The Informer

You wouldn’t normally think of John Ford as directing a low-budget art film, but that’s the best way to think of The Informer (1935). According to Joseph McBride’s excellent book Searching for John Ford, the project was rejected by Columbia, Fox, MGM, Paramount, and Warner Bros. before RKO agreed to let Ford make it on a shoestring budget (the final production costs were $242,756). That meant almost no money for sets and only 18 days for shooting.

Rather than fret about the restrictions, Ford, screenwriter Dudley Nichols, and cinematographer Joseph August crafted a visual story that’s defined primarily through shadows, fog, and backlighting. The style is reminiscent of the great silent German expressionist films, especially those of F. W. Murnau, whose work Ford admired.

In his 1943 essay “The Writer and the Film,” Nichols explained how this approach was an excellent match for the storyline:

I had an able mentor as well as a collaborator in the person of John Ford and I had begun to catch his instinctive feeling about the film. I can see now that I sought and found a series of symbols to make visual the tragic psychology of the informer, in this case a primitive man of powerful hungers. The whole action was to be played out in one foggy night, for the fog was symbolic of the groping primitive mind; it really is a mental fog in which he moves. . . .

Though often shy and reserved in real life, Ford could be a hard taskmaster when directing. He had to fight RKO to cast former boxer Victor McLaglen as Gypo, the central character. As McBride explains in his book:

Ford directed McLaglen with cunning calculation, bullying and tricking him into giving a great performance. Since he wanted McLaglen to grope for his lines to convey Gypo’s slow-witted, half-drunken condition, Ford continually changed the schedule to keep McLaglen unfamiliar with his scenes and surreptitiously filmed what the actor thought were rehearsals. He would send McLaglen off to run his lines with cast member J. M. Kerrigan at the nearby Melrose Grotto bar, and then would abruptly call a tipsy McLaglen back to the set to shoot his scenes.

The result is paradoxically realistic and expressionistic. The Informer was a popular success and widely praised by the critics. Though it came in second to Mutiny on the Bounty for the Oscar for Best Picture, Ford took home the Best Director award. In addition, McLaglen won Best Actor, Nichols won Best Screenplay, and Max Steiner won Best Musical Score. Though some of the symbolism may seem heavy handed, and the ending a bit forced, everything else works terrifically. And it doesn’t appear to be made under severe financial restraints. All the choices seem to be natural extensions of the plot.

The Informer
(1935; directed by John Ford; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $59.95 (as part of The John Ford Film Collection)

Friday, March 17 at 6:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Big Sleep

What if someone created a murder mystery so entertaining you didn’t care who did the murder? That’s the case with The Big Sleep (1946). Based on Raymond Chandler’s first novel, the story draws private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) into an ever expanding circle of corruption and conspiracy. Eight deaths are woven throughout the book and film, making it unusually hard to keep up with the various murderers and victims. Director Howard Hawks phoned Chandler long distance during the film’s production because he couldn’t figure out who murdered the man who was dumped in the ocean along with his car. According to Hawks, Chandler was unable to provide an adequate solution.

William Faulkner worked on the script, along with Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett. Faulkner had teamed with Hawks, Bogart, and Lauren Bacall the previous year on To Have and Have Not (1944). If you’re familiar with Faulkner’s novels, it’s an interesting game to try to spot the Faulkner dialogue throughout the two films.

Here are a few examples from The Big Sleep that Faulkner may have had a hand in crafting:

Vivian: Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them workout a little first, see if they’re front runners or come from behind, find out what their whole card is, what makes them run.
Marlowe: Find out mine?
Vivian: I think so.
Marlowe: Go ahead.
Vivian: I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.
Marlowe: You don’t like to be rated yourself.
Vivian: I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?
Marlowe: Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how, how far you can go.
Vivian: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.

Mars: Convenient, the door being open when you didn’t have a key, eh?
Marlowe: Yeah, wasn’t it. By the way, how’d you happen to have one?
Mars: Is that any of your business?
Marlowe: I could make it my business.
Mars: I could make your business mine.
Marlowe: Oh, you wouldn’t like it. The pay’s too small.

Marlowe: Hmm.
Sternwood: What does that mean?
Marlowe: It means, hmm.

Based on the running time of 114 minutes, it looks like TCM will be showing the 1946 theatrical release of The Big Sleep. The DVD includes the theatrical release, as well as the less-familiar 116-minute prerelease version from 1945. The earlier version has an easier-to-follow, more linear plot. The release version moves along faster, sustains the film noir mood better, and is an overall superior film.

The Big Sleep
(1946; directed by Howard Hawks; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $21.99 (Blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $12.99 (DVD)

Wednesday, March 15 at 12:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon (1941) is often cited as the very first film noir. Whether it is or not depends on your definition of a film noir. It has many of the elements we associate with the genre. On the other hand, director John Huston’s tight script and well-paced direction give it a lift that’s missing from the vast majority of film noirs.

This was Huston’s first directorial effort, and it’s one of the better first films from a Hollywood director. Huston’s father, actor Walter Huston, has a brief role as the ill-fated captain who delivers the all-important package. John Huston was working as a screenwriter for Warner Bros and was anxious to direct one of his own scripts. He chose Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel of the same name, which must have seemed an odd choice as the studio had filmed it twice already.

The 1931 version, originally titled The Maltese Falcon, was later retitled Dangerous Female so it wouldn’t be confused with Huston’s 1941 remake. As a pre-code movie, it incorporated some of the seedier elements from the novel, though it lacked the novel’s gritty atmosphere and dramatic tension. A second adaptation titled Satan Met a Lady (1936), starring Bette Davis, was directed with a lighter touch — almost as a comedy.

Huston’s version was a success largely due to his extraordinary skill in creating fully formed characters through dialogue. The script even pokes fun at the conventions of the genre, which is especially remarkable when you consider that Huston was bringing some of those conventions to film for the very first time. Here are a few examples:

Spade: You, uh — you aren’t exactly the sort of a person you pretend to be, are ya?
Brigid: I’m not sure I know exactly what you mean.
Spade: The schoolgirl manner, you know, blushing, stammering, and all that.
Brigid: I haven’t lived a good life — I’ve been bad, worse than you could know.
Spade: That’s good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.
Brigid: I won’t be innocent.
Spade: Good.

Gutman: I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously, unless you keep in practice. Now, sir, we’ll talk if you like. I’ll tell you right out, I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.

Wilmer: Keep on riding me, and they’re gonna be picking iron out of your liver.
Spade: The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter, eh?

Gutman: By Gad, sir, you are a character. There’s never any telling what you’ll say or do next, except that it’s bound to be something astonishing.

In addition to launching the directorial career of John Huston, this film brought Humphrey Bogart from the second rank of actors and made him a star. His role as the hard edge — but not heartless — private detective Sam Spade would strike a chord with audiences and cause Warner Bros to seek out similar properties for Bogart. Without the success of The Maltese Falcon, the studio might not have been as eager to film Casablanca (1942) or The Big Sleep (1946).

Bogart’s role in The Maltese Falcon was originally offered to George Raft, who turned it down because he didn’t think the film would be important enough. Had Raft taken the part, Bogart might not have been considered for any of his later roles. And this version wouldn’t have been as successful or influential.

The upcoming Blu-ray looks terrific with deep dark tones in the shadows and an appropriate level of film grain. If you’ve only see this film over the years on a small television, you’ll be amazed at how wonderful it looks on a big screen.

An added bonus on the Blu-ray disc is a studio blooper reel titled “Breakdowns of 1941.” Who knew that Jimmy Stewart, Pat O’Brien, and James Cagney would laughingly curse after flubbing a line? I guess these actors were human after all.

The Maltese Falcon
(1941; directed by John Huston; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.98 (Blu-ray), $29.98 (Three-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Sunday, March 5 at 10:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Wednesday, March 15 at 11:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Vertigo

With so many fine films to his credit, it’s a challenge to pin down Hitchcock’s best film. For my money, the best one is Vertigo. That’s especially evident in the restored print that’s available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Perhaps the most rarefied of Hitchcock’s films, Vertigo is difficult to talk about without giving away important plot elements. If you haven’t seen it, don’t read too much about it. Just watch it, and then watch it again to see how carefully the film is constructed. Just as he does in Psycho, Hitchcock leaves a trail of bread crumbs so repeat viewers can enjoy the story with a renewed sense of awareness.

Vertigo is unusual in its use of associative color. In a 1962 interview with Françoise Truffaut, Hitchcock explained how the color green signals the main character’s state of mind:

At the beginning of the picture, when James Stewart follows Madeleine to the cemetery, we gave her a dreamlike, mysterious quality by shooting through a fog filter. That gave us a green effect, like fog over the bright sunshine. Then, later on, when Stewart first meets Judy, I decided to make her live at the Empire Hotel in Post Street because it has a green neon sign flashing continually outside the window. So when the girl emerges from the bathroom, that green light gives her the same subtle, ghostlike quality. After focusing on Stewart, who’s staring at her, we go back to the girl, but now we slip that soft effect away to indicate that Stewart’s come back to reality.

Pay close attention to Bernard Herrmann’s music. Though not as groundbreaking (or influential) as his score for Psycho, the Vertigo score reinforces the dreamlike and ghostlike qualities Hitchcock referred to in his interview with Truffaut. As in Psycho, the music makes even a simple drive down the highway rich with emotional meaning.

Vertigo
(1958; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Universal Studios
List Price: $79.95 (Blu-ray, as part of the Alfred Hitchcock: The Essentials Collection), $14.98 (DVD)

Wednesday, March 1 at 10:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Saturday, April 1 at 1:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Ugetsu

Nobody does ghost stories like the Japanese. Just ask someone who has seen the contemporary Japanese movies, Ringu and Kairo. Ugetsu isn’t just a ghost story, though it’s the images from the ghost portion of the film that tend to linger in the mind and haunt the viewer for years to come.

Ugetsu is generally acknowledged to be director Kenji Mizoguchi’s finest film. Tastes in movies can be subjective, but it’s fairly obvious to anyone who has seen it that Ugetsu belongs in the same league as Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Set in a period of violent civil strife, a humble potter leaves his wife and young child to sell his wares in the city. He meets a mysterious woman there, who turns out to be much more than meets the eye.

One of the most beautifully photographed and fluid of the classic Japanese films, Ugetsu is given a first-class treatment by Criterion with a new high-definition digital transfer. The scenes on the water glimmer and sparkle as they did in the 35mm print, and the subtle lighting throughout is far more apparent than in the previous laserdisc release. As someone who treasured his laserdisc version of this film, I was very happy with the Criterion DVD transfer.

Eureka Entertainment offers a Blu-ray that is supposed to be very close to the theatrical experience, however that disc is Region B encoded. No word yet from Criterion on whether they plan to offer a Region A version for the U.S. market.

Criterion’s double-disc DVD set includes an informative 150-minute documentary on Mizoguchi and his films, titled Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director. It’s an excellent introduction to an under-appreciated director, who Jean-Luc Godard proclaimed as “quite simply one of the greatest of filmmakers.”

Ugetsu
(1953; directed by Kenji Mizoguchi; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95

Wednesday, March 1 at 4:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Greed and human nature — it’s a common theme in both movies and literature, but rarely has it been handled as expertly as in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Following his service in World War II, director John Huston found the ideal project for his next film. It would be based on the novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, written by the mysterious B. Traven. Even today, no one is quite sure who B. Traven was, though historians strongly suspected that Traven met with Huston under an assumed name during the film’s production in Mexico.

The movie is a carefully crafted moral tale about human frailty and the difficulties we might encounter when given the chance to accumulate massive wealth. The three main characters react differently, and it’s the difference in their reactions that keeps the tale from becoming too dark and cynical.

Huston wrote the screenplay, and he keeps a tight rein on the narrative as the story and characters progress to a satisfying conclusion.

Here are a few gems from the film’s dialogue:

Flophouse Bum: $5,000 is a lot of money.
Howard: Yeah, here in this joint it seems like a lot. But I tell you, if you was to make a real strike, you couldn’t be dragged away. Not even the threat of miserable death would keep you from trying to add 10,000 more. Ten, you’d want to get twenty-five; twenty-five you’d want to get fifty; fifty, a hundred. Like roulette. One more turn, you know. Always one more.

Gold Hat: We are Federales… you know, the mounted police.
Dobbs: If you’re the police, where are your badges?
Gold Hat: Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!

Howard: We’ve wounded this mountain. It’s our duty to close her wounds. It’s the least we can do to show our gratitude for all the wealth she’s given us. If you guys don’t want to help me, I’ll do it alone.
Curtin: You talk about that mountain like it was a real woman.
Dobbs: She’s been a lot better to me than any woman I ever knew. Keep your shirt on, old-timer. Sure, I’ll help ya.

Huston cast his father Walter Huston in the pivotal role of Howard, a seasoned old prospector who understands from experience what gold fever can do to an otherwise honest man.

Both father and son won Oscars for this film (Best Supporting Actor for Walter Huston, and Best Director, as well as Best Screenplay, for John Huston). It was the first time a father and son had received Academy Awards for the same movie.

The recently released Blu-ray version is a joy to behold, especially if you’re able to view it on a large screen. Watch for several uncredited cameos, including John Huston as the American who Dobbs keeps asking for a handout, Jack Holt (Tim Holt’s real-life actor father) as an flophouse bum, and a young Robert Blake as a Mexican boy who sells lottery tickets from the street.

Also on the Blu-ray disc are an informative 49-minute documentary on the making of the movie, a comprehensive 128-minute documentary on John Huston, and a selection of short subjects from 1948.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
(1948; directed by John Huston; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $24.98 (Blu-ray), $26.98 (Two-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Tuesday, February 28 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Thursday, April 6 at 5:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Singin' in the Rain

Is there anyone into classic films who doesn’t like Singin’ in the Rain (1952)? Given that 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds had never danced before, and the script had to be written around a group of songs with little in common, it’s a wonder (and a tribute to those involved) that this would turn out to be the greatest Hollywood musical.

Reynolds received six months of intensive dance training before the production began. She had already shown her singing ability and plucky appeal in her previous films (most notably in Two Weeks with Love, where she sang “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” with Carleton Carpenter).

Famed creative team Betty Comden and Adolph Green were given the near impossible task of crafting a storyline around a diverse selection of tunes from the 1920s and 1930s. Two songs, “Fit as a Fiddle” and “Moses Supposes,” were new to this production. “Make ‘Em Laugh” was adapted from Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown,” which Gene Kelly performed in The Pirate (1948). The others were part of a catalogue of songs, acquired by MGM, that had been written by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown.

Singin’ in the Rain is filled with references to other films. The story centers around the period from 1927 through 1929 when the industry transitioned from silent films to “talkies.” There are allusions to particular films from that period. For example, the fictional film the characters are producing (titled The Dueling Cavalier) is based on an actual film, titled The Cavalier (1928). Like its fictional counterpart, it began as a silent film but was hastily transformed into a sound film, largely through the addition of poorly dubbed musical numbers. And in the Hollywood premiere sequence, the character Zelda Zanders, known as the “Zip Girl,” is meant to evoke the real-life Clara Bow, known as the “It Girl.”

Just as they borrowed songs and plot devices from earlier movies, co-directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly scavenged the back lot for suitable props from previous MGM movies. Debbie Reynolds’ car is Andy’s old jalopy from the Andy Hardy series. And the mansion where Gene Kelly lives is decorated with furniture and fixtures from Flesh and the Devil (1926).

The movie references extend to the musical numbers and film-within-a-film scenes. The “Gotta Dance” number echoes previous MGM musicals, including Words and Music (1948), The Pirate, Summer Stock (1950), and An American in Paris (1951). Gene Kelly’s musketeer movie at the beginning of the story recalls his earlier film, The Three Musketeers. And when Kelly brings Reynolds onto an empty sound stage and turns on the lights, it mimics his earlier film, Summer Stock.

While the movie references are fun for film buffs, the real joy comes from the memorable songs, exuberant dance numbers, and snappy dialogue. If you haven’t seen it, you’ll be amazed to find how good a movie musical can be. Even if you don’t like movie musicals, you’ll probably like this one. Nothing else comes close.

Singin’ in the Rain
(1952; directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.98 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)

Friday, February 24 at 2:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Quiet Man

One of John Ford’s most popular films — The Quiet Man (1952) — almost didn’t happen. According to Jordan R. Young’s book John Ford’s The Quiet Man, Ford first tried to secure funding for the movie back in 1937. That was a year after he had purchased the story for just $10. Maureen O’Hara explained that it was flatly turned down by 20th Century Fox, MGM, and RKO. She said it was dismissed as a “silly little Irish story that would never ever make a penny.”

In 1946, Ford agreed to a three-film deal with Argosy Productions. If the first film made money, he would have the go-ahead to pursue his Quiet Man pet project as the third film, on the assumption that it wouldn’t be able to cover its costs. That first film was The Fugitive (1947), which as an artistic success, but a financial flop. As a result, The Quiet Man was again shelved indefinitely.

It might never have been produced, if John Wayne hadn’t approached Herbert Yates, who headed up Republic Pictures. Yates felt that television would soon chip away at Republic’s B-grade movie business. Yates also assumed that The Quiet Man wouldn’t be popular with audiences, so he insisted that Ford, Wayne, and O’Hara make a western first, so that its profits could shore up the later loss. That movie was Rio Grande (1950), which neither Ford or Wayne especially wanted to make.

As you may have guessed, The Quiet Man turned out to be highly profitable, even with its substantial $1.75 million budget. It was the 12th highest grossing film for 1952. And it was one of Ford’s personal favorites.

If you’re looking to see the film in all its glory, you’re in luck. Olive Films recently released a Blu-ray version through its Signature series that’s based on a 4K scan of the original camera negative. Originally shot in Technicolor, the disc’s colors are rich and vivid, without being overwhelming. This film won an Oscar for Best Cinematography, as well as for Best Director, and this latest restoration shows what all the fuss was about.

Extras on the Blu-ray disc include an excellent audio commentary by Ford biographer Joseph McBride, an informative 25-minute documentary hosted by Leonard Maltin, and a 12-minute appreciation of Ford by Peter Bogdanovich. Highly recommended!

The Quiet Man
(1952; directed by John Ford; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Olive Signature
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $22.95 (DVD)

Tuesday, February 21 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Friday, March 17 at 9:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Ninotchka

In a letter to film historian Herman G. Weinberg, director Ernst Lubitsch cited Ninotchka (1939) as one of his three best films. Lubitsch wrote, “As to satire, I believe I probably was never sharper than in Ninotchka, and I feel that I succeeded in the very difficult task of blending a political satire with a romantic story.” The letter was written on July 10, 1947 — just months before Lubitsch’s death.

Greta Garbo plays the part of Ninotchka, a stern, no-nonsense Russian envoy sent to Paris to check up on three representatives of the Soviet Board of Trade. She believes they are unduly influenced by capitalistic luxuries. Melvyn Douglas plays the part of Leon, a sophisticated bachelor who seems to have little more to do than experience the sights and sounds of Paris.

This time around, Lubitsch teamed with writers Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and Walter Reisch to adapt a story by Melchior Lengyel. As you might expect from the talent involved, the script is full of comic gems. Here are some examples:

Buljanoff: How are things in Moscow?
Ninotchka: Very good. The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.

Iranoff: Can you imagine what the beds would be in a hotel like that?
Kopalski: They tell me when you ring once the valet comes in; when you ring twice you get the waiter; and do you know what happens when you ring three times? A maid comes in — a French maid
Iranoff (with a gleam in his eye): Comrades, if we ring nine times . . .

Ninotchka: I am interested only in the shortest distance between these two points. Must you flirt?
Leon: I don’t have to but I find it natural.
Ninotchka: Suppress it.
Leon: I’ll try.

MGM publicized the film with the tagline, “Garbo laughs,” ignoring the fact that Garbo had laughed in a previous MGM film, Queen Christina (1933). Ninotchka was a box office success and was later remade into the musical Silk Stockings (1957). After she retired from her film career, Garbo acknowledged that Lubitsch was the only truly great film director she had worked with.

Ninotchka
(1939; directed by Ernst Lubitsch; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Turner Classic Movies
List Price: $19.98 (Blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.98 (DVD)

Sunday, February 19 at 4:30 a.m. eastern (late Sat. night) on Turner Classic Movies

A Midsummer Night's Dream

If you looked at the cast list for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), you couldn’t be blamed for passing it by. How could Shakespeare’s most beloved comedy be well served by the likes of James Cagney, Joe E. Brown, Dick Powell, Olivia de Havilland, and Mickey Rooney?

What you wouldn’t know from glancing at the cast list is that this film was co-directed by Max Reinhardt, the famed Austrian theatrical producer and director. His stage production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was considered to be without equal, and he brings a fairytale quality to this production that goes far beyond any other film rendition of the play. The lighting, special effects, costumes, and sets combine to create a magic that’s rarely seen on the screen.

As for the casting, the Warner Brothers contract players are generally competent in their roles. Mickey Rooney is surprisingly good as Puck, though the up-and-down cadences he gives to his lines can be irritating. As Titania, Anita Louise looks just as we imagine a fairy queen should look. And Victor Jory has the commanding presence we expect from an Oberon. Even so, it’s the imaginary world the actors inhabit that grabs our attention. The choreographed movements of the creatures, the light that shimmers from the forest floor, and the misty veils that separate the viewer from the spectacle that unfolds — those are the qualities that make this a must-see film.

Also notable is the accompanying music. Most of it is based on Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was inspired by the play. There wasn’t enough of the composition to fill the 114 minutes of music needed for the film, so composer Erich Korngold supplemented it with passages from other Mendelssohn compositions. Reinhardt had worked with Korngold previously and brought him over from Vienna for this film. It was Korngold’s his first project in Hollywood. He went on to become one of the top film composers of the 1930s and 1940s. His credits include the rousing scores for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940).

This film was a critical and box office flop. It did so poorly, Warner Brothers canceled Reinhardt’s contract for two additional films.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
(1935; directed by William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Friday, February 17 at 8:45 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Merry Widow

Ernst Lubitsch had no equal when it came to crafting sophisticated comedies. One of the first sound-era Hollywood directors known and revered by the public, his “Lubitsch touch” represented the pinnacle of intelligent humor. His version of The Merry Widow (1934) still towers over other comedies.

As Herman G. Weinberg pointed out in his book The Lubitsch Touch, “This time the first ‘Lubitsch touch’ came right under the credit titles as a magnifying glass sought in vain to find the tiny mythical kingdom where the action takes place.”

Ostensibly based on the operetta of the same name (which Erich von Stroheim used as the basis for his 1925 silent film), Lubitsch and screenwriters Ernest Vajda and Samson Raphaelson essentially threw out the plot and started from scratch.

Jeanette MacDonald is the wealthy widow who owns 52 percent of every cow in the small country of Marshovia. Maurice Chevalier is the playboy prince who is given the task of wooing her back from Paris, so her riches will remain in the kingdom.

Supported by an outstanding cast of character actors — including Edward Everett Horton, Una Merkel, Sterling Holloway, and Hermann Bing — The Merry Widow is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face and a feeling of nostalgia for a golden age of screen comedy.

I’m happy to report that this movie is finally available on DVD, though it’s available only as a Manufactured on Demand (MOD) disc. That’s a DVD-R format. As a result, it may not play properly on some PC-based DVD drives or DVD recorders. I had no problems playing it on my PC-based DVD and Blu-ray drives, though your results may vary. This MOD disc should be issue-free with most standalone DVD and Blu-ray players (the kind you connect to a home TV).

The video and audio quality on this disc is first rate. Warner has done an excellent job of transferring this film at a suitably high bit rate (8000 kbps for the video and 192 kbps for the audio). The image had plenty of contrast and detail, and the sound (especially important for the musical numbers) was clear and never shrill. It looked great projected onto a 100-inch screen. Highly recommended.

The Merry Widow
(1934; directed by Ernst Lubitsch; cable & dvd)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $18.95 (available as a Manufactured on Demand disc from WarnerArchive and WBshop)

Friday, February 17 at 7:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Sunday, April 2 at 8:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Some films pack an extra wallop because they skillfully place the story and characters into a larger historical context. John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is just that kind of film. It explores the slippery relationship between legend and fact. It also explores the tension between an older, more violent west and a newer, more civilized west — and what happens when the two cultures clash. As with his earlier film The Searchers (1956), Ford documents the changing values of the American west. Even heroic figures have faults and biases. They’re no less brave, despite the fact that their motivations are often less than pure.

John Wayne plays Tom Doniphon, a traditional hard-working rancher. When confronted, he knows how to settle an argument with a gun. James Stewart plays Ransom Stoddard, a newly qualified lawyer who will eventually become a United States Senator. He is reluctant to use violence because it debases society and conflicts with our highest values. Hallie (played by Vera Miles) is torn between the two men — as is the audience. Neither approach is completely right or wrong. They represent a necessary transition from an unsettled land administering frontier justice to a community built on laws and common goals.

In his book John Ford, Peter Bogdanovich asked Ford if his sympathies were with the John Wayne character and the Old West:

Well, Wayne actually played the lead; Jimmy Stewart had most of the scenes, but Wayne was the central character, the motivation for the whole thing. I don’t know — I liked them both — I think they were both good characters and I rather liked the story, that’s all. I’m a hard-nosed director; I get a script — if I like it, I’ll do it. Or if I say, ‘Oh, this is all right’ — I’ll do it. If I don’t like it, I’ll turn it down.

This is one of the most powerful and thoughtful westerns of the 1960s. It’s also worth repeating that based on his incredible body of work, John Ford was perhaps the greatest of all classic film directors.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
(1962; directed by John Ford; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95 (Blu-ray), $9.95 (DVD)

Thursday, February 16 at 10:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Wednesday, March 22 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Long Voyage Home

When asked by Jean Mitry in 1955 to list his favorite films among the ones he had directed, John Ford included The Long Voyage Home (1940) among a handful of titles. At the time of its release, John Mosher wrote in The New Yorker that this was “one of the most magnificent films in film history.” Eugene O’Neill considered it to be the best adaptation of his work. He liked it so much, he owned a personal print and regularly screened it. Yet The Long Voyage Home is probably the least known of Ford’s greatest films.

One reason is the poor quality of the prints regularly shown on television. This was the film that cinematographer Gregg Toland worked on just before Citizen Kane (1941). It features comparable deep-focus shots and contrasts in lighting, as well as extraordinary shadows that move and extend across the screen. With a poor quality print, you lose the visual tones Toland strived to create. Fortunately, the print Turner Classic Movies has shown recently is better. It still falls short of what it could be, but you can see much of what impressed the critics back in 1940.

One of those critics was Bosley Crowther, who wrote this in the New York Times:

John Ford has truly fashioned a modern Odyssey—a stark and tough-fibered motion picture which tells with lean economy the never-ending story of man’s wanderings over the waters of the world in search of peace for his soul. It is not a tranquilizing film, this one which Walter Wanger presented at the Rivoli Theatre last night; it is harsh and relentless and only briefly compassionate in its revelation of man’s pathetic shortcomings. But it is one of the most honest pictures ever placed upon the screen; it gives a penetrating glimpse into the hearts of little men and, because it shows that out of human weakness there proceeds some nobility, it is far more gratifying than the fanciest hero-worshiping fare.

This is very much an ensemble piece with outstanding performances from Ford’s stock company of actors, including Thomas Mitchell (as Aloysius ‘Drisk’ Driscoll), Barry Fitzgerald (as Cocky), John Qualen (as Axel Swanson), and Ward Bond (as Yank). Most notable is John Wayne’s performance as Ole Olsen, the good-hearted Swede who keeps trying to return home to the family farm — but always ends up signing on again. The role is the opposite of Wayne’s usual swaggering persona, and he is surprising good in the part.

Dudley Nichols wrote the screenplay based on four early O’Neill plays about life at sea. Both Ford and O’Neill had Irish backgrounds, and they share a strong sympathy for the downtrodden. Toland’s moody photography and O’Neill’s tendencies toward pessimism are perfectly balanced by Ford’s inherent optimism. Much as he took the hard edge off Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath filmed that same year, Ford explores the depths of human deprivation in The Long Voyage Home without losing faith in the essential goodness of human nature.

The Long Voyage Home
(1940; directed by John Ford; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Wednesday, February 15 at 2:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Fury

Fritz Lang’s first American film after fleeing the Hitler regime in Germany, Fury (1936) is a terrifying look at how good people can go bad when swayed by the darker instincts of a crowd. The incredible scenes where the mob tries to lynch an innocent man recall the workers frantically fleeing the city in Metropolis and the angry calls for justice against the child murderer in M.

David O. Selznick brought Lang to MGM in 1934. He languished at the studio for months and was nearly fired. Given one last chance, Lang was handed a four-page outline titled Mob Rule. MGM told Lang and writer Barlett Cormack they would need to develop it into a script for Lang to direct.

Lang didn’t speak English very well at the time, so he looked around for inspiration. He found that inspiration in the form of newspaper clippings, as he explains in a 1965 interview with Peter Bogdanovich:

I followed a habit I had in Europe (and still have) of collecting newspaper clippings — I have used them for a lot of my pictures. We found a lynching case that had happened in San Jose, California, a few years before I made the film, and we used many newspaper clippings for the script.

Spencer Tracy turns in a gripping performance as Joe Wheeler, a man jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. Sylvia Sidney portrays his loyal girlfriend. The film also provides early roles for long-time character actors Walter Brennan and Ward Bond.

While it would be easy to dismiss Fury as a transitional film where Lang is learning how to deal with the restrictions of the Hollywood studio system, I find it has an unusual rawness and intensity. Lang must have seen something in it. Fury was his favorite film among the ones he directed in the U.S.

Fury
(1936; directed by Fritz Lang, cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Thursday, February 9 at 4:30 a.m. eastern (late Wed. night) on Turner Classic Movies

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