The Virginian (1929)

220px-Poster_-_Virginian,_The_(1929)_01.jpgThough the image quality of the print I saw hardly stands the test of time, there’s something almost modern about The Virginian’s characterizations or at least what it deems interesting to show.

There’s actually a layering of tones and a fluctuation in the moral dilemma at its core that feel a great deal more nuanced than a cut-and-dry shoot ’em up western beholden to the stereotypes that the genre was founded on.

In Victor Fleming’s hands, The Virginian was not only a western but an early talkie extending the possibilities of the medium. It’s true that at this point there was a lot of pioneering still to do in film as there had been in the West.

One aspect this picture took advantage of in particular was exterior shooting which gives the West an almost palpable nature because we see the dust swirling up from the feet of the cattle, we hear the constant chorus of animal sounds, and the expanse of the prairie is daunting but also starkly majestic.

Beyond genre conventions, it’s indubitably a seminal picture since we get the overwhelming sense that we are seeing a persona coming into his own — the crystallized image of stalwart Americana — Gary Cooper. Although he was a minor star and this was not only his first starring role in a western but also his first talkie, soon enough he would be one of the most beloved actors of his day.

True, he also made many pictures outside the genre of considerable repute in their own right, and yet there’s no underselling how important the western was in further instilling Cooper’s legacy for generations of faithful fans. His eponymous character in The Virginian is an early marker of the mythology of western masculinity that would stretch all the way to High Noon (1952) and Man of the West (1958). In fact, at times this picture, featuring an imminent showdown, looks eerily similar to its future brethren from two decades later.

His cattle foreman character is a man’s man. He’s a plain-speaking, straight-talking man of few words (Yes ma’am, No ma’am), who nevertheless cares deeply about honor and personal integrity. Yet he still gives off the homely qualities of a man of the West. And it’s true that much of this film adaptation of Owen Wister’s novel and subsequent play is concerned with the butting of heads that comes with the clashing cultures between West and East.

On one side you have the Virginian and the rest of the townsfolk and on the other is the new schoolmarm, Molly Stark Wood (Mary Brian), who causes quite a stir among the men in town and is a welcomed bit of civility to everyone else.

There is a sense that she can help tame this uncivilized world that lacks manners, education, and law and order. The themes would crop again and again most notably in Ford’s own moody rumination The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). But here there’s an oddly good-natured comedy streak. It’s not all horse opera.

The Virginian and his old pal Steve have a fine time switching the babies about to be christened by the parson which causes quite the hubbub. But the two men also jockey for the new gal’s affection in all matter of things. Looking to carry her bags or get a dance with her at the community gathering.

The Virginian and Molly even conduct a discourse on Romeo and Juliet which proves to be an enlightening distillation of their two differing perspectives. All of this is fine and dandy. Even the swapping of infants like a pair of regular cow rustlers feels innocent enough. But there’s another side of this world as well.

The main antagonist named Trampas (Walter Huston) wears black and yet he’s more of a cunning thief than an ornery devil, all guns a blazing. He’s more apt to shoot a man in the back when he’s not looking like a coward than actually face him man to man.

He also happens to be a cattle rustler himself and he’s pulled Steve in with him because it’s a pretty easy business. Lots of reward for little risk. Except if and when you get caught there are no two ways about it. The law of the land says you’ll be strung up even if you’re a friend.

And so The Virginian doesn’t shy away from the harsher realities of this lifestyle whether it be hangings or the prevalence of gun duels. It’s a part of the life but also so at odds with what is considered respectable in other parts of the world. Thus, not only the schoolmarm, but the audience, and really everyone else involved must grapple with what is right and what is wrong and how we reconcile those perceived differences.

4/5 Stars

“When you call me that, smile!” – The Virginian

Shanghai Gesture (1941)

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Josef Von Sternberg always seemed preoccupied with telling stories involving places that he indubitably knew little about but therein lies the allure. He could develop the Moroccos, the Shanghais, the Macaos into places imbued with far more meaning than they probably ever could have in real life.

Because he is hardly working in reality but with the inventions of his own mind and he was a master when it came to setting the scene and texturing atmospherics. He was a world maker and one of the finest craftsmen in Hollywood exoticism.

The opening prologue juxtaposes the seedy underworld that we are about to witness to the last remnants of the Tower of Babel where Man coalesced in his indiscretions before being scattered over the ends of the earth. It proves to be a rather odd analogy as the film revolves around a velodrome of gambling — a pit of worldly devices that the camera slowly descends on.

Visually it’s the inverse of babel as our eye is led to sink into this world of Mother Gin Sling’s establishment, joining the ranks of Rick’s Cafe, the Cantina, and countless others in the pantheon of dubious melting pots of humanity captured on the screen.

We meet a fair many of the individuals who play a small part in her operation including Dr. Omar (Victor Mature) and Poppy Smith (Gene Tierney), a young provocative beauty looking for a good time and a glimpse of the notorious proprietor.  Then our friendly neighborhood dragon lady (Ona Munson) makes an appearance and things are in full swing.

The kind Doctor easily distracted by an attractive young woman, lets himself get wrapped up with Poppy while still sharing drinks with Ms. Dixie Pomeroy. But this is only a minor spat.

The main problem is Mother Gin Sling’s who has been ordered to relinquish her property and move her establishment to the Chinese sector which is far less profitable. But being the conniving magnate that she is, she’s not about to go down without a fight before the New Year.

She will host a little dinner party inviting many prominent guests including Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston). All of this feels fairly straightforward and mundane though there is an obvious sense that dark secrets are being veiled in shadows to be revealed at the most advantageous moment.

Though it never truly grips us with a substantial climax, the film’s laurels rest mostly on its setting and the breadth of its character reservoir. It always makes me sad to see Marcel Dalio relegated to a roulette man following the work he commanded in the films of Jean Renoir. Meanwhile, Eric Blore always delights me even in his smallest, most insignificant appearances. In this picture, he plays the Bookkeeper. There’s not much to be said about his cruciality to the plot but he’s delightful all the same.

The feisty Phyllis Brooks delivers an acerbic and spirited performance as the chorus girl that comes with a lot of panache even if it feels so at odds with the world she has fallen into. Perhaps that’s the point.

But rather remarkably her screen presence is only surpassed by Gene Tierney in a seemingly uncharacteristic role — though I admit that the assertion is made with a certain degree of foresight glancing over the extent of her career.

In Laura (1944),  Tierney played a character who was a femme fatale without ever trying to be — men simply got drawn under her spell but in Shanghai Gesture, there’s a markedly different glint in her eye. It’s probably the same glint that would make her so deliciously evil in Leave Her to Heaven (1945). But no matter, she’s a conceited and ungrateful woman with a compulsive nature for the roulette wheel. Thus, her main companion is not Dr. Omar but gambler’s fallacy.

While there are some enjoyable performances, the aforementioned providing perfect specimens, the holes or inadequacies of the cast in certain areas is also an obvious weak point. Yellowface and other types of whitewashing are not just a matter of bad taste they simply take the world of the film and make it feel a little bit hokey when you think of the alternatives.

It really is a shame that at the very least Anna May Wong couldn’t have donned the role of Mother Gin Sling, especially because she appeared prominently in Shanghai Express (1932). Some might consider this as a spiritual sequel to von Sternberg’s earlier film barring the absence of two of its finest assets, namely Marlene Dietrich and Wong.

True, once again even if she was cast, there could be another digression on perpetuating negative stereotypes but if you don’t even have a part, to begin with, that’s a whole different problem. No disrespect to Ona Munson whatsoever but she seems woefully miscast. Anna May Wong would have at least been a step in the right direction.

There’s also the issue of the Hays Code which called for a markedly different script and numerous rewrites. Much of the content changes were for its earthier more debauched aspects, but another crucial change was Dr. Omar replacing a character named Prince Oshima.

Instead of the plastic piece of eye candy Victor Mature, we could have had someone maybe a little more authentic like a Keye Luke, Philip Ahn, or Richard Loo. And I’m not being very discriminating about acting styles just the fact that these men are actually Asian (not even Japanese) and they had some prominence in Hollywood. Just not enough to wind up in a film such as this — set in Asia — though completely enveloped in Hollywood’s own distillation of reality. Not even von Sternberg could save the film in that capacity with his production values. Still, fezzes are cool. It’s an undisputed fact. But if I had to make a personal preference I would take Greenstreet in Casablanca (1942) to Victor Mature here.

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 Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

treasureofsierra2If you was to make a real strike, you couldn’t be dragged away.  Not even the threat of miserable death would keep you from trying to add ten thousand more.  Ten you’d want to get twenty-five, twenty-five you’d want to get fifty, fifty a hundred.  Like roulette. One more turn, you know.  Always one more.

If there’s anything to take away from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre it’s that wealth never satisfies, it only serves to compound our anxieties. John Huston’s film is without question an American classic pure and simple, and it maintains that distinction because it has lost very little of its power to this day. Huston returned from shooting WWII documentaries with this project waiting for him back home. He partnered once more with Humphrey Bogart, and he even cast his father in a role that proved to be the standout in the film. Also, he shot most of Sierra Madre actually on location in Mexico, while also hiring locals as extras. It adds to the gritty realism and it was a trend that was slowly becoming more popular.

His prospecting adventure film with shades of western or even noir follows three men who join forces to prospect for gold in the mountains. They first cross paths in the town of Tampico where they’re strapped for cash and barely scraping even. Fred Dobbs meets Bob Curtin (Tim Holt), who shares a similar predicament and they stick together. Upon hearing the tempting tales of gold and riches from a loquacious old prospector (Walter Huston), he plants an idea in their mind. And with nothing to lose the three partners embark on this grand undertaking.

Humphrey Bogart is undoubtedly our main protagonist. In fact, he had been playing them ever since dropping the supporting roles and donning the fedora of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (his first collaboration with John Huston). But down-on-his-luck, scraggly-faced Fred C. Dobbs is probably one of Bogey’s greatest performances. He’s a sourpuss and a bum, who’s begging for money and telling the local kids pestering him to beat it. These early sequences include a cameo from the director and young Robert Blake. I can also debunk a myth by confirming that Ann Sheridan is not the eye-catching woman walking down the street early on, at least not in this cut of the film.

These early moments set Bogart up in such a way that we feel pity for him, even if we are not completely sold on his moral character. Tim Holt’s Curtin likewise is a sorry fellow, and he’s far more understated which makes us want him to see success. Walter Huston steals his scenes because he fits his part so beautifully. He talks and talks and talks. Laughs, gives sage advice every once in awhile, and does a jig if he feels like it. He’s a completely free-spirit, comfortable in his years, and perhaps a little less invested than the other two. He’s in for the gold, but he realizes the transience of life.

Their treasureofsierra4journey is plagued by harsh terrain, heat, banditos, and even a nosy fortune hunter from Texas named Cody. But Howard’s premonitions were right and they begin raking in a mother lode. It’s hard work, but it’s coming slowly but surely. This is the key turning point in the film and the keystone to Bogart’s whole performance.

The early warnings of Howard seem all too pertinent now, “Murder’s always lurkin’ about. Partners accusin’ each other of all sorts of crimes. Aw, as long as there’s no find, the noble brotherhood will last, but when the piles of gold begin to grow, that’s when the trouble starts.

And so it does. Dobbs is the perfect embodiment of what avarice does to a man. The paranoia builds up. Friends become foes, everyone is out to get him, and Reason no longer has any presence in his life. First, he wants to turn on Cody, who by all accounts wasn’t a bad fellow. Next, it’s Howard and then Curtin, who once was his closest companion. By the end of the film, “Dobbsie” has been so totally wrecked by greed, he no longer is the same person. In fact, Bogart has a similatreasureofsierra3r trajectory to Gollum except he is not redeemed. The implications here are not simply some conclusion on wealth and gold, but more importantly what it does to the hearts and minds of men.

However, with all the darkness and corruption pulsing through Sierra Madre, there also are some comedic undertones mostly delivered by Walter Huston. In a sense he was the mediator between Curtin and Dobbs, keeping things civil and so when he left them, they were left to their own devices. He also is the one who is able to look at the cruel hand that they are ultimately dealt and laugh it off. Thus, Bogart gave a wholly aberrant performance, Tim Holt was more morally steadfast, and Huston was the standout with his lively turn. Humor and treachery make strange, but thoroughly entertaining bedfellows indeed.

5/5 Stars

The Treasure of The Sierra Madre (1948)

4d2bb-treasuremadrePutting Humphrey Bogart in his element once again, The Treasure of The Sierra Madre is another wonderful adventure film. Directed by John Huston, it tells the story of three men who join together in their search for an elusive treasure in Mexico. At the beginning, they are in good spirits eager to become wealthy. However, when they finally strike it rich they find it is not all it is cracked up to be . The situation escalates and they become paranoid of each other. Finally, Bogart’s character Dobbs is pushed over the edge and commits a malicious act out of desperation. Seemingly as an act of karma, he meets with another form of justice. However, it seems that by the end no one actually wins. A surprisingly good film, Sierra Madre takes your usual treasure hunt and realistically depicts man’s greed which often can overpower everything else. Bogart was supported nicely by Walter Huston (the father of the director) and Tim Holt.

5/5 Stars

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Starring James Cagney and an array of others, the film tells the real life story of writer, singer, and dancer George M. Cohan. The story begins with an older Cohan recounting his life story. He began his career with his family in Vaudeville. Slowly he made a name for himself in Broadway and married his love. He and his partner kept making musicals and then the Cohans reunited for one last show. Eventually everyone in the family settled down before they died. The only one left was George who was living with his wife. In his final performance, Cohan gets the country to rally around the flag again as he has done his whole life. This movie has many commendable moments but there is an apparent conflict between biography and musical. Cagney for his part gives a stellar performance as the energetic and ambitious Cohan. The film also doubled as a nice piece of propaganda during World War II.

4.5/5 Stars