsche’s superman complex. The project was an early script by playwright Arthur Laurents penned from an adaptation by Hume Cronyn, a Hitchcock regular in several earlier pictures (Shadow of a Doubt and Lifeboat).

In this case, Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) are looking for the perfect victim in the perfect murder. Where murder is a crime for most men but a privilege for a few — like themselves.  It all begins with a shockingly graphic opening for the 40s that rips away any shred of upper-middle-class sensibilities put upon us by that establishing shot. It’s all a ruse.

The assertive, far more charismatic Brandon also happens to be the main architect pulling along the flighty Phillip into his little experiment.

The act of throwing a small get-together against this exhilarating backdrop proves tenuous because of the insidiously dark deed that Hitchcock has made his audience privy to. Otherwise, this would be a run-of-the-mill picture of cocktails and hor ‘d oeuvres. But underline it with a murder and it’s a completely different proposition altogether.

Their exhibition comes as little surprise from two men who are snobbish, entitled jerks. Their lives are so dull that they stoop to murder to see if they can be brilliant enough and brazen enough to pull it off, going so far as inviting their most astute mentor played by none other than James Stewart.

Though I enjoy him as much as the next fellow, Stewart does feel oddly out of place in this film and within this role of Rupert. He seems to know it too. Nevertheless, Hitchcock would find far superior uses for him in due time.

There are also a couple knowing winks to the sinisterly attractive James Mason (a future Hitchcock collaborator) who is conjured up to do battle against the dreamboats Erroll Flynn and Cary Grant by a few admiring partygoers. Of course, no one seems to take into account that they have Jimmy Stewart right in their stead.

We begin to feel for Janet and Kenneth two schoolmates who have been used in the game. She is soon to be engaged to the formerly eligible David. Kenneth was the beau she was with before he broke it off. Now their lives are manipulated just like the late boy’s father who is also invited to the gathering.

Rupert proves that he knows something’s afoot not that it’s all that difficult to see Granger’s character slowly coming apart at the seams. Alcohol hardly helps his unstable demeanor. It becomes a showdown with his two pupils but he could have never expected this. It’s on this level that Rope is thoroughly troubling. It’s in this way that we begin to understand why Nietzsche might have been troubled by his own conclusions. There is little hope in this conception of the world.

Simply put, the film is dour to its core. It has no heart and in that sense, Jimmy Stewart does not feel at home within its heartless frames. The charade falls short for these very reasons. Though it’s technically ambitious, it doesn’t quite manage that perfect Hitchcock balancing act of crime mixed with wit. There’s no way it can with such a worldview.

Still, Rope shows, if anything, that Hitchcock is never complacent, always looking for the next great challenge. That is one of the many reasons that we still hold him in high regard as one of the foremost directors of any age. Because even a callous film such as Rope is worth seeing.

3.5/5 Stars

Rear Window (1954): Visual Cinema and “Lisa”

 

rear window 1.png

There are such a vast number of levels to appreciate Rear Window on and one of those is its impeccable use of sound as well as a score courtesy of Franz Waxman. In fact, it is quite easy to consider it as a film with a wholly diegetic soundtrack but it’s really a complicated weaving of sound orchestration playing against the images onscreen. For instance, against the credits, as the blinds come up, we’re met with the playfully cool jazzy beats of “Prelude and Radio” which proves to be in perfect juxtaposition with the deathly hot heatwave hitting Greenwich Village in the film’s opening moments.

We’re also inundated with all types of songs popular and otherwise which can be picked out of the story organically if you’re paying attention. Two of the most obvious additions are “That’s Amore” and then “Mona Lisa” which can be heard being sung by a group of party guests.

Whether or not it’s a slight nod to our heroine Lisa is up for debate but it’s also notable that she, in essence, receives her own theme song which is concurrently composed by the songwriter who lives in the courtyard that we come to know over the course of the film. It slowly involves from its nascent stages into a full-fledged tune that gains its wings once the romance between Lisa and our protagonist L.B. Jefferies has come into its own.

Obviously, beyond the elements of soundtrack Rear Window develops so immersive a world and Hitchcock expertly inserts us directly into the environment to the extent that we have no choice but to become involved in the whole ordeal. We are accomplices, if you will, in this viewing party of Jimmy Stewart’s.

It truly is an exhibition in the moving image because the film works so brilliantly with them. Certainly, it begins with the staging and the complex setup Hitchcock had to work with at Paramount Studios but there’s simultaneously the use of color cinematography, the lighting of the stages which sets the scene given the time of day, and common street noise that lends an almost imperceptible authenticity that we take for granted.

Furthermore, working with his long trusted photographer Robert Burks you see Hitchcock moving so fluidly and with so much purpose through the playground provided him. The camera captures objects with clear intention and a crispness that far from simply giving us the illusion of being in the space, in many ways, makes us feel like we are actually right there with Stewart looking out into the courtyard.

You also get the true essence of what visual filmmaking is because his powers of suggestion and even persuasion of the audience are impressed upon us by what he deems important. Hitchcock lays out nearly all of Stewart’s backstory not with clunky expositional dialogue but by giving us a wordless parade of his apartment while our protagonist sleeps. And the whole picture is a constant rhythmic cadence of being fed images followed by Stewart’s reaction shots. It’s Film at its primacy. Where two images put together are blessed with so much more meaning and suggestion than they could ever have alone.

But far from simply marveling at what Hitch has accomplished it’s far more miraculous that we become so enveloped in this story. It’s an admirable mystery plot chock full of tension that’s built up over time and successive shifts in perception, time of day, and personnel moving in and out of the complex. Our one commonality is Stewart stuck in that wheelchair with only his broken leg, his camera, and the neighbors to keep him entertained. They do far more than that.

rear window 4.png

Rear Window’s A-Plot is a perplexing mystery thriller that we watch unfold with a systematic unraveling that’s unnerving in part because Hitchcock has orchestrated it all in a limited space. Furthermore,  he has handicapped his protagonist and the outsiders coming in are constantly causing us to second guess or reevaluate our assumptions be they the insurance agency nurse Stella, Jefferies’  policeman pal, or his best girl Lisa. Each character is at one point in opposition to Jefferies while also providing a sounding board for his cockamamie theories which start to bear the grain of truth. We get to be a part of it all.

The utter irony is that once more not only is Hitchcock’s villain atypical — in nearly all areas a seemingly unspectacular man — he’s also quite overtly styled after David O. Selznick. If you know anything about the producer he shares some resemblance with Raymond Burr and there’s no denying that Hitchcock was never fond of the other’s meddling. As much as I love the Rebeccas (1940) and his earlier American works if Rear Window was a representation of the hands-off approach to his filmmaking than I would have to side with him.

At least by this point in his career, there’s no denying that he projected a singular vision that could hardly be quelled by any individual. This is “Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window,” after all, as the opening credits proclaim.

However, the beauty of this picture is that it truly does stand up to multiple viewings and every repeated viewing offers up new depths or at least minor revelations that add an even greater relish to the experience.

In particular, are the underlining themes of romance. Because this is a film about love in all its many facets with each character or couple reflecting a certain permutation of what romantic love looks like.

The love stories are playing out in each compartment of the apartment complex. Miss Torso, the queen bee with the pick of the drones. She’s very much eye candy but in the final frames, we realize there’s more to her as her love comes back home from the army. There’s Miss Lonelyhearts who is desperately seeking love and yet has enough respect not to stoop below her dignity. It’s a song that lifts her out of her despair. The Newlyweds are still in the honeymoon phase and we never see them.

rear window 2.png

Meanwhile, you have Stella providing her homespun philosophy that people shouldn’t overanalyze their situation. Jefferies is pushing back against any serious romance because in his estimation Lisa is far too perfect for him. Meanwhile, Lisa is left believing she can live in any world that Jeff is in. The list goes on and on.

But for the threads to be resolved that must become fully intertwined with the murder at its core because such an event calls for a response from our characters — at least our main ones. When Lisa sacrifices so much to show her love and devotion to him, he realizes how much he misjudged her character and perhaps more profoundly how dearly he loves her and never wants to lose her. He has made the transition from armchair philosopher and misanthrope to a man smitten with someone else. As long as he ditches the window watching he should be fine.

That leads us to another area of discussion. There’s a bit of a moral commentary present though Hitchcock doesn’t seem all that interested in those conclusions per se as much as he likes manipulating them for the sake of his drama. And yet like Vertigo four years later there is this unnerving sense that he is tapping into some of humanity’s darkest desires to watch and spy on others for pleasure without any consequence or any vulnerability on the part of the peeper.

That draws me to another aspect of the film that I’ve never really considered. Rear Window implicitly asks what it is to be a neighbor or at least what it is to live with neighbors. There’s very little in the realm of actual judgments except for the small condemnation that comes from the woman who lives just above the murderer after her yippy dog has been killed. What does she say?

You don’t know the meaning of the word ‘neighbors’! Neighbors like each other, speak to each other, care if somebody lives or dies! BUT NONE OF YOU DO.

What she provides is a heartfelt and searing indictment which is nevertheless lost in all the commotion whether it’s the big party going on across the way or the realization by our heroes that their theories about murder have been confirmed. It did make me consider even briefly if the so-called Great Commandment is to “Love Thy Neighbor,” what does that look like?

Far from peering in at other people and staying anonymous, it seems like it involves reaching out to others. In some ways, being vulnerable and candid — transparent even — so others feel comfortable entering into our lives. Like Stella says sometimes people need to go on the outside and look in for a change. If nothing else that breeds empathy.

Of course, if that was the case, there would probably have been no murder and that’s what we want right? Well, anyways, Rear Window still stands as my favorite Hitchcock picture and one of the most clinical and compelling thrillers of all time.  But you probably already knew that. If you did not I implore you to break both your legs if need be and go lock yourself in a room and force yourself to watch it right this minute.

5/5 Stars

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Destry-Rides-Again-1939Destry Rides Again is integral to the tradition of comedy westerns–a storied lineage that includes the likes of Way Out West, Blazing Saddles, and Support Your Local Sheriff. It takes a bit of the long maintained western lore and gives it a screwy comic twist courtesy of classic Hollywood.

The rambunctious town carries the fitting name of Bottleneck which runs rampant with guns, beer, floozies, and more beer. The town’s mayor has a permanent seat in the local saloon playing solitary games of checkers while turning a blind eye to many clandestine activities. Meanwhile, the bar’s proprietor and local hot shot (Brian Donlevy) keeps grips on numerous shady dealings including dirty poker and murder, if you want to get technical. Though he does put on a good time with a floor show courtesy of his best girl Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) who has the whole town swooning with her knockout looks. That’s the way the world works in Bottleneck and it’s a fairly crooked operation.

After the latest sheriff is laid waste the banjo-playing drunk is christened the town’s next lawman. It certainly is a fine joke but he does something somewhat admirable. He resolves to lay off the sauce and sober up. Calling in the grown son of one of his buddies from the old days to be his deputy.

Now he’s no longer a drunk. Just a blustering old fool who no one takes seriously for one moment. Still, when Destry comes into town he believes he will have the hulking spitting image of the boy’s father, a man who will instill fear in every local troublemaker. After all, that’s how things have worked in Bottleneck as far back as anyone can remember.

But instead of a leering heavy, he finds himself face to face with gangly Tom Destry Jr. who makes a memorable first impression on the town holding a woman’s parasol and a cage of parakeets as he helps a young lady off of the stage. However, in those opening moments he does a seemingly dangerous thing, instead of exerting his dominance he seems oddly comfortable in his skin. The townsfolk think he’s a pushover and he strings them along rather well. After all, he doesn’t carry any guns. He spends a great deal of time whittling and there’s a good-natured affability to his demeanor in nearly all circumstances. Added to that he has the oddest quirk of supplying an ever-ready stream of anecdotes for any given situation.

It’s such displays that earn the glee of the local thugs and hoodlums and the ire of not only his sheriff but the folks who feel he’s aiding their enemies. And yet in certain moments, he surprises them, proving to be an incredibly humble marksman (a precursor to Atticus Finch), breaking up a vicious catfight between two women with a pail of water, and getting buddy-buddy with the town’s rebels only to turn on them.

He seeks to bring law and order to the town on his terms looking to pin a murder on Kent in order to put him away for good. Of course, he’s not about to take it lying down and the town blows up into a scatterbrained finale that equals any of the zaniness in any of its aforementioned brethren of western comedy. As the menfolk fight it out with guns, Frenchy with a new resolve gathers all the womenfolk in an assault on the opposition using all blunt instruments imaginable from rolling pins to gardening tools. It’s sheer madness.

That’s not to say that Destry does not have its share of tragedy and that might be its greatest fault. Sometimes it doesn’t quite know where to fall between the lines of comedy and drama. Still, with the two legendary icons as luminary as James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, it’s hard for this one not to be a winner though they seem so diametrically opposed to each other.

However, Cooper and Dietrich worked surprisingly well in Morocco and so Stewart and Dietrich work in a pinch here.  There’s also an abundant stock company including future stars like Brian Donlevy and Jack Carson not to mention small time funnymen like Billy Gilbert, the long-suffering bartender, and Mischa Auer, the man who unwittingly loses his pants in a poker game. Moral of the story is, don’t gamble. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Destry would come in with a story right about now.

4/5 Stars

 

Review: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

James_Stewart_in_Mr._Smith_Goes_to_Washington_trailer_cropThe opening credits roll and recognition comes with each name that pops on the screen. Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Palette, Beulah Bondi, H.B. Warner, Harry Carey, Porter Hall, Charles Lane, William Demarest, Jack Carson, and of course, Frank Capra himself.

We are met with the ubiquitous visage of Charles Lane calling in a big scoop on the telephone. A senator has died suddenly. The likes of Porter Hall and H.B. Warner fill the Senate Chamber presided over by a wryly comic VP, Harry Carey. Corruption is personified by the flabby pair of Edward Arnold and Eugene Palette while Claude Rains embodies the tortured political journeyman. The eminent members of the press include not only Lane but the often swacked Thomas Mitchell and a particularly cheeky Jack Carson.

To some people, these are just names much like any other but to others of us, linked together and placed in one film, these figures elicit immense significance and simultaneously help to make Mr. Smith Goes to Washington one of the most satisfying creations of Hollywood’s Golden Age from arguably “The Greatest Year in Cinematic History.”  The acting from the biggest to the smallest role is a sheer joy to observe as is Capra’s candid approach to the material.

As someone with a deep affection for film’s continued impact, it gives me great pleasure that stories such as Mr. Smith exist on the silver screen if only for the simple fact that they continually renew my belief in humanity, whatever that means. Because it’s an admittedly broad, sweeping statement to make but then again that’s what Frank Capra was always phenomenally skilled at doing. He could take feelings, emotions, beliefs, and ideals synthesizing them into the perfect cultural concoctions commonly known as moving pictures.

But his pictures always maintained an unfaltering optimism notably in the face of all sorts of trials and tribulations. He never disregarded the corruption dwelling in his stories–it was always there–in this case personified by the stifling political machine of Jim Taylor gorging itself off the lives of the weak and stupid.

The key is that his narratives always rise above the graft and corruption. They latch onto the common everyday decency, looking out for the other guy, and in some small way uphold the great commandment to love thy neighbor.

Politics have never been my forte. Like many others, I’m easily disillusioned by “politics” as this becomes a dirty word full of arrogance, partisanship, and scandal among other issues. It seems like the founding principles that laid the groundwork for this entire democracy often get buried under pomp & circumstance or even worse personal ambitions.

Although this film was shot over 75 years ago everyone who’s been around the block lives as if that’s the case then too and so they’re not all that different from today at least where it matters. Cynicism is a hard thing to crack when it runs through the fabric of society from the politicians, to the newspapers, all the way down to the general public. It’s not hard to understand why. Still, the genuine qualities of a man like Jefferson Smith can act as a bit of an antidote. He as a character himself might be a bit of an ideal, yes, but I’d like to have enough faith to believe that people with a little bit of Jefferson Smith might still live today.

Common, everyday people who nevertheless are capable of extraordinary things like standing up for what’s right when they know that no one else will or when they know all that waits for them at the end of the tunnel is disgrace. But the promise of what is beyond the tunnel is enough. That is true integrity to be able to do that and those are the causes worth cheering for when David must fight Goliath and still he somehow manages to overcome. That’s the chord Mr. Smith strikes with me. thanks in part to Capra’s vision but also Stewart’s impassioned embodiment of those same ideals.  He has a knack for compelling performances to be sure.

Time and time again James Stewart pulls me in. His career is one of the most iconic in any decade, any era no questions asked. There are so many extraordinary films within that context perhaps many that are technically or artistically superior to Mr. Smith by some  estimations, but he was never more candid or disarming than those final moments in the senate chambers as he fights for his life — clinging to the ideals that he’s been such a stalwart proponent for even as his naivete has been mercilessly stripped away from him.

In the opening moments, his eyes carried that glow of honest to goodness optimism, his posture gangly and unsure represented all that is genuine in man. Now watching those same ideals and heroes come back to perniciously attack him, he presides with almost reckless abandon. Is he out of his mind? At times, it seems so, but as he wearies, his hair becomes more disheveled, and his vocal chords have only a few rasps left he still fights the good fight. There’s an earnest zeal to him that’s positively palpable.

As our stand-in, Saunders (Jean Arthur) first writes him off as a first class phony or at the very least a political stooge ready to do another man’s bidding but she does not know Jefferson Smith though she does grow to love him. And Arthur’s performance truly is a masterful one because without her Smith would hardly be the same figure. She brings out his naivete by sheer juxtaposition but she also puts the fight back into him because he brought a change over her that in turn rallies him to keep on pushing. They’ve got a bit of a mutually symbiotic relationship going on in the best way possible. You might call it love.

Capra repeatedly underlines Smith’s honesty and genuine nature not only through numerous rather simplistic montages of Capitol Hill and the surrounding national monuments but in the very way his character carries himself around others. He never assumes a position of superiority. He’s always humble. He sees the inherent need to raise up young people well so that they might progress to become the leaders of tomorrow with a great deal to offer our world. He fumbles with his hat in the presence of pretty girls and holds his idols in the highest esteem. It’s all there on Stewart’s face and in his actions. We too comprehend the solemnity and the gravity that he senses in the office of the Senate.

While this was not Jimmy Stewart’s debut and it was only at the beginning of a shining career as has already been noted, it was in these moments that the cinematic world fell in love with him. He can’t be licked and for good reason. He was never one to give up on lost causes just like his father before him.

I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for, and he fought for them once, for the only reason any man ever fights for them: Because of one plain simple rule: Love thy neighbor. ~ James Stewart as Jefferson Smith

5/5 Stars

Vivacious Lady (1938)

vivacious lady 1.png

The first moment Pete Morgan (James Stewart) actually catches sight of alluring nightclub singer Francey (Ginger Rogers), the gangly botany professor proceeds to knock over a drink cooler. He’s enamored. In the movies, it’s that magical trope called “love at first sight.” For other pictures that’s where they go to die as the two loved birds get wrapped up in the throes of romance exploring New York City together. With Stewart and Rogers as our guides, there’s no place we’d rather be. Soon they are married and on their way to meet the parents in the idyllic town of Old Sharon.

Except they never get there or rather they get to the town but Pete never gets to the part about telling his parents he’s married. Charles Colburn is bullish as Peter Morgan Sr. the obdurate, overbearing intellectual who will not allow his son to get in a word edgewise. That’s aggravated by the fact that in his typical manner Stewart is always beating around the bush, never quite able to get the words out and so the happy news never finds an audience.

Besides Mr. Morgan has his sights on his son marrying the prim and proper Helen (Frances Mercer) while he turns his nose at the blonde woman that his nephew Keith (James Ellison) is traipsing around with it — that undoubtedly unsophisticated creature who also happens to be his actual daughter-in-law!

Thus, begins the film’s longest digression as wife becomes a student for the sake of being close to her husband and Pete tries his darndest to break the news to his parents while still getting time with his wife. But the guise of student and teacher isn’t helping much. They probably broke the whole code of conduct book on student-teacher relations circa 1938.

One of the favorite hot spots for late night extracurriculars just happens to have an outboard motor right next to it and it can make quite the din if accidentally pulled. Otherwise, Pete has an awful time trying to see his wife as the lobby clerk (Franklin Pangborn) is a real stickler and so the only access to her room is of a clandestine nature up the fire escape.

And still his father won’t listen to him and his former fiancee is still trying to nab him. It’s getting so hopeless that Francey thinks it might be best if she leaves Old Sharon behind for good. A memorable dance party with the parents in Francie’s room proves the kicker. Though she forms a bit of a rapport with the kindly but frail Mrs. Morgan (Beulah Bondi in 1 out of her 5 turns as Stewart’s mother), an indignant Mr. Morgan will have none of this tomfoolery.

Soon enough Francey decides to leave town of her own accord.  But even at the cost of his professorship if need be, good ol’ Jimmy Stewart won’t let her get away that easily. Whether or not this film drags a bit in the latter half is beside the point because you couldn’t have two more likable stars than Stewart and Rogers nor a Hollywood director more competent than George Stevens in balancing the breadth of slapstick comedy and romantic drama.

If the material is simply adequate enough, they are the type of talents that take us along and we will willingly be their audience through every complication. It’s our privilege.

In case there was any doubt whatsoever Ginger Rogers is awesome and it’s put on full display when she has a slap fight with her archnemesis before taking her in a headlock. If you liked her before simply for dancing prowess, she proves to be a savvy cat fighter as well.

Jimmy Stewart was still in the fairly latent stages of his illustrious career but Rogers recommended him for the role and he provides his homespun charm and length to every frame like we are accustomed to seeing from him. Not to mention his forays in home brewing. They’re quite impressive.

The only major blot on the film is an appearance of the prolific Willie Best playing his typical googly-eyed waiter — the walking stereotype that always feels like a cringe-worthy addition to any picture of old as does a cameo by Hattie McDaniels. At least there weren’t any chinamen. Not that there’s much consolation in that. Shall we just say that Rogers’ vivacity and Stewart’s universal affability make for a quality viewing experience and leave it at that?

4/5 Stars

The Mortal Storm (1940)

The_Mortal_Storm-_1940-_Poster.pngOur introduction to The Mortal Storm feels rather flat. Bright and bland in more ways than one as we become accustomed to our main storyline.  Professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan) is held in high regard all throughout the community as a prominent lecturer at the local university and beloved by his colleagues and family. The year is 1933 and the Bavarian Alps are still a merry and gay place to live. That’s our understanding early on as the Professor celebrates his 60th birthday with much fanfare and receives a commemorative memento from his class.

In some ways, Frank Borzage’s picture shares a striking resemblance to All Quiet on the Western Front another film that makes its German roots blatantly obvious and yet it wears its incongruities like the ubiquitous use of the English language with ease. And as all the characters accept it, we do too as we begin to sink into the story. But crucial to this story is that they are not as accepting of other things. It feels a little like paradise. Life is good and people are happy. But we expect that at some point the time bomb will go off and it does. Adolf Hitler is elected Chancellor and just like that people begin to change. It’s a collective revolution — a youth movement of sorts.

Pastor, pacifist, and thinker Dietrich Bonhoeffer tore apart the Fuhrer concept straight away in a talk he gave in 1933, long before many of the later horrors during the Nazi reign of terror. But much as this film portrays, such an ideology only leads to destruction — a necessity to harm your brother. Bonhoeffer stated the following which feels surprisingly pertinent to this narrative:

“This Leader, deriving from the concentrated will of the people, now appears as longingly awaited by the people, the one who is to fulfill their capabilities and their potentialities. Thus the originally matter-of-fact idea of political authority has become the political, messianic concept of the Leader as we know it today. Into it there also streams all the religious thought of its adherents. Where the spirit of the people is a divine, metaphysical factor, the Leader who embodies this spirit has religious functions, and is the proper sense the messiah. With his appearance the fulfillment of the last hope has dawned. With the kingdom which he must bring with him the eternal kingdom has already drawn near…

 “If he understands his function in any other way than as it is rooted in fact, if he does not continually tell his followers quite clearly of the limited nature of his task and of their own responsibility, if he allows himself to surrender to the wishes of his followers, who would always make him their idol—then the image of the Leader will pass over into the image of the mis-leader, and he will be acting in a criminal way not only towards those he leads, but also towards himself…”

And so it happens in this film. We see it around the professor’s dinner table first. Formally, a forum for high-minded debate, it’s quickly become a battleground of ideology. Roth’s step-sons and most notably his daughter’s fiancee Fritz Marberg (Robert Young) have all been caught up in the rhetoric and promises of Herr Hitler. All other forms of thought and free thinking have been discarded, these new ideals burrowing into their minds, dictating their actions, and ultimately poisoning their lives and the lives of all those around them. I never thought it was possible to despise Robert Young but when his mind is polluted by an ideology as rancorous as Nazism it’s far from difficult.

We don’t see Jimmy Stewart until quite a ways into the film and he disappears from sight for some time following an escape to Austria from the Nazi clutches, but he’s still our hero imbued with that same iconic everymanness. He is the man to continue the open-minded, compassionate forms of thinking that Professor Roth exemplifies and subsequently get torn asunder.

Margaret Sullivan and Stewart yet again make a compelling pair following Lubitsch’s Shop Around the Corner. She is the good little German girl Freya who actually proves to have a backbone and he is the humble farm boy who stands by his ideals like Stewart always did. They are caught up in a love story amidst a world that seemingly lacks any shred of romantic passion.

Undoubtedly the Production Codes forbade from mentioning Jews in the story — the non-Aryans like Professor Roth, but that makes this film even more haunting, the fact that the people without a voice are not even acknowledged. They are silenced and remain silent.

With its overt portrayal of the Nazis as menacing thugs and brainwashed ideology machines, The Mortal Storm is startling. For years and years most all of us have read, heard, and seen a great deal on the Nazis that we have unknowingly compiled but this film brings many of those common factors to the fore. It’s obvious that people saw them then. They knew them then. They weren’t blind. Thus, it makes us beg the question what were other Europeans and Americans actually thinking? Because although The Mortal Storm might be the exception rather than the norm, there had to be a general consciousness about the Nazis.

Because the film hardly sugarcoats anything nor does it mince words. It’s surprisingly blunt and utterly bleak in its portrayal even with a bit of a bittersweet Hollywood ending. What’s left is a lingering impact that’s terribly affecting. Only at that point do we realize the total transformation the film world has gone through. Those opening moments of The Mortal Storm are so vital as it is only in the waning interludes where we truly comprehend how far things have fallen into hell.

It’s a stunning piece of work and this is not simply the ethereal love story I was expecting. It is a thoroughly gripping indictment of the Nazi menace and far more candid than I would have ever imagined. The Mortal Storm suggests perhaps most audaciously that there were people who waded against the pervasive current of the time. They let their lives be dictated by good will, decency, and personal relationships rather than any churning force of a single political ideology.

The final quotation pulled from the moving work of Minnie Louise Haskins “God Knows” ends like so:

“I said to a man who stood at the gate, give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown. And he replied, go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than a light and safer than a known way.”

4.5/5 Stars

What I Learned From George Bailey

its-a-wonderful-life

It’s a Wonderful Life is a perennial classic for many people but it was not until I saw it in a theater during high school and rediscovered it with new eyes that I  came to truly appreciate this film on a deeper level.

On subsequent viewings, so many scenes resonated with me and gained new profound meanings. However, one of the most prominent is really in the periphery. It came with looking closely at the wall of Mr. Bailey’s building and loan. Clearly visible on the wall of the old building is a short epithet. “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.” It’s a strikingly beautiful and pithy statement. I have no way of knowing who thought of having this quotation up on the wall but it perfectly encapsulates many of the central themes of the film.

More than anything, the rise, the fall, and the final redemption of George Bailey reminds me what the true meaning of life is. It is to strive to love others–loving them even as much as you love yourself if that’s your wife or your kids or the people that you cross paths with each and every day. Mary, Zuzu, Uncle Billy, Violet, Burt, Ernie, and yes, even the Mr. Potters.  Simple, everyday, common decency is something to be clung to. It might be unassuming and the people who wield it may remain unheralded but that hardly discounts their impact. They know what they’ve done and that’s enough. Trial and tribulation might come again and again, still they never tire of doing good.

“All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”

If we look at the life of George Bailey, he is precisely one of these individuals. This whole film is a culmination of his charity and love towards his fellow neighbors. He never wearies of doing good until the moment when his life comes crashing down on him. It’s at this moment where he finally begins to question the trajectory of his life thus far. He feels like a failure.

And this also speaks into our discontentedness as humans. Like George we want to do great things, gain acclaim, explore the world, and shake off the dust of our crummy lives. Often when life doesn’t wind up the way we want, we think that we’re failures. Our lives have seemingly become so mundane and insignificant. At least that’s what we tell ourselves. That’s what George tells himself for a time and he lets bitterness dictate his life.

But it’s precisely in those moments that he is reminded that no man is a failure who has friends–a community around him who is willing to lift him up and rally around him when he’s at his lowest. That’s why the final moments of the film always ring so sweet because to me they reflect the perfect community — surrounded by all these people that George impacted in one way or another. They are a testament to the life he led, all singing “Auld Lang Syne” in a joyful chorus. And the money they bring to bail him out is only a visible outpouring of their affection for him.

“All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”

Ultimately, George reaped the reward for all his sacrifices and everything he gave up for others. But it hardly seems like a matter of karma. George did these things because he truly cared about people. As his father did before him. He was never looking to gain anything from them. That was not his character.

And this always leads me to  a bit of soul-searching. George with the help of Clarence literally sees the world as if he never existed and we too can play this kind of hypothetical game. If I died tomorrow or disappeared off the face of the earth, would anyone care? It’s a sobering question, but if we look at George Bailey the answer is an emphatic “YES!” His not having existed has seismic consequences on his surrounding community. It’s entire identity literally changes when he’s not there.

George Bailey taught me and continues to teach me time and time again what it means to leave a positive impact on the world at large. In my life, every day, I want to make the most of the time I have with other people. Because each life has the opportunity to touch so many others. To put it another way, I’ve read before that there are no neutral encounters you either breath life into other people or you take it away. I do not want to squander the opportunities afforded me and George Bailey models that so exquisitely.

“All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”

4 Great Movies Set in a Single Location

Lifeboat_(1944)_1

Great directors can take a restriction like a single, confined location and turn into something especially extraordinary. Because the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Lumet and Louis Malle prove that these are not limits at all, but sources of cinematic inspiration. It what you do with that space that is of the utmost importance.

1. Rear Window (1954)
The ultimate thriller, utilizing one Greenwich Village apartment complex to the nth degree. Jimmy Stewart being confined to a wheelchair has never been so compelling as he begins to suspect that his neighbor across courtyard is a wife murderer. Hitchcock builds up the tension by not allowing his character to escape, and he becomes embroiled in intrigue as well as romance. It all leads to a crackerjack ending.

2.12 Angry Men (1957)

There have been many courtroom dramas, but the beauty of this character study is its new perspective. Sidney Lumet’s debut is a thing of beauty, because he lets his characters work and there are 12 wonderful actors all playing off each other. The story is simple. These men must decide if a young boy should be sent to the electric chair. Put them together in a room for an hour and a half and we learn more about mankind than we could possibly imagine. There’s nothing to make the temperature rise like 12 angry men in a room together.

3.Lifeboat (1944)

Hitchcock was always one for technical challenges and Lifeboat is a film that reflects his penchant for cinematic experiments. After an ocean liner is sunk numerous passengers are forced to board a raft together, including friends and foes. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the war drama is how Hitch is able to keep the story from being stagnant. It’s surprisingly compelling  for how simple it looks at first glance.

4.My Dinner with Andre (1981)

This film is less about dramatic tension and more about a concept. Two men sit together and share a conversation over dinner, full of all sorts of philosophical musings. Once again a simple premise gives way to interesting discussion led by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory playing fictional versions of themselves.

Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance (1962)

libertyvalance.png

I can enter into a discussion of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance from two different avenues. Most obvious is the film itself. As far as star power, Lee Marvin is playing third fiddle to John Wayne and James Stewart, the undisputed stars of this film.

However, Liberty Valance is a wonderful role, because certainly this is about Wayne and Stewart, but on the other hand its Marvin who has his name in the title, and that’s not something to be taken too lightly. He’s at the core of this film, because it is his villainy and criminal activities that create the conflict in this story line and elicit a response from both of our leading men. He forces their hand and it becomes the call to action for a final showdown.

The fact that the film’s narrative is told, rather like a film noir, with a flashback creates this type of aura not only around Wayne’s Tom Doniphin but the notorious Liberty Valance himself. Because although we see Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) in the present along with his faithful wife (Vera Miles), the  two other men are only made available to us through eyewitness account. Around them is built a type of legend and that ultimately makes Liberty Valance a fascinating figure. Dressed in black, swinging his whip menacingly and boisterous as all get out, Lee Marvin is the perfect man to portray Valance.

In a sense, it feels like he’s at the crossroads of his career, in transition from his heavy roles to being a top billed tough guy. The Big Heat and Liberty Valance represent his earlier turns before he progressed to The Dirty Dozen and Point Blank as a silver-haired tough-as-nails leading man. Marvin was arguably never more larger-than-life than his time as Liberty Valance. Perhaps it was because he was forced to hold his own against Stewart and Wayne. As the famous quotation goes, “When legend becomes fact, print the legend..” Well in this case, Lee Marvin did make Liberty Valance in a legendary villain deserving to be among the pantheon of baddies.

However, there’s also Gene Pitney’s billboard charting tune also called “The Man Shot Liberty Valance,” which although it was not featured in the film, sums up its story quite impeccably.

The lyrics read like so:

When Liberty Valance rode to town, the womenfolk would hide, they’d hide
When Liberty Valance walked around, the men would step aside
‘Cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When it came to shootin’ straight and fast, he was mighty good

From out of the east a stranger came, a law book in his hand, a man
The kind of a man the West would need to tame a troubled land
‘Cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When it came to shootin’ straight and fast, he was mighty good

Many a man would face his gun, and many a man would fall
The man who shot Liberty Valance
He shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all

The love of a girl can make a man stay on when he should go, stay on
Just tryin’ to build a peaceful life where love is free to grow
But the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When the final showdown came at last, a law book was no good

Alone and afraid, she prayed that he’d return that fateful night, aw, that night
When nothin’ she said could keep her man from goin’ out to fight
From the moment a girl gets to be full-grown, the very first thing she learns
When two men go out to face each other, only one returns

Everyone heard two shots ring out, one shot made Liberty fall
The man who shot Liberty Valance
He shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all

The man who shot Liberty Valance
He shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all

So if Marvin’s portrayal doesn’t already make Liberty Valance into a mythical villain, then this number certainly does. We can read it a bit like a western folktale, emotive and surprisingly true to the film’s narrative arc. But what it leaves us with are the result of that showdown that happened so many years ago…

The point of a gun was the only law that Liberty Valance understood, and he was forced to pay penitence for his misdeeds under the barrel of that same law — at the hands of the hero christened only by the name “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”

Written as part of The Great Villain Blogathon featured HERE