Bringing Up Baby

I had a difficult time compiling my Top 20 Screwball Comedies list. The biggest challenge was where to put Bringing Up Baby (1938). In the end, I gave it the number two spot, right behind Duck Soup (1933). Andrew Sarris referred to Bringing Up Baby as the screwiest of the screwball comedies. In an article titled “The World of Howard Hawks,” which appeared in the July and August 1963 issue of Films and Filming, Sarris wrote:

Even Hawks has never equaled the rocketing pace of this demented farce in which Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn made Barrymore and Lombard in Twentieth Century seem as feverish as Victoria and Albert. The film passes beyond the customary lunacy of the period into a bestial Walpurgisnacht during which man, dog, and leopard pursue each other over the Connecticut countryside until the behavior patterns of men and animals become indistinguishable.

Sometimes it can be instructive to analyze the structure of a comedy, and this one is ripe for that kind of analysis. The world of Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) is dead or dying — dinosaurs, fossils, and museums. Huxley is almost as lifeless. He has no sense that life could be more than it already is. The world of Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) is just the opposite. It’s full of possibilities. In her world, the animals are very much alive. Her life is unpredictable because she’s willing to fail. And wouldn’t you know it, she fails a lot. This isn’t just an unlikely couple. This is a clash of world views. Neither world is complete unto itself, hence the need for a happy ending to merge the best qualities of both.

In the end — no matter the structure — either the dialogue, gags, and characters are funny, or they aren’t. Bringing Up Baby excels in all three. Hawks had a gift for drawing relaxed, seemingly improvised performances from his actors, especially in the comedies. Everything feels effortless and natural, even though almost all of it was carefully planned. Along with the fast pacing, there’s a rhythm to the dialogue that’s both realistic and engaging. Here’s an example:

Susan: You mean you want me to go home?
David: Yes.
Susan: You mean you don’t want me to help you any more?
David: No.
Susan: After all the fun we’ve had?
David: Yes.
Susan: And after all the things I’ve done for you?
David: That’s what I mean.

The two-disc special edition DVD of Bringing Up Baby features a digitally remastered print, as well as a commentary by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, whose comedy What’s Up, Doc? (1972) was inspired by the film. The second disc includes The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks (1973), a first-rate documentary from Richard Schickel that mixes relevant clips from Hawks’ films with an extended interview with the director.

Bringing Up Baby
(1938; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
Turner Home Entertainment
List Price: $26.95

Monday, May 12 at 2:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Sunday, June 1 at 8:00 p.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

Sunday, May 11 at 2:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Sergeant York

Sergeant York (1941) poses a problem for film scholars. Immensely popular at the time of its release, the movie doesn’t quite fit into director Howard Hawks’ canon. Hawks didn’t have much leeway with the story, which was based on the true-life events of the best known and highest decorated hero of World War I. Released less than six months before the Pearl Harbor attack, Sergeant York addresses the mixed feelings in the U.S. about entering World War II.

One issue for some film scholars, who sometimes cite this as one of Hawks’ least successful efforts, is the fact that its themes are so clearly telegraphed to the audience. Even if you accept the notion that it isn’t a true-blue Hawks film, there was little else Hawks could do, given that his audience already knew York’s story so well. The element of surprise is gone, and any drama that might arise from York’s momentous decision is muted by the inevitable outcome. As a result, the film feels more conventional than Hawks’ other films, which delight us in their unexpected twists and turns, as the characters and story move in and out of Hollywood norms.

While we gain a better understanding of Hawks by seeing the common threads woven throughout his films, it can be equally instructive to see how he handles material that’s somewhat at odds with his usual style of working. Sergeant York isn’t an archetypal Hawks film. It is, however, richly rewarding when judged on its own merits.

The first part of the movie shows an economy of words and gestures that speak volumes about the inner lives of the isolated mountain community. The disparity between the rural and battlefield portions of the film was noted in contemporary reviews. Here’s what Bosley Crowther had to say in his July 3, 1941 review from The New York Times:

That is all there is to the story, but in the telling of it — of the first part, anyhow — the picture has all the flavor of true Americana, the blunt and homely humor of backwoodsmen and the raw integrity peculiar to simple folk. This phase of the picture is rich. The manner in which York is persuaded to join the fighting forces and the scenes of actual combat betray an unfortunate artificiality, however — in the battle scenes, especially; and the overly glamorized ending, in which York returns to a spotless little farm, jars sharply with the naturalness which has gone before. The suggestion of deliberate propaganda is readily detected here.

Even though Hawks was constrained by the characters and plot (Alvin York was still alive at the time), this is very much a Hawks film. York’s Tennessee mountain community parallels the isolated groups in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), Ball of Fire (1941), and The Thing from Another World (1951). Religious principle versus patriotic duty becomes the Hawksian conflict that potentially separates York from his community and ultimately allows him to re-assert his individuality within the group.

Sergeant York
(1941; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $26.98 (two-disc special edition)

Wednesday, May 7 at 3:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Monday, May 26 at 7:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Friday, July 4 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Ball of Fire

Ask any Howard Hawks fan to name Hawks’ best comedies, and you’ll likely be stuck in a twenty-minute conversation. Almost everyone agrees Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940) are top notch, but after that, the choices begin to differ. I would place Twentieth Century (1934) right up there, as well as Ball of Fire (1941). Far superior to Hawk’s own remake (A Song is Born), Ball of Fire sparkles with intelligent wordplay and shines with immediately likable characters.

Written by Charles Brackett, Thomas Monroe, and Billy Wilder, Ball of Fire is the story of seven encyclopedia writers who venture out into the world after nine years of cloistered research. Having just completed their entries on Saltpeter and Sex, they discover their books aren’t up-to-date enough for their entry on Slang. Led by Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), they encounter Sugarpuss’ O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), a fast-talking compendium of street idioms. They learn “shove in your clutch” means “get lost” and a “crabapple annie” is a stuffy, prudish person.

Sugarpuss O’Shea: Do you know what this means – ‘I’ll get you on the Ameche?’
Professor Bertram Potts: No.
Sugarpuss O’Shea: ‘Course you don’t. An Ameche is the telephone, on account of he invented it.
Professor Bertram Potts: Oh, no, he didn’t.
Sugarpuss O’Shea: Like, you know, in the movies.
Professor Bertram Potts: Well, I see what you mean. Very interesting. Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind; unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.

Though Wilder denies it was done consciously, the script plays out as a twisted Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Here, Snow White isn’t so innocent, the prince is one of the seven dwarfs, and the dwarfs are called on to save the day. Much of the humor derives from how sheltered the encyclopedists have become in their quest to study life from a distance. Almost all Hawks films explore the dynamics of a closed group, and how it handles threats from the outside world. Ball of Fire fits squarely into that canon, though it’s more gentle than the other top Hawks comedies (the seven men are almost the antithesis of the reporters in His Girl Friday).

Ball of Fire
(1941; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
MGM
List Price: $14.98

Sunday, May 4 at 12:00 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

Friday, May 2 at 3:35 a.m. eastern (late Thu. night) on Turner Classic Movies

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps (1935) is one of Hitchcock’s most accomplished early films. It’s also the movie that caught the eye of Hollywood, and the rest — as they say — is history. On the surface, it’s a story about spies and vital information that can’t fall into the wrong hands. Dig deeper, and you’ll find a thrilling adventure of a man wrongly accused of a crime (a favorite Hitchcock theme), as well as a romantic comedy that’s centered on an unlikely couple.

Based on a famous novel by John Buchan, the author was initially upset with the changes Hitchcock made for the film. Years later, he acknowledged Hitchcock had improved the story. In a 1962 interview with Françoise Truffaut, Hitchcock explained his approach to adapting the story:

I worked on the scenario with Charles Bennett, and the method I used in those days was to make a treatment complete in every detail, except for the dialogue. I saw it as a film of episodes, and this time I was on my toes. As soon as we were through with one episode, I remember saying, ‘Here we need a good short story.’ I made sure the content of every scene was very solid, so that each one would be a little film in itself.

Given Hitchcock’s remarks, it’s a wonder the movie doesn’t feel disjointed. Hitchcock was such a skilled director at this point in his career, he was able to hold the episodes together through the strength of the characters and thrill of the chase. As in many of Hitchcock’s films, the origins of the crime or espionage are unimportant. We don’t care what the 39 steps are, and neither does Hitchcock. He even has to insert a few lines at the end to remind us what all the hubbub was about.

The film is filled with deftly rendered vignettes, such as the sequence with the farmer and his wife. Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat) encounters them as he flees the police. Based on just a few gestures and glances, we immediately understand the couple’s relationship. When a handcuffed Hannay evades detection by joining a Salvation Army parade, and then is mistaken for a political speaker (he’s hustled onto the platform to improvise an election speech), we willingly go along for the ride. And when those same handcuffs bind Hannay with a woman (played by Madeleine Carroll) who despises him, we savor the improbable circumstances that ultimately bring the two together together. The 39 Steps is only 81 minutes long, but it has more thrills, comedy, romance, and understated wit than the vast majority of films you’ll see. As Hitchcock explained to Truffaut in the interview, “You use one idea after another and eliminate anything that interferes with the swift pace.”

The two-disc-set DVD of The 39 Steps includes a bonus documentary titled The Art of Film: Vintage Hitchcock. It’s an excellent introduction to Hitchcock’s early British films, which include The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), and The Lady Vanishes (1938).

The 39 Steps
(1935; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Sunday, April 27 at 8:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Beauty and the Beast

No movie comes closer to being the visual equivalent of a fairy tale than Beauty and the Beast (1946). Jean Cocteau had already achieved fame in his native France and throughout the world as a poet, playwright, artist, and avant-garde filmmaker. Then he did what must have seemed totally unexpected. He transformed a little-known fairy tale into a film that was both accessible and artistic.

Beauty and the Beast looks and feels like the fairy tale a child might imagine. The acting, make-up, sets, gestures, and magical effects — all combine to produce a childlike sense of wonder and awe. There’s nothing quite like it, including the Disney animated version, which was strongly influenced by this movie. Perhaps it takes a painter’s eye and poet’s sense of layered meaning to create a film that’s equally fitting for children and adults.

Cocteau enjoyed collaborating with other artists, and his willingness to share the credit helped attract the best cast members and crew. In the book Cocteau on the Film, he explains how the two main actors brought specific qualities to the project:

The only tragic part of the making of La Belle et la Bête was Jean Marais’ terrible make-up which used to take five hours and from which he emerged as though after a surgical operation. Laurence Olivier said to me one day that he would never have had the strength to undergo such torture. I maintain that it took both Marais’ passion for his profession and his love for his dog to have persisted with such fortitude to pass from the human race into the animal one. What was in fact due to the genius of an actor was ascribed by the critics to the perfection of a mask. But there was no mask, and to live the part of the Beast, Marais in his dressing-room went through the terrible phases of Dr. Jekyll’s transformation into Mr. Hyde.

As to Mademoiselle Josette Day’s performance in the part of la Belle, it had a peculiarity that very few people noticed. She has been a dancer. Now it is very dangerous to use slow motion for a person who is running. Every fault of the movement is revealed. This is why a race horse or a boxing match can be so beautiful in slow motion, and why a crowd is so ridiculous.

Credit should also go to Henri Alekan, whose cinematography struck just the right balance between reality and fantasy. Alekan left retirement three decades later to photograph Wings of Desire (1987), another film that hovers between reality and fantasy. Similarly, Georges Auric’s orchestral score is ideally suited to the material. The music is solidly traditional, yet never boring.

Beauty and the Beast was recently remastered by Janus Films/The Criterion Collection. As a result, the newly re-released DVD and current television prints are much improved. Even if you’ve seen it before, this new print may surprise you and win your admiration all over again.

Beauty and the Beast
(1946; directed by Jean Cocteau; cable, dvd, and blu-ray
The Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)

Saturday, April 26 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

They Were Expendable

John Ford always seemed to pull for the little guy. And if he wasn’t pulling for the little guy, he was pulling for individuals who take setbacks with a stoic sense of honor and common decency, as well as a sense of humor and self-deprecation. The heroism and unselfishness of Dr. Mudd despite being wrongly accused in The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), the sailors’ good will and comradeship despite their hard lives in The Long Voyage Home (1940), the optimism and practical wisdom of Mayor Skeffington despite the darkening political landscape in The Last Hurrah (1958), the gallantry and idealism of the confederate army despite their inevitable defeat in The Horse Soldiers (1959), and the dignity and patience of the Indians despite their gross mistreatment in Cheyenne Autumn (1964) — Ford often views human nature through the prism of the noble failure.

In a 1955 interview, writer Jean Mitry asked Ford if he deliberately chose stories that thrust a small group of people by chance into dramatic or tragic circumstances. Ford replied:

On purpose? It seems so to me. It enables me to make individuals aware of each other by bringing them face to face with something bigger than themselves. The situation, the tragic moment, forces men to reveal themselves, and to become aware of what they truly are. The device allows me to find the exceptional in the commonplace. I also like to find the humor in the midst of tragedy, for tragedy is never wholly tragic.

Another example of honor in defeat is Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945). It’s based on the true story of John Bulkeley, who helped develop the PT boat for naval combat in World War II. The backdrop is the attack on Pearl Harbor and the bravery of the American forces in what was their worst military defeat up until that time. Robert Montgomery plays Lt. John Brickley (changed from “Bulkeley” for the film), John Wayne plays Lt. Rusty Ryan (Brickley’s friend), and Donna Reed plays Lt. Sandy Davis (the love interest). As in all of Ford’s films, the characters are never lost in the sweep of history. The characterizations are strengthened through the accumulation of personal details — a subtle gesture, a casual look, or an act of kindness that forges a bond between two characters.

They Were Expendable is one of my favorite World War II films. Another is Air Force (1943), directed by Howard Hawks. Apart from having a similar plot (the attempt to recover militarily after an initial defeat in the Pacific), both films are top-notch character studies. They’re also seeped in the feel-good (even propagandistic) wartime ethos that urges us to set aside our differences and join together to overcome a common enemy.

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia. Ward Bond was injured in an automobile accident just before production began on this film. To explain the crutches Bond needed to move around, Ford added a scene in which Bond’s character is wounded.

They Were Expendable
(1945; directed by John Ford; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Wednesday, April 23 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, 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

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

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