The Grapes of Wrath on TCM – Feb. 10th

grapes

John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath is one of classic Hollywood’s most impressive and important films. Based on John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, a morally emotional work filled with both rage and empathy; it won both the National Book Award and a Pulitzer. One year after the book’s publication came Ford’s masterpiece.

TCM is broadcasting the film on Friday (February 10th) at 8PM (Eastern).

Down below is an excerpt from my e-book, Lessons in the Dark, where you can read more about  The Grapes of Wrath classic films. Available at Amazon. Continue reading

The Ox Bow Incident William Wellman

ox-bowAt this point in his career, Henry Fonda was not happy with most of the films he had made. Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, was certainly one he was proud of, and thanks to John Ford, he got the role of a lifetime. Like Brando as Stanley Kowalski, or Cagney as George M. Cohan, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else fitting the role of Tom Joad other than Henry Fonda. But there was a price to be paid for getting that part. 20th Century Fox honcho, Darryl F. Zanuck would only give him the role if he signed a contract with the studio. One of the films he made for Fox during this period was The Ox-Bow Incident, based on Walter Van Tilbert Clark’s extraordinary novel. Directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman, the film is an oddity in westerns of the period. In 1943, the war was on and most films focused on lightweight escapist entertainment, a two hour break from worrying about husbands, fathers, sons and the horrors of what was happening in the world. The Ox-Bow Incident was not lightweight entertainment, it was a downbeat, ugly look at humanity with little gun play. Instead it focused on vigilantism, group mentality that reduced men to the lowest primal level of thoughts and deeds.  It is arguably the first psychological western ever made. Continue reading

Let Us Live (1939) John Brahm

   let_us_live2.jpg   Let Us Live is based on a March 1936 Harper’s magazine article by Boston Globe crime reporter, Joseph F. Dinneen, called Murder in Massachusetts. Dinneen’s true story focuses on two taxi cab drivers identified by almost a dozen witnesses for killing a man during a Lynn, Massachusetts movie theater robbery. The real killers, arrested about three weeks later were small time Jewish hoods Abraham Faber and brothers Irving and Murton Millen. The real killers’ story is rather fascinating in itself. Abraham Faber seemed like an unlikely individual to become a hoodlum. Faber attended MIT, graduating with a degree in aeronautical engineering. The Millen brothers were thugs. Small time hoods who hauled illegal booze during the prohibition days. The threesome apparently knew each other from days gone by growing up in Roxbury, Mass. Unemployed during the Depression, Abraham Faber reconnected with his childhood friends and the trio began a small time crime spree. In January, 1934 they graduated to murder when they shot a man during the Paramount theater robbery in Lynn, Mass. One month later, they robbed the Needham Trust Co., killing two police officers and wounding a fire fighter in the process. About three weeks later in New York City two of the men were arrested and confessed to the crimes. The third man was arrested in Boston. The taxi cab drivers arrested for the first murder were released. The Farber-Millen gang were convicted and executed in June of 1935. Continue reading

My Darling Clementine (1946) John Ford

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In John Ford’s 1962 late career masterpiece, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” there’s a line quoted by the town’s newspaper editor, Maxwell Scott, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” And that’s just what John Ford was best at, recording the west not as it was, but as more of a mystical fable of how we want the west to be best remembered. Ford and his screenwriters play loose with the facts, still it is one of the most visually stunning of westerns, a black and white canvas of the west as it never existed, but we all wish it had.

Earp’s career has been idolized, revised and sanitized many times over. He was only a lawman for about eight years, and in Tombstone, it was Wyatt’s brother Virgil who was the Marshal with Wyatt and Virgil his deputies.(1) Not to bore you dear reader with the facts, but neither Doc Holliday nor Pop Clanton died during the short thirty second battle. Wyatt actually met Doc Holliday in Dodge City back in 1876 five years before the O.K. Corral shootings.  When they left for Tombstone, John “Doc” Holliday followed. If you want a somewhat more realistic, though still not totally accurate, version of what happened back in 1881 at the O.K. Corral and its aftermath, check out John Sturges “Hour of the Gun.” Oh yeah, a couple of other things, when Wyatt visits the grave of the youngest Earp, James who was killed by the Clanton’s early in the film, his tombstone reads he died in 1882 instead of ’81 when the shootout occurred. And as for Clementine Carter, well she is a purely fictional character. Continue reading

Coogan’s Bluff (1968) Don Siegel

Don Siegel released two films in 1968, films bookending the changes that were happening in Hollywood, the first film representing the ending of one era and the second beginning of another. Both films are police dramas based in New York City and both films involved law officers who are troublesome renegades to their superiors. They also have some similar casting with actors, Susan Clark and Don Stroud, in both films, yet in “Madigan” starring Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda, we are saying goodbye to Hollywood’s old guard, while with “Coogan’s Bluff” we are welcoming the future in the cool, silent gaze of Clint Eastwood. Director Don Siegel himself was kind of turning a corner in his own career going from a “B” film director to the “A” list along with what would turn out to be the start of a fruitful and professional relationship with Eastwood.  

 Siegel teamed up for the first time with Eastwood who just completed his first starring role in an American film, “Hang em’ High” and was now looking to move on to his next project, “Coogan’s Bluff,” based on a screenplay by Henry Miller, Dean Riesner and Howard Rodman. The film is a fish out of water story, a culture clash of East meets West, city slickers meet small town country boy. Call it what you will but when the boy is Clint Eastwood the shit is going to fly. Continue reading

The Grapes of Wrath (1941) John Ford

For most of us today, the Great Depression of the 1930’s is something we may have read about in our history books. For anyone still alive during the depression experiencing it was something that would never be forgotten. If these depression era folks shared their memories and they lived in a big city like New York or Seattle, they may talk about Hooverville. There were many Hooverville’s in many cities across the country. If they lived in more rural areas like Oklahoma, they would talk to you about the dustbowl that ruined the farmland and the mortgage companies and banks that foreclosed on their land.

   John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath is arguably the most famous film about the depression, and was one of the first films selected to be in the National Film Registry. Based on John Steinbeck’s classic novel, the film follows the Joad family from the dustbowl of Oklahoma as they journey to what they hope is a better life in California. Few other films capture the gloom, the harshness, the misery of proud people remaining strong in the face of economic destruction like Ford’s masterpiece. William Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread (1934) are strong competitors.    Continue reading

Short Takes III: Groucho, Doris and Frank James

Horse Feathers (****1/2) The only thing wrong with this hilariously funny Marx Brothers film is the absene of Margaret Dumont from the cast. Other than that this film, the fourth of five for Universal the Brothers made is outstanding.  At this point in time the Marx Brothers were in the middle of a series of iconic films that still stand today as gems of absurdist comedy. The anarchistic arm of comedy rules right from the opening scene when Groucho, as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, performs, “Whatever It Is , I’m Against It,”   and that pretty much is the theme of this short 75 minute film.

There are so many great scenes it is difficult to highlight just a few. I love the row boat scene with Groucho romancing Thelma Todd while she is attempting to seduce the team’s plays out of him. The entire sequence has a risqué and somewhat surrealistic feel to it all. When Thelma fall overboard and screams to Groucho to throw her a life saver, heroically he does just that, a candy life saver. The final wedding scene ends in what could be termed a riotous orgy. The scene opens with Groucho, Harpo and Chico standing off to the side as newlywed Thelma and an unseen groom, presumably Zeppo, are receiving their wedding vows from  the preacher. As soon as he pronounces the couple man and wife and says to kiss the bride, Groucho, Harpo and Chico literally jump all over Thelma falling into one big pile to the ground.   Directed by Norman Z. McLeod.

My Dream Is Yours (***1/2) an odd little musical with a young Doris Day and second banana Jack Carson in the male lead role. Despite being a musical there are dark overtones of alcoholism and the death of a husband/father in the war. I am not much of a Doris Day fan (I’m diabetic and cannot take the sugar rush) generally avoiding her films like I would a hornets’ nest, but Martin Scorsese discusses this film in the new book, CONVERSATIONS WITH SCORSESE and liked it. Coincidently, it recently popped up on TCM and thought, with the Scorsese recommendation, I would give it a try. The film is a mixed bag, but  there is a wonderful dream sequence blending live action and animation featuring Bugs Bunny, along with Doris and Jack that is the highlight of the film. Location shots in Hollywood including Schwab’s Drugstore and The Brown Derby add a nice flavor. Directed by Michael Curtiz.

The Return of Frank James (**1/2) Fictional version of Frank James pursuit of the Ford Brothers for the killing of his brother Jesse. As portrayed by Henry Fonda, Frank James is a gosh darn, soft spoken, man of the land kind of guy just out for good ol’ American revenge. I find Fonda such a likable actor, he could play a serial killer and you gosh darn want to like him. Henry Hull is entertainingly blustery as the newspaper editor/lawyer who defends Frank in court. The recently deceased Jackie Cooper’s death scene in the film has more corn than tears, and the film is also hurt by some serious stereotyping dialogue forced to be read by the black members of the cast. Nicely photographed by George Barnes. Directed by Fritz Lang. Cast includes Gene Tierney, John Carradine and Donald Meek.