It Happened One Night

July 13, 2011 at 8:26 pm (Capra, Classics) (, , , , , )

Clark Gable & Claudette Colbert, directed by Frank Capra

What a movie.  It’s one of the beautiful classics I saw eons ago and not since.  Claudette Colbert is Ellie Andrews, who has run off and married King Westley, a world-famous pilot – and her father doesn’t like it.  He has grabbed her up and stuck her on a yacht and is taking her home.

This ties in to “The Popcorn Dialogues”, a podcast which I’ve just discovered, which is two writers looking at romantic comedies and how they convey the story, whether it’s done well, and how, and why.  This was, coincidentally, the first movie they tackled.  At the beginning of the podcast they talk about how someone tweeting during the film said they didn’t like Ellie – but as the ladies and Ellie herself point out, she’s not a spoiled brat.  She’s bursting out because she’s never had her own way, and she has decided that she is going to do this dammit, because after all she loves her pilot – doesn’t she?  I thought the beginning was wonderful: she is refusing to eat, and so the father orders food brought to her cabin and goes to see her.  When the stewards bring the food in Ellie yells at them – she told them not to bring any more food! – and they cower before her.  The father makes them put it down, and as soon as it’s down they scamper.  She’s a terror, she is.

He provokes her, so she jumps off the boat and swims for it – and manages to evade the men Dad sends after her.  A telling detail: right then he’s angry, and frustrated, and kinda proud of her: “She’s too smart for you!”  Nice character development.  Next time we see Ellie, right after a moment with either detectives or reporters (sorry – can’t remember) talking about how she would never travel by bus, she is paying off a little old lady who went to the ticket counter for her for a ticket to New York.  Ellie very sweetly thanks her and tips her.

We are introduced to Peter Warne in that station, on the phone with his editor being thoroughly fired.  Again, nice character development – he is hung up on, and, since he has an audience, creates a new ending to the story.  On the bus – to New York, of course – he can’t resist getting into a battle of wits with an unarmed man – the conductor.  “Oh yeah?” It could be a revelation of an ugliness in him, baiting a poor stupid Neanderthal in front of an audience, but the Neanderthal is so very stupid he hasn’t the least idea that he is being baited.  He is probably certain that “Oh yeah?” is all the witty riposte that is needed.  And Peter isn’t cruel about it – he surrenders, and the conductor never sees the mockery.

He turns to his seat, and finds it has become occupied while he fenced: Ellie.  And she’s tired, and not in any mood to yield.  And so it begins – – and as it begins so it continues, bristly and funny and growing quickly warmer.  Their relationship was genuine – they’re on the same level, intellectually and in terms of understanding, and it looks like a keeper.  They’ll wear well.

Cropped screenshot of Clark Gable and Claudett...

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One apparent bone of contention is that people think she’s extremely bratty because she expects the bus to wait for her – but she simply doesn’t know any better.  It isn’t as if she’s ever been on a bus before; she asked nicely – it wasn’t as though she came back late and expected them to have waited.  She let the driver know she needed to go somewhere (they never did explain why she needed to go to that hotel), let him know about how late she would be, and had no frame of reference to know that that wasn’t the way things work.

Cropped screenshot of Claudette Colbert and Cl...

Image via Wikipedia

I love the tidbits some of the hosts – on Reel 13, and on TCM (On Demand in this case) (I swear, I want a quarter every time I mention On Demand or Reel 13).  This time I learned: Claudette Colbert didn’t want to hoist her skirt and “hitch-hike”; she didn’t think it was funny.  He said that was fine; they would bring in a leg double.  Claudette changed her mind.  And, to her surprise, from that moment on she was mentioned any time gorgeous gams were listed: Betty Grable, Marlene Dietrich, and Claudette Colbert.  Hee.

I’ve said it before about other movies – it won’t be nearly as long till I see this again.


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March 23, 2011 at 7:19 pm (Classics, Movies)

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Leave Her to Heaven (X2)

May 23, 2010 at 11:41 pm (Classics, Geekery, Movies, PBS, TV) (, , , , , , , )

Yep, it was just Reel 13 time again … Because I didn’t watch all of Gigi last week, and didn’t get around to looking it up, I didn’t know what they would be showing last night.  It was Leave Her to Heaven, starring Gene Tierney and Cornel Wilde – and Jeanne Crain and Vincent Price.  I admit it, without thinking about it I was expecting the later Vincent Price; instead there was a young and leading-man-quality Vincent Price. 

The facts are these: Cornel Wilde plays a writer, Richard Harland, who runs into the stunning Gene Tierney, playing Ellen Berent.  Turns out they’re both headed for the same ranch, where she and her family (including Jeanne Crain as Ruth, her cousin/adopted sister) are joining other kin to scatter her father’s ashes, and he is taking a break from writing at the invitation of a friend.  Naturally, they fall in love – although he is quite shocked when her fiancé shows up (Vincent Price, playing Russell Quinton).  Ex-fiancé, that is; he took off to meet her as soon as he received the wire she sent him breaking it off.  Richard is even more shocked when she tells Quinton that she had to break off the engagement, because she and Richard are getting married.  It was kind of nice that we the viewers weren’t the only ones who were flabbergasted – did we miss something??  Nope – she’s a bit impulsive, it seems. 

So married, very shortly, they are – although I would think that when one of the first things a woman says to a man is how very strongly he reminds her of her recently deceased father with whom she had an intense bond, this would not bode well for a healthy romance.  Although she was a bit intense about the memorial service (dumping the ashes on a ridge they both loved – and all over the horse she was riding, but I wasn’t supposed to notice that), with the sudden wedding and a few comments made by the family (“she always wins”) she seems just very determined.  Instead of a proper honeymoon they head off to Warm Springs where his brother is trying to recover from an unnamed ailment I’m assuming was polio.  At first all is lovely; Danny, the little brother, loves her and she appears to get along very well with him.  However, my first reaction on seeing him for the first time, lying young and vulnerable in his wheelchair, was “He’ll be dead in 20 minutes”.  However, I didn’t keep track of the time.  As he is doing better, Richard plans on taking wife and brother off to the secluded cabin he owns called “Back of the Moon” … but secluded as it is, Ellen feels that as long as anyone is there besides herself and Richard it’s not isolated enough.  Trying to convince the boy’s doctor that it wouldn’t be safe for Danny, she lets slip with, “But after all, he’s a cripple!”  Oops. 
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Reel 13: Gi

May 17, 2010 at 10:58 am (Classics, Movies, PBS) (, , )

(Or, in other words, half of Gigi.)

After a month of movies I adore, Reel 13 failed me on Saturday night by airing Gigi as the “classic” third of the evening.  I love Lerner & Loewe; I enjoy Leslie Caron; Paris is lovely in the springtime. But I only made it halfway through this movie before modern sensibilities made it nauseating and I turned the channel.  There was a Castle rerun on, and I hadn’t seen the episode.  (Nathan Fillion is marvelous.)

I’m not much of a feminist – only when some complete stranger calls me “honey”, or looks astonished or tries to protest when I hold the door for *him* – hey, if I get there first, I’m holding the door.  It’s called courtesy. I’ve had men take the door away from me and make me go first. Please. That’s called stupidity. The other thing that brings out the latent Gloria Steinem in me is a movie like this one … Although that button was only one of several that got pushed.

I’ve been reading criticism lately of reviews done without finishing a book or movie; I do understand the point that without seeing it through it may not be entirely fair to express a negative opinion of something … which made me a little uneasy about a few reviews on the book-focused side of this blog.  But then again, why is a review of why I couldn’t finish a book or movie not as valid as one about why I loved a book or movie?  Perhaps I’ll try not to be quite so scathing in my opinions – that would be nicer.  But perhaps I’m just not that nice a person. (*insert smiley face here*)  Regardless, I didn’t watch this movie through – this time; I know I saw it many years ago – and I’m talking about it anyway.

The film begins with Maurice Chevalier as Honoré Lachaille talking in Hays-Code-acceptable terms about sexual mores in 1900 Paris, basically – some women marry, and some Do Not (and we see an old goat in a carriage with, presumably, his wife (she’s stout and gray-haired, so she must be), having a wordless gesticulated conversation with a gorgeous creature in another carriage as they pass – she suggesting a tryst, he refusing and pointing out the rather obvious fact of his wife’s presence).  And here was where I began to wax not only feminist but puritanical – or prudish, if you like; it wasn’t what I expected from a film from the so-prudish American fifties (1958).  And it was nominated for – and won – nine Oscars.  Quelle surprise.

Back to Chevalier – charming and suave, of course, he moves on from talking about general loose morals to singing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” – and while he is utterly, well, charming (it’s the ultimate word for him), still in this 21st century the song is undeniably creepy.  The motivation is not one of pedophilia – “little girls get bigger every day” makes the intent clear, and “without them what would little boys do” should be cute – but the fact remains that he was inspired to sing it by a six-year-old, and it’s just creepy.  It’s like a pedo theme song.  From there we pick up the story of Leslie Caron’s Gigi, who is a schoolgirl, playing with other girls nearby. I’ll say it again: schoolgirl, playing. I believe she’s supposed to be sixteen (a.k.a. jailbait).  She hurries home, where her grandmother reminds her she’s supposed to be at her “lessons” with her Aunt Alicia, and so hurries off again, reluctantly. At her so-elegant aunt’s so-elegant home, she learns how to eat various things neatly and without disgracing herself (including ortolans – little songbirds.  *sigh*  “For centuries, a rite of passage for French gourmets has been the eating of the Ortolan.  These tiny birds — captured alive, force-fed, then drowned in Armagnac — were roasted whole and eaten that way, bones and all, while the diner draped his head with a linen napkin to preserve the precious aromas and, some believe, to hide from God.” – The Wine Spectator) (now I’m queasy again), how to serve coffee and choose a cigar, how to tell real gems from fake (“Dipped!”), how, I suppose, to be a sparkling conversationalist … None of which is for her own sake or betterment, of course, but so that at some point soon some rich man (or hopefully a royal) will pay handsomely to take her on as arm-candy and sex toy.  Yup, there’s Gloria raising her activist head.  Sexual indenture … I suppose it has always been and always will be, but … maybe it was Gigi’s lack of interest in the whole thing (and schoolgirl clothing) that made it as nauseous as it was. The elegant aunt considers love (i.e., sex) an art, and feeling has little to do with it (though art without feeling is sterile and unpleasant … wait, “sterile” might not be the best word choice there, since that would be a plus in the situation); it’s an interesting viewpoint.  And very sad.

But okay, it’s Paris, a hundred (and ten) years ago.  Things were basically the same in England in this time frame, only less open – so at least the Parisians were less hypocritical about it.  That’s something.  And apart from her age and the fact that the girl herself would have, as I understood it, very little say in the selection of her first keeper – er, lover – I could get over it.  (Except – – SIXTEEN.)

That put me in the mindset to be irritated, though, and a moment later the irritation mounted as Honoré goes for a carriage ride with his nephew Gaston (the beautiful but supercilious Louis Jourdan).  Honoré’s general enjoyment of life in its every aspect clashes with Jourdan’s ennui, in song of course: oncle exclaims over the trees’ beauty, to which Gaston’s reply is “What color are they?” “Green!” “What color were they last year?”  “Green!”  “What color will they be next year?”  “Green!”  “I’m bored!”  This could have been funny; instead Gaston’s declarations of boredom with life prompted me to the heartfelt reply “So die, then!”  Rich spoiled bastard.  The character never recovered from that initial bad impression.

The dubbing seemed awkward, in this song and throughout, and not just that of some other woman’s voice in Leslie Caron’s lips; I’ll come back to the spoken song thing Lerner & Loewe loved; and the choreography was, I’m afraid, dreadful – “I Don’t Understand the Parisians” almost made me turn it off right then, for all three reasons.

But then came the whole Eva Gabor storyline. Gaston’s latest mistress, Liane, a flamboyant blonde, turns out to be – horreur! – cuckolding him with – horreur!! – a skating instructor (who was quite a hunk, if a crummy actor), and so Gaston publicly humiliates her.  (It wouldn’t have actually been all that much of a public humiliation for her, if she hadn’t drawn attention to the whole thing so spectacularly … Which I suppose is the point?  He was breaking it off with her, so this was her play for the sympathy of the reading public?)  Well, fine, that’s what you’re supposed to do, I take it – although I would think cutting all ties and refusing to recognize her existence would be at least as effective, but I’m not a fin de siècle rich bastard … But the next morning all of Paris is gleefully agog over the news of Liane’s suicide. Queasiness stirred, easing slightly with the lines “How did she do it this time?”  “Insufficient poison!”  (So much for sympathy – if this is her usual M.O. it’ll only bring scorn (not that they’re a real sympathetic crowd anyway).  And someday if she really is in despair no one will notice.)  But then there’s Gaston arriving at his Uncle Honoré’s place, where Honoré congratulates him heartily on his “first suicide – and at your age!”  It was a little too early for the Castle episode, but I turned the channel anyway.

I was pretty sure Gaston would wind up marrying Gigi in the end, and according to plot summaries I pulled up he does after a few bumps in the road – but he thoroughly wasn’t supposed to.  I can just picture Aunt Alicia’s reaction (HORREUR!) – and it should, unless Parisian society was completely and utterly different in all ways from English, at least come near to wrecking him socially: proper matrons would decline to receive someone like Gigi, wife or not.  It’s an indication of Gaston’s inner nobility that he asks her to marry him – but can anyone say with a straight face that ten years down the line he won’t have picked up a new mistress or twelve? Really?

The movie came hard on the heels of My Fair Lady, and struck similar notes all over the place – literally, as in Louis Jourdan’s soliloquy, of which I only saw a little when I flashed back to 13 on a commercial: I couldn’t watch it.  Jourdan may have been much prettier than Rex Harrison, but only Rex Harrison should ever have been allowed to do a half-spoken half-sung piece like that.  Also, of course, were the many plot similarities – although Eliza Doolittle would have been appalled and outraged had she ever been made aware of such a comparison.  She’s a good girl, she is – which protest would meet with blank, uncomprehending stares in 1900 Paris.  It was supposed to be a frothy, light-hearted “romantic victory of love over cynicism” – the quote’s from an online review.  I found it an obnoxious, callous, and mildly unpleasant depiction of a seamy and sordid practice of male superiority decorated with pretty costumes and sets and not-great songs: a far inferior and slightly depraved My Fair Lady.

Better luck next week.

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May 10, 2010 at 9:42 pm (Classics, Movies, PBS) (, , , , , )

Wow.  I said a while back that I wanted to see this, and promptly forgot about it – until Channel 13 aired it Saturday night.  I know, I know, I sound like a commercial for 13 – don’t care.  Love Reel 13.  Well, the “classic” third of it, anyway.

Some spoilers follow, though I don’t think the answer to “is she mad – or is he driving her mad?” is much of a spoiler …

So: Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, 1944.  Bergman is Paula, who begins the movie being swept away from her home in London following, we learn later, the murder of her aunt, her sole caretaker since she was very small.  Paula discovered the body; the murder was never solved, and now Paula, apparently in her late teens or early 20’s, is being packed off to study voice with (I believe) the same maestro who worked with the aunt, a famous singer.  Very soon her teacher finds that her heart is not in her lessons, though, because she quickly falls in love with her accompanist, Gregory (Charles Boyer): giddy joy isn’t conducive to singing tragic opera.   She tries to take some time on her own to think things through – but he doesn’t give her that space… although she probably wouldn’t have made any other decision if she had been left alone, infatuated as she was. In very short order they are married, and she shows great courage by deciding to ignore the horror that home in London holds for her, because, coincidentally, it’s just what Gregory always wanted.  To London they go, where she does overcome the fear, and even begins to think about taking up her study of music again as she leafs through her aunt’s scores. Among which she finds a letter …

It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen Boyer in anything – did he always look so sinister?  Bergman looked radiant – in the beginning, at least, when her character Paula was young and in love; she glowed.  Hedy Lamarr, Neal Gabler tells us in the intro, was originally intended for the role; she’s Mom’s exemplar of beauty, and a rightly so … But I’m delighted that the part went to Ingrid Bergman.  Gabler spoke about the research she is said to have done for the role, reading on mental illness and visiting hospitals, particularly spending time with one delusional woman who alternated between spells of lucidity and … not.  It showed.  It was believable, and wrenching, and enhanced by makeup – what a performance.  (And she looked stunning in the gowns.)  Boyer … he didn’t just look sinister, he hit all the necessary notes for a truly creepy performance, going in seconds from tender lover to note-perfect pretended nonchalance (“It doesn’t mean anything.  I’m sure it doesn’t mean anything”:  without the repetition it might have been comforting.  The slight added tone of uncertainty with “I’m sure” thoroughly contradicted the words – perfect) to barking commands in a tone that should never be used with human or canine.  And then back again.   It was almost a textbook diagram of how to drive someone mad: subtleties and constant undermining, along with ensuring the absence of a support system.

Instrumental in that last was the impertinent, insubordinate, man-hunting maid gleefully played by a 17-year-old Angela Lansbury in her first role. She was manipulated as much as Paula was; Gregory pulled every string and had them all dancing under his hands like puppets. Even after he accomplished his goal, my guess would be that he would have either continued his manipulations there, or had Paula packed off to an asylum as originally planned so that he could start over with someone new (Nancy?  Or would she be too tough-minded?).  It must be a huge rush to wield that kind of power – not something to be easily given up.

The film was beautiful.  My guess is it was shot in Hollywood, and probably on a soundstage – the only visual flaw I could see was the somewhat cheesy greenscreen-ish effect of Boyer and Bergman walking the grounds of the Tower of London – they were very obviously nowhere near London for that.  (Did they use something like greenscreen then?   Or simply shoot in front of a running film of the background?) Otherwise, it was all gorgeous “Italy” (closely constricted sets, but still lovely – the one glimpse we had of the honeymoon terrace/dock was fairytale) and London fog.  The use of shadow, and of action offscreen, was very good.

One tiny quibble was that the servants knocked on the drawing room door.  In my limited experience with novels and film set in the late-ish 1800’s (this was 1870-something), servants never knock.  Silly Americans.

Memorable quote: “It hurts me when you’re ill and fanciful” – so wrong in so many ways:  she’s causing him pain, she’s ill based on his insistence she is, and fanciful ditto.  False sympathy, carefully phrased to push her a little further along a downward spiral.

The scene at the recital was brilliant.  They were invited to a musical evening, and accepted – and then at the last minute himself decided to cancel.  Regardless, down the stairs in full stunning rig comes Paula, bravely trying to stand up to not only Gregory but Nancy (Lansbury).  And it seems to work – once she makes it clear to him that she feels fine and that this evening means a great deal to her (the hostess was kind to her when she was a child) and that she will go alone if that’s the only way she can go, he changes tacks and reverts to the lover persona – of course he didn’t mean it, he’ll go get dressed.  And his fury is obvious – as is the birth of a new plot while he prepares.   The line “Paula – my watch is gone” was perfect, and for just that to cause poor Paula’s hysteria as it did – well, obviously the woman’s mad, now everyone sees it.  A truly remarkable sequence.

Joseph Cotten played Brian Cameron, an American who met Paula’s aunt once when he was a boy, and now runs into Paula (on that trip to the Tower of London).  He is struck by the strong family resemblance and is prompted to take advantage of a position assisting at Scotland Yard to do some research into the aunt’s murder – and begins to scent something rotten in the present menage.  I think my favorite aspect of this movie was that he doesn’t fall overtly head over heels in love with Paula, and save her for that reason – he worshiped her aunt when he was very young, and goes to work on the cold case on instinct.  The film, happily, does not end with the two about to embark on a happily-ever-after.

In a way, I could have done without the odd little comic relief character of Mrs. Thwaites, played by Dame May Whitty, or I would have liked to have seen her accidentally contribute something more significant, without ever knowing.   Or perhaps rubbing elbows with the murderer, coming within a hair’s-breadth of being killed herself – again, without ever knowing.

All in all, a wonderful, suspenseful movie, brilliantly written and acted – and directed and photographed.  And, in case I didn’t mention it, cast.

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Rhode Island and Philadelphia Stories

May 2, 2010 at 2:46 am (Classics, Movies, PBS) (, , , , )

A couple of weeks ago, Channel 13 aired High Society, the musical remake of The Philadelphia Story; tonight, funnily enough, they aired The Philadelphia Story.  (Next week: Gaslight, and I’m psyched.)

High Society – 1956 – was the last film made by Grace Kelly before she became Princess Grace.  She starred as Tracy Samantha Lord; Bing Crosby was C.K. Dexter Haven, Frank Sinatra was Macauley “Mike” Connor, and Celeste Holm was Liz Imbrie.  Apparently the studio wanted to combine it with another story, so the location was moved to Rhode Island (hence, in part at least, the name change), and the magnificent Louis Armstrong and his band played themselves as friends of Dext.  The musical numbers added were by Cole Porter, and, woven into the story with the making of CKDH into a musician and songwriter (to accommodate being played by Bing Crosby) and the insertion of a jazz festival – were frothy and fun – which pretty much describes the whole film.  Grace Kelly was stunning to watch, exquisite as always and exquisitely perfect for the role – she even sang quite nicely, and that musical number flashback was a lovely addition to the story.  I had a jaundiced outlook when it started, but I enjoyed it.

Oh, but I missed so many moments from the original.  I missed Mike yelling “C.K. Dexter Haven!  Oh, C.K. Dexter Haaaaven!”  I missed “Lydia the Tattooed Lady”, though Lydia Reed fought against my wish for it and did a wonderful job as Dinah (Caroline in High Society?  Or am I looking at the wrong person?).  Most of all, I missed “hearthfires and holocausts”.

And, overall, where High Society was very good, there’s no doubt but that Philadelphia Story was great.  I’m fond of Bing Crosby – but Cary Grant was peerless.  I never much liked Frank Sinatra, and was pleasantly surprised by how well I liked him in HS – but Jimmy Stewart leaves him in the dust.  I’d give Ruth Hussey and Celeste Holm a photo finish as Liz Imbrie – both were lovely.  And while Grace Kelly couldn’t not be perfect, the part was tailored for Katharine Hepburn.  Grace Kelly was an ice maiden; Katharine Hepburn brought the bronze goddess to life.

I’d forgotten how much more depth PS had than HS – from C.K. Dexter Haven having worked with brother Junius to more background for George Kittredge to the machinations and downfall of the magazine publisher.  (Instead of the blackmail-the-blackmailer sequence, HS had “Well, Did You Evah” – which was very nearly as good.  Not quite, but nearly -)

And there was more between Tracy and Mike, which made it more reasonable for them to fall suddenly, violently, alcoholically in love.

But it was primarily the dialogue that made the difference. The acting, yes, but that may have been partly because the script was watered down somewhat for the musical. One of my favorite pieces of writing in any venue – and not because of my first name:

What do you want?
You’re wonderful. There’s a magnificence in you, Tracy.
Now l’m getting self-conscious.

A magnificence that comes out of your eyes and your voice…in the way you stand there, in the way you walk. You’re lit from within, Tracy. You’ve got fires banked down in you…hearth fires and holocausts!
l don’t seem to you made of bronze?
No. You’re made out of flesh and blood. That’s the blank, unholy surprise of it. You’re the golden girl, Tracy… full of life and warmth and delight.   What goes on? You’ve got tears in your eyes.
Shut up. Shut up. Oh, Mike, keep talking. Keep talking. Talk, will you?
No, no, l’ve– l’ve stopped.

Which is here.

Slightly before this is another gem:

Your intolerance infuriates me!  l should think that, of all people, a writer would need tolerance.  The fact is you’ll never, you can’t be, a first-rate writer or a first-rate human being, until you’ve learned to have some small regard for human fra – – (Tracy stops abruptly as she realized where she’s heard these words recently) Aren’t the geraniums pretty, Professor?

Every character has his or her own private life – Liz Imbrie with Joe Smith that she never told about, and her patient forbearance with Mike; Mike’s ineffectual desire to go off and just write short stories like he thinks he’s supposed to do, and the way his back goes right up when Tracy, delighted at the idea, offers him that house she never uses.  They all have a past, a present deeper than we see, and a future – between the acting and the writing they’re real.  (And yet only Jimmy Stewart won an Oscar; Katharine Hepburn and Ruth Hussey were nominated – what about Cary Grant?  Oh, right – he never won an Oscar.  At all.)

And of course, another of my favorite moments in any movie, from a completely different part of the spectrum:

Lydia, oh, Lydia
Say, have you met Lydia
Oh, Lydia
the TAttooed lady
She has eyes
that folks adore so
And a torso even more so

On her back
is the battle of Waterloo
Beside it the wreck
of the Hesperus too
And proudly above
waves the red, white
And blooooo
You can learn a lot from Lydia!


Here’s to Virginia Weidler.

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“Is my Aunt Minnie in here?”

April 19, 2010 at 7:04 pm (Classics, Movies, PBS) (, )

On Saturday the Channel 13 classic film was the Marx Brothers: A Night at the Opera.  I think I saw it a long time ago, but nothing stuck except the infamous stateroom scene, so I went into this almost unspoiled.  My knowledge of the Marx Brothers was, I have to admit, somewhat vague: Groucho, the smartass with the moustache and eyebrows and walk straight from Monty Python’s ministry; Chico, the Italian-accented straight-man, I thought; and Harpo, my favorite, best known from the I Love Lucy skit –

– the harp virtuoso and silent clown who set the stage for Teller of Penn & Teller (who then spoiled things by talking rather often).  This was a bit like some of the other classic comedies I’ve seen in recent months, Pink Panther and M*A*S*H – it has not benefited by being so great a classic and staple in its genre.  Groucho was so familiar a character, even not having seen much of his actual work, that it almost felt like an impersonation – it was hard to keep in mind that this was the Original, and, at the time, fresh and outrageous.  (I hadn’t really registered how very much Bugs Bunny owes to him.)  Neil Gabler’s intro told of how the Brothers’ contract with Paramount ended, and MGM made a bid for them, promising bigger and better things by, to start with, giving them films with actual storylines rather than just a string of gags.

Not that the storyline of Opera was exactly stellar: boy in opera chorus loves girl starring in opera (Kitty Carlisle, Allan Jones), who is pursued by male lead; boy (of course) has better voice and virtue than lead, so of course she loves him back; girl and lead are recruited to leave Italy and star in NY opera; boy stows away with very weird friends and follows girl. Groucho plays Otis P. Driftwood the “financial manager” of Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) – meaning she inherited millions from her late husband and he would love to help her spend them.  He talks her into donating a couple hundred thousand to the NY opera – which is a lot now; what did that sound like then?? – which leads to the hiring of Bad Guy Tenor, which leads to the hiring of the Girl … Harpo was the dresser for Bad Guy Tenor, who used to beat him, so now Harpo’s up for revenge; Chico is an old friend of Good Guy Tenor, and takes on the role of manager.  I wonder – did the audience of the 30’s really enjoy opera so much more than the general public now?  Were they really so much more familiar with it?  Today there will never be a comedy in the slapstick lane (EVER) that allows so much screen time to seriously portrayed opera.  Ever.  I can see a comedy set around an opera production, but any attempts at performance would be constantly interrupted and sabotaged.  The finale of NatO featured the full duet from Il Trovatore, straight up. It was a little bizarre. (Good Guy tenor really was very good – Starlet not so much, imho.)

Half the film was spent in Italy (apparently, though everyone but Chico (and Groucho) (and, naturally, Harpo) sounded Refined American) and on the ship to America – that was the best.  The stateroom scene (“Is my Aunt Minnie in here?”) was nearly axed – isn’t that the way these things always happen?  The most iconic moments of films are the ones that nearly didn’t make it?  I saw somewhere a review that the shortcoming of this movie is that the Marx Brothers had lost the anarchic edge they had always had before (hello, storyline); I don’t know anything about early Marx Bros., so I can’t address that.  They were fairly anarchic and unsocialized in this, though, and damn good at it.  But my favorite part of the film, which became one of my favorite parts of any film, was the (to quote Gaelic Storm regarding their contribution to Titanic) Party in Third Class. The humor was comparatively gentle – the three stowaways being fed, thoroughly, for the first time in a while, etc. – but it was wonderful.  It was a huge party among the Italians in steerage, counterpoint to the stuffier First Class party Groucho attended, complete with folk music – leading to another in the series of featured opera performances, by GGT.  I’m allergic to opera, but this was not at all bad.  “Cosi Cosa” – what was the French version again?? Ah! Comme çi, comme sa. Phew.  It was right on the tip of my brain.  Anyway.  Following that song, Harpo and Chico slide into the seats at harp and piano left empty by the band going to get food.  The musicians protest, but the crowd’s in a good mood and defend the boys, and Chico rewards them with the most joyous and delightful piano solo I’ve ever seen.  Research shows it was “All I Do Is Dream of You” – no wonder it was familiar!  I couldn’t place it.  It was magnificent.  He was surrounded by children who looked genuinely captivated, and played with a tiny smile and a quirky brilliance that was wonderful.  Most pianists can’t play that well straight-faced; he flicked and poked and doinked the keys and was marvelous.  And then he got up and Harpo moved in – and played with the stool and slammed the lid on each hand, alternately, and generally played up to the kids, who were slightly hysterical.  Having had enough of the piano’s abuse, he shifted over to the harp – and … wow.  He went from wild-eyed crazy man to the most beautiful harp solo I’ve ever seen – a variation of the film’s theme “Alone” – and back again without missing a beat.  It was surprising – both performances – and did I use “marvelous” yet?  Loved it.  The funny parts were funny, the opera wasn’t dreadful, and that was perfect. I wouldn’t agree that it’s one of the Best Movies Ever, but it was pretty great. And now I want more Marx Bros.

Oh, look!

Fiorello: Hey, wait, wait. What does this say here, this thing here?

Driftwood: Oh, that? Oh, that’s the usual clause that’s in every contract. That just says, uh, it says, uh, if any of the parties participating in this contract are shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.

Fiorello: Well, I don’t know…

Driftwood: It’s all right. That’s, that’s in every contract. That’s, that’s what they call a sanity clause.

Fiorello: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Clause!

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The Great Great Escape

October 18, 2009 at 11:50 pm (Classics, Movies) (, )

As always, some spoilers below…

One of my earliest memories is of watching The Great Escape with my dad, and being enthralled by it. He had a fascination for WWII movies (well, he was there), and particularly, I think, POW movies, and maybe that is, in part, why I do. And this is one of the best of the best. They played it on last week’s Reel 13, and the fact that I’ve seen it probably ten times in full didn’t stop me from watching it again and being captivated by it again.

The cast is powerhouse, just magnificent. An embarrassment of riches.

The story is fascinating, inspiring – and based on history.

This is a true story. Although the characters are composites of real men, and time and place have been compressed, every detail of the escape is the way it really happened.

The characters are wonderful, human and individual. The resourcefulness and teamwork and ingenuity … all of that is what makes me love this kind of story, and this particular story most of all. Even the Nazis aren’t all painted with the same brush – the kommandant still retained some of his soul despite the uniform.

The story: a brand new prison camp has been built specifically to hold – hopefully – all of the incorrigibles from other camps, the ones who make escape attempt after escape attempt after escape attempt. “All the rotten eggs in one basket”, Colonel von Luger says… And as Bartlett says, there’s madness in their method, because yes, the Germans had learned from all those escape attempts and had designed and built this camp, Stalag Luft 3, to foil everything they could think of… but the airmen they were holding had learned too, and … well, put it this way. In Star Trek (TOS) one thing I never understood was how all those bad guys, time after time, could be so stupid as to put Kirk and Spock together whenever they were captured, usually in the same cell. Expedient, I suppose, but not bright; separately they might have been detained for a little while at least, but together – forget it. Escape was inevitable. Stalag Luft 3 takes that to extremes, putting not just two determined, intelligent, and coordinated men together, but hundreds. All of the innovations of the prison were just a somewhat greater challenge to men who had been too long away from their war, and even longer away from home. The Nazis couldn’t stop these men – they could only delay them a little. The plan: lull the Nazis into complacence, and meanwhile dig: not one, not two, but three simultaneous tunnels, Tom, Dick, and Harry. And it works… mostly…

This is a seminal film; theoretically, everything you need to know about German POW camps seems to be found either here or in the incredible Stalag 17. Air Force and RAF (at this point in the war, RAF) prisoners were under the jurisdiction of the Luftwaffe rather than the SS or the Gestapo, which was a good thing: among airmen there was a certain level of professional understanding and respect. The Gestapo and SS didn’t have much respect for anything or anyone outside the Gestapo and SS. The classic excuse for murdering inconvenient prisoners was “shot while escaping”. And while the Germans weren’t stupid, they were tunnel-visioned, and the Allied forces were ever so much more clever. “It is the duty of every soldier, should he have the misfortune to be captured, to escape”… and these men took their duty very seriously.

The setting is amazing. The camp *looks* new – raw-looking wood, unweathered, noticeable in the huts and the gates especially. It looks – and from what I’ve read is – authentic to the real camp. And once they get out – as Hilts and Goff and Hendley said, “Wow”. Stunning footage of the country, underscoring all the many reasons for escaping. And, for the fifty, I have to say: what a beautiful place to die. The music… That must be one of the greatest movie themes of all time.

Again, the actors… this could have been merely a good story and an exciting action picture. It could have been just a good movie. Part of what makes it a great movie, and elevates it far above your average action picture, is the acting. There are small little touches throughout that accomplish the equivalent of pages of dialogue, and which flesh out characters better than pages of dialogue could, glances and expressions which, to coin a cliché, speak volumes. For example, Hendley’s face when the Germans lock up the windows on that first night… All of them are least a little desperate for freedom; all of them have been held for some time (everyone who mentions a time span seems to have been held for three years or more).

A series of moments: the young guard who is Hilts’s constant escort to the cooler cell. He’s the picture of the Aryan nation, fair and square-jawed, and surely under that helmet is a shock of golden hair. We never know, because we never see it or his eyes; the helmet never comes off, and so too he is the faceless representative of evil… but he has a human side. One of my favorite moments in any film is the first time he locks Hilts up (about half an hour following Hilts’s arrival): he puts him in the cell, closes the door, pauses, and opens the door again – and Hilts’s hand sticks out to return the key he swiped. It’s almost the only time we see this young guard, escorting Hilts, and it’s a remarkable little performance. The second time he makes the trip (iirc), he starts to walk away, and then pauses and looks back when he hears the baseball start bouncing against the wall. The third time, he stands in the doorway watching as Hilts, drained and a little shattered, slides down the wall to sit on the floor. In another of those significant glances, Hilts’s eyes flick up to note the guard still there, and the tough guy façade reasserts itself: *bounce-ka-thump* *bounce-ka-thump* *bounce-ka-thump* What the guard is thinking, who knows; his face is blank. Whether this is a lack of acting, or a lack of emotion on the character’s part, or a mask disguising fascination or amazement or disgust or confusion at the crazy American who can’t seem to stay out of that cell for more than a couple of days running – again, who knows. I like to think it’s a sneaking admiration.

Another: during Hilts’s first meeting with Bartlett, Ramsey, and MacDonald, as Hilts happily explains his and Ives’s idea for their blitz, the reactions are lovely, as is his smile when he finishes explaining how he and Ives plan to breathe.

Another: Blythe paces off five steps, places a pin on the floor, and returns to where he was. He shakes out his shoulders, visibly makes himself relax, and rehearses taking four natural steps forward to bend down and pick the pin up again.

Speaking of Blythe … What a great character. Out for a joyride, and got shot down. A gifted artist, skilled with anything from a pencil (or a piece of chalk) to a camera, he’s the character I identify with. “I’m afraid this tea’s pathetic. Must have used these wretched leaves about twenty times. It’s not that I mind so much. Tea without milk is so uncivilized.” Except I’m not that artistically skilled (as witness my lack of artistic production), and I only wish I was that good at chess. I have not only his brand of luck, but also his eyes: blue and largely useless. My glasses go on first thing in the morning and don’t come off till I’m about to turn out the light, but I know from the few horrible times I’ve broken a pair: it’s bloody hard to function with progressive myopia. We’re not blind, Blythe and I; we’re ridiculously near-sighted. As he said, close-to is fine – and his close-to is about what mine is, inches from the tip of the nose – but further away… “You’re just a blur.” I’m not sure he wouldn’t have seen the leg Bartlett stuck out; again, nearsighted isn’t blind. And it’s quite possible to get about without being able to see clearly – Donald Pleasence played blind brilliantly, but maybe a little too brilliantly. Maybe not – I can make it around my house at need, but I might have to try wandering around a tunnel I’d never been in before I can say for sure. Still. Blythe is, in his own word, splendid: he is going to get out, by trickery if he has to, and is crushed when Barlett tells him it didn’t work. (I do wonder how Bartlett found out; he says he was only just told. By whom? MacDonald, who found out Hilts and Ives were planning a blitz before they ever even left the cooler?)

The situation with Blythe gives James Garner’s Hendley a chance to shine. He’d already established himself as a brilliant scrounger, thief, and blackmailer – leading to a deep curiosity about what he did for a living as a civilian, and whether he’ll be able to go back to it easily when the war’s over. His handling of poor Werner the Ferret is masterful “I had 20.” I love this type of character: you’re imprisoned in the middle of nowhere, and you need a 35 millimeter camera with a 2.8 lens and a plane shutter – sorry, a focal plane shutter? No problem. Enough wood to shore up a 335-foot tunnel or two? No problem. Where did it come from? Don’t ask. And then comes the situation with Blythe, his roomie, with whom he’s become tight. He’s become fond of the odd, quiet little British man with his “splendid!” and his chess and his tea, and they’ve obviously done a lot of talking – they have planned their escape route and where it will take them. When it comes to a point where Blythe shouldn’t go – and Roger *was* right, he shouldn’t – Hendley can’t bear it, the look on Blythe’s face and the crushing of his hope, and volunteers to become his seeing eye dog. I’m very glad they didn’t make Blythe’s “blindness” the cause of the failure of their escape; he didn’t see the soldiers, and so he did not escape, but it was nothing to do with him that they didn’t make it. “Colin’s not a blind man as long as he’s with me – and he’s *going* with me.”

They never specified if Ramsey, “The SBO”, played by James Donald, didn’t participate in the escape proper because of his rank, or because of his leg. He’s another well-drawn character, almost, *almost* willing to consider the kommandant’s order to stay quiet and tend to a garden and do calisthenics and not contemplate trying to escape. Not quite – not very seriously – but I think the thought occurs to him. He knows the risks. He knows the horrible danger. And … The kommandant is a relatively decent type, and if things go seriously wrong for him, not only will he be removed but the camp – and maybe general oversight of all air forces POW’s – be put under control of the SS or Gestapo. That would be bad. I think several of them, including Ramsey, regretted the necessity of destroying Von Luger.

Hannes Messemer played Von Luger; it’s a remarkable WWII film that lets you feel a little sympathy for a Nazi, but when he was escorted out of the camp at the end there was a feeling of dread. For the inmates, there’s the pang of better-the-devil-you-know; Von Luger was straightforward and fairly reasonable. He kinda forgot to return the “heil Hitlers” from the Gestapo and SS officers – that’s huge. He didn’t want to be there – in one scene with Hilts he did a gorgeous job of conveying just how bitter he was that he wasn’t flying (due, apparently, to an injury). And he took the concept of the brotherhood of the air seriously. Yes, these men under his charge were enemy officers – but they were officers, and they were airmen, and he felt more of a bond with them than with the Gestapo or SS. Which didn’t mean he was going to be easy on anyone – but he also wasn’t going to abuse his position. And there’s the other half of the pang – God alone knows what’s going to happen to Von Luger. Russian Front, probably, and much as that was made a joke in “Hogan’s Heroes”, it was a very seriously terrible prospect.

Richard Attenborough’s Roger Bartlett…Again, wow. He was in the hands of the Gestapo for three months prior to being dumped in Stalag 3; they knew he might be the ringleader, but couldn’t prove it, and couldn’t get it out of him. There’s no doubt they tried very hard. One wonders at what point he got that scar below his eye. He’s not wire-happy like Ives, not yet – but he’s not so very far off. Again, I’d love to know what he was in civilian life… He’s very British, mild-mannered, round-faced and sleepy-eyed and mild-looking – and the brains and impelling force behind many, many escapes. Quietly brilliant and compelling, commanding … and even knowing that every soldier within a 50-mile radius had his face memorized there was no way he could have sat out that escape.

Archibald “The Mole” Ives, played by Angus Lennie, has always been my favorite character. There are the obvious reasons he would have appealed to the young me: he’s Scots, a jockey, and funny and cute as the dickens. He’s remained a character who hurts my heart because of the cocky bantam-rooster swagger that hides quaking terrified vulnerability. And I can never, ever watch his last scene.

Willie “Tunnel King” (John Leyton) – is just beautiful. Again, great character – Danny’s co-tunnel king and partner in crime and just about everything else, he’s smart, strong, loyal – and looks amazing even covered in half a tunnel’s worth of dirt.

His comrade Danny (Charles Bronson) is another one who hides a deep fear. He’s claustrophobic, but digs because he needs to get out. Charles Bronson blows me away in this movie. The Bronson I’m most familiar with is the “Death Wish” Bronson, the older Tough Guy who wasn’t known primarily for his acting ability – about a step above Jean-Claude Van Damme, maybe. The star of movies I’d need to be paid to watch. But Danny … Danny’s remarkable. Bronson is convincing as a Pole – then again, he was apparently born to Polish/Lithuanian parents – and as a man who escaped the fall of Warsaw to go fly for England, who digs because he needs freedom. One thing I always think when I see him in his sweater with the big red patch basted on the front is how very much he needs looking after. One scene that stays with me is when he tries to make a solo break for it, and Willie, trying to stop him, belts him – Danny, heavy iron wire clippers in hand, cocks back his arm as if to hit him. And stops.  “Don’t do that,” he says, very quietly. Beautiful.

I find it kind of funny that Steve McQueen is billed as and considered the star. Of course he as Hilts is a primary focus – but not *the* primary focus; I think more of Attenborough as Roger Bartlett as the star. The American part in the escape was inflated from its actual historical role, partly to snag McQueen and partly because, well, it’s an American movie… Americans on the whole are, let’s face it, pretty ethnocentric. Getting Steve McQueen in this movie was a brilliant idea, though, whatever it took – he’s brilliant. I love to watch him – but he doesn’t strike me as an actor I’d have ever wanted to meet (as if); the Reel 13 host, Neal Gabler, said SM walked off the set because he thought his part wasn’t heroic enough, and had to be talked back into it by James Garner and James Coburn. (Thanks, Jameses: good work.) The attitude was a bit much, I think – no, it wasn’t the most heroic role in the movie; he was out to get himself, and Ives for a while, out, and only decided to help the larger escape plan when Ives snapped. But it led in part to the motorcycle chase, which was fairly awesome. It doesn’t in any way feel like something that was grafted on to make the star happy.

Another favorite face in this cast is, of course, Gordon Jackson, here as Sandy MacDonald, the very efficient Intelligence officer – otherwise known as Mr. Hudson of “Upstairs, Downstairs”. In any other film, he would have been a standout; here, he was part of a large and brilliant ensemble. As was James Coburn, Sedgwick “Manufacturer”… perhaps a little more “stock” than some of the others, but wonderful regardless. The unflappable Aussie with his steamer trunk (which after all wasn’t the problem piece of luggage in the escape). And David McCallum, also known as Illya Kuryakin in “The Man From U.N.C.L.E” (yet something else I need to Netflix), the so-blond Ashley-Pitt “Dispersal” … I wonder that they didn’t find him something to dull the golden gleam of his head. It was a bit hard to miss. He lost his nerve terribly during the end of the escape – but turned it into a virtue. I’m overusing the word, but – beautifully played. I’m a little surprised they didn’t do anything further with Cavendish, the Surveyor (played by Nigel Stock); after all, it was his measurements that led to the partial failure of the escape, I believe. But as someone pointed out in the heat of the moment, it didn’t really matter how it happened – it happened, and had to be dealt with. They weren’t exactly working with high-end instrumentation.

(I couldn’t think of Illya Kuryakin’s last name, and looked it up, which led me to imdb, which led me to a 1996 movie David McCallum was in called Privateer 2: The Darkening – which turns out to have been written by Diane Duane, one of my favorite writers. And yet ANOTHER thing to Netflix, if it’s available …Which it may not be, as it seems to be some strange hybrid of movie and game…?)

As I said above, the teamwork and camaraderie, the “band of brothers” quality, the unquestioning devotion to the cause of a) getting out, and barring that at least of b) confounding the enemy… I love this film. It feels like a labor of love.

That was last week’s Reel 13. This week’s was The Pink Panther. It’s funny about some of these films that are reputed to be Classic Comedies… they’re just not all that funny… This, and Young Frankenstein, M*A*S*H, a few others… I made it to the end of YF, and was gently amused, but PP and M*A*S*H lost my interest. M*A*S*H was unfunny, strident, and ugly – the characters weren’t anything I wanted to spend any time with (reminded me a little of “Seinfeld” in that), and I could only watch (as far as I managed to get) and be grateful they made so many changes for the tv series. To be fair, it may be because many films since PP have mined the same vein of humor, so that while PP in its time was unique and brilliant it now seems old hat … nah. I don’t think so. It just seemed like a mess to me, with a few shining moments. Very few.

And next week will be Astaire and Rogers (and Irving Berlin) – Top Hat. Yay. I’ve seen it half a dozen times; it’s not my favorite A&R – but I never pass up a chance to watch Edward Everett Horton. I adore that man.

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Meet John Doe? Why, yes, thanks, I will

August 16, 2009 at 2:03 am (Capra, Classics, Movies, PBS) (, , , , , )

I love Channel 13. Every Saturday the New York PBS station shows a couple of Britcoms – Keeping Up Appearances and As Time Goes By, without which it doesn’t ever feel like Saturday (I hate pledge drives) – and then airs a “classic” movie. Lately their definition of “classic” hasn’t melded with mine, but tonight they got back on track (as a birthday present I guess – thanks, 13!) with Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

Frank Capra gets a bad rap. The presenter on 13, whose name I’ve never retained, even introduced me to a new phrase: Capra-corn. It took me a second to figure out the distinction from the sign of the zodiac, but I eventually twigged to it. He’s best known, I think, for It’s a Wonderful Life, which is usually pegged as sentimental and all the other adjectives sour nasty souls like to hang on optimistic and good-hearted films (i.e., e.g. “saccharine”), which is especially idiotic given that many of the movies were released just before and during WWII, when people needed a little joy. I’ll get into Wonderful Life another time.

Meet John Doe stars Barbara Stanwyck as Ann (no “e”) Mitchell, an intrepid young journalist whose job is cut when a new bigwig buys her paper. But she has to turn in her last column before she leaves forever, and so she sits and types furiously and hands over an article based on, apparently, a story that kicked around journalistic circles real and fictional for a long time: the story of how the writer received a letter from a John Doe stating that he’d lost his job due to dirty politics, and because of the state of politics and everything else in the country he was going to jump off the roof of City Hall at midnight Christmas Eve. And then she leaves.

Below is a letter which reached my desk this morning. It’s a commentary on what we laughingly call a civilized world.
Dear Miss Mitchell:
Four years ago, I was fired out of my job. Since then, I haven’t been able to get another one. At first, I was sore at the state administration because it’s on account of the slimy politics here. We have all this unemployment. But in looking around, it seems the whole world is goin’ to pot. So in protest, I’m goin’ to commit suicide by jumping off the City Hall roof.
Signed, a disgusted American citizen. John Doe.
Editor’s Note: If you ask this column, the wrong people are jumping off the roofs.

And she is dragged back when the story causes a sensation, as the telephones of state agencies and the newspaper are deluged with calls – job offers, marriage proposals… Ann cheerfully tells her former editor Connell (played by James Gleason) that it was made up – what’s he going to do, fire her? – and then directs him in how to turn the growing popular concern over the fate of the fictional John Doe into a circulation bonanza: they find themselves a John Doe. Gary Cooper’s Long John Willoughby, a homeless former baseball player, is cast in the role, and off they go, over the protests of his friend and fellow traveler the Colonel. Weekly “I protest” articles purporting to come from John Doe begin to show up on the front page, and John Willoughby Doe is suddenly beseiged by fans.

The big boss, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) scents possibilities, and bankrolls a radio address that leads to wider recognition of John Doe’s manifesto: basically, love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek, and get off your keister and do something (actually, a lot of what Obama talked about before the election…).

To most of you, your neighbor is a stranger, a guy with a barking dog and a fence around him. Now you can’t be a stranger to any guy who’s on your own team. So tear down that fence that separates you…You’ll tear down a lot of hate and prejudices…I know a lot of you are saying to yourself: ‘He’s asking for a miracle!’ …Well, you’re wrong. It’s no miracle!…I see it happen once every year at Christmas time…Why can’t that spirit last the whole year round? Gosh, if it ever did – we’d develop such a strength that no human force could stand against it.

John Doe Clubs start popping up – strongly encouraged by D.B. – in which people reach out to their neighbors, get to know each other, and figure out ways to help those in need of help without destroying their self-esteem. And the movement spreads … and Long John gradually overcomes his doubts about pulling a fast one on an unsuspecting public to completely buy into the message. Then, as the movement is about to climax with a huge convention of John Doe Club delegates – all bearing petitions begging John Doe not to jump off any roofs – D.B. directs Ann in what he wants in the convention speech to be delivered by John: his announcement of a third political party, the John Doe party, and his endorsement for the leader of that party and candidate for the next presidential election: shockingly, D.B. Norton. Ann recoils, but writes it – but Connell digs in his heels and lets John, who never read the speeches before giving them because he got more of a kick out of it that way – know about it beforehand. It’s a travesty – a betrayal of Washington, and Adams, and Jefferson, and Lincoln:

Lighthouses, John. Lighthouses in a foggy world.

And John doesn’t like it any more than Connell does. He heads straight to where Norton is meeting with his cronies, and also Ann, and lays down the law – and while he heads back to the convention to try to confess and straighten things out with the delegates, Norton sets Plan B into action: discredit John Doe, get him in jail if possible, and try to gain points as the man who unmasked the fraud. John ends up living under a bridge with the Colonel again, Ann ends up miserable, and Norton tries to regroup – until Christmas.

John having disappeared, a few people start to worry that he will try to repair the wreck he was caught up in by climbing to the top of City Hall at midnight Christmas Eve and, after all, jumping. Three groups arrive there to prevent it: Norton and his cronies and thugs, who don’t want a martyr; a trio from one of the first John Doe Clubs, who were his most loyal followers, and among the most bitterly disappointed but still loyal to the cause; and Ann, backed by Connell and the Colonel.

As is so often the case, I would have sworn I saw this years ago – but I can’t have. I had no idea how it would end. Neither, apparently, did Capra till the 11th hour; they had four possible endings written and filmed, and in the end went with a fifth. Which may be why the suspense was so heavy: they couldn’t telegraph the ending, for certain, and they had made it clear with the rest of the film that the viewer could absolutely not assume that John Doe/Willoughby would not, in the end, jump to his death.

In a way, this was a drastic departure from Capra’s previous films: Ann was honestly mercenary, and thought nothing about journalistic integrity if a bollicking great lie could earn her some serious money. She used her father’s diary to buttress the myth, and even after she balked at the culmination of Norton’s plans to rule the world, she kept on with it. And her mother’s the one who gave her the diary – aiding and abetting. John Willoughby is a bit morally ambiguous; he’s also game to act out a fraud if it means a few months of square meals, great lodgings, and in the end the mending of his arm so he can play baseball again. Also, as the presenter pointed out, it’s unusual to see the American public portrayed as gullible sheep by Capra; all of the virtues of “John Doe” are usually highly lauded in his films. There is a downbeat feel to it –

I know the world’s been shaved by a drunken barber – I don’t need to read it!

– and the Colonel’s “Heelots” gave me chills.

When they got ya, you’ve got no more chance than a road rabbit…You’re walkin’ along, not a nickel in your jeans, you’re free as the wind. Nobody bothers you. Hundreds of people pass you by in every line of business. Shoes, hats, automobiles, radios, furniture, everything, and they’re all nice loveable people. They let you alone…Then you get ahold of some dough and what happens? All those nice, sweet, lovable people become heelots. A lotta heels! They begin creepin’ up on ya, tryin’ to sell ya something. They get long claws and they get a stranglehold on ya and ya squirm and ya duck and ya holler and ya try to push ’em away, but you haven’t got a chance. They’ve got ya. The first thing you know, you own things – a car, for instance. Now your whole life is messed up with a lot more stuff. You get license fees and number plates and gas and oil and taxes and insurance and identification cards and letters and bills and flat tires and dents and traffic tickets and motorcycle cops and courtrooms and lawyers and fines – and a million and one other things! And what happens? You’re not the free and happy guy you used to be. You’ve gotta have money to pay for all those things. So you go after what the other fella’s got. And there you are – you’re a heelot yourself.

Yeah, actually.

But in essence it’s all very Capra. There are solid morals at the heart of the quagmire. Norton is a Nazi, plain and simple – or, rather, a Hitler. Unashamed, unredeemed and unredeemable villains aren’t uncommon in Capra – look at Mr. Potter. He’s a Politician, and will thus behave, and anything that doesn’t fit his ambitions goes.

Like dogs – if you can’t eat it you bury it!

He can’t win – he’ll never win in a Capra film. Even though it was a brilliant plan – and it might have worked if they had been able to hold something stronger over John. In the end it made me cry, and that’s the most Capra-esque attribute of all.

They’re just lonely and wanted someone to say to them “I know how you feel”. I’ve been lonely and hungry for something practically all my life.

I feel like death on a stick, so Gary Cooper’s fine, fine eyes and aw-shucks dimple and his lovely ability to play the sweet ol’ big lug, all the while being one of the most gorgeous human beings on the planet, will have to be noted without much depth (not that there’s much depth to be plumbed there). All I can really say to wrap up is … Past message board experience has taught me that reaching out to your neighbors and getting to know them better isn’t necessarily a good idea (and sometimes a really, really bad one). And… I know people are sheep and will follow in the most ridiculous directions – and, if led well, in the most wonderful directions. But people are also lazy, and all too willing to fall back into old patterns. I’m no exception. Obama inspired a lot of people a few months ago, and now I keep getting emails from what was once his campaign saying “write!” and “call!” and – always – “donate!!”… but the impetus is gone. I hope he reignites it.

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