This Gun For Hire (1942): The Film Which Won Alan Ladd His Stardom

by Paul Batters

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Gates: “You must have a girl or…friend?” 

Raven: “Why?”

Gates: “Live alone, work alone, hey?”

Hollywood will often cater film around its’ stars – after all, it’s a business wanting to make profits and a sure-fire way of doing so is give audiences what they want. The studio system drove but was also sustained by the system of stars that audiences clambered to see on the silver screen. Hollywood has also faced the criticism of being conservative (and perhaps even more so today!) where films that were safe, focusing on star personas rather than taking risks, were suffered by stars who hated being pigeon-holed. There are many stories of actors such as Humphrey Bogart and actresses like Bette Davis who either felt stifled or even fought the system for better roles.

But there is something else that excites audiences and that is the emergence of a new star, especially when that emergence was unexpected. Alan Ladd was such a star and the war era film noir classic This Gun For Hire (1942) was the film.

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The title of the film itself speaks volumes in terms of the usual tropes to be found in film noir. And if it reflected any of the characters in the film, it without a doubt is both the calling card and epitaph for Phillip Raven (Alan Ladd), a professional hitman who is double-crossed by his employer Willard Gates (the brilliant Laird Cregar). After Gates pays Raven in marked bills, the crooked businessman claims the money as stolen and police detective Michael Crane (Robert Preston) is put on the case. Crane’s beautiful girlfriend Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) is a nightclub performer, who ends up working for Gates in one of his L.A clubs but will discover more than she bargained for.

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As in all things noir, the film develops into a tale driven by fear, mistrust, misunderstanding and the paranoia which was all pervading in the climate of World War Two. Raven not only becomes a man on the run from the law but a man with nowhere to go. His past is one of pain and personal anguish, enduring betrayal and hardening to its’ impacts. Raven is a man seemingly not given to warmth or sentimentality, yet his interactions with a stray cat, which he feels an affinity with, suggests something more. Like a cat, Raven is a loner, not relying on anyone to survive and walking in the shadows. Forever the loner, Raven is not the society type.

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His moments with Ellen are ones where he almost sheds his armour, suggesting a man who is not completely far gone. True, some of the pop psychology a la Freud bleed into the development of Raven’s character – the poor abused boy who is a victim of circumstance at every turn – and there is the danger of cliché. Yet somehow it works, and Ladd has us believing his personal narrative. In essence, Ladd is portraying one of the first anti-heroes, and is a trailblazer for the next generation of actors who would make their name playing the anti-hero. In many ways, it would also be a problem for a Hollywood firmly under the auspices of the Code.

Phillip Raven is also a man who is immersed completely in his dark world as a killer and has no qualms about pulling the trigger. His gun is the only thing that he trusts, and he has found this out the hard way. In this case, the betrayal of his employer will catapult him into a more dangerous world, where espionage will test his mettle. But the audience is under no false pretences of the nature of Phillip Raven. In essence, he is a terrible individual who has killed innocent people as well as those who perhaps ‘deserve’ their fate. Ladd’s portrayal is cold and brutal when we see him carry out his first hit. His eyes are piercing, betraying at hint of triumph just before he dispatches his victim. The cold professional is even more marked when the victim’s mistress enters the room and with a chilling monotone, Raven says “They said he’d be alone”,before he shoots the woman through a door she has found refuge behind.  Even Ellen, the woman with whom he has formed some connection, is only saved from being killed by a timely turning point in the story.

Both Raven and Ellen are drawn together through the element of fate, a powerful trope in film noir, by their association with Gates – Raven as a hired killer for the man, Ellen hired as a singer in one of his clubs. Both are thrown into circumstances neither have asked for and yet their fates are intertwined. He becomes her rescuer and then her captor during the film’s later desperate moments. Yet Ellen still tries to help him, moved by his personal revelations as well as hoping to appeal to something deeper within him.

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Ladd carries the weight of the film from a lower-billed position, way above his tournament ranking. The cliché that he ‘steals the picture’ rings true, with a performance finely tuned into the lone killer, driven by personal fears and mistrust. Despite the knowledge that Raven is a professional killer, the audience is hoping for his eventual escape from his predicament. Indeed, despite Raven being a killer, he is not an anomaly in the world of film noir. He may be an outlaw on the run, but he is betrayed by a so-called respectable businessman and drawn into a world of corruption, espionage and blackmail.

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And despite everything – all the toughness, cold-heartedness and gunplay, Raven shows that he cares for Ellen.

The chemistry between Ladd and the gorgeous Veronica Lake works wonders on the screen. Lake is more than a one-trick pony and this reviewer has seen some unkind remarks about her ability as an actress. She proves those critics wrong, playing the singer with a loving and sympathetic heart, and looking gorgeous all the while. It’s no mistake that the two would be paired again in other film noir classics.

The storyline for This Gun For Hire is slightly preposterous and the coincidences hard to swallow. Yet the audience is content to put that aside, thanks to Ladd and his interactions with Veronica Lake. Director Frank Tuttle does keep the film tight and well-paced, as well as beautifully shot. Robert Preston is solid, as are the supporting cast, although Marc Lawrence as Tommy is perhaps underused.

However, Ladd deserves all the attention he received for his performance. It would be ground-breaking for the young actor and the critics raved about the emergence of this new star. His partnering with Veronica Lake would become the basis for some other great films and one of the hallmark partnerships in the pantheon of film noir. This Gun For Hire will keep you riveted till the very end, thanks to the iconic performance delivered by Alan Ladd.

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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Scarlet Street (1945): Joan Bennett – The Dangerous Femme Fatale

by Paul Batters

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How can a man be so dumb… I’ve been waiting to laugh in your face ever since I met you. You’re old and ugly and I’m sick of you…sick, sick, sick! Kitty March (Joan Bennett)

Film noir has always fascinated me. It’s grip on my imagination and my love for classic film has become intertwined, for a whole combination of reasons. Perhaps one of the most fascinating themes that emerges in film noir is how ordinary, everyday and even boring people are drawn into the web of a darker and more dangerous world. It’s why Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945) is one of film noir’s best examinations of that very theme. And why it is also one of Joan Bennett’s exciting roles as the femme fatale, Kitty March, which this article will specifically focus on.

The master director had used the three principal actors – Bennett Edward G. Robinson and Dan Duryea – the previous year in the superb The Woman In The Window. Such was its’ success and so effective was the combination of the three that Lang brought them back for his screen adaption of Georges de La Fouchardière’s 1931 novel, La Chienne (The Bitch). What Lang created was a film noir masterpiece, with a delving into darkness that leaves the audience breathless in its’ audacity, despite the Breen Code firmly in place. Jeffrey Anderson has claimed that Scarlet Street is perhaps the darkest of Lang’s American films – and he’s probably right.

The story tells of a quiet, meek and placid cashier, Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) who is also henpecked and bullied by his domineering and difficult wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan). Caught in a loveless marriage and an uneventful life, Christopher dreams of a life where there is some affection, love and excitement to break the dull life that he leads. One of the few escapes and joys that he has is art, particularly painting. 

Fate steps in one afternoon, when he comes across Kitty March (Joan Bennett) being menaced by a hood on the street. Assisting her during this altercation, Christopher then offers to take her home, first stopping somewhere for tea, where he reveals to Kitty his love of painting. Kitty mistakes him for an art dealer of sorts but there is also more than meets the eye to Kitty. Whilst the Code strangles out what she actually is, there is enough left to insinuate that Kitty is a prostitute and the man who had earlier assaulted is her pimp/boyfriend Johnny (Dan Dureya). The two come up with a plan for Kitty to fake romantic feelings for the hapless Christopher, as well as offer her place for him to paint there in peace.

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It doesn’t take long for Christopher to fall in love with Kitty, who leads him along, as they sell his art. But Christopher is also drawn into crime, stealing from his employer as well as his wife. Christopher, drawn in by Kitty’s play, drifts further and further into her plans; even happy enough for her to take credit for his art and not seeing a penny for his troubles.

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But further complications will arise, and Christopher will try to save his relationship with Kitty by asking her to marry him. What follows is one of the most shocking scenes in classic film and still shocks by its’ raw violence, savagery and sheer audacity. And this writer will not divulge anything further.

Kitty March is an interesting femme fatale and one which Lang examines brilliantly through a seasoned performance from Joan Bennett. As already mentioned, there are strong insinuations that she is a prostitute. Yet there is far more going on. Like any relationship based on exploitation and dominance, it becomes hard for the audience to understand what hold Johnny has on Kitty. Interestingly enough, Johnny comes across almost as ineffectual as Christopher and there is nothing physical, ‘manly’ (for want of a better term) or particularly roguish about him. Yet Kitty loves him despite it being a one-sided love, where Johnny’s only interest is to exploit her. She accepts this willingly and takes part in the exploitation of Christopher, where she employs her skills as an ‘actress’ to lead him down the garden path. As Johnny exploits Kitty through her love for him, so too does Kitty exploit Christopher via his weakness for her. Indeed, her own sexuality seems to find expression, only through the language of exploitation, degradation and masochism.

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Bennett is outstanding as the cold-hearted femme fatale and she proves to be just so, as the audience will eventually discover. She weaves through the complexity of being the manipulated and the manipulator, being preyed upon by Johnny whilst preying on poor Christopher’s inadequacy. Her brassy and vulgar ‘writing off’ of the pathetic and hapless man she has been duping, is cruel beyond description. And nothing could be more pathetic than the look on Bennett’s face and the Queen of Sheba posturing as Christopher kneels at her feet doing her toes.

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Of course, what Bennett also brings to the role is a duplicity in which she cons others but is also conned herself. The femme fatale constantly ducks, dives and dodges what fate is ready to give her, as punishment for Kitty’s many and varied sins. Christopher is only one of many men that she has used and exploited, and as the audience discovers, sex is not the only thing she will exploit. But again, there is more to Bennett as the femme fatale and reviewer Wess Haubrich is correct in his assumption that Kitty does not want to be here where she is. She is the classic femme fatale, in that she is looking for a way out but knows no other way. Kitty is also a damaged woman, with dashed dreams and a bleak future. But therein lies the cruel reality of the world of film noir, as Christopher, too, has dashed dreams and tries to rekindle them late in life. Perhaps Kitty understands Christopher better than she realises, with both seeing years pass and their dreams not only unrealised but shattered and lives unfulfilled.

Lang as director exploits his skills as well, with the depth, brilliance and intuition of a man who helped develop the artist’s palette in the first place. The master of Expressionism finds meaning in the subtleties as well, such as the use of mirrors (particularly around the bed) to highlight Kitty’s duplicity and the sordidness of what happens in her bed. The cigar smoke rising around Christopher’s head at the start of the film certainly suggests the start of a descent into the hell defined by Dante. And of course, there is the great irony that there is acting within acting, where the audience is also allowing itself to be manipulated.

It’s easy to compare Joan Bennett’s performance as Kitty with the previous year’s performance alongside E.G Robinson in The Woman In The Window. But that’s missing the point. The nuances of Bennett as the dangerous woman that Christopher falls for remove Kitty from being cliched. She’s dangerous yet vulnerable, cruel yet kind to the man who treats her bad and loving only to a man who doesn’t love her.

Scarlet Street is not only a superb example of a taut film noir masterpiece from Fritz Lang; it’s also a solid performance from Joan Bennett.

The film is available through Public Domain and can be seen via the link below to the Silver Screen Classics You Tube Channel.

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. 

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948): The Best Of Barbara Stanwyck

by Paul Batters

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‘I want you to do something. I want you to get yourself out of the bed, and get over to the window and scream as loud as you can. Otherwise you only have another three minutes to live!’ Henry Stevenson (Burt Lancaster) 

Of the many great actresses from the Golden Years Of Hollywood, few could boast the career of Barbara Stanwyck. An actress with incredible range, screen presence and charisma, Barbara showed talent, which emerged during the Pre-Code Era. She would appear and make her mark in drama, comedy, the western – and of course, film noir.

With the opportunity to write for the this blogathon, it seemed fitting that I write about the first film I saw Barbara in, which left an indelible mark on me and started my interest in film noir – Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). I have written about this film in a previous article on the themes of Fatalism and Futility in Film Noir.

Film noir would first make its’ powerful mark on cinema emerging in the early days of World War Two, drawing on the pulp fiction tales of private detectives, mean streets and dangerous women. But the post-war period saw a shift in the direction that film noir took, examining a greater variety of themes and reflecting the changes that emerged in American society brought on in part by the Cold War and communist phobia, as well as a growing sophistication in the expectations of cinema audiences. What became interesting was the incorporation of psychological themes and concerns, which gave greater depth and meaning. These shifts were certainly reflected in Sorry, Wrong Number.

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Directed by Anatole Litvak, Sorry, Wrong Number was one of three films which Barbara had signed on to complete for producer Hal Wallis. is a story told in real time with copious use of flashbacks. Wallis had been impressed by the original radio play script and hired the original writer, Lucille Fletcher to adapt it for the screen. This meant additional characters had to be created and the use of flashbacks to enhance and flesh out the story was necessitated. The use of flashbacks (along with narration), as pointed out by Frank Krutnik, had become a commonplace technique in film noir but would be employed in a far more complex fashion by Litvak.

The story tells of Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck), the spoiled heiress to the fortune and pharmaceutical empire of her father James Cotterell (Ed Begley). As the camera moves through a large, empty and lonely house, the audience discovers that she is bedridden and unable to move from her bed. Her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster) is away on a business trip and all she has to connect her with the outside world is the telephone. As she makes a phone-call, she overhears a crossed line with two men detailing a plan to murder a woman that very night. What will follow is a descent into a night of revelation and terror, which unfolds as Leona becomes more desperate with every phone call.

The use of the telephone as a carriage service to tell the story instead of a narrator is a clever if sometimes confusing device used by Litvak. Yet it is effective in discovering the characters and in particular, Leona. Her powerful sense of entitlement has seen her get whatever she wants, including her husband Henry, whom she has enticed from a friend Sally Hunt (Ann Richards) after the two meet at a dance. Stephen Farber makes the excellent point that when Leona makes the vow “I, Leona, take thee Henry…”, it is a declaration of brutal possession rather than one of love. Leona is sexually aggressive but she uses it as a form of managing a business transaction and the link with materialism is quite clear. The montage following their marriage shows them happy as they travel the world and enjoy their honeymoon but there are hints of what is to come and an overshadowing of the disintegration of their marriage.

At Leona’s core, which she declares to Sally, is the desire to get whatever she wants and the will to use whatever she can to get it. In the case of Henry, she uses money to draw Henry in. What is fascinating is Leona’s ability to read Henry and his desire to not only escape the dull, dreary working-class life he has in his hometown but to find success, wealth and power. Greed is Henry’s weakness and Leona as predator can pick this a mile away, although that same greed will be both their undoing.

But Leona’s confidence, arrogance and seeming unbridled power are shaken by the underpinning of a serious psychological problem. Whenever that power is challenged, her response is to become violently ill to the point that she becomes incapacitated. Despite Henry’s folding to the demands of his wife, and by extension his father-in-law for whom he now works, he wants more and plans to stand on his own two feet. He tries to find work with another company but this is stymied both by his father-in-law’s power and Leona’s reactions. Later, he tries to buy an apartment for the two of them and move out of her father’s house. However, the almost Oedipal fixation on staying with her father frustrates and confuses Henry to the point of anger and defiance. Leona’s struggle with his rebellion results in a collapse, which finally sees her bed-ridden with the serious heart condition that she will later discover is purely psychosomatic.

Leona is a tough character. Yet the confidence and toughness that she seems to exude tends to crumble when her dominance is truly challenged. Leona dominates Henry, who seems to be a willing victim as the trappings of wealth and privilege are to good to abandon. When Leona first shows symptoms of illness, Henry is chastised by his father-in-law in an emasculating fashion but even Henry admits that he can’t go back to his former life. Leona is ruthless in her dominance but Henry wants to be dominant as well and he enjoys the power and position he has, admitting this openly to Leona when they clash over the apartment he wants to purchase. Both Leona and Henry represent a fascinating aspect of American society in the post-war period which film noir commented on – the frustrations of a society that won the war and was heading into economic boom yet it didn’t seem to be enough. As suburbs grew and the inner cities decayed and were neglected, there still seemed to be something missing. Like Leona and Henry, paranoia and the frustrations of greed respectively are key concerns in the film.

 

Which leads the audience to connect with Henry and our sympathies lie with his desire to break Leona’s mistreatment of him. Indeed, he pleads with Leona that he could still love her if only she would be reasonable with him. But it is to no avail. Henry feels trapped and his greed sets him on a dangerous path where he will start stealing drugs from his father-in-law’s company and corrupt a meek chemist to assist him in his criminal endeavours. Whilst the code placed limits on the nature of Henry’s crime venture, it is obvious that he is dabbling in drugs and working with serious gangsters. His greed will not only place against his wife but ultimately against the gangsters Henry was working with, which will lead him to a terrible decision that he is forced to make.

 

All this will come to a head, as the fatal phone call is pieced together by Leona with each phone call and each revelation. The audience witnesses Leona’s arrogance deteriorates into terror, as Leona disintegrates into an emotional mess, crippled by her own psychological dysfunction. Such is the force of Barbara’s talent that the audience spends the bulk of the film waiting for Leona’s come-uppance only to feel sympathy for her. Not many actresses can turn an audience in such a way and the tension is palpable as we wait to see if Leona will survive the terror she is facing.

Hal Wallis had always been an astute producer who had been at the helm of production at Warners for some of their most prestigious films. He also had a keen eye for talent and when producing his own films after his time at Warners, Wallis would help start off the careers of actors such as Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Incidentally both would flourish when working with Barbara whose professionalism and patience was beyond measure.

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For the role of Leona Cotrell, the likes of Claudette Colbert and even Jennifer Jones were considered. However, Wallis knew that Barbara was ideal for the role, allowing for an actress of great calibre to work through the full gamut of emotion. Barbara also saw the possibilities of the role and according to her biographer, Axel Madsen, was even more pleased when Litvak gave both her and Lancaster all the scope and space they needed to build and develop their characters. According to biographer, Gary Fishgall, Lancaster had pushed hard for the role of Henry, as he was interested in the concept of the ‘moral weakling’ corrupted by his wife’s wealth, as well as his own greed. Like Barbara, Lancaster was excited by the prospect of having freedom to develop the character through his own interpretation via the scope that Litvak allowed. Both were able to look for the darker impulses and natures of their respective characters.

Yet with respect to Lancaster, Barbara had a greater challenge with Leona – having to traverse an extreme emotional spectrum in terms of her character arc. Not only was Leona in bed for much of the film but, as biographer Axel Madsen explains, Barbara had 12 days scheduled to complete the bedroom scenes. Barbara herself felt she needed to delve right into the emotional height of the character and was able to sustain it until Friday when shooting took a weekend break. She says that she found it difficult to pick up Leona’s desperate tension on the Monday yet I challenge anyone to see where there is any break in concentration.

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Litvak would further emphasise Leona’s bed-ridden isolation through the use of a circling camera and expressionistic techniques to heighten the tension and Leona’s growing and eventual emotional disintegration. Some critics, including the acerbic Bosley Crowther were not overly fond of the film and Jeffrey Anderson at Combustible Celluloid suggests that Barbara was too strong to play such a ‘simpering role’. However, Barbara was never one to limit her abilities and her career is evidence of the varied and interesting roles and her performance as Leona Stevenson was strong enough to garner her the nomination of Best Actress Oscar. According to Madsen, she never thought she had a chance against her friend Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda or the other performances by Ingrid Bergman, Irene Dunne or Olivia de Havilland in that year.

Barbara was assisted by a solid cast with the young Burt Lancaster solid and dependable in his role as the frustrated and dominated husband. Ed Begley’s time on screen was minimal yet his turn as the dominant father and hard father-in-law was memorable. William Conrad reflects the new corporate criminal-type, which emerged during the 1940s and broke away from the earlier sole gangster who solved his problems with a gun. Perhaps most interesting was Harold Vermilyea as the meek and mild-mannered Waldo Evans, who showed that anyone can be corrupted and his acceptance of his fate, as he is enveloped in darkness, is as film noir as it gets. Ann Richards plays the sympathetic wife of the D.A and former girlfriend of Henry Stevenson.

But there is not doubt that Barbara Stanwyck is the star of Sorry, Wrong Number and it was a perfect vehicle to showcase her talent and a role that needed an actress of her caliber and ability. A number of critics have hailed Barbara as the first lady of film noir and whilst this reviewer feels such a title to be limiting, her tour de force turn as Leona Stevenson certainly warrants such an accolade. Sorry, Wrong Number is 89 minutes of solid thriller/film noir with Barbara Stanwyck giving a memorable performance.

This article has been submitted for the Second Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films and Crystal at In The Good Old Days Of Hollywood – thank you for hosting! Please visit for more great articles on the amazing Barbara Stanwyck. 

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 Inspirational Hero: Frank Capra’s ‘Meet John Doe’ (1941)

by Paul Batters

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‘Why, your types as old as history! If you cant lay your dirty fingers on a decent idea and twist it and squeeze it and stuff it into your own pocket, you slap it down! Like dogs, if you cant eat something – you bury it!’ John Doe (Gary Cooper)

Cinema has provided heroes and heroines since its’ inception. If recent films are anything to go by (quality and depth notwithstanding), the audience interest in heroes has certainly not waned. Humans need heroes – they fill a deep need for inspiration, hope and the often a powerful desire for heroic qualities to be found within ourselves. That unfulfilled self-identification is transferred onto the screen, where we imagine ourselves to always have the right words, the right reaction and certainly the uncanny ability to successfully deal with a sworn enemy.

But the traditional journey of the hero is almost always a difficult one; a trope that can be traced all the way back to tales of Greek mythology. One of the most potent aspects of the hero’s make-up in literature and film is that of the reluctant hero. Cinema is rich with this particular figure, where the hero is plagued with nagging self-doubt and initially may hold no heroic qualities that we can easily identify. Yet what makes such a hero so compelling is that they are made from the same clay we are all made from – they are just like us and yet rise above their supposed station to make changes, save the day and stand up for what is right.

Frank Capra has made some of Hollywood’s greatest and most memorable films, focusing at times on such heroes and drawing on the literary and cinematic figure of ‘the everyman’. Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) and It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) are perhaps two of Capra’s most celebrated films, whose central character is the ‘everyman’ hero with Jimmy Stewart starring in both films. Stewart’s performance in both films has long resonated with audiences for obvious reasons and though they are different characters with vastly different storylines, Stewart personifies Capra’s everyman in both of these classic films.

However, another Capra film, which perhaps does not receive the accolades that the aforementioned films do, was his first with Warner Bros. after leaving Columbia. 1941’s Meet John Doe starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck is also a story of the ‘everyman’ and more to the point, the reluctant hero. Whilst not as explicit in its’ celebration of individualism as It’s A Wonderful Life, with greater focus on community, Meet John Doe nevertheless hails the role of the everyman hero and the impact that the individual can have in his or her world.

Capra was a complex individual and whilst not a focus of this article, it is important to note that Capra was a Republican despite his progressive outlook and the heroes of his films would obviously reflect his worldview. Those he collaborated with, particularly Robert Riskin, who co-wrote many of Capra’s best-known films, often swayed him towards realism, liberal ideas and progressive politics. Conservative right-wing writer Myles Connolly, who would contribute to the script of Meet John Doe, would steer Capra towards rediscovering his Catholicism, as well as feed Capra’s dislike of President Roosevelt. The Christ-like figure holding high value tenets of humility, innocence and sacrifice is at the core of Capra’s heroes and was certainly influenced by Connolly’s 1928 book Mr Blue – a book greatly admired by Capra.

Meet John Doe is the story of ex-baseball drifter ‘Long’ John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) who becomes part of a publicity stunt for a newspaper. Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is a tough, sassy reporter just fired by Henry Connell (James Gleason), the new managing editor for the newspaper just purchased by publisher D.B Norton (Edward Arnold). Her last article for the paper features a ‘letter from a John Doe’ who threatens to jump from City Hall on Christmas Eve at midnight, to protest civilization ‘going to pot’ and the ‘slimy politics’ present in the current world. The letter stirs up a hornet’s nest and Ann (eventually supported by Connell) sees the opportunity to save her job and save her own career by exploiting the situation. John is hired to claim her wrote the letter and will become the face of a ‘I Protest’ column for the newspaper, ghost-written by Ann. However, John’s companion and anti-society conscience ‘The Colonel’ (Walter Brennan) continuously speaks out against the whole situation, acting as a brake on John’s journey, which John often ignores.

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Stylistically, Meet John Doe initially displays all the hallmarks of the screwball comedy and this appears to be the template, which Capra works with. However, the turning point of the film arrives with Norton meeting with Ann and Connell. Norton has greater designs other than being a media baron and Capra lays the foundations for his key theme – the dangers of fascism and dictatorship. John is to make a radio speech (written by Ann, who draws inspiration from her late father) and at first he is nervous, unsure and even considering taking a payment not to make the speech by a rival newspaper. At first John’s concerns are selfish, especially when it is made clear to him that his plan to use the money to fix his arm will be thwarted by the truth getting out. But when he starts delivering the speech, encouraged by Ann’s idealism, he starts to become animated and his delivery arouses the audience. Norton realises something is happening, as does Connell, whose bitter cynicism from years in the newspaper game, has hardened him. Ann is moved to tears by the end of the speech but John feels like a cheat and runs off with his friend and fellow hobo ‘The Colonel’.

Here, we see the essence of the reluctant hero. Yes, he is a fake at first but he is deeply conflicted by his fakery whilst delivering what is ostensibly truth and hope in the message. John runs not because he doesn’t want to be found out to be a paid player in a publicity stunt but because he feels that he is cheating the people listening and committing a desecration of the message he is giving them. Yes he later laments his decision, telling The Colonel ‘I had the money in my hand’ but it is not delivered with real conviction and it appears that his motivation is the inspiration from Ann. On a side note, despite Ann’s telling Norton that what she wants is money, her emotional response when John finishes his speech, reveals she too believes in the message, seeing her father’s words alive in John.

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Meanwhile, a grassroots movement starts, inspired by John’s speech, and John Doe clubs begin to spring up. Ann, along with Norton track John down and they convince John to come back and help build the movement. Finally convinced, the movement begins to spread ‘like a prairie fire’ with Capra using an effective montage to show its’ growth and the energy John brings to his role.

Yet John will discover how naïve he has been and a showdown with Norton reveals his motivation – to use the John Doe Movement as a political tool for his own device to become President. Norton’s mask drops and the fascist overtones are final revealed – contempt for the masses as a ‘rabble’ and the need to rule the nation ‘with an iron hand’. At a large conference where John is supposed to endorse Norton for President, he instead states that he will reveal Norton’s scheme. John’s impassioned rebuttal fully illustrates John’s deepest feelings and his belief in the movement. But Norton makes the point that he is the ‘fake’ and that he and his retinue of industrialists and power brokers ‘believe in what we’re doing’.

But John has transcended this and goes to the conference, only to be undone by Norton being prepared and the revelation that John was and always had been a paid actor in a publicity stunt. The Christ-like element in Capra’s hero comes to the fore, with the crowd that primarily ‘worshipped’ him now turning on him and calling for his head. Begging to the crowd to ‘stick to your clubs’ and that ‘the idea is still good’ proves futile. Police get John out but his reputation is destroyed. A tearful Ann, who has lost John’s trust, despite a love growing between them, tearfully mourns how events have unfolded. Connell cynically offers a brilliant epitaph – ‘chalk another one up to the Pontius Pilates’. His comment more than cements the Christ-like persona of Capra’s hero – a (not so) innocent victim crucified by evil men for political purposes.

The following montage shows a dejected figure in John Doe, all washed up and mocked by the public, finally heading towards the City Hall to redeem not so much himself but the John Doe movement and the message that he had given for so long. As tempting as it is to discuss the ending at length, I will refrain from spoilers but needless to say John Doe’s reluctance as hero has been left far behind and the power of ‘the people’ is a strong statement against the dangers of fascism and that ultimately the ‘John Does’ of the world will overcome the dictators of the world – quite a statement in 1941 with the world (and soon the U.S) in the throes of World War Two.

Capra and Riskin wrote the script and obviously drew on the formula previously used to shape their hero. John Willoughby is laconic, naïve though not stupid and a man of ‘the people’ (and a baseball player no less). But there was a problem with Capra’s hero – John Willoughby is initially a ‘fake’ and ‘imposter’. Yet whilst some critics (even Capra himself who flip-flopped on the issue) have seen this as a major flaw in the film, it actually offers a powerful dimension to the concept of the hero, and the ebb and flow of the hero’s journey becomes evident from the moment John takes on the persona of ‘John Doe’ till the climax of the film.

There are contradictions in Capra’s hero and a number of critics have made some fair comments. Critic Andrew Sarris charged that in some ways John Doe is himself a demagogue with fascist overtones yet is speaking out against fascism and demagoguery, and embracing a populist approach to galvanising people into the John Doe movement. There is constant tension between the best and worst of individualism, and the reality of political corruption. Yet what makes Meet John Doe work and thus Gary Cooper’s portrayal an inspirational one is illustrated by Jeffrey Anderson’s review in Combustible Celluloid where he states that the film is not condescending or angry, nor does it seek reward or the audience’s affirmation that John is a hero but offers hope as its’ message. By extension, Sean Axmaker in Parallax View makes an astute point:

‘Capra’s idea of a populist movement is not political anger but social connection, transcending politics with neighborly concern and patriotic benevolence, and he makes a point of stating that these common folk are outside of politics, but nonetheless it is hard not to make a connection. It’s still salt of the earth citizens trying to make their voices heard…’

Certainly a different approach to movements today and their appropriation by others!

John’s inspiration and authenticity is measured by his growth as a hero and acceptance of his responsibility in the role. In the end, John rejects those close to him because he can only carry out the solution he feels is necessary alone. As an audience, it is impossible not to be touched by John Doe and the hero that emerges from his earlier reluctance and even later inner conflict. It is this factor that makes John Doe even more authentic and real for all of us, as we too find ourselves struggling with the obstacles of life that seem insurmountable and too crippling to deal with. Meet John Doe has its’ flaws but to focus on them is to miss the beauty of Capra’s hero and thus the inspiration of the most simple rule – ‘love thy neighbour’.

For a viewing of the film, please click on the link below:

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

John Ford’s ‘How Green Was My Valley’ – A Thematic Review

By Paul Batters

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‘Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still – real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever. How green was my valley then’.

One of Hollywood’s greatest directors, John Ford, famously described himself as a director ‘who makes westerns’. Indeed, Ford raised the bar regarding the quality of the western – taking it beyond the long established standard, as evidenced in films such as Stagecoach, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers and Fort Apache. Ford possessed the reputation of a tough, hard-drinking Irishman yet he directed three sensitive, powerful and iconic films, which remain exemplars in the pantheon of classic film; The Grapes Of Wrath (1940), The Quiet Man (1945) and the focus of this article How Green Was My Valley (1941).

How Green Was My Valley (1941) is a story told in retrospect of a Welsh family of coal-miners, impacted upon by the changes that come to their village, as well as the challenges of life – both of which they have little control over. The power of the film lies in its’ central themes, which are universal to all families and the individuals within the family unit.

Let us look deeper into the themes and messages of the film.

For me, the theme that reaches deepest is the power of memory. It is at the very beginning of the film and at its’ bittersweet ending – and of course permeates the very essence of the story. Indeed, the story is told as the narrator, Huw Morgan, is about to leave the village he so dearly loves. As he is about to leave, he retells his story and the visual imprint of the impoverished and dying village of the present evaporates into the green and beautiful village of the narrator’s past. The village-scape, his family and the people of the village come alive, accentuated with the beautiful musical score by Alfred Newman. It is a dream-like moment, where as Huw points out, he remembers his home before the grey sludge of the mines took over the valley. What remains is the durability of memory and at the end of the film, he says of his home “it’s still there”; alive in his mind and heart and the sounds of his brothers singing, the love of his family and the moments and lessons of his life which cannot be erased.

The adult Huw (Irving Pichel) narrates the story but we as the audience experience the tale through Huw as a young boy (Roddy McDowall) and the landmark moments in his life. Indeed, two voices of the same person speak and memory brings back the voice of the child. It is through the child’s eyes that the story comes alive. What we eventually realize as audience is that whilst a child can be quite invisible to the adults around him or her, what they see and remember can be quite vivid and their perceptions are quite strong, even if they don’t have the full capacity to articulate those perceptions at that time.

One of the most touching moments reflecting this is evident during a difficult turning point for the family, when three of Huw’s brothers refuse to bow to their father’s authority. Differing over how the workers in the mine should address their concerns, the family at the dinner table becomes torn and the brothers leave the house. The father, Gwilym (Donald Crisp) sits alone at the table, resigned to the fate of his family, with Huw at the other end, sitting silently. Not wanting to feel invisible, Hugh clanks his knife and fork against his plate and then coughs, trying to get his father’s attention. Without looking up, the father responds, “Yes my son, I know you are there”.

Obviously, family is a central theme, as the film focuses on the story of the Morgan family. The tight-knit Morgan household is a place where great love is shown. The nature of rite and ritual is also important in establishing family norms and structure, as shown by the men’s daily routine of washing the coal dust from their bodies and how the family sits together at the table. Huw’s father, Gwilym, is a solid and hard-working, sitting at the head of the table and leading the family in prayer. His mother, Beth (Sara Allgood), is kind, loving and also strong in character, moving around the table to much sure that her family is looked after and always being ‘the last to start her dinner and the first to finish’. Family roles are clear and obviously paternalistic in the context of 19th century Wales, where Huw reminisces ‘whilst my father was the head of the family, my mother was its’ heart’.

But despite the closeness of family and clarity of role and position, turmoil results when outside forces question the values and norms of the household. What will befall the Morgans, befalls every family – the divisions which can split a family through religion, politics and the questioning of authority in the household. The normal and natural challenging of parental authority must eventuate, as does the child becoming an adult and developing their own ideas and feelings. The family becomes divided as industrial turmoil hits the mine and threats of striking and the forming of a union for the mine-workers, splits the class-conscious brothers from their conservative and too-trusting father. Whilst there will be a settlement of sorts and the love of the family will endure, it cannot completely withstand the harsh economic realities and Huw’s older brothers will move on elsewhere. Three of the sons will move to America, which in those times meant that they would never see their family again – a reality that their father, Gwilym, sadly recognizes when announcing the send-off he’s planning.

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On a larger scale the change in the family structure reveals the inevitability of change in the greater world, whether we want to face it or not. The impacts of change in the film are shown as negative – loss of community and the values that held it together, the division of family, the change that the mine brings to the village and the impacts that greater change outside the village brings to the community. The ‘hero’ of the film, the new pastor Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon), tries to bring positive change to the community but eventually feels defeated, broken by the hypocrisy of his church, the ugliness that has crept into the community and the love which he can never hope to realize for Huw’s sister, Angharad (Maureen O’Hara). The physical change, which occurs to the village from green valley to slag heap becomes an allegory for the change in the community. Huw feels this deeply and clarifies this feeling when he narrates the story. The change is irreversible and Hugh knows this, seeing that his village will never be the same and of course neither will he.

Yet there are lessons learned from the struggles, which also provide a new light and opportunity for growth in Huw. The fight against injustice becomes an important theme in the film and Huw not only watches the battle against exploitation and poverty by the miners but the fight that the pastor undertakes as well. He fights against ignorance and gossip and stands with the miners in their fight as well. Huw sees the Christ-model alive and bright in the pastor’s mission, particularly when he stands against the deacons in his church. Encouraging the miners to form a union, he is accused of stepping outside his ministry, to which he responds ‘my mission is to fight whatever stands between man and God’. His final speech to the community is perhaps one of film’s finest, railing against those whose faith is founded in the fear of God but not the love of Jesus. The hypocrisy of religion and its’ failings as human institution meant to provide comfort, as Angharad points out, is accentuated by the pastor’s very real Christianity. As Mr. Gruffydd is about to leave, he looks at Hugh who looks back with great sorrow. But Huw’s steps to fighting injustice begin that moment, when he follows the pastor out of the church, ignoring the call of the deacons to remain.

As the audience we watch Huw growing up and facing the obstacles, difficulties and joys that come with the process. It is an obvious theme yet a very universal one. Whilst we see the narrator as a boy, we also experience his witnessing of the change in his family and his village and community. Just as importantly, we also experience how growing up impacts on him. Huw must at some point leave he safety of his family, when he begins school and must deal with not only a bully in the classroom but the harsh cruelty of his teacher. The beatings from the bully and the teacher reflect the harshness of life and whilst his older and stronger brothers could easily solve these problems, Huw shows fortitude and growth when he says he must deal with it himself. To his mother’s horror, Huw’s father arranges for him to learn to box and eventually the school bully is dealt with. The violence of youth is shown to be inescapable and a reality that needs to be faced – with violence.

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Ford also focuses on the importance of strong role models, evident in the shape of Huw’s father Gwilym and particularly Mr. Gruffydd the pastor who, despite being an important figure in the village, will be sacrificed by the community to their bigotry and small-mindedness. Both are principled men, strong in their convictions and honorable in their intentions. Yet despite their great strength of character, both have serious flaws in terms of their trust of others and their naivety. Gwilym states that owners of the mine are not ‘savages’ and that they are ‘men like us’, initially blind to the exploitation and poor treatment of the miners. He, himself, will be treated badly by the management of the mine and the village community will turn on him as well, despite Gwilym ’s hand of friendship perennially extended to all. Mr Gruffyd will himself see the folly of his failings, even sharing them with Huw, whose eyes are filled with tears:

‘Huw, I thought when I was a young man that I would conquer the world with truth. I thought I would lead an army greater than Alexander ever dreamed of, not to conquer nations, but to liberate mankind. With truth. With the golden sound of the Word. But only a few of them heard. Only a few of you understood’.

Huw sees these flaws in both men, even as a boy, which heightens the tragedy and deepens the love that he holds for both men, in spite of their naivety. Yet there is also a harsh reality, which Hugh discovers as a boy, which is also part of the reality of life and a painful lesson in growing up –we lose those we love. Huw will see Mr. Gruffydd leave his village and see his father die in a mining disaster. As a child, Huw discovers the true cost of loss and thus his innocence will be lost as well.

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But not only does Huw have strong role models in the form of men. There are strong women as well, particularly in the form of his mother, Beth, delivered via a stirring performance by Sara Allgood (which would win her a Best Supporting Actress Nomination at the Oscars). She loves her husband but is not afraid to give him a piece of her mind and speaks with dignity and strength. At one of the turning points in the film, most of the men have turned on Gwilym for not supporting their strike, despite his own sons being involved with the miners’ union. One cold, blustery night as the strikers meet, Beth tells Huw to take her to the meeting, to which a shocked Huw responds that it’s no place for a woman. But Beth is unfettered and with firmness states that ‘there’s a place there for this woman!’ Her speech to the gathered men is fiercer than the snow storm howling around their heads, as she rains down scorn upon them:

‘You are a lot of cowards to go against him. He has done nothing against you and he never has and you know it well. How some of you, you smug-faced hypocrites, can sit in the same Chapel with him I cannot tell’.

But Beth Morgan is far from done:

‘There’s one thing more I’ve got to say and it is this. If harm comes to my Gwilym, I will find out the men and I will kill them with my two hands. And this I will swear by God Almighty’.

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It is doubtful that any man at that meeting would test Beth Morgan on her word. 

The power of love and the joy and pain it brings to one’s life spans Huw’s experience in the film. At first, the love of family is clear and uncompromised, with closeness between parents and their children and between the siblings. With each crises faced by the family, love ultimately holds them together and even when there are fractures in the family, the bonds of love also protect them. The family split during the workers’ dispute sees the sons initially defy their father and leave the house. But they will later return, not out of fear for their father but out of love for the family. Huw will recount the pain the family endures when the eldest brother is killed and three of his other brothers leave to seek their fortunes in America. Love has its’ price, which Huw will learn in the most difficult way.

As the film progresses, the experience of ‘first love’ arrives for Huw when he remembers falling for his eldest brother’s fiancée. Of course, this first love is one of innocence and impossibility but it foreshadows one of the greatest tragedies also examined, the terrible pain of love unrealized and the realities of life preventing true love from being founded. The mutual and deep love held between his sister Angharad and the pastor Mr Griffin, will see further turmoil for Huw’s family but most of all for the aforementioned two. As much as Mr. Gruffydd loves Antharrad, ne makes it clear that the reality for them would be poverty and economic difficulty, stating that he could not bear seeing her hair go grey before its’ time. In the end, she will marry the snobbish son of the mine-owner, which will mean economic stability but a cold and dead marriage, devoid of true love. Angharad becomes a prisoner in a gilded cage and Mr. Gruffydd is ‘not the same’. The family servant spreads gossip and rumor which will end in infecting the village ‘like the black slag’ from the mine spreading through the hearts and minds of the village folk. It will takes its’ toll on Huw’s family.

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But Mr. Gruffydd does not take this so easily and rains on the heads of the congregation his fury at their malicious gossip, their black hearts and hypocrisy. It is the final battle in his futile war against ignorance and as he points out, the desire to bring the ‘love of Jesus’ into the community and abandon their concept of faith as fear of God. It is this overcoming of adversity that permeates throughout the story as narrated by Huw. There are personal battles to be fought – the pastor bringing enlightenment and perspective to the village is but one of them. Huw must deal with his own obstacles and trials. Along with his mother, Hugh faces near death when both face illness and injury after falling into freezing water. His recovery is long and difficult, during which Mr Griffin raises his spirit and gives him hope, in spite of the dire prognosis from the doctor. Again, with Mr. Gruffydd’s help, Huw walks again despite his initial lack of faith. But Mr Gruffyd is also speaking to Huw’s spirit and faith, and offers lessons that will stay with Huw:

‘And as your father cleans his lamp to have good light, so keep clean your spirit, huh?…By prayer, Huw. And by prayer, I don’t mean shouting, mumbling, and wallowing like a hog in religious sentiment. Prayer is only another name for good, clean, direct thinking. When you pray, think. Think well what you’re saying. Make your thoughts into things that are solid. In that way, your prayer will have strength, and that strength will become a part of you, body, mind, and spirit’.

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Mr. Gruffydd also encourages the men to form their trade union, against the will of the senior pastors of the church, and they stand up against the mine-owners. Theirs is a fight against exploitation and for their rights, which will cause not only division in the village but within Huw’s family. Yet it is this fight against adversity, which informs Huw on the need to fight against repression and certainly inspires his own aforementioned private battles.

The film may end in tragedy but again we are reminded that we hold true in our hearts and minds can truly die. The people in Huw’s life are always with him because of the love they have given him and he in return. Their lessons stay with him and guide him still as an adult; they give him, as Mr. Gruffydd teaches him, strength (that) will become a part of you, body, mind, and spirit. At the beginning of the film, Huw shares a touching yet powerful sentiment, which rings true even as the final credits roll:

‘Everything I ever learnt as a small boy came from my father, and I never found anything he ever told me to be wrong or worthless. The simple lessons he taught me are as sharp and clear in my mind as if I had heard them only yesterday’.

Some critics suggest the film sails dangerously close into over-sentimentality – but this is an unfair criticism. The pain of memory is addressed and central to the story and at times the reflection touches one of the themes of Dante’s ‘Inferno’ – “There is no greater sorrow than to recall happiness in times of misery.” Huw’s memories are not completely romanticized and as the story unfolds, this becomes more than evident. True, we are all capable of evoking nostalgia of our own family and growing up and we do so regularly. However, in the deepest regions of our hearts, we know and can recall the vast array of moments and events that shape our own family story and how it has impacted on us. The stark and harsh realities of memory are evoked through the direction of John Ford and his eye is cast across the film’s narrative. 

‘How Green Was My Valley’ has powerful lessons not tied to a different era nor shaped purely by Hollywood’s studio system. The film’s power remains. much like the memory of love and family has for the adult Huw. The lessons transcend time and context. John Ford left us an artwork for us to not only learn from but emote with and touch us in a way that only classic films can. 

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.