The Eagle and The Hawk (1933): March The WWI Flying Ace

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There are two elements in the opening of The Eagle and The Hawk that might catch some viewers off guard. First, is the matter of a plane landing upside down. Second, being the fact the pilot is an uncharacteristically abrasive Cary Grant. He’s still playing support to our true lead Fredric March.

It’s alright to admit the shoe never quite fits and, thankfully, Grant was not forever relegated to such unseemingly roles again (well, there is Suspicion or Notorious). Regardless, in this WWI picture, a group of American aviators ship out from London to give their British allies a lift in France.

New forms of technology like aeroplanes still feel a bit rudimentary, yet to be time-tested, and therefore they carry with them a bit more danger. They must take recon photos flying close to the ground and often engage the enemy in aerial combat. The footage of the dogfights is lively if equally rudimentary.

It’s Grant’s Lt. Crocker who has aspirations to be a pilot, not an observer — the less glamorous posts going to those who take pictures and gun. Cary’s got a chip on his shoulder, and it’s turned him sour. Jack Oakie is the complete opposite — chipper, well-liked by all, and conveniently supplying comic relief.

However, it is the final star, the leading man, Fredric March who stands head and shoulders above the rest, at least on this occasion. He goes through a startling transformation over time. He soon learns the hard lesson. For every two kills of a jubilant Jerry Young (March), there’s the searing reality of a comrade dead.

We are instantly reminded war never allows a man to rest on his laurels before inundating them with the sheer callousness of such a conflict. It shows no favoritism. Officers or enlisted men alike. Doughboys or flyboys. It makes no difference. Everyone is susceptible.

In a matter of minutes, the weight of war is made obvious. It happens between a letter written to a dead man’s spouse and a blackboard with names constantly being erased and added.  Beyond being indiscriminate, war also waits for no man.

As time progresses, the dogfight sequences maintain quite the impressive pace for their day and age. The sequences use the resources at their disposable and varied shots to develop something fairly immersive beyond mere back-projection fillers.

Finally getting his first go, Grant shoots down an unarmed parachuter with great relish, his first day on the job, only to kill the mood after hours. They say he’s a “dirty deuce,” but perhaps he’s the only realist around. He treats it like war. They treat it like an exhibition in some contrived form of chivalry.

There are rules to war and gentleman’s agreements to be abided by on one side and then the “killed or be killed” mentality of Grant. And yet even as March remains one of the righteous ones, he starts medicating with alcohol to get over what he’s been privy to.

Soon he can’t get over the insanity or reconcile with the consequences set before them. They are bestowed medals by the French military with the rain pouring down — it’s a wet affair — and he’s still soused. 

A new batch of fresh-faced youngsters come to replace those who have already expired. He’s enlisted to speak to the new recruits, sharing a message for the sake of moral, though it’s evident he barely believes what he’s spewing. Because some of them will die before even getting to the front. What’s the purpose of it all? So the folks back home might cling to some misguided patriotic fervor?

The night terrors begin — Jerry’s mind now filled with burning, blood, and snipers at night. A change of scenery is suggested and so he’s given leave.  But in the households, the conversations are boorish and needlessly taken with the romanticism of war and glory.

Here are people drunk on the same wine. Men laugh about the enemy going down in flames. Curious young boys ask questions about what it’s like to meet the enemy with hopes to be up there one day. No one seems to understand, and how can they. They haven’t been there.

Watching from a distance, there is at last one pair of perceptive eyes. They belong, of course, to Carole Lombard. She slides her way into Jerry’s cab as he tries to leave the idle chatter behind. Instead, they find a quiet park, out of the way, to share some champagne and engage in genuine conversation.

She has only a momentary part — it really is a glorified cameo if we should call it that — and this is a movie that’s already so succinct. Still, it’s a memorable spot, and she offers a sympathetic countenance in a world all but lacking such consideration. It makes her all the more attractive.

Still, Jerry must go back to the lines and maintain the burden of being a shining example for others. After all, he is the fitting emblem of what a military hero should be. Fearless in the face of the enemy. All but indestructible with a stirling flying record.

However, we become jaded with the same persistent cynicism of Jerry pulling him from the airs above back into the parties and routines down below at the base. He can’t even manage to muster any kind of good-natured sentiment in such a jocund company.

All he sees are the chunks of flesh and bone on his chest in the form of medals. And all he can think about are the boys who have died either by his hands or at the hands of others. He’s gotten his medals, gained hero status and adulation from his peers, for killing kids. What’s worse, few seem to acknowledge him, going on their merry way. Surely he’s merely drunk. He’ll get over it in the morning. Except he doesn’t.

The film’s ending is a brutal shock to the system, but it settles into an honorable arc. If anyone was worried, Cary Grant is redeemed in the final moments preparing to soar off toward bigger and better successes.

What I’m most impressed with is how The Eagle and The Hawk does such a phenomenal job distilling some of the most pressing themes of war in its harshest and most bitter realities in such a meager allotment of time. It’s like All Quiet on the Western Front lite, and I mean this as the most sincere of compliments. It adeptly hones in on the essential elements of the prior film as another stark, unfaltering statement exploring human conflict on this seismic scale.

It comes not through heedless idealism but a sobering, unblinking examination of what war really is. Any pretense is stripped away in a matter of minutes while March gives one of the most piercing performances, arguably, of his entire career. If you haven’t already, go seek it out. My hope is that you’ll be glad you did.

4/5 Stars

Waterloo Bridge (1931): Pre-Code Edition

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Many might best remember Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor in the 1940 version of Waterloo Bridge. It’s immediately obvious this movie has a very different flavor from the outset. It’s an earthier more boisterous version of Waterloo Bridge before the Production Codes took their axes to the original material.

James Whale’s camera pans across a gay gang of chorus girls on the stage — they are alive and bursting with perky energy — putting on a show for their patrons. Behind the curtains and after-hours, the girls maintain the buzz as they chat in their skimpy Pre-Code attire. One of their ilk is Myra Deaville (Mae Clarke).

It’s delightful how the camera takes such a shine to our heroine though it’s so obvious to see she might play second or third fiddle to the band of big wigs and aristocrats in the world at-large. She really does feel like a nobody far away from home. Still, there’s something to be said for her way of life.

As is, London has a lovely artificiality that we can breathe in and still enjoy as the characters amble along the streets with car horns and horse carts to go with the post boxes and street lamps.

Likewise, the beats feel raw and unkempt in a way the 1940 remake would never have dared or been capable of to begin with. Somehow it takes on a grander more chaotic scale in the hands of James Whale. And yet the characters and vernacular are more casual even familiar.

Douglass Montgomery feels like an honest-to-goodness callow soldier boy. He doesn’t have the slightest sense of what he’s gotten himself into and with anything he does, there’s a latent fallibility you don’t get with Robert Taylor. He never feels endangered in the same way.

Likewise, Mae Clark is affecting yet generally capable of exuding an everyday ordinariness. We hardly remember her star compared to the likes of Vivien Leigh, who headlined one of the most grandiose, decadent epics of all time. Their trajectories and legacies could not be more disparate This is just the film to raise her reputation above one crackerjack scene playing opposite James Cagney and a Lemon.

She’s no star (the film coincidentally features a young Bette Davis), and the story seems to like it that way. Because both Clarke and Montgomery, by today’s standards, are hardly highly touted figures, but somehow they fit so genuinely here within the provided context.

It’s a youthful dynamic with a 19-year-old doughboy and the dance hall performer who’s been around. She also carries the forlorn look rather well even as Montgomery’s face is fresh and boyish.

They meet helping an old lady pick her potatoes off of Waterloo Bridge. It’s the same air raid from the earlier film with a certain frenzied uncertainty of war in the atmosphere. The gas runs out in her shabby apartment, and they talk to each other about their lives, mouths crammed with food.

It also cultivates a different dimension of ex-pats away from home. Because both Roy and Myra are born and bred Americans, and so there’s this inherent otherness they engender. It’s the type of visible difference that makes it all the more believable they would gravitate toward one another.

Furthermore, the film is not just consigned to the urban cityscapes but finds its way out into the countryside far from the signs of tumult and war. Because whereas the later version had the reverie of dance and “Aul Lang Syne,” this version needs its own escape valve, a respite before the final act’s guttural finale.

Here Myra is thrown in with Roy’s mother and an avuncular old step-father, hard of hearing and loving a good whiskey and soda. He’s a puttering scene-stealer — mostly because Bette Davis has nothing of import to do as an amiable sister. Her time would come in due time.

Meanwhile, the drama goes on behind the scenes as Myra is a woman of such genuine conscience — she admits she picked Roy up on Waterloo Bridge — she is no chorus girl. Though she could marry him, she chooses not to. She understands the mores of society and is willing to abide by them, even when it hurts.

You can call it the hooker with the heart of gold archetype to be sure, but what it really brings out is a culture so quick to label people as pariahs and outcasts — dirty and sinful folks not fit to be seen with the rest of God-fearing humanity. Then, behind closed doors, there’s gossip and what-have-you in the guise of propriety.

In the end, between passionate kisses, a crowded truck of onlookers shipping out to the front, and zeppelins raining down incendiaries, there’s not a moment to breathe before the curtain falls. This might be very well by design. Still, this movie zips along with a raw vitality worthy of consideration.

3.5/5 Stars

Waterloo Bridge (1940) and The Farewell Waltz

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If you’re like me, Waterloo conjures up a limited array of mental images. Napoleon and The Battle of Waterloo. The Kinks and Waterloo Sunset. That’s about the extent of it. Now I can add Vivien Leigh, Robert Taylor, and Waterloo Bridge to the list.

Fittingly, our opening prologue begins at the titular location, as a handsome man with a touch of gray, dressed in military attire, makes a ponderous appearance. The place holds an obvious resonance for him even as he holds an unnamed token in his hands. This is Robert Taylor. He probably looks too virile to be an old man, but that’s hardly his fault. At any rate, he’s preparing to give one of the most continuously amiable performances of his career.

Then, we’re back in time. For a minute the cultural moment caught me off guard. Even though the flashback seemed to denote the first war to end all wars, how our star couple first meets, heading to the Underground for an air raid, feels like a distinctly World War II-era image. However, it happened earlier as well, and it makes for a very practical meet-cute.

With the Germans threatening to rain down their ammunition, the Underground is stuffed to the gills with all sorts including Captain Roy Cronin and Myra Lester (Vivien Leigh), a member of a ballet troupe. This might be their first and last meeting, but the spell between them is too bewitching. The cinematic mechanisms of star-crossed love are at work.

There’s a warmth and romantic civility bathing the picture, and it’s the kind of feeling you often seem to get in pictures of old — at least the most supernal ones. I can think of a handful: Random Harvest, Love Affair, Now Voyager, maybe The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. In a word: Stars. Because the scenario can change and yet when the talents fit together, there’s just something so disarming and delightful released into the atmosphere.

We want to soak it in and be in the moments with them to feel the same swells of emotion. Whether war or some other force pulls them apart or gets in the way of their love, they always face it with a good humor and a grace that we can live vicariously through as the audience out in the dark.

All of this might see like an admittedly surprising proclamation because anyone who knows anything about Leigh will first consider Gone With The Wind from the year before and then her larger-than-life relationship with Laurence Olivier. He was the man she wanted for this picture. Alas, he was called to make Pride and Prejudice (1940). What came into being with Waterloo Bridge is probably better.

Oh that we could be as handsome a Scotsman as Robert Taylor (with a better accent) or such an immaculate and gorgeous ballerina as Vivien Leigh. As such, their romance is set in this heightened supercharged arena created by wartime.

The film’s most illustrious scene is the “Farewell Waltz” by candlelight, played to the soft melancholy tones of “Auld Lang Syne.” In the silence or, rather, without dialogue, the magic of the moment is the film’s apogee. That song becomes one of the strongest motifs at the movie’s disposal.

It might have been the most bittersweet short film of all time if the first 30 minutes were all we got. All things considered, it wouldn’t be a bad place to end allowing the pleasantness to waft over us and invade our collective hearts and minds.

Still, their story continues for over an hour more. There must be complications. Robert Taylor is soon on the train platform, a fellow soldier holds a bawling son amid the hubbub, and our protagonist’s head is on a swivel as he moves down the platform. The camera follows close behind; he’s anxious to see his love just one last time before he ships out for what may as well be forever. It sets the tone going forward.

Their joint life together suffers in the wake of his departure and we can say “departure” because the movie stays behind as he goes overseas. It works in the story’s favor not to break off and try and tell both sides because this way it gets at the feelings of those left behind fretting on the home front.

Still, the final act needs something more. In comparison, it feels like a bit throwaway as if the movie is coasting on the power of those first minutes of romance and quite literally that haunting chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.”

You can write it off as sanitized rendition of its 1931 brethren or otherwise call for a perceptive reading between the lines, but what the picture must resolve once and for all is Myra’s shame — the guilt she holds onto while her man is gone.

Because even with the spunky support of her best friend Kitty (Virginia Field), she is left destitute without the lifeline of her husband. Whether he lives or not, she must subsist someway, and she chooses the only conceivable path, prepared to live with the ignominious consequences.

The only way to redeem the ending is to reflect it back at the audience — back at all of us — because it’s indicative of what many of us deal with. It consists of the lies we tell ourselves when no one is around. We’re unlovable. We’re too far gone. We’re the Judas. But the movie fails to go anywhere creative and poor, downtrodden Myra hardly fits the description of a loveless tramp.

The final saving grace is Vivien Leigh. Her quizzical right eyebrow gives all of us lacking perfect facial symmetry hope. Despite her final moments being trance-like, she is more than capable of the art of captivation even in her character’s execution of the inevitable. If I don’t quite buy her convictions taking her to such a sorry conclusion — the logic seems a bit drastic even for the time period — it’s easy enough to get swept away by her emotion alone.

Robert Taylor for one, gives a performance brimming with vitality, and he feels like more than a chiseled block of wood. He reminds us that in order to have true love there must be two involved. That place. His token. They only maintain their meaning because he shared them with someone else. We get the privilege of being there with them both.

4/5 Stars

Three Comrades (1938) in Body and Soul

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“Germany’s a pretty rough sea if you’re drifting.” – Breuer

“But I’m not alone anymore. There are so many drifters!” – Patricia Hollmann

Erich Maria Remarque is of course most famous for his work All Quiet on The Western Front, which was adapted to great effect for the silver screen by Lewis Milestone in 1930. Three Comrades, another one of his novels, feels very much like an extension of the same themes found in the earlier novel.

We find ourselves at the tail-end of the Great War. Mainland Europe is jaded and bedraggled. One must recall these were the days before Nazism: a force that felt like personified evil. When we look around from trench to no man’s land, it feels like everyone’s equally besmirched, equally implicated in the senseless killing.

So in this regard, it’s not a far stretch of the imagination to think a cohort of three German veterans might be likable to an American audience (especially because they are also Caucasian). However, equally importantly, they are played by three strapping young talents with charm bouncing off them like pinballs. It’s how they’re able to leave the calamitousness of war behind and attempt to discover a new life of humble contentment.

It was the war that instilled them with a certain collective memory, both scarring and then firmly solidifying their friendship in the aftermath. They take the world on like the Three Musketeers: all for one and one for all. Together they happily resolve to become car mechanics, carving out a peaceful existence for themselves, even as their beloved country has succumbed to a kind of mob rule with rampant new ideologies. To each his own.

Erich Lokhamp is the first, played by a dashing, if a bit wooden, Robert Taylor. Though it’s his friends who really seem to bring him alive. Franchot Tone is Otto Koster, always ready to support his friends and speak sense into their lives. His brand of loyalty is finer than gold. The other is Gottfried Lenz (Robert Young) also light-hearted while stricken with the mind of an idealist. Still, he gladly gives up his social conscience for the sake of his friends’ well-being. At least for a time, life is happy.

But before there’s any greater stakes, it begins as three lads having a blast taking a stuffy socialite (Lionel Atwill) for a ride as they roar down the thoroughfares in their beloved, hopped-up creation “Baby.” It’s a bit of good fun, but it also introduces the trio to one of the most important people in their subsequent life together: Pat

Margaret Sullavan is at it yet again a husky-voiced, troubled soul and yet overwhelmingly resolute in her pursuit of love and the preservation of those around her. It’s a quality found in all these characters — this self-sacrificial nature that becomes so laudable, if not entirely necessary. She is the one who surmises how lovely it might be to pick when we were born. Perhaps an age of reason and quiet. This sounds like a Borzage picture. Because of course, they must make do with the here and now, where evil still exists in the world (as it does in any era).

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Their favorite hangout belongs to a jolly man named Alfons (Guy Kibbee). Erich takes his new girl there following some awkward interplay over the telephone. Also, his buddies always have a penchant for showing up uninvited to sit in on their evenings. It’s one of the added delights of the pictures because Young and Tone can supply the wisecracks to rib their friend.

I admire Otto and Gottfried even as I relate. They are faithful, they wish the best for their friends, act as encouragers — spurring each other on — and celebrating their victories while taking any setbacks as they always do: together.

This courtship brings with it other complications, namely trying to impress a high society girl of culture no matter how good-natured she might make out. It’s still easy for a man used to the inside of cars, to feel out of place with the social elite, dancing and wearing customary uncomfortable clothing, which also has a habit of coming apart at the seams. He even spins tall tales of rolling down to South America, an exotic land full of monkeys and coffee, just so he might be able to keep up with her.

All of this show proves unnecessary. This is how it works when you are smitten with a rich man’s girl and, more importantly, when she is in love with you. In another line that feels transcendent in the usual manner of Borzage, they aspire to being “lovers on the edge of eternity between day and night.”

A lesser film — or at least one ill-befitting the predilections of Borzage — would probably have made this a fight for the woman’s hand. It’s easy enough to see how this would have pulled the boys’ bond asunder. And yet these characters are more genial, enlightened, and well-intentioned. The story itself strives for something more. Young plays cupid urging his friend toward marriage. Tone’s character knocks out a concerto on their automobile as he tries to hammer away some sense into Pat in favor of his friend.

Propitiously, all this coaxing culminates in the quaintest wedding, which somehow fits all the players to a tee. Borzage captures it such that we feel we are there with them discovering it as it happens, partially spur of the moment, but also imbued with this star-crossed purposefulness. In step with everything else, their honeymoon to the seaside is as gay as can be until it is met with a setback.

It plays into the film that Sullavan always feels emotionally strong and sturdy but often physically frail. Maybe she just exudes this quality between her throaty vocals grasping at words and the obdurance she gained a reputation for. But in Three Comrades, she is bedridden and in critical condition from hemorrhages — still nursing sickness that has clung to her for some time. Erich has little idea, but once again, Otto comes to their aid with his usual expediency. It only serves to bring them together.

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While remaining unnamed throughout the film, there’s little question that the rising Nazi Party is the instigator of public brawls. Dr. Becker (Henry Hull) speaks out on his soapbox about the need for reason in confronting the issues of the times, instead of the prevailing violence. Since it’s not the first scuffle or an isolated event, Gottfried feels compelled to stand up for his beliefs, putting his ideals on the line.

Meanwhile, Erich has a less politically charged fistfight in the streets over a work claim. He gets ganged up on before his comrades, of course, fly to his defense. Just like old times. Pat is placed in a sanitarium on the behest of her doctor (Monty Wooley) just in time for the snows of winter and then Christmas.

The violence continues to escalate, this time dragging Tone into a shootout in the streets with Handel’s “Hallelujah” clamoring in the background. It’s oddly hypnotic even as it spells what feels like the end of the beginning.

If it’s not apparent already where Three Comrades is going, it easily functions as a fitting companion piece to Borzage’s later Mortal Storm because there is this same uncanny prescience about it, although it probably did very little to halt the impending course of history. The unholy mechanisms were already in place.

Every Borzage movie makes the world a little broader and love a little grander to match. In this regard, the meeting of the prose of Erich Maria Remarque and F. Scott Fitzgerald somehow manages to work in the hands of a director.

What sets it apart from a melodrama like Douglas Sirk’s is the slow burn and how the characters take each moment on with their own brand of quiet fortitude. In many ways, love (and camaraderie) are an antidote to the wiles of the world. Our heroes know what’s inevitable and they brave it together — smiling until the end of days — even in the face of tragedy and hardship.

Is it high-minded and idealistic? Most assuredly. But it’s also one of the most blessed hallmarks of Frank Borzage’s filmmaking. This hallmark, more than anything, is why we can easily draw a line in the snow from something like Seventh Heaven or Man’s Castle to Three Comrades and then The Mortal Storm.

One is especially reminded of Margaret Sullavan because one of the pervading attributes of her characters is this all-encompassing dignity to see her to the end. We feel like unsightly sots and indignant pions compared to her eminent calm.

But really, the same might be said about all the players in Three Comrades. It’s a pacifist portrait. Not so much in prognostications of any sort. It has to do with the inner peace inside the characters that radiate out from them, due to their affections for one another. Thus, in a fitting Epilogue, with fighting breaking out in the city, the four inseparable friends walk off solemnly together. If not in body, then certainly in spirit.

4/5 Stars

The Shopworn Angel (1938): Remembering Margaret Sullavan

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“Dreaming’s alright if it’s all you got but if you find the real thing you’re just not satisfied with it anymore.” – Jimmy Stewart as Bill

It’s 1917: the eve of the U.S. entry in WWI. The nation is yet to feel the jadedness of everyone else in mainland Europe. James Stewart seems perfectly cast as a fresh-faced soldier boy, or as the contemporary vernacular goes, a Doughboy, named Bill Pettigrew. The whole country seems to be caught up in Jingoism spurred on by the tunes of George M. Cohan and exuberant patriotic parades.

For his part, when he’s not drilling with his buddies, Bill is observing the mating customs precipitated by men going off to war. The counter of the soda fountain boasts a waitress who is a sweetheart to the masses. He gains a lesson in the facts of life.

For Daisy Heath (Margaret Sullavan), it disrupts her rest as she tries to sleep off the previous night’s reveries. She looks perfectly disheveled in a kind of manicured Hollywood sort of way, lounging in her evening dress, hair perfectly askew.

Her longtime socializing partner is the perfectly civilized Sam Bailey (Walter Pidgeon) who looks to have never worked a day in his life, at least in any menial capacity. The war doesn’t concern people of their stature or breeding, and they’d rather not be bothered with its nuisance. She makes a living on the stage where he finances and they spend their evenings drowning in the bubbly ’til the wee hours of the morning.

These would remain two separate stories of two vastly incongruous lifestyles if it were not for Jimmy Stewart’s penchant for stepping into oncoming traffic. You see, he’s from a small, two-horse town where the horses outnumber the automobiles.

So when he’s just about run over, about to join back with his outfit, he finds himself thrown into a cab commandeered by a demonstrative but kindly street cop who’s looking out for his servicemen. However, when the doors close his coinhabitant happens to be Ms. Heath.

Given the circumstances, they get off on the wrong foot as she feels put upon and turns slightly snide, cutting Stewart’s callow Texaner’s naivete down to size. She’s a city dweller with no patience for yokums of his ilk. Again, this initial encounter might as well be the end of the picture right there, if not for Bill’s attempt at a masquerade to impress the boys.

From the story he dreams up, his beau is an extravagant movie star, and he’s got them all heartily impressed (if he’s telling the truth). In other words, they’re rightfully suspicious their dorky buddy could land such a dame.

Next Time We Love proved a fairly stale weepie, albeit boasting the fledgling leads as well as a handsome best friend played by Ray Milland. Here you have an agreeable, if lesser, second-fiddle in Walter Pidgeon. However, while maintaining Sullavan and Stewart, it has more get-up-and-go in its chassis to carry us forward.

Whereas Ralph Bellamy would always be playing this part as the other man on the outside looking in, Stewart gets the benefit of our attentions in his pursuit of a woman from such a different stratosphere than he’s accustomed to. After all, he’s just a “dumb country rube” as she so eloquently puts it, but he’s also got all the charm of Jimmy Stewart at his disposal, growing more assured by the minute.

One second he’s educating Pidgeon in the art of rolling cigarettes, and the novelty of the experience has the other man deciding he wants to put on a show for the soldiers. Far from being jealous, he seems caught up in camp life. Bill couldn’t be happier, getting a chance to show Daisy around camp one evening after the show, and she reciprocates by showing him the city limits.

They take on the raucous funhouse attractions of Coney Island together, and Sam finally allows his jealousy to come out; he’s realizing the depth of his feelings for Daisy even as she becomes more and more charmed by Bill’s brand of geniality. Still, their time together looks to have a short leash due to his impending deployment.

Surely it cannot last. And yet he makes a rash decision so he can see her one last time; he goes AWOL to say goodbye, and she drops everything to join him. It hits the height of the rom-com preposterousness right about here.

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At times, Shopworm Angel feels like a testy high wire act to navigate feelings without totally ruffling feathers. How will it fit together between Bill, Daisy, Sam, and the immovable reality of war? The pieces look ill-suited to align and yet on all accounts, the trio carries their parts with a certain aplomb that falls together nicely.

You may or may not be astonished by what happens next, but it sets up a teary-eyed ending where Sullavan goes out with a stiff upper lip singing “Pack up Your Troubles” (with the aid of Mary Martin’s vocals).

Shopworn Angel was reborn as a relic of the Pre-Code era meant for a fresh take with one of its icons, Jean Harlow, who died tragically in 1937. Instead, it got retrofitted with a new cast, including Sullavan, and toned down its content to appease the norms of the late ’30s, bleedings into the ’40s. Daisy was no longer a chorus singer but a stage performer and Sam, in part, gained a more respectable pedigree.

However, equally important to the film’s success is the subtext of Stewart and Sullavan in real life. Because not unlike their screen romance, Stewart had unacknowledged feelings for her even as their friendship and professional careers continued to bloom. His, in part, because she encouraged him and helped with drawing out his own tendencies in the performances he gave. Their first two pictures together are fine proof.

They both met in an acting brigade back in the early days, which included Henry Fonda, Stewart’s longtime friend and also Sullavan’s first husband. However, she was the one who broke first in Hollywood, and it was partially thanks to her encouragement and tutelage that Stewart was able to get a leg up in Hollywood. He got beyond the bit parts and supporting spots MGM was handing him in pictures like After The Thin Man and Wife Vs. Secretary to develop the persona the moviegoing world would come to admire.

The actual screen partnership between Sullavan and Stewart started off in The Next Time We Love with the pinnacle arriving in 1940 when they would star in Frank Borzage’s The Mortal Storm and then their most acclaimed pairing The Shop Around The Corner, which at the very least, has become revitalized through Christmastime viewing (and maybe its tenuous relationship with You Got Mail).

Thereabouts James Stewart would shoot off into superstardom on the silver screen and the Christmastime circuit. It’s a Wonderful Life is a Yuletide stalwart for many folks even if they don’t know a plethora of Stewart classics with the likes of Capra, Hitchcock, and Mann.

But the bottom line is that none of this would have been possible if not for Margaret Sullavan — an actress who was known to be difficult, who cycled through numerous marriages, and who ultimately died in 1960 before her time after struggles with hearing loss and mental illness. Still, do yourself a favor and search out her films.

While not to everyone’s taste, she is a singular actress with her own sense of beauty, assurance, and grace — husky-voiced but often warm and sentimental. Stewart loved her dearly and even after he was married in 1949 and she died in 1960, Sullavan’s lifelong friendship impacted him greatly.

It’s true you rarely forget those you came up with (like Henry Fonda) or those who were fighting in your corner (like Sullavan). Thanks be to Margaret Sullavan for being a friend to Jimmy Stewart and for leaving a body of work worth rediscovering on its own merit. She was a Good Fairy and a Shopworn Angel all rolled into one.

3.5/5 Stars

Only Yesterday (1933): Margaret Sullavan Shines

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In the opening designs of Only Yesterday, the New York Stock Exchange is encapsulated by its usual hubbub only to hit the skids of pandemonium when the market crashes. We’re talking about the Big Crash of 1929. It plays as the backdrop to our story, very much functioning as current events.

The backstory makes the film fall even closer to home. Because like just about everyone else, Universal Studios was saddled with their own financial troubles so it seems fitting Only Yesterday was the project made to get them out of the doghouse and salvage their holdings.

If we are to believe this film, part of what Black Tuesday did was totally humble both the rich and the poor (and the movie studios) in their separate estates. Before the sheer magnitude of the devastation has spread, we get a front-row seat at the party hosted in the home of Mr. and Mrs. James Emerson.

What becomes immediately apparent is the buzz of the atmosphere with tumultuous music and a smattering of glib zingers. There’s a cascading frivolity on all sides to go with the idle chatter supplied by such gossipping fiends as Franklin Pangborn.

However, Mr. Emerson (John Boles) comes home positively shellshocked because he’s been cleaned out. He’s in no state to make merry opting to disappear into his study. It’s in the backrooms and corridors where the crushing reality sets in, to the point of private devastation.

From the outset, Boles comes off as a sympathetic figure and a calming presence even as he comes to terms with the weight of the Crash and its innumerable implications. It’s true the man of the house looks to be teetering on the brink of suicide, if not for a mysterious letter on his desk.

He opens it up and thereby begins the heart and soul of our story. It is partially his story and someone else’s as well; it began before anyone knew of a Depression, in 1917. If you remember, without leafing through your history books, “The War to End All Wars” was reaching its conclusion.

Back then James was a dashing soldier, unmarried, and still looking to finish up business overseas. It was on one such evening back in 17 where he met a buoyant young woman (Margaret Sullavan in her stellar debut) on a dance floor.

She is the picture of youth and her voice has yet to reach depths of only a few years later Regardless, precocious Mary Lane comes out of the woodwork to confess her love for him from afar after well nigh 2 years!

He takes it good-naturedly enough, altogether flattered anyone might look at him in this manner, and it leads to something — a dance and then whatever might come next. If the cynical would term it a one-night-stand, then it’s a little bit of paradise and Mary holds onto the evening.

In her mind, it’s the first of many, if not for the fateful news that the 309th is engaged to be shipped overseas. This is the event her whole life seems to hinge on up to this point; one evening was an entire lifetime. It just goes to show how the same event can take on differing degrees of resonance for two people.

It happens so quickly as to totally catch the audience off guard. James is off to fight a patriotic war and Mary is going up to New York as to not besmirch her family with her ignominy; she is with child.

Shopworn Angel would capture much the same jingoistic “Over There” milieu a few years down the road and yet that time around, not only would Margaret Sullavan be the veteran opposite a still callow Jimmy Stewart, the Production Codes would exert themselves more rigorously.

In terms of solely content, there’s little doubt Only Yesterday is armed with the uncompromising brazenness of the Pre-Code era. This includes a broad-minded perception of a woman’s place in an evolving society. It makes for a fascinating bit of observation, especially considering how Classical Hollywood would eventually settle into a status quo — a cult of domesticity tailored to the mid-20th century.

However, in Only Yesterday, we get Aunt Julia (Billie Burke), a progressive woman who has a life involving such independent-minded things as bob hairstyles and full-time employment. Aside from The Good Witch, Burke often played ditzy oddballs in numerous comedies where she wears on the viewer. Here there’s something resolute and distinctly likable about her because she does beat to a different drum.

The words leaving her lips are both an encouragement to her rejected niece even as they color how she sees the world in the 1930s. She has effectively worked to “kick the bottom out of the bucket called the old double standard” and she fervently believes “Today a woman can face life as honestly as a man can.”

Aunt Julia also helps to temper the situation swirling around Mary helping ease her mind. As a word of comfort, she says, “It’s no longer a tragedy, it isn’t even good melodrama, it’s just something that happened.” Meanwhile, Burke’s jovial suitor (Reginald Denny) seems like a playful generally affectionate chap. This portion is one of the film’s most carefree as a result.

Armistice eventually comes and with it parades of victory. We know what must happen now: a reunion. There don’t seem to be many close-ups throughout the film, but Sullavan gets a few of the most crucial ones when she’s reunited with her man only to realize he doesn’t remember her, having found someone else to love (Benita Hume). It’s a devastating bit of exposition and her face says it all.

If Gold Diggers fo 1933 details a forgotten man, she’s a forgotten woman, although she’s not about to wait around to be noticed — she has a son to look after. It shows the depth of her character.

Mary shares a bit of the sacrificial devotion of Stella Dallas or the tragic unrequited point of view a la Letter from an Unknown Woman, maintaining a thin line of communication with her former love through a string of telegrams.

What’s astounding is even in her youthfulness — at only 24 years of age — Sullavan’s more than able to carry the weight of the performance, not only a vivacious ingenue but a mother who’s forced to weather the weight of the world alone. Like Stanwyck a few years later, they prove themselves wise far beyond their years. What a way to enter Hollywood.

Finally, it happens and The New Year brings her face to face with the man she once knew. Boles feels more and more of a cad over time, whether he was meaning to be or not. He has a steady demeanor, a serenity in his favor, but after being so ignorant of one woman, he manages to rebuttal his wife as well, all in a very civilized manner, mind you.

Even as Billie Burke represents something else, there’s still a prevailing sense that women can be cast aside for the sake of a story. Sullavan, on her part, exudes a quiet regality even unto death. What Mary has, however, is a legacy in the life of her child, and in him, like with any life, there is still some hope for the future.

From a historical perspective, there’s a lot to be learned. Even back then a young lad would rather go to the pictures to see Chaplin than read a book, and all the women want to look like Greta Garbo — one of the most sought-after glamour girls of the 30s. Some things never change.

It’s rather sobering to read Margaret Sullavan’s son Jimmy Jr. was played in real life by Jimmy Butler, who was affected by WWII like many were affected by the previous war — killed in action in France at the age of 23. It grounds Only Yesterday in real tragedy.

3.5/5 Stars

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