4 WWII Home Front Movies

World War II gave rise to a whole cottage industry of war films during the conflict and for generations to come. There are, of course, so many facets of the war to explore whether it’s Europe, The Pacific, North Africa, and any number of elements.

However, something that always fascinated me was life on the Home Front. Now wars feel like proxies. They rarely affect us first-hand. During the 1940s the war was a concerted effort on all fronts. It affected not only soldiers but civilians living miles away.

Mrs. Miniver (1942) chronicles the exploits of a fearless mother who holds her family together during The Blitz and the threat of German invasion. More The Merrier (1943) takes a comical look at the housing crisis that plagued Washington D.C. and other metropolis areas. Even the likes of Stage Door Canteen (1943) and Thank Our Lucky Stars (1943) give a picture into the USO and entertainment efforts put on for soldiers.

Here is a list of four other films from the World War II years that function as time capsules giving us some element of what life was like during those impactful years in history.

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Hail The Conquering Hero (1944)

Certainly, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is another uproarious wartime comedy from Preston Sturges. But this other offering is equally memorable in how it takes on small-town jingoism and hero worship to outrageous proportions. Whereas most old war pictures look moth-bitten with age and overly saccharine, somehow this effort strikes a phenomenal balance between absurd satire and lucid sentimentality.

It’s not making fun of our war heroes as much as it lampoons how we try to exalt them in our own well-meaning blundering. There’s no doubt some of this was certainly acknowledged during the war although I’m not sure how the general public would have felt about the movie in that context. Now it looks prescient. Eddie Bracken, William Demarest, and company are absolutely hilarious

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Hollywood Canteen (1944)

Actors Bette Davis and John Garfield of Warner Bros. famously set up the Hollywood Canteen as a haven for soldiers on leave. The perks were free and included dances with the most beautiful starlets and entertainment provided by the brightest comedic and musical personalities of the day. You could even win a raffle to kiss Hedy Lamarr.

Although the film is slight, sentimental propaganda, it does give at least a hint of what this group endeavor was all about. For old movie aficionados, it also provides a convenient opportunity to see just about every person Warner Bros. had on the lot in 1944. They all come out to the party to pitch in on the morale-boosting effort.

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The Clock (1945)

Whirlwind romances feel almost commonplace in the war years. Imagine the scenario. You’re longtime beau or the eligible man or woman you just met is going off to war. Miles will separate you. All you have are letters. There’s an uncertainty of whether or not you will ever see them again. The only thing that does seem permanent (even if it’s not) is love.

The theme would crop up in any number of pictures from The Very Thought of You to I’ll Be Seeing You as the situation undoubtedly resonated with a contemporary audience. However, another favorite is The Clock, starring Judy Garland and Robert Walker. It encapsulates the moment in time so well with heightened emotions, an unceremonious courthouse wedding, and the open-ending. We don’t know what the future holds.

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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

If Since You Went Away was David Selznick’s WWII epic, this was certainly Samuel Goldwyn’s entry. Its title plays with this ironic ambiguity. The best years of our lives would seem to be ahead of us. The war is over. The Allies have won. The soldiers return home victorious. And yet even in their victory, there is so much to navigate in the civilian world.

Wyler’s effort is such a perceptive picture in how it makes us feel the growing pains and relational tribulations of an entire community. It might be the fact you barely know your wife because you’ve been away for the majority of your marriage. Maybe your kids have grown up in a different world and there’s a corporate job waiting for you to reacclimate to. It might be PTSD or tangible physical injuries totally changing your day-to-day existence. As such the movie is indicative of a certain time and place and a tipping point in American society.

What is your favorite WWII film, whether it depicts the war or some aspect of the home front?

Hail The Conquering Hero (1944)

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I have long sought out this picture and all I can say is all hail the conquering hero! It’s everything that could have been hoped for in a Preston Sturges wartime comedy. But in order for the laughs to come along with a great deal more, there must be a setup — a watering hole for our main players to familiarize themselves.

Sure enough, we are introduced to a fairly somber nightclub scene or maybe it’s simply the face of the one man the camera chooses to focus on, sitting dejectedly at the bar. There slumps Eddie Bracken, slightly pudgy and round-faced. By no means classically handsome but he and Preston Sturges had quite a thing going for a couple years.

He got sent home from the Marines for chronic hayfever. I’m extremely empathetic to his condition as I’m sure innumerable others are as well. Anyway, he’s too embarrassed to go home and it’s been a year now and he’s still not returned. However, he has nothing except the highest regard for the Marines as his father gave his life serving his country. In fact, it was the very day our boy was born.

He pays it forward to a group of Marines on leave with no dough, thanks to the gambling habits of one of their pack. The act of charity isn’t lost on them and they get acquainted. Soon they find out the name of their benefactor. It has the be the most patriotic names ever invented: Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (sans the Truesmith).

Soon they are regaled with his story and stunned by his encyclopedic knowledge of the exploits of the Marines out on the battlefields. Their leader Sergeant (William Demarest) even finds out they have a lot more in common as he knew the elder Truesmith — Winky Dinky for short — before he perished.

The only place for the film to go from here is back to Woodrow’s roots and so without his consent, his mother gets called up and it’s announced that he’s getting sent home. Woodrow’s against it from the beginning but his new pals say there’s nothing to it. He’ll wear a uniform for a day, give his mother a hug, and take off the uniform soon after, completely forgotten. Of course, as they ride the train into town, they have no idea what’s been stirred up in preparation.

A homecoming like you’ve never witnessed has been hurriedly assembled by the local committee chairman (the frantically hilarious Franklin Pangborn) and it’s the true essence of cacophony with unrehearsed dueling brass bands; the mayor and any number of folks milling about in expectant anticipation. The show is just beginning to warm up now.

What many will find astounding is just how perfectly Hail the Conquering Hero has been constructed by Sturges, at least in the way it skirts its topics with simultaneous delicacy and verve. Here is a film striking an impeccable course between that very same comedy and then admiration for the armed forces because no one can forget WWII was still blasting away across the world.

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Likewise, the church service far from belittling the faith is a lingering visual gag as we watch the dueling reactions of the two sides of the pews. First through the hymns and then a very sincere homily from the preacher culminating in yet another rousing display of goodwill. By now Woodrow has little hope to derail any of the fanfare with the erection of a commemorative statue christened “Like Father, Like Son” soon in the works. All his newfound Marine buddies are good for is stoking the fires and applauding the sentiment.

The next great sequence is cued by the music and Mother answers the door and mentions that the Judge (Jimmy Conlin) and some other civic leaders want to see Woodrow. Immediately his mind leaps to the worst possible scenario. The game must be up and all his Marine buddies inconspicuously grab household items in case of a tustle that might take place in the drawing room. Of course, their intentions are nothing of the sort. Far from it. The lead up makes the outcome into yet another outrageous reveal.

Just around this juncture, it becomes increasingly apparent that all the characters appear to move in packs and Sturges crams the frame gladly with bodies and faces and more appendages. Woodrow does his best to avoid the spotlight, flubbing his speech to the masses, and trying to downplay the bid for mayor thrust upon him only to be thwarted at every turn by a cheering crowd of well-wishers. One man even proclaims his was the greatest speech since William Jennings Bryan’s “Crown of Thorns!” Already we have the swellest giggle-fit inducer I’ve encountered in some time.

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I wracked my brain only to realize I’d never seen Ella Raines in a comedy before and for much of this picture she’s in the periphery, her comely smiling features on the screen with a whole host of others. But there are a few moments that, far from playing merely humorously, prove deeply moving as she is split between the man she is betrothed to marry and the one she truly loves.

The family she’s caught up in includes a quibbling father and son. The incumbent mayor (Raymond Walburn), who ponificates incessantly, attempts to dictate his speech in his latest bid for reelection only to get annoyed by his dim-witted boy (Bill Edwards) who nevertheless corrects his grammatical blunders. She’d do well to get out of there. Nevertheless, they are a bounty for humorous dialogue.

The stakes are set for a reversal of fortune with a number of parties having a chance to oust our hero. One man who’s buddy-buddy with the Mayor, the cool and collected Jake (Al Bridge) is mighty curious about Woodrow’s service record and he sends a wire to the Marine Base in San Diego. He gets the incriminating news shortly.

But ultimately it comes down to Woodrow himself and Sturges puts the perfect words in his mouth that Eddie Bracken then utters with an assured conviction. Riffing off the Biblical epithet he notes, “My cup runneth over with gall” and proceeds to pour out with veracious intent all the lies and masquerades he’s been too scared to admit to his own town. His guts are laid out right in front of him. Yes, his mother cries. The townspeople look on somberly and his Marine buddies can do nothing to dispel any of it. Even the words of the Mayor and his pal mean nothing now.

With such a showing you would think it was all over for Woodrow and he tells his mama that he’s going to leave again. He cannot stay. Not like this at least. But his girl comes back to him because she at least loves him unconditionally.

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At the train station the parlor games look like they might commence again but this time the whole town is involved, a lynching all but imminent. The Marines this time wrap up their belts inconspicuously to prepare for combat once more. Of course, the mob is there for a very different reason altogether.

The film has the foresight to see what so many of its contemporary war movies were, only made plainly obvious with the luxury hindsight: Light-hearted and good-intentioned yet still mawkish propaganda pieces. So Sturges took up his pen and tackled such hero worship and smalltime jingoism and yet settles on a resolution proving to be as venerating as it is satisfying.

Hail The Conquering Hero is a miracle assemblage of poignancy and humor; I don’t know how it comes away still intact and with my heartfelt laughter and deepest respect no less. It’s not an easy road to traverse by any means. Only a few have managed it. Chaplain in The Great Dictator (1940) distinctly comes to mind and Preston Sturges here.

4.5/5 Stars

Christmas in July (1940)

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“If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee – it’s the bunk” – Maxford Coffee House Slogan

Christmas in July is one of Preston Sturgeses earliest efforts where he both scripted and directed the material. He was fed up with how others had handled his handiwork. Obviously they must not have directed it in the zany scattershot way they should have. He would all but rectify that oversight in the early 1940s with his string of successes.

We are privy to a rooftop romance between Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell) and his best gal Betty Casey (Ellen Drew) as they take up a light squabble over modern living and radio sweepstakes. The man is intent on winning the grand prize of $25,000 for the Maxford House Slogan Competition. He hangs attentively around the radio to get the verdict. He, his girlfriend, and millions of other Americans.

But a snafu arises when the jury is hung in their decision-making process by an obdurate Mr. Bildocker (William Demarest). The radio announcer has no choice but postpone the annoucment. Not only does it annoy the public by leaving them hanging on a meat hook, it leaves space for a practical joke to go horribly awry.

You see, Jimmy is adamant that his slogan will be the kicker and he’s not shy about telling everyone about it. First, his girlfriend, then his mother, and finally any coworker who will listen. Three wiseguys in the office overhear his spouting and pull the gag to end all gags. All it takes are a few slips of paper, some paste, and an unused telegram slip. It’s a pretty horrible joke. You can probably envision it already.

In fact, I could just see it unfolding like the emperor’s new clothes and yet it’s more good-natured and innocent. He sees the note, reads it, and proceeds to stand on top of his desk to share his good fortune and tell his colleagues to gather around. It’s a sequence full of canned laughter as the floor manager comes by to see what the ruckus is about.

Jimmy and Betty are glowing and positively floating down the corridors together. They must be dreaming. He quite innocently wanders into the Maxford offices inquiring about his winnings and walks out again as nice as you please with a check for $25, 000. Next, comes the department store jewelry case and every other department they have.

Seeing the astonishing check in his possession, the store all of a sudden gets very generous and soon he’s being given everything on credit. Buying new fangled whizzbang contraptions like the all-in-one Davenola. Diamond rings and fur coats for his girl follow, and gifts for everyone else in his family and the adjoining neighbors. The street in his old neighborhood is pure bedlam with the passing out of toys to all the kiddies and free caraousel rides and confections. They’ve never had it so good. There has never been such a respite before.

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As an audience we are in on quite a big secret. We know the bubble must burst some time. Our greatest fear is that it will completely devastate MacDonald. He’s the kind of man who requires the approbation of others to believe that his ideas are any good and that can be dangerous.

For all the madness, there is a very sincere consideration of the American Dream in this picture, not to mention what people deem to be truly important in their lives. His Manager, far from being a mere boob, has some suprisingly sagacious knowledge to dispel:

“Mr. MacDonald. I’m not a failure. I’m a success. You see, ambition is all right if it works. But no system could be right where only half of 1% were successes and all the rest were failures – that wouldn’t be right. I’m not a failure. I’m a success. And so are you, if you earn your own living and pay your bills and look the world in the eye. I hope you win your $25,000, Mr. MacDonald. But if you shouldn’t happen to, don’t worry about it. Now get the heck back to your desk and try to improve your arithmetic.”

Thankfully, the picture is loaded end to end with character parts. It’s positively swimming in them. Though he never worked with Dick Powell and Ellen Drew again, who coincidentally have a fine genial chemistry, many of the smaller bit players became mainstays of Sturgeses stock company. Aside from William Demarest (who gets the final comic punchline as per usual), you will see many other familiar faces if you’re acquainted with the director’s canon. In other words, Sullivan’s Travels (1941) Et Al.

There’s this innate sense that he’s stuffed this particular script with any number of inside jokes and he mastered the art of humorous character naming, only adding to this swirling cauldron of mayhem born out of one simple gimmick.

Hanging his hat on a slogan like, “If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee – it’s the bunk” is seemingly a foolhardy task and yet he all but pulls it off. I must confess that I couldn’t get my head around the statement for a while because it seems that “bunk” used in its informal and archaic etymology as “nonsense” isn’t as common today But it reflects Sturges perfectly.

If there is a modern heir apparent to Preston Sturges I am still in the dark. The closest might be the Coen Brothers and yet their work has never undone me in the same ways. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. You also had a contemporary in Frank Capra who was well-versed in populous fare but though he had close collaborators, he rarely wrote his material or had the same unorthodox pizazz of Sturges.

Billy Wilder proved capable of much the same as Sturges, both as writer and director, but even he worked often with writing partners. His work was injected with a cynicism even foreign to Sturges in all of his idiosyncratic, zinging panache. Each is worthy of an examination due in part to their differences. However, Preston Sturges  was really one of the first high profile screenwriters, preceding so many modern success stories. He gave the formerly uninspired and restricted post a newfound respect at a time when that was all but unheard of.

One part of me speculates whether his humor is dated and another part asks why we don’t have films quite like this anymore? Part of the answer might be because of television. The kind of hijinks and episodes that Sturges seemed to showcase often got translated into I Love Lucy episodes and numerous other sitcom tropes that would gain traction over the years.

Still, there’s little doubt that something deeply satisfying is afoot — a film that zips along at an hour and seven minutes yet leaves us feeling like a whole boatload has happened in that same amount of time. Because it’s true. There are dour notes. Moments of wistfulness even, but paired with all that is frenetic and wonkers, you find Preston Sturges coming out on the other side with a comedic trifle that speaks to a great many things about American life, however superficially. Because remember, the punchlines are just as important as the lessons.

3.5/5 Stars

Viva Las Vegas (1964)

Viva_Las_Vegas_1964_PosterPreviously, whenever I thought of Elvis and films, my first inclination was to think musical and then secondly because, by some form of osmosis the culture had taught me this, Elvis went with Ann-Margret. In truth, they were astoundingly only ever in this one picture together but what a picture for them to be in. It left an indelible impact on both stars as much as it did their audience.

Sure, it’s at times utterly laughable, light, and saccharine with gaudy color schemes that make Las Vegas the flashiest spectacle known to man (which it might actually conceivably be), but there’s something still so winsome about it.

The story is one of those contrived Hollywood love stories that we know the rhythms of before they have begun.  Boy meets girl. Boy becomes infatuated with girl. Girl keeps him at arm’s length. Girl begins to fall for him. Girl gets turned off because of some trivial misunderstanding. In the end, girl gets boy or vice versa. Whichever you prefer because either way it still proves a formulaic picture.

But gosh darn it, Viva Las Vegas has a vibrant energy that probably makes every man, woman, and child wish they could go back to that era, especially all those rock ‘n rollers and beboppers who grew up with Elvis for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

There’s no doubt that he had a magnetic charisma that went beyond a voice or a look but the very way he shimmies, snaps, and shakes his way into the heart of every gal. However, the real vivacity of the picture comes from the same kinetic friskiness that seems to charge through Ann-Margret as well. Because in most any given equation Elvis Presley is bar none going to be your dominating force commanding the screen as the indisputable Elvis the Pelvis, the King of Rock and Roll. But put him up against Ann-Margret and they tease and prod each other this way and that — the perfect romantic counterpoints.

It’s as if they both have a sense of the game that they are playing — the back and forth — the one-upmanship and playful toying that gives the story a hint of sensuality while still maintaining that squeaky clean sensibility allowing a picture like this to remain more charming than most films we are introduced to today.

And when it’s all said and done, aside from the title track which will undoubtedly be most familiar and exhilarating for audience members in its numerous refrains, there are quite a few truly dynamic sequences that go beyond tedious asides in a musical love story.

They reflect how Hollywood seemed to understand the collective power that musicals could have. Director George Sidney is not necessarily a noted name of great repute but if you look down the list of his directing catalog you see many a diverting musical (ie. Annie Get Your Gun, Kiss Me Kate, Bye Bye Birdie, and a whole slew of others).

With Viva Las Vegas it’s easy to acknowledge that he has a knack for the spectacle that remains light and amusing to the end including the notable Ray Charles tune “What’d I Say” played out on a giant roulette wheel, our leads making eyes at each other, surrounded by a crowd of fellow shimmy and shakers. But also the hip swinging, finger-snapping crowd pleaser “C’mon Everybody” that puts our stars on full display. They even end up making the smaller trifles like “The Lady Loves Me” and “If You Think I Don’t Need You” more than a complete drag.

To top it all off, far from being corny, the final Grand Prix sequence is actually quite marvelous as the cars speed through the desert past Hoover Dam and we see Lucky win out against his good-natured rival. The film truly does benefit from the on location shooting only topped by the breezy chemistry of its leads. More than The Rat Pack or Bond, this film gives me at least an iota of desire to visit Las Vegas. Although that might simply be the fact that Elvis and Ann-Margret, in particular, imbue the lifestyle with so much verve. Anyways there are no qualms in proclaiming, Viva Las Vegas!

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

James_Stewart_in_Mr._Smith_Goes_to_Washington_trailer_cropThe opening credits roll and recognition comes with each name that pops on the screen. Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Palette, Beulah Bondi, H.B. Warner, Harry Carey, Porter Hall, Charles Lane, William Demarest, Jack Carson, and of course, Frank Capra himself.

We are met with the ubiquitous visage of Charles Lane calling in a big scoop on the telephone. A senator has died suddenly. The likes of Porter Hall and H.B. Warner fill the Senate Chamber presided over by a wryly comic VP, Harry Carey. Corruption is personified by the flabby pair of Edward Arnold and Eugene Palette while Claude Rains embodies the tortured political journeyman. The eminent members of the press include not only Lane but the often swacked Thomas Mitchell and a particularly cheeky Jack Carson.

To some people, these are just names much like any other but to others of us, linked together and placed in one film, these figures elicit immense significance and simultaneously help to make Mr. Smith Goes to Washington one of the most satisfying creations of Hollywood’s Golden Age from arguably “The Greatest Year in Cinematic History.”  The acting from the biggest to the smallest role is a sheer joy to observe as is Capra’s candid approach to the material.

As someone with a deep affection for film’s continued impact, it gives me great pleasure that stories such as Mr. Smith exist on the silver screen if only for the simple fact that they continually renew my belief in humanity, whatever that means. Because it’s an admittedly broad, sweeping statement to make but then again that’s what Frank Capra was always phenomenally skilled at doing. He could take feelings, emotions, beliefs, and ideals synthesizing them into the perfect cultural concoctions commonly known as moving pictures.

But his pictures always maintained an unfaltering optimism notably in the face of all sorts of trials and tribulations. He never disregarded the corruption dwelling in his stories–it was always there–in this case personified by the stifling political machine of Jim Taylor gorging itself off the lives of the weak and stupid.

The key is that his narratives always rise above the graft and corruption. They latch onto the common everyday decency, looking out for the other guy, and in some small way uphold the great commandment to love thy neighbor.

Politics have never been my forte. Like many others, I’m easily disillusioned by “politics” as this becomes a dirty word full of arrogance, partisanship, and scandal among other issues. It seems like the founding principles that laid the groundwork for this entire democracy often get buried under pomp & circumstance or even worse personal ambitions.

Although this film was shot over 75 years ago everyone who’s been around the block lives as if that’s the case then too and so they’re not all that different from today at least where it matters. Cynicism is a hard thing to crack when it runs through the fabric of society from the politicians, to the newspapers, all the way down to the general public. It’s not hard to understand why. Still, the genuine qualities of a man like Jefferson Smith can act as a bit of an antidote. He as a character himself might be a bit of an ideal, yes, but I’d like to have enough faith to believe that people with a little bit of Jefferson Smith might still live today.

Common, everyday people who nevertheless are capable of extraordinary things like standing up for what’s right when they know that no one else will or when they know all that waits for them at the end of the tunnel is disgrace. But the promise of what is beyond the tunnel is enough. That is true integrity to be able to do that and those are the causes worth cheering for when David must fight Goliath and still he somehow manages to overcome. That’s the chord Mr. Smith strikes with me. thanks in part to Capra’s vision but also Stewart’s impassioned embodiment of those same ideals.  He has a knack for compelling performances to be sure.

Time and time again James Stewart pulls me in. His career is one of the most iconic in any decade, any era no questions asked. There are so many extraordinary films within that context perhaps many that are technically or artistically superior to Mr. Smith by some  estimations, but he was never more candid or disarming than those final moments in the senate chambers as he fights for his life — clinging to the ideals that he’s been such a stalwart proponent for even as his naivete has been mercilessly stripped away from him.

In the opening moments, his eyes carried that glow of honest to goodness optimism, his posture gangly and unsure represented all that is genuine in man. Now watching those same ideals and heroes come back to perniciously attack him, he presides with almost reckless abandon. Is he out of his mind? At times, it seems so, but as he wearies, his hair becomes more disheveled, and his vocal chords have only a few rasps left he still fights the good fight. There’s an earnest zeal to him that’s positively palpable.

As our stand-in, Saunders (Jean Arthur) first writes him off as a first class phony or at the very least a political stooge ready to do another man’s bidding but she does not know Jefferson Smith though she does grow to love him. And Arthur’s performance truly is a masterful one because without her Smith would hardly be the same figure. She brings out his naivete by sheer juxtaposition but she also puts the fight back into him because he brought a change over her that in turn rallies him to keep on pushing. They’ve got a bit of a mutually symbiotic relationship going on in the best way possible. You might call it love.

Capra repeatedly underlines Smith’s honesty and genuine nature not only through numerous rather simplistic montages of Capitol Hill and the surrounding national monuments but in the very way his character carries himself around others. He never assumes a position of superiority. He’s always humble. He sees the inherent need to raise up young people well so that they might progress to become the leaders of tomorrow with a great deal to offer our world. He fumbles with his hat in the presence of pretty girls and holds his idols in the highest esteem. It’s all there on Stewart’s face and in his actions. We too comprehend the solemnity and the gravity that he senses in the office of the Senate.

While this was not Jimmy Stewart’s debut and it was only at the beginning of a shining career as has already been noted, it was in these moments that the cinematic world fell in love with him. He can’t be licked and for good reason. He was never one to give up on lost causes just like his father before him.

I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for, and he fought for them once, for the only reason any man ever fights for them: Because of one plain simple rule: Love thy neighbor. ~ James Stewart as Jefferson Smith

5/5 Stars

Stage Door Canteen (1943)

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Director Frank Borzage’s Stage Door Canteen is a gentle-handed piece of propaganda. It plays out rather like a scripted 1940s wartime reality. It’s less a film and more of a historical relic commemorating the eponymous Stage Door Canteen in New York City. Thus, any effort to give it some sort of rating almost seems beside the point, because it was meant to be a rallying cry of comfort, entertainment, and escape from the war right outside. It met the general public right where they were and inundated them with mega star power. This wasn’t the only nightclub or film to do this either. The Stage Door’s west coast counterpart was the Hollywood Canteen, and it received a film treatment of its own in 1944.

In truth, the real nightclub was still in full use every day so the next best alternative was the RKO Lot in Culver City. That’s where it all happens like a day in the life. We follow three soldiers: the perfect cross-section of white red-blooded American G.I.s. Each one gets to dance and talk their last days away with a pretty girl serving as a hostess at the canteen. Each one of them will never forget it.

The entertainment is full of partial cameos, pop-ups, and performances from a plethora of stars. For even the most well-acquainted modern viewer, it’s hard to recognize all the faces and names that show up. Katherine Cornell, Count Basie, and Yehudi Menuhin are a few such figures who come to mind.

stagedoorcan1There are also strategic vignettes sprinkled throughout to boost morale and the camaraderie between allies. A few Brits can be heard taking part in the gaiety and making friends with our protagonists. A table of Hispanic soldiers takes in a floor show. One of our hostesses gets a moving letter from her older brother in the marines who is bent on returning to his family and proving that his training can outlast any “Jap” out there. There’s a last-minute marriage ceremony that we are privy to. Sam Jaffe introduces the audience to a few Russian allies, an Australian soldier has just returned from the front, and several Chinese air cadets get a rousing appreciation. Merle Oberon (the only actress close to being Asian in the film) gives them a stirring sendoff. Finally, Katharine Hepburn drops in for the premier cameo, to tie together all the loose ends and rally her fellow men and women to keep on keeping on for the sake of the country, so that the Allies might win the war.

From our modern day perspective, this might all come off like saccharine hogwash, but that’s not giving the material its due sensitivity. For that point in history, it was exactly what the American public was looking for. Today it’s a fascinating piece of remembrance. Then, it was still a story with a “to be continued” ending.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Lady Eve (1941)

theladyeve3“You have the darndest way of bouncing a fellow down and bumping him up again” ~ Henry Fonda as Charles Pike

The story goes that screenwriting wunderkind Preston Sturges penned The Lady Eve with Barabara Stanwyck in mind. He promised her a great picture and he most certainly delivered a stellar screwball like only he could. It plays off the archetypal biblical temptress with comic effect, and it finds the greatest of comic couples in Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. They both are iconic stars, but the narrative works so well, due to that, but also the fact that the film constantly undermines the typical plotting. As the title suggests the woman is really the focal point of the film — she’s the one in control.

In this instance, Stanwyck is shady trickster Jean Harrington, who joins forces with her equally conniving father (Charles Coburn) to take people to the cleaners in any way possible. They’re real smooth operators with cards and any other type of con you could think of. A luxury ocean liner seems like the perfect place to set up their business. Out of all the many high profile passengers, one man stands a head above the rest. His name is Charles Pike (Henry Fonda). He keeps his nose buried behind a book, tries to avoid the gazes of all the pretty girls, and has a penchant for reptilian wildlife after getting back from a long expedition. He also just happens to be the heir to a gargantuan Ale fortune. That’s what catches everyone eye, including the beautifully sly Stanwyck.

theladyeve2In fact, we have a brilliant introduction to her as she narrates the scene unfolding in front of her with the aid of her compact mirror. She trips up the bumbling bachelor and their introduction is the first exclamation point in a bumpy relationship. She’s ready to play him and marry rich and famous, because he’s a pretty naive fellow, and stiff around the ladies. Fonda’s nervous charm proves the perfect recipe for success as he is constantly being overwhelmed by Stanwyck’s frenetic barrage. His defenses are down and he hasn’t the foggiest what has hit him. Either he was really that uncomfortable or otherwise, he does a superb job of faking it since there’s never another moment where he’s not being fondled or manipulated.

Jean is very quick to get cozy with “Hopsy” (after alcohol and not a rabbit), but something strange begins to happen. For some strange, ludicrous reason she begins to fall for her mark — this goofy guy with loads of cash. That certainly was not in her cards, yet she doesn’t seem to mind. What follows are some wonderful card playing antics between Charles Coburn and Barbara Stanwyck as she tries to stave off her father from pulling one over on her new beau. But of course, just as Pike is getting his sea legs he catches wind of the whole charade quite by chance, and he’s quick to turn off Harrington for the fraud he thinks she is.

theladyeve4The story could end there, but Sturges has set his story up perfectly for a killer second act. Jean plans a perfectly sneaky revenge plan to get back at “Hopsy” by posing as the British niece of another con man (Eric Blore). He uses his own wily charm and influence to get them an invitation to the Pike household for dinner. There we see several other great character actors in action including Horace Pike (Eugene Pallette), and the perennial sourpuss Muggsy (William Demarest). Jean shows up now as the Lady Eve and successfully convinces her “Hopsy” that she is a completely different individual. The film works wonderfully on this axle of ludicrousness because  young Pike is completely befuddled and awestruck again. He goes thudding, clanking, and crashing all evening long, a true victim of love. Pike thought he lost one girl for good and here’s another even better prospect. A whirlwind romance follows and everything is falling into place beautifully. There’s a frantic montage in preparation for the big day and then it happens. They get hitched. Afterwards, it’s all done and the two lovebirds are on a train barreling down the tracks interspersed with the long laundry list of all Eve’s beaus from Angus, to Herman, and Cecil and so on. It’s Charles’ worst nightmare, and he hopes to get out of it as quickly as possible.

But then by chance, he runs into the first girl, who is, of course, Stanwyck as well. He’s genuinely happy to see her, and they embrace like nobody’s business. Being the honorable man that he is, Pike acknowledges that he is, in fact, married now, but the joke’s on him. She is too! It’s an entirely irregular ending, but that’s screwball comedy for you.

theladyeve1What makes Sturges’ film so wonderful is all the parts making up the whole. His script is perfectly contrived mayhem. He sprinkles it with his typical slapstick, his loudmouthed stock company lends an added layer, and his typically lightning-quick repartee is brought to life by his leads. Stanwyck was the quintessential leading lady of the 1940s and in 1941 she was in fine form (Balls of Fire and Meet John Doe). She can dance so effortlessly between dynamic comedy to heartfelt drama that is positively palpable.  She overshadows Fonda in a sense, but they still work together, because he is her perfect foil, the precise innocent fool to fall into her web of feminine wiles. She can muss up his hair, manhandle him, and completely manipulate his feelings. Yet we still like both of them in spite of it. They are a hilarious match, and there’s space for some passionate canoodling as well. It’s probably one of the most perfectly wonderful, utterly dysfunctional relationships we could ever hope to see put on screen.  By continually whipping out punch line after punch line to the very last quip, Sturges makes this comedy look positively effortless.

4.5/5 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

Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

220px-The_Miracle_of_Morgans_Creek_1944_posterPreston Sturges was a revelation when I first saw Sullivan’s Travels and then The Lady Eve. His scripts are always wildly hilarious and full of memorable characters, whether they are headliners or just supporting the stars. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) was a lesser known film to me, starring Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton, but I was ready to see what this screwball could deliver.

With the start of the war, there began a push on the home front to strengthen morale by throwing parties and drinking victory lemonade in honor of the boys going overseas. Young Trudy is intent on dancing the night away with a lot of soldier boys. She just wants to do her part in the war effort after all. Her grumpy and domineering daddy Mr. Kocklenlocker (William Demarest) forbade her from taking part in such a shindig.

She sullenly goes to the movies with Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), the young man who has been infatuated with her since they were kids. However, she somehow talks Norval into letting her go off to a party, and she spends the night living it up, while he waits dejectedly at the theater. When she finally returns its late morning of the next day and Norval knows her father will kill him.

However, Trudy also discovers a ring on her finger signifying that she married a soldier in her wild stupor the night before. The only problem is she cannot remember who it was, there were so many soldiers that she danced with after all. On top of that, add the prospect of a baby and you have a real doozy that has small-town scandal written all over it.

Norval tries his best to help remedy things for Trudy, only to wind up in jail with a big to-do building up — even making its way to the governor! Things don’t look good for poor Norval until Trudy gives birth and it’s a MIRACLE! When he finds out about what happens he has a little fainting spell.

That’s the craziness that is the Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, thanks to the rapid-fire dialogue and caricatures created by Preston Sturges. William Demarest is especially memorable as the hard apple Mr. Kocklenlocker who is always bossing his daughters around, but he’s not all bad. By now Morgan’s Creek looks dated, but all the same, it is still a memorable piece of WWII homefront cinema. Supposedly it was standing room only back in the day and honestly, it’s surprising that this film ever got past the censors. Bigamy, pregnancy, and so much more all comically mentioned in a 1940s film. Who would have thought?

4/5 Stars

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

84a24-mrsmithgoestowashingtonposterAs both a political drama and feel good movie, this film cemented James Stewart as an acting powerhouse. Furthermore, despite its age, it acts as a timeless reminder of the evils of political machines. It makes us root for the underdog, and it is distinctively American. Here is a cast and a story that seemingly could never be equaled, but what this film really had going for it was an idealistic outlook. I can, myself, often be a cynical person, and still Mr. Smith never fails to make me acknowledge the numerous attributes that make our country great, whether it is through montage, monuments, music, and of course Jefferson Smith himself. 

In one of his best performances, Jimmy Stewart is an idealistic, naive boy’s troop leader named Jefferson Smith. The starry-eyed Smith trusts that our nation is founded on some very noble principles that should be fought for tirelessly in government and in society. Above all, he is a likable fellow, who earnestly believes in the merits of this country, and he is beloved by boys all across the state. Now, this all sounds fine and dandy, but it would never have come across on the screen if it had not been for Stewart. He emanates this awkward and innocent energy that puts life into the idealistic creation of Jefferson Smith. 

When the film opens, everything is in turmoil when a senator suddenly dies and a replacement is needed fast. Believing Smith will be a pawn, a powerful man named Taylor (Ed Arnold) gets Smith a seat in the nation’s Senate. There he joins the respected Senator and old family acquaintance, Joe Paine (Claude Rains), who is also a cog in Taylor’s machine. However, although he is out of place in Washington, the patriotic Smith does his best to be worthy of his position. He realizes that the press will not give him a break, and the other Senators do not take him seriously.

So, on the urging of Paine, he decides to come up with a bill for a boys camp back in his home state. He requires the help of the world-weary secretary Saunders (Jean Arthur) to get his bill done. Initially, she is disgusted by his naivete, but as she grows to know him, she realizes he is only going to get himself hurt. His action to propose a bill soon find him face to face with the political machine that elected him. Taylor also has stakes on the piece of land where the boy’s camp would be, and he wants it for a dam. 

Smith finds himself being accused of using his position for his personal gain, and pretty soon he is before a committee with false evidence piling up against him. With all odds and seemingly everyone else against him as well, Smith makes one last monumental effort. Thanks to the help and guidance of Saunders, Smith fights to plead his case through a filibuster.

Fatigued by many hours of giving impassioned speeches and reciting the Constitution, Smith finally collapses, but not before effectively succeeding at his task. I doubt this would ever happen in real life, but in the film, it is fantastic watching the Senate break out into complete and utter mayhem. Ultimately, a young man with “a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little looking out for the other fella,” was able to win. True, it may be overly sentimental, but it is a wonderful piece of sentiment all the same.

Frank Capra was wonderful at these type of cheering tales and his stars were in top form. There is an absolutely wonderful supporting cast here including Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Eugene Pallette Thomas Mitchell, Charles Lane, Harry Carey, William Demarest, Beulah Bondi, and numerous other familiar faces I don’t even know the names of. That’s the beauty of the studio system I guess. It may have the same director, same leading man, and some of the same general themes, but Mr. Smith Goes to Washington covers completely different territory from Capra’s later classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Mr. Smith should be seen as a unique, and very much American film.


5/5 Stars