Essential: HUNTED (1952)

Part 1 of 2

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Dirk Bogarde and Jon Whiteley

TB: Dirk Bogarde said HUNTED was his personal favorite of all the motion pictures he made, and it’s easy to see why it was such a special experience for him. I think he does a remarkable job, and nearly all his scenes occur with young Jon Whiteley. Whiteley was a novice to moviemaking but he’s a natural. Thoughts on their working relationship, and the relationship between their two characters, Chris and Robbie?

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JL: I saw at least one documentary on Dirk’s career but did not know what films were his favorites. It is a different kind of role for a leading man of romantic films at this early stage of his career, so I can understand why he liked it. Later, of course, he took on equally curious and sometimes sinister roles for Luchino Visconti and others in the more “international” period of his career. No, he does not look like the killer type, but that is based on how stereotypical killers are portrayed on screen.

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JL: Jon Whiteley is a natural, as is Hayley Mills (who will be discussed next week). However this is the only role I have seen him in. I have not seen THE SPANISH GARDENER. He reminds me of the two most famous on-screen Oliver Twists. Not Jackie Coogan, but John Howard Davies and Mark Lester. Obviously these boys contrast from spunky Hayley who is a bundle of energy and has little trouble taking care of herself. The character of Robbie constantly needs somebody’s personal care.

Chris and Robbie

TB: On screen the relationship between Chris and Robbie evolves considerably. At first, Chris is a bit rough with Robbie (not unlike the boy’s abusive adoptive father). But gradually Chris softens. It’s an unusual sort of redemption story. Would you agree?

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JL: The way Chris grabs Robbie by the arm and drags him about reminded me of the way both of my parents were with me. They were very impatient with me, even though they weren’t criminals on the run like Chris here. That is why the key scene with the boarding house lady (Jane Aird) is so important. She notices he has been through abuse and we, the viewers, know it is not on account of Chris.

TB: We do not get too much of Robbie’s backstory.

JL: From what we gather, Robbie was playing with matches and burned his stepmother’s curtains but thinks he burned down the house. Believing he is a criminal at the tender age of seven, he is running away…and winding up with another criminal that he discovered standing over a corpse. Chris is a sympathetic character we find ourselves oddly rooting for. We do not see the murder take place and are not entirely sure if it was partly an accident and partly a result of Chris getting caught up in his passions, but murder is still murder and his running away is not helping his case.

Fugitives

TB: The premise doesn’t seem like it would generate strong box office. We have a violent killer running off with a troubled boy. Initially, nobody they meet seems to suspect them of being fugitives. But things do get more difficult for them when Chris makes the front page of the newspaper. Do you find them being able to take off so easily a realistic thing?

JL: You say he is a “violent killer” but that is major problem here for me. We don’t see how the murder is committed and whether it was done in cold-blood or more accidentally. He does appear dazed and upset when we first see him as if he is trying to process what had happened. We also don’t see Chris particularly “violent” during the rest of the movie.

TB: Yes, that’s correct. Chris does not exhibit violent tendencies after the murder.

JL: Regarding whether or not the police was too slow in responding (testing our sense of realism here), what I found particularly interesting were all of the scenes of bombed out buildings that hadn’t been rebuilt after a war that ended six or seven years ago. It sent a message that Great Britain still had plenty of “rubble” to sort through and that it was rather easy for certain criminals to get a head start in their escapes.

Two lost souls

TB: I read a comment in a user review on the IMDb that I think is worth bringing up. A reviewer said “They are two lost souls traversing the countryside together. They are two people of different ages teaming up for a common cause.”

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TB: Do you agree with this? At what point, do we take the rose-colored glasses off and say you know what, this is really a story about child abduction? I think society in late 1951 when this movie was filmed, obviously was very different from society now. It would be a tough sell to make this film today and try to market it as a feel-good buddy film. Also I think people would automatically assume he abducted the boy for sexual reasons. It wouldn’t seem so innocent now. What’s your take on that aspect of the film?

JL: On the surface, it seems like Robbie has been kidnapped as a witness to a crime and his step-parents are with the police trying to find him. Yet Robbie wants to stay with Chris. It is not like Chris is mean at him at all.

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JL: We do not know all of the plot details right away, which makes the story all the more interesting. For example, we are merely teased early on who the corpse is in a newspaper Chris reads, but much later find out, after confronting his wife (Elizabeth Sellars), that he was her boss whom she may have been having an affair with. Likewise, we only much later learn, as they are staying at a boarding house, that Robbie has bruises on his body that did NOT come from Chris. No, home is not a happy place for him to be.

TB: How do Chris and Robbie relate to one another? They form a rather strong bond in a short period of time.

JL: Chris can relate to Robbie’s lack of family love. His own brother refuses to take them in, although he was still nice enough to feed them, because of his “reputation with the community.” These two are outsiders who have nobody but each other. They bond like Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier (in THE DEFIANT ONES) while on the run, even if running is not the best option for seven year olds who happen to get sick… and, as a result, Chris must make the ultimate decision in the dramatic climax aboard a herring boat.

Postwar poverty and the influence of Italian neorealism

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TB: Let’s switch gears a bit and discuss the overarching theme. Or at least one of the main themes, which is postwar poverty. HUNTED conveys a sense of gritty realism and there’s very little sentimentality, except in a few key scenes. Robbie doesn’t smile until halfway into the story. And he doesn’t laugh until near the end. But then he gets sick, so his sunny disposition doesn’t last long. There really isn’t a lot of joy in this movie. Any specific thoughts on that?

JL: I saw a lot of similarities to the Italian imports, the neorealism of Vittorio de Sica, Roberto Rossellini and future Bogarde director Visconti. One key smiling scene of Robbie eating pasta with Chris and his brother reminded me of a similar scene in the pessimistic THE BICYCLE THIEVES, which topped the Sight & Sound poll the same year this film was released to theaters and was a benchmark of sorts that many “artistic” film-makers were imitating.

TB: Tomorrow Jlewis and I continue to discuss HUNTED and what makes it so special.

Please be sure to join us for Part 2…

Part 2 of 2

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More about Italian neorealism

TB: Okay, we’re back to continue our discussion of HUNTED. When we left off yesterday, we had been discussing how the film’s director (Charles Crichton) was probably influenced by Italian neorealism. Anything else you’d like to say about that?

JL: This film is quite similar to other thrillers of the period that made great use of locales, but NOT in a tourist “pretty travelogue” sense. The Italians were presenting their country warts and all. The Brits and Yanks were impressed enough to do the same, but we do get some lovely countryside later on.

TB: Yes, good point.

JL: I am not sure if Visconti’s OSESSIONE had much of a release in the U.K. by this time and whether or not Chris Crichton and cinematographer Eric Cross saw it before doing this one. My guess is that they had only seen THE BICYCLE THIEVES, which was a gargantuan international box-office smash.

Memorable scenes

TB: A few scenes stand out to me. Meaning I thought they were expertly staged and acted. Number one, I loved the scene where they jump off the old bridge on to the train. It’s a nail biter.

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TB: Also, I consider the scene where Chris tells Robbie the bedtime story to be very memorable. It’s a clever way to use to reveal some of Chris’ backstory. And I think the scenes at the end are particularly effective– the part where Chris turns back the boat, and when he carries a very sick Robbie off the boat.

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TB: Did these scenes affect you, too? Or were there other moments that stood out for you in HUNTED?

JL: The train scene was great, but we get a lot of those in these types of films. I also liked all of the shots of gulls at the end.

TB: There’s a lack of background music in many of the scenes. This helps us focus on what the characters are saying and thinking. Did you notice this?

JL: Yes, there were scenes with no music but I didn’t notice it as particularly unusual, but that is an interesting perspective.

Camera work

TB: What are your thoughts on the way it was filmed?

JL: There were some great opening shots done from a small boy’s eye level. The first part of the movie showcases Robbie’s point of view; lots of low angle shots, close ups of horses startled in the city streets and adults looking down at the viewer. Later, when the emphasis shifts to Chris the adult lead, the camera compositions change.

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TB: Yes. I hadn’t considered the different vantage points, in terms of how the characters were photographed.

JL: All of the earlier shots focus on Robbie’s point of view with the camera angles presented accordingly. Also we don’t see the actual crime committed but come into the aftermath scene just as Robbie does. Therefore, we can understand why he becomes attracted to Chris and does not fear him as a murderer.

TB: The camerawork seems to change when they reach the boarding house. There are group shots, from more of an omniscient point of view.

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JL: There are also some very nice Hitchcockian set-pieces too, including the all-important railroad track narrow escape scene. One particularly good scene earlier in the movie predates Cary Grant at Grand Central station in Hitch’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Chris tries to get quick cash on a coat but the pawnshop owner gets suspicious and gets on a phone in the next room. While he pretends he is only calling a potential buyer rather than the authorities, Chris knows better. Outside the window, a cop is questioning Robbie why he isn’t in school. Like Cary’s Roger, he is not waiting around to find out what happens next.

The film’s conclusion

TB: What about the end of the movie?

JL: Love those shots of gulls flapping past herring boats, symbolizing Chris’ need to literally… fly away.

TB: The final sequence of HUNTED is very visual. The long tracking shot at the end where he brings Robbie up from the boat while the crowd and the police are swarming along the dock is certainly memorable. And things are left unresolved in a way– will Robbie go back to live with his adoptive parents, or will he be placed in a new home? What will happen to Chris and his wife?

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TB: Also, will Chris’ brother ever acknowledge him? There are a few plot threads dangling, which makes us wonder what happens next. It’s a great movie, and it gives us so much to consider.

HUNTED may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989)

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TopBilled:

I saw this film in one of the libraries at the University of Southern California. I was attending film school in the mid-90s, and an Israeli girl I knew was finalizing a deal with an independent production company to finance a new movie. She was a big fan of NOBODY’S FOOL (1994) which was Jessica Tandy’s last screen role. 

If I was going to write a screenplay that my Israeli friend could produce, I would probably need to write an elderly character like the kind Tandy often played at that time. These characters struck a chord with people.

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As part of my research, I watched DRIVING MISS DAISY. My first “exposure” to the film was back in early 1990, when my grandparents went to see it at a suburban movie theater outside Chicago.

I have to tell you a bit about my grandparents. My grandmother grew up in a well-to-do family during the Depression but married ‘down.’ She always had an air about her, and this wasn’t just reserved for her in-laws, but for others in her peer group that she felt were beneath her.

After my grandparents saw DRIVING MISS DAISY, they came home to tell me and my aunt about it. However, my grandmother’s comments were more about the other people in the audience. She marveled at how many of them were in walkers and wheelchairs, I guess because she thought they were largely confined to nursing homes, unlike her! 

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The film, which went on to earn the Oscar for Best Picture, appealed to a 60+ demographic. It earned well over $100 million, in 1990 dollars. No small accomplishment. Was DRIVING MISS DAISY an old folks movie? For a certain generation that identified with the story, it probably was. At any rate, I hope my grandmother enjoyed the movie although I cannot be certain, since for her it was more a chance to gawk at other moviegoers. 

As I was reading up on the film this week, I looked at Roger Ebert’s review which is a bit of a time capsule itself. Ebert references my other favorite critic Pauline Kael, describing how much Kael loved Morgan Freeman.

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Freeman made three very different films in 1989. In addition to playing Hoke the dependable chauffeur of Miss Daisy, he also played a high school principal in LEAN ON ME; and he was a grave digger turned soldier in GLORY. A versatile performer to be sure.

Ebert tells us that Tandy gives the performance of a lifetime, which I don’t quite agree with (yes, she earned an Oscar)…but I think her best performance is in A WOMAN’S VENGEANCE which we already covered earlier this month. She does a wonderful job nonetheless.

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One thing Ebert said which I agree with 150%– details about Daisy, Hoke and Daisy’s son (Dan Aykroyd) are conveyed through gestures and subtle actions, not usually through any specific dialogue. It’s a drama you have to keep focused on, or else you miss some of the meaning that is conveyed without words.

Besides the wins for Best Picture and Best Actress, the film earned plaudits for makeup and for Alfred Uhry’s screenplay, which he adapted from his off-Broadway play. Some trivia here…Dana Ivey was the original Daisy in the first stage production. The role had also been played by Julie Harris on tour, and by Wendy Hiller in London.

In 2010 the play was revived, and that time Vanessa Redgrave was Daisy. As for Hoke, Morgan Freeman originated the role in the first stage production; Brock Peters played the character on tour; and James Earl Jones was Hoke in the revival with Redgrave. There was even an Australian mounting of the play, which starred Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones. 

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Going back to my grandparents…my grandmother never learned to drive. My grandfather shuttled her around their Chicago neighborhood, from boutiques to beauty salons to restaurants and back home. Oh yes, and occasionally to the movie theater.

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Jlewis:

This Best Picture winner, directed by Bruce Beresford (who failed to get nominated himself) and produced by the legendary ex-Fox executive and successful Steven Spielberg backer Richard D. Zanuck for Warner Brothers, does not get much love and respect these days. Then again, few Best Picture winners do after the awards are dished out since nobody can agree on what deserves an award. In the spring of 1990, this was up against FIELD OF DREAMS and MY LEFT FOOT, along with the (strictly my opinion) lesser DEAD POETS SOCIETY and BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY.

Not making the top category cut were such memorable titles as GLORY (which some feel has the better Morgan Freeman performance, but gave Denzel Washington his first win), HENRY V (the memorable Kenneth Branagh version we’ve covered), THE LITTLE MERMAID (what millennial has not seen it on VHS or that all new format of DVD as a kid?), DO THE RIGHT THING (Spike Lee’s anti-DRIVING MISS DAISY), WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (only nominated for original screenplay and nothing else) and even the constant TV broadcast favorite STEEL MAGNOLIAS (which nonetheless earned a nomination for Julia Roberts at the start of her box-office rise to fame).

Most films reflect their age, improving like fine wine or smelling like spoiled milk and more often being a combination of both. Fortunately this one has never received the kind of backlash that AMERICAN BEAUTY, the big Oscar winner a decade later, received after the Kevin Spacey controversies during the #MeToo movement, but it does provide some comparison to more widely loved winners such as GONE WITH THE WIND, suffering a bit in the wake of Black Lives Matter, and MIDNIGHT COWBOY which, despite being made by a then-closeted director who later tackled SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY, does reflect the pre-Pride era in its casual use of three and six letter F-words spoken by the lead (and supposedly heterosexual) characters.

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In regards to DRIVING MISS DAISY, it depicts a very accurate, honest and straightforward portrait of a typical inter-racial (non-sexual, of course) relationship between Jessica Tandy’s Daisy Werthen and Morgan Freeman’s uneducated, rural farm raised Hoke Colburn.

The setting is a Georgia undergoing dramatic changes between the years of 1948 and 1973. Dan Aykroyd’s Boolie decides that his mother needs a chauffeur after she drives the Hudson into the neighbor’s yard and she objects to this while constantly declaring ”I am not prejudiced.” However, the last scene at a nursing home where a 97 year old Daisy talks to Hoke one last time, we see her display a far closer bond with him than with her own son. (Curiously her late husband is never discussed despite a visit to his grave.)

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Now…some viewers in 1989 may have disliked it for being too antiquated and congenial. Viewers of 2021 are often harsher. Morgan’s Hoke puts up with a lot without complaining here, despite how Daisy initially treats him. In one scene, he just grumbles about how ”things are not changing fast enough” (paraphrasing here) outside of Daisy’s ear-range as he caters to her attending a Martin Luther King dinner speech that she did not invite him to.

Most modern viewers would expect him to say that to her face so that she will be forced to respond. Instead she continues to operate as if she did nothing wrong. Yet I must ask these key questions to all viewers: Is it better to just present people in the past acting the way they did and not necessarily the way we wanted them to? Or should they always ”own up to it” on screen so that all viewers are encouraged not to behave the same?

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Remember that we ourselves can not change our own actions in the past or the actions of those long deceased. I feel that this movie presents the past as it was rather than the way we wished it to be, but fully understands why this is often accused of being ”rose colored” for not criticizing the social norms of the past as much as it should.

Likewise, we can equally criticize how Boolie hardly ages on screen and looks to be in good health, despite his jokes at his ”Man of the Year” acceptance speech. Yet he is constantly smoking cigarettes as so many workaholic mill owner businessmen did back then and died an early age as a result. Even Betty Draper in Mad Men, if not her ex-husband, suffers the consequences with lung cancer.

It should be noted, despite her own wealth and nice living conditions, Daisy is occasionally a victim of her times, namely the antisemitism of a post-war America that should have known better post-Holocaust.

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A bigoted Alabama cop in a 1956 scene critiques Daisy for being Jewish just as he also comments on the one driving her. A decade later, her synagogue gets bombed and Hoke has to explain to her that it is always ”the same people” regardless and begins to tell her his own childhood experiences that were far worse than hers, as she still remains baffled over ”who would do such a thing?”

Daisy is a very polarizing character much like Shirley MacLaine’s Aurora in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT. You either relate to her or hate her for being so stubbornly strong willed. I personally had relatives, long deceased now, that resemble her quite a bit and I don’t necessarily view them all that harshly in hindsight. People are people dealing with the times they are living in, for better and for worse.

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I love how her house remains fairly constant in its furniture and antiques through the decades depicted, as if it is her little bubble she can retreat to when not coping well with the outside world. After an emotional breakdown when she confuses the past with the present (thinking she is still a school teacher in the 1890s-early 1900s), but soon acknowledges that Hoke is her best friend, you just know that call that he made to Boolie will not end with a positive outcome.

To be fair, Boolie tries his best to be a good son. He does care about his mother, despite never having enough time to deal with her, and tries his best to express affection for her in the way he is often kissing her on the forehead. Unfortunately, he is seldom as honest with her as Hoke often is. She is forced to go to the nursing home and lose control over her life, which results in obvious bitterness towards Boolie right to the end when she tells him to go flirt with the nurses.

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Boolie’s wife Florine (Patti LuPone) is especially fake in her over eager enthusiasm when talking to Daisy. Yes, I have known many people who behave like her, overly praising me in a way that I don’t quite buy as genuine. Daisy’s constant grumbling about her is pretty accurate, since we get that classic scene of Florine yelling at the hired help on Christmas, a non-Jewish holiday she accepts in order to fit in with Georgia high society, over the silly lack of coconut in the kitchen. This is more reflective of the real Florine that Daisy can see quite well enough with her radar vision.

I should note Esther Rolle’s supporting performance as Idella the cook and housekeeper, who dies suddenly of a heart attack while watching daytime soaps on TV. However she isn’t as interesting to me as Hoke since we only get a hint at her life outside of her job here, mostly in the large turnout at her funeral resembling Annie’s in IMITATION OF LIFE. It is a minor performance that doesn’t amount to much, but she does it well enough, portraying a stubborn woman who mirrors Daisy in her acceptance of the way things are without fighting the system.

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I noted a few anachronisms in FRIED GREEN TOMATOES and saw a few little ones here too, but must still praise this production for its very keen attention to detail and getting so much of it correct history-wise. For example, a clever set of eyes can detect a few eighties model cars…out of focus, of course…in a few car-window shots here and there. This was made before computer generated imagery was done on a more routine basis to fix errors camera crews made.

My main criticism after viewing it multiple times since its release to theaters is that the story often just meanders in a series of sometimes unrelated episodes, without the strong enough threads connecting it all. Would I have liked more backstory on her late husband or discussions of Boolie’s childhood to understand the family dynamics better? Probably.

This is all about a person who was born in the Old South of 1876 and how she reacts to the changing times during the final decades of her life. Personally I feel Jessica pulls it off rather well in her Oscar winning performance. After all, it is her name and not anybody else that is featured in the main title.

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Essential: THE BIRDS (1963)

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TopBilled:

A lot of Alfred Hitchcock’s films are overanalyzed. This one especially. I don’t want to go the obvious route and discuss Tippi Hedren’s character, Melanie Daniels, in feminist terms. There are plenty of scholars who have already done that. They endlessly describe Melanie’s hysteria in the movie. These same scholars also describe Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) as a man surrounded by high strung women.

Quite frankly, this type of analysis can be tedious. It could be done with any film that has a memorable heroine. Any film in which the hero is defined by the women in his life– girlfriends, wives and mothers.

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Jessica Tandy plays the matriarch in THE BIRDS, and in some ways she pulls our attention away from Hedren. Not sure if that’s because the script gives her a slight advantage, or because Tandy was ten times the actress that Hedren is. At any rate, Tandy’s commanding presence makes us sit up and take notice.

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Evan Hunter’s screenplay does a good job fleshing out the character of Lydia Brenner, so we glimpse what type of maternal hold she has over Mitch. It is a mother-son dynamic that is carried over from previous Hitchcock features.

In STRANGERS ON A TRAIN Marion Lorne’s society matron indulges bad seed Bruno (Robert Walker)– all the doting, fussing and hand wringing in the world is not going to save him. A decade later in PSYCHO, the mother is physically absent (unless you count her mummified corpse), but Mrs. Bates still haunts the proceedings. She is unable to bring Norman (Anthony Perkins) back from the dark side. In fact, it could be argued that she is pushing him towards the dark side.

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In THE BIRDS Lydia is a judgmental fixture in the life of her son and by extension, she is a part of his love life, approving or disapproving each choice he makes. Tandy plays her straightforward– not as a comic archetype the way Lorne does in the earlier Hitchcock movie– so we take this woman seriously. She hovers over what happens in their seaside community as if she’s the queen bird.

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Some critics make a big deal out of the birds representing nature and how the mood of the birds is supposed to reflect the moods of the main human characters. But let me ask you something. If you and I went into a jungle and a lion attacked everything in site, would that necessarily represent my mood or your mood? I doubt it. If anything, what the animal is doing would create a specific mood in us, as we would be reacting and trying to flee such a dangerous situation. And that’s what happens in this movie.

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I also find it interesting that people had to ask Hitchcock in interviews after the film was released, what the birds symbolized. They couldn’t figure it out for themselves? Why not let the birds symbolize whatever you want them to symbolize. Or let the birds just be one big MacGuffin, an essentially meaningless plot device that propels the story forward and gives it a strange sense of cohesion.

I won’t go into the sound effects, which are generally convincing. But I would like to mention the editing. In film school, we examined scenes where Hitchcock creates a sense of identification with the characters by giving us a variety of subjective camera angles. He also uses wide angles to connect the people to their environment.

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I find these shots to be excessive and gimmicky. However, what I do find interesting is the fact that Hitchcock devised a mathematical formula when making THE BIRDS. He wanted to figure out how many seconds each shot should last during the story’s most dramatic montages, in order to build suspense.

Without some of Hitchcock’s cinematic experiments, his films might quite boring. But as it is, THE BIRDS is a real scream.

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***

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Jlewis:

Today we remember this as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s blockbusters and a key precursor to the fanatical Nature’s Fury cycle of the 1970s (a.k.a. WILLARD, NIGHT OF THE LEPUS, JAWS, FOOD OF THE GODS, ORCA, KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS, etc.). Yet it also enjoyed a fruitful life during the decade leading up to the cameras rolling on the Universal-International lot.

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Daphne du Maurier, who previously provided Hitch with JAMAICA INN and REBECCA as original source material, published this as a short story within The Apple Tree: A short novel and some stories for Victor Gollancz Ltd in the UK.

This was 1952 and it only took a year for America to receive the first of two popular radio adaptations: the hour-long Lux Radio Theater aired on CBS on July 20, 1953 (listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMHwlqrnsgI ) with Herbert Marshall and Betty Lou Gerson as stars.

I personally favor the shorter half hour episode of Escape that succeeded it on July 10, 1954, even if Ben Wright and Paul Frees may be less fun to listen to than Herbert Marshall. It cuts to the chase, features the great state-of-the-art sound effects that the anthology series was famous for and is less preachy. (You can sample it too here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PK99w-4ctAc )

The great Tiffany network also covered it a third time, but for television as part of Danger on May 31, 1955. Sadly, this is one of those lost episodes that we cannot revisit, being a live broadcast with, in my guess, more primitive special effects work than the movie. Maybe it will some day be rediscovered on some old kinescope?

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Daphne du Maurier supposedly disliked the movie, probably due to all of the changes that screenwriter Evan Hunter made with it. It is also quite Americanized, but I personally feel that the setting chosen, Bodego Bay in California, is still a good enough facsimile to Cornwall in ol’ England. In addition, a few supporting players sport British-like accents, with at least one actually from there: Ethel Griffies playing the daffy ornithologist “Mrs.” Bundy. The primary male lead, Rod Taylor, was an Australian who had always been successful moderating his accent.

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There is no denying that it is a visual feast, making great use of Ub Iwerks’ then revolutionary sodium vapor process (employed in Disney’s DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE). This allowed images of humans and the almighty feathered together in the same frame despite being shot with separate cameras at different times. Today we can see the outlines and color changes between carefully matted images much more distinctly than most ’60s audiences at the time because we are now accustomed to computer generated imagery.

Then again, not all of the effects were created in the camera or in post-production. There were some birds who performed alongside the star actress herself and, despite her own future as an animal rights activist, they were hardly friendly towards her. It was as if somebody else was directing their behavior on some subconscious level.

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Hitch was the master director, but he wasn’t always the nicest man to work with and could be quite devious. Star Tippi Hedren bonded about as well with him as hot oil with water, unlike a number of other blonde bombshells gracing the Hitch filmography. She claimed in later years that he made unwanted advances on her and, after her rejections, he tried to ruin her career. (Tippi’s daughter Melanie Griffith also had a tale to tell as well regarding a meeting with Hitch as a child.)

Now…we won’t go into all of the gossip here, but it is interesting to note just how eager he was to cast Grace Kelly in his next feature MARNIE over Tippi but, as expected, the Princess of Monaco couldn’t oblige on account of her royal duties.

As soon as filming started in March of 1962, the press was all over the production like the crows invading the children monkey bars outside the one room school-house as Tippi smokes her cigarettes. Although no mention was made of any possible conflicts between director and star, there was still some gentle teasing regarding the two.

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As if mysteriously paid by one of her agents, Tippi was dubbed the new “Grace Kelly” (imagine that!) on the December 4, 1962 cover of Look. An ominous raven tries to conceal her face with its all-black wings in some attempt to bring her smug look down some notches. Later, a smiling Hitch appeared with very docile (for him, that is!) pet crows on the Life magazine cover of February 1, 1963; his arms are stretched with a fittingly “What me worry?” look of innocence that resembled that other famous Alfred, Alfred E. Neuman, but still reminding us all of just-who-is-in-charge.

Thinking of all of this, however, makes it a fun viewing. Remember how we all were teased back in PSYCHO about Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his love of stuffed birds. “I think only birds look well stuffed because they are rather passive to begin with.” Or so we think until this next film proved otherwise.

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THE BIRDS may be regarded as a highly influential horror piece, impacting the zombie genre as well as animals-on-revenge pieces of later years, but it is also a bit dated and even occasionally dull. Not only are the special effects a bit old-hat, but also the overall sense of realism. Characters behave in typical Hollywood fashion and, despite her bloody head wounds, Tippi’s makeup foundation and hair-do is flawless throughout.

Aside from the unprovoked attacks coming from gulls, sparrows and crows (with gulls and crows all together in our climactic end-of-the-human-world apocalypse scene but not much happening with the two lovebirds in the cage), we get the standard 1950s (in a ’60s film) boy meets girl fluff.

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Rod Taylor’s Mitch Brenner is a lawyer who works weekdays in San Francisco but lives in coastal Bodego Bay with his much, much younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) and an over protective and widowed mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy, who curiously sounds almost as British here as Ethel Griffies).

A past love interest of Mitch’s, Suzanne Pleshette’s Annie Hayworth, lives in that town as a school teacher just to be near him. Since we know right away Tippi’s Melanie Daniels is the woman who is Mitch’s primary interest now and not Annie, it is obvious which lady gets her eyes pecked out in a gruesome ambush. Fortunately we don’t see that aftermath in graphic detail like we do the lonely farmer’s, a disaster that traumatizes Lydia.

Melanie as a character is introduced as the wealthy daughter of a newspaper tycoon whose rival at another newspaper often pinned negative tall tales about her in its “yellow” print.

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Thus, Mitch claims he knows “all about her” when he first meets Melanie at a San Francisco pet shop and misjudges her at first. Yet the usual romance unfolds, under the great drama of birds-on-the-attack.

One of the townspeople question if “she” is responsible for all of the avian atrocities since they first happen with her in a rowboat. The message here is that one must not judge strangers too harshly, even in a small town where everybody seems to know where everybody else lives. Eventually Lydia accepts Melanie despite being a bit distant at first, since all of them share a wartime experience (with birds if not other humans) that brings them together.

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Being that we have focused on Tandy lately, I should say she does an adequate job with such a limited role. Her husband Hume Cronyn was a friend and occasional performer for Hitch, but curiously she didn’t appear in other Hitch theatrical films, although she did make three appearances on his TV show.

Essential: THE DESERT FOX: THE STORY OF ROMMEL (1951)

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TopBilled:

I am not too well-versed on Rommel’s career or the German military strategies that were waged against the British and its allies during the second world war. But I don’t think a casual viewer watching this film needs to know all these things. The film is fairly easy to follow. Producer-writer Nunnally Johnson provides us with a nicely paced script, which is based on a biography about the famous field marshal of the third reich. The book was a bestseller and had been written by Lt. Col. Desmond Young.

Young was a member of the British Indian Army who crossed paths with Rommel, and he appears as himself in this carefully mounted 20th Century Fox production. Key passages of the story are narrated by Fox contract player Michael Rennie, who is supposed to be speaking in Young’s “voice” since these are Young’s own studies and thoughts about Rommel. Young had interviewed Rommel’s widow Frau Lucie, played by Jessica Tandy, our focus this month.

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For her part, Tandy does an effective job conveying a housewife who stands by her man all the way, even if he is standing by Hitler and they have their doubts about Hitler. Lucie and Erwin Rommel are depicted as high-ranking members of the Nazi party who ironically oppose Nazism. This characterization by Young, which is developed through dialogue by Johnson, has led to a myth of Rommel which is a subject of considerable discussion.

After all, this could be a postwar propaganda piece. A piece about a “good” German who was a close friend of Hitler’s in the early days and still led troops that defeated the Allied forces on several important battle fronts.

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But maybe it is easier to glorify the Rommels here, because we want to believe that there had to be at least one German officer and his wife who were not exactly Hitlerian puppets. One couple that was able to think critically and decide on their own terms not to support the barbarism of Der Fuhrer. Therefore, a major component of this film and its portrayals is that the Rommels are committing treason. However, it’s a form of treason that British and American movie audiences in 1951 would applaud.

Part of the film’s purpose is to generate sympathy for the Rommels. And the way James Mason and Jessica Tandy choose to play their scenes does help elicit sympathy, especially when they are interacting with a doctor (Cedric Hardwicke) who wants them to endorse a plan to kill Hitler (Luther Adler).

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Going along with such a plan would undoubtedly put the Rommels at odds with their closest associates within the Nazi party. There is even a suggestion in an early scene that the Rommels’ son might be under the thumb of the Nazis, which would make him an enemy of his parents.

This is a different sort of role for Tandy, certainly not like the venomous creature she played in A WOMAN’S VENGEANCE which we discussed last week. Also, she is the only credited female in the entire cast…though there is one uncredited woman with limited dialogue who plays the Rommels’ maid. Tandy gets a chance to stand out a bit because she is providing the only real vantage point for women that may be in the audience watching.

Shot in a semi-documentary style, we get newly staged scenes intercut with the realia of newsreel footage…all of it emphasizing the seriousness of war. At first I found this a bit gimmicky and tedious, but as the story continued I decided that I liked the flavor of actual history that the news clips provide.

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Do I think the Rommels are heroes? Well, I don’t exactly think they are like the Von Trapps in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. But from a dramatic standpoint, I enjoy the irony their situation brings to the screen. Incidentally, the studio made a sequel two years later, THE DESERT RATS (1953), which is really more of a prequel. And in that later film Mason returns as Rommel, in active battle along the northern part of Africa. He speaks more German in the second film, and he is a bit more villainous. I guess we could say that’s because he hadn’t yet become a treasonous hero.

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***

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Jlewis:

“The truth is that a soldier has but one function in life, one lone excuse for his existence, and that is to carry out the order of his superiors. The rest, including government, is politics.”

So was Rommel’s motto, even as he meets his fate with the hereafter, as a possible accomplice of Hitler’s failed assassination.

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It had been ages since I saw this one and I greatly enjoyed revisiting it, even though it is no masterpiece of wartime drama. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was, of course, the primary asset of the German army in The War a.k.a. “the most celebrated German soldier since word war one.”

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James Mason gives him quite the debonair persona with no German spoken, but sophisticated Queen’s English here. Even if he was technically The Enemy, the fact that he was critical of Hitler and may-or-may-not have been involved in an attempt on his leader’s life are enough to make him a complicated villain-hero of sorts that even Winston Churchill praises in the final moment before “The End.”

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This is a very Hollywoodized biopic that still makes sure you know which country is backing it (cue all of the flamboyant patriotic music whenever American and British soldiers are on screen and over an extensive five minutes of D-Day invasion newsreel clips) but tries to present the German people and their commander in a rather sympathetic light.

This is significant since Germany was now split between the capitalistic west and the Soviet east at the time and all war movies needed a little objectivity to maintain the peace. Hitler himself, as portrayed with great hysteria by Luther Adler, was more the problem than the people under him (i.e. not that we today should hold this belief literally but it was the belief that Hollywood needed to promote at that time). Many like Rommel disliked being “clowns” in Hitler’s “circus.”

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Michael Rennie offers great narration as Lt. Col. Desmond Young of the opposing Allies side, trying to present this more temperate perspective of Germany’s greatest soldier and commander.

One wonderful aspect to many of these post-war tributes filmed in black and white is that newsreel footage, all supplied by Fox Movietone of course, can be seamlessly edited in for additional realism. Only eagle eyes can detect where the Arizona and California desert locations change over to the mighty Sahara of the North Africa campaign.

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Since the success of THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET back in 1945, 20th Century Fox had made a trademark with a distinctive you-are-there look to their cinematography, regardless whether or not actual locations for the events depicted were used. It contrasted pleasingly with the more studio-bound look of the contemporary productions of MGM, Warners and Paramount that generally just inserted a couple location clips among shots done within a set of four walls. Two years later, Fox’s stock look would change again with the arrival of CinemaScope and a return to a more studio-like, less outdoorsy look.

Occasionally, however, the studio and supervising director Henry Hathaway take the easy way out. The D-Day sequence is one primary example since little is done to recreate anything there with new sets and/or actors; instead we just get the usual extended stock footage.

Curiously the recreation of the July 1944 bombing that almost kills Hitler was shot in the early spring with limited foliage on the trees and apparently the production crew was not terribly concerned about those details. An earlier key scene shows Rommel inspecting an Atlantic shoreline fortress in November 1943 and it is obvious Mason the actor is standing in front of a huge back-screen. Good thing Technicolor wasn’t used here to make it all the more obvious.

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A most British Cedric Hardwicke is top-billed as Dr. Karl Strölin, who was still alive at the time this film was made (and would still be around for a dozen more years) since he was considered one of the “lesser” Nazis in terms of his crimes. During Rommel’s occasional “ill health” retreats at a hospital, Strölin tries to coax him into the assassination plot.

Also prominent in the cast is Everett Sloane, who is brilliantly straight-faced as Gen. Wilhelm Burgdorf delivering Rommel a choice of suicide or public execution after accusations have been made against him.

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Others featured here include Leo G. Carrol (a familiar face in many Hitchcock films) as Gerd von Rundstedt, with George Macready, Richard Boone and Eduard Franz among the other higher-ups in command.

Jessica Tandy plays Rommel’s wife. To be honest, I don’t feel she is all that different in her performance here than in, say, THE BIRDS apart from the key shock scenes in that one. Don’t get me wrong. She is very professional in her role, if a bit poker-ish. My favorite moments of her are in the end when she realizes that she will never see her husband again and must pretend she doesn’t know for the sake of her own safety and that of their grown-up son.

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Essential: A WOMAN’S VENGEANCE (1948)

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TopBilled:

The title for this classic Universal film could just as easily have been SCORNED or A WOMAN SCORNED. I am sure those titles have been used for other thrillers with a melodramatic slant. In this case Jessica Tandy, our focus for the next four weeks, plays a woman who feels cast aside and neglected by the handsome male protagonist (Charles Boyer). And as we know, hell hath no fury like this type of woman.

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The story might have worked better if Tandy was playing a mentally unstable wife or hostile ex-wife. Or if there had been a huge backstory where she was his first love, things didn’t work out, and he moved on but she never got over it. Instead, Boyer has a perfectly refined wife played by Rachel Kempson who becomes ill and dies. After a sufficient period of mourning, Boyer realizes he has gradually fallen in love with a much younger woman (Ann Blyth).

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While their May-December romance is unconventional to say the least and it sets tongues wagging in the couple’s upper crust community, he seems happy with her. This drives Tandy’s character to emotional extremes since she secretly hoped he would have chosen her after his first wife’s death. She is harboring her own unrequited feelings. But since there is no real backstory, we don’t really learn how these intense feelings on her part, even came about in the first place.

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In spite of the various inadequacies of the plot, Tandy has more than enough skill to etch out a strong characterization. She gives us a portrait of a despondent woman who only wants to be loved. It is the curse of her character, Janet Spence, to be in the same socio-economic circle as Henry Maurier (Boyer). She wouldn’t have been able to avoid him if she tried, since they share a lot of the same friends and acquaintances. We’re not really supposed to root for Janet, but Tandy does such a good job drawing us in, that we cannot help but feel total sympathy for her, even when her more heinous deeds come to light.

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Ann Blyth, lovely as she may be, is the weakest link in the cast. She does not have the acting chops or experience that Boyer or Tandy bring to the proceedings. And when you put her alongside other supporting players like Mildred Natwicke, Cedrick Hardwicke and John Williams, plus Kempson, she pales even more by comparison. Still, I think Blyth projects the requisite amount of naivety.

I should add that Rachel Kempson, who plays the ill-fated wife, was married to Michael Redgrave; she being the mother of their famous offspring Vanessa, Corin and Lynn.

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The Kempson-Redgraves had left England and came to America after the war to try their luck in Hollywood. Redgrave was working on SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR at this time with Fritz Lang and Joan Bennett, also at Universal. Redgrave had met an American named Bob Michell with whom he had a long-term affair. So not only was Kempson playing a character that was replaced by her husband on screen, this was happening in real life as well…though Kempson would remain married to Redgrave until he died in 1985.

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Getting back to Jessica Tandy, she gives an electrifying performance here. And it is no surprise that she would go on to great things on Broadway, as Blanche Dubois in Elia Kazan’s original stage version of A Streetcar Named Desire. Tandy and husband Hume Cronyn had already been contract players at MGM in the mid-40s. In fact, both appeared in Metro’s THE GREEN YEARS (1946) where Cronyn played Tandy’s father!

In the 50s, 60s and 70s Tandy would turn up occasionally in films or on television shows. She experienced a career resurgence in the mid-80s through early-90s. And eventually received an Oscar for DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989) which we will review at the end of the month. But I think she gives her very best performance as jilted, demented Janet whose ability to exact vengeance makes Cruella de Vil look like an amateur.

***

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Jlewis:

Sir Cedric Hardwick, one of the most prolific character actors of Hollywood’s golden age, ties this with another Jessica Tandy vehicle we will be profiling, THE DESERT FOX. He plays Dr. James Libbard who reports to Henry Maurier (Charles Boyer) that his hypochondriac wife Emily (Rachel Kempsen) has died. Poor Boyer. He is often the eternal womanizer and love-interest of millions and, here, he is caught in a love triangle with two other ladies: Ann Blyth’s Doris Mead and Jessica’s Janet Spencer.

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He remarries the latter because she is younger and supposedly prettier, although Janet is pretty too here in my opinion. Janet starts out as a sympathetic sounding board in a “forgive me. Henry…oh poor Emily” sort of way, but another side of her emerges later. When Henry is arrested for potential foul play regarding his first wife’s death, everybody pretends to be supportive of him.

Aldous Huxley is the author of our story here and we also get the great Zoltán Korda, a brother of Brit movie mogul Alexander, as director. Pretty prestigious billing behind the cameras here. Not that the latter’s batting average in the post-war years matched the period that begot THE FOUR FEATHERS and THE THIEF OF BAGDAD. With that said, this is one of his better later offerings, if maybe less critically acclaimed at the time than CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY.

This is your standard ladies noir-ish mystery melodrama, light on plot but heavy on the drama, but it is a fun piece of entertainment vintage of the times and gives us a chance to see a younger Jessica Tandy in her prime. The Universal-International production was filmed between July and September of 1947.

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On December 3rd, her career mushroomed when she took on the role of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Ironically, her Tony Award win and long experience with the British stage did not get her the Blanche role in the UK version of the play later. The supervisor-in-charge, Laurence Olivier (who also, ironically, worked with Jessica earlier in at least one Shakespearean production of Henry V), cast his wife Vivien Leigh. When Warner Brothers decided to make the movie adaptation in 1950, Vivien was chosen over Jessica since she was the movie actress with the bigger box-office appeal at the time, ultimately winning the Oscar.

It is a shame that we don’t have a good film record of Jessica as Blanche, but we get a good tease of it here as she plays a tormented woman deluding herself a lot.

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A couple other tidbits about Jessica, whom we remember these days from her most famous roles in the decade preceding her passing in 1994, DRIVING MISS DAISY and FRIED GREEN TOMATOES included. She was born in London and her accent occasionally trickles into her all-American characters. She became a U.S. citizen a decade after she married Canadian Hume Cronyn.

Their marriage lasted 52 years until her death, with Cronyn living another nine years as practically foreshadowed in their co-starring TO DANCE WITH THE WHITE DOG. Although her first movie was made back in 1932 (THE INDISCRETIONS OF EVE, British), much of her career was still spent on the stage. Hollywood started giving her supporting roles in various films starting in 1944.

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Mildred Natwick plays nurse Caroline in a wonderful supporting role, deviously suggesting that Henry might have bumped off his wife with poison and Janet at first refuses to think such a thing. Or so we think. Actually I was suspecting initially that the real woman’s vengeance was Caroline’s rather than Janet’s since she is the one who is overly gleeful about Henry’s fate.

Ann Blyth isn’t bad as the new wife who knows she isn’t the only object of Henry’s affections and is at first against having their baby, attempting suicide.

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The actress is still around today, now in her nineties. She and Boyer both reprised their roles for the airwaves on Lux Radio Theatre in an episode covering the movie on March 22, 1948. Sadly this episode may be lost, even though many others from the long running series do survive.

Nice use of four leaf clovers. In 1947-48, the song “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover” was enjoying a come-back on Your Hit Parade two decades after its published introduction with Russ Morgan, Alvino Rey, the Three Suns, the Uptown String Band and even Arthur Godfrey having hit versions. It also starting popping up in Warner Brothers cartoons about this time, with Bugs Bunny singing it on more than one occasion. Yes, the clover does bring Henry good luck in the end.

Essential: THE CELLULOID CLOSET (1995)

Jlewis:

Introduction

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One of the films excerpted in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s THE CELLULOID CLOSET is THE HUNGER, featuring Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon in cahoots in a key bedroom scene. I recall watching that on VHS with my mother in the mid-1980s. Her response: “I don’t care what they do as long as we don’t have to see it.”

At the time (as a teenager), I thought she was being very civil and kind-hearted since previous comments by her on such matters were not quite so nice. Later I often heard the exact same line from co-workers and others I associated with daily but, in these later times, my opinion was that this line was getting…well…pretty old and not so civil.

My mother intensely disliked THE CRYING GAME, also excerpted, which I took her to see in a theater in early 1993 when it was a key Oscar nominee, but I admired her for sticking it out and keeping her comments at a whisper level.

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This contrasted from a rather loud woman sitting behind me during BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN thirteen years later whom I felt should have just left if she didn’t want to see it.

Needless to say, neither of my parents were all that sympathetic to the whole el-jee-bee-tee movement but they were not completely obstinate either. After my mother died, one of her own sisters (by then in her sixties) married a woman and my father was quite open to it, attending a cruise with them after he remarried himself (to a woman, of course).

Point made: we should never sell people short, even if they are family members whom we think we know all too well. They are a microcosm of a nation at large and the United States, as a whole, underwent a lot of change during the last century and is still undergoing change.

Part 1

Something like THE CELLULOID CLOSET may hopefully become a museum piece in the future as newer viewers chancing upon it will ponder what all of the fuss was about. When it was released in February 1996, it is important to remember that same sex marriage was still over 19 years away into the future and even certain physical acts that are now taken for granted (mostly between men, not so much lesbians) were still illegal and subject to potential jail sentences in several states.

Even the terminology changed over time, both then and now. For example, the movie title was shortened from the book it was based on: Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies which was published initially in 1981 by Harper & Row when that H-word was regularly used.

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By the ’90s, the H-word was being weeded out of the vocabulary because an increasing number fighting for equal rights were against being defined on “sexual” terms. After all, the rest of the population is generally not labeled hetero-sexual unless there is a specific discussion made about what they do with others behind closed doors.

Then again, those enforcing society norms in the past were generally less concerned about closed doors than what was happening outside of them. As Russo originally noted in a full chapter of his book, much focus was put on the “siss-y”– a man who behaves too much like a woman. Since most characters tended to behave as very non-sexual on screen, they posed little threat in that regard, yet were still carefully monitored by the Production Code and allowed on screen as comedy relief for moviegoers who needed characters to feel superior towards and better about themselves.

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This was especially true during the dark days of the Depression in the early 1930s when many heterosexual men felt most vulnerable in their own masculinity since they could no longer hold down a job and be financial providers for their own family.

However Hollywood itself tended to be a gay friendly business town and a haven to a great many closeted actors and personnel who operated behind the cameras. Just that a huge chunk of the paying public was less friendly and, at best, didn’t care as long as they didn’t have to see “it.” A great deal of subject matter involving heterosexuals was also carefully monitored as well, but at least they got plenty of kissing scenes and romantic fade-outs of happily ever after.

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Only on the rare occasions would you see a same gender kiss and there had to be a specific reason for it. Examples include the two buddies surviving a war together but one dying (before anything detrimental happens between them) in WINGS, Gary Cooper’s Tom Brown taking full charge of Marlene Dietrich’s Amy Jolly in MOROCCO and, despite John Gilbert’s Antonio dying, Greta Garbo’s QUEEN CHRISTINA remembering her queenly duties.

One rather depressing note was made in the book that got repeated in the screen version but in altered words. In 28 films that Russo analyzed that were released between 1962 and 1978, during and after the period in which the Production Code lost control, 22 of them featured a major gay character who either dies from suicide or dramatic violence. While the death rate among gays back then might have been higher than straights simply due to society pressure, this screen emphasis was certainly not good for the burgeoning gay rights movement.

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Lily Tomlin, a friend of Russo’s who narrates the film that he never saw on account of his own passing five years prior, maintains an even keel throughout. We start out with a humorous montage that suggests what we are about to see may resemble WHEN COMEDY WAS KING with some hilarious highlights– like Cary Grant flapping about “going gay” in his feminine robe in BRINGING UP BABY, but the bulk of the running time involves lots of stereotyping and harsh censorship.

In regards to all of the effeminate male characters dating back to ALGIE THE MINER (1912), Harvey Fierstein admits “I liked The Siss-y. Is it used in negative ways? Yeah, but, my view has always been visibility at any cost. I’d rather have negative than nothing.” The lesbian characters were often a sinister villainess, vampire and prison inmate but Susie Bright still enjoys how “Mrs.” Danvers fondles the lingerie in REBECCA (1940).

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Some films that utilized stereotypes were actually pretty positive and forward advancing, including the Astaire-Rogers musicals such as THE GAY DIVORCEE and TOP HAT; the Production Code making sure there were no sexual references made but occasional one-liner jokes could slip through, hinting to audiences about the characters’ orientations.

Surprisingly there is no Cowardly Lion from THE WIZARD OF OZ featured here, even though Bert Lahr’s memorable song was profiled in depth in the book. Doris Day’s vehicles get a bit of mileage in this regard, whether she is dealing with Rock Hudson as a gay man playing a straight man posing as gay in PILLOW TALK or singing about secret love in CALAMITY JANE.

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Part Two

One positive if predictable stereotype that rose in popularity after THE CELLULOID CLOSET was released was the gay best friend that dominated rom-coms in the mid 1990s through mid 2010s. You see so many examples from MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING to CRAZY RICH ASIANS. Usually these were male and were important in their roles of helping the female star find her proper heterosexual soul mate, while not posing any threats since, after all, he was her boy friend in two separate words and not boyfriend as one word.

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A quick rundown of other highlights, a great many clips borrowed wholesale in too many YouTube history videos to count:

– Peter Lorre’s creepy Cairo nibbling on his joy-stick in THE MALTESE FALCON

– the memorable westerns RED RIVER (just the one questionable male scene) and JOHNNY GUITAR (a great female example)

– the boyfriend killers in ROPE

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– Lauren Bacall’s ominous and very peculiar ambiguity in YOUNG MAN IN THE HORN, also with Doris Day

– the predatory lesbian guards in CAGED and their male counterparts in the much later MIDNIGHT EXPRESS

– Sal and Jimmy’s bro-bonding in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE… and we all know who must die in the end since he is not the one dating Natalie Wood

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– Tony Curtis commenting on both SOME LIKE IT HOT and SPARTACUS

– Gore Videl cheekily commenting on how he and director William Wyler pulled the wool over Charlton Heston’s eyes in BEN-HUR

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– Shirley MacLane on THE CHILDREN’S HOUR, one of the most depressing lesbian dramas ever made, but eventually topped by others later the sixties such as THE FOX

– Susan Sarandon on THE HUNGER and its continuation of the female vampire type

– the way many popular books often got toned down quite a bit in the ’80s and ’90s in their screen adaptations despite all of advancements made previously, such as THE COLOR PURPLE (with Whoopi Goldberg commenting) and FRIED GREEN TOMATOES.

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Going back and forth in time, there are backtracks to the ’70s after the ’80s with clips that include SUNDAY, BLOODY, SUNDAY, John Schlesinger’s progressive follow-up to MIDNIGHT COWBOY (curiously not shown) with its just-accept-as-normal romantic triangle. However we only see the famous male kiss shown and not much commentary on that one (much to my surprise) even though it is as equally important to its era as CABARET.

By the early eighties, with the culmination of so much gay rights progress, an increasing number of straight actors took on positive gay roles such as Harry Hamlin, here commenting on MAKING LOVE which received high profile promotion by 20th Century Fox until a change of studio hands prompted an unfortunate curtailing of promotion and distribution.

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Another important trend that took over in the later 1980s and ’90s was the AIDS drama, most notably represented by PHILADELPHIA with Tom Hanks (again, commenting accordingly). These allowed further representation in mainstream movies while also continuing the decades-old cookie cutter formula of little to no sex or affection shown on screen and the inevitable death end result. On the plus side, it did continue the sympathetic, need-to-be-accepted theme that can be traced back to VICTIM, the landmark British 1961 breakthrough.

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One genre that is overlooked here is the porn film, which exploded in popularity during the seventies and tended to be very gay positive with its anything goes and to-each-their-own mentality. I was rather disappointed that we don’t get any scenes from Wakefield Poole’s BOYS IN THE SAND to follow the much discussed BOYS IN THE BAND or Radley Metzger’s excellent bisexual satire SCORE. Some of the art house European imports that were not always as graphic in that regard, but still pushed the envelope further than their American contemporaries, would have been nice additions as well.

During the final portion, there is a light at the end of the tunnel full of hope and enthusiasm for the future. The early 1990s sees the full rainbow emerge with a simply fabulous selection that includes MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, THE CRYING GAME, THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT and BOYS ON THE SIDE.

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In this respect, this compilation piece is a nice follow-up to the previous three. PARIS 1900 and WHEN COMEDY WAS KING were engaging flashbacks to the fun times of yesteryear even though both end on a sad note: either soldiers leaving on trains for the war front or clowns getting a fade out, never to return.

THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT! is all about the joy of singing and dancing, with a satisfying ending featuring Gene Kelly picking up his love-rose in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and Frank Sinatra giving us a send-off. Yet it too relates to an era that has passed, with the most recent movie featured in that compilation being 15 years by 1974.

THE CELLULOID CLOSET gives us dark clouds throughout much of its running time as we look backward, but then moves forward to demonstrate just how much progress has been made and still will be made in the future.

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Essential: THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT! (1974)

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***

Jlewis:

“Boy do we need it now!”

So read the slogan on the original posters put out in the spring of 1974. No, it was not exactly the best of times for America as a whole, with Watergate bringing down a presidency, the humiliation of the Vietnam War that had yet to be resolved and a Middle East crisis prompting a gas shortage. Nostalgia was reining supreme about this time with hits like The Waltons and Happy Days on TV. Anything set in simpler times decades ago was an ideal way to escape the present.

Even the studio that made this ensemble piece down memory lane had seen better days itself. There were only three other feature length theatricals aside from this one (and roughly the same number of TV productions) planned for that year’s release schedule. MGM’s head mogul Kirk Kerkorian was much more focused on his hotel in Las Vegas. As one reviewer in Variety declared: “While many ponder the future of MGM, none can deny that it has one hell of a past.”

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Frank Sinatra, the first of our hosts, is pretty direct about that past which both he and fellow host Jimmy Stewart subtly suggest on screen was not always the best of times. “Musicals were fantasy trips for the audiences of their day. For instance, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy sings a song and gets girl. The plots were that simple.”

… and this compilation piece basically prevents us from having to sit through these predictable plots and, instead, focus on what is most important: the elaborate musical numbers. “Some studios can claim they made the finest gangster films or the greatest horror movies, but when it came to musicals…MGM, they were the champions.”

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Of the trio of THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT! vehicles, I have always enjoyed them equally but will admit that THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT, PART II (1976) is slightly weaker than the others despite reuniting Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire together on screen (appearing separately in the first film but praising the other) and featuring an impressive assortment of non-musical clips that even includes James Fitzpatrick’s Traveltalks.

The third one, released 18 years after the second, is arguably the best simply because the 1990s saw considerable fine-tuning of this kind of montage documentary to a state of perfection. More importantly, it includes the many fascinating outtake numbers not utilized in the final films (this being some years before DVDs began regularly including them as “extras”).

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The first one, however, gets credit for having the most stellar cast. Aside from the chairman of the board and Stewart, we also get as hosts Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Lawford, Mickey Rooney, Gene Kelly (paying a salute to Astaire), Donald O’Conner, Debbie Reynolds, Fred Astaire (paying a salute to Kelly), Liza Minnelli and even Bing Crosby, despite the fact that he only made two films for the studio prior to this one that were made a full 23 years apart!

It also showcases the final cinematic shots of many back-lot sets used in the movies, much of it destined to be bulldozed to the ground to make way for housing developments. Sony now operates what is left of the old Culver City lot, much reduced in size.

With Jack Haley Jr. supervising, we get a pretty good sampling of the great Arthur Freed unit and the more economical offerings from Joe Pasternak and others, with the 1929 Oscar winning BROADWAY MELODY leading us off.

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Among the highlights: Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald in ROSE MARIE, the over indulgent Oscar winning THE GREAT ZIEGFELD, Eleanor Powell in ROSALIE, the Andy Hardy vehicles, THE WIZARD OF OZ, Esther Williams and her “aquamusicals,” MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, ZIEGFELD FOLLIES with Gene and Fred together, ANCHORS AWEIGH (with Jerry Mouse dancing with Gene Kelly), THE HARVEY GIRLS, THE PIRATE, TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALLGAME, ON THE TOWN, Mario Lanza belting it out in TOAST OF NEW ORLEANS, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, THE BAND WAGON, SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS and the many widescreen CinemaScope productions reformatted for 70mm here, HIGH SOCIETY with Bing and Frankie together, GIGI and others.

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As Jimmy Stewart admits, not all of the musicals were that good, but the highlights were always engaging, such as Clark Gable singing and tap dancing in IDIOT’S DELIGHT and Judy Garland dedicating “You Made Me Love You” to Mister Gable in BROADWAY MELODY OF 1938. Plus Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Cary Grant and others trying their musical best. There is also some attempt to show racial diversity on screen even though old time Hollywood may not have presented it in quite the same proportions we have come to expect today, with Lena Horne in THOUSANDS CHEER, William Warfield in SHOW BOAT and the Nicholas Brothers dancing with Gene Kelly in THE PIRATE.

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A trivial note involves a little boo-boo in Liza’s tribute to mommy Judy Garland. As part of the Gumm Sisters, mom did not make her debut in the 3-strip 1935 Technicolor short film LA FIESTA DE SANTA BARBARA even if that marked her MGM debut, but in a 1929 indy 2-reeler THE BIG REVUE. This was followed by a trio in early 2-strip Technicolor that were put out during the next year by Warner Brothers-Vitaphone; one surviving title, BUBBLES, is only available in black and white.

There is the problem of time restraints, which the two sequels helped rectify with additional footage. For example, we do not see the title tune presented in this first feature even though we hear it nonstop as theme background material (with the great Henry Mancini involved). We do get two other clips from THE BAND WAGON which made the song famous.

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Leonard Maltin rightfully complained about how the impressive ballet of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS was edited down quite a bit in the finale, but the third feature recovered a couple scenes missed there too. The main point of this film is, of course, to encourage you to seek out all of the originals, complete in their musical numbers and, as Frankie admitted, their predictable boy-meets-girl plots.

I, for one, was influenced by this film even though I did see a couple of the features excerpted here before, not just THE WIZARD OF OZ. I probably first saw it on PBS late night in the early 1980s or so. By the time I saw the third compilation film a year or two after its theatrical release in VHS, I had seen many more of these musical features. Like the Robert Youngson silent comedy spectaculars, THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT! does get you hooked and reeled-in with its icing on the cake presentation of the best of the best.

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Essential: WHEN COMEDY WAS KING (1960)

Jlewis:

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If you google the name Robert Youngson, you will most likely find misidentified images of a popular physician and medical writer with the same name. The movie maker Robert Youngson…curiously…did not get his picture taken often, despite building a career involving the images of others. Suffering from various weight and medical issues late in life, he died in 1974 at the still relatively young age of 56.

He may not be a household name, but he was nonetheless quite influential in the field of documentary compilation films during his own lifetime; a bit of the Youngson influence carried over in subsequent films of the sixties through nineties that include MGM’s musical extravaganza THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT, Alex de Renzy’s A HISTORY OF THE BLUE MOVIE, THE CELLULOID CLOSET and, to some extent, even the many theatrical and TV historical documentaries by Ken Burns.

On the surface, his eight compilation features made between 1957 and 1970 brought to light a memorable era full of laughter, populated by his favorite cinema clowns of his childhood years: Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon, among others.

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Yet underlying them is a sense of melancholy resembling the kind I described earlier with PARIS 1900. That was because so many of these clowns had passed away or were about to. THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY was, in fact, released after Oliver Hardy’s passing so he was not one to experience the great revival of his works as Stan Laurel and Buster Keaton did…and they only reaped the attention for a relatively short time, passing on within a decade later.

Liza Minnelli stated in THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT! (the first of that series, 1974): “Thank God for film. It can capture a moment and hold it there forever. If anyone ever asks you,’Who were they?’ or ‘What made them so good?’ I think a reel of film answers that question.”

While that quote is partly true, a performance can only last as long as the source it is recorded on. Just as your own digital images on an iPhone or laptop may not last forever since computer software is constantly changing over time, old fashion photography and motion pictures are only slightly more durable. With a movie, there is always the danger of nitrate decomposition, fire and overall neglect.

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(TopBilled’s note: Youngson supposedly used 2500 existing reels to get eight reels for the feature length WHEN COMEDY WAS KING.) In several Youngson features, we are frequently reminded of how many old films are now lost and what we are seeing on screen has only been spared by a miracle.

In probably the only major book dedicated to him, the fittingly titled The Vanished World of Robert Youngson (BearManor Media, 2018), Jim Manago notes a few similarities between him and the infamously cranky critic James Agee, who shared a similar affection for the great silent comedy stars and also died too soon before his time.

Youngson’s widow Jeanne Keyes was a great resource for the author in interviews she did in her nineties and, in a curious twist of fate resembling Robert’s, she too shares a name with a writer who is more famous with photos online confusingly misidentified. Prior to Manago, Leonard Maltin profiled Youngson extensively in his classic 1972 book The Great Movie Shorts.

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Youngson entered the business as a newsreel editor for Pathé, which distributed its newsreels in the U.S. through RKO at the time he joined in 1941 and was later taken over by Warner Brothers. It was with the latter studio and the friendly support of sales associate Norman Moray that he blossomed with a long running series of one and two reel short subjects covering the history of America through newsreel clips; two of which were awarded Academy Awards and four more were nominated.

SPILLS AND CHILLS (1949) is probably my favorite and it is easily accessible in the TCM DORIS DAY SPOTLIGHT COLLECTION, covering the wild aerial stunts of the 1910s and ’20s that were blatantly “lifted” in an extended sequence in Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s HOLLYWOOD series decades later.

I believe just four titles made the DVD cut through Warner home video while most received rather limited VHS coverage back in the 1980s through Video Yesteryear. More recently, his one early Warner feature film, FIFTY YEARS BEFORE YOUR EYES, a June 1950 release covering the history of newsreels themselves, was uploaded on YouTube by PersicopeFilm using a 16mm print reissued for school use by Films Incorporated and is a rather interesting, if also dated in a Cold War era sort of way, historical piece itself.

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He started work on THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY, his salute to the comedy stars backed by Hal Roach and Mack Sennett, after Warner decided to pull the plug on several of their short subject departments, including the newsreel. The studio showed limited interest in his effort because, I guess, they had already made a few Mack Sennett reels in previous years and didn’t see much of a market for it.

It was only after it scored successfully at a few showings in late 1957 that 20th Century Fox assisted in distribution (initially Distributors Corporation of America). Fox also assisted on WHEN COMEDY WAS KING (completed in 1959 and released March 1960), while MGM helped out on some later efforts. The fact that these Hollywood majors showed great interest in these at a time when documentary films tended to be independent productions indicates just how much Youngson’s work was valued by the industry as a whole.

What I love about WHEN COMEDY WAS KING is its extensive opening segment. It lifts footage of Charley Chase in…what else?…but MOVIE NIGHT, a classic 2 reeler from 1929 that features him attending a movie theater with some kids.

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Again, the THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT! films borrow a bit from this inspiration with equally creative credits sequences, particularly the second film of that series.

THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY focused on a specific five year period (1923-28) and included a few classics like Laurel & Hardy’s TWO TARS and vintage Will Rogers spoofing Douglas Fairbanks and other stars of the period in UNCENSORED MOVIES, but this second film expands its time period with a broader menu of out-and-out classics that may be more familiar to the casual movie fan of today due to their extensive coverage in more recent years.

KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE was Charlie Chaplin’s most famous early film of 1914, but I personally feel that Roscoe Arbuckle may have been an even better talent had scandal not destroyed his career in 1921.

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FATTY AND MABEL ADRIFT (1916) is given thoughtful cinematic commentary with Dwight Weist’s narration, including the artful camera tricks showing Fatty’s affectionate “shadow” kiss of his wife Mabel Normand while she sleeps.

Gloria Swanson is featured in another Sennett favorite, TEDDY AT THE THROTTLE (1917), with Teddy being the canine star. COPS (1922) is perhaps Buster Keaton’s most famous short film. Meanwhile the climax involves Laurel & Hardy’s battle with a would-be-customer of Christmas trees in BIG BUSINESS (1929); this feature pretty much resurrected that film from almost obscurity into the critical CITIZEN KANE-ish limelight it now enjoys.

Lesser offerings that are still highly regarded include Ben Turpin in YUKON JAKE (1924) and Edgar Kennedy in A PAIR OF TIGHTS (1928), in addition to the great “sad clown” Harry Langdon in THE FIRST 100 YEARS (1924).

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Thanks to Youngson, the 1960s saw a silent comedy two-reeler boom of sorts, with increased airings on TV. The emerging, rebellious Baby Boom generation particularly enjoyed the outlandish and often reckless antics of these old-time stunt comics that certainly contrasted to the more sedated humor that their parents were currently enjoying in their comfortable living rooms with prime-time domesticated sitcoms.

There was also a noticeable increase in the number of publications on the subject during that decade; I have a great little hardback that Kalton C. Lahue did in 1966, World of Laughter, that includes rather complete filmographies of all of the major stars that were my go to source prior to imdb.com. Even Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine got into the act with frequent articles on silent film comedy, interspersed with the usual men’s entertainment articles and buck-naked centerfolds.

In closing, narrator Dwight Weist tells us “So ends our visit to the era of the great silent clowns who mass-produced laughter and sold happiness and who passed into oblivion just before the years when the world needed them the most.”

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Essential: PARIS 1900 (1947)

TopBilled:

A quick reminder that Jlewis is handling the reviews this month. He has chosen some very interesting documentary compilation films.

***

Jlewis:

In French, original version:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itll-GyFlmg

In English, 1948 U.S. version:  https://archive.org/details/paris1900_201705/paris1900_201705reel1.mov

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This month, I am attempting a rather peculiar topic rarely discussed in the entertainment literature: the historical montage documentary. That is, if I have the proper title for it. It is a genre that we pretty much take for granted today since anything historical and educational shown on TV or YouTube makes full use of previously released material, much of it in public domain as copyright control lapses over time. Yet there isn’t much discussion of it in print or online.

First, an attempt at a history lesson is in order.

I don’t know exactly when movies started borrowing clips from earlier movies with a conscious, historical perspective rather than just recycling footage in order to save money in re-filming a particular stock scene. Yet the weekly one-reel short film series, the silent PATHÉ REVIEW (1919-1930) and all-talkie PATHÉ AUDIO REVIEW (1929-1933) produced in the United States and the PATHÉ PICTORIAL that was its British counterpart but ran a staggering 51 years uninterrupted (1918-69), are good starting points for the discussion.

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The Pathé Frères company that the brothers Charles, Émile, Théophile and Jacques had launched in Paris back in 1896 had plenty of material in their vaults by the time Terry Ramsaye, in particular, decided to make nostalgic trips down memory lane with such segments within the PATHÉ REVIEW reels such as “Dirty Work on the Crossroads” (Series 28: No. 31, a July 29, 1928 installment) snipping highlights from older multi-chapter serials THE SHIELDING SHADOW and THE TIMBER QUEEN, “We Remember” (Series 29: No. 23 from April 27, 1929) covering pre-war news items, the PATHÉ AUDIO REVIEW No. 9 (June 7, 1929) with 1890s footage in “Bygones” and No. 28 (October 22, 1929) covering a history of baseball with valuable footage of Babe Ruth and Tyrus Cobb in their youth.

Pathé probably made the more of these types of films over a four decade period than anybody else, but there was plenty of competition in the 1930s as other major Hollywood studios investigated their silent film vaults to see if anything was worth recycling for the Talkie Era, even if just for a short subject topic to be shown with the latest two reel comedy, cartoon or travelogue.

Fox Movietone had a rarely seen today (if any prints are still available) TINTYPES series produced by Truman Talley (1933-34). Paramount’s SCREEN SOUVENIRS (1931-1935) and its later special spin-off shorts such as MOVIE MILESTONES are vitally important for film historians due to their inclusion of long lost Paramount Famous Players-Lasky titles, such as the only remaining three minutes of Lon Chaney in THE MIRACLE MAN (1919). In 2010, the Warner Archive produced an excellent (costly, but worth the price) six disc DVD set VITAPHONE CAVALCADE OF COMEDY SHORTS COLLECTION that included some wonderful “Pepper Pots” like THE CAMERA SPEAKS (1934) featuring the legendary Billy Bitzer talking to his camera as we examine vintage footage from the Vitagraph (now Vitaphone) and other studio vaults.

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Back to Pathé, two other short subject series were collaborations with RKO Radio and Warner Brothers respectively. The former were the FLICKER FLASHBACKS (1943-48) directed by Richard Fleischer, a future feature director who also happened to be the son of cartoon producer Max Fleischer of Betty Boop and Popeye fame.

These tended to be comical and slightly mocking of the material presented but also included plenty of old Biograph material directed by D.W. Griffith that kept his name relevant in filmdom during his last years of life. In contrast, Robert Youngson’s multi-Oscar winning 10-20 minute Warner “novelties” and “varieties” of 1948-56 were much more serious and nostalgic in tone. (I will get into more Youngson in a future review.)

About the time Fleischer started his final season of FLICKERS and just before Youngson got started on his, French moviegoers attending the Cannes film festival of September 1947 were given a special treat…

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PARIS 1900 a.k.a. PARIS MIL NEUF CENT.

The title is inaccurate since its clever montage of clips spans a whole span of time from 1895 (earliest Lumiere footage) through the war years of 1914 and even a bit later. It shares many similarities both with the Warner Youngson shorts (he was obviously influenced by its success) and another key U.S. produced  featurette (about 50 minutes) made exactly ten years later: NBC’s television series PROJECT XX included an episode called  THE INNOCENT YEARS (aired November 21, 1957) that also covered the 1890s through 1917, the key U.S. wartime year.

The producer of PARIS 1900 was the very prolific Pierre Braunberger, who also backed two documentaries covering Vincent Van Gogh, one of them an Oscar winner, that involved the great Alain Resnais, who also serves as assistant supervisor here. Three big names were also credited for their cooperation: veteran director-actor-playwriter Sacha Guitry, the famous antique specialist Jacques Damiot and Henri Langlois of La Cinémathèque Française, legendary in his obsession to preserve just about anything he could get his hands on since he felt that the only way anybody could judge the value of art was to have it available to see for himself or herself.

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The director and writer in charge was a woman who had a far smaller filmography in comparison. Perhaps because the ladies always had fewer opportunities in a male dominated profession? Nicole Védrès is best known for this title and also a semi-controversial drama LA VIE COMMENCE DEMAIN (LIFE BEGINS TOMORROW) that garnished an “X” rating in the UK four years later.

As we open, the first lines in English are “Those were, so it seemed, the happy times.” Since we are rather light hearted here (even though we do learn later that these years were not always happy), the narration and some songs sung in the French original were done by popular comedy star Claude Dauphin, whom we’ve discussed fleetingly in an earlier review of TALE OF A FOX as a key animated character voice. When Arthur Mayer and Edward Kingsley acquired the U.S. distribution rights the following year, they chose an equally humorous voice to narrate John Mason Brown’s English translation: a great snooty Monty Woolley.

The Eiffel Tower opens our trip, along with the Paris World Exhibition of 1900, but surprisingly not the Olympic Games of that same year. 1900 was also the year of the first subway, the Métro, but it doesn’t get focused on until a second one is constructed a few years later and with a succeeding president overseeing it. Apparently the president of 1900, Émile Loubet, was too devoid of cinematic action for the screen to get any mention here, so we jump ahead to the more colorful Armand Fallières who dominated the country between the years 1906 and 1913, preening with visitors and becoming a visitor himself to Tunisia and other locales overseas. In Monty’s narration, he’s compared to Santa Claus.

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It was very much a man’s world, but you know our female director/writer has plenty to say about the “weaker sex” and all of their great strides in suffrage and their right to wear trousers. Fashions change with the times as Monty our English guide states: “Liberation is the slogan of the day. Liberation not only from male dictatorship but also from the restraints of that more painful tyrant, the corset.”

Predictably there are more key female figures in fashion and acting, not so much politics or running the country. Most important are Sarah Bernhardt and singer Polaire, the former appearing in one of the earliest “talkies” documented here with good matching of lips with soundtrack voice.

Some of the gender oriented fads get ridiculed and I am sure Védrès wrote much of the material with her tongue in her cheek. For example, we see proper ladies making sure they get vaccinated in public with as many spectators as possible. Slightly creepy is the early century fetish of husbands having their wives photographed by a professional cameraman while sleeping!

Much focus is put on the many ways people entertained themselves at the time, particularly at amusement parks and at the beach. July 14th was that nation’s version of this nation’s July 4th and the French/American connection of having fun is further enhanced by the circus scenes featured, including Yank visitor Buffalo Bill Cody in all his glory.

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Technology and its many marvels also influences the entertainment customs of the time with a dance craze inspired by the latest novelty, the airplane (and we see footage of Louis Blériot flying across the English Channel here), but the stretched arms resembling wings is counter-productive for many couples’ sense of intimacy on the dance floor.

Of course, no documentary on Paris would be complete without The Arts. The footage of Impressionist painters are a key highlight, with Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir shown at work along with sculptor Auguste Rodin. I was surprised at how much Renoir smoked like a locomotive. There is also quite a bit of coverage concerning the major wars in artist styles, with Leon Bonnat (shown painting the portrait of Fallières) being the great “enemy of the Impressionists.”

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Guillaume Apollinaire, the famous poet and art critic, is seen in a rare “animated” sequence with André Rouveyre (which you can also find on his Wikipedia page), while other famous names of the art world such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso are only seen in stills or represented by paintings since virtually all of (if not all of) their cinematic footage post-dates the time frame here.

Among the writers profiled are quite a number who were women (since our film’s creator chose to spotlight them) and, of course, Marcel Proust. Art also finds its expression in stage acts, some involving acrobatics with a breathtaking skill that is still impressive today.

One key advantage of France being the nation profiled here is the wealth of motion picture footage available, since it was THE top movie making nation in the pre-Hollywood era. Early on, we get slapstick moments coming from some unidentified early comedy-reel with a Keystone-ish group of cops. The material is presented as if it is “real” life rather than “reel” life to emphasize a certain funny innocence of the Parisians.

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Later we gets clips from key serials and swashbuckler dramas but, unfortunately, no title information for the cinematically curious. I am also a bit disappointed that, despite the wealth of material presented, very little is mentioned of the creators apart from Ferdinand Zecca and Charles Pathé getting a brief nod. No mention of Georges Méliès even though some of his productions are recognizable here. I am guessing the film footage of early Maurice Chevalier comes from PAR HABITUDE (1911), but who knows for sure?

Despite the overall easy-going tone of it all, we are occasionally reminded that they were not always the best of times. The great flood of 1910 is presented with a rather ominous orchestration, again reminding me of THE INNOCENT YEARS covering San Francisco’s earthquake of 1906 and the Ohio floods of 1913. There is also Franz Reichelt performing an aerial stunt from the Eiffel Tower that accidentally turns suicidal in 1912, as covered by the early newsreel cameras.

There are also a few glimpses of slum life, showing that not everybody was enjoying the care free life a.k.a. “This is the Paris that tourists do not see.”

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Socialism and other then radical political ideas are pushed forth in an effort to bring bread to many a table. One stunning sequence of newsreel clips involve the police chase and killing of anarchist and gang leader Jules Bonnot and the bombing of his hide-out. His last words are written in blood: “So much the worse for society. So much the worse for you.”

There is sense of doom that starts to creep in during the final act. All of the leaders of France’s neighboring nations insist that there will be no future wars and a who’s who of international heads visit Paris to negotiate with each other, including statesman Aristide Briand, Kaiser Wilhelm II, King Alfonso XIII, Tsar Nicholas II and even U.S. tycoon Andrew Carnegie.

Meanwhile we see a war machine gradually in the making with a few industrialists making a fortune in the process. To those watching this in 1947, it was all eerily familiar. We close with soldiers embarking on trains as Monty in English groans “Even as they say a farewell to one another, they are also saying goodbye to those peaceful, carefree years.”

Again, it is fun to compare this to its NBC alternate remake of sorts. THE INNOCENT YEARS was far more optimistic, being about the United States and its constant use of rose-colored glasses to get it through the worst of times. Narrator Alexander Scourby closes with a 1917 military parade “every heart beats true with the red, white and blue.” Yup, the Yanks will pull through this war like they do everything else.

Essential: St. Elsewhere – ‘After Life’ (1986) & ‘Women Unchained’ (1987)

St. Elsewhere

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Season 5, Episode 9 — After Life; Broadcast on November 26, 1986

Story by Tom Fontana, John Masius & John Tinker

Directed by Mark Tinker

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Jlewis:

This is one of the more famous episodes.

We begin with Dr. Wayne Fiscus (Howie Mandel) chasing fireflies…or fairies…or Tinker Bell since he is like Peter Pan in his juvenile personality. It is interesting that he gets accidentally shot right after his little speech about catching fireflies and saying he loves having control over their lives once he catches them. His life seems to be controlled by…somebody. Under surgery, he goes through his out of body experience to see what life after death is like…

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(TopBilled needs to make an inventory of how many characters employed by St. Eligius have also been patients struggling to survive in ER themselves. I have lost count, but it must be an interesting number.)

Much of this story is patterned after other heavenly comedies of the 1970s and ’80s, which combined a little New Age rhetoric to old fashion religion, while still paying homage to old-time Hollywood fantasies of the HERE COMES MR. JORDAN and A GUY NAMED JOE kind.

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What I find interesting about these period pieces is how they showcase where many average Americans’ state of mind were in regards to such unanswered subject matter. In the ME decade, people became less critical of themselves and what ”sins” they were committing that the religious authorities of old used to burn them at the stake for. However these decades were still full of uncertainty in life so everybody was still questioning ”am I making the right decisions?”

Usually our perceptions of death and life after death are colored by what others in our family and community tell us, which is why Wayne is the perfect character for this kind of TV-recreated ”heaven.” Like Victor, he is always focused on what others have to say.

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In Death Valley or some place like it, he meets patients who died. Then he joins a country estate with Marian Mercer playing a role similar to Audrey Hepburn’s in Spielberg’s subsequent (released later that decade) movie ALWAYS.

Then he meets Peter in Loch Ness, a key reason we are discussing this show since it ties in with our previous Peter-centric stories. Peter has put on some weight since we last saw him alive and is also mighty angry in his row boat, tossing Wayne overboard with the lady mannequins in the water. Wayne returns to Peter for repeated crazy talks, after visiting other areas in his peculiar setting. There is lots of talk talk talk in this episode but not much that I personally found particularly enlightening or different than other fantasies of this type. Patients in Death Valley behave like they are stand-up comics up in the Catskills.

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Wayne meets God, who looks just like him. After all, those raised Judeo-Christian believe they were created in ”His” image. Interrupting my Dailymotion video and extending it past to the 90 minute mark were previews of ABC’s When Nature Calls with Helen Mirren. Is God also taking the image of every furry and feathered critter featured on that show too? Humans think they are so special, but they are merely another species sharing the same planet in the solar system.

A moderately interesting experiment that tries to be different than the others. By the way, Wayne survives his surgery.

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***

TopBilled:

This was the last episode in which Peter White appeared. St. Elsewhere featured memorable final episodes for all of its most popular characters.

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These residents died during the show’s run:

Wendy Armstrong (committed suicide at the end of season 2)
Peter White (murdered at the beginning of season 3; appeared in hell with Wayne Fiscus in season 5)
Bobby Caldwell (diagnosed with AIDS in the middle of season 4, he went to California to work and live at an AIDS hospice, and was reported to have died from AIDS off screen in the middle of season 6)
Elliott Axelrod (heart attack at the end of season 6)

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These residents left:

Annie Cavanero (not seen again after season 3, no explanation of where she went)

Phillip Chandler (went to Missouri in the middle of season 6 for management training, and came back for a few episodes near the end; he then gave up his career as a doctor and joined his girlfriend in Mississippi in the penultimate episode)

Jack Morrison (went to live with family in Seattle in late season 4 after the rape at the prison, came back at the beginning of season 5 to finish his residency, then returns to Seattle at the end)

Wayne Fiscus (leaves for Nicaragua in the last episode, because he feels there are a lot of emergency cases he can help with in a third-world country).

These residents stayed at St. Eligius:

Dr. Jacqueline Wade (continued as surgeon, promoted to management)

Dr. Victor Ehrlich (also continued as a surgeon)

Victor

***

St. Elsewhere

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Season 5, Episode 20 — Women Unchained; Broadcast on March 4, 1987

Story by Tom Fontana, John Masius & Eric Overmyer; Teleplay by Russ Woody

Directed by Michael Fresco

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Jlewis:

Our final episode dates to March 4, 1987: Ellen Bry’s Shirley Daniels returns in this one, relating it to our previous discussions. Bruce Greenwood is among the newer stars on this later season of the show, probably replacing Mark Harmon. Denzel Washingon is still on the show and still not doing much, but this may just be a coincidence: the couple of episodes that we have profiled simply don’t showcase him much.

Dr. Elliot Axelrod (Stephen Furst) is all excited that ”celebrity” Shirley Daniels is back as a patient at the hospital.

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Calm down, Elliot. There is an awkward get-together in the cafeteria with Shirley and her former co-workers, with somebody mocking her time in jail with a file included in a Boston cream pie. Victor and others suspect that she may have killed another patient, an elderly woman in terminal condition whom she felt sorry for.

Although her story does not amount to much, I do feel that Ellen Bry is a very talented actress who makes the most of her character. Her declaration to Jack about her death-till-we-depart love for him is wonderfully unhinged.

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Mark’s wife Ellen meets an old flame (Gerald Hiken) in this one, but not much story is developed there except that he is now down and out and Mark is predictably judgmental of his ”bum” life.

The episode ends with a patient receiving a lethal injection from a strange hand, but this is a story arc that I will allow TopBilled to cover since I have not followed this season carefully.

***

TopBilled:

The story about the patient receiving a lethal injection is part of a season 5 arc, where a series of mercy killings take place at the hospital. The first one of these deaths occurs when Shirley is there as a patient, and everyone naturally assumes she did it, since she was guilty of killing Peter.

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But after some sexy talk with her old pal Wayne Fiscus, Shirley returns to prison (never to be seen again on the show)…and another mercy killing occurs a short time later. This means Shirley cannot be the culprit since she’s no longer there and back behind bars. Someone else on staff is putting sick elderly patients out of their misery. I won’t spoil who it is, but it is revealed near the end of season 5.

Before we close, I would like to thank Jlewis for being a good sport and looking at episodes of this highly esteemed series with me. I hope people reading our reviews this month will watch the episodes.

Here’s a link for a good website that has some trivia and other items about the show:

http://www.stelsewhereweb.com/

Essential: St. Elsewhere – ‘Murder She Rote’ (1985) & ‘Cheek to Cheek’ (1986)

St. Elsewhere

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Season 3, Episode 21 — Murder She Rote; Broadcast on February 27, 1985

Story by Tom Fontana and John Masius and Steve Bello

Directed by Mark Tinker

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Jlewis:

Patient Andrea (Ann Hearn) struggles to leave after face treatment (she was suffering physical effects from a bone disease) due to fears returning to the outside world. Dr. Robert Caldwell (Mark Harmon) loses patience with his patient, but she warms up gradually through his guidance. It is suggested that she is infatuated with him and, heck, since he is on the market as indicated in an earlier conversation and has no other love interests, why not?

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This show features the death of Mrs. Hufnagel (Florence Halop), who never leaves the surroundings she now considered ”home.” The actress makes great use of her final scenes. Her departure from this world is justifiably unusual, as she uses the bed controls and gets trapped when it closes up on her, prompting a post-surgery heart attack. The coldness that multiple characters, surprisingly not Mark Craig, who blames himself for her death, display after her passing did bother me a bit. I understand that she got on everybody’s nerves, but she was not THAT despicable.

Dr. Eliot Axelrod (Stephen Furst) gets a new girlfriend but acts like a Nervous Nelly when she tries to get him into bed. There is a dramatic (and overblown in a TV sort of way) fire sequence at a Hawaiian restaurant which prompts the owner to sue Eliot for using the expensive aquarium and its exotic residents to put it out. As amusing as this side-story involving this Woody Allen-ish character is, it literally goes nowhere and isn’t resolved as it should be. Sometimes the writers come up with novel ideas to keep viewers watching and then just simply forget about them as they continue with this next dramatic or comic focus.

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Shirley tells Jack that she wished she had killed him back ‘Up on the Roof,’ as he tries to prove her innocence on an insanity clause. Her lawyer tries to get her to defend herself better by emphasizing the Peter-assaulted-me angle but she refuses and fires her assistance.

Everybody wants to keep her out of jail except her and she is even back to her old job, as she humorously quotes Bette Davis in ALL ABOUT EVE with the classic ”fasten your seat belts, it is going to be a bumpy night” line. Eventually she leaves on her own with a fake pop gun that is essentially her middle finger ”see ya’all later” statement for everybody. Oh-kay… well, we can’t say this character wasn’t memorable.

***

TopBilled:

Jlewis mentioned Mark Harmon’s character. I should add that a year later Harmon would be selected by People magazine as the most sexiest male on the planet. (This would become an in-joke in a later episode of St. Elsewhere.)

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Re: Nurse Shirley Daniels (Ellen Bry), she returns for one more guest appearance the following season. We will learn that Shirley did indeed go to prison (more her own choosing, since she could have easily beaten the charges against her). When she comes back to St. Eligius, it is as a patient, which I think is an interesting way to wrap up the character’s long-term arc.

As for Mrs. Hufnagel, this isn’t her last episode either. She appears once more. We find out that she bequeathed her estate to Dr. Elliott Axelrod (Stephen Furst), the only resident on staff that she developed any sort of real bond with, during her various stays at the hospital. She has a very funny bit in a videotaped will, in which she informs Elliott, after her death, that he’s her sole heir. Of course, there is a silly complication, because Mrs. H has a good-for-nothing nephew who thinks the old woman was off her rocker, and that he should have inherited everything.

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The powers that be at NBC were so impressed with Florence Halop’s work on St. Elsewhere, that she was suggested for a role on the network’s popular sitcom Night Court. She replaced Selma Diamond who died of lung cancer. Though ironically, Halop would also die of lung cancer a short time later herself, and she was replaced by Marsha Warfield.

***

St. Elsewhere

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Season 4, Episode 21 — Cheek to Cheek; Broadcast on March 12, 1986

Story by John Masius & Tom Fontana; Teleplay by Eric Overmyer

Directed by Helaine Head

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Jlewis:

A popular comic strip artist, Eric Christmas as Jersey Piker, makes a more interesting than usual patient. He makes note of the budding affections between still single Dr. Donald Westphall and the younger (by 18 years), attractive Dr. Carol Novino (Cindy Pickett).

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Later Carol makes a trivia reference to a then 21 year old oldie after he says ”you were on my mind” that shows how wonderfully geeky the two are together:

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We also have a rare scene of Mark calmly singing ”Old MacDonald” to his infant granddaughter Barbara, but he initially passes off his wife’s health concerns over her ”female” issues. Victor Ehrlich (Ed Begley Jr.) is nervous about examining her in the hospital since his relationship with ”Daddy” is so often in jeopardy. Love Bonnie Bartlett as the actress telling it like it is: ”Victor, am I going to have perform this exam myself?!”

A couple familiar character actor faces, whom you likely won’t remember the names of, appear at a prison that Jack visits. Nicholas Pryor is a resident doctor and Paula Kelly is a talkative nurse assistant Sylvia. She is the latest in a long line of Golden Girls connections; playing the hilarious one-time housekeeper Marguerite in an episode one year after this.

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Another future Golden Girl-er, but not until 1992, is the more sinister Jack Bannon returning as a murderer featured in previous episodes from Elsewhere (as shown in flashbacks).

Jack gets sexually assaulted by a fellow felon; John Dennis Johnston being yet another familiar face to me. This is a typical I’m-not-sure-if-it-was-necessary-and-even-less-sure-if-it-was-all-that-realistic climax that often occurs on primetime TV. Jack returns to his home hospital all bloody in a rather harrowing scene, but it makes me question such things that I normally don’t, such as…don’t they have enough security cameras at the prison? Why isn’t the nurse doing anything, like calling for additional help, when she is nearby? 

***

TopBilled:

OR

The subplot with Victor (Ed Begley) performing the exam on Mrs. Craig (Bonnie Bartlett) becomes a long-running “joke” on the show. Victor continues to bring this up in future episodes, often in the operating room, reminding Dr. Craig (William Daniels) that he has seen Mrs. Craig in a vulnerable position and knows how difficult that must be for Dr. Craig. Is Victor saying this sincerely, or is he sticking the knife in, to get back at Dr. Craig, who has often been harsh during the times when Craig is mentoring Ehrlich? It’s amusing.

Speaking of vulnerability, this episode is a turning point in the life of Dr. Jack Morrison (David Morse) for obvious reasons. He hasn’t been this vulnerable since his wife Nina died at the beginning of the second season.

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The scenes at the men’s prison are part of an outreach that Jack is doing during his residency at St. Eligius. As Jlewis points out, there is some dramatic license taken in terms of security (guards and cameras), but a riot has occurred, and surely there would be a great deal of pandemonium. And probably a coverup too, by prison officials, afraid of losing their jobs.

I found the scene where Jack returns to St. Eligius, all battered and now a rape victim, to be very powerful. This is Jack’s last episode during season 4. He is temporarily written out as having gone back to his parents’ place in Seattle. But when he returns at the beginning of season 5 to start his last year of residency, he has a new wife in tow (Patricia Wettig) and two stepkids who know nothing of his harrowing experience at the prison. The inmate who assaulted him gets out on parole at the end of season 5 and comes to where Jack, his wife and kids live. 

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Along with Peter White’s story, the rape of Jack Morrison was one of the more groundbreaking storylines on St. Elsewhere. This was a program that wasn’t afraid to tackle difficult subjects on network television.