Wild Boys of The Road (1933): Another Wellman Micro Epic

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We’re always told that teen culture was an invention of the 1950s and the post-war boon. To a certain extent this is true and yet watching something like Wild Boys is eye-opening. We open at the Sophomore Frolic. It suggests there were elements of this lifestyle generations before. Dances, girls, cars: they’re all still common hallmarks of youth.

But if this is the first realization, then the second reality is the extent of the depression. It’s also an ever-present reality in movies of this era, and here it’s no different. It affects all people no matter their station in life.

Wild Boys is at its best functioning in shorthand — scenes telling us the whole story in as little time as possible. Take for instance, when Eddie returns home. He reaches into the icebox pulls out a bottle of milk and a tin of pie. It’s a ritual many boys know. He’s getting himself a midnight snack. He carefully cuts off a sliver and then proceeds to leave the sliver and take the rest of the pie. This could be the end of it.

Instead, he sees his parents burning the midnight oil. They are somber, and he senses it immediately as they go over their finances. They do their best to downplay the moment, but it comes out. They’ve been hit hard. His father’s been laid off after years of faithful service, and it’s not easy for a man of his age to come by work.

If Eddie is introduced as your average, everyday youngster with the typical diversions, it’s in a quieter interlude like this where he shows a depth of character. He doesn’t completely comprehend the moment, but he’s still prepared to sacrifice and do his part, whatever that might be. We catch him going off to bed with his milk and the smaller piece of pie. What a lovely turn of significance where this incidental throwaway gag comes to represent the whole story moving forward.

Soon his buddy  Tommy and he are saying goodbye to their pride and joy: a rickety jalopy. It’s a genuinely heartbreaking ordeal. He’s put his blood sweat and tears into its upkeep, and it’s just as easily sent off to the scrap heap for spare parts. This is just the beginning.

Their next move is even more drastic. They take to the road not wanting to be an undue burden on their parents. It’s a kind of noble act of fortitude blended with their boyish enthusiasm for adventure out in the great unknown. After all, these are only young lads. They’ve never been introduced to the full gamut of hardships and human experiences. The world is their oyster.

As they set off, Wellman makes it fully apparent he’s the king of the micro epics. There’s Heroes for Sale for one and then Wild Boys of The Road for another. It somehow manages to be this sprawling tale stuffed with so much in such a finite amount of time.

Like any good pair of peripatetic vagabonds, they form a band of freight hoppers. A lass named Sally joins their rowdy company with a sweet smile and a funny way of scrunching up her nose as she masquerades as one of the boys. It’s somehow fitting actress Dorothy Coonan would become William Wellman’s wife, and they would remain married until her death. The only other name I could tell you from the cast is Sterling Holloway.

What becomes evident is how their blistering journey is stripped of any Hollywood illusions. Take, for instance, the scene where Tommy is barely able to get out of the way of an incoming train. It’s emotionally devastating. However, it’s not merely a ploy to manipulate us. To say he lives is hardly a spoiler. The movie goes the extra mile and does the harder work of showing what he must do to press on in life.

While it is a different era, the conflict between the police and the populous is still a difficult one to reconcile. Frankly, it tears my heart apart to watch it. The lads function in a kind of ragtag pack mentality as they live as fugitives fleeing the onslaught of railroad dicks until they finally get it in their heads to retaliate and hold their own.

Although they break the law and squat on land, there’s never a sense that this is a pure portrait of total chaos and the youthful generation railing against law and order. It’s akin to The Grapes of Wrath where you see and witness what poverty looks like and how widespread it was, decimating so much of the economy and the livelihood of so many people.

In the end, out of sheer desperation, Eddie gets suckered into a deal that makes him an easy target of swift and sure justice. But this is not the final word. There’s a touch of moralizing at the end.

I feel inclined to grant it the ending because one must remember the times were different. Yes, the world had gone through the war to end all wars, the economy was in dire straights, but people still maintained a dogged hopefulness. Post-modern pessimism had yet to breed so rampantly.

Is it too naive to say, as a nation, we still trusted our leaders? Men like FDR could pull us out. Judges could be benevolent and kind. Greater still, we believed that America was the greatest land anywhere and that we could get out of the throes of the depression if we all did our part. If it’s not exactly preaching the fundamentals of capitalism, then it is buoyed by American idealism, and it’s beating in the hearts of all the youth in Wild Boys of The Road.

Ultimately, what lingers is a persistent reminder that this is not how life should be. Kids should be allowed to be kids. But sometimes life calls for them to grow up fast. Without dismissing the injustice, Wellman’s film does bring out the resiliency of his actors with uncompromising aplomb.

Frankie Darro’s not a household name, but he’s quite an apt avatar for an entire adolescent generation. After everything he’s gone through, he somersaults down the street, only to see his friend limping behind with his crutch.  It’s the exuberance and the tragedy encapsulated in a single moment. The movie is a friendship between both these feelings, and it is better for it. The joy leaves his face and it is replaced by duty — duty to his friend — and a desire to help each other along the road ahead.

4/5 Stars

Frisco Jenny (1932): Remembering Ruth Chatterton

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Pre-earthquake San Francisco was ripe for the Hollywood treatment, and there were a number of films to tackle this era including San Francisco or Barbary Coast. Frisco Jenny is more than at home in the same company. In the opening moments, the camera follows a constable into the local watering hole alive with song, dance, and the general gaiety one comes to expect in such places.

It’s like an ecosystem unto its own with certain laws. The female floozies know how to dip into men’s wallets while avoiding customers with chalk marks like the plague. They have already been picked dry, and thus the women help each other navigate the nightly circuit.

Preachers espouse their tirades from the bar counter on deaf ears. Conservatory-trained pianists hammer out second-rate compositions and some people get socked around. You get all types.

I recall being fairly impressed by the gravity of San Francisco‘s earthquake scenes from 1936, and I assumed Frisco Jenny might pale in comparison. But the fact the disaster goes on and on for several substantial scenes, made them harrowing with an all but palpable scope. It felt like genuine destruction was taking place, and the world was thoroughly disposable, even if it was only a movie world.

As we grow into the movie, Three on a Match becomes another reference point along with a touch of Stella Dallas and other such maternal dramas. Because the narrative is simultaneously all over the place — expansive in scope — and yet extremely elliptical in the story it sets out to tell. Time is so easily manipulated with years whittled down to moments and so on.

It’s thoroughly melodramatic, but it mostly works because it’s fully committed to the story being told. With her livelihood decimated and a young son to care for, Jenny turns her back on street corner spirituality and goes off on her own. She does it out of a deep-seated maternal affection, but it comes with consequences.

The only permanent fixture in her life, among the men like her first love (James Murray) and a dubious lawyer (Louis Calhern), is the faithful but utterly ridiculous Ahmah (Helen Jerome Eddy), the picture’s most unfortunate blind spot. But greater than its roving structure or any of the blemishes that come with age, it’s so emphatically contrived that it works for this very reason. It knows full-well what it’s setting out to accomplish, and it pays off.

Because now her son has grown up to become a district attorney avowing to get tough on crime. Unbeknownst to him, his mother is the notorious harpy Frisco Jenny. She won’t tell him lest it ruins his career. She finds her way into the courtroom. In fact, it’s this foremost scene that is seared into my mind.

Is Wellman whip panning around the courtroom again and again? It’s so unique as a way to reintroduce all his characters, and it stays with me. But this is a mere distraction to dress up the moment. We know why we’re here. We know what’s inevitable.

Soon Jenny Frisco is in prison. But Ruth Chatterton is fearless. The whole movie she’s made-up, attractive, and exuding a movie star ethos even as she suggests the rough existence of her character. Here there’s no pretense. She looks sorry and defeated. Stripped of everything and there she stands before us.

The true ending would have more relevance if not for yellowface. And even then, we hardly need this final moment. The movie was made in Ruth Chatterton’s final scene just as Cagney made Angel With Dirty Faces in those final moments. Their reactions are diametrically opposed and yet in both scenarios how they conduct themselves speaks volumes of who they are as human beings. We learn so much about people in moments of immense duress. On the doorsteps of death, there are many ways to respond.

Chatterton is galvanized as much by what she doesn’t do as much as by what she does. Before I knew her only mildly for Dodsworth, a picture that hardly puts her in a good light even if her performance is quite candid. Frisco Jenny is simpler, but it gives her the prime spotlight, and if you are mostly unaware of her, you need only look here.

In an industry mostly ruled by youth, she manages to exude both beauty and dignity as a woman over 40. We shouldn’t have to make a big deal out of this. Still, even today although the industry has changed, age can catch up with actors. Thus, it’s pleasant to be reminded of Chatterton. My esteem for her has grown even if this isn’t the most exemplary picture.

3/5 Stars

Safe in Hell (1931): Greater Than Pre-Code Expectations

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“Have a little faith will yuh? There’s a great big plan that we don’t get. But the fella that’s made the plan knows what it’s all about.”

Safe in Hell leans into its title as fire literally crackles behind the opening credits.  The story’s origins begin on the back alcoves of New Orleans at the Claybridge Apartments. For those familiar with the reference, Dorothy Mackail’s Gilda Karlson feels like she just might be a Baby Face prototype.

She is a woman strong and independent. She’s seen the seedy side of the street — knows what it means to survive in a man’s world — and she’s done precisely that. Even as the camera admires her slinking form, she sits propped up seductively in her room, speaking into the receiver of the old-fashioned telephone. This says everything that needs to be known about her character. At least at face value.

Mackail is not a remembered talent at least not to the extent of a Barbara Stanwyck or a tragic case like Jean Harlow, but she fits the bill here. If her eyes aren’t exactly sultry they are disaffected by the rotten world she’s grown accustomed to. Cynicism breeds everywhere like rats. It’s become a part of her life.

One of those rats is a man named Piet (Ralf Harolde). He’s supposed to be a picture of the average All-American working man. But he’s a philanderer formerly involved with Gilda while he was married and simultaneously getting the girl fired from her desk job. Now she works out of her hotel room, and he’s back for more.

But she lashes out. Wellman zooms in on her face for dramatics before she races down the stairs to make a frantic getaway. The place goes up in flames another inferno-inspired allusion.  Now she’s wanted guilty or not.

However, we get the benefit of witnessing another facet of Gilda’s personality. She has a hardened shell meant to protect her from the onslaught of a callous world. With her real man, the sailor named Carl (Donald Cook) there’s a skittishness even a sensitivity cloaked about her like the shawl he’s bought for her on his many travels. The way she says his name casual and smooth with a soft-hearted affection.

She deeply loves him and doesn’t want to hurt him by divulging how low she’s sunk. He doesn’t know what she’s been subjected to. It’s another stellar visualization as they stare right at the camera simulating a mirror, but it builds this instantaneous connection with the audience. It’s arresting and difficult to forget moments after. But there is no time to linger.

Carl almost feels Pollyannaish with an overt belief in Providence, but this undoubtedly is part of what makes him attractive to Gilda. He still maintains his optimism. Also, he does provide her a lifeline. With his connections he helps her flee the county as a stowaway, their destination is an island off in the Caribbean where fugitives cannot face extradition.

Far from fire and brimstone, it’s a man-made death trap. Nevertheless, it’s a haven run afoul with murderers and thieves — the lowest of the low from every segment of society.  The isle is ruled rather nonchalantly by the resident despot Mr. Bruno (Morgan Wallace) and it’s swarming with lusty-eyed suitors starved for a little female company.  There are slimy worms in the water and lounging in the hotel lobbies.

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They aren’t frequented by many white women and as Carl leaves her nervously in a local hotel, there’s an uneasy feeling, he’s leaving her to the wolves. They lounge in the downstairs chewing the fat, chewing on nuts, sinking down in their chairs, and kicking back in an odd community ritual. They wait for even a glimpse of her and she keeps them waiting — at arm’s length as much as possible — rebuffing each and every advance.

In the rogue gallery, the hotel clerk Leonie (Nina Mae McKinney) and the hotel bellman (Clarence Muse) stand out not just due to the strength of their characters in such a seedy milieu; they feel like genuine people rather than the stereotypical submissive blacks often propagated by Holywood with their ignorance and minstrel dialect. There’s none of that here and as a result, they feel positively modern placed opposite some of their brethren even decades later even as they become two of Gilda’s most sympathetic allies.

It’s when the wolves start circling we remember that when she wants to be, she feels like the female equivalent of James Cagney. Why should he have all the fun slapping and shoving faces in and dousing with water? It proves a universal pastime in Pre-Code cinema and Mackail gets in on the action with a plucky relish.

In fact, the movie is a battle for her propriety in some thematic sense. Carl and she pronounce their wedding vows in the only church on the island, ending with a fitting line out of the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver from evil.” This is the seat of her entire existence laid bare.

She resolves to remain steadfast and chaste for her sailor until he returns, but you can only play so much solitaire. She finally blows off steam with the boys who gladly oblige though she cuts it short of any monkey business. That doesn’t mean temptation or, closer still, her lingering demons don’t come back to haunt her. It’s a deja vu moment if there ever was one complete with another murder. And if we have learned anything, we know each act must come with a consequence. It’s all the more certain on an island of miscreants.

The ending of Safe and Hell precedes One Way Passage in its emotional heft conjured up in a moment of dramatic irony — all the unspoken feelings imbued through a kiss and an embrace meant to last a lifetime. Once again Carl heads off again on another voyage even as Gilda marches off to her own foregone conclusion.

The picture isn’t everything its title suggests; it’s actually more, and it gives its heroine the benefit of the doubt with multifaceted contours highlighting the fragmented, complicating factors of life.

What a delightful find it is and not for any amount of happiness or goodwill it supplies, but quite the opposite. It feels skeezy and despicable at times, but there’s also a surprising amount of virtue bursting forth. It meets our Pre-Code expectations and still somehow supersedes them to give us something even ampler — all packaged into 73 swift minutes of entertainment.

4/5 Stars

Other Men’s Women (1931): Moving Pictures are Alive

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There’s an underlying sense that The Other Men’s Women was a primitive picture and yet it has a plucky energy as if it doesn’t know any better. Warner Bros. was at the cutting edge of talking pictures and Vitaphone wasn’t exactly old hat. The medium was still in its relatively latent stages.

Given this backdrop, William Wellman seems to take to the amount of freedom he has with a maximum amount of relish. The camera already feels slightly more versatile. With the shackles gone and a new amount of mobility, he moves his camera all over the place conducting dialogue scenes in any manner of places we would normally take for granted.

But he also slices the conventional 180-degree line to smithereens. It’s off-putting given our filmgoing sensibilities, and yet there’s something equally raw and frenetic about it that gives it a very appealing flavor. His camera is atop trains or out in the garden by the sweet peas. Moving pictures are alive!

Part of this may have been out of necessity because in 1931 alone Wild Bill churned out 6 movies for Warner Bros! That’s an insane amount of output. But this same rapid-fire outpouring of movies included the likes of Public Enemy, Night Nurse, and Safe in Hell, just for starters.

If we were to scour this movie for a conventional throughline, it would start with our protagonist, a cheeky railroad hand (Grant Withers), bright-eyed and generally contented with the life he leads. His best friend in the engine room is Jack (Regis Toomey), and they have an inseparable camaraderie together. In what world is Toomey lifted out of the periphery and promoted to a primary role? Here he is as living proof.

He brings his good friend home to his wife Lily (Mary Astor). She’s playful and warm. There’s a lovely affability filling up the spaces and planted in the gardens with the flowers. Their next-door neighbor is a kindly man with a peg leg, and they have built for themselves a fine slice of tranquility. It’s innocent until it’s not. In the kitchen Withers and Astor alone. And they don’t realize it until it’s too late.

They look and they kiss — almost on accident it seems — but they love each other. It’s irrevocable. There’s no taking it back, and it pains them both. If this is the film’s menage a trois, it’s the most devastating of outcomes. They never meant to hurt anyone. But then nobody ever does.

The two friends wind up slugging it out on their locomotive overturning their friendship and livelihood in one fell swoop. A stake is forever driven between them. But there’s more. Jack’s life is beset with personal tragedy. Bill is ridden with the ensuing guilt. He never wants to see either of them ever again. It’s too much to take, looking them in the face — especially knowing he can never have Lily.

Whereas the amended title looks to capitalize on the more scandalous element, the original title: The Steel Highway might fit the picture equally well. These are before the days of Le Bete Humaine or Human Desire, but there’s something elemental about a man and the railroad. Like the western, there’s a mythos attached — a historical shorthand — evoking something of expansion and progress.

As such it flits back and forth between its two spheres. That of the man’s working world out on the rails where life feels itinerant. There’s a danger but also a freedom and a mystique about it. The home life is sweet and domestic until it’s not.

The picture also boasts some of the best rain sequences I remember in recent memory. They are worth mentioning in how they augment Wellman’s film in its latter stages. It becomes expressionistic not merely through the illusions of light and dark, smoke and shadow, but the sheets of raindrops showering down. It adds yet another contour, another layer of emotional atmosphere to this film’s final act.

Jack sloshes around in the downpour helplessly as Bill hurtles toward his resolved conclusion. The climax is fated and fittingly catastrophic. Then, days later, he’s back in the old haunts, sitting at the same cafe pit stop, with a different waitress behind the counter, only to cross paths with an old friend…They share a smile, a few words. Does it really matter for us to have this? I don’t think so. It’s spelled out on their eyes.

Then, Jack does something unexpected. He hops back on his train and begins sprinting over the top. Where is he going? He’s got to get to the engine room — to bring it to a halt. We never see it, but we know he’s staying put. My thoughts linger on Wellman again with his camera perched in such a place where he captures his hero sprinting off into the distance. Yes, movies are alive thanks to people like him.

What a curious wrinkle it is to have James Cagney and Joan Blondell off-center with supporting assignments. That very same year they would be spotted together as leads but such is the studio system they could pull duties in a 70-minute railroad thriller like this. Cagney showing off his dancing and that swell-guy charisma of his. Blondell’s got that spark and spunk in spades. They’re equally delightful, and this isn’t even their movie. They provide yet another reason to enjoy the fundamental pleasures of Other Men’s Women.

3.5/5 Stars

Battleground (1949): Bastogne and The Screaming Eagles

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“We must never again let any force dedicated to a super-race or a super-idea, or super-anything become strong enough to impose itself upon a free world. We must be smart enough and tough enough in the beginning to put out the fire before it starts spreading.”  ~ Leon Ames as the Chaplain

This is the story of Bastogne in 1944 and the renowned Screaming Eagles. Admittedly, if you’re like me, this means very little, but fortunately, we are in good company because the men we get to know over the course of two hours didn’t know anything about the city either when they first arrived. This was not the Battle of the Bulge; it was simply a stepping stone or a weigh station on the road to their future destination. That is until it became, you guessed it, a battleground in its own right.

For the time being, they can be found drilling in smartly executed formations and getting ready for an unnamed assignment ahead. This is our chance to feel them out before they get in the thick of everything.

Director William A. Wellman does them a service in the first full scene together spread out in their cots. There’s barely enough room for the dust to settle but within the close confines, camaraderie is immediately palpable as is each man’s personality.

What a great group of guys they are covering a lot of the bases of humanity. Van Johnson and even a Don Taylor are easy to pin down because of their broad appeal and charm. They make most any armed forces picture a little more affable. Among their finest traits is exuding good old-fashioned Americanism.

There’s old college grad Jarves (John Hodiak), who gets jeered for his presumed stuffiness. There’s the gruff cynic (Douglas Fowley) always playing around with his set of false chompers like his most prized possession. (They kind of are because without them he can’t eat). Squished in with them is the gangly and drawling southern boy (Jerome Courtland), who feels like an easy trope to target in these pictures. The new recruit (Marshall Thompson) can be found nervously bed-hopping from cot to cot trying to find one he can take.

In something genuinely unusual for the period, even a Latino from L.A. (Ricardo Montalban) is represented. His best bud Pops (George Murphy) all but has a ticket home on a hardship discharge. A young Richard Jaeckel rounds out the band along with a chaw chewing James Whitmore, acting as their weathered drill sergeant.

What is meaningful about these relationships is how they reach outside the confines of the film with this inferred history we don’t know explicitly, and yet we can read into it. We know what guys have a bone to pick with the army and the ones who are trying to make the best of it.

The perilous journey ahead is riddled with enemy planes overhead, and the fog of war is quite literally laid on thick, complimenting the mud the army trucks slog through on the road. One minute they’re diving into ditches at the sound of sniper fire, and the next they are tasked with the backbreaking toil that goes with digging in for the evening, only to be pulled away on revised orders.

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There’s absolutely nothing permanent aside from the constant patrolling, lack of sleep, and perpetual snow. Battleground is one of the snowiest war movies I can recall, at times, deeply striking and equally relentless

Private Holley scores quite a cache of eggs, dreaming of the scramble he’s whisking up in his helmet time and time again — only to get pulled off for another assignment. Watching the yolk drip from his helmet is one of the defining images of the film for me as is his utter indifference. You’re never clean so why even bother.

As a fitting inflection of the Cold War, we have Germans in G.I. uniforms sneaking behind Allied lines to wreak havoc and sabotage important strategic assets like bridges. More than anything, it continually triggers this terrifying threat of infiltration. Thus, one cannot help but draw a connection to the Chaplain’s stirring speech later on (reference at the top of this page).

Amid the paranoia, it’s almost hilarious to think that the best way of telling friend from foe is baseball terms, idioms, Terry and the Pirates references, and the relationship status of the war’s favorite pinup Betty Grable (Note: Cesar Romero is out for Harry James).

When they do come upon the Krauts, Wellman captures the firefight and the subsequent hand-to-hand combat in a stylized manner to conform to the Hollywood production codes. Regardless, he manages to accentuate the rough-and-tumble brutality through boots pounding on the snow and violent inferences.

Battleground leaves unabashed sentimentality behind and it is not squeamish about death. People get picked off one by one leaving a trail of dead and wounded in their plucky company. This carnage hurts because of the rapport we build up. But even in the face of these micro-tragedies, there is no time to mourn, and their stand against the Germans proves a gutsy one. There’s no other alternative in their minds.

As we bunker down, it’s true the ensemble melds together nicely with no one actor totally upstaging the others. Certainly, Van Johnson is just left of center, if not the undisputed headliner, but even he has to navigate conventional feelings of fear and loathing when it comes to military service. He is by no means impervious to the toils of war.

In a moment of duress, Holly looks all but ready to turn tail ignominiously, but he finds his courage in the urging of another man who looks up to him — as they double back on the German lines and catch them off guard. They’ve girded their loins about them now and when ceasefire agreements and surrender are suggested by the enemy, they unceremoniously scoff at the very idea.

As alluded to already, in the thick of the hard pelting enemy artillery fire, the Chaplain holds an impromptu service. He’s of a certain denomination, but a very succinct point is made of the fact his service and his message is all-inclusive. In fact, it’s hardly a spiritual homily at all but a candid rallying cry against the forces of evil. It’s one of the most blatant examples of the film getting on any sort of didactic soapbox.

In response, each man kneels down to pray in his own way the enemy artillery fire still bursting in the background. The results are a stirring image of solidarity. They have not yet begun to fight.

Even in the simulated soundstage action, there is a compelling commitment to the atmosphere, which aids rather than hinders the story being told. It brims with the elements and forces of nature on all sides. In a last-ditch effort, all the terminally ill are moved out of the makeshift hospital, and the walking wounded are brought in for one final stand of desperation.

There is a slight sense Robert Pirosh’s script skipped over what might have been the most rousing scene. Wellman tackles the counterattack from the rallied forces with their new batch of airlifted ammunition, gasoline, and K rations in only an extended montage.

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Although the ending of the war is a foregone conclusion, it very nearly could have been a letdown that we don’t get a more pronounced action scene. However, it’s quickly salvaged by the effectiveness of the final scene. It says all the same things and exudes all the same battered but resolute emotion with one simple drill, leading them off toward the rear. The men sound off with a renewed vigor knowing theirs was a job well done.

In my book, James Whitmore is the unsung hero of the picture because his grizzled mug brings so much understood texture to the world of the movie. Van Johnson is the vision of what an idealized American G.I. is and Whitmore is the more likely reality. And in the final minutes, he’s the one who leads them to the finish line. He maintains an unswerving grit and pride as tenacious as anyone.

Battleground is quite the sensational war picture while also holding the distinction of being one of the most high profile WWII films following the conflict’s cessation. It allows for this strange limbo of sorts where the war is still fresh and within grasp of the collective consciousness, but there is enough wiggle room to begin looking back in hindsight.

Surely it’s not a complete portrait, but it does well to blend shades of action with the everyday gumption needed to make it through such a conflict. What a pleasure it is to be reminded each of these soldiers is a singular human being.

It’s refreshing to have their warmth and their fears in plain view along with their courage. It feels like we can look them in the eyes and truly marvel because they are not a whole lot different than us in many ways. Their courage is extraordinary in just how ordinary it appears.

4/5 Stars

The Story of G.I. Joe (1945): Robert Mitchum Shows His Chops

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Charles M. Schultz was one of the great memorializers of WWII in that he kept events like the D-Day invasion or the art of Bill Maudlin in the public forum for as long as Peanuts was syndicated. If I remember correctly, it was also through his strip I first became aware of the name Ernie Pyle.

It’s not too far of a stretch to think the former Sergeant Schultz (who saw action in Europe) eventually saw this movie because, before he ever penned a frame of Peanuts, this was the first homage, not necessarily just to Pyle, but also to the soldier that he chronicled for the folks at home.

We jump right in with a truck loaded with men being hauled to the front where the action is. Not only do they pick up a furry passenger, they take on a civilian as well because Pyle (Burgess Meredith) is intent on getting as close to the epicenter of the action as possible. He wants material bearing an authentic mark.

The man who agrees to let him aboard is none other than Robert Mitchum, their scraggily and sleepy-eyed leader, who never seems to be perturbed. As a related consideration, it becomes intriguing to chart his early career with all his bit parts as soldiers finally leading to a heftier role. These included his blink and you’ll miss it cameos only a couple years prior, in everything from The Human Comedy to Corvette K-225, and Cry Havoc. What followed were stepping stones like 30 Seconds Over Tokyo and finally, The Story of G.I. Joe.

It doesn’t feel so much as we are seeing Mitchum transformed into his future persona. He appears unflappable as much off-screen as he is on. It’s more so a matter of Hollywood realizing who he was and what compelling qualities he brought to the lead. Certainly, he’s masculine; he has a handsome, distinctive face, but there is something more to him. It’s the suggestion of not caring about any of the distractions around him. This underlying coolness in any manner of situations. It all catered to his future stardom at RKO.

But back to the trenches. Although we get Artie Shaw out on the front, the production also ladles on the dramatic diegetic scoring a little too thickly when they experience their first casualty. We know the import of the moment only to get clubbed over the head with it just to make absolutely certain it didn’t escape us.

Otherwise, the film causes us to brush up against the elements in an immersive even dispiriting manner courtesy of cinematographer Russell Metty. You begin to live vicariously through the platoon and understand their daily struggles. This is The Story of G.I. Joe at its most effectual, succeeding in precisely what Pyle was striving to do. We get a tactile sense of his life’s work as a war correspondent.

Day after day, company C, 18th Infantry makes its way across Italy. All sorts of men, big and small, fill up their ranks. Freddie Steele, coming off his intriguing turn in Hail The Conquering Hero, is no less watchable here as a grizzled soldier intent on finding a victrola so he can hear his son’s voice. It’s the sole shred of home, keeping him sane in the chaotic world he’s subjected to day in and day out. Many of the others aren’t so lucky, more or less lacking his indefatigable brand of grit. The mental toll is high for all parties.

I know it’s set in a different country but with the rubble, bell tower, infantry, and tanks rolling across the grounds I couldn’t help thinking of the midsection of Saving Private Ryan because The Story of G.I. Joe, as one of its precursors, documents the life of the common man as well as the skirmishes he’s subjected to.

They systematically take down a pair of Germans lurking behind the debris to clear the area. Later, one of their company (John R. Reilly) has an impromptu wedding ceremony in the bombed-out premises — Pyle being tapped to give the bride away. A little over a decade later Stanley Kubrick would end up marrying his wife who appeared in his seminal war movie Paths of Glory. William Wellman cut out the middle man, so to speak, by having his wife (Dorothy Noonan Wellman) in an uncredited role as the nurse who weds the G.I.

Without resting on their laurels, they are tasked with taking a new position. It’s ruled over by a monastery — a religious relic the enemy have conveniently fashioned into an impregnable observation post; they won’t give up the ground. What’s worse, the hesitant allies won’t bomb the building. We’ve reached an impasse until human life finally takes precedence over maintaining ancient artifice. As it should.

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The holidays come, and it’s a drab affair, men clinging to dreams of the family and food back home — from turkey to cranberry sauce. Of course, they aren’t granted such amenities where they are so all they have are their private memories. In between the barrage of artillery fire, one of the company’s members (Wally Cassell) picks Pyle’s brain about his time in Hollywood. For a brief solitary moment, he drools over starlets like Carole Landis; it removes him from his current reality of muck and mire.

Christmas might be a complete wash if not for their commanding officer scrounging them up some turkey and a bit of wine as they slog through the perpetually miserable conditions. They manage a bit of yuletide cheer in spite of the bleak landscape around them.

It feels less like propaganda in the typical sense or at least it’s all the more effective as an empathy picture, putting us in the boots of the soldier so we get a feel for the lives they lead out on the front. You begin to realize how extraordinary they are in their very ordinariness.

Ernie Pyle winning the Pulitzer is like a drop in the can. It feels so inconsequential in the face of all they have gone through together, but the beauty is Pyle has gone through it with them. They have mutual solidarity in the thick of this continual absurdity.

On Christmas evening, after a typically long day, he sits down with the leader of the pack and pulls out one last turkey leg from under his jacket.  He picks off any fuzz and partakes in the delicacy. It’s a much-appreciated gesture. They trade off taking swigs of Italian moonshine scattered with conversation.

The most revealing revelation is the sergeant’s agitation of having to write the families of every young man who gives his life. In some queer way, he feels like a murderer, and it rankles him to see every new fresh-faced recruit who has no idea what he’s gotten himself into. There’s a helplessness in him and yet it’s his job to keep them together, so he does the best he can under the deplorable conditions.

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This scene might be the most meaningful impression we get of Mitchum as a human being because he’s a believable G.I.b but here we see his honest chops as an actor. It’s no coincidence that this is the picture helping him transition to stardom.

The ending continues in this manner, offering up a melancholy denouement that feels like one of the more candid depictions of wartime reality. Where the war rolls on no matter what happens. It cannot wait up for the story of a film to catch up.

Of course, Ernie Pyle would never live to see the finished film, which he actually served as a technical advisor on. He was too busy continuing his work in Okinawa where he was killed by an enemy machine gun. It’s a tragic detail, but it makes The Story of G.I. Joe all the more pertinent. If anything, it gets the truth behind Ernie Pyle’s writing, both his life and his death, right. It is the ultimate tribute to the man who tried to get the stories out of everyday heroes back to the reading public sitting in their living rooms.

3.5/5 Stars

“I hope we can rejoice with victory but humbly. That all together we will try out of the memory of our anguish to reassemble our broken world into a pattern so firm and so fair that a never great war can never again be possible and for those beneath the wooden crosses there is nothing we can do but perhaps murmur: Thanks, pal. Thanks…”

~ Burgess Meredith as Ernie Pyle

Beau Geste (1939): Brotherly Love in The French Legion

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“The love of a man for a woman waxes and wanes like the moon…but the love of brother for brother is steadfast as the stars, and endures like the word of the prophet.” ~ Arabian Proverb

No matter what Joseph Von Sternberg thought of such a proclamation, we can concede his Morrocco was a film concerned with the former. Von Sternberg’s dalliances with Marlene Dietrich behind the scenes and then Dietrich and Cooper in front of the camera are a living testament.

Beau Geste stakes its claim early to being a film of undying brotherly love. It brings to mind the words of scholar and author C.S. Lewis when talking about philia as a “side by side, shoulder to shoulder” appreciative love. It comes not by looking at each other but having a vision of something in front of us.

“Every step of the common journey tests his metal; and the tests are tests we fully understand because we are undergoing them ourselves. Hence, as rings true time after time, our reliance, our respect and our admiration blossom into an Appreciative love of a singularly robust and well-informed kind.”

I think this is a perfect illustration to begin to understand why Beau Geste is an initially compelling hero’s journey because it relies on a joint adventure to bring out expressions of deep-rooted love.

Admittedly, William A Wellman’s film is a close remake of the 1926 silent Ronald Colman vehicle. One element this film borrows from its predecessor are intertitles, and they’re too many of them for a talking picture.

But soon enough a cold open places us within the ranks of some French Legionnaires who come upon a fortress only to find the stronghold littered with the bodies of their comrades propped up against the walls. Something dreadful must have happened to them. For now, we get no more explanation as the story quickly fades back into the past, 15 years prior.

There we meet five children, three of them named Geste, one of them named Isobel, and the fifth a bespectacled killjoy named Augustus. You see, the others are still enraptured with adolescent imaginations that find them gallivanting around on the most glorious adventures as soldiers or possibly members of King Arthur’s court.

Their exploits are to be remembered with a Viking’s funeral with a dog lying at their feet. The beauty of their temperaments is the fact they hold on to a bit of their youthful exuberance when they grow into young men.

It always is a bit of a start when you jump from child actors to their corresponding adult selves. In the picture, I couldn’t quite make the jump seamlessly but no matter. All I know is I do have an appreciation for our leads — that is the three Geste brothers. They really are rather like the three Musketeers with Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, and Robert Preston making a jocund company.

Also, on a side note, this is too perturbing for me not to mention. I double-checked records multiple times and our three stars were born in 1901, 1907, and 1918 respectively. I’m still trying to figure out why Robert Preston hardly looks any younger than his costars or at least Milland. Maybe it’s his mustache. At any rate, age differences aside, the chemistry is present.

What is not present is the priceless jewel “The Blue Water” that was stolen one evening from the home of their adopted aunt Lady Patricia. The same evening Beau runs off to the Foreign Legion followed soon thereafter by Digby (Preston) and finally John (Milland) who gives one parting embrace to Isobel (Susan Hayward) before leaving on the grand adventure. Hayward is exquisitely beautiful and though her ingenue role is in no way groundbreaking, we have the solace of many meaty performances to come.

The film’s true standout is Brian Donlevy as an unscrupulous tyrant in charge of new recruits. He eventually finds himself commanding the entire outpost with the whole outfit threatening insubordination. His hunger for power verges on the deranged.

My expectations were more of the rip-roaring adventure variety but as the previous commander’s remarks on his deathbed, “Soldiers die as much from fevers as they do battles.” Meanwhile, Digby is unceremoniously pulled away from his brothers on a work detail and subsequently, misses out on most of the final act.

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I would say wholeheartedly the film is salvaged in its last push as we are granted the spectacle we have been waiting for as the remaining men hold down the fort against incoming marauders. It makes one nearly cry out “Remember The Alamo!” The sentiment is there anyway.

It seems a horrible thing to say, but Cooper affected me more when he was on the verge of death than when he was alive. The all but wordless finale plays particularly cryptically as Digby sneaks around the compound to carry out his oldest brother’s wishes.

I must admit to dismissing Beau Geste‘s storytelling prematurely as it evoked greater complexities than I would have expected. The mechanisms of the opening and overlapping moments are more intricate than I might have given them credit for. The mysterious words spoken once upon a time, while Beau was hiding in the suit of armor, come to fruition as do the opening moments, neatly folding back into the tale.

The reunion of John with Isobel and his Aunt arrives in the nick of time to satiate audience wish-fulfillment. It almost elevates the film wholeheartedly, but the pacing and where the story chooses to focus its efforts feel scattered. Had they come together more succinctly we might be hailing Beau Geste one of the great actioners.

While Gary Cooper in a foreign legion kepi is nonetheless iconic, I am apt to remember him more so for Morocco (even if that picture belonged to Dietrich). Although if one is sentimental enough to forgive the faults, it’s painless enough to say Beau Geste belongs to three devoted brothers. Coop, Milland, and Preston maintain a spirited solidarity throughout.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

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We know the score. Two drifters ride into town. They sidle up to the bar for some shots, looking for something to do in a lazy Nevada dust-hole. Their faces are equally familiar to anyone who has ever seen even a few of the old oaters. Feisty Henry Fonda as Gil Carter and his more even-keeled pal Art (Henry Morgan). Though folks question what they’re doing around, it comes to nothing except an exuberant fist fight for Fonda just itching for some thrills. He’s not disappointed.

Soon the community catches wind of the death of a beloved local named Kincaid at the hands of cattle rustlers. The wheels are set in motion as the sleepy town awakens and a lynching mob forms under the guise of a posse. With the sheriff out of town doing his duty and the local judge incapable of stopping them, they ride off looking for vengeance and some excitement to liven up their one-horse town. As the deputy illegally swears in the entire crowd as temporary deputies, our boys Gil and Art reluctantly sign on as not to draw more suspicion to themselves.

A Major Tetley (Frank Conroy) tries to take charge forcing his callow son (William Eythe) to join in as they begin their hunt. The two most reluctant and subsequently the most interesting additions to their party are the African-American preacher named Sparks (Leigh Whipper), whose own brother was lynched when he was a boy, and then the rational-minded Old Man Davies (Harry Davenport) who desires for true justice to be upheld. He is wary of the repercussions of a mob mentality.

Ultimately, they happen upon three strangers and circle them like ravenous wolves practically willing them to be guilty. In these crucial interludes, Wellman deliberately focuses on close-ups instead of scenery to ratchet the tension. It’s evident the bread and butter of this picture are within the characters themselves.

The crowd begins peppering the suspects with questions though they’ve already drawn up their answers for them. It doesn’t help that the trio’s leader (Dana Andrews) must try and explain some extenuating circumstances, namely how he acquired some of Kinkaid’s stock, which he purportedly bought off the murdered man without a bill of sale.

True, the posse doesn’t go off absolutely nothing but the integrity of democratic justice, as flawed as it might be, in the day-to-day, still maintains people are innocent until proven guilty. It’s not the other way around. That’s key. It also calls for not dealing in emotions like anger and hatred but impartial wisdom. Again, that might be impossible to attain but we must try our best. Otherwise, the consequences are potentially dire.

William A. Wellman was so eager to adapt Walter van Tilburg Clark’s original novel he agreed with Daryl Zanuck to direct two other pictures that are now all but forgotten. The Ox-Bow Incident might be small but it’s no less mighty thanks to the teaming of Wellman and Lamar Trotti. In fact, its volatility was so great no one knew how to market it during the war years. How do you try and redeem the debasement of humanity originating out of our own traditions, even as we try and reconcile that with the evil going on overseas? It’s a tall order.

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The equally horrifying thing is the fact lynchings had yet to be exterminated from American society and the blood of such injustice still soaked American soil. Though this is a showing of three men getting hung, one white (Andrews), one old (Francis Ford), one Mexican (a defiant Anthony Quinn), this could have just as easily been racially charged with African-American victims.

Regardless of guilt or innocence, justice was never meant to function in this fashion where lawlessness is masked by perceived legitimacy. Nothing good can come of it. Fonda’s own memories drew him to the material as he supposedly witnessed the lynching of a man named Will Brown in Omaha, Nebraska on September 28, 1919. You can only imagine how the images scalded him for life. 12 Angry Men (1957) is indubitably another film which dealt with comparable themes very close to his heart.

His part, along with Morgan by his side, remains crucial because they essentially act as impartial bystanders and their choice is faced by anyone at the crossroads of such an issue. Because good can be quantified by commission and omission just as evil can be perpetrated through action and inaction.

The final wallop of the film is, of course, finding out what the actuality of the matter is — knowing full well they acted in error. To cap off the most moving showing of his generally hardboiled career, as the dying family man, Dana Andrews touches them from the grave with his words one last time:

“A man just naturally can’t take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurtin’ everybody in the world, ’cause then he’s just not breaking one law but all laws. Law is a lot more than words you put in a book, or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It’s everything people ever have found out about justice and what’s right and wrong. It’s the very conscience of humanity. There can’t be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience, because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience? And what is anybody’s conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived?”

Even if his words serve the film more than they are the authentic words of a husband, their affecting nature is undebatable. Every man standing around the bar sullenly has been given a costly lesson — a lesson requiring the lives of three men. It’s fitting for our two drifters to ride out of town just as they came in the same hound dog sulking across the road. And yet so much has changed. If anything our hero has found his conscience in a sea of injustice.

4/5 Stars

Heroes For Sale (1933)

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We are inserted, presumably, into a war picture courtesy of William A. Wellman, situated in WWI trenches. The downpour is compounded by the constant hail of bullets as a group of men conduct a near suicide mission. One of the soldiers, Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) proves his heroics on the battlefield while his friend Roger dissolves in fear. But the battle leaves Tom, now a prisoner, with debilitating pain from some splinters of shrapnel lodged near his spine. He’s given morphine to keep it manageable.

He comes back from the war addicted. He gets the shakes at his bank job where he works under his war buddy Roger and the other man’s father. Tom is constantly in need of his fix and it just keeps on getting worse and worse.

Early on, the picture begs the question, how are heroes made? We turn them into near mythological beings and even if it’s well-vested that doesn’t mean that they consider what they did to be anything extraordinary. Imagine if it’s not deserved. Tom and Roger understand exactly what this is like. In the wake of a scandal and his ousting from the bank, Tom gets interned at a drug clinic only to come out a year later a new man ready for a fresh start.

It struck me that in a matter of minutes the film drastically shifts in tone, suggesting at first the dark shadows overtaking a picture like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) only to come out unscathed and don the coat and tails of an industrial comedy-drama. I must say that while the former feels more akin to Wellman’s usual strengths, I do rather prefer the latter, though the picture doesn’t dare end there.

Wellman introduces us to our latest locale with a dash of humor delivered through an array of pithy signs adorning the walls of an old diner. But it’s the people under its roof that make it what it is. Pa Dennis (Charley Grapewin) is the most genial man you ever did meet and he would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. His daughter Mary (Aline MacMahon) is little different though she chides her father for his loose finances.

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Still, her jovial hospitality charms Tom into striking up a conversation and considering renting a room from them. Meeting the disarmingly attractive Ms. Ruth Loring (Loretta Young) from across the hall all but seals the deal. Cue the music as Young enters stage right and let’s disregard it and just say she more than deserves the fanfare.

You would think the inventor with overt “Red” tendencies, adamant criticisms of capitalism, and a chattering habit like a squirrel would be a turnoff for prospective boarders. Not so.  Soon Tom joins the ranks of the local laundry where Ruth also works forging a happy life for themselves.

The mobility of Heroes for Sale is another thing that struck me. It results from a different era but this is also very much a Depression picture in the sense that we are seeing what a man can still do even if times are tough as long as he has a strong head on his shoulders. Machinery is implemented not to steal work away from eager employees but to cut down on long working hours and increase output. All in all, it sounds like a thoughtful and humane objective.

But a heart attack leaves the company in different hands that are looking to work only in dollars and cents, not in humanity. Thus, it looks like Tom’s idealistic enterprising has been turned on its head, now completely sabotaged. All the folks who put their trust in him are bitter with the prospect of losing their jobs. Put out of business with their own funds.  This same unrest runs through the pages of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1940) too as modernity begins to put out all outmoded methods standing in the way of so-called efficiency.

What we have here is a populist picture daring to show the plight of the people. Richard Barthelmess is an affecting lead because he seems almost unextraordinary. His voice is steady and calm. He’s not unkind. But there’s an honesty to him that asserts itself. The fact that he gets a bum steer and takes it without so much as a complaint speaks volumes so he doesn’t have to.

Heroes for Sale feels like a micro-epic if we can coin the term. It’s ambitions somehow manage to be grandiose as it sweeps over cultural moments like WWI and The Depression which underline further social issues including heroism, drug abuse, communism, and worker’s rights. All done up in a measly 71 minutes. Look no further than the standoff between an angry mob and the riot squad for squalid drama. This is no minor spectacle. Nothing can quite express the anguish watching Young frantically run through the violent frenzy in search of her husband.

There is no excuse if this is the standard we put longer films up against. Not a moment seems wasted. Yes, it goes in different directions. Yes, it feels like a couple different films and yet what connects it all is this abiding sense of Americana. Themes that resonate with folks who know this country and its rich history made up of victories and dark blots as well. Most brazenly it still manages to come out of the muck and the mire with a sliver of optimism left over. Heroes For Sale is no small feat.

4/5 Stars

Night Nurse (1931)

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We’re introduced to the day-to-day in a hospital ward with mothers giving birth, delinquents under police custody, and bootleggers coming in on the lamb with mysterious ailments. Barbara Stanwyck arrives in the office inquiring about a position as a nurse and she is flatly rejected for her references and lack of a full high school education.

Reluctantly she exits only to make a connection in the revolving door with a white-haired genial doctor (Charles Winninger) who pulls some strings and lands her a spot as a trainee. Her roommate and guide to this new existence is the lively Maloney (Joan Blondell). The male interns send her a warm welcome too. Namely a skeleton in her bed which gets her in particular trouble during a late night bed check from the head nurse who rules the nurses quarters with an iron fist.

This is all only a setup of the films main concerns which have roots in sordid drama and soap opera-like thrills. The melodrama comes into full view as we are introduced to none other than a mustache-less macho Clark Gable who upon being asked who he is, replies “Nick the Chauffeur” only to be captured in closeup while eliciting a gasp from a night nurse.

It’s textbook stuff and then he proceeds to wallop her as she tries to use the telephone. But a smidgen of context is in order. Lora starts her first shift as a night nurse looking after two darling little girls. But from what she can tell they are systematically being starved and their perpetually tipsy mother, Mrs. Ritchie, seems to have very little input. Meanwhile, the doctor who took over the case when Dr. Bell was deposed is shady at best. All the while, Nick leers and strong arms his way around, making sure that Lora doesn’t do anything against the doctor’s orders. Conveniently that means no nourishment.

But “Little Miss Iodine” doesn’t go down without a fight. With the girls slowly wasting away upstairs and needless extravagant parties being held continually downstairs with booze freely flowing, Lora lays down the law. She smacks the girls’ mother around a little for her parental negligence. Also, it turns out that Lora’s new boyfriend comes in handy when he’s not bootlegging. They make a swell couple.

On the whole, this picture of emaciation is slightly disjointed and hyperbolic in its own right. There’s also probably too liberal an amount of undressing on camera. Because it’s only purpose is to be provocative.

I’m not quite sure if I ever figured out the mechanics of it all but there is an undeniable fury to it and William Wellman directs it as such through every beat from comedy to romance to mystery thriller. So with stalwart performances by Stanwyck and a no-good Clark Gable on the rise, matched by a certain enigmatic potency, there is enough meat here to make it a mildly diverting Pre-Code effort.

3/5 Stars