Essential: SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH (1943)

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Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce first teamed up to play Detective Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson in 1939. Originally the series began at 20th Century Fox, and these were “A” films with larger budgets. Sometimes the featured actors at Fox were bigger names than Rathbone and Bruce, meaning that although Rathbone and Bruce were playing the lead characters, they were not necessarily top-billed. After two such pictures, Fox dropped the series– probably because it still had the Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto franchises and the Holmes “A” pictures didn’t do as well as the studio hoped.

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A few years later, Universal secured the rights and kept Rathbone and Bruce in the main roles. However, Universal did not put as much money into the project, so these were definitely “B” productions. The first few Holmes-Watson titles at Universal dealt with topical war-related concerns. SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH, which hit screens in 1943, still has a few references to the war but it is less propagandistic and much more in the vein of the mysteries that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had written.

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In fact this film is based on Doyle’s 1893 story ‘The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual.’ It’s one of Doyle’s earlier pieces, and Watson is actually the narrator, describing a case where his close friend Holmes was challenged to decipher the meaning of an obscure family document. Several people have been killed because of the document, since it’s very valuable and affects the Musgrave family’s fortunes and everyone’s prospects going forward.

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In the Universal production, Watson is directly involved in the action and no longer narrating it. In fact, Holmes does not appear until the 11 minute mark (it’s a 68-minute flick); so the first segment shows Watson meeting the people involved in this case. Instead of visiting the Musgrave family, Watson is visiting a patient who suffered war wounds. The patient is engaged to the Musgraves’ daughter, but her brothers disapprove of the relationship. One brother is murdered, then the second brother is murdered a short time later.  Naturally, it looks as if the patient has some sort of psychosis and is killing off anyone who opposes his relationship to the girl.

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After the first murder, Watson has called Holmes who joins him in figuring out who may be responsible for the deaths and why. They do not believe the patient is the culprit, and our sympathies as the viewing audience are meant to correlate with Holmes and Watson, rooting for the young couple to overcome this situation and eventually marry.  Ultimately Holmes and Watson realize another doctor that is checking on patients with Watson is the one behind the killings. This other person has been setting up the war veteran, in order to get him out of the way and marry the girl himself, since she now stands to inherit a great deal.

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The Universal production has a wholly invented ending that deviates from Doyle’s original story, where Holmes conducts an elaborate chess game to smoke out the killer. But Doyle doesn’t go that route, and in fact, the main death in Doyle’s story might have just been a tragic accident. Doyle’s story also focuses more on the quaint rituals of the Musgrave family, and how certain things are passed– or not passed– from one generation to the next.

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SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH is on YouTube. And ‘The Musgrave Ritual’ episode from the 1984 TV series starring Jeremy Brett is on Britbox. Brett’s show is more faithful to Doyle’s original material, but both versions are fine examples of how the Holmes-Watson dynamic can be used to entertain audiences. And with this particular story, we are able to ponder what it means to face death and go beyond it.

Essential: BATTLE HYMN (1957)

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Part 1 of 2

TB: For our third Universal war film this month, Jlewis and I have chosen to discuss BATTLE HYMN, a Technicolor production directed by Douglas Sirk. By this point in his career, Sirk had become known for a series of lavish tearjerkers with producer Ross Hunter. Many of them featured Rock Hudson in the lead role. This time, the duo venture away from their usual formula to focus on a true life subject. The emphasis is on Colonel Dean Hess, an Air Force pilot celebrated for his humanitarian efforts during the Korean War.

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TB: BATTLE HYMN is different than the two Jeff Chandler films we previously discussed. What were your initial thoughts, as you began to watch it?

JL: We open on a religious note with a war captain and a stained glass window in the background with a tabernacle style choir as the credits roll. Not sure what I was going to get here, but I instantly thought of the Hugh Harman animated cartoon directed for MGM in 1939, PEACE ON EARTH, which mixed religion with an anti-war message. When producer Ross Hunter and director Douglas Sirk’s names appeared, I finally “got it.” Like IMITATION OF LIFE, this is going to be soapy.

TB: Or at least, glossy.

JL: The use of snow and winter scenes to suggest inner psychological turmoil is an interesting trademark of this producer-director collaboration. I am thinking of all the sobbing during IMITATION OF LIFE when Sarah Jane is humiliated for being “exposed” in school by her mother as snow falls and in the final “mother, I didn’t mean it” funeral scene with her running through the slush in her high heels (instead of those red boots mother tried to give her earlier). Also, the emotionally explosive ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS had almost as much snow in it as THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN OF THE HIMALAYAS.

TB: Snow is used like rain in these movies, except things are colder and perhaps a bit more unrelenting. Especially during autumn or winter scenes. The slush is messy, and the personal lives of these characters are often messy.

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JL: In BATTLE HYMN, Rock Hudson plays Col. Dean Hess who accidentally bombed a German orphanage in 1945, killing 37 innocent children, and he returns to the death scene post-war…when, of course, snow is everywhere and even the trees have an ominous icy white look.

TB: I found Hudson believably cast in this role, more than he had been in other Universal-International films during the 1950s. Also, I think it was a chance to stretch himself as an actor, taking on the role of a real-life hero who had these demons to confront.

JL: Nicknamed by his military comrades as “Killer Hess,” he tries to counter all he did by becoming a minister but still feels remorse. Adding to his guilt is the fact that the town in question was close to where his grandma was born; he being guilty of destroying lives at the family ancestral “home.” He accepts his new position in the Korean War to try to find… something… to get him over his emotional anguish. Meanwhile his wife Mary (Martha Hyer) becomes pregnant: one life to replace 37 that were lost.

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TB: We should point out that Hyer’s role is quite marginal in this picture. The same way Julie Adams’ role was in AWAY ALL BOATS. Hyer was one of the studio’s dependable lead actresses, typically cast in melodramas and westerns. In this instance, her persona as the perfect wife is used to good effect. However, she is absent from much of the action, especially the scenes that occur in Korea.

JL: In Korea, Hess is acquainted with a fellow pilot named Maples, played by James Edwards. The military is now integrated white and black, and Maples has the same accident Hess had when he is hastily told to gun down a stray truck. He later learns that children were victims. When he informs Hess about it in a stream of tears, Hess is again confronted with his past.

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TB: This was one of my favorite parts of the film. I think it was brilliant the way we had this extra character in a subplot that mirrored Hess’ own anguish. Then how they both share their grief, in a rather therapeutic way. Obviously, Hess was in Korea for a reason. What did you think of how the Korean culture was portrayed in the movie?

JL: I was a bit disappointed with the Seoul set-ups, appearing more like China than Korea and the “oriental” theme music played that sounds slightly offensive through modern ears if not 1950s ears. Apparently mainstream Hollywood had not quite figured out how to deal with “Asians” on screen any more than they had with “American Indians,” although great strides were taking place with this movie and the even better (Japanese oriented) SAYONARA filmed months later.

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JL: I am quite pleased that they cast a few Asian actors here though. Richard Loo, playing General Kim, was a Hawaiian born of Chinese parents and a veteran in Hollywood since 1931. Korean-American Philip Ahn plays the slightly hokey Lun-Wa and Japanese Teru Shimada also gets a key speaking role. Prominently billed just under Hudson’s name in the credits is Anna Kashfi as En Soon Yang. Her character is half-Indian, half Korean but she herself was also half Indian, if Irish instead of Korean.

Tomorrow Jlewis and I continue our discussion of BATTLE HYMN. Please join us…

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Part 2 of 2

TB: We’re back to continue our discussion of this interesting film. When we left off yesterday, we had been going over the way Korean people were depicted in the movie.

JL: Despite U.S. military integration, we initially do not see much interaction between the men and anti-communist Koreans who are fighting this war even harder. I found the joke made about Koreans wanting to see Thanksgiving turkeys fly particularly disturbing, but I suspect this was done on purpose to address an important point. Director Sirk does not ignore the bigotry of American soldiers regardless of their service to their country. Later one quips with a toothpick in his mouth as he observes Korean orphans that he “almost hit a bunch of them on a take off… scared me silly” (i.e. “them” = deer crossing a road in his eyes).

TB: I agree that the idea was not to offend the audience here, but to show some of the racist or xenophobic attitudes that may have existed among U.S. military personnel. They were defending democracy on foreign soil, but they were not without prejudices. It would have felt false if Sirk had not included any of it.

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JL: Hess’ new redemption is to save as many orphans in this war as possible, in order to compensate for the orphans lost in the previous war. He is angry at first at Sgt. Herman (Dan Duryea) for his unnecessary raid that prompts the truck attack which upset Maples. Later, Herman gets his own redemption scene before he dies. Hess and the U.S. military then work with En Soon Yang in rounding up orphans, feeding and sheltering them, even though there are literally hundreds of them.

This is a very religious movie, maybe too religious for some more secular viewers who generally avoid them. Yet war itself is always at odds with personal religious beliefs and this makes for a popular Hollywood theme. Religion is also emphasized in many movies released during wartime itself (i.e. SERGEANT YORK , THE SONG OF BERNADETTE and GOING MY WAY were colossal blockbusters between 1941 and 1944); and also films contemporary to BATTLE HYMN like FRIENDLY PERSUASION with its Civil War vs. Quaker faith story.

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TB: While Hess is atoning for past sins, we also learn that life has gone on back home. His wife is now pregnant, and she faithfully awaits his return from Korea.

JL: Between two of the battles, Lun-Wa provides a good speech to ease Dean’s conscience (so that he may some day go back to his wife and baby on the way). “In times like these, can a man of good conscience ask others that he will ‘protect me, kill for me, but do not ask me to stain my hand?’…What one must choose when two evils are all that is offered? To accept the lesser can sometimes be our only choice. In order to save, at times we must destroy and in destruction, create new life.”

Any CinemaScope production with the word “battle” must deliver… and this one does four times with great aerial footage, if shot over an arid and not-so-hilly southwest U.S. landscape posing as wintertime Korea. In one battle, Dean must quickly decide to kill (as “Killer Hess”) an enemy pilot in the sky in order to aid Maples.

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TB: There were several key death scenes with the main characters. What did you think about those? Especially Herman’s death.

JL: After two of the final battles, we see two characters get death scenes in Hess’ arms, which I found more predictable than moving. Sgt. Herman’s wasn’t terribly different than many shown before, most famously in WINGS, and it diminished the impact of En Soon Yang’s death.

TB: I think the production code necessitated her death. Mostly, I found her character to be one of the more fictionalized elements of the film. Not sure if Hess really did have such a close relationship with a Korean woman, while he was away from his wife. But here, in this film, she is included to ramp up the drama. But of course she cannot be the one he chooses. He has to ultimately re-choose his wife and go back home for a happy ending. Thus, En Soon Yang is expendable in a narrative of this sort and she must die.

JL: Yes. Her death would have “pleased” Eisenhower Era sensibilities in preventing Hess from falling for her and forgetting about his pregnant wife. Fortunately the wife shows up in the final scene and our cute Korean boy hops into Hess’ arms to remind us that they also have one on the way. As we indicated already, poor Martha Hyer doesn’t have much to do in this film but act poised and pretty.

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JL: Speaking of Hudson’s married husband role here, much has been made about the actor’s uber-heterosexual roles on screen and, for a time in the decade following his death, there was a curious novelty in re-editing old clips of his scenes to make them more “gay” in tone. One scene that tickled me here could be incorporated in such a montage by an avid YouTube uploader today.

TB: What scene was it?

JL: Shortly after Hudson glances affectionately at “eager beaver” pilots strolling by…Maples says “I feel sorta naked up there without any experienced wing men.” Then Hess says “the com patrol is being reported closer everyday,” and he briefly looks down at Maples below the waist and taps him. “From now on, you will have hot guns” (then poking him in the chest) “…only for protection.”

TB: (laughs) I guess I’m going to have to re-watch that part of the movie! But at the same time we have Anna Kashfi in the movie to offset the homoerotic vibes. I think Kashfi was thrown into the mix so there would be someone sexy or exotic for straight men in the audience to ogle. But of course Hyer’s character represents the morally correct choice of wife as sanctioned by the production code.

JL: It also invites even more peculiar comparisons to poor Sarah Jane in IMITATION OF LIFE who never could successfully date a 100% Caucasian boy. Oh sure, the fact that Hess had a wife was a big issue here too, but was even she all that necessary to the story? She had far less screen time than En Soon Yang, and we had little mention of the pregnancy after the phone call. By the way, I had to double check that this was based on a true story, a published autobiography. I am not sure if the German orphanage was bombed in 1945 or 1944. Dean Hess was involved in Normandy in ’44.

TB: Of course the main point of this story is the work Hess did to build the orphanage in Chejudo, South Korea.

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TB: Thanks Jlewis for sharing your thoughts about this film.

BATTLE HYMN may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: CHARLIE CHAN IN RENO (1939)

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This was the second film in the series to feature Sidney Toler as Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan. By this point, 20th Century Fox had made quite a few. And in fact, there would be another nine more with Toler before Fox dropped the series (and it moved over to poverty row studio Monogram). Apparently, this one had the highest budget, and in many ways it looks like an “A” mystery film. Especially since the sets are lavishly decorated, and we have people like Ricardo Cortez, Slim Summerville, Kane Richmond and Robert Lowery in key roles.

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The set-up for this entry is fairly routine. Richmond is Curtis Whitman, a friend of Charlie Chan’s in Hawaii. His estranged wife Mary goes to Reno to obtain a divorce. But a short time after her arrival there, she is mixed up in a murder. The police think she did it, since all the evidence seems to point to her. Of course, Curtis knows she can’t possible be capable of murder, a sentiment that Charlie shares. So Charlie agrees to fly to Reno with Curtis to help exonerate Mary.

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Of course, this wouldn’t be a proper Charlie Chan story if one of the detective’s sons didn’t tag along to help solve the crime. In this instance, we get Victor Sen Yung as Number Two Son Jimmy. He is a novice at sleuthing and provides many of the film’s lighter moments. Though he is very eager to help his famous father, he makes mistakes and assumes things that are not quite true about the case. Sometimes when Jimmy makes a mistake, we get a gentle lecture from father Charlie which in itself can be quite amusing.

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The stories for this series work, because the characters are so well-defined. They’re not meant to be characters we dwell on too deeply. However, they do cause us to think about how integrated they are despite some of the ethnic stereotyping that occurs. I don’t find the characterizations too offensive, because I think the performances are sincere and Charlie’s not being presented as a dumb immigrant. Instead Charlie’s intelligence is very much on display, and he’s a most respectable character. Jimmy’s immature bumbling reminds us how superior his father’s knowledge is and why Charlie is successful nabbing the culprits.

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Though Earl Derr Biggers is the author who created our eponymous crime solver, the story for this entry in the series was furnished by writer Philip Wylie who later became known for his science fiction work. Since this is a mainstream studio production, not only will the crime be solved, but there will be a happy ending for the young couple. The basic situation pulls them from the brink of divorce and puts them back into each other’s arms. Meanwhile, Jimmy picks up a girlfriend; and Charlie returns home to his wife in Hawaii and a home that is overflowing with many other children.

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CHARLIE CHAN IN RENO may currently be viewed on YouTube.