Blackboard Jungle (1955)

Billy Haley and The Comet’s “Rock Around The Clock” is often touted as the first rock n’ roll tune. I won’t get sucked into that discussion for the time being, but whatever we want to call it, there’s this sense of youth culture — teenagers as a demographic — coming into bloom.

Future generations would harness the music of the contemporaneous adolescent culture to greater effect. In Richard Brook’s Blackboard Jungle, it feels a bit more one-note and generally unattached to the marketing and main message of the picture. They haven’t quite harnessed its power. Because like the gangster pictures of old — or even The Wild Ones and Rebel Without a Cause — this is meant to be another cautionary tale about delinquent youth. In its day, it was no doubt considered dangerous and indecent.

There’s some of that, but an honest assessment would acknowledge how tame most of it feels now. It’s the 50s take on the teenager problem through the eyes of a Hollywood still neutered by the production codes. However, that’s not to say there is nothing to be relished about the movie or gleaned from the depiction of cultural anxieties.

I’ll let you be the judge of whether or not Glenn Ford does an adequate job at playing a teacher. It’s certainly not a western and although there are tinges of an urban jungle, it’s not quite your prototypical city noir. To his credit, in spite of his usual intensity, his scenes with Anne Francis, in particular, do reveal a certain sensitivity. He uses his brawn on a number of occasions; he has a foot in that world, and yet there’s some sense he is a gentleman and an aspiring family man.

Still, his life as a new recruit to North Manual Trades High School feels a bit like baptism by fire. Despite its gruff and no-nonsense administrators as represented by such ready veterans as John Hoyt and Emile Meyer, there’s no question the all-boys, multiethnic melting pot of a school has a major discipline problem.

One wry teacher who’s been around the block calls it the “garbage can” of the education system. And he’s resigned himself to taking out the trash. Nothing more. As such, in preparation for the first day of school, there’s an uneasiness in the air. Even as Mr. Dadier (Ford) desires to reach his class, there’s a sense that battle lines are being drawn up: you have students on one side and teachers forming a rear guard. One new recruit, a bookish Richard Kiley comments, it’s like being back on the beach at Salerno doing the war. In other words, this mission is not for the faint of heart.

The world and the atmosphere around the school evoke so much. One of the primary pleasures of the picture comes with actually familiarizing ourselves with this rank and file replete with familiar faces like the Louis Calherns, Kiley’s, and even an odd Richard Deacon or Jamie Farr here or there. We can only experience the power dynamics and, the underlining conflict thanks to the range of characters.

I have very little practical hands-on knowledge about New York geography, but there is this sense that the high school featured here could exist not too far away from the courtroom in 12 Angry Men. If the morality on what to do with punks and malcontents doesn’t entirely overlap, then the visual landscape feels like a shared space.

But enough delaying tactics. We must acknowledge the emblematic youth at the heart of Blackboard Jungle. Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier) is cool and disaffected. Dadier ushers him out of the washroom during a mid-period smoke break. He’s made his stance toward education plain. Though he’s a more complex case than his opening introduction might suggest. Most people are.

Artie (Vic Morrow) thrives as the gang’s primary leader, at least in the fact he’s good for a derisive comment and stirring up his cronies in rebellion against the establishment. Boys like Miller’s have intelligence and some semblance of passion.  Artie’s got nothing of the sort. He has a future career of hoodlamism all sketched out.

It’s not a radical hypothesis, but watching Sidney Poitier here, it’s easy to surmise that if he had been white, he would have been lauded as a cult icon on par with Brando or Dean. However, to his credit, he takes the part in a direction commensurate with his specific talents. While Morrow at times feels like the typical street thug, Poitier eschews many of these conventions over time.

Considering the opening preamble and where the movie goes, it’s intriguing to consider the implications. It does preach a message of racial tolerance — that certain people aren’t too far gone and teens are humans too — but there does seem to be an easy fix. You have to pin the blame on the black sheep. They are the ones souring everything. It has nothing to do with skin color, but perhaps the pains, the fears, and the psychological duress of youth.

One of the most powerfully symbolic moments is not any fistfight or savage skirmish. It happens in a classroom where the boys, urged by Artie, bust a teacher’s collection of jazz records. Kiley’s reaction is hardly devastation. He’s more so shellshocked and resigned to bewilderment. What would come over them to do such a reckless thing? They get no utility out of it. It’s merely an act of spite, a way to wreak havoc and target other people so they become inured to it.

Creativity or beauty of any kind, anything that doesn’t conform to teenage masculinity, even flaunted sexuality gets quelled and totally crushed into the ground. There need not be a better summation. Otherwise, there are few revelations in the movie and the finale is tense if not altogether authentic, brimming perilously with self-serving melodrama.

In this facet alone, it seems time has not been kind to The Blackboard Jungle. At the very least, it’s because a myriad of similarly-minded movies were built out of its image — on its shoulders even. If you’ve seen Stand and Deliver or even Poitier’s later success, To Sir, With Love, it makes the work here feel outmoded, if not altogether negligible.

However, after everything else burns off, there’s a particular appreciation for Poitier. If Morrow deservedly filled the space of a punk antihero, then Poitier derives a nuance out of his role that seems unprecedented, and he would keep on presenting such seismic and extraordinary performances to the American screen. Even in his relative youth, I’m always in awe of his intuitive stage presence.

Far from simply offering a convenient context for the movie and its student-teacher factions, Ford’s character reaches out to Poitier because he is the leader that others follow. In 1950s America this seems like an almost startling statement. Here is a black man being acknowledged as capable of leading the masses. But when you watch Poitier, it doesn’t seem implausible by any means because he plays it so assuredly.

Thus, Blackboard Jungle might as well remain as a time capsule of 1950s sensibilities, beatnik-era slang, burgeoning rock n’ roll culture, and most importantly of all, a showcase for one of the movie industry’s incomparable talents. Yes, I’m talking about Jameel Farrah.

3.5/5 Stars

The Shop Around The Corner (1940): A Christmas Love Story

The_Shop_Around_the_Corner_trailer

The Shop Around The Corner samples a Hollywood-style Hungary that nevertheless establishes it as a much humbler, quieter picture than seasoned Lubitsch aficionados might be accustomed to. It’s subsequently one of his best efforts for this very reason. There’s an intimacy to it, recalling his own upbringing working in his father’s tailor shop based out of Berlin, during his youth.

Initially, it feels like curious casting — James Stewart playing a Hungarian is absurd and he makes no attempt at an accent — and yet Lubitsch had the foresight to understand his appeal. He lacks all the suavity and urbanity normally associated with the director’s creations. In fact, for an American audience beginning to grow used to Stewart’s own steadily rising star, they connected with his disposition since it was very much the antithesis of stereotypical Hollywood or the highbrow of 1930s Lubitsch pictures. But it is the tone that matters most.

Because, again, this is not Hungary in the flesh — it is out of the mind of Lubitsch, a creation of nostalgia, warmth, and sentimentality — and on its streets, Stewart is more than at home. He fits the spirit of what The Shop Around The Corner cordially represents.

It is not a place right in front of us but just out of reach in the near-beyond of our memories and our imaginations. It represents our hopes and high ideals, even the sentiments of hope wrapped up in the Christmas season. Stewart as a figure — a token — is somehow able to stand in for so many things.

But there is more to it. Stewart delivers something a bit more substantial than his “aww shucks” persona, which was continually teased out leading up to the days of Mr. Smtih Goes to Washington. There’s also a stern assertiveness present, ready to come out; it just needs a spark, some point of instigation.

Enter Margaret Sullavan, his perfect counterpart and sparring partner. Her breathy delivery is quiet and understated, while still somehow implying this spunky resilience residing inside her character. This is what Sullivan brings to the part herself, earning a reputation as a demanding and “difficult” performer who sent shivers down the spines of major studio magnates, knowing full-well what she wanted. As a result, she found initial success though she’s mostly forgotten today.

Accordingly, her Klara Novak turns out to be a crackerjack saleswoman, at first pleading for a job, then proving Mr. Kralik’s rebuttals wrong by turning right around and earning employment. This sets the stage for their prevailing antagonism from which a love story must bloom. 

But that comes a bit later. The movie opens with all the staff of Matuschek and Co. congregating outside before the workday commences waiting for the front door to be opened by their employer.

Frank Morgan is Mr. Mathuchek, a blustering and a demanding fellow who can never quite make up his mind about the shop’s inventory. For that, he trusts his most faithful and pragmatic right-hand man Kralik (James Stewart), who has been the company’s longest-serving employee. If there are any decisions to be made, he’s the man to make them.

Felix Bressart is a fine family man and friend who always has a habit of fleeing the scene when the boss is requesting personal opinions. What he provides is quiet stability and an encouraging ear to Kralik.

Among the other current employees is the brownnoser with fine threads Vadas and the precocious errand boy Pepi (William Tracy) who does everything in his power to get ahead. With their communal workspace, a number of things come to pass. The relationship between Kralik and Ms. Novak continues turbulently as she manages to sell one of their useless purchases to an unsuspecting customer — a cigarette box that plays “Ochi Chernye.”

Simultaneously, Mr. Kralik is maintaining letter correspondence with an unknown paramour who engages his intellect on ideas of art, culture, and literature. One is reminded how The Shop Around The Corner extrapolates the axiom of not judging a book by its cover. Closely related is the fallacy of getting caught up in books such that you fail to see and comprehend the reality playing out right in front of your nose.

You read Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Dostoevsky, only to realize the people living and breathing right beside you are not only more than what’s meets the eye — they are simultaneously writing their own stories. We can’t always mold them to fit the narratives we know. Both Ms. Novak and Mr. Kralik seem to know these issues intimately without realizing it.

Because this is a Lubitsch picture, irony comes into play quite early; although it’s difficult to know if Stewart or the audience come up with the answers first. Maybe it hits us at the same time. If you don’t already know what it is, I’m not licensed to say. Allow it to happen to you.

Meanwhile, for some unseen reason, Mr. Matuschek grows cold and distant — going so far as relieving Kralik of his post in an uncharacteristic move. It’s the film at one of its lowest points. This was the fountain of all Kralik’s joy until he is so unceremoniously plucked from his position. Because we realize this job is his life, these people his extended family. Even Ms. Novak feels sorry that they must say goodbye, though patching things together might be altogether too little too late.

Sampson Raphaelson’s story kindly reconciles this conflict as Kralik and Mr. Mathuschak smooth out the situation. What still remains is the meeting with his mysterious correspondent. The Christmas season is upon the shop, and they work tirelessly to have the biggest sales in Christmas Eve history. They succeed. It’s punctuated by holiday bonuses for everyone, a soft powdering of snow, and genial celebrations all around — even for lonely Mr. Matchuchek.

This could be the end, but of course, we cannot forget the main reason Lubitsch has cast his eye on this inauspicious shop. Among many other things, it’s to unpack themes of love. The lights are low in the backroom, and Kralik is trying to get the words out, playing up the piece of jewelry he bought for his unseen beau.

Ms. Novak tries to accept her own fate with fortitude as her former rival tramples over her dreams with a reality check. Their words meet midsentence as she recites the recitations from her own dream suitor:

“True love is to be two, and yet one.”

“A man and a woman blended as angels.”Heaven itself.” That’s Victor Hugo. He stole that.”

“I thought I was the inspiration for all those beautiful thoughts. Now I find he was just copying words out of a book. He probably didn’t mean a single one of them.”

“I’m sorry you feel this way about it.”

She’s been led to believe he’s a balding, chubby fellow playing at a great romantic. As it turns out, he’s lanky and bowlegged, but not without his charms; he meant every single word. He says to her, “Take your key and open the post office box and take me out of my envelope and kiss me.” His proclamation of love stops her cold as the recognition comes over her face. She follows suit soon enough, and there you have it…

No more fanfare is necessary. We have the cathartic moment as a romantic tree-topper that Stewart and Sullavan more than earn. Even right here, it’s the same old Lubitsch with an unequivocal knack for finding the most satisfying conclusion, whether in drawing room comedy or backroom romance.

4.5/5 Stars

Note: I wrote this in conjunction with a series of reviews on the films of Margaret Sullavan released earlier this year.

Mogambo (1953): John Ford Updates Red Dust

Mogambo

Whether it’s apocryphal or not the term “Mogambo” is purported to be the Swahili word for “passion,” although it’s difficult to know if this was only hearsay propagated by westerners (now including myself).

Regardless, it boasts an intriguing if altogether curious assemblage of talent. One would be remiss not to acknowledge John Ford as the story looks ripe for his kind of gripping panoramas. What’s lovely about the exterior shots is how it feels like a new prairie — a new landscape for Ford to photograph and bring his exemplary eye for portraiture and compositional space to.

Against this backdrop you have both people and animals living in this symbiotic give and take of aggression and nurturing — in some ways hearkening back to the primordial roots of Adam and Eve taking care of creatures in the Garden. Is it a stretch to wax lyrical in such a way? For another director, it’s quite possible, but because Ford was always the propagator of myth and parables it seems only fitting to use this language to describe the picture.

On a more pragmatic note, Mogambo is Red Dust transplanted to the African plains and maintaining the heavy influences of Western Imperialism. Though there is one fine concession, a “score” made up entirely of Congolese tribal music providing what feels like an authentic backbeat and rhythm to the movie. Otherwise, it’s a Hollywood Technicolor extravaganza in toto, albeit one delivered courtesy of Pappy Ford.

The plot isn’t of exceptional interest given the fact it already has antecedents in other movies, and it feels especially antiquated now. However, it’s also a double-edged sword as they don’t make any movies quite like this anymore, and so there’s a certain amount of novelty in the established panoply.

Vic Marsell (Clark Gable) is a big game hunter for pay in the modern world. Eloise “Honey Bear” Kelly — a real firecracker of a woman (Ava Gardner) — winds up at their secluded outpost on the invitation of a maharajah. The main problem is the man picked up and left without bothering to tell her. She’s good and stranded.

Her attempts to make her way back to civilization don’t work so well, and their outpost becomes quite the mating ground with the arrival of a callow man of learning (Donald Sinden) and his wife (Grace Kelly). You need not be a soothsayer to wager a guess what might happen in this sweltering country.

Ava Garner’s no Harlow gold, and she doesn’t have to be. If it’s not plainly obvious, she’s Ava Garder, a cloying, sassy icon in her own right more than capable of finding her place among the animals and everyone else on the African Safari.

She’s a barrel of laughs to have around, and she has a quip for every occasion be it Secretary birds or (Bobby) Thompson’s Gazelles. Consequently, she also proves herself to be an incorrigible pot-stirrer and, thus, the film’s most enchanting asset.

While Gable still feels adequate doing the rounds as his prototypical gruff hero (over 20 years after his initial success), Gardner gives off this sensual aura of sport and irreverence. Grace Kelly has the naive sheen of a prim and proper anthropologist’s wife out for an adventure, which of course, she is.

Given our players and Ford’s manning of the romantic drama, it’s the broader themes paired with the laid-back sense of fun — reminiscent of a Howard Hawk’s picture — that become the most agreeable moments.  This is before it burns with the imminent flames of passion.

Every detail and accent of the environment seem to reinforce the romantic tensions creating these parallels between mating rituals out in the wild and their human equivalents. It’s an open-air Noah’s ark. Every creature is looking for its respective mate.

Ava Gardner pacing with her parasol joined by the Leopard pacing in its cage. A lion in the bush growling for a lioness. Hippos fighting in the local riverbed no doubt over a female companion. There are even polygamous males in the local communities with tribal premarital rituals to guarantee fidelity.

In lieu of a flood, Mogambo swipes the famous storm scene from Red Dust, but it’s punctuated by a singular moment of its own. It’s the first sign of electricity. Gable yanks off Grace Kelly’s headscarf and brings it about her neck with a forceful tug. Nothing else happens, but the animalistic fury and the passion is obvious, matching both the animals and the weather right outside the window.

There is another element we could consider and as I don’t like to spend too much time on these things, I only mention it in light of the film. Garble and Kelly famously had a romantic fling on set. Far from being a real-life love triangle — Gardner was still married to a devoted Frank Sinatra at the time — the younger starlet went to her elder for worldly counsel. And she provided it. If intuition proves correct, Gable wasn’t a far cry from the man he portrayed in this film, at least when women were concerned.

It’s no coincidence, the final act takes them out into the jungle in pursuit of gorillas, “the truest link between man and his primordial derivation,” although a local father might have a word or two to say on the origin of species — Man in particular. Soon thereafter, relationships get more complicated and they begin to splinter under pressure as per the expected conventions.

If I can make a summation, you come to Mogambo for how the milieu informs the romance and not the other way around. Length catches up with it in the end with the steaminess slowly burning off. What we are left with are the palette and the performances. It’s well nigh enough to make this movie spectacular entertainment. Fans of either Ford, Gable, Gardner, or Princess Grace should at least prick up their ears. Although, in the end, Ava steals the show.

3.5/5 Stars

Mutiny on The Bounty (1935) with Gable, Laughton, and Tone

mutiny on the bounty

More recently I’ve found myself straying away from period pieces and epics and not necessarily because there is something fundamentally off-putting about them. Nor do I think it can solely be blamed on my admittedly short attention span in this increasingly inane and vapid social media-fueled society we live in.

To prove my reasoning, I only need to express a couple of repurposed lines, “To whom much is given, much is required.” It’s not from Spider-Man, no, but it does suggest a movie like Mutiny on the Bounty already has a mountain to climb. It needs to do more to wow me than one of its shorter more economical brethren. Therein lies the issue at hand: greater expectations.

The year is 1787 and the Royal Navy is on a mission to acquire breadfruit trees as sustenance for slaves in the West Indies. This is implied to be a tale about how a mutiny led by a man named Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) laid the groundwork for modern British sea law still ruling the seas to the present day (that is, 1935).

Thankfully, it never feels quite like we are being taught a moral or a lesson of social significance. It’s nothing more than entertainment, though it’s still one of the great seafaring epics (not starring Errol Flynn).

A handful of hapless men are pulled out of a tavern away from their wives and loved ones and conscripted into a two years voyage with a Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton). Another man of privileged stock takes his post gladly (Franchot Tone).

When his crew is finally aboard and assembled, Bligh sets the precedent of unyielding discipline with a flogging of some poor unfortunate chap. His men look on gravely, no doubt questioning what they’ve gotten themselves into. It’s true the sea is a fierce adversary with gales whipped up and immersive wave-drenched decks swaying madly under their legs. However, if there is a touch of man vs nature in the drama, it’s even more vehemently about bouts of human conflict and insurrection.

Director Frank Lloyd makes liberal use of claustrophobic close-ups played in sharp juxtaposition to the more grandiose naval imagery. It signals the tone of the world even as this grand scale is made tactile through the onscreen relationships. Namely, that of a tyrannical captain and his hapless crew as he ceaselessly dishes out lashes and other sordid punishments indiscriminately even unto the point of death. There must be a breaking point. For now, we wait as they grin and bear their taskmaster.

One of the few sources of jocularity is the ship’s surgeon (Dudley Digges) a blustering old sea dog who dubiously lost his leg — the story of how it happened is the source of many of his largest yarns. Still, he too is in danger of being a casualty. No one is safe on a boat where the most precious cargo is botanical and not human. It’s these plants that are given preferential treatment when rations are concerned.

The crew is half-raving, stir-crazy as they finally weigh anchor on the shores of Tahiti — taken by the country’s beauty, coconut milk, and native girls. Our voyage has reached its midpoint and dipped its toes into what feels like paradise. Is it a coincidence that Bligh seems to all but disappear? Instead,  Tone busies himself picking up as much of the dialect as possible, and then Gable is taken by the pretty woman making eyes at him; they don’t need language to communicate.

mutiny on the bounty Gable and Tone

It’s the interim period of leisure and romance. But this respite must come to an end and with it, we arrive at the beginning of the end. After all, the whole story has been mounting to this precise point as we’ve all but avoided the inevitable.

If I’m to engage with my boyhood proclivities, Mutiny is not much of an actioner or at least not in the sense of a rip-roaring swashbuckler. It’s a war between titans, men of differing ideals, only to be interrupted by the unpredictable ferocity of the sea. So in this way, it’s more of a character piece injected with action. Still, this is not the bottom line.

The conflict is in staying the voyage (and the film) to see whose will is enacted in the end: Bligh’s or Christians with Byam forced to navigate the turbulent waters of ambiguity in-between. One positive of the picture is how none of the three men seem to entirely steal the show; they seem to be on surprisingly equal footing.

Yes, Laughton is an impudent, bull-headed taskmaster but hardly one of the most nefarious villains of all time. This is a tribute to the actor. He sculpts Bligh into a wretched, small-time human being who’s too big for his britches.  A paranoid weasel blinded by his devotion to duty and the sound of his own voice. He doesn’t forget those who revolt and his retribution is swift.

However, he is all but cast aside and forgotten, an insignificant little man, who knows how to make his way amid the rules and regulations of the Navy. It’s a more galling ending than if he had been lost at sea or most preferably eaten by a shark. But Laughton is a credit to the role showcasing his mind-boggling dexterity and range among actors of his day and age.

Gable is ultimately made into a kind of mythical figure out there on the ocean somewhere, but he is not destined to wander aimlessly — he and his rag-tag crew find a place to rest and call home. He wears the fierce, proud masculinity of Fletcher Christian just as you would expect him to (with our without his trademark pencil-thin mustache).

But if they are the two behemoths doing war against one another with the ship and the sea as their arena of battle, it is Tone who actually gets the final word as our initial in to the story. He is the every man, and therefore, the voice of reason for all of us. While I wouldn’t go out on the plank to say The Mutiny on The Bounty is a so-called “great film,” it does a service to its genre as one of MGM’s most prominent period pieces of the decade and a fine showcase for some of their most acclaimed stars.

4/5 Stars

Waterloo Bridge (1940) and The Farewell Waltz

Screenshot 2020-01-05 at 62101 PM.png

If you’re like me, Waterloo conjures up a limited array of mental images. Napoleon and The Battle of Waterloo. The Kinks and Waterloo Sunset. That’s about the extent of it. Now I can add Vivien Leigh, Robert Taylor, and Waterloo Bridge to the list.

Fittingly, our opening prologue begins at the titular location, as a handsome man with a touch of gray, dressed in military attire, makes a ponderous appearance. The place holds an obvious resonance for him even as he holds an unnamed token in his hands. This is Robert Taylor. He probably looks too virile to be an old man, but that’s hardly his fault. At any rate, he’s preparing to give one of the most continuously amiable performances of his career.

Then, we’re back in time. For a minute the cultural moment caught me off guard. Even though the flashback seemed to denote the first war to end all wars, how our star couple first meets, heading to the Underground for an air raid, feels like a distinctly World War II-era image. However, it happened earlier as well, and it makes for a very practical meet-cute.

With the Germans threatening to rain down their ammunition, the Underground is stuffed to the gills with all sorts including Captain Roy Cronin and Myra Lester (Vivien Leigh), a member of a ballet troupe. This might be their first and last meeting, but the spell between them is too bewitching. The cinematic mechanisms of star-crossed love are at work.

There’s a warmth and romantic civility bathing the picture, and it’s the kind of feeling you often seem to get in pictures of old — at least the most supernal ones. I can think of a handful: Random Harvest, Love Affair, Now Voyager, maybe The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. In a word: Stars. Because the scenario can change and yet when the talents fit together, there’s just something so disarming and delightful released into the atmosphere.

We want to soak it in and be in the moments with them to feel the same swells of emotion. Whether war or some other force pulls them apart or gets in the way of their love, they always face it with a good humor and a grace that we can live vicariously through as the audience out in the dark.

All of this might see like an admittedly surprising proclamation because anyone who knows anything about Leigh will first consider Gone With The Wind from the year before and then her larger-than-life relationship with Laurence Olivier. He was the man she wanted for this picture. Alas, he was called to make Pride and Prejudice (1940). What came into being with Waterloo Bridge is probably better.

Oh that we could be as handsome a Scotsman as Robert Taylor (with a better accent) or such an immaculate and gorgeous ballerina as Vivien Leigh. As such, their romance is set in this heightened supercharged arena created by wartime.

The film’s most illustrious scene is the “Farewell Waltz” by candlelight, played to the soft melancholy tones of “Auld Lang Syne.” In the silence or, rather, without dialogue, the magic of the moment is the film’s apogee. That song becomes one of the strongest motifs at the movie’s disposal.

It might have been the most bittersweet short film of all time if the first 30 minutes were all we got. All things considered, it wouldn’t be a bad place to end allowing the pleasantness to waft over us and invade our collective hearts and minds.

Still, their story continues for over an hour more. There must be complications. Robert Taylor is soon on the train platform, a fellow soldier holds a bawling son amid the hubbub, and our protagonist’s head is on a swivel as he moves down the platform. The camera follows close behind; he’s anxious to see his love just one last time before he ships out for what may as well be forever. It sets the tone going forward.

Their joint life together suffers in the wake of his departure and we can say “departure” because the movie stays behind as he goes overseas. It works in the story’s favor not to break off and try and tell both sides because this way it gets at the feelings of those left behind fretting on the home front.

Still, the final act needs something more. In comparison, it feels like a bit throwaway as if the movie is coasting on the power of those first minutes of romance and quite literally that haunting chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.”

You can write it off as sanitized rendition of its 1931 brethren or otherwise call for a perceptive reading between the lines, but what the picture must resolve once and for all is Myra’s shame — the guilt she holds onto while her man is gone.

Because even with the spunky support of her best friend Kitty (Virginia Field), she is left destitute without the lifeline of her husband. Whether he lives or not, she must subsist someway, and she chooses the only conceivable path, prepared to live with the ignominious consequences.

The only way to redeem the ending is to reflect it back at the audience — back at all of us — because it’s indicative of what many of us deal with. It consists of the lies we tell ourselves when no one is around. We’re unlovable. We’re too far gone. We’re the Judas. But the movie fails to go anywhere creative and poor, downtrodden Myra hardly fits the description of a loveless tramp.

The final saving grace is Vivien Leigh. Her quizzical right eyebrow gives all of us lacking perfect facial symmetry hope. Despite her final moments being trance-like, she is more than capable of the art of captivation even in her character’s execution of the inevitable. If I don’t quite buy her convictions taking her to such a sorry conclusion — the logic seems a bit drastic even for the time period — it’s easy enough to get swept away by her emotion alone.

Robert Taylor for one, gives a performance brimming with vitality, and he feels like more than a chiseled block of wood. He reminds us that in order to have true love there must be two involved. That place. His token. They only maintain their meaning because he shared them with someone else. We get the privilege of being there with them both.

4/5 Stars

The Yearling (1946): A Boy and His Deer

the yearling 1.png

“When I was a child I spake like a child…” ~ 1 Corinthians 13

Like the previous year’s Valley of Decision, The Yearling opens with an establishing shot paired with Gregory Peck’s voice, this time in a folksier register. Aside from being unoriginal, one can hardly condemn director Clarence Brown for an act of plagiarism.

However, what it does go to exemplify is a certain amount of unspoken structure supplied to Old Hollywood films. This shorthand, along with needlessly informational title cards, feel very much like the bane of the era’s filmmaking. It’s as if with the age of the talking picture, film’s forgot about the primacy of the image and as such, they dumbed down movies for their audiences. After all, it’s so easy for dialogue to become a constant crutch to fill in any ambiguities.

Even despite this aspect, The Yearling still has innumerable elements going for it. Gregory Peck is a fine actor, even making ho-hum voiceover moderately palatable, and the gorgeous Technicolor tones of nature within the film are breathtakingly resplendent. In fact, the movie proves a well-situated follow-up to Brown’s earlier success, National Velvet. It is a portrait of pioneering before the days of Old Yeller, joining together such lucrative elements as adolescence and animals.

The adolescent in this tale, adapted from Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s eponymous novel, is Jody (Claude Jarman Jr.), and the fauna deserves mentioning later on (although you probably already know what it is).

For now, the amiable Penny Baxter (Peck) and his boy form a bit of a good-natured partnership, sticking together as the men of the house. Their chemistry is undeniable making their onscreen pairing as father and son ripe with all kinds of affection. None of it feels like a fake veneer plastered on for the benefit of the audience.

The third member of the Baxter household is Ora (Jane Wyman), the no-nonsense wife and mother who’s both homely and severe, completely different than her kinfolk. Still, there’s something within her that Wyman does so well to intimate through her characterization. Thus, despite all she says and does that under normal circumstances might make us dislike her, most will find it within themselves to give her the benefit of the doubt. So much of it is understated and unspoken even as she never gives an inch. Her maternal heartbeat is undeniable although it maybe periodically obscured.

The Yearling really is fable-like by providing an impression of a way of life focused on a frontier family and more directly, the young boy who grows up right before our very eyes. While there is a narrative of sorts — all the events can be strung together as subsequent rungs in the journey — it’s mostly a vignette-driven piece meant to reflect the vicissitude of life.

One moment father and son are streaking through the forest with the family dogs to subdue ol’ Slewfoot, the ornery bear who mercilessly slaughtered one of their livestock. It becomes a lively jaunt and the first lesson in the boy’s nascent repertoire.

Due to the utter uselessness of his firearm in the tense encounter with the bear, Penny takes it upon himself to acquire a new weapon, and he manages quite ably through a bit of horse-trading with the nearest neighbors. One of the bunch is an ornery fellow also easily duped. By the end of the confrontation, he’s given up a beautiful rifle for an underperforming pooch.

Then there are the momentous trips into town to pick up materials at the general store. Mama is still dreaming of a well someday, and the obliging shopkeeper (Henry Travers) offers the boy a mouth organ as he comes face to face with a girl his own age. It’s hardly young love.

Instead, father and son get involved in a right neighborly brawl in the center of town, which is yet another of the film’s more jocular moments. It’s not afraid of the humor to punctuate the drama of life.

Because the next scene of note is really the turning point. Out in the forest, Penny is bitten by a rattler and fortuitously he’s able to shoot a nearby doe using the bodily organs to draw out the poison. It’s a scary incident leaving the man of the house weak and his son aims to take the orphaned doe as the pet he’s always been begging for.

The rapturous crescendo of angelic audio grandeur introducing our true main character is laid on a bit thick. However, if your heart is ready to be melted and you have held onto a shard of childhood innocence, The Yearling can remain a powerful tale of youth. No scene is more emblematic than this one.

the yearling 2

The film’s title comes front and center once again as we watch the parallel characters of a growing boy and his growing companion. He dotes over the little deer taking him to bed and imploring his mother not to take his pride and join away from him. Though the animal ruins them on multiple occasions trampling their crops.

If it’s not the fault of a creature, then nature whips up its own retribution. Their next tribulation is carried out by a torrential downpour decimating their hard-earned crops and sending emotions to a fever pitch. Evoking the sufferings of Job hardly seems a welcomed antidote to their plight.

But then, something begins to happen. A boy is becoming a man as he begins bearing the load of toil normally carried by his obliging father. He builds a fence to keep his deer out while fixing up their camp.

Then, they must say goodbye to a newlywed bride and groom. We don’t know them well but the family is deeply affected. Their exit by sea is a bittersweet departure, and as they ride back home Jody glumly notes, “I don’t like people going away it’s like they were dying.” His father only condolence is an honest observation, “That’s life boy. Getting and losing.” He must come to accept it. Death, goodbyes, trials; they never exactly get easier, but we must do our best to push through them with the support of our loved ones.

The Yearling might seem lightweight compared to some similar stories, but one must try and recall our own childhoods, where any number of thoughts and feelings experienced for the first time became monumental markers of life. That first pet you had. The death of a friend. The first girl you ever had a crush on. Each takes on varying degrees of importance in The Yearling and even for a story rich in sentimentality, these really are moral parables at their core.

Because it strikes some balance between maintaining a child-like wonder and zest for life while also understanding sometimes we must literally put to death our former ways. Finding that balance just might be one of the keys to a meaningful existence.

3.5/5 Stars

Valley of Decision (1945): Greer Garson & Gregory Peck

valley of decision 1.png

Gregory Peck’s pleasantly resonant voice brings us into the moment. The scene is unimaginative yet unmistakable with its obviously scaled-down establishing shot. Pittsburgh. Smokestacks and steel. These are the days of Andrew Carnegie and the transcontinental railroad wrapping its way east to west, making mythical magnates out of mortal men.

Valley of Decision is about this same monumental national narrative albeit stripped down to a microcosm meant to be far more intimate. In a manner of speaking, it succeeds by first setting our sights on a group of Irish immigrants. They are stereotypically spirited with a brogue to match.

Mary Rafferty (Greer Garson) makes her way home through the humble neighborhood she calls home to announce the latest piece of news. Amidst tough times, she has found herself a decent wage! The only complication is that she’ll be serving as maid to the Scott family, owners of the town’s local mill. Although Mary’s not a girl to turn down a job, her curmudgeon father (Lionel Barrymore) has maintained a lifelong grudge against Mr. Scott, seeing as it was the factory that lost him the use of his legs. He’s never forgiven them even with the recompense they’ve provided.

This is an instant source of conflict although it’s initially unrealized. Because given how they are built up, it’s rather surprising how everyone in the Scott household seems generally benevolent, if not a bit stuffy.

Mary arrives and we’re curious to know her place. We get our first look at Gregory Peck. He sneaks up the stairs to be rushed by his affectionate siblings. His mother (Gladys Cooper) follows in all civility. Each moment is taken in by the new help, perched in the drawing-room with each reaction made blatantly obvious. This is her first impression as well as ours and she beams ear to ear.

Garson’s character girds a spellbinding wit of the Irish about her, settling into her new occupation for the Scott family quite seamlessly and casting off her early nerves. Between the dishes and the spoiled children, she handles it with disarming aplomb and a certain bright-eyed reverence as only Greer Garson can supply.

valley of decision 2

If it’s not obvious already, Valley of Decision is a social drama with characters tied closely together. There’s the sectioning off of social spheres between the affluent and their more humble help. Then, you have the meeting of the men over cigars and business as the women busy themselves with frivolities. Curtains, for instance.

Tiptoeing through all these spaces like a fly on the wall is Mary Rafferty. Certainly, her place in this world is obvious, and yet she is accorded a very unique role walking through the parlors and dining rooms of the elite — privy to their conversations and activities — and an integral part of every part of her lives. No matter her family background.

It’s no secret a burgeoning romance starts in on her innocently enough. She’s a fine and glowing conversationalist. He’s charming and handsome. How could they not get together? But she dutifully understands her place. It wouldn’t be proper and with no prompting, she makes her way across the Atlantic in service of Ms. Connie (Marsha Hunt), effectively increasing the space between them. The mistress of the manor understands her predicament and privately pities her.

Then, one day there is a strike at the factories. Again, it’s no shocking epiphany. Anger and discontent are churned up and the bullish pride of Mr. Scott (Donald Crisp) and the sense of license for better wages by the unionizer Jim Brennon, looks to be at an impasse.

The true “valley of decision” (an allusion to the Old Testament’s admonition from Joel) is when all the events come to an inevitable head. A fragile peace can be maintained no longer, and all sides suffer calamitous devastation. Because the consequences are great when the Scotts and their opposition come face to face to have it out for good. Not even Mary nor her relinquished lover can make it right again.

Whether torn from the pages of the book or dreamed up by the screenwriter, Valley of Decision is very much a stilted melodrama with all sorts of manipulative twists coming at us with such continued force, it gets to be wearisome. It never ends.

The narrative flits so undecidedly between the warm chemistry of the leads and this overly theatrical landscape played out against the family’s steel mills. You might blend How Green is My Valley, King’s Row, Giant, Home for the Hill, and other analogous films, but somehow Valley of Decision still comes out the weakest of the brood. It cannot seem to reconcile its main conceit to a satisfying end.

It’s assembled with all the trimmings people might easily turn their noses up at when considering Hollywood movies of old. It boasts sentiment and courts melodrama. There’s the aforementioned voiceover to set the stage and stirring crescendos of mighty music in love and in tragedy. Characters can easily be pigeon-holed by their types all the way down to a spoiled Marsha Hunt, the insufferable childhood sweetheart played to a tee by Jessica Tandy, and Dan Duryea, not quite having found his more suitable niche as a noir baddie.

There’s also the underpinnings of Mary courting on the side of the wealthy and well-to-do. She sympathizes with them, making them seem like the victims of a system more so than the destitute bottom dwellers. I’m not sure what to do with this.

Because it’s true Mr. and Mrs. Scott are a most benevolent pair, and we grow to love them. Crotchety Lionel Barrymore, sulking in his wheelchair, doesn’t do much for the P.A. of the common man, but nonetheless, it’s a startling turn.

Taken as these disparate pieces placed together, the movie is an uneven compilation, all but borne on the shoulders of Greer Garson and Gregory Peck, who by any cursory glance, seem ill-suited as romantic partners. At the very least, they’re disparate figures.

She was a mature star, finally coming into her own as one of the prominent performers from the U.K. now making it big in Hollywood. He was an up-and-coming stage actor with the formidable build and roots in La Jolla California then Cal. Yet they share an amicable spirit somehow allowing them to fit together due to their mere ability to counter one another’s playful ebullience.

It does feel like a remarkable crossroads in careers. Garson was beloved, but would never regain her major box office with the dawning of the 50s and new tastes (even with a resurgence of success in the 60s). Gregory Peck was just beginning. One wonders what Greer thought of Roman Holiday and To Kill a Mockingbird? It’s easy enough to believe she would have liked them.

3/5 Stars

Madame Curie (1943): Starring The Indomitable Greer Garson

madame curie 2

Physics and Mathematics are the two primary focuses of Marie Curie’s life. In the early days, when she was one of the few solitary women in a Parisian sphere of academia, dominated by dismissive men, she still went by her maiden name and took on the rigors of study with ardent relish.

Thus, when her kindly professor (Albert Basserman), the prototypical white wizard with a likable twinkle in his eye, invites her over to his home to meet famed professor Pierre Curie (Walter Pidgeon), she jumps at the opportunity, purely on a professional basis. However, I will not suggest for even one moment Madame Curie takes its material into anything close to unconventional territory.

What looks to be an intimate affair turns out to be a bustling party packed with people. The two academics feel sorely out of place amidst the socializing and gravitate toward one another even more dramatically. There’s nothing concrete at the moment because we must remember these are two people with the utmost sense of dignity. They’re able to counter one another with a certain genteel propriety, not the klutzy screwball meet-cutes of some of their contemporaries. This no doubt plays to their personal advantage.

Time passes and Pierre grants the ambitious woman to set up shop in his laboratory, tucked away in a shabby little corner. Once more she jumps at the chance, seeing the space, completely devoid of any sort of facilities, as the perfect proofing ground for her ideas.

She immediately leaves an impression on the youthful lab assistant (Robert Walker). However, it’s her inexhaustible work in radiation that leads Pierre to revere her. Because over time he grows accustomed to her, at least in a professional sense.  While shrugging off her graduation initially, he finds himself making an appearance all the same. He’s compelled to.

The next course of action is his hesitant invitation on a weekend away, and she gladly accepts, meeting his parents out in the country over croquet, including an uncharacteristically bristly Henry Travers playing the elder Curie. The budding romance is obvious, and it’s convenient for our stars.

Mervyn LeRoy’s film, on the whole, is a lightweight, cordial biography working loosely with facts to draw up the life of Madame Curie and her future husband. It’s just as much a vehicle for the lasting chemistry of Garson and Pidgeon as it is an ode to one of the most renowned scientists of the turn-of-the-century. While I’m not exactly the most gifted empiricist, even I am aware of the substantial shadow the Curie name casts over the discipline. In some small manner, this movie allows them to be appreciated and palatable for a mainstream audience, albeit an audience of wartime viewers.

Even this admission is telling, suggesting this tale of romance and biography functions as a bit of timeless morale boosting. It showcases love and the triumph of the human spirit, even in the face of bitter tragedy. Still, it does not immediately signal propaganda like Mrs. Miniver or other such entries. This might be to its benefit.

madame curie 1.png

Taking everything into account, what makes it rather extraordinary is Garson’s heroine because certainly, Marie Curie is well-deserving of a biographical treatment and in an age where women were kept out of such positions, she provides a paradigmatic example for future generations. (No one can rebuff her two Nobel Prizes!)

Both her work and her career are important to her. The same goes for her future husband. But even with their work as a constant distraction, they realize in between the long lab sessions, living life without one another would leave a void. Beyond this, their work would be far less meaningful. In his rather roundabout manner, Pierre professes his need for her, comparing their marriage to NaCl. It’s not exactly romantic to be table salt, but they work well together, and they do form a solid union.

While the scientific jargon, filled with chemical elements, feels a bit clunky, it’s admittedly difficult to figure out a way to make their regimen of uranium-based experiments riveting. The major takeaway is the uphill push for funding since Curie is dismissed on all sides, not only based on her unprecedented research, but also for the arbitrary fact, she’s the opposite sex of every stodgy member of the scientific board.

Not to be daunted, the couple sets up business in a shack, and the Curies take on the task with their usual tenacity, their sole objective: separating barium from radium. This is Madame Curie in its stagnant phase and yet no one can doubt Greer Garson’s candor. One is reminded of the crushing moment she thinks the radium has all but evaporated and with it four years of toil. She’s nearly inconsolable.

Then, when their success is finally validated, she’s looking into her husband’s eyes and commending him as a great man, not by the standards of the world, but due to his kindness, gentleness, and wisdom. It’s a striking moment because this is no doubt her story, but as with any union, it takes two people to make it work.

But she subsequently has another sublime moment of indescribable vulnerability, pained to her core by the most grievous loss of her life thus far. She is a woman of science and of great intellect, but the service Garson does for Curie (authentic or not) is making her all the more human at her lowest point.

The final verdict remains that Madame Curie is an unimaginative bit of hagiography, but for the faithful fans of Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, it is another fitting eulogy to their joint talents. For some, this might be enough to charitably see past what flaws there are.

3/5 Stars

Pride and Prejudice (1940): Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson

Prideandprejudice.jpg

When you grow up with a sister, I imagine most people are aware of books like Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, Anne of Greene Gables, and Little House on The Prairie. However, especially when you’re young, you rarely appreciate them fully or comprehend how notable they are as cultural artifacts.

It’s my ever-growing esteem for Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice that makes me hold any adaptation to a higher standard. Otherwise, it would be easy enough to settle. But the coloring of the characters, their tete-a-tetes, the comic orchestrations, and the explorations of themes inherent in British society, make the material that much more sacrosanct. As time grows older, her works seem to draw more audiences, not less.

Thus, I’ve found myself not so much a stickler for out and out faithfulness to the source, although if it’s not broke, why fix it? Still, I desire these adaptations to stay true to the essence of what the author created.

It’s true Hollywood has always had an affection for its literary adaptations, and it was little different in the olden days of the studio system. Because what any book or intellectual property essentially guarantees is some kind of preformed fanbase to pull from. However, these attempts to capitalize always come with widely varied results. This MGM version, helmed by the all but forgotten Robert Z. Leonard, falls somewhere in the middle. It’s hardly forgettable and yet it lacks the required magic to send it in to the pantheon of Austen cinematic transcendence.

For those left unawares, Pride and Prejudice is a story of the Bennett family, consisting of five sisters, their benevolent father, and a hyperbolic mother looking for every opportunity to marry her daughters off to the man with the largest inheritance.

When two eligible young men, a kind-faced Mr. Bingley (Bruce Lester) and the rather more curt and severe Mr. Darcy (Laurence Olivier), rent the grand estate of Netherfield, along with a haughty sister, Ms. Bingley (Frieda Inescourt), it causes quite the stir in town.

The matriarch, Mrs. Bennet (Mary Boland), is the epitome of a fussy busybody who, nevertheless, has draped about her a certain maternal charm. Edmund Gwenn calmly uses his bright-eyed wit to upstage his wife’s blustering. They make a formidable pair of comics.

Among their children, Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) is the perfectly docile beauty with the richest prospects of marriage. Elizabeth (Greer Garson) is proud and passionate. Mary (Marsha Hunt) is bespectacled and depicted as a bit of an oddball. The two youngest, Lydia (Ann Rutherford) and Kitty (Heather Angel) are tittering adolescents swayed by a dashing manner and a handsome uniform.

The story is conveniently recontextualized for the Victorian-era and the main purpose served is in the costuming department. Not only could the studio save money by repurposing some of their wardrobes, but they could also lean into a greater level of opulence that would not have been available in the actual day of the Bennetts. Except for absolute purists, I see no way in which this historical inaccuracy harms the success of the picture.

It is also the opening ball reinforcing the ensuing conflict by introducing Elizabeth’s genuine distaste that she harbors for Mr. Darcy, perceiving him to be a total supercilious snob. What’s more, her feelings are not entirely unwarranted. This dissension is borne in the title itself: The pride of Elizabeth and the prejudice of someone bearing the breeding of Mr. Darcy. For that matter, it could be the other way around, Elizabeth’s prejudice toward the upper echelon and his own inbred pride.

Every successive encounter between them, Elizabeth does everything to confirm her assumptions about him. It means they are never on amicable terms with one another, no matter the words that might leave their lips. She is hardly reticent about airing her contempt for the man.

Every slight dispensed by those purported to be above her in status is further internationalized and often finds its way out in a barbed attack on Mr. Darcy since he proves to be the easiest target of ridicule. Even as Darcy’s romantic advances continue in earnest, Elizabeth has great relish in embarrassing him over a bout of archery. The consequence is understood, but somehow it feels a bit foreign to the propriety of Austen’s universe.

In parallel and, ultimately, intertwined romances, Jane and Mr. Bingley incur and off and on relationship defined not so much by grating behavior between the two of them but the forces of inertia working around them.

Following her own flight of fancy, Kitty winds up running off with a soldier named Mr. Wickham, who seems charming enough. However, it conveniently shrouds a past of ill-repute that Darcy holds against the man while Elizabeth gives Wickham the benefit of the doubt. It’s yet another grievance she can hold against the stuffy aristocrat.

These paces are all Austen, but similar to the numerous versions of Little Women, it’s the performers who really mold it into their own. I love Greer Garson to death, and she does an amiable job but it’s hard to dismiss her predetermined disposition. She is always one of the most vivacious screen personalities and though she gets to shine in the final act, up to that point, she’s meant to be proud and brazenly foreright in the mode of her literary counterpart. It doesn’t feel quite like her temperament.

On his part, Olivier does well enough as Darcy; he certainly has a presence about him and the repute to make it seem viable. However, the romance is not as vibrant as it might have been. It feels a bit stunted, and it cannot be conveniently attributed to the social context.

Like its successor Jane Eyre (1943), it’s also rather jolting to see Aldous Huxley’s name in the screen credits. My high school days of reading A Brave New World make any period piece feel like a blatant anachronism on his repertoire. Still, this alone can hardly stand as a substantive piece of criticism.

It does feel some of the best and most well-regarded lines are not emphasized enough within the structure of the scenes and while there are certainly considerable elements of the original story, they are never done too many favors.

Mr. Collins feels like a miserable sot and a bore of a man and with the screwball caricature of Melville Cooper, it feels all the more like miscasting. Meanwhile, Mrs. Bingely has a lacerating post to maintain as the picture’s snide gossip. It appears her only function in the plot is to be churlish, making Darcy incrementally more tolerable.

Edna May Oliver for one is always prepared to play a no-nonsense patroness, in this case, Lady Catherine, who orchestrates events so her dear nephew might test the waters of romance.  Because Mr. Darcy and Ms. Bennett are meant to be together and they are both able to cast aside their own issues to recognize just how much they care for one another.

Finally watching Olivier and Garson in a passionate embrace is a dream come true but, as for myself, I couldn’t help but get distracted by fond memories of Wuthering Heights and Random Harvest. How I wish I could same the same of this movie. Still, I’m clouded by my own blind spots and personal hangups. You must make your own judgment.

3.5/5 Stars

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963): A Father and Son Story

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father gives off all the signs of a light and frothy romantic comedy. You might envision it already: a widower-about-town with his son playing matchmaker as he tries to navigate the plethora of pretty girls who just happen to orbit around him.

But we must make some distinctions. This is also a film about a little boy and his father after the death of someone very precious to both of them. A wife and a mother. You cannot easily laugh this plot point away, and the movie never does.

It’s equally important to note who our director is. No one would wager this is the artistic height of Vicente Minnelli, but it’s not a throwaway rom-com either; no matter what contemporary audiences might have been led to believe. I’m thinking most specifically of the scene early on where Ron Howard erupts, bawling over his pet goldfish now floating upside down in the tank. His father storms out of the room to go find his bottle and glass as his little boy is comforted by their neighbor from across the hall (Shirley Jones).

Does Minnelli dare include this scene? It risks feeling overwrought, and it absolutely kills any of the convivial feelings the movie looked to engender. But there are plenty more of those to come, and here we get something actually grasping for some kind of meaning; it’s an attempt to make sense of real-life issues, albeit through the Hollywood guise of gorgeous Panavision Metrocolor. This is Minnelli at his best with substance breaking through his usual lavish photography and expert set dressing.

And yet here is some of the quintessential essence of the picture, daring to be more than meets the eye. We are reminded grief is okay and it is natural — they will both miss “Mommy” — and instead of holding in their feelings, they must be open with one another. It’s the only way they can hope to cope. The whole film is a progression along this theme. Lest anyone get the wrong idea, this is really a father and son picture.

While I won’t say Glenn Ford is as obvious a father figure as Andy Griffith, he still manages the necessary rapport with Ron Howard, and I always do marvel at Howard’s poise for such a young actor. They often tell the stories of child actors who had an expiration date because once their cuteness wore off they didn’t have the acting chops to make it.

Although Howard has transitioned to the director’s chair, I watch him in individual episodes of Andy Griffith or a movie like this, and it does feel like he was capable of range beyond his years. Yes, he’s cute. That’s the easy part, but he also navigates his way through the more labored scenes where there are other emotions. The picture’s always able to fall back on that core relationship.

However, before I overcompensate, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father has plenty of the kind of goofy, at times cringe-worthy, rom-com moments of a certain era. It allows the movie to remain innocent at heart even as it courts other issues.

Take one evening where the two bachelors stop off at an arcade only to make the acquaintance of bodacious Dollye Daly (Stella Stevens). They meet when she asks to borrow Tom’s son for a couple of minutes to ward off the local mashers as she tries to build up her self-confidence. Then, there’s Ford’s colleague at work. Jerry Van Dyke’s flirty radio personality has a habit of proposing dinner dates on the air.

Dina Merrill is a career woman who knows what she wants, and her brand of quiet and mature sophistication is rightfully attractive to Tom. She’s looking for a man to love her on equal terms and despite what her aloof elegance might say against her, she’s another deeply sympathetic figure.

A movie that looks to be about a man and three women actually is at the same time simplified and made vastly more complicated. Dollye and Norman fall in together over bowling. So Eddie’s first choice of partners for his dad falls through. Now to the nitty-gritty. The main tension is between a boy’s feelings and his father’s.

Elizabeth is familiar and comfortable; both a good friend to their deceased mother/wife and an ever-present figure across the hall. She’s a cinematic creation and the kind of person brimming with well-meaning affection. Tom’s feelings for her are complicated. Eddie’s are simple. He feels safe in her presence. There’s a kind of maternal understanding and trust between them already.

Although it’s never stated explicitly, Rita, on the other hand, is attractive because she is so different. When Tom looks at her and spends time with her, he’s rarely reminded of his wife. With Elizabeth, he can’t help but see her. For his boy this is security and for him, it’s a kind of crippling torture. He cannot bear it.

Like any bright kid, Eddie’s extremely observant and precocious in many ways. He asks all the innocently probing questions about how babies are made etc. For him, differentiating cartoon villains from the good guys is a matter of round eyes and thin eyes (along with other salient features).

In one scene, he gives a comical appraisal of Ride the High Country. Meanwhile, for a few brief moments, his father falls asleep to Mogambo‘s screen passion playing out between Clark Gable and the much younger Grace Kelly. I’m not sure if it’s a subconscious reflection of Tom’s own yearning to have the love and affection back in his life. If anything, it’s a striking portent.

His jovial housekeeper (Roberta Sherwood) warns him of such a woman looking to take advantage of what he has to offer. Graciously, there aren’t any such women found in the frames of this picture. A New Years’ party with Rita is lovely, and he comes home late at night in a mild euphoria only to bump into Elizabeth. She had a night out with the same old successful doctor; it’s hardly love.

Later, they hold a frenzied birthday party for Eddie that’s chaos personified with all the little kiddies running around. Elizabeth is right in the middle of the adolescent maelstrom and Rita is absent. Then, as his father grows more serious and Eddie has his heartbroken at summer camp, he makes an irrevocable decision. He runs away and seeks refuge with the one person who makes him feel safe — his maternal rock of Gibraltar. If you follow the dramatic arc, there’s only one place the romance can lead.

Yes, it’s rom-com wish-fulfillment, but I’d like to think there’s also a sense of clarity with the movie resorting back to where we needed it to go. What a lovely admission it is that the women are not the easily caricatured heroes and villains of Eddie’s comic book imagination, nor are they completely trivialized down to their appearance. If anything, we get past the superficiality promoted by marketing campaigns.

It’s a father and son movie, first and foremost, and yet we end up admiring all of them. What a lovely person Shirley Jones is. Stella Stevens brims with unparalleled intelligence, and Dina Merill is blessed with poise. Jerry Van Dyke’s not completely repulsive. If he’s the weakest link, then there are worse prices to pay.

3.5/5 Stars