Magnificent Obsession (1935): Stahl Vs. Sirk Again

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As I continue my mini odyssey considering the differences between the melodrama of John M. Stahl and Douglas Sirk, one of the finest exhibit pieces is an early scene in Magnificent Obsession.

The beloved Dr. Hudson has died because the life-saving pulmotor he needed was being used on someone else. An irresponsible playboy, named Bob Merrick, is saved in his place, having capsized his boat during one of his typically drunken evenings. It just doesn’t seem fair. One man so good is lost and the man who probably doesn’t deserve to live regains his life. It’s a rather blatant allegory of Christian grace and it makes sense, after all, Magnificent Obssession was supposedly penned by a minister: Lloyd C. Douglas.

Here is my long-winded point. This plays as a critical scene in Sirk’s picture. We see Merrick on the water and we see it happen right in front of us. However, in Stahl’s rendition, it’s all over and done with after a few throway lines of expositional dialogue between doctors. It’s as if he’s purposefully shying away from the drama. It’s this quality that might save Magnificent Obsession from being a total bore.

I never gave much thought to it before, but Robert Taylor makes a modest approximation of Rock Hudson a few decades earlier. One could say Rock’s career was far more successful and well-remembered, but they both manage the smart-aleck ne’er do well quite easily. In both cases, this was one of the early movies helping to put them in the public eye as legitimate star power.

Regardless, a curious dichotomy is purposefully set up by the movie, with one man unseen a beloved martyr, and another one alive, the incorrigible playboy. Dr. Hudson’s goodness hangs over Merrick’s life — haunting him in a sense — making him feel even worse about who he is as a person.

Soon he’s struggling with self-loathing. Although it feels more complicated than that because he’s still overtly narcissistic; deep down he knows everyone dislikes him vehemently.

It becomes a movie of who Merrick falls into company with after sneaking out of the hospital against protocol. First, it’s Masterson (Charles Butterworth) who might as well be his comic sidekick unwittingly carried away by all his mischief.

Next, it’s Mrs. Hudson (Irene Dunne) the beautiful young wife of the man he indirectly killed. When he actually finds out who she is he feels even more ashamed to show his face in front of her. He just wants to get drunk and try to forget.

Then, by some curious bit of Providence, he winds up at the home of a stonecutter. The man happened to be a close friend of Dr. Hudson. Similar to Sirk’s rendition, he imparts the wisdom the good doctor provided him. He was taught how to make contact with a source of infinite power. If you think this sounds like a seance and pseudo-science, you’re not alone. It feels like the strangest introduction of religion into the storyline imaginable with electrical energy acting as some mystical metaphor for God.

This layman makes another fascinating statement that might not sound all that foreign to us today. He’s not interested in religion but interested in Jesus — the God-man — who was so successful in the science of generating human power. It’s as if he was a mere humanitarian or an entrepreneur in human capital.

I always have trouble dealing with these kinds of expressions in relation to the Christian doctrinal claims. It’s not that it’s simplistic; rather it seems to totally disregard some of the things this God-man purportedly said. They feel radical, unsettling, incisive at times — surely not warm and fuzzy enough for a movie like this.

Still, this pseudo-Gospel becomes a journey to find people who need help and then giving it to them. But, of course, there’s a catch. You must give to others in absolute secrecy — it’s a scrooge-like endeavor and there’s some truth in this kind of altruism, still, it feels laughable even folly to call it a theory to be followed.

It’s a kind of pay-your-way to the good person’s club, whether you believe in the afterlife or just in being a good person in a legalistic sense. Either way, surely we can agree these strict parameters seem suspect.

Regardless, Merrick somehow gets swept up by them as he vows to put this “theory” into practice. He’s done so much to injure and totally destroy Helen Hudson’s life through his own selfish negligence.

However, in a strange way, it’s as if he’s in pursuit of his dead rival’s wife. Although it might be totally out of the goodness of a changed heart, he looks to reconnect with her, and give her life new joy. It all feels rather twee in comparison to Sirk’s update, which at least swells with the kind of grandiloquence which seems, at the very least, self-aware.

As much as I admire Irene Dunne as an unsung and ever adaptable talent and my mild affinity for Robert Taylor has gotten a boost in recent days, Magnificent Obsession is rather hard to take. It’s an outlandish drama full to the brim with preposterousness that doesn’t even attempt to court any semblance of reality. Similarly, its religiosity, romance, and just about everything else feels sugar-coated and simplified. Somehow it hasn’t maintained its flavor as well as some of Stahl’s earlier efforts.

3/5 Stars

Johnny Eager (1941): Taylor and Turner Spark Dynamite

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“Are you thinking of allowing her to play Roxanne to your Cyrano?” – Van Hefflin to Robert Taylor

Pretty faces don’t always add up to a quality movie and if you want to find where the faults lie, you might look between the players and the script then split the difference. Johnny Eager has all the Classic Hollywood trappings that very well could have made it dead on arrival — especially years later.

Because our protagonist has a name that only exists in the movies (or Hollywood for that matter). He’s a gangster from the old days formerly clad in the finest of threads and raking in the dough. To this day, he’s unrepentant or at least blatantly honest about how he feels; he’s no chump, even despite a stint he did behind bars.

Now he’s on the outside on parole making a go at propriety as a cabby. After this preliminary bit of eye-opening exposition, the story has all but telegraphed its intentions, really no fault of its own. It doesn’t take much imagination to put a reformed Robert Taylor and a curious young sociology debutant like Lana Turner together.

They meet through his parole officer: a white-haired, benevolent picture of authority. He seems to believe every man is capable of reform and human goodness if only given a chance. His secretary, on the other hand, gives Johnny the stink eye. Lisbeth Bard can hardly take her eyes off of him.

Of course, none of this is on the level because Johnny is busy getting into his old rackets, including an ambitious plan to resurrect the Alongonquin dog races to make a killing out of it. Simultaneously, he’s double-dealing, getting his sister and bratty niece to masquerade as his alibi. They’re nicely compensated of course to play up a squeaky clean picture of domesticity.

One has to laugh. The authorities must be idiots and Johnny accordingly plays them for fools. He’s a modern-day Machiavelli and this combination of authority, guile, strength, and charm makes Johnny Eager come off a bit more significant than a walking caricature.

It’s true Taylor had caught ahold of something in his career and whether or not he was considered a negligent actor and merely a pretty face, he brings a definite machismo to the screen more than capable of knocking off everyone else around him. He’s without a doubt the center of the action despite the plethora of scene stealers around him.

But one cannot forget the diffident school girl played by Turner, quoting Cyrano de Bergerac and sporting a hat to beat them all. What overtakes her exactly? Is it some compulsion to flirt to convert a wayward soul? Is it simply yearning passion? Whatever the reason, the film is full of “inamorata” — men and women lovers.

Not least among them is Van Hefflin who’s quite the educated fellow, quick and rich on the prose, especially when he’s soused with liquor. Jeb is Johnny’s most faithful friend for reasons the movie never puts to words. But whereas everyone else is either a hired ally, a paid stooge, or an easy rival, Jeb stays by him because he has no one else.

The film is at its most engaging tracing the lines and mixing its reference points between literate dames and men pontificating with a grandiloquent verbosity while the thugs rattle off their own barb-wire jargon prickling the ears. They tumble around inside the head as the most unrealistic and simultaneously peculiar cocktail of discordant voices.

Hefflin does very little compared to the other forthcoming gruff, garble-mouthed, shifty-eyed types, and yet he doesn’t need to because the words flowing off his lips play like riffs off the rest of the film. He seems to relish every soliloquy he gets to run off, and it definitely leaves an overall impression.

But the real fire is between Taylor and Turner for as long as they get on screen together. Aside from Johnny’s clandestine activity, Lisbeth Bard’s step-father happens to be a crucial man. Edward Arnold aptly plays the domineering and vengeful district attorney, who just so happens to be situated in the most convenient place in the movie. He helped put Eager away in the penitentiary as a service to the public. Now Johnny’s looking to stick it to him with Lisbeth implicated in his own crimes.

Could it be he never loved her at all? It always functioned as business over love? Regardless of his motives, enemies become accomplices as he leverages his new position to open up the long-dormant dog racing track. Everyone across the board has got an angle. What sets Johnny apart is his self-serving shrewdness, never blinded by sentimentalities such as sacrificial love, grace, or a guilty conscience.

Meanwhile, Lisabeth is overtaken by mental frailty and paranoia. She’s not bred for the cutthroat gangster’s life like Johnny. Her tragic hysteria forces him into a type of hero’s choice. It’s what all Hollywood movies ask of their protagonists. Something is required of them in the end.

In its day, Johnny Eager was a stirling success, and if history is any indication, it might have one of the most tragic days in American history to thank. It premiered in Los Angeles on December 9th, 1941. For those keeping tabs, this is two days after Pearl Harbor.

It heightens the dramatics just enough to bring out of the realm of reality and into the spaces of escapism. Where illicit romance can shoot off like fireworks on the screen between two scintillating specimens like Taylor and Turner. They were TNT as the contemporary advertisements so aptly framed it. They were the eye candy; they were the distraction to take the masses away from the tragedy right outside those cinema doors.

In a short time, the movies would be acting as a comment on the world at-large and the war at-large with propaganda machines spinning on all cylinders. For now, they still act as a counterpoint saying something about the state of a nation by not saying anything at all.

The story ends in a somewhat comforting manner, ultimately capping off with a Hollywood moralism that made sense, creating heroes out of gangsters far away from the chaos of sneak attacks and brazen days of infamy. It just goes to show life is more ambiguous and thus more complex than a movie.

3.5/5 Stars

Waterloo Bridge (1940) and The Farewell Waltz

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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

Three Comrades (1938) in Body and Soul

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“Germany’s a pretty rough sea if you’re drifting.” – Breuer

“But I’m not alone anymore. There are so many drifters!” – Patricia Hollmann

Erich Maria Remarque is of course most famous for his work All Quiet on The Western Front, which was adapted to great effect for the silver screen by Lewis Milestone in 1930. Three Comrades, another one of his novels, feels very much like an extension of the same themes found in the earlier novel.

We find ourselves at the tail-end of the Great War. Mainland Europe is jaded and bedraggled. One must recall these were the days before Nazism: a force that felt like personified evil. When we look around from trench to no man’s land, it feels like everyone’s equally besmirched, equally implicated in the senseless killing.

So in this regard, it’s not a far stretch of the imagination to think a cohort of three German veterans might be likable to an American audience (especially because they are also Caucasian). However, equally importantly, they are played by three strapping young talents with charm bouncing off them like pinballs. It’s how they’re able to leave the calamitousness of war behind and attempt to discover a new life of humble contentment.

It was the war that instilled them with a certain collective memory, both scarring and then firmly solidifying their friendship in the aftermath. They take the world on like the Three Musketeers: all for one and one for all. Together they happily resolve to become car mechanics, carving out a peaceful existence for themselves, even as their beloved country has succumbed to a kind of mob rule with rampant new ideologies. To each his own.

Erich Lokhamp is the first, played by a dashing, if a bit wooden, Robert Taylor. Though it’s his friends who really seem to bring him alive. Franchot Tone is Otto Koster, always ready to support his friends and speak sense into their lives. His brand of loyalty is finer than gold. The other is Gottfried Lenz (Robert Young) also light-hearted while stricken with the mind of an idealist. Still, he gladly gives up his social conscience for the sake of his friends’ well-being. At least for a time, life is happy.

But before there’s any greater stakes, it begins as three lads having a blast taking a stuffy socialite (Lionel Atwill) for a ride as they roar down the thoroughfares in their beloved, hopped-up creation “Baby.” It’s a bit of good fun, but it also introduces the trio to one of the most important people in their subsequent life together: Pat

Margaret Sullavan is at it yet again a husky-voiced, troubled soul and yet overwhelmingly resolute in her pursuit of love and the preservation of those around her. It’s a quality found in all these characters — this self-sacrificial nature that becomes so laudable, if not entirely necessary. She is the one who surmises how lovely it might be to pick when we were born. Perhaps an age of reason and quiet. This sounds like a Borzage picture. Because of course, they must make do with the here and now, where evil still exists in the world (as it does in any era).

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Their favorite hangout belongs to a jolly man named Alfons (Guy Kibbee). Erich takes his new girl there following some awkward interplay over the telephone. Also, his buddies always have a penchant for showing up uninvited to sit in on their evenings. It’s one of the added delights of the pictures because Young and Tone can supply the wisecracks to rib their friend.

I admire Otto and Gottfried even as I relate. They are faithful, they wish the best for their friends, act as encouragers — spurring each other on — and celebrating their victories while taking any setbacks as they always do: together.

This courtship brings with it other complications, namely trying to impress a high society girl of culture no matter how good-natured she might make out. It’s still easy for a man used to the inside of cars, to feel out of place with the social elite, dancing and wearing customary uncomfortable clothing, which also has a habit of coming apart at the seams. He even spins tall tales of rolling down to South America, an exotic land full of monkeys and coffee, just so he might be able to keep up with her.

All of this show proves unnecessary. This is how it works when you are smitten with a rich man’s girl and, more importantly, when she is in love with you. In another line that feels transcendent in the usual manner of Borzage, they aspire to being “lovers on the edge of eternity between day and night.”

A lesser film — or at least one ill-befitting the predilections of Borzage — would probably have made this a fight for the woman’s hand. It’s easy enough to see how this would have pulled the boys’ bond asunder. And yet these characters are more genial, enlightened, and well-intentioned. The story itself strives for something more. Young plays cupid urging his friend toward marriage. Tone’s character knocks out a concerto on their automobile as he tries to hammer away some sense into Pat in favor of his friend.

Propitiously, all this coaxing culminates in the quaintest wedding, which somehow fits all the players to a tee. Borzage captures it such that we feel we are there with them discovering it as it happens, partially spur of the moment, but also imbued with this star-crossed purposefulness. In step with everything else, their honeymoon to the seaside is as gay as can be until it is met with a setback.

It plays into the film that Sullavan always feels emotionally strong and sturdy but often physically frail. Maybe she just exudes this quality between her throaty vocals grasping at words and the obdurance she gained a reputation for. But in Three Comrades, she is bedridden and in critical condition from hemorrhages — still nursing sickness that has clung to her for some time. Erich has little idea, but once again, Otto comes to their aid with his usual expediency. It only serves to bring them together.

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While remaining unnamed throughout the film, there’s little question that the rising Nazi Party is the instigator of public brawls. Dr. Becker (Henry Hull) speaks out on his soapbox about the need for reason in confronting the issues of the times, instead of the prevailing violence. Since it’s not the first scuffle or an isolated event, Gottfried feels compelled to stand up for his beliefs, putting his ideals on the line.

Meanwhile, Erich has a less politically charged fistfight in the streets over a work claim. He gets ganged up on before his comrades, of course, fly to his defense. Just like old times. Pat is placed in a sanitarium on the behest of her doctor (Monty Wooley) just in time for the snows of winter and then Christmas.

The violence continues to escalate, this time dragging Tone into a shootout in the streets with Handel’s “Hallelujah” clamoring in the background. It’s oddly hypnotic even as it spells what feels like the end of the beginning.

If it’s not apparent already where Three Comrades is going, it easily functions as a fitting companion piece to Borzage’s later Mortal Storm because there is this same uncanny prescience about it, although it probably did very little to halt the impending course of history. The unholy mechanisms were already in place.

Every Borzage movie makes the world a little broader and love a little grander to match. In this regard, the meeting of the prose of Erich Maria Remarque and F. Scott Fitzgerald somehow manages to work in the hands of a director.

What sets it apart from a melodrama like Douglas Sirk’s is the slow burn and how the characters take each moment on with their own brand of quiet fortitude. In many ways, love (and camaraderie) are an antidote to the wiles of the world. Our heroes know what’s inevitable and they brave it together — smiling until the end of days — even in the face of tragedy and hardship.

Is it high-minded and idealistic? Most assuredly. But it’s also one of the most blessed hallmarks of Frank Borzage’s filmmaking. This hallmark, more than anything, is why we can easily draw a line in the snow from something like Seventh Heaven or Man’s Castle to Three Comrades and then The Mortal Storm.

One is especially reminded of Margaret Sullavan because one of the pervading attributes of her characters is this all-encompassing dignity to see her to the end. We feel like unsightly sots and indignant pions compared to her eminent calm.

But really, the same might be said about all the players in Three Comrades. It’s a pacifist portrait. Not so much in prognostications of any sort. It has to do with the inner peace inside the characters that radiate out from them, due to their affections for one another. Thus, in a fitting Epilogue, with fighting breaking out in the city, the four inseparable friends walk off solemnly together. If not in body, then certainly in spirit.

4/5 Stars

Saddle The Wind (1958): In Memory of Richard Erdman

Saddle-the-wind_posterJulie London provides her airy voice to the title track and Elmer Bernstein gives his scoring talents for the rest of the picture. In these beginning moments, Saddle the Wind evokes the expanse of the majestic landscapes of the West like the best of its brethren. There is a sense we really are out on the frontier, not some manufactured piece of artifice. For the time being, the film maintains this sense of the wind-open spaces away from Hollywood soundstages.

It gets its first jolt of action when a leering Charles McGraw stomps into a saloon and shoves his weight around for food and a bottle. He’s got his feet kicked back and starts breaking bottles over counters just to get his point across. The locals aren’t looking for any trouble, but he’s certainly looking for someone: gunslinger Steve Sinclair (Robert Taylor).

Here we must introduce the glut of Saddle The Wind. Robert Taylor is still Hollywood handsome but time has set in and made his features more applicable for the West. Where a hard life and past wounds lead people to make a new existence for themselves. The reformed gunfighter is not a new concept, but it is a handy one. It gives a man menace without him having to show it, until it’s absolutely necessary.

The real action arrives in the form of his spunky dynamo of a little brother, who comes back to the family ranch with a woman (London) betrothed to be his wife. His big brother is less than pleased to find Tony has gone and got himself hitched and spent his money on a spiffy new gun.

If anything is cemented in this preliminary scene, it is that one is the hothead, the other maintains reproachful silence. They are the yin and yang of the West. Cassavetes and Richard Erdman, as rowdy Reb veterans, form a rambunctious partnership looking to tear up the town and have themselves a bit of fun. They positively take the bar by storm, only to have their merriment disrupted by the same out-of-towner. Except the man Venables meets up with isn’t an old local or a squeamish bartender.

Tony is on top of the world, and if there’s one thing he’s never gonna do is back off even when the other man isn’t looking for trouble. His quarrel, after all, is with the elder Sinclair. Still, the feisty buck takes it as a personal affront. He goads the man into action. There is no other way for it. Guns are drawn.

Steven rushes on the scene an instant too late. His brother isn’t killed, but something worse happens. He’s filled with renewed fire. The taste of power — the ability to strike a man down with the pull of a trigger — is like an intoxicating liqueur.

Steve Sinclair has long kept the peace with the main landowner in the area Dennis Deneen (Donald Crisp), who is, by all accounts, a businessman and a pacifist. The stage is set for something…

Clay Ellison (Royal Dano) is a proud man clinging unflinchingly to the promise of land out west, formerly bestowed on his dearly departed father when the territory was still wide-open. He’s come on the scene to take back what’s his even as Steve tells him, brusquely, he’s trespassing. In a different context, that might be the end of the incident.

What ignites it irrevocably is a remnant of North vs. South animosity left over from the Civil War (Ellison is a proud Union man with great distinction). The torchbearers are Tony and the impish Dallas as they have a grand old time with the squatters, upending their wagons and chasing away their livestock in fits of gunfire and laughter. It’s a bit of festering payback for wartime grievances, and it’s easily the most devastating scene, right smack dab in the middle of the picture.

It’s a testament of what happens when men take squatter’s justice into their own hands and when the protective big brother does little more than beat back his baby sibling and throw money at a problem. Nothing is remedied.

However, Saddle The Wind ends up being far more contained than I was expecting. It’s fundamentally a character study about two brothers and how they grapple with one another, based on outside stimuli.

We could name a number of people, first the new wife who is brought home. The old vagabond war buddy who is an instant enabler. A gunfighter with a vendetta looking to tromp up old wounds. Even the obdurate homesteader who’s not about to get pushed out by a punk kid.

None of these characters seems to truly exist for themselves. Even lord of the valley, Mr. Dineen, though deeply humanized by Donald Crisp, is just another piece in the brother’s story. This observation might seem too harsh, but with Rod Serling as the story’s scribe, it seems conceivable to say the intriguing idea — because it is that — takes some precedence over the characters.

There are moments to turn the stomach, feelings of conflict, and wrenching segments of tension. This is not a completely lethargic film by any means. If anything, Cassavetes alone sets it ablaze with his youthful fire. Still, some component seems to be missing.

With this vast assemblage of characters, it could be that there are a handful of stories worth telling when the credits roll, and we only got over the cusp of one of them. The ending lacks all the cathartic payoffs we craved so dearly. The strands don’t entirely tie together, though the movie does try and solve everything with a silver lining. Surely it’s not that easy.

Whereas the opening moments felt like a regalia of western imagery, Saddle The Wind settles into almost small-screen paces, going from long shots full of real sagebrush to close-ups with backdrops painted on.

Although it’s hardly fair to consider the film’s merits on this issue alone — I think the suspension of disbelief being broken speaks to something — even as these characters never settle into something truly genuine. It’s allowable to be harsh with critique only because Saddle The Wind has its share of all-too-brief shining moments to go along with its potential. It’s an oater with enthralling elements not fully realized.

3/5 Stars

Note: I watched this film literally two days before the passing of Richard Erdman at the age of 93. He was one of my most beloved supporting actors. He will be deeply missed for his myriad of classic roles and for his work as Leonard on Community.

Party Girl (1958): Sumptuous Visuals for a So-So Gangster Flick

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Party Girl is yet another sumptuous Metrocolor feast from Nicholas Ray though the circumstances were admittedly less conducive for another masterpiece. In need of money, Ray took the job but instead getting his accustomed input on the script, he found himself being partnered with a producer he had no history with (Joe Pasternak) and two musical numbers he had little control over.

For someone like Ray, used to taking such middlebrow fare and making it inherently more interesting, the only plane he could really play on was the visual. So Party Girl is a minor success continuing his forays in expressionistic color schemes.

The film sets the scene in 1930s Chicago falling a few tiers under the Warner Bros. gangster flicks of the 30s or a hilarious homage like Some Like it Hot (1959). In this particular scenario, worldly-wise dancing girl Vicky Gaye (Cyd Charisse) is always ready to impart wisdom, and she’s too tough to get hurt by love.

While it can’t necessarily keep company with Ray’s most captivating works in terms of personified emotion or intensity, there are still elements to be thoroughly enjoyed. Cyd Charisse for one is as sultry as ever and if it weren’t for their almost abrupt nature, crammed into the story as they are, her two dance numbers do immense justice to her iconically svelte form. She’s still extraordinary.

Robert Taylor for another is compelling as a defender of criminals, capable of getting mobsters off the hook and willingly working for a big-time kingpin named Rico (Lee J. Cobb). Tommy Farrell’s major calling card is a debilitating limp that forces him to use a cane. But it never feels like a mere gimmick.

Ray consequently praised Taylor’s commitment to the role, gladly studying up on his part so he could convincingly play a cripple. The director even said the older man was on par with any of the Method adherents he had ever had the pleasure of working with. There you have commendation enough.

In trying to categorize Party Girl, you quickly realize it’s a bit of a disconcerting hybrid of a film. Some might say discombobulating more than anything, as it plays at the crossroads of different genres, not to mention different eras.

Taylor and Charisse were purportedly the final two contract players signed to MGM in 1958 and so more than anything, the picture was a justified excuse to put them to use before their contracts expired. But all things considered, their chemistry isn’t bad per se, and they both look lovely under the gaze of the camera.

Meanwhile, Lee J. Cobb is capable as a thinly-veiled Al Capone facsimile. He’s not uninteresting, but the part seems to have nothing surprising to boast. By the finale, the story has run its course and most of the air has left its sails. Aesthetically, the harsh colors somehow don’t play against onslaughts of gunfire the way black and white did in the days of yore.

Maybe unfairly it’s easy to criticize the film because it doesn’t quite stand up to the gangster flicks of old and yet, there’s no way to call it a full-fledged musical. But for any aficionados of the director or his starring players, they might be reason enough to revisit this minor cult favorite. Be assured, it’s by no means a cardboard, cookie cutter piece of work.

3/5 Stars

The Devil’s Doorway (1950)

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Right here we see the precise genesis of Anthony Mann as a director of westerns. To consider the string of modest classics that followed is nearly staggering. But he was well-suited for the transition taking his acquired skills over the years and translating them easily to the West.

The Devil’s Doorway is shot like his most gripping noirs thanks in part to John Alton’s continued partnership. Thunder sounding off in the background, low lights, and even lower angles when working in close-ups. Visually he certainly doesn’t pull any punches.

At first, I wasn’t sure if I would care for the picture since I knew next to nothing about it. However, in the first few minutes of expositional action, we learn something that sets up a striking dissonance not only within our character’s identity but in the West itself.

Lance Poole (Robert Taylor) comes back from the Civil War as a man who proved himself on many a battlefield from Antitiem to Gettysburg achieving the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroics. Strikingly, for someone returning from such a divisive war, Poole has a fairly positive outlook. Except he’s rudely awakened when he comes home and finds that a different type of war is still raging.

This is the time to share the film’s major point and one that is crucial to getting into this narrative from screenwriter Guy Trosper. Poole is a Native American — a Shoshone by birth — but when he fought in the army no one judged him by the color of his skin. He shared food and quarters and fought alongside his fellow Americans.

And yet when he gets back to the land he calls his own, he finds that men have hardly changed even if the times have. White folk look at “Indians” with disdain and if not disdain then probably fear. There’s no sense of wanting to get to know them. Sure, there are a few who remain true to Poole from the old days like Zeke (Edgar Buchanan) and yet even they crumble under peer pressure. That means no drinks served to Indians in the saloon and certainly no owning property.

The Homestead Act is a grand proposition made for dreamers, rallying men to head out to the vast plains out west to stake claim to the territory and settle down. No such provision exists for the ones who have lived on the land all their lives.Under the law Poole’s not classified as an American citizen and what is he, you ask? Well, that’s very much what the picture is trying to address.

Even as desperate men surge toward Poole’s acreage of top land looking to move in, other Shoshone from a reservation, led by their chief (Chief John Big Tree) seek asylum because their current existence is a far cry from their former life of prosperity.

Poole knowing that the way of the white man worked for him during the war tries to seek out honest means of reclaiming his land. He forgoes the town’s crooked lawyer Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern) and calls upon Orrie Master (Paula Raymond); she’s a woman, not a man, which in itself is a statement.

Though reluctant, she takes his case because they need each other. She plays by the book, holding to the assertion that if something’s the law, we have to abide by it. Her faith, her religion of sorts, is the law and she treats it as sacred. But as those roads seem to lead nowhere for a man like Poole just because of the color of his skin, she tries to make him seek compromise — some amount of mutual understanding.

But when you have a bigot like Coolan doing everything in his power to push Lance off his property, such an agreement seems out of the question. Such a diabolical fellow is intent on inciting opposition and manipulating folks so that peace and compromise are no longer viable options.

People such as this are far too prevalent in this world and their philosophies poison the world for everyone. There is no understanding. There is no empathy and Lance is not about to wait around for it. He’s going to defend what he deems to be rightfully his.

Ms. Masters in near desperation sends out a distress signal to Fort Laramie calling on the Cavalry. It is her last hope for any type of peaceable resolution — even if it only stops the bleeding which has already begun between the natives and the homesteaders. We too look on powerless to stop the bloodshed because we are only an audience interfacing with a film. The question becomes what will we do with our reality if we see a parallel issue?  If and when former Union Officer Poole perishes there will be no one to play him “Taps” now will there?

Such a downbeat ending and harsh portrait was not something Hollywood was ready for and it seems that generally, Devil’s Doorway gets a bit buried. I think it’s about time that we all took our medicine and while not a perfect film it might cause one to perceive the Wild West of Hollywood lore with a very different heart.

To say it’s completely undermined by its casting is somewhat missing the point because its intentions are all but honorable and the picture lays in hard to issues that are not simply western issues but are quite easily transposed to post-war WWII, 1950s pre-civil rights America and obviously the present as well.

In fact, it hardly feels like jumping the gun to call Devil’s Doorway cutting-edge because like Broken Arrow (1950) of the same year, it actually concerned itself with the plight of Native Americans. But whereas the other picture is somewhat forgettable now, there’s still an undeniable bite to Mann’s effort. Even the black and white imagery aids in the tone (as well as practically masking a bit of Taylor’s makeup).

Here is a western that stars an “Indian” and an independent working woman who are not even romantically attached to each other. Beyond that, it straddles this line of muddied morality that hardly chooses sides but settles in the gray area that leads us to make some heady considerations.

Far be it from me to strip away visions of glorious gunfights and all-conquering heroes. But if you watch this story unfold — a grim statement of tenacity from Anthony Mann — those myths will be trampled on. You would do well to watch your step and open up your heart just a little bit, hopefully, more than when you first entered in the corral.

4/5 Stars