Joel McCrea

Man and woman talking while teens watch them

Dead End (1937, William Wyler)

If you tilt to just the right angle, for a while you can see Dead End as the tale of three people from a poor neighborhood and how life has worked out for them as they got closer to their thirties. Humphrey Bogart grew from a “not too bad” young punk to a public enemy number one, infamous for killing eight men. Joel McCrea busted his ass to put himself through college, got an architecture degree, hasn’t been able to find a job. Sylvia Sidney has been working since age ten, first taking care of her mother, now younger brother Billy Halop. Unfortunately, it’s eventually impossible to keep the head at that tilt and you’ve got to acknowledge Sidney gets the shaft so the film can focus on Halop and his teen gang. Sort of. They infest the film, nothing better to do with their day–Dead End takes place over a single day—than go swimming in the East River, maybe bully then physically assault and rob rich kid Charles Peck; just kids being kids stuff… because the film’s only willing to go so far with its observations.

Dead End might go after classism and gentrification (back when White people were still gentrifying other White people), but it’s not going to go after toxic masculinity or misogyny. There isn’t a single teenage girl shown in the film—the boys in the gang haven’t discovered girls yet—and the only insight into their situation comes from Bogart and teen love Claire Trevor.

The first hour of the film—it runs just over ninety—is mostly Bogart’s. He’s around the dock, talking with the gang, talking with childhood “pal” McCrea, back home with twenty grand in his pocket in a roll, a new face courtesy the plastic surgeon, trying to see his mom (Marjorie Main) and ex Trevor. Allen Jenkins gets the relatively thankless part as Bogart’s sidekick, who’s there to remind him dames aren’t worth it and run errands as needed.

Most of the time Bogart’s behaving himself and somewhat likable. When he takes a turn for the dark, the film does a good job with it. Sadly the only reason he takes that turn for the dark is because his mom doesn’t want anything to do with him because he’s a stone cold killer who does nothing but bring reporters and cops to her door and shame to her name. Doesn’t help Main’s not good. Whatever she and director Wyler decided she should do with the part was the wrong decision. It’s an awkwardly bad scene. You keep waiting for there to be a point to Main’s take on the character and it never arrives.

Trevor’s in a more complicated situation. She gets a single scene, after Bogart talking about her for forty-five or so minutes; what happens to a girl from the poor neighborhood? She ends up in sex work, possibly with tuberculosis, rejected by psychopath Bogart for not being clean enough for him. As far as the acting goes in their scene, they’re both good. They’re amazing when Bogart’s not pretending he should be rejecting her—clearly the makeup people weren’t going to make Trevor look bad, just mildly cheap but still nice looking—but once he gets put out thinking about her not being virginal, the scene becomes a little rote. If only these women had stayed pure enough, maybe Bogart wouldn’t have to go back to a life of crime. Mind you, he’s checking in on them at age thirty-one after being away for ten years plus however long he was in reform school.

Makes you wish play author Sidney Kingsley and screenwriter Lillian Hellman did something with the female characters except martyr them.

Though there is the poor cleaning woman who steals food from a baby, during one of Wyler’s phenomenal background sequences. They shot Dead End on an elaborate set; mostly it’s just the main cast or gang hanging out, but occasionally there are these sequences showing the daily lives of the residents and Wyler does a great job with them. Beautiful Gregg Toland photography, good editing from Daniel Mandell. Sadly, while Toland’s photography is good (or better) throughout, Mandell’s not as good at cutting the dialogue scenes as the physical action ones. Sure, it’s understandable you’d need to cut around some of Halop and the gang’s acting, but it’s still jerky.

McCrea gets a subplot about kept woman Wendy Barrie—who the film doesn’t slut shame, which is kind of weird given it really sounds like she’s a mistress—who wants to run off with him, away from her rich boyfriend, but only if McCrea can support her right. McCrea’s trying.

Meanwhile, Sidney’s been in love with McCrea since they were kids but McCrea still sees her as a ten year-old. She starts the film with a subplot about striking at work and having to convince the men around her she’s justified and actually deserves to be paid for her work; that subplot shrinks, then disappears, as Sidney eventually just ends up supporting Halop’s youth criminal in training story arc.

The youth gang stuff in Dead End is poorly executed, mostly due to the performances, but also the writing. Their scenes are vaguely from their perspective, but they’re also on display as tragic figures. Except they’re also profoundly likable, whether it’s beating up new kid Bernard Punsly for three cents—trying to convince him to steal from his mother—or when they start beating rich kid Peck with boards. Peck’s an absurdly obnoxious caricature, but then so are all the kids in the gang. Wyler doesn’t seem to want to get into the conversation about how apathetic rich people mocking the trauma of poverty is going to boil over at some point so instead plays the assaults like antics.

Great performance from Bogart, okay ones from McCrea and Sidney. Bogart’s able to overcome his part’s slightness, McCrea and Sidney not so much. Barrie’s not memorable but it’s also a bad part because Barrie’s a woman. Trevor’s excellent, mostly because the film doesn’t keep her around long enough to ruin it. Jenkins is good, Ward Bond’s solid as the doorman to the rich apartment building, and James Burke’s fine as the beat cop.

Dead End’s technically outstanding—Wyler’s direction, Toland’s photography, Richard Day’s set design, Julia Heron’s set decoration—but can’t get as serious as it needs to be about its subject matter. The Code wouldn’t allow some of it, but going the route of piloting a “Dead End Kids” franchise for the teen cast, making Dead End the only “real film” entry in the franchise, is rather disappointing. It just seems like with such a potentially strong cast, such a gorgeous set, Wyler and company could’ve done something more with it than Dead End.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Lillian Hellman, based on the play by Sidney Kingsley; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Daniel Mandell; produced by Samuel Goldwyn; released by United Artists.

Starring Sylvia Sidney (Drina), Joel McCrea (Dave), Humphrey Bogart (‘Baby Face’ Martin), Billy Halop (Tommy), Allen Jenkins (Hunk), Wendy Barrie (Kay), Claire Trevor (Francey), Marjorie Main (Mrs. Martin), Huntz Hall (Dippy), Bobby Jordan (Angel), Leo Gorcey (Spit), Gabriel Dell (T.B.), Bernard Punsly (Milty), Charles Peck (Philip), Minor Watson (Mr. Griswald), James Burke (Mulligan), and Ward Bond (doorman).



Primrose Path (1940, Gregory La Cava)

Primrose Path gets fun fast. Given the film opens with nine year-old Joan Carroll stealing a neighbor’s tamales (instead of buying them) for her and her grandmother, Queenie Vassar, it sort of needs to be fun. Vassar’s the maternal grandmother, not related to despondently alcoholic dad Miles Mander. Ginger Rogers is the older daughter, who we soon find out has forced herself into a kind of functional naïveté about her family’s situation. See, Mander’s a drunk because wife Marjorie Rambeau is out as a professional mistress. But he can’t work because he’s a complete drunk. Vassar trying to break the two up doesn’t do any good for their relationship either. Meanwhile Rambeau lives in a somewhat forced naïveté of her own, at least as far as Mander’s concerned.

Path opens about this family barely surviving—with Carroll apparently already lost, Vassar poisoning all the fresh water—and then there’s Rogers, who’s figured out a way to navigate herself through it. Until she takes a ride from kindly and silly old man Henry Travers when she’s on her way down to the beach. Path takes place in a small city (or large town) on the California coast. Closer to San Francisco than L.A. The contrast between Travers’s beachfront hamburger diner and Rogers’s regular life is striking inside and out. But definitely out. Path’s first half is full of fantastic location shooting, with director La Cava and cinematographer Joseph H. August delivering some fantastic scenes.

So once Travers and Rogers start bantering and she realizes he’s not an old pervert, she agrees to let him forward her a lunch. Once in the diner, she meets banter-master Joel McCrea, who works the counter. Except Rogers doesn’t like McCrea’s banter so he tries to get a rise out of her, which continues for a sequence of scenes, culminating in McCrea kissing Rogers. Well, once he’s kissed her, she’s smitten, leading to her telling a few small lies to get out of her life and into his.

For a while Rogers is able to avoid her past, but it’s not too far away, just on the “other side of town.” There’s never a “wrong side of the tracks” remark, but there are a couple audible train whistles. La Cava can be subtle and La Cava can be obvious. He can also be subtly obvious. He saves the straight obvious for the romance between McCrea and Rogers. It doesn’t take long for him to get just as smitten.

Unfortunately, neither character is being entirely honest. While Rogers’s lies don’t have any further repercussions after she and McCrea are joined at the hip, McCrea’s kind of been on holiday. Path gets away with a lot during the Production Code—there’s adultery, there’s sex work, there’s drunken Mander, there’s the thieving kid, whatever—but it’s most impressive moves are with Rogers and McCrea. They never get their big blowout scene, which is simultaneously disappointing and understandable–Path has got to keep light on its feet before the realness can grab it. Vassar’s downright evil at times and McCrea’s got a hideous mean streak. The film plays the former almost for laughs (as well as keeping Vassar’s understandable despondence and her unforgivable cruelty separate) while the latter just sets up La Cava’s third act commentary on people. The film’s very focused on the family. Rogers shares time with McCrea more than he gets the time to himself. Same goes for Travers. It’s a long time before he gets anything to do separate from Rogers (and then it’s just to talk about her with McCrea). It’s Rogers’s movie. Then Rambeau’s. Then Vassar’s. Then McCrea’s. McCrea still gets a full character arc, he just doesn’t get it on screen. So when La Cava opens things up—pretty much for the first time (the diner scenes are all about Rogers and McCrea’s salad days)—it’s for the finale. And the finale is really subtle and amusing, but it also informs some earlier plot points. Allan Scott and La Cava’s script is incredibly patient. The film’s a stage adaptation but never feels stagy; quite the opposite. It’s hard to imagine the story told any other way.

The music from Werner R. Heymann’s excellent. Sound is important in Primrose Path and La Cava and editor William Hamilton are careful how they reinforce the narrative with it. The film’s full of echoed moments, with only one of them being at all obvious. La Cava keeps the rest of them submerged and they more reverberate than sound off. So Heymann’s music has to fit perfectly and it always does, not just the scenes content but in place among the echoes. Path runs just over ninety minutes but it never skimps, never rushes. La Cava, in direction and script, is casually deliberate. He does excellent work here.

Great performances from Rogers and McCrea. He doesn’t get the lead role but he does have some breakout moments. For a while it seems like he’s going to be most successful for his toxic male behavior stuff but it turns out there’s going to be more to his character arc and McCrea keeps excelling. Meanwhile Rogers has to keep a lot mildly submerged too and she gets to go full bloom at finish to great success as well. The parts are good. Better than than the showier ones like Mander or Vassar. Vassar’s character is just a little too hurtful for the performance, but she’s still good. Mander is great. Rambeau is great. Rambeau’s part is far less showy as the film progresses.

Primrose Path is an outstandingly nimble romantic drama. La Cava, Rogers, and McCrea can keep it loose enough for sincere and affable romance, while still getting into the hard family drama stuff. It can’t go either way fully because, well, it wouldn’t be a vehicle for Rogers and McCrea then, but La Cava finds an ideal balance.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Gregory La Cava; screenplay by Allan Scott and La Cava, based on the play by Robert L. Buckner and Walter Hart; director of photography, Joseph H. August; edited by William Hamilton; music by Werner R. Heymann; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Ginger Rogers (Ellie May Adams), Joel McCrea (Ed Wallace), Marjorie Rambeau (Mamie), Miles Mander (Homer), Queenie Vassar (Grandma), Joan Carroll (Honeybell), and Henry Travers (Gramp).



Sullivan’s Travels (1941, Preston Sturges)

Sullivan’s Travels is almost impossibly well-constructed. Director Sturges, editor Stuart Gilmore and photographer John F. Seitz go through various, entirely different narrative devices and do them all perfectly. Whether it’s a high speed chase, Veronica Lake having a screwball comedy sequence on the studio backlot, Lake and lead Joel McCrea having soul-searching conversations, McCrea and Lake in a lengthy sequence without dialogue, nighttime suspense sequences, over and over, Sturges, Gilmore and Seitz create these masterful scenes. Every time it seems like Sturges’s direction can’t get better, it does, like Gilmore’s cuts can get better, they do, Seitz’s photography always one ups itself. Sullivan’s Travels is a very serious film about learning why laughing is so important. It’s amazing, start to finish.

McCrea and Lake are both essential to the picture’s success. There are some great supporting performances, but it’s all about Lake and McCrea. He starts the film without her (and goes into the third act minus her as well); once she arrives though, Sturges is able to move the story–and McCrea’s character–along their trajectory. Even though before Lake, Travels is excellent (that fantastic chase sequence is pre-Lake), once she shows up it becomes clear Sturges is going to go all over with the film. He’s already got a phenomenal pace set up and then he just keeps going with it. There’s a delineated structure to the film–McCrea’s always telling people the plan and how the film’s going to progress (at least geographically)–and Sturges sticks to it just long enough to get to the next reveal, the next approach. Only McCrea and Lake, who have a lot of searching conversations (he’s the Hollywood success story, she’s the Hollywood failure story and Travels is very much a film about Hollywood), get some repetition. And some of the supporting cast gets similar scenes. But once things are well enough underway, Sturges has nothing but surprises for Lake and McCrea (and the audience).

Sturges gives McCrea and Lake this awesome dialogue and then directs them in a way as to lean on their performances. For an auteur, Sturges knows he needs his stars. Lake’s a little more impressive because she doesn’t get the protagonist part and she does have to immediately challenge McCrea. She stakes out her part in the film and never lets it go, which Sturges utilizes to get effect out of Lake’s presence, whether she gets lines in a scene or not. It’s a comedy trick applied to drama, but he also uses it for comedy in Sullivan’s Travels. There’s so many different styles, especially since large portions of the film are shot outside. When Lake gets her screwball race through the backlot, it’s another commentary on the reality of Hollywood.

Excellent score from Charles Bradshaw and Leo Shuken.

It’s mind-boggling how many great things going on and how those things interact with each other. Sturges bites off a lot, chews it, bites off even more–writing about the film is frustrating. There’s always something else to be said about it, always something else deserving of mention or exploration–Lake as “The Tramp” and how that disguise comments on Hollywood’s portrayal of poverty. Sullivan’s Travels is a masterpiece.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced and directed by Preston Sturges; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Stuart Gilmore; music by Charles Bradshaw and Leo Shuken; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Joel McCrea (John L. Sullivan), Veronica Lake (The Girl), Robert Warwick (Mr. LeBrand), Porter Hall (Mr. Hadrian), Robert Greig (Sullivan’s Butler), Eric Blore (Sullivan’s Valet) and William Demarest (Mr. Jones).


The Palm Beach Story (1942, Preston Sturges)

The Palm Beach Story is a narrative. Director Sturges opens with a rapidly cut prologue showing stars Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea getting married, where he inserts clues for what will eventually be the film’s utterly pointless deus ex machina. Sure, Palm Beach runs less than ninety minutes so it’s possible the viewer be sitting around focusing on the prologue’s unanswered questions, but unlikely. Sturges is betting a lot on no one paying too much attention.

The film’s first act has Colbert paying off she and McCrea’s debt, so she then leaves him. She’d been waiting to do it until they were even with the grocer. Besides an awkward scene where she and McCrea get drunk, there’s almost no character development between them. It’s not just with one another–since the second act requires them both to be dishonest, there’s rarely any sincere scenes between their characters and anyone else in the film.

One has to wonder if Sturges intended the deus ex machina to have more importance, since it deals entirely with Colbert and McCrea and he’s spent most of Palm Beach concentrating on the people they meet. Rudy Vallee and Mary Astor eventually show up to provide romantic interests for the married leads, which ought to be funnier but Sturges spends more time with jokes at Sig Arno’s expense.

Astor is fantastic, Vallee is fine, Colbert is too mercenary and McCrea looks lost.

Sturges never finds the right tone for the film. It’s off from that first scene.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Preston Sturges; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Stuart Gilmore; music by Victor Young; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Claudette Colbert (Gerry Jeffers), Joel McCrea (Tom Jeffers), Mary Astor (The Princess Centimillia), Rudy Vallee (J.D. Hackensacker III), Sig Arno (Toto), Robert Dudley (Wienie King), Franklin Pangborn (Manager) and Esther Howard (Wife of Wienie King).


Ride the High Country (1962, Sam Peckinpah)

Ride the High Country is a fine attempt. It’s not a successful attempt, but it’s a fine one. Director Peckinpah seems to know what he wants to do, but he’s too trapped in Western genre tradition. Having icons Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott as his leads (they’re both great), George Bassman’s intrusive score and Lucien Ballard’s strangely flat photography might all be forgivable if N.B. Stone Jr.’s script were all right but it’s not.

The plotting is awkward. Retired lawman McCrea hires old partner Scott to help him transport gold, not knowing Scott is planning on taking said gold with the help of his new, youthful partner, played by Ron Starr. Along the way, they meet farm girl Mariette Hartley, who Starr gets involved with, much to the chagrin of the older men. Country runs just over ninety minutes and most of the important scenes involve Hartley and her poor choice to marry James Drury. McCrea and Scott spend their time talking about their glory days, which is cute the first couple times, but tiring when it’s clear Stone doesn’t have any other ideas for them and Peckinpah doesn’t seem to care.

Peckinpah doesn’t seem particularly interested in the film until the shootouts at the end; he does spend some time on the scenery, which should be prettier (that drab photography).

Both McCrea and Scott get pretty decent iconic moments at one point or another in the film, they just don’t get actual characters to play. It’s too bad.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Peckinpah; written by N.B. Stone Jr.; director of photography, Lucien Ballard; edited by Frank Santillo; music by George Bassman; produced by Richard E. Lyons; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Randolph Scott (Gil Westrum), Joel McCrea (Steve Judd), Mariette Hartley (Elsa Knudsen), Ron Starr (Heck Longtree), Edgar Buchanan (Judge Tolliver), R.G. Armstrong (Joshua Knudsen), Jenie Jackson (Kate), James Drury (Billy Hammond), L.Q. Jones (Sylvus Hammond), John Anderson (Elder Hammond), John Davis Chandler (Jimmy Hammond) and Warren Oates (Henry Hammond).



The More the Merrier (1943, George Stevens)

The More the Merrier is a wondrous mix of comedy (both slapstick and screwball) and dramatic, war-time romance. Director Stevens is expert at both–that war-time romance angle is as gentle as can be, with Stevens relying heavily on leads Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea to be able to toggle between both. And they do, ably. Arthur and McCrea have spellbinding chemistry in the film.

But the film doesn’t open with either of them. It opens with–and stays with–Charles Coburn’s character. He’s in town on business (Merrier’s set in Washington DC during the WWII housing shortage) and his series of misadventures, fueled by that fantastic Coburn superiority, gets him a room with Arthur. And, subsequently, McCrea (bunking with Coburn).

The beauty of Coburn’s character is how he too toggles, but between being a slightly absentminded buffoon (he and McCrea’s goof-off scenes together are great) and a really serious businessman.

Meanwhile, Arthur’s got the distraction of McCrea while she deals with her politicking fiancé (and boss) Richard Gaines. Once the flirtation between McCrea and Arthur kicks in, which takes until the second half of the film, Merrier has this glorious new depth to it. Arthur and McCrea are just amazing, which I already said, but it needs to be said again.

Great direction from Stevens–he’s got a number of sublime shots–and photography from Ted Tetzlaff.

Stevens, Arthur, McCrea and Coburn make the film’s dramatic elements superior thanks to the absurdist comedy. It’s brilliant.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by George Stevens; screenplay by Robert Russell, Frank Ross, Richard Flournoy and Lewis R. Foster, based on a story by Russell and Ross; director of photography, Ted Tetzlaff; edited by Otto Meyer; music by Leigh Harline; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jean Arthur (Connie Milligan), Joel McCrea (Joe Carter), Charles Coburn (Benjamin Dingle), Richard Gaines (Charles J. Pendergast), Bruce Bennett (FBI Agent Evans), Frank Sully (FBI Agent Pike), Donald Douglas (FBI Agent Harding), Clyde Fillmore (Senator Noonan) and Stanley Clements (Morton Rodakiewicz).


The Most Dangerous Game (1932, Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel)

Running about an hour, The Most Dangerous Game shouldn’t be boring. But it somehow manages. Worse, the boring stuff comes at the end; directors Schoedsack and Pichel drag out the conclusion with a false ending or two.

The film doesn’t have much to recommend it. That laborious ending wipes short runtime off the board, leaving nothing but good sets, Henry W. Gerrard’s photography and Leslie Banks’s glorious scene-chewing performance as the bad guy. James Ashmore Creelman’s script occasionally has good dialogue, most of it goes to Banks. Unfortunately, Creelman’s script doesn’t have a good story.

Still, the script isn’t Game‘s problem. Simply, Directors Schoedsack and Pichel do a rather bad job. They rely heavily on second person close-ups–the actors are performing for the viewer, showing exaggerated emotion; it’s a terrible choice. Joel McCrea seems silly in the lead and Fay Wray is often just plain bad. She has a couple good moments, early on, but they’re amid some atrocious ones.

The hunt–if you don’t know what kind of animal is “the most dangerous game,” I won’t spoil it (though you should)–starts up over halfway into the film. Here Schoedsack and Pichel present a really boring chase sequence through the magnificent jungle sets. Their action is two dimensional. They also never establish their setting, which would have made the action play better… and give Game more weight.

Robert Armstrong is hilarious, but he isn’t not enough to save the picture.

And Max Steiner’s score is dreadful.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel; screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman, based on the story by Richard Connell; director of photography, Henry W. Gerrard; edited by Archie Marshek; music by Max Steiner; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Joel McCrea (Robert Rainsford), Fay Wray (Eve Trowbridge), Robert Armstrong (Martin Trowbridge), Leslie Banks (Count Zaroff), Noble Johnson (Ivan), Steve Clemente (Tartar) and William B. Davidson (Captain).


The Oklahoman (1957, Francis D. Lyon)

The Oklahoman is–well, I don’t want to sell it short because its discussion of racism and prejudice are rather straightforward and singular for pictures of its era–but at its core, the film’s a love triangle between fifty-two year-old Joel McCrea, thirty-five year-old Barbara Hale and twenty-six year-old Gloria Talbott. Talbott’s supposed to be playing an eighteen year-old, McCrea’s probably not supposed to be fifty-something, but I imagine mid-thirties is the intended age for Hale. McCrea’s character is likable enough, but it’s never clear why he’s got to beat women off with a stick. Maybe because he’s the star.

The film’s at its best when it’s concentrating on McCrea’s intolerance for bigotry (Talbott’s playing a Native American, with Michael Pate as her father and McCrea’s friend). The script’s strangely subtle in these scenes. There’s no explanation of what makes McCrea different from the rest of the settlers (there is a fine scene with some guys sitting around after Pate is suspected of murder, deciding they’d understand if he’d all of a sudden just decided to start killing whites). Not much about The Oklahoman is subtle, so this approach sets it apart. Unfortunately, since it doesn’t appear to be intentionally subtle–McCrea doesn’t have a belief in equality, equality is the way it is–there’s a lot the film misses about itself. The villain, Brad Dexter (who gives a pretty lame performance, but he just needs to be nasty so it doesn’t hurt much), isn’t just a bigot, he’s also a would-be oilman, lousy neighbor and aspiring rapist. But he’s also a cattleman and Hale’s a cattlewoman so she defends him in a couple arguments with McCrea. The film doesn’t seem to recognize she’s not just coming off as a cattle rancher herself, it pushes the line to where she’s coming off as a fellow bigot. McCrea’s performance, for the most part, certainly plays like he recognizes it. The chemistry between McCrea and Hale as a romantic couple is mediocre at best. When they’re peers and neighbors who argue–but hold some generally similar opinions and can’t resolve everything else with them–it’s great. Hale’s a strong female character in those scenes.

The Oklahoman has a number of strong female characters, actually. Talbott’s decent, has some good scenes. The script shortchanges her. Verna Felton is awesome as Hale’s mother. She gets the best lines in the film. Esther Dale’s got a small part as McCrea’s five year-old daughter’s caretaker. It’s never explained why McCrea waited until his late forties to start a family… but if the film had taken his age into account, it would have had a lot more potential. The last fifteen minutes or so flushes most of the characters’ strengths. The film forgets Hale’s a cattle rancher, forgets Talbott’s a strong person, ignores daughter Mimi Gibson’s established character. Just before the last scene, Hale explains how it’s going to be and it seems to make sense… except the next scene is completely different and makes no sense.

The film’s not self-conscious about being socially conscious, which is nice. But it does force a romance where there isn’t one and ignores the potential of exploring the characters and situations it creates.

But it moves really fast.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Francis D. Lyon; written by Daniel B. Ullman; director of photography, Carl E. Guthrie; edited by George White; music by Hans J. Salter; produced by Walter Mirisch; released by Allied Artists.

Starring Joel McCrea (Dr. John Brighton), Barbara Hale (Ann Barnes), Brad Dexter (Cass Dobie), Gloria Talbott (Maria Smith), Michael Pate (Charlie Smith), Verna Felton (Mrs. Waynebrooke), Douglas Dick (Mel Dobie), Anthony Caruso (Jim Hawk), Esther Dale (Mrs. Fitzgerald), Adam Williams (Randell), Ray Teal (Jason), Peter J. Votrian (Little Charlie) and John Pickard (Marshal).


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).


Foreign Correspondent (1940, Alfred Hitchcock)

Well shit, I was wrong. I thought Foreign Correspondent was pre-Rebecca and I am incorrect.

I suppose the confusion has to do with the way Hitchcock made Correspondent. It’s very much in the style of his 1930s British films (I’m thinking primarily of The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes), while Rebecca was not. Rebecca was about people, Correspondent is about events. Not that I have a problem with Hitchcock making movies about events (though Saboteur is something awful, as is The Birds). Correspondent is a damn good film. I’ve only seen it once before and the same thing happened today that happened six or seven years ago. I looked at the clock about forty minutes in and wondered how it could have gotten there. The first forty minutes of this film moves faster than any other I’ve seen. The rest moves too, but those first forty feel like eleven.

This film is a propaganda piece. But only sort of. It’s got some incredibly beautiful moments in it, moments I’m not used to in film, particularly not thrillers. In the midst of a plane crash, two characters are none-the-less affected by a death. It’s thirty seconds, probably less, but it really sets Correspondent apart. There’s also some wonderful character relationships in the film that the last hour takes the time to explore. Even the amusing scenes of a man and his assassin-to-be. The romance is exceptionally hurried, but there’s this scene on a boat that makes it all worth it. This film comes together in beautiful ways, works in beautiful ways.

It’s not a well-known Hitchcock. A quick Google search just revealed it to be “little known.” One of the reasons for the lack of notoriety is probably that Warner Bros. didn’t whore it on VHS like Universal did their Hitchcock titles. Another reason is probably Joel McCrea. Even though I saw The Most Dangerous Game at some point growing up, I had no idea who McCrea was until I started looking into film myself. This inquiry happened to coincide with AMC being great–long time ago–so I got a lot of McCrea in there. Foreign Correspondent popped up at some point during that period….

It’s not as deep as Hitchcock could get. Hitchcock did have some deeper films–Rebecca for example–but Foreign Correspondent is probably the best example of Hitchcock’s filmmaking skills. He uses methods and devices in this film that appear in everything. Whether or not these subsequent filmmakers picked it up from Correspondent, I doubt, given the quality of some of them. Watching early, raw Hitchcock is an exciting experience and Correspondent is one of the two best of these raw films (the other is The Lady Vanishes).

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; written by Charles Bennett, Joan Harrison, James Hilton and Robert Benchley; director of photography, Rudolph Mate; edited by Dorothy Spencer; released by United Artists.

Starring Joel McCrea (Johnny Jones/Huntley Haverstock), Laraine Day (Carol Fisher), Herbert Marshall (Stephen Fisher), George Sanders (Ffolliott), Albert Basserman (Van Meer), Robert Benchley (Stebbins), Edmund Gwenn (Rowley), Harry Davenport (Mr. Powers), Eduardo Ciannelli (Krug), Martin Kosleck (Tramp), Eddie Conrad (Latvian Diplomat), Crauford Kent (Toastmaster), Gertrude W. Hoffman (Mrs. Benson), Jane Novak (Miss Benson), Louis Borrell (Captain Lanson), Eily Malyon (English Cashier) and E.E. Clive (Mr. Naismith).


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