Essential: Audie Murphy

This week I thought I’d highlight three clips I found on YouTube. They help us understand Audie Murphy not only as a decorated hero, but also as a humble American.

Audie Murphy Discusses WW2

This short clip is from a radio interview Audie did on Veterans Day in 1963. The interviewer, Vince D’Angelo, tells us Audie was at that time a major in the U.S. Army reserve, and he was widely respected in the military for his service during the Second World War.

Audie says he was originally in the army for three years but it felt longer. He had basic training in his home state of Texas, then additional training in Maryland before he was shipped overseas. He saw action in North Africa and in France. Audie is asked to describe his most memorable day during the war, and he says it was the day he learned the war was over. He had been traveling by train to the French Riviera on a three-day pass.

Audie Murphy – America’s most decorated soldier of WWII awarded Texas Supreme Military Honor

This one is a recording of a Texas legislative session in 2014. Audie was posthumously awarded the state’s highest military honor by the governor, Rick Perry, after a long grassroots effort. The recording is about eight minutes, and the first five minutes provide a good overview of Audie’s relationship with the army, not only during the war, but long after the war ended. He worked with the government on several documentaries, helped with recruiting, and also spoke openly about the effects of post-traumatic stress. You can’t help but get choked up listening to it.

The History of Audie Murphy

This piece is more kid-friendly, though I’d recommend it for people of all ages. It is a short educational video that covers Audie’s life with a focus on his military heroism. The narrator tells us Audie was too young when he tried to enlist in the army after Pearl Harbor so the following June when he turned 17, his sister helped him lie about his age (by adding a year) so he could join up. He was almost rejected again because of his short height and meager weight. He was accepted in as a cook but convinced officers he could handle combat. This video mentions that in addition to his service in Africa and France he also saw action in Italy.

The video describes some of the hardships he faced overseas, including a bout with malaria. His battle with a German machine gun crew is recounted as an example of his bravery. This led to his being given the Distinguished Service Cross, one of many commendations he received. Other heroic adventures are mentioned and we’re told that altogether he received 33 different medals or citations.

The clip goes beyond his time in the war. His movie career is discussed, as well as his later years. We are told about his autobiography TO HELL AND BACK. It was turned into a Universal motion picture in which he starred as himself. I will review that feature film next week.

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Essential: INTO THIN AIR (1985)

Last week I reviewed the documentary “Just Another Missing Kid.” It was about college-aged Eric Wilson who disappeared without a trace. He had been traveling from his home in Ottawa to school in Colorado one summer when he was kidnapped and killed. The van he was driving turned up on the east coast, where the Wilsons hired a detective to find out what happened. The police did not seem too interested in the case, since according to them there are many young adults who go missing each year (as if it’s no big deal).

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The documentary was produced in 1982 by Canadian television and screened as a documentary feature in the United States, where it won an Academy Award. Three years later ITC secured the rights to dramatize the story as a made-for-television movie. The result was Into Thin Air which aired on CBS in late 1985 and starred Ellen Burstyn. Though the Wilsons had told their own story in the first film and even re-enacted key sequences, network executives wanted to tell it again with professional actors.

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In a production like this comparisons to the actual story are inevitable. The producers of a TV drama are going to take liberties, though it often isn’t necessary. One major difference is the Wilson name has been changed to Walker. I suppose that was done to protect the family. However, the detective does not have an alias; so actor Robert Prosky is portraying Jim Conway as Jim Conway.

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When you watch the documentary first, followed by the TV movie, you can see how much hokum Hollywood screenwriters and directors like to put on screen. They go out of their way to make Eric as fun-loving as possible in the first ten minutes, playing loud music and goofing around with his brothers; so we can see what a “real” teenager he is (by 1985 standards). Also, the mother keeps telling him to call home when he’s on the road. All this is done to signal the viewer he won’t call home anymore after a certain point, and this loving perfect family will be shattered into a million pieces.

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There is a segment after he’s gone missing, where the oldest brother and father search for him in Nebraska. In the documentary, the brother tells us they were haunted every time they saw a van pass by thinking it must be Eric. If Alfred Hitchcock had filmed this TV movie, he would have shown their psychological torture in close-ups every time a van drove by. But in the TV movie, the director wants to give us something more– some big heart-pounding action– so when they see a van drive by, they chase after it down the highway like a bat out of hell. They end up pushing the van off on to the shoulder of the road, the tires practically leaving skid marks on the pavement, just to see if Eric’s inside. I can only imagine what the Wilsons thought when they watched it.

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To its credit the TV movie does keep us fairly entertained, if that’s the right word. Ellen Burstyn and Robert Prosky do an admirable job conveying the predicament the characters are faced with, which helps the whole thing. Burstyn catches herself using Method Actor tricks and refocuses on the gravity of the situation. There are a few lines where she is supposed to rail at the ineptitude of the American justice system, and while the dialogue was cringe in those instances, she overcomes it with a realistic performance.

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When you watch something like this, you realize just how important it is for a grieving family to get assurances from a detective. Often the detective is the only one who gives them anything solid to go on. It’s a meaningful relationship that occurs in spite of tragic circumstances. Circumstances where their idyllic suburban life went poof.

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INTO THIN AIR may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: JUST ANOTHER MISSING KID (1982)

The Fifth Estate is an award-winning Canadian news program, sort of like 60 Minutes. It’s been televised since 1975, and typically its broadcasts are an hour long. In 1982 a special 90-minute edition was produced about a case that had captured the Canadian public’s interest. It was called “Just Another Missing Kid” and was so well-received the producers released it as a documentary film in the U.S. where it won an Academy Award.

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Young Eric Wilson was not just another missing kid. He was a college student who came from a good background and his disappearance was quite different from most teens who go missing each year. Eric’s parents were separated; he and two brothers lived with their mother in Ottawa; while their father had moved to Los Angeles. Eric enrolled in a summer writing course at a college in Colorado and drove a van that he and his brother owned to Boulder. His mother Marilyn asked that he check in while he was on the road. The last call Eric made was from somewhere in Nebraska on the 10th of July in 1978. Then they never heard from him again; he and the van both vanished without a trace.

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The documentary chronicles the family’s search to find out what happened to Eric after they lost contact with him. It plays as as a mystery and a family drama. “Just Another Missing Kid” is different from other non-fiction films because Eric’s parents and brothers retrace their steps and re-enact portions of what happened. The idea of using real-life subjects to portray themselves and act out scenes was not usually how documentaries were made at this time. In case things start to seem too staged, director John Zaritsky wisely cuts to more traditional interview segments where the participants describe their feelings about what was occurring.

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The family would of course find out that Eric was murdered and the van was stolen. So when we reach that part of the story, the narrative becomes more about their quest for justice and ensuring that Eric’s two killers were brought to trial. Because the Wilsons were a Canadian-based family that approached the situation from the outside, they learned the hard way about jurisdictional procedures and how the law worked across international and state borders. The police made a lot of mistakes which the filmmakers are not afraid to depict. As Eric’s brother Peter says at one point, justice probably would not have been served if the family had not persisted and hired their own investigator to do the police’s job for them.

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The Wilsons are very stoic and do not tear up on camera. They are very matter of fact and seem to be saying through their actions and commentary that they experienced a terrible ordeal but it did not devastate or destroy them. The situation was placed on them and they dealt with it. They followed through for Eric’s sake because he was not just any ordinary kid who decided to run away from home one day. Something horrible happened, and they needed answers.

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JUST ANOTHER MISSING KID may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON (1950)

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J for Jordan. There it is. Right after I for Ivers, which of course comes after D for Dietrichson. Thelma Jordan’s file is thick. Like Martha Ivers and Phyllis Dietrichson. They sure had their share of trouble. Maybe that’s what makes them so much fun to watch on screen, thanks to Barbara Stanwyck, who expertly plays three distinct yet related faces of evil.

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Robert Siodmak’s production shares thematic similarities with earlier pictures by Lewis Milestone and Billy Wilder, but this story contains a shadowy subtext. Stanwyck is in full femme fatale mode, playing a woman trying to break free of the past. This time she is involved in the death of another “loved one.” It’s her Aunt Vera (Gertrude Hoffmann). Vera has taken her in, and Thelma functions as the elderly woman’s companion. Though Vera is frail she is nowhere near dying. So Thelma decides to hurry things along one night during a storm.

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Thelma blames her aunt’s murder on a prowler, but the police figure she’s behind it. In order to get away with the crime, Thelma needs the help of a lawyer (Wendell Corey). Cleve Marshall works in the district attorney’s office. He’s very skilled at his job, and he’s very married. He previously met Thelma when she turned up to see his boss. They ended up having a drink and spending time together. He fell in love with Thelma, which she realized she could to use to her advantage to create a new life.

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After Thelma is arrested on suspicion of murder, she works her feminine wiles on Cleve so he will throw the case in her favor.  There are trial scenes which Siodmak and cameraman George Barnes stage very precisely. While the ins and outs of the legal system are observed, most of the action is focused on Thelma’s ability to manipulate the judicial process. Part of her case involves the existence of a “Mr. X” who was with her the night of Vera’s death. Cleve’s boss (Paul Kelly) is unable to figure out Mr. X’s identity until the very end.

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Perhaps the best sequence is the part where the verdict comes in and Thelma is marched over from the women’s jail across the street. She passes reporters on the sidewalk and heads up the steps into the courtroom. Siodmak’s direction is straight forward, and the sequence has a semi-documentary feel to it. It works very well, especially when Thelma is exonerated by the jury.

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One can only imagine how many other crimes Thelma committed that aren’t included in her file. Siodmak and writer Ketti Frings could have added flashbacks, where we saw Thelma pulling earlier scams. And we could have learned what brought her to live with her Aunt Vera in the first place. Then how Thelma persuaded Aunt Vera to change the will and make her the sole beneficiary. Did Aunt Vera see something good in her?

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Of course there wasn’t anything good in Phyllis Dietrichson; she was rotten to the core. And there was very little evidence of goodness in Martha Ivers. But Thelma Jordon’s personality is different. For awhile things are going her way. Until she decides to do the right thing and let Cleve go. After a car accident, she’s taken to the hospital where she confesses some of what she’s done. But she does not want to reveal that Cleve was Mr. X, because he was Mr. Right. And for a time, he made her forget everything that was so schizophrenic about her life.

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…may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Classics you can watch over and over

These aren’t even my favorite films, which sounds funny. Typically my favorites are ones that make me think, where I have to be more mentally alert to appreciate the nuances. But there’s another group of movies I watch repeatedly because they are just so easy to enjoy.

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1. I love NORA PRENTISS (1947). Ann Sheridan is at her sexiest. The plot is crazy over the top improbable but it’s thrilling from start to finish. I also love how this Warner Brothers production smoothly combines several genres (medical, gangster, horror, romance). It works for me.

2. THE HORSE SOLDIERS (1959). Not John Ford’s best. Not John Wayne’s best, and not William Holden’s best either. But the leads and the supporting men in the cast work so well together. I feel like I am watching a group of brothers making a movie. The cinematography and on location filming is excellent.

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3. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943). Love that scene where Claude Rains gets splashed in the face with acid. I usually rewind it and watch it again before continuing with the rest of the movie. The singing by Susanna Foster and Nelson Eddy is exquisite. Top-notch production values all the way through, Technicolor at its best, and the scene where the chandelier falls is exciting. I think I’ve watched this film 20 times in the past year.

4. THE BLUE DAHLIA (1947). Probably my favorite Alan Ladd noir. Definitely his best pairing with Veronica Lake. The scene where it’s raining and she picks him up and they travel to Malibu is magical. And in case things get too sappy, we have William Bendix going berserk as a would-be killer. This movie always draws me in and doesn’t let go. Raymond Chandler’s script, which I’ve read, presents the characters so vividly.

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5. WHEN TOMORROW COMES (1939). A new one for me. Adored it immediately. Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer are just so wonderful in this picture. There’s an extended sequence where they are caught in a storm that floods out the whole valley, and they take refuge in an abandoned church. It goes from frightening to soothing, and as they fall in love on screen, we can’t help but fall in love with this movie. So excellent on so many levels.

6. WHISPERING SMITH (1948). I’ve probably watched this film a dozen times. It never gets old or goes stale. The use of Technicolor is expertly handled, the story is a bit implausible but still manages to be convincing when it counts. Ladd has top billing but it feels like Robert Preston’s picture. He’s a force of nature. The editing is so smooth that one sequence flows into another and the movie is over before I’m ready for it to be over.

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7. FRONTIER GAL (1945). Honestly I don’t think anyone gave better close-ups than Yvonne De Carlo does in this film. Her skin is flawless, those eyes are mysterious, the hair and makeup are perfect, she has great cheekbones, and then there’s that voice and the body. It helps she’s cast as a fiery saloon singer so she really gets to play it to the hilt. Rod Cameron as a laid back cowboy is the right contrast. The outdoor scenery is amazing. Universal spent a fortune on this movie and it shows. Then we have charming guys like Andy Devine and Fuzzy Knight doing comic relief. The little girl who plays the daughter that De Carlo and Cameron have quite nearly steals the show in the second half. The last fifteen minutes are heart-pounding, what a climactic finale. And De Carlo does her own riding, so the chase scene near the end feels very authentic.

8. GUN BELT (1953). A very routine 50s western. Obviously they did not have a huge budget, and it shows…but the action scenes are very well staged. Typically I am not too enamored with George Montgomery’s acting but I think he does a fine job here. Tab Hunter is on hand as a brother he is trying to keep on the right side of the law. Tab’s acting is frankly not very good, but he tries hard and he’s beautiful to look at. The supporting cast are played by actors who seem to think they’re in lead roles, so they give it their all. It’s a rousing story. All modestly budgeted oaters should be so effective.

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9. IF YOU COULD ONLY COOK (1935). One of the better Jean Arthur movies, which is saying a lot because she worked with more important directors and had bigger hits with bigger costars. But something about her unusual pairing with Herbert Marshall is so satisfying. I love the scene in the beginning when she’s applying for a cook’s job in the home of a gangster (Leo Carrillo) and she teaches him about the importance of how to use garlic. It makes me laugh every time. But what makes this movie so special is how the gangster and his sidekick (the incomparable Lionel Stander) develop hearts and comfort Miss Arthur when that cad Mr. Marshall walks out on her. It turns from being a screwball/romantic comedy into an honest-to-goodness character piece about real human beings with real emotions.

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10. THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND (1949). I’m not bashful when it comes to expressing how I feel about this uproarious Preston Sturges western comedy. As Leonard Maltin says, it’s a broad farce…the situations become increasingly improbable and Betty Grable’s predicament gets more out of control by the minute. It’s like she’s playing a psychotic Annie Oakley. The part where she is teaching kids and takes a gun out to put the fear of god in two hooligans would certainly never fly today but it’s hilarious. In addition to the antics, there is a musical number in the beginning that Grable performs with characteristic skill. I think what makes this movie special is Sturges has populated the cast with people (and this includes Grable) who are all natural scene stealers. So they never really react to the situations or to each other. They are too busy hamming it up and setting up the next gag. It gets wilder and wilder. This forces the audience to do all the reacting, which is how comedy should be done if you think about it. Sometimes I re-watch this movie to see if I will reach a point where it no longer is funny. But that never happens so I have to watch it again to continue my experiment. I have a feeling it will never stop being funny so I will never be able to stop watching it.

Essential: GOOD SAM (1948)

Leo McCarey’s GOOD SAM is an interesting misfire. It originally premiered on TCM back on Christmas 2012.

It’s very slow…it could have benefited from better editing as some of the scenes really drag. I think McCarey’s goal was to give us a slice of suburban life and how people can still be decent, but there’s too much “down time” where we see minor things happening to the characters. It doesn’t help there are a lot of extra supporting characters who get long scenes that take us away from Sam’s family.

It’s regarded as a huge flop which I think must be an exaggeration. On the film’s wiki page it seems to have made a lot of money (for 1948). So maybe postwar audiences needed this kind of simple meditation about life, but today’s audiences will probably find it somewhat tedious. A few reviews on the TCM database make it seem like an uplifting inspirational movie, which I don’t exactly think it is. It’s just commentary on the foibles of suburbia and how one man is different from his neighbors.

If I remember correctly, Osborne was not a fan of it in his wraparound comments in December 2012. He said Ann Sheridan and Gary Cooper lacked romantic chemistry, something Sheridan supposedly validated years after the film was released. But I think that’s because McCarey’s story is so methodical and slow that any interesting moments between husband and wife are delayed. So to me the chemistry is there, it just never gets a chance to be properly explored.

In case it sounds like I am disparaging it too much, I should say there are some charming things in the picture that do work. The opening sequence that takes place during a Sunday church service is very humorous. The two child actors who play Sam’s kids are very well directed by McCarey. Louise Beavers, Edmund Lowe, Ray Collins and a young Ruth Roman all turn in decent supporting performances…so does William Frawley who plays a bar owner in the last half hour. Cooper seems to be playing himself, which is not a drawback at all. Though I feel Ann Sheridan gives the film’s strongest performance.

Sheridan really is not playing a supportive wife, she’s kind of a nag, very selfish, a little too much the villain in opposition to all of Sam’s good deeds…but she plays it so well, almost sincerely, that we can’t really hate her. Rather we end up feeling sorry for her, because Sam is so good to everyone else that he ends up neglecting her needs. I do think the film would have been better if it had been told more from her point of view, where Sam is the “villain” in her mind, then she gradually comes to see his goodness and is grateful she married him. That happens a little bit near the end, but I think if the whole film would have been set up that way, it would have had a lot more tension and would have been better.

The running time is 114 minutes. It should have been around 90 or 95 minutes. McCarey’s original version was 128 minutes, so at least 14 minutes had been cut for reissue. GOOD SAM is a perfect example of a film made by an Academy Award winning director who had previous hits, but was allowed to be too indulgent in the telling of a story that should have been made much more simply.

Essential: THE DARK MIRROR (1946)

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In this film Robert Siodmak directs Olivia de Havilland as a pair of twins who foul up a murder investigation. The murder takes place in the opening shots, and it’s shocking. Siodmak’s use of unlit stage areas deliberately keeps us at a disadvantage and increases the mystery. We know the assailant is in the room, having just stabbed Dr. Peralta with a sharp object, but we cannot see her face.

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A veteran homicide detective (Thomas Mitchell) is determined to solve the case as quickly as possible. But just when it looks like he is about to nail Terry Collins, his investigation hits a snag. Eyewitness accounts that place her at the scene of the crime are contradicted by several other people who can vouch for Terry’s whereabouts when the murder was committed. Of course, none of the witnesses know Terry has a twin; and neither does the detective until he stops by Terry’s apartment.

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The women are coy with him. They admit nobody at the high rise building where they work know they are twins. This includes the elevator boy Rusty (Richard Long) who has a crush on Terry; as well as Dr. Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres), a psychiatrist with an office in the building who also has romantic feelings for Terry. Both Scott and Rusty become confused when they learn the truth and realize they actually might have had feelings for Ruth, the sister.

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Soon the ladies are arrested on suspicion of murder. But the witnesses still can’t positively identify one sister over the other. There is a lineup, and more interrogation. But they cover for each other. Their game prevents the police and prosecutors from successfully charging either one of them with murder. Though it is obvious they are obstructing justice, they are allowed to leave the station. But as luck would have it, there might be a way to pin the killing on the correct culprit after all.

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It seems Scott Elliott has written a book about twins. He convinces the women to be part of his ongoing research. Scott is in love with Terry, and he is anxious to prove she is innocent and that Ruth belongs in the electric chair. The script, written by Nunnally Johnson, gets a bit technical in spots with its share of psychological mumbo jumbo. But mostly Johnson and Siodmak keep it simple enough for viewers to understand. And Siodmak’s staging and camera work assist the story at every turn.

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There are some neat twists in the second half of the story. It veers into melodrama when it is revealed that Ruth loves Scott, and she’s jealous of Terry. This reflects the motive for her killing the other doctor, since Peralta had also loved Terry, and not Ruth. In a jealous rage she stabbed Peralta, and now she is going to set Terry up to take the fall so she can swoop in and win Scott, by posing as the more innocent Terry.

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The acting is uniformly good, and Olivia De Havilland gives a standout performance (two standout performances). She has a field day with the ‘which one is she’ set-up, and the scenes where the twins undergo ink blot tests and lie detector tests are expertly played. Given what we know about her real-life conflicts with sister Joan Fontaine, I couldn’t help but think Olivia was deftly spoofing Joan.

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Ayres is also effective, showing the quiet desperation of a man eager to help the woman he loves. This was Ayres’ first picture since the war. A few years earlier he had been unceremoniously dropped by MGM after claiming he was a conscientious objector. It would have been objectionable if Ayres’ career had not been allowed to continue. Just as it is objectionable for one sister to steal the happiness of another sister who still has so much to give.

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THE DARK MIRROR may currently be viewed on YouTube.