Showing posts with label John Ford. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Ford. Show all posts

Monday, August 28, 2017

Five Came Back by Mark Harris

Five Came Back
A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War
by Mark Harris
Penguin Press
511 pages
February 2014

Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powells

World War II was over and director John Huston was heading home. The army had one more assignment for him before he repatriated to good old Hollywood. They needed him to make a documentary about shell shocked servicemen being treated at a psychiatric ward. With soldiers coming back home and some dealing with serious mental trauma, the army was anxious to show employers across the nation that these men were treatable and would make fine employees. Propaganda films during the war became “a matter of strategic necessity” and this didn’t change when things were winding down. Huston was excited to show a reality of war that had been swept under the rug. The army’s vision of The Returning Psychoneurotic because Huston’s vision of Let There Be Light. Huston spent three months filming psychologists working with patients at Mason General Hospital. He had unfettered access and countless hours of precious footage. Once it was filmed, edited and in the can, a premiere at MoMA in New York City was arranged. At first the army approved the final result. But then they urgently tried to supress it. First they said they didn’t have music copyright permission for public screenings. Then they said the releases the soldiers signed were not legally binding. Even though Huston ended the film on an uplifting note, the army wasn’t ready for the public to see what Huston wanted them to see. Let There Be Light was supressed for 35 years. Huston fought for decades to have it released and finally got his wish when Vice President Walter Mondale gave his approval in 1980.

“The men were seeking adventure, but more than that, they were reaching for relevance in a world that had become rougher and more frightening than anything their studio bosses would allow them to depict on film.” – Mark Harris

The story of Huston’s Let There Be Light is one of many stories contained in Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. Before the United States was involved in the war, there was an understanding that the film industry would be a crucial ally in building pro-War sentiment with the general public. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, five Hollywood directors enlisted and lent their talents as filmmakers to capture scenes of the war for the folks back home. These included John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra and George Stevens. Harris follows their stories from just before the war, through to their assignments on the battle field and their eventual return to Hollywood. Told in chronological order the narrative intertwines their stories to tell the bigger story of WWII.

Anyone with an interest in 1940s film will be fascinated by how the war influenced pictures including feature films but also documentaries and shorts. Many films are discussed at length and what’s particularly fascinating is how the director’s involvement in the war affected their films. Did you know Frank Capra wanted to make Arsenic and Old Lace so his family could have some income while he was away? Or that Harold Russell was first part of William Wyler’s Diary of a Sergeant before he was added to The Best Year’s of Our Lives? Or that George Stevens witnessed the horrors of the concentration camps and after that couldn’t bring himself to make comedies in Hollywood?

“As long as they lived, the war lived in them.” – Mark Harris

William Wyler (left)
George Stevens (center)
John Ford (left)

John Huston (second from left), Frank Capra (right)

Films discussed at length include Meet John Doe (1941), Mrs. Miniver (1942), The More the Merrier (1943), They Were Expendable (1945), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and more. Then there are the documentaries that brought home the story of the war. These included Capra’s Why We Fight series and The Negro Soldier, Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro and The Report from the Aleutians, Ford’s The Battle of Midway, Stevens' Nazi Concentration Camps and Wyler’s The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress and others.

Mark Harris’ book is a result of five years of archival research and it shows. It’s incredibly detailed and while it’s not overly long it does take quite a bit of time to read. Mostly because of it’s structure and how much information is packed in its pages. I’m fascinated by this era so it was essential that I read Five Came Back. The book inspired a Netflix mini-series which I’m keen to watch. It does help to have seen some of the films and documentaries mentioned in the book. Many of the docs are available on YouTube including Huston’s Let There Be Light which I highly recommend you see and have included below.

Five Came Back is a fascinating book about Hollywood directors contributing to the war effort during WWII and how their experiences affected them.

This is my fourth review for my Summer Reading Challenge.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Hollywood Divided by Kevin Brianton

Hollywood Divided
The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist
by Kevin Brianton
University Press of Kentucky
October 2016
Hardcover ISBN: 9780813168920
174 pages

Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powell's

On October 22, 1950, more than 500 directors met at the Beverly Hills Hotel for a Screen Directors Guild meeting. The topic on hand: Cecil B. DeMille's call for the dismissal of SDG's president Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Many big-name directors including John Huston, John Ford, Rouben Mamoulian and many others would deliver speeches either for or against the recall. This meeting occurred during the thick of the Hollywood backlist era and quotes from the speeches would live on for decades sometimes morphing into different variations. It represented what Kevin Brianton, author of Hollywood Divided, calls "one of the bitterest chapters in American cinema history."

It's easy for us to put the people involved in this meeting into two distinct camps: liberals and conservatives. And depending on your political views these two camps would also carry the label of good people and bad people. It's true that liberals were eyed as potentially dangerous because they were most likely to have ties to Communism. And it's also true that conservatives led the charge to seek and oust industry members who they thought were clearly Communist. However, as Brianton explores in his book, the divide between liberals and conservatives wasn't always very clear. Some directors attending the meeting identified as Republican yet made very liberal movies. Others considered liberal sometimes leaned conservative. On DeMille, Brianton explains "it would seem that his rigid conservative ideology drove him one direction, while his personal afflictions tugged him another way." In this book, Brianton breaks down the different motivations and ideologies of many of the top directors involved in this infamous SDG meeting and we discover that not everyone, even the two big players in all of this DeMille and Mankiewicz were as clear cut in their two political camps as most people like to think.

Brianton's book is incredibly detailed. Everything you could possibly want to know about SDG's 1950 meeting can be found within its pages. Its meticulously researched and told in a very unbiased way. The first part of the book explores the events that lead up to the meeting. The second part breaks down almost minute by minute the events of the gathering. And the third part explores the meeting's legacy and the myths that came out of the oral history of that important moment in film history.

I was interested in learning about DeMille's background and how he lead the charge of many conservative movements in the industry even as early as WWI. Directors Mankiewicz and Ford and their motivations and actions are explored closely as well. I'd love to read some additional books exploring the Hollywood Blacklist. Actor Robert Vaughn wrote a book called Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting which I have my eye on. If anyone were to write a book about how films before, during and after the blacklist era both had an effect on the blacklist and were affected by it, that would be a book I'd pick up immediately. If anything this slim volume on one aspect of a dark moment in Hollywood history whet my appetite for more reading.

If you're researching the Hollywood blacklist, Kevin Brianton's Hollywood Divided is a invaluable resource. If you're looking for an overall history of this era, this book would only be a supplement to your reading but still worth your time.

Thank you to University Press of Kentucky for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Arrowsmith (1931)

Arrowsmith (1931) Title Card
Arrowsmith (1931)

With the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus dominating the news this Pre-Code film is timelier than ever. Independently produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by John Ford, Arrowsmith (1931) stars Ronald Colman as Dr. Martin Arrowsmith, a young doctor whose talents in the field of medical research lead him to discover the cure for bubonic plague.

Hayes and Colman in Arrowsmith (1931)
Helen Hayes and Ronald Colman

Arrowsmith is taken under the wing of Professor Max Gottlieb (A.E. Anson) who becomes his mentor and a major influence in his education as well as his ethics. He starts off as a doctor in a New York City hospital. It’s here that he meets nurse Leora (Helen Hayes). They have a whirlwind romance, elope – much to the distress of her parents – and relocate to South Dakota. Arrowsmith supports his growing family with a job as a small-town doctor. They're happy for a while but things soon change. Arrowsmith’s talents bring him back to the big city when his cure for a cattle disease demonstrates that his skills are needed for the greater advancement of medical science.

Ronald Colman & Helen Hayes - Arrowsmith (1931)
Arrowsmith at his lab

He returns to McGuirk, a major lab made up of scientists including Prof. Gottlieb, and discovers the cure for bubonic plague. Scientist Gustav Sondelius (Richard Bennett) sees the effects of the bubonic plague and encourages Arrowsmith to the West Indies where the plague is prevalent. Leora, unable to give Arrowsmith a child after her miscarriage, devotes herself to Arrowsmith. He often neglects her but relies on her unyielding devotion. They travel together to the West Indies for Arrowsmith’s experiment.

Microscope - Arrowsmith (1931)
Arrowsmith's trusty Microscope

To prove his serum can cure bubonic plague, Arrowsmith plans to use it on half of the infected people and compare the results with the other half. While beneficial for the advancement of medical research, this brings up ethical and moral issues. Who is to be saved and who is not?

Ronald Colman - Arrowsmith (1931)
Arrowsmith presents his plan to doctors in the West Indies

Things get more complicated when scientist Sondelius gets sick, Leora becomes a victim of circumstance and the beautiful Joyce (Myrna Loy) catches Arrowsmith’s eye.

Myrna Loy - Arrowsmith (1931)
Myrna Loy as Mrs. Joyce Lanyon

The screen play was adapted by Sidney Howard and based on the 1925 novel by Sinclair Lewis.  For accuracy in his depictions of science and medical research, Lewis relied on his adviser Dr. Paul de Kruif . Lewis was awarded with the Pulitzer Prize the following year but refused to accept the honor.

The film is choppy. The first 30 minutes are dreadfully slow and linger far too long on the small-town portion of the story. As soon as the Sondelius character enters the story the pace of the plot quickens. He moves the story out of New York City and into the West Indies where the true drama takes hold. Director John Ford as been pinpointed as the source of the film's unevenness. According to Joseph McBride, author of Searching For John Ford: A Life:
“At Sam Goldwyn’s request, Ford made a written pledge not to drink during the shooting of Arrowsmith. It was a telling sign of Ford’s malaise in this period that a studio chief had to enforce a discipline Ford normally was able to impose on himself. Ford’s unhappiness and distraction while making Arrowsmith was reflected in its extreme stylistic unevenness, its highly episodic nature, and its schizoid variations in mood.”

Ford also had issues with actress Helen Hayes. They had a love-hate relationship and some of her scenes were put on the back burner or were hastily put together. Ford was loaned out from Fox by independent producer Samuel Goldwyn who fired him for not keeping his sobriety contract. He was then fired from Fox. Fortunately, Ford was re-hired by Fox a couple years later.

Clarence Brooks - Arrowsmith (1931)
Clarence Brooks as Dr. Oliver Marchand
Even with its flaws Arrowsmith (1931) is a glorious Pre-Code film. It tackles a difficult subject, isn’t afraid to experiment and there is a refreshing lack of racism. Actor Clarence Brooks’ portrayal of West Indies doctor Oliver Marchand is very progressive for the time. Marchand is a well-spoken, college-educated doctor and lacks many of the racist stereotypes that were often applied to black characters during that time.

At first the wealthy patriarch of the island is reluctant to allow his mansion to be used as a makeshift hospital. However, he and his family, including his guest Joyce (Myrna Loy), befriend Dr. Arrowsmith and help him in his efforts to eradicate the bubonic plague. In one telling scene, the family lines up with the natives to receive their serum. They don’t cut the line or use their status to get any special treatment.

Arrowsmith (1931)

Myrna Loy’s character Joyce was mostly edited out of the film to appease code regulations. Although this is a Pre-Code, filmmakers still had to be cautious. It’s only suggested that Joyce and Arrowsmith have an extra-marital affair. It’s clear that Joyce lusts for him but they are careful to portray Arrowsmith as only mildly interested. Morality and ethics play a key role in the film. The administration at the McGuirk lab demonstrate greed for fame and recognition when they are quick to publicize Arrowsmith’s work even before it’s put to the test. Characters struggle with the dilemma between what is good for humanity versus what is good for science.

The lighting and cinematography in this film are absolutely stunning. I love the use of light and shadow.
Helen Hayes - Arrowsmith (1931)
Leora (Helen Hayes) and the unfortunate cigarette
Doors are very symbolic in this film. The opening and closing of doors represent passage of time, opportunity waiting on the other side and the advancement of Arrowsmith’s career. Doors separate the sick from the healthy. They separate chaos from calm. 

I would be remiss not to point out the lovely Art Deco sets used for the McGuirk lab. Art Deco is used to represent opulence and coldness which mirror the qualities of the McGuirk enterprise.

Arrowsmith (1931)

Arrowsmith (1931)

The film was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Writing, Adaptation (Sidney Howard), Best Cinematography (Ray June) and Best Art Direction (Richard Day).

Arrowsmith (1931) is available from Warner Archive on DVD-MOD. You can also purchase it from the TCM Shop.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. I received Arrowsmith (1931) from Warner Archive for review.

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