Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima - 1952

Tomorrow, Friday, October 13th, marks the 100th anniversary of the “Miracle of the Sun,” the final apparition in Fátima, Portugal, of the Virgin Mary after several successive months of appearing to three children.  We turn our attention today to The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952), which dramatizes these events.

The story is inherently dramatic, involving the supernatural, as well as historical fact, but the obvious third leg of the stool—our human capacity for faith and what we choose to do about it—is not as strong an element in this movie as it might be.  Much of the unquestioning faith of the children, and the doubtful faith of their elders, seem conveyed as a lesson learned by rote.

One is tempted to regard this movie as an attempt by Warner Bros. to cash in on the tremendous critical and financial success of The Song of Bernadette (1943), made nine years earlier at 20th Century-Fox, and which garnered several Academy Awards.  That movie addressed the visions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes, France, in 1858 to Bernadette Soubrious. We discussed that movie here in this previous post.  Here, from that post:

The Song of Bernadette (1943) pits man against miracle in a many-layered universe. The first layer of this complicated universe is the historical 19th century event on which the story is based.  Then, there is the book by Franz Werfel and the World War II climate under which that book was written and published.  Finally, there is Hollywood, that tries diplomatically to be both pious and frank, spiritual and temporal, to present a money-making story, and yet present it under the auspices of a religious experience…
Man is by nature a creature which believes. We have religions and sometimes complicated protocols of faith. We have superstitions, and we have good luck and bad luck, and we have worries and fears and paranoia, and that is all part of what we willingly believe without proof. On the opposite side of man’s nature is an innate skepticism.

Someone who believes in the efficacy of the prayers of his own faith, may disbelieve the efficacy of prayers of another faith.  An atheist may disbelieve the efficacy of any prayer at all, and yet wholeheartedly believe in luck, or horoscopes, or that a co-worker who gives him a dirty look is out to get him.  It may be the co-worker is just in a bad mood, but that does not shake the belief of the paranoid.  A lot of logical, sensible people knock on wood.  Even people who believe in nothing believe in something, even if it is only the superiority of their own opinions.

So, we believe, regularly, commonly, without proof.  It may be part of our DNA.  But at the same time we are skeptical over someone else’s experiences. 
The Song of Bernadette shows these disparate sides of human nature and the clinging onto of human dignity more than it puts forward of one belief over another, or promotes miracles.

That The Song of Bernadette dramatizes the struggle of faith as something normal and yet at the same time, monumental, is one of its most intriguing elements.  There are many other factors which, added together, simply make Bernadette a much better movie, including a strong cast of familiar character actors, and a strong script.

The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima relies on a cast largely unknown to us, though there are numerous uncredited extras that may make you play the old game “spot the villager”: Mae Clark, Jack Kruschen, J. Carroll Nash, and Anne Whitfield (our Susan Waverly from White Christmas).  Jay Novello has a role as the father of two of the children, but the only featured adult role in this film belongs to Gilbert Roland, a favorite of mine whom we saw here in The French Line (1954) and We Were Strangers (1949).  Mr. Roland’s role is a fictional character, a lovable rogue who does not believe, but who attempts to protect the kids when townspeople and officials go after them from spreading tales about being visited by the Virgin Mary.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that it centers on the three kids.  Susan Whitney is Lucia, the eldest of the three who is the leader, and her cousins, Jacinta and Francisco, who are brother and sister, played by Sherry Jackson and Sammy Ogg.  All three child actors went on to do television in the 1950s, but Susan Whitney had the briefest career.  Sherry Jackson had an uncredited role as an extra in The Great Caruso (1951), which we discussed here.

 Unfortunately, there is no depth to the children’s roles as written or as played, so they come across as something of cardboard cutouts.  It might have been better if this had intentionally been made as a children’s film, giving them a stronger screen presence and focusing on their world rather than the angry grownups, who disbelieve them, try to silence them, imprison them, and ultimately relent in a burst of dancing sunlight.

Conversely, it might have also been a better film had it addressed that wider world in which these awesome, and harrowing, adventures take place.  That is the chief difference that would have stood apart from The Song of Bernadette, which had its roots in a novel about an event from the middle of the nineteenth century.  The Fátima apparitions occurred in one of the most tumultuous years of the twentieth century, and set the foreboding prologue for what was to come in decades hence.  It is the modern aspects of the story of Fátima that makes it so compelling, even eerie, and would have made a stronger film.

The historical setting begins before the 1917 start of the film story and extends beyond its epilogue of the modern basilica in 1951 at the site of the former apparitions.  In October 1910 Portugal endured a violent political revolution, one consequence of which was the closing of many churches and imprisonment of many clergy.  The three children of the story are poor, living a secluded rural life as shepherds, pastorinhos, and are unaware of most of the politics of their own country, let alone the enormous events taking place in the rest of Europe.  We are in the thick of World War I, begun with an assassin’s bullet and toppling the governments of several nations, leaving millions of dead strewn across muddy battlefields, and millions of refugees starving.

One government in peril is czarist Russia.  The coming communist regime will have consequences for the rest of the world, for the rest of the century.  When the Virgin Mary appears to the three children, she brings messages of future chastisement of the world if people do not repent and pray, including the daily praying of the Rosary, and the coming of a worse war if her warnings are not heeded.  She also tells the children, who are illiterate, they must learn to read and write, so that they may tell others of her messages to them.  The two younger children will die in the impending Spanish Influenza pandemic, which killed possibly as many as 100 million people worldwide.  These are only some of the modern events that serve as backdrop to the Marian apparitions of Fátima that made it a quite different tale to dramatize than the backdrop to the events at Lourdes, and which should have induced Warner Bros. to intentionally make Fatima a movie with a different slant and not lazily follow a template of how simple villagers take to miracles.

Interestingly, the real-life Lucia, who, as the Virgin Mary instructed her, did learn to read and write and carefully documented her experiences, recalled that when they were first told to pray that Russia might be converted, she had never heard of Russia.  The kids thought Russia was probably another little girl who needed prayers.  At the time of these apparitions from May to October 1917, Russia had not yet even become communist.  The request for prayers for Russia’s conversion was a prediction.

So too was the prediction of a second, more brutal war.  Though the Soviet Union eventually collapsed and the Cold War ended without nuclear war, still it does not take too much of a stretch of the imagination to concede the warning about the future spreading of Russia’s “errors” to the world include the current threat to overthrow our own government and democracy at the direction of the soulless Vladimir Putin, with the help of his acolyte Bannon and his puppet, Trump.  The political background of the story about three kids entrusted with heavenly messages, dire warnings, and even well-publicized three “secrets” is enough material to make a movie that is not only entertaining, but even astounding.

The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima remains today as a simple primer to show at Catholic school assemblies, but is little more than that, and I can’t imagine that was what the execs at Warner Bros. really wanted to create.  Perhaps miracles, in any form, are really too uncomfortable for us to tackle.  We want miracles, nice miracles, like winning the lottery, but when faced with miracles that carry so much weight and consequence, perhaps we really just don’t have the “courage of our convictions.”

The Miracle of the Sun was an event well documented by the press, as tens of thousands gathered to the spot where the three kids observed their last encounter together with the Holy Mother.  They had requested from her a sign that the grownups would believe them.  They were getting a little sick of being told to shut up, and put in jail.  The Blessed Mother came through big time.  While the multitudes stood in the rain, the sun came out and wobbled around, zigzagged a bit, changed colors, seemed to pulsate, and then the sun starting growing bigger, as if it was hurtling toward the earth.  The people panic.  This part in the movie where the sun comes at us is pretty scary, even despite the simple technical craft of the day.  You may find yourself running for the exits.

Then the show stops, and all the people, though having been standing in the rain for some hours, are completely dry, and the ground is all dry, and the newspaper men have quite a story to tell in their next edition.

In the movie, the rascal Gilbert Roland becomes a true believer when he sees the Miracle of the Sun, and we see him in the epilogue talking to Lucia, now a nun, many years after the event.  Oddly, the director chose to use the same child actress, Susan Whitney, to play the adult Lucia, but who speaks lip-synching to the voice of an adult actress.  It has a weird effect and seems a very poor compromise at establishing the continuity between the child and the adult visionary.

Lucia lived to be 97 years old, and died in 2005.  This past May 13th, on the 100th anniversary of the first apparition of the Virgin Mary at Fátima, Pope Francis canonized the two younger children, Jacinta and Francisco.  World-wide prayer services will commemorate the October 13th “Miracle of the Sun” and pilgrims to Fátima will likely add a great number to those who regularly flock to that site.  Fátima, unlike the well-intentioned movie, is indeed a modern tale with political and social threads; that is it’s compelling “hook” and is still with us.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A few thoughts on Ken Burns documentaries

The Vietnam War documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick  that was shown on PBS the previous two weeks is a triumph of historical reportage, the kind we've come to expect from the meticulous and thoughtful Ken Burns and his production team.  Some columnists made note that this presentation would not likely achieve the kind of immediate and powerful reception by the American public as did his marvelous The Civil War, produced in 1990.  The reasons stated for this is not only the obvious division that still remains over the Vietnam Conflict, but mainly because we have become a society that no longer seems to rally over a single television event.  We are scattered to our own interests, and with a wide array of cable TV options and Internet offerings -- which did not exist in 1990 -- we are not compelled to bridge the gap and sit around the TV like a national campfire and listen to old ghost stories.

This is, coincidently, the same reason there are fewer classic film fans and will be in the future: without common exposure in pop culture, i.e., more TV channels showing them, they cease to be part of our common experience and memory.

The Vietnam War is an often difficult program to watch, at least for those who remember those years, but it is also remarkably cathartic and brings an unexpected sense of closure.  It also leaves a taste of foreboding, as many of the issues of the government wanting in candor, and sometimes unashamedly corrupt, continues eerily today.  What I found most interesting was the use of a single narrator, the actor Peter Coyote, in the series.  In a way, it reminded me of another one of my favorite documentary series, World War I, which was produced by CBS in the 1964-65 season, and narrated by the wonderful Robert Ryan.  Both series have their moments of starkness and bleakness, and yet gentleness in powerful moments, and these two actors lend so much in their delivery of the narration.

Conversely, what made The Civil War unexpectedly delightful was the use of many actors and actresses voicing the comments of historical figures.  Burns used this tactic as well in his excellent The War (2007) documentary series on World War II.  We discussed this series in this previous post, about how interesting and effective was his refraining from using classic film footage, or popular music of the day to embroider the story of World War II.  It was a good choice for that series, for reasons stated in that previous post.  However, The Civil War heavily relied on music from that period to flavor the piece, and Burns returns to this in The Vietnam War with a deliberate and effective use of music from that era.

As far as exploring our common experience and memory as classic film fans and as students of this most important media explosion of the twentieth century, I'd love for Ken Burns and his team to make a documentary series about the Hollywood studio system.  To be sure, there are fewer left to interview for their personal experiences, but there must be a great deal of interviews and anecdotes already recorded, and archives rich with information on the cultural phenomenon of the studio era.  Presented in a long and leisurely many-episode series, with current actors and actresses to do voiceovers where it applied -- that would be something.

I understand Mr. Burns is tackling the subject of country music next.  Now if he could only mosey on over to Gower Gulch.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Sheet Music from the Movies

This week's post on my Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. blog features a contribution from an Ann Blyth fan -- scans of sheet music from her 1952 film The World in His Arms (which we had discussed in this earlier post) illustrating that the beautiful love theme I thought had no words actually was published with lyrics.  Today we have a look at a few other examples of sheet music from classic films.

Hollywood was extremely resourceful in its juggernaut promotion of films, and sheet music played a role in publicizing a film by exploiting the popularity of songs from a movie, or by trying to make those songs popular to increase interest in the movie.  The sheet music usually pictured stars on the cover, and that was an added feature desired by fans who collected photos of their favorites. 

While these earlier decades of the twentieth century could boast a larger percentage of the population who owned pianos or otherwise played musical instruments, I suspect many collectors of these items kept them mainly for their walls and their scrapbooks.  

Sheet music of movie themes continue to be published for modern films, but perhaps used today more in the form of a high school band playing the theme from Star Wars (1979).  I don't imagine sheet music from modern films is as popular today among fans who are not musicians.

Do you have any sheet music in your classic film memorabilia collection?

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Screen Magazine February 1943

Olivia de Havilland graces the cover of Screen Guide magazine for February 1943.  Along with the usual star gossip and fan magazine articles, there are interesting insights on how we coped with the war.  Though packed with fluff, these kinds of publications are windows on popular culture and we see that the war is all pervasive.

The letters to the editor includes the complaint, "Why must so many of the new pictures be based on the war?" Working six or seven days a week (we tend to forget the enormous sacrifice of war plant workers), some preferred the lighter fare.  Though this writer mentions wanting more films like Holiday Inn or Yankee Doodle Dandy, which still had their patriotic cheerleading scenes, we need to remember these sentiments when we see something like those frothy Betty Grable or Carmen Miranda Technicolor fantasies.  Escape is very important sometimes.

James Stewart, here a Lieutenant, is given a special tribute.  He was one of Hollywood's first enlistees in the war, and we mentioned his contribution to a patriotic radio broadcast in this post a few weeks ago, also covered by Screen Guide.

The magazine would continually note the growing list of Hollywood's new members of the armed services.  These were the latest batch of recruits.

I like this mention of Helmut Dantine, a minor player then, recognizable in several films.  Though he had a long career in acting, then trying his hand at directing and producing, Dantine never became a major star, or even "one of the biggest male raves the screen has ever seen."   Too bad, but he evidently caught the eye of the public at the time.

It wouldn't be a real World War II-era publication without a plea for buying war bonds. How much do you miss your solider?  Give up the luxuries and buy the war bonds.  At 2.9%, they paid better interest than we get today.

Another blurb shows Linda Darnell with a device that one installs in one's car to keep the highest speed at 35mph.  That saves gas.  Sacrifice can be glamorous.  

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Manpower - 1941

Manpower (1941) is quirky; at times a evoking the iconic working man of the WPA art images, but somehow never glorifying it.  It is a hard-bitten tale of the unlucky and the foolish, and yet manages to be unexpectedly humorous in spots. It’s not so much the movie doesn’t know what it is: it most certainly does, but it proudly and defiantly defies to be locked into any genre. Its stars George Raft, Edward G. Robinson, and Marlene Dietrich don’t care if we take them or leave them.  Director Raoul Walsh seems to have the same chip on his shoulder.

Images of great generators and turbines, of high tension wires and metal towers could provide a visual tribute to the great infrastructure projects of the 1930s when so much of America was finally electrified, but most of this background is used as a setting to reflect the esprit de corps of the cast of daring linemen.  They are not technicians as much as they are roustabouts, and they climb to the heavens with little to protect them from lightning or keep them from falling, but they are fatalistic, and bolstered with ego. 

The crew is packed with our old friends: Frank McHugh and Alan Hale as a couple of comic stumblebums; Ward Bond as a wiseacre; Eve Arden, too-little used in her role as a ten-cents-a-dance girl.  The linemen-roustabouts go to work at night in thunderstorms, and during their “high wire act” they talk about the dames.

The wind, the lightning, the torrential rains, the sizzling live wires broken and flapping around them make for treacherous work. One older fellow, of course called “Pop,” played by Egon Brecher, warns of death by live wires. He is not a climber; he works on the ground. The most sensible guy is George Raft. His best buddy is Edward G Robinson, in a role markedly different from his sinister sneering gangsters and his shrewd detectives: he plays a happy-go-lucky, and hapless lineman desperate for a date, too awkward and bumbling to be attractive to the world-weary dance hall girls. He is exuberant, quick-tempered, but joyfully oblivious to the dangers around him. That includes the dangers from women as well as high wires. The when Raft gets into trouble upon the tower, Robinson comes to his aid and gets electrocuted. Ward Bond does a curious form of CPR by pressing on his back and brings him back to life, but Robinson’s leg is broken, so Edward G goes off to the hospital. His injury is such that he will not be fit for climbing towers anymore, but his heroism merits a promotion to foreman. This happy hooligan will stay on the ground from now on and direct the action.

Pop has a grim chore of his own. He is going to meet his daughter who has just been paroled from prison. He feels guilty about meeting her, because he abandoned her and her mother when she was a child and he feels responsible for her wayward course in life. He asks Raft, because he is the most sensible and unflappable guy around, to go with him to meet her. The daughter is played by Marlene Dietrich. Her black beret tells us she is sophisticated and tough (recall our post on the black beret in movies here). And glamorous, despite being a person.

There is an interesting scene where they stop to go to a drugstore so Marlene can pick up some cosmetics. George Raft was sometimes considered a kind of Humphrey Bogart 1.0 because his fame came along earlier than Bogart’s and he got a lot of the tough guy roles (and turned down a few that made Bogart famous). Raft was not the actor that Bogart was; he did not have his range, and yet there is something so wonderfully cool about Raft in this movie that I’m not sure Bogart could achieve. Raft is unruffled, even apathetic about Marlene’s needing to buy lipstick and powder, even steps in to help her shop, though he is somewhat disgusted by Marlene’s cold reception of her father. He does not know yet that she has had a hard life because her father abandoned her in childhood. Raft sits at the soda counter in a drugstore and orders a soda, with a straw. It is such a tough guy cool thing to do with a completely unconcerned attitude as he if just belted down a Scotch. He is one tough guy, and despite spending so much time up in the high wires, he is grounded.

All the happy hooligans appear to live together in a boarding house. They kid Edward G Robinson about his girl troubles. When Pop is killed on the job, Edward G., as foreman, has the miserable task of having to tell his next of kin – Marlene Dietrich. As usual George Raft gets drafted to go along with them because Raft is the sensible one, and just his coolness steadies the nerves of others. They break the news and Raft is disgusted by Marlene’s lack of grief. She actually hardly knew her father. But Edward G. warms up to her in a curiously courtly way. He does not chase her or push himself upon her the way he does the dance hall girls, but he is very gentle and feel sorry for her.

She gets a job at pretty much the only place she’s qualified to work: the dance hall, where we meet the other world-weary ladies including Eve Arden. Miss Eve refers to one of their clients as “laughing boy,” shades of her line in Mildred Pierce (1945). She is hard-bitten and wisecracking, but unfortunately, she doesn’t get quite the screen time as she did in other films, so it is a promise unfulfilled.

Edward G. pursues Marlene with naïve gallantry. He wants to buy her a present, so he takes Alan Hale and George Raft to go to a department store to buy her a négligée. Alan Hale has the funny lines about watching the live manikins model the clothing. He remarks, “How about some underwear? Can we see some models?” The movie is filled with sudden and surprising flicks of risqué dialogue and topical references that keeps the whole story off kilter and rides a fine line between a sophisticated farce and something utterly daffy. At times we don’t know if we’re dealing with Oscar Wilde or the Marx Brothers.

At one point Marlene sings in her own inimitable, and rather indescribable, fashion. George Raft has come to see her to warn her to stay away from his buddy. The owner of the joint, seeing George’s interest in Marlene says, “She’s got a great voice, huh?”

To which George responds, “Why don’t you get your ears tuned.” In one moment Marlene has been presented as a glamorous and exotic talent and in the very next moment she is insulted.

However, Edward G. proposes, Marlene excepts, not because she loves him – she tells him frankly that she does not – but with the attitude that this might be a new turn in her life for the better. After a raucous wedding reception in a Chinese restaurant with all the gang, the movie shifts interestingly to Marlene’s domestic abilities, which are considerable. Instead of showing her as the ex-con no-goodnik who hasn’t the slightest idea how to live like a decent person, we see she is remarkably domestic. She is an excellent cook. She keeps their house immaculate. She spoils Edward G. with appetizing treats and tries to be a good wife to him. Eventually it comes out bit by bit that, because her father left her mother, Marlene learned from a very young age how to keep the home fires burning. She had to take charge to cook, to care for her mother, to manage the household. When she turned to dance halls and crime it was not because of the love of the lurid excitement; indeed, that sort of life bores her silly. It was because she had no other skills and was too honest to market herself as a wife to the first man who came along.

Deciding on a change of course, she decides to take this second man who came along.

In another plot twist, Raft is injured at work – the setting is Southern California but evidently they have a whole lot of thunderstorms. Raft recovers in the hospital and when he is discharged, Edward G. insists on taking them home so that Marlene can nurse him. Raft warms up to her, sees that she is a nice person and a good wife and he feels comfortable and part of the family. We see, though he does not, that Marlene is falling in love with him. Eventually, she sees no hope in the situation but to be honest. She plans to leave Edward G. and go to Chicago and resume the life of a dance hall girl. Raft, upset that she would abandon his buddy demands an answer, and keeping with the honest course, tells him she’s in love with him.

In a final climactic scene, and yet another storm, there is a showdown in this tragic love triangle and, of course, in true movie fashion one of them has to go. I’ll give you a break this once and not give you a spoiler.

Manpower a good movie to consider for Labor Day in the sense that like so many movies of the 1930s and 1940s, much of the story involves working men in the setting of their jobs. (And reminds one of Slim-1937- which we covered here.) Sometimes the job is a theme of the movie, sometimes it is almost like another character in the movie, but if filmed today, the job would be relegated to only the setting of the story and not necessarily the meat of the story. In one sense, the common working man was given greater attention in movies back in Hollywood’s heyday, but in another sense, it is simply that the minutiae of everyday life was given greater attention back then. That is what makes films of that period so fascinating. They are like scrapbooks we can open and take our time and examine all the little things in the pictures, and have questions about and imagine all kinds of stories that are sidebars to the main story, but are just as interesting. One story inevitably leads to another.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

For each man, his own hands - Watch on the Rhine - 1943

Watch on the Rhine (1943) is a tale of resistance against fascism and the price of commitment.  In its drawing-room intrigue on the showdown between Nazis, enablers of fascism, those who resist, and those who are completely naïve about the evil forces around them, it focuses on the motivations, regrets, and fears of a single resistance fighter.  Paul Lukas, who won the Academy Award for his sensitive portrayal, is asked by Lucille Watson, his American mother-in-law, who gives his family refuge, about why he must always sacrifice for the cause against fascism?  Why not leave the job to somebody else?

“But why must it always be your hands?”

He answers, “For each man, his own hands.  He has to sleep with them.”

A day of reckoning comes to each person, for different reasons, and at different times.  What we see today in American society commonly, and not so furtively called The Resistance is also a fight against fascism, but it is taking the form of a social movement, with brave public protests, and sometimes with casualties, but for everyone there is a price to pay.  Watch on the Rhine has always been one of my favorite movies, and one of the aspects of the movie which I find so fascinating is the treatment of the Paul Lukas character.  He is both a hero, and a fanatic, and yet he is a most mild-mannered gentleman, loving and kindly to his wife and children, rather beaten and weary in middle-age, and by his own admission, fearful.  He is an unlikely hero, and his very gentleness and empathy, his being haunted over his resistance activities and what harm they do to his family makes him a very compelling character. But he has a backbone of steel and snaps into action like someone who never questions his own motives.

We have discussed Watch on the Rhine in previous posts: in this one centered on George Coulouris’ villain who is the greatest threat to Paul Lukas, and in this post on American idealism.

Ann Blyth performed with the original Broadway cast (not in the film), with Paul Lukas, George Coulouris, Lucille Watson, Frank L. Wilson, and Eric Roberts.  In my book on Ann’s career, Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star., I go into more detail on the stage play and its impact on American theatre – it was a tremendous hit.  The eloquent script was by Lillian Hellman, and its director, Herman Shumlin, also directed the 1943 film.

We meet the resistance fighter in the very first moments of the movie. He does not look anything like a fighter of Nazis. He is a timid, shuffling family man, shepherding his wife and three children to the United States border with Mexico. They are coming to the United States as refugees from a war-torn Europe. They are nervous about going through customs. We see among the stack of passports stamped by the official that four are identical, and the top one is different from the others. That one is a United States passport because his wife, played by Bette Davis, is an American citizen. The first thing he says when they step over the line into the United States, “And now you are in your own land, Sara, and that is good.” 

Just as the hero of the story does not look like a hero, the bad guys do not look like typical Hollywood Nazis. George Coulouris is a dapper Romanian ex-diplomat. We see him mostly in evening dress, and he is charming, well educated and well spoken. This movie shows us that the real evil are not the Nazis in uniforms, but the parasites among them who use those who are more powerful to get money, favoritism, and some of that power for themselves. Eventually, we get to see the local Nazi ringleader played by Kurt Katch, but he is not a smartly dressed in a commandant’s uniform. He is sloppily dressed in an old sweater playing poker. So far nobody looks as they should.

But he is really quite sinister because he is soulless and crafty. He sits in an office in the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. The Nazis are in the American homeland, close to the center of government. They are close to the bankers, the industrialists who support the regime. This Nazi shuffling cards is far more dangerous to our government than Panzer units.

We then see, in comparison, that George Coulouris is just a pawn. He is most certainly a danger to Paul Lukas, but he is fighting for his own rank and survival as well in a world of fascism. As we noted in our series of posts last summer (The Mortal Storm (1940),  Address Unknown (1944),  Storm Warning (1951),  Keeper of the Flame (1942), and Seven Days in May (1964)) that fascism is cannibalistic. Fascists always eat their own. We may see the correlation in our own time with the co-dependent, but adversarial relationship between Trump and Bannon, between Trump and Mitch McConnell, between Trump and every conservative Republican who needs him to put forth their agenda, but who will inevitably be stabbed in the back by him and possibly even share his fate if they do not shed their complacency.

The play, and the movie, is an examination of America’s innocence and naïveté not just about evil and our impending doom, i.e., entering the war, but the evil whirlwind that created it.

Complacency is the greatest evil in the movie. One of its representations is in the lovely Geraldine Fitzgerald, who plays George Coulouris’ wife, who hates him on principle but who puts up with him for much too long, until it’s almost too late. They sit in the garden as guests of Lucille Watson, themselves refugees from Europe, and Geraldine says, “I just lie still now and hope... Maybe something good will happen.”

There is the complacency of Lucille Watson and her son played by Donald Woods, who will have put Bette Davis and Paul Lukas in danger simply by having a sneak like George Coulouris in their home and giving him shelter; aid and comfort to the enemy, if you will, but also by not resisting. They have embraced American isolationism. They have not taken the moral step of resisting evil.

Paul Lukas resists evil at every turn, because he is practical and knows that fascism will devour his children and others if he does not fight it, and also because he is an idealist who believes that the world can be better. It is the fascinating picture of a sane fanatic, though he does worry, “Maybe now I am sick, too.”  He has risked all to fight the Nazis, given up his engineering career, put his family in danger numerous times, they must always be on the run, and are often hungry. Is this the picture of a responsible husband and father, a protector and provider? He struggles with this dilemma.

There is, despite its sober message, a great deal of humor in this movie, and inspiration. But it is the discussion of one’s personal commitment to ideals that is most interesting to me. There is much food for thought in this movie.

The play and the screenplay are very neatly and intricately constructed. The cast are all splendid. The arrangement of the characters on screen to show their power struggles, their weaknesses in relationship to each other is excellent work by Director Shumlin, and it is quite interesting to see that though this is his first motion picture, he was as adept at understanding the perspective of the camera as he apparently was the power of stage blocking.

We can also incidentally note that Lucille Watson was a conservative Republican and Bette Davis was a liberal Democrat, but they could both contribute their talent to this noble Hollywood film that challenges American ideals and American commitment.

When Paul Lukas remarks to Lucille Watson that each man must decide for himself the level of his own commitment, “for each man his own hands. He has to sleep with them,” Donald woods replies, “I guess that’s how we should all feel. But you have a family. Isn’t there someone else who hasn’t a wife and children?”

Lukas replies, “Each could find his own excuse. Some have bullet holes. Some have fear of the camps, and many are getting old. Each could find a reason; many find it. My children are not the only children in the world, even to me.”

There were at least three radio versions of this play and movie of which I am aware. The first, which contains only scenes, is part of the 15 minute Treasury Star Parade promoting the selling of war bonds. The host is Fredric March. Paul Lukas and Mady Christians, who played the Bette Davis role on Broadway, play their characters and also have a brief interview with Fredric March. It was done during the road show of Watch on the Rhine in 1942 after it closed on Broadway and just before the motion picture was made.

Another version was made for Screen Guild Theater October  1, 1944 to promote the film. It stars Paul Lukas, Bette Davis, Lucille Watson, George Coulouris, and Donald woods, who all appeared in the movie.

Yet another version was made for Academy Award Theater August 7, 1946 again with Paul Lukas as the only member of either the original Broadway play or the movie to appear in this particular cast.

The play, when it was first produced in 1941 before we entered World War II, was a lightning rod for discussion on our susceptibility to fascism, not just homegrown Ku Klux Klan clowns and German-American Bund rallies, but also brought speculation on our possible insidious adoption of authoritarianism to which Europe seemed so susceptible. Would foreign agents be able to introduce that kind of corruption here, using our own isolationism, our apathy and disinterest for political intrigue against us? The banker, the industrialist, the press, sit like automatons around the poker table and watch the soulless Nazi deal them cards. 

Lucille Watson and Donald Woods play host to a viper in their midst. Geraldine Fitzgerald stays with her husband, knowing he is evil, because standing up to him is too unpleasant. Then Paul Lukas, Bette Davis, and three kids straggle into the room after an exhausting journey of possibly 7,000 miles, thinking they are on a holiday in America, the safest place on earth. It would be difficult to pick out who in this cast of characters is the most gullible of all.  One by one, each in his or her own way, become resistors.  We don’t know the end of that story.

The play, incidentally, was produced again in Washington, D.C., this past February at the Arena Stage with Marsha Mason in the Bette Davis role.  Read the review here by John Stoltenberg.  The first paragraph indicates this story is still relevant:

Whatever this play meant to Broadway audiences when it debuted in 1941, just prior to America’s entry into a war of resistance to fascism abroad, what matters now is what it means to audiences just as America has entered a war of resistance to fascism here at home. Does Lillian Hellman’s principled script—now in a praiseworthy production on the waterfront at Arena Stage—stand the test of time? Does it warrant viewing, in other words, as a Watch on the Potomac?

Judging from audience response on opening night, the answer is yes.

"Watch on the Potomac," indeed.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Punching Nazis in the Face - The Best Years of Our Lives - 1944

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) is rich with profound and moving scenes.  The current events of the past week bring to mind the scene with Ray Teal in the drugstore.  He is, as we learn by his conversation, a far-right fanatic, one of those who believed President Roosevelt started the war, and that the Nazis were the good guys. 

Harold Russell stops in the drugstore to visit Dana Andrews, who works behind the counter as a soda jerk.  Ray Teal notices Harold Russell’s prosthetic hooks:

He says, “Terrible to see a guy like you that had to sacrifice himself, and for what?”

Harold Russell responds, “’And for what?’  I don’t get you, Mister.”

“We let ourselves get sold down the river.  We were pushed into the war.”

“Sure, by the Japs and the Nazis.”

“No, the Germans had nothing against us.  They just wanted to fight the Limeys and the Reds.  And they would have whipped them, too, if we didn’t get deceived into it by a bunch of radicals in Washington.”

“What are you talking about?”

Ray Teal taps his newspaper, likely a publication that fans his views and his inbred ignorance, and strokes his arrogance.  “We fought the wrong  people, that’s all.  Just read the facts, my friend.  Find out for yourself why you had to lose your hands.  And then go out and do something about it.”

Dana Andrews, who has been listening, interrupts.  “You’d better pay your check, Brother, and go home.”

Ray Teal, insulted, fires back to the hired help, “Well, who do you think you are?”

“Pay the cashier right over there.”

Ray Teal huffs, “That’s another thing.  Every soda jerk in this country’s got an idea he’s somebody.”

Teal goes to the cashier.  Homer follows him, wanting to pursue Teal's meaning.  “Look here, Mister what are you selling anyway?”

Teal proudly, stubbornly announces, “I’m not selling anything but plain, old-fashioned Americanism.”

Homer replies, angrily, “Some Americanism.  So we’re all a bunch of suckers, hey?  So we should have been on the side of the Japs and the Nazis, hey?”

Teal taps his folded newspaper, “Again, I say, just look at the facts.”

Homer blows up, they argue.  Homer wants to punch him, but can’t because of his prosthetic hooks.  So Dana Andrews sails over the lunch counter to break up the fight, and punches the American Nazi in the face.  It is a satisfying thing to watch.  

It will not change Teal’s views, however.  We probably know that even though we never see him again in the movie.  We can imagine he will avoid Andrews on sight from now on, and feel himself to be a victim, not just of Dana Andrews, but of a society where his dumbass and putrid views are polar opposite to what the Constitution prescribes. 

Neither do we see any resulting lawsuits against Andrews for the assault, but then the movies like to end arguments with punches, and end bad guys with instant death; the courtroom that should be the final arbiter usually isn't dramatic enough for Hollywood.

It is a brave and prescient scene for the day, acknowledging that not all Americans were united about the war, and that being anti-Nazi was going to have to be a stance we would need to continue to take if we wanted to keep ourselves free.

The bitter scene is followed by a tender, touching scene, as Homer notices the flag pin that fell off Teal’s lapel and landed in the floor.  Homer picks up the flag pin with remarkable dexterity with his hook, and puts it in his jacket breast pocket, near his heart.

Dana Andrews may have landed the punch, but Homer saved democracy by scooping it up off the dirty floor and protecting it.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

We Hold These Truths - Hollywood Broadcast

A week after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a program celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights was produced on all four radio networks of the day – CBS, NBC Red and Blue networks, and the Mutual network.  It was narrated by James Stewart, and a host of Hollywood players joined him in bringing to life not only the struggles of post-Revolutionary War America to come up with this Bill of Rights, but how important it was to reflect on it, and rely on it, in a time of modern troubles.  The program was performed live.

It is a remarkable and deeply emotional dramatization that not only speaks to us today, but sings, shouts, cries, and cheers.  Norman Corwin wrote the beautiful script, performed on December 15, 1941, and it is estimated over half the U.S. population listened to it.  Performed in a Hollywood studio, live hookups also included performances in New York City, and an address by President Franklin D. Roosevelt from Washington, D.C.  Bernard Herrmann composed original music for the program, and at the very end of the show, Maestro Leopold Stokowski conducted “The Star Spangled Banner.”

James Stewart was, at that time, a corporal in the Army Air Corps, loaned to the project for the occasion.  His fellow players included Edward Arnold, Lionel Barrymore, Walter Brennan Marjorie Main, Bob Burns, Walter Huston, Edward G. Robinson, Rudy Vallee, and Orson Welles.

Walter Huston, rolling his r’s, introduces the program.  Then, the familiar voice of Lionel Barrymore is brought to the mic.

“My name is Barrymore. I’m one of several actors gathered in the studio in California….”  He joins 130 million fellow Americans in praise of a document “that men have fought for, that men are fighting for…”

He announces the cast, and adds, “Our names are meaningless unless your names are added.”  

Then one by one, the cast fills in, leaving their Hollywood personas and adopting the guise, in our imaginations, of post-Revolutionary Americans.  Jimmy Stewart like his character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939),which we covered in this post, leads us on a tour of modern Washington, D.C., and as he describes monuments and their inscriptions, we are reminded of the movie, for he is intentionally channeling Mr. Smith’s awe and wonder.  

Not only the message, but the script beams with elegant writing, no longer in fashion.  Perhaps it is too idealistic, and we have learned to distrust everything.  

On the National Archives building it is written,  “ What is past, is prologue.”  We hear the clicking of footsteps as Stewart climbs the stone steps to see the Bill of Rights in glass – the old parchment with faded writing.  Then Stewart and the other actors proceed to bring it alive.  “The words are dim, but not the meaning of the words…”  Perhaps not.  Perhaps we need this lesson.

Stewart brings us to the hall as the great men rise to speak and call the roll, to sign their names the draft when Constitution is written, which is then brought back to the states for review, but the people are suspicious.  They want guarantees of certain protections.  And so, this is the story of how the Bill of Rights came to be added as the most important addendum in history.  

Other actors jump in to be those common people in the different states who express their curiosity for the new document, but who want more guarantees, more explanations of just what they have won in the Revolutionary War.

Walter Huston is a blacksmith.   He doesn’t want anyone telling him he has to pray the way somebody else tells him.  Doesn’t like state religion.  Wants to make sure there won’t be any.

Others are suspicious of authority.  They know that just wanting law and order isn’t enough—Nero had such.   

Marjorie Main plays a woman whose husband died in the war.  She wants guarantees that he didn’t die  in vain.

Edward Arnold is a bricklayer who argues that the work is unfinished.  There’s only a foundation and no house.

So many voices, so much dissent, so much yearning for rights.   We are taken on a journey not only through history, but through the minds and souls of this nation.

Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, James Madison lend their voices, and George Mason warning us not only about a monarchy, but a “tyrannical aristocracy” taking over, the monied class.

Now the First Congress begins sifting through the amendments to the Constitution and hammering them out for the future.  It’s not an easy job, but it’s important and they persist.  Stewart passionately narrates, cajoles, shouts.

Most profound is Orson Welles’ impassioned speech.  He takes over at this point and adds the other voices to the founders of the Bill of Rights – not just the men in Congress, but from the victims of the ages – “They had much help, the many nameless and unknown – from bleeding mouths, burnt flesh – from numberless and nameless agonies.  The delegates from dungeons, they were there.  The delegates from ashes at the bottoms of the stakes were there.”

We hear a voice, weak, pleading.

Orson continues, “The gallows delegates, whose corpses lifted gently in the breeze, they too…”

His voice grows booming, horrified:  “The Christians killed for being Christians, Jews for being Jews, the Quakers hanged in Boston town, they made a quorum also… The murdered men, the lopped off hands, the shattered limbs, the red welts where the whip lash bit into the back.  Must you know what they said?  Must you know how they argued?  Must you be told the evidence?

“Listen, then!”

We hear a blood-curdling scream.

“That was an argument for an amendment.”

They are words for our times, how shockingly, sickeningly current.

“How much of all this must be told to be believed?  How much of this must be diagramed: X marks the spot where decency was last observed?”

Nero was there, Caligula, Cotton Mather, all the tyrants were observing in the hall.  “All the long and bloody history of fanaticism, murder in the name of God.”  

Christ was there too.  “He, too, sat in the Congress, the mild Man, with scars in His hands and feet where the spikes went through.  He was a consultant in the business at hand.  Had He not died because the rulers of the realm denied free speech?  Was He not nailed up on a cross between two thieves because His preachments were considered treason?”

Orson growls, wails his words.  “Out of the agonies, out of crisscrossed scars of all the human race they made a Bill of Rights for their own people…To stand against the enemies within, connivers, fakers, those who lust for power, those who make of their authority an insolence.”

Listen to Orson’s impassioned speech, and think of now.

The Bill of Rights “Threw up a bulwark…and made a sign for their posterity against the bigots, the fanatics, bullies, lynchers, race haters, the cruel men, the spiteful men, the sneaking men, the pessimists…”

The Bill of Rights is ratified!  Jimmy Stewart breathes easier and brings the document to the thirteen states.

Then Edward Arnold, Walter Huston, Marjorie Main, Walter Brennan and others join in as the amendments are read, each one, and voices answer to illustrate what each one means.  We go to the homes of farmers, the blacksmith shop, all the new citizens.  The war gave them separation from Great Britain, but the Constitution and the Bill of Rights makes them citizens.

We hear a woman tending the grave of her soldier husband.  We hear a Colonial folk tune.  Through all, James Stewart’s folksy ruminating weaves a thread to guide us to the present.  Edward G. Robinson is a political protester who praises the rights that allow him to speak and fight corruption in city hall.

“A promise is a promise,” Jimmy Stewart says, “Has America’s been kept?”

It is a fair question, but in only a short time Japanese Americans would have their rights taken away by virtue of their ethnicity.  It was not the Bill of Rights that failed them; it was their fellow citizens and a president and government who shamefully allowed their mistreatment.  Even in those days when war was declared and Americans were coming together for mutual support, even in times of great pride, patriotism and cheerleading, something monstrously unfair could occur.  How much easier it is to occur in times when we are not one, when we are fighting amongst ourselves?  When a foreign enemy knows how to divide and conquer.  Abraham Lincoln said:

“From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia...could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide.” 

We've come to that suicidal brink, however, with the aid of Vladimir Putin’s mafia, and the fascism that is rotting our government. We have far superior technology in our media than they did when this radio program was broadcast in December 1941, but we have lost the gift of eloquence that they possessed then.  Such well-written and carefully crafted words would today seem to be talking above the heads of the crowds whom the spokesmen try to reach.  Maybe because they are above the intelligence of the spokesmen.

This was a live program, so neatly coordinated, so passionately and intimately put together.  Listen to this program and marvel not only at how it was written, acted, and produced according to the technology of the day when we were only a week at war, but marvel – for God’s sake, marvel at the message of warning, of love, and of integrity, of pride for our Bill of Rights.

At the end of the program, James Stewart introduces in a soft, gentle voice President Roosevelt, who then speaks live from Washington, D.C.   “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the people of the United States.”

Of the people.

It was reported by Screen Guide magazine in the March 1942 issue, from which some of these photos are taken, that after James Stewart introduced the President, he ripped off his earphones at the mic, and burst into tears.

Listen to We Hold These Truths or download at the Internet Archive, or here at YouTube.

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