Golden Boy (1939)

Golden Boy (1939)

“See you in 1960. Maybe you’ll be someone by then. ” ~ Barbara Stanwyck 

At the Academy Awards in 1978, Bill Holden took a momentary aside to thank his co-presenter, Barbara Stanwyck, for her encouragement and support in helping to forge his career in its nascent stages. That picture they starred in together was, of course, Golden Boy.

By the late 30s, she was already a veteran actress in such saucy pre-code pictures as Baby Face (1933) and searing tearjerkers like Stella Dallas (1937). In an instance where fiction overlaps with reality, Holden played the scrawny newcomer. He could have just as easily been “baby face” in this film as a 21-year-old unknown bit player.

His Joe Bonaparte, a green kid and a newly-minted voice, has yet to mature into the smoky standard the moviegoing public would come to know as a handsome first-class flirt and sardonic wit.  Still, Stanwyck fought for him to stay and he did.

The film itself is thinly wrought and certainly has aged poorly with the passage of time. The simplistic dichotomy at its center begins with a young man who has an artistic gift as a violinist and his dear father (Lee J. Cobb) wants him to cultivate the talent. However, the boy has realized he has the tenacity to be a fighter and he gets a promoter (Adolph Menjou) to take him on so he can start making some dough. After all, it’s a practical means to give his family what they have always wanted.

What it teases out is the age-old dilemma between the allure of materialism and what will actually give you a far more contented life, in this case, love and the cultivation of talents which lend beauty to the world. Initially, Joe buys into the hype backed by a gangster (Joseph Calleia) but seeing another man die in the ring straightens out his priorities for good. Many boxing dramas are fatal. Thankfully for contemporary audiences, his is allowed a palatable happy ending.

Although this would happen to him more than once, because he’s rather good at it, Lee J. Cobb is nevertheless cast way out of his age range as an ethnic Italian father-type. It’s true that this one is an overtly stagy adaption from Clifford Odet’s famed play. His presence even inadvertently reflects the overlapping nature of theater and film of the period as he would precede the likes of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and William Inge who would all see their works made into movies.

Director Rouben Marmoulian himself had an extensive background in the theater and while the initial fight sequences fly by as montage blips throughout, the culmination in the final fight in Madison Square Garden has the atmospherics down like all the foremost boxing movies. He undoubtedly gets that right and this picture effectively precedes the frenzied reaction shots of the audience mesmerized by violence in Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949) by almost 10 years.

Stanwyck carries her scenes with that passionate, winning verve of hers and she propels Holden along with her taking the inexperienced, no-name actor and helping him get by. He’s no star at this point, except one day he would be. She had enough guts to fight for him and thanks in part to her, we were given one of the most remembered Hollywood stars, “Golden Holden.”

What most people wouldn’t give to have Barbara Stanwyck in their corner. It could be unsubstantiated hearsay but the story goes Holden was forever grateful, sending his costar a bouquet of flowers every year to commemorate Golden Boy and what it meant to his career. He knew it more than anyone.

But the story did not end there. In 1982 Barbara Stanwyck was bestowed with an honorary Oscar as the Academy had never found time to give her an award for her plethora of quality performances. Shame on them. That’s not the main point, however.

Her dear friend William Holden had just recently passed away months before and so while thanking the many people behind the camera who helped her in her career from directors to stunt personnel and electricians, she also said a final word for her friend. Her Golden Boy had always wanted for her to win an award and fittingly she finally did. She raised it up, teary-eyed, in his honor, before walking off. It’s human stories such as this that transcend Film. We are better for them.

3/5 Stars

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

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The Horse Soldiers is the one and only teaming of John Wayne and William Holden in a story based on the raids of Colonel Benjamin Grierson during the Civil War. John Ford casts the story as a brand of folklore carried through the air by the songs sung on the trail by a regiment riding in their formation. “I Left My Love” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” are the two prime examples ringing out on more than one occasion.

Wayne is the journeyman military man who is intent on carrying out his mission. But his exacting, army first mentality soon sets him at odds with a newly assigned regimental surgeon from up north, Major Henry Kendall (William Holden), who is appalled by the conditions of the war. His vow to do his very utmost to save life ultimately butts up against the other man’s own sense of duty. It seems that they will never be reconciled.

Though Wayne rarely carries a firearm on camera, he does readily smack some people around. And yet these very discrepancies are an indication of why the man is so hard to figure. There’s a decency to him revealing itself in isolated moments even as he leads his men on a mission to decimate the enemy’s contraband by the most decisive means possible.

When William Tecumseh Sherman, whose name is thrown around at least a few times, famously asserted “war is hell” it was not a quip. I believe he meant it wholeheartedly, coming from a man who was willing to do what was required to win. Not out of malice but, on the contrary, out of a sense of duty. But that unswerving call to duty led him to undertake some pretty ruthless means — horribly cruel in their execution. A like-minded figure can be found in Colonel Marlowe.

He brazenly leads his men into the heart of Reb Country and they are eventually met by an onslaught of Confederates, as they snake their way far behind enemy lines. The irony is the fact that in civilian life the Colonel was a railroad engineer and now he must watch his men bend the southern railroad lines into “Sherman Neckties” to impede future transportation.

If Major Kendall is the initial manifestation of the opposition Marlowe faces, the next front comes courtesy of a southern belle named Miss Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers). Her tactics include a sly show of hospitality in an effort to pass secrets to her countrymen. As a result, the Colonel has no recourse but to bring her along on their raid, doing his best to treat her nobly, within reason; though she continues to despise his guts.

There’s a recurring theme as you can see with both Holden and Towers’ characters trying to decide what to make of this man. Although her part is hardly groundbreaking, a shoutout must be given to tennis extraordinaire and barrier breaker Althea Gibson for playing Miss Hunter’s loyal maid Lukie.

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Political views in real life played into the heated character dynamics between our two stars, with Wayne’s overt conservative values completely at odds with Holden’s liberal leanings. While it might have helped the picture — to some degree — it meant the two vowed to never again appear together. Take it for what it’s worth.

Otherwise, The Horse Soldiers is as enjoyable as a Civil War film can be. Rather unbelievably, this is the only feature-length Civil War film that Ford would ever do. Pictorially it’s about as arresting as most anything he conceived during the period. However, this one doesn’t feel like a commentary or really like it’s trying to make any kind of statement. It’s also easy to call into question some of the character mechanics as detailed by the script.

There are some people who live and others who die. Good deeds are committed and likewise, evil. People hate each other and some fall in love. Sometimes in the same instance. Such is the blurred landscape of a “civil war” — a term that forever has been questioned due to its very oxymoronic nature.

John Ford himself was even more cantankerous than usual because his doctor had forbidden him from drinking and the loss of a stuntman in the climactic battle scenes only soured matters. It’s a fair assumption the picture may have suffered as a result with the director tiring of the project in the end, all but cutting production short. Regardless, it’s a generally agreeable adventure plucked out of history and touched up for the viewing public in exhilarating fashion. There needn’t be more to it.

3.5/5 Stars

The Country Girl (1954)

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Yet another example of the prevalent trend of turning plays into film adaptations, director George Seaton took Clifford Odett’s eponymous work and plugged in three stars to carry the weight. Without question, the allure of The Country Girl is purely the trifecta of stars it assembles. Yes, it’s stagebound but the talent is certainly present.

William Holden is sturdy even intense when he needs to be as stage director Bernie Dodd, intent on recasting his new play The Land Around Us after his initial choice didn’t pan out. It’s a tough break but if they get it together, there’s still enough time to right the ship before the opening. He willingly takes a chance on a has-been named Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby) even fighting for him despite the criticisms of his producer. He has visions of what the man was and could be again, not the pitiful mess standing before him.

Holden slides relatively easily into the role based on prior expectations. This might be due in part to his work with Billy Wilder. The dark edges of Sunset Blvd. (1950) and Stalag 17 (1953) create almost a seamless continuity that fit with this narrative as well.

It’s the other two names on the marquee who might well surprise some viewers. It has song and dance like High Society (1956) made two years later, but this is an entirely different beast, functioning as an embittered drama more than anything else. Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly appear as you’ve rarely seen them before, if ever.

Elgin, for one, is a hopeless alcoholic, his confidence is shot, and he and his wife live in a humble flat getting by on his demeaning work doing radio jingles. It’s a far cry from the audience he used to command. I’ve never seen Crosby in anything so daring, even detrimental to the image that he cultivated his entire career.

The man puts up a happy-go-lucky facade for everyone else as his wife sees him slowly deteriorating from nerves and alcohol abuse behind closed doors. But by being a people pleaser he’s constantly tearing up his wife’s reputation with his lies. Because this is a story where the wife gets turned into a villain.

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But Grace Kelly stands bravely in opposition to the tall tales her insecure husband spins about her in the presence of others. Because it’s true he has projected all his fears and shortcomings onto her. She is in most regards everything he is not. There’s nothing flashy in her portrayal. It’s not the usual image of Grace Kelly, alluring elegance head to toe. The ultimate shorthand comes when we are introduced to her wearing glasses, those objects meant to conceal beauty behind their frames.

This is a movie of all sorts of misconceptions and little white lies cultivated by Elgin. He is the source of all the marital strain and hopelessness in his life, failing to let go of past trauma and bounce back. Critics make or break it for him. His skin is paper thin and his liver is getting doused night after night. The only chance he has is the stability of his wife and even she is brought to her breaking point. No thanks to him.

The most interesting theme making its way through the story stems from Bernie as he takes on righteous indignation against Mrs. Elgin, a woman he believes to have sucked her husband dry of all he has to offer. His continual clouded judgments are a testament to seeing only what he wants to see. Because the man is always the truth-teller and always right. It is the female who causes strife and selfishly stretches the truth due to insecurities and petty jealousy. It’s an easy enough narrative to write and for a man to swallow, horribly regressive as it is. But it’s just this version of the story that unearths these underlying biases.

Upon reevaluation, Mrs. Elgin is a far more nuanced and stalwart woman than Dodd would have ever given her credit for. He’s also rightfully humbled in the realization he made a grave error in judgment.

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By the picture’s end, he’s in love with this woman he once wrote off — the faithful wife of his star — and that could be the final twist of The Country Girl. He really wants it. She shares an affection for him too, no doubt. But that’s just it. She is a loyal wife and stays by her husband’s side in his successes just as she did throughout all his failures. We look at such behavior and through a modern lens, it seems needlessly sacrificial.

What does she owe him? Why should she forego what makes her fleetingly happy for a man who gave her more heartache than joy as of late? Is this just another instance of the subservient woman being kept down? These are certainly valid opinions. However, one could make the case more vehemently still this woman, this country girl, is driven by a sense of goodness, of sacrificial love, and a moral framework allowing her to perceive the situation with immense lucidity. This is a way she might bless her husband.

If marriage is to still stand for anything, we would expect the same from her husband if ever the tables were turned. That he might be willing to reciprocate for her someday. In this regard, it’s a moving reminder of the bonds of matrimony. Grace Kelly though less extravagant gives one of the most quietly assured performances of her meteoric career which blooms into a boon of emotional sensitivity. She never ceases to captivate.

3.5/5 Stars

THIS IS MY POST IN THE 4TH WONDERFUL GRACE KELLY BLOGATHON PUT ON BY THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA AND THE FLAPPER DAME! 

Picnic (1955)

Original_movie_poster_for_the_film_PicnicIt’s easy to assume that Picnic is a film that time had not been very kind to. If you do a cursory glance at contemporary reviews, the majority appear far from glowing and my own reason for returning to this romance was based on a mild interest in a cultural artifact rather than an actual investment in the film itself.

As such it’s also easy to label Picnic as a contrived melodrama ripe with implausibilities and theatrical notes. One of those hot and sweaty numbers out the Tenessee Williams school of drama. This couldn’t possibly be real life. Even the romance feels a bit thin as if falling in love with someone through a simple dance could actually happen over the course of a single day. Yes, William Holden plays the energizer bunny inside the body of a has-been jock impressively but he’s a bit old for the part. Yes, Kim Novak is an aloof beauty extraordinaire but she still somehow feels out of place as a Kansas beauty queen. Rosalind Russell is and always will be a dynamo.

It’s Labor Day weekend in rural Kansas when drifter Hal Carter (Holden) stumbles off a train to call upon an old college chum named Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson) for a job. Upon his arrival, he offers to get rid of a lady’s trash in exchange for a meal.

Due to the summer heat, it seems reasonable enough that the kindly old woman (Verna Felton) tells him to strip down to the waist but a shirtless William Holden makes a stir in town from the very first ogle. Of course, it works both ways. Madge (Novak) is the local beauty and her endlessly concerned mother wants her eldest daughter to use her looks to get a nice young man like Alan.

That’s one of the prevailing notions of the times. Women must get married. They must find a nice man with means and do it while they’re young and time is still in their favor. Better yet if they’re desirable.

The alternative is winding up like Millie (Susan Strasberg), Madge’s younger sister, who keeps her nose in books, having already landed a scholarship to college while disdaining boys and avoiding them like the plague. Further still, there’s the fate of winding up like the local school teacher, the histrionic Rosemarie (Russell) who boards with the Owens and yearns for a dream man to replace the scruffy but nevertheless good-natured Howard Bevans (Arthur O’Connell), who frequently calls on her. Consequently,  Ms. Potts is one of the most agreeable characters and seems the most fulfilled (even without a husband).

However, the arrival of Hal draws out such a visible reaction from all the other women he meets and it feels severe but more than anything you can see it as wholly representative of the sexual repression of the age. It’s so jarring since in some respects the magnetism of Carter feels relatively tame and the outcry against him uncalled for but that comes out of our own sex-saturated culture.

Upon ruminating on the movie a bit longer I began to consider what it truly means when we label a film to be “dated.” We look at scenes in Picnic and are quick to write them off as an indication of the time. Maybe it’s a bit of the historian coming out in me but isn’t that part of the magic of a film like this? It can act as a time capsule. It can come to us from the era it was made in. What’s wrong with that?

As usual James Wong Howe’s color photography does an impeccable job of giving us a sense of what that life was like as does the direction of Joshua Logan since the stage version of Picnic had been his baby. They interpret the quality times that communities have together with bands, songs, games, and the best kind of food made by the most loving hands.

People called on one another, courted, were generally courteous, and there was a sense of integrity. Yes, people were often frustrated and uncomfortable but we could say the same about today too, except now the same feelings come for different reasons. Neither a culture of asceticism nor utter hedonism will find us completely content.

In the end, I stole a page out of the Astaire & Rogers musicals to try and comprehend Picnic. Unquestionably the “Moonglow” sequence is beloved and I think we can look at it utilizing a certain lens. In an age that was supposedly “repressed” a dance was a highly evocative way to express the passion of two people and like many of the most guttural cinematic sequences, this one is visually impactful with nary a line of dialogue allowing us to be captured fully in the moment.

Howe’s final stroke of ingenuity is to show our two lovers simultaneously riding off by train and bus to their life together, within the same frame. Whether they can make it work and be happy is still in question. But part of the beauty of this existence is that we each have to make our own path in the pursuit of love and everything else that’s worth living for. To use an unforgivable metaphor, life isn’t always a picnic but the dance of life will continue regardless.

3.5/5 Stars

MY ENTRY IN THE 3RD GOLDEN BOY BLOGATHON!

Sabrina (1954) – A Lovely Fairy Tale

sabrina1Sabrina, Sabrina where have you been all my life?  ~ William Holden as David Larabee

I never understood that incessantly observable trope that permeates all forms of media where the blonde is far superior to the brunette. Aside from being highly superficial, it’s simply not the case. If anything, Audrey Hepburn is the blatant exception to that rule. She turns any such presumption on its head because simply put, she is absolutely stunning. There’s a reason why she is one of the most photographed and iconic figures of all time. Her style is different than a Marilyn Monroe, a Sophia Loren or an Elizabeth Taylor because it exudes a certain demure quality. She’s glamorous in spite of a certain unassuming humility. And she’s what makes Sabrina work because she embodies Sabrina Fairchild.

The film begins with a bit of narration that feels like it’s setting up a modern fairy tale, and it really is. Sabrina recounts the life of a young girl who lives above the garages where her father is a chauffeur. He faithfully serves the well-to-do Larabee family,  and he’s content in his life. But his daughter is hardly so lucky. From an early age, she has carried a girlish crush on the younger Larabee brother David (William Holden), a womanizing, ogling playboy who seems like the unattainable dream for young Sabrina. He sees her as a child, and she worships the ground he treads on. Nor can she stand any of his female companions. Ironically, none of his conquests are good enough for him, in her estimation. But unrequited love, even young love, is a bitter pill to swallow and Sabrina hardly takes it well. The ode to Maurice Chevalier’s “Isn’t It Romantic” is the ultimate irony at this point in our storyline.

Then comes the fateful day that her father sends her off to learn the skills to become a world-class French chef like her late mother. Sabrina is unhappy in her work, cracking eggs, making souffles, and so on. But over time, David is less of a weight on her heart. She still thinks of him, but she also begins to grow into her life and truly flourish.

She left a girl and she comes back as Audrey Hepburn, immaculately radiant in a wardrobe crafted by her lifelong designer Hubert de Givenchy. David and the audience cannot help but marvel at this vision standing at the train station with her prized pooch, who by no small coincidence is also named David.

When all the pieces fall into place, the love-struck man is bowled away to find out that this is young Sabrina, the girl he never gave a second thought to. He’s ready to wine and dine her, to present her with the fantasy romance that she has always wanted and only he can offer. The dreams she always wished for in her youth are coming true before her very eyes.

But it’s David’s stuffy brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) who steps in at this point, stage right. He’s the respectable and pragmatic one. He runs the family company and oversees their business. His latest project is a merger which will prove mutually beneficial but to help proceedings along he’s looking to marry off David to the daughter of his prospective business partner.

Sabrina stands in the way of his plans and as a proper businessman, he deals accordingly. David is holed up with injuries sustained sitting on champagne glasses, so Linus swoops in. He doesn’t seem like the wining and dining type, but he does it all in the name of sending Sabrina off to Paris again. He wants to get rid of her to salvage his merger, but he too falls under her spell. That sweetly serene personality matched with those pair of doe eyes melt any man’s heart. Still, duty calls and he admits to Ms. Fairchild just how much of a cad he has been. But now he’s a cad who truly has feelings for her. There’s no denying it. David sees it. The audience sees it. Now only Linus must acknowledge it himself. However, now we have a love triangle with time running out, and that’s when drastic action is necessary. After all, you cannot let a girl like Sabrina Fairchild, aka Audrey Hepburn, slip through your fingers.

In truth, Sabrina is easily overshadowed by Hepburn’s shining entrance in Roman Holiday and not as well remembered as her iconic personas in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or say My Fair Lady, but it is hardly a lesser film. It brings together some of the best talents you could hope for from one of the most preeminent of Hollywood directors.

Certainly, you can make a very strong case that the casting of the male leads was questionable. Bill Holden fits the playboy role well enough, but Bogart was perhaps not quite stuffy enough and far too old to be playing Hepburn’s love interest. In fact, the part was initially to go to Cary Grant. However, we got Bogey, and he’s worth a watch whatever the film and so it is with Sabrina, allowing him to reveal a little bit of his softer side. Furthermore, Billy Wilder will always and forever be the master of weaving stories together. His skill as a scriptwriter extends perfectly into his self-assured direction that gives us a thoroughly delightful comedy. Romance wins out over any dose of cynicism, and it all fits together nicely–a lovely fairy tale.

4/5 Stars

Review: Shane (1953)

shane1Jackson Hole, Wyoming and the looming Tetons lend the same iconic majesty to this western that Monument Valley does for many of Ford’s best pictures. But then again, George Stevens was another master and he too was changed by the war, coming back with a different tone and an “American Trilogy” that included some of his best work. Shot in Technicolor, this picture boasts more than wide open spaces and raw Midwestern imagery. Stevens has some wonderfully constructed sequences and there are a number of great characters to inhabit them.

Shane is the eponymous gunman who is content to linger in the background while others become the focal point. Namely, Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), a man who came to the untamed land due to the Homestead Act and won’t let the rancher Stryker muscle them off the land that he believes is rightfully theirs. Despite this being her final film — and a favor to her previous collaborator Stevens — Jean Arthur is as wonderful as ever. The character Marian is brimming with goodness and a sensitivity that is hard to discount. It’s a part very different than her earlier work and yet she plays it so wonderfully. As for newcomer Brandon De Wilde, he’s an astute little actor and we really see this world through his eyes, so he does wonders to hold the story together.

Grafton’s general store and saloon become a wonderful arena of conflict within the film because it is rather like Ryker’s stomping ground since he and his men can always be found lounging around there when they aren’t terrorizing some poor sodbuster. After he agrees to work for Starrett, Shane goes into town for new duds, leaving his gun behind, and he quickly learns what he’s in for. It’s in such a scene that we learn who this man really is. He’s not a hot-head and he initially takes the abuse of Stryker’s guns, who call him out for purchasing soda pop. It’s for the boy Joey, but he doesn’t have to say that, because he needs not prove himself, at least not yet. Also, the relationship between Shane and Marian might be troubling to some — will they fall for each other — but when Ryker makes insinuations about Starrett’s wife, Shane is quick to shut him up. He’s not that kind of man. When Shane does return to the store, he’s prepared this time for retaliation and although it might not have been the smartest thing, it sure is gratifying for him and for the audience. He and Starrett make a killer team, after all, beaten and bruised as they end up.

shane2What follows is retribution from Stryker as he tries to buy out, threaten, and continually lean on the sodbusters, but Starrett remains resolute in keeping his friends together. In fact, there’s still time to share a wonderful Fourth of July dance with all the neighbors and it shows signs of a brighter, happier time that could be possible. With neighbors joining together in simple community and sharing life together. Shane feels somewhat out of place in this type of environment, and maybe deep down he knows it too, but he seems oddly content.

This happy time is juxtaposed with the funeral of ornery “Stonewall” (Elisha Cook Jr.), who was gunned down near the saloon by hired gun Jack Wilson (Jack Palance). His death is making some of the others jumpy, but once again Starrett keeps his group together, by first giving their former friend a proper burial and banding together once more. But by this point, they’re barely hanging on. Stryker’s got them on the run and Joe knows he needs to have it out with his arch-nemesis once and for all if things are ever going to return to the status quo. His dreams of ending this whole thing are ludicrous because there is no way he can get out alive. His wife knows it. He knows it, but it doesn’t stop him and his American Dream.

shane3It’s interesting how Shane at first does not try to stop him, but then he gets tipped off to what awaits Joe, and he decides to go in his place. This is his arena after all. The gun we all fawn over is finally getting put to use as Shane rides into town for the final showdown to have it out with the men in the saloon. However, although the shootout is intense it ends very quickly. Thus, what is really interesting are the moments beforehand where friend is literally fighting friend. Both doing what they think is right. However, since Joey only thinks in absolutes, when he sees Shane hit his father over the back of the head, he initially reacts with hatred towards his fallen hero. He doesn’t understand why all this is necessary. But as time goes on and he sees events unfold, he gets it.

As Shane rides off into the night, Joey yells after him to come back, he cannot bear for this idolized man to ride off. It makes me wonder if young Joey grew up with the image of Shane, the hero of his childhood. The doer of good and the ultimate champion of the oppressed.

The cast was rounded out nicely by some solid supporting players like Palance, Ben Johnson, Edgar Buchanan, Elisha Cook Jr., and down to Ellen Corby and even Nancy Kulp. It’s astounding to think that this film could have starred Monty Clift and William Holden potentially with Katharine Hepburn as well. Because, after all, the casting of Shane feels just right. Clift would have brought depth and emotional chops to the role, as a wonderfully impassioned actor. Just look at George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (1951) for proof of that. However, what Alan Ladd has is a serenity and simple goodness that still somehow suggests something under the surface. It begs the question, how can someone so upright make a living packing a six-shooter? No doubt I like Holden better as an actor, but Heflin has the scruffy outdoors-man look, while still reflecting high ideals. Hepburn just does not seem to fit a western. This is one of the instances when all the pieces seemed to fit into place and we were blessed by a western classic that never seems to lose its luster. In a sense, we become boys again like Joey, completely in awe of Shane. Let us revel in that feeling, that moment of innocence once more.

5/5 Stars

Union Station (1950)

unionstation1Although it features the pairing of William Holden and Nancy Olsen, Union Station certainly is no Sunset Boulevard, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s a modest procedural of 80 minutes, but it has a gritty realism that is rather reminiscent of Pickup on South Street (1953) or The Naked City (1947). This is ironic since it’s hardly believable and yet it still ropes us in. The story goes something like this.

A young woman  (Olsen) says goodbye to a blind friend and later after she boards a train, she sees two suspicious men board the same car as her. At the final destination of Union Station, she goes to lead cop Willie Calhoun (Holden) who uses his network of plainclothesman to investigate and tail the men. As it turns out, the blind girl has been kidnapped and a ransom is put up for her at $100,000. Her father is understandably desperate to get her back and does whatever he is relayed to do. He remains in contact with Calhoun and the Inspector named Donnelly (Barry Fitzgerald) who resolve to get his daughter back and apprehend the perpetrator.

However, the man they are dealing with has been around the block a few times, and he is well acquainted with Union Station. Thus, the station becomes the main point of interest in the film evolving from less of a game of cat and mouse to a chess match. Men are tailed aboard trains, in terminals and everywhere else. When one man leaves another takes his place, eyes are always watching and the beauty of it all is you can never tell who is a policeman and who is not in the veritable mass of humanity. But it goes the other way too.

The ransom is ultimately set to go down at Union Station and just in the nick of time, Calhoun catches a break. All that’s left is to chase down the mastermind, but it’s not so easy as he also has the blind girl Lorna stashed away. Calhoun must race to apprehend the culprit while also getting to Lorna first. It’s a photo finish.

Did I say already that Union Station employs a gritty realism? Well, it does, and it is full of slimy criminal types pitted against no-nonsense cops who are not opposed to using rough methods if necessary. Willie Calhoun is the number one tough guy and he’s relentless in his job as the intense finale suggest. Donnelly is a character blessed with the voice of a Leprechaun thanks to Fitzgerald and believe me that’s a compliment. He’s a personable, mentoring type who is a nice compliment to Holden. Inquisitive Joyce Willecombe is necessary to get the plot rolling and also as the love interests, but Nancy Olsen gives an appeal that reaches farther than that.

Enough said, now take a trip down memory lane to Union Station where you are sure to be lost with the masses in this engaging procedural.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

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“Yes, this is Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California. It’s about five o’clock in the morning. That’s the Homicide Squad – complete with detectives and newspapermen. A murder has been reported from one of those great big houses in the ten thousand block. You’ll read about it in the late editions, I’m sure. You’ll get it over your radio and see it on television because an old-time star is involved – one of the biggest. But before you hear it all distorted and blown out of proportion, before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you’d like to hear the facts, the whole truth.”

So begins one of the most caustic dramas ever constructed in Hollywood, or about Hollywood, and it was gifted to us by screenwriter-director extraordinaire Billy Wilder. His previous hard-edged film noir Double Indemnity had its own cynical narrator with a memorable voice-over of his own. However, Walter Neff was only on the verge of dying. When we hear the voice of Joe Gillis he is already speaking from the grave. It is a fantastic angle in which to look at this seemingly perfect Hollywood construction, and Gillis never ceases to tell his story until we wind up at the pool as the story comes to a close.

For now, we learn that six months back Joe (William Holden)  is a writer who is having difficulties being published, and some men want to repossess his car. Desperate, he pays a visit to a friend at Paramount named Mandrake to pitch an idea, but the script is of little merit according to a pretty young script reader. That’s a dead end so Joe leaves, but the men are waiting for him and he zooms away. A flat tire leads him to drive away into an empty garage connected to a dilapidated old mansion on Sunset Boulevard. 

There he is mistakenly introduced to drama queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who used to be big on the silent screen, back in the day. Now all she has is money, fan letters, and old memories to rehash, while her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) watches over her. The theatrical actress believes her big comeback is soon at hand, and when she learns Joe is a writer, she takes an interest. He needs the money so he takes a look at the rough script meant to be a vehicle for her. A small commitment turns into a life-consuming undertaking. Desmond constantly hovers and dotes over Joe, going so far as having his things moved into her home and buying him new clothes and trinkets. He reluctantly accepts the first class treatment, not minding the cushy lifestyle. But to Norma, it’s more. 

He is her closest companion. Her love. Joe cannot bear to tell her that she is washed up and that there will never be anything between them. He ditches her intimate New Years party for a more friendly affair where he crosses path with his old bud Artie (Jack Webb) and his girl, the previously critical script girl Betty Schaeffer (Nancy Olson). She takes an interest in a few of his past ideas, but he does not, and after getting shocking news from Max he is pulled back to his lavish prison.

Eventually, Norma is prepared to drop off her script with her former collaborator the great Cecil B. DeMille. However, it becomes all too clear that her story will amount to nothing, but her friend cannot bear to break her heart. She is sent off again with the strong conviction that her day is coming. Makeover’s, diets, and facials follow in preparation. Joe is indifferent to it all and secretly begins working at nights with Betty on a new screenplay. 

Desmond finds the script and jealousy takes over, causing her to call Betty to ruin the romance that is rapidly budding there. Joe hears it all and angrily tells the disbelieving Betty to come see his set-up on Sunset Boulevard. He acts as if he likes the life, and Betty leaves broken-hearted. Soon after, a fed-up Joe packs his bags to head back to Ohio. Thus, begins the systematic breakdown that we had expected for so long. Norma Desmond completely falls apart and does the one thing she knows to hold on. 

Back in the present the crowds and journalists have turned out to see the has-been movie star who is stark raving mad, and one last time Norma does not disappoint. She glides seamlessly down the stairs with a serenely ethereal look on her face before preparing for her closeup. So ends the career of one Norma Desmond and the life of Joe Gillis. We can only hope that Betty got together again with Artie, otherwise this would remain one of the bleakest tales of all time.

However, that is part of the power of this film. It is strangely dark and ominous. Franz Waxman’s score is fit for a Gothic melodrama and Desmond’s mansion is a creaky old foreboding castle that hardly sees the light of day. Max is a solemn figure who we learn brought Norma stardom, married her, got divorced, and then could not live without her. Joe Gillis gets caught in a cycle he cannot get out of, and in the middle of the whole mess is Desmond herself. She is so preoccupied with herself, so obsessed with her own former glory, and yet she is a lonely, insecure aging actress. In many ways, she is Citizen Kane’s female counterpoint. A person with so much money, prestige, and power who slowly drifts away into oblivion without anyone caring except ravenous journalists. Much in the same way, although Norma is so petty and vain in so many ways, I cannot help but feel sympathy for her sorry existence. She is an utterly pitiful person in the end. No one deserves her fate.

In this way, Sunset Boulevard seems to critique Hollywood, a place that makes stars like Norma Desmond and spits them back out just as easily. It is not easily figured out or understood it just does at is pleases. For instance, Billy Wilder became an immigrant writer and director of great repute. Cecil B. Demille was a longtime respected director. Erich von Stroheim had early success with silent films then had to turn to acting. Gloria Swanson was a silent star then struggled in the 1930s. William Holden broke out in the 30s, hit his peak in the 1950s and continued to act into the 70s. Nancy Olson went on to make a few classic Disney movies and Jack Webb, of course, went on to create the TV Show Dragnet. Each Hollywood career starkly different from the others. 

 There is also such an authenticity in this film so much so that sometimes the line between fiction and reality is blurred. First, Wilder cast Gloria Swanson to play former silent star Norma Desmond in the film, so it seems like she is playing herself (Complete with old promotional photos and silent footage). He also had appearances by both von Stroheim and Demille, who had each directed Swanson in her silent days. Some of Desmond’s bridge friends include other real silent stars including Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner, and the legendary Buster Keaton (His career had also crumbled). Even gossip columnist Hedda Hopper gets into the mix to tell the tragic story of Desmond, and it all works. 

So whether you watch Sunset Boulevard for the Hollywood angle, or as a film-noir, or a love story, or a tragic drama, the beauty of it, is that it functions as all of those things simultaneously. Gloria Swanson is absolutely loopy, William Holden is as cynical as ever with his smoked-out gravelly voice. Von Stroheim is haunting as the faithful Max, and Nancy Olson is the one young friendly face in juxtaposition with Swanson. Billy Wilder’s script with Charles Brackett is inspired a multitude of times, but instead of telling you I will give you a taste: 

“There once was a time in this business when I had the eyes of the whole world! But that wasn’t good enough for them, oh no! They had to have the ears of the whole world too. So they opened their big mouths and out came talk. Talk! TALK!”

That’s Norma Desmond in a nutshell for you. That’s Sunset Blvd.

5/5 Stars

Sabrina (1954)

Starring Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, and William Holden, with director Billy Wilder, the film begins with Sabrina (Hepburn) as a young girl. She lives with her father who is a chauffeur for a rich family. Sabrina loves the younger playboy son (Holden) however he gives her no serious attention. Depressed, Sabrina wants to kill herself and her father decides to send her off to culinary school in France. Some time passes and the grown up Sabrina is a perfect lady. Soon she catches the eye of Holden back home and all her dreams come true when they spend time together at a party. However, his older practical brother (Bogart) does not like it one bit since Holden has a fiancee. Wanting to get Sabrina away from his brother, Linus wines and dines her so the strategic wedding will stay on schedule. He then gives her a one way ticket and sends her off. Only afterward does he realize his own feelings for Sabrina and thus he decides to follow her. This film overall is a charming romance that is worth seeing.

4/5 Stars