Frank Skinner

All That Heaven Allows (1955, Douglas Sirk)

The third act of All That Heaven Allows is all about agency. Who has it, how they avoid it, why they avoid it. For a while it seems like it’s about Jane Wyman having it, then about Rock Hudson having it. Wyman’s always implied agency, right from the start. Hudson, who doesn’t have a scene from his own perspective until the third act, has always had an air of agency but not an active one. At least not where Wyman’s concerned. The third act suggests it’s going to mix everything up.

And it does… sort of. Until it stops and gives up on the whole idea.

All That Heaven Allows is the story of somewhat recent widow Jane Wyman who starts a clandestine love affair with her gardener, Hudson. He’s younger (though barely looks it, which says more about Wyman than Hudson) and doesn’t subscribe to the fifties rat race. He’s happy being a gardener and going into tree growing, which Wyman’s friends and neighbors from the country club find to be a disgusting rejection of good capitalist ideals.

Of course, they’re all buying their Christmas trees from Hudson and his tree-growing pal Charles Drake, but whatever. The film never even slightly implies often drunken WASPs should be taken seriously. The only good one is Agnes Moorehead, who’s stuck in the life–the film implies–because she hasn’t got any children; she’s Wyman’s best friend. Though she kind of disappears in the third act when Wyman’s got to do her thinking and feeling (and living) for herself.

The film rarely lets Hudson and Wyman have a peaceful moment. During the initial courtship and flirtation, sure. Wyman’s unsure of Hudson’s affections–though never for the reasons everyone else is worried about–while Hudson is too good to be true. He’s six feet, four inches of thoughtful, considerate, zen man meat. The scenes where Wyman’s female friends are mortified by Hudson are hilarious, given all their husbands are grossly out of shape and completely bores. If not burgeoning rapists. So when it comes time for Wyman to have to chose between Hudson and her pals, the choice should be clear.

Especially since the film establishes from the start the only one she actually cares about is Moorehead. The rest are incapable of actual human concern.

But Wyman’s got two kids. There’s proto-feminist social worker Gloria Talbott and Princeton man William Reynolds. Talbott talks a big talk but pushes Wyman in front of a bus while gushing over her dimwit suitor, an uncredited David Janssen. Reynolds wants Wyman to live in reverence of his father’s memory. Peg Fenwick’s screenplay has very little time for Talbott and Reynolds, though they have a lot of scenes and a lot of dialogue, but it’s pretty clear they’re complete heels from their first scene. Sure, the townspeople are bores, drunks, and gossips, but Talbott and Reynolds actively feed off Wyman’s emotions. They drain her from the start.

And they don’t much like Hudson. He lives on some undisclosed acreage of prime, undeveloped land–which has been passed down generations–but he’s got to be after Wyman’s (i.e. her dead husband’s) money. Talbott’s exasperating but not malicious. Reynolds is malicious and woodenly so. Especially given the way director Sirk shoots the film.

Heaven has a lot of color and a lot of shadows. Outside it’s always a clear, sometimes snowy day. Inside there are various colors, warm and cool, and shadows. The shadows usually fall on whoever’s opposite Wyman, a way of focusing a spotlight on her but a somewhat naturally occurring one. Russell Metty’s photography is phenomenal.

Those shadows make most of the men in Heaven into caricatures, at least the ones in Wyman’s life. Not sweet doctor Hayden Rorke or even sweet, unexciting standby suitor Conrad Nagel, but everyone else. Reynolds is the harshest, because out of those shadows he’s firing daggers at mom Wyman. Ones she apparently has no defense for.

Hudson is apart from the gross displays of blue blood machismo–when he and Drake talk about masculine responsibility in the third act, it’s an actual surprise. Then it turns out to be some manipulative narrative efficiency and the damage is slight, but still there. Every misstep and short cut in the third act resonates because the film ends so perfunctory. The whole thing promises Wyman this fantastic arc, starts delivering it, dodges and implies Hudson’s going to get the feature arc, dodges him too and just finishes things up. It could go out happy, it could go out sad, it could go out cynical, instead it just… goes out without any ambitions. But satisfactorily enough.

Wyman’s great. Hudson’s really good. She gets a much better part. He remains a partial enigma until the end. He too got the shadowy face during some interiors. But he’s also got some great moments where he’s breaking through the mystery to reveal himself. The film really wants to be about Wyman realizing the shadowy faces don’t matter as much as her own, metaphorically speaking, but never quite gets there. It’s simultaneously five minutes too long and ten minutes too short.

The supporting cast is all good. Moorehead, Nagel, Virginia Grey. Grey even manages to get through Fenwick’s worst scene, talking through a series of generic colloquialisms in an exposition dump–which Fenwick, nicely, never repeats. Reynolds not so much. He’s effective, but he’s nearly as villainous as Donald Curtis’s country club sexual predator.

Outstanding music from Frank Skinner. Fantastic direction from Sirk. Heaven always looks amazing and the way Sirk, Metty, and Skinner (and whatever composer Skinner occasionally borrows from) come together to focus on the characters (read: Wyman) and the weight of their unspoken burdens and constraints… it’s awesome.

It’s also a shame the ending is so pat.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Douglas Sirk; screenplay by Peg Fenwick, based on the novel by Edna L. Lee and Harry Lee; director of photography, Russell Metty; edited by Frank Gross; music by Frank Skinner; produced by Ross Hunter; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Jane Wyman (Cary Scott), Rock Hudson (Ron Kirby), Agnes Moorehead (Sara Warren), Gloria Talbott (Kay Scott), William Reynolds (Ned Scott), Virginia Grey (Alida Anderson), Jacqueline deWit (Mona Plash), Charles Drake (Mick Anderson), Donald Curtis (Howard Hoffer), Hayden Rorke (Dr. Dan Hennessy), and Conrad Nagel (Harvey).


Son of Frankenstein (1939, Rowland V. Lee)

Son of Frankenstein is a mostly wasted opportunity. For everything good, there’s something significantly wrong with it. The script is good, director Lee doesn’t direct actors well. The German Expressionist-influenced sets are great, Lee shoots it so stagy, the sets go to waste. Lee likes his long shots. He and editor Ted J. Kent do nothing to make the cuts interesting. Though, really, Kent doesn’t have any material to work with. Lee has about six different shots and he just goes through them in a cycle. It’d be annoying on its own, but with everything else, it gives Son of Frankenstein way too much narrative distance. If the sets had been worse, if the actors had been better, who knows….

The Son in the title is Basil Rathbone. He is returning to Castle Frankenstein. Oh, right–it’s basically a lot like Young Frankenstein. Rathbone discovers the monster, brings it back to life, chaos ensues. He’s got a wife (Josephine Hutchinson in an admirable performance given all the constraints on her–Lee’s lack of direction, Rathbone’s inability to share scenes) and son (Donnie Dunagan, who’s supposed to be adorable). Right off, Rathbone’s a mad scientist. Most of the film has him hanging out with Bela Lugosi (who understands how to upstage a screen hog and delivers a fairly solid performance). Lionel Atwill’s around as a police inspector with only one arm. Yes, there’s a dart scene in Son too.

Oh, right. The Monster. Boris Karloff. You’d think he’d be important but he’s not. There’s no room for Karloff or the Monster in Son, not with Rathbone, Lugosi and Atwill. Atwill’s got more chemistry with Hutchinson than Rathbone and Atwill’s not even good. Lee doesn’t direct him and sort of lets him dangle in the film’s most thankless, but most important role.

Karloff is great. He has almost nothing to do, but watching him examine himself in the mirror, one can just imagine how good it would be with better direction. Cooper’s script is full of little moments Lee just can’t convey. The script’s far from perfect–anyone but Rathbone needed to be the lead the story, the part itself is inherently unlikable and Cooper doesn’t go anywhere interesting with it.

Really lame music from Frank Skinner doesn’t help things.

Even when Son of Frankenstein feints to impress, it manages to disappoint. And most of it is Lee’s fault.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Rowland V. Lee; written by Wyllis Cooper; director of photography, George Robinson; edited by Ted J. Kent; music by Frank Skinner; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Basil Rathbone (Baron Wolf von Frankenstein), Boris Karloff (The Monster), Bela Lugosi (Ygor), Lionel Atwill (Krogh), Josephine Hutchinson (Elsa von Frankenstein), Donnie Dunagan (Peter von Frankenstein), Emma Dunn (Amelia) and Edgar Norton (Benson).


The Mummy’s Ghost (1944, Reginald Le Borg)

The Mummy’s Ghost is, with a couple problems, really good for a monster movie (and leagues ahead of Universal’s other 1940s Mummy features). It’s not so much about the Mummy as the victims and the investigation (but the police investigation, not the scientific–and everyone believes in mummies walking around animate, so there’s no convincing to be done).

But it’s a little more than just the approach to the plot, it’s the whole script. The film opens with a great recap of the previous two, with a split expository scene, starting with villain John Carradine (oh, I forgot, John Carradine plays an Arab here) learning about it then splitting to a college lecture for the second half of the story. It’s a neat narrative shift, bringing the entire cast into the film while still doing the recap.

But Carradine isn’t even a major character. He’s important at the end for a scene or two, but mostly the film focuses on Robert Lowery, a college student whose girlfriend (Ramsay Ames) is taking the Mummy’s return poorly, and Harry Shannon’s sheriff, who knows what he’s pursuing but doesn’t know how to do it.

Shannon’s maybe not leading man quality, but he’s fine. Lowery’s good. Ames is all right too, with her terror coming through rather well.

Le Borg’s a somewhat poor director (the Mummy close-ups are staged terribly), but William A. Sickner’s photography–especially the day for night work–is exquisite.

It’s a real downer too, which is just wonderful.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Reginald Le Borg; screenplay by Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher and Brenda Weisberg, based on a story by Jay and Sucher; director of photography, William A. Sickner; edited by Saul A. Goodkind; music by Frank Skinner; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring John Carradine (Yousef Bey), Robert Lowery (Tom Hervey), Ramsay Ames (Amina Mansouri), Barton MacLane (Inspector Walgreen), George Zucco (Andoheb, High Priest of Arkan), Frank Reicher (Prof. Matthew Norman), Harry Shannon (Sheriff Elwood), Emmett Vogan (Coroner), Lester Sharpe (Dr. Ayad, Scripps Museum), Claire Whitney (Mrs. Ella Norman) and Lon Chaney Jr. (Kharis).

The Mummy’s Hand (1940, Christy Cabanne)

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this film.

There’s no discernible reason for it to be called The Mummy’s Hand. I can only guess it has to do with the way they cut the trailer, maybe having the hand come out as a shocker.

It’s not a traditional Universal horror film; it’s one of the first where they cut the budget. Until this point, the films were higher profile (the first three Frankenstein films, even Dracula’s Daughter).

The script is lousy, but it also introduces these bad comic elements–mostly from Wallace Ford, playing the idiot sidekick. The film also has George Zucco as the villain (not the mummy, but the mummy’s master). It’s impossible to take Zucco seriously as a villain in this one–especially since he’s a lecherous villain, lusting after Peggy Moran in these creepy scenes.

She probably gives the film’s best performance; she doesn’t have much competition. Dick Foran’s the lead, who is almost as dumb as Ford.

Cecil Kellaway is good as Moran’s father. Charles Trowbridge as the smart guy who helps the two morons, he’s fine.

Watching The Mummy’s Hand, you can see it as a straight comedy, with the bang, pop, zows of the 1960s “Batman” show, with a laugh track. They kind of need a laugh track. They ape lines from Dracula. It feels desperate.

Vera West gives Moran an amusing Egyptian desert nightgown and Jack P. Pierce’s makeup is great.

It’s hard to make it through the seventy minutes.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Christy Cabanne; screenplay by Griffin Jay and Maxwell Shane, based on a story by Jay; director of photography, Elwood Bredell; edited by Philip Cahn; music by Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner; produced by Ben Pivar; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Dick Foran (Steve Banning), Peggy Moran (Marta Solvani), Wallace Ford (Babe Jenson), Eduardo Ciannelli (The High Priest), George Zucco (Professor Andoheb), Cecil Kellaway (The Great Solvani), Charles Trowbridge (Dr. Petrie of the Cairo Museum), Tom Tyler (Kharis, the Mummy) and Sig Arno (The Beggar).


The Mississippi Gambler (1953, Rudolph Maté)

Torpid isn’t an adjective I get to use often, but I can’t think of a better one to describe The Mississippi Gambler. It’s a boring melodrama, trading entirely on the charisma of its cast–Tyrone Power might have been able to handle the weight, but the film concentrates on the loveless marriage of Piper Laurie (as she pines for Power) just when it needs him most. There are some fine moments throughout, particularly at the beginning, with Power and John McIntire working well together and the relationship between Power and Paul Cavanagh rather touching. But the story skips ahead way too often, passing over indeterminate months, until all the dramatic import is lost.

Bad acting from principle supporting cast members doesn’t help. John Baer’s particularly terrible, but Ron Randall isn’t much better. Most of their scenes are with Laurie and her performance is strong enough it’s inconceivable she’d be so devoted to such a pair of rubes. Some of the problem is with the script–Power, McIntire and Cavanagh are positioned as real men, while everyone else is a fop or dandy. It’s a goofy approach and somewhat nonsensical (there’s a lot of strong homoerotic undercurrents between Baer and Randall–and Baer’s devotion to sister Laurie is positively disturbing).

While Rudolph Maté’s direction isn’t bad, it’s certainly middling. The film’s got rather opulent sets and Maté shoots them to good effect, but that compliment’s probably the best one I can come up with. He’s got some strange composition–lots of backs of heads–and the film’s inability to convey any passage of time is partially his fault. Even if he didn’t choose to use fades to black or didn’t insist the script fit together, in terms of consecutive visual action, he still could have done something. It’s kind of his job, right?

Still, as boring as the film gets–as bad as Frank Skinner’s music gets and it gets bad–The Mississippi Gambler is never downright terrible. Power can do this kind of thing in his sleep; some of his performance here is certainly semi-conscious. McIntire and Cavanagh both make the most of their scenes. Julie Adams is fine in one of the script’s more useless, melodrama only roles.

It’s actually a perfect example of a melodrama. Nothing in the film doesn’t exist solely to advance the plot to its preordained conclusion. In the third act, as the pieces fall into place for the inevitable to occur, the film decides to take forever to get there, which gets really irritating.

I suppose Irving Glassberg’s Technicolor cinematography is pretty enough. I already complimented the sets too… The Mississippi Gambler is simply an excruciating ninety-nine minutes. Seton I. Miller seems to have written as many scenes as possible–I should have counted–with the idea enough of them would make a full narrative. Unsurprisingly, his experiment fails. He’s not even a bad writer–some of his dialogue and humor works and he has a handful of solid character relationships–he’s just a terrible plotter. What should have been surefire–Power as a charming gambler–is instead a big snooze.

But it’s still somehow competent.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Rudolph Maté; written by Seton I. Miller; director of photography, Irving Glassberg; edited by Edward Curtiss; music by Frank Skinner; produced by Ted Richmond; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Tyrone Power (Mark Fallon), Piper Laurie (Angelique Dureau), Julie Adams (Ann Conant), John McIntire (Kansas John Polly), Paul Cavanagh (Edmond Dureau), John Baer (Laurent Dureau), Ron Randell (George Elwood), Ralph Dumke (F. Montague Caldwell), Robert Warwick (Gov. Paul Monet), William Reynolds (Pierre Loyette) and Guy Williams (Andre Brion).


Canyon Passage (1946, Jacques Tourneur)

Canyon Passage starts out strange. Dana Andrews shows up in 1850s Portland (Oregon) and, after some character establishing, fends off someone breaking into his room. It got me thinking later if the unseen event leading up to the intruder is actually the film’s dramatic vehicle, the event setting off the action. Because Canyon Passage is an odd narrative. The film’s presented, in its first act, as an unfolding exploration of the characters’ situations. Andrews and Susan Hayward introduce the viewer to the film’s setting, to the lives and hardships of the supporting cast.

But Canyon Passage keeps an even tone throughout, never hinting at its action-oriented conclusion. Most of it is straight drama as Andrews romances Patricia Roc to the dismay of both Victor Cutler and Hayward. Hayward’s engaged to Andrews’s best friend, played by Brian Donlevy, however. Those last two sentences suggest Canyon Passage is something of a soap opera, but it isn’t at all. The attraction between Hayward and Andrews is gradually and gently developed; the film’s focus is far more on the friendship between Andrews and Donlevy.

I’d forgotten Jacques Tourneur directed Canyon Passage until the opening titles, and given his noir-heavy 1940s filmography, it seemed like an odd fit. But the complicated friendship between Donlevy and Andrews–Andrews’s feelings of responsibility, Donlevy’s resentment at Andrews having to be the response one due to his success–is really at the film’s center. Sort of.

The problem with identifying Passage‘s central focus is how little it has of one. Just like I was trying to identify narrative features, I was also trying to figure out some kind of rule for the film’s scenes–as in, who has to be in the scene for it to be a scene. Andrews disappears for a little while once his romance with Roc is established, with Donlevy and his gambling addiction taking over (the consideration given to Donlevy’s character, who’s basically just weak-willed, is incredibly sensitive and also sets Passage apart). But there’s little rhyme and reason to who gets a scene and who doesn’t–it’s probably something as simple as the source novel focusing on more of the supporting cast and adapting their salient scenes, but the film suggests it isn’t. It suggests a certain lyricism to its unfolding events.

The acting is all spectacular. Andrews plays the conflicted leading man better than anyone and his muted attraction to Hayward, present but clouded from their first scene, is fantastic. Hayward’s great too, with her reciprocal attraction being more of a complicated narrative development. Donlevy’s best scenes are probably when he’s on his own (Donlevy’s always seems more a leading man, even when he’s not the protagonist)–but his scenes with Andrews are singular. The supporting cast–Andy Devine, Hoagy Carmichael and Lloyd Bridges, in particular–are excellent. As the villain, Ward Bond is terrifying. Bond plays him with a mix of evil and stupidity–the stupidity making the evil even more scary.

Tourneur’s direction is great–only during the big travel scene in the first act does the editing get choppy, otherwise Tourneur’s got lots of good coverage. The film shot on location in Oregon and it shows (though Crater Lake isn’t as close to Jacksonville as the film suggests). Edward Cronjager’s Technicolor cinematography is beautiful.

And it doesn’t hurt Carmichael contributes some songs either.

The film starts solid, but just gets better and better. It’s great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Tourneur; screenplay by Ernest Pascal, based on a novel by Ernest Haycox; director of photography, Edward Cronjager; edited by Milton Carruth; music by Frank Skinner; produced by Walter Wanger; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Dana Andrews (Logan Stuart), Brian Donlevy (George Camrose), Susan Hayward (Lucy Overmire), Patricia Roc (Caroline Marsh), Ward Bond (Honey Bragg), Hoagy Carmichael (Hi Linnet), Fay Holden (Mrs. Overmire), Stanley Ridges (Jonas Overmire), Lloyd Bridges (Johnny Steele), Andy Devine (Ben Dance), Victor Cutler (Vane Blazier), Rose Hobart (Marta Lestrade), Halliwell Hobbes (Clenchfield), James Cardwell (Gray Bartlett) and Onslow Stevens (Jack Lestrade).


One Way Street (1950, Hugo Fregonese)

Here’s a goofy one–the title also could be The Doctor in the Sombrero–with James Mason as a mob doctor who makes off with two hundred grand and the boss’s girl, only to end up in rural Mexico, healing horses. It’s all pretty standard stuff, down to the excursion to Mexico, but Mason and Dan Duryea (surprisingly effective as the mob boss) bring some pep to it. The beginning, with a rapid setup, is great. Then the escape to Mexico, which quickly losses story potential, bogs down the rest of the movie. It’s fine for the most part, just painfully predictable. Mason’s a doctor who learns to care again, first about horses, then people, and finally romantic interest Märta Torén. All very predictable until the conclusion.

Where One Way Street (which makes little sense given the film’s content) is a little different is in its shedding of the film noir. The stopover in rural Mexico is somewhat genre-free. Predictable and a little boring, but it’s straight b-movie drama, not noir. Unfortunately, the return to Los Angeles ends up damaging the whole movie. First, the imperative for the trip is unclear (it’s just time for the movie to end) and, after a neat trick, One Way Street ends as dumbly as it possibly can.

Mason’s good at the beginning and the end and okay through the middle. There’s nothing for him to work with here. Torén’s mediocre and uninteresting. Of the Mexico portion, Basil Ruysdael comes out the best as a sympathetic priest. The real surprise is William Conrad as one of the gangsters. He’s great in his handful of scenes (and Jack Elam’s pretty good in an uncredited small part).

Another big problem is director Fregonese. He’s so uninteresting as a director–both in terms of composition and in directing actors–it’s hard to think he’d do anything to fix the script’s problems. With the terrible ending, the movie would be a little better, a standard b-movie, but it did have some potential for being better.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Hugo Fregonese; written by Lawrence Kimble; director of photography, Maury Gertsman; edited by Milton Carruth; music by Frank Skinner; produced by Leonard Goldstein; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring James Mason (Dr. Frank Matson), Märta Torén (Laura Thorsen), Dan Duryea (John Wheeler), Basil Ruysdael (Father Moreno), William Conrad (Ollie), Rodolfo Acosta (Francisco Morales), King Donovan (Grieder), Robert Espinoza (Santiago), Tito Renaldo (Hank Torres), Margarito Luna (Antonio Morales), Emma Roldán (Catalina) and George J. Lewis (Capt. Rodriguez).


The Runaround (1946, Charles Lamont)

It takes a while for The Runaround to get started… actually, I suppose it’d more accurate to say it stalls out after the first fifteen minutes, then takes another twenty or so to get started again. The film starts out strong with Frank McHugh in a sidekick role–McHugh’s perfect in that role–and lead Rod Cameron is appealing (even if he’s not the most emotive actor). The first fifteen minutes are a comedic chase between Cameron and opponent (they’re private detectives competing–whoever brings home the missing heiress wins) Broderick Crawford. Crawford’s really broad in this role, so broad it got me thinking about the use of the term to describe performances. It doesn’t hurt the film much (though, obviously, a really good performance would have been nice), but it is a surprise coming from Crawford. There’s not much in the script, but it’s open enough he could have done something with it.

Then Ella Raines shows up (as the missing heiress) and the movie stalls out. The script tries to force her in to the existing chance and competition sequences already going and it starts getting tiresome around the forty minute mark. The characters had been moving east–from California–for a few minutes with the same gags going on, then there’s a wonderfully choreographed chase scene involving a dozen taxis and… the movie changes. A lot has to do with Raines’s character developing, but it also changes tone. The Runaround changes, almost immediately, in to a great road movie. There’s still the competition and chase elements, but they become third and fourth, behind the romance and the road movie.

Lamont is a particularly good fight scene director–I’m pretty sure the scene where Crawford knocks the door shut with a jump kick is really him–and he has some other nice sequences. Most of them are on the road… It’s nice how the movie can skirt taking too long to get where it’s going and putting in some substandard minutes and not call attention to the obvious quality shift (oddly, the less McHugh is in the story, the better the movie). It plays like it needed a rewrite, like the writers figured out certain aspects of the story when writing the script, then never went back to tighten up the scenes.

There are also quite a few good more traditional comedy moments (particularly the hotel with the annoyingly friendly employees or the husband and wife who are supposed to be acting like newlyweds, but after six years and three kids, find the idea repugnant) and they contribute to The Runaround’s success. But most of the credit belongs to Cameron and Raines’s chemistry, even if she’s done far better work in other films (though, like I said before, the script works against her for her first fifteen minutes or so).

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Charles Lamont; screenplay by Sam Hellman and Arthur T. Horman, based on a story by Horman and Walter Wise; director of photography, George Robinson; edited by Ted J. Kent; music by Frank Skinner; produced by Joseph Gershenson; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Ella Raines (Penelope), Rod Cameron (Kildane), Broderick Crawford (Louis Prentiss), Frank McHugh (Wally Quayle), George Cleveland (Feenan the cabbie), Joan Shawlee (Baby Willis), Samuel S. Hinds (Norman Hampton), Joe Sawyer (Hutchins), Nana Bryant (Mrs. Mildred Hampton), Dave Willock (Willis), Charles Coleman (Butler) and Jack Overman (Cusack).


Shenandoah (1965, Andrew V. McLaglen)

In addition to being the first film of Andrew V. McLaglen’s I’ve seen (which is quite an achievement, considering how much he directed), Shenendoah is the first film I’ve seen where James Stewart plays the patriarch. Unless Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation counts and I don’t think it does, not like Shenendoah. The film sets Stewart as the father of seven sons and one daughter, Virginian farmers sitting out the Civil War. In its approach, initially anyway, the film owes a lot to Friendly Persuasion. There’s a calm friendliness to the family and the first forty minutes is spent listening to Stewart’s fatherly monologues (half of them are excellent, half are mediocre; the one he gives future son-in-law Doug McClure is wonderful). The film establishes its primary characters in these forty minutes–besides Stewart, the youngest son and the married son (played by Patrick Wayne, who’s great) get the spotlight, as does the courting McClure and the daughter–but there’s little distinguishing about the five other sons. They have names, except only one of them even approaches being recognizable, and their purpose in the film is to support.

At the forty-minute mark, or around it, the film changes gears and becomes the most startling anti-war film I’ve seen about the Civil War. Unfortunately, the film’s politics are incredibly safe–these Virginians don’t own slaves because they don’t think its right not to do your own work (my frequent observation about people with lawn crews who have such pride in the foliage they picked from a catalog) and they wouldn’t help a friend fight for his slaves, which doesn’t really matter since the family seems not to have any friends–but there’s never any comment about slavery being wrong. Shenendoah is a Western and Western filmmakers knew their audiences. There’s a little bit of the friendship between the youngest son and a same-aged slave to distinguish it, but it’s hard to believe Stewart’s frequent monologues would never broach the subject. As an anti-war film, though effective, it’s as unbiased as Gone With the Wind. Shenendoah shows the South and the Confederate soldiers as passives, only being acted upon by the aggressive and, at times, evil North. George Kennedy–youngish–shows up for a minute as a kind-hearted Northern officer, but he’s the single humane portrayal of the North in the whole film.

Even more complicated is the film’s morality. Tragedy strikes Stewart’s family in some awful (and unexpected) ways. It’s a bit of a rough film–even though the score maintains the playfulness of the first forty minutes–and those minutes were spent making the audience care for the characters. Even if their names aren’t clear. It’s an intentional move, so the question arises whether the tragedy is Stewart’s just reward for sitting out the Civil War, for abandoning his duty to Virginia. As complicated as those questions could be, Shenendoah doesn’t invite much analysis. It’s entertains and makes the viewer care about what’s going on. The rest isn’t particularly important (its greatest crime is giving Wayne the small part).

As for director McLaglen… if I didn’t know his name from so many other Westerns, I’d never bother to look it up or to have noticed it. He’s fine but wholly unimpressive except for the battle scenes, which are some of the finest I can recall.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen; written by James Lee Barrett; director of photography, William H. Clothier; edited by Otho Lovering; music by Frank Skinner; produced by Robert Arthur; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring James Stewart (Charlie Anderson), Doug McClure (Lt. Sam), Glenn Corbett (Jacob Anderson), Patrick Wayne (James Anderson), Rosemary Forsyth (Jennie Anderson), Phillip Alford (Boy Anderson), Katharine Ross (Mrs. Ann Anderson), Charles Robinson (Nathan Anderson), Jim McMullan (John Anderson), Tim McIntire (Henry Anderson), Gene Jackson (Gabriel), Paul Fix (Dr. Tom Witherspoon), Denver Pyle (Pastor Bjoerling) and George Kennedy (Col. Fairchild).


Bright Victory (1951, Mark Robson)

Mark Robson made some great films. I first saw Bright Victory before I knew who he was (I think Victory was probably my first Robson, actually). I saw it on AMC in 1997 probably. Julie Adams is in it and maybe I had AMC flagged for Julie Adams movies somehow. I can’t remember if they had a website. Somehow, I saw the film. It was probably my first Arthur Kennedy film too. Kennedy’s one of those actors who’s fallen through the cracks. He never did a disaster movie or a guest on “The Love Boat.” He’s a fantastic actor and Bright Victory offers him a great role.

It’s World War II and Kennedy is blinded. Unfortunately, even though he’s the protagonist, he’s not altogether likable. He’s a Southern bigot who can’t wait to get home to marry in to money. From the title, it’s obviously Bright Victory does not end badly for Kennedy’s character. I could ramble about Bright Victory, I just realized, so I’m going to need to rein it in. First, the film’s from 1951 and a 1951 film making the lead out to be a jerk for being a bigot is a rarity. Robson had done another film about race relations (Home of the Brave), but Bright Victory is a Universal-International picture, not a smaller studio like that one. I remember, in 1997, I had never seen the issue discussed in this filmic era. Since, I’ve seen some films cover it, but never so straightforwardly.

The script, by Robert Buckner, stays with Kennedy for most of the film. The rare deviations–once for the culmination of another blind soldier’s story arc and then for a scene with the fiancée, played by Adams–don’t stick out. The film’s constructed with a roaming eye. Since Kennedy’s learning how to be blind, so is the audience. The roaming eye doesn’t stop with that usefulness, however, it goes on to become the film’s most interesting presentation principle. Bright Victory features a few scenes–three I can think of–where the characters talk to each other, but never let the audience know what’s going on. Both the characters know, but we do not. That device is never used–it’s probably one of the particularities I noticed about Bright Victory back when I first saw it.

Last, I need to go over the actors. This post is already one of the longest I’ve done–I haven’t seen Victory since the first time, probably, so I could go on and on. Peggy Dow stars as the rival love interest. She has a few particularly great scenes. James Edwards is Kennedy’s friend, again, has some great scenes. Jim Backus (from “Gilligan’s Island”) shows up and does well–Backus was a great 1950s character actor. Will Geer plays Kennedy’s father and the two have a wonderful scene together, elucidating how Kennedy’s blindness has changed their relationship. When I finished the film, I realized it managed to posit Kennedy could not have made his personal achievements without the blindness, but did never became melodramatic, contrived, or hackneyed.

TCM has the film now–they’ve played it twice–and you can even vote for a DVD release on their website (even though it’s a Universal title). It’s absolutely fantastic, just like much of Robson’s work.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Robson; screenplay by Robert Buckner, based on a novel by Baynard Kendrick; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by Russell Schoengarth; music by Frank Skinner; produced by Buckner; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Arthur Kennedy (Larry Nevins), Peggy Dow (Judy Greene), Julie Adams (Chris Paterson), John Hudson (Corporal John Flagg), James Edwards (Joe Morgan), Nana Bryant (Mrs. Nevins), Richard Egan (Sgt. John Masterson), Jim Backus (Bill Grayson) and Will Geer (Mr. Nevins).


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