Monday, February 27, 2017

J'accuse (1938)

J'Accuse (1938)

"I dedicate this film to the dead of the war of tomorrow, who will no doubt watch it skeptically without recognizing in it their own image." - Abel Gance

Yesterday my husband and I had a lovely conversation with a 93 year old WWII veteran who fought on D-Day in 1944. He told us about the time when he went back to Normandy for the 50th anniversary of the battle. My husband asked if visiting was difficult for him to go back and he replied "not really." In fact during the most of the conversation this vet brushed off any notion that anything to do with his service, including the dwindling size of his infantry, had any bad effect on him. This vet was either impervious to the brutalities of war or was still living with the decades old stigma of shell shock and the societal pressure of being a brave soldier.

But what about those who were affected and showed it openly? Director Abel Gance's J'Accuse (1938) shines a spotlight on the mental anguish caused by war. Victor Francen plays Jean Diaz, a soldier during WWI, is having an affair with the wife of fellow soldier Laurin (Marcel Delaître). It's the eve of the armistice and Laurin's troop has been chosen by lots to fight at Ravin des Dames, a battle that will lead to certain death. Laurin gives Jean a series of letters to send to their shared love Edith (Line Noro). Jean decides instead to swap places with another soldier and fight alongside Laurin and the others in the troop. Jean is the sole survivor and he returns to Edith. But he discovers he's lost his love for her and instead focuses his energy on preventing another war. Twenty years pass and the threat of a second great war is looming. Jean, who displays photos of the lost soldiers in the form of a cross above his bed, is haunted by the dead. His mental state spirals out of control. When Jean hears the news of the impending war he summons the dead from the graves in an epic and fantastical finale.

"I hope they have enough trees to make crosses." - Morat

I've read a few summaries of this film and many focus on the love triangle between Jean, Laurin and Edith. While this is certainly part of the plot it's not really the heart of the story. J'Accuse is Gance's anti-war manifesto. It comes almost 20 years after his silent version of the story, released in 1919 focusing on WWI. Gance remade the film in a sound version but chose to expand the story and bridge both WWI and the impending WWII. It's a fantastic film yet it's also bleak, unrelenting and difficult to watch. I had started and stopped the film several times. After my conversation with the WWII vet I was in a better head space to tackle the film and watched it all the way through.

J'Accuse is my first Abel Gance film but it certainly won't be my last. I've had my eye on Napoleon for a while and will be watching the original J'Accuse very soon.

Jean Diaz (Victor Francen) at the tombs of his fellow soldiers

The title is inspired by Jean accusations. He blames Europe of not learning from the past war to prevent a future one. I was particularly taken by Jean's speech, delivered just before his downward spiral. I've transcribed it below:

"I accuse the war of yesterday of making the Europe of today. And I accuse the war of tomorrow of preparing its destruction. I accuse mankind of failing to learn the lessons of the last catastrophe, of waiting with folded arms for the next war.  I accuse the short-sighted, the egotists, of having allowed Europe to be divided instead of building a permanent alliance. And I accuse the men of today not only of failing to understand, but of laughing when reminded of the most beautiful expression on earth: love one another. I accuse you same men of ignoring the voices of the millions who died in the war and who have cried out to you for 20 years Stop! You're taking the same terrible path!" - Jean Diaz

J'Accuse was released a few months before the start of WWII. According to Gance's end credits, the film's success demonstrated that France wanted peace not war. I've always been drawn to these types of stories. I credit Dalton Trumbo's anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun for my love of literature and for influencing my politics. And in many ways it contributed to my passion for film. I was particularly fascinated by how Gance focuses on the dead and how their sacrifice should never be forgotten. The film is worth watching not only for it's message but also for the wonderful cinematography, the fine performance by lead actor Francen and an early depiction of zombies, who differ greatly from our modern representation of the paranormal.

Even if you're put off by the subject matter, I encourage you to tackle this film. J'Accuse is an underrated classic and important time capsule of world history.

J'Accuse (1938) is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Olive Films. Thank you to Olive for a copy of this film to review.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

I Loved Her in the Movies

I Loved Her In the Movies
Memories of Hollywood's Legendary Actresses
by Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman
9780525429111 -272 pages
November 2016
Viking Books

Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powells

"There's something in the nature of the movie-going experience itself that approximates the reverie that overtakes you when you're in love with a beautiful woman." - Robert J. Wagner

Who captivated you? Was it Gloria Swanson? Lana Turner? Rita Hayworth? Ginger Rogers? Gene Tierney? What was it about the actress that mesmerized you? Was it her beauty, her charm, her fierceness, her poise, her humor or her intelligence? Or all of the above? In I Loved Her in the Movies, actor Robert J. Wagner, in collaboration with biographer and film historian Scott Eyman, takes a closer look at the actresses of the golden age of Hollywood and beyond. Wagner narrates and takes us on a journey as he discovers each star, many of whom he worked with and loved.

The story starts with Wagner as a young boy. He befriends Irving Thalberg Jr. and encounters his very first movie star, actress Norma Shearer. Each chapter focuses on one decade starting with the 1930s and ending with the present day and a spotlight on Glenn Close. Many actresses fill the pages within including Gloria Swanson, Jean Arthur, Doris Day, Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, Claudette Colbert, Loretta Young, Betty Hutton, Linda Darnell, Lana Turner, Joan Blondell, Claire Trevor, Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, Rosalind Russell, Jennifer Jones, Ida Lupino, Janet Leigh, Lucille Ball, Stefanie Powers, Angie Dickinson and the list goes on and on. There are brief intermissions chapters that spotlight character actresses as well as close friends of Wagner. Pretty much every actress featured Wagner knew in some respect. In many cases, as was with Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and some others, he had affairs with them as well. Two chapters highlights the great loves of his life: Natalie Wood and his current wife Jill St. John. (Note: If you're looking for any new details on Natalie Wood's mysterious death, you won't find them here.)

Jill St. John and Robert J. Wagner
As the title suggests, the tone of this book is a positive one. Almost every actress is spotlighted at their best but with a keen eye on their personality traits both good and bad. A couple exceptions to the rule include Shelley Winters and Raquel Welch but eventually Wagner finds something good to say about both ladies or he wouldn't have included them. The narrative explores what made each actress special, examines her career, what made her succeed and what made her fail. One major theme in the book is aging and how that affects a woman's career. Meryl Streep is brought up numerous times as an exception to the rule but many of the actresses discussed suffered career slumps due to getting older.

Bits of gossip are strewn throughout the text. One piece of gossip caught me off guard. Wagner claims that Fred MacMurray's first wife Lillian Lamont committed suicide. I hadn't heard of this so I did some research but couldn't find any sources to corroborate the claim. All I could find was that Lamont was very sick in the final years of her life. Wagner's claim is either hearsay or a bit of insider information.

"In so many ways, acting is a strange business. You work had with another actor, and you become entirely open to each other. You give more than the lines; you give them yourself at that moment in time. That kind of emotional openness has to be accompanied by a great deal of trust and mutual respect, so neither of you will be tempted to take advantage of that privileged connection, either professionally or personally." - Robert J. Wagner

Wagner, i.e. Robert Osborne's brother from another mother, has much love for Turner Classic Movies and the channel is mentioned several times throughout the text. There is some of the "good old days" nostalgia and some mourning of the loss of a bygone era. He does have a somewhat positive but rather mixed outlook on the future. While he does admire young actresses willingness to try anything he does criticize loss of mystique in today's paparazzi and over-sharing culture.

I Loved Her in the Movies is the follow up to Wagner and Eyman's previous collaborations, You Must Remember This and Pieces of My Heart. This is the first one of these I've read and I enjoyed it. It's a light read, perfect for someone who needs a palate cleanser after a hefty tome or for those who are intimidated by in-depth biographies. I don't usually comment on book covers but this one is exceptionally beautiful. The cover image above doesn't do it justice. You have to see it in person. The gorgeous image of Lana Turner with the author's name in gold makes it one you'll want to display face out. I don't even keep this book on my bookshelves. Instead I keep it on my vanity next to my framed portrait of Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg on their wedding day and my autographed copy of Conversations with Robert Osborne DVD.

I Loved Her in the Movies by Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman is a delightful collection of insights and anecdotes on the actresses who've charmed us on the big screen.

Thank you to Viking Books for an opportunity to review this title!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Till the End of Time (1946)

Till the End of Time (1946) title card

Till the End of Time (1946) is an RKO melodrama exploring the difficulties of repatriation in post-WWII America. The film stars Guy Madison as Cliff Harper, a highly decorated marine who heads home after almost 4 years at war. His failure to launch into the next phase of his life has his pushy parents concerned. He falls for local war widow Pat Ruscomb (Dorothy McGuire) who is holding steadfast to the memory of her dead husband Johnny while seeking solace in the arms of Harper and other vets. The story also follows his two war buddies. First there's William Tabeshaw (Robert Mitchum), a smart-mouthed marine who is determined to gather up the funds to start his ranch but is hindered bu the physical affects of the silver plate in his head, a result of a war wound. Then there's Perry Kincheloe (Bill Williams), a former champion boxer who lost both his legs in the war and struggles to move forward with his life.

Guy Madison and Dorothy McGuire in Till the End of Time (1946)
Guy Madison and Dorothy McGuire

Bill Williams in Till the End of Time (1946)
Bill Williams

The physical and mental trauma of war and the adjustment to civilian life are themes at the heart of this story. Directed by Edward Dmytryk , Till the End of Time was based on the novel They Dream of Home by Niven Busch. Many changes were made to the original story by Allen Rivkin to adapt it to the screen. For example, Kincheloe was African-American and Tabeshaw was Native American. That's not to say race didn't factor into the movie. In the latter part of the film, a bigoted group of WWII vets called the American War Patriots try to recruit the film's trio of buddies into their organization. They accept "no Catholics, Jews or Negros" a proclamation that angers Harper, Tabeshaw and Kincheloe and leads to an epic bar fight which becomes the climax of the film.

Caleb Peterson in Till the End of Time (1946)
Caleb Peterson

Till the End of Time (1946) is a poor man's version of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). The film was profitable for RKO but it suffers from a weak plot, poor character building and silly melodrama. The two principles played by Madison and McGuire proved to be a bland and uninteresting couple. I didn't care if they got together or they didn't. In fact I thought Madison's other love interest Helen Ingersoll, played by  Jean Porter, was much more vivacious and interesting character and better suited to breathe some life into Harper. Porter met director Edward Dmytryk while making this film. He must have been captivated by her charm because the two married a couple of years later and stayed married until Dmytryk's death in 1999. Porter is the sole surviving cast member of the film at the time of this writing.

"I want to kiss you goodbye. But the room's too crowded." - Harper to Ruscomb 

Dorothy McGuire in Till the End of Time (1946)
Dorothy McGuire

Jean Porter in Till the End of Time (1946)
Jean Porter

I was particularly interested in how this film explored how WWII veterans suffered from the effects of the mental trauma of the war. There was one very engrossing scene with Richard Benedict. Harper and Ruscomb witness Benedict, credited as "the boy from Idaho", suffering from the shakes. It's clear he's going through some symptoms of PTSD. He doesn't want to go home because of the shame attached to "battle fatigue". It's a powerful scene and had there been more thought-provoking moments like that one it would have been a better movie as a result.

There are a lot of silly moments in this film. I thought it was hilarious that Madison's poor dancing skills were praised by the characters where as Jean Porter's real dancing skills were overlooked. And maybe it was the Howard Hughes touch but they did try to cram as much needless sexuality into this film. McGuire and Porter's characters are forward in their sexuality and punished for it. Heartthrob Guy Madison's good looks were over-utilized. Any time they could make an excuse to film him topless (in bed, on the beach, wherever) they took it.

Guy Madison in Till the End of Time (1946)
Guy Madison, topless. Again.

Till the End of Time wins a prize for what is probably the most homoerotic publicity photo of the era. This image of Madison and Mitchum together has always confused me. What's going on? Why is Madison holding Mitchum like that? I'm glad I watched the film to finally solve that mystery.

Guy Madison & Robert Mitchum in Till the End of Time (1946)

This may come off as biased because I'm such a big Robert Mitchum fan but he's really the best part about this movie, with the lovely Jean Porter battling him for the top spot. The film would have been vastly improved if it had focused on his character instead of Madison's Harper. Mitchum's swagger is charming. He's a tough guy with a heart of gold.

Robert Mitchum in Till the End of Time (1946)
How could anyone resist Robert Mitchum's grin?

Till the End of Time (1946) is available on DVD-MOD from the Warner Archive Collection.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to the Warner Archive for sending me Till the End of Time (1946) for review!

Friday, February 3, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

I Am Not Your Negro

“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.” – James Baldwin

In 1979, author James Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent with an idea for a book. He was going to tell the story of America through the lives of three important and tragic figures of the Civil Rights movement: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. When Baldwin died in 1987 he had left behind only 30 pages of his manuscript that was to be called Remember This House. Director Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2016) helps complete the narrative by using Baldwin’s own words from those 30 pages, other essays, his televised interviews, debates and more.

Author of such classics as Notes of a Native Son and Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin was an outspoken figure during the Civil Rights movement. He knew Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and MLK personally and while none of them ultimately agreed with each other on approach Baldwin appreciated what each brought to the table. Baldwin had a difficult relationship with the United States. He fled for Paris when Truman became president and lived in France, Switzerland and Turkey coming back to the states for stretches of time. He spent many of his final years in Saint-Paul-de-Vance France where he wrote his unfinished manuscript and other works.

I Am Not Your Negro is a scathing look at black representation in the media and the civil rights movement with a look towards what’s happening today. It’s timely and relevant, harrowing and shocking. It serves as a wake up call for everyone. Told through Baldwin's words, this documentary has no talking heads and no other voices. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the documentary is full of archival footage interjected with some contemporary scenes including those related to the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the events that led to it. Baldwin’s words guide us on the journey.

I Am Not Your Negro. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Having recently read The Devil Finds Work, Baldwin’s book-length essay of film criticism and race, I recognized several passages in the documentary. In fact when the film is not delving into the life and death of the three Civil Rights leaders and Baldwin’s thoughts on treatment of black people in America, he discusses representation of blacks and whites in classic film. Many clips from a wide variety of classic movies are included. Some are directly related to Baldwin’s writings and others are used to prove a point or complement the narrative.

Classic film enthusiasts will find this documentary a tough pill to swallow. I know many of you want to remain in your bubble, I know I do sometimes, but I believe this is worth your time. The documentary takes a harsh look at classic movies. I was particularly taken aback by one scene in which we see a clip of Doris Day humming to herself in a kitchen in Lover Come Back (1961) and then cuts immediately to graphic photographs of lynched black men. This is one of many elements of shock and awe director Raoul Peck adds to the narrative. Here is the representation of a white woman living a luxurious life followed by the brutal reality of black oppression. Does it make me enjoy classic movies any less? No. Does it make me think about representation in film history? Yes. Baldwin had a complicated relationship with movies one that’s examined at length in The Devil Finds Work which I recommend everyone read. In this documentary we hear Baldwin discuss Hollywood figures both black and white including Joan Crawford, Sidney Poitier, Clinton Rosemond, John Wayne and others.

I wrote down some of the classic films that were included in this documentary. They include:

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927)
Dance Fools Dance (1931)
The Monster Walks (1932)
King Kong (1933)
Imitation of Life (1934)
They Won’t Forget (1937)
Stagecoach (1939)
No Way Out (1950)
Lullaby of Broadway (1951)
Love in the Afternoon (1957)
The Pajama Game (1957)
The Defiant Ones (1958)
Lover Come Back (1961)
A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
Custer of the West (1967)
Don’t Look Back (1967)
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967)
In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Pressure (1976)

I Am Not Your Negro is an engrossing and powerful documentary. It’s hard-hitting with a serious and timely message to deliver. It puts up its fists for a fight and doesn’t back down. Watching it I couldn’t peel myself away nor could I prevent my thoughts from racing. I love how the film is divided into themed chapters as though it was itself a book. It made for a very cohesive style even when the narrative wandered from one topic to another and back again. It’s also a visually stunning film and I loved all of the archival footage even when some of it was difficult to watch.

This documentary is out in theaters today. I hope you’ll give it a try. It’s great viewing for Black History Month. Bring a friend and sit down for a meal and long discussion afterwards.

Thank you to Magnolia Pictures for sending me a screener of this film to review.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

It's a Dog's Life (1955)

Wildfire in It's a Dog's Life (1955)

"It was strictly dog eat dog on the waterfront." - Wildfire

Before there was A Dog's Purpose (2017) there was It's a Dog's Life (1955). This film tells the story of Wildfire, a bull terrier making it on the mean streets of New York City at the turn of the 20th Century. He's been taking care of his mom until she suddenly disappears. On a mission to find his mom and the dad who abandoned him as a pup, Wildfire goes exploring. He gets caught up in a dog fighting ring at a local saloon when Patch McGill (Jeff Richards) takes him under his wing. Wildfire is a champion fighter until he meets his match and his winning streak ends. Patch and his lady cohort and source of money Mabel (Jarma Lewis) quickly abandon him. Wildfire starts a new life at the Wyndham Estate when he's rescued by the tender-hearted grounds keeper Nolan (Edward Gwenn). Mr. Wyndham (Dean Jagger) doesn't want Wildfire around but his daughter Dorothy (Sally Fraser) sees showmanship potential in the purebred bull terrier. Thus Wildfire continues onto a new journey as he competes in dog shows, falls in love and wins over the hearts of pretty much everyone he meets.

Wildfire and Dean Jagger in It's a Dog's Life (1955)
Vic Morrow has an uncredited role as the voice of Wildfire whose thoughts narrate the story. Wildfire was actually two identical looking pure white bull terriers, one used for close-ups and the other used for stunts. For those of you squeamish about seeing animal abuse in the form of dog fighting fear not. We don't see any dog fighting. It's obscured by crowd surrounding the dogs with audio effects of dogs growling to suggest the fighting is happening. Also there is a scene when Patch holds up Wildfire by the tail. It's obscured enough that it's obvious that Wildfire isn't really dangling there. Dog lovers will have fun seeing the wide variety of breeds showcased in the film especially at the two dog shows at the end of the film.

Wildfire in It's a Dog's Life (1955)
"I can hardly wait to be reincarnated." - Wildfire

The film includes a young Richard Anderson in the role of George Oakley, a judge at the dog show who has a thing for Dorothy Wyndham. Willard Sage plays Tuttle, the villain of the story who wants to take old man Nolan's job and tries to get rid of Wildfire. Villains in animal films always get to me but Tuttle's role was particularly benign yet helps move the plot along.

Wildfire and Sally Fraser in It's a Dog's Life (1955)
Wildfire and Sally Fraser as Dorothy Wyndham

Wildfire and Edmund Gwenn in It's a Dog's Life (1955)
Wildfire and Edmund Gwenn as Nolan

An MGM film shot in Eastman Color and CinemaScope, It's a Dog's Life was directed by Herman Hoffman and produced by Henry Berman.  It was based on the novel The Bar Sinister by Richard Harding Davis published in 1903 and adapted for the screen by John Michael Hayes. The most notable aspect of the movie for many is the musical score by legendary film composer Elmer Bernstein.

I wasn't expecting much from this film. It's been sitting in my collection for a while and I always put off watching it. Then I thought with the release of A Dog's Purpose, a film also narrated by a dog's thoughts, that it was time to pick this one up. I was pleasantly surprised. This is a fine little film. It's very unusual for a dog movie to have no children in the story. This has not a single one. All of the humans in Wildfire's life are all adults. Usually children and dogs make for magical onscreen pairings because of that special relationship they have. Their innocence and free spirited nature is often lost to adults. This isn't a traditional family film and there is some content parents might not want their very young kids to watch: in particular the dog fighting scenes (suggested and not shown), the gambling and the sexually suggestive scenes between Patch and Mabel and the saloon's entertainer.

It's a Dog's Life (1955) is a fun movie that deserves to be pulled out of obscurity and appreciated. Wildfire doesn't reincarnate into other dogs like in A Dog's Purpose but goes through different stages in his life as he meets new humans on his journey to find his parents. So even if you're giving that new movie the side eye, like I am, or you enjoyed it and want to try something in a similar vein, make sure you pick up this movie and give it a try.

It's a Dog's Life (1955) is available from the Warner Archive Collection on DVD-MOD.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you Warner Archive for a copy of It's a Dog's Life (1955)!

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