Archive for The Road Back

As Promised

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 6, 2017 by dcairns

I’ve started writing up some of my Bolognese viewings — first up, for The Forgotten, two key films by James Whale, hitherto unseeable.

Here you go.

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Big Day

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2017 by dcairns

Yesterday —

9am THE ROAD BACK — major James Whale, a rediscovered director’s cut. Huge production values and a brilliant script by R.C. Sherrif which mingles humour with the tragedy. “It was nice to see Andy Devine being given big things to do.” If it has a flaw, it’s an over-literal approach to emotion, an on-the-nose quality, so that if a character is written as wistful, Whale casts the most wistful guy he can get and has him play it wistful. This cuts down on the humanity you get in something like THE MORTAL STORM or (showing here later) LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW?

10.45am SHERLOCK HOLMES. Kept my seat and let them project another movie at me. This was William K. Howard’s 1931 tongue-in-cheek travesty, with Clive Brook dragging up and Ernest Torrence hamming it up. I’d seen a very fuzzy copy in which it was clear Howard was trying interesting things, mainly montages in between the scripted pages — on the big screen, in splendid quality, his direction seemed even more dazzling. Second John George sighting this fest.

12 DESTINATION UNKNOWN. Early thirties Tay Garnett is a mixed bag, but after HER MAN wowed everyone last year, we had high hopes for this. Visually, it doesn’t deliver anything like the same panache, but it fascinates by its oddness. A semi-wrecked rum-runner drifts aimlessly, becalmed. The gangsters, led by Pat O’Brien’s mild wheedle, have control of the water supply. The sailors, led by Alan Hale’s ridiculous Swedish accent, want to get it. Nobody is sympathetic. Then Ralph Bellamy turns up, effulgent. Everyone seems to think they recognise him — from long ago when they were innocent. A religious parable is clearly being palmed off on us, but we’re also tempted to anticipate the line, “He looks like that guy in the movies, what’s his name, Ralph Bellamy.”

The creepy Jesus pulls off one startling miracle, changing wine into water.

Very spirited work from Chas. Middleton (Ming the Merciless), who actually throws in a dog bark at the end of a line, out of sheer joie de vivre.

Fish and chips for lunch, with Charlie Cockey.

14.15 KINEMACOLOR — running late I missed the explanation of how this miracle process worked, but the results are striking, and became even more so when I remembered to take off my sunglasses.

16.00 I remained in my seat to see MILDRED PIERCE, stunningly restored — better than new? “I’m so smart it’s a disease.”

18.15 THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. In a way, I was remaining in my seat to see the thing that terrified me on a small black and white screen as a kid. Here it was on a huge colour screen and I was front row centre, looking right up that cyclops’ nose. I guess they’ll never be able to get the grain remotely consistent — that would be remaking, not restoration — the cave entrance, which I assumed was a matte painting, looks very granular indeed, as do the titles. During monster bits, the monsters are much finer-grained than their backgrounds, but oddly the matte shots with tiny Kathryn Grant seem very sharp. All this will be less problematic on a smaller screen and if you’re not front row centre, of course. The efforts to get the film looking as good as it can (faded Eastmancolor negative — the image is now vibrant again) are appreciated.

Dinner with friends Nicky, Sheldon, et al.

22.15 CARBON ARC PROJECTION. More early colour processes, two vintage projectors. Beautiful. I was very tired and snuck away before the end.

It Happened Here

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2008 by dcairns

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Robert Young is a Nazi!

Robert Stack is a Nazi!

Dan Dailey (Jr.) is a Nazi!

What the hell is going on?

If the casting seems incongruous, there’s a higher wisdom at work. Frank Borzage is one source of that wisdom, with his restrained direction which manages to be ruthlessly emotive without ever seeming to strain for tears. “He always seemed to back away from the emotion,” said Fiona, wonderingly.

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Our tale takes place in a little German town near the Austrian border (important later). The town is in fact a painting, the church is a miniature, and people go skiing in front of a convenient rear-projection screen, like Roger Moore. This artificial world has the cosiness of the movie of OUR TOWN, or an ANDY HARDY feature (it’s an M.G.M. production). And the town is populated by a disparate group of movie actors — very disparate: the little hamlet contains both the Slavic vocalisations of Maria Ouspenskaya and the mid-western drawl of Jimmy Stewart, who plays her son. None of this is particularly naturalistic, but it’s very familiar and reassuring to a viewer of Hollywood movies from this era. It’s 1940, you see.

We meet Frank Morgan, the Wizard of Oz, here playing loveable absent-minded Professor Roth, and his lovely family including daughter Freya, played by Margaret Sullavan. Now, at this point (fifteen minutes in) I’m already close to tears, because I know what’s coming, sort of. The maid interrupts Prof Roth’s 60th birthday celebration with “Wonderful news!” Hitler has been made chancellor.

Now we know that this folksy edifice of back-lot sets and matte shots and comfortable actors is going to be destroyed. Things are going to get worse, and worse. It’s not going to be OK.

This is such powerful stuff. The Hollywood studios are often accused of having had nothing to say before the U.S.A. entered the war, but this is a courageous film. It takes a massive commercial risk by tackling a bleak story — Borzage provides uplift, but it’s a poetic, fragile thing compared to the emotional and physical devastation wrought by the story’s (and history’s) antagonists. For a film to go on the offensive about a regime the country wasn’t yet at war with, when the studios were to some extent hoping to keep their films screening in Europe, that takes a certain amount of guts. I’d like to shake the hand of the executive responsible. Although if that proves to be Louis B. Mayer, I reserve the right to wipe it on my trousers afterwards. 

(David Wingrove points out that by 1940 the European market would have been basically gone anyway, so MGM’s stand isn’t quite so bold.)

It’s worth remembering that while MRS. MINIVER, a fine film, extended the hand of friendship — symbolically — to beleagured Britain, director William Wyler had to struggle with his paymasters to present a nasty Nazi on the screen. A few years before at Universal, James Whale’s THE ROAD BACK was gutted of political content for fear of offending the German leader. But Borzage goes on the offensive, attacking the Hitler regime in all its anti-semitism, brutality and idiocy (it’s particularly strong on the idiocy, like the defiance of medical science, which sees no difference between Aryan and Jewish blood).

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“People are always making little choked sobs,” remarks Fiona, pointing out how much more effective this is than hysterical histrionics. She particularly admires Mrs. Roth’s reaction to the news of the tragic fate that befalls the Professor. “It’s like a sound of disgust.” As well it might be.

While THE MORTAL STORM, like other films of the era like THE GREAT DICTATOR, can’t really show anything like the full horror of fascism, it’s tremendously effective because it goes in the other direction. Evoking the goodness and innocence of the victims of fascism, it produces a strong revulsion at anything which might threaten these people. That the threat’s true awfulness is concealed doesn’t matter, and in fact this avoidance of depravity is a strength: if the film isn’t subtle when it layers on the sweetness and light, it’s very restrained in its portrayal of violence.

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Will James Stewart escape to Austria? Will Bonita Granville betray him, when tortured by Ward Bond? Will Robert Taylor refuse an order? Will Margaret Sullavan make it to the end of a Borzage film without dying of consumption? The question marks pile up in a tangle of hooks — once enmeshed, the only way to freedom is across the border into reality, past the end credits. It’s an often agonizing journey.

Certain aspects of the story may be designed to appeal to German-Americans and to those who are uncertain how they feel about Germany in 1940. James Stewart is firmly established as being from an old German family, with at least as much reason to love his country as his fascistic opponents. Frank Morgan is described as being “above politics”, so that we can see that neutrality is not an option. These elements are deployed with tact, but they are central to the film’s argument. What lifts the movie above propaganda is the poetic hand of its maker, seen most brilliantly in Robert Stack’s epiphany at the end.

Robert Stack is not an actor I associate with epiphanies. He hasn’t got the face for it somehow. Although I’ve always admired him (the only funny man in Spielberg’s 1941, he had obviously sized up the chaos around him and decided to play it quiet and measured). But Borzage hands him the ending, then takes it away from him and does it all with camera work: we drift through the now-empty Roth household, looking at an empty chair, and then the shadow of that chair… Frank Morgan’s lines from earlier in the film come back to haunt the soundtrack. We see an open gate, and footsteps in the snow, and more snow erasing those footsteps.

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The script adapts Phyllis Bottome’s novel, and is the work of Englishwoman Claudine West, who also worked on MRS MINIVER, with German Hans Rameau & Austrian George Froeschel. But the final words are a quotation from Minnie Louise Haskins’ poem The Gate of the Year, famously quoted by Britain’s King George VI in a radio address to the nation at the outbreak of WWII:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand
Of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.

The end credits appear… in silence.