It’s spring! Well, kinda. I know a lot of people are still getting wild and crazy weather, but what can you do? Happy Easter or Passover to those who celebrate them, and I hope everyone’s having a great month so far. My son has another four days of Spring Break as of today, and we’ve managed to rest the heck out of this week. It’s a real good feeling. Now, on to today’s review…
As a Christian, I want to put good things in my head, and Philippians 4:8 is the yardstick I try my best to live by. When it comes to Christian fiction, though, particularly if it’s set in the present day, I tend to back away slowly. It’s not that all Christian fiction is terrible, and it definitely isn’t (Frank Peretti creams Stephen King in my opinion, thank you very much), but some of it just doesn’t come off very well. I’m thinking of chick-lit especially. Most Christian chick-lit tries too hard to be quirky, or hip, or squeaky-clean, and either way a lot of it seems unrelatable.
Neta Jackson’s Yada Yada Prayer Group series is one of the major exceptions, though. The ongoing story of a diverse group of women who met at the Chicago Women’s Conference, Yada Yada is not only realistic but unusual in Christian chick-lit. Characters mess up, they feel inadequate, they have to deal with issues such as AIDS and racism, and that’s just for starters. Most of all, these women come together to pray for each other. The books are so successful that they have inspired real-life Yada Yada Prayer Groups around the United States, and the series has been repackaged more than once, such as the “Celebration” editions, which feature recipes. Jackson has also written a spin-off series and several stand-alone novels, one of which is Stand By Me.
The narrative is divided between Avis Douglass, principal of Bethune Elementary, and Kat Davies, graduate student at Chicago Crista University. These two ladies couldn’t be more different. Avis is formerly a widow who married her husband’s old friend, Peter. She’s also a grandmother and a worship leader at SouledOut Community Church. Avis is a classic strong woman who seems to be very together. In reality, though, Avis has lots of worries. She worries about her school possibly closing, and about the teachers and students who may be displaced. She also worries about her daughter, Rochelle, who is HIV-positive and mother to a little boy, Conny. Rochelle comes around now and then asking for money or to crash at Avis and Peter’s condo. Peter isn’t too happy about this idea because he thinks it enables Rochelle’s flaky behavior, but Avis wants desperately to help her daughter and grandson find stability.
Meanwhile, Kat is a pre-med student-turned education major who transfers to Crista from the University of Arizona on a whim, much to her parents’ chagrin. She’s already gotten her master’s degree and is staying in Chicago over the summer to take a concentrated Spanish language course because she wants to work in urban environments. Kat is a very take-charge kind of lady, rather chatty, and slightly arrogant. Food issues are so important to her that she only eats in the university dining hall under protest. She makes a habit of rescuing discarded groceries from the local Dominick’s. Kat gets bent out of shape when she sees kids eating potato chips on their way to school at seven in the morning. She’s so impulsive that one of her professors tells her, “Talk less. Listen more.” which Kat thinks is advice fit for a child. However, Kat means well, and she’s chomping at the bit to help people and do good wherever she can.
Avis and Kat’s worlds collide when Kat and her three friends, Livie, Nick, and Brygitta make plans to get an apartment together and really experience Chicago. Lo and behold, Avis’s downstairs neighbors, the Candys, are going to be in Costa Rica and need to sublet their unit while they’re gone. Kat, of course, jumps at the idea, and her friends aren’t too hard to persuade, either. Peter and Avis are less than thrilled about the idea of four college students moving in downstairs, because of typical college kid foibles like loud noises at all hours. However, since Kat and Company have started going to SouledOut, Peter and Avis bite the bullet and put in a good word for them with the Candys. It’s only for three months after all, right?
Heh. The Douglasses and the four college students being neighbors turns out the be the easy part of Stand By Me. In fact, the situation is downright sedate, with the exception of one quick incident when Nick plugs in his speakers and scares everyone in the building. The hard stuff comes in when Pastor Clark, longtime clergy of many of the characters, keels over during a sermon and dies of a massive heart attack. This throws the church into turmoil, as there’s now a shortage of leadership. Pastor Cobb, the remaining clergyman, asks Avis and Peter to be co-interim pastors, since they are so active and well-known to the congregation anyway. The Douglasses hesitate, not only because Avis and Peter are already in leadership positions at their jobs, but Avis has overheard two women talking in the restroom about the church becoming “too black.” Plus, they have been asked by a couple they know in South Africa to come over and work at their mission for women suffering from AIDS.
On her end, Kat experiences some great blows to her confidence and preconceived notions. She jumps in and gives Pastor Clark CPR when he collapses, and then worries that she didn’t keep going long enough or do it properly. She continues checking the Dominick’s dumpster for cast-off items, but a young woman chews her out for taking food away from people who really need it. Interestingly enough, Kat had seen this same young woman hanging around the entrance to Avis and Peter’s three-flat, only she takes off running when Kat starts asking questions. Kat also has her ideas shaken up about Christianity–she thought it was just a cultural thing and she certainly admired Christians, but as far as the personal commitment part went, she had no clue. It’s no surprise that the influence of the SouledOut congregation helps her change her mind very quickly, and not through any kind of coercion or struggle. She just gets it. The other big thing with Kat is once she relaxes, she’s able to see what people actually need as opposed to what she thinks they need, and this allows her to play a key role in helping some of the other characters heal. In the end, it allows Kat to heal from something she’s been hiding as well.
Just as I did with the other Yada Yada novels, I devoured Stand By Me–it’s riveting. Neta Jackson is terrific at making characters who are engaging and intriguing, even if they aren’t necessarily likable. The meaner ones, too, have chinks in their armor to be discovered and peered through. Having said that, the only thing that bugged me about the book was the title, which may make people think of that famous ditty from the sixties, or like my husband, a certain movie that shall remain unelaborated upon. It fits, but it’s a little bit confusing. The other thing is, since Jackson is working with known settings and characters, the story may mean more to those who are familiar with the original Yada Yada books. However, there’s ample background given, so newbies can still enjoy Stand By Me. I highly recommend it.
I know it may be a tough question if you’re into classic film, but what do you think?
Is it M-G-M’s gone-but-not-forgotten backlot?
Or has Warner Bros. done it better?
Do you like both of them? Or maybe you prefer some other studio? Comment below! Or on Twitter. Or on Instagram. Preferably not a combo, though. 😉 The results will appear in a future post. Thanks in advance for your feedback, everyone.
Oh, and April’s entries will be devoted to books, although film won’t be completely absent. What a concept, seeing as Taking Up Room started out as just book reviews, right? TTFN… 🙂
During the Second World War, most stars worked to support the fight. Jeanette MacDonald joined the American Women’s Voluntary Service (AWVS). Rita Hayworth donated the bumpers off her car for scrap and replaced them with wooden ones. Many, many actors, directors, and crew members, like Jimmy Stewart and George Stevens, enlisted in the Armed Forces. There were tours of camps and hospitals to entertain the troops. The Armed Forces Radio Service broadcast special programs such as Command Performance, a request show for the servicepeople overseas.
The big stars were, of course, expected to be the most visible, and Bette Davis was no exception. In fact, she was so active that the Department of Defense presented her with the Distinguished Civilian Service Award in 1982. Bette went on bond tours alongside other stars such as James Cagney and Judy Garland, where she used her bad girl persona to great effect. According to Wikipedia, she was able to pull in two million dollars in two days, plus another quarter of a million for a picture of herself in Jezebel. Bette also did public service announcements such as this slightly extreme one…
…or novelties like this one-off musical number in the all-star extravaganza, Thank Your Lucky Stars (Yes, that is Bette’s real singing voice):
However, the Hollywood Canteen is Bette’s biggest contribution to the war, and one people still talk about. Originally John Garfield’s idea, the Canteen was to be a place for servicemen and women to relax and have fun with the stars while they were in the Los Angeles area. All the studios contributed to the project, but Bette and John were at the helm, with Jules Stein working quietly in the background. They threw themselves into finding a location, coordinating volunteers, booking entertainment, and securing food from donations and local restaurants.
The Canteen was located at 1451 Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood. The building had previously been a livery stable, and then a succession of nightclubs. After a major overhaul, the Canteen opened to great fanfare on October 3, 1942. Over 3,000 industry professionals were on the Canteen’s volunteer roll, ready to wait tables, dance with soldiers, serve food and perform. I hate to keep bringing Wikipedia into this, but they do have a list of the bigger names who took part. Everything was free to those in uniform, and the club was fully integrated and international. The Canteen was like a party every night, with raffles, music, skits, and lots of dancing. Believe it or not, Bette even took a pie in the face once (Yep, I hear ya. Pics, or it didn’t happen 🙂 ).
Over the course of the war, the Hollywood Canteen served approximately three million servicemen and women. It closed on Thanksgiving night, 1945, and according to the L.A. Daily Mirror, the building was demolished in December of 1966. Robby Cress of the wonderful Dear Old Hollywood took this photo of the site in 2009:
Fortunately for the rest of us, not to mention posterity, Warner Bros. released a film of the same name in December of 1944. Through the eyes of a fictional soldier named Slim Greene (Robert Hutton), the moviegoing public got a taste of what the average serviceperson experienced when visiting the Canteen. There is a plot, but it’s merely incidental, as the film is mostly a revue of some of the performers who were volunteers.
Slim (Robert Hutton) and his buddy, Sergeant Nolan (Dane Clark) are two wounded soldiers stationed on an unknown island in the South Pacific. Slim fills his time dreaming about Joan Leslie. When Slim and Nolan are sent to Hollywood for a short leave, Nolan wants a beer, but Slim wants to see the sights, so they split up for the day. While wandering around town, Slim finds his way into the Hollywood Canteen, and meets star after star after star. Via an improbable series of events involving a red claim ticket, Slim gets a kiss from his dream girl, Joan Leslie. A dazed Slim meets up with Nolan later, and Nolan is a little-hard pressed to believe Slim when he hears about his day.
The next night, Slim and Nolan go to the Canteen together, and basically by a freak accident, Slim is also the millionth man to enter. A line of girls comes up to kiss him, including Joan Leslie, naturally. As the Millionth Man, Slim’s won free admission to any nightclub, a hotel stay, a studio tour, a rental car, and just when it seems things can’t get any better for him, Slim finds out he has his pick of girls to be his date (One guess who he asks). Slim, again in a daze, can only stammer out, “Golly.” It doesn’t take much for Joan to get Slim out the door later. They have a sweet little almost-romance over the next couple of days, and he gets to meet her family. Literally–Joan Leslie’s real-life sister has a cameo.
While this part of the film may seem like a long shot, it does have a basis in fact. The actual Millionth Man was Sergeant Carl Bell, who entered the Canteen on September 15, 1943. He received a kiss from Betty Grable and Marlene Dietrich was his escort.
Meanwhile, Nolan is by no means idle. After a bumbling attempt at speaking French to Ida Lupino, he gets a bit of advice from Paul Henreid that can be summed up in four words: We are subconsciously primeval. Okeydokey. Nolan apparently is a bit fuzzy on what “subconsciously primeval” means, but when he meets who he thinks is a young starlet (Janis Paige), it all suddenly becomes clear.
Hokey? Yeah. Fun, though.
The music in Hollywood Canteen is fantastic, and it runs the genre gamut. Among the acts featured are the Andrews Sisters, of course, as is Jimmy Dorsey and his Band, Carmen Cavallero and hisOrchestra, Eddie Cantor, Kitty Carlisle, Roy Rogers, Joseph Szegeti, and Jack Benny. The film also showcases dancers Rosario and Antonio and schtick from comic Joe E. Brown. Plus, it briefly ventures outside of the Canteen for a glimpse of Warner Bros. during the war, with Joan McCracken dancing the “Ballet In Jive.”
Initially, the film was supposed to be a joint effort like the real-life Canteen, but studio executives balked at loaning out so many stars at once. As a result, every Warner Bros. star or contract player who could work it into his or her schedule was in Hollywood Canteen. Bette Davis and John Garfield are on hand to run the show, including emcee duties, and to explain the history of the Canteen. Bette also voices what was no doubt a common sentiment among the Canteen workers and Hollywood in general: “You’ve given us something we’ll never forget. Wherever you go, our hearts go with you.”
Even though the film is a tad unrealistic, its star wattage is dazzling, and gives a lovely snapshot of the marvelous job Bette Davis, John Garfield, and hundreds of others did at the Hollywood Canteen. No one who entered the place will ever forget it. No one who caught a little of Bette Davis’s energy during the war will ever forget it, either. I’m sure everyone who came in contact with her was tremendously grateful.
That finishes my Day Three, and as always, Crystal has more Bette at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Thanks for reading, and a big shout-out to Crystal for hosting this great blogathon! Hope we can do it again next year. 🙂
In Of Human Bondage, we saw Bette play a cruel, gold-digging vixen keeping a romantic young man in her clutches. Eight years later, the shoe was on the other foot when Bette took the role of Charlotte Vale, a woman controlled by her mother, in the 1942 film, Now Voyager. Not only is the movie an interesting character study about moving beyond the effects of parental abuse, but it shows the progress Bette made as an actress.
The film opens with a view of a solid-looking lawn jockey, with the word, “Vale” across the base. The rain is coming down in sheets, obscuring a showy mansion with columns like a Grecian temple. Inside, a severe-looking woman (Gladys Cooper) in Edwardian satin descends the stairs, wondering when her daughter-in-law and a man she’s bringing with her will arrive. As she sweeps through the foyer into the sitting room, it’s clear the whole house is formal and stiff like a vatermorder collar.
The daughter-in-law, whose name is Lisa (Ilka Chase), and her friend, Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), show up promptly, and Mrs. Vale looks at the doctor as if he’s a bedraggled stray cat. Lisa says she’s concerned about Charlotte’s secretiveness and crying jags, and simply wants Dr. Jaquith, a top psychiatrist, to evaluate her. Mrs. Vale doesn’t trust doctors, and she dismisses the idea of her daughter being sick, mentally or otherwise. “She’s no more ill than a molting canary,” Mrs. Vale says. Uh huh. Mrs. Vale’s denial is more than obvious, and she herself doesn’t let up rubbing her thumbs together in a neurotic fashion. Molting canaries, my foot.
Bette Davis is introduced gradually in Now, Voyager. The first things we see of her as Charlotte Vale are her hands, deliberately and slowly carving an ivory box, then stopping abruptly when called by the butler. A cigarette totters on a china saucer next to the box. The hands make sure to hide any evidence of smoking in the trash can before answering the door. Next, we see heavy, laced-up Oxford heels descending the stairs, and a chunky, hunched-over woman sidling into the drawing room, twisting and squeezing her hands. Everything else about her is heavy as well, from the fabric of her dress to her brows to the way she sags from her mother and niece, June (Bonita Granville), teasing and belittling her mercilessly. The poor thing can barely function, and is as skittish as a scared rabbit. The family doesn’t bother putting on company manners for Dr. Jaquith, either, and Charlotte runs upstairs.
Charlotte agrees to show Dr. Jaquith her room, and she reveals a life hidden behind what her mother wants. Charlotte was a late child, and her mother has always discouraged her from making friends, from romantic relationships, and even from dieting or taking off her glasses. As a result, Charlotte quietly rebels. She locks her bedroom door from the outside. Not only does she smoke, but she reads books her mother doesn’t approve of, stashing them at the back of her bookshelf. In spite of her contraband activities, Charlotte is cracking under the strain of her mother’s oppression. While her mother is horrified at the idea of a Vale having a nervous breakdown, the die has been cast, and Dr. Jaquith recommends Charlotte come to his sanitarium, Cascades.
In the next scene we see Lisa pulling up in a town car to meet Dr. Jaquith at his sanitarium, which is lively and cheerful, and they go to see Charlotte. She’s lost weight, but still wearing the heavy dresses and glasses just as she did in Boston. Charlotte can now speak without trembling or her eyes darting around, but she continues to be very unsure of herself, and she definitely doesn’t want to go home. Fortunately for her, Lisa has cooked up a little scheme to delay that as long as possible, but before letting her in on it, Dr. Jaquith hands Charlotte a typed piece of paper with a verse by Walt Whitman:
Charlotte does just that, as Lisa’s scheme involves Charlotte taking a cruise around South America. The film cuts to a big group of cruise ship passengers waiting to go on a shore excursion, except that they’re short one person–the mysterious Miss Beauchamp. They’re all speculating about her because she’s spent the whole voyage in her cabin, and one woman remarks that Miss Beauchamp looks as if she’s been ill, and seems “pale, but interesting.” Everyone stops short when a pair of high-fashion pumps pause at the top of the gangplank, and then our Charlotte descends, looking completely transformed but tentative. Everyone breathes out and relaxes before absorbing Charlotte into the group.
Charlotte is asked to go ashore with a man who introduces himself as Mr. Jeremiah Durrance (Paul Henreid), but as he and Charlotte get more friendly over lunch, he tells her to call him Jerry. Jerry’s on his way to Rio de Janiero on business and is married with two daughters. Jerry’s so sympathetic that Charlotte tells him that she’s been in a sanitarium and a friend, Renee Beauchamp, let her take her spot on the cruise at the last minute. The two become quite a pair on the voyage, and Jerry introduces Charlotte to his longtime friends, Deb and Frank McIntyre (Lee Patrick and James Rennie). Deb tells Charlotte how Jerry’s wife plays the victim even though she was the one to hook Jerry. Since he’s a gentleman and because of their two daughters, Jerry stays in the relationship.
On a drive up Sugarloaf, Charlotte and Jerry have a mishap when their taxi driver accidentally strands them, and they have to spend the night in a shack, which means bundling to stay warm. Charlotte stays in Rio with Jerry while waiting for a plane to take her back to the cruise ship, and Jerry confesses he’s in love with her. Charlotte is resistant to the idea of an affair with a married man, but she finally relents, and five days later she goes to meet her ship, thinking she will never see Jerry again.
Back in the United States, Lisa is overjoyed to see how confident Charlotte has become. Instead of hiding in her cabin, she’s the most popular lady aboard the cruise ship. Likewise, the rest of Charlotte’s family are shocked and pleasantly surprised at the changes. They all realize there’s a new sheriff in town when Charlotte goes against what their mother wants, such as lighting a fire in a fireplace that’s never been lit before. An old friend of hers, Elliot (John Loder), is also there, and he asks if Charlotte will see him, which she readily accepts, and after a suitable period of time, they become engaged.
The only person who doesn’t take to the new Charlotte is, naturally, Mrs. Vale, who wants Charlotte under her thumb again. Charlotte disagrees, so Mrs. Vale tries to lay on the guilt. She either accidentally or on purpose falls down the stairs and sprains her ankle, but instead of crumbling, Charlotte delegates duties to a nurse named Dora (played by the wryly funny Mary Wickes). Mrs. Vale grudgingly accepts that Charlotte will no longer be cowed, and the two of them call a truce. Sorta.
Charlotte and Elliot go to dinner at a friend’s house before a group outing to a concert, and who should show up but Jerry. He and Charlotte pretend as if they’ve just met, but in whispers they catch up with each other. Charlotte realizes she’s just been pretending with Elliot, and they end up breaking their engagement. Unfortunately, right after this, Charlotte and her mother have a confrontation about the nature of their relationship, and Charlotte tells her, “I didn’t want to be born, and you didn’t want me. It’s been a calamity on both sides.” Mrs. Vale then dies from a heart attack, probably due to the sudden shock. Charlotte blames herself, even though her mother had been told it was only a matter of time before her heart finished her.
Alone again, Charlotte flees back to Cascade, thinking she’s going to collapse into another nervous breakdown. Life says, “Not so fast, Miss Vale,” and what happens next allows Charlotte to use her experiences to help someone else, bringing light and fun to places where only darkness and gloom had been. Jerry may figure into things as well. Or not.
What I appreciate about Now, Voyager is Charlotte’s growth and development. Charlotte could easily continue to rebel against her mother just because she can, but it’s more of a case of her becoming a whole, complete woman. She learns to look outside herself and channel her energy into investing in other people. She also manages to keep her integrity instead of pursuing what may turn destructive, even if it was gone after for noble reasons. What’s interesting as well is that every time Charlotte makes progress as a person, the camera starts at her feet, pans upwards and Bette pauses just before she takes her first step, inviting viewers to symbolically move forward with her. Then as she helps other people to move forward, the camera follows them in a similar way.
Bette Davis’s performance in the film is excellent. In the eight years between Of Human Bondage and Now, Voyagershe made a lot of leaps and bounds as an actress, keeping her emotions more subtle, as opposed to laying everything and everyone bare. Her Charlotte Vale becomes a strong, gutsy woman, both flawed and admirable, but always intriguing. Now, Voyager is a fine example of what makes Bette Davis an important part of film history.
And there we have my Day Two of the Bette Davis Blogathon. In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywoodhas plenty more Bette for anyone who’s so inclined. Thanks for reading, and see you tomorrow for Day Three!
Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy blogathon (OK, I couldn’t resist 🙂 ).
It’s a fact of life that not all attraction is mutual. It’s also a fact that sometimes relationships happen because one person wants to throw the other a bone. It is yet another fact that abuse can come from any corner, and can be as hard to separate from as Super Glue from skin. Like lots of people, I had to learn these lessons, and they’re tough pills to swallow. 1934’s Of Human Bondage explores the effects of toxic relationships, and one man’s efforts to gain freedom.
The film reunites Bette Davis with her co-star from The Petrified Forest, Leslie Howard. Most of the action revolves around Howard’s character, Philip Carey, a man with clubfoot who tries to be an artist in Paris, only to be told he has no future in it. Philip then proceeds to Plan B, which is to go to medical school. He seems to be plugging along at it, except for his professor’s condescending attitude towards him about his clubfoot. “It’s not interesting,” he says. Philip protests, but in a half-hearted way, as if he’s expecting to be kicked around.
One fateful day, a friend asks Philip to be his wingman and help him impress the pretty Cockney waitress at the local watering hole. As it sometimes happens with these types of schemes, however, his friend gets bored and Philip is the one to be taken with the waitress, whose name is Mildred.
Philip asks Mildred to dinner, and she’s a cold fish. Not even champagne thaws her out. It’s not that Mildred’s the hard-to-get type, either. Her disdain for Philip is obvious–she doesn’t bother to look at him properly at first, let alone smile, not even when he’s a customer at her place of employment. On the other hand, it’s probably a good thing that Mildred doesn’t often look at Philip straight on, because when she does, he’s hypnotized. As if under a spell, he’s got to hang around her restaurant waiting for her to get off work and beg her to go out with him. Philip winces as he sees Mildred carry on with a mustachioed, gregarious businessman named Emil Miller (Alan Hale). He’s so lovesick that his classroom work suffers. Philip is a lot like Walter Mitty in a way. He blissfully dreams of he and Mildred having a passionate love affair, complete with champagne toasts and him dancing brilliantly in spite of his clubfoot, along with Mildred’s Cockney accent magically disappearing.
Meanwhile, the reality is a lot less rosy. It’s not until Mildred tells Philip she’s been seeing Emil on the side that he really falls apart. He bombs his next exam at medical school, and thinks the only way to cheer up is to reunite with Mildred. She is amiable about the whole thing until Philip asks her to marry him, and Mildred blithely informs him she’s going to marry Emil. Devastated, Philip spends a lot of time walking back and forth, up and down the street, looking placidly morose. I groaned a bit as time went on, thinking, “Dude, you could do so much better.”
Philip rebounds with Norah (Kay Johnson), a romance writer who encourages him to do the best he can at school. She’s Mildred’s polar opposite, gentle and motherly. Norah obviously loves Philip and he gets a twinkle in his eye whenever he looks at her.
Unfortunately, though, our hero still can’t catch a break. Mildred suddenly reappears, pregnant and alone again. She goes all penitent and tells Philip she wants things to be different because Philip had always been kind to her. Ever the gentleman, Philip goes to see Emil and tells him he ought to marry Mildred or at least support her, at which Emil pulls out a photo of his wife and child. Whoops. Philip then takes it upon himself to provide for Mildred, while the bewildered and heartbroken Norah sends him telegrams, wondering why he hasn’t been to see her. The two break their relationship off, and Philip throws himself into caring for Mildred. Philip seems to think he can save Mildred, as if he’s a romantic hero and she’s the damsel in distress.
There’s only one not-so-minor problem, and it isn’t exactly a shock: Mildred has no intention of becoming a dutiful wife. She has a baby girl, but then sends her to an orphanage because she’s not interested in being a mother, and she’s plainly still bored with Philip. Ever trying to appease her, Philip invites his friend, Harry (Reginald Denny), over. Harry and Mildred laugh and carry on just a little too intimately, while Philip stands awkwardly by, and it soon becomes apparent that Harry is Mildred’s new Emil. Instead of striding forlornly up and down the streets, however, Philip kicks Mildred out. His friendship with Harry is rather icy for a long time as well, even though Harry dropped Mildred pretty quickly.
Free of Mildred again for the time being, Philip throws himself into his medical studies. One of his patients is a jovial Welshman, Mr. Altheny (Reginald Owen), who just happens to have a pretty daughter named Sally (Frances Dee). Mr. Altheny insists Philip come to dinner after he’s well, which turns out to be one of the nicest parts of the film, even though it’s late in the game, because Philip relaxes for the first time. He and Sally quickly fall in love, and everything is going great. If only the proverbial bad penny didn’t turn up again. And again, in even worse shape than before. Will Philip hop off Mildred’s carousel for good, or will he make another fruitless effort to grab the brass ring?
Of Human Bondage is a no-holds barred portrayal of abuse. Anyone who’s ever been in a similar situation or knows someone who has may find it tough to watch. It’s not just that Mildred treats Philip like dirt, but she treats herself like dirt as well. In fact, she’s her own worst enemy. She’s habitually attracted to unavailable men, and she seems determined to drag others down with her. Philip trying to break free of Mildred reminds me of that Twitter meme, “Bye, Felicia.” It’s a bit from an Ice-T movie called Friday (which I would not recommend to anyone under any circumstances). This woman named Felicia tries to sponge off Ice-T’s character and his buddy, but Ice-T is so jaded towards her that he dismisses her with “Bye, Felicia.” I so, so wanted Philip to have his “Bye Felicia” moment, where he tells Mildred to take a hike, and I also wanted him to shake off his fantasies of being the romantic hero and decide to be a real one. As it happens, Of Human Bondage winds up nicely. It’s sad for some characters, but satisfying for others.
As far as the cast is concerned, there are some deft performances put in. Leslie Howard’s acting is always on point, and he really made me root for Philip. Bette’s turn as Mildred was, well, a teeny bit scary. She has a meltdown scene in the film that would give any of Joan Crawford’s plenty of competition. Crawford brought a lot of anger to her meltdowns, but I have to say, the daggers shooting from Bette’s eyes in Of Human Bondage had quite a bit of edge. On the other hand, Bette’s Cockney accent was a bit muddled, as she goes from Cockney to mid-Atlantic to high-class Brit all through the film. Maybe accents weren’t her thing. However, I can see why this film made her a star, because she lays it all out there–her Mildred almost literally deteriorates onscreen. It is definitely a memorable performance, and Of Human Bondage is a memorable movie. It’s not something to watch when feeling blue, but it’s a captivating film.
Producer Lynn Novick once called the generation that fought World War Two “reticent,” and this is absolutely true. These men believe that they’re no one special, and that they went to war because they knew they had a duty to defend their nation. Most of them weren’t career soldiers but regular guys who went off and did something they probably had never dreamed they were capable of, and millions upon millions of fascinating stories have resulted. One of the most famous of these in that time was that of Private Al Schmid, whose experiences were ably and movingly portrayed by John Garfield in the 1945 film, Pride of the Marines.
Al Schmid is a native of Philadelphia who boards with his friends, Jim and Ella Mae Merchant, (John Ridgely and Ann Doran). Schmid is a welder who prides himself on his independence and toughness, but Ella Mae can’t resist setting him up with women. The first time we see Al he’s pulling up to a house on the 6500 block of Tulip Street and getting out of his car with a big bouquet of flowers for Ella Mae and Jim’s anniversary. Much to Al’s chagrin, Ella Mae has invited her friend Ruth (Eleanor Parker), who just happens to be single, to dinner. Al is suspicious, but when Ella Mae tells him Ruth is a terrific bowler, he’s intrigued.
As it turns out, though, Ruth is the furthest thing from a terrific bowler, and Al gives her some grief about trying to hook a husband. Ruth calls Al a drip and storms out, leaving Al stunned. Not being used to a woman giving his guff right back to him, Al starts pursuing Ruth, and they fall in love. Their romance isn’t the typical lovey-dovey stuff, but playfully combative banter that’s fun to watch.
Since it’s 1941, Pearl Harbor looms. So many of the movies made about the war while it was taking place use Pearl Harbor as a major plot point. Naturally, this was done because Pearl Harbor was the moment for many Americans when things changed forever, but it also reminded audiences what plunged us into the war in the first place. When Al hears about the attack, he dismisses it for approximately thirty seconds before deciding to join the Marines. The day before he leaves, Al’s stubborn independence crops up, and he tells Ruth to not bother coming to the station, but to move on with her life. Ruth shows up anyway, and long story short, she and Al get engaged.
Al is assigned to Guadalcanal, where he helps man a gun crew overlooking the river. He and his two crewmates, Johnny Rivers (Anthony Caruso) and Lee Diamond (Dane Clark), are beyond exhausted, but they know there are Japanese forces across the river, so they wait, picking off enemy soldiers whenever they see them. Unfortunately, Johnny dies from a shot to the head and Lee is badly wounded in the shoulder, so it’s up to Al to man the gun by himself, and the Japanese keep coming. There are shouts from everywhere: “Marine, tonight you die!” and Al mows them down, shouting back, “Why can’t I shut you up?” in a mixture of frustration, anger and terror. Then, just as things seem to be going quiet, a Japanese soldier crawls up to the foxhole with a grenade, and the last thing Al sees is his face and the explosion.
Blinded, Al picks up a gun, and Lee pleads with him not to kill himself. Amazingly enough, though, Al begs, “Tell me where they are, Lee! I’ll shoot ’em. Tell me where they are!”
It’s later revealed that Al was able to kill 200 Japanese soldiers under Lee’s direction, but the movie skips over the actual incident. The next thing we see is Ruth working at her office. Her Uncle Ralph calls her to let her know Al is in the Naval Hospital in San Diego. Then we see Al with his eyes bandaged, writing a letter to Ruth with the help of Red Cross worker Virginia Pfeiffer (Rosemary DeCamp). He doesn’t have much to talk about, just fluffy wait-until-I-get-my-hands-on-you generalities, mainly because he doesn’t want to tell anyone what he’s really thinking. Virginia doesn’t buy Al’s breezy act, though, and is concerned about Al hiding from his fiancé.
Al asks Virginia to be in the room with him when he gets the bandages off. He has no hope of seeing much, but he’s positive he’ll see something. And…no. The doctor shines the light full in his face, but Al is completely blind. The doctor tries to reassure him that he can adjust to being blind, that it’s not a death sentence, and Al stormily refuses to listen. Understandably, he’s devastated and scared.
Al’s not alone in his fear. Pride of the Marines deals very frankly with the practicalities of returning to civilian life, and there’s a lengthy scene in a hospital ward in which the characters discuss some pressing concerns. Soldiers during World War Two had good reason to be nervous. After the first World War, many veterans came home to find there was no place for them in civilian life. They had no guarantee of getting their former jobs back, and they had no money. In 1924, the government promised Great War veterans a thousand-dollar bonus, to be paid in 1945, but that was cold comfort to men who were in dire straits. Their dissatisfaction culminated in a bonus march on Washington, D.C. in 1932, with little to show for their pains. World War Two veterans were afraid of history repeating itself, even though there had been reforms since 1932. Theoretically, they were supposed to get their old jobs back. They had the G.I. Bill providing them with money to help them get on their feet, with college tuition besides if they wanted it. The characters in Pride of the Marines voice some possible flaws in this seemingly ideal set-up, such as a job not existing anymore, or being pushed out by cheap labor. The film also deftly handles the barriers presented by race and ethnicity, and how many Americans felt marginalized.
On the other hand, though, the film went to great lengths to reassure veterans that they always had help available. They had friends and family who wouldn’t let them be left out in the cold. It also reminded them of the power Americans have to affect positive change, and that veterans have a unique vantage point when it comes to appreciating what America is meant to be. While this aspect of the film has been criticized for slowing down the narrative, in 1945 it would have imparted important messages to returning servicemen and civilians.
In spite of the encouragement, Al still has a lot to learn, and is hard-pressed to come to terms with his new normal. He’s sent back to Philadelphia to recover in the Naval Hospital there and receive the Navy Cross. He’s broken up with Ruth, but Virginia explains the situation to her and Ruth is determined to fight for Al. How will it all work out? Well, here’s a spoiler: The real-life Al and Ruth got married and had two sons.
I honestly believe John Garfield and Eleanor Parker deserved Oscars for their performances in Pride of the Marines. Their portrayals of Al and Ruth were honest and intense, as they should have been. Not only are they incredible actors, but both Garfield and Parker spent time with the real Al and Ruth, even going to 6504 Tulip Street, where Al boarded, as well as other locations around Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the movie only got one measly Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. My guess is that the raw emotion the cast, and John Garfield in particular, showed throughout the movie might have made Academy members uncomfortable, as actors of that day were supposed to retain at least a measure of cool. Veterans’ issues may not have been something the studios wanted to delve into all that much, anyway. The success of the few movies that were made about the aftermath of war, such as The Best Years Of OurLives, show that there was obviously a market for these types of films. It’s too bad, it really is, because what these men faced when they came home deserved to be examined and understood by the public.
When studying history, and in particular, war, it’s easy to forget that in the shadows of the heroes and personalities, wars have been fought by countless no-names. People who will never get famous (or stay famous) are the ones who do most of the fighting and then the cleanup afterwards. It’s how life is. Fame can be highly overrated anyway, and glory-grabbing shouldn’t be a reason to fight a war. I think Al Schmid would agree. Thank heaven he was one of many ordinary guys who just happened to do something extraordinary. Pride of the Marines is a fitting tribute to Al Schmid and his fellow veterans.
What happens after death is an interesting question, maybe a little scary, but very important. I definitely didn’t start this blog to proselytize, and I’m not going to start now, but death is something we’ll all face someday. The problem is, no one who dies can tell the rest of us what it’s like–all we can do is speculate. Between Two Worlds, a 1944 film featuring such greats as John Garfield, Eleanor Parker, and Paul Henreid, reflects one view of the workings of the afterlife.
It is wartime London. At a steamship office, groups of people are sitting around waiting for transportation to ships bound for America. The departure board is blank except for a giant chalk “X” and there are posters everywhere reminding people that the enemy would love to know what they know. We see a line of passengers sitting and waiting, starting with a bored-looking young man and his girlfriend, who is polishing her nails. She shows them off to the fancy woman next to her, who recoils in horror and switches seats with her husband. Next is a jolly-looking Merchant Marine proudly telling the clergyman next to him about going home as a passenger. Deluxe. On the pastor’s other side is a kindly older woman who offers a bun from her basket to a man in a posh-looking suit, who is sitting gingerly and stiffly on the edge of the bench. The latter jumps up and demands that his staff be allowed to wait with him, but the officer in charge refuses, as there are no special privileges during wartime.
A nervous Austrian man runs up to the counter, hands shaking, and asks for passage on the next ship. The clerk regretfully tells him he can’t, as there’s nothing he can do if the man doesn’t have an exit permit. The man trudges off regretfully, leaving the clerk to remark to the officer that the man had been quite a soldier in the Free French and it was all too bad. The officer nods, and then calls Group F, which just happens to be the line of people on the bench. Group F rise as one and pile into a waiting car. Just as they’re about to drive away, a young woman runs up to the car looking desperately for someone named Henry. And as if that weren’t enough, the air raid siren goes off. The car with Group F drives away, only to catch a direct hit. The woman is thrown to the ground and watches in horror as the car burns.
The woman (whose name is Ann, played by Eleanor Parker) goes home and finds her husband, Henry (Paul Henreid), who was the man at the shipping office trying to buy a ticket. He tells her he’s no good for her as he can’t work, especially in the profession he loved, which was as a concert pianist. Ann passionately denies it, and then notices Henry has sealed all the windows and the gas is on.
The hissing of the gas gives way to the hissing of a ship’s whistle. Ann and Henry walk slowly down a long hallway, and then the deck, and just as slowly the truth dawns on them: they’re dead. They peer through a window at the bar and see the group from the cab at the shipping office, standing around in a clump as the steward passes out cabin assignments. Feeling more and more freaked, Ann and Henry go into a lounge, where Henry sits down at a baby grand piano and finds he can play again.
Soon Ann and Henry meet Scrubby, the steward, played by Ed Gwynn. Scrubby is a sympathetic soul who takes care of those just entering the afterlife. Scrubby warns the couple not to let the rest of the people know that they’re dead, but to let them figure it out on their own.
Speaking of the other passengers, what took place on the bench tells us most of we need to know about them except for their names. Tom Prior (John Garfield) is a former foreign correspondent. He’s abrasive, outspoken, mad at the world, and uses wit and sarcasm to cover up how lonely he really is.
Maxine (Faye Emerson) is a mediocre actress who came to England to perform with the USO because she thought it would give her career a boost. It doesn’t pan out, and she takes up with Tom, probably because he’s handsome and exciting. When his career hits the skids, she loses interest very quickly and is bitter at everyone, Mr. Lingley being the one exception.
Mr. Lingley (George Coulouris) always introduces himself as “Mr. Lingley of Lingley, Limited.” He’s to-the-letter ruthless–a selfish, grabby snob who can’t believe he has to associate with the common man. His bodyguards are his security blankets. He also is on the lookout for a trophy wife or something, and in this instance he casts his eye at Maxine Russell. It’s clear the two don’t love each other (when would they have had time?), but Maxine sees Mr. Lingley as a possible meal ticket.
Next are Benjamin and Genevieve Cliveden-Banks (Gilbert Emery and Isobel Elsom), an older couple who were bound for America to help raise money for war orphans. Benjamin is relatively decent, but like Mr. Lingley, Genevieve is deeply snobby, aghast at having to mix with the unwashed masses. She treats her high-born husband more like a Maltese dog than a human being, only a lot less dotingly–if Genevieve could stick Benjamin in her handbag, she would.
Also on the bench are Pete Musick (George Tobias), Mrs. Midget (Sara Allgood), and Reverend William Duke (Dennis King). Pete is a nice fellow from New York City who’s overjoyed to be going home to see his wife and new baby girl. He enjoys life and likes cheering people up. He’s also been torpedoed three times, and he thinks it’s his lucky charm that saved him–a little paper doll he’s named Hokus and carries in his pocket. Mrs. Midget is a gentle, motherly lady of the working class who’s going to America for her own reasons, and she likes sticking close to Tom. She encourages him to make friends and speak up for himself, which Tom is a wee bit baffled about. Last but not least is Reverend William, another gentle sort who is off to America because he wants to be out in the world meeting people. Reverend William has never left his parish, and is excited to talk to anyone of any class.
Tom figures the situation out first. He sees how strangely Ann and Henry are acting and tails them, overhearing them talking about how the others are still making plans for the future even though they suddenly have none. Tom breaks the news by putting on what his companions think is a magic show. It isn’t until he shoots Mr. Lingley that the group finally realizes something’s going on, and even then Tom has to spell it out for them. Most of the passengers take the new revelation calmly, but it’s more of a struggle for some than for others.
After that, there’s nothing to do but let the idea sink in. “But wait, there’s more,” Scrubby tells them, only he says it much more elegantly. The Examiner (Sydney Greenstreet) will be coming to evaluate them for their next destination, and they have absolutely no control over it. They don’t all take this lying down, either. Mr. Lingley in particular tries to do what he’s done his entire life, and that is to bribe, cajole, and intimidate. It’s a no-go with Scrubby and the Examiner, though. In fact, it makes things worse–like arguing with a cop after being pulled over. And that goes for the rest of the characters. They can’t bring anything to the table except who they are and how they’ve spent their time on earth. Some will be pleasantly surprised, others will have their hopes dashed, but they will all get what they deserve.
Garfield plays Prior with an energy that just grabbed me, as if he was playing the role in the theater instead of in a film. He really gives the sense that Prior is smirking in the face of death, even though deep down he knows better. His bravado does begin to ebb, but for a good reason. I kept hoping he would have a new and better destination than what he left behind.
Between Two Worlds is a simple movie, but it raises some deep ideas. A fancy Art Deco ocean liner may not be exactly the way we make our way into the afterlife (and most likely it isn’t). We can’t presume to know how long we will live, and we certainly shouldn’t take matters into our own hands. What we do have a say in, though, is what we do with our lives. Do we throw life away, or do we seek to be the best people we can be? As C+C Music Factory once sang, “Things that make you go hmmmm…”
And that wraps up Day Two of The John Garfield Blogathon. There are more entries waiting for you atPhyllis Loves Classic Movies. Hope you enjoyed reading this, and see you tomorrow for Day Three!
Have you ever explored a B-17? I had the opportunity a few years ago, which was an amazing experience. The plane was the same one that appeared in the movie, MemphisBelle, and it’s not only beautifully maintained, but it still flies. There was so much more to seeing the plane than being where Sean Astin, Harry Connick, Jr. and Eric Stoltz had been, too. Bombers look big from the outside, and the B-17 was one of the more spacious planes, but it was still pretty cramped, especially the ball turret and the catwalk across the bomb bay. That bomber crews were able to work in these itty-bitty environments under intense pressure speaks very well of their training and the design and workmanship of the aircraft. I’ve grown up hearing about planes from my dad, but I was able to come away that day with a whole new appreciation for the B-17. I also have been able to look at familiar movies in a fresh way, one of them being the 1943 ensemble film Air Force, the cast of which includes John Garfield, Harry Carey, and John Ridgely.
Air Force is the story of a B-17, the Mary-Ann, and her crew, led by Captain Quincannon, who have been assigned to make what they think is a routine flight to Hawaii. All of the men are over the moon about the idea, except for John Garfield’s character, Joe Winocki, who has a massive chip on his shoulder. Joe wanted to be a pilot, but was washed out of flight school after an accident and retrained as a waist gunner, which he’s good at but too stroppy to appreciate. Since he didn’t get what he wanted, Joe wants to leave the Air Force behind, and as his enlistment is almost up, he figures the trip to Hawaii is just another way to run out the clock.
Here’s where the dramatic irony creeps in. When the navigator, Monk Hausen, writes “December 6, 1941” in his logbook, we all know what’s ahead, but the characters don’t. The second radioman, Chester, is excited about being aboard the Mary-Ann and has his sights set on a commission. Robby, the crew chief, looks forward to his son having a long and distinguished career in the Air Corps. Bill, the co-pilot, dreams of meeting up with the bombardier, Tom’s sister, Susan, in Hawaii. Weinberg, the assistant crew chief, is content to do his job and groove to Duke Ellington on the radio. Everyone except Joe is starry-eyed about the future.
That’s why when the characters get their first inkling of the attack on Pearl Harbor, it seems like a hoax. Joe even kids the chief radioman, Petersen, about having picked up Orson Welles. Stuff gets real very quickly, however, and one by one, their plans either change or are put on hold. The crew of the Mary-Ann have no choice but to plunge right into the confusing craziness and horror that made up December 7th and the days immediately following.
Pearl Harbor was one in a series of attacks by the Japanese on American military and civilians of various nationalities across the Pacific. In a nutshell, Air Force consists of the Mary-Ann and her crew island-hopping many of these locations, heading for Australia. Their first stop is an emergency landing strip on the island of Maui, but it turns out to be full of snipers, so they head to Hickam Field on Oahu. Here they visit Susan, who is critically wounded and in the hospital. They also take on a passenger, a pursuit pilot by the nickname of Raider, who is critical of bombers and likes his planes small.
From Oahu they go on the Wake Island, which is up in flames. The Marines there are tough and resolute, but clearly outgunned and they know it. Several of them even persuade Weinberg to take a cute little terrier named Tripoli, who barks or bites legs at the word, “Moto”. Weinberg reluctantly agrees, even though it’s against regulations. He almost gets in trouble when Robby discovers Tripoli too, except that Joe covers for him.
As they get farther and farther across the Pacific, the crew gets more and more frustrated as they see the destruction wrought by the Japanese attacks, but there’s nothing they can do officially until war is declared. Even cynical Joe rethinks getting out of the Army. Fortunately for the crew’s catharsis (and that of 1943 audiences) they get to hit back more than once, and do some damage to boot.
The Mary-Ann’s first chance comes at Clark Field in Manila, Philippines, where the American forces are in desperate need of large-scale weapons. Deaths of certain characters fuels their ire further, and they shoot down Japanese fighters with gusto. They even modify the Mary-Ann‘s tail and add a gun, which is a great ace in the hole (no pun intended). It comes in handy at the Battle of the Coral Sea, where the Mary-Ann also plays a very important role.
The fact that the Mary-Ann‘s crew relishes killing Japanese combatants may be a tricky thing for today’s audiences. The temptation with a movie like Air Force is to look at it through a presentist lens, but that’s a disservice, as it’s meant to reflect what many Americans thought and felt during the war. Sure, today it seems like propaganda, but back then there was a lot of animosity towards the Japanese (To be clear, I’m referring to the Japanese who were fighting against the Allies, not Nisei and Issei Japanese, which are completely different). Audiences who watched the film in 1943 would have been aware of Wake Island, Corregidor and Bataan, of the Battle of Guadalcanal, and other happenings in the Pacific theater. Not to mention, Pearl Harbor was a recent memory. In a way, it’s like what people felt right after 9-11. Plenty wanted to storm Afghanistan and take out Osama bin Laden as soon as they found out he was behind the attack. People were angry in 2001 just as they were in 1941, except that political correctness didn’t exist in the nineteen-forties. In my humble opinion, the best thing to do is to look at Air Force as a product of its time.
Other than that, certain historical details aren’t so spot-on. That may have been due to some information being classified, or it may have been plain old human error. For instance, one of the officers at Hickam Field mentions “A lot of fifth-column work, too,” when recounting the attack to Captain Quincannon. In reality, there were no recorded instances of fifth-column work before, during, or after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s also the second movie I’ve seen that supports the myth of the Marines on Wake Island having a dog, so methinks in both cases the dog was there for comic relief. Plus, in the film the crew departs from Hamilton Field, while the radio version of the film has the Mary-Ann taking off from Maither Field. This was probably changed because Maither is (or was) a real Air Force base–it’s a head-scratcher that an actual base is mentioned.
Beyond its dated elements and small flubs, there are so many good points to the film. Every member of the cast is superb. Air Force is meticulously accurate as to the workings of a bomber crew, and viewers get an excellent idea of what it was like to be aboard one of these ships. As for John Garfield, he’s pugnacious in his role of Joe Winocki, and it’s great watching his character learn to pick his battles. There is clear satisfaction on his face throughout Air Force. Garfield was never able to serve in the armed forces himself, due to a heart condition he acquired from scarlet fever. No doubt he felt movies like this were a way of contributing to the war effort, and they were–they helped keep audiences fired up and reminded them of why America was fighting the war in the first place.
Thus concludes my part in Day One of the John Garfield: The Original Rebel Blogathon. More contributions are waiting at Phyllis Loves Classic Movies if anyone is so inclined. Hope you enjoyed, and see you tomorrow for Day Two…
Ah, the Oscars are upon us yet again. It’s hard to believe, but this year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hits the big nine-oh, which is a pretty impressive milestone. Speaking of milestones, I think it would be great if the Academy added the “First” category, a special award given to films that dare to be new or unique. There have been quite a few motion pictures throughout cinema history that have taken movie-making to the next level. Some of them, like Snow White, are recognized by the Academy, but a lot of times they aren’t for various reasons, such as a heavyweight blockbuster sweeping the big awards. Or they may just fly under the radar. To be fair, some of them came out before there was an Academy Awards ceremony, but that doesn’t diminish their significance. Anyway, without further ado, here are a few films worthy of a “First”…
First Movie With Multiple Shots: Come Along, Do! (1898)
Well, two shots to be precise. Directed by British filmmaker, R.W. Paul, Come Along, Do! is nothing more than an elderly couple having lunch and visiting a museum, but it marked one of the first times that a film had more than one scene in the same reel. Before that, each scene was sold or rented separately to theater owners. According to the British Film Institute, only one of the two scenes in this film survive, the second represented by stills. Come Along, Do! is easily accessible on YouTube and is definitely worth a view.
First Science Fiction Movie:A Trip To the Moon (1902)
Anyone who’s ever seen the movie, Hugo, is no doubt familiar with Georges Melies’s (very) early twentieth-century tour-de-force, and anyone who hasn’t is in for a treat. Moon has everything we expect from a sci-fi flick: explosions, space travel, aliens, and most importantly, suspension of disbelief. Speaking of the latter, the space travelers in this film are able to go to the moon and back without rocket propulsion. They can get around the moon just fine sans space suits. And their fancy Edwardian frock coats never get mussed, no matter how many scuffles they have with moon-people. It never gets old.
First Action Movie: The Great Train Robbery (1903)
The Great Train Robbery is an Edwin Porter film produced by the Edison company, and its title says it all: Some guys get together, pull their kerchiefs over their faces, and rob a train. It was one of the first American movies to follow a narrative arc, and the first action movie as we know them. Robbery covers all the bases. Kinda. Hostages, heists, hijinks, not to mention throwing Momma from the train. Except it isn’t Momma, but a dummy. It even breaks the fourth wall. And it crams it all into twelve memorable minutes. I can only imagine what it was like for audiences to see this film in 1903, considering they weren’t nearly as jaded as we are over a century later.
First Epic: Birth of A Nation (1915)
Ugh. I wish any movie but The Birth of A Nation could have been the first epic. Any movie at all. Orphans of the Storm. He Who Gets Slapped. Foolish Wives. Not The Birth of A Nation. I tried watching this thing in college and barely made it halfway through. It is brazenly revisionist, racist, and repulsive (Heh. More alliteration.), with a glowing portrayal of the KKK. Still, it makes the cut because D.W. Griffith pioneered modern transitioning, close-ups, inserts, and how to make a crowd of hundreds look like a cast of thousands–basically everything that’s still done in film-making. Too bad there are all those bright, shiny Klansmen running around.
UPDATE (March 3): Mmmkay, 2017 must be the year for award flubs. I was reading Fritzi Kramer’s blog today and she happened to mention that The Birth Of A Nation was not the first epic. This is correct–the first one was Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria, an Italian film released in 1914. The film paved the way for what Griffith would later do, and was a major influence on his film, Intolerance. So…oops. My bad. Sorry, Mr. Griffith.
First Full-length Talkie:Lights of New York (1928)
While The Jazz Singer is rightly touted as the first talking picture, in reality it was only a few musical numbers and a little bit of dialogue inserted into a silent movie. Studios weren’t sure if talking pictures were merely a fad or not, and New York was originally intended to be a two-reeler. However, the cast and crew quietly expanded the movie until it was just under an hour long, and the public ate it up, even if the critics didn’t. The film seems crude and awkward by today’s standards, as most of the scenes confine the actors around (presumably) hidden microphones, but the novelty factor is off the charts.
First Musical:Broadway Melody (1929)
M-G-M further upped the talkie ante with their all talking, all singing, all dancing extravaganza about two sisters who try to make it on Broadway. Even though the acting is not so good and there are some silent-era holdovers like intertitles, this film marked both talkies and musicals coming into their own. Unlike Lights of New York, however, Broadway Melody really was a feature-length film, and scenes suddenly had much more vista instead of actors just huddling around a microphone. Also unlike New York, critics and public alike loved Broadway. The film garnered a Best Picture Oscar.
First Integrated Musical Film:The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The Wizard of Oz is a “First”no-brainer. It broke a lot of untrodden ground in terms of special effects and makeup, among other factors, but its format may have been the most major move. Prior to The Wizard of Oz, musical films were primarily revues or backstage stories with a selection of random numbers. Wizard moves between music and dialogue seamlessly, due to the efforts of its lyricist E.Y. Harburg, who had initially used rhyming dialogue to set up his songs on Broadway. It’s tough to imagine this movie being done any other way and coming off as well. Wizard won Best Song and Best Score Oscars, and Judy got her Juvenile Oscar, but some think it would have won more if Gone With the Wind hadn’t dominated the proceedings.
First Feature-length Cartoon:Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
In 1937, film industry insiders thought no one would pay movie ticket prices to see a cartoon. Well, Snow White proved that idea wrong, to the tune of $3.5 million gross in its original release, or $58.6 million in today’s money. Not only did Snow White go off-road in terms of length, but it featured realistic movement and graceful, lilting songs throughout instead of flip-floppy strutting and little jingles. It was warmly received by everyone and Disney won an honorary full-sized Oscar for it, along with seven tiny ones. It also, of course, inspired M-G-M to produce The Wizard of Oz. Eighty years later, Snow White is as beloved and charming as ever.
First Movie To Revive Symphonic Scores:Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
The first-ever Star Wars movie has so many firsts to its credit. It jolted the film industry and the movie-going public out of what had been a long lethargy, and it single-handedly made symphonic scores cool again. The majority of movies released in the early to mid-seventies used rock music or pretty much phoned it in when it came to scoring, and John Williams’s iconic theme and variations made everyone sit up and take notice. In addition to punctuating the action, it aided in character development. Try listening to the “Imperial March” and not thinking of Darth Vader. I dare ya. 😉 Star Wars took home seven Oscars, including Best Music, Original Score.
First Widescreen Movie to Use Close-ups:Ben-Hur (1959)
This, in my humble opinion, is the best version of Ben-Hur. Every element came together fabulously. The music and the action soar, the acting is fantastic, and the chariot race is quite a spectacle. However, the other big way Ben-Hur is a game-changer is that, according to film historian Bruce Crawford, it is the first widescreen movie to use close-ups. A lot of Golden Era directors hated widescreen–George Cukor said it was like filming through a coffin–and the prevailing sentiment was that close-ups would be oppressive in that format. William Wyler’s cinematographer, Robert Surteez, decided to show ’em how, and was awarded an Oscar for his work–one of eleven won by the film.
First Movie To Be Shot Digitally:Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002)
Yes, another Star Wars entry. People can say they will about the prequels, but Clones has the distinction of being fully in the Digital Age. Mr. Lucas does have the knack of being a trendsetter…
First Movie to Show Ceilings…And Use Deep Focus…And Extreme Close-ups…And…:Citizen Kane (1941)
Okay, be honest–this pick is a total shock, right? Right? Nah. Seriously though, Citizen Kane is the movie that every film studies student watches in at least one class, and for one excellent reason: It. Kicks. Tail. This movie changed everything about American cinema by combining German expressionism with Orson Welles’s unique vision, and the studios were scared spitless. After all, Welles was the guy who fooled almost the entire nation with a little radio play called War of the Worlds. Plus, the executives didn’t want to incur the wrath of one William Randolph Hearst, who didn’t like that the film seemed to be based on him. That the movie was ever released to the public is amazing, and the fact that it won Best Screenplay is nothing short of a miracle. History has vindicated Welles, though, whose Kane will forever be the compass of American filmmaking.
Which movie would you give a “First” award to? If you could add a category to the Academy Awards, what would it be?
Here’s a sneak peek of what’s coming up in March, and it’s gonna be biz-ee.