Harry Carey

Sundown (1941, Henry Hathaway)

The majority of Sundown is excellent. Hathaway sort of mixes the Western and British colonial adventure genre with a World War II propaganda piece. New Mexico stands in for Kenya—it’s an interesting war film because there aren’t any Americans. Lead Bruce Cabot is playing a Canadian.

Cabot does well throughout. He handles the colonial scenes well, handing off his command to George Sanders in the first act. Sundown’s peculiar because it takes a self-indulgent pace getting to where it’s going. There’s the tension between Cabot and Sanders, but none of it is necessary to get to the finish. Neither is Joseph Calleia, who has a nice supporting role as an Italian prisoner of war who’d rather cook than fight. Or Harry Carey, who shows up in the second half as the local white hunter.

And Gene Tierney—who gets top-billing—is barely in the film until it’s a third over. It’s an early performance from her and there are ups and downs. Some of it has to do with the role (Sundown’s the one where Gene Tierney plays an Arab), but she’s also not quite ready yet. She does well with Cabot though, selling their attraction right off.

Hathaway’s direction is often fantastic, especially how he shows life on the outpost. The night scenes are problematic, Charles Lang shoots too dark and then the finale’s in a dank cave, which doesn’t film well.

The end brings in the propaganda and lays it on so heavy, Sundown sinks.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Henry Hathaway; screenplay by Barré Lyndon, based on an adaptation by Charles G. Booth and based on a story by Lyndon; director of photography, Charles Lang; edited by Dorothy Spencer; music by Miklós Rózsa; produced by Walter Wanger; released by United Artists.

Starring Gene Tierney (Zia), Bruce Cabot (William Crawford), George Sanders (Major A.L. Coombes), Harry Carey (Alan Dewey), Joseph Calleia (Pallini), Reginald Gardiner (Lt. Roddy Turner), Carl Esmond (Jan Kuypens), Marc Lawrence (Abdi Hammud), Gilbert Emery (Ashburton), Jeni Le Gon (Miriami), Emmett Smith (Kipsang) and Dorothy Dandridge (Kipsang’s Bride).


The Great Moment (1944, Preston Sturges)

There are a handful of “Sturges moments” in The Great Moment. I suppose I’d define those moments as the ones where the predictable or familiar filmic device transcends artifice (even if it’s as artificial as the text a character is reading appearing on the screen for the viewer to read as well) and becomes… ideal. Sturges’s understanding of how to make a comedic scene work is amazing. His pacing is perfect, the editing, everything. But The Great Moment isn’t a comedy. It’s the rather depressing story of the discoverer of anesthesia, played by Joel McCrea.

Sturges is visibly passionate about the story (the film’s thesis being the discoverer got a raw deal), but he allows that passion to blind him from his strengths. So, even while there are those good Sturges moments and the film’s generally well-written, there’s a lot of problems. First, Sturges frames it as a flashback with, presumably, bookends. But he quickly discards the framing. Second, the end… once it becomes clear the story’s got a terribly depressing conclusion… Sturges has a serious problem (there’s no, for example, great moment in the film for McCrea–I kept waiting for it, no less). It reminds me a little of Mason & Dixon. Both Sturges and Pynchon are stuck with some sense of historical reality, but Sturges didn’t find… damn it… any great moment.

But the biggest problem is with McCrea and wife Betty Field. They barely have a relationship (though they do have mostly invisible, off-screen children) and it only gets worse near the end, when Field’s become a nouveau riche would-be society woman. The film’s focus is on McCrea’s discovery and both he and Sturges do a good job chronicling the various experiments and developments. But Sturges doesn’t have a story to do it in… he’s lionizing the man, certainly not examining him, but not even acknowledging his surroundings (which is why the film has a terrible ending–Sturges didn’t see outside his strict constraints).

The film’s got some masterfully done scenes, McCrea’s performance is solid as can be (though even he can’t pull off Sturges’s all too contrived ending), and the supporting cast is excellent. Harry Carey and William Demarest (who might look a little too much alike) are both quite good, as is Julius Tannen. But Field’s most present in those framing scenes, so there’s a major hole.

I’m not sure I’d say it was a good attempt, but it’s one with a lot of integrity… another reason Sturges couldn’t pull it off–he was way too invested in it. Biopics belong to the subject, regardless of liberties taken, never to the storyteller.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Preston Sturges; screenplay by Sturges, based on the book by René Fülöp-Miller; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Stuart Gilmore; music by Victor Young; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Joel McCrea (William Thomas Green Morton), Betty Field (Elizabeth Morton), Harry Carey (Prof. Warren), William Demarest (Eben Frost), Louis Jean Heydt (Dr. Horace Wells), Julius Tannen (Dr. Charles Jackson), Edwin Maxwell (Vice-President of Medical Society), Porter Hall (President Franklin Pierce), Franklin Pangborn (Dr. Heywood), Grady Sutton (Homer Quimby), Donivee Lee (Betty Morton), Harry Hayden (Judge Shipman) and Torben Meyer (Dr. Dahlmeyer).


The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936, John Ford)

Warner Baxter is one good actor. I’ve only seen him in one other film, but he’s great in The Prisoner of Shark Island. Baxter’s got a depth to him–he builds on it, adds to it, throughout scenes and throughout the film. Shark Island is about the physician who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg–and is an idealized portrait of the physician, which is unimportant–and almost everything in the film happens to Baxter… and when he actually has to do something for himself, it’s a big something.

Shark Island is another pre-World War II John Ford film. This John Ford is the one who made The Informer, not the one who made The Searchers (but it is the same Ford who made Stagecoach). Color didn’t change Ford too much, since the post-WWII cavalry trilogy are not the same Ford as this film and at least one of those is black and white. The Shark Island Ford is the one who did exciting things with confined space and people’s place in that space, as opposed to the later Ford, who did things with open space and the place of people in that space. That sentence has two “that” spaces, I hope it makes sense. Since Shark Island is from the 1930s and it’s from Fox, it has a certain feel to it. It’s filmic. Fox films from the 1930s don’t have the crispness of an MGM or Warner picture. Ford perfectly creates a 1860s time period too. It’s lushly rural for the Maryland scenes and then the scenes on the prison island are spacious but confined. With Shark Island, you get the feeling Ford didn’t know what he was doing and he was trying things. Ford is the most confident filmmaker I’ve ever seen, so seeing him exert himself and succeed is interesting.

He does get quite a bit of help from Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay. Johnson went on to write The Grapes of Wrath for Ford, which might be the last of this period of his career. Regardless, Johnson is unsung superstar. The Prisoner of Shark Island has a number of conversations and they’re these beautiful moments–even if they aren’t the defining conversations of the film, which are beautiful too–but these conversations are perfectly paced and rich. They’re rich. They’re full of living character. Ripe with it. Having Gloria Stuart as the wife makes a lot of the film work. Without her, it wouldn’t work as well. Stuart’s wonderful in the film. There’s also a great performance by Ernest Whitman, who was black and got fourteenth billing instead of fourth (which he deserved). Then there’s John Carradine as a sadistic prison guard. He’s so good and Ford knows it. He gives Carradine these awesome creepy angles, something a later Ford wouldn’t have done.

I guess Shark Island never had a VHS release in the United States–but Fox Movie Channel shows it a couple times a year (probably not for President’s Day, though it would be interesting–the film presents Lincoln as a humane, soft-spoken, decent person, which modern Americans certainly don’t find appealing in a president). I watched the Masters of Cinema release from the UK, which (for once) didn’t have any noticeable PAL speedup. It’s a good film to see, for both Baxter and Stuart, but particularly for Ford.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Ford; written by Nunnally Johnson; director of photography, Bert Glennon; edited by Jack Murray; music by R.H. Bassett and Hugh Friedhofer; produced by Darryl F. Zanuck; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Warner Baxter (Dr. Samuel Mudd), Gloria Stuart (Mrs. Peggy Mudd), Claude Gillingwater (Col. Jeremiah Milford Dyer), Arthur Byron (Mr. Erickson), O.P. Heggie (Dr. MacIntyre), Harry Carey (Commandant of Fort Jefferson), Francis Ford (Cpl. O’Toole), John McGuire (Lt. Lovett), Francis McDonald (John Wilkes Booth), Douglas Wood (Gen. Ewing), John Carradine (Sgt. Rankin), Joyce Kay (Martha Mudd), Fred Kohler Jr. (Sgt. Cooper), Ernest Whitman (‘Buck’ Milford) and Paul Fix (David Herold).


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