The Philadelphia Story (1940): One Of The Greatest Comedies Ever Made

by Paul Batters

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“The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” Mike Connor

One of the great enjoyments of being a classic film fan is discovering films that you have either never seen or rediscovering films that had been previously dismissed or ignored (for one reason or another). Regardless of the reason, it means experiencing something new when finally viewed and something new is learned about the classic film era. For myself, it was a combination of both reasons when I finally watched The Philadelphia Story (1940). I was certainly not disappointed!

Released through MGM and directed by George Cukor, The Philadelphia Story (1940) is a classic screwball comedy. By the end of the 1930s, the market had seen a near surplus of screwball comedies of which are a number are easily forgotten. Yet The Philadelphia Story (1940) doesn’t fall to formula whilst still maintaining the deep, healthy irreverence in tone and style, which was a key convention of the genre. Additionally, it uses another oft-used plot device of the love triangle/re-married couple, which had in some form or another been a popular theme in films, particularly during the Production Code Era.

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The aim of this review is not to outline the plot but to look at the film’s strengths and offer some points of admiration from this review that may prompt the reader to engage with the aforementioned joy of discovering or re-discovering classic films!

In brief, the story revolves around Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) a wealthy previously divorced socialite who is about to re-marry Gordon Kittredge (John Howard), a rich individual who has made his fortune rather than inherited it. It is roughly two years since she divorced her first husband C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), which ended acrimoniously and their break-up is brilliantly depicted in the opening scene. It’s a testament to Cukor as director and the writer, Donald Ogden Stewart, who sum up the end of a marriage using slapstick humour, the loud silence of a couple not talking to each other and one of the best physical falls ever shown on film.

With the context established, the audience finds that Tracy and Gordon will marry the next day and as the activities of the rich make great fodder for the reporters, Spy Magazine sends two reports to cover the story – Mike Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). However, to get access to the Lord household, they need her former husband Dexter to assist.

To add a complication to matters, Dexter blackmails Tracy into allowing the reporters and him to stay as guests, by telling her that he will reveal the extra-marital affair her father had with a dancer. With her hands tied, Tracy has no choice but to let the stay for the wedding.

What follows is classic comedy, as Tracy will find herself torn between her former husband Dexter, her fiancé George and the reporter Mike. The lead-up to the wedding will see all characters caught up in all manner of situations with Tracy in particular asking questions of herself. The rest is for the reader to discover by watching the film!

So what makes The Philadelphia Story a bona fide classic?

The story initially sounds formulaic but it reaches far beyond what may be expected from such a plot. There’s a combination of factors, which allow for this to occur and the first port of call when discussing needs to be the script. Phillip Barry’s play (written for Hepburn) is perfectly transformed to the screen by Ogden Stewart, with pitch perfect pacing and dialogue that snaps with sharpness and sophistication. The script doesn’t just flow; it weaves. Ogden Stewart channels and interlocks moments of slapstick with pandemonium, romance and satire – and I have no doubt that the chaotic splendor of Paramount era Marx Bros has been thrown in for good measure. Note the brilliant rendition of Lydia The Tattooed Lady by Virginia Weidler as Dinah, Tracy’s younger teenaged sister. The dialogue fits the characters to a tee and Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian makes the astute point that ‘the fun and wit rise like champagne bubbles, but there is a deceptive strength in the writing and performances’. The ‘deceptive strength’ is ever-present in the moments we least expect, such as Dexter’s honest and devastating appraisal of Tracy delivered with a serrated sharpness that eviscerates Tracy with its’ truth. There’s nothing stilted or stiff in the dialogue and it never falls flat. Wendy Ide in The Times states that The Philadelphia Story possesses a ‘blue-chip screenplay…with fizz and spark’. It’s no mistake that Donald Ogden Stewart would win the Academy Award For Best Screenplay.

But the script doesn’t come alive without the sterling performances of the key players and the brilliance of the outstanding supporting cast. It’s well known and part of film lore that Hepburn needed the film to be a success after being declared ‘box-office poison’ and Holiday (1938) failing at the box office. Howard Hughes had helped with acquiring the rights to the play but Hepburn knew it would take exceptional talent to deliver the characters. Gable and Tracy were her desired actors but they were apparently tied up with other commitments. However, Cary Grant biographer Marc Eliot has stated that neither Gable nor Tracy wanted to work with her because of her status as box-office poison and Gable didn’t like the script at any rate. (Tracy had not met Hepburn at that point). Cary Grant’s previous work with Hepburn had chemistry and it culminated in their perfect partnership in The Philadelphia Story.

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Grant brings to the role of Dexter his exceptional comedic timing, charm and wit, as well as an exceptional and uncanny ability to physically react to his opposite number with both and subtle and overt expression. Hepburn shows incredible range and conveys the haughtiness, strong will and arrogance of the character whilst shaping the character arc with depth and perfectly balancing this against Tracy’s frailty and vulnerability. She gives all of herself to the role and this was recognized by John Mosher in his review at the time in The New Yorker, pointing out the film was a triumph for Hepburn. The third primary character (and love interest), Mike Connor, is a win for Jimmy Stewart, who had just come off his success in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939). Stewart is strong as the cynical reporter who regards the Lord household with contempt whilst falling for the statuesque Tracy. Stewart would not only win great reviews from critics such as Bosley Crowther but would also win the Academy Award for Best Actor.

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At the helm of the film’s direction, as already mentioned was one of MGM’s finest directors George Cukor, who had worked with Hepburn in four films. Cukor crafts a film, which leaves no dead air nor fills up time for the sake of it. There’s depth and meaning in moment and Cukor draws outstanding performances from the cast, and intertwining the complex relationships across a thematic climate of class war, truth to self and love. Demetrious Matheou describes the film as ‘an effervescent social satire that pokes fun at all sides in the class war. It’s wickedly witty, gloriously romantic, whip-smart and complex, even verging on the unsavory at times – all in all, something of a complete entertainment’. If so, it’s in great part due to the sensitivities of Cukor and his vision in shaping the film into the classic comedy that it would become.

The supporting cast is also a joy to behold on the silver screen, offering layers to the stars’ performances but more importantly helping to shape and create the world in which the film exists as well as buffering the relationships between the prime characters. As wonderful as they all are, for my money the two standouts are Mary Nash as Tracy’s mother Margaret and Virginia Weidler as Tracy’s sister Dinah. Their interactions on screen are hilarious and the dialogue shared is sidesplitting and rounded out with a naturalness borne of the talent of the actresses delivering their lines. The young Weidler never seems to be out of depth nor dazzled working closely with the primary stars of the film, and proves absolutely delightful on the screen. She steals the scene with her Groucho-inspired moment singing ‘Lydia The Tattooed Lady’ and what follows is hilarious interplay in near-flawless French with Hepburn.

The Philadelphia Story is far from your run-of-the-mill screwball comedy, with its’ satirical core still as fiery as it was in 1940 but avoiding clichés with dollops of farce in the story. But the near fantastical setting of the rich household of the Lords doesn’t mean that there are real life lessons missing in the story. The Lords may be rich but rather than snobbish, they appear as too far removed from the realities of life and they are far from being bad people. As Connor also discovers, the character of a person does not depend on the class they were born into. It becomes a learning curve for all the characters but especially for Tracy, who will finally be honest with herself about who she is, how she views the world and whom she truly loves.

Having a star cast, a top director and a brilliant script does not guarantee a hit film let alone a classic that stands the test of time. Yet The Philadelphia Story has transcended being a hit film and is without doubt a classic and deserves to be acknowledged as such. It would be a win for all concerned. For Hepburn it was a return to form and she was able to shed the ‘box-office poison’ tag attached to her. Cukor enjoyed a top hit after his unceremonious dumping from Gone With The Wind the year before. Stewart would win an Oscar, as would Ogden Stewart and the film would be a top hit for MGM.

But the real winners are classic film fans, who can enjoy the sparkle, wit and brilliance of one of the finest comedies ever made.

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This post is part of the 2018 Greatest Film I’ve Never Seen Blogathon hosted by Moon In Gemini.  Visit her page to see more great articles!

 

 

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

 

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Gallipoli (1981): The Australian Experience Of World War One On Film

by Paul Batters

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War is perhaps the most extreme and traumatic experience which humanity subjects itself to. It is also the most tragic and the consequences of war are long lasting. War changes the course of history and its’ impact on individuals, communities and nations are lasting.

Cinema’s depiction of the experience of war often faces challenges in assuring authenticity, maintaining historical accuracy and avoiding becoming jingoistic propaganda. Sadly, there are a number of films, perhaps too many to name, which have failed in these areas, not least due to the practical realities of depicting history on film. Too often, we see the war film turn into a ‘flag-waver’ or worse still pornography, which exploits violence, death and the horrors of war for the delight of an audience. When this does occur, it not only does a disservice to history but more importantly it commits a terrible injustice against those who have served and made the ultimate sacrifice.

In the annals of Australian history, the events on the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915 during World War One have taken on near Spartan proportions. Oft called a ‘baptism of fire’, it has also become one of the most sacred moments in Australian history and its’ commemoration on ANZAC Day, April 25th the most important day on the Australian calendar. Partly mythologised and partly correct, Australians commemorate the day as symbolising the qualities of mateship, courage and sacrifice.

The events of Gallipoli are briefly as follows; at dawn on April 25th, 1915, Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) landed on the beaches on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey (a German ally) as part of a British plan to knock Turkey out of the war and take control of the Black Sea. Not only were they landed on the wrong spot but then had to storm steep, rugged cliffs under heavy Turkish fire at terrible cost. Yet despite this turbulent start to the campaign, the ANZACs managed to hold the position and showed incredible courage, tenacity and pragmatism. However, the overall campaign would be a disaster, with over 8,900 ANZACs killed and after nine months, the campaign would be called off, with the withdrawal the only real success.

Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981) is a masterpiece of Australian cinema, depicting with authenticity and historical accuracy the Australian experience of the First World War. Whilst it does not focus on the events of April 25th, the film’s climax does focus on the disastrous Battle Of The Nek. It has gone done in Australian military folklore, for its’ sheer tragedy. However, more importantly focuses on the story of the men who fought at Gallipoli and the underlying Australian experience of World War One – a ‘new nation’ who sought to make their mark and show the world what Australians were made of.

In discussing the film and doing justice to the discussion, it is impossible to avoid spoilers and so to avoid such disappointment; fair warning is given to the reader.

From the opening strains of Albinoni’s Adagio In G Minor, the fatalist mood is set, down to the titles done in blood red Gothic lettering on a star black screen. It sounds like a funeral dirge and this fatalism will remain with the audience till the film’s climax.

At this point, the first key character is introduced to the audience, young Archie Hamilton (Mark Lee), the 18 year old athlete son of a pastoralist from the Western Australian bush. Weir uses the character of Archie to represent the quintessential Australian archetype; the blond, bronzed boy from the bush. His innocence, his youth and the exuberance he displays heighten the sense of the tragedy that will unfold, and the beautiful and inspirational mantra of ‘being as fast as a leopard’ will take on greater meaning at the climax of the film. The audience discovers he is a talented runner and has potential that may see Archie as a champion, indicated not only by the first time the audience sees him run but also by the later bet he makes with Les (Harold Hopkins), an older stockman on his father’s property who tries to bully Archie but fails in the attempt. Interestingly, the bet also indicates Archie’s fearlessness and desire to take chances, reflecting the heart of not only his inner athlete but also his youth.

Archie is also symbolic of the ANZAC mythology, built up in great part by Australia’s official war historian C.W Bean. Archie, therefore, represents the flower of Australian youth and his reasons for wanting to join are also idealistic at best and naïve and innocent at worst. But they are more complex reasons than he may care to admit and here is where the director taps into the reality of why soldiers join up to fight. Yes the nationalistic fervour is present, as indicated by the singing of patriotic songs, propaganda and jingoism (particularly in the early stages of Australia’s involvement). He will see not wanting to ‘join up’ as cowardice. But Weir also indicates that while Archie publically indicates the need to fight the Germans ‘because he’d be ashamed of himself’ if he didn’t fight (which of course suggests a coming of age motive of boy becoming a man), Archie in his private moment seeks adventure and looks to see the world, whilst escaping his surroundings. Early in the film he reads a newspaper article folded up and kept inside a ‘Boy’s Own Adventure’ book and later is seen standing at his homestead gate, staring into the distance perhaps wondering what is out there in the bigger world. Later, he will agree with the sentiments of ‘not being pushed around for the rest of my bloody life’ suggesting far deeper motives for wanting to go to war.

Archie is also inspired by his Uncle Jack (Bill Kerr), who not only trains Archie but whose adventures have spurred Archie to seek adventure as his uncle once did. Interestingly, despite Archie’s upbringing, he has a strong friendship with Zac (Charles Yunupingu) a young Aboriginal stockman. When taunted by Les about ‘keeping the company of blacks’ and obviously reflecting the open and abhorrent racism of the period, Archie states very clearly ‘Zac’s my mate’. The weighting of the statement cannot be under-estimated, as the concept of a ‘mate’ in the Australian vernacular is suggestive of comradeship, closeness and equality. It is a testament to Archie and perhaps representative of a future Australia, where a younger generation will hold different views about their fellow Indigenous Australians.

The counterpart to Archie (and by extension the ANZAC myth) is Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson) who is a railway worker along with his three mates Bill (Robert Grubb), Barney (Tim McKenzie) and ‘Snow’ (David Argue). As the audience discovers these four, Barney and Bill are reading a newspaper report on the events at Gallipoli. Bill and Snow are clear on their desire to join up, whereas the lanky and unsure Barney is reluctant though shows interest when Bill declares ‘girls go wild over a uniform’. However, Frank is clear that he won’t be joining up and is not baited by Snow declaring that he’s ‘not scared to die for my country, Frank’. But Frank is unsettled and wants for more than to be a railway worker. The four decide to leave and whereas the other three will head off back to the city, fate will see Frank attend a country race – the very one which Archie is going to run in.

As the audience discovers, Frank represents another aspect of the Australian identity – he is of Irish background and therefore has been raised with little love for the British Empire. His larrikin sense of humour, deep cynicism and difficulty with accepting authority is perfectly conveyed by Gibson and permeates his performance throughout the film.

The race meet is an interesting moment in capturing the spirit of the age. A band plays ‘It’s A Long Way To Tipperary’ as men drink beer and watch the races. Fate will also see Frank lose the race (and all his money in a bet) while Archie wins the race and the medal, as well as a handsome amount of money. What is fascinating is the recruitment drive that follows, in the form of the Lighthorse, an elite cavalry regiment and symbolic of a bygone age, out of step with the modern, industrial war that soldiers will experience for the first time.

Archie tells his uncle that he will not be returning home but his attempt to join the Lighthorse is thwarted and he is stranded. But he meets the now unemployed Frank in a restaurant and the audience learns a little more about the seemingly more worldly young man. Frank is ‘from the city’ and aims to get back to Perth, where he states he will help Archie join up under an assumed name. Archie is galvanised into action and they hop a train only to find themselves stranded in a desert. The crossing is an opportunity for the two to bond as well as air their differences regarding the war. Frank states with a strong sense of Australian nationhood ‘that it’s not our bloody war…it’s an English war, it’s got nothing to do with us’, leaving Archie angry and horrified. Yet the two bond and an old camel driver in a fascinating and interesting moment in the film saves them during their journey. The old man is perhaps symbolic of Australia’s turn of the century isolation and distance from the rest of the world when he indicates he didn’t know there was a war on. Indeed, he adds that he’s never even seen a big city. Like Frank, he is also puzzled at why Australia is involved, stating he ‘cant see what it has to do with us’. The comment that follows is doused in the dry, cynical and amusing humour that is often present in Australian larrikin humour and a nice touch by Weir.

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Crossing the desert, the boys reach a cattle station where the owner and his family entertain the two young men. Here, he finds himself compelled to try and join the Lighthorse but after they both reach Perth; it is only Archie who is successful, as Frank has never ridden a horse. The two are sadly parted but fate will see them meet again later in the story. Fate seems to be a recurring theme, which is a fitting to the story, as luck is the main reason given by soldiers as their reason for surviving.

But Frank is reunited with his three former mates and they all join together. Heading to Egypt, where Australian forces were stationed before heading to Gallipoli (and later the Western Front), the four mates indulge in ‘horizontal refreshment’ at a local brothel and experience the exotic nature of Cairo via their wits and their humour. Here, Weir expressly uses the characters and the storyline as vehicles for the Australian war narrative. The interactions between the Australians and the locals range between colourful and even abusive, fitting in with the stories and testimonies from former soldiers. In one memorable scene, Frank and his three mates come across some British officers on their horses and refuse to salute. As they ride away, the four friends follow on some donkeys, mimicking the upper-class British accents of the officers, yelling out ‘Tally-Ho!’ to which the officers declare them as ‘undisciplined…rabble’. It is (at least for Australians) a hilarious scene, which sums up the Australian attitude to authority as well as a response to the class system. In fairness, it plays on the stereotype/caricature of the arrogant, upper class British officer but it is not a stereotype monopolised by Australians. Indeed, the testimony of British soldiers (many from working class background) shows them sharing similar sentiments towards their superior officers and by 1916, the term ‘lions being led by donkeys’ had become commonplace.

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During a training exercise in Egypt, Frank reunites with Archie. Frank uses his abilities as a runner, as leverage with the Major Barton (Bill Hunter) to join the Lighthorse, much to the disappointment of his three mates. The last night in Egypt before deployment to Gallipoli sees Frank and Archie enjoy a night of dancing with nurses and drinking champagne at an officer’s ball. It is an evening of happiness, as an atmosphere of joie de vie holds firm amongst the partygoers. It will be a sharp contrast as the screen cuts to a darkened screen and the familiar music from the opening titles reminds the audience that tragedy is to come.

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At Gallipoli, Frank and Archie face life in the trenches and their innocence is tested by the harsh realities of war. The audience witnesses the pragmatism, dry humour and inventiveness which Australian soldiers were known for – from the bad food to making bombs out of old jam tins to shaking hands with a Turkish soldier’s corpse stuck inside a trench wall. Archie seems to be happy to be there, in the belief that he is part of something big whereas Frank struggles and survives by his wits. He discovers his old mates – Bill, Barney and Snow – arriving one night and their bond is renewed with classical Australian humour, putting aside the way they had parted in Egypt.

Yet the harsh realities of war will reach even harsher depths when Frank’s mates take part in the Battle Of Lone Pine. The experience of the battle is brilliantly handled by Weir. The audience never sees the battle but instead hears the cries of Australian soldiers as they leave their trenches to do battle against the Turks, followed by the ghastly sound of machine guns. Franks and Archie, along with an unnamed soldier, are standing in a gravesite, with a peaceful and beautiful sunrise behind them. It is a stark contrast to the horrors of war, experienced by the audience through the sounds of battle, allowing the imagination to visualise the horror, coupled with the looks on Frank’s and Archie’s faces.

As Frank seeks his friends out after the battle, the wounded and dying are everywhere being treated. Bill announces that Barney is dead, thinking that at first he had only tripped. Snow is wounded and dying, handing his diary to Frank to ‘let Mum and Dad know what I did’. Archie tries to comfort Frank in his moment of fear, as the next day they will be facing the enemy in the Battle Of The Nek.

The night before the battle, Major Barton is sitting in his tent drinking the champagne his wife gave him to drink on their anniversary. On his gramophone plays The Pearl Fishers’ Duet by Georges Bizet, which is heart-wrenching duet when placed in the context of the moment. In the duet, two men, best friends since childhood, declare their undying love for each other and that nothing will tear them apart. The parallels to not only the two main characters but to soldiers on both sides of the trenches, across all arenas of war, highlight the cruelty and immorality of war.

Before the battle takes place, Major Barton appoints Archie as the runner meaning he would not need to fight. Archie talks his way out, that he has ‘come a long way to be part of this’ and talks Barton into making Frank the company runner. It means Archie will be facing the Turks the next day.

What follows is perhaps one of the most heart-rending and tragic moments of war depicted on film. Weir re-creates the battle without resorting to over-dramatic resonance and despite Weir taking some poetic licence with history the audience sees a genuine recreation of the battle. Beginning with an artillery bombardment against the Turks, what follows are two waves of men who are slaughtered by the well-set Turkish machine guns. It seems pointless and as Barton declares ‘cold-blooded murder’. Mixed messages and the phone line going dead at a crucial moment create even more confusion and tension. Frank is sent back and forth, delivering messages between Barton and his commanding officer, Colonel Robinson (John Morris) who cruelly repeats the order to push on. The tension mounts as Frank receives the order from General Gardner (a fictional character) that he is ‘re-considering the situation’. But Frank will not make it back in time, as the phone line is repaired and the order from Robinson is to ‘push on’. The strains of Albinoni’s Adagio In G Minor return, recalling the link to the fatalist thread which began at the film’s titles.

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As Frank rushes back, Archie practices his breathing, as he would normally do before a big race and begins to repeat the mantra that had inspired him as an athlete. Now it will become his epitaph, with such tragic overtones that the audience can barely contain their emotions. Archie and his fellow soldiers know what their fate is to be and they will face it unflinchingly. Major Barton states he would not ask his men to do what he would not do himself, goes over the top with them. Frank is only metres away as he hears the whistle blow, sending the men to their doom and lets go a blood-curdling scream of anguish.

The final moments show Archie running, before a series of bullets end his life. Archie’s moment of death is frozen in time and the screen fades to black. It signifies the end of the story, as Archie’s life has been snuffed out, stolen from him by a medley of jarring bullets. His body is arched like a runner crossing the line but it is Archie’s last race.

There are some touching moments employed by Weir in the final scenes, such as Archie encountering a weeping Les, who is contemplating his final moments, only seconds before he will go ‘over the top’ and get killed. Before the men go over the top, the audience watches them driving their bayonets into the trench wall, leaving on them letters, wedding rings and other personal items. Archie leaves his medal and the watch his uncle gave him, along with a final letter home. It was a practice sometimes observed on the Western Front and Weir uses the practice to heighten the tragedy of the moment. The frozen moment of Archie’s death is based on Robert Capa’s famous photo from the Spanish Civil War entitled ‘The Falling Soldier’.

Weir’s film certainly addresses many of the issues of war – from the horror of trench warfare and sheer madness of war. But it looks at other important themes as well. In the same way that Archie represents youth and all the excitement, strength, innocence and exuberance that comes with it, he also represents Australia in the same way. In 1915, Australia was a ‘young nation’ filled with hopes for its’ new nationhood and as a nation, Australia would lose its’ innocence and its’ youth on the battlefields of Gallipoli and the Western Front.

There are a few historical inaccuracies, which I will not go into here, as they have been discussed elsewhere. At any rate, they do not take away from the thematic concerns raised by Weir in the film. Additionally, Weir never overdoes the journey or the audience’s experience of that journey.

As a history teacher, who has viewed this film with students numerous times, it has never failed to be a powerful reminder of the cruelty of war and always moves me to tears as the tragedy of the story unfolds. As Australians, we certainly see a little of Archie and Frank in all of us and our connection to the humanity of that time has not diminished, even a hundred years after the guns finally fell silent. Sadly, there are still guns being fired around the world in anger and in hatred. If only we could learn the lessons which Gallipoli has to offer.

This article has been submitted for the 2018 World War One On Film Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Please click on the link https://maddylovesherclassicfilms.wordpress.com/2018/11/08/the-ww1-on-film-blogathon-maddys-five-favourite-ww1-films/ for access to more articles for this blogathon.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

A Patch Of Blue (1965): Overcoming Adversity And Despair

by Paul Batters

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Selina D’Arcy: I said what I did because I love you so much.
Gordon Ralfe: I know why you said it. I’m glad you said it. You brought me back to Earth.
Selina D’Arcy: I didn’t want you to come back to Earth. I wanted you to make love with me.

Hollywood is often accused (and not without good reason) of focusing on the glamorous and dealing in illusion. At the risk of stating the obvious, the very nature of art is illusion and any attempt to portray reality is going to be limited by or affected by the perception of the artist and the creative elements at their disposal. Yet within those bounds is a near infinite array of methods in portraying a narrative. Even the attempt to portray the harsher realities of the life experience are fraught with difficulty and the aim of the film-maker is to present a story that the audience perceives as real, feeling the reality and experiencing the journey of the characters on the screen. Of the many challenges in expanding the audience’s understanding of the human journey, one is presenting the experience of human disability and giving it authenticity as well as dignity. The opportunity for exploitation, cliché and stereotype, as well as an uniformed narrative, is always present and it takes great sensitivity and understanding on all the key stakeholders in a film production to assure that the story remains genuine.

A Patch Of Blue (1965) is a film, which initially seems in danger of falling into cornball cliché and syrupy storyline. The plot seems simple enough – a young, blind woman who lives a sad, cruel and lonely life befriends a kind, black man and they eventually fall in love. However, the convictions of the performances and the development of the story take our experience far beyond the usual themes and tropes that one may expect. Indeed, the director Guy Green is said to have called the initial premise of the story ‘corny’ but credited the writing of the original novel by Elizabeth Kata as giving it the depth, sensitivity and quality that made it work.

Selina D’Arcey (Elizabeth Hartman) is a young girl living with her abusive mother, Rose-Ann who works as a prostitute, and her alcoholic grandfather. Her existence is one of loneliness and neglect, exacerbated by her lack of education and most of all, her blindness. However, her world begins to change when she befriends Gordon, a young African-American man, who is kind, patient and values her humanity. Gordon feels for her situation and their relationship forms not out of pity but from true friendship.

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Gordon meets her regularly in the park where they first met, where he guides her in developing self-confidence and independence. Selina tells Gordon how she came to be blind; a story so cruel and tragic that the audience cannot help but be as moved as Gordon is. Gordon and Selina become closer and the discovery of their friendship brings things to a head when Rose-Ann finds them in the park where they meet, unleashing an ugly scene. But it also reveals Gordon’s strength of character as he defends and protects Selina, who is unable to defend herself.

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However, friendship has blossomed into something more and Selina declares her love for Gordon. Gordon seems unsure and does not want to take advantage of Selina’s love and innocence, especially since he is a good and decent man. But this reviewer believes that there is love in Gordon’s heart, assured by his willingness to see her chance to grow as an individual and give time for her to find herself.

The film’s ending holds a gentle power that transcends all clichés and leaves the audience with a sense of hope for humanity.

The context of the film cannot be overlooked and allows for greater insights into the film than one may initially perceive. Filmed and released at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, it also reflects the artistic shift, as well as the political and social shift, that was occurring in the U.S. True, a key theme is the ugliness and cancerous nature of racism and the film challenges many of the precepts of hatred that racism aims to perpetuate. It also brings to light the power of love to conquer division and whilst we may smirk at, sniff at and inflict a sarcastic smugness toward this theme, there is nothing clichéd about the deepest human experience of love nor the political realities of such a theme.

The original story gave a very different and sadly pessimistic twist to the film regarding the girl’s blindness and her discovery that her friend is actually black. Yet Sydney Poitier’s personal commitment to the film saw him involved in the script and its’ development into a more hopeful and uplifting story. The film certainly reflects the idealism of the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement in challenging long-established norms and values, as well as the hope that love and righteousness would overcome the bitterness, hatred and division that had underscored American society for so long.

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Yet the key characters are more than just symbolic devices for a message. Selina’s journey and the overcoming of her own adversity is a poignant and powerful story. She is not a figure to be pitied and Hartman’s portrayal does not seek to evoke pity or any superficial pathos. Selina’s blindness is a harsh reality brought about by the cruelty of her circumstances. Additionally, the terrible treatment she receives at the hands of her abusive mother and lack of support from her alcoholic grandfather is not meant as a ploy to elicit simpering melodrama or tears from the audience. Her life is what it is and indeed further exemplifies the exploitive nature that some will go to with someone who has a disability – even if that person is a member of their own family. Incredibly, there does not seem to exist within Selina any bitterness or anger, perhaps because her world is so limited and she knows no other life but moreso because her innate spirit is whole and unbroken, even if her physical self lacks sight. The biblical evocation of being blind yet being able to see certainly comes to mind.

If pity is drawn from the audience, it is not simply because Selina is blind but for other tragic reasons. The constant abuse and lack of any comfort, support or love in her life brings angers as much as pity. Her disability is ultimately only one of the factors that have limited her life and within this framework lies the tragedy of Selina’s life. The crippling effects of neglect and cruelty perhaps even outweigh her disability but one of Gordon’s greatest gifts, other than his friendship and love, is that he helps Selina to find her way to develop and grow. Ultimately, as the film beautifully conveys, her disability is not what truly isolates her and once Gordon guides her, Selina begins to grow and seek out more.

Again, there are complexities to Selina’s self-discovery and her pronounced love for Gordon is not mere infatuation or misplaced gratitude for his friendship. Her heart and soul are immersed in the love she feels for Gordon. It must be remembered that she is young and her sudden newfound freedom and sense of discovery finds her elated. To Gordon’s credit and a strong show of his own love for her, he encourages and explains to Selina that she needs to go to school and discover more about herself – to gain an education, find her independence and sense of identity before any commitments can be made. What is beautiful about their relationship is that it far from a one-sided one; Gordon has also grown and learned from her and found a new self-awareness through her honesty, her responsiveness to him and especially her love of and for him. Despite her ‘blindness’, she sees Gordon’s goodness and kindness, in spite of his own self-doubts. It is this interaction that lifts the film from the superficial into something far deeper.

Director Guy Green shows great sensitivity in showing how Selina experiences the world through her senses. From the joys of beautiful sounds to the terror of being alone and sadly the horrific experiences of rape, Green allows the audience to step into Selina’s world and share these sensory moments from her point of view, giving us a powerful and emotional experience. The film’s soundtrack scored by Jerry Goldsmith offers a beautiful layer of beautiful melodies that underscores the story and lifts it into a stronger emotional experience.

The brilliance of Sydney Poitier is evident in his Golden Globe nominated portrayal. Wesley Lovell in Cinema Sight stated that Poitier is strong and stoic, conveying the confidence all great actors possess. These qualities come to the fore in his defense of Selina against Rose-Ann, her cruel and racist mother but also through his kindness and patience. It is the perfect accompaniment to the sensitive qualities of Elizabeth Hartman, whose innocence and limited screen experience certainly does not suggest lack of talent. On the contrary, Hartman’s performance deservedly saw her nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Again, Lovell suggests that her haphazard naiveté helps give the character an add dimension. Hartman comes across as a beautiful spirit aching to soar, trapped in the circumstances of her family and her blindness. Gordon gives her the opportunity to fly.

 

 

Shelly Winters portrays the repulsive and deplorable Rose-Ann beyond the reaches of the superficial, indicating a woman broken by life. Whilst it is easy to despise the woman who has made Selina’s life a misery, Rose-Ann is a woman also trapped by her circumstances, her lack of education and blinded by her own racism. For Rose-Ann, Selina represents her own failing as a mother and her disappointments as a woman. In many ways, Rose-Ann is also disabled and does not have the strength or fortitude to break from it; so imprisoned by her hatred and bigotry. It is a performance which Roger Fristoe on the TCM Website correctly describes as ‘shrewish’ and would garner Winters the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

It is important to remove the easy-to-fall-for jaded cynicism in which we view such stories. The New Yorker would call the film ‘forgettable’, which is unfair from this reviewer’s point of view. A Patch Of Blue is far from forgettable and challenges us to see our fellow humans who have a disability to not necessarily look beyond it but embrace it as part of their humanity and value the whole of the individual. Indeed, the character in the film with the greatest insights and understanding is the one who is physically blind yet whose heart has not been blinded by hatred nor twisted into bitterness by life’s cruelties. Selina shows us the simple beauties of life and thus the significance of the title comes into play; the sole visual memory of that she holds of the blue sky before she became tragically blind.

A Patch Of Blue is a film that still holds its’ simple beauty and its’ subtle and gentle power through the performances of Hartman and Poitier and the sensitivity of director Guy Green.

This article has been submitted for the 2018 Disability In Film Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood at https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com.  Please click on the  link for access to more articles for this blogathon. 

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Tragedy of Lost Art – Silent Film and Finding The Forgotten

by Paul Batters

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Recently an article from The Silent Film Quarterly was shared by on a social media forum by film critic Steven Finkelstein. My interest was piqued not only because I respect Steven’s views and critiquing but by the article’s attention-seeking title which was looking to pick a fight. The title of this article alone ‘No More Tears Over Lost Films’ (penned by Charles Epting) had me choking on my coffee, as my sensibilities flooded with disbelief.

Disbelief turned to spluttering rage after reading the first paragraph and the writer’s response to his own question. To paraphrase, Epting’s premise is that the loss of 90% of films made before 1929 (according to Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation) is nothing to get upset about and that we’re not missing out on anything. To throw fuel on the fire, Epting claimed that the figures highlighting this loss are ‘essentially meaningless’ and that the ‘missing films’ are not significant.

Trying to maintain my composure, I decided to look into Epting’s arguments for why we shouldn’t care that 90% of pre-1929 films are missing and/or permanently gone.

Firstly, Epting makes the claim that for every masterpiece a la Metropolis or Wings, there are ‘countless low-budget, forgettable films’ e.g. His Neighbour’s Pants which if found would not expand our appreciation or understanding of classic cinema in any way or form. Perhaps. He furthers his argument with a fairly facetious comment that ‘by Scorsese’s count, the loss of His Neighbor’s Pants is just as important as the survival of The Gold Rush’. To attack the incredibly valuable work of Scorsese in trying to save and/or restore lost silent film alone is quite a laughable and reprehensible observation to make. It’s also stunning that someone can make a comment that a film that is lost and unseen has no merit. The most obvious response is ‘how do you know?’ If they have not been seen, how can they be judged as having ‘no merit’?

Additionally, Epting’s draws a long bow of correlation between Wings and His Neighbour’s Pants, in terms of their cinematic and cultural value. No-one would suggest equal artistic merit (despite never having seen the latter!) between the two but why choose such films to compare? Gloria Swanson’s Beyond The Rocks might be a better comparison in terms of time period and production quality. It was a film whose initial loss greatly saddened Swanson and its’ eventual discovery, restoration and screening should surely be celebrated. Similarly, the additional footage found and re-edited into Metropolis is cause for celebration as we have the closest version to date, which reflects the original release. By Epting’s assessment, these shouldn’t matter.

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He continues to ‘argue the point with prose’ by declaring that ‘studios were under no obligation to preserve the nitrate stock for posterity’s sake’. Nonsense. Of course they were and it is to the shame of those studios and to the lament of the filmmakers and their audiences that those films were not preserved. Studios like Paramount were inept in their neglect and derelict in their duty to leave their stock to rot. How many of Clara Bow’s films were lost to this negligence? To the credit of MGM, they invested in the protection of their stock, although the tragic fire of 1967 saw the famed studio lose much of its’ celebrated titles. I wonder Epting’s response to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria would have prompted? Or in the context of this article the Fox Studio vault fire of 1937?

Epting uses some bizarre logic to make his argue his case; even attempting to use ‘data’ as his ace up the sleeve. He states that of the 23 films that received nominations at the 1st Academy Awards in 1928, nearly three-quarters have survived, which he states is ‘not a bad percentage’. Personally, I find it appalling that anyone would base the value of lost or surviving films on numbers alone. But he doesn’t care to dwell on this and then declares that we have 98.7% of Chaplin’s silent films. (I guess this is better than 98.6%…) Incredibly, he argues that the figure is much higher if we consider the number of surviving reels rather than titles. This is perhaps the most absurd use of data I’ve encountered and is akin to comparing numbers of chapters to number of book titles.

The use of data as evidence for his arguments continues to leave convoluted points in place. Some of cinema’s greatest directors, Griffith, Murnau, deMille and Von Stroheim have much of their work intact yet all have varying ‘percentages’ of lost films as well. True, their reputations and legacy remain remarkable and intact regardless of whether those films are found or not. But that is beside the point. Those lost films need to be found, restored and viewed because it’s the work of the aforementioned directors. As fans of classic film, the audience’s experience of those great filmmakers can only be enhanced and we can always learn more about a director and the context of his or her time from their work. To suggest otherwise is laughable at best.

At any rate, rattling some of the best-known directors of the period makes not an argument. What undiscovered works from lesser known directors or artists remain hidden or lost?

The same argument is used regarding the great Lon Chaney Snr and the most frequently discussed lost film, London After Midnight (1927). I have previously written about this film and have stated that the film may disappoint for a number of factors. But I would never suggest that a print of the film would not be valuable to classic film fans. Yes there is no shortage of Chaney films to view and discuss. Does that mean that adding another would not be worth it? According to Epting, the loss of The Miracle Man (1919) is meaningless because we have enough of Chaney’s work anyway. To use an earlier argument of his using ‘data’, what existing footage there is of The Miracle Man is enough at any rate. Being Chaney’s breakout performance and judging by the footage that does exist, it’s not hard to imagine that the film would have been a masterpiece and if found, will prove an exciting discovery. Again, it is hard to accept Epting’s arguments. Imagine suggesting that discovering a lost play by Aeschylus or a previously unknown artwork by Van Gogh is not worth worrying about because we already have existing works by these artists. 

By contrast, two of the silent era’s biggest stars have a vast amount of their work lost and/or missing. Both defined their time and are important in cinema history, particularly in the portrayal and development of archetypes. The first is the original vamp, Theda Bara, who was perhaps the biggest star of the 1910s and certainly one of the first, if not the first sex symbol. We have hardly any of work to view or critique, and regardless of whether they are dated or, to paraphrase Epting, not worth seeking or saving, Bara’s films would certainly be important to cinema history. One of her most celebrated films, from which prints often turn up in film books, is the long-lost Cleopatra (1917). Its’ discovery would be an exciting one and should not prompt disdain from Mr. Epting. The same could be said for Madame Du Barry (1917) or Salome (1918). The loss of such films are a tragedy to our understanding of cinema and its’ early development.

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The second star is the aforementioned Clara Bow, the ‘It’ Girl, whose story is one of sadness and tragedy despite the charm and naturalness she brought to the screen. Bow ushered in a new era in the 1920s, which eclipsed the previous sex symbol characteristics employed by Bara and reflected the post-WW1 period for young women in a way no one else did on the silver screen. She was the quintessential flapper of the 1920s. Yet almost half her films are lost, which Paramount with willful negligence let deteriorate in their vaults. To re-discover her films and be able to see them again would be a boon to classic film fans.

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Using the reviews and audience responses of the days are not necessarily helpful either. There are numerous films that were poorly received upon their release. Yet time and re-assessment have changed our views and those films have been seen in a new light. In contrast, films that were well received upon release have not always aged well and have even been forgotten in some cases – even Academy Award winners (Cimarron a case in point). At one point, Epting seems to contradict himself by claiming that box office figures during the silent era are notoriously difficult to corroborate and perhaps should not be used as a guide for what is a successful film. Yet he later claims that ‘box office flops’ which are less likely to exist are not a great loss. At any rate, do we simply judge the value of a film by its’ box office receipts?

In fairness to Epting, he tries to employ the positive notion that we should celebrate what silent film does exist and enjoy it. But to denigrate the desire to find and/or preserve silent films that are lost or need restoration is not the stuff of cinephiles. It is most disconcerting when comments such as the following, are made by Epting: Once a movie was released and shown at theaters across the country, it was effectively finished. Storage of nitrate film reels was costly and dangerous. If these films had no commercial potential, what was the point of utilizing valuable resources to save them?

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Lastly, suggesting that what survives is special because the rest has perished becomes a dangerous premise to go by. Indeed, the destruction of past works becomes the drive not only to protect what we have but also becomes the inspiration to appreciate, archive and protect all works and find better and more lasting ways to preserve them. Our appreciation of classic film will not only be enhanced by appreciating what we do have but by continuing to seek out lost treasures and preserving what we do find. Knowledge and understanding does not grow and is not nurtured through limitations but by continually seeking and looking at what the possibilities are.

Thankfully there are many involved in the search and preservation of classic films and undoubtedly they will not be overly perturbed by the sentiments of Mr. Epting. Susan King, who writes on classic film in the Los Angeles Times is one writer I regularly notice who keeps me abreast of new discoveries and the future for film restoration and discovery looks bright, if luminaries such as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg continue their efforts.

And yes, I would like to see His Neighbour’s Pants if Mr. Scorsese manages to restore it.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Rififi (1955): The Best Of French Film Noir

by Paul Batters

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Without a doubt, one of the most important and brilliantly shaped exemplars of film noir is the French crime film Rififi (1955). Directed by Jules Dassin and drawn from the Auguste Le Breton’s same-titled novel, Rififi is a lesson in how to build tension, draw on detail to build and shape meaning and reaches deeper tropes in the futility of crime and even the stupidity of those who engage in criminal activity. What also makes Rififi stand out, is its’ cynicism and gritty immersion in the world of the gangster, with violence and brutality the hallmarks of that world.

Despite its’ being described as a French film, its’ director, Jules Dassin, was an American – blacklisted during the McCarthy Era and reviving his career in France. Dassin was a talented auteur who had already made his name with films such as Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948) and Night And The City (1950), respected films in the film noir canon. But he was also very adept at comedy with The Canterville Ghost (1944) and would also make another heist film with comedic strains in 1964’s Topkapi. Yet perhaps Rififi is his finest film; one with themes that run deep and cinematic techniques that stand strong in how good cinema is created and shaped, in terms of pacing, rhythm and sensibility to mis-en-scene. If the film were cynical, dark and eviscerating, then it would also reflect the experience of Dassin’s treatment at the hands of HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee).

 

The story is a heist film and despite the pre-existence of one my favourite films, Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), it is easy to see why Rififi is often called the daddy of all heist films. Set in Paris, the plot seems simple enough – a group of crooks aim to pull off the robbery of a jewellery store on the Rue de Rivolli. Yet the film takes the audience further out than what might be anticipated, as we not only are taken through the intricate and painstaking preparations for the job but also the unforgettable robbery scene and the final act where the protagonist faces the reality of the situation and where his code leads him to make some tough decisions.

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Tony “le Stephanois” (Jean Servais) is a newly released ex-con, who has just completed a five-year term for a fellow gangster named Jo “Le Suédois” (Carl Mohner). Tony is approached by Mario (Robert Manuel), who suggests they rob a jewelry store by crudely smashing the front window and grabbing the jewels. Naturally, Tony declines and seeks out his old girlfriend, Mado (Marie Sabouret). But the reunion turns sour when he discovers Mado has taken up with Grutter (Marcel Lupocivi), a nightclub owner and gangster, whom Tony is not so fond of. In his anger and hurt, he beats her, channeling five years of pent-up frustration. Going against his earlier better judgment, he re-considers Jo and Mario’s offer and agrees to rob the store but declares they will go further and rob the safe. Taking on the safe cracker, Cesar (played by Dassin himself under a pseudonym), the team is complete. The plan put in place is meticulously planned and ingenious in its’ conception. And this reviewer will leave it the audience to find out what the plan is.

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What follows is undoubtedly approximately 30 minutes of the most tense, perfectly constructed cinema ever made. As Roger Ebert noted, ‘the audience hears nothing but taps, breathing, some plaster falling into an umbrella used to catch it, some muffled coughs, and then, after the alarm is disabled, the screech of the drills used to cut into safe’. It is genius on the part of Dassin, who recognized the impact of not having the men talk as they are undertaking the robbery. The term ‘keeping the audience on the edge of their seats’ was certainly invented after viewing this scene. Interestingly enough, as a number of critics have pointed out, the scene becomes the centerpiece of the film, rather than the climax, reflecting Dassin using the heist to tell more about the men carrying out the crime than the crime itself. It is superb manipulation of the audience.

 

Needless to say, the third act will be played out with Tony facing greater difficulties than he anticipated. There won’t be any spoiler here!

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There is certainly a contrast, stylistically, with earlier films of Dassin’s, particularly Brute Force and Naked City, both of which maintain Hollywood’s stylized approach. However, Rififi feels far darker, far more rugged and as Alan Scherstuhl opines in the Village Voice, ‘throbs with his (Dassin’s) anger’. The violence, whilst not visually explicit, is certainly so from an emotional and psychological point of view. As murder is carried out, the camera moves to the face of the perpetrator and not the act of violence itself. Dassin wants us to see what manner of men these gangsters are. Tony and his gang are anti-heroes and the audience is breathless as they conduct the robbery, yet they draw us into the darkness and will not let us go so easily. Tony cuts a sad figure underneath the tough exterior; his sickly coughing a metaphor for a deeper sickness and his ability to carry out violence is also disquieting to say the least.

It would be far too easy to explain the film’s ruggedness on the meager budget. True, Dassin faced limitations but he was no maverick and had already proved that he was a skilled director who had worked on a number of strong productions. Interestingly, Jean Servais, the film’s star, had his own troubles for some time, struggling with alcoholism and seeing his career stumble. Dassin would also use the locales of Paris with sublime naturalness, bringing an even greater realism to the screen. Grim and gritty at times, Dassin also uses those locales to convey Tony’s isolation and desperation, in the streets of Paris.

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Cole Smithey in 2014 made an interesting observation about the key characters:

‘Rififi’s criminal anti-heroes are made up of outliers who, like Dassin, are struggling to squeak out a living in a foreign land. The gang members have names with an attribution that separates him from the local Parisian culture. Jo le Suedois (or “the Swede”) is the father of Tony’s godson, and the thief Tony went to jail to protect. Tony is referred to as “le Stéphanois,” an allusion to the Saint-Étienne region of eastern central France from which he hails…’ 

Smithey’s point is a poignant one – Dassin’s directorial vision sees the gangsters ultimately as outsiders to what constitutes a civilized society and walking down different streets with another set of rules in place. Break those rules and death may arrive at your door.

 

Upon its’ release, Rififi was heralded as a powerful film, remarked upon for its’ realism and tension. Legendary French film critic and director Francois Truffaut famously declared, “out of the worst crime novel I ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I’ve ever seen”. Contemporary critics seem to generally be in unison with Truffaut, with Sherilyn Connelly stating quite accurately, ‘…if elements of it (the heist film) seem overly familiar now, that’s only because they were done first here, and picked up by every heist film that followed’. Yet Rififi does more than set the tone and standard for the heist film – it also delves deep into the soul of humanity, looking into the aftermath of the heist with focus. The revelations shouldn’t shock us yet they do. The concept of honour amongst thieves is one we have seen time and time again fail to ring true. As one of the prime lessons of film noir, the audience sees the fatalism and futility in the desperate actions of the characters and their humanity is not only misguided but frail and weak as well.

Rififi would basically establish the sub-genre of the heist film and receive great praise on both sides of the Atlantic. Dassin must have felt vindicated as a director and there must have been some satisfaction when he received the award for Best Director at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival.

Chris Cabin in Slant Magazine beautifully described Rififi as being ‘soaked to the bone in dread’, which of course reflects the fatalism that so often permeates film noir. But it also reflects Dassin’s own sensibilities in the face of his own difficulties. The protagonist, Tony, is not unlike Dassin himself – holding to a particular belief and code, only to find that not everyone sees it that way and finding the rug pulled out from under him in the process.

But hey – isn’t that film noir?

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

 

Dr Zhivago (1965): David Lean’s Masterpiece Of Love And Tragedy

by Paul Batters

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Unlike other forms of art, cinema is an art-form, which relies on an incredible diversity of talent and skills, both behind and in front of the camera and before, during and after any shooting occurs. Yet the cinematic vision on the big screen, which is experienced by the audience, is ultimately that of the director. Cinema has seen incredible directors work their craft and perhaps one of the most gifted was David Lean. His sense of cinematography and the human story within an historical context has seen him at the wheel of some of cinema’s greatest masterpieces including The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence Of Arabia (1962). Yet he brought Dickens to the screen with incredible sensitivity to the textual integrity of both Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948).

Yet Lean is also responsible for some of cinema’s most heart-breaking and forever memorable romantic films, with Brief Encounter (1945) ranking as one of the finest films depicting love unrealised. However, the film, which beautifully depicts this powerful theme, struggling against the historical realities of war and revolution, is 1965’s Dr. Zhivago and the focus of this review.

Drawn from Boris Pasternak’s novel, Dr Zhivago is a story told during the tragedy, turmoil and tumult of one of Russia’s (and perhaps the world’s) most significant turning points in modern history – the lead up to, events and aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Lean frames the narrative by telling the story through retrospect, with the voice of the storyteller belonging to KGB General Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guinness), the half-brother of the title character. As he tells the story, the audience follows the life of one Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), from his orphaned boyhood to his becoming a doctor and marrying his childhood sweetheart Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin). But beneath Yuri’s medical coat lies the heart of a poet, which brings him fame and literary respect. Despite an ideal career in front of him with a solid bourgeois family life in place, Zhivago becomes entranced by Lara (Julie Christie), whom he discovers whilst assisting his mentor in treating her mother who has attempted suicide. He also crosses paths for the first time with Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), a political opportunist to whom Lara’s mother (and eventually Lara) will play the role of mistress.

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Despite these personal intrigues, Russia is on a path to revolution and the climate of discontent and proletariat zeal is personified by Pasha Antipov (Tom Courtney), Lara’s fiancé. His own political consciousness will take a turn to radicalism when a peaceful protest is brutally dealt with by Tsarist guards. By chance, Zhivago witnesses the protest and its’ aftermath and he even attempts to treat some of the victims, when warned off by the same guards who have committed the atrocity.

But Russia will face greater challenges when it is plunged into World War One and Zhivago goes to the frontline as a doctor to treat the wounded. Fate sees that Lara (now married to Pasha) joins his medical corps and as a nurse works closely with Zhivago. Meanwhile her now-husband Pasha goes missing in action during a battle, although she will initially not be aware of this. Love blooms for them but they remain true to their respective marriages and the circumstances of the war changes when the October Revolution occurs and the Bolsheviks seize power. With Russia no longer involved in the ‘imperialist war’, the two potential lovers must part and return home. Shariff channels the pain of separation as he watches Lara leave and his eyes well with tears.

Zhivago returns to his family and a much-changed Moscow. Despite the Bolsheviks being in power, civil war has broken out and will continue for the next three to four years. The situation is tenuous and the family struggle, to the point where Zhivago has to sneak out at night and break off fence palings for firewood. But he fortuitously meets his half-brother Yevgraf, who warns him that he needs to get out of Moscow, particularly because his poetry is seen as an affront to the Revolution. Zhivago is deeply hurt by this, his poet’s heart racked that the beauty of poetry should be seen in such a way. Along with his father-in-law Alexander (Ralph Richardson) and his family, they decide to go to their familial Gromeko estate in the Urals.

Yevgraf arranges their papers and a long train journey to the estate. The train ride is difficult and Zhivago sees the effects of the civil war on the countryside, witnessing burnt out villages and desperate people. They also hear of a general named Strelnikov, who is spoken of in near mythical tones, who has been routing ‘counter-revolutionaries’ with incredible success and extreme measures. The audience then discovers that Strelnikov is actually Pasha and during the journey, Zhivago will make the same discovery during a tense moment on the journey.

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But the family will make it to Gromeko and for a time, they live a safe, happy and quiet life, although the news of the Tsar’s execution shocks the family. But fate will take a crucial turn when Zhivago visits nearby Yuriaten and discovers that Lara is living there with her daughter. The reluctance, which held them back during the war, is forgone and their affair begins.

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At this point, this review will leave the reader to discover what follows, in consideration of those who have never experienced Dr Zhivago. And it is certainly a film that is an experience!

Lean shapes, as Kate Muir declared in The UK Times an ‘epic (that) seems too small a word for the sweeping ambition and romance of Dr Zhivago’. The historical context of the story has been criticised, particularly by Bosley Crowther for sentimentalising the Revolution yet the scenes in Moscow afterwards of the over-crowded apartments, people dying of starvation and typhus and the pathetic act of stealing firewood cancels out that criticism for me. With respect, the historical accuracy of the Revolution is not foremost in Lean’s mind (not that there are many glaring inaccuracies) but reflects on the impacts that history has on the individual. More importantly, being a film of romance, it declares that love is founded in all and any circumstances, even during terror and turmoil. The romance between Lara and Zhivago tries to withstand all the obstacles that stand in their way – firstly, propriety and responsibility and afterwards far greater dangers, which will threaten not only their relationship but their lives as well.

Omar Sharif brings the soul of the poet alive in his performance and Julie Christie was never more breathtaking as Lara. The emotion and desperation of their love is beautifully transcribed to the screen. But the other performances are particularly riveting as well. The likes of Alec Guinness as Yevgraf and Ralph Richardson as Alexander in part represent the ‘old guard’ of British stage and screen with their usual finesse. However, Tom Courtney is particularly solid as Pasha/Strelnikov and watching the seismic shift from idealistic revolutionary to a cold, ruthless general is interesting and one asks if more of this character development could have been forthcoming.

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However, Rod Steiger almost steals every scene he is in. Not only is Komarovsky political opportunist but a manipulator of the highest order. Steiger brings to the fore an incredible sense of the character, and whilst it is easy to despise his character, it is impossible not only to admire Steiger’s performance. Komarovsky is a fascinating character, whose sense of realism and understanding of life, cannot be refuted.

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One scene that never fails to arouse my admiration is when the family first board the train. They are confronted with a prisoner (Klaus Kinksi) who declares himself ‘forced labour’. There are almost no words to suggest the power of Kinksi in this moment when he declares himself the ‘only free man’. Kinksi declares ‘long live anarchy’ evoking the pre-revolutionary group of intellectuals and thinkers that were socialist in their hearts but did not support the direction the Bolsheviks took. If ever a cameo appearance dominated a moment in film, then Kinksi achieved it here:

What makes Dr Zhivago an intoxicating film is not only the beautiful photography and grand, sweeping scenarios but the attention to detail to reveal character and unfold the story is also touching – the tree branch tapping at a cold, frosted window during a winter storm, Zhivago watching the silent interchange between Lara and Pasha during a pivotal moment or Zhivago writing his poetry. But the big moments stand strong as well – the mass of deserters leaving the front, the peaceful march that becomes bloody and the vast expanses of the countryside.

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Certainly the film score by Maurice Jarre has almost taken on a life of its’ own. The film’s signature piece ‘Lara’s Theme’ is recognised almost anywhere, even if people have never seen the film. It has become a much-loved piece of music but has received criticism for its’ sentimentality, interestingly enough by Omar Sharif himself. Sharif has gone on record stating that he believed the music to be terribly sentimental and he has not been alone in this criticism.

Interestingly enough, Dr Zhivago received mixed reviews upon its’ initial release but would become a huge earner and a major competitor at the Academy Awards. Legendary critics such as Pauline Kael are not fans of the film describing Lean’s direction as ‘primitive’ and Roger Ebert called it ‘soppy’ whilst still noting Lean’s ‘elaborate sets, his infinite patience with nature and climates, and his meticulous art direction…’ Yet of directors such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick have noted the huge influence Lean has had on their own work. Spike Lee felt himself channeling Lean when shaping 1992’s Malcolm X, thinking of the very characteristics that Ebert saw as worthy of note.

James Powers in The Hollywood Reporter goes much further: ‘despite the grim and brooding background, Zhivago has a surging buoyant spirit that is unquenchable. Doctor Zhivago is more than a masterful motion picture; it is a life experience’. If I may re-use from an earlier mention I made regarding the film, Dr Zhivago highlights the tragedy of history and how it impacts on people and their lives. But it also reflects the tragedy and beauty of love, where the worst times in history throw people together, allows them to taste the joy of love and then cruelly rips it from them. Lean reaches into our hearts and while the charges of sentimentality may ring true to some degree, it is impossible not to be wholly taken by the experience.

This article has been submitted for the 2018 David Lean Movie Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Please click on the following link for access to more articles for this blogathon – The 2018 David Lean Blogathon

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The 39 Steps (1935): Classic Hitchcock – One Man Against The World

by Paul Batters

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Richard Hannay: Beautiful, mysterious woman pursued by gunmen. Sounds like a spy story.
Annabella Smith: That’s exactly what it is. 

Cinema has seen some incredible directors – many of whom have had the term auteur added to their profile. There is no doubt that Alfred Hitchcock is one of cinema’s most influential auteurs – a director whose films remain as masterpieces. The ‘Master Of Suspense’ has been so influential that a number of film historians have given his films their own status as a genre; hence the ‘Hitchcock thriller’.

It becomes difficult to consider the quintessential Hitchcock film and and no less easier to compose a list of ‘must-see’ films. Which should be first viewed? After all, Hitchcock’s work spans an incredible period from the silent era into the 1970s, from British cinema into Hollywood, from black and white to full colour.

However, the film that sees the classic tropes and themes of the Hitchcock film first fully realised, is his 1935 British film The 39 Steps.

The story was drawn from the spy/adventure novel by John Buchan but the final script would look nothing like the book, seeing wholesale changes that suited Hitchcock’s vision, including elements of screwball, expanding Madeleine Carroll’s character into a starring role and introducing the classic Hitchcock plot device – the McGuffin. The film is also one of the first of a number of films that would examine a recurring theme in Hitchcock’s films – the innocent man on the run and against the world. It is this aspect of the film that this essay will focus on.

The superbly cast Robert Donat plays Richard Hannay, a Canadian visiting England, who is introduced to us as a member of a London music hall audience, watching the incredible powers of Mr Memory (Wylie Watson). Here, Hitchcock establishes the everyman hero, a character with which the audience can identify. Most importantly, the character of Richard Hannay becomes the vehicle by which we experience the story and Hitchcock establishes a character in which our faith is wholly placed. His innocence is beyond question and we identify with him, because of his individuality whilst still being outside the class system (despite the obvious accent) being declared a ‘gentleman’ in spite of his being Canadian. Additionally, as the film progresses, we never find anything about Hannay’s background and he remains a ‘mystery’ aside from what is learned as the story initially unfolds; he’s a Canadian visiting England, unmarried and not connected to anyone. 

Thus, through some subtle yet crucial masterstrokes, Hitchcock shapes the innocent man, who world is about to turn inside out and find himself pitted against the world around him. But it is also the panache and charisma of Robert Donat, that we want to identify with; much like Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s later films, again playing the innocent man on the run.

Mr Memory’s performance and the theme music accompanying his entrance is on the surface a seemingly just an introduction to the story. But it will be a crucial keystone to the structure of the mystery and as William Rothman points out in ‘Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze”’ ‘the poignancy of the film’s ending … requires that we be distracted from recollecting Mr Memory until Hannay himself remembers him’. As we, along with Hannay, enjoy the performance, it soon becomes interrupted by a fight but an even more frightening moment occurs when a gunshot sends everyone into a panic and out into the street. During the chaos, a woman becomes intertwined with Hannay in the crowd and when they reach the safety of the street, she asks to come home with him. The interaction is highly suggestive and Hannay seems happy to bring her home, quipping with incredible irony, ‘Well, it’s your funeral’. Unbeknownst to either of them, it will prove a dark and ominous statement.

The woman, who calls herself ‘Annabella Smith’ (Lucie Mannheim) is willing to exchange sexual favours for safety and upon returning to Hannay’s flat, her initial sensual overtones turn to nervousness at every noise. Whilst Hannay humours her and her ‘delusion’, to the point of cooking her something to eat as she begins telling her situation – of a government secret being taken out of the country by a spy, part of a group called the 39 Steps, and given to a foreign power.

Hannay plays along but the story becomes a reality and Annabella’s burden becomes his when she stumbles into his room with a knife in her back. And so the story begins, where Hannay is suddenly thrown into a nightmare. As William Hare illustrates in ‘Hitchcock And The Master of Suspense’, Hannay has two objectives; one, to stay alive in a rising tide of ruthless efforts to kill him because of what he came to know through sheer accident, and two, to learn all he can about the forces out to get him and resolve the mystery by turning the tables on his pursuers. Therein lies the predicament of the innocent man on the run, facing a world that does not believe his story and where there is no one to turn to for help.

What follows is a tense journey as Hannay uses the only clue he has – a map with a circle around the town of Alt-na-Shellach, a village in the Scottish Highlands, where he must track down the man who Annabella was speaking of before she was murdered. Hannay knows nothing of the man, except that he is missing the tip of his smallest finger.

The journey is fraught with tension and excitement, as well as some well-placed humour, as he travels by train to Scotland before traversing the moors. Hannay’s isolation and loneliness is perfectly captured by the camera in these sequences – the wide-open spaces leave him exposed with nowhere to hide, creating a sense of open-space claustrophobia. Always open to attack, Hannay from the moment his nightmare begins finds himself constantly solving problems on the fly. Every situation he faces has been placed as some sort of trap, which if not traversed will seal his doom. What makes it interesting is the solution that Hannay has to come up with. Very quickly, he realises that the truth won’t save him – Hannay needs to ‘play a role’ and invent some story to avoid capture by the authorities or his villainous pursuers. When fleeing his apartment, his truthful revelation to the milkman doing his rounds whilst asking for help is scoffed at. However, he quickly realises that like Annabella, he will need to assume identities in order to survive and he quickly invents a lascivious tale, which the milkman accepts as the truth. Hannay learns one of the key lessons to his survival.

His train journey also meets with desperate measures and fast thinking. By the time he reaches Scotland, the police are checking the train and his attempts to seek help from the beautiful Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) come to nothing. She gives him up but Hannay manages to escape in a dramatic and death-defying manner to make his way across the Moors.

Whilst not wishing to outline the story and spoil the fun for first time viewers, it is worth mentioning some important steps in the story. On his journey to Scotland, he stays overnight with a farmer (John Laurie) and his much younger wife (Peggy Ashcroft), whom mistakes for the farmer’s daughter – naturally evoking the farmer’s malcontent. As occurs in more than a few moments in the film, Hitchcock is certainly playing with the concept of marriage. In another fashion, the young wife is like Hannay trapped in a loveless and isolated marriage to a miserable man and the short but strong interaction between her and Hannay is one that is innocent yet certainly punctuated by feelings of romance and lost opportunities for the young wife. She is also the only one that accepts Hannay’s truth and goes out of the way to help him as best she can. Her seemingly limited help of giving her husband’s coat will later prove life saving for Hannay.

Hannay finally encounters the man he needs to see, Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) – a respected man in the area who gives him refuge. But as in all things Hitchcock, he is, as the Professor describes himself, ‘not all I seem’. Hannay realises he is trapped and responds grimly to the Professor’s apology for ‘leading him down the garden path’ to which Hannay says ‘it’s certainly the wrong garden’. If the Hitchcock thriller is anything, it is not a simple and straightforward thriller and like Hannay, the audience has been led down the garden path as well.

Hannay’s journey is far from over but he has found out far more than he bargained for and an eventual escape leads him into of all things, a political meeting. Being mistaken for the guest speaker, Hannay delivers what is an impassioned and memorable speech calling for a better world. More so, he elicits from the audience the universal feeling of isolation when he emphatically declares, ‘ and I know what it is to feel lonely and helpless and to have the whole world against me and those are things that no man or woman ought to feel’. An audience just out of the worse years of the Great Depression would certainly have been touched by these words. The dour crowd is energised and despite again playing a role for survival, Hannay’s call for a better world is certainly tinged with the reality of his situation and an underlying concern from Hitchcock regarding the world of 1935, which had seen the rise of fascism, the Nazis and the tensions leading to World War Two.

Here, Hannay is stunned when during his speech, Pamela walks in and she is equally stunned to see him. Again, she refuses to believe his story and the Professor’s men posing as detectives take them both for questioning. However, here the story takes a turn into screwball, at least primarily in the relationship between Hannay and Pamela. Pamela’s cold distrust and wariness turns into irritation then grudging acceptance of his innocence and finally – love. The dialogue and timing between them is perfect and the chemistry between the two magnificent. Donat’s charisma and charm melds with Carroll’s exquisite beauty and talent for comedy, for a duo that finally works towards the goal of unfurling the mystery.

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Much has been written about Madeleine Carroll fitting and/or forming the cool ice-blonde woman that figured in most of Hitchcock’s films from here on. Like those other women, as pointed out by Roger Ebert, Pamela too would go through humiliation and suffering. When the faux detectives take the two, they are handcuffed together and Pamela is dragged around by Hannay in his escape, half-drowned in cold water and bullied by Hannay, who pretends to be the murderer she believes him to be. However, their arrival at an inn and the scene that follows combines all the classic elements of screwball a la It Happened One Night, whilst remaining totally original, perfectly crafted and relevant to the story and an absolute treasure to watch. Later when she discovers the truth, the musical accompaniment and warmth of her smile, ties together for Pamela everything that Hannay has gone through. Hitchcock was canny enough to prepare the two for their screen relationship by cuffing them together during their first meeting and pretending to lose the key. As the hours drew out, both Donat and Carroll not only got past initial politeness and mild irritation but also used the opportunity to get to know each other. Hitchcock certainly drew on their experience and used this on the screen to masterful effect.

Pamela plays a fundamental role in Hannay’s experience from our gaze as the audience. Before her personal revelation that Hannay is an innocent man speaking the truth about a dangerous spy, she believes him dangerous and like Hannay, we are incredulous that he is not believed. He literally bristles with frustration for us and all his protestations fall on deaf ears. She does eventually thaw (evocation of the ice blonde) and our joy in her acceptance and warmth to him becomes twofold; we enjoy seeing her acceptance, not as an audience wanting the two to come together but also through our identification with Hannay that he is final believed. The innocent man pursued and persecuted has an ally but there is hope in the fabric of how this story has been weaved.

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What draws us to Hannay, aside from the outstanding performance he gives us and our identification with him, is that he possesses an incredible spontaneity, which serves him amazingly well in his double/combined quest of survival by absolving himself and revealing the villains. As William Hare correctly states, he pieces everything together on the spur of the moment, with an amazing ‘creative intelligence’. Hannay, of course, is constantly haunted by Annabella’s words of which some come to full realisation as his understanding unfolds along the way. Daniel Srebnicki’s 2004 essay points out that Hannay’s incessant whistling of Mr Memory’s theme music not only annoys Pamela but Hannay as well, whose frustration turns to abject joy when the full discovery of the truth is made in the finale. It is the perfect link and full coming of circle from the first scene in the film. Yet even then, Hannay needs to push the limit, testing the situation with the crucial and fundamental question to reveal the truth and seek full vindication. ‘Solving the riddle’ is not enough as far more is at stake.

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The 39 Steps is Hitchcock at his finest prior to his career shifting full gear into Hollywood. It is a film where the audience enjoys the freedom of ‘filling in the blanks’ as Hare puts it and we enjoy some of the masterful tools that Hitchcock gainfully used for the first time such as the McGuffin, the ice blonde woman, the chase for freedom and vindication and particularly the innocent man against world. James Naremore believes that Hannay is a character placed in all kinds of public situations where he has to put on an act – this Donat is acting within the acting on screen (no mean feat!). Furthermore, the tone veers from screwball to melodramatic danger to perverse anxiety, without missing a beat or losing itself in any way. It is held together by Hitchcock’s brilliance but also by brilliant performances, tight pacing and a fine-tuned script. Donat as the innocent Hannay caught in a web of intrigue is perhaps one of cinema’s finest performances. Charles Laughton would call Donat one of the most brilliant actors he had ever seen and his incredible naturalness in the role is such a joy to behold. Naremore adds that ‘dark humour mingles with sexual innuendo and utopian romance, and the movement between these modes is often treated like a dialectical montage’. Indeed, it could only be so by the design of cinematic tools of the trade, used by masters of their craft. Interestingly, according to biographer J. C Trewin, Donat would declare his time on the set of The 39 Steps as some of the happiest moments of his career.

Perhaps Richard Hannay could be described as the patron saint of the innocent man on the run, at least in the Hitchcock universe. Certainly it would become a powerful and central theme that Hitchcock would re-visit albeit with a different actor e.g. Cary Grant, who also had charisma and screen presence and a persona whom audiences were happy to identify with. We can all find ourselves in the persona of Richard Hannay, finding ourselves in life situations that challenge us to make it through, find our way and come out the end as survivors. No wonder films like The 39 Steps and the themes they examine, never lose their impact.

This article has been submitted for the 2018 Second Annual Alfred Hitchcock Movie Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Please click on the following link for access to more articles for this blogathon – The Second Annual Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon 2018

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.