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, April 23 at 4:45 a.m. eastern (late Tue. night) 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)
Paramount
List Price: $12.95

Tuesday, April 22 at 10:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Stagecoach

Greatest Western of all time? Most influential Western? Archetypal Western? Stagecoach (1939) may be all three, depending on your point of view. John Ford hadn’t made a Western since 3 Bad Men (1926) and was eager to make another. Stagecoach was originally slated to be shot in Technicolor with David O. Selznick as the producer. Selznick wanted Gary Cooper to play the part of the Ringo Kid and Marlene Dietrich to play the part of Dallas. Ford disagreed, broke with Selznick, and teamed instead with producer Walter Wanger. Ford had already planned to cast John Wayne as the Ringo Kid. He cast Claire Trevor as Dallas.

Stagecoach was both a critical and financial success. Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols created a quintessential Western with easily understood moral distinctions that pit right against wrong and an underlying yearning for traditional open-sky freedoms. Yet it was also a subversive Western that turned the tables on many of the genre’s clichés. As Joseph McBride explains in his definitive Ford biography, Searching for John Ford, “Stagecoach literally was a political vehicle for Ford and Nichols, a way of looking at America’s past and present. This meta-Western can be read as a justification of American Manifest Destiny on the eve of World War II, a scathing critique of capitalistic corruption and Republican hypocrisy, and a celebration of the egalitarian values of the New Deal.”

McBride recounts the impish delight the pair displayed when they spoke with a New York journalist, just days before the opening:

“We’re particularly attached to this one,” said Nichols, “because it violates all the censorial canons.”

“There’s not a single respectable character in the cast,” declared Ford. “The leading man has killed three guys.”

“The leading woman is a prostitute,” Nichols added.

“There’s a banker in it who robs his own bank,” Ford noted.

“And don’t forget the pregnant woman who faints,” Nichols went on.

“Or the fellow who gets violently ill,” said Ford, referring to the drunken doctor.

From our perspective, Stagecoach looks and feels like a conventional Western expertly put together. There’s no fluff. Ford was famous for cutting out dialogue and expository scenes that weren’t absolutely necessary to the plot or the development of the characters. Even though his style was strikingly different from Ford’s, Orson Welles referred to Stagecoach as his “movie textbook.” Welles said he watched the film “over forty times” in order to learn how to make movies. While preparing to direct Citizen Kane (1941), he studied Stagecoach each night for more than a month, often accompanied by one or more of the technicians at RKO.

If you’re a fan of Hollywood movies from the 1930s and 1940s, don’t pass this one by. Even if you don’t care for Westerns, you’ll find this one rich in history with multi-dimensional characters real enough to walk out from the screen. That Ford was able to release both Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln in 1939 was an incredible accomplishment, followed by The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home in 1940, and How Green Was My Valley in 1941. With these and many other outstanding movies to his credit, Ford would become the greatest director in the history of film.

Stagecoach
(1939; directed by John Ford; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $29.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Tuesday, April 22 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Magnificent Ambersons

Is Ambersons better than Kane? If you’re talking about the first part of the film, then the answer is yes. The problem with The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which Orson Welles directed just a year after Citizen Kane, is it was re-edited and given a happier ending. In his book Orson Welles, Joseph McBride quotes Welles as saying:

About forty-five minutes were cut out — the whole heart of the picture really — for which the first part had been a preparation . . . The film has a silly ending . . . just ridiculous . . . It bears no relation to my script.

Welles didn’t exaggerate about the missing 45 minutes. At its sneak preview in the spring of 1942, the film ran 132 minutes. After a re-edit, second preview, second re-edit, and third preview, the studio released it at 88 minutes — on a double bill with a Lupe Velez film. Welles was filming in South America at the time, presumably unaware of the extent of the changes. Almost all of the last part of the film was scrapped, a new ending was shot, and some earlier scenes were trimmed, including what had been a long and intricately conceived dolly-shot of the party at the mansion.

Compared with Kane, Ambersons has a more seamless visual and narrative flow. Speaking of Ambersons’ fluid style, Françoise Truffaut wrote, “This film was made in violent contrast to Citizen Kane, almost as if by another filmmaker who detested the first and wanted to give him a lesson in modesty.” The two films do have a lot in common including deep-focus photography, overlapping dialogue, and a tightly integrated musical score by Bernard Herrmann.

In its present form, The Magnificent Ambersons is a flawed masterpiece. Up until the last few minutes, it holds up well. The ending is abrupt and inconsistent with the rest of the story, but on the whole, Ambersons is a very satisfying film. Look for the sleigh ride scene, which is an unparalleled mix of dialogue, movement, and music. It may be the finest piece of nostalgic fictional film ever recorded.

The Magnificent Ambersons
(1942; directed by Orson Welles; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $14.96

Monday, April 21 at 4:00 a.m. eastern (late Sun. night) on Turner Classic Movies
Friday, May 2 at 3:35 a.m. eastern (late Thu. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Doctor Zhivago

Sometimes it takes an extensive digital restoration to re-establish the greatness of a film. That’s certainly the case with Doctor Zhivago (1965). I’ve had a chance to watch the recent Blu-ray release of this popular classic, and it confirms that director David Lean was at the peak of his craft with Zhivago. It’s equal in epic stature to The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). More surprisingly, it matches the rich characters and intimate drama found in Lean’s earlier films, such as Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946), and Hobson’s Choice (1954).

The restoration team at Warner Bros. faced some unusual challenges due to the poor condition of the original negative. Lean had wanted to film Doctor Zhivago in 65mm, but had to settle for 35mm. To maximize the print quality for the 70mm theaters, Lean agreed to strike the theatrical prints directly from the original 35mm A & B rolls—splices and all.

“The original negative, as it now exists, is in far less than stellar condition,” explains archivist Robert Harris in a posting at hometheaterforum.com. “Over the past couple of decades there have been abortive rescue attempts at best. But finally Warner Bros. has seen fit to properly digitally restore the film, bringing together the best of the surviving pieces of film.”

This restored version has caused me to reconsider my view of the film, now that it is available again as the director intended. I had written off Doctor Zhivago as a lesser work by Lean—overly emotional without a strong enough structure to sustain its ambitions. What I discovered was an intricate and quite believable drama set against the sweeping vistas of history. (It’s worth noting that the history presented isn’t entirely accurate. Russian poets weren’t politically repressed during the revolution. That didn’t happen until later, when Stalin came to power.)

The film does take some twists and turns that you won’t find in the novel, such as the opening and closing scenes where Yevgraf (Alec Guinness) is searching for Zhivago’s daughter. Lean and scriptwriter Robert Bolt had to reduce the massive work into a three-hour story that could fully stand on its own.

In the book The Making of Feature Films (1971), Bolt explained their approach:

If you are going to reduce a book to a twentieth of its length, you can’t go snipping out pieces here and there, up to nineteen-twentieths. You have to take in and digest the whole work to your own satisfaction and then say, ‘Well, the significant things, the mountain peaks which emerge from this vast panorama are such-and-such incidents, moral points, political points, emotional points, and those are all I can deal with in dramatic form–all I should deal with’…. Once the peaks have emerged, the problem is how to link them. You are under the necessity of inventing incidents which do not occur in the book–threads which will draw together rapidly a number of themes, where Pasternak might have taken 10 chapters.

Lean and Bolt were able to solve a problem that still plagues directors and screenwriters. How do you make a big-canvas movie without losing your focus on the characters and story? If you look at the list of inflation-adjusted all-time U.S. box-office winners, you can see that the top moneymakers were able to do just that. You can also see that Avatar hasn’t yet passed Doctor Zhivago in its inflation-adjusted theatrical receipts.

Doctor Zhivago
(1965; directed by David Lean; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $29.95 (Blu-ray), $21.95 (DVD)

Friday, April 18 at 4:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

North By Northwest

Roger Thornhill should have known he was in trouble when he walked through the lobby, and the hotel’s music system played “It’s a Most Unusual Day.” Of rather, we should have known. He may not know it, but we do — he lives inside a Hitchcock film, so we can expect a healthy dose of sly humor and calculated thrills. If you’ve never seen it, don’t miss this one. I would pick North by Northwest (1959) as the third best Hitchcock film (after Vertigo and Psycho).

As an advertising executive, Thornhill (Cary Grant) deals in public perceptions and appearances. His job is to make real life seem more than it really is. It’s a fitting profession for someone who is less than he seems. Thornhill is bored with life and his predictable role in it. That’s about to change when he becomes entangled in a case of mistaken identity. He will be steadily stripped of his identity and forced to assume the role of another man. Along the way, he’ll encounter a mysterious woman (Eva Marie Saint), a suave-but-sinister villain (James Mason), and a larger-than-life monument (Mount Rushmore). And once again, we have a terrific musical score from Bernard Herrmann.

The most famous part of the movie is the stark sequence in which Cary Grant is chased by a crop duster. In a 1962 interview with Françoise Truffaut, Hitchcock explained how he got the idea:

I found I was faced with the old cliché situation: the man who is put on the spot, probably to be shot. Now, how is this usually done? A dark night at a narrow intersection of the city. The waiting victim standing in a pool of light under the street lamp. The cobbles are ‘washed with the recent rains.’ A close-up of a black cat slinking along against the wall of a house. A shot of a window, with a furtive face pulling back the curtain to look out. The slow approach of a black limousine, et cetera, et cetera. Now, what was the antithesis of a scene like this? No darkness, no pool of light, no mysterious figures in windows. Just nothing. Just bright sunshine and a blank, open countryside with barely a house or tree in which any lurking menaces could hide.

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia. Jessie Royce Landis, who portrays Grant’s mother in the film, was either 10 months younger or seven years older than Grant (she may have lied about her age).

North by Northwest
(1959; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $34.99 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)

Friday, April 18 at 11:00 a.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)
MGM Home Entertainment
List Price: $19.95

Friday, April 18 at 2:15 a.m. eastern (late Thu. night) on Turner Classic Movies

The Thin Man

The Thin Man (1934) is the first of six comic detective films featuring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. There have been many recurring romantic pairings over the years (Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, for example), though this may be the most successful pairing involving the same set of characters.

In this first film, the Thin Man is a murder suspect, not the hero, which is why the second film was titled After the Thin Man (1936). By the third film, the distinction was lost, and the name became associated with Nick Charles. A similar misunderstanding occurred with the Frankenstein movies. Frankenstein was the scientist, not the scientist’s creation. The public had associated the name with the monster, and Hollywood wasn’t about to argue the point.

The Thin Man series benefits from dialogue and situations that showcase the urbane talents of Powell and Loy. Unfortunately, the later scripts aren’t nearly as rewarding. Though they’re still worth watching, the quality dropped after the second film.

Here are examples of dialogue from the first film that illustrate the couple’s offbeat relationship:

Nora: Waiter, will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?

Nick: How’d you like Grant’s tomb?
Nora: It’s lovely. I’m having a copy made for you.

Nora: Pretty girl.
Nick: Yes. She’s a very nice type.
Nora: You got types?
Nick: Only you, darling. Lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.

Nick: Oh, it’s alright, Joe. It’s alright. It’s my dog. And, uh, my wife.
Nora: Well you might have mentioned me first on the billing.

Canine star Asta is another reason for the popular success of the series. The same dog (real name Skippy) played prominent roles in two of the best screwball comedies: as Mr. Smith in The Awful Truth (1937) and George in Bringing Up Baby (1938). Several dogs played the part of Asta over the course of the Thin Man series, which lasted until 1947. Whether they were Skippy’s offspring or Skippy look-alikes is still unknown.

The Thin Man
(1934; directed by W.S. Van Dyke; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95 (also available in The Complete Thin Man Collection for $59.95)

Thursday, April 17 at 10:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Friday, June 20 at 6:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

My Man Godfrey

While the screwball comedy is a byproduct of the Great Depression, not every screwball comedy reflects the era head-on. My Man Godfrey (1936) is both a spoof of — and a commentary on — the financial inequities at the time. The movie-going public was well aware the Depression was hitting the poor much harder than the wealthy, so poking fun at the idle rich was a staple of the genre. The prevailing attitude? We’re all in this together, so don’t get snooty or high-hat just because you’re well off.

Unlike the previous year’s Ruggles of Red Gap, where a real butler finds himself in the wild west, My Man Godfrey’s butler may not be what he appears to be. Both films poke fun at rich Americans who have plenty of dollars, but no sense. Godfrey is more direct in its satire, and like Sullivan’s Travels (1941), its message for social equality (in the midst of economic inequality) is front and center.

William Powell is perfectly cast as Godfrey the butler, who knows more about money and manners than his employers (echoing Charles Laughton’s role in Ruggles of Red Gap). Carole Lombard plays Irene, a spoiled heiress who is bored with her frivolous life — though she doesn’t know it yet. Here’s an example of the interplay between Powell and Lombard:

Godfrey: Do you mind telling me just what a scavenger hunt is?
Irene: Well, a scavenger hunt is exactly like a treasure hunt, except in a treasure hunt you try to find something you want, and in a scavenger hunt you try to find something that nobody wants.
Godfrey: Hmm, like a forgotten man?
Irene: That’s right, and the one who wins gets a prize, only there really isn’t a prize. It’s just the honor of winning, because all the money goes to charity, that is, if there is any money left over, but there never is.
Godfrey: Well, that clears the whole matter up beautifully.

This was the first film to be nominated for all four acting Oscars: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. Coincidentally, it was the very first year for the two supporting awards. My Man Godfrey was also nominated for the writing and directing Oscars. To this day, it’s the only film to be nominated for all six awards and not be nominated for Best Picture. And to this day, it’s the only film to be nominated for all six awards and not win any of them.

My Man Godfrey
(1936; directed by Gregory La Cava; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95

Thursday, April 17 at 12:00 a.m. eastern (late Wed. night) on Turner Classic Movies

It Happened One Night

Can one film save a failing movie studio? If the film is It Happened One Night (1934), it can. Columbia Pictures needed a hit in order to survive, and it was a gamble for the studio to spend $325,000 on this project, especially since several bus-related movies had recently failed at the box office. Fortunately, everything clicked, and It Happened One Night became the sleeper hit of 1934. It went on to become the first film to sweep all five major Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. Yet immediately after she had completed filming her scenes, Claudette Colbert had told her friends, “I’ve just finished the worst picture in the world.”

If you know director Frank Capra’s later comedies, such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), you may be surprised by the restrained sentimentality in this one. Part of what makes this comedy so enduring is its in-your-face banter that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Robert Riskin wrote the screenplay, based on the short story “Night Bus” by Samuel Hopkins Adams. The script moves at a quick pace, and its self-deprecating humor resonated with depression-era audiences who were trying to cope with financial pressures.

Here’s a scene between Peter Warne (played by Clark Gable) and Alexander Andrews (played by Walter Connolly):

Alexander Andrews: Oh, er, do you mind if I ask you a question, frankly? Do you love my daughter?
Peter Warne: Any guy that’d fall in love with your daughter ought to have his head examined.
Alexander Andrews: Now that’s an evasion!
Peter Warne: She picked herself a perfect running mate – King Westley – the pill of the century! What she needs is a guy that’d take a sock at her once a day, whether it’s coming to her or not. If you had half the brains you’re supposed to have, you’d done it yourself, long ago.
Alexander Andrews: Do you love her?
Peter Warne: A normal human being couldn’t live under the same roof with her without going nutty! She’s my idea of nothing!
Alexander Andrews: I asked you a simple question! Do you love her?
Peter Warne: YES! But don’t hold that against me, I’m a little screwy myself!

Some film historians cite It Happened One Night as the first screwball comedy. Whether that’s the case depends on how you define a screwball comedy. It opened earlier in the year than Twentieth Century (1934) and The Merry Widow (1934), yet it was released one year after Duck Soup (1933) and two years after Trouble in Paradise (1932). It’s certainly one of the first screwball comedies and easily one of the best.

It Happened One Night
(1934; directed by Frank Capra; cable & dvd)
Sony Pictures
List Price: $24.95

Tuesday, April 15 at 3:30 p.m. eastern (late Mon. night) 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)

Tuesday, April 15 at 1:30 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies
Saturday, April 19 at 12:00 a.m. eastern (late Fri. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Citizen Kane

Sometimes the conventional wisdom is true. In this case, Citizen Kane (1941) really is one of the best films ever made. Another bit of conventional wisdom is that Welles wasn’t able to direct another great film after Kane. That bit of shared knowledge is not true.

Kane is the only film where Welles was given complete control — and close to unlimited resources — to make the film he wanted. But how could a 25-year-old novice pull off what many have called the great American film? Here’s how Welles explained it in a 1966 interview conducted by Juan Cobos, Miguel Rubio, and J. A. Pruneda for the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma:

I owe it to my ignorance. If this word seems inadequate to you, replace it with innocence. I said to myself: this is what the camera should be capable of doing, in a normal fashion. When we were on the point of shooting the first sequence, I said, ‘Let’s do that!’ Greg Toland answered that it was impossible. I came back with, ‘We can always try: we’ll soon see. Why not?’ We had to have special lenses made because at that time there weren’t any like those that exist today.

Kane is a virtual catalog of visual and aural film techniques that give it a level of energy few films are capable of sustaining. Yet the real accomplishment is the tight integration of those techniques. Yes, the techniques are there to impress the audience, but more importantly, they’re there to fill out the characters and story.

Welles was young, but no babe on the woods. The studio gave him complete freedom because of his meteoric rise in radio and the theater. His radio drama of War of the Worlds had literally scared some listeners into believing there was a real invasion from Mars. And he had earned the moniker, “Boy Wonder of Broadway,” by staging such experimental productions as a Macbeth set in Haiti with an all African-American cast, a modern-dress Julius Caesar, and a production of the jazz opera, The Cradle Will Rock.

In his article for Action Magazine 4 (1969), titled “Citizen Kane Revisited,” Arthur Knight wrote that Welles spent hundreds of hours studying past films, first at the Museum of Modern Art and later on the RKO studio lot. Welles was particularly drawn to John Ford’s films. He watched Stagecoach over and over again, in order to analyze each shot. Though he downplayed the notion in public, Welles knew how to break the rules because he had taken the time to learn the rules in the first place.

Welles brought almost all of Kane’s actors, as well as music composer Bernard Herrmann, from the theater. Being new to Hollywood, they were eager to show what they could do. Though a veteran of Hollywood, Greg Toland was the perfect choice for director of photography. He was just as willing to experiment.

It’s a wonder it all came together. Here the credit goes to Welles and fellow-screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Citizen Kane has a depth of character and narrative flow that matches its technical fireworks. If you haven’t seen it, don’t hesitate. It’s one of a handful of films that shows what the medium is truly capable of producing.

Citizen Kane
(1941; directed by Orson Welles; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Bros.
List Price: $64.99 (70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray)
Turner Home Entertainment
List Price: $34.95 (Two-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Monday, April 14 at 1:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Thursday, May 29 at 8:00 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: $24.98 (Blu-ray, available October 5), $29.98 (Three-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Monday, April 14 at 7:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Friday, June 20 at 7:45 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Mildred Pierce

Mildred Pierce (1945) is the kind of competently directed Hollywood film from the 1940s that seems better each time you watch it. Like Michael Curtiz’s other outstanding drama from that decade, Casablanca (1943), everything seems to click — uniformly fine performances, a terrific script that never misses a beat, and a first-rate musical score (Max Steiner in both cases).

Joan Crawford won the title role only after it was turned down by Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell. Shirley Temple was considered for the part of the teenaged daughter, Veda Pierce. Fortunately, fate (or good sense) prevailed, and it’s now hard to imagine anyone else in any of the roles. Ranald MacDougall, Catherine Turney, and an uncredited William Faulkner adapted the screenplay from the novel by James M. Cain. The movie downplays much of the sexual frankness of the novel, which Curtiz handles obliquely. You may recognize Cain as the author behind The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

A key strength of the film version of Mildred Pierce is that it doesn’t fit easily into a single genre. It begins with a murder and failed attempt to frame an innocent man — classic elements of a film noir. The distinct lighting and emotionally charged music also point to that genre. In the flashbacks, however, we’re thrown into an entirely different film genre, sometimes referred to as “weepies” or “women’s pictures.” Here we’re sympathetically drawn into the story of a woman struggling to give her children a better life. The arc of the film is the collision of these two types of movies. Ultimately, one of the genres has to win out, and it’s the interplay between the two storylines that makes this film especially appealing.

It’s also remarkable how the various elements mix together so seamlessly. The comic lines (delivered by Jack Carson as Wally and Eve Arden as Ida) reinforce what we’ve already learned about the characters. For example, Ida sums up Mildred and Veda’s relationship with this biting comment, “Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.” Similarly, Wally acknowledges his own failings when he says, “Oh boy! I’m so smart it’s a disease!”

While you can make a case against the restrictiveness of the Hollywood studio system, movies such as Mildred Pierce represent the best argument for the advantages. The film’s high-buff polish and overall consistency are a direct result of a well-oiled studio machine.

Mildred Pierce
(1945; directed by Michael Curtiz; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Monday, April 14 at 5:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Sunday, May 11 at 2:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Next Page »