Wednesday, May 20, 2020

“Nightmare Alley”—a pet project becomes a film noir classic

Nightmare Alley (1947) is a film noir directed by Edmund Goulding, produced by George Jessel and starring Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, and Helen Walker.

The plot surrounds Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, a low-level carny who aspires to greater things. He manages to get by with his good looks, charm, and quick wit. On the surface, it appears that he cares about people, but he’s just using them on his way to the top. The film narrative is a dark one, one that 20th Century-Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck didn’t want to make.

Power was to 20th Century-Fox what Clark Gable was to M-G-M; he was the studio’s top box office draw. Power enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1942. He was released from active duty in 1946. Zanuck was anxious to get Power back on the screen. Power wanted to make Nightmare Alley, but Zanuck thought it was inappropriate for the handsome leading man. Power struck a deal: he would star in the more commercial The Razor’s Edge if he could also star in Nightmare Alley.

Zanuck relented, but his heart wasn’t in it and when the film was released and wasn’t an instant hit, he discontinued promotion and pulled the film from distribution.

Edmund Goulding (1891 – 1955) was a screenwriter and director. His directing career started during the silent era, but he moved easily to talkies directing some of the best-remembered films from Hollywood’s Golden Age including Grand Hotel (1932), Dark Victory (1939), The Old Maid (1939), and The Razor’s Edge (1946).

George “Georgie” Jessell (1898 – 1981) was an actor, singer, songwriter, vaudeville star, and film producer. If you’re a Baby Boomer, you may know him as the “Toastmaster General of the United States,” due to his numerous gigs as master of ceremonies at political and entertainment events. Jessel originated the role of The Jazz Singer on the stage.

Tyrone Power (1914 – 1958) was a major movie star as well as a star on stage and radio. He was one of the biggest box office draws of the 1930s and 1940s. Power was under exclusive contract to 20th Century-Fox where his image and film choices were carefully selected by studio head Zanuck. After the war, Power wanted to stretch his acting past romantic comedies and swashbuckler roles. Nightmare Alley was Power’s personal favorite of all his films.

Joan Blondell (1906 – 1979) was an American actress who was a top movie star during the 1930s and early 1940s. Later in her career, she became a popular character actress. Some of Blondell’s early films include The Public Enemy (1931), Gold Diggers of 1933, Dames (1934), and Stand-In (1937).

Colleen Gray (1922 – 2015) was an American actress who was under contract to 20th Century-Fox in the 1940s. She was in another famous film noir, Kiss of Death (1947) with Victor Mature and Richard Widmark. She also had a role in Red River (1948) with John Wayne. In the 1950s she started working in television, guest-starring in many popular shows of that period.

Helen Walker (1920 – 1968) was a film actress during the 1940s and 1950s. After a quick start in Hollywood, working with stars like Alan Ladd and Fred MacMurray, a car accident resulting in the death of hitchhiker, stunted her career.

Below is a link to the film on YouTube. Be sure to follow this link because it’s the best print out there. There are many versions of Nightmare Alley on YouTube that are inferior and of poor quality. You want to view the best possible version of this film.

Join us for a discussion on May 26 at 6:30 p.m. Central Time. Zoom meeting links below.

Stephen Reginald is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.

Topic: Discussion of "Nightmare Alley"
Time: May 26, 2020, 06:30 PM Central Time (US and Canada)

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 774 9995 8394
Password: 4R5L4v

Questions for discussion:
1. What did you think of Tyrone Power’s relationships with women in the film?
2. Did you have any sympathy for “Stan,” Power’s character?
3. What did you think of the women in Stan’s life?
4. Were all the women victims of Stan’s schemes?
5. What did you think of the ending? Was it realistic? Did it surprise you?

Friday, May 15, 2020

Barbara Stanwyck and Wendell Corey in “The File on Thelma Jordon”

The File on Thelma Jordon (1950) is a film noir directed by Robert Siodmak, produced by Hal B. Wallis, and starring Barbara Stanwyck and Wendell Corey.

One evening Thelma Jordon (Stanwyck) shows up at the district attorney’s office to report some attempted burglaries at the home of her Aunt Vera. Instead of meeting the district attorney, Jordon meets the assistant district attorney, Cleve Marshall (Corey). Cleve is married, but not happily. He convinces Thelma to grab a drink with him which leads to a love affair between the two.

Not long afterward, Thelma’s aunt is murdered in what appears to be a burglary attempt. Thelma becomes the main suspect which puts Cleve in a bind when he is called upon to prosecute her. Will Thelma be proved innocent? Will she and Cleve be able to make a new life together?

The film premiered in New York on January 18, 1950. It was a box office hit and received generally good reviews. The New York Times praised Stanwyck for “handling a complex assignment professionally and with a minimum of forced histrionics.” If you know anything about the critics in the Times during that period, that was a rave review!

Robert Siodmak (1900 – 1973) had a very successful career in Hollywood and is best known for his thrillers and films noir. He signed a seven-year contract with Universal and directed The Killers (1946), the film that made Ava Gardner a star. He worked with some of the top movie stars during Hollywood’s Golden Age, including Deanna Durbin, Gene Kelly, Burt Lancaster, Dorothy McGuire, Yvonne de Carlo, Olivia de Havilland, and Barbara Stanwyck. Often compared to Hitchcock in his prime, he never got the recognition that the Master of Suspense did, but most of his films hold up remarkably well and are worth watching.

George Barnes (1892 – 1953) was an Academy Award-winning cinematographer (Rebecca 1940) whose career goes back to the silent era. He was married to actress Joan Blondell (1933-1936) and filmed five of her pictures at Warner Brothers. He worked with all the top directors from Hollywood’s Golden Age including Victor Fleming, Busby Berkeley, Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, and Cecil B. DeMille.

Barbara Stanwyck (1907 – 1990) was an American film star who got her acting start with a supporting role on Broadway in a play called The Noose (1926). The next year she had the lead in another Broadway production, Burlesque which was a huge hit. She eventually made it to Hollywood where her success was not immediate. Director Frank Capra saw something in Stanwyck and he educated her in filmmaking and film acting and the rest is history. Stanwyck was nominated four times for the Best Actress Oscar—Stella Dallas (1937), Ball of Fire (1941), Double Indemnity (1945), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)—and remains one of the most beloved movie stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Wendell Corey (1914 – 1968) was an American film and stage actor. After appearing in the hit Broadway play Dream Girl (1945), Corey was spotted by producer Wallis who put him under contract at Paramount. He started out in supporting roles, but he was elevated to leading man with The File on Thelma Jordon. As film roles diminished, Corey turned to television where he made guest appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Untouchables, Perry Mason, and The Wild Wild West.

Here’s the link to the film. Be sure you use this link. There are many prints of this film on YouTube, but this print (you see the “Olive Films” logo) is superior in every way.

Join us for a discussion on this film on May 19 at 6:30 p.m. Central Time. Zoom meeting links below.

Stephen Reginald is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.

Topic: Discussion of "The File on Thelma Jordon"
Time: May 19, 2020, 06:30 PM Central Time (US and Canada)

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 778 6972 0476
Password: 3BHZ1g

Questions for discussion:
1. Noir or not? Based on your understanding of the genre, do you consider this a film noir?
2. What did you think of the performances? This is basically Stanwyck’s and Corey’s picture; how did they do?
3. Was Stanwyck a “classic” femme fatale?
4. Did this film remind you of any other films you’ve seen?
5. Were you surprised by the ending or did it seem logical, all things considered?

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers—Whisper Her Name

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) directed by Lewis Milestone and produced by Hal B. Wallis, stars Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, and Lizabeth Scott. It also marks the film debut of future star Kirk Douglas.

Stanwyk, Heflin, and Douglas in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

The movie begins with a flashback to an incident in the life of a 13-year-old Martha Ivers. Feeling trapped by the strict guardianship of her wealthy aunt (Judith Anderson), young Martha attempts to run away. Her attempt is thwarted which causes more friction between Martha and her aunt that she professes to hate. During a thunderstorm that knocks out the electricity in the Ivers mansion, Martha’s aunt is found dead. Will the secrets from the past come back to destroy Martha, who is now a rich and successful businesswoman?

With producer Wallis at the helm, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers was an A+ production. Along with the three stars, we have some great character actors on board including Anderson, Roman Bohnen, and child actor Darryl Hickman. The film also boasts a rich film score composed by Miklas Rozsa (Spellbound, Ben-Hur).

Look for the future director and producer Blake Edwards as the sailor that hitches a ride with Sam Masterson (Heflin).

Lewis Milestone (1895 – 1980) was a Russian-born American film director. He is a two-time Academy Award-winner for Best Director: Two Arabian Knights (1927) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Other notable films directed by Milestone include The Front Page (1931), Of Mice and Men (1939), A Walk in the Sun (1945), Les Miserables (1952), and Ocean’s 11 (1960).

Barbara Stanwyck (1907 – 1990) was an American film star who got her acting start with a supporting role on Broadway in a play called The Noose (1926). The next year she had the lead in another Broadway production, Burlesque which was a huge hit. She eventually made it to Hollywood where her success was not immediate. Director Frank Capra saw something in Stanwyck and he educated her in filmmaking and film acting and the rest is history. Stanwyck was nominated four times for the Best Actress Oscar—Stella Dallas (1937), Ball of Fire (1941), Double Indemnity (1945), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)—and remains one of the most beloved movie stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Van Heflin (1908 – 1971) was an American actor who performed on the radio, stage, and screen. Heflin played mostly character parts, but during the 1940s he had a run as a leading man. He won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Johnny Eager (1942). Heflin starred in Presenting Lily Mars (1943) with Judy Garland, Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), and Possessed (1947) with Joan Crawford. He starred opposite Lana Turner in Green Dolphin Street (1947) which was M-G-M’s biggest hit of the year. He served in World War II as a combat cameraman in the Ninth Air Force in Europe. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers was Heflin’s first film role after returning from war. He starred in two other pictures with Stanwyck: B.F.’s Daughter (1948) and East Side, West Side (1949). Helflin’s last role was as the bomber in Airport (1970).

Lizabeth Scott (1922 – 2015) was an American actress dubbed “The Threat” because she had a similar husky voice and screen persona as Lauren Bacall. Scott was understudy to Tallulah Bankhead in The Skin of Our Teeth but never got the opportunity to replace Bankhead’s run of the play. When Bankhead was replaced by Miriam Hopkins, Scott did go on for one night and received good reviews. It wasn’t long for Hollywood to take notice and producer Wallis signed her to a contract. She made her film debut as Ivy Hotchkiss in You Came Along (1945) with Robert Cummings. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) was Scott’s second feature. She went on to star in Dead Reckoning (1947) with Humphrey Bogart, I Walk Alone (1947) with Burt Lancaster, and Dark City (1950) with Charlton Heston in his film debut. She had a falling out with producer Wallis after starring in Loving You (1957) with Elvis Presley and another Wallis contract player, Wendell Corey. She basically retired from film after Loving You but appeared on television sporadically during the 1950s and 1960s.

Director Milestone with Douglas, Heflin, and Stanwyck taking a break on the set

Questions for discussion:
1. Noir or not? Does this fit into what you consider a film noir?
2. Is there a femme fatale in this film? If yes, who is it?
3. Does this film remind you of another famous film noir?
4. Was the ending a surprise or did you expect it?
5. What did you think of the performances? Did one performance stand out to you?

Join us for a discussion of this film on Zoom, May 12 at 6:30 p.m. Central Time. The invitation with links is below.

Below is the movie on YouTube. Please use this link; there are many prints of this film on YouTube, but this one is the best by a mile.

Below is the Zoom invitation.

Stephen Reginald is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.

Topic: Discussion of "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers"
Time: May 12, 2020 06:30 PM Central Time (US and Canada)

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 792 6932 2150
Password: 6G66Uq

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Classic Movie Recall—My Favorite Podcast

If you’re a classic movie fan like me, you know that there are a ton of classic movie podcasts. Many are good, but some just drone on and on for way too long. My favorite classic movie podcast and just my plain old favorite podcast is Classic Movie Recall.

The podcast is hosted by Lara Scott and James Moll. Scott is a radio personality and can be heard daily on one of Southern California’s most popular radio stations, K-Earth 101. Moll is a documentary filmmaker and has earned an Oscar, two Emmys, and a Grammy. Both have personalities to spare and have very pleasant speaking voices—an important asset if you’re hosting a podcast.

Here’s how the podcast works: Lara and James watch a classic film and then get together to discuss it. Individually they can award each film a total of 50 points. After they give their individual score, they add them up for the film’s final combined score. For example, James and Lara watched and commented on Meet Me In St. Louis (1944). Lara gave the film 48 points. James gave the film 47 points for a total score of 95, which is very respectable.

What makes the podcast fun is the interplay between Lara and James. They’re both funny and knowledgeable and don’t drag things out. Each podcast averages about 20 minutes, which I find ideal. And they pack a lot into that short timeframe. Sometimes they’ll have a special guest, like Turner Classic Movies weekend host, Dave Karger who shared his love for The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). In fact, he revealed that it’s his “hands down” favorite classic movie comedy. And then there’s producer Melanie Hooks who is always on hand for a voice clip featuring an important piece of dialogue or some interesting facts about a film’s production.

I was excited to find one of my favorite movies featured: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). It stars Dana Andrews, my favorite actor from Hollywood’s Golden Age, in a performance that should have won him at the very least an Oscar nomination. Like me, Lara was surprised to discover that Andrews was overlooked at Oscar time. The film has a wonderful cast that includes Myrna Loy, Fredric March (Oscar-winner for Best Actor for The Best Years of Our Lives), Virginia Mayo, and another favorite of mine, Teresa Wright.

Here’s a link below to that review and don’t forget to check out all the other great movie reviews from Lara and James, who in the midst of COVID-19, along with producer Melanie, are working on some new reviews to be posted soon!

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Yellow Sky—Classic Western with Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, and Richard Widmark

Yellow Sky (1948) is a western directed by William A. Wellman that stars Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, and Richard Widmark.

Anne Baxter confronts Gregory Peck in Yellow Sky
The plot centers on Peck and his band of outlaws who rob a bank and flee the law by riding into the desert. Desperate and out of drinking water, they come upon a ghost town inhabited by a young woman named Mike (Baxter) and her grandfather (James Barton). They are Yellow Sky’s sole inhabitants. The old man has been prospecting for gold and the gang sees a chance for them to make some easy money by intimidating Mike and her grandfather out of the estimated $50,000 in gold he has mined thus far.

Yellow Sky is based on an unpublished novel by W. R. Burnett. Burnett is the best-selling author of Little Caesar, Scarface, and High Sierra. Many of his novels were turned into films, which led to a career as a scriptwriter in Hollywood. Burnett worked with the top directors, writers, and actors like Raoul Walsh, John Huston, John Ford, Howard Hawks, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, Steve McQueen, and Clint Eastwood. As a scriptwriter, he wrote This Gun for Hire (1942), Action in the North Atlantic (1943), San Antonio (1945), and The Great Escape (1963).

Some exteriors for Yellow Sky were filmed at Death Valley National Monument. The ghost town of Yellow Sky was an old western set that actor Tom Mix had built in 1923. The crew hired by Twentieth Century-Fox basically demolished the movie set located near Lone Pine, California.

William Wellman directed the original version of A Star Is Born.
Director William A. Wellman (1896 – 1975) got his start in the movies as an actor but decided he’d rather work behind the camera as a director. He directed his first film in 1920. Seven years later, Wellman directed the World War I epic Wings. His other notable films in the sound era include The Public Enemy (1931), A Star Is Born, Nothing Sacred (both 1937), Beau Geste (1939), and The Ox-Box Incident (1943).

By 1948, Gregory Peck (1916 – 2002) was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. He had three Best Actor nominations under his belt, including one for Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). Besides Gentleman’s Agreement, Peck starred in three other films that year, including Alfred Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case. He had non-exclusive contracts with David O. Selznick and Twentieth Century-Fox which gave him great flexibility in the roles he chose to play. Yellow Sky was Peck’s only film released in 1948.

Lobby card for The Valley of Decision (1945) starring Greer Garson and Gregory Peck
Anne Baxter (1923 – 1985) won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Sophie MacDonald in The Razor’s Edge (1946). She was signed to a contract with Twentieth Century-Fox in 1940. In 1948, Baxter starred in four movies, with Yellow Sky being her most prominent role to date. She went on to have a prolific career in film, television, and theater. She is probably best known for her Oscar-nominated performance as Eve Harrington in All About Eve. Frank Lloyd Wright was Baxter’s grandfather.
Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington in All About Eve (1950)
Richard Widmark (1914- 2008) had a sensational movie debut playing the crazy villain Tommy Udo in director Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death (1947). In the film’s most notorious scene, Widmark’s character pushed an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs. His performance won him a Golden Globe Award for New Star Of The Year – Actor. He was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Udo. Widmark was also under contract to Twentieth Century-Fox where he played mostly villains (Yellow Sky is no exception). Later in his career, he started playing more heroic roles in films like Slattery’s Hurricane and Down to the Sea in Ships (both 1949).

Richard Widmark stands between Cornell Wilde and Ida Lupino in Road House (1948).

Join us on May 5 as we discuss Yellow Sky on Zoom. Watch the film on YouTube first and be ready to discuss it on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.

Your Zoom invitation link is below.

Stephen Reginald is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.

Topic: Discussion on  "Yellow Sky"
Time: May 5, 2020 06:30 PM Central Time (US and Canada)

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 782 2589 2657
Password: 0mZXAG

Questions for Discussion:
1. What were your overall impressions?
2. Did the movie remind you of any other movies you’ve seen?
3. What did you think of Anne Baxter’s character?
4. Did anything about the movie surprise you?
5 Was the ending satisfying? Was it realistic?

A Revisionist View of “The Reivers”: Novel into Film

Carl Rollyson
The Life of William Faulkner, volume 1 was published in March 2020 by the University of Virginia Press.  Volume 2 will appear on Faulkner’s birthday, September 25, 2020.

The Reivers (1962), William Faulkner’s final novel, casts a retrospective and ruminative eye on the history of Yoknapatawpha, his mythical county. Critics and biographers have called the book nostalgic, because in the mellow tones of a grandfather the narrator tells his grandchildren about the Mississippi of 1905, focusing in the main on a seemingly simpler era, when an automobile was a work of wonder, and when a trip from Jefferson (Faulkner's version of Oxford, his home town) to Memphis could seem like an epic adventure.

In the novel, Lucius Priest (the grandfather) recounts the time he and Boon Hogganbeck, a family retainer, become reivers (thieves) when they “borrowed” the Winton Flyer belonging to “Boss” Priest (Lucius's grandfather) and set off for the big city, where Boon could visit Miss Corrie in a Memphis cathouse, and introduce eleven-year-old Lucius to a world that (Boon assures him) Lucius will one day understand and avail himself of.

Even though Lucius has been brought up to be a gentleman, his escapade with Boon requires him to lie to his family about Boon’s scheme, a lie made possible by Boss Priest having taken the train to attend the funeral of his wife’s father, Lucius’s other grandfather. Boon is supposed to lock up the automobile and not use it while Boss is away. The meaning of “gentleman,” which involves taking responsibility for one’s actions and abiding by a code of honor, is developed in references to Yoknapatawpha history in the first chapters of the novel, in which descriptions of the Sutpens, the Compsons, the McCaslins, and all the county's important families impinge on Lucius’s consciousness. What he does, in other words, will be measured against what his forebears and predecessors have done. In effect, Lucius’s decision to lie, to leave home, is a declaration of independence, but it is also another act in the drama of his community's history. In effect, Lucius as “grandfather” is telling his children their history, showing how the individual has to understand it in order to come to terms with himself.

Calling The Reivers nostalgic and a summation of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha saga is understandable but also misleading since doing so suggests that the novel is not in the same class as his earlier and presumably greater novels. Indeed, in just this way many critics and biographers have discounted The Reivers, taking the narrator's relaxed tone as a sign of the author's more indulgent and less complex art.  This assumption, however, ignores the circumstances of the telling: a grandfather addressing his grandchildren. His narration is all about the chil’'s discovery of the adult world as told by an adult to his own kin who will, in turn, discover the world in their way. To confuse Faulkner with his narrator—no matter how many similarities between them can be assembled—is to wreck the fiction and to deny Lucius Priest his independent existence as a character.

Certainly the darker events of Faulkner’s earlier novels—the suicide of Quentin Compson, the castration of Joe Christmas, and revelations about the evils of slavery—are not explored. But their consequences are—especially in the figure of Ned McCaslin, Boss Priest's coachman, whom Lucius refers to as “our family skeleton.” Ned is a black man, born in 1860, who claims that his mother “had been the natural daughter of old Lucius Quintus Carothers himself,” the original progenitor of the clan.  In other words, Ned claims direct descent from a founding father, whereas Lucius’s line “were mere diminishing connections and hangers-on.”  To readers of Faulkner’s other novels— especially Go Down, Moses, which explores the McCaslin genealogy and the white family’s inextricable connections with the lives of the McCaslin slaves—Ned’s pride and self-assurance are all the more appreciated. When Ned stows away in the Winton Flyer because he, too, wants a trip to Memphis, Boon cannot gainsay his presence, even though as a white man (albeit with Indian ancestors) Boon ought to be able to master his so-called inferior in this highly segregated society.

Except that such segregation and racial distinctions keep breaking down and dissolving in the world of Faulkner’s fiction. Ned represents the novelist's deft way of showing that dissolution even in an adventure story in-tended to entertain children.  Compared to the wily Ned, Boon and Lucius are innocents abroad. Lucius has been rightly called a “motorized Huck Finn” (Inge, 91), and yet it is as if Faulkner takes “Nigger Jim” off the raft and puts him in control of the story that becomes The Reivers.

It is Ned who turns the seemingly simple road trip that Boon and Lucius have planned into a rococo plot that involves getting his kinsman, Bobo Beauchamp, out of trouble by trading the Winton Flyer for a racehorse, which Ned will then put up in a race against another horse, with the prize being the automobile and other winnings that will pay off Bobo’s debts and return the vehicle to Boss Priest. So devious and intricate is Ned’s strategy that it is not revealed until near the end of the novel, which becomes the denouement of a mystery of Ned’s devising. In fact, only after the race is won does Ned divulge to Boss Priest the intricate series of events and developments that neither Lucius nor Boon has been able to explain. Without Ned as the mastermind, the novel has no engine, no way to proceed or to resolve itself.

Because Lucius is telling the story, remembering his childhood even as he invokes his status as a grandfather, The Reivers has a double perspective: Lucius then, Lucius now; the world then, the world now. Although a good deal has changed since 1905, the moral values Lucius seeks to impart re-main the same and belong to the historical continuum that the novel itself enacts.

And Ned is the conduit of that continuum. He is forty-five years old in 1905, Lucius reports. And Ned will live to the age of seventy-four, “just living long enough for the fringe of hair embracing his bald skull to begin to turn gray, let alone white (it never did. I mean, his hair: turn white nor even gray. . . .).” (31)  Although Ned responds to change, represented by the automobile, he has no interest in driving it or learning about the new technology. And yet his very steadfastness in the midst of change, his knowledge of his own mind and his place in the world render him able to adapt to every new and unforeseeable situation on the ride to Memphis and in its aftermath. In short, he cannot be distracted by novelty or deflected from his purpose.

On the other hand, the slow-witted Boon (he failed the third grade twice) is impulsive, a man who acts in the moment without taking aim. His poor shooting is legendary. He is all id to Ned’s ego, with Lucius trying to manage his own inclinations and adhere to his upbringing while coping with the behavior of the shrewd black man born into slavery and the excitable white man saved from undoing himself by the grace of his gentlemen employers, beginning with old General Compson. Boon may be six-feet-four and weigh 240 pounds, but he has the “mentality of a child.” (18) He is a rough-hewn woodsman, with a “big ugly florid walnut-tough walnut-hard face.” (15)  This physical description suggests an impermeable quality in Boon, who cannot learn from experience as Lucius does, or profit from it as Ned can. Boon can drive the action forward, just as he drives the Winton flyer, but he cannot plot his adventures or predict their pitfalls.

A case in point is Boon’s confident belief that he can drive the automobile through Hell Creek bottom, a treacherous bog maintained that way by a farmer who makes his living dragging vehicles out of the mud.  Even though Boon paid the man two dollars the summer before to pull out the Winton Flyer, he thinks that this time, with Ned and Lucius helping, he can use block and tackle to move the car through the sludge. After several efforts that saturate Boon and Ned with muck, Boon pays the man with the mules two dollars per passenger to rescue them from the mire. This episode is a perfect example of Boon’s self-defeating actions, which tend to make his dilemmas worse than they were, to begin with. In short, Lucius’s up to now pristine existence, guided by the courtly examples of his father and grandfather, is enveloped in the mess Boon makes of his life.

Arriving in Memphis, the action shifts to the brothel, where Miss Reba is enchanted with Lucius’s manners, such a contrast to the conniving Otis, a young nephew Miss Corrie is trying to reform. Lucius is smitten with Miss Corrie, whom he describes as a “big girl. I don’t mean fat: just big, like Boon was big, but still a girl, young too, with dark hair and blue eyes and at first I thought her face was plain. But she came into the room already looking at me, and I knew it didn’t matter what her face was.” (99)  She may be a whore, but there is an innocence in her that Lucius connects with, and they quickly form a bond that leads to Lucius being cut by Otis’s knife in a fight that starts when Lucius strikes out at Otis for denigrating Miss Corrie. She, in turn, decides to reform herself in order to be worthy of Lucius’s devotion. Set against her sincerity is Mr. Binford’s cynicism. This head of the whorehouse turns a critical eye on Lucius and tries to corrupt him, offering beer even though Lucius steadfastly refuses the drink, announcing that he has promised his mother that he will not imbibe until he is of age.

The novel’s action shifts again when Ned shows up with a horse he has named Lightning, informing Boon that the Winton Flyer can only be re-covered by winning a horse race.  On the way to the race site, Ned, Boon, and Lucius encounter the sadistic deputy sheriff Butch Lovemaiden, who arrests Boon and Ned for possessing a horse that in fact is stolen property.  The price of their release, Butch informs them, is a night with Miss Corrie.  Seeing no way out, she complies and is later assaulted by Boon, who thus loses Lucius’s respect.

The novel’s exciting denouement centers on the horse race.  Ned admits to Lucius that he believes he can make their horse a winner (Lightning has lost races against his rival, Acheron), but the neck-and-neck heats in which the neophyte jockey Lucius rides make the result anything but certain. After their triumph, Ned explains that he has studied the psychology of his horse and discovered its liking for sardines, which Ned carries with him at the finish line in sight of the galloping Lightning.

In the novel’s coda, Lucius comes home for his punishment, but he is spared the beating his father is prepared to give him when Boss Priest intervenes, suggesting that it is punishment enough for Lucius to live with a sense of his transgressions. “A gentleman accepts the responsibilities of his actions and bears the burden of their consequences, even when he did not himself instigate them but only acquiesced to them, didn’t say No though he knew he should.” (295)  To the young Lucius, expecting corporal punishment, the psychological and moral burden his grandfather places on him seems overwhelming. But Boss tells him, “A gentleman can live through anything.” (295) And this is surely what Lucius, as narrator, is telling his grandchildren without actually saying so directly. Lucius has lived to tell the tale and is the better for it.

All along, Ned has been preparing Lucius for the moment when he will have to confront Boss.  Ned has known from the start that they could not get away with their adventure, or even just accept their punishment and be done with it. Instead, as in all of Faulkner’s fiction, the past is never past. It has to be borne and contended with as an inextricable part of a community and an individual’s history.

The Reivers (1969), a film directed by Mark Rydell, and starring Steve McQueen and Juano Hernandez, who played Lucas Beauchamp in the film adaptation of Intruder in the Dust (1950), was generally well-received by critics as a well-made family film. As Roger Ebert puts it, it was the kind of film that “neither insulted nor challenged the intelligence of any member of the family.” Ebert also notes, however, that the film does not “particularly carry a Faulkner flavor,” and is closer to Mark Twain because of its simplified adventure plot. ( Even so, most of the best lines in the screenplay are taken from Faulkner’s novel.  What the movie lacks is a narrative frame, even though it includes voice-over commentary by Burgess Meredith, which captures the memoir-like quality of The Reivers but cannot situate the significance of the story into the context of Yoknapatawpha history. Mitch Vogel deftly portrays Lucius’s innocent but growing awareness of the adult world. But the production is seriously flawed in its casting of two major characters, Boon Hogganbeck and Ned McCaslin, on which so much of the action and the morality of the novel pivots. McQueen, an actor with leading man looks who was more successful in dramatic roles, lacks Boon’s curious combination of crudity and sensitivity—more a failing of the role as written than of the performer. And Rupert Crosse is too manic to play the sly and deliberate Ned; the result is a caricature of one of Faulkner’s most fully realized characters.  But most of the remaining cast and the screenplay captures the essence of the novel’s minor characters, especially Charles Tyner as Edmonds, the owner of the Hell Creek bottom mud patch; Ruth White, playing Miss Reba, the brothel madam; Michael Constantine (Mr. Binford), who presides over the Memphis brothel; Juano Hernandez (Uncle Possum), Ned’s ally and Lucius’s refuge; Clifton James (Butch Lovemaiden), the mean deputy sheriff who covets Miss Corrie (Sharon Farrell), Boon’s beloved whore; and Will Geer as Boss Priest, Lucius’s grandfather, looking every inch the Southern gentleman.

The Reivers was shot in fourteen weeks almost entirely on location in Carrollton, Mississippi, “a time warp"” according to McQueen’s wife: “It was America still in the early 1900s” (Toffel, 206). Only the horse race was filmed on the Walt Disney ranch in Southern California. Steve McQueen seems to have had second thoughts almost immediately after agreeing to star in the picture. As his biographer Marc Eliot puts it, “Audiences wanted Steve,” the star of Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair, to be “the king of cool, not a sweaty southern country boy."” Moreover, McQueen was counting on William Wyler, one of the great Hollywood directors, who had filmed such classics as The Westerner (1940) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), to add depth and prestige to the film. But Wyler bowed out, and his replacement, Mark Rydell, dismayed McQueen, who knew the director from early work in television and did not like him.  Rydell was simply not in Wyler’s league. And indeed, the film does, in some respects, go for the easy comedy of a made-for-television movie, even though the screenwriters, Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., had successfully adapted parts of The Hamlet, “Spotted Horses,” and “Barn Burning” as The Long Hot Summer (1958), starring Paul Newman, and wrote Hud (1963), another of Newman’s best films. McQueen may well have thought their screenplay would do for him what it had accomplished for Newman.

McQueen’s doubts about his taller, six-foot-five co-star, Rupert Crosse, complicated the production further. Boon is supposed to be the big man in the story, not Ned McCaslin. Even worse, Crosse, an untested actor in his first big role, seemed to take too long to warm up to his part, going through several takes that tried McQueen’s patience. Boon is, in fact, a role for a great character actor—say Randy Quaid or Warren Oates—and there was simply no way for McQueen to lose himself in his part. According to Eliot, after one or two takes McQueen had nothing left to contribute to a sharper interpretation of his character. Even with such problems, The Reivers was nominated for two Academy Awards: Rupert Crosse as best supporting actor (the first black actor to be nominated in this category), and John Williams for the musical score. But in both categories the film lost: to Gig Young in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and to Burt Bacharach for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance KidThe Reivers was a very modest success at the box office, and critics seemed unwilling to accept McQueen in an offbeat performance.

The film begins with shots of light glistening on a leaf and a boy in a boat fishing out on a calm lake, then introduces the dulcet voice of Burgess Meredith recalling life as a boy “a long time ago” in Jefferson, Mississippi, among a “pleasant and courteous people attending to our own business.” It is unimaginable that Faulkner could write such a sentence, so un-grounded in particulars.  Actually, the novel begins with grandfather de-scribing the outlandish Boon Hogganbeck and how he fits into the scheme of things in Jefferson.

Although filmed on location, the Southern setting seems generic, except for a black man picking cotton and a few shots of blacks tending garden plots beside small shacks. The action picks up with the arrival of the Winton Flyer by railcar, with the first shot of Boon and Ned standing next to one another full of anticipatory glee about the appearance of this new invention. In the novel, however, Ned never cares much for the vehicle and does not engage in the sort of bosom-buddy rivalry that the film sets up between him and Boon. What saves the film at this point is the closeup on McQueen’s face in a shot that reveals a dreamy, lovesick expression, a yearning for this shiny yellow conveyance that seems to transport Boon out of his everyday life and into the realm of fantasy. But then the film turns into farce as Ned wrests control of the automobile from Boon and goes off across town on a tear, thus destroying the carefully delineated differences between characters Faulkner drew.

Of course, film foreshortens a novel’s narrative, which provides context and background. Thus the film shifts quickly from Ned’s joy ride to Boss Priest’s departure from town, to Lucius’s lying to facilitate the unauthorized journey to Memphis. The highlight of the trip is their descent into Hell Creek bottom, with an amused Edmonds rocking on his porch just waiting for the moment when Boon will beg for his mule team to pull out the automobile. Several cutaway shots of Edmonds build on his smirk, which becomes full-throated laughter as Boon and Ned try to lever out the vehicle, splattered with mud from the spinning rear tires. The dialogue that ensues, as Edmonds brings up his team, is pure Faulkner and a classic of Southern humor. When Edmonds demands two dollars for each passenger, Boon tries to knock down the price by saying Ned is not white. The mules are color blind, Edmonds retorts.

The film includes some nice touches, such as Boon giving Miss Reba a hearty kiss when he enters the brothel, then turning to Lucius to tell him to make his manners—which includes executing a courtly bow. Meeting Miss Corrie, however, again spoils the scene, since she is not the big country girl turned whore of Faulkner’s novel, but an elegantly dressed, beautiful model who would not out of place in a Gilded Age painting. In short—except for the overdone makeup—she is not the girl who belongs to Faulkner’s Boon, although she is a looker who might well attract Steve McQueen. At the same time, Mr. Binford’s arrival at dinner and his quick, none too pleased glance at Lucius, signal a return to the atmosphere of Faulkner’s novel. When Lucius stands to make his manners and puts out his hand, Mr. Binford, absorbed in his dinner, eyes the boy and puts a plate of food in his hand, ignoring the courtesies Lucius had been brought up to observe.  When one of the girls arrives late to dinner, Mr. Binford rails about the “trouble with you bitches” who do not know how to act like ladies. A shocked Lucius bows his head. “Don’t you like it or can’t you get it,” Mr. Binford taunts Lucius, who refuses the offer of beer and is immune to Mr. Binford’s sophistries, as he argues that Boss and mother are not there and that Lucius is “on a tear” with Boon anyway. The ugli-ness of the scene is true to Faulkner, as Miss Reba objects to Mr. Bin-ford’s blunt language, and Mr. Binford tells her to “use your mouth to eat your supper with.”

Just as Lucius is learning his way around the whorehouse, Ned shows up outside and calls to Boon. Obviously drunk, Ned announces he has traded the automobile for a horse.  Ned would never behave this way in Faulkner's world because Ned is not reckless.  He calculates risk and does not go off on sprees. But in the film, he is made to appear the buffoon, and Boon becomes merely a comic character who upsets the evening in the brothel when he comes crashing down the stairs to confront Ned. Unlike the taciturn Ned of the novel, whose plans are divulged in a piecemeal, laconic manner, the movie’s boisterous Ned simply states that acquiring the horse—and ultimately winning a horse race along with the automobile—is the only way the group can exonerate themselves in Boss’s eyes. The Ned of the novel, on the other hand, knows that all he can do is ameliorate, not wipe out, the punishment for stealing the automobile.

The film veers back on course when Deputy Sheriff Butch Lovemaiden interrupts the progress to the race site. Clifton James plays Butch with just the right amount of easygoing menace, giving Miss Corrie the eye, and establishing his authority by sending Lucius to Uncle Possum’s melon patch to retrieve a melon and a salt shaker for Butch’s delectation. He is going to enjoy that melon the same way he will enjoy Miss Corrie. But this superb way of dramatizing character is spoiled because Butch be-comes brutal too quickly. He shoves Boon over—not an action that could occur in Faulkner’s novel, where Butch is more cunning and offensive, pushing Boon a little too hard, but not had enough to start a fight. Once again, the novelist’s subtle development of action is sacrificed for a broader, slapstick humor. Juano Hernandez saves the scene with a single line (taken from the novel). When Butch says Uncle Possum knows him, Hernandez replies so dryly that no one can miss the point: “Everyone knows you, Mr. Butch.” Uncle Possum is Ned’s ally, who has seen Lightning in action.

After this point, the action speeds up, centering on the horse race in a series of scenes that adhere closely to Faulkner’s novel. But there is a moment, when the horse race is presented in slow motion, which Burgess Meredith’s awe-struck, lilting voice announces as the film cuts between closeups of Lucius on the horse and the pounding of the horses on the track: “Carried on the back of Lightning, racing on a jet black shape, it took me completely.  Blood, skin, bowels, bones, and memory. I was no longer held fast on earth but free, fluid, part of the air and the sun, running my first race, a man-sized race, with people, grown people, more people than I could remember at one time before, watching me run it.  And so I had my moment of glory, that brief fleeting glory, which of itself cannot last, but while it does it’s the best game of all.” These lines are not in the novel, and yet they approach not only Faulknerian style, but the denouement of the film about a boy’s coming of age. If the film is not entirely faithful to the story the novelist conceived, this cinematic rendering en-compasses a moment that Faulkner might well have emphasized in his own screenplay of his novel. The rhythms and repetitions of the speech sum up not merely the style of The Reivers, but also of Faulkner stories about flying, leaving the earth, and attaining a brief kind of exaltation and apotheosis of what it means to be a striving, questing human being.

In the midst of the celebrations over the winning the horse race, Lucius looks up to see Boss Priest, whose authority is emphasized in a low angle shot making him seem statuesque in his uncompromising dignity. The stern moment is softened when Boss inquires of Lucius, “What happened to your hand?” But before Lucius can explain, Boss says, “Never mind. We can talk about it later.  I can see you are busy now.”  Lucius keeps glancing back at Boss, as members of the crowd lift the boy to their shoulders. The scene prepares, of course, for the reckoning back home, which occurs in a beautifully shot interior scene, in which Lucius’s father is seen to be about to whip him when a door is heard to open, and Boss comes down the steps. The dialogue is close to Faulkner’s own.  Again, the low angle shots—this time of Boss seated in a rocking chair scrutinizing a cowed Lucius—emphasize how much the boy has to answer for, which is more than a beating can possibly rectify, Boss has told Lucius’s father, Maury. The deep focus of the scene shows an ashamed Lucius, his back turned away from his grandfather, standing some eight feet away, confessing, “I been telling lies.”  Boss says dryly, “I’ve been aware of that.” But then he leans forward and opens his arms, telling Lucius to ‘come here,” thus proffering his understanding of the gentleman’s code exactly as Faulkner wrote it. Lucius may suffer his grandfather’s loss of respect and trust for “a while,” but not forever, Boss assures him—again with open arms, as Lucius runs to his grandfather’s embrace. Burgess Meredith’s voiceover, as in the speech about riding Lightning, admirably sums up the ethos of Faulkner’s novel, as Lucius remembers “my face against the stiff collar of his shirt, and I could smell him, the starch and the shaving lotion, and the chewing tobacco. And finally the faint smell of whiskey from the toddy which he took in bed every morning before he got up.”  As Will Geer, almost in tears himself, bids the crying boy to wash his face—as a gentleman always does—rocks back in his chair, it is hard not to believe that Boss, too, is remembering his youth and what it was like to break the rules and pay for breaking them.

Like the novel, the film wraps up loose ends.  Boon wants to make it right with Lucius, who is still offended because Boon hit Corrie. McQueen, playing Boon at his ingratiating best, informs the boy that he is going to marry Corrie. The scene plays well in cinematic terms because Lucius and Ned are seated in the automobile, which is, for once, not in motion, instead of serving as a resting point for the story as these reivers reckon with the consequences of their actions. Boon, standing by the right front fender, says Lucius will feel better a year from now when he visits Boon and Corrie and their new baby, name Lucius Priest McCaslin Hogganbeck. “Only name he could have,” Boon tells the beaming Lucius, who sighs with satisfaction as Boon cranks up the Winton Flyer.  Then the camera pulls back so that the automobile is shown to be on blocks, the wheels removed. Obviously Boss is taking no chances. The credits begin to roll as the three-some pretends to be setting off on another adventure.

The novel ends with a short scene between Miss Corrie and Lucius, after she has married Boon and had their child. Lucius looks at the child and remarks that it is just as ugly as Boon.  Lucius wants to know what she is going to call “it.” Not “it,” she replies, “Him. Can’t you guess?” Lucius asks “What?” “Lucius Priest Hogganbeck,” she announces, putting an end to the novel. Perhaps Faulkner’s ending is just as cute as the film’s, but it is a little more down-to-earth, emphasizing the impact Miss Corrie has had on Lucius. Her presence at the novel’s conclusion emphasizes the sense of responsibility, obligation, and respect that are reaffirmed for Lucius. The film, on the other hand, returns Lucius to the scene of the crime. Given the film’s emphasis on the adventure story aspect of the novel, this tack makes sense—if not exactly Faulkner’s sense.

The film of The Reivers, while sometimes capturing the mood and ethos of Faulkner’s novel, is nevertheless very much a Hollywood product, suiting plot and character elements to the star.  Darwin Porter recounts, “[T]o virtually everyone on the set, it soon became obvious that the movie’s plot was being too greatly altered from Faulkner’s original” (Porter, 324 ). Boon is an uncomfortable fit for Steve McQueen, although the actor has the physicality, ruggedness, and exuberance appropriate to playing Boon, and it was daring of the star to want to deviate from his glamorous tough-guy persona.

For his part, Mitch Vogel seems pitch perfect—an achievement which, in part, can be credited to McQueen who, according to Vogel, treated the young actor in a tender, avuncular way, just as Boon does Lucius in the film (Terrill, 286). Rupert Crosse played his role as written with superb grace and humor, but the character simply does not measure up to the subtleties of Faulkner’ s Ned McCaslin, a role that Morgan Freeman could play to perfection in a remake of the movie.

The Reivers is, as Penina Spiegel notes, a “lark of a film, happy and in-fused with warmth, a slice of bygone Americana . . . a film of youth tinged with sadness at the all-too-certain knowledge of its passing.” (Spiegel, 226) In this respect, the film captures a vital aspect of Faulkner’s novel, which is, after all, subtitled “A Reminiscence.”

Works Cited
Eliot, Marc. Steve McQueen: A Biography. Crown Archetype, 2011.
Faulkner, William. The Reivers. Random House, 1962. Kindle corrected edition.
Inge, M. Thomas. William Faulkner.  Overlook Duckworth, 2006.
Kael, Pauline. Deeper into Movies. Bantam, 1974.
Kreyling, Michael. “The Last Faulkner: The Reivers on the Road to
Banality. Southern Quarterly  52: 2 (Winter 2017): 10-27.
Phillips, Gene D. Fiction, Film, and Faulkner: The Art of Adaptation. University of Tennessee Press, 1988.
Porter, Darwin. Steve McQueen, King of Cool: Tales of a Lurid Life: 
Another Hot, Startling, and Unauthorized Celebrity Biography. Blood Productions, 2009.
Terrill, Marshall. Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel. D. I. Fine, 1994.
Toffel, Neile McQueen. My Husband, My Friend. Atheneum, 1986.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

“Christmas Holiday”’s unlikely stars and Hollywood’s fascination with Sigmund Freud

During the 1940s, Hollywood discovered that psychological thrillers could mean big box office.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1942) dealt with the psychologically damaged “Uncle Charlie.” Gaslight (1944) concerned a husband systematically attempting to drive his wife mad. In 1945, Spellbound dealt with a psychiatrist trying to help a man whose suppression of a childhood trauma haunted his adult life. Rope (1948) dealt with two psychologically disturbed young men who wanted to know what it would feel like to kill someone.

In Spellbound, psychiatrist Ingrid Bergman tries to help Gregory Peck remember his suppressed childhood trauma.

So the fact that Christmas Holiday (1944) dealt with an unnatural relationship between a mother and a son and its effects on the son’s wife was a theme that 1940s film audiences were primed for. What would have been surprising was the casting.

Gene Kelly opposite Judy Garland in For Me and My Gal (1942)

Gene Kelly was still a relative newcomer to the movies. Before 1944, Kelly had only appeared in five films, none of which had him as the male lead. It was on loan-out to Columbia for Cover Girl and Universal for Christmas Holiday (both released in 1944) that Kelly got equal billing with his female costars. The dancing, clowning, and charming Gene Kelly that we remember today, that image hadn’t been firmly established yet.

Deanna Durbin with Mickey Rooney when she was under a short-term contract with M-G-M

Deanna Durbin, on the other hand, was a true superstar. She was a radio personality when she was a child, appearing regularly on Eddie Cantor’s weekly radio program and she was also a recording artist, often recreating her movie songs for commercial release. At fourteen, she made her first feature-length film, Three Smart Girls (1936), and became an overnight sensation. Every parent in American wanted a daughter like Durbin. As she matured, the studio was careful to manage her girl-next-door image. When she made First Love (1939), she received her first on-screen kiss from a young Robert Stack. The press dubbed it “The Kiss Heard ‘Round the World.” In 1944, Durbin was a 22-year-old divorcee and was ready to tackle more adult roles. The question was would audiences accept her as something other than the perfect daughter on screen. Christmas Holiday was a commercial success—her biggest thus far—but audiences still seemed to prefer her in light comedies and musicals. By 1949, Durbin was finished with the movies and Hollywood. At 28, she decided to retire. In 1950, she married French director Charles David and moved to France, where she lived for the remainder of her life. She died on April 17, 2013. She was 91. After her retirement, many people tried to get her to come back to the stage and movies. Lerner and Lowe offered her the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, but she turned it down, saying, “I had my ticket to Paris in my pocket.” She turned down roles in the stage and film version of Kiss Me Kate (1953) and the film version of The Student Prince (1954). Producer Joe Pasternak, who helped develop her talent at Universal from day one, begged her to come with him to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but nothing could persuade Durbin to return to performing.

Durbin turned into a glamorous young woman.

Interesting Durbin Trivia
“Such was Durbin’s international fame and popularity that diarist Anne Frank pasted her picture to her bedroom wall in the Achterhuis where the Frank family hid during World War II. The picture can still be seen there today, and was pointed out by Frank’s friend Hannah Pick-Goslar in the documentary film Anne Frank Remembered.” The Jewish Standard 2010

The arrow points to Durbin’s picture in Anne Frank’s bedroom.

Indian director Satyajit Ray mentions Deanna Durbin while accepting honorary Oscar.

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