Ball of Fire (1941) Howard Hawks

balloffire2lcWhile Billy Wilder is best known as a film director, he always considered himself a writer first and director second. He worked best with a partner, and though he had many over the years, there were two, Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond, who were his most important associates.  Though he was born in Europe, Wilder quickly picked up and mastered the American vernacular. While Wilder always had a co-writer, there is no way to misinterpret a Wilder screenplay. His footprints are clearly all over them. Continue reading

Short Takes: The Hard Way (1943) and The Westerner (1940)

 

The Hard Way - Vincent Sherman (***1/2) - The Hard Way is centered by a strong iron clad performance by Ida Lupino who won the New York Film Critics Award for her role as the determined, tough, hard driven older sister willing to sacrifice anything and anyone to ensure her sister’s rise to the top of Broadway’s bright lights.  Lupino’s character is tagged as evil but is she really? The sisters were raised in a small polluted industrial town, both women looking to get out using any means necessary to accomplish their goal. The kid sister, played by Joan Leslie has talent and gets a few “breaks”, mostly amoral breaks promoted by big sister Lupino. When little sister is part of the chorus of a Broadway show Lupino gets the bitter star, played by Gladys George, drunk enough that she storms out of the rehearsal, Lupino then pushes her sister on the producers giving her the opportunity of a life time. It works and she becomes a star! Directed by Vincent Sherman with male supporting roles provided by Dennis Morgan and an excellent Jack Carson. Behind the scene credits also include cinematography by James Wong Howe and montage by future director Don Siegel. Leslie’s performance is debatably the weak link here. Her song and dance number that represents her big break is actually pretty bad making it hard to swallow that it was this routine that impressed the director and producers of the play to give her the lead.

The Westerner (William Wyler) ***1/2 Except for an overly sentimental ending this western duel between Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan holds up very well. Brennan gives one of his best performances as Judge Roy Bean, a law unto himself with a big weakness for the beautiful actress Lily Langtry whom he would never meet. Brennan deservedly won one of his three Best Supporting Actor awards for his role. While on the surface it seems that Brennan steals the movie, Cooper’s subtle performance adds much to the proceedings though it is a secondary part. Cooper is a wandering cowboy who stops in the town of Vinegroon where the only law west of the Pecos is the hanging Judge Roy Bean. Cooper as Cole Hardin, is quickly put on trial for horse thief but manages to save himself through a series of long comical tales about knowing Lily Langtry the actress with whom the Judge is in love from afar. The meat of the film is the relationship between the Judge and Hardin. Whenever the film moves on to other storylines such as the growing war between the homesteaders and cattlemen and a bland love story between Hardin and homesteader Jane Mathews (Doris Davenport) the film slides in clichés ridden tedium.

According to author Jeff Myers (Gray Cooper: American Hero) at the Dallas premiere Coop rode down Main Street during a parade fully dressed in a cowboy outfit on  horseback.  This film also marked the film debuts of Dana Andrews and Forest Tucker.

High Noon (1952) Fred Zinnemann

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“This is just a dirty little town in the middle of nowhere. Nothing that happens here is really important.”- The Judge

First a confession!  Dave over at the excellent Goodfella’s Movie Blog is in the middle of a year-by-year countdown of the best movie of each year. If you have yet to visit his site please do, you won’t be sorry. Now that’s not the confession, so what is, you ask? Well, in my comments at Dave’s blog for the 1952 best film selection, I stated that I was not a big fan of Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon”; subsequently I did not include it in my own list of favorite films for that year. Recently, TCM ran the film again, and unlike the many times it has been aired before, I did not ignore,  but decided to revisit it for the first time in many years. So here is my big confession, truth be told, I was wrong, “High Noon” is one of the great films of 1952 and one of the great westerns of all time! Now this won’t come as a shock to many of you who even without my proclamation already knew “High Noon” was a great movie. Frankly, I am just catching up.

Now that I got that weight off my chest, I can move on…

John Wayne proclaimed his dislike for this movie, seeing it as a parable for the blacklisting and anti-communist furor that was taking hold in the early 1950’s.  He found it disgraceful that Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) tosses his badge into the dirt at the end of the film. Seven years later, Wayne and Howard Hawks would made “Rio Bravo” as a response to the radical “High Noon.” As late as 1971, Wayne, in a Playboy magazine interview, called “High Noon”, “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” If Wayne disliked what the film stood for, Hawks abhorred it, insulting his sense of professionalism. He therefore made a film where the sheriff refuses help from the town’s citizens, instead accepting help from only other “outsiders” like the young gunslinger and the town drunk. Whereas, Will Kane, in “High Noon”, was an accepted member of the town’s social circle with friends. John T. Chance, in “Rio Bravo” separates himself from the town, he is a professional lawman, an outsider and not part of the town’s citizenship.

highnoon-Coop-Kelly_1_     Ironically, over the years, people and even countries, from both sides of the political spectrum have come to find their own personal values in this film. The former Soviet Union accused the film of being “a glorification of the individual.”  Pro-McCarthyites saw the film as communist propaganda and anti-American. Yet President Ronald Reagan loved the film for it lead character’s “strong sense of and dedication to duty and law.” Both Presidents Eisenhower and Clinton loved the movie. Clinton ran the film no less than 17 times while in office! He even recommended it to then incoming President Bush.  So how can one film be interpreted and satisfying on both sides of the political fence? Possibly, because, no matter where you stand politically, the film has come to symbolize the courage and perseverance an individual needs during hard and difficult times. Here was one man who stood up for what he believed in, despite the abandonment, the lack of conviction and courage from the community he helped build and protect. Perhaps the Soviet Union was right, “High Noon” is the glorification of the individual, how American!

Even before the film was completed, staunch conservatives were attacking it. The film was made during the height of the anti-communist witch-hunts. The House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) was finding communist everywhere including in your toaster! Hollywood was under siege, forced by Congress to rid itself of any writer, actor, director who even smelled of leftist leanings. Socially conscience filmmakers were driven out of the country, Jules Dassin, Joseph Losey to name two, while others were put in jail (the Hollywood 10).  Still, more lost their livelihood and had to retreat to theater or get out of the business all together. Screenwriter Carl Forman, a known left-winger, was eventually fired by producer Stanley Kramer who was under pressure to do so. There is plenty of irony when you consider that star Gary Cooper was conservative, as was composer Dimitri Tiomkin, both card-carrying members of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an anti-communist group that worked with the HUAC in “cleaning up” Hollywood. Additionally, Tex Ritter who sang the title song shared similar sentiments. Lloyd Bridges and cinematographer Floyd Crosby (father of rock singer David Crosby) were “gray listed” for working in the film. producer Stanley Kramer and director Fred Zinnemann had liberal views and while not blacklisted were considered sympathizers.   high_noon_clock

The plot is simple, three men ride into the town of Hadleyville, one is Ben Miller, brother of recently released ex-convict Frank Miller, who is arriving on the noon train. Five years ago, Marshal Will Kane sent Miller to prison. Originally, Miller was sentenced to death until the courts changed his sentence to life in prison. Eventually he was released after serving only five years. At the time of his sentencing Miller swore vengeance and now he has come back to collect. This same day, Will Kane is retiring as Marshal and marrying his young sweetheart Amy (Grace Kelly). Right after the ceremony, word arrives that Miller is out of prison and coming to town, to kill Kane. His neighbors tell him it is best if he and his wife leave and disappear. They hustle the couple quickly out of town; however, once on the trail Kane has second thoughts. His wife tells him it is crazy to return, Kane says he has never run from anyone before; he has to go back. When he seeks help from the town people, they refuse. Some resented Kane’s tactics while he was Marshal. Others say since Will is no longer Marshal, why should they risk their lives.  Some thought life was better years ago when Frank Miller was here and the town was wide open. Kane’s Deputy Marshal Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) quits, blaming Will for not speaking up for him so he could inherit the Marshal’s job upon his retirement. Even the judge who sentenced Miller is packing and leaving town, urging Kane to reconsider and leave too. “The man is crazy”, he says.

High_Noon_poster  Approximately 1 hour and 11 minutes into the film, director Zinnemann and his editors, create a mosaic of tension, and a class in film editing. It starts with Kane sitting at his desk writing out his last will and testament, Dimitri Tiomkin’s music begins a tense pounding. Kane looks up at the clock, in extreme close up we see the swinging of the pendulum, the camera moves upward toward the hands of the clock, which reads 11:58. We cut to the outlaws waiting at the train station, then to a low angle shot of the tracks. Next, we see the interior of the church, close-ups of the solemn parishioners. Zinnemann cuts to the saloon, its customers. Back to the pendulum swinging, Will Kane at his desk, a long shot of the exterior of the town, cut to another angle of the town. Back to the railroad tracks, the killers waiting. By this point, the pace of the cuts have accelerated. Zinnemann cuts to a close up of the previous Marshal sitting in his chair, a friend cowering in his home, a close-up of Helen (Katy Jurado) the saloon owner,  and then a close up of Amy. Back to the swinging pendulum, and then the clock, as it is about to strike noon. Quick cuts to the killers, Amy and then, the sudden sound of the train’s whistle. It’s high noon. The camera is back on the tracks and far off we see the smoke puffing from the train engine, the music stops, the quietness is startling; we are back looking at Kane.

It’s time.

Kane comes outside on to the street, he sees Amy and Helen on a buckboard riding toward the train station. Zinnemann now gives us a shot the Marshal in close up. As he looks around Zinnemann’s camera begins to pull back. A crane shot, the camera moves back and up high over the entire town. The streets are empty except for the Marshal.high still

In the final sequence, we see Kane marching toward his confrontation with the band of four who are walking toward him from the other end of town. The gun battle ends as we expect with Kane the victor but only after he gets some unexpected help from his Quaker wife, who came back from the train when she heard the first gunshots, and shoots one of the outlaws in the back just as he was about to kill Will.

The town’s citizens come out of hiding surrounding Kane and his wife. He looks at them in disgust, takes off his badge and tosses it into the dirt. The Marshal and his wife climb up on the buckboard and ride off.

“High Noon” is less than 90 minutes long and takes place in almost real time starting with the three men riding into town and the wedding of Kane and his young bride. Time is a recurring motif in the film. We constantly have shot of clocks, men looking at watches as the minutes tick away toward the arrival of the noon train and Frank Miller.  The film is unconventional in many ways. Unlike most westerns, there is little action here, except for a fight between Kane and his former deputy Harvey and the climatic ending. At one point, the Marshal openly admits to Harvey that he is afraid. There is also no talk of the west being the opening of a new frontier or the beginning of a new community, themes common at the time to western film mythology. “High Noon” is nothing a typical western is suppose to be, it is the antithesis of John Ford’s more romanticized version of west. No wonder The Duke hated it.

Additionally, much was made at the time of the age difference between Cooper, who was fifty-one, and looked a lot older (he was ill), and the young and beautiful Grace Kelly who was about twenty-three.

high-noon-Kelly-Juarado11    Cooper gives an impressive performance as Kane. Looking visually worried, sweat on his face, bound by a sense of honor, he finds himself standing alone amongst the town people he swore to protect.  Like John Wayne, Gary Cooper is one of cinema’s iconic western heroes,  having appeared in “The Virginia”, “The Plainsman”, “The Westerner”, “Vera Cruz” and “Man of the West” among others.

“High Noon” is one of the most beautifully framed and photographed films, brilliantly shot with deep rich blacks. I was truly impressed by the framing of many of the images that could have easily been plucked from the film and work elegantly as black and white still photographs. The man responsible was Floyd Crosby, who surprisingly did not even receive a nomination for Best B&W Cinematography that year. The music by Dimitri Tiomkin has become as iconic as Cooper’s image walking down the empty streets of the town. The haunting title song with the word’s “do not forsake me oh my darling”, a constant reminder that Kane has been abandoned by everyone. Tiomkin by the way would score Hawks “Rio Bravo.” The film also has some great character actors including Lee Van Cleef as one of the killer’s, Lon Chaney Jr. as the former sheriff, Harry Morgan as a so called friend of Kane’s, Katy Jurado as the saloon owner and former lover to both Will Kane and Frank Miller. Most recently, she had hooked up with the young immature deputy played by Lloyd Bridges. Other well known charcter actors include Thomas Mitchell, Jack Elam Otto Kruger and Harry Morgan.

The film’s political overtones are still there, a reminder of uglier times. Though they have faded from memory of some, younger viewers may even be unaware of any political overtones; just read the comments on IMDB.  Still the film resonates with many in the audience today. The politics of prisoners receiving early releases, their sentences being reduced is as timely today with audiences as it is portrayed in the film. Note the discussion about this topic in the church when Will seeks help from the churchgoers. One of the town people speak out saying Miller’s release from prison is not their fight, it is the responsibility of those northern politicians, who released him from prison. In the final analysis, “High Noon” does not fit snugly into any one philosophy. It does not take a straight liberal or a conservative stance. Viewers looking for a particular ideology that fits neatly into their vision will be disappointed. Politically, there is no comfort food here such as conservatives find when they watch FOX news or liberals find watching MSNBC.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) Frank Capra

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    Frank Capra takes on the big city slickers vs. the small town yokels in this depression era comedy led by Gary Cooper as Longfellow Deeds and the always amazing Jean Arthur as Louise “Babe” Bennett. Capra was awarded his second Oscar for directing this 1936 classic. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Cooper) Best Screenplay (Robert Riskin in his fifth collaboration with Capra) and Best Recording.  The story originally appeared in serial form in the Saturday Evening Post, written by Clarence Budington Kelland.

    Longfellow Deeds, greeting card poet and tuba player eccentric has a nice peaceful life in the small New England town of Mandrake Falls, Vermont. Life is turned upside down when his late uncle, multi-millionaire Martin Semple leaves him an inheritance of twenty million dollars. Seduced by the estates attorney, John Cedar (Douglass Dumbriller) who plucks Longfellow out of his safety net of a little town and into the big bad city of New York.

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    Cedar, of the law firm, Cedar, Cedar, Cedar and Budington is a scheming rodent of a lawyer who will eventually attempt to get Deed’s to turn over to him power of attorney in order to hide his financial thievery. By the way, note the in-joke with the use of the last name of Budginton in the law firm name, which is the same as the middle name of the author of the original story. Cedar hires former newspaperman Cornelius Cobb (Lionel Stander) to keep other reporters away from Deeds; however, a foxy Louise “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur) outwits Cobb when she poses as a destitute woman named Mary Dawson, who has been pounding the concrete sidewalks everyday in vain, searching for a job. She gains Longfellow’s confidence who get “a fools notion about saving a lady in distress”, and begins writing a series of newspaper articles exploiting his eccentric behavior (feeding donuts to horses), anointing him with the name of “Cinderella Man.”

     Deeds finds himself exploited and the laughing stock of the big city, all due to the constant barrage of newspaper articles by Ms. Bennett. Unexpectedly, Mary/Babe begins to fall in love with our innocent hero and comes to regret her writing the uncaring exploitive articles. Deeds, fed up with the treatment and ridicule he has received and is ready to head back to Mandrake Falls when an evicted farmer breaks into his mansion, verbally attacking him for being insensitive cold hearted, spending thousands on parties when everyday people all over are starving. Instead of feeding doughnuts to horses, how about giving those doughnuts to needy hungry people. The man suddenly pulls out a gun threatening to shoot Deeds. Fortunately, the farmer comes to his senses, realizing what he is about to do, he breaks down, dropping the gun as Deeds, who never wanted the fortune, finally realizes here is a way to give his money away and do good in the process. He will give thousands of homeless farmer’s farmland to work, and if they work the land for three years, it will be theirs to keep.

    After Cedar becomes aware of Deeds plan, and realizes he will lose control of millions of dollars, he attempts to have Deeds declared mentally unbalanced in court, by manipulating the only other living relative of the millionaire uncle to take the money away from Deeds before he gives it away to poor people. At the same time Deeds finds out the truth about Mary/Babe and that the fantasy girl he fell in love with has betrayed him.

deeds     Deed is put on trial and the predator lawyers attack with a vengeance, to the extent of bringing into court two eccentric old ladies from Deeds hometown to corroborate his peculiar behavior even back in Mandrake Falls. Deeds meanwhile, has sunk into a deep depression losing all hope in mankind, even refusing an attorney to defend him. The strong court case against Deeds begins to fall apart when the farmers and Babe, who declares her love for him in open court, all begin to come to his defense and he himself begins to realize there are good honest decent people in the world.

     I have always had ambivalent feelings about Frank Capra’s work, however I found “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” to be one of Capra’s great films, with his classic theme about the common man, overcoming greedy parasites and underhandedness, in this case, from lawyers and newspapers. The film still rings true today and I can imagine it must have had an especially good reception with the depression era population of the 1930’s getting to see a regular guy stand up and win against rich corrupt forces. Capra’s film is just one of many films during the depression to condemn the big city, filled with greedy manipulators and parasites (Vidor’s “Our Daily Bread” is another) vs. the small town filled with friendly genteel folks, “democratic” as an old man in Mandrake Falls states early in the film.    

    Capra’s women, “Babe”, in “Mr. Deeds” and Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck in the more serious social drama, “Meet John Doe”), are small town girls who come to, and were “corrupted” by the big bad city. Both “Babe” and Ann were newspaper reporters, a cynic’s occupation in many of Capra’s films.  There was also Clark Gable’s fast talking disparager who had little use for facts in “It Happened One Night” and Robert Williams Stew Smith in “Platinum Blonde”, who foolishly marries the rich Jean Harlow while his real love co-reporter (Loretta Young) looks on. Interestingly enough, the phrase “Cinderella Man” is used in both “Platinum Blonde” and in “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.”  

    The screenplay was written by Robert Riskin, one of five films he worked on with Capra. Others include “Broadway Bill”, “Lady for a Day”, “You Can’t it With You”, “Meet John Doe”,  “American Madness”, and the Academy Award winning “It Happened One Night.”  Capra and Riskin’s relationship was convoluted, a love-hate collaboration developed after many years of Capra taking credit for Riskin’s work on many of their films. Capra in his autobiography downplayed Riskin’s contributions to some of their greatest films, this long after Riskin’s death. Looking to preserve his reputation, Capra put forth his one man, one film theory claiming that many of his screenwriters, Riskin included, did their best work only with him.capra-riskin

    Legend has it that Riskin once handed Capra a blank sheet of paper and told him to go ahead and “put the famous Capra touch on that.”  In the final years of Riskin’s life, wheelchair bound due to a stroke, he remained loyal to Capra, despite Capra never coming visit him. He admonished fellow screenwriter Jo Swerling when he once commented to Riskin that it was not right Capra never came to visit him, insisting that Capra was his best friend. If so, Capra did not have any reservations about down grading Riskins contributions to their classic works. Fay Wray, Riskin’s wife for the last thirteen years of his life, said while many of Riskin’s friends came to visit him in those final days, Capra was not among them. An uncharitable turn by a man who cherished his reputation as a filmmaker whose films carried the wholesome message on the basic goodness human nature.    

   Who can play the wholesome ordinary man better than Cary Cooper? No one that I can think of and as for Jean Arthur, I can never say enough nice things about this naturalistic comedic actress who Capra would use again two more times. The film opened to good reviews, upon its initial release at the Radio City Music Hall in New York. Grahame Greene, then a critic for The Spectator  called it Capra’s best film. Along with the previously mentioned Oscars, “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”,  also won The New York Film Critics award as the best film of the year.  

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    The film was “remade” in 2002 with Adam Sandler in the role of Longfellow Deeds. Sandler’s Deeds runs a pizza shop in Mandrake Falls, which means not even the writers of the remake  believed Sandler could write greeting card level poetry. Of course, the inheritance is upped from twenty million to billionaire status and the humor level has been brought down to Sandler’s sub-basement floor level. Other than a lack of wit, charm, intelligence and a heart, there is really nothing wrong with the remake. Why do they bother? Oh yeah, Greed, money, and manipulation by those big city parasites.