Review: Network (1976)

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“We’re not talking about eternal truth or absolute truth or ultimate truth! We’re talking about impermanent, transient, human truth! I don’t expect you people to be capable of truth! But, you’re at least capable of self-preservation! That’s good enough!” – Peter Finch as Howard Beale.

Throwing around the term auteur and you’ve already set yourself up for a grievous debate with some diehard cinephile. There are those ardent disciples as well as those who vehemently oppose what they deem a simplistic notion.

Because the main tenet is that the auteur or “author” who exacts his vision on a movie is namely the director. However, if there was ever a subject to cast in the role of “screenwriter as auteur,” Paddy Chayefsky just might be the perfect candidate. He came of age in the medium of television, an adamant humanist and purveyor of social realism. His most prominent work of those early years being the heart-warming classic Marty, which first starred Rod Steiger and then did great things for Ernest Borgnine in the film adaptation.

Network is conveyed by a veteran Chayefsky who has weathered the industry for a long spell now and looking at it presently, we observe his wry bit of commentary. Because the beast of a medium made him but he seems to derive some glee from confronting it head-on. He’s taken the systems in place and very conveniently added his own spin.

Along with the Big Three, CBS, NBC, ABC, he has created his own outlier, a dark horse, and the littlest giant UBS. The landscape is one familiar to anyone who lived through the 70s. Nixon got the can. There have been two recent attempts on President Ford’s life. It’s the wake of Watergate and Vietnam, with the throes of inflation and depression. America is looking for an escape valve for their dissatisfaction.

I’d like to think that the world of The Mary Tyler Moore Show has some semblance of truth to it with its camaraderie and the humanity of its comedy, but then we see Network and are provided another harsh alternative that bears the uneasy feeling of its own truth.

In this same world of civil unrest, television networks with their programming regimens and new shows are bloated with all sorts of agendas. You have the continually clashing horns between warring executives and self-serving angles in their neverending quest for higher ratings and a bigger share of the viewing public.

Max Schumacher (William Holden) is a remnant of television’s bygone era where men like Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite were symbolic purveyors of truth in all facets of America. Maybe the nation was naive but at least they believed in something. Times have changed. Sensationalism and stories to stir up some form of controversy are of particular interest especially with Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) who aims to use such material to bolster the network’s abysmal ratings.

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Meanwhile, abrasive big whig Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) is tired of the news divisions lackluster performance and he’s ready to instigate some new changes within the business conglomerate. Schumacher feels slighted as his former allies seem to crumble around him.

Now’s about a good as time as any to introduce Howard Beale (Peter Finch). He’s one of Max’s best friends from the old days and due to plummeting ratings, he’s being given the ax. I never felt sorry for Howard Beale before because he’s so often lost in the shuffle of the movie. He’s used by not only the network but the film itself as a kind of diatribe. It seems like the man is all but forgotten.

Finch plays the role so pitifully at times and that becomes easily overshadowed by his attention-getting histrionics.  However, when he makes his initial announcement that he will take his life on air, in two weeks time, it’s very matter-of-fact. There’s little agenda to it. Here’s a man who’s lost his wife and now is losing his job after 11 years of service to the network. Soon he’ll have nothing. The utter disinterest in his plight is what’s most striking when you look down the line of producers and behind-the-scenes employees who sit in the dark in front of the monitors chatting rather than actually paying attention to their anchor. Apathy seems to reign.

Simultaneously, Christensen is exploding with hairbrained schemes of inspired lunacy that she seems all too serious about enacting, from a docudrama called The Mao Tse-Tung Hour to keeping Howard Beale on the airwaves. She’s the foremost proponent of angry shows to articulate the angst of the general public through counterculture and anti-establishment programming. That’s her agenda.

In this very way, Network is a film of bewildering disillusionment in the world full of crises and absent of reason and maybe even God. Howard is a voice to all those absurdities and when he calls B.S. he turns the heads of the entire country. It blows up but as any publicity is good publicity, Diana convinces her boss to keep the mad prophet on. She positions Howard Beale as a prescient even messianic figure calling out the hypocrisies of the age. Her boss openly objects, “We’re talking about putting a manifestly irresponsible man on television,” which Dunaway promptly nods her head in response to. Maybe she’s a bit crazy in her own right.

Then, when the fad keeps on going and he’s now got people yelling out their windows or sending their grievances straight to the White House, Christensen is complaining that he’s too irascible, not apocalyptic enough, recommending some writers be brought on to pen some juicy jeremiads for him to spout off. In spite of the ludicrous nature of it all, the results speak. Soon Howard Beale’s antics have landed him 4th in the Nielsen ratings surpassed by only The Six Million Dollar Man, All in The Family, and Phyllis.

Hackett is deliriously happy about the success and becomes power hungry. But as Beale’s sole friend still kicking, Schumacher can’t help but feel Howard’s being used, even as he himself gets involved with Diana (she harbored a girlish crush on him in college).

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The film’s trajectory seems all but predestined. The fad of Howard Beale begins to wane and ratings go down with him. Max Schumacher’s job and then his marriage go down the tubes as well, all because of Diana. For her part, Diana is so completely consumed by her work that everything, even her personal life, works in scripts. However, the rendition of The Blue Angel that she’s unwittingly been playing with Max doesn’t end as she initially thought.

As a satire of the medium we know as television, Network certainly has few equals. Chayefsky spends a good spell of time orating off his soapbox as he does in many of his pictures. The ideas are there. The words are coming from voices and we’re taking them in and they are spiced with rhetoric and wit. If anything one can marvel at his work even when it doesn’t take. It bears his mark.

The one thing about Network that is still harrowing today are the mere implications. Television was being considered an institution systematically destroying everything it touches through its manipulation and backstabbing industry practices. It only exasperates the situation by breeding a public that’s both vacuous and apathetic. There is no call for human decency anymore. There are no true glory days. People are depressed, lonely, bitter, and helpless. If that all came to pass, theoretically, because of a box sitting in a family’s living room, 21 inches in size, that could be turned off, and had bad reception more often than not, what is the internet doing to us?

Now we’re in constant interface with our devices, warring for our attention and promising us comfort and convenience. Meanwhile, our ghost machines suck us dry. We’re shells of human beings. There are some figures in Network that I dislike, played most convincingly by Duvall and Ned Beatty. They seem opportunistic, crass, and merciless. But most everyone else of note I feel somewhat sorry for. The Max Schumachers, the Diana Christensens, and of course the Howard Beales. What did we do to deserve this madness?

4/5 Stars

Executive Suite (1954)

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Executive Suite is a story of the high rise corporate jungle where on a daily basis it’s a Darwinian experiment not only pitting company against company but, on a microscale, man against man. After all, in the most cynical sense, that’s what free market capitalism is.

Top to bottom, the film boasts rich reservoirs of talent from sure-handed director Robert Wise and screenwriting newcomer Ernest Lehman who would soon be a hot commodity in the industry thanks to the likes of The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and North by Northwest (1959).

It also proves to be an All-Star cast if there ever was one,  stacked with at least 10 easily recognizable names rounding out a lineup which could go toe-to-toe with any other drama of the decade on talent alone. Such a bevy of stars hearkens back to the golden years of MGM in the 1930s before television was ever a thing and they had as many stars as there were stars in the sky.

Today Executive Suite admittedly doesn’t get much coverage as a drama because, in spite of its vast ensemble, it’s not necessarily grandiose or vibrant, even compared to later Wise successes like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). However, this in no way should downplay its striking qualities and there are some compelling ones.

Out of all the stylistic choices, one of the most noticeable ones and, subsequently, unusual decisions for the era is the absence of any form of traditional musical scoring. In this regard, we could say the scenes are not manipulated by any amount of sonorousness. What we see is making some claim at authenticity with street noise in lieu of diegetic sound and Chet Huntley introducing our narrative set in the upper echelons of a skyscraper.

Though a bit gimmicky by today’s standards, Wise does immediately catch our eyes with an extended POV shot taking on the perspective of an unseen big wig name Bulliard, the formidable head of Tredway Furniture Co. He’s coming back to town and has slated a meeting for that same evening, upon his return. Except something highly unsuspected happens. One might blame the taxing strain of his work but he winds up dropping dead in the street. Some scrounger conveniently picks up his discarded wallet, making any form of identification more difficult for the police.

The company is thrown into an uproar following his sudden and untimely death, especially because there is no true contingency plan as the deceased had no single, hand-picked second-in-command.

Nina Foch is the secretary managing a vast network of information, funneling down to all the executive suite. She is the runner between offices and boardrooms, relaying the information to all the necessary contacts as Bulliard’s right-hand assistant.

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They gather for their impromptu meeting. There’s Frederick Y. Alderson (Walter Pidgeon), a career man who has been by the side of his friend Mr. Bulliard for many, many years now. Loren Shaw (Frederic March) is a relatively new addition to the company but as chief controller and a shrewd numbers man; he’s been able to up the annual earnings at Tredway as of late.

J. Walter Dudley (Paul Douglas) is the charismatic head of sales who could talk anyone into buying just about anything. He’s that good. Of course, his dirty little secret is he’s been embroiled in an affair with his secretary (Shelley Winters).

The ambitious young family man Don Walling (William Holden) holds a more hands-on position in the factory, overseeing design and development while the old warhorse, Mr. Grimm (Dean Jagger), is in charge of manufacturing. However, with their product going down in quality to cut expenses, he’s got an idea to retire. He holds no pride in his work anymore.

Between all these men and the opportunistic snake-in-the-grass, George Caswell (Louis Calhern), we have the gathering of the top brass and quality acting talent. It’s a bountiful proposition getting all these people in a room together. And when the news breaks it’s essentially an exhibition of “who died and made you king” as the factions scramble into action, assembling to vie for some form of supremacy.

Shaw is the first man spurred into action in the wake of Bulliard’s death because though Alderson holds private aspirations, he resigns himself to acquiescence. But that doesn’t mean they’re going down without a fight. Walling plays the number games late at night trying to figure where everyone stands. He confides in his wife (June Allyson) and plays catch with his son but his work-life balance is suffering. His wife worries the instability will bury him professionally.

It’s true the names are continually interchanging thanks to dirty politics and a plethora of finagling, leveraging, and leaning to line everything up for the impending nominations session to be undertaken on a closed ballot.

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In a man’s world, it’s fitting that Barbara Stanwyck would be the only woman with any sway on the meeting of the mind’s thanks to her stock holdings in her father’s company, which Bulliard helped appreciate. She doesn’t have much screentime but her very financial capital makes her crucial to the picture as an unpredictable swing vote. Her wild card and some late arrivals obscure the resolution to the last possible instant in thrilling fashion.

It’s true Henry Fonda was up for a part in the movie and that inkling gives me a rather obvious realization. Executive Suite does play like a bigger, loftier version of 12 Angry Men (1957). Especially in its most crucial minutes. Far be it from me to say people sitting around a boardroom table cannot be interesting because once more I was invested in what decision was arrived upon and I knew it took every one of those actors around that table to make it stick.

Someone has to rise to the occasion and that person is William Holden, positioned as the initially hesitant one, dismissed as still inexperienced, and yet he has a vision the others lack. He’s not a tired old man. He’s not driven solely by profits or bitter over past affronts.

He’s looking beyond to new territory and a future where the company can prosper not simply because of penny-pinching but an actual pride in the quality of the product they can offer their customers. If you wanted to make a sweeping statement, you could say he, even momentarily, redeems the American Dream, a symbol of the American everyman with his white picket fence, beautiful wife, and high ideals. That is until the next board meeting happens. But I would like to think he is capable as a leader for change. It’s true we need people like him in this world of ours.

4/5 Stars

Review: Stalag 17 (1953)

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I grew up with Hogan’s Heroes reruns on our Magnavox analog television. In fact, at one point it was my favorite show because it had such a colorful cast, it was perennially entertaining and utterly goofy to the extreme. But others have understandably decried the show because they see it finding humor in something that is not very funny. They contend it was making light of the Holocaust and WWII on the whole. Although I do believe this is an oversimplification and I don’t have time to tackle it right now, it’s still an important dialogue to have. I will defer to others for the time being.

The point of discourse I want to take up is Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 because it’s obvious there would be no Hogan’s Heroes without this P.O.W. comedy-drama. The plots, even the characterizations, are eerily similar, close enough to prompt plagiarism lawsuits. But the difference is Hogan functions as pure zaniness carried by the strength of its ensemble where the Germans are utter buffoons. That’s the hallmark of characters like Sergeant Schultz (John Banner) and Kommandant Klink (Werner Klemperer) who are both lovable imbeciles. They will never be allowed victory over Hogan and his allies.

In Wilder’s hands, a P.O.W. camp is silly and light-hearted at times, yes, but it’s also equally dark and cynical. Because what would a Wilder picture be without some pointed comic venom? Two obvious points of reference would have to be the wartime comedy directed by his idol Ernst Lubitsch, To Be or Not to Be (1942), which some would argue employs morbid humor. Then there’s Grande Illusion (1937) starring Erich von Stroheim (featured in Sunset Boulevard) as a prison camp commander who can easily be contrasted with Otto Preminger’s Colonel von Scherberg. In both, you have those evident counterpoints of humor and tragedy exquisitely executed.

Stalag 17′s opening escape attempt of two men is snuffed out by machine gun fire just waiting to mow them down. It’s the definition of unsentimental and it is the first of numerous breakdowns in communication. There is a rat somewhere. There has to be.

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Then, the picture is back to its belly laughs supplied most obviously by Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and his tubby, scruffy buddy Animal (Robert Strauss). They spearhead all of the shenanigans, including a daring attempt to break into the prison camp of Russian women to sneak a peek. You see, Animal’s deeply broken up by his unrequited love for Betty Grable. They bicker with the resident Sergeant Schultz (Sig Ruman), another Hogan’s Heroes precursor, who good-naturedly chortles at all their ribbing. Surely this isn’t anything like how Stalags actually operated?

Wilder’s trademark biting wit is most fully realized in Sefton. For the part he was initially reluctant to take, William Holden donned a crew cut and scruff generally masking his normally dashing features. But this was hardly the aspect making him uneasy about the role.

Sefton is a textbook undesirable. He openly trades with the enemy in an effort to make himself as comfortable as possible. He bets a boatload of cigarettes the two fugitives won’t make it out of the camp and when it proves morbidly correct, he makes a killing.

Likewise, he’s the local wheeler-dealer, maintaining the Stalag 17 rat race turf complete with betting for all the servicemen. His other enterprises include a distillery — a flamethrower of sumptuous potato peel schnapps — and “The Observatory” where all the boys eagerly line up for a tantalizing look at the Russian delousing shack. Conveniently, he’s also the obvious culprit when a stoolie is suspected within their ranks.

It takes all kinds to liven up the joint and make it into a space with real drama to go along with so many lighter notes. We already mentioned Harry and Animal but the Barracks chief is the always reliable Hoffy (Richard Erdman), head of security is Peter Graves, Duke (Neville Brand) is the rough and tumble one who’s not squeamish about having a fist fight. There’s a blond brainiac, the catatonic one, the amputee who uses his spare space to sneak materials in and out of the barracks, and the nasally mailman with a voice to top all voices.

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When a new prisoner named Dunbar (Don Taylor) gets brought in with his copilot (Jay Lawrence), who has a penchant for spot-on impersonations, they receive a hero’s welcome. After all, they helped to sabotage enemy armaments on their way to being captured. But the information leaks continue with their radio being confiscated and Dunbar being called in for questioning, due to his treacherous activities. The SS is coming to take him to Berlin for questioning. If he’s ever going to come out alive the P.O.W.s must make a last ditch effort to try and get him to safety.

Meanwhile, Sefton gets a going over by the whole barracks, which is quickly overshadowed by Christmas in the camp complete with carols, dancing, and parading full of gaiety. It’s meant to lull us into a false sense of security as Sefton is put in his place and things are good again. It all conveniently diverts from something else. Sefton’s not the culprit. Someone else has been communicating with the Germans and tipping them off.

The final confrontation is when the film really puts it all on the line. We find out who the perpetrator is and Sefton’s vindicated in everything, even going out as a kind of hero. Except to the bitter end, he’s never redeemed as a human being. He’s as hard-edged and acerbic as ever and yet to the folks at homes, he’s who will be cast a hero because he did something brave. Holden was uncomfortable with this as much as we are as an audience but Billy Wilder was unflinching and ultimately right in creating this dissonance.

If anything, Stalag 17 as realized by Billy Wilder and his team is a reminder of the harshness and utter absurdity of war. This is how he conceives it — a man who lost his parents to concentration camps and was sent over to his former land to help rebuild it. He probably knew as much as anyone how horrible the Nazi atrocities were but to memorialize every attribute of the Allies as noble would not document the whole truth.

If Sefton’s the poster boy of the war, then we have to take a deep hard look out our ideals and what we stand for. Because, of course, he was the only one not taken in. Everyone else was so quick to accuse him and to see what they wanted to. It’s almost as if a film documenting an aspect of WWII was in the same breathe suggesting what was afoot with the red scare in the rising fury of the Cold War. Heaven forbid a person we don’t like or don’t agree with is not so easy to demonize as “other.”

It’s far too scary to concede they’re probably just like us. They just didn’t have the decency to hide it. Perhaps they’re better because they were not swayed by the clouded judgment of others.

So if I watch Stalag 17 and become turned off by this incongruity between the historical setting, the lightness in tone, and the shock of a generally unsympathetic lead, maybe it says more about my conception of the world than anything wrong with Billy Wilder’s admittedly incisive picture. It’s a scary admission to make but it just might be true.

4.5/5 Stars

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