For Me and My Gal (1942)

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Here is a good old-fashioned American musical that effectively acts as an homage to the vaudevillian circuit that saw many performers realize their talents including numerous future Hollywood icons. At the core is a musical dream team in Judy Garland and Gene Kelly.

Behind the camera is the much revered Busby Berkeley who made musicals into gargantuan extravaganzas thanks to how he managed to capture human forms from above like no one before him. Ironically, here he’s working in a somewhat more conventional and dare I say, informal setting where we get to share the mundane spaces with our stars.

Kelly is Harry Palmer, a man who makes a living clowning around on stage. The arm spinning pirouettes and the athletic moves that defined his style of hoofing are obvious from the outset as are his infectious charm and winning smile. He’s still in the latent stages of his genius but that’s okay. There’s still time.

Judy Garland at this point in her career already had sizable stardom and it was Kelly the Broadway up-and-comer featured in his film debut. But in the ensuing decade, there was no doubt about it whatsoever. They both became quintessential musical stars of a generation along with a select few.

Jo Hayden (Garland) is a song and dance gal who while not having made “The Big Time” yet, still has a noticeable amount of talent. She partners with the good-natured Jimmy Metcalf (George Murphy) who harbors an obvious crush on her. She thinks he’s sweet.

Harry Palmer on the other hand, always seems to be making a fool of himself. A genuine person like her can see right through his come-ons. While her gangly brother (Richard Quine) agrees to finish up his med school, Jo is following her ambitions to get somewhere. She subsequently realizes she does have a bit of chemistry with Palmer on stage after an impromptu performance, if not for the fact that she is already a part of an act.

Jimmy does the noble thing and lets her go as they all have their sights on the Palace Theater in New York City.  You see, it’s the holy grail for vaudeville performers. It means you’ve made it. Palmer is ecstatic when he meets a singer (Martha Eggerth) who already performs there, thinking she might be his in. But he remains true to what he has going with Jo. Still, time and time again they’re playing small towns and their aspirations never seem in reach.

Even when it is right there in front of them and their manager (Keenan Wynn) has seemingly pulled through, Harry is torn up to find that he’s been drafted to head over to France to help the doughboys in putting the Kaiser to rest. He’s no draft dodger but he wants his dream so much and they are so close to being realized. He takes a plan of action that Jo misconstrues as cowardice. She’s ashamed that he would do such a thing especially since her brother is overseas fighting already.

Thankfully that is not the final word. Life sometimes has a curious way of bringing people back together and in the case of this cinematic world, we get a cheering finale courtesy of the MGM dream factory. While For Me and My Gal revels in its star power and the intimate chemistry built between them on the stage and in dressing rooms or in train compartments, we are soon reminded that this film has an ulterior motive. It’s a musical, it’s a romance, but it’s also a product of the American homefront.

Like a Sergeant York (1941) or a Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) this effort was made with a higher purpose to act as a kindling rallying cry for nationalistic fervor going into WWII. However, just like its contemporaries, the reason we’re still watching it today isn’t necessarily due to those aspirations but the emotional connection elicited from its stars. This is what makes For Me and My Gal truly swell with sentiment. Thankfully Judy Garland and Gene Kelly got together on two more musical efforts to keep it going. Because they help elevate this above the spectrum of a run-of-the-mill propaganda musical with their palpable charisma that transcends any maudlin patches.

4/5 Stars

I Am A Fugitive From a Chang Gang (1933)

IAmaFugitivefromaChainGangSullivan’s Travels (1941) and Cool Hand Luke (1967) were two films that took a fairly extensive look at what a chain gang actually was in cinematic terms. Meanwhile, Sam Cooke’s eponymous song made almost in jest has added another layer to the tradition.

Nowadays Chain Gangs seem a bit archaic and a part of the uncomfortable history of the South only to fall a few rungs below the injustice of Jim Crow Laws and the like. But the pre-code drama with its sensationalized title, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, was nevertheless dealing with issues very pertinent to the age and its story was semi-autobiographical in nature.

Just as this film, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, has undoubtedly been lost among other titles of the 1930s, it seems that Paul Muni as an actor has generally fallen out of the public spotlight when classic actors are concerned. Because in his day, on stage and screen, he was considered one of the finest performers that the world had to offer setting precedents that actors have followed for decades onward in terms of preparation, research, and commitment to roles still further exemplified by his extensive costume and makeup work.

Brando is supposed to have said himself that Muni was the greatest actor he ever saw and though the man upon reevaluation has been accused of overacting, there’s no denying the repute he held in his day and watching Chain Gang there’s little doubt that he carries the picture.

In its essence, this is a film of unfortunate circumstances embodied through incisive drama. James Allen (Muni) could best be described as a wide-eyed dreamer. Coming back from WWI he wants nothing to do with his old factory job, intent instead to try his luck as an engineer. But his family cannot understand how he can be so ungrateful. Still, he heads off on his own to “seek his fortune” but what beckons him is the life of a drifter and it goes alright until the fateful day where he finds himself implicated in a small time bank robbery that he never saw coming.

Still, the police only see the reality and he was the one with his hand caught in the cookie jar so their justice is swift — 10 years of hard labor. It’s in these initial interludes where life on a chain gang is painted grimly and dour. There’s nothing to be hoped for in such an existence where the food stinks, you stink, and there’s little respite from the work.

Understandably Allen is discontent and he becomes one of the few that makes a break for it and lives to tell about it. In fact, what’s more, his future becomes a bright spot as he rises up the ranks of an engineering firm and makes a bit of a name for himself. But opportunistic women and a murky past do not bode well.

Yes, he has become a credit to society, turning his life around completely, but the sticklers for law and order want him to pay off his debt and finish out his sentence before a pardon is to be enacted. He does the honorable thing and expects the gentleman’s agreement in return but instead, he watches the gates clink behind him for good.

Our protagonist is led through an existence of seeming futility that finally hits the lowest depths. By the film’s end, you almost forget that he was one of the doughboys who made it home from the war to end all wars with its plethora of disillusionments only to become a fatality at home.

It ends in the same forlorn crossroads as a picture like The Blue Angel (1930) or Nightmare Alley (1947) except maybe it’s even more akin to Fritz Lang’s seething crime drama You Only Live Once (1937) because in both cases a system of justice that is held in the highest regard, namely America’s system, is shown to be riddled with flaws that go to the core of what true justice is. It all but fails him.

This film does not even begin to unpack the reality that most of the men on the chain gang are African-American, readily choosing the perspective of the white man in almost all accounts because this is the 1930s. So even a picture like this that dredges up important issues for its day is still flawed if you look at it now from a bird’s eye view.

One other qualm with Chain Gang, oddly enough, comes with its short running time. With all of its supporting characters, it never seems to build any kind of rapport with any of them and each new female lead hardly feels substantial enough. Still, yet again, it is Muni’s film and he’s generally up to the challenge as our cinematic surrogate traversing each ruinous twist in his life. He’s put through hell twice and no man should have to deal with that. It’s not human.

4/5 Stars

A Farewell to Arms (1932)

394px-Poster_-_A_Farewell_to_Arms_(1932)_01Again, I must confess that I have not read yet another revered American Classic. I have not read A Farewell to Arms…But from the admittedly minor things I know about Hemingway’s prose and general tone, this film adaptation is certainly not a perfectly faithful translation of its source material. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

However, I do know at least a little something about Frank Borzage a filmmaker that time has been less kind to, though he contributed some quality pictures during the silent era and during the ensuing generation of talkies — even a couple of reputed classics. And yet watching A Farewell to Arms you can see his philosophies working themselves into the story line — the very themes that he would repeat again and again in many of his movies.

It soon becomes apparent that Borzage’s film is not about a war at all though WWI is a major plot point. He would examine an analogous idea with The Mortal Storm. Its his predilection not to focus so much on the carnage or alienation of war and more so on the effects that such a cataclysmic event has on the lives of those thrust into the middle of it. So his narrative borrows from Hemingway but hinges on this idea of lovers battling against the wiles of the world through the sheer euphoria of their romantic fling and yet it proves to be more than transient.

There’s without question a verisimilitude and a candor to the portrayals of Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes as said lovers — an ambulance driver and a nurse. Two seemingly unextraordinary individuals who nevertheless become extraordinary in each other’s arms. They will go to such great lengths to remain together despite the obstacles hindering them on every side. Perhaps it’s heightened by the times but still, there is this general belief in what they do on the part of the audience — that they can actually fall in love and will do whatever it takes to stay together.

Even if it’s not wholly plausible, they lend that needed credence to the parts. Their emotions feel genuine even as their romance gets crippled by the very circumstances they find themselves in. Where years are sped up into days and marriage must be forged in the most humble of moments. There’s no time or space for a normal life with a normal love affair even if that’s what both parties desire. It cannot be so.

Gary Cooper exudes a gentle tenderness in the majority of his scenes and he manages to be as vulnerable as we’ve ever seen him in the part because this romance tears him apart. Helen Hayes is an actress that I, unfortunately, know very little about but she strikes me as a beauty like Claudette Colbert and yet I find an easier time liking her and by some form of transference, the same goes for the character that she plays. It’s also crucial to note the splendorous black & white cinematography of Charles Lang which paints the contours of this love affair with expressionistic shades while never quite allowing us to forget the war at hand.

Though we can compare Borzage’s film with the original novel it seems equally compelling to juxtapose this cinematic adaptation of A Farewell to Arms with Joseph von Sternberg’s romance, Morocco, of only two years prior also starring Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou with von Sternberg’s muse Marlene Dietrich. Hayes doesn’t have the same gravitas or allure of Dietrich but that actually serves her better in this film with what Borzage is trying to accomplish.

Because this story is a tragedy as much as it is a romance of faithful devotion. Whereas von Sternberg seems most interested in the locality and the depictions of his stars — allowing them to have looser morals, you could make the argument that Borzage film holds a greater stake in its thematics and what such a romance can represent in such a turbulent world. The Great War is only an unfortunate backdrop to play the action against and it’s unfortunate because love is a rapturous thing. But it’s the many evils of the world that tear it asunder. The kind of troubles that force two people to bid each other a tearful adieu even if it’s the last thing they want in the world.

3.5/5 Stars

Review Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

James_Cagney_in_Yankee_Doodle_Dandy_trailer“My father thanks you, My Mother Thanks you, My Sister Thanks you, and I Thank you.” – James Cagney as George M. Cohan

I write this on Yankee Doodle Dandy’s 75 Anniversary on Memorial Day and I can say with much regret in my heart that it’s probably not nearly as resonant now as it was back in 1942. Perhaps, as it should be, because we are not living in the thick of WWII in a recently post-Pearl Harbor society. This was a film meant for a very particular cultural moment and it functions as such.

We look at the musical numbers and some are impressive routines with a full array of song and dance sprinkled throughout but there’s nothing outstandingly eye-popping about any of it. It’s true that this musical biography does suffer from a bit of Biopic Syndrome. By now we have been inundated with so many renditions that this version of George M. Cohan’s life is hardly revolutionary.

At best it’s a beaming tribute to an American icon with a bit of palatable wartime propaganda that never does anything unusual nor does it attempt to. At worst you could call Yankee Doodle Dandy overlong with a stiff script that lacks a lot of invention and shows more and more chinks in its armor over the excessive run time. But like Cohan himself, it’s an unabashed flag-waver and in that arena alone it does do some justice to its hero.

Certainly, none of these initial assessments can take away from the great appeal of the main players. More on James Cagney later but for now let’s just say he is incomparable and leave it at that. But we also have the estimable Walter Huston who had a notable career in his own right before being slightly overshadowed by his son John. In Yankee Doodle Dandy he plays the patriarch of the Cohan family, married to a lovely and talented woman (Rosemary De Camp) who is his partner and equal in both wedded life and on the stage. They are loyal All-Americans and they raise up their son and daughter to love their line of work and their country just as they do.

Thus, the Cohans are born as a collective entity, precocious Josie (Jeanne Cagney) and her ever cocksure brother George (James Cagney) who has a big head to go along with a load of talent. While his attitude gets him ostracized, his persistence as a songwriter ultimately earns him success after he unwittingly joins forces with another struggling writer Sam Harris (Richard Whorf). Somehow together they find a winning formula that for decades thenceforth makes George M. Cohan into a household name and subsequently an American legend. He is the undisputed king of unabashed, feel-good, good old-fashioned entertainment.

America’s favorite wartime ingenue Joan Leslie falls easily into the role of the love of George’s life, Mary, the impressionable young gal who fell for him at an early age and stayed by his side as the years rolled ever onward. Everything else changed but her love and faithfulness remained steadfast. With Mary by his side, she sees him through a string of successes, a few minor failures, the birth of WWI with the sinking of the Lusitania, and even the inevitable deaths of his kin. When it’s all said and done, he’s christened by FDR himself with a Congressional Medal as one of the great patriots capable of catalyzing the American Public with nationalistic fervor. So he serves a very important purpose on the Homefront.

The fact that Cohan’s life was practically born and lived out on the stage makes it perfectly suited for a musical adaptation allowing Michael Curtiz to seamlessly segue between vaudeville and Broadway routines and the formative moments that make up George’s life. They all fit together in a fairly straightforward manner that nevertheless is bolstered above all by the talent.

But the opening and closing framing device is unforgivably corny and is probably hampered most by a President Roosevelt lookalike who is so artificial it makes the genuine vivacity of James Cagney all the more disarming. It works the other way too. Cagney feels like he’s acting opposite a lifeless mannequin. And it’s true that as he always seemed to have the habit of doing Jimmy Cagney steals the whole picture.

He had left the gangster fare that had made him famous behind and in pictures such as Strawberry Blonde (1941) and Yankee Doodle Dandy he was given a true chance to strut his stuff and what dynamic stuff it is. Now I’m not much of a dance connoisseur so I have no reference point on where Cagney’s dancing could possibly begin to stack up to the likes of Astaire or Kelly, men who also performed their own choreography. Still, if anything, Cagney’s feet are constantly lively and self-assured as is his entire performance.

He seems like the perfect man to embody Cohan himself an Irish-American who started out as a song and dance man on the stage and whose blood ran red, white, and blue. First and foremost, he is a performer and his performance turns Yankee Doodle into something special, despite its various shortcomings.

Curtiz is a highly capable director but Cagney is the one we have to thank. Because while the film is never daring he always is and my estimation of him grows exponentially every time I see him act. Some performers have the knack of making every scene they’re in better by doing something exceptional that you remember — something that really catches your eye whether minor or grandiose. You only have to watch him tap his way down the White House stairwell to know James Cagney is one of the special ones, no question.

4/5 Stars

The African Queen (1951)

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And you call yourself a Christian! Do you hear me? Don’t ya? Don’t ya? Huh? What ya being so mean for, Miss? A man takes a drop too much once and a while, it’s only human nature. ~ Charlie
Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above. ~ Rose

Sometimes when great talent comes together we see the result and question where it all went wrong.  Sometimes it just works pure and simple. The African Queen is such a picture and it’s true that the greatest films function on multiple levels finding ways to exceed our expectations, enrapturing us with storylines and developments that are a far cry from what we first considered. Far from not disappointing, they join the pantheon of classics we would gladly watch over and over again. That is probably the highest praise you can give a picture and The African Queen is such a film.

It’s christened The African Queen because she is the vessel that Charlie Allnut calls his own and she is the very vehicle for this entire adventure. Emblematic of their own grit, ingenuity, and indestructibility. Because the narrative begins with missionaries and the hint of colonialism as Rosie (Katharine Hepburn) and her Reverend brother look to bring the Gospel to the peoples of the Congo.

But due to the outbreak of World War I, Africa too is thrown into the fray as the Germans look to overrun the countryside and sweep it into their clutches. Rosie’s whole peaceful existence of Sunday services and afternoon tea are brutally disrupted. The village is burned, her brother’s physical and mental well-being suffers, and in the end, she has no recourse but to leave her little slice of home behind.

Ironically, her savior is the uncouth, uneducated Mr. Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), a jack of all trades who formerly worked at a mine before it was commandeered by the Germans. He too is an inbetweener in this war, caught on the fringes and simply trying to survive. It’s in these very circumstances that these two diverging personalities are thrown together. And in an act of defiance and pure survival tactics, they do rise above their present circumstances.

Aside from mere plot points, the very fact that the film was shot prominently on location like John Huston’s previous classic Treasure of Siera Madre benefits the film greatly because there’s an authenticity to the entire undertaking that could never be fabricated. You see the waters and the jungles. You’re almost suffocated by the sheer humidity and apprehensiveness of every successive rapid they must ford because this feels like more than a movie. The dividing line between fact and fiction in many ways feels paper thin.

Huston had some wonderful black and white films including The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, and Sierra Madre but it seems rather fortuitous that The African Queen was made in color given the pedigree of cinematographer Jack Cardiff on such earlier vibrant classics as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. He brings a certain colorful exoticism to the frames that feels foreign to the eyes and yet still strangely beautiful. It all works so exquisitely.

Likewise, this is not simply a script penned by film critic, author extraordinaire James Agee with direction by Huston and the talents of legendary screen icons like Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Yes, those are the separate entities that are joined together in this endeavor but they become far more than the sum of their parts.

Agee’s script which Huston also got partial credit for sings with life because of the two individuals it draws up and the world it dares to place them in. Rosie Sayer is a prim and proper missionary in Africa who nevertheless has a fearless streak brought to life so spiritedly by Hepburn as only she could play it. There’s a wonderful stubbornness that’s undeniable but remove the layers and you have the same giddy passion that crept into some of her earlier screwball performances. Mr. Charlie Allnut, as such, is perhaps the most lovable Humphrey Bogart has ever been. Allnut is content just getting by and surviving and he’s good at it — trying to find little bits of comfort in this world medicating himself when gin and a nice cigar every now and again.

But while he pushes Ms. Sayer’s to be practical and lose some of her stuffier tendencies, she, in turn, prods him to step out and do something worthwhile with his life. And it’s not simply about their romance which begins as a small feud, becomes a friendship, and evolves into a frenzied relationship full of affection. Their romance is being forged as they hang onto the faint objective of driving The African Queen into the ominous German gunboat the Louisa. It feels like a small battleground amidst the chaos of World War I but it all depends on your perspective because for Rosie and Charlie this is really is the very pinnacle of their existence. It involves their very will to survive.

They cling to this purpose and the joy of their adventure is the very fact that they are able to see it to the end, in the name of their country but also for their own vindication. And the telling aspect is that they both have been transformed by their experience. They are not so much forged by fire as the jungles that engulf them and the wildlife, foes, and raging falls that all look to be their undoing. And yet this unlikely pair, these polar opposites, prove to be the most formidable allies you could draw together.

The African Queen also has its own forays into spirituality and although they do not remain front and center for the entire film, there is a certain import to them. In a particularly formative scene, Mr. Allnut calls into question the other’s Christian faith which seems at the very least unfeeling if not hypocritical. But you could say the main conflict of this film is voiced by Charlie. It’s human nature.

Charlie has grown passive towards it while Ms. Sayers affirms that humanity is meant to “rise above” and this statement can be taken spiritually or maybe even with a tinge of imperialism (as man must tame the vast wastelands of his environment and such).

But there could also be a more universal ring in her words, suggesting that humanity must rise above every trial and tribulation whether personal, environmental, or social. Any number of these interpretations have stock. The question to ask is where does that will come from? It seems ludicrous to say it comes from within, closer still to say it comes from others, and maybe there’s still something broader going on in the background. No matter your opinion on such matters, The African Queen is still without question, one of the grandest, most rewarding romantic adventures hewn out of 1950s Hollywood.

5/5 Stars

Wonder Woman (2017)

Wonder_Woman_(2017_film)It might sound like meager praise but Wonder Woman is the most engrossing DC offering thus far. It also seems almost unfair to compare across the aisle against main rival Marvel with its terribly lucrative cottage industry or for the very fact that any comparison might suggest how derivative this feature must be.

Yes, Man of Steel and Batman V. Superman cannot hold a candle to most of their competition and Suicide Squad was an atrocious misfire. But this is a film that stands on its own two feet — on the feet of its director Patty Jenkins (Monster) and its heroine Gal Gadot.

Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is ripe for praise and adulation on multiple fronts.  Its closest equivalent would be Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) with its period setting as a stunning backdrop for a superhero narrative. In this one, Diana Prince (Gadot in her first true starring role) is joined by a ragtag band of renegades including Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and his eclectic compatriots including a drunken sharpshooter, a failed actor with a penchant for linguistics, and a resourceful Native American of formidable stock. They look to sneak into the heart of enemy territory to bring a decisive end to the war (in this case WWI).

But the film also plays a bit like a fish out of water comedy. Diana is the girl born of the Amazons in antiquity and isolation living out the legacy of Greek mythology  — which consequently also seems fused with the Judeo-Christian God and the Fall depicted in Genesis.

Like Thor, she too is god-like, a being outside the realm of humans, trained by her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) and shielded from the outside world by her mother (Connie Nielsen). Thus, when she actually enters into their world it’s ripe with humorous cultural incongruities. Casual conversation about ancient treatises on sex, sporting the latest fashions which are a bit more modest than her typical attire, learning how to dance, and getting her first taste of an ice cream cone. Each brings a smile to our faces as an audience.

Still, despite her immense skills and innumerable abilities, Diana like Agent Peggy Carter from Marvel is faced with a culture that is not ready for someone who is simultaneously beautiful, strong, independent and wholly unencumbered by normal male patriarchy.  Someone who will not be repressed, blasting through the glass ceilings and cathedral steeples for that matter.

Diana can hardly comprehend how these discrepancies exist. In her eyes secretaries are only glorified slaves and powerful men who sit together in rooms making decisions have no honor whatsoever as their men are brutally slaughtered. It’s ludicrous and it many ways she’s not wrong. We begin to empathize with her character and the problems she sees in the world — the innate desire she holds to make everything right.

Because that gets to what is really truly phenomenal about Wonder Woman. For even the mild superhero enthusiasts she is emblematic of the entire genre with everyone from Batman to Superman, Captain America, Spiderman, Hulk, and all the others. But the one thing that puts her in a class entirely her own is that she is a woman. And this is not meant to single her out but to suggest how important this film is. Lynda Carter gave a landmark performance on the television airwaves in the 1970s but this is the first time this monumental icon has made it to the big stage and it is long overdue.

As such this film becomes a fitting parable reflecting the struggles of women in a callous industry and an oft callous world. Diana becomes a champion of all those women thoroughly capable of living life with individuality, confidence, and above all love for their fellow human beings. Diana comes at life from what some narrow-minded folks might call a woman’s perspective caring deeply about the helpless and their suffering but for the rest of us, it’s a very human point of view.

However, it’s equally important to note that in an attempt to make Diana of great import does in no way relegate the other characters and Steve (Chris Pine) becomes one of the most enjoyable supporting blokes in recent memory.

Gadot and Pine play complementary roles that perfectly mesh together. They’re both brave, they’re both extraordinary, they both care deeply but it can be in different ways. Steve finds himself rescued by Diana and protected by her immense powers as he continues his espionage activities behind German lines. Still, he’s able to explain the intricacies of the world to her and lead her to realize that humanity is not as black and white as she assumed it to be. That is big. In Diana’s eyes, the whole arc of the film is like so. If she can kill Ares, war will be over and mankind will fall back into unity as Zeus had originally ascribed.

Wonder Woman supplies a final twist that while somewhat understandable from a cinematic point of view still manages to take a little of the meaning out of Diana’s realization. Since this is also a love story, that in some ways slightly salvages an ending that succumbs to the usual superhero tropes and pyrotechnics. It’s this further discovery that while Diana may not be to blame for all this chaos, humanity despite their faults is still worth fighting for. What Steve calls “truth” I would probably call “grace” and it’s semantics really but it simply suggests this idea that we do for others what they do not deserve, out of love, the highest noblest form of sacrificial love — always seeing others before yourself even those you disagree with — even when it comes at great cost. For Steve and Diana, those mean two entirely different things again as he tries to thwart the Germans nefarious intentions and she battles it out with someone with powers, not unlike her own.

Despite an admittedly clunky framing device to set up its narrative, the film does learn something from the Suicide Squad as well by focusing on origin story over a mere objective or mindless action. Wonder Woman begins to falter when it simply gets caught up in the normal rhythms of superhero films with villains, explosions, and the like.

What’s interesting are these characters, the wounds that they carry with them, their environments and how that shapes the world that they find themselves in. In this case, Gal Gadot proves to be a winsome heroine with an impeccable blend of innocent beauty, boldness, and heart that’s completely disarming. Meanwhile, Pine’s as charming as ever but let’s not forget whose film this is because we’ve waited long enough. Wonder Woman has made a triumphal return and not a moment too soon for DC.

4/5 Stars

Happy Independence Day!

Grand Illusion (1937)

GrandeIllusionI’m not sure if it’s because I’ve been bred on a certain brand of war movie, but I naively went into Grand Illusion expecting a typical P.O.W. drama. In the back of my mind, I was even ready to compare this title to later works like Stalag 17 (1953) or The Great Escape (1963). Honestly, what was I thinking? With a Jean Renoir film no less.

But that’s the marvelous quality of this film. On the surface level, it looks like an archetype that we are used to. War is being waged. Soldiers are captured. Soldiers are trying to escape. In this case, the particulars are a group of French P.O.W.s in a German camp during WWI. You have the basic idea certainly, but you will not understand the power of this film with such a description. With such a set-up you expect Germans to be the craven villains and the French to be the courageous boys making their nation proud. But that’s not quite the case. It’s more complicated than that.

It’s no surprise that this film was banned by Mussolini, confiscated by Goebbels after the invasion of France, and shown in a private screening to FDR. Certainly, WWII had not started yet, but in 1937 Hitler was on the rise and a wave of fascism mixed with patriotism was flooding Europe. In the midst of such a climate, Jean Renoir, a master of so-called poetic realism, lays down a film like this. It has war, it has patriotism, and it even has enemy factions, but the difference is that Renoir gives them humanity. He casts even his “enemy” in a sympathetic light and suggests that there is a humanity that lies inside of human beings of all different classes, creeds, and nationalities (but he also acknowledges racial discrimination still exists).

Early on in the film von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) shoots down two enemy flyers in Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Marechal (Jean Gabin). However, instead of sending them away to the prisoner of war camp, he shows them the ultimate form of hospitality by inviting them to dine at his table. The cynic inside of me thought, “this must be a trap, a gimmick of some kind because he is a German after all, and they’re supposed to be the villains.” Pretty narrow-minded of me, and of course nothing happens. They share a meal and even find some common ground before going off to the camp.

This next part of the film reminds me the most of a film like Stalag 17 because there is the camaraderie, the mixing of all sorts of different people, but they are all fighting against a common enemy so there is a solidarity between them. For instance, Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) shares his lavish care packages from back home, Cartier keeps things lively as a former vaudeville performer who is constantly cracking jokes, and even Boledieu, who is of an aristocratic background is generally well liked by everyone. Together they undertake the project of escaping the camp.

Of course, there’s still time for musical performances with song and drag and impromptu renditions of “La Marseillaise.” For such a disturbance Marechal (Gabin) gets solitary confinement, but there never seems to be any malice behind it. It feels more like the protocol of war, and he is let out soon enough. The way things work out the gang is transferred all to different camps and their tunnel is utterly wasted.

De Boldieu and Marechal’s final stop is literally a fortress that is run by their old acquaintance, the now badly maimed Von Rauffenstein. He is as civil as he has ever was but still advises them not to try escape. All the same, he regrets his reassignment and seems generally wistful about the whole situation. Meanwhile, the two officers once again come in contact with Rosenthal. The trio puts together a planned diversion led by De Boldieu which will let the other two escape. It puts von Rauffenstein in another regrettable position, but Rosenthal and Marechal do get away.

As fugitives, their dispositions fluctuate from positivity to loathing, and finally a contented state of comfort when they stay at the farmhouse of a young German woman named Elsa (Dita Parlo from L’Atalante). This is another section of the film that highlights human relationships in an extraordinary way. We expect her to be totally poisoned against “the enemy” and yet she is not. Elsa seems to see the human beings behind the French uniforms and comes to trust and almost rely on their companionship. As Rosenthal recovers from a leg injury, Marechal and Elsa get closer and closer. The time comes for the two men to leave and it is an absolutely heart-wrenching goodbye. It’s so different than our initial preconceptions.

And soon after the film ends, not with some dramatic capturing or even really a chase. But the two men get across the border to snowy Switzerland and that’s where we leave them. Except not with the usual jadedness or even the adrenaline rush of a run-of-the-mill war thriller. Grand Illusion is more piercing than that, speaking to the relationships that can cross war zones if we are only willing to see them.

Jean Gabin is a wonderfully honest-faced actor and the closest description I can give is a man with a Spencer Tracy-like visage except more imposing. Marcell Dalio did some wonderful work with Renoir, and it is unfortunate that he was relegated to such small roles in films like Casablanca, but he is nevertheless even memorable in that. Erich von Stroheim was a titan in his own right as a director and actor, but he was somewhat of a fading star by this point. However, he plays his character with a civility and sense of honor which I have never quite seen equaled before. It was a special performance that reflects a dying breed. The aristocratic soldier of the highest order in all circumstances.

Renoir himself summed up the film years later as being about human relationships and fittingly said the following: “I am confident that such a question is so important today that if we don’t solve it, we will just have to say ‘goodbye’ to our beautiful world.” Here is a master recognizing such a vital key to our very humanity — our personal interactions with one another.

5/5 Stars