Young Mr. Lincoln

My New Year’s resolution for 2017 is to get back to blogging regularly. So, here we go with John Ford’s hymn to the moral courage and human decency of the martyred American leader who steered our nation in the direction of justice.

Henry Fonda almost didn’t take the role when Ford lincoln-posteroffered it to him. He held Lincoln in such reverence, he said, that it would have been like “portraying Christ himself on film.” But Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) aims to show the great man before he was great, warts and all. (In fact, between the nose and the wart, it took three hours in make-up to get Fonda looking the part.) Honest Abe was not above cheating in the Fourth of July tug-of-war to help his team win. That self-deprecating humor of his may have disarmed dull-witted Midwesterners, but we in the audience recognize a skillful manipulator when we see one.

Abe was way smarter than the townspeople of Springfield, Illinois—smart enough to know that intelligence scares people. Better to hide your light under a bushel. But make no mistake about it: Abe’s light shines forth for all to see. Even as a young man, Lincoln was guided by his conscience, not by self-interest. When he rescues two brothers falsely-accused of murder from a lynch mob, it’s clear that he is dedicated to a higher purpose.

We seem to lose our heads in times like this. We do things together that we’d be mighty ashamed to do by ourselves!

Lynchings were all too common in the Jim Crow South. In the 1930s, when John Ford was making this picture, the trials of the “Scottsboro Boys” drew attention to the issue of racial bias in the American legal system. Nine black teenagers were accused in 1931, on flimsy evidence, of raping two white women. The case dragged on for seven years, going all the way up to the Supreme Court, and became known in left-wing circles as “the case of The White People of Alabama vs. The Rest of the World.”  Blues musician Lead Belly even wrote a song about the Scottsboro Boys.

lead-belly

There are clear parallels between the righteous Alabama Judge James Horton, whom newspapers at the time described as looking like “Lincoln without the beard,” and young Lincoln’s defense of the two brothers.

young-mr-lincoln-fonda
Henry Fonda Looking Presidential

 Judge Horton sacrificed his own career to see justice done, setting aside the guilty verdict reached by the all-white jury and calling for a new trial after he became convinced that the chief witness to the alleged crime was lying. It didn’t help. Fonda’s Lincoln has no beard. While his own legal career is at stake, Abe succeeds in catching out the chief witness in the boys’ case in a “crude, cold-blooded lie.” Hollywood being Hollywood, the perpetrator admits to lying and justice prevails.

 

Shane

Like all the best mythical heroes, Shane has only one name, and it’s no coincidence that Jack Schaefer, the author of the novel Shane, studied Greek and Latin literature in college.Shane3 I’ve read that the movie is routinely used in classics courses, to make the lessons of great epics such as the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid accessible to undergraduates. Achilles, the hero archetype of Homeric legend, is isolated, set apart by his divine origins. Too perfect for the ordinary world.

“It turns out to be the same for Shane as for Achilles,” Carl A. Rubino tells his students at Hamilton College. “Just as the Greeks need Achilles, Shane’s potent presence and help are necessary if his newfound comrades are to survive the deadly violence represented by the ranchers, whose unbounded and increasingly obsolete way of life they threaten.” Shane too is a loner, unfit by his very nature to rejoin the society of the Wyoming homesteaders after he has killed. “A man is what he is, Bob (the name of the kid in the novel), and there’s no breaking the mold. I tried that and I’ve lost.”

Schaefer originally published Shane in 1946 as a three-part serial (originally titled “Rider from Nowhere”) in Argosy, a pulp magazine that specialized in tales of adventure: crime, science fiction, Westerns, and, in its early days, romance. Tarzan, Zorro, Fu Manchu and even Dr. Kildare first appeared in its pages.

1946. The year is significant. American GIs have returned from the war and are doing their best to reenter civilian life. The Good War is over, the Allies have won, and the world is once again safe for democracy. But demobilization has brought its own share of problems. The same postwar malaise that was revealed in noir films of the era has crept into the Western. Shane (1953) is not as dark as The Searchers (1956), but its moral message is more ambiguous than the pre-war Western’s. Jack Palance’s hired gun may be truly bad, but Shane is complicated, unknowable.

He cannot get beyond his violent past, the reflexes that make him jumpy, mistrustful. We wait for the final confrontation, when he can kill righteously, save the town. Then we watch him leave. Sure, he’s a legend, but his type is not suited to the day-to-day. Watch him ride off alone.

Shane, Shane. Don’t come back.

Shane still2

The Quiet American

“I like to have a secret love affair, a hidden life,” said Graham Greene, “something to lie about.” Partly, that hidden life was espionage, but mostly it was adultery. Greene was married and he had a special liking for clandestine liaisons with the wives of his friends. Constancy or faith versus betrayal—religious, sexual, personal, political—his best works pivot around these dichotomies, intensifying the tension between them without trying to resolve it. Greene’s protagonists must somehow live with their bad consciences, as Greene evidently managed to live with his. I imagine he justified the betrayals by telling himself that his friends brought it upon themselves.

Quiet American, The (1958)
Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy in Mankiewicz’s 1958 film. Redgrave is wonderful, but nobody can save a picture singlehandedly.

Innocence, to Greene’s mind, at any rate, was blameworthy. The quiet American, Pyle, was naive, idealistic, and dangerous: “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.” The cynical journalist who narrates the novel, Fowler, is prepared to lie and cheat to keep Phuong, his Vietnamese mistress, from running off with Pyle.

Ultimately, Fowler betrays Pyle but like Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, he faces himself squarely. “Was I so different from Pyle, I wondered? Must I too have my foot thrust in the mess of life before I saw the pain?” He doesn’t like himself much, but he’s not asking us to like him either. Rather, he forces us to face uncomfortable truths about the West’s imperial blunders. No heroes, no victims, no illusions, just an open-eyed appraisal of the mess of life, and love, and geopolitics, mistakes played out endlessly for the most venal of motives.

And that’s what’s wrong with both film versions of The Quiet American. Neither Joseph Mankiewicz nor Philip Noyce could leave well enough alone. Mankiewicz reworked key elements of the story to counter what he saw as Greene’s anti-Americanism, turning Pyle into a cartoonish good guy, a boy scout. Absent is Greene’s irony, his disparagement of the American as a simple-minded meddler, blind (notwithstanding his Harvard education — or perhaps because of it) to the complex reality of the country he has come to save. Fowler’s the fool here. Othello-like, he is blinded by jealousy and allows himself to be played by the Communists. Mankiewicz even has him read Othello’s speech as he sets the American up for assassination, to make sure the audience gets the point.

The-Quiet-American-Screencap-michael-caine-5879569-550-370
Caine’s pretty wonderful too, and the 2002 film is well worth watching.

The 2002 version directed by Philip Noyce from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan is more true to Greene’s novel, but the ending turns Fowler into a hero, the crusader-journalist beloved of audiences at least since The Pentagon Papers. “Noyce’s finale montage recycles the myth that the press somehow saved the United States from itself,” William Bushnell wrote in his contribution to Why We Fought: America’s Wars in Film and History. “Mankiewicz’s 1958 film remains an artifact of Cold War ideology, frozen in history. Likewise, Noyce’s 2002 film is wedded to a post-Vietnam subjectivity and is no less a product of an era.”

Macao

Macao (1952) was  the last film Josef von Sternberg made in HollywoodMacao slouch and he didn’t get to finish it. A tyrant on the set, particularly with his actresses, he treated Jane Russell so abominably that Howard Hughes removed him from the picture and brought in Nicholas Ray to reshoot the ending.

I can’t condone a director who calls his lead actress a “beautiful stupid broad” and makes every effort to humiliate her on the set. I guess this was the pattern, from Marlene Dietrich onwards, and it seems to have worked with Dietrich. The two tormented one another over the course of seven films—the best either would make: Blue Angel, Morocco, Blonde Venus and Shanghai Express among them.

But getting back to Macao, there’s an awful lot to like here even if Ray messed with von Sternberg’s vision. Robert Mitchum slouches to excellent effect, winning Jane Russell’s heart, and charming the tough-as-nails croupier played by Gloria Grahame while he’s at it. The dialogue is edgy from the start. Even bit players get their moment: the opening scene of the would-be Lothario doing a little rumba all by himself in his cabin, all to no avail, is a delightful vignette. 

The shadows are perfectly calibrated, during the chase scenes especially, when fishing nets lend a claustrophobic touch to the action. Russell sings, and she’s pretty good as a torch singer — far better than in her musical number with the gymnasts in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. This noir may not be noir enough to satisfy purists, but I enjoyed it.

Bridge on the River Kwai

“Maybe the unbridgeable gulf that some see separatingRiver Kwai the western and the oriental souls is nothing more than a mirage… Maybe the need to ‘save face’ was, in this war, as vital, as imperative, for the British as it was for the Japanese.”

— Pierre Boulle, Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï

Eight years after his escape from a French colonial prison in Saigon, Pierre Boulle published the novel that became the basis for David Lean’s award-winning epic, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1954). Never mind that the bridge was actually on the Mae Klong river, that the actual senior Allied officer who oversaw work at the bridge did everything in his power to sabotage it. (The real story is told in a BBC documentary.) Try not to whistle the catchy theme song.

I want to focus on the film’s ending, where the priggish officer Nicholson, brilliantly played by Alec Guinness, does manage to blow up the bridge. Boulle left the bridge standing at the end of his novel. Was this simply an absurdist touch, symptomatic of postwar French Existentialism, with its insistence on the arbitrariness of life? Boulle would have us believe so. “A novel is built around an abstract idea, on the logic of the absurd. Only after having got the thing precisely plotted do I add my own memories and experiences,” he said.

French Indochina was effectively under the control of the Japanese in 1942 and Boulle was sent by the Free French to find sympathetic Vichy officials who might be persuaded to help undermine their authority from within. Captured while floating down the Mekong river on a raft, he found himself confronted by a Pétainist collaborator and sentenced to forced labor. “When he came to Indochina he thought he was on the good side. But then a Frenchman arrested him and said, “No you are not,” reported a close family member. “It drove home a point about the relativity of good and evil, which is the theme of all his works. What is good is good only in a certain context. Not necessarily universally.”

Literary critic Ian Watt had a different take. Watt had worked on the Burma Railway as a British POW during World War II and nearly died. Twelve thousand Commonwealth, Dutch, and American prisoners did die, and Watt resented the “myth” that Boule propounded, the absurd idea that “stiff upper-lipped British pluck,” as Roger Bourke put it in his study of WWII prisoner-of-war narratives, combined with “superior western technological expertise,” succeeded in defeating the Japanese, at least on a moral level.

I appreciate Watt’s perspective, as one who was there, but his complaint seems to be more with Lean’s film than with Boulle’s book. Keeping in mind that Boulle would go on to write La Planète des Singes, the science fiction novel that became the 1968 film, Planet of the Apes, it seems fair to acknowledge the consistency of the French author’s moral concerns: “the illustration of a general ‘absurdity’ which could as well have been located in other times, other places, and with other personages.” An outspoken anti-colonialist, radical for his time, Boulle seems to have spent his postwar existence closeted in his sister’s Paris apartment writing fiction, filtering reality through his fabulous imagination.

Shanghai Express

“It took more than one man toFamous still change my name to Shanghai Lily,” Marlene Dietrich tells her former lover in Shanghai Express (1932). This was before the Hays Code — just — when an actress could get away with a line like that. Dietrich plays “a woman of many casual affairs,” as Mordaunt Hall delicately put it in his review for the New York Times.

Mr. Hall was quite smitten. Dietrich, he wrote,  “. . . is languorous but fearless as Lily. She glides through her scenes with heavy eyelids and puffing on her cigarettes.” There is, indeed, the famous still of Dietrich, cigarette in hand, gazing skyward. Another of her in the train corridor wearing a negligee. This last one was too much for Vanity Fair. Director Von Sternberg “traded his open style for fancy play, chiefly upon the legs in silk, and buttocks in lace, of Dietrich, of whom he has made a paramount slut,” the magazine accused.Marlene-Shanghai-3

In fact, Shanghai Lily was reputed to have “wrecked a dozen men, up and down the China coast,” according to the friend of her paramour in the film, Doc Harvey (Clive Brook), but she never comes across as a slut. For one thing, she’s too fascinating, and she has no illusions about herself. We can’t help rooting for her, and in the course of a train journey from Peking to Shanghai, she proves her moral worth and wins her lover back.

Nearly everyone else on the train seems to be hiding something. There’s a half-Chinese warlord (played by a white actor in “yellow face,” Werner Oland, who would soon become famous for playing Charlie Chan), a disgraced French officer, a missionary, a gambler, a stuffy old lady and an opium dealer. Gradually we learn their secrets as the train is commandeered by rebels. Only the other woman of ill repute, a Chinese prostitute named Hui-Fei (Anna May Wong) demonstrates comparable courage. 

This was Wong’s greatest role in American film. Mostly she was consigned to playing delicate flowers or Dragon Lady parts. Here she smokes a lot, to great effect (I’d put her right up there with Bette Davis), and never abandons her dignity.

Definitely worth watching.

An Affair to Remember

Two Tables for One

We have this film to thank for Cary Grant’s performance in North By Northwest. After a couple of flops, including the big-budget failure, The Pride and the Passion, Grant was ready to retire from the movies. Dealing with the colossal ego of his co-star in that picture, Frank Sinatra, had drained him. Charles Higham and Roy Moseley described Sinatra’s behavior on the set of The Pride and the Passion in their biography of Grant:

Sinatra was at his worst at the time, his nervous, volatile temperament annoying to everyone. He insisted on calling Cary “Mother Cary”; he refused to drive in a chauffeured Mercedes but insisted that his Thunderbird be flown in from Hollywood; he threatened to urinate on Kramer if the director would not get him back to his hotel before midnight . . .

As if putting up with Old Blue Eyes wasn’t bad enough, Grant had fallen in love with his other co-star, Sophia Loren. The affair was quite passionate, and Loren has admitted that she was torn over whether to accept Grant’s proposal of marriage when filming ended, but she ultimately turned him down and went back to her lover, Italian director Carlo Ponti. Grant was devastated.

Then came the opportunity to make An Affair to Remember (1957), a remake (by the director of the original) of a 1930s romantic drama of thwarted love, with a happy ending. Grant plays a charming, witty — and irresistible — bachelor, a role he had perfected. One last fling in Europe, and he’s ready to settle down with a New York heiress, to the dismay of women all over the world. Then he meets Deborah Kerr on the ship, and has second thoughts.

Kerr is returning to her sugar daddy (well, that’s how we’d describe her relationship with the wealthy man who has set her up in a swank apartment, to which he has a key, and promised to advance her singing career; fifties movies could be naughty, in an oblique way). Of course, she is smitten, and it’s cute to watch the two of them as they attempt to avoid the inevitable.

What makes the picture memorable, however, is not the shipboard romance. It’s Grant’s bitterness when Kerr fails to show up for the rendez-vous they’d planned in six months’ time. It’s not her fault, of course. The poor thing was hit by a car on her way to meeting him on the top of the Empire State Building and lost the use of her legs, but Grant doesn’t know that. Bitter, he’s even more attractive than he was when he was debonair. Maybe not as appealing as when he thought Ingrid Bergman was relishing her romance with Claude Rains in Notorious, but well worth watching.

Grant got his mojo back with An Affair to Remember. The boost kept him going through several forgettable films (including Houseboat, when he was reunited with Sophia Loren) and one keeper: North by Northwest.

East of Eden

Reading end-of-year tributes to the Hollywood stars and other cultural icons we lost in 2014—particularly those whose deaths were untimely—got me thinking about James Dean (1931-1955). I’d just read East of Eden, John Steinbeck’s epic reworking of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, set in California’s Salinas Valley. Elia Kazan’s film version of the last third of the novel introduced movie audiences to the troubled young actor, who would go on to make two more films before dying in a car accident at the age of twenty-four.

Dean Train

It’s obvious why Kazan chose Dean. He was made for the role of Cal Trask, the screwed-up son of an evil woman who deserted him and his twin brother Aron at birth and went on to run a whorehouse that specialized in S&M (this in a novel that came out in 1952!). Cal and Aron’s father, Adam, was never the same after she left and Raymond Massey plays him as a cold fish. In a key confrontation early in the film, Adam forces Cal to read the Bible at the dinner table, a crude dramatization of the book’s far more poignant rendering of their miscommunication.

In the book, the boys were lovingly tended by the family’s Chinese cook, Lee, and there is deep affection between them. Cal is fiercely protective of Aron, seeing him as a better person, a pure soul, whereas he knows himself to be innately flawed and struggles to be as good as his brother. Steinbeck made him a complicated character who demonstrates a great deal of self-awareness in conversations with Lee, whereas in the film he comes across as something of an adolescent psychopath, albeit a very attractive one.

Aron, however, grows less admirable as the novel progresses, becoming self-righteous and revealing moral weakness. By the time Cal forces him to face up to the truth about their mother, we have lost interest in him. Of course he’s going to die in World War I. It’s not just the Cain and Abel scenario playing out (and really, Kazan didn’t have to make Cal shout, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” to get the point across). Nobody could live with a prig like him. No wonder his girlfriend falls for Cal.

Cal is far more compelling, and by the end of the picture, Dean succeeds in showing us the character that Steinbeck created. We see him grow up and find within himself the basic goodness that (we sense) will never come easily to him. He will always struggle to be his better self. Alas, James Dean did not live to master his own demons and show us what he could do.

Mambo

Robert Rossen named names to the House Un-AmericanMambo Poster Activities Committee — fifty-seven of them. Then he went to Italy and made this ponderous film. Mambo (1954) is a mishmash of neorealist solemnity and “women’s picture” melodrama. The actors all seem to be holding back, as if they too found the story implausible. The dancing scenes lack joy. Rossen himself considered the movie a failure, and yet he poured his heart and soul into the project. “I got involved, took it seriously, but it just didn’t come off,” Alan Casty quotes him as saying in Robert Rossen: The Films and Politics of a Blacklisted Idealist.

No, it didn’t work as a movie, but as a cri de coeur, Mambo is strangely compelling. Here is Rossen’s attempt to justify his betrayal of his former comrades, an anguished plea for understanding, if not forgiveness. He can’t forgive himself, you see, but as we watch his confused heroine Giovanna (Silvana Mangano) abandon her dreams and her integrity under the sway of her ne’er-do-well lover Mario (Vittorio Gassman) and her dissolute aristocratic admirer, count Enrico Marisoni (Michael Rennie), we can’t help but notice Rossen’s remorse.

Like many Jews who made their way to Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s, Rossen was drawn to Communism. The Party was “dedicated to social causes of the sort that we as poor Jews from New York were interested in,” he told his son, and his early scripts featured working-class characters and explored big themes like bigotry and injustice. But after the war, he grew disillusioned with Communism’s monolithic structure and left the party, as did many others. His Academy Award-winning adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s novel All the King’s Men (1949) gives a more jaded perspective on working-class heroism, showing how easily even noble ideals can be corrupted.

But Mambo demonstrates that Rossen had not abandoned his idealism. He used Katherine Dunham’s interracial dance troupe for the mambo scenes — this in the segregated pre-Civil Rights era — and he has Ms. Dunham herself instructing Giovanna on the virtues of hard work and rigorous training, belying the general perception that such “primitive” dance forms came naturally to African peoples. At the end of the film, after she has caused the deaths of two people, Giovanna seeks salvation through rejoining Dunham’s troupe and losing herself in her work.

Rossen was initially called to testify before HUAC in 1951, and had taken the Fifth. Blacklisted, he had two years of unemployment to reconsider his principles and when he was called again in 1953, he caved in and gave the committee what it wanted. “It killed him not to work. He was torn between his desire to work and his desire not to talk, and he didn’t know what to do,” his son explained.

After Mambo, he went on to make six more films, including the epic Alexander the Great (1956) starring Richard Burton, Island in the Sun (1960), a controversial story about interracial love in the Caribbean which featured Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Bellefonte in serious roles, and The Hustler (1961) with Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason, now considered a classic. Akin to the flawed Giovanna, work figured in Rossen’s salvation, I would say.

The Pride and the Passion

Poster - Pride and the Passion, The_05Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, and Sophia Loren in Napoleonic era Spain. The two men are vying for the woman, butting heads for most of the picture. Wait, there’s more. A big cannon. Okay, that’s it.

I rarely pass up an opportunity to watch Cary Grant, and this epic’s notorious because of the romance that developed between Grant and Loren in the course of filming it. Grant’s marriage to Betsy Drake was dissolving; Loren was waiting for Carlo Ponti to divorce his wife. “Both of us soon realized that the feelings between us were beginning to be laced with love — and we were scared.” In her forthcoming memoir, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, Loren admits that she was torn:

I knew that my place was next to Carlo — he was my safe harbor, even though I was still waiting for him to make a decision about our lives; our furtive relationship couldn’t go on much longer. At the same time, it was hard to resist the magnetism of a man like Cary, who said he was willing to give up everything for me. On our last night, he invited me out, looking more solemn than usual. Inside, I was afraid.

There was a gorgeous sunset outside as he turned to me, looked me in the eyes and said simply: “Will you marry me?” My words got caught in my throat. I was like an actress in a movie who’s forgotten her lines.

I felt so small in the face of this impossible decision. “Cary, dear, I need time,” I whispered breathlessly.

He understood. And he deflected my reply with a light touch of humor: “Why don’t we get married first, and then think about it?”

Grant seems to have behaved like a gentleman, and although Loren chose Ponti in the end, the two remained close. “In a treasure trove of memories that I keep in a box, there are letters and notes in Cary’s elegant, joyful handwriting that still fill me with tenderness,” she writes, “they speak to me of a fondness that, although it changed over time, never waned.”

You can get a sense of the heat on the set of The Pride and the Passion from this flamenco scene: