The Citadel (1938): Robert Donat’s First Oscar Nominated Performance

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by Paul Batters

Robert Donat is perhaps one of the most loved actors from the golden years of Hollywood and is best remembered for his Oscar winning performance in Goodbye Mr Chips (1939). It was and still is a beautiful and heart-warming performance, and deserves to be remembered as it still resonates with audiences today. It is one of my favourite films which I discovered as a child but it was not my first experience watching Robert Donat. That discovery came with the film which would draw his first Oscar nomination; 1938’s The Citadel. 

It’s also a performance that does not get the acclaim that it deserves and has been greatly overshadowed by the film which eventually brought Donat his Oscar win in 1939.

Based on A.J Cronin’s novel. The Citadel tells the story of Dr. Andrew Manson (Robert Donat) and follows a character arc which sees him shift from a young, idealistic doctor looking to bring change to the world to losing his faith in himself and the world and discovering it again. As a result, the story still resonates and there are some powerful themes that also still resonate, particularly in light of the current socio-economic and political climate of today – the divisions of class that exist within society, the contrasting lives of the poor and the privileged, the lack of health care for the poor and needy and certainly the lack of action on the part of the authorities to accept the need for change and adopt new technologies as well as new thinking.

Yet at the very personal level there exists something that is timeless; the idealism of youth that turns to disillusionment and despair. Critic David Kehr outlines in his review that director King Vidor was always fascinated by the concept of personal rebirth and that certainly comes through strong in the film, as evidenced by the uplifting climax. If anything, it is the central theme of the film which also has a powerful universal connection to audiences. How many of us have felt our idealism slip away or eroded over time or indeed even destroyed quite suddenly? And how many of us have rediscovered that idealism? Two deeply personal questions but ones that legendary directors like Vidor were driven by and Donat certainly seeks to channel answers through his portrayal of Dr. Manson.

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The young doctor is assigned to the mining village of Blaenely, working under the tutelage of Dr. Page (Basil Gill). The opening scenes show Manson’s excitement as he travels there by train, looking at the countryside as well as some of the conditions the men are working under. There is a foreshadowing of what he will face and perhaps what will temper (and then mute) his idealism when he is warned by the coach driver.

Initially, Manson works hard to treat the local miners and notices that their impoverished life and conditions leave them in misery. Yet all his attempts to bring positive change are thwarted, not only by the authorities but also by the miners themselves. He finds friendship in fellow doctor Denny (Ralph Richardson) who will be a great support and indeed share the same ideal, going to incredible and dangerous lengths to do something about the problems of a possible typhoid break out in the town. True happiness will be found in Christine, a school teacher (Rosalind Russell), whom he will marry afters securing his position as a doctor, although their first meeting will not be a pleasant one. However, after Christine comes to him as a patient for a sore throat, something happens between them. But it seems it is not enough and all his efforts in the town come to nothing, leaving the young dejected and lost, and after a particularly traumatic incident, the couple move to London.

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It will be here that he runs into an old classmate from medical school, Dr.Lawrence (Rex Harrison) and Manson finds himself converted to Lawrence’s way of thinking, to Christine’s disappointment. He becomes a very successful doctor for the upper class of London and enjoys the benefits and money that comes with it. But at what cost?

 

This reviewer will not divulge what follows but it will take not only Christine’s pleading to remember who he was and the ideals they both shared, as well as some tragedy, for Manson to realise what has happened to him. Again, Dr. Manson will find the fire within to act for what is best and the final scene is a strong ending, befitting theme of rebirth which Vidor felt so driven by in his films.

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Robert Donat planned his portrayal carefully, measured within the development of his craft and particularly the development of ‘The Emotion Chart’, that was used in preparation for his role as Dr. Manson. Donat saw the importance of regulating the emotional content of the performance, using the character arc as the guide and plotting the emotional response to the ups and downs of the character’s life.  Vicky Lowe’s article in Film History (2007) looks at Donat’s methodology used in The Citadel with incredible depth. She points out that Donat allowed his acting to be informed by other moments in the story whilst in character and thus using the appropriate emotional timbre for that moment, dependant on what had happened before and afterwards in the plot. As a result, the audience can see the dissolving of Manson’s moral resolve and his idealism dissipating which will lead him to a more lucrative professional outlook, underpinned by his disillusionment. But the audience also see Manson’s growth through the key turning points in the film, particularly the first where Manson first feels like a ‘real doctor’ when he saves the premature Morgan baby. Donat’s whole approach to the moment draws our empathy and it is the moment that connection is made firmly with the deepest investment into the character of Dr. Manson. Naturally, this is beautifully aided by the camera work, using close-ups on Donat’s face and so it is through his experience and interpretation that the moment is experienced by the audience. His point of view and his vocation as a doctor finally becomes a reality for both Manson and the audience.

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The whole cast is exceptional with outstanding British luminaries such as Richardson, Harrison, Emily Williams and a host of other familiar faces from British stage and screen. As a prestige MGM feature made and produced in Britain, the authenticity is not lost with the addition of the beautiful Rosalind Russell, who was the only American in the cast. According to her fascinating autobiography, Life is a Banquet, Russell did not feel particularly welcome as the local British industry felt an English girl should have held the role. Any animosity certainly did not transfer onto the screen and Russell is outstanding in her supporting role, which she had built a career on at that time at MGM. But Russell’s character of Christine is far more than that; she is a strong character who works to revive Manson’s conscience and rediscover his idealism.

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In truth, the film runs close to the wind in terms of preachiness but when considering the state of the world in 1938, it is understandable. Additionally, the film was a first to champion the need for reform in medical institutions which was quite a courageous act as well. Sally Dux in her interesting 2012 article in the Historical Journal Of Film, Radio And Television also points out that it was an important film in depicting the incredible social and class divisions that existed in Britain at the time and thus also significant ‘in the depiction of social realism in British cinema… resulting in its pivotal position in the story of the founding of the National Health Service in 1948’. Quite a feat indeed and also indicates that the power of film to influence and bring about positive change in the world has long existed.

What keeps the film together other than the strong performances is the hand of brilliant director, King Vidor, who anchors the film with his vision and knowledge of how to craft a film. Allowing the content of the film to mould and shape the direction of the film, Vidor allowed for the realism previously mentioned to work through. Donat as a result found a solid framework within which to build and develop his portrayal.

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The Citadel was well-received by a number of publications such as the New York Times and when watching Donat’s performance, it is no surprise that he was nominated for an Oscar. The film would also receive Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay as well, receiving no wins but it was up against some very tough competition in 1938.

As always Robert Donat brings incredible dignity and humanity to the role of Dr. Andrew Manson and was a deserved recipient of the Best Actor nomination. He would lose to Spencer Tracy (for Boys Town) but as classic film fans know, the following year would see him win against the likes of Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Laurence Olivier in the year considered the greatest of the golden years. However, it would be foolish to look past Robert Donat in The Citadel and any fan of the great actor should take the time to revisit this wonderful film.

This article is an entry for the Robert Donat Blogathon kindly run by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Please visit her site for some wonderful entries on the great actor and of course take the chance to read some great work from Maddy as well.

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 Sunshine Blogger Award – A Second Time Honour!

by Paul Batters

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It is an absolute thrill to receive this award a second time and I cannot thank Brittaney from The Story Enthusiast enough. It is very kind and thoughtful of you to think of me, and similarly I think I needed this award at this time to boost spirits. It’s nice to be recognised and this award gives impetus to bloggers to continue writing and not be disheartened.

In keeping with the process, I’ll first state the rules of the award nomination.

  1. List the award’s official rules
  2. Display the award’s official logo somewhere on your blog
  3. Thank the person who nominated you
  4. Provide a link to your nominator’s blog
  5. Answer your nominator’s questions
  6. Nominate up to 11 bloggers
  7. Ask your nominees 11 questions
  8. Notify your nominees by commenting on at least one of their blog posts

Here are the answers to the questions kindly provided by Brittaney. 

1. What British or International film would you recommend to a friend who has never seen one?

To be honest, this would greatly be impacted by what type of cinematic experience they were after.

I would probably direct them to Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete (1945) as a dark yet beautiful and tragic fairy tale. The magic and fantasy of Cocteau’s vision is stunning and unforgettable.

In terms of Italian Realism, then I would direct them to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), which I think is one of the greatest films ever made and inspired so many international directors.

For sheer beautiful sentimentality and an ending I cry to EVERY time I see it, Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988) is a masterpiece.

To choose a British film is near impossible but if I had to choose ONE as an introduction it would probably be a pre-Hollywood Hitchcock like The Thirty Nine Steps (1935), simply because it’s one of my favourites.


2. Which classic film director do you prefer and what is your favourite of their films?

Hitchcock is a stand-out and whilst I have the greatest affection for most of his films, Vertigo is the one which reaches deep into me every time. A real masterpiece in every way.

Also a huge fan of John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle) and Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Ace In The Hole, Witness For The Prosecution).

3. Which character actor or actress do you think would have made a great lead?

Oh Claude Rains certainly and indeed showed that he could in a few films. For me, Rains is one of the most incredible actors – period. He would have also been a great success in the modern era as well.

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4. What child actor do you believe should have had success as an adult but didn’t?

Bobby Driscoll is a child actor who had wonderful potential but was treated poorly, cast aside and followed a tragic course that ended his life. If things had been different and he had been taken care of as a boy, we may have seen Driscoll become successful as an adult.

5. What film do you love, but dislike the ending?

I wouldn’t say I ‘love’ Schindler’s List but it is one with an ending that I have found problematic. Over time, I have found myself less enamoured with the film, even though it was an Oscar winner and had a massive impact. In fairness, it is impossible to bring to the screen the horror of the Holocaust and do justice to those that suffered (although Come And See (1985) is quite a harrowing film in presenting Nazi atrocities in the East). But Schindler’s List does have its’ issues.

For me the ending is one of the key issues. It seems to shift our emotions as an audience to the figure of Oskar Schindler himself, instead of the millions of Jews, Roma, political prisoners, POWs and others who were murdered by the Nazis. It feels like Spielberg is going for the Oscar winning moment with Schindler declaring ‘I didn’t do enough’ and the orchestral manipulation of our emotions as we cry for Schindler becomes a strange sort of catharsis. Who should we actually be crying for?

The moment at the actual grave of Oskar Schindler is bittersweet but again our attention is drawn away from who the victims of the Nazis were and are. I would have ended it in the following way:

After Oskar Schindler declares the war over to the gathered workers and the SS guards ‘leave as men not murderers’ and asks to observe three minutes of silence, the audience hears a sole voice singing which leads to a candle being re-lit and a return to colour. Fin.

6. Whose onscreen wardrobe do you covet and would like to claim for your own?

I must say that Cary Grant looks impeccable and would undoubtedly stake a claim on his wardrobe.

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7. Which original film do you think could be improved as a remake and who would you cast?

There are certainly many original films which should not be remade. Yet some original films (such as 1930’s The Maltese Falcon and 1936’s Satan Met A Lady) were remade (in the aforementioned case as 1941’s The Maltese Falcon) and became iconic films.
I’m also going to cheat with this question and ‘remake’ and partially recast a film by doing so at the time it was made.

The film I would remake would be Dracula (1931) and whilst keeping Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Edward Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing and Dwight Frye as Renfield, I would make the additional changes to the cast:

                                                           Mina – Madeleine Carroll                              

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                                                             Harker – Robert Donat

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                                                           Dr. Seward – Claude Rains 

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                                                                Lucy – Myrna Loy

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Certainly the first part of the film would remain unchanged, as Lugosi’s entrance is legendary and his interaction with Renfield especially memorable.
I would like to add more of Dracula’s brides attempt to seduce Renfield, as well as Renfield’s view of Dracula – imagine seeing Lugosi scamper like a lizard down the side of his castle!

Lucy’s demise and vampirization would be further delved into, with the infamous delving into the crypt to confront her as a vampire also depicted. It’s just too good an opportunity to ignore.

The much criticised anti-climactic ending would obviously be far better done, with the Count being staked in full view of the audience (or at least show Lugosi’s face and a wonderful supernatural ending to the vampire).

8. Which classic film actor or actress do you think would be successful in today’s film industry?

Something tells me that Joan Crawford would have been successful. She was tough enough and determined to make it in a very different time under very hard circumstances. Crawford was also incredibly hard-working and adaptable, with a career that spanned five decades – that’s pretty good going!

9. What film trope do you never tire of seeing?

I’ve never tired of the MacGuffin and the way that outstanding directors use it. Hitchcock, of course, used it perfectly, and John Huston used a MacGuffin in The Maltese Falcon.

10. If you could adapt a piece of classic literature that has not yet been made into a film, what book would you choose and who would you cast in the main roles?

I’m going to cheat here and include a response I previously used for a similar question elsewhere. But I cannot get past Budd Schulberg’s book ‘What Makes Sammy Run?’ – not because it’s a favourite per se as many books I love have been made into films but because it’s a powerful book and should be made. I know and understand the stories behind why it’s never been made as a film, as it is a terrifyingly cynical view of the film industry.

In terms of casting, it’s very difficult which might also explain why it was never made. But I’ll take my best shot, using actors from the classic era.

Al Mannheim: Dana Andrews
Sammy Glick: Frank Sinatra
Cathy ‘Kit’ Sargent: Teresa Wright
Sidney Fineman: James Gleason
‘Sheik’: Anthony Quinn
Laurette Harrington: Martha Hyer
Carter Judd: Jeffrey Hunter
Rosalie Goldblaum: Cathy O’Donnell

11. Which of today’s modern actors or actresses do you think would have been successful in classic films and why?

George Clooney and Jessica Chastain. Both have an amazing quality on the screen, photography beautifully and most importantly are outstanding actors who bring their A game to every performance.

The Nominees

I now nominate the following bloggers for the Sunshine Blogger Award. All of these are classic film bloggers are wonderful writers and I encourage you to check out their sites if you haven’t already.

Silver Scenes

Classic Movie Man

Out Of The Past

Stars And Letters

Cinematic Catharsis

The Classic Movie Muse

Silver Screenings

Films From Beyond The Time Barrier

The Last Drive In

4 Star Films

I Found It At The Movies

The Questions

The questions I was given by Brittaney were fun and challenging, and so I am going to offer them to the nominees as well.

  1. What British or International film would you recommend to a friend who has never seen one?
  2. Which classic film director do you prefer and what is your favorite of their films?
  3. Which character actor or actress do you think would have made a great lead?
  4. What child actor do you believe should have had success as an adult but didn’t?
  5. What film do you love, but dislike the ending?
  6. Whose onscreen wardrobe do you covet and would like to claim for your own?
  7. Which original film do you think could be improved as a remake and who would you cast?
  8. Which classic film actor or actress do you think would be successful in today’s film industry?
  9. What film trope do you never tire of seeing?
  10. If you could adapt a piece of classic literature that has not yet been made into a film, what book would you choose and who would you cast in the main roles?
  11. Which of today’s modern actors or actresses do you think would have been successful in classic films and why?

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.

 

Top Five Classics For Comfort – The Films We Turn To

by Paul Batters

Cinephiles, film fans, critics and academics have all locked horns, run debates and published on the question of what are the greatest films? Lists have been compiled by some of the most respected publications and the most learned, whilst the rest of us pour over these lists and either nod in agreement or guffaw in disgust. Case in point – some agreed wholeheartedly and others were shocked when Sight And Sound removed Citizen Kane (1941) from its reign at the top of the list and gave Vertigo (1958) the number one spot. There was then and still is plenty of discussion around such decisions and that’s as it should be.

However, when it comes to the question, ‘what films do you turn to for comfort?’, there are no incorrect answers. It’s totally subjective and that, too, is as it should be. We turn to some films that are particularly special to us, especially when we need that boost to our spirits or simply something to make us feel good inside or even an escape to somewhere else.

Taking this opportunity for the CMBA Comfort Classics Blogathon, here are five of my favourite Comfort Classics.

  1. Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

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There are a few who condemn this film as the exploitive death knell of the classic Universal monster era and such criticism is understandable. Yet in fairness, any such exploitation was happening before the comedic duo crossed paths with our favourite monsters, and the shine and quality of the early 30s period was long gone. But it’s still a film that’s filled with fun and for many, including myself, it’s one of the first experiences of a wonderful partnership that stands the test of time.

As a child in the late 1970s in Australia, video was rare and most films appeared on television once a year. As a result, some films were a major event! When Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was scheduled (usually a midday treat on a weekend), neighbourhoods were cleared out as kids raced home to watch.

The story revolves around two hapless baggage handlers Chick Young (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur Grey (Lou Costello) who get all caught up in a mad monster mystery, crossing paths with the tormented Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jnr), who is trying to finally destroy the plans of Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) to revive the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange). There are plenty of scares and Bud and Lou pull off their routines with perfect timing and slick delivery. For me, some of the most effective moments are Bud and Lou’s scenes with Chaney, leaving the audience terrified whilst we are laughing.

The combination of horror and comedy made the film a smash hit at the time and helped not only to revive the duo’s slightly slipping popularity but also gave them a new template to work with. For many fans of Abbott and Costello, their meeting with the Universal monsters remains their favourite and the one that is best remembered. Those cold winter afternoons warm up for me whenever I slip Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein into the DVD player and the magic of childhood returns.

  1. King Kong (1933)

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The mightiest of monster movies – with the one true king being a 50 foot ape rampaging through jungles (both literal and urban ones) whilst holding onto a gorgeous girl screaming for her life. Does pure escapism get any better?

Merian C. Cooper’s and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s incredible fantasy-action tale utilised Willis O’Brien’s then ground-breaking (and incredibly painstaking) stop-motion animation technique that still thrills. It was a gamble by RKO, spending nearly $700,000 during the Depression and long after the studio closed down, it’s still reaping the rewards. It’s got everything and as Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) declares to Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) – ‘it’s money and adventure and fame…it’s the thrill of a lifetime!”. And there certainly is plenty of adventure, thrills and lots more besides. From the moment Kong first appears to his final fall from the Empire State Building, King Kong does not disappoint. The battle between Kong and the T-Rex is like watching a prize-fight (which was apparently inspired by the film-makers’ love of boxing and wrestling) and Kong rampaging through New York is pure mayhem.

Driven by Max Steiner’s superb score, King Kong deserves its place in cinema history but it also holds a special place in my heart. Whenever I watch it, before long I find myself transported to Skull Island to watch Kong in his kingdom, lament his capture and mourn his demise. It truly is a silver screen ‘thrill of a lifetime’ and a classic I turn to for a comforting dose of escapist fun.

  1. The Thin Man (1934)

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Not many films have that perfect combination of mystery, comedy and a little dash of screwball with a screen couple radiating incredible chemistry like The Thin Man (1934). It was a ground-breaking film which not only gave birth to one of the most successful and loved series of the classic era but would see Myrna Loy break the typecast roles she had been playing. Her comedic chops came to the fore, melding perfectly with William Powell, whose wit and ad-libbed moments brought a new sophistication to comedy. The sheer magic of the two on screen has a beautiful naturalness without any confection and that undoubtedly was the key reason for the film’s (and the subsequent series) success.

The Thin Man, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, is far more than a mystery. Neither was the well-paced film simply a vehicle for Powell and Loy. What emerged was something special that was not formulaic but formed from the natural chemistry of the two stars from a well-crafted script and the intelligent foresight of director W. S Van Dyke to let magic happen and ‘catch it’ when it happened. But that did mean that the shooting had to be tight and the cast had to know their dialogue.  

As much as I love the series, the first film is particularly magic for me. The feel of spontaneity, the playfulness and the witty banter makes for a fun filled 93 minutes. With Powell and Loy, there’s romance without the corn and sex without the sleaze. No wonder it was a huge hit on its’ release in 1934 – it’s still a huge hit for me and one I turn to often. Like Nick Charles with a mixer, it’s the perfect comfort cocktail. And boy, is Myrna Loy gorgeous!

  1. The Wizard Of Oz (1939)

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Something tell me this film is on most people’s list and I imagine that’s not much of a surprise. The Wizard Of Oz is that trip over the rainbow that is clearly for ‘the young and the young at heart’. It gets the full MGM treatment, which means the best production quality, with a talented cast and of course some of the most famous musical numbers in cinema history.

For me, The Wizard Of Oz is not only a comfort classic but also holds a strong personal memory. As a child in Australia, colour television did not come to Australia until 1975. When my father brought home a colour television in 1976, the first film we watched as a family that evening was The Wizard Of Oz. That moment when sepia changes to bright Technicolor was a true moment of magic and no matter how many times I watch it, I still get teary.

I’m not particularly a fan of the musical but The Wizard Of Oz has a special place in my heart, and it is a film which I will often turn to for an indulgence.

  1. Witness For The Prosecution (1957)

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A murder trial may seem like the strangest subject for a comfort classic but Billy Wilder’s superb court-room drama is the perfect film to lose oneself in. Tight and taut, with the superb touch of humour that Wilder knew how to add without ruining the tension of the story, Witness For The Prosecution perhaps sets the bar for the classic shocking plot twist.

The film showcases incredible talent not only in its key stars but in the incredible supporting cast, mainly from a range of quality British actors and actresses. For all the brilliance that Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich bring to their performances, the film’s true star is Charles Laughton who is superb as Sir Wilfrid Robarts. The sharp wit, acerbic manner and dazzling mind of the highly respected yet unwell barrister keeps the audience hooked into the story without chance of escape.

I’ve watched the film countless times with a complete and full awareness of how the plot will unfold and what the now famous twist will be at the climax of the film. Yet I am always riveted by the story and the beautiful craftsmanship that goes into shaping the film. The energy in the courtroom never dissipates and the flashbacks add depth and value to the story. There’s no fat to be trimmed and each moment in the film is an important layering to character development as well.

It’s an impeccable film and one which I thoroughly enjoy. More than a favourite, it’s like an old friend whose conversation I always find sanctuary in. Witness For The Prosecution, like that old friend, never fails to disappoint.

This entry is part of the Classic Movie Bloggers Association Spring Blogathon: Classics For Comfort. It’s been a pleasure to take part and a special thank you to the CMBA for running a blogathon that is much needed at this time! Click on the link to discover what other bloggers have revealed about their comfort classics.

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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 Dark Underbelly Of Americana: ‘Kings Row’ (1942)

by Paul Batters

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“I only know that you have to judge people by what you find them to be and not by what other people say they are” – Madame von Eln (Maria Ouspenskaya) 

Every small town has its’ secrets and stories and Hollywood has found no shortfall in material in telling those stories nor directors wishing to tell them. Usually, Hollywood had depicted small towns as idyllic places, where values and morals to be admired where prevalent and family life created a world of stability and normality. This is certainly true in the Andy Hardy series, the then popular Henry Aldrich series and films such as Meet Me In St Louis (1944) and Our Town (1940), which was incidentally directed by Sam Wood. Capra’s films certainly celebrate the small American town, untainted by the complexities of the big city, as well as ‘the people’ characterised as being the ‘salt of the earth’.

Kings Row (1942) stands tall as a tale of an American Midwestern town at the turn of the 20th century, with all the A Grade production values that were a staple at Warner Bros. Directed by Sam Wood (A Night At The Opera, Goodbye Mr Chips, Pride Of The Yankees), Kings Row is a powerful film, with outstanding performances from its’ principal players and a talented supporting cast. Whilst certainly not a forgotten film, Kings Row is often overshadowed by some of the other big releases from Warner Bros. around the same time such as Now Voyager (1942) and Casablanca (1943). It certainly deserves our attention, as it is one of Warner Bros. finest productions and despite the surface themes of romance, relationship, loss and tragedy, there are far deeper concerns that are addressed in the film. At its’ very core, Kings Row is a story that reveals the uglier and darker undercurrent of the American Midwestern town, tearing down the façade of respectability, polite society and propriety to reveal hypocrisy, perversion, familial dysfunction and corruption.  This essay does not aim to avoid spoilers but to discuss these issues and examine their purveyance in the film. (So readers be warned!)

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From the opening scene, punctuated by Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s excellent score, perhaps one of the finest ever written for the silver screen, the focus is on the town. The audience’s focus is drawn to a sign which declares Kings Row is a ‘good town’, one which is a ‘good town to live in and a good place to raise your children’.  The camera moves across tree-lined streets and picket fences before being drawn to the characters. But the inference is quite clear, as Wheeler Winston Dixon points out, that the film intends to be a stinging indictment of American society…and a dystopian vision of the dark underside of Midwestern small- town life’.  

As the audience is going to discover, to go against the small-minded and morally suffocating rules and expectations of society means a heavy price must be paid.

The story has a two-fold focus in terms of the protagonists; specifically the close friendship of Parris (Robert Cummings) and Drake (Ronald Reagan), though it is Parris  with whom the audience connects with first and foremost.  Parris and Drake share a friendship since they were children and though different in demeanour, they are similar in their strength if character.

Parris is a young and gifted student being raised by his grandmother Madame von Eln (Maria Ouspenskaya) whose values and beliefs she has bestowed upon Parris, as well as her love and kind nature. Unbeknownst to Parris, his grandmother falls ill with cancer but she covers it up, not wanting to cause worry for her grandson. Parris, too, is a kind, thoughtful and passionate young man who begins studying medicine with the brilliant yet reclusive Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains). His childhood friendship with the doctor’s daughter Cassie (Betty Field) will eventually develop into love and they pursue their passions despite the doctor’s warnings and Cassie’s growing anxiety. The two will consummate their love, although naturally this is only suggested in the film but the results will have dire consequences for Cassie.

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However, these ‘star-crossed lovers’ are doomed to a greater tragedy than Parris’ initial concerns for Cassie could anticipate. Cassie fears that she is going mad, as her mother did, and it appears that her insanity is not entirely an unfounded fear. As the audience discovers later in the film, Dr. Tower also suspects that Cassie has gone mad.  What follows is a shocking turn in the tale (which incredibly survived the Breen Office), is the murder-suicide that occurs in the Tower household. Cassie is killed and Dr Tower then turns his murderous hand on himself.

Parris is horrified and wracked with guilt that he earlier dismissed Cassie when she declared her fears to him. He also discovers that the authorities want to speak to him but before he races to the Tower house, Drake stops him and goes instead, claiming he had been seeing Cassie. Drake sacrifices his own reputation in the presence of Dr. Gordon (Charles Coburn) the father of Louise (Nancy Coleman) the girl he has been ‘seen’ with. Yet his faux declaration turns out to be unnecessary as Parris discovers that he is the recipient of something he never expected. Nevertheless, it adds further condemnation of Drake’s moral character (or lack thereof) in the eyes of Dr. Gordon.

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Parris will face greater challenges, with the death of his grandmother who, along with the tragedy of the Towers, spurs him to leave the town and seek something greater. Yet Drake also senses that Parris needs to leave and, sharing the deeper sentiments of Dr Tower, does not want to see his friend stay in Kings Row to become a mediocrity, with his potential drowned by the town’s darkness. Parris does leave for Vienna where he will pursue his career in medicine but specifically the new field of psychology.

Drake, will remain in the town and face his own challenges, not the least of losing his family fortune to an unscrupulous banker. Yet it does result in finding something stable and lasting in Randy (Ann Sheridan). The no-nonsense and tough Irish girl comes from the other side of the tracks and her hard-working family accepts Drake without judgment, indicating that the ‘poorer’ part of town has rejected the hypocrisy and double standards of ‘respected society’. 

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Kings Row

Kings Row spans a period of approximately 20 years, from the childhood of the principal characters into their adulthood. Of course, the tale being told is not only that of the people in the town but of the town itself. The divisions that exist in Kings Row are marked not only in the town’s psyche and fabric but by the very physical differences, classically signified by the train tracks. Drake’s ultimate slide from society is marked not only by his financial fall but also primarily by his moving over the train tracks to be with Randy. Ironically, his ‘punishment’ for doing so, is the horrific accident (and unnecessary operation that follows), which will give Ronald Regan his most famous scene in film history and a heck of a line of dialogue.

When Parris does return home, the expectation from the town is that he will set up a practice in Kings Row but Parris is not so sure. However, he will discover something that may keep him there and may give him the peace and stability that has eluded him.

His reunion with Drake is bittersweet and the love that they share is certainly undiminished by time apart. Yet Drake’s problems runs deeper than his physical trauma and Randy is hopeful that Parris’ return may help. The momentous climax is powerful and emotional, not only placing the cherry on top of Reagan’s performance but also reaching a finality for the key characters in conquering their own obstacles and defeating the very forces of the town, which had sought to crush their individuality.

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Stylistically, Kings Row is a dark melodrama, with Gothic undertones and is beautifully shot by legendary cameraman James Wong Howe, whose perceptive eye finds the inner emotions of the characters, as well as the nature of the town. The wide-eyed panic in Cassie is disturbing and her anxiety and terror reflects an undertow of repression in the town. Terrified of her own thought processes, Cassie tries to reject Parris but her love for him initially prevails only to be de-railed by her own dread and the final act of horror that will befall her. The camera focuses on her face, illuminated in the moonlight like a phantom and the accompanying score not only enhances the tragedy of Cassie’s mental state but also foreshadows the final moment of madness to come. Later, Louise will also face mental illness and instability, also impacted on by a cruel and domineering father. Again, the repressive climate of the town, which discourages individuality and demands subservience to what is considered ‘decent society’, has meant terrible repercussions.  Insanity is a long-running convention of the Gothic genre and in Kings Row it seems to be way too prevalent. But more pointedly, the town of King’s Row seems almost totalitarian in its’ societal laws and expectations. Patriarchy may be the most obvious reason for the power system in place but men also fall prey to the claustrophobia of the town’s façade of propriety; Drake pays a heavy price for his individuality and refusal to bow to the town’s societal norms and Dr Tower faces isolation (even if partially self-inflicted).  Parris will declare Dr Tower as a brilliant man whose intelligence and forward thinking is wasted in King’s Row. What compels him to remain in a hick town with such narrow-minded and stifling repression? It takes great strength of character and true principles set into foundations of integrity to withstand the onslaught.

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Certainly the town of Kings Row understands the art of the cover-up – so much so that even the ‘best’ that the town has to offer, i.e. Parris, has learned how to do it. Parris is more than happy to commit Drake’s former flame Louise to a mental asylum, to protect Drake from Louise revealing the truth behind her now-dead father’s operation on Drake. Parris would know full well the horrors of such a committal yet he is initially happy to humour Louise into a false sense that he will help her. In truth, this is not the act of a honourable doctor and our high opinion of Parris is rattled. But it fits perfectly with the very atmosphere of the town. To protect Parris from scandal when Cassie is murdered, Drake is happy to lie that he was seeing Cassie and ruin his own reputation, which he claims is ruined anyway.

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Perhaps the darkest element of the story deals with the secondary characters and the plot device upon which the film will turn and provide Drake’s character arc. The sadistic Dr. Gordon is later revealed to a self-appointed judge and jury within the town, abusing his position as a doctor and committing unspeakable and abominable operations upon those he considers due punishment for their transgressions. The fact that the good doctor is never questioned suggests the nature of the town protecting him and his activities – and it seems that his practice as a doctor is not exactly unseen by others. Parris, when discovering his grandmother is unwell and being treated by Dr Gordon, questions his mentor Dr Tower about Gordon’s reputation, professionalism and practice. The tone in which Parris asks his questions and the nature by which Dr Tower answers certainly suggests that rumours exist and Dr Gordon is whispered about. But Gordon’s abuse is not merely the act of a wayward or ‘mad’ doctor; it becomes the allegory for the abuse of power and authority by those who have it. Gordon is not only a doctor but in some sense a ‘respected’ leader within the town and its’ high society. His wife will certainly not question him and when his daughter threatens to expose him, he suggests how he will deal with her and seems more than ready to commit her.  The power of patriarchy is more than evident. 

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As a result, Drake’s ability to disempower what Dr Gordon has done to him, with help from Parris and Randy, is a great victory over this long-established patriarchy and becomes a moment of courage as Drake takes ownership of his liberation, breaking the imprisonment of his condition.

It is actually quite a feat that Kings Row was made from Henry Bellamann’s 1940 novel in the first place. Upon its’ release, the novel was a massive success, with studios engaging in an intense battle for filming rights. However, turning Bellamann’s novel into a film that would meet the requirements of the Production Code would be extremely difficult. Not only does the murder-suicide occur but also the original motive behind it is far more sinister and darker than what anticipates the heinous act in the film. As critic Tim Dirks points out, ‘Cassie was afflicted with nymphomania, not insanity. Dr. Tower’s diary revealed that the warped doctor had eliminated his wife and then committed incest with his daughter in order to study its psychological effects. He then killed Cassie when she threatened to leave him and go to Parris’. Parris and Cassie are certainly in love and there are allusions that the two are consummating their love. In the film, Dr. Tower’s motives are designed as almost valorous and noble. Parris interprets the doctor’s act as an attempt to ‘save’ Parris from the same fate as Dr. Tower – marrying an unbalanced woman and finding himself locked for life in a small town with small-minded people. Indeed, Parris even calls Dr. Tower a ‘brilliant man’ for his foresight, as well as his genius as a doctor. Murder-suicide is a heinous act and not one of brilliance or courage, yet there is a twisted logic in Kings Row, which has even reached Parris.

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Arguably, these considerations may not necessarily condemn Parris as a character and the difficulties and complexities of situations that we all encounter in life may have to deal with choosing the lesser of two evils. Nevertheless, it may appear that in Kings Row, such choices become very apparent and if the audience looks carefully, a darker and more sinister reality exists behind the picket fences and claims of being ‘ a good town’.

 Kings Row is a superb film which allows the audience to become consumed in the drama and absorbed by the depth of its’ characters. The quality of production typifies Warner Bros and Hal Wallis, then Head Of Production at Warners, knew how to build a picture and shape it to its’ finest results. The pedigree of Sam Wood as director is well known although by all reports he was less concerned with the visual impact of the film (still beautiful by James Wong Howe’s impeccable standards) and more so with the building of the key characters, particularly Parris.

There is a great courage in the production of this film, as already discussed and the more explicit themes and concerns of the novel are still present in the subtle and nuanced development of the story. Ultimately, Kings Row is far more than a melodrama but a revelation of the darkness of some places, where facades of propriety, community and ‘goodness’ are stripped down to reveal hypocrisy and abuse of power. On a larger scale, Kings Row becomes an allegory for the sinister corruption and hypocrisy that may not only exists in our own towns and cities but within our society as a whole. As an audience we learn that there is a price to pay if we care to challenge it, ignore it or even escape it; and we may well ask if that price is worth paying if it means our integrity and sense of self remains intact.

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.

Update: The 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon

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A huge thank you for the great support so far and have been humbled and excited by the fantastic response! Obviously, it’s still some time away but as far more experienced hosts know, it’s important to be organised and get ahead.

Please don’t forget to share on your own social media, as the more participants the merrier! If there is a fellow blogger you think would enjoy taking part, please let them know. 

Below are the current topic choices and again a warm thanks to the participants! 

Pride And Prejudice (1940) – Old Hollywood Films

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1945) – Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

Sherlock Holmes And The Scarlett Claw (1944) – Pale Writer

Little Women (1994) and (2019) – Pale Writer

Nickolas Nickleby (1947) – Caftan Woman

Oliver Twist (1948) –Caftan Woman

Scarlet Street (1945) – Down These Mean Streets

Crimes At The Dark House (1940) – The Old Hollywood Garden

All Quiet On The Western Front (1930) – Overture Books And Films

Lord Of The Flies (1963) – Cinematic Catharsis

The Wrong Box (1966) – Realweegiemidget Reviews

Great Expectations (1947) – The Poppity

Oliver Twist (1948) – The Poppity

Camille (1921) – His Fame Still Lives

Anna Karenina (1935) and (1948) – Robert Short

Ben Hur – Taking Up Room

The Picture Of Dorian Gray (1945) – Silver Screenings

Wuthering Heights (1939) – Silver Screen Classics

Jane Eyre (1943) –  Thoughts All Sorts

Moby Dick (1956) – Dubism

The Ministry Of Fear (1944) – The Wonderful World Of Cinema

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) – 18 Cinema Lane

War Of The Worlds – Midnite Drive-In

The House Of The Seven Gables (1940) – Films From Beyond The Time Barrier

Hans Christian Andersen (1952) – The Classic Movie Muse

The Prince And The Pauper –Backstory: New Looks At Classic Film

Wilkie Collins and his underrepresentation in classic film – Hollywood Genes

In Cold Blood – Are You Thrilled

My Cousin Rachel – Cary Grant Won’t Eat You

Cyrano De Bergerac (1950) –  Pure Entertainment Preservation Society

Greystoke (1984) –Diary Of A Movie Maniac 

Rebbeca (1940) – Stars And Letters

The Count of Monte Cristo (1975), Dracula (1931) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949) – MovieRob

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) – MovieMovieBlogBlog

Some wonderful writers are taking part and I trust that you are excited as I am to see some of the great chosen topics. Please check the list carefully and hopefully it will inspire your own choices, as well as give you some ideas on what to do. (The list will be regularly updated as well).

Looking forward to hearing from you!

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Announcing The 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon!

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I am very pleased and excited to announce my first hosting of a blogathon – namely the Classic Literature On Film Blogathon!

And of course you are all kindly and heartily invited to partake!

Classic novels and plays have provided cinema with some of the greatest stories of all time. They are part of the fabric of culture and have been powerful in helping us to understand ourselves. Since the early days of cinema, film-makers have mined the richness of classic tales for the silver screen. Some of our most beloved films have been based on the works of Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen and Mark Twain, to name a few. Indeed, many classic novels have been produced many times.

So, the main focus of the blogathon is to celebrate, examine, critique and review those films that have been based on classic literature!

As already mentioned, the concept of ‘classic literature’ reflects what has been traditionally considered by scholars as those books and plays which have had a considerable impact on the development of literature. They have set the standards for and established certain genres and have given us some of the most recognised stories and characters.  So this blogathon aims to keep the focus within those boundaries – but of course that leaves everyone plenty of options!

Please have a look at the rules below and I TRULY hope you will take part!

Outline Of Rules

  1. This blogathon is not just restricted to reviewing actual films based on classic literature. Participants are encouraged to write on any angle regarding the topic area e.g comparisons of films based on a particular text, discussion of the textual integrity of films based on classic literature.
  2. Duplicates of films will be allowed for review but of course it’s a case of first in, so act fast. Whilst you are welcome to write more than one entry, there will be a limit of three posts per blog.
  3. This blogathon does focus on the classic era of Hollywood film – from the silent era to the 1960s. But please don’t let that hold you back, as all entries from all period will be happily accepted.
  4. All contributions must be new material only. Previously published posts will not be accepted.
  5. The blogathon will take place between April 3rd and 5th, 2020. Please submit your entries on either of these days or earlier if you wish. For those of you posting early, just remember that your entry won’t be linked until the event starts. 
  6. To express your interest in participating in the blogathon, you can so in the following ways:

 – please leave a comment on my blog along with the name and URL of your blog, and the subject you wish to cover

 – or you can always register by email at: silverscreenclassics2016@gmail.com. For those of you who wish to register by email, please be sure to include the name and URL of your blog, and the topic you wish to cover.

Once you get confirmation, please spread the word about this blogathon by advertising the event on your blog and other social media. Please feel free to use one of these ads to advertise the event.

Looking forward to seeing you in April!

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Death As Redemption in Film Noir

by Paul Batters

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If there is one aspect of the noir universe which is a norm, it is the presence of violence and death. The dark streets are not only literal but metaphorical realities, where all manner of individuals become drawn into, seduced and even captured by the shadows of their own pathology. Anyone who has watched a noir film knows that there is a stark, cold fatalism with little empathy for those who test it. Everyone pays for their sins and indeed they may do so with interest. Like the loan shark who has their mark on a hook, the individual continues to pay and escape seems impossible.

There is another harsh reality that the only form of escape is ‘the big sleep’ – death. It is an inevitability that haunts all in the film noir universe and one that they are desperate to escape, despite this fatalist understanding. Having written on the nature of fatalism and futility in film noir before (see link here), this article will try to avoid these themes were possible and focus on the concept of death in film noir as also being a form of redemption – an understanding that sins must be paid for.

At the ultimate moment, it is arguable whether we seek redemption for past sins. There are enough stories of ‘death-bed confessions’ to fill a multitude of stadiums – and whilst on the face of it, such confessions seemed cliched, the truth is that such confessions are made during the last gasps of someone’s life. At the other end of the scale, even the most reticent to admit fault and seek forgiveness (at least in film noir) WILL pay the ultimate price.

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Death as redemption in film noir is accepted at different stages in the arc of a character. Perhaps one of the most celebrated examples of this, is in a film noir classic and a template for its’ tropes, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Fatalism is evident at the start of the film, where a badly wounded Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) goes into the insurance office he works at, to spill his guts on the Dictaphone of his boss and close friend, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). His opening lines are clearly the beginning of a confession; a mea culpa which will drive the story right to the very end. Neff doesn’t look for excuses nor does he try to explain away his sins by blaming others. Walter’s sins are his own and he takes full responsibility for them. True, in the dying moments of the film after being discovered by Keyes, Walter asks his friend to turn his back as he makes his getaway. But the truth is that it’s a half-hearted appeal for mercy, like a man on the scaffold hoping against hope for a pardon. As Walter collapses at the doorway, Keyes stays with him. Smoking a cigarette (and a beautiful touch with Wilder reversing the motif of Keyes never having a match), Walter waits for justice and redemption to arrive.

The ending is slightly ambiguous in terms of the nature of that justice. The audience never learns Walter’s fate – does he bleed to death in the doorway? Or is he taken to hospital only to recover and be executed for murder? In a now famous image amongst classic cinema fans, Walter Neff stands grim-faced in the gas chamber as Keyes looks on outside. But the scene was cut and the audience is left with a far-better ending. Walter seems to accept his fate and the acknowledgement that he needs to pay for what he has done.

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Out Of The Past (1948), one of the finest examples of film noir, employs a similar approach to death as redemption. Jeff (Robert Mitchum) is a private detective who has been hired by bad guy Whit (Kirk Douglas) to find his girlfriend Kathie (Jane Greer). But whilst Jeff initially believes he has found happiness with Kathie, he discovers the truth too late and that Kathie is a classic femme fatale, who has duped both Jeff and her former lover. In the end, there is a chance for escape but Jeff takes a different option. Rather than running off with Kathie and her former lover’s money, he instead betrays her to the police. Despite her threat that she will throw him under the bus as well, Jeff still betrays Kathie, who fatally wounds him with a bullet. It is Jeff’s moment of redemption; he has ‘done the right thing’ in the face of so many wrongs and paid the ultimate price. Kathie will now face justice but the irony of course is that he has been redeemed through her murderous act of revenge. As Mark Conard points out, Jeff has made a ‘presumably redemptive sacrifice’.

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But for Jeff it is also the end of great misery and unhappiness. Tortured by his choices, death has now removed all his pain and misery as well. In The Killers (1946), the Swede (Burt Lancaster) is a former boxer whose story is one which sees bad decisions made to impress a woman. His involvement in a bank robbery, even after a stint in prison, further exemplifies how far he slides into the darkness. All he finds is incredible misery and the woman he loves, Kitty (Ava Gardner) has used and duped him as well. When death finally comes to him in the form of the killers, the Swede accepts his fate and indeed even welcomes it. There is a relief in death, as an escape from the pain he has endured.  However, though he does not seek redemption per se, he doeshave regrets and acknowledges that he must accept the consequences for his choices. Whilst it may not be a question of a strict code of right and wrong, the Swede “got in wrong” and strayed from who he was. His death will now right that wrong, and again he will make payment for his crimes.

Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) is an excellent example of the protagonist finding redemption, and incidentally relief, through his own execution. Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is a man haunted by the murder he has committed for Cora (Lana Turner), the woman he loves. Their passionate relationship is one which is punctuated by betrayal, mistrust and sexual desire, and they are both riddled with moral corruption. Both will also pay for their sins – Cora through a car accident whilst Frank is driving and Frank as he sits on death row awaiting execution. Ironically, he is tried and convicted for Cora’s death and whilst initially protesting his innocence, Frank accepts that he has to pay for the murder he did commit. But of course, redemption runs deeper in the world of film noir. Frank believes that both he and Cora are paying for her husband’s murder and his acceptance of this acts as his redemption as well. Even more so, Frank is also devastated that Cora died not knowing how much Frank loved her and he prays that somehow her spirit will know this. In the end, Frank and Cora both pay and Frank’s final prayer is that by accepting his fate, redemption will mean that they are together in the next life.

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In Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal (1948), Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) escapes from prison with the help of his girlfriend Pat (Claire Trevor) but facing the complication of a dangerous mobster Rick (Raymond Burr) who wants Joe dead. In the finale, Rick and Joe, both wounded in a gunfight, with Rick thrown to his death. However, Joe also dies in the street with an acceptance of his fate and Pat noting that “This is right for Joe. This is what he wanted.”In essence, Joe’s dying face is not one contorted by fear, pain or panic but one filled with contentment. In some way he has found redemption, through the understanding that he needs to pay for his sins and that his death makes things right.

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Of course, the deep-rooted cynicism of film noir would suggest that redemption is never available. The hard and bleak reality is that attempts at happiness (or perceived happiness) through crime are futile and hopeless. Yet an extension of that hopelessness and futility is a final desire for redemption and the desperate need for it. It also needs to be remembered that those caught up in the dark shadows are not necessarily professional criminals, gangsters and cops/private detectives (who are used to walking tough streets) but ordinary people who are drawn into the depths. In Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Henry Stevenson (Burt Lancaster) is drawn into a world of crime because of his deep-rooted dissatisfaction in both his personal and professional life. At the very last second, he desperately realises what he has done but its’ too late to turn things around.

Ultimately, everyone pays a price. Femme fatales rarely walk away and even the innocent are wrongly accused or face prison or death. Yet death brings a finality which cannot be reversed. As a result, it brings a new dimension whilst drawing on tropes as old as religion – that redemption is possible, if the price is paid. In the world of film noir, that is the ultimate price.

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.

 

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. 

Vale Bill Collins: The Man Who Brought Australia ‘The Golden Years Of Hollywood’

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It’s been some time since I’ve written, being deeply depressed and despondent regarding writing and the lack of response and interest that writers usually face. I’m sure those of you are reading this and write know what I’m talking about. At the point of almost giving up, I find myself looking back to a man who introduced and nurtured a love for classic film to generations of Australians after he passed away recently.

His passing offered a chance and moment of retrospect, in being reminded of why I fell in love with classic film in the first place; and why I shouldn’t give up writing about classic film.

Below is a far overdue tribute to Australia’s ‘Mr Movies’ Bill Collins who passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of 84 on June 21stthis year.

Recently, classic film fans in Australia and indeed many Australians who grew up watching TV from the 60s through to the mid 90s, were saddened by the passing of one of television’s most beloved celebrities. He was not a famous actor or director, but few knew cinema like he did. He was not a singer or musician, yet he loved musicals, and few would have had the record collection he owned. He was not a talk show host, yet he interviewed many great actors, actresses and film-makers. He did something which seemed fairly basic and unimportant on the surface – he introduced films on television. Yet nobody could equal what he did and the fact that we will no longer see him do it, is a great loss to fans of classic film. They called him ‘Mr. Movies’ and his name was Bill Collins.

Bill Collins was famous on Australian television for the burning passion, incredible knowledge and deeply informative introductions to the classic films that he presented on Australia television.  Trained as an English teacher, Collins was a man with a passion for literature and theatre and taught in high schools in Sydney’s inner-west during the early to mid-60s. Always the great film fan, Collins was already writing film reviews in the 1960s before starting with the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission), which is the Australian equivalent of the BBC or Canada’s CBC. From this point on, Bill Collins movie presentation career never looked back and whilst he was no longer in the classroom, he would remain a passionate teacher and we were happy to be students as we learned about the films he was presenting.

In the days before Pay-TV (cable to American readers), videos, DVDs and online streaming, Bill Collins was one of the most important presenters of classic film. He would work across a number of Australian television stations. But he really found home at Channel 10 in 1980, where he reached a national audience every Saturday night on ‘Bill Collins Golden Years Of Hollywood’ for nearly 15 years.

Saturday nights on Channel 10 were a ratings winner. As the song ‘That’s Entertainment’ began and a montage of Hollywood images played, families across Australia settled in to hear and see ‘Mr. Movies’ introduce the first film of a double feature from the classic era. Collins would give background to the key players, the artwork from his incredible collection of posters and lobby cards and discuss almost every element of production from the direction to the musical score. And of course, he also shared some juicy and fascinating gossip. His incredible knowledge was matched by an oft-described over the top manner which a few criticised as being saccharine and even over-compensatory. Cinephiles would also criticise Collins for his overt nostalgia and the lack of distance from a film needed to provide a more focused and balanced critique. But nobody could deny his passion and love for film.

Collins was also an extremely busy presenter. Whilst Saturday night’s program was the main event and jewel in the crown, Collins would also present Saturday and Sunday afternoon films, late Friday night film noir classics and would continue to present films from the modern era on regional TV stations across Australia. Despite the charge that he was too kind to the films he presented, the truth is that Collins could often be scathing and honest in his assessment. He was particularly brutal towards the 1984 remake of The Razor’s Edge with Bill Murray. And I can still remember his controlled yet poor assessment of First Blood, which he presented on WIN’s Sunday night film (the regional station in our area).  

He could be imperious, demanding that we watch the film and declaring that it was impossible not to love the film. There was certainly a powerfully nostalgic theme running through the whole package and persona of Bill Collins – but that is why he was so loved as well. It was a very personal approach that Bill Collins offered as he leaned forward as if speaking only to you as an individual and bringing his teacher-like persona into your living room. The literary background to the man was also revealed through his discussion of the book of the film, often a beautiful edition again from his own private collection. And being a lover and aficionado of the musical (and music in general), he would usually show a copy of the soundtrack as well, which would be part of his extensive collection of books, albums, film posters and other memorabilia.

What was particularly impressive about the man was that he presented with no script and no auto-cue. Every line Bill Collins delivered was “off the cuff”, which added to the intimate nature of his connection with the audience. We would often be told (or rather ‘ordered’) that we ‘could not help but love this film’. And often he was right.

Bill Collins noted that by the early to mid 1990s, something was changing in television and the long-established formats, as well as the personnel. Video had been around a while (and there was even a Bill Collins Classic Series!) but the advent of Pay-TV would change the face of Australian television permanently. But that wasn’t the end of Bill Collins, with the man moving to the newly formed Fox Classics. To the credit of the bosses at Pay-TV, they let Collins do things the way he always did, and Saturday nights felt the same again.

Sadly, that began to change in 2018 with a winding down and an eventual retirement in September, 2018. Pre-recorded introductions were available to be streamed but it wasn’t the same. The eventual sad news that Bill Collins had passed away has seen not only the end of an era but is a watershed moment in the decline of classic film on Australian television. Fox Classics has become a shadow of its’ former self, with poor and bizarre programming. Doubled with the loss of TCM after 20 years on Australian Pay-TV, classic film fans are looking to other streaming services, DVDs and even returning to traditional television to watch classic film. But it’s not getting easier and even the purchasing of classic film on DVD has become more difficult and expensive, thanks to Federal Government legislation (making it difficult to purchase classic films on DVD from overseas sites) and the huge price hike in international postage.

So, the lament and sadness in Bill Collins’ passing is even greater than ever. As a tribute to the great man, on the Saturday after his passing, Fox Classics aired a special screening of Gone With The Wind, with the great man introducing what was his favourite film and the film he attributed to beginning his romance with classic film. As I sat and watched, I realised it really was the end of an era and that I would never again see or hear Bill Collins introduce a classic film.

There have been other presenters and there may be other presenters. Yet none of them will match the charisma and passion that Bill Collins nor the longevity and enormity of his career and his personality. If there was a ‘king’ of classic films in Australia, Bill Collins would have worn the crown.

What is left is a wonderful legacy and an incredible amount of gratitude for a man who set alight in me a love for the Golden Years Of Hollywood. He gave Australian film fans so very much and we won’t forget him.

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. 

To remake or not to remake? The question on rebooting classic film.

by Paul Batters

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Recently, Harrison Ford made an interesting declaration regarding one of his most iconic characters, which is also part of one cinema’s most financially successful franchises – Indiana Jones. Famously close-mouthed about previous roles, the actor made the comment in anticipation of the Disney announcement that a 5th instalment of the Indiana Jones franchise would be released in July 2021. Basically, Ford claimed the role as permanently his, stating:

‘Nobody else is gonna be Indiana Jones! Don’t you get it? I’m Indiana Jones. When I’m gone, he’s gone…’

Whether this declaration is tongue-in-cheek or serious, I cannot ascertain nor does it particularly matter for the purpose of this article. The vast majority of fans would probably agree with Ford, as Indiana Jones is one of cinema’s most loved action heroes. (If his friend George Lucas is anything to go by, there is little to be held sacred in remaking or re-hashing films. Star Wars, anyone?)

But it does raise an interesting question – are there screen characters which should never be re-visited?

It’s also a polarising question and one which probably raises another more divisive question – should classic films be re-made? Cinema is certainly in a strange place at the moment, and there have been consistent attacks on the state of film-making with criticism aimed at the lack of creativity, the focus on special effects and CGI and particularly the obsession on re-makes. The Marvel and DC domination has been discussed ad nauseam and the recent Godzilla movie speaks to this issue as well. (What’s the current tally of Godzilla movies since the 1954 original?)

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The criticisms are not unfounded, and this reviewer certainly agrees with the aforementioned sentiments regarding cinema’s current sins. However, are these problems simply a contemporary phenomenon? Or has Hollywood been re-making films and re-casting iconic roles since its’ earliest days? 

Indeed, the ‘re-make’ has been a part of entertainment that goes back to ancient times. Initially, the ancient Greeks, who created the concept of drama, would see performances only the once and their plays were unique, one-off experiences. However, over time, those plays were performed again and again, particularly during the Hellenistic period. It was also meant that those plays stayed alive and they are still with us today. Consider the plays of Shakespeare. They have been performed, interpreted and even changed (depending on context) since Elizabethan times. King Lear has been interpreted through a whole range of approaches from a medieval Japan context to one set with 1950s Eastern Bloc /Cold War aesthetics! The richness of these stories in language, theme, character and emotion are still alive because they have been performed for hundreds of years. And of course, the Bard’s stories have been interpreted for the screen. Think Olivier’s 1945 film version of Henry V, which is often considered one of the finest screen interpretations of the play. Does this become the one and only version, never to be remade? What of Baz Lurhman’s Romeo And Juliet (1995)? It is not the first nor will it be the last telling of the tragic story of two star-crossed lovers.

The truth is that some of our most loved, revered and celebrated films are remakes, whether we realise it or not. We often chide Hollywood for remaking films within only a few years of each other but actually it’s been a practice since the silent days. By the time, Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde was made in 1932 at Paramount, the story had been filmed at least 8 times, with three versions being made in one year! (1920 to be precise, two in the U.S and one in Germany).  John Barrymore’s 1920 turn as the infamous dual personality was a benchmark performance but March as the doomed doctor is perhaps the most superb in sound film history, with even the great Spencer Tracy unable to reach audiences in the 1941 version with Ingrid Bergman.

The same is true for quite a number of films based on classic literature such as A Tale Of Two Cities, Treasure Island, The Three Musketeers and A Christmas Carol – all being filmed numerous times. By the 1935 MGM version, David Copperfield had been made 3 times. The story of Oliver Twist was on its’ 8thversion in the loved 1968 musical Oliver!(with the film being made 6 times during the silent era!).  William Wyler’s Ben Hur is often cited as the greatest epic ever made and a standard by which other ‘big films’ are measured. Yet it too is a remake of the 1925 silent epic starring Roman Navarro and Francis X. Bushman. (Ironically, the recent remake of Ben Hur was critically panned and financially an unmitigated disaster).

Interestingly enough, Cecil B. deMille is an example of a director who revisited earlier films he had made and gave them a new perspective. The Squaw Man (1914) would be remade two more times in 1918 and 1931! Of all the films he made, his most celebrated, known and loved is his final film, The Ten Commandments (1956), a far superior remake of his own 1923 silent version. In this case, the original is not the best. The 1956 version is the quintessential epic tale, resplendent in Technicolor, with all the kitsch, pageantry and excitement of Biblical proportions that are synonymous with deMille and the epic film.

But not only have epics and tales from classic literature been remade to great or greater success. Contemporary stories have been revisited as well. In the world of film noir, one film which justifiably makes every top five list was on its third remake when it was redone by John Huston. The Maltese Falcon (1941) remains one of the greatest films ever made, far out-pacing it’s prior two incarnations which would have become little more than a footnote in cinema history. The previous 1931 same-titled version starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels is a little stilted, whilst its’ 1936 remake, Satan Met A Lady, starring William Warren and Bette Davis feels more like a typical Warner Bros. programmer and was even considered by critics at the time, such as Bosley Crowther, as ‘inferior to the original’. Neither are remarkable and again, the original is not the best. Huston’s version of the Dashiell Hammett pulp fiction novel, would help to create the tropes and cinematic expression for film noir, and Bogart’s performance as private eye, Sam Spade has become legendary and would make him a star.

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Unfortunately, there is sometimes an element of exploitation that comes with the remake. But Hollywood is a business and driven by profit. If an audience responds, then it the film is deemed a success. The horror genre is one where the remake is a constant, driven by the profit margin rather than artistic merit. That has certainly been the impression felt with Universal’s recent attempt at ‘re-booting’ the classic Universal monsters with disastrous results. (This writer feels that Universal was making an attempt to trash its’ legacy!) The classic monsters were first seen in monochrome but would be remade in the 1950s and 1960s in Britain by Hammer Studios, complete with full-blown colour, gore and sex. Exploitive? Perhaps. Yet audiences saw a new interpretation of the undead Transylvanian count – from a dream-like, hypnotic and slow-speaking Lugosi to an animalistic and vivid Christopher Lee, complete with bloodied fangs. Horror fans often find it difficult to choose, with the character of Dracula ‘belonging’ to both actors. Yet Lee would be less successful with the Frankenstein monster, as would many who preceded and followed Lee, and the monster has been firmly associated with the brilliant performance of Boris Karloff in the original 1932 film and its’ two sequels. Still, the Hammer remakes resonated with audiences, offering something new and exciting.

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Yet there are characters that belong to certain actors and actresses and their ownership of those performances are complete. It is impossible to think of anyone else but Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara or for that matter, Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. And of course, Gone With The Wind is a film that no-one would dare remake. The same could be said for Casablanca,again a film with iconic performances from Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, a song that had stood the test of time in its’ poignant definition of love and of course some of cinema’s most famous lines. How could it be remade? The story of Robin Hood has been told numerous times, with mixed results and mixed reviews. Arguably, the role was firmly identified with Douglas Fairbanks Snr, one of the great silent stars, after his 1922 film was a huge hit; until Warner Bros. remade the film in full colour in 1938, with Errol Flynn. A natural for the role, Flynn has owned the role since, despite numerous A-listers taking on the role over the decades.

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There are countless other roles and films which, if recast or remade, would results in loud cries of protest. And perhaps rightfully so. Could The Wizard Of Oz be remade? (Actually, it, too is a remake!) How about Edward G. Robinson as ‘Little’ Caesar Bandello? Imagine a ‘reboot’ of Chaplin’s work. Or Hitchcock’s films. (It’s been done!) Singin’ In The RainDouble Indemnity? The Godfather? Metropolis? Duck Soup? Some Like It Hot?

In the end, a remake will work or fail if it resonates with the audience. For better or for worse, that’s the lowest common denominator that determines a film’s eventual worth andif it will stand the test of time. For silent films (and indeed even some sound films from the golden years of Hollywood), this has proved difficult. Aside from cinephiles and classic film lovers, silent films find difficulty in gaining traction in a mainstream market and for audiences not exposed to silent film. Additionally, we have audiences trained to expect blockbuster films over-cooked with CGI and action every 30 seconds. A silent film, without sound, colour and very different contexts finds it difficult to gain a foothold.

But all the technological advancements in the world cannot replicate, re-design or replace the impact of story.

It takes a fair amount of courage and risk when a remake is given the green light. It means big shoes to fill and an attempt to draw out a performance from under the giant shadow of its’ predecessor. Cinematic history shows that it does happen. But there are films that are like classic works of art. Can a work by Monet or Dali be redone? Should a piece of music by Mozart or Brahms be re-written? And the importance of textual integrity cannot be over-stated either. The recent tragedy of the near destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, will see deep discussion and debate on how to ‘remake’ what has been lost or damaged. Will it be in keeping with the historic and architectural integrity of the building? Will it be true to the cathedral’s past whilst reflecting the modern era (or does it have to)? And how will people react in the present and in the future to any change or lack of change?

The remaking of classic film shares a similar dilemma.

There are advantages to classic films being remade. It sounds almost unthinkable but Nosferatu (1922) would be successfully remade by Werner Herzog (in an English AND German version!) in 1979 with the famed Klaus Kinski in the title role, to great critical and commercial success. It is an impressive film, with stunning visuals, incredibly deep pathos and emotion, and Kinski is outstanding as the vampire. As a result, it also brought new interest in the original 1922 film. If remakes can arouse interest, educate audiences and broaden the experience of cinema, whilst offering a new and exciting perspective/interpretation, then it serves a great purpose.

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But just because classic films can be remade, does not mean that they shouldbe. As already mentioned, Universal came close to trashing their own legacy with the attempted (and hopefully permanently aborted) reboot of the classic horror monsters, which felt watching someone take fluorescent spray cans to the Sistine Chapel. But as audiences, we do need to set aside prejudged notions and allow for new interpretations of stories. This is what provides a richness to cinema and art. Multiple and contemporary readings offer greater insights and new interpretations offer inclusivity to modern and future audiences – and there is great value in that prospect.

But new is not enough. ‘New’ for the sake of ‘new’ does not do justice to a work of art. Nor does new mean better. What is also important to recognise is that masterpieces do not and cannot be replicated. Nor do they need to be. We can already enjoy what exists, revisit them time and time again and walk away re-spirited, revitalised and emotionally moved.

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.

Five Favourite Films Of The 1950s

by Paul Batters

It’s always a tough gig trying to compile any favourites list and when it comes to film, I personally find it particularly difficult to do. But after seeing this blogathon hosted by The Classic Film and TV Café, the challenge was too tempting to let slide. The following five films are cinematic classics that have deeply moved me and ones which I have developed a profound connection to. They are also films which I have watched time and time again, only to discover something new during every viewing. Most importantly, they are timeless for the powerful performances of the key actors and actresses, the thematic concerns and the cinematic quality of their production.

There’s no right or wrong answer to this. And yes, yes and yes, there are other films which could be added, dropped or given an honourable mention. But these films are what stand out for me.

So without further ado…

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Without a doubt one of the finest films in the pantheon of film noir, The Asphalt Jungle is also the quintessential heist film. Directed by John Huston, it also contains one of the greatest lines in film noir and one which sums up the core value of noir – ‘Crime is but a left-handed form of human endeavour’.

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Starring Sterling Hayden as a small time hood named Dix, he’s a tough, no-nonsense man who has principles as well as a dream to get back to his childhood home. The whole cast is outstanding and each character embodies the foibles, dreams and weaknesses of humanity, seeking a way out yet finding themselves moving deeper into the darkness. Dix becomes part of a gang put together by Doc (Sam Jaffe), a gentlemanly crook whose scheme of a big jewellery robbery is funded by Emmerich (Louis Calhern) a corrupt lawyer, who has his own plans. Their meticulous plans will become undone by greed as much as the hand of fate in a taut and superbly crafted story.

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There’s no slackness and no loose ends, and Miklos Rozsa’s score underpins the desperation of men seeking to get out from under. We’re left feeling as desperate as the men on the screen, hoping against hope that they will make it – to wherever it is they are going. Grim but exciting and riveting from start to finish, The Asphalt Jungle is mandatory viewing not only for those who love film noir but for any fan of classic film.

Incidentally, I’ll be writing a review of The Asphalt Jungle for the 2019 Noirama Blogathon hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

The Bad And The Beautiful (1952)

Vincente Minelli’s bittersweet poem to Hollywood pulls no punches, revealing the nature of the industry and the people who work within it. The story focuses on director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), movie star Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), and screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) and their personal and working relationship with producer Jonathon Shields (Kirk Douglas). Minelli made it a point thatthe characters’ humanity was integral to the success of the film and that they were not immune to weaknesses, which were counterpoints to their strengths.

The harsh reality behind the magic of film is brought forward through three different stories told in retrospect. Yet all three are intertwined and ultimately centred on the ruthless yet brilliant and emotional Shields, who has given them their career breaks yet also betrayed them, professionally and personally. Douglas plays Shields with incredible sensitivity and depth, delivering the personal pain, passions and difficulties that film-makers face. The other key players are also superb and for my money it is one of Lana Turner’s most memorable performances as the alcoholic actress, who falls in love with but is eventually spurned by Shields.

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There’s plenty to pull apart as the characters and scenarios are drawn from Hollywood history. Georgia Lorrison is based on the daughter of legendary John Barrymore, Diana. The European director von Elstein is certainly a nod to the European directors who came to Hollywood such as von Sternberg and von Stroheim. Watching Shields and Amiel work on ‘Doom Of The Cat Men’ is without a doubt an homage to Val Lewton’s unit at RKO and the making of The Cat People (1942). According to a number of reports, Shields was based on David Selznick, whose life and career certainly shows parallels with the obsessed producer.

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The Bad And The Beautifulis not nostalgic or sentimental; there is a deeper undertone of harsh realism that counters any such possibilities, without it being an expose. But it’s impossible not to feel for the characters and despite their ruthlessness, selfishness and complexities, like us, they love film and are ultimately moved by its magic. As a result, I’ve always been deeply moved by The Bad And The Beautiful.

On The Waterfront (1954)

If ever there was an actor on the screen whose brilliance was matched by apathy to the industry, it was and still is Marlon Brando. There are countless actors and film-makers who turn to On The Waterfront as their inspiration for becoming involved in film, and it is impossible not to argue with them.

Elia Kazan’s grim crime drama tells of the corruption deeply entrenched in the unions which control the New Jersey docks but more importantly it highlights the impact that it has one the longshoremen and their families. The harsh, cold setting and stark story is a contrast to the colour extravaganzas of the musicals that were popular during the period. It was a gutsy picture for Kazan to make, aided by Schulberg’s superb script. There are some deeper criticisms that emerge, focused on Kazan’s testimony for HUAC which have been discussed at length elsewhere.

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The cast is strong and Eva Marie Saint’s debut as Edie stands tall with Karl Malden as tough priest Father Barry (who for my money deserved the Best Supporting Actor), Rod Steiger as Charley and Lee J. Cobb as the crooked union boss, Johnny Friendly.

But the fact remains that the film is Brando’s and the incredible performance as ex-boxer Terry Malloy is one of the greatest in film history. Brando is natural, realistic and adds subtle touches which add a beautiful element to his performance. Terry is torn between the rules that he has known all his life, the cynical harshness that has shaped his reality and the tenderness and desire for something more that is drawn from deep within by his love for the delicate yet strong and determined Edie.

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The most famous scene in the film has been paraphrased, satirised and almost exhausted to the point of cliché. But the cab scene between Terry and his brother Charley is a powerful scene and deservedly one of the most celebrated and lauded scenes in film history. Brando would declare that he initially hated the scene and bemoaned Steiger’s ‘always wanting to cry’ in dramatic scenes. Yet years on, Brando would come to terms with the universality of the scene and be at peace with it. Malloy is channelling what nearly everyone feels at some point in their life – that there was a moment in time, a chance, where they could have become more than what they are and reached heights that met their dreams and potential, which never eventuated for whatever reason.

On The Waterfront is a powerful and provocative film and the ending which sees Terry stand up for a chance to make a difference and that he even though he’s ‘lost the battle’, he can ‘still win the war’ is inspirational. For me, it deserves to be recognised as one of the finest films of the 1950s.

Paths Of Glory (1957)

Paths Of Glory is a masterclass of cinematography by Stanley Kubrick and one of the key reasons why I feel it is an exceptional cinematic experience. The cold realism of the horrors and cruelty of war are experienced by the audience, through the camera’s presence with the soldiers during battle. It is a stark contrast to the conventional war film with dramatic music being absent and the use of silence to heighten tension, with the aim of realism being well-established.

Kirk Douglas plays Colonel Dax in the French army during World War One. An intelligent man who is leading his men into battle, he is also well aware of the futility of war as well as the stupidity of the orders from high-ranking officers. Douglas offers a strong, tempered performance, balancing the character’s frustrations with the unprincipled, contemptuous and disgraceful Broulard (Adolphe Menjou).

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Thematically, the film examines the brutality and cruelty of humans during war and the contempt that the military has for the men who are doing the fighting and dying on the battlefields.

Dax leads a futile attack on Anthill, a position held by the Germans which Dax knows is doomed to fail. Dax tries to lead his men as best he can, despite the madness of the orders given but the shelling of his own men by French artillery sees disaster result. Brigadier-General Mireau (George MacReady) decides to court-martial 100 of his men for the failure, in an attempt to deflect blame from himself.

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Dax, a former lawyer, defends three of his men in a trial which is at best a travesty of justice and procedure. Despite his honourable attempts, Dax knows it is a pointless defence, mirroring the futility of the battlefields.

An anti-war film it is but it is also more than that – it is a strong indictment against injustice, corruption and the cruelty of humans at their worst. It is as much an anti-militaryfilm as well. It was a film with a rawness that would be banned in some countries due to its’ anti-military tone.

Paths Of Glory is one of Douglas’ best performances in a film that is testimony to the genius of Stanley Kubrick.

Vertigo (1958)

I recently wrote about Vertigo( see link ) and cannot speak highly enough of what I believe is perhaps Hitchcock’s most beautiful film. It leads the audience through the mental anguish of former cop turned private investigator Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) and a mash-up of his obsession founded in dream and nightmare. Kim Novak was never more ethereal and captivating as Madeline and Bernard Herrmann’s score is, as Martin Scorsese declares, a spiralling and circular movement that lifts and drop the audience along with Scottie’s journey through obsession.

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The plot won’t be discussed here but needless to say it touches the audience with its’ themes in ways that few films ever could. It becomes personal and deeply intrusive into our own psyches.

It’s no mistake that Vertigo has consistently made the top ten lists of many film critics, film magazines and institutions, such as the AFI and Empire.The BFI’s magazine, Sight And Sound, more recently listed it as the greatest film made, leap-frogging Citizen Kane. Hitchcock constructs his film with all the cinematic tools at his disposal with incredible depth and consideration. Whilst certainly existing in the stylistic and tonal registers of film noir, it is also a deep psychological thriller.

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Jimmy Stewart as Scottie is the everyman caught up in and duped by circumstances that he initially cannot see but there could be endless conversation over his choices and the nature of his obsession with Madeline. Madeline is also a victim of her own trick because she falls in love with Scottie as well, something she did not expect to happen.

For me, Vertigo is one of the greatest films of all time and deserves to be in the canon of the best films of the 1950s. For more on my thoughts of Vertigo, you can visit the link here: Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ (1958): The Art Of Obsession

Film should be deeply personal, even though we cast a critical eye on the films we watch and absorb. At the end of the day, Hollywood is trying to make a buck but that’s also because film-makers want their films to be seen for an emotional response and connection with the audience. It’s why classic film endure and why they always have something to say.

This article has been submitted for the 5 Favourite Films Of The 1950s Blogathon which was kindly hosted by Rick at Classic Film And TV Cafe. A huge thank you for hosting and allowing me to take part! Please click on the above link for some other 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.

Possessed (1931): The new and sophisticated Joan Crawford

by Paul Batters

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 “There’s everything wrong with me…My clothes, my shoes, my hands and the way I talk. But at least I know it.” Marian Martin (Joan Crawford) Possessed (1931)

It’s no surprise that Joan Crawford is one of the great legends of the silver screen. Her career spanned five decades, with appearances in an incredible number of films across genres and eras. It is easy to forget that she began her career during the silent era and indeed became an established star, before her successful move into talkies at MGM. Her life story is one of determination, endurance and overcoming the adversity of an incredibly difficult early life. Unfortunately, the narrative has tended to focus on gossip, her infamous ‘dual’ with Bette Davis and the equally infamous claims made in her daughter’s book Mommie Dearest, which was also brought to the screen with Faye Dunaway playing the actress. Scandal and sordid stories have over-shadowed the reality that Joan Crawford was perhaps one of the most hard-working actresses in Hollywood history, who supported many up-and-coming actors and actresses, as well as making a fair share of enemies.

It’s also a shame that her best known films are those in her late career or at best the films she made from the 1940s onwards. Yet there is an incredibly rich array of films to enjoy prior to this period in her career. With the growing interest in Pre-Code film, the films that made Joan Crawford a major star during the early 1930s are becoming better known and available to film fans. For my money, Possessed (1931) is one of the best of her films from the Pre-Code era and perhaps one of the best she made with her on and off-screen lover, Clark Gable at MGM. It’s also one of her most important films, for reasons I will detail briefly.

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Crawford was certainly a well-established star at MGM by 1931 yet was still in the shadows of stars such as Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo., despite being one of the studio’s highest grossing actresses. True, she would outlast and perhaps even surpass both but her frustrations in 1931 were very real that she would forever be given Shearer’s ‘cast-off’ roles. However, Possessedwould seal Crawford’s stardom and her persona would greatly appeal to Depression audiences; the rags-to-riches girl who reached her dreams and left poverty behind. There would be a number of films which Crawford starred in that used a similar theme but there is something more about her role in Possessed. It would be one of the first films to put the nail in the coffin of the ‘flapper’ persona and bring forward a far more sophisticated identity. The determined girl rising out of poverty from the lower classes, which as Bob Thomas pointed out was far more appealing, saw a new woman who celebrated independence and a refusal to accept ‘one’s lot in life’.

In some ways, the persona of poor girl makes good or to be more precise ‘shop girl makes good’ was not exactly untrue and this is one of the reasons why Possessed resonated with audiences and still stands as testimony to the strength of Crawford’s Pre-Code films. Of course, Crawford’s image was greatly enhanced by a new sleek sophistication, aided by MGM’s costume and make-up department but to dismiss her as anything but a clothes horse is a clear mistake and an act of disrespect to her acting ability.

Possessed is a story of Marian Martin, a woman who is unabashedly out for herself, reflecting a strong sense of a woman who desires her own identity, freedom and escape from poverty and mediocrity. Marian wants to be liberated from Smalltown, U.S.A, which during the era meant a small-minded town, working for peanuts in a dirty factory and ending up married with kids and old before her time – at least in the context of the story. She sees her future as being bound to Al (Wallace Ford), an uninspiring man who also works in a factory. Marian cannot see a way out but senses there is more out there for her.

A chance encounter near the railway station is a flashpoint moment where Marian sees the ‘other side’. Looking in the first class carriages, she gets a glimpse of those living the glamorous life; the sumptuous food being prepared, a girl in lace getting changed, a couple in their best threads dancing. It is perhaps a nonsensical and unrealistic moment but director Clarence Brown is making more of a symbolic gesture, with each carriage offering a fleeting look into another world as Marian looks in from the outside.

But a chance stop sees Marian conversing with a very tipsy Wally Stuart who offers her champagne and his address if she ever makes it to New York. Stuart also offers some advice which Marian perhaps already knows yet is unsure how to act on:

“There are two kinds of people. The ones ‘in’ and the ones ‘out.”

Returning home to an angry Al, who discovers the piece of paper with Stuart’s name and that she has been drinking, Marian finds courage and her voice, declaring that her life is her own and nobody else’s. Marian is taking a chance on a drunken promise but it’s all she needs to leave and start a new life. Yet when she arrives at Wally Stuart’s home, he meets her in dual disbelief as he cannot remember talking to her and is surprised that anyone would believe him while he was drunk at any rate. Indeed, Stuart tries to dissuade Marian with some fairly dark dialogue – “The East River is full of girls who took advice from a man like me” – but he is also testing Marian and goes through a roll call of excuses as to why she is in New York, with a ‘heard-it-all-before’ cynicism. Yet Marian is steadfast and true to her individuality, declaring that she is there for herself and no-one else.

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What is obvious is a powerfully- feminist overtone that present during the Pre-Code Era, with women refusing to accept their role in life to be decided by men and additionally that they would do whatever was necessary to determine their life journey. Marian is spirited and willing to take a chance, even the most minute chance, to rise above the limitations that stand before her – if she doesn’t take that chance. Ultimately, Marian realises that she has nothing to lose and everything to gain and staying where she is will give her assurances in life but also stagnate her. Marian makes this clear to her own mother:

‘If I were a man, you’d think it would be right for me to go out and get everything I could out of life and use everything I had to get it. Why should men be so different? All they’ve got is their brains and they’re not afraid to use them…well, neither am I!’ 

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This brave and bold belief almost comes undone when she goes to New York but fate has her meet wealthy lawyer Mark Whitney (Clark Gable) who admires Marian’s spunk and her honesty in what she wants out of life. Before long Marian and Mark are in a relationship and in the Pre-Code era that means they are ‘living in sin’, as a couple outside the institution of marriage.

The story then jumps three years later and the audience discovers that the couple are together, with Marian a sophisticated, refined and highly polished partner to the now politically-aspirational Mark. But there is more to the two than a couple enjoying the high-life, with Marian certainly in love with Mark, and the fact that he is still with Marian after three years suggests that Mark is also devoted to her. However, he avoids talk of marriage, partly because he’s been previously bitten hard and also because of his political ambitions which could derail if their marriage failed. Marian accepts this, yet during a party, Marian is reminded of her more humble origins when a colleague of Mark brings his rather common and vulgar ‘mistress’. In the eyes of society, a woman is not respectable unless she is married.

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But for the couple, things will get even more complicated when Marian’s old boyfriend Al arrives back in her life, seeking not only to get her back but to also exploit Mark Whitney for business opportunities. This complication will not only threaten the couple but Mark’s hopes for his political career and even his desire to marry Marian may results in a scandal.

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Marian is left with an incredibly difficult decision and the audience is left wondering what she will do?

This reviewer will leave that for the reader to discover!

It is a fatal mistake to dismiss Possessed as another ‘rags to riches’ story or a typical Crawford vehicle of the ‘shop-girl made good’ plotline that she did so often. Neither are true. The film is a far more sophisticated story and the ending is one of high drama and more adult thematically. As biographer Donald Spoto points out, Crawford as Marian ‘struck a powerful, responsive chord among Depression-era women of 1931, deprived of prospects and caught in frightening economic circumstances…Crawford (was) sensual yet strong-willed, vulnerable yet determined…’ It is a film which highlights a woman’s strength to seek something greater, not about a woman using sex for material gain. It is a film which is more about sacrifice than greed, love than sex and hope than the despair of being a ‘kept woman’. Again, to quote Spoto, Possessed is more than movie with a pretty face. But with respect to her performance, it’s hard to ignore how beautiful, sexually alluring and glamorous Joan Crawford is in Possessed.

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Indeed, the key characters in Possessed are also far from caricatures and deeply-layered people which resonate through their vulnerabilities as well as their strengths. Crawford’s superb performance is not only drawn from her innate understanding of Marian but because of her also due to her strong sense of Marian’s character arc and how to build on and develop it, and ultimately deliver it. As a result, Marian becomes a deeply fascinating individual whose is anything but selfish despite her earlier declarations to all who will listen that to the contrary. What is most important about the role, as already mentioned, is that Marian represents a new woman of the early 1930s which leaves behind the hedonism and superficial desires of the dancing flapper of the 1920s. The role also revealed that Crawford was a far greater actress than some critics gave her credit for.

Likewise, Mark Whitney is an interesting character, far removed from a typified playboy lawyer using Marian for sex. He has a damaged past, deeply hurt by failed love, and makes no pretence  regarding his relationship with Marian. Yet he does love her and this comes to the fore during the crucial and pivotal moment in the film. Gable shows solid acting chops through a balanced performance and as for Crawford, Possessed was an important film for Gable. It gave him a more rounded and interesting role, removed from the heavies and one-dimensional roles he was usually getting at MGM. However, unlike Crawford, Gable was not a major star but this was a huge step in that direction.

Possessed is a well-crafted film, with solid pacing and edited into a tight 76 minutes. The script by Lenore Coffee was a great asset to the film’s director Clarence Brown, who was not only well-known and reliable for bringing in films under time and budget but was a fantastic director. Brown’s time at MGM saw him work with some of the studio’s greats including three films with Greta Garbo. Crawford would always praise Clarence Brown for his brilliance as a director and a man who helped her greatly in terms of her confidence and technique.

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Brown was also savvy enough to pick up on and utilise the ‘volcanic attraction between his stars’, as Crawford described it. According to Gable biographer Warren. G Harris, which would also be confirmed by Crawford, the film’s stars would become engaged in a full-fledged affair, with the passion and emotion existing both on and off screen. The chemistry is there to see on the screen and both sizzle when they are together. Fact and fiction comes into play and blends on the screen in a highly sexual way – one scene shows them arriving late to a party, with a strong hint that their tardiness is due to something more than being unable to get a cab. One wonders if there were times they came to the set, still in the excitement of off-screen interludes. This is not meant in a crude, cheap or voyeuristic way but which cannot be ignored in what it gave to the romance we see between the key characters on the screen. Indeed, Crawford would later state that the affair which began there would last a lifetime (on and off) and was a wonderful relationship between two close friends who knew each other and held no pretensions. L.B Mayer, with typical iron-fisted cruelty, would kill any hope of a more meaningful relationship, by threatening their careers.

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Yet despite such interference in her life, Crawford would always be thankful to MGM for giving her the life and career that she had. In fairness, Crawford gave plenty in return, in films like Possessed, which were box-office hits for the studio but in helping to shape the studio as a place where magic was made. The 1930s was a golden era for Crawford, and her films during the Pre-Code era were highly successful. But Possessed is arguably the best of them, as well as one of the most important films of her career. And one of Joan Crawford’s finest performances.

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. 

This article is an entry in the Joan Crawford: Queen Of The Silver Screen Blogathon, kindly hosted by Pale Writer and Poppity Talks Classic Film. Please visit for some fantastic articles! A huge thank you to both these wonderful bloggers for hosting and allowing me to take part. 

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.

Jezebel: Bette Davis’ Oscar Winning Role of 1938

by Paul Batters

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“I’m thinkin’ of a woman called Jezebel who did evil in the sight of God”. Aunt Belle (Fay Bainter)

By the late 1930s, the major studios had worked to perfect their film making craft and the signature elements of production had firmed themselves. It was also a period where cinema had recovered economically from the financial strain of the Great Depression, found form and approach in terms of sound and would produce some of the best work of the pre-WW2 period. For one of the biggest stars on the Warner Bros. lot, 1938 would be an important year, which would see the arc of her stardom move into the realm of screen legend.

Bette Davis is today remembered as one of the greatest actresses of all time, with a number of critics suggesting she tops the list. But whilst she was a star in 1938, Davis had been battling with Jack Warner for better roles, scripts with substance and respect for her talents as an actress. Her infamous and well-publicised court case with Warner Bros. saw her forced to return to the studio but despite this seemingly chastened position, the studio began to realise that Davis indeed was deserving of better treatment. As Davis would later state, she was surprised that Warner “bent over backwards to be nice” to her, with increased salary as well as the script for Marked Woman (1937) which would do well at the box office. (Full review here) Things were changing for Bette. Her battles with J. L would continue for some time but 1938 would finally see a shift in the roles and scripts being offered.

Her Oscar-winning performance in Jezebel (1938) would be the film, which truly put that shift into gear. As the biblical connotations of the film’s title suggests, the title role was one encompassing a dangerous and sinful woman and Davis would shape the character, especially through the direction of William Wyler, beyond the initial limitations of the script.

The story had failed in its’ initial form on the stage in 1932, ironically starring Miriam Hopkins whose rivalry with Davis was legendary and only second to the infamous Crawford-Davis feud. According to Ed Sikov, Wyler’s interest in filming the stage play had existed as far back as 1933 when he saw it as a vehicle for his then wife, Margaret Sullavan. When Warner Bros. purchased the rights from Miriam Hopkins in January 1937, the studio’s head of story department, Walter McEwen, was determined to see Davis in the role of the “little bitch of an aristocratic Southern girl”. The conventional wisdom regarding Davis’ turn in Jezebel and one implied by her biographer James Spada is that it was a ‘consolation’ for not winning the role of Scarlett O’Hara for Gone With The Wind (1939), which is a story that this review will not go into here. However, Ed Sikov suggests that such a suggestion is debatable and unfortunately comparisons of Davis’ performance to perhaps the most famous Southern belle ever put to screen will always be made.

The other key fundamental in shaping Jezebel was its’ director, William Wyler. Initially, Edmund Goulding was appointed director but his views for direction didn’t gel with production head Hal Wallis and Wyler was approached to direct. Bette received Wyler’s appointment with mixed feelings. When Bette was at Universal in 1931, she had been terribly humiliated at a screen test with Wyler (see link). Sikov relates the story that before shooting Bette and Wyler met and she brought up the story, which Wyler had largely forgotten. Apologising profusely, Bette recalled that she believed his apology to be sincere. By the end of filming, the two would be caught up in a passionate love affair, which Bette would remember as one that was highly-sexually charged and remember as one of the great loves of her life. But Wyler would do far more for Bette and her performance in Jezebel, which would be publically acknowledged when she received the Oscar for Best Actress. Wyler would challenge and extend her work beyond what she had previously experienced and as Spada points out, she revelled in working with a “director who was strong enough to match her in every way”.

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Jezebel is a pre-Civil War tale set in New Orleans, with Wyler establishing context through a tracking shot down one of the town’s main boulevards, taking in the grandeur and business of the street. As Ed Sikov conveys, the continuity of the shot is beautifully set and the subtleties along with the grandeur create an imposing start to the film. The time is set approximately ten years before the outbreak of the Civil War and there are moments in the film where the tensions between North and South will come to the fore. Davis plays Julie Marston, a headstrong Southern belle who tries to emotionally manipulate those around her, including her fiancé Pres Dillard. (Henry Fonda). Pres is a banker who is also a strong and upright character but usually defers to Julie because of his love for her.

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Davis’ entrance on screen as Julie Marsden is not as grand as the opening sequence but the nature of her character is clear from the get-go. Riding up to the front entrance of her home plantation, complete with feathered hat and riding crop, Julie hands her horse to a slave boy who is scared of the horse. Despite Julie’s advise not to be scared, the boy is afraid that the horse bites, to which Julie responds, “bite him back”. With incredible arrogance and defiance, she then saunters into her own party for which she is terribly late, inappropriately dressed and in complete disregard for the etiquette and expectations of the occasion. It’s a brilliant moment of film, perfectly establishing character and a scene that was completed in 48 takes. It was also the moment when Davis realised Wyler’s directorial genius and his ability to create with detail to every shot.

Pres is tied up in serious business at the bank and shows his foresight regarding the North and how the South needs to regard North-South relations. He is supposed to join Julie for a dress fitting in anticipation of the Olympus debutante ball, where the two will formally announce their engagement. As Julie wait for him in her carriage, her arrogance and lack of respect for her fiancé is more than evident when she fully expects him to obey her summons and states that she “has been training him for years”. However, Pres makes it clear that he is busy only then to be interrupted by Julie in the middle of the meeting. Not caring that Pres is in “the fight of my life”, she plans a spiteful lesson and much to the shock of her Aunt Belle (Fay Bainter) chooses a bright, red dress for the ball. She adds that she “has never been more serious in my life”.

Pres later arrives at her home, only to be advised by Julie’s guardian, General Theopholus Bogardus (Henry O’Neill) that she “needs a firm hand” and indeed Pres storms upstairs, his patience pushed to the limit. Julie’s coquettish and flirting ways melts his anger and she also shows the dress she will be wearing. He sees that she is “nursing a spite” and expects her to do the right thing and wear appropriate attire. But on the night of the ball, she still wears the dress as well enticing a former beau Buck Cantrell (George Brent) to inflame Pres’ jealousy.

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However, Pres will not be deterred by her spite nor her desire to cause a sensation and attends the ball with her.

The fifteen-minute Olympus ball scene is the highlight of the film and Wyler expertly exploits the reverse crane shot to full effect. The ornate balcony is filled with people watching the dancers underneath a grand chandelier, all reflecting the requirements and expectations of the elite of New Orleans society. It is into this scenario that Pres enters with Julie on his arm, resplendent in bare shoulders and red dress, sending a wave of shock at such a scandal. Further to the point, Julie is supercilious and glides into the ballroom with incredible arrogance and expectant triumph. Pres remains staunch and has already decided that Julie needs to be taught a lesson.

As they are ostracized by the people they know and stared at by others, Julie begins to realize that she has miscalculated and overreached herself as the extent of her brazen act becomes apparent. Now desperate to escape her awful predicament, she asks Pres to take her home. Yet Pres defiantly responds, “we haven’t danced yet” and takes her onto the dance floor. As the two swirl to the waltz being played, Wyler moves the camera above them showing the other dancers leave the floor and highlighting the couple’s naked isolation and disgrace. The high angle now makes Julie look small and her defeat looks all the more terrible. Begging with resignation, Julie whimpers again for Pres to take her home. Once the waltz ends, Julie rushes from the ball with Pres grim-faced and defiant as he takes her home. She has become a spectacle rather than a sensation.

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Yet despite this lesson, Julie has not fathomed that she had used up Pres’ patience and pushed him beyond his limits. After taking Julie to her door, Pres says goodbye, making it clear that their engagement is over. Slapping his face and calmly saying goodbye, Julie watches him leave and her arrogance restores itself. Aunt Belle pleads with her to call him back but she refuses, stating:

“No, he’ll come back. Wait and see. And tonight, I think. If he does, say I’ve retired. And then I’m sleepin’ late in the morning. Not to come around ’till afternoon tomorrow…”

The Olympus debutante ball scene took five days to shoot, much to the annoyance of Hal Wallis. Bette also found the shooting difficult but as James Spada points out was delighted at the attention to detail that Wyler was giving the scene, having learned quickly to appreciate his direction. Fonda reportedly was not overtly pleased yet other sources suggest he didn’t complain too much. However, nobody could doubt the power of the scene and its’ importance to the driving of the story.

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A year later and Pres has long since headed North to continue with his financial business whilst Julie has remained reclusive. Yet they discover that Pres is returning much to Julie’s excitement and, it seems, she has learned her lesson. She plans to humble herself before him and beg forgiveness, believing that they will be married. Yet this reaction is still indicative of her arrogance and self-centredness and indeed is still a signal of her emotional manipulation of others. When she finally meets Pres and discovers he is married to a Northerner named Amy (Margaret Lindsay), she reverts to her old ways and her spite and malice rises to the surface and she plans to use all means at her disposal to get her way.

Julie’s machinations, however, are not oblivious to all. At a formal dinner, she flaunts herself at Buck to which Pres’ brother makes comment that she’s acting “like a Gallatan Street girl” (i.e a prostitute), tries to encourage an argument between Pres and Buck and later makes a sexual advance towards Pres himself, which he rejects. Julie makes all manner of insinuations and engineers a duel, which will end tragically and not meet the desired outcome. Most telling, the key characters involved in the duel make clear that they know what Julie had been attempting and this key moment in the film gives lead to the film’s title, which is delivered by the kindly, refined and most gentile Aunt Belle:

“I’m thinkin’ of a woman called Jezebel who did evil in the sight of God”.

Greater tragedy is to come when New Orleans is stricken by ‘yellow jack’ (yellow fever). The montage, with elements of German Expressionism- the jagged writing exclaiming ‘yellow jack!’, the heightened orchestral music – emphasis the catastrophe and the panic that has hit as martial law has been declared. But it will foreshadow the personal tragedy that Julie will face and provide the climax of the film. This reviewer will not reveal any spoilers here but the audience is left to decide whether Julie’s final act is one of redemption or one of selfishness.

Jezebel is a solid film with some outstanding moments rather than a powerful A-film. What lifts the hackneyed storyline out of cliché is Wyler’s direction, which drew from Davis a strong performance. At a professional and personal level, Jezebel would be a difficult yet exhilarating time for Bette Davis. During filming, she was so physically and mentally drained that she became seriously ill. Additionally, her sense of self and confidence was challenged despite the excitement of discovering the extent to which a great director could take her work. The end of filming saw the death of her father with whom she had a difficult relationship and left a complex and bitter taste for a woman who had sought her father’s approval. Yet winning a second Oscar for Best Actress certainly placed in the echelon of great Hollywood stars. She attributed the success of her performance to Wyler during her acceptance speech and it was clear that he had taught her a great deal about her abilities and talents.

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Davis is the shining light in Jezebel. Fonda is solid as Pres but not particularly inspiring whist George Brent plays a role, which for most of the film feels one-dimensional. Fay Bainter as Aunt Belle gives a tempered performance in keeping with the cultured, gentile and kindly woman who is always there for her niece. She would also be acknowledged for her work, receiving the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

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Jezebel was a stand-out film for Bette Davis. Not only did she deliver a measured performance but it saw the start of a run of successful films both commercially and critically that have endured. If Bette Davis is remembered today as one of the greatest actresses of all time, this is the film, which truly set her on the path of being remembered.

This review of Jezebel (1938) is an entry in the The Made In 1938 Blogathon hosted by Crystal at In The Good Old Days At Hollywood’ and Robin at Pop Culture Reverie. Click on the links to read some other fantastic entries on great films from 1938! A special thank you to both hosts for the opportunity!

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.

Singin’ In The Rain (1952): A Review Of One Of Hollywood’s Greatest Musicals

By Paul Batters

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‘ I’m singin’ in the rain, Just singin’ in the rain
What a glorious feelin’, I’m happy again.
I’m laughing at clouds, So dark up above
The sun’s in my heart and I’m ready for love’. Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly)

The musical has never been a particular favourite of mine, despite a deep love of music and an appreciation of the place of the musical in cinema history. There are some musicals that I have warmed to and a few that hold a place in my heart. Yet I have never felt the same way for the genre that other classic film fans and critics do.

Recently on a long flight from Paris back home to Australia (let that 24 hour flight sink in for a moment), I found the entertainment package lacking in quality. There were only three ‘classic films’ on offer, and all three were musicals. The choice was actually straightforward, particularly after reading and hearing so much about the choice I made. So I got as comfortable as I could and found myself lost in the Technicolor dream-world of MGM’s Singin’ In The Rain.

What I discovered was a complete understanding of why William Thomas in Empire Magazine declared the film ‘an unadulterated joy’ which ‘overflows with the pleasures of movie creation’. Singin’ In The Rain may be a little silly and even ‘cheesy’ at times but it is an undeniable classic in terms of cinema craft, with incredible choreography, outstanding performances and production quality, which exemplifies why the era in which it was made, was called the Golden Years Of Hollywood.

Singin’ In The Rain draws on the best parts of the tradition of the musical, with amazing song and dance performances in place of dialogue, particularly during moments in the story of heightened emotion. The songs are not only memorable but have become part of popular culture and also draw on music from films made after the time in which the film is set. Audiences of the time surely would have recognised this but the point of the film is not simply historical authenticity; indeed, Singin’ In The Rain’ is as much homage to the musical, as well as the film industry. Interestingly enough, the film was not a massive hit upon its’ release although it did good business at the box office. Critics such as Bosley Crowther, whilst offering positive comments on the film, spoke of its’ ability to put the audience in a ‘buttercup mood’ and I can’t help but wonder if there is a slight sting in his assessment. However, through re-releases, television, home video and DVD, the film has grown in status and rightfully deserves its’ place in the echelon of great films.

Yet as much as it revels in the enjoyment of expression through song and dance and a celebration of the Hollywood musical, Singin’ In The Rain also pokes fun at itself and the Hollywood industry. It is an enjoyable piece of satire with beautifully paced comedy, which highlights one of the most traumatic changes in the industry – the switch from silent to sound. However, it is also solid storytelling through song and dance, and the full acknowledgement that cinema is ultimately a manipulation of the senses and an illusion of reality.

Set in 1927, the film opens with the premier of The Royal Rascal, the latest film of on-screen’s (and not-so-much off-screen) lovers Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). Their studio Monumental (a lovely play on the titles of the majors) has publicized the couple as romantically linked and the film consistently satirizes this Hollywood practice, with incredible irony. As we soon discover, Don cannot stand Lina, whose vanity deludes her to the truth of their relationship. Don’s former song and dance partner Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) is also present at the premier and stands by as Don recounts the story of his rise to stardom, which is brilliantly accompanied by a hilarious montage of the real events. After the premier, Don tries to dodge the fans and gets a lift from Ann Sheldon (Debbie Reynolds) a young ‘stage’ actress who is not impressed by Don’s stardom. Yet during their interaction, there is a little drop of truth from Don Lockwood:

‘Well, we movie stars get the glory. I guess we have to take the little heartaches that go with it. People think we lead lives of glamour and romance, but we’re really lonely – terribly lonely’.

The first turning point in the film is interesting from a historical perspective, when Monumental Studio head R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) demonstrates a ‘talkie’. The responses reflect the attitudes of 1927 – mixed and mostly negative. But the scene also reveals that Kathy is not the stage actress she claimed to be, when she pops out of a cake, to be teased and mocked by Don, who sarcastically exclaims:‘Well, if it isn’t Ethel Barrymore!’ What follows is a cute number which belies Kathy’s earlier claims. Don’s taunting will push Kathy to limit. Aiming a cream pie at him (and the films drawing on the slapstick of the early comedies), Kathy hits Lina in the face instead, which further endears Kathy to Don. Later, the audience discovers that Kathy has always been a fan of Don.

Cinema history again shows its’ hand when the release and success of The Jazz Singer prompts studios to make sounds films. Despite initially knocking the coming of sound, R.F sees the future and states that the next Lockwood/Lamont vehicle, The Dueling Cavalier, will be a talkie. Yet Lina’s talking voice is terrible to say the least and does not transfer onto the screen well. (In real life, Hagen has a great speaking voice, which as Robert Ebert pointed out, may have accounted for her Best Supporting Actress nomination).

The inspiration for making the film a musical comes from Don, Cosmo and Kathy with Cosmo suggesting that Lina’s voice be dubbed over by Kathy. Lina is furious and as we will discover is far smarter and more cunning than everyone gives her credit for; she uses her contract to blackmail the studio. But it will backfire on her, as Lina’s ego is too great and Don reveals who the true star is – Kathy.

As in every musical that intends to warm the heart, all’s well that end’s well and Don and Kathy kiss in front of the audience with a dissolve into a full poster of the new twosome in their first film together entitled Singin’ In The Rain.

The comedy and dramatic irony in the film is to be commended. There are plenty of in-jokes and short digs at elements of the Hollywood industry that permeate the film and assist in building and driving the plot – the forced pairing of Lockwood and Lamont as a romantic couple, the early dismissal of sound pictures, the voice coaches and stars struggling to develop good diction, the clumsy, early attempts at recording sound and Lamont’s struggles with the microphone. (There have been suggestions that this may mirror the problems Clara Bow faced, though she seems to have sounded just fine and the reported first sound film of John Gilbert. Yet Gilbert’s ‘failure’ may not be the case of having a bad voice but perhaps a bad relationship with L. B Mayer.) The ‘Moses Supposes’ scene where Don and Cosmo toy with the voice coach is particularly humorous:

However, the real winning elements are the fantastic musical numbers, which are thoroughly entertaining but also drive the story. O’Connor’s intensely physical ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ number is not only an homage to slapstick but was reportedly such an effort to film that O’Connor needed bed rest afterwards. Even worse for all concerned but moreso for O’Connor, he had to drag himself out of his sick bed to film the grueling scene again after being told that the original footage had been accidentally destroyed. Additionally, the sunny and bright ‘Good Morning’ routine took nearly 16 hours to get perfect and shoot, leaving newcomer Debbie Reynolds with bleeding feet and a bleeding heart from the cruel jibes and bullying delivered her way from Kelly. But the numbers seem effortless and Kelly, O’Connor and Reynolds share an incredible chemistry, as well as palpable professionalism and talent in the execution of each number.

The film within a film loses a little in story being driven but nothing in terms of brilliant production and perfectly choreographed numbers. The ‘Gotta Dance!’ number is an inspiration for anyone who loves song and dance. But my personal favourite moment in this sequence is the gangster spoof which appropriates many of the motifs of the late 20s.early 30s gangster films. Check the tough looking gangster, flanked by two other bad guys, as he flips a coin a la George Raft. For me, watching Cyd Charisse as the gangster’s moll engage in a seductive and sensuous dance with Kelly is one of the highlights of the film in terms of strong passion and emotion being displayed and reflected in tempered and purposeful movement. But Charisse in her stunning green dress, with Louise Brooks hair, long legs and cigarette holder steals the show. It is also a wonderful moment of emotion and story being told through movement. Kelly as Lockwood tells his story like a ballet dancer and his performance is a crowning glory in the man’s career.

The legendary Arthur Freed, from whose production unit the film was born, made many successful musicals for MGM and Freed would draw from the best talent to create these master-pieces, not in the least the film’s key star and choreographer Gene Kelly. The work ethic and often excessive, gruelling and bullying demands of the great song-and-dance man are infamous yet he was a man who demanded as much from himself. Perhaps the most celebrated and famous scene is the solo effort of Gene Kelly singing the title song, saturated to the bone and his character soaring with the sheer elation of being in love. At no point is anything else conveyed, yet Kelly was seriously ill with a terrible fever. When Reynolds says to him, ‘Take care of that throat’, she’s not kidding!

Debbie Reynolds would recount that filming Singin’ In The Rain was one of the most difficult and toughest times in her life. For the then 19 year old, it was her breakthrough role and as Ebert points out Reynolds had to keep up with two of the most experienced veterans in the business. Kelly would also later state that he did treat her poorly and was amazed by her personal toughness and resilience. Reynolds would later reveal that the studio attempted to give her ‘vitamins’ to pep her up and keep her going. Fortunately for Reynolds, her personal doctor intervened and she avoided, as she would attest, what Judy Garland went through. Donald O’Connor is a joy as Lockwood’s ex-partner and should also be celebrated as one of the great song and dance men. His exuberance and sheer zaniness is a counter-point to Kelly’s sublime fluidity. Despite the abuses, tough filming schedule and difficulties, none of these traumas leak into the performances on the screen and all the audience sees are incredible and charismatic performances. Tell me you don’t have a smile at the end of the film!

Needless to say, Singin’ In The Rain was a wonderful and joyous surprise, which stole away 102 minutes of an awful plane flight and had me captivated at every moment. It has romance, it has comedy and it has iconic songs and dance routines. What was also clear for me was that Singin’ In The Rain is a sheer delight, which delivers pure entertainment and I’m looking forward to revisiting this wonderful film again.

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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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.

 

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.

The Black Legion (1937): A Warning Against Fascism And Bigotry

by Paul Batters

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Cinema has always been used as a medium to outline social issues and concerns and bring them to the attention of audiences. Of all the major studios, which produced ‘social message’ films, Warner Bros. perhaps did them best during the classic era and certainly produced some interesting social message films during the 1930s. Films such as Mervyn LeRoy’s I Was A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932) were so successful that they became influential in challenging the penal system’s use of chain gangs. Even the gangster genre would step into the realm of the message film, examining the shaping of the mobster and the social ills that created crime in films such as Dead End (1937) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1938).

What made them successful, particularly during the 1930s, was that the stories were often drawn from real events (or at the very least inspired by real events) that had been reported in the media. More often than not, these films as a result, aesthetically used a realist approach to narrative and even at times felt like a newsreel. These films also had great appeal to the working class, who were grappling with the Great Depression and the complexities of navigating their way through the difficulties they faced each day.

To the credit of Warner Bros, they were quite courageous in making these films. True, they were often programmers that were easy to produce and ran at about 70 to 80 minutes in total. Yet they did not exactly lack in production values and indeed had strong casts with very capable and talented directors, using well-written scripts. Most of all, they tackled subjects which were controversial and Warner Bros. were also perhaps the only studio who were not afraid to openly condemn Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and early days of World War Two.

Black Legion (1937) is perhaps one of Warner Bros. best ‘social message’ movies and one that has largely been ‘forgotten’. As a Warner Bros, film, it could be easily dismissed as another programmer but it has pedigree far beyond a typical B-picture. Directed by Archie Mayo (with some of the film directed by an uncredited Michael Curtiz), it was also overseen by the talented Hal B. Wallis and producer Robert Lord. As already mentioned, the story itself, scripted from a Robert Lord story by Abem Finkel and William Wister Haines, was drawn from actual events and a contemporary news story, which had shocked the nation at that time.

It is also a film that gave Bogart his first chance major opportunity to showcase his range of abilities and remove himself from the usual role of gangster/tough guy that he had been playing in numerous roles. Bogart certainly seized on this opportunity, shaping a very human and dimensional portrayal of Taylor, which was praised by critics at the time.

Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart) is a typical American mid-Western factory worker, married to his lovely wife Ruth (Erin O’Brien-Moore). Indeed, the Taylors are what would have been termed at the time, as ‘all-American’ and the un-named town in which they live would have typified the same ideal of America in the mid-west. Hardworking and industrious, the Taylors are also close friends with their neighbours, the Grogans who run a boarding house. Ed Jackson (Dick Foran) who lives there and develops a romantic interest in Betty Grogan (Ann Sheridan) is Frank’s best friend and works with Frank at the same factory. Everything appears idyllic, with the possibility of promotion when the shop floor steward Tommy Smith (John Litel) announces the position.

Frank dreams of better things for himself and his family, so far as to consider purchasing a new car. However, his dreams are shattered when the promotion goes to the hard-working son of a Polish immigrant, Joe Dombrowski (Henry Brandon).

Frank becomes bitter and his disappointment festers into something worse. Ed Jackson tells Frank to let it go and that he can’t begrudge Dombrowski’s success as he’s always working to better himself instead of just drinking beer and listening to the ballgame on the radio. But Frank’s anger and disappointment is seized on and fed by another work colleague, Cliff (Joseph Sawyer) who sells Frank the reason for his losing the promotion – immigrants are taking over America and stealing jobs from good Americans. Frank’s push into the darkness is also assisted by his coming across a radio program, denouncing foreigners and declaring the need to protect American values – ‘America for Americans’ comes the catch-cry.

Before long, Frank accepts Cliff’s invitation to a ‘secret meeting’ and he joins the Black Legion, a Ku Klux Klan type group who wear hooded garments and use violence against anyone not truly ‘American’. Frank pledges his allegiance to the violent organisation, reciting a terrible oath that by all accounts was an actual word for word recital of the initiation. He is then ordered to purchase a gun and a hooded uniform, which is described as a necessary sacrifice for the cause.

 

 

 

 

 

But Frank’s initial apprehension seems to be dispelled in a striking scene, where Frank poses with his newly purchased revolver. It is a chilling and disturbing scene, which foreshadows De Niro as Travis Bickle some 40 years later. Instead of a mirror, the camera focuses on Frank’s shadow, pointing his gun and seeing how it looks. But Bogart is powerful at showing how it feels to hold the gun and it perhaps the most obvious first step into Frank’s collapse and a brilliantly depicted disintegration of someone who was a ‘family man’. In this scene, the sad truth shows a little man trying to be big and the terrible and wholly-mistaken misconception that a gun makes a man, comes to the fore as well as a theme.

Before long, Frank is taking part in the violent and brutal actions that the Black Legion deems protecting American values. They target the Dombrowski farm, burning it to the ground and sending them out of town, satisfying Frank’s violent jealousy. Before long Frank gains the promotion due to Dombrowski’s departure, which initially vindicates Frank’s feelings and actions.

However, Frank’s success is short-term and not only does he lose his promotion but he begins to lose those around him. The great irony in this tragedy is that Frank loses what he has sought to ‘protect’, his family. The desire for the American dream, symbolised by a new car and material objects, results in Frank losing his focus on love for his family. He ignores his son Buddy to listen to a radio program spouting bigotry instead of the usual time spent together listening to serial Speed Foster. He isolates himself from his wife, staying out late with the Legion and even beginning to drink. However, Frank’s demise is far from a clichéd fall from grace – director Archie Mayo is astute enough to establish Frank’s character as already flawed, lacking the work ethic and ambition to better himself yet despising someone that does have those qualities.

Eventually, Frank finds himself so deep in trouble that he will even betray the friend who tries to help him and forgets his earlier family-focused principles, starting a relationship with Pearl Davis (Helen Flint), a woman whose morals would be described as ‘loose’ to use the 1930s euphemism. But Mayo is careful to pin Frank’s downfall on Frank’s own weaknesses and failings – and not on some wicked woman who seduces an innocent man from his loving wife and family. Frank has been seduced and allowed himself to fall to the ugliness of bigotry and racism.

The tragedy of the story reaches its’ zenith when Frank finds himself caught up in murder and a courtroom ending, which mirrors the real-life accounts that the story was drawn from. This reviewer will leave readers to discover the outcomes for themselves.

Black Legion is a very-well crafted film which paces well and never loses its’ audience. There are a good number of reasons why it works.

Directors Archie Mayo (and an uncredited Michael Curtiz) make effective use of the 83 minute time frame of the film. Aside from the sub-plot of Ed and Betty’s romance, the story paces well and few scenes are drawn out or over-cooked. Each scene is tailored together perfectly, adding depth and avoiding clichés as the audience watches Frank’s personal collapse. The tragedy that unfolds is all the more believable because there is conviction in what we see on the screen – and sadly, the audience is fully aware that racial violence and bigotry is not in the imagination of film-makers but a real and terrible reality. As a result, Black Legion is more than a morality tale and indeed aims to make us feel uncomfortable and concerned. Mayo does adopt a documentary style suited to the nature of the thematic approach, allowing for the realism that permeated social message films of the period. Patricia King Hanson and Anthony Slide make the point that whilst there are elements of melodrama, the emphasis remains on that very realism mentioned and the characters on the screen are shaped and portrayed in a way, which audiences would have identified with. The regular use of the radio is also a brilliant touch of realism at punctuating dramatic points, and in particular turning points in the film.

Bogart’s performance is outstanding and critics in 1937 felt it was his breakthrough film. Following from his menacing turn as Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936), Bogart took a role that was neither glamorous or heroic or empathetic to an audience. Indeed, Frank Taylor is far from an admirable man and aside from the earlier scenes showing a typified working-man and his family, the truth shows a weak man, looking for excuses for his own failures and missed opportunities. Wallis had wanted E.G Robinson but Bogart fit the story concept of someone who ‘looked American’, which would not only fit the very demographic that the Klan and Legion in real life were aiming for but also typify the emotional experience of that demographic and tap into the psychology of the very individual drawn to the Klan. Bogart exhibits a powerful emotional range in Taylor’s decline and disintegration, exposing a raw reality that such men are inherently weak and racism and bigotry becomes an easy and seductive excuse.

The lovely Erin O’Brien-Moore (whose career was tragically effected by burns from a freak accident) is strong as Frank’s wife. Ann Sheridan is as solid as always in a secondary role, though she doesn’t have much else to do other than act as a romance interest for Dick Foran. Helen Flint is cast as the cheap tart that is always on the prowl for a man and winds up with Taylor near the end of the film. She works as a plot device to highlight how far Frank has fallen but admittedly her performance is a little overdone. Nonetheless, it takes nothing away from the power of the film. Interesting enough, Dick Foran appears to be more interested in drinking and minding his own business yet when the crisis arises with Frank, it is Foran’s character who tries to save him and shows he has deeper principles than first displayed.

 

 

 

 

 

Despite the critics hailing the film and its’ nomination for a number of awards, including Best Screenplay at the Oscars for 1937, Black Legion would not make Bogart a star. As A.M Sperber and Eric Lax point out, the harsh reality on the Warner Bros. lot was that Bogart was not going to get a look in before their established stars in Cagney, Robinson and Raft. Additionally, The New York Times, whilst hailing the film as powerful and superb, noted that the film was too hard-hitting and close to the bone to have a lasting impact. Bogart would go back to supporting roles and whilst he didn’t know it at the time, stardom was still four or five years away.

What is particularly scary about Black Legion is that it still hits close to the bone, particularly in this era, as strong as it ever did. The rising ugliness of populism openly espousing racism, bigotry and sexism has become more than evident in the world today, dividing people and polarising society. It warns of the dangers of fascism, which is a message not singular to the period but one very relevant in the 21st century. The radio spouting out ‘America for Americans’ and ‘hordes of…foreigners’ is a terrifying harbinger of what is being heard today. Black Legion taps into a number of interesting asides regarding such demagoguery and what drives racist organisations; the exploitation of the very people – ‘real Americans’ – for financial and political gains. New members are forced to buy a hooded uniform and gun, and Legion leaders higher up the chain makes demands on subordinates to gain more members in order to bring in more profits. The interesting comment being made here is that rich business men are the real power behind such organisations, and the undertones of what drives fascism and is also examined in other films such as Meet John Doe, is certainly a controversial issue. It is incredible that the scene showing the businessmen pushing for more members to gain more funds was even allowed yet placed in the film.

Black Legion deserves far more attention than it has previously had and is usually ignored not only as a social message picture but also one which shows one of Bogart’s finest performances in an unsympathetic role of a weak man. As an Australian and thus an outsider to the experience of Trump’s America, it is still impossible not to make the link between what happens in the film and what is happening in America today. However, the spectre of fascism and bigotry is not to be ignored by anyone in any nation. Black Legion makes this more than evident and is a powerful film that stands up strong in its’ truth and delivery – today as much as it did in 1937.

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 Three Musketeers (1948) – For A Lazy Sunday Afternoon

by Paul Batters

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Who wants to live ’till the last bottle is empty? It’s all-for one, d’Artagnan, and one for all!’ Athos (Van Heflin)

Films provide us with a myriad of opportunities and personal responses. We all have those films that can be a catharsis for pent up emotions, from which we find release where others merely shrug or cannot see or make the personal connection. There are those films we watch and in which we become deeply immersed or those we simply enjoy because they are fun. Hollywood has always been about escape and stepping into another world is a key part of the magic. Indeed, we sometimes find ourselves watching a film (after enjoying it many times before) because it’s a ‘go-to’ when we need something that’s either not too taxing on our thought process or is the perfect film to get comfortable with on the sofa. As much as I enjoy considering the brilliance of how a director like Murnau frames the mis-en scene, it’s also nice to enjoy some silly film that’s just plain fun. Sometimes you need a good burger and a Coke over filet mignon and a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon (or two).

For me, MGM’s colourful and grandiose The Three Musketeers (1948) is such a film.

The classic novel by Alexandre Dumas, pere, is a particular favourite of mine and it is no wonder that the famous story has been filmed numerous times. It offers adventure, romance and intrigue, with liberal doses of exciting characters and history (or historical fiction to be precise), all thrown together in an almost epic story. Bringing such a story to the screen, presents quite the challenge to the director and MGM certainly saw the value in doing so in 1947, when it announced that a film adaption of the story was going into production. Its’ eventual release in 1948 was a financial success for MGM, although profits would be slightly whittled down by the huge production cost.

Yet despite this, The Three Musketeers, directed by George Sidney, is not exactly MGM at its’ very best though critics generally gave it good reviews, including Bosley Crowther. Over time, however, critics have been less kind in their reviews. In fairness, the negative criticisms are not unfounded. Visually, The Three Musketeers is a Technicolor extravaganza that is perhaps a little too saturated in rich colour and goes way over the top in the costume department. The film is also over-long with certain scenes drawn out, unnecessary and laboured to the point of distraction. As a result, the pacing of the film goes awry. Additionally, the direction of the film at certain points becomes disjointed, with the film not able to decide whether it is rollicking fun-filled romp, petty melodrama, romance or dark historical drama. The romance scenes are as cheesy as you can get and Kelly’s wooing of June Allyson is cringe-worthy of the highest degree. And just for good measure, the casting is also a little off-key, despite some great talent.

Let’s have a look at the story.

The oft-told story has the young, naïve and slightly grandiose d’Artagnan (portrayed by the not-so-young Gene Kelly) heading to Paris to fulfil his dream of becoming a Musketeer. On his journey, he immediately finds himself in trouble, which will inadvertently find him committed to fight three duals in one day – against the very men he intends to join, the Three Musketeers. In the process of the first duel against Athos (Van Heflin), the guards of the King’s powerful Prime Minister Richelieu (Vincent Price) interrupt them and a mighty sword fight ensues. d’Artagnan fights alongside and wins the admiration of the three, who embrace him into their friendship group.

But he is drawn into further intrigue when he falls in love with Constance (June Allyson), a lady-in-waiting of the Queen (Angela Lansbury). Given a set of 12 diamonds by her husband the King (Frank Morgan), she instead offers them as a gift to her lover the English Duke Of Buckingham (John Sutton). Richelieu learns of this and sees an opportunity to gain mileage out of it but our heroic group set out to retrieve the jewels from England, facing danger, whilst Richelieu employs the treacherous and beautiful Countess de Winter (Lana Turner).

It’s all part of his scheme to bring France and England to war, and thus seize the throne for himself. However, d’Artagnan is successful in his mission and returns with the jewels including two replacements, previously stolen by the Countess.

Impressed by d’Artagnan’s courage, Richelieu attempts to gain his services by not only kidnapping Constance but by also using the Countess to seduce and distract the young aspiring musketeer. But as he starts to fall for the Countess, d’Artagnan discovers a terrible truth from the long-suffering Athos – the Countess is actually Athos’ wife, condemned to death for her treachery.

After much turmoil, war does break out and although things do not go well for Richelieu, he is not yet undone. The Musketeers discover proof, which will implicate Richelieu in his evil plans but they must first deal with the Countess as well as maintain the King’s good graces. The final ending will not be revealed here!

There’s a fair amount of silliness, barely believable character development and motivation and political intrigue that makes little sense. So why do I enjoy the film?

Because it is fun to watch – even with all the nonsense.

There is some weak casting but the strengths outweigh any weaknesses. True, Gene Kelly is not exactly what many might picture as a believable d’Artagnan, considering Kelly’s age at the time. But he was certainly dedicated to the role. Kelly, who had long held an ambition to play the role, previously and famously played in the 1921 silent version by the legendary Douglas Fairbanks Snr, particularly championed the production of the film. According to Gene Kelly, Fairbanks had been a boyhood hero of his, and marvelled at his acrobatic skill and screen presence, leaving the boy with dreams of matching the great man’s skills. In a February 1985 issue of Interview, Kelly stated that his greatest influence was the legendary silent screen star: ‘I couldn’t believe his grace, his moves, his athleticism’. Despite a long-standing dream of playing the role, Kelly would admit that it was a taxing time playing D’Artagnan, outlining in a 1991 interview with Reflections:

“Every time I think about The Three Musketeers I want to groan…ouch! I feel sore and stiff at just the thought of it… I had to go into training for that picture just like a prizefighter before a fight”.

Additionally, Kelly himself had the athleticism and physical skill of an amazing dancer and he brings this to the portrayal. Kelly’s d’Artagnan is formidable and incredibly skilled with the sword, and the amazing sword fights and action are breathtaking in their choreography and some of the best on screen. Kelly would state:

We studied two hours a day with Jean Heremans, the national fencing champion of Belgium, to learn how to fence. What a genius he was. When he had finished with us we, who were greenhorns, were able to fight with one hand tied behind. It was hard work.”

All the training and hard work appears seamless on the screen and it’s one of the great strengths of the film. Furthermore, Kelly does bring a vivaciousness, joy and carefree naivety that fit the portrayal quite well.

A number of critics haven’t thought much of Van Heflin as Athos but he’s believable as the tormented musketeer haunted by a past and drowning his sorrows in drink. Heflin conveys the tragedy of Athos’ life with authenticity and the final scenes, which bring his personal tragedy to a head, are also done well.

But perhaps the best casting is Lana Turner as the Countess. She is absolutely gorgeous to look at and as dangerous as a femme fatale. By all reports, she wasn’t too keen on the role but MGM prevailed upon her and we get to see Turner in her first Technicolor film. The final scenes as she faces justice are also beautifully done. Also outstanding is Vincent Price as Richelieu. The combination of his physicality, wonderful voice and incredible confidence shapes a memorable and completely believable villain.

Production wise, there was no hold back on the cost. All the hallmarks of a classic MGM production are present. The MGM used their back-lot well and the keen eye will recognise some of the sets being used in period pieces and historical dramas, not to mention the odd musical. Street scenes, inns, palaces and gardens all evoke the era and our hero and his cohort seem right at home there as they make merry, fight and carouse.

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Truth to be told, The Three Musketeers is superficial silliness and yes, there is plenty that could have been fixed. But put aside critical analysis and it’s also a lot of fun. The fact that it’s gaudy and over-the-top shapes its’ appeal and despite the director unsure of his film’s identity, it never truly take itself seriously. And we all need that type of film from time to time.

This article has been submitted for the 2018 Classic Comfort Movie Blogathon, hosted by The Classic Film And TV Cafe Blog. Please click on the following link for access to more articles for this blogathon – https://www.classicfilmtvcafe.com/2018/05/celebrate-national-classic-movie-day.html

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.  

City Lights (1931): Charlie Chaplin’s Most Poignant Masterpiece

by Paul Batters

The films of Charlie Chaplin are perhaps the easiest to watch and the most difficult to write about – easy because they are such an incredible joy to the heart and soul of the individual and difficult (for myself at least) because it feels like sacrilege to even try and analyse the work of the great master of cinema. Chaplin’s works are true masterpieces of cinema, reaching across time and space with powerful emotion, shaped and built with precision in every aspect of the film making process. Despite the enormity of the work that Chaplin put into his films, they remain deeply personal in how they touch us and the Little Tramp remains a character that we all find in a facet of ourselves. For me, City Lights (1931) is an incredible blend of pathos and humour that is also one of his most emotional and touching films, where we all find ourselves hopelessly lost in the sheer beauty of the story whilst still laughing at the Little Tramp. Indeed, City Lights (1931) just may be Chaplin at his most poetic.

The many films of Chaplin reveal an incredible richness not only in story but also in tones and qualities. For all the pathos and sentiment that is evident in City Lights, there is also Chaplin’s classic irreverence for pomposity and hypocrisy as well as slapstick and farce.

The great Roger Ebert, in his review of City Lights beautifully describes the beauty of Chaplin in the following way:

‘Children who see them at a certain age don’t notice they’re “silent” but notice only that every frame speaks clearly to them, without all those mysterious words that clutter other films. Then children grow up, and forget this wisdom, but the films wait patiently and are willing to teach us again’.

The film opens with a classic dig at the aforementioned pomposity and hypocrisy. The scene reveal a group of well-healed citizens and dignitaries around a monument to ‘Peace And Prosperity’ that is about to be unveiled. After a series of long-winded speeches, where Chaplin effectively uses sound to convey the meaninglessness of their words, the monument is unveiled to reveal the Little Tramp asleep in the arms of one of the monument’s statues. What follows is a hilarious scene, with an apologetic Tramp getting himself near impaled on the sword of one of the statues, followed by a perplexed and angry crowd holding onto their wrath when the National Anthem is played. The Tramp tries to be upstanding, even in his ridiculous position but cannot contain himself, as he soon uses the features of the monument in a farcical display before making his getaway.

The Little Tramp goes from one situation to another, when the pace of the film shifts to perhaps one of cinema’s most touching and beautiful moments. Crossing the street, with a deft stop-short and duck from a traffic cop, the Tramp nonchalantly steps through a car and out onto the sidewalk. This hilarious moment becomes something more when he encounters a beautiful flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) on the street, who has been ignored by well-to-do passers-by. In the process of selling a flower, the Tramp discovers she is blind and gives her the only money he has to purchase the flower. However, his earlier exiting from the car and the owner of the vehicle returning leaves the flower girl thinking that the kind purchaser of her flower is a rich man. Here, Chaplin’s craft is at its’ most superb by using sound without using sound as a plot device which sets the tone of the whole story and sets up the ending. For all the Tramp’s mischievousness, his truly kind heart is revealed when he sees her mistaking him for the man who re-enters his car and tips away, not wanting to ruin the moment for the flower girl. But he is taken by her and sits quietly nearby, just to be near her.

Later that evening, the Tramp saves a millionaire (Harry Myers) who is attempting to commit suicide. In the midst of tragedy, Chaplin uses the moment for brilliant dark humour when the rock the millionaire uses to drown himself, ends up tied around the Tramp’s neck. Drunk and despondent, the millionaire invites the Tramp to his home where they drink champagne and he even gives the Tramp money after a night on the town. As they drive, the Tramp sees the girl selling flowers on her corner and stops not only to purchase all her flowers but also gives her a ride home in the millionaire’s car. Thus, the blind girl’s misguidance that her kind benefactor is a millionaire is further perpetuated.

But the Tramp’s rich new found friend sours when the millionaire sobers up and refuses to acknowledge him, having him thrown out of the house. But later the millionaire, drunk again, sees the Tramp on the street and again invites him home.

The Tramp seeks the flower girl and finds the humble home where she lives with her grandmother (Florence Lee). He discovers that the girl is very ill and unable to sell flowers, which the grandmother takes up instead. The Tramp, determined to help her, becomes a street-sweeper to help pay the rent and buy groceries. He becomes that determined to help that the Tramp even takes part in a boxing match, desperate for money after losing his job. A comedy of errors sees the Tramp face a serious fighter and not the intended opponent. The fight is hilarity unconfined and one of comedy’s most famous boxing scenes. But as all comedy peeled back, it reveals deeper tragedy, when the Tramp is badly beaten and the prize money is not forthcoming.

A third meeting with the again-inebriated millionaire will prove a mix of fortunes. The Tramp tells the story of the blind girl and how an operation will save her and her sight. Moved by the story, the millionaire gives the Tramp a great deal of money but again fate steps in to blacken the moment, when two burglars break in and attack the millionaire. By the time the police arrive, the burglars have fled and the Tramp is blamed for the robbery when the millionaire, affected by the attack and his alcohol intake, cannot remember giving money to the Tramp.

Knowing he is doomed, the Tramp evades the police and manages to get the money to the girl before he is captured. In a heart-rending scene, he explains to the flower girl that he will be going away for some time. The police finally arrest him and he is taken to prison.

Much focus has been made on the famous ending and it would be remiss of me not to honor it by mentioning it. I have refrained from over-cooking what has become cinema folklore and has been discussed at great length elsewhere. After his release, the Tramp returns to the flower girl’s corner to find she is not there. What follows can be best summed up by watching the very scene itself, and consider the words of Chaplin himself, whilst viewing it:

“I’ve had that once or twice, he said, …in City Lights just the last scene … I’m not acting …. Almost apologetic, standing outside myself and looking … It’s a beautiful scene, beautiful, and because it isn’t over-acted.”

Chaplin’s genius crafts the film in its’ entirety, employing subtle touches to bring the close to a personal and emotional ending. The construction of the film flows into this perfect finale, and our love and admiration for the Little Tramp is perhaps never greater – as we see him willing to suffer and risk all, so that she can be saved and find happiness. For all the love he has for her, the Tramp is even willing to risk losing her. Chaplin leaves us breathless as we anticipate the finale, drawing us into the tragic comedy of the Tramp’s journey.

It was a unique film, up to that point, in terms of Chaplin’s methodology in creating it. From its’ inception in early 1928 (from which a number of scenarios were considered) till its’ final release in January 1931, Chaplin found himself on an odyssey. According to David Robinson’s biography, Chaplin described the process of constructing a film as like being in a labyrinth and trying to find a way out. Nothing could be truer in this statement regarding the approach to City Lights. It was also a film where the incredible workload taken on by Chaplin meant a severely diminished social life, with his focus on writing, production, directing, editing and starring in the film. Amazingly, Chaplin would also write the musical score as well, to the astonishment of the industry.

When conceiving the story in 1928, sound had made its’ appearance with Warner Bros. release of The Jazz Singer (1927) and the first all-talking film Lights Of New York (1928). The challenge to have the Tramp speak was enormous but whilst the idea was a novel one, Chaplin was concerned at a number of levels – how would the Tramp speak and sound, would the character lose his universal appeal by talking and how would the Tramp act once the language of pantomime was abandoned. More to the point, whole audiences worldwide would be alienated once the Tramp spoke in English. Additionally, sound techniques were still primitive and not particularly successful and the perfectionist in Chaplin would not have tolerated such shortcomings. In the end, Chaplin refused to have the Tramp talk and the film would remain silent, save for a few moments where sound is brilliantly employed to drive the story.

Pre-production would continue through most of 1928, punctuated by personal tragedy, when on August 28th his mother Hannah died. The tragedy of his mother’s life, the difficulty he had with his mother’s mental illness combined with his own tragic, Dickensian upbringing, is well-known history for Chaplin fans. He was deeply affected by her death and pre-production halted for some weeks. Psychiatrist Stephen Weismann in his 2008 book ‘Chaplin: A Life” believes that Chaplin certainly transferred his mother onto the blind girl in City Lights, with the drunken millionaire representing his absent father. It is a theory that certainly holds water, with the Tramp still accepting the drunken millionaire’s invitations despite being rejected and the desperate desire to save the Flower Girl, easily reflecting Chaplin’s own childhood parental fantasies and hopes for happiness.

By the time of the film’s completion in late 1930, silent films had literally disappeared and were considered passé. Yet despite Chaplin’s initial nervousness, City Lights would be an incredible financial and critical success. The critics raved. Irene Thirer in her Daily News review said:

‘City Lights is excruciatingly funny and terribly, terribly sad. It makes you chuckle hysterically. You have the greatest time imaginable, and yet, occasionally you find little hurty lumps in your throat’.

Critics are still raving about it today. Dave Kehr in the Chicago Reader has called it, ‘a beautiful example of Chaplin’s ability to turn narrative fragments into emotional wholes’.  Dan Jardine is Slant Magazine accurately describes it as, ‘the work of a master craftsman in full control of his craft’. Mark Bourne from Film.com perhaps put it best:

‘That final scene. Last week, CNN asked — in “The Screening Room’s Top 10 Romantic Moments” — whether this was the most touching film moment of all time. Could be. Either way, if it doesn’t move you, you’re beyond human reach’.

Watch the film and tell me that your heart doesn’t break before it’s put back together again.

This article is part of the 2018 Charlie Chaplin Blogathon and hosted by Christina Wehrner at https://christinawehner.wordpress.com and ‘Little Bits Of Classics’ https://littlebitsofclassics.wordpress.com. The link for the blogathon and further articles is: https://christinawehner.wordpress.com/2018/04/14/the-charlie-chaplin-blogathon-has-arrived/

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.