So Proudly We Hail! (1943)

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There were three reasons to watch this film. Their names are Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, and Veronica Lake. Yes, this picture directed by Mark Sandrich was fairly groundbreaking in its day for telling a story about nurses during WWII but there might be mixed feelings across the board about how the story unfolds.

While I still try and organize my own perceptions, a moment can be allotted to take stock of our stars. Claudette Colbert strays quite far away from her comedic sweet spot in a dramatic role as Lt. “Davy” Davison that she nevertheless conducts with a compelling fortitude.

The studio also all but got rid of the iconic peekaboo bangs of Lake and exchanges any of her many noir gals opposite Alan Ladd for a vengeful nurse Olivia D’Arcy traumatized by Pearl Harbor and the dirty Japs who ruined her life forever. She’s practically a different person.

Although Paulette Goddard hardly ever appears in a sweater, the boys are still enthralled by her like always but even she is given a major reality check about the hardships of war. And that’s part of what this film was meant to reflect — that it wasn’t just the brave soldiers who were putting their lives on the line — but there were legions of women too sacrificing and giving their all.

Paramount also did a very commendable thing in trying to de-glamorize their biggest stars in deference to delivering this stirring patriotic drama as a eulogy to all of those at Bataan and other South Pacific battlegrounds. But while the intentions are admirable, there’s this underlying feeling that Hollywood still creeps into the story far too often, which makes sense, since this is a Hollywood picture.

It all begins with an extended flashback as the film follows the nurses through their deployment. First, there are the tearful send-offs leaving families for the first time or gals leaving their best guys. In the case of Joan (Goddard) she gets away from two of them and by the time she’s onboard, it looks like she’s already landed a new one (Sonny Tufts).

In the wake of the hysteria following Pearl Harbor, the nurses are for the most part caught in a fog of war without any knowledge of what is going on and the Japs have all but jammed their communications. They continue floating around listlessly just waiting for some definitive plan of action.

When it comes and they are brought in as reinforcements to the Bataan peninsula. Here finally it seems we get our first look at the front lines. What reality really looked like. The mayhem that overtakes any war zone. It’s pure insanity. By the film’s midpoint, they are being pushed back and the evacuation becomes a life or death ordeal. We finally begin to see the casualties.

What follows is a single moment that comes like a kick in the gut and it’s a segment in the picture that we cannot criticize for being hammy or over-sentimental, delivering a visceral shock that’s a painful reminder of how abhorrent and horrible war truly is. Lake is allowed to let her hair down for a final instant as she leaves the picture in searing fashion. It burns but there is another inkling that suggests that this might really be emotional manipulation.

My main qualm is that the picture feels fake in a theatrical sense. If it’s true that film puts a mirror to reality, it also seems equally true that we often only care to see what we want to in that reflection. We document that and then do a little touch up afterward. James Agee harshly likened So Proudly We Hail to war through the lens of a housewife’s magazine romance.

My own feelings are perhaps more nuanced. It’s propaganda to be taken with a grain of salt. In one sense it couldn’t be more realistic as a document because it comes out of that time and place as a timely film while the war was still raging abroad. But the narrative is still so wrapped up in romance and melodrama built out of said love stories or personal torment. And yet it indubitably has its affecting moments that are difficult to brush off.

What I really appreciated was that its intentions were honorable. To give a spotlight to women and it also depicted a number of Asian allies in a positive light whether they be Chinese (Hugh Ho Chang) or Filipino children dreaming that Superman will come to save the day.

All this is to say in convoluted terms that So Proudly Hail cannot be condemned as an awful picture outright. It does some things well and others with a level of mediocrity but what do my words matter now nearly 75 years after the film came out?

Hopefully, contemporary audiences were uplifted by its intentions. I’m inclined to recommend another picture taking place during the same time. They Were Expendable (1945) directed by John Ford and starring the trio of Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, and Donna Reed is another title worth considering.

3.5/5 Stars

“I’m a Chinese madame, not an Indian.” Hugh Ho Chang as Ling Chee

The Blue Dahlia (1946)

bluedahliaSoldiers returning home from war is a recurring theme in films such as The Best Years of Our Lives and Act of Violence and given the circumstances it makes sense. This was the reality. Men returning home from war as heroes. But even heroes have to re-acclimate to the world they left behind.

Blue Dahlia is not so much about the assimilation of G.I.s though. It’s more an excuse to show the noir world creeping into a man’s life infecting all he left behind. As he returns, Johnny Morrison’s wife (Doris Dowling) is keeping company with another fellow (Howard Da Silva) and everyone else seems to know about it except Johnny. Also, his young boy died tragically while he was away and his wife has taken to a life of drinking and partying. He’s not expecting any of this but then again what happens in film-noir is very rarely what we expect.

Raymond Chandler weaves together his first original screenplay here, a production that was hampered by the impending deployment of Alan Ladd as well as Chandler’s own bouts with alcoholism and writer’s block. It’s hard to know which one caused the other. But either way, the film finds its roots in a murder and the man who is suspect just happens to be the returning G.I. Before he ever knew people were looking for him he playfully took the name Jimmy Moore after meeting a lady (Veronica Lake) who happens to be closer to him than either of them realize.  Their paths cross more than once.Then he’s on the run. His war buddies (Hugh Beaumont and William Bendix) are worried about him after being questioned by the cops. And the cops are anxious to hone in on the killer because no one is of any real help. No solid leads come their way and that means Johnny has to track down the killer himself.

The direction of George Marshall is not particularly inspired but his players are compelling enough. Alan Ladd can still play the brusque tough guy and William Bendix steals the show with his own blue-collar bravado and snarling bluster. Veronica Lake doesn’t show up until well into the film and in many ways, despite her billing, she feels relegated to a smaller role. She’s not particularly memorable in the majority of it even with her scenes with Ladd. She’s mostly just there which is grossly unfortunate. It feels like a waste.

After the novelty of Hugh Beaumont wears off it makes sense why he transitioned to TV while Howard Da Silva and Doris Dowling denote a certain sleaze that comes off quite well. Meanwhile, Frank Faylen plays an integral role as one of his typical curmudgeon types. He made a killing off of that niche. Still, Ladd and Bendix are the main attraction in this adequate serving of film-noir. On a darker note, this film also gave its name to the unsolved Black Dahlia killing of Elizabeth Short in 1947. It’s one time when perhaps reality was more tragic than fiction. Raymond Chandler could not have even dreamed up such a grisly drama. At least not for the silver screen.

3.5/5 Stars

The Glass Key (1942)

the-glass-key-1942With Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon making a splash just the year before and giving a big leg up to its star Humphrey Bogart as well as its director John Huston, it’s no surprise that another such film would be in the works to capitalize on the success. This time it was based on Hammett’s novel The Glass Key and it would actually be a remake of a previous film from the 30s starring George Raft.

But instead, we had Alan Ladd in the lead fresh off a career-making performance the year before. True, Ladd’s no Bogart and the forgotten Stuart Heisler is hardly the caliber of Huston, and still, the film is somehow entertaining in its own way. It channels the political corruption of Force of Evil with a bit of the unfathomable plot and mile-long laundry list of characters rather like The Big Sleep. And once more like any comparison with the Maltese Falcon, it hardly holds a candle to these other films but it’s not trying to be overly smart. It never makes an attempt at commentary or some deep philosophical character study but it does ladle out some unabashed noir entertainment.

There’s the pairing of Ladd and Veronica Lake once more to capitalize on their breakout success in This Gun for Hire. Noir regular Brian Donlevy stars alongside them playing a tough guy and political boss named Paul Madvig. His right-hand man Ed Beaumont (Ladd) stands stalwart by his side until Madwig gets caught up in politics as well a murder accusation. By day he tries to win the hand of the pretty daughter (Lake) of an aspiring governor while at night he looks to run out the towns gangsters namely one Nick Varna. As one might expect murder, corruption and familial turmoil all become integral plot points

Once more Ladd shows his aptitude for playing “leading roles” that still somehow allow him to stand on equal footing beside other stars. His most prominent performance as the gunslinger Shane is a fine example because although he is the title character, still somehow he manages to walk in the periphery and he does so with a quiet confidence. Similarly, in This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key, there is a cool curtness to his demeanor that he pulls off well. It allows him to be the star without really seeming like it. That’s the quality he’s able to cast and Lake works well to balance him out. Donlevy gives a surprisingly spirited performance but he’s not a magnetic star. If anyone, this is Ladd’s film with Lake too.

As we would expect with any decently entertaining noir thriller, the rest of the film is filled out with quite the menagerie of characters the most memorable of those being William Bendix as a rough and tumble henchman. He and Ladd have it out in a couple of scenes and in real life, they would become lifelong friends. The way they beat each other up though it’s sometimes hard to tell.

3.5/5 Stars

This Gun for Hire (1942)

220px-this_gun_for_hire_movie_posterAlan Ladd and Veronica Lake found themselves partnered together on numerous occasions partially out of convenience (at 5’6 and 4’11 they were a perfect height match) but also there’s a genuine chemistry between them. And it all came into being with This Gun for Hire an economical film-noir where Ladd wasn’t even one of the top-billed stars.

Those coveted positions above the title went to Lake and the relatively young buck Robert Preston with Ladd tacked on with an “Introducing” title card. It was his latest attempt to break into the film industry that had long relegated him to bit parts and uncredited cameos (ie. Citizen Kane). It worked.

His menacing thug Raven is the first character we meet and he soon proves his brooding menace is more than just show. He is a gun for hire after all and he finishes up some business for a client getting his payoff through a nervous and portly fellow named Gates (Laird Cregar). But the money is hot and Raven soon finds a price on his head. He’s been had and he’s not about the let that slide.

The main push from the law enforcement is led by none other than Michael Crane (Robert Preston) who has recently been vacationing with his girlfriend Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake). As he burns the midnight oil she has her own gig as a magician/nightclub singer while also taking on some clandestine activities — activities that’s she sworn not to tell anyone about — even her beau.

As we might expect with the tenets of noir, the film is a lot bigger than we are initially led to believe, not simply involving murder, but also treason and government secrets as Pearl Harbor is still fresh on everyone’s minds. In such a way, our three leads get tied up both literally and figuratively as Raven continues as a fugitive in search of the man who set him up.

He too crosses paths with Ellen and in her, he finds a kind of confidante who doesn’t immediately write him off, despite his deadly tendencies. Before her he only liked cats, the reason, they don’t need anyone, rather like him. But he’s also not about to reform, not until his work is done.

Although its transitions are at times choppy and awkward, there’s indisputably an intrigue that courses through This Gun For Hire that makes it a diverting bit of noir and its latter half is the pinnacle of the action as the dragnet closes in around Raven. For the 1940s, it was a crackerjack finale but unfortunately, it’s sullied now by an abrupt happy ending. No matter.

While Robert Preston is a fairly flat lead, Veronica Lake is her usual playfully sympathetic self and Laird Cregar plays the spineless oaf to perfection. His slimy sort is one of the reasons noir becomes so wickedly delectable. In fact, he’s perhaps second only to Alan Ladd’s characterization because over the course of the film Ladd systematically steals the picture, taking every little bit of limelight and making it count. Solidifying his stardom by playing a highly compelling heavy and essentially stealing the girl away from his male costar.

Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, and perhaps most notably James Cagney, all played corrupt, crazed, and vindictive gangsters at one time or another. What sets Ladd apart is his utterly emotionless eyes. They’re still the eyes of a stone cold killer but there’s a vast emptiness there. Anyways it’s the perfect laconic performance for film-noir and while he never reached the heights of Bogart (also a former supporting player), Alan Ladd rightfully so gained recognition for his own career — most notably in Shane. But everything has to start somewhere and This Gun For Hire is precisely that film. His mark is all over it.

3.5/5 Stars

Hold Back the Dawn (1941)

holdback5Hold Back the Dawn was written by the winning combination of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, but the director was actually Mitchell Leisen. That was the last time Wilder would let someone else take hold of his work. It’s actually rather meta, a film within a film. We see our director and a film being made (Complete with Veronica Lake), but that is only a pretense for this story to be told.

Georges Iscoveu (Charles Boyer) wanders into the studio hoping to tell his story to somebody who might help him. The tale goes something like this. Much like many other hopeful emigrants, he heads to Mexico in an attempt to try and get into the states, but he’s told that he’ll have to wait and so Iscoveu holes up at the Esperanza Hotel with all the other masses. Time passes and he is getting nowhere fast, but he does bump into an old partner in crime named Anita (Paulette Goddard). Undoubtedly using her feminine charms, she wrangled herself a husband in order to secure herself citizenship. Then she swiftly got a divorce to close the deal. She’s a real peach and she plants the idea in Georges because he is desperate after all.

The gears are turning and he sets his sights on the pretty young schoolteacher, who is in Mexico with some of her students. Their car is in the shop, and after swiping a sprocket, Georges goes into action.

With soaring rhetoric, he wins Miss Emmy Brown over and he puts a ring on it, a borrowed ring from Anita to be exact. He’s a real cad, but it is a Charles Boyer leading man.

To her credit, Olivia De Havilland plays this ingenue and small-town teacher with bright eyes and idealism. We cannot help but feel for her because this is a woman who is swept off her feet and she exhibits true affection. She’s naive, but as Georges acknowledges, she’s swell. Anita has plans for them to meet up once the marriage is terminated because she thinks that she and Georges can run in the same circles once more. But all the time he has spent with Emmy has not left him unchanged. Car rides and travels through Mexico becomes intimate and sweet. So somewhere there is a turning point in the psyche of Iscoveu. It no longer becomes a con game with Anita, but a true romance with Emmy.

However, the trouble comes when the inspector named Hammock (Walter Abel) comes sniffing around because the marriage of Emmy and Georges seems obviously fishy to him. But Ms. Brown does the noble thing and defends Georges not out of ignorance, but charity. She knows she was living a dream and is about to go back to reality, making the drive back to her home in Azusa, California.

Georgholdback6es has what he had initially set out to get, but the story cannot be over. When he hears of a deadly car accident, he rushes across the border without heed of the law so that he can be with the love of his life. It’s a gushy conclusion that looks like it might end badly. After all, Iscoveu broke some major laws, but Hammock gives him some grace showing he’s a softy at heart. Even Anita gets what she’s always wanted.

The film is a treat because we not only get an A-grade performance from De Havilland, there’s a conniving Paulette Goddard, and even a brief cameo by everybody’s favorite Peekaboo girl Veronica Lake. Curt Bois (the pickpocket from Casablanca) also makes a spirited performance in one of the minor plots.

Hold Back the Dawn certainly begs the question whether Wilder’s own experiences are infused into this story since he often told anecdotes about his emigration into the U.S. which ultimately led him to success in Hollywood. Also, this film suggests that Mitchell Leisen is not so much a great director or a maker of masterpieces, but he is in his element with romances. However, I wonder if part of his success was having the likes of Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges writing scripts for some of his most prominent films (including Easy Living, Midnight, and Remember the Night).

4/5 Stars

Review: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Veronica_Lake_and_Joel_McCrea_in_Sullivan's_TravelsIf Preston Sturges was a comic wordsmith then Sullivan’s Travels was his magnum opus. It has so many pieces worth talking about, despite it only running a meager 90 minutes. It is the kind of comedy that director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) would want to make, and it’s a message movie against message movies. It’s a film about filmmaking (including mentions of Capra and Lubitsch). There’s even a scene where an ecstatic actress goes racing around the studio lot, completely disregarding the period piece she is acting in. The script has the undeniable frenetic poetry of Sturges and even takes time to wax philosophical at times. Sullivan opens the film with some very grandiose vision of what film can mean for the everyday filmgoer (I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!).

Sturges’ film is scatterbrained and insane in its pacing at times. Take the opening speeding sequence as a newly bedraggled Sullivan tries to shake his caravan so he can really get a feel for the common man’s plight. It almost gives you a heart attack as they blitz down the road, people and everything imaginable flying every which way. It’s faster than most modern action sequences could achieve.

However, although Sturges is undoubtedly known for the strength of his scripts, it’s important to note that Sullivan’s Travels has some wonderful visual sequences. Many of them lack his typical lightning dialogue and instead rely on music and images to develop scenes. Sometimes it’s the plight of the homeless on the road as Sullivan and his companion make their way across country. I would have never thought of this comparison before, but sometimes his heroes elicit the same type of empathy that would be given to Charlie Chaplin or the Gamine (Paulette Goddard) in Modern Times. In that same way, this film so beautifully fluctuates between comedy and heartfelt drama.

Another beautiful thing about Sullivan’s Travels is the cast. Our star is Joel McCrea, who is sometimes known as the poor man’s Gary Cooper, but that is rather unfair because he’s a compelling actor in his own right. Just look at this film to prove his case. Also, he and Veronica Lake (Ms. Peekaboo Haircut herself) have a fun relationship going from the beginning when they first meet in a diner. You might say the shoe’s on the other foot since she thinks she’s doing a good deed for this down on his luck nobody. She has no idea that her “big boy” is actually a big shot movie director. However, it makes no difference, because in some ways she feels responsible for him, and so she takes part in his noble experiment even afterward. That’s where we build respect for them, and she, in turn, falls for him. It’s what we want as an audience. And we finally get it when Sullivan beats his death and a chain gain to return to civilization. His nagging wife has married some other boob, so Sullivan gets his girl.

Sometimes I feel like a broken record, but it definitely seems like they don’t make character actors like they used to. It helps that Sturges has a stock company of sorts and the studio system probably helped in propagating certain actors. However, there’s no doubt that players like William Demarest and Porter Hall are so memorable. Their voices. Their look. There’s no escaping them and there are numerous other faces that you get deja vu with. We’ve seen them before somewhere and just cannot place it.

Within this whole story of comedy, romance, and a heroes journey, there is, of course, a moral. However, I don’t mind Sturges and his simple didacticism. Because he ditches high rhetoric or sickening idealism for a simple conclusion (There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh). A Pluto cartoon short that brings a few giggles can be just as impactful in this world of ours compared to the next big Oscar drama. That’s what Sullivan’s Travels led to. A change in perspective through a hilarious itinerary.

5/5 Stars

I Married a Witch (1942)

I_Married_a_Witch_posterDirected by French emigre Rene Clair, I Married a Witch is a surprisingly cheeky comedy for the 1940s. The plot opens up with the Salem Witch Trials where a male and female witch are both to be burnt at the stake. However, before dying they cast a curse on the lineage of one Jonathan Wooley (played in Puritan garb by Fredric March), and so going forth all his ancestors are doomed to accursed marriages.

Now in the present (1942), the current ancestor Wallace Wooley (March) prepares for a run at the governorship as he also prepares to marry his disagreeable fiancee (Susan Hayward) to bolster his appeal on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, the spirits of Jennifer (Veronica Lake) and Daniel (Cecil Hathaway)  are finally released from their prison and they head out ready to cause all sorts of mischief. At first, they travel as smoke floating through the air and residing inside bottles. However, Jennifer has the brilliant idea of taking on human form so she can torment Wooley even more.

They follow to burn down the Pilgrim Hotel and then Jennifer gets Wooley to unwittingly rescue her from the burning remains, a hero. Little does he know what’s he’s done. She pulls all sorts of pranks on him that leave a bad impression on his housekeeper and are bound to get him in the doghouse with his fiancee. Veronica Lake is very alluring in a sing-song sort of way as her character tries to playfully seduce Wooley. She even crafts a love potion, but plans go awry when she actually ingests it. Now she’s hopelessly in love and she must try and crash Wallace’s wedding to win him back.

Joined by her father in physical form, they put the proceedings to a halt with a gust of wind and then Daniel tries to impede Jennifer by turning her into a frog, but he ends up drunk instead. Of course, Wallace is caught in yet another awkward spot with the witch. The wedding is off (along with the dreadful song “I Love You Truly”) and the campaign is done for…or is it?

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In the end, it looks like Wallace might lose his new found love, but she comes back to him, the moral of the story being, “love is stronger than witchcraft. It conjures up a Frank Sinatra song right about now.

This film has a whimsically absurd scenario bolstered by simple special effects that allow buildings to burst into flame, Jennifer to slide up the banister, and Daniel makes the car levitate. This is an obvious precursor to a pair of 1960s sitcoms. Veronica Lake’s performance is very reminiscent of Jeannie in I Dream of Jeannie and the plot feels like a plot line out of Bewitched since our heroine is also a witch. Too bad Robert Montgomery was not in this film. His daughter was a witch after all.

3.5/5