Cash McCall (1960): Film Review

1

A screenshot from the trailer of Cash McCall.

Let me break down the anatomy of film for you. There are great films, there are good films, there are bad films, and there are odd films. Movies which fall into this last category can be strangely fascinating and frustrating at the same time; the viewer often lapses into bemused speculation regarding the judgment or even the simple sanity of the producers and directors who brought so strange a monster into semi-existence. These misshapen, fundamentally flawed Frankensteins may contain, among other things, glaring gaps in the story’s logic, blatant sidestepping of the plot’s genuinely interesting aspects, or almost tone-deaf treatments of problematic issues.

While I run the risk of outraging the film’s devotees (and there is a certain number of them), I must place the 1960 film Cash McCall in the category of oddities. I’m more than happy to concede that it is an absorbing, memorable film, but I must then forfeit any possible points by adding that it is absorbing and memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Let’s begin by giving a brief overview of the plot. Grant Austen (Dean Jagger), the owner of a small plastics company, faces financial difficulties and arranges to sell his business to a wealthy young wheeler-and-dealer, unscrupulous, business-first-and-ethics-nowhere personage called Cash McCall, played by none other than James Garner, looking as clean-cut, shiny, and All-American as you can get. Now, it turns out that Jagger’s daughter Lory (a young and equally glossy Natalie Wood) had an Incident with Cash McCall in Maine (of all places) last summer. This Incident is presented in a blurry flashback, aims for a new level of frankness by 1960 standards, and lacks even remote credibility, although it does contain one stellar example of synecdoche.

Still, the romance is resumed by both parties and is proceding smoothly when a wrench is thrown into the gears, out of absolutely nowhere, by a scheming, bitter divorcee (Nina Foch). This woman is the assistant manager of the hotel where Cash has his penthouse, and is treated with utter contempt by the screenwriters, saddled with an outdated, completely unexpected, and deeply embarrassing stereotypical turn as the love-hungry, spurned, vengeful aging woman. She is constantly humiliated by the script, which gratuitously throws in a dash of workplace sexism and a crushing confrontation scene with McCall, as well as letting poor Miss Foch (a wonderful but chronically underused actress) wear a hat almost as unpleasant as her character. This hat, apparently composed of black metal feathers, looks like a rejected sketch for a Maleficent costume and may singlehandedly be responsible for the disappearance of hats from mainstream women’s fashion.

To return to the main point–the business end of McCall’s dealings with Jagger’s family also runs into trouble when Jagger finds out that he’s apparently been cheated by his client, who owns the companies and personnel who counseled Jagger to sell to McCall. And so the rest of the film is devoted to sorting out these business and romantic difficulties in order to achieve a universally satisfactory ending, in which McCall gets the girl, moral superiority, and general approval, as well as points for philanthropy.

The story itself isn’t really so terrible, when examined objectively. As a matter of fact, the film’s real flaws are due to the truly bizarre approach taken by the script to what could have been a morally complex and rewarding character study. Strangely enough, the love story is given second place and the movie’s bulk is devoted to the business deal between Jagger and McCall, with all its implications and consequences. Very few films have the nerve to tackle subjects so specialized and puzzling to the layman; but in the right hands, Cash McCall might have pulled it off. Instead, we are introduced to characters whose potential is limited by the film’s insistence on remaining within the domain of the conventional. There are flashes of fine acting and possibilities of greatness here and there, which makes it even more frustrating when the movie veers back into plodding gentility. Dean Jagger is quite good; Nina Foch is far better than her role deserves; James Garner demonstrates a ruthless singlemindness and astonishingly direct approach to all situations which could have been far more satisfactorily exploited; and character actor Henry Jones rocked this cinemaphile’s world by giving a performance that revealed a depth and skill never once suspected of him hitherto, even in wildest fever-induced movie-themed delirium.

Natalie Wood, on the other hand, does little to make her pairing with Garner plausible; she’s pretty, she’s well dressed in a trim, WASP-ish way, she is supportive and sweet, but one can’t help wishing for someone equal to Garner’s best acting, or a Wood performance on the level of her 1961 turn in Splendor in the Grass. Still, that would be rather useless, given the way the movie is written. As stated before, the film concentrates on the business deal with all the energy and passion it can muster, and the romance takes a puzzled backseat even when it should logically be center-stage. To give only one example; after McCall opens negotiations with his lady-love’s father, he forcibly sweeps the girl away on his private jet to a mansion situated in an isolated land holding of his (yes, he’s that kind of millionaire) and proceeds to explain he’s buying her father’s company so he can get a chance to talk with her and explain about last summer, which leads into the bizarre flashback. Once that’s over, we cut back to Garner and Wood, who then express a wish to take a look at the house and the scene ends on an inconclusive, meaningless note, also depriving viewers of the highly unusual treat of seeing a Hollywood version of a millionaire’s dwelling. Instead, we are plunged back into the thrilling experience of following a business deal from its first steps towards its breath-taking closing.

Once again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong in making a movie about a business deal and shortchanging the romance side of things. Given the fact how many otherwise promising movies are skewed toward the romantic as opposed to all other sides of life, it would be both refreshing and interesting to have a film about business per se. But Cash McCall takes the easy way out of both romance and business by presenting a truncated version of both, and garnishing its semi-factory, semi-original product with sprigs of absurdity and flourishes of unanswered and unexplored question. Interestingly enough, the movie is based on the novel of the same name by Cameron Hawley, who also wrote the novel which served as the basis for the 1952 business-themed ensemble movie Executive Suite. But while there are similar themes in these two films, the end result of the 1960 excursion falls far short of its predecessor’s. Whether that is due to a weakness in the novel, or a mistake in the film writers’ approach is not clear; nevertheless we are left with a movie which cannot with any honesty be lauded as a classic, and which, even more depressingly, contains unformed within it the potential for a truly worthwhile film.

Nevertheless Cash McCall offers many of the pleasures peculiar to the bizarre movie experience. I will not attempt to assemble a complete list of these, but I will note that the Max Steiner score, which does have a pleasingly lyrical love theme as well as an irritating comedic one, also incorporates that composer’s previous successes in novel ways. For instance, Lory and Cash first meet and dance to the accelerated strains of Steiner’s Tara Theme from Gone With the Wind; I believe that the theme from A Summer Place also appears. The script also occasionally erupts into a forced, garden-variety, canned type of archness that adds to the confusion.

Another oddity–the film makes a point of explaining that Cash’s very appropriate first name is not the eminently suitable nickname it appears, but rather his mother’s maiden name, which is somewhat counterintuitive to say the least. Cash’s penthouse apartment also deserves a mention, not least because its living room, bar, and kitchen are at apartment “ground level,” while its bedrooms are located at the bottom of a flight of stairs. Indeed, that reversal of expected norms begins to strike me as a suitable metaphor for the film as a whole, which I suspect will appeal to lovers of classic film as well as that class of filmgoer which appreciates the truly original screen creations which spring from the union of movie conventions with lack of artistic taste.

Do you cherish fond memories of a film that should be, or in fact is, truly awful by artistic standards? Please share the title and a few comments below. Comments defending this film are also more than welcome ; )

Advertisements
Posted in American, Film | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Happy 100th Birthday to Olivia De Havilland

1!

Olivia De Havilland in radiant Technicolor, from the 1938 classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, one of her best pairings with Errol Flynn.

Today is the one hundredth birthday of Olivia De Havilland, born July 1st, 1916, Hollywood star and winner of two Academy Awards for Best Actress (for the 1946 To Each His Own and the 1949 The Heiress). As one of the last great stars from classic Hollywood still with us today, Miss De Havilland would merit all the recognition and good wishes which the classic film community can and does offer; but her great acting talents and gracious personality offer an even more solid base for the admiration and respect which each new generation of moviegoers necessarily tenders her once it has been introduced to the most significant films in her impressive body of work.

!!

Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland share a scene in their 1939 Western Dodge City.

From her turn as Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939) through her eight collaborations with Errol Flynn (including Dodge City, Captain Blood, They Died with Their Boots On, and The Adventures of Robin Hood), to her groundbreaking presentation of mental illness in The Snake Pit (1948), to her two Oscar-winning roles and beyond, Olivia De Havilland offered a range of often sparkling and always memorable performances. She was one of the rare actresses who could make a good girl not just interesting, but also enchanting. And while it is tempting to say that these performances came so easily to her because they were so close to her own character, it is equally true that she could play women whose charm and intelligence overlaid mysterious, often dangerous depths, proving that she was a highly skilled and intelligent actress.

Much has been written about Olivia De Havilland`s life, her courageous and epoch-making challenge of studio-system injustice in the 1940s, her relationship with her sister (the late actress Joan Fontaine), and her eventual retirement to France, where she still lives. This tribute is not intended to recap information readily available elsewhere, but simply to express a deep personal gratitude for the pleasure this writer has received from so many hours of moving or delightful work from Miss De Havilland, and a sincere wish that she will have a happy day and year, confident in the knowledge that her fans are as devoted as they are numerous.

1!!

Do you have a favorite performance by Olivia De Havilland, or is there a particular role of hers which marks an important moment in your film-viewing history? Please share with us in the comments below!

Posted in American, Film | Tagged , | Leave a comment

I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932): Film Review

A

As titles go, this 1932 Warner Brothers picture is hard to beat–and even eighty years later, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang remains as attention-grabbing and unforgettable as its title, besides being a historically and socially significant little movie. Made early enough to benefit from the comparative freedom of the pre-Code days, and late enough to benefit from film’s transition to the “talkies” stage, the movie is remarkable for its compelling narrative, unfortunately one solidly grounded in fact. The movie is based on the real-life story of Robert E. Burns, whose autobiography was adapted into a screenplay and directed by Mervyn Leroy. While the film caused a certain degree of controversy, it is said to have been influential in reforming the penal system, while also securing an eventual pardon for Burns himself.

The film opens as James Allen (Paul Muni, who rose to fame based on his performances in this film and the same year’s Scarface) returns to his small home town after serving with distinction in World War I, with a medal to prove it. His mother and clergyman brother wish him to return to his humdrum office job in the local shoe factory, but James dreams of continuing in the engineering work he explored during the war. While he works in the factory for a short time, he soon decides it is unendurable, explaining to his mother that he is tired of taking orders at work as he had in the military, and wants to work on his own account, for something meaningful. Having received her blessing, he travels the country, taking odd jobs here and there in construction, but he is often laid off as companies cut back and work becomes increasingly hard to find. One night, in a fifteen-cent-a-bed flophouse, he meets a man (Preston Foster) who forces him to help him hold up a hamburger stand. Although innocent, James is caught in a web of circumstantial evidence when the police arrive upon the scene, and he is sentenced to hard labor in a brutal Southern chain gang.

A2

A beautiful shot of the chain gang at work, plying their picks to the rhythm of a song.

The cruelty of the chain gang–both in its general structure and in the sadism of the officials–is vividly, painfully presented, a series of scenes which have lost not one iota of their power to shock and outrage despite the passage of the years. Despite the enormous risks involved, James manages to escape after several months, and (after choosing one of the stupidest aliases in the history of the world) manages to rise in the circle of Chicago engineering due to his hard work and innovative ideas. Along the way, however, he is trapped into marriage with his greedy young landlady and sometime romance, Marie (Glenda Farrell), who discovers his secret and blackmails him into matrimony despite his lack of feelings for her. She proves to be a terrible wife; James falls in love with a bright society girl (Helen Vinson), but when he asks for a divorce, Marie refuses and eventually alerts the police about him. James is promised a pardon by the authorities if he turns himself in and serves ninety days of labor, yet once he has been gathered back into the hell of the chain gang, he finds that the state has no qualms about going back on its word…

A1

It’s a painful picture to watch, and also a model piece of storytelling. While the bulk of the scenes are quite short, they all convey their central message with clarity and economy. And despite some pre-Code realism here and there, even the tawdrier scenes are more or less tastefully handled. The performances, while not all exempt from the earnest heaviness of some 1930s acting techniques, are effective overall, with some good turns by supporting players, especially on the distaff side. Muni, who received a Best Actor nomination for this role, verges a little on the melodramatic at times, but if one is going to be a touch melodramatic and get away with it, this is the role to do it in.

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang was one of the first of Warner Brothers’ “social-minded” pictures, and in its unflinching and dramatically compelling approach to what was then a legal institution, it laid the foundation for Hollywood’s sometimes dubious but often praiseworthy involvement with social issues. The picture’s timing is also interesting, given the economic turmoil of the Great Depression and the growing number of hoboes and unemployed men who travelled up and down the country in search of work, as James does (and his real-life counterpart Robert Burns did). While chain gangs figured prominently  in other notable films (including but not limited to Sturges’ 1941 Sullivan’s Travels, Rosenberg’s 1967 Cool Hand Luke, and the Coen Brothers’ 2000 O Brother, Where Art Thou?), it is fair to say that this is the movie which lies behind them all, an eloquent plea for recognition of human dignity even in convicts, a presentation of the cruelty which too often fills men placed in positions of absolute power, and a grim picture of a man who lived in cold fact what the audience hopes will only be its worst nightmare.

Posted in American, Film | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Musical Interlude: Bloodhounds of Broadway (1952)

220px-Bloodhounds_of_Broadway_(1952_film)_poster

While not even its greatest admirers could claim it as one of the few outstanding musicals of classic Hollywood, the 1952 musical Bloodhounds of Broadway is a colorful, pleasant, mildly entertaining little movie. Based on the popular stories of Damon Runyon (his tough-talking, soft-hearted bookies, gangsters, and hoodlums provided Hollywood with the stuff of a hundred movies), the movie stars Scott Brady, brother of the fearful Lawrence Tierney, and Mitzi Gaynor in one of her first leading roles. As a matter of fact, the movie might have been designed specifically to launch Miss Gaynor into stardom; not only is she given one of the gingham-girl-to-elegant-woman transformations so dear to the studio picture and the hearts of plain females everywhere, but the picture’s story is so constructed that Gaynor’s performance of two back-to-back musical numbers forms one of its plot climaxes.

The story begins as “Numbers” Foster (Scott Brady), the operator of a betting business in the back of a New York City nightclub, learns of an upcoming federal investigation and takes off for a precautionary stay in Florida until things blow over, leaving his girl Yvonne (Marguerite Chapman) to appear in court with a carefully prefabricated story. It goes over well in court, the investigation appears to be over, and so Numbers and his chief henchman Harry (Wally Vernon) get a car and start driving back to New York. But they get stranded among the backwoods of Georgia, where they meet Emily Ann Stackerlee (Mitzi Gaynor), a sprightly fresh-faced girl much given to singing, who welcomes them warmly. When trouble is caused by a jealous, trigger-happy would-be suitor, Numbers decides to bring the solitary girl to New York so she can get a job singing.

So Emily Ann goes off to the Big City and stays with Harry’s sister Tessie (Mitzi Green). Much to Numbers’s surprise, Emily Ann turns out to be a very attractive young woman of twenty once she has been dressed up properly; Yvonne also notices this and becomes highly suspicious of his intentions regarding his ward. Meanwhile, Emily Ann is learning to dance and sing and fall in love with Numbers; but once the two have acknowledged their feelings for each other, Yvonne vengefully denounces Numbers to the police, and Emily Ann must convince Numbers to take the advice of his old childhood friend, now Inspector MacNamara (Michael O’Shea), and choose the path of honesty and poverty before they marry.

It’s clearly not a very original plot, but the actors are engaging enough to keep up one’s interest and the story moves swiftly along without lingering too long on anything. Mitzi Gaynor is the movie’s main raison d’etre, and her patent youth and freshness do much to carry the film, as do her enthusiasm and the whole-hearted way she attacks her simple role. While she gets to do some cliché backwoods-girl singing and dancing in her first scenes, the two dances she performs in the middle of the film allow her to accomplish the same transition from backwoods girl to sophisticated lady in musical terms which has already been done in terms of her appearance. The first of these dances is a lively redneck/hick pastiche number, with Mitzi portraying a pretty girl of the kind immortalized in Lil’ Abner and the works of Erskine Caldwell. Next comes a serious rendition of a torch song, delivered by Gaynor in a long gown and complete with dramatic staging, lighting, and dancing. Thus the audience is introduced to the range of Miss Gaynor’s talents, which are indeed impressive. She gets one last dance at the end of the film, a decidedly more daring dance set in a New Orleans “café” and performed in chorus girl attire, and altogether the sum total of her performance (especially the dancing) explains why her career took off and justifies the film’s design as a setting for her talents.

The rest of the cast performs well, with Miss Chapman getting one song of her own, and Mitzi Green and Richard Allen participating in the dancing and singing on occasion. The bloodhounds of the title have surprisingly little to do, but they do appear. More memorable, however, is the appearance of a very young Charles Bronson among Numbers’s little gang of hoodlums.

The film, viewed in a beautifully clear print, is always visually pleasing, in particular for those partial to the rich, better-than-life tints of a good mid-century Technicolor palette. Travilla designed the lovely costumes with his usual panache and eye for color; he deserves to be more widely recognized among classic film fans, for his costumes are often more flattering and memorable than those of more famous designers (Edith Head had her off-days, believe me). The film also presents a classic example of the 1950s usage of the two visual and thematic extremes of backwoods and city glamor, something often used in musicals but not always to such good effect as here.

Bloodhounds of Broadway runs 90 minutes and is highly palatable light entertainment for fans of musicals, Runyonesque characters, and Mitzi Gaynor.

Posted in American, Film | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Noir Night: Raw Deal (1948)

220px-RawDealPoster2

Raw Deal is an early Anthony Mann film, one of several he made with famed cinematographer John Alton at the camera. The film stars Dennis O’Keefe as Joe Sullivan, a jailed gangster who believes that his upcoming, engineered jailbreak is on the level, a return for his past work under sadistic gangster chief Rick (classic heavy Raymond Burr), who also owes him fifty thousand dollars. Joe’s plan is to break out of prison, join his girl Pat Cameron (Claire Trevor, a  year after her unforgettable turn in Born to Kill), collect the money, and leave the country. But unbeknownst to him, Rick is in fact hoping to get rid of Joe for good, either through the efforts of the police as they try to track down the fugitive–or, if the law doesn’t get him, by sending out his top hitman (John Ireland) to do the job.

But Joe’s escape from prison is successful, and soon he and Pat are on the run, with the last-minute addition of a third party. Ann (Marsha Hunt), who works for the lawyer who represented Joe in court, continued her study of the case after Joe’s imprisonment, even visiting him in prison and encouraging him to work on earning his parole so that he can build a decent life for himself when he gets out. Due to some bad luck on the initial part of the lam, Joe and Pat end up in Ann’s apartment, and Joe decides to take Ann along as a hostage. And so all three hit the road together as tensions slowly begin to build among them. Pat resents Ann’s continual appeals to Joe’s better, more reasonable side, and correctly suspects that they are falling in love with each other. Meanwhile, Rick and his henchmen are spinning their spiderish plans…

The film is nominally concerned with certain simple actions and their consequences, but it becomes increasingly clear as the reels unroll that the movie is equally preoccupied with moral questions. The unremitting dangers and the inescapable fate of the criminal are repeatedly presented to Joe while he attempts to gain freedom, and Ann at first seems to exist merely as an incarnation of the better, nobler, safer side of life, the prize Joe could have if he renounced the ways of darkness. But the film becomes much more interesting when Ann becomes more and more deeply attached to Joe and is faced with a sudden dilemma which teaches her the difficulties of abiding strictly by the law in all things, the traps laid by circumstance, and the fatally unforeseeable nature of one’s own actions. Thus she becomes a far more rounded, believable, and intriguing character, instead of a mere moral cipher. Late in the film Pat is confronted by a similarly weighty and perhaps more insidiously tempting choice, and while she does the right thing with her actions, it is shown how intimately and painfully her reasons for doing so are tied to her own personal feelings for Joe, rather than for Goodness Itself–a rather depressing but quite realistic touch.

Dennis O’Keefe portrays Joe with real panache, while Marsha Hunt is quite touching and visually right for the part of Ann–Alton and Mann capture her beauty in such a way that she appears both visually and thematically as light in a dark life. And Claire Trevor is tense, full of repressed passions, suspicious, obsessive, slightly deranged in a most satisfyingly bad-Claire-Trevor-role way. Her first-person narration throughout the film (always accompanied by a suitably mad-sounding score) is one of its most memorable and unusual aspects, and something which should have been tried more often.

Raymond Burr is a terrifying presence as Rick. Alton and Mann decided to shoot Burr from below in several sequences, an unusual choice which adds to the audience’s sense of his absolute power as well as of his madness. Rick has a strong penchant toward fire as an instrument of torture, and his girl (played by Chili Williams) learns this the hard way in a sequence predating Gloria Grahame’s similar fate in Fritz Lang’s 1953 The Big Heat. Getting severely burned seems to be an occupational hazard for gangsters’ molls.

The print viewed for the purposes of this review was, quite frankly, infuriating; the shadows melted into the darkness of the screen instead of coming into dazzling relief, something which isn’t ideal for any film, but is especially terrible for noir viewing, most particularly noir of such high cinematographic caliber. Just enough was visible to make one aware of the beauty that was washed out either by the quality of the print or the quality of the transfer onto the screen on which it was playing. In any case, this is a film which, more than many others, deserves good treatment. So much of the story depends on the visuals, from the charged nighttime scene in a national park to the details of a brutal fight in an isolated seaside taxidermist’s shop to the foggy closing scenes. Fire, water, light, darkness, and then more darkness figure prominently in the story, and it’s hard to get a proper sense of the film merely by following the plot and dialogue.  This is a story which is deeply cinematic, depending on images and framing to depict the complexities of emotion and choice beneath the seemingly simple plot.

Posted in American, Film | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Bigamist (1953): Film Review

MV5BMjE5NTY0NDE0MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDc2NTc0MTE@__V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Among the handful of films directed by actress Ida Lupino is the 1953 drama The Bigamist, notable among her works as the only film which she both directed and co-starred in. Lupino is joined by Joan Fontaine, Edmund Gwenn, and Edmond O’Brien in this well-made and well-acted 78 minute movie, which belies its melodramatic title by offering an often refreshingly subtle portrayal of one man and his two marriages (paradoxical as that sounds).

The story begins as married couple Harry and Eve Graham (O’Brien and Fontaine) visit an adoption agency run by Mr. Jordan (Gwenn) in their Los Angeles home base. After eight years of marriage and many visits to the doctor, they have discovered that Eve cannot have any children, and so are seeking to obtain a child in another way. Mr. Jordan is highly concerned with the question of couples’ suitability to become adoptive parents, and asks the Grahams to sign forms allowing him to do a thorough background check on both of them. Eve signs happily, but Jordan, noting Harry’s extreme reluctance, guesses that something is amiss and engages in a determined search, ended by his discovery of Harry in a neat little house in San Francisco, with a crying baby in the back room.

Much of the rest of the film is narrated in flashback, as the distraught Harry tells Jordan about the circumstances that led to his bigamous marriage to Phyllis Martin (Lupino), a San Francisco waitress he met during one of his long and lonely business sojourns away from his home and his wife. Perhaps the most emotionally convincing part of the movie, in fact, is the presentation of Harry’s loneliness, both on his business trips and at home with his somewhat remote, business-minded wife. Harry and Eve have started a company that sells freezers (an apt metaphor, perhaps, for the emotional alienation of several of the movie’s characters) and Harry works as a travelling salesman for the concern, while Eve manages the office end. This is facilitated by their childless state, but makes no provisions for Harry’s emotional needs, and his attraction to Phyllis is partly fueled by her own loneliness and her need for him, as opposed to Eve’s apparent self-sufficiency. Harry’s romance with Phyllis is tastefully, sometimes elliptically presented, and Lupino does a very fine job of creating a believable, likeable girl whose assumption of toughness actually masks a deep vulnerability.

The_Bigamist_1953

While the film’s plot trajectory is easy to guess, the details of characterization and acting along the way lift the movie from the rank of mere melodrama to the more rewarding category of character study. O’Brien is a fine choice for the role of Harry Graham–his middle-age, his quality of Everyman, both add to the believability of the loneliness and essential decency which lead him to deceive two women at once. The film gives us enough information on both Phyllis and Eve to let us realize that Harry can, and in fact does, love both of them. And as Jordan states at the conclusion of Harry’s narrative,  Harry himself inspires a strange kind of sympathy despite his less than clear-headed actions. It isn’t hard to see why The Bigamist is often listed as a noir, for the voice-over narration, the city setting, the atmosphere of secrets and deception, the dramatic ironies, the loneliness, and the complexity of human motives and emotions all echo the preoccupations of more canonical noir. But Harry himself recalls Scobie, hero of Graham Greene’s classic 1948 novel The Heart of the Matter, whose deep pity for all living creatures leads him to create a similarly tangled and unsatisfactory situation involving both his wife and a lonely young widow. Like Scobie, Harry’s desire to do the right thing and ensure the happiness and security of two women leads to disaster for all, showing the cruelties of fate and the difficulties of human control over any events involving other people.

The film’s ambiguous conclusion adds to its tensions by leaving the audience to determine the ultimate meaning of a few looks between the three protagonists, and also by removing the three leads from the sphere of private life and private emotion to the public, communal space of the courtroom and the law. While the emotional impact of the film initially appears to suffer from this, however, the juxtaposition of the leads with each other, while so much of the film depended on their being separate, adds a sense of their plight’s urgency and gravity. Still, the moral teachings voiced by the judge take something away (by their explicit, didactic nature) from the film’s impact upon the viewer, although it does bring to the fore the gulf between sin and social sin, as the judge acknowledges when he points out that Harry’s relationship with Phyllis would have been condoned if it had remained on the level of dalliance–what damned Harry was his desire to do the right thing, another example of the dramatic irony that fills the film.

Another interesting aspect of the movie is its treatment of the theme of children and how acutely (perhaps even excessively) both women feel either their inability to have children or their inconvenient promptitude in  having one. While Eve admits that her bitterness at her infertility caused her to turn away from her wifely role in order to concentrate on their business, Phyllis tries valiantly to take full responsibility for her state and later even speaks of her marriage in self-reproachful terms, as though she alone had anything to do with its bringing about. Both women are responsible, ultimately mature people, not the clinging parasitical sort of woman O’Brien might have been tempted to treat more lightly, thus rendering his dilemma less morally compelling. It’s to the credit of all three leads that they make The Bigamist a memorable and complex picture which lingers in the mind long after its final reel has unrolled.

Posted in American, Film | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Catholicism at the Cinema: Miracle of the Bells (1948)

The relationship between Hollywood and Catholicism has always been a complex and historically interesting one. While Catholics were influential in the creation and enforcing of a long-lasting censorship system (known as the Production Code), there were comparatively few movies which directly addressed or presented Catholicism as a way of life. This makes the treatment of Catholic material or the introduction of Catholic characters in classic film a very interesting topic. On the one hand, Hollywood’s financial success depended on securing and retaining the support of as many viewers as possible, whatever their religion; on the other hand, much of what could constitute interesting viewing material was potentially offensive to staunchly Catholic or Christian audiences, including the presentation of religion in historical or cultural terms. Furthermore, there remained the problem of how to treat religion at all in such a heavily visual medium as film. A new series entitled “Catholicism at the Cinema” will examine how religious–and especially Catholic–elements were employed in mainstream Hollywood film from the 1930s through the present day.

8876

It could be argued that “Catholic” films in Hollywood had their heyday in the 1940s. In 1944, we got Going My Way, in which Bing Crosby played a genial, musically-inclined parish priest. He reprised that role in 1945’s Bells of St. Mary’s, along with Ingrid Bergman as a teaching nun. These two films have many admirers, as does the 1949 Come to the Stable, which features Loretta Young and Celeste Holm as fund-raising nuns. Other highlights of the decade include a young Gregory Peck in 1944’s The Keys of the Kingdom, the 1948 Ingrid Bergman Joan of Arc, and of course the 1943 Song of Bernadette, starring Jennifer Jones in her breakthrough role. All of these pictures enjoy a certain degree of fame to this day among film fans in general. But for some reason there is less talk of the 1948 RKO picture The Miracle of the Bells (directed by Irving Pichel), which features a distinguished trio of lead actors and offers a more fanciful story somewhat reminiscent of other 1940s excursions into fantasy as well as religious matters.

The film opens as press agent Bill Dunnigan (Fred MacMurray) arrives by train in the mining town of Coal Town, Pennsylvania, accompanied by the coffin holding Olga Treskovna (Alida Valli, here billed simply as “Valli” in an effort to place her on the pedestal left vacant by Garbo’s retirement). He intends to bury her next to her father and mother, as she requested, from the little church of St. Michael’s, a saint to whom she often prayed during her short life. Fr. Paul (Frank Sinatra in a muted, effective performance) helps him to understand Coal Town and come to terms with Olga’s death. The film alternates between Dunnigan’s experiences in Coal Town and flashbacks from his perspective as he remembers or recounts how he met the deceased.

Olga, an aspiring actress, crossed Dunnigan’s path multiple times as she tried to make her dreams of becoming a great film actress come true. With Dunnigan’s help, she starred as Joan of Arc in a big-budget picture, ignoring her ominous cough until she collapsed and died from it the day after shooting the movie’s last scene. All this is made clear early on in the film; what is stressed throughout is Olga’s strong spiritual sense of her role as a representative or embodiment of all the fine and good qualities lurking in her fellow-citizens from Coal Town. Thus her theatrical success is intended to be both gift to and symbol for those ceaselessly toiling miners and workers who live in the sooty valley where her parents lie buried.

The lead actors and the supporting cast all turn in performances as good as the material allows. There’s a touch of noir in MacMurray’s narration and soliloquies, his love for a dead woman, and his calling her “baby,” while Valli turns what could be a thankless bore into an appealing girl who clearly carries a torch for the self-absorbed Dunnigan. Harold Vermilyea is memorable as a mercenary undertaker, while Philip Ahn brings dignity to his cameo as a lonely restaurant host in an early scene. And Sinatra is surprisingly good as Fr. Paul, although it’s hard to buy him as a priest given his history, and the one time he is permitted to sing–a brief song hauntingly carried without any backing instrumentals–will probably bring a smile to those who know him chiefly as a singer. But the people who cast him in the role were on to something–his gaunt face has a look that could be asceticism (but wasn’t). Yet the picture and its weight of holiness is mostly carried by MacMurray and Valli.

The film clearly draws a parallel between Olga and the role of Joan which she enacts, as does Olga herself. When studio head Marcus Harris (Lee J. Cobb) doubts the wisdom of entrusting an important role to an unknown actress, Olga enters his office clothed as Joan, walks confidently to his desk, and instantly wins him over, echoing Joan’s famous recognition of the Dauphin at their first meeting. Two scenes from the Joan of Arc film are included in the flashbacks–one of them is a semi-fantasy scene, as Olga enacts one of Joan’s trial scenes as a sort of try-out for Dunnigan, and an appropriate courtroom setting replaces her little apartment living room for the duration of the scene. Later on, we are shown Joan being burned at the stake as Olga, by then in the last stages of tuberculosis, invests the role with an otherworldly spirituality. Like Joan, a girl of humble origins who was called by God to lead her people to freedom, Olga uses her talents to hearten and inspire her fellow-citizens, worn down by the wear and tear of daily toil, to hearken to higher, nobler realities. These clearly include religion and a sense of spiritual reality; by the end of the film, the little church of St. Michael’s is full of worshippers, in contrast to its hitherto desolate state.

The film resembles both The Song of Bernadette and a Frank Capra film in its understanding of the crowd and its faith in the ultimate goodness of average people. The last scenes of the movie show crowds of believers–though believers rather in the existence of goodness than in any religion in particular–streaming towards St. Michael’s in order to pay homage to the dead girl and her implied faith in them.

There is a strongly patriotic element in the film, and it’s fair to say that an American sense of equality and freedom in all things qualifies the movie’s religious aspects as well. While Olga and much of her hometown is Catholic, Dunnigan mentions his Protestant upbringing and remains as something of an outsider–albeit a sympathetic and deeply moved one–in the church scenes. His gradual spiritual awakening (partly caused by his love for Olga) is less of a religious one than a discovery of faith itself.  While his initial reaction to the “miracle” in the closing part of the film is rather alarming at first (predating a similar and far more offensive development in Preminger’s 1963 picture The Cardinal), his mistake is premised less on contempt for the average man’s intelligence than it is on his newly-found sense of the importance of faith. It is true that he phrases this in a way that seriously undermines the religious credentials of the film, but The Miracle of the Bells, like most other so-called religious Hollywood films, is far more of a multi-faith film than a strictly Catholic or even Christian one. We see this most clearly in the scene when Marcus Harris (subtly indicated to be Jewish) speaks of his own people’s understanding of what a miracle is; Fr. Paul agrees with his conclusion, and if we take into account Dunnigan’s previously avowed Protestantism, we see here a kind of inter-faith,  humanistic understanding of divine matters which would increasingly characterize mainstream films when they touched upon the subject of religion at all.

Furthermore, the Capra-esque faith in, and appreciation of, the common man is identified as explicitly American in two ways. First of all, Olga and her parents were immigrants who came to America in search of a better life, and Olga’s self-imposed quest is founded on a belief in the eventual popular recognition and rewarding of self-improvement, rigorous education, and unremitting work. Secondly, Marcus Harris fires the studio’s initial choice for the role of Joan only when the actress makes derogatory comments about America, voicing his love for the country, the bounty it has provided for many immigrants, and his respect for it. And while some movies have highlighted Hollywood’s preference for high box-office appeal over quality of work, Miracle of the Bells does remind one, through Harris’ recognition of value in the Joan of Arc film project as well as Dunnigan’s faith in the people’s right to see Olga’s great performance, that film can be an art form and an uplifting one as well as an entertainment, something that did inform many of the big studio heads’ careers and choice of material.

Another point that recalls Capra’s films and the socially-conscious pictures of the era is the role of the media and the three newspaper men who eventually befriend and aid Dunnigan as he seeks  to share Olga’s life and message with the public. It’s almost as though the process of canonization has been transferred from the Church to the press, just as the movie offers Olga, secular saint, as successor to Joan of Arc, and Dunnigan, press agent, as the new St. Michael, fighting the forces of indifference and corruption to ensure the triumph of good in the person of Olga.

Overall, the movie is a fascinating and perhaps even subtly subversive take on religion, Hollywood, and the press, drawing an interesting, indirect comparison between the roles of saint and movie star which one can imagine as the basis of a very different film (maybe a black comedy by Wilder?). Its treatment of Catholicism itself is both respectful and detached; scenes involving the church and Fr. Paul are uniformly accurate, yet one gets the sense that they are pieces of business, spectacles which are presented yet not entered into. The movie reserves its warmth and awe for Alida Valli and her humanistic charity, for Joan of Arc has long ago been received by the world at large as a character outside of religion as outside of history, and therefore a favorite of theater and popular culture alike, particularly as a symbol of inspired female valor and virtue.

In all honesty, the film has serious flaws, chief among them its abundant sentimentality; but that is so large a component of many films–especially of this ilk–that it may not come as a surprise. It’s a well-made product, and touches on so many of the right keys for an attempt of this kind that it is, in the final analysis, quite effective in wringing grudging praise from even the most hardened of watchers, perhaps due to the skill of its famed co-screenwriter Ben Hecht. The outlines of the story (from a novel by Russell Janney) are rather puzzling when examined dispassionately (at the top of the list stands the question of how Olga’s flagrant neglect of her health and suicidal insistence on finishing the picture equal martyrdom), but taken as a whole, the movie remains either inspirational or diverting…perhaps even both.

The movie runs two hours and is filmed in black and white. (A colorized version exists and, like all such travesties of intentionally-designed cinematography, should be avoided except as a last and desperate resort.)

Posted in American, Fantasy, Film | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments