1943

A Guy Named Joe (1943, Victor Fleming)

I’m not sure how to talk about A Guy Named Joe without some spoilers. But I’m going to try. Like a test.

A Guy Named Joe is a propaganda picture, but one less about jingoism and more about the American trademarked Freedom. Only it’s a specific kind of Freedom, it’s the kind of Freedom you can only understand if you’re an Army flier. Now, it’s possible—the film attests—the guys in the other branches of the service are just as thrilled about dying in the ways specific to their branches, but Guy Named Joe is about the glory of dying a combat flier. And how dying as a combat flier isn’t just good for the dead flier, who’ll get some real perspective on life, but for the future as well. The little children need dead fliers so the future might live. In Freedom.

It’s a lot.

But also not really, because Dalton Trumbo’s script doesn’t get too far into the weeds with it. Oh, a few people get big monologues about the film’s themes—Lionel Barrymore gets the Freedom one, so even if you’re cocking your head and trying to unravel the philosophy of it, Barrymore’s great delivering it. Because Joe is very well-cast. Spencer Tracy’s perfect in the lead, a daredevil bomber pilot who eventually gets in too much trouble and ends up taking a backseat to the future generation, personified in Van Johnson. Tracy gets some decent scenes with Johnson; best considering the circumstances, but some really good ones with leading lady Irene Dunne. Dunne’s Tracy’s girl—and some kind of military cargo flier (the ladies can fly cargo through war zones solo but they can’t be combat pilots because they’re girls); she, Tracy, and Ward Bond all hang out together. Turns out some of it is because Bond can’t handle misanthropic narcissist Tracy without Dunne to temper him. It’s a great character relationship, something the film doesn’t do enough with, even though it arguably leverages Bond more than anything else in the picture.

The film’s got three sections. The first is in England, where Tracy and Bond are stationed. It runs forty-five minutes; now, Joe is two hours. The first thirty-eight percent of the movie is the England stuff with Tracy, Dunne, Bond, and James Gleason as the guys’ stuck-up CO. You would think, given epical story arcs and Freytag triangles, there’d be a lot of important plot establishing somewhere in that thirty-eight percent. So it’d be important later.

You’d be wrong.

Because in the second part of the film, where Tracy gets stuck back stateside playing guardian angel to rookie ace Johnson, well… nothing from that first part is important. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s just the story of Johnson getting to be a better flier and a more confident guy. He’s just inherited four million bucks, but he’s a solid guy. He’s not even a skirt chaser until Tracy’s influence and even when he’s a skirt chaser, you feel like he’s still a pretty good guy. Johnson’s got the second hardest part in the film. He’s got no one to talk with about his feelings and feelings get talked about a lot in Joe. Similarly, Dunne doesn’t have anyone to talk with about her feelings when it’s important in part three, which is set in New Guinea and the war.

Heavily leveraged Bond is the way the film brings parts one and two together, with Johnson getting assigned to Bond (and Gleason) and Dunne dropping by for a visit. Johnson falls for Dunne immediately; though we don’t get to see him fall for her, because the movie’s busy concentrating on Dunne and Bond and 800-pound gorilla Tracy. Fleming skips the shot of Johnson seeing Dunne, skips his agency in approaching her. Johnson never gets that agency back. Something else lost in part three.

Dunne eventually gets some agency, but kind of too late to matter.

See, she and Johnson get together—rather chastely for a while, which almost seems like the film not wanting to give forty-something Dunne too much chemistry with late twenties Johnson (he can get away with early twenties, her with late); the chaste thing feels forced though. Because for a while the film builds the chemistry between the two—as Dunne is reminded more and more of Tracy, because (unbeknownst to her) Tracy’s been Johnson’s most influential mentor. And then it stops. Eventually there’s a little more of a spark, but it’s in the last fifteen or twenty minutes and it’s a little late.

The film does have a last minute (temporary) rally as Tracy gets a “well, this was worth it” monologue but then the it stays too close with him after just saying the whole point of the damn movie is he’s the 800-pound gorilla. Trumbo pretends he’s been working out the moral of the whole thing for the last two hours and thinks Tracy’s monologue is going to be able to sell it. Tracy’s able to perform the monologue beautifully, he’s just not able to magic it into a good ending or a successful arc for literally anyone in the entire movie.

The performances are key. Tracy and Dunne don’t get great parts, but they get some good scenes. Bond does really well having to carry the energy of the film, even though he’s an glorified sidekick. And the movie is mercenary in how it uses him. Johnson’s potentially got the best part and gets less than anyone else but he’s able to turn it into something. He’s earnest in just the right way, a nice contrast to Tracy and something the film never plays up enough, which is silly. Gleason’s okay. He’s better at the end. At the beginning he’s just a plot foil and exposition dumper.

Technically… well, at least Fleming is consistent in failings. Joe’s got some great special effects with the flying and some really bad composite shots with the background projection. George J. Folsey and Karl Freund do a real bad job matching lighting and it’s distracting at times. It’s worse in the second part, stateside, when the rear screen projection might work as a visual representation of narrative detail.

But of course Fleming’s not going to think of it.

Otherwise, the direction’s fine. Just not good enough to lift the picture out its problems. Good editing from Frank Sullivan. Great sets; not the sets fault no one lights them or shoots them right.

A Guy Named Joe doesn’t try as hard as it should and it shows, getting good (and better) performances out of its cast without really tasking them. Tracy, Dunne, Johnson, Bond, and Barrymore all could have done much more.

And, last thing—nice support from Barry Nelson as Tracy’s stateside sidekick.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Victor Fleming; screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, based on a story by Chandler Sprague and David Boehm, adapted by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan; directors of photography, George J. Folsey and Karl Freund; edited by Frank Sullivan; music by Herbert Stothart; produced by Everett Riskin; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Pete Sandidge), Irene Dunne (Dorinda Durston), Van Johnson (Ted Randall), Ward Bond (Al Yackey), James Gleason (‘Nails’ Kilpatrick), Barry Nelson (Dick Rumney), and Lionel Barrymore (The General).



Hostages (1943, Frank Tuttle)

At one point during Hostages, I thought there might actually be a good performance in it somewhere. Czech freedom fighter Katina Paxinou faces off with her mother over her Resistance work. It has the potential for a good moment, turns out it’s just an adequate one (amid the sea of inadequate ones in the film). Because there aren’t any good moments. It’s not like leads Luise Rainer and Arturo de Córdova have an iota of chemistry. Or like William Bendix out of nowhere gives a great performance as a famous Czech Resistance fighter (he doesn’t; he’s godawful). Maybe Oskar Homolka as the sniveling collaborator has the closest thing to a good moment, but director Tuttle doesn’t showcase it.

Tuttle doesn’t showcase anything in Hostages. He’s astoundingly disinterested in the film, going through the same series of setups, one after the other. Two shot, four shot, three shot. They all look exactly the same. It’s fine; it’s not like Archie Marshek would do any better with good shots. Even with the tepid ones, Marshek’s cuts screw up performances. They’re not going to be great performances (Lester Cole and Frank Butler’s script is even flatter than Tuttle’s direction) but they could be better. Marshek messes up Rainer the most. She’s already got a lousy role and bad cuts take away any hope for her to improve it. Though, again, she’s not really interested in it. No one’s got any enthusiasm.

Hostages is about Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Homolka is the collaborating coal millionaire. Rainer’s his daughter. Roland Varno’s her fiancé. Homolka gets rounded up on a bum charge with Bendix (who’s masquerading as a washroom attendant—spoiler, no toilets or sinks) and twenty-four other innocent people. The Nazis (led by Paul Lukas) are going to shoot them. See, the Nazis know it’s a bum charge but they want to steal the coal business from Homolka. de Córdova is the seemingly collaborative newspaperman who’s actually a Resistance fighter. It’s kind of obvious when you think about it but, even though Lukas is better at his job than the other Nazis, is actually really bad at his job.

So Varno and Rainer go to de Córdova needing his help to get Homolka released, while de Córdova wants to get Bendix released, while Lukas isn’t releasing anyone no matter what because coal. Eventually Rainer gets pulled in the Resistance, symbolically rejecting her collaborative father and fiancé, but not really giving Rainer anything approaching acting material. Everything comes out in bad exposition, sometimes god-awfully performed by Bendix.

While Bendix is woefully miscast in the film—he obviously is wrong for the part (and the only Yank amid foreign stars)—for a while you can at least pity him. But then Hostages gets even more tedious and it’s often thanks to Bendix’s bad acting. And then you realize you’re only a half hour in and there’s another hour and, wow, how did they mess this one up. The film doesn’t care about the titular Hostages, just Homolka and Bendix. There’s no saccharine introduction to the rest of the prisoners. The film’s mercenary in its disinterest.

It also has a cop out ending, which is the final nail. It was never going to go out well, but it goes out at its weakest. Okay, maybe not it’s weakest weakest because Bendix at least isn’t monologuing, which he does often and badly.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Tuttle; screenplay by Lester Cole and Frank Butler, based on the novel by Stefan Heym; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Archie Marshek; music by Victor Young; produced by Sol C. Siegel; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Arturo de Córdova (Paul Breda), Luise Rainer (Milada Pressinger), William Bendix (Janoshik), Roland Varno (Jan Pavel), Oskar Homolka (Lev Pressinger), Katina Paxinou (Maria), and Paul Lukas (Rheinhardt).


The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp runs two and three-quarters hours and takes place over forty years. The former’s passage is sublime, the latter’s is subtle. Directors Powell and Pressburger bookend the film in the present, then flashback. The lead at the start of the film is James McKechnie. He’s a lieutenant who gets some orders and decides he’s going to get creative with them, which takes him–after some truly amazing driving sequences with motorcycles and army trucks–to aged general Roger Livesey hanging out in some Turkish baths with his pals, steam wetting his walrus moustache. It’s young versus old; McKechnie’s got the new ideas, Livesey’s got the old.

Only what if, at one point, Livesey had the new ideas and someone else had the old. The film flashbacks forty years to a much younger Livesey–the makeup on him in Blimp is a significant achievement–just coming home from the Boer War. He’s just found out a spy he knew from the war (David Ward) is in Berlin, drumming up anti-British sentiment over the conflict. Being a good British officer, Livesey thinks it’s his job to get involved, which introduces him to Deborah Kerr–an English governess in Berlin who doesn’t like the anti-British sentiment. Then Livesey’s big mouth gets him in more trouble, leading him to meet–gradually–German officer Anton Walbrook.

Blimp is never more comedic than during this portion of the flashback. Powell and Pressburger come up with some really good sequences, quite different than how the film opens. The present is movement and sound–the driving sequences, beautifully photographed (by Georges Périnal) and edited (by John Seabourne Sr.)–are visually ambitious. As well as aurally–the truck part of the sequence is set to fast, popular music. The past has a slower pace, visually, but only initially. There’s a lot of establishing work done. Then Powell and Pressburger start getting more and more ambitious.

Some of their ambitions are with how to move through the forty year flashback. They come up with a couple excellent devices, which they use multiple times throughout Blimp, to move the action forward in time without having to do anything with the actors.

Since Blimp is about the military, Powell and Pressburger are also able to get away with a bunch of exposition in the dialogue without it slowing things down. After the time transition, there’s a little catch-up, but never too much. Each scene in Blimp is perfectly timed, which probably helps it breeze through its not-insignificant runtime.

When the action gets to World War I, things are very different. Livesey’s starting to get makeup. He’s also got a sidekick–John Laurie–the film goes through phases of actors. It starts with Livesey, Kerr, and Walbrook. Then it’s Livesey, Laurie, and Kerr. Finally it’s Livesey, Walbrook, Laurie, and Kerr. But there are some interesting complications.

Anyway. The World War I sequence. Whereas the film opens with these modern army motorcycles zooming along, with shots alongside, snappily edited, with this fast music accompanying, the World War I sequence feels like a stage play. The exterior backdrops are clearly paintings. Livesey and Laurie are usually outside. Well, Laurie’s always outside. But he and Livesey will have these interactions during the exteriors before Livesey has to go in and talk to these soldiers or those soldiers. Livesey’s a general now. Travelling the front in Flanders; the soldiers inside don’t have the same read on the war as Livesey. They think he’s out of touch. And when Livesey’s in the war, it’s that stagy exterior. They’re exquisite sets, but they’re definitely not reality. It’s very subjective. And awesome, because Livesey never gets to talk about how he’s internalizing anything. He’s British. They aren’t supposed to internalize.

But the World War I stuff isn’t just Livesey on the front, it’s also Livesey meeting Kerr (just after the war) and having a grand romance. Only Kerr is playing a different character than before. She’s the same age as she was in the first sequence, just all right with her twenty-year senior paramour Livesey. And Walbrook comes back. As a German prisoner of war. Who also has a much different read on things than Livesey. Walbrook gets some great scenes in this section. He gets great scenes later on, but he didn’t get any great scenes–where he got the best material–in the first section. The film treats Walbrook very differently in each sequence, which is awesome, because Walbrook’s so good developing his character over forty years. He’s got a very different part than Livesey. As life for a German from 1902 to 1942 was much different than a British person in the same period.

In the present–or near present, the last section of the flashback, catching up to the bookend–Livesey and Walbrook are reunited once again. The sections are all about twenty years apart. 1902, 1918, 1939. The bookend is in 1943, with the catchup over the last four years of the present action the fastest. But Livesey’s in the same makeup in the last section as he was in the opening bookend. He’s become the guy at the beginning of the movie. The old general who young and capable McKechnie thought was so out of it.

The film’s not really about Livesey being out of it or not. It’s a character study set against British and European history (and social history), with some really grandoise moves from Powell and Pressburger. Kerr playing three different characters–Livesey has a type, he eventually confesses (though Laurie suggests the film skips over five more Kerrs during the first World War)–it’s a grandoise move. Especially since they’re rather different characters, even if Livesey wants to gaze on each one with the same adoration. Kerr gets some glorious moments in Blimp, though her most impressive acting comes in the third sequence, when she is no longer romantic partner material for Livesey or Walbrook.

The production’s impeccable. Powell and Pressburger have various styles throughout, something different for the time period, type of scene, setting. There’s always a new style they’ll implement to get a scene done, developing on a previous one or just doing something entirely new; even in the last scene, they’re still switching up the style. Glorious Technicolor photography from Périnal. Seabourne’s editing, whether he’s being flashy or not, is always fantastic. Great music from Allan Gray (and some exquisite use of classical composers as well). Junge’s production design–phenomenal. The whole production is breathtaking.

Walbrook’s got the meatier role but Livesey’s got the harder one. He’s got to develop a character underneath a caricature. Walbrook gets to break out of a caricature. It’s hard to say who gives a better performance. Same film, very different types of roles leading to different types of performances. I’ll start to type Livesey, then think I should type Walbrook, but shouldn’t I type Livesey. Ad nauseum.

Kerr’s great. She doesn’t have to break from caricature so much as develop a character the film never really shows. She’s idealized and objectified (not visually, but narratively). She transcends those constraints, which is kind of the point. Powell and Pressburger set that detached, off-kilter narrative distance and then do everything to facilitate her being able to cross it. While still staying detached and off-kilter.

The stunning thing about Blimp is how much the filmmakers are doing throughout. After the first section of the flashback–there’s always this theme or that theme, this exceptionally gentle subplot, that exceptionally gentle subplot–and they keep them all going at once. While still doing the various character developments. And history lessons. It’s a dense, narratively, visually, conceptually. Blimp couldn’t be a minute shorter.

Laurie’s great in the fourth biggest role. He gets to be the humor in the later sections of the flashback, when the world isn’t really funny at all anymore. After those four actors, no one really stands out. Not because they’re not good–they’re usually great–but they’re just in the film for a scene or two. Sometimes separated by twenty-one years.

Muriel Aked’s got a really nice scene with Livesey. She’s his only family, his aunt. She gets to humanize him quite a bit. Even if it’s with hunting trophies.

But Livesey, Walbrook, and Kerr are the film. Powell and Pressburger stick to them. Even when someone’s chastising Livesey and it’s over his shoulder, the directors are sticking to him. There are some magnificent scenes in Blimp. The way the filmmakers execute them enthralls. And they seem to know they’re being enthralling and they’re excited to get to enthrall.

Blimp’s also a very serious film. Far more serious than the opening bookend suggests. More serious than the first section of the flashback suggests. The World War I sequence, which totally changes the visual tone of the film–realistic to subjective–is when Blimp starts getting really serious. And it never stops. That seriousness helps break Livesey’s caricature, it helps get Kerr across that intentionally protracted narrative distance, it’s what Walbrook has to embody.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is exceptional.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; director of photography, Georges Périnal; edited by John Seabourne Sr.; music by Allan Gray; production designer, Alfred Junge; released by General Film Distributors.

Starring Roger Livesey (Clive Candy), Deborah Kerr (Edith Hunter / Barbara Wynne / Johnny Cannon), Anton Walbrook (Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff), John Laurie (Murdoch), James McKechnie (Spud Wilson), Roland Culver (Colonel Betteridge), Albert Lieven (von Ritter), and Harry Welchman (Major Davies).


Secret Agent (1943, Seymour Kneitel)

Secret Agent opens with this really exciting car chase. Clark (Bud Collyer) has just called in and been told to get to work on the right story, only then a car crashes through the drug store he’s in and so he hops on the back of it as it chases another car. Then the cops start chasing the car Clark’s on; he pushes up a thug’s gun hand so he can’t shoot at the cops. The whole thing ends with a female secret agent getting away and Clark apparently unconscious and captured by saboteurs.

The chief saboteur has a monocle and a Hitler mustache. It’s unclear how he manages to get around in the United States without people wondering what he’s up to… oh, and a German accent.

So most of the cartoon has to do with the secret agent (voiced by Joan Alexander in a less than impressive performance–she’s got one monologue and it’s flat) trying to get to the airport. The cops are going to give her an escort, but the saboteur ring ambushes them and mows down a bunch of cops before the agent gets through.

But the shootout ambush was just a red herring, the real ambush is at a swing bridge. The secret agent ends up on the bridge’s mechanics, in danger of being crushed. Luckily, when the bad guys call the Hitler boss guy, he and his guys get ready to go and lock up Clark before leaving. Once he’s safely in a broom closet, Clark finally changes into the long johns and saves the day.

Shame he didn’t do anything to save those shot down coppers. Because he was either unconscious or just didn’t think he could break the ropes and take out the guards? Not very super.

There’s some lame jingoism, which the cartoon could’ve gotten away with as cute if it were any good (that opening with the car chase is decent stuff though) and for some reason a lot of focus on the secret agent’s shapely legs.

Secret Agent is a stinker.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Seymour Kneitel; screenplay by Carl Meyer, based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; animated by Otto Feuer and Steve Muffati; music by Sammy Timberg; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Bud Collyer (Clark Kent/Superman), Joan Alexander (Secret Agent), Julian Noa (Perry White), and Jackson Beck (Nazis); narrated by Beck.


Jungle Drums (1943, Dan Gordon)

Sitting through the first third of Jungle Drums, I kept hoping the cartoon would keep the African natives in silhouette. I had zero confidence they wouldn’t do some racist caricature and, at least in silhouette, there would be specifics. The natives do get out of silhouette and they are racist caricatures, but… at least there’s no real activity from the natives? It could be a lot worse. The cartoon could go two streams of racist, it just goes one. Yay?

So the story is these Nazis are pretending to be… witch doctors or something? They hide their identities by wearing white robes. Yes, that kind of white robe. Lois (Joan Alexander) and Clark (Bud Collyer) are in Africa for some reason, each taking an individual ride with a pilot to somewhere. Doesn’t matter. Lois’s plane crashes. She gets captured, tied to a stake, burned alive. Lois takes long enough to burn (she just passes out from the heat) Clark can save her. He’s not worried about his pilot seeing him change into his long johns after parachuting out with no warning.

Then it’s Superman versus Nazis in white robes. Then Hitler’s in it.

The setup of the temple–while the natives are silhouetted–is visually striking. The rest of it is less. Orestes Calpini and H.C. Ellison’s animation is mostly competent, Gordon’s direction just isn’t compelling. He does all right with exposition and lead-up, but has very few ideas once the action starts.

Though maybe it’s because the action is more about bombers and conveys and upset Hitler than Superman?

Jungle Drums is an object lesson in the perils of propaganda media. Though Alexander does almost get a good part. When the Nazis are interrogating her, it seems like it might go somewhere good. Unfortunately, it goes to pot.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Dan Gordon; screenplay by Robert Little and Jay Morton, based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; animated by Orestes Calpini and H.C. Ellison; music by Winston Sharples and Sammy Timberg; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Bud Collyer (Clark Kent/Superman), Joan Alexander (Lois Lane), Julian Noa (German Commander), and Jack Mercer (Lt. Fleming); narrated by Jackson Beck.


The Mummy Strikes (1943, Izzy Sparber)

If it weren’t for the needlessly racist finish from Lois (Joan Alexander), The Mummy Strikes would probably get a pass. Maybe. The action isn’t particularly impressive, but the Egyptian history lesson is pretty cool. Even if it’s all about young King Tush.

Jay Morton’s script is (mostly) strong–it, Sparber’s direction, and animator Graham Place and Myron Waldman’s backgrounds are the highlights. An Egyptologist is murdered, his assistant is charged. Another professor calls the Daily Planet for Clark (Bud Collyer) to come and hear the truth.

The professor–Jackson Beck–is long-winded and gives Clark the whole history of King Tush, which is remarkably similar to King Tut but with giant guards and some other embellishments. Turns out the dead professor tried to get into the sarcophagus, ignoring the curse. There’s also something about him working to revive the mummified giant guards. Doesn’t matter. There’s just a lot of great Egyptian backgrounds (the museum’s recreating the tomb) and Beck’s exposition delivery is solid. Even with the nonsense.

Lois is also at the museum–she snuck after Clark because he kind of scooped her, or at least was a jerk about it. She’s sadly immaterial. Clark’s the one who sets off the sarcophagus trap, which revives the giant guards. Whose skin inexplicably gets darker the more evil they get? Like the guards of the hieroglyphic backdrops don’t match the revived ones.

The resulting action sequence with Superman fighting the giant guards is unsatisfactory–the detail isn’t great on the animation, it’s the detail on the Egyptian-themed stuff (and the mystery angle at the beginning)–and there’s actually no resolution whatsoever given the revived mummified guards at the end. Just Lois’s joke, which could be done without the racist part yet… they felt the need.

So, ew.

But the first half is good, even if it’s obvious they’re not going to be able to get anywhere with it.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Izzy Sparber; screenplay by Jay Morton, based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; animated by Graham Place and Myron Waldman; music by Winston Sharples and Sammy Timberg; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Bud Collyer (Clark Kent/Superman), Joan Alexander (Lois Lane/Jane Hogan), and Jackson Beck (Dr. Wilson); narrated by Beck.


Meshes of the Afternoon (1943, Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid)

Meshes of the Afternoon is a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream. But since they’re dreams, it’s really just the one dream, I suppose. A woman–presumably, because directors Deren and Hammid shoot from her point of view during the waking segment–comes up and takes a nap. On her way home, she’s found a flower (the short opens with a hand dropping it down before disappearing… the hand, not the flower) and then dropped her key. Once she picks up the key, which has fallen down the stairs, she finds the home in disarray. She goes up stairs and takes a nap in a chair.

At this point, the actions begin to repeat. Only the woman is revealed (co-director Deren). There are some first person shots, usually reestablishing what’s changed–there’s a moving knife, a phone off the hook–but Deren is in the action shots. She moves through the house, upstairs to find herself, only to enter another dream, and another. Soon she’s chasing a hooded figure, trying to get the flower. Or she’s watching the chase.

And then there’s that house key, which soon becomes a knife and Meshes goes from being ethereally confusing to dangerously ethereal. Sort of dangerous. Because it’s never clear how aware Deren’s dream-self is of her reality. There’s never any confusion as she moves through the house, which sometimes loses gravity or has the wind inside instead of outside. There’s determination, which eventually becomes resigned determination.

Meshes is deliberate and repetitive with its visuals. It’s patient for the viewer, never rushing them along. Hammid also photographs (and costars later on in the fourteen minute short); there’s higher contrast to the exteriors than the interiors–there’s also some fantastic process shots–while the interiors are more… airy. Outside seems hot, inside seems cool. The perceptible breeze plays into it, a relief for the protagonist.

The short encourages reflection if not downright dissection–Meshes entangles itself as it moves along, giving the viewer enough time to catch up but not enough time to unravel before the next iteration.

It’s exhilarating.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid; written and edited by Deren; director of photography, Hammid.

Starring Maya Deren (The Woman) and Alexander Hammid (The Man).


Power of the Press (1943, Lew Landers)

Power of the Press runs a thin–not slim, but thin–sixty-four minutes. It’s paced better than expected (publicity stills suggest quite a few cut scenes); scenes never seem rushed, scenes never seem truncated. Instead, they’re just deliberate. Otto Kruger is a blue blood New York City newspaper publisher who dabbles in fascism. He couldn’t buy his way into politics, but Daddy already bought him a newspaper. Or some of one.

Guy Kibbee, in the closest thing the film’s got to a protagonist, is the new majority owner. He’s a small-town newspaper man from Nebraska who inherits that majority stake because he still cares about the news. About the freedom of the press. About democracy. About the ninety-nine percent (actual line, 1943–“fake news” gets repeated a whole lot too). Kibbee’s got his ethics and ace assistant Gloria Dickson on his side. But can they save a great metropolitan newspaper? Can they bring some clarity and truth to it?

On his side, Kruger’s got literal hitman Victor Jory and managing editor Lee Tracy. It’s unclear if Jory’s in it for the fascism or the money, but Tracy is definitely in it for the money. Robert Hardy Andrews’s screenplay (from a Sam Fuller story) has some rather decided thoughts on fascists and capitalists–and some, sadly, apt insight into how the two support one another.

The movie sets up Kruger and the paper, then brings in Kibbee. Those events take however long a round-trip train ride is from New York to Nebraska, plus a day. The rest of the movie, featuring Kruger using the newspaper to frame an innocent man, sabotage the Allied Powers a little, murder an immigrant, frame Kibbee, and whatever else, it all takes place in about a week. Maybe less. We don’t even get to see Kibbee’s apartment. It’s all at the newspaper.

Until it’s not in the third act, which is when Press hints at what might have been if it weren’t so short and so perfunctory. It’s a low budget, homefront jingoist newspaper thriller. There are crime aspects, there are conspiracy aspects. It’s a reasonably successful one too. Kibbee’s occasional dictated editorials (delivered as monologues) are definitely rousing. And they’ve got some teeth. The racists are traitors one is particularly awesome (and depressing given the film’s from 1943). Kruger’s a great villain. The way the script paces revelations into his backstory alongside a sort of intensifying villainy… Kruger’s dangerous, even though probably none of the main characters are in danger.

Tracy’s second-billed, but his part’s rather small for most of the film. He’s good. He can bark orders and he can stop and listen. There’s remnants of a romance (or at least hope of one) between him and Dickson. More time would be a subplot though and Power of the Press doesn’t do subplots.

Kibbee’s fine in the “lead.” Sometimes good, like during his monologues, but the movie sets him up as a cute old grandpa, then hints at giving him an actual part, then gives up on it to do the homefront newspaper thriller stuff.

Minor Watson is good in a minor (and uncredited) role.

The film’s adequately produced. Director Landers has some good shots, he has some bad ones. Mostly he just has adequate ones. Ditto the photography and editing. Neither impress or disappoint. They both help imply a greater world outside Press, which the budget doesn’t allow shown. Including street scenes. For a New York City-based newspaper thriller… Press didn’t even get the backlot.

It’s still thin, successful or not. Maybe it shouldn’t have gone out on such a fun third act either. From the first scene, Press is focused on being threatening enough to be serious. There’s no fun. Grandpa Kibbee doesn’t have any cute hobbies. But then in the third act, with the right scenes, the actors interact right and it gets fun. Too bad the whole thing isn’t fun. Charm wouldn’t hurt Press. Everyone in the picture’s got charm, they just barely get to employ it.

2

CREDITS

Directed by Lew Landers; screenplay by Robert Hardy Andrews, based on a story by Samuel Fuller; director of photography, John Stumar; edited by Mel Thorsen; music by Paul Sawtell; produced by Leon Barsha; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Guy Kibbee (Ulysses Bradford), Gloria Dickson (Edwina Stephens), Otto Kruger (Howard Rankin), Lee Tracy (Griff Thompson), Victor Jory (Oscar Trent), Rex Williams (Barker), Frank Yaconelli (Tony Angelo), and Minor Watson (John Cleveland Carter).


Batman (1943, Lambert Hillyer)

For the majority of Batman’s fifteen chapters, the serial has a set formula when it comes to the action. Batman (Lewis Wilson) and Robin (Douglas Croft) get into fist fights with the same five or six thugs. Croft gets beat up early while Wilson takes on at least two of the villain, then two or three of the thugs beat up Wilson. They either put him in danger, triggering the chapter’s cliffhanger, or Croft just wakes up and helps him. Or, in the subsequent chapter’s resolution at the beginning, Croft wakes up and helps him.

Even on the rare occasions it’s something different, elements of the formula remain. Screenwriters Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, and Harry L. Fraser don’t have much plotting ingenuity. Especially not for fifteen chapters. Other variations to the fight and cliffhanger formulas include whether or not Wilson abandons Croft to the thugs or, you know, whether or not Wilson kills someone. Sometimes he means to kill them, sometimes it’s incidental. The only time he ever stops to worry about it is when it’s bad guys–as opposed to when he kills an innocent civilian through his ineptitude–and, in that case, the bad guys turn out to be dead anyway.

Not much of a role model, this Batman, despite being an official government agent. Or, maybe, because of it.

In addition to Wilson’s careless crimefighting, he’s not really good at investigating. Despite fighting the same group of thugs throughout the serial–and even bringing some of them to his “Bat’s Cave” for rather ineffective interrogation–Batman doesn’t even discover his adversary’s identity until the final chapter. He’s dreadfully bad at his job.

The villain of Batman is J. Carrol Naish. He’s playing an evil Japanese scientist, in full yellowface. The serial is exceptionally racist. Even as wartime propaganda, Batman is a lot to take. The first chapter narration makes special mention of the just internment of Japanese Americans. It, and the way the serial’s heroes are, you know, heroic for their stupid ignorance when they meet Naish, is astoundingly gross. The racism does not, however, distract from the serial’s utter stupidity. Sometimes, though not with Naish’s thugs, it manages to be gross and stupid. Usually it’s just stupid, with occasional flakes of racism.

The worst part of it? Naish gives the best performance in the entire thing. Even though he’s a coniving villain, out to use a giant radium gun to wreck havoc (it’s actually entirely unimportant as the serial progresses), Naish gives the role a lot more characterization and personality than anyone else gives theirs’. He even figures out Batman’s secret identity at one point.

Besides Naish, the best performances are from Charles Middleton and William Austin. Middleton is a radium miner, which seems likes it’s going to be important in the middle chapters of the serial. It’s not, but it does at least give Batman a chance to get off the backlot and go on location in the mountains. Director Hillyer does a little better with those exteriors. He never does well, but he does do a little better there.

But Middleton’s not around for long and, even if he were, it’s doubtful the screenwriters would give him anything to do. Middleton as bearded, folksy mountain man brings energy to Batman, something the serial sorely lacks. Hillyer doesn’t direct the actors’ performances–at least, one hopes he doesn’t, because then it’d be even worse–and Wilson and Croft aren’t engaging. Croft even less than Wilson.

The one time Wilson and Croft do get energized is opposite Austin, who plays Alfred the butler. Austin drives Wilson and Croft around town most of the chapters, whether they’re crimefighting or not. Occasionally, he gets roped into helping them in the crimefighting, which is usually at least mildly amusing. Austin’s got fine comic timing. Timing is another thing Batman tends to lack. Editors Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner are better than anyone else on the crew, but Hillyer’s a lousy director and James S. Brown Jr.’s photography is rarely competent. Lots of bad day for night in Batman. Lots.

Shirley Patterson plays Wilson’s love interest, who just can’t figure out why Batman is always around once Wilson leaves the room (or vice versa), and she’s got almost nothing to do. The serial treats her like an annoyance or a victim or a damsel in distress. Wilson usually just treats her like a pest, condescending or dismissing her. For a while, those moments are actually Wilson’s best as an actor. Until he puts on a fake nose and pretends to be a thug to get in with the gang. Shockingly enough, Wilson’s engaging during those scenes. It’s a downright treat when he skips the Batman costume for a chapter to (stupidly) investigate in his disguise.

Some of Naish’s thugs actually give decent performances–Robert Fiske the most, but also George J. Lewis and Warren Jackson. Competency helps a lot in Batman. There’s not much of it, so when someone isn’t terrible, it’s a big deal.

Sadly, Charles C. Wilson is atrocious as the moron police chief who occasionally pops up to answer Wilson’s questions about bad guys the Batman has apprehended. Even though Naish spends at least half the chapters assuming Batman has died (in the lame cliffhangers), he’s still too savvy to get taken down by the bumbling “heroes.”

The script has no character development, no character relationship development (it’s not like Wilson treats Patterson any differently as things go along, he always treats her like crap), it does nothing with Naish’s various schemes, just kills time. In the end, only the first two and last two chapters are relevant to the narrative. The rest could be chucked… if only we could be so lucky.

But we aren’t. And Batman trucks along, its best chapters never even registering mediocrity, Austin and Middleton’s contributions for naught, Naish’s relative success a debasement.

Though Lee Zahler does eventually get to some good music, albeit only in the last couple chapters.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Lambert Hillyer; screenplay by Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, and Harry L. Fraser, based on characters created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger; director of photography, James S. Brown Jr.; edited by Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner; music by Lee Zahler; produced by Rudolph C. Flothow; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Lewis Wilson (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Douglas Croft (Robin / Dick Grayson), J. Carrol Naish (Dr. Daka), Shirley Patterson (Linda Page), William Austin (Alfred Pennyworth), Gus Glassmire (Martin Warren), George J. Lewis (Burke), Robert Fiske (Foster), Charles Middleton (Ken Colton), Warren Jackson (Bernie), Dick Curtis (Agent Croft), Ted Oliver (Marshall), and Charles C. Wilson (Police Captain Arnold).


Batman (1943, Lambert Hillyer), Chapter 15: The Doom of the Rising Sun

Titling the final chapter, The Doom of the Rising Sun, might give away whether or not J. Carrol Naish succeeds with his awful plan–which Batman never quite defines and sort of forgets about anyway. The screenwriters try to drum up some excitement as Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft finally face off with Naish. It’s rather lackluster.

Oddly, even though the cliffhanger resolution is fairly predictable–just like the previous chapter forecasted–there’s enough built around the resolution to make the reveal nearly interesting. And it gives Croft and William Austin a decent moment.

Then Doom just turns into a rush for the finish. How fast can Austin get the cops, how fast can Wilson chase Naish, how fast can Wilson tie up the bad guys–the only time Batman and Robin prove competent in a fight and it’s the last chapter in the serial.

The last few minutes tie up plot threads from the first chapter. Nothing in between mattered much, apparently, and it goes out with Wilson being a jackass to Shirley Patterson again. It reminds why it was so nice for him to do something else for a while.

Technically, the finale doesn’t attempt much–all the action takes place on existing sets, using already introduced foils. Though it is maybe the first time Lee Zahler’s score is all right, even if it’s just momentarily.

The biggest letdown, besides Wilson’s Batman being just as much of a bigot as the narrator and the serial itself, is how little anything in between the first chapter and this final one mattered. The rest–almost ninety percent of Batman–was prattle.

CREDITS

Directed by Lambert Hillyer; screenplay by Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, and Harry L. Fraser, based on characters created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger; director of photography, James S. Brown Jr.; edited by Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner; music by Lee Zahler; produced by Rudolph C. Flothow; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Lewis Wilson (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Douglas Croft (Robin / Dick Grayson), Shirley Patterson (Linda Page), William Austin (Alfred Pennyworth), and J. Carrol Naish (Dr. Daka).


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