Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Olivia de Havilland

With the recent passing of Olivia de Havilland — one of the last living ties to some of the Golden Age of Hollywood’s hallowed classics — it seemed fitting  to acknowledge her talents in our latest classic movie beginner’s guide.

Her most visible role was that of Melanie in Gone With The Wind (1939) a film that has been the subject of a lot of important conversations of late about representation and censorship.

However, Ms. de Havilland’s career had many other facets. Two that will most likely be remembered are her sibling rivalry with fellow actress Joan Fontaine, and then her famed court case against Warner Bros., which was a landmark decision for actor’s rights. Here are a handful of her most memorable films you should search out showcasing her civility and grace.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Olivia de Havilland’s most illustrious on-screen partnerships was with Errol Flynn as she and the dashing Tasmanian actor starred in 8 films together. Captain Blood was their first foray together and began an auspicious screen romance bursting with chemistry (and conflict). The pinnacle was The Adventures of Robin Hood followed by other beloved classics like Dodge City and They Died With Their Boots On.

Charles Boyer and Olivia de Havilland - HOLD BACK THE DAWN ...

Hold Back The Dawn (1941)

On the prowl for more challenging and gratifying work other than a pretty damsel, Mitchell Leisen’s film scripted by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett was a fine step forward for de Havilland. Her sympathetic schoolteacher opposite Charles Boyer took hold of a story of an immigrant’s purgatory and imbued it with swelling sentiment, heartbreak, and warmth.

To Each His Own (1946): Olivia de Havilland Does Melodrama Well ...

To Each His Own (1946)

At first, it doesn’t seem like a prestigious part, but Olivia de Havilland proved her talents spectacularly in this quintessential melodrama. She plays a middle-aged woman, who made the ultimate sacrifice for her son, charting her own course from youth in a small-town, war-time romance, and private tragedy. It’s ending is perfectly orchestrated for emotional impact.

The Snake Pit' Review: 1948 Movie | Hollywood Reporter

The Snake Pit (1948)

The Heiress is, rightfully so, a hallmark of de Havilland’s career, exhibiting her immense dramatic talents, but equally emblematic is The Snake Pit. It becomes a harrowing portrait of a woman battling the voices in her head as she navigates a life in a psych ward. Far from being solely melodramatic, she grounds the performance making it as sympathetic as it is terrifying.

Worth Watching

The Charge of The Light Brigade, It’s Love I’m After, Strawberry Blonde, Dark Mirror, In This Our Life, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte

The Sea Hawk (1940): Errol Flynn Against The Spanish Armada

sea hawk 1940.png

Anyone who knows even a smidgeon about historical dates knows what the big to-do with 1588 is. If anything, 1588 automatically means the sinking of the Spanish Armada by Queen Elizabeth’s forces. So when a film opens in Spain in 1585 we already have a good idea of where we might be going. It’s the voyage to get there which matters most.

I can’t quite help but see the parallels between Spain and the Nazis aspirations for world domination. Because in the year 1585 there is a King in Spain named Phillip II who not unlike an incumbent dictator in 1940 was looking to conquer all of Europe with England being a priority.

With this historical backdrop, Warner Bros. gathers another classic ensemble anchored by Errol Flynn and director Michael Curtiz along with the steady support of Alan Hale. Following his debut as a film composer in Captain Blood (1935), Erich Wolfgang Korngold returns to similar waters to provide the scoring once more.

The film does feel empty without Olivia de Havilland but she was by this point fed up with playing second or third fiddle in swashbucklers. Be that as it may, Brenda Marshall (the future Mrs. William Holden). with a shining countenance, fills in swimmingly in one of her most prominent performances.

Leading his pride and joy The Albatross in the service of her majesty Queen Elizabeth, English captain Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn) makes a glorious conquest of an enemy ship. The thrilling surf soaked cannonball-filled action picks up right in the same waters as Captain Blood.

He just happens to commandeer the boat carrying the Spanish ambassador (Claude Rains) across the English channels. It is the conniving man’s mission to ingratiate himself with the queen and being the two-faced scoundrel that he is, he finds Thorpe to be an incorrigible scoundrel.

Though he makes a monkey of court and her closest advisor Lord Wolfingham who seems quite sympathetic toward the Spaniards on a whole, Elizabeth is fond of Thorpe’s patriotic brand of cheekiness. Envisioning vast spoils at the hands of the Spanish, he takes on a clandestine mission off the record albeit with the Queen’s permission behind closed chamber doors.

Cloak and dagger countermeasures ensue as Don Jose looks to ensure that his mortal enemy will be cut off before he has any chance to do anything. Although initially turned off by the scoundrel, his daughter soon becomes enchanted by his chivalry even as she fails to intercept him in time. They are riding off into a trap.

They set out through the sepia-toned world of Panama in search of vast treasures to be plundered from their enemies. Instead, they get brutally ambushed and pushed back into the mosquito-infested swampland by the waiting conquistadors.

Whereas Captain Blood found Flynn starting at the bottom in The Sea Hawk he is brought down into the pits of despair once taken prisoner. He and all his men are imprisoned aboard a Spanish ship, oarsmen chained to their places and beaten mercilessly. They grind it out and take the torture while biding their time behind the oars.

It takes time but eventually, a chance is created culminating in a brazen escape attempt. The midnight mutiny is aided exquisitely moment by moment by Korngold’s score put on full display and nearly urging the men on in their quest while instigating an underlying tension.

The final burst of drama comes when Thorpe returns to shore, reunited with his love in her carriage making amends and sneaking back to the queen’s castle cloaked by night. Making it to the queen proves a nearly insurmountable task with all the guards on high alert and Wolfingham waiting to intercept him for one final duel. But Flynn could never be outdone and Henry Daniell is certainly no Basil Rathbone. The Queen gets the news and vows to battle the Spanish Armada. We know the rest of the story.

While not quite eclipsing the jaunty heights of Captain Blood, this worthy successor nevertheless has its own share of thrills and fine action with Flynn maintaining high form. Perhaps it’s partially a testament to how captivatingly the film opens because it’s difficult for any picture to maintain that kind of vigor all the way through. But with a valiant effort led by its charming rapscallion and his crew, they wade through any slow passages to bring us back around to the grade-A entertainment of a quality swashbuckler.

The production thriftily saved on funds by repurposing the exquisite period costuming from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex from the prior year. They become a perfect extension of the storyline to match Flora Robson’s formidable turn as the Queen. Meanwhile, Claude Rains is transformed into a dark-haired Machiavellian villain which he pulls off with the required amount of duplicity. This time around, Flynn’s character is based on the legendary Sir Francis Drake and yet like Robin Hood before, the Australian falls into the part and makes it his own through magnetism, athleticism, and wit. It’s another sterling achievement.

Queen Elizabeth gives one final stirring message that again can be taken in its time as a veiled indictment of Hitler’s belligerent aspirations. America had yet to enter the war and yet in over a year’s time, they would be right by England’s side. It wasn’t quite the surprise defeat of the Spanish Armada but it would take long hard years of waves of sacrifice and hard toil against the enemy. Winston Churchill is said to have admired this picture immensely and it’s hardly difficult to see why. It sums up his guiding sentiments exactly. After all, he is the man who famously said:

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

4/5 Stars

Note: I watched the original restored uncut version of the film that clocks in at 127 minutes.

 

Dodge City (1939): An Errol Flynn Western

Dodge_City_1939_Poster.jpgThe year is 1866. The Civil War is over and anyone with vision is moving west. One such outpost is Kansas where the railway is replacing the stagecoach. It’s a world of iron men and iron horses. Because a place like the notorious Dodge City is a “town that knew no ethics but cash and killing.”

It’s not a decent place for children and womenfolk for the time being. But some affluent magnates with vision see the profits it affords. That’s their business. It will take others to smooth out the rawness and make it into a land worth cultivating and settling down in.

Though lawlessness runs rampant in the streets led by town bad boy Jeff Surret (Bruce Cabot), a wagon train led by a caravan of seasoned cowhands looks to be yet another signifier of change. Because one of the men riding with the rest is self-assured Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) supported by his pals. You can bet even with an accent Mr. Flynn makes an able-bodied western hero but he’s not alone.

Alan Hale was forever Flynn’s right-hand man from Robin Hood to The Sea Hawk (even playing his father in Gentleman Jim). They also get the boisterous and yet generally good-natured Tex (Guinn Big Boy Williams) to round out their trio. Hatton has his eyes on a pretty passenger who is easy on the eyes. Unfortunately, her younger brother is a drunken hellraising nuisance. He instigates a stampede that turns deadly and from thenceforward Wade and Ms. Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland) have a contentious relationship at best.

Seeing Dodge growing so much leaves everyone all agog. Never has a western outpost been crammed with such activity. It feels authentic in one sense. You understand how disease and waste could begin to run rampant in such a bustling atmosphere and crowded conditions. Hatton gets his first taste of Surret when one of his business associates named Orth is shot. But the story is not all drama.

In an ongoing scenario, the boisterous Algernon Hart (Hale) forgoes the tempting calls of the local Gay Lady Saloon for the Pure Prairie League, residing right next door, attended by all the town’s most proper womenfolk.

What follows just might be one of the finest brawls ever, spilling over into the lady’s social, overwhelming the scene with all sorts of gory sights and gut-busting crashes, bams, and bangs. It feels wild, alive, and somehow thoroughly enjoyable. Maybe because we get to sit on the outside looking in at the merry madness accompanied by whoops and raucous accordion music.

What’s more, it forces a response. A drunken Hart is singled out by Surret and his thugs who get ready to string him up in the plaza right then and there. While Hatton quells the injustice without a standoff, there’s a sense that things will only continue to escalate. No sheriff will stick out their neck in such a country. No man seems strong enough.

Finally, a child (Bob Watson) is lost; it’s the final straw and Hatton vows to clean up the streets and bring civility, law and order to the territory. Rounding up the rowdy troublemakers and ending the citywide shootouts forcibly. He clamps down like no one has ever done and it begins to make things peaceable again.

It’s the old story of civilization moving in on the wheels of law and order, which slowly begin to push out the graft and corruption. Someone must have the guts to lead the crusade with ideals and guns, if necessary. But it takes a community behind him to make it stick.

In this case, he is backed by the paper and its audacious editor Joe Clemons (Frank McHugh) an ardent purveyor of free speech. Change happens incrementally. Scare tactics come and go. De Havilland joins the paper too in order to represent the interests of the local ladies and then becomes an integral member of Hatton’s crusade for good. He takes Surret’s right-hand man Yancy (Victor Jory) into his custody knowing full well that fierce retribution is coming.

Because it’s common knowledge that when two immovable objects come barreling toward each other, there’s bound to be drama. In Dodge City it comes to pass in a flaming railcar finale, one moment dire and in another thrilling, with faceoffs, ambushes, gunfights, prisoners, hostages, and some stellar sharpshooting. But a man like Wade is not meant to remain stagnant. Husband and wife ride off toward their next adventure on the range.

It truly is double trouble with Ann Sheridan and Olivia de Havilland. But Sheridan’s role had the potential to be far more compelling than it is, unfortunately. Aside from a few musical numbers and screaming for a brawl to stop, she doesn’t get much screentime before disappearing for good.

De Havilland is the obvious ingenue love interest and though she abhorred the unimaginative parts she was being handed, she nevertheless has ample talents to imprint herself on the picture. She and Flynn go through the expected beats of mutual distaste toward ultimate affection, and we delight in their chemistry even if it’s easily plotted from start to finish.

However, to survey Dodge City is to look at various pieces that feel almost incongruous. Here is Erroll Flynn playing a cowboy. The palette is Technicolor but the action is focused on towns and interiors opposed to magnificent plains. It’s not Ford. It’s not Wayne or Fonda, and yet it manages to be a fine actioner to add to the western canon due to compelling characterizations, deep-seated conflict, and of course, enough gunplay and romance to make it a true horse opera.

4/5 Stars

Captain Blood (1935) Starring Flynn and De Havilland

Olivia_de_Havilland_and_Errol_Flynn_in_Captain_Blood_trailer

To a certain stratum of society — namely classic movie fans — it’s nearly impossible to imagine Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland not being paired together or not being box office draws, for that matter. However, on both accounts, in 1935, the studio was taking quite the risk, still undoubtedly reeling from the heart of the Depression Years and shelling a hefty sum of money for a vehicle essentially starring two unknowns.

Sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle, and it remains for all posterity. Scoring, again and again, is quite another matter entirely. The pair would be placed together in an astounding 8 films in total!

This initial entry opens in England in 1685 and a band of patriotic rebels has taken it upon themselves to depose the current tyrant James II. Though he chooses to forego involving himself in the fighting, physician Peter Blood nevertheless goes with them in spirit and is ready and willing to operate on a fugitive who is mortally wounded. However, in the process of attending to the man, the king’s guards burst in upon him and all involved are arrested.

Their future is decided in a trial of pomp, circumstance, and unyielding justice. There are few figures in the legions of contenders as charismatic as Errol Flynn, beginning with his attempt to exonerate himself and extol his own noble profession. Even that fails to keep him from the executioner though the king fancies himself a humanitarian and decides to send the lot of traitors on slave ships to the West Indies instead.

There is a blatant irony in the depictions of white slavery while the deep wounds of black slavery were still being felt in our country through the oppression of Jim Crow Laws and racial injustice. This continues on the island plantation prison where the lads find themselves.

There they are sold on the auction blocks like chattel though much to his shame, Blood finds himself indebted to a pretty matron Arabella Bishop (Olivia De Havilland) who bought him for 10 pounds. Their relationship begins on the rockiest of soil and life thereafter is hard. Though eventually, Dr. Blood gains favor when he cures the hissy hypochondriac governor of his gout, earning himself greater freedom.

And with that the good doctor bides his time, planning an escape to coincide with a timely interruption on the outpost by Spanish Pirates. In the drunken escapades that follow, Blood gathers his men together, switching places with the invaders and a new band of pirates is born. They are a hardy lot including Blood’s faithful pilot and friend Jeremy Pitt (Ross Alexander), the sturdy gunner Hagthorpe (Guy Kibbee), and one Bible-spouting mate who has a bit of scripture for every occasion (And then the whale came and the whale swallowed Jonah. I hope!).

Their acclaim grows to such an extent that they fall into the company of a band of French Buccaneers led by a salty lady’s man named Levasseur (Basil Rathbone). He and Blood draw up a loose pact which quickly falls apart as they quarrel and end up dueling for the company of their esteemed “guest” Ms. Bishop. Laguna Beach, California ends up filling in for the Caribbean as they have it out in stirring fashion. Flynn and Rathbone were the best of foes when it came to crossing swords, even when they were purportedly allies.

In the final act, the outlaws are redeemed (like Robin Hood anyone?) taking up the banner of the new king William of Orange to fight a valorous battle for the glory of Merry Ol’ England. Thus, in spite of the tumultuous path he traversed, Captain Blood and his boys reach the pinnacle. He’s a hero and, of course, he gets the girl. There’s nothing her indignant uncle can do about it now as he’s been replaced by a far more benevolent governor.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ruefully admit how much I yearn for the epic swashbucklers of old. Captain Blood was the beginning of great successes to come and the type of Hollywood entertainment that is sorely missed today.

Although I hardly can remember their lips even touching, nevertheless, Flynn and de Havilland are fire together, all but cementing a screen partnership that would continue for many more. Even in the final scene together what becomes apparent is this genuinely contagious brand of fun. If anything they make it seem like a blast for the audience.

There’s a splendidly pulsating finale at sea where it’s convenient enough to cast inconsistencies overboard and instead be overwhelmed by the sheer mayhem of 2500 extras called on to do battle and make a show of it. They take to it handily clashing their cudgels, swinging from the yardarms, and falling into the drink, casualties of pistol fire.

Captain Blood is blessed with laughter as much as action and romance. The tenets of quality adventure filmmaking mean the picture enthralls us as much today as in its day because it knows what it means to have a good time. The seriousness can be shed for the sake of light-hearted, invigorating, no holds barred entertainment.

Because in the assured hands of Michael Curtiz, with a dashing new screen idol in Errol Flynn, Captain Blood never loses sight of what makes movies communal and thoroughly gratifying. Movies of old had a habit of being all things to all people, and it’s true this one has it all, I’m delighted to say.

The final testament is a smile imprinted on the face of the viewer as big as Flynn’s jaunty grin. Oh, what we wouldn’t give to be on the deck of that ship brandishing our cutlass and romancing a pretty young maiden just like he does. Maybe that’s my boyhood imagination speaking, but he really is the ideal action hero.

4.5/5 Stars

The Breaking Point (1950): Updating Hemingway and Hawks

the breaking point 1.png

Michael Curtiz, to all those who revere him, has far more than Casablanca (1942) on his resume. It’s stacked with classics including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Mildred Pierce (1945), White Christmas (1954) and even a less-heralded picture like The Breaking Point.

Those familiar with the original source material, from Ernest Hemingway, might also realize an earlier version of the story was made starring Humphrey Bogart opposite his future wife, Lauren Bacall, in her crackling debut.

Director Howard Hawks helmed To Have and Have Not (1944), which proved to be very loosely based on the eponymous material indeed. About the only elements comparable between the two renditions are the oceanic atmospherics with salty seafaring types and other undesirables mixed together liberally. Though donning a new name and casting a new star in John Garfield, it’s easy to make the case that The Breaking Point is a lot more authentic.

To Have and Have Not is a delight because it is such a cinematic creation with indelible characters filling up a world, not unlike Casablanca, ironically. But its successor unfurls qualities that feel less done up and artificial in a still delightfully atmospheric Hollywood fashion.

the breaking point 3.png

One could wager it begins with a location that’s very much a real place. In fact, it’s a place I have known quite well in my lifetime. I was first tipped off to its whereabouts when Garfield gives money to his daughters to go see a movie and tells them to be careful on Marine Ave.

As I only know one Marine Ave., I double checked the film’s shooting locations and looked ever more closely at the exteriors. All this confirmed the fact The Breaking Point was shot in and around Balboa Island in Newport Beach, California. I know the area well as I used to spend some summer days there as a kid. The exteriors are most obvious when our protagonist comes back from the bar, walking by the docks, and he’s already day drunk.

We have yet to describe any of the narrative but already we have something vastly different from its predecessor. The main character is a family man, a seaman, and simultaneously trying to drown his sorrows in alcohol. What adds insult to injury is the fact Harry Morgan (Garfield) was a highly commended Navy Seamen during the war. Except, ever since coming back from the war a hero, he’s never been a somebody and that’s hard to take for a proud human being.

All he knows is the sea and so he’s tried to make a go of it obdurately, working furiously to subsist off his boat but it seems like everyone is pushing his head underwater. Try as he might, he can never get ahead. He needs dough for the reasons we all do. To pay the bills. To put food on the table. To take care of his wife and daughters.

the breaking point 2.png

Soon Harry’s peddling a would-be fisherman and his gal pal (Patricia Neal) off the coast of Mexico. Of course, the shyster runs out without paying and leaves his girl behind. Harry’s been played for a sucker, stuck on the wrong side of the Mexican border, without any fare to get home. He’s kept his nose clean thus far but times are desperate. In a dive joint, he gets approached by a slimy undesirable, chomping on cigars and proposing a shady business proposition. Momentarily, our hero has been submerged back into the world of Bogart and Hawks.

He’s tasked with sneaking a group of Chinese passengers into American water illegally. However, following an altercation with his contractor (Victor Lee Seung), with Ms. Charles (Neal) and his mate Wesley (Juano Hernandez) aboard, he backs out leaving the Chinese behind. He’s escaped for now, his mores still intact.

But that doesn’t help him when he gets home. The Coast Guard soon confiscate his livelihood. His wife takes on work at home to try to compensate and he has one last chance to save his boat from being taken away from him in order to make ends meet. He feels compelled to take a second job bringing him back into cahoots with the same cruddy opportunist named Ducan, albeit reluctantly.

It’s in these dire straights where it becomes evident The Breaking Point is on the same moral plane as The Bicycle Thief (1946), where our protagonist is forced to make horrible decisions, all for the sake of his family. Should we blame him for the deadly finale that follows? It’s so difficult to enact decisive judgment.

Surely Patricia Neal has the flashy role because she’s the flirtatious blonde who’s never tied down and seems ready to get with anyone. But Phyllis Thaxter, even as she competes with the other woman, dying her hair in an attempt to win back her husband’s affection, has a softer more vulnerable tremor in her voice that feels so very transparent.

When we look into her eyes and see her get angry with her husband for not throwing in the towel and taking up a life on her father’s farm, the concern there is so very real. We understand it because it’s plaintive and deceptively unprepossessing. Because there are deep wells of beauty inside of her making the film’s romantic dynamics that much more intriguing.

John Garfield maintains the working-class persona he always seemed to flaunt so easily but here he’s surrounded by a family — two daughters and a loving wife, making his struggle all the more relatable.

He’s also a loving father bringing his daughters trinkets from his trips, cradling them in his arms affectionately, and slipping them change so they can go to the picture show again. The same goes for his wife. Even as they struggle and fight fairly regularly, over the kitchen table, there are other moments where he makes his love and faithfulness supremely evident. He compliments her looks and the new hairstyle she’s trying after the girls criticize it.

the breaking point 4.png

Because the one thing The Breaking Point is not is a story of infidelity. Sure, it comes close on multiple occasions with Neal playing the tantalizing siren but Garfield unreservedly loves his wife. He’s honest with her in that sense, even as he keeps other secrets on the side. He thinks it’s a way to protect his family and his friends. The waters of the film are undoubtedly choppy, even perilous; that’s partially what makes the solid rock of the marriage at its core all the more refreshing.

Any relationship with a firm foundation is predicated on transparency. There’s no other way if you don’t want to harm your spouse and push them further and further away. I admire The Breaking Point deeply for this unflinching portrayal of marriage that, while not always polished, feels inherently real.

4.5/5 Stars

The Sea Wolf (1941)

sea wolf 1.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

sea wolf 2.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5 Stars

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

 

Four Daughters (1938)

four daighters 1.png

The entire packaging of this Warner Bros. film includes director Michael Curtiz, screenwriter Julius Epstein, composer Max Steiner, and Claude Rains all who (not unsurprisingly) would have their hand in that revered classic Casablanca (1942).

Here the Lane Sisters are joined in their quartet by Gale Page with Claude Rains playing the musical patriarch of his family who has trained his daughters up to be an orchestra right in his living room. He’s a belligerent but good-willed father with all his show of bluster merely a facade to hide a heart of pure gold. The role slightly subverts many of Rains’ typically even-keeled gentlemen.

Most of these opening sequences draw up just how quaint and delightful they all are together and what a perfect little life they share as the men begin to show up in their lives to call on them. Isn’t love grand? That’s what we might be prompted to surmise is the film’s main theme.

Four Daughters teeters perilously on the edge of being insufferably schmaltzy to its core and yet it seems that the arrival of John Garfield and the insertion of his character into this idyllic world of giggling girls and small-town romance is just enough to save this story and make into something worth remembering.

Mickey Boyd (Garfield) walks into their home as an acerbic outsider who thrums his nose at the picture-perfect American family in their quintessential American home but he also has a gift for the piano and as musicians themselves, that’s an instant point of connection. Furthermore, he’s come into town as a favor to his old colleague Felix Deitz (Jeffrey Lynn) who happens to be a close family friend and maybe one of the nicest guys you’ve ever met, either onscreen or off.

Still, Mickey is a tough one to crack but that doesn’t keep the maternal Aunt Etta (May Robson) or vivacious young Ann (Priscilla Lane) from trying their best to figure him out. In fact, Mickey becomes a bit of a pet project for Ann as she looks to slowly transform him into an honest to goodness genial human being. She does a fairly good job at it too as he is brought into the fold of the family for every subsequent round of holiday festivities.

The second act proves to be the most potent and whether or not the turn of events are truly probable does not detract from how affecting these sequences turn out to be. And ironically, at the center of it all are Mickey and Ann. The man who has always been the outsider looking in and the youngest sister full of playful precociousness. He is the one who helps her see things as they actually are and she, in turn, continually spruces up his life and to use an inane phrase, she “turns his frown upside down.”

But I think that’s the key to the final act of Four Daughters. It’s dramatic but it loses that almost sickening layer of sugarcoating and shocks everyone within the frame of the film back to the reality of the world with one tragic event or two events depending on what you deem the tragedy to be. This doesn’t simply feel like a mere play for our emotions — though it might be partially this — but it’s really a bit of a representation of what life actually throws our way.

That’s why Mickey is by far the most important character in this picture and he’s so necessary for it to be anything more than typical Hollywood fare because in some sense John Garfield makes that man into a real person. He’s not necessarily a bad fellow. In fact, we kind of like him because he seems a bit sardonic, frank, and he’s not going out trying to be something that he’s not.

True, the Hollywood happy ending is tacked on as we come to expect but perhaps in the closing moments, as the sisters look through the drawing room window and Ann is back to her gate-swinging ways with her beau as before, we can gain some satisfaction in the moment. Not simply because all is right in this little universe but the family went through trials and now are better for it — more attuned to the world. They are no longer simply four daughters or soon to be four wives. They are four women.

The film was dressed up in Technicolor in Young at Heart (1954) with Doris Day and Frank Sinatra and Sinatra elevated that film much as Garfield does here. His tune “All the Way” while having no bearing on the plot is nevertheless a memorable number. I have nothing against Mr. Lemp’s taste in music nor his disdain for the contemporary bilge of his day but I rather like the crooners myself.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Review Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

James_Cagney_in_Yankee_Doodle_Dandy_trailer“My father thanks you, My Mother Thanks you, My Sister Thanks you, and I Thank you.” – James Cagney as George M. Cohan

I write this on Yankee Doodle Dandy’s 75 Anniversary on Memorial Day and I can say with much regret in my heart that it’s probably not nearly as resonant now as it was back in 1942. Perhaps, as it should be, because we are not living in the thick of WWII in a recently post-Pearl Harbor society. This was a film meant for a very particular cultural moment and it functions as such.

We look at the musical numbers and some are impressive routines with a full array of song and dance sprinkled throughout but there’s nothing outstandingly eye-popping about any of it. It’s true that this musical biography does suffer from a bit of Biopic Syndrome. By now we have been inundated with so many renditions that this version of George M. Cohan’s life is hardly revolutionary.

At best it’s a beaming tribute to an American icon with a bit of palatable wartime propaganda that never does anything unusual nor does it attempt to. At worst you could call Yankee Doodle Dandy overlong with a stiff script that lacks a lot of invention and shows more and more chinks in its armor over the excessive run time. But like Cohan himself, it’s an unabashed flag-waver and in that arena alone it does do some justice to its hero.

Certainly, none of these initial assessments can take away from the great appeal of the main players. More on James Cagney later but for now let’s just say he is incomparable and leave it at that. But we also have the estimable Walter Huston who had a notable career in his own right before being slightly overshadowed by his son John. In Yankee Doodle Dandy he plays the patriarch of the Cohan family, married to a lovely and talented woman (Rosemary De Camp) who is his partner and equal in both wedded life and on the stage. They are loyal All-Americans and they raise up their son and daughter to love their line of work and their country just as they do.

Thus, the Cohans are born as a collective entity, precocious Josie (Jeanne Cagney) and her ever cocksure brother George (James Cagney) who has a big head to go along with a load of talent. While his attitude gets him ostracized, his persistence as a songwriter ultimately earns him success after he unwittingly joins forces with another struggling writer Sam Harris (Richard Whorf). Somehow together they find a winning formula that for decades thenceforth makes George M. Cohan into a household name and subsequently an American legend. He is the undisputed king of unabashed, feel-good, good old-fashioned entertainment.

America’s favorite wartime ingenue Joan Leslie falls easily into the role of the love of George’s life, Mary, the impressionable young gal who fell for him at an early age and stayed by his side as the years rolled ever onward. Everything else changed but her love and faithfulness remained steadfast. With Mary by his side, she sees him through a string of successes, a few minor failures, the birth of WWI with the sinking of the Lusitania, and even the inevitable deaths of his kin. When it’s all said and done, he’s christened by FDR himself with a Congressional Medal as one of the great patriots capable of catalyzing the American Public with nationalistic fervor. So he serves a very important purpose on the Homefront.

The fact that Cohan’s life was practically born and lived out on the stage makes it perfectly suited for a musical adaptation allowing Michael Curtiz to seamlessly segue between vaudeville and Broadway routines and the formative moments that make up George’s life. They all fit together in a fairly straightforward manner that nevertheless is bolstered above all by the talent.

But the opening and closing framing device is unforgivably corny and is probably hampered most by a President Roosevelt lookalike who is so artificial it makes the genuine vivacity of James Cagney all the more disarming. It works the other way too. Cagney feels like he’s acting opposite a lifeless mannequin. And it’s true that as he always seemed to have the habit of doing Jimmy Cagney steals the whole picture.

He had left the gangster fare that had made him famous behind and in pictures such as Strawberry Blonde (1941) and Yankee Doodle Dandy he was given a true chance to strut his stuff and what dynamic stuff it is. Now I’m not much of a dance connoisseur so I have no reference point on where Cagney’s dancing could possibly begin to stack up to the likes of Astaire or Kelly, men who also performed their own choreography. Still, if anything, Cagney’s feet are constantly lively and self-assured as is his entire performance.

He seems like the perfect man to embody Cohan himself an Irish-American who started out as a song and dance man on the stage and whose blood ran red, white, and blue. First and foremost, he is a performer and his performance turns Yankee Doodle into something special, despite its various shortcomings.

Curtiz is a highly capable director but Cagney is the one we have to thank. Because while the film is never daring he always is and my estimation of him grows exponentially every time I see him act. Some performers have the knack of making every scene they’re in better by doing something exceptional that you remember — something that really catches your eye whether minor or grandiose. You only have to watch him tap his way down the White House stairwell to know James Cagney is one of the special ones, no question.

4/5 Stars

The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

The-kennel-murder-case-1933It’s happened in some well-documented cases that the same actor has played two characters that feel nominally similar and based on this cursory level of comparison the general public has been forever befuddled. You could cite some notable examples being Bogart playing Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe the archetypal pulp private eye heroes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

Even the fact that Fess Parker played Davy Crockett for Disney and then Daniel Boone on the small screen undoubtedly still has the less historically inclined folks to question if there is any difference between the two men.

A still earlier example would be William Powell who was famed as Nick Charles in The Thin Man Series pairing him with Myrna Loy but about that time he also did pretty well for himself as the eponymous Philo Vance in a handful of mystery serials. In truth, this installment would be his last time performing the role but he slid rather seamlessly into The Thin Man series that arguably allowed him more freedom for comedy.

Other actors took on the mantle as well including Basil Rathbone, Warren William, Paul Lukas, and even Alan Curtis. But it was The Kennel Murder Case directed by one of Warner Bros. top craftsman Michael Curtiz that remains the hallmark of this Pre-Code franchise.

Although Raymond Chandler called Philo Vance, “the most asinine character in detective fiction,” much of that quality was toned down in the feature adaptations and after all, with a charmer such as William Powell, how could he not be at least a bit compelling?

In this particular storyline, there’s initially no case at all only Vance missing out on the big prize at a prestigious dog show. But on his way to Italy riding an ocean liner for a much-needed vacation, he catches wind of the death of one of his kennel acquaintances Mr. Archer Coe. Although the authorities including the straight-laced District Attorney Markham (Robert McWade) and the lovable police detective Heath (Eugene Palette) assume it is suicide, Vance comes in on the proceedings with a hunch of his own.

It has murder written all over it but the circumstances are most peculiar and the extensive array of suspects makes it no small matter to pinpoint the culprit. But that’s the fun of the chase as our perceptive detective looks to derive the correct conclusion and the audience along with him (without much success I might add, at least in my case).

It’s very easily to surmise that nowadays we are so culturally well-versed in crime, mysteries, and whodunits that this film’s script feels clunky at times because the characters say all the things and hit all the marks that we might expect. It’s a rite of passage to have the police constantly dismiss our hero’s deductions as it is to hear the shots ring out in the house or the various suspects nervously fib and cover up for this reason and that person.

However, to its credit, the resolution gets so lost among the various characters with numerous motives and the like that when the killer is revealed it still provides a certain amount of satisfaction. So in some sense, you could say that The Kennel Murder is a successful mystery because it does hit all the marks.

Yes, a no-nonsense Powell isn’t quite as fun as a snarky slightly tipsy Powell, although he still makes for an enjoyable lead. But supporting spots for the always jovial Eugene Palette and noir icon Mary Astor add a dash of character across the rank and file of the cast. Meanwhile, James Lee plays a rather fascinating character for the time, a Chinese cook who nevertheless attended Columbia and is highly educated in Chinese porcelain.

And there is undoubtedly an efficiency to The Kennel Murder Case such that a great deal is able to unfold and be resolved without feeling tedious or overlong aided by Curtiz’s direction and plenty of screen wipes. It proves to be just about the right length to make the payoff worthwhile and the story’s mystery generally engaging. More character development is always a plus but with a whodunit that’s usually not your main concern.

3.5/5 Stars

Casablanca (1942): 75th Anniversary Review

Casablanca,_Trailer_Screenshot.JPG

When someone inquires if I consider Casablanca one of my favorite movies, I don’t quite know how to respond. Yes, I do love this film passionately but I feel as if Casablanca is more deeply America’s favorite classic movie. It is not for me to call my own and I will gladly share a joint appreciation for it. Because it’s a film for all of us. As it should be. It’s the perfect articulation and expression of that former Hollywood that existed during the studio age as brought to us by Michael Curtiz.

When we are finally allowed to enter into Rick’s Cafe Americain, it almost feels like hallowed ground. It’s a mythical place that never existed in reality and yet feels so immersive to us as an audience. Curtiz moves through the space with such intent that it makes us completely involved with every person his camera settles on. This is a picture for romantics and sentimentalists to be sure but it caters to those with a cynical edge too. It suggests a deceitful world of pickpockets, unscrupulous officials, and of course, Nazis.

The political tides of the times are reflected in that cinematic bastion of a man Rick Blaine (Bogart). His foreign policy is that he sticks his neck out for no one. But that’s only on the surface. That’s the beauty of the character. There’s a sensitivity and a sacrificial nature that wells up deep inside him, hidden from view. Tortured and embittered as he is, that is not the last word.

There’s also an undeniable undercurrent to the film. Yes, this is not reality. As enveloping as it is, this is wholly a Warner Bros. aesthetic but moreover there’s a sense that the emotions that deluge over Casablanca are very real.

Aside from Bogart and the lovely, incomparable Ingrid Bergman, our cast is made up of a plethora of emigres, men and women, who fled the Nazis for this reason or that. Whether they were Jewish or had different political affiliations or just couldn’t bear to live under such an oppressive regime.

Director Michael Curtiz was originally from Hungary and in him, we find someone who totally understood the plight of those fleeing and the context of the moment where Casablanca was only a pitstop for America. Because take the picture out of its context and something would be lost. Firmly plant it in the era and you have blessed the production with something enduringly special.

Furthermore, in the scene where Lazlo (Paul Henreid) calls on the band to play “La Marseillaise” to drown out the German’s proud merrimaking it ceases to be a mere scene in a film but becomes an event that swells with real emotions. You can see it in the very body language, the tears in the eyes, and the fervor that comes over everyone. Madeleine Lebeau (the film’s last surviving cast member who passed away last year) singing defiantly, with the tears freely flowing. No longer acting but pure feelings incarnate.

When so many other minority characters make me cringe in pictures of the 30s and 40s, Sam, the piano man (Dooley Wilson), remarkably rarely does. That’s because he’s endowed with a certain autonomy attributed to him in part by Blaine. They are partners, friends, and they watch out for each other.

His singing holds the love story together. Like many of the film’s greatest faces, he’s not a mere sideshow attraction. There’s a necessity to his characterization that adds another dimension to the world that has been conjured up on the Warner Bros. lot. What would Casablanca be without Dooley Wilson, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, S. Z. Sazall, Curt Bois, Leonid Kinskey, Marcel Dalio, John Qualen, etc.? It would lose so much color — so much definition.

Another joy of the picture after you see it too many times to count is the continued relish of the script, waiting for your favorite lines only to be taken with new quips that you never picked up on before. For me, most lines of this nature come from the wonderfully amoral and yet completely personable Captain Renault (Claude Rains). But there’s also so much going on around the edges of the frame. One of my favorites involves the young woman who fled from Bulgaria with her husband. The young lady is played by Jack Warner’s step-daughter Joy Page.

Here we see a relationship that mirrors that of Rick and Elsa in a way that only becomes apparent later on. Because she is a woman desperate to get to America with her impoverished husband. He is trying to win money gambling but it’s a desperate even futile situation.

She loves him so much, she is willing to try and use her own beauty and the influence of another man, Inspector Renault to help the man she truly loves. There’s so much subtext to the scene written with the production codes in mind and the sincerity is immediately evident even if some of the import can be lost on us. The same can be said for the foreshadowing.

Part of what makes the picture’s final act work is the fact that Lazlo is such a decent human being. He loves his wife so much, he’s willing to have Blaine take her to safety by using the Letters of Transit if need be. Thus, this dichotomy is set up and Rick must make a decision. He must do the thinking for both of them but that request from Lazlo saves Rick’s reputation no matter the decision that he makes. We know that either might be right. Even though deep in our hearts, there’s only one denouement we want.

Did I even need to write this review? Certainly not but it’s more for my sake than anyone else’s. Casablanca is a dear friend of mine and after 75 years it still comes up smelling like roses. Its themes are timeless in the sense that it allows romance to be its guiding light while still tempering it with the disillusionment and licentiousness that often is so prevalent in this world of ours. That makes its bittersweet interludes ring with a certain deep-seated truth that never comes off as fake. It’s as evocative and witty now as it was in 1942. Perhaps even more so.

5/5 Stars