Jane Darwell

The Grapes of Wrath (1940, John Ford)

The Grapes of Wrath starts in a darkened neverland. Director Ford and cinematographer Gregg Toland create a realer than real Oklahoma for protagonist Henry Fonda to journey across. The locations and sets aren’t as important as how Fonda (and the audience) experience it. It’s actually rather hostile for this beginning. It’s all about Fonda getting settled, not the viewer.

Even though Fonda is the protagonist throughout and the whole show for the first twenty minutes–with John Carradine along to keep him company–Grapes is about Fonda’s family, specifically his relationship with his parents–Jane Darwell’s mom, Russell Simpson is dad.

Slowly–after Fonda does find his family–director Ford broadens the film’s focus. There’re just too many people to stick with him and get the story right. Later, as the third act approaches then arrives, Ford and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson bring the spotlight back to Fonda but gradually fill out even more of the surrounding situations. It’s a wonderful balance.

Fonda and Darwell get the showiest parts–well, except for Carradine who gets even showier–and all three do great work. Ford knows how to shoot them too, with he and Toland going almost for scares at times. For Darwell, Ford occasionally shoots the film like a silent. He’s carefully, brilliantly, all over the place.

Everything about Grapes–directing, photography, editing, writing, acting–is a singular achievement on its own. Each vingette-like scene works perfectly. Put them all together and Grapes of Wrath is a relentless, devastating odyssey.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Ford; screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on the novel by John Steinbeck; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Robert L. Simpson; music by Alfred Newman; produced by Darryl F. Zanuck; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Henry Fonda (Tom Joad), Jane Darwell (Ma Joad), Charley Grapewin (Grandpa), Dorris Bowdon (Rosasharn), John Carradine (Jim Casy), Russell Simpson (Pa Joad), O.Z. Whitehead (Al), John Qualen (Muley Bates), Eddie Quillan (Connie) and Zeffie Tilbury (Grandma).


The Bigamist (1953, Ida Lupino)

With a sensational title like The Bigamist, one might expect something lurid and exploitative from the film. Definitely from the titular lead, Edmond O’Brien. But, no, poor O’Brien is just a married traveling salesman with a barren, work-oriented wife (Joan Fontaine) so who can blame him for stepping out. And he only did it once; he’s not a bad guy, he’s tragic hero.

Nearly all of O’Brien’s story comes out in a flashback–screenwriter Collier Young’s use of layered narrative is the film’s biggest problem–when he reveals all to kindly Edmund Gwenn, who has just discovered him.

The flashback portions are exceptionally insensitive to both Fontaine and Ida Lupino (which is surprising, as she directed the film after all) but the present action scenes with them are better. The film does cheat Lupino out of any great emotive moments, while Fontaine gets a couple.

As the lead–but fourth-billed–O’Brien has trouble with the impossible role. After spending fifteen minutes making him a suspect, Young’s script spends the rest turning him into a hero. Except O’Brien can’t seem to get behind playing the role heroic, which causes a bit of a disconnect… not to mention a general disinterest in how the story turns out. I had been hoping they went for the cheap, obvious ending, which would have resulted in less melodrama (but robbed Kenneth Tobey of a great scene).

Lupino’s direction is somewhat stilted at times, but generally okay. Except the Los Angeles exteriors; they’re way too lifeless.

Just like the movie.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Ida Lupino; screenplay by Collier Young, based on a story by Lawrence B. Marcus and Lou Schor; director of photography, George E. Diskant; edited by Stanford Tischler; music by Leith Stevens; produced by Young; released by Filmmakers Releasing Organization.

Starring Edmond O’Brien (Harry Graham), Joan Fontaine (Eve Graham), Ida Lupino (Phyllis Martin), Edmund Gwenn (Mr. Jordan), Kenneth Tobey (Tom Morgan), Jane Darwell (Mrs. Connelley), Peggy Maley (Phone Operator), Lillian Fontaine (Miss Higgins), Matt Dennis (Singer) and John Maxwell (Judge).


The Rains Came (1939, Clarence Brown)

I was expecting The Rains Came to be a standard soap–with some ethnic flair, of course (Tyrone Power’s an Indian doctor, Myrna Loy’s a British lady). Instead, it’s a little like… Maugham-lite. Neither Loy nor Power is the lead (in fact, Power’s in it so little he should get a “special guest star” credit). The lead is actually George Brent (who gets third-billing).

He opens the movie and he carries it for quite a while. Loy doesn’t show up for a while and, even when she does, Brent’s around the entire time. His troubles with missionary’s daughter Brenda Joyce, for example, take up the screen time when Power should be getting his own backstory. Brent’s the bored Englishman on self-imposed exile in India (hence, Maugham-lite) and he drinks and threatens to cavort. He makes Rains a joy to watch, even when it’s going through it’s more melodramatic sections.

As it turns out, Loy is not a stoic, upstanding British woman as I expected. She’s a bit of a tramp, frequently stepping out on her odious husband–played by Nigel Bruce, whose death scene is played for laughs. It makes Loy a little bit less than likable (elevating the initially annoying Joyce to that position) and quite tragic once she discovers selflessness–again, Maugham-lite.

Additionally, there are great special effects, harmless direction from Brown and some fine supporting performances–Maria Ouspenskaya in particular.

The Rains Came has some excellent moments; they overshadow the mediocre ones.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Clarence Brown; screenplay by Philip Dunne and Julien Josephson, based on the novel by Louis Bromfield; director of photography, Arthur C. Miller; edited by Barbara McLean; music by Alfred Newman; produced by Darryl F. Zanuck; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Myrna Loy (Lady Edwina Esketh), Tyrone Power (Maj. Rama Safti), George Brent (Tom Ransome), Brenda Joyce (Fern Simon), Nigel Bruce (Lord Albert Esketh), Maria Ouspenskaya (Maharani), Joseph Schildkraut (Mr. Bannerjee), Mary Nash (Miss MacDaid), Jane Darwell (Mrs. Smiley), Marjorie Rambeau (Mrs. Simon), Henry Travers (Rev. Homer Smiley), H.B. Warner (Maharajah), Laura Hope Crews (Lily Hoggett-Egburry), William Royle (Raschid Ali Khan), C. Montague Shaw (Gen. Keith), Harry Hayden (Rev. Elmer Simon), Herbert Evans (Bates), Abner Biberman (John, the Baptist), Mara Alexander (Mrs. Bannerjee) and William Edmunds (Mr. Das).


The Ox-Bow Incident (1943, William A. Wellman)

The seventy-five minutes of The Ox-Bow Incident are some of the finest in cinema. The film is eventually a solemn examination of the human condition, quiet in its observations, with spare lines of dialogue of profound importance. But before this period in the film, which roughly lasts from twenty minutes in until the end, Ox-Bow is a peculiar Western, far ahead of its time.

As Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan (in his Henry days) ride into the small, empty and nameless town, The Ox-Bow Incident establishes what’s going to be one of its major technical achievements. The use of sound–made even more spectacular later, during the scenes filmed on sets–is amazing, from Alfred Bruzlin and Roger Heman Sr. The dialogue in the opening scene–Lamar Trotti’s script, probably the best thing about Ox-Bow (it’s hard to decide what’s better, Trotti’s writing or Wellman’s direction)–the way Fonda and Morgan deliver it, the way the scene plays out, the way Wellman shoots it. It’s indescribable. I’ve seen Ox-Bow before, but I forgot it was so singular.

When the story does advance, it does quickly–the relaxed opening scene, establishing Fonda as the protagonist, is the only one of its kind in the film. After that scene, the film moves to its conclusion without taking any breaks or offering the viewer any relief. Wellman’s composition incorporates background for action and foreground for non-action, with both incredibly important. But it also keeps the viewer constantly busy, the film an active experience.

Trotti’s adapting a novel, so I’m guessing the one unconnected scene is from it. The scene, featuring more backstory for Fonda, doesn’t seem foreign to the film–even though it’s a big, busy scene and the last one before the film enters its final stage–because of that opening scene. Trotti and Wellman establish right off they’re going to do things a certain way and Fonda running into old flame Mary Beth Hughes for four minutes fits into that style.

Then Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn appear. The film’s about a lynching (the titular incident), with Andrews and Quinn as two of the lynched. It’s hard to describe how the film works from their appearance to the end because it is so singular. For example, Wellman later gives Fonda his biggest scene without showing his face. The storytelling works; delineating it might prove useful for a scholarly article, but certainly not for an informal response.

Both Andrews and Quinn are fantastic, as is Fonda, as is Morgan. The supporting cast–Harry Davenport and Frank Conroy in particular–are also great. Jane Darwell’s performance, after so many sympathetic roles, as a gung ho lyncher is terrifying. Paul Hurst, Dick Rich, William Eythe as well.

For such a short film, Ox-Bow is brimming with content. The way people talk to each other informs on their existing relationships, with Trotti never spending the time to expound. He doesn’t have to… it’s a wonderful script.

I’m trying to think of other amazing moments from Wellman, but after a point, every shot in the film is an amazing moment. Arthur C. Miller’s photography, instead of being constrained by the set shooting, is lush. The depth of each frame captivates.

The film ends on a strange note. Hopeful but resigned. I can’t believe I’d forgotten the film is so remarkable.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by William A. Wellman; screenplay by Lamar Trotti, based on the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark; director of photography, Arthur C. Miller; edited by Allen McNeil; music by Cyril J. Mockridge; produced by Trotti; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Henry Fonda (Gil Carter), Dana Andrews (Donald Martin), Mary Beth Hughes (Rose Mapen), Anthony Quinn (Juan MartΓ­nez), William Eythe (Gerald Tetley), Harry Morgan (Art Croft), Jane Darwell (Jenny Grier), Matt Briggs (Judge Daniel Tyler), Harry Davenport (Arthur Davies), Frank Conroy (Maj. Tetley), Marc Lawrence (Jeff Farnley), Paul Hurst (Monty Smith), Victor Kilian (Darby), Chris-Pin Martin (Poncho), Willard Robertson (Sheriff), Ted North (Joyce) and Dick Rich (Deputy Butch Mapes).


Design for Living (1933, Ernst Lubitsch)

From the first third of Design for Living, it’s impossible to think it might not be absolutely fantastic throughout. Eventually it does hit a dry period and it’s impossible to think it’s going to pull out of it. Then it does and it’s impossible to think… well, you get the idea. I don’t know why I wasn’t fully trusting of Lubitsch, but during that dry spell, I really did think he’d lost control of the film.

The problem he–and the characters–needs to work out is a familiar one, the love triangle, but here with the added complication of the two male legs being best friends. I’m not sure how much of the solution Lubitsch got from Noel Coward’s source play (Ben Hecht’s adaptation only retained one line of dialogue and I can’t find any information on the plotting), but Lubitsch’s resolution is perfect. The film’s already over its bumpy period and it’s already assured he’s going to end it well, but the way he does is even better than expected.

The bumpy period–which probably only lasts fifteen minutes, at most, of the film’s ninety minute running time–is distinct because of what it lacks. The film opens with Miriam Hopkins sitting down across from Gary Cooper and Fredric March. The opening minutes are silent, followed by a minute of Cooper and Hopkins speaking French, then it’s the trio full steam. They all play perfectly off each other, so when the film’s without them–when it’s just March or just Cooper–it doesn’t work right. Hopkins works great with both of them, but they don’t work quite so well when they aren’t together. In fact, there’s a whole scene emphasizing that point.

Seeing Cooper and March–two leading men–sharing a film like this one, complimenting each other so well, it’s hard to believe they never reunited. The film only spends thirty seconds establishing the friendship–silently no less–between the two. While March went on to do a lot of comedies, Cooper only did them in his (relatively) early career, at least playing up his abilities as a physical comedian. Both of them are superb; hearing them fire Hecht’s dialogue back and forth is joyous.

What’s so frustrating about not knowing how Hecht’s adaptation works is in terms of discussing the scene structure. If I didn’t know the film came from a play, had I missed the opening titles, I might have guessed it. The scenes have a lot of dialogue and a lack of mobility–even if it’s a multi-room setting, the action takes place in the same areas. But then there are other touches–Lubitsch communicating the passage of time with an advertisement on a bus, for example–which are entirely filmic.

The handling of Edward Everett Horton’s character, a ludicrous suitor for Hopkins, is also rather filmic. Horton manages the film’s second most difficult performance (Hopkins having the first, having to convey her conflicted feelings for both Cooper and March in a constantly fresh way); Horton has to both be believable and absurd. The film makes a few drastic changes to the character to keep him in line for the narrative to work and Horton negotiates them well. He’s an amusing, antagonistic buffoon.

The film’s such a success, I’m a little surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. Between the performances–the pairing of Cooper and March and Hopkins in general–Lubitsch’s sublime direction (that opening is masterful), and Hecht’s script… Design for Living should be much better known.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch; screenplay by Ben Hecht, based on the play by Noel Coward; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Frances Marsh; music by John Leipold; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Tom Chambers), Gary Cooper (George Curtis), Miriam Hopkins (Gilda Farrell), Edward Everett Horton (Max Plunkett), Franklin Pangborn (Mr. Douglas), Isabel Jewell (Plunkett’s Stenographer), Jane Darwell (Curtis’s Housekeeper) and Wyndham Standing (Max’s Butler).


One Sunday Afternoon (1933, Stephen Roberts)

One Sunday Afternoon suffers from some of the standard play-to-film problems. The scenes go on too long, especially in the first half, which only contains three real scenes. The opening, which is a lengthy, seemingly direct adaptation from the play, features Gary Cooper and Roscoe Karns talking to each other as way of establishing the characters and setting. It’s problematic to say the least, since their dialogue isn’t particularly interesting and because it just drags the film down, right from the start.

What’s strange about the opening is the make-up. One Sunday Afternoon is told mostly in flashback, with the opening and end in the modern day. The film establishes Cooper and Karns in old age make-up at the start. It’s a conventional narrative move and what’s strange about it has nothing to do with it as a storytelling device. The strange thing is the fantastic make-up work. I can’t find any credits for it, but whoever came up with it did an amazing job. It’s more of a shock seeing Cooper without the make-up on than it is seeing him without.

So after the three or fourth lengthy scenes, the film skips forward a couple years and drastically changes. The scenes are shorter, more filmic, and it has a lot more weight. The long, early scenes seem more like foundation for the brief middle section. It doesn’t seem like an intentional, deliberate move, just fortuitous pacing.

What makes the film is Cooper’s performance. He’s not playing a smart guy here or even a nice one. Cooper does a great job of it, never making his character amusing in his denseness or self-absorbtion. He never makes him entirely bad either, the stupidity excuses just enough of the inconsideration.

It leads to some good scenes with Frances Fuller, who starts the film with a weak character, but–no shock–she strengths in the middle section.

Unfortunately, both Fay Wray and Neil Hamilton are weak. Wray, just like most everyone, is more interesting in the middle, but she’s barely present. The plotting for the first part of the flashback is too melodramatic for Wray’s character in particular. Even though she’s amusing as she leaves the film, she really never brings anything to it. Hamilton’s generally bad throughout, though he’s a little better in the present day setting. His excellent make-up probably helped out a little.

The film greatly suffers from being too short in the good parts and too long in the middling. Cooper’s performance does wonders for it–and the fine production values as well–but there’s no creative direction. As a director, Stephen Roberts is entirely passive. I can’t remember seeing a single surprising frame of film. But the positive elements–running high off the middle–bring the film nicely to its conclusion. The end’s a little stretched, as the film suffers from wholly deceiving the audience until the last act, but it’s solid.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Roberts; screenplay by Grover Jones and William Slavens McNutt, based on the play by James Hagan; directors of photography, Victor Milner and Karl Struss; edited by Ellsworth Hoagland; music by John Leipold; produced by Louis D. Lighton; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Gary Cooper (Biff Grimes), Fay Wray (Virginia Brush), Frances Fuller (Amy Lind), Roscoe Karns (Snappy Downer), Neil Hamilton (Hugo Barnstead) and Jane Darwell (Mrs. Lind).


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