Films: Drama/Romance

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE HOWARDS OF VIRGINIA. Columbia Pictures, 1940. Cary Grant, Martha Scott, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Alan Marshal, Richard Carlson, Paul Kelly. Director: Frank Lloyd.

   During his long and storied film career, Cary Grant appeared in films of different genres and portrayed a wide array of characters. It’s very easy to close one’s eyes and picture Grant in a screwball comedy or as a soldier and spy. What about as a backwoods Virginian adorned in Daniel Boone attire? That’s more difficult, wouldn’t you say?

   But somehow, kind of, sort of, Grant manages to pull it off.

   That’s a statement that could be applied in general to The Howards of Virginia, a slightly above average historical melodrama set in Virginia during the colonial era and the American Revolution. Based on Elizabeth Page’s novel, The Tree of Liberty, the movie features Grant in a starring role. He portrays Matt Howard, a man of western Virginia who falls in love with and marries Jane Payton (Martha Stewart), a woman from the Tidewater aristocracy.

   The movie traces the couple’s relationship from its tumultuous beginnings through their settlement in a western Virginia tobacco plantation, Howard’s election to the Virginia House of Burgesses, and the Revolutionary War. Although the film is unevenly paced, it ends up all coming together by the end. The last half hour of the film, in which Grant’s character really comes into his own, makes sitting through a rather sluggish first hour worth it.

   All told, while The Howards of Virginia is no forgotten classic begging to be rediscovered, it’s nevertheless a significant entry in Grant’s early film career and a surprisingly gritty portrayal of soldiering during the campaign for American independence.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

MITCHELL WILSON – None So Blind. Simon & Schuster/Inner Sanctum Mystery, hardcover, 1945. Hillman #182, paperback, 1960. Film: RKO, 1947, as The Woman on the Beach.

THE WOMAN ON THE BEACH. RKO, 1947. Joan Bennett, Robert Ryan, Charles Bickford. Based on the book None So Blind by Mitchell Wilson. Director: Jean Renoir.

   Ever wonder why some books even get made into movies? The question crossed my mind when I read None So Blind by Mitchell Wilson. It starts out as a moody and intriguing thing about a shell-shocked Naval Officer running a shore patrol station and trying to get his head together, as they say, who gets mixed up with a mysterious lady painter and her blind (or is he?) abusive husband.

   The ensuing story flirts with violence like a floozie in a Biker Bar, and it’s a pretty fine read… till the author writes himself into a corner, and their attempts to get out turn pretty sloppy; downright embarrassing, in fact.

   The closer I got to the end, the sorrier I felt for these poor schlemiels, as what could have been a nifty tale of murder for love turned to mush before my eyes.

   So for some reason, RKO decided to film this in 1947 as Woman on the Beach, and it suffers in the end game, too, but not quite so badly. The way it looks, when Director Jean Renoir saw there was no way to kill the story, he just quit shooting the damthing and went back to France.

   Beach ends without resolving the plot or consummating the Murder that looks to be bubbling just off-screen, but along the way there are some wondrous visuals of horses galloping across the gothic seacoast, desperate trysts in derelict shipwrecks, and fine performances from Joan Bennett, Charles Bickford, and especially Robert Ryan as the neurotic sailor.

      It’s no masterpiece, but off-beat and intriguing enough to make it worth your time.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

JAMES JONES – Some Came Running. Scribner’s, hardcover, 1957. Signet, paperback, abridged edition, 1958.

SOME CAME RUNNING. MGM, 1958. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, Martha Hyer, Arthur Kennedy, Nancy Gates, Franklyn Farnum, Denny Miller, James Jones. George E. Stone . Written by John Patrick and Arthur Sheekman. Directed by Vincente Minnelli.

   As I read this I kept wondering if it was indeed a Great American Novel — on the order of Look Homeward Angel or Sometimes a Great Notion — and when I finished I had to conclude: Not quite, but you can see it from there.

   I was prompted to read the original full-length edition by George Kelley’s article which I recommend to your attention. Running covers a few post-war years in small-town mid-America (1947 to 1950 to be exact) and it captures a sense of ordinary people struggling to come to terms with their lives in the midst of the post-war boom — and mostly failing.

   The center of the novel is Dave Hirsch, a late-arriving veteran home from the wars, failed writer and a perennial ne’er-do-well. Inadvertently returning to his home town of Parkman Illinois, he quickly manages to become the center of local gossip by insulting his respectable brother Frank (who sent him away years ago with five bucks to make his start in life) and hooking up with ’Bama Dillert, a local gambler and all-around low-life, who is also one of the greatest creations in 20th century fiction.

   There are in fact, quite a few all-around low-lifes in Running: easy women, feckless young men, town tramps and unredeemed bums, all observed by Jones with a passionate objectivity that makes them real and poignant on the page. There’s also Parkman’s “better element”: the upwardly mobile Frank and his family, a minor poet and his college professor daughter, local politicos and landed gentry—not merely background characters, but vital parts of a vivid and complex story.

   In fact there are no minor characters in Some Came Running, or damn few, anyway, and this is the novel’s greatest strength. When Jones brings someone on stage, he brings on a person, not a character. His people are complex, ambitious, troubled, and all too prone to screw up their lives. And when they converse, it’s a real conversation: rambling, lengthy, and real-sounding.

   Which may be one reason why the novel flopped; all that depth and realism takes a lot of ink to put across: 1266 pages of it in fact, a daunting prospect for any but the most avid reader. The main problem with the book though, is that it’s a bit of a downer; without giving away too much, let me just say that most of the characters manage to mess up their lives pretty thoroughly, and by the end Jones’ gloomy outlook actually starts to seem somewhat gratuitous — as if he were trying for Melancholy and overshot the mark rather badly.

   Along the way though, there’s some damn fine writing: a searing love story, a compelling look into the mind of a writer and the creative process, a road trip to make Kerouac envious, and an overall structure that keeps the reader hooked and wanting more. Despite its flaws and overall despondency, Some Came Running has a lot to reward the patient reader willing to risk a bout of clinical depression at book’s end.

   MGM filmed this in 1958 and, scenting profit but wary of a bespoke flop, Signet put out an abridged edition with pictures of the movie stars on the back cover. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Lee Sandlin described the paperback as “brutally abridged” but it ain’t that bad. And at 620-some pages, it’s hardly a negligible read. I found that it cut a lot of the depth from Jones’ novel, but it added a certain momentum and focus. You needn’t be ashamed of reading it, if you don’t feel like mortgaging your summer with the unabridged text.

   I suspect MGM bought the book sight unseen after the success of From Here to Eternity and only belatedly realized they had Moby Dick on their hands. Nothing daunted, producer Sol C. Siegel (whose credits range from the 1930s Lone Ranger serial to Ben-Hur) hired a Pulitzer-winning writer and a gagman for the Marx Brothers to wrest something commercially acceptable out of it, ensured box-office returns by casting Sinatra, Martin and MacLaine, then wisely hired Vincente Minnelli to balance the artistry and melodrama as only he could—and oh yes: they slathered a wonderful Elmer Bernstein score all over it to accentuate the moody quality of the thing.

   Any film based on a book like this is bound to cut something out, and this one cuts more than its share. The result is a fine drama, with here and there a line or two from the book. Writers Patrick and Sheekman change the ending with a cavalier attitude, but more than that, they make subtle but important changes to the characters and overall tone of the tale. Dave Hirsch in the book is fat, awkward and a born follower. In the film, he’s “Ladies and gentlemen…. Frank Sinatra!” cool, self-assured, with a stacked deck of smooth lines he deals out with the assurance of a Big Star. Dean Martin is ideal as “Bama Dillert — one of the best bits of casting Hollywood ever did — but the biggest change comes in the character of Ginnie Morehead.

   In the book, Ginnie is… well, instead of me doing all the work, why don’t you pick up a thesaurus and look up “dull”, “bland”, “repellent”, and maybe “loathsome.” You got it. Shapeless, shallow and intellectually lazy, she garners some sympathy at first as we see her, obviously starved for affection, sadly giving out sex for a few minutes of something that looks a little like love. As the book progresses though, she becomes less of a waif and more of a shrike. By novel’s end, you may actually hate her.

   But that’s in the book. In the Movie, she’s Shirley MacLaine at her best: vibrant, vulnerable, and carrying the greatest purse ever in the Movies. This is more than just a Star Performance; it’s a concept that radically transforms the story.

   To say they changed the ending here, is a bit like saying Custer had a bad day, but the alterations are completely in keeping with the moody tone of the film itself. Where the folks in Jones’ novel seek acceptance and find alienation, the characters in the movie seek love and find acceptance. Important characters in the book die alone, but in the film death brings them together.

   I don’t know how Jones felt about the movie (he has a bit part in it.) Maybe he felt betrayed, maybe he was just glad to get the money. But Some Came Running is an easy film to enjoy.

CHANGING LANES. Paramount Pictures, 2002. Ben Affleck, Samuel L. Jackson, Kim Staunton, Amanda Peet, Toni Collette, Sydney Pollack. Director: Roger Michell.

   Matching Ben Affleck up with Samuel L. Jackson is like putting a loaf of Wonder Bread into the ring with one the most intimidating and scene-stealing actors on the big screen in the last 20 or 30 years. The former is a high-powered attorney who needs a particular file to convince a judge that his firm has the legal right to oversee a charity foundation that the senior partners, including his father-in-law (Sydney Pollack) are milking millions of dollars from, unknown to him.

   While Samuel L. Jackson is a middle-aged father whose wife is leaving him and heading across the country with their two young boys. It seems that he has alcohol problems, and anger management issues. What’s the connection between the two? A collision between their two cars on the FDR Highway while both are running late for appointments, both in courtrooms. Affleck rushes off, and Jackson, being late for his courtroom date, finds his life slowly swirling down the drain.

   Except for one thing. He has Affleck’s missing file.

   In the events that follow, all taking place at an ever-escalating rate during the course of a single day, it is Jackson’s woes that engage us more. His pain is the more visible, and his revenge, although going waaaay over the top, is all the sweeter. Not that Affleck’s problems are going to go away anytime soon. Even his wife, the boss’s daughter (Amanda Peet), piles on, urging him during lunch to do the Right thing, which of course is the Wrong thing.

   Does it end well? Without giving much away, I hope [WARNING: PLOT ALERT], in movies like this, they almost always do. This one was a lot of fun to watch.


HEART O’ THE HILLS. Pickford/First National, 1919. Mary Pickford, Jack Gilbert, Harold Goodwin. Director: Sidney A. Franklin. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   This is based on a novel by John Fox, Jr. and like his The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (filmed several times, including Paramount, 1936), has a heroine who leaves the hills where she has grown up to live in town, where she goes to school and picks up city ways.

   This is not, however, as dark as Trail (our Mary is much perkier and more resilient than Sylvia Sidney in the sound film), and she eventually rejects the son of the rich man who has taken her into his family (a young John Gilbert) and goes back to the hills to marry her childhood sweetheart.

   Beautiful location filming by Charles Rosher. A friend and I parted ways on this, but I’m a sucker for back-country folk standing up to city slickers, and this pulled me in without any trouble. I think it has something to do with the summers I spent on my grandparents’ farm in rural Arkansas, and rural Arkansas was about as primitive as the area depicted in this slice of Americana.

   Mary plays herself at 13 (a real stretch) and 20ish (more believable), and she rides well and appears to handle a rifle like a young frontier sharpshooter.


JAZZ MAD. Universal Pictures, 1928; Jean Hersholt, Marion Nixon, George Lewis, Roscoe Karns. Director: F. Harmon Weight. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   Hersholt plays a German composer who moves with his daughter to America to find a supporter of his classical symphony and finds all doors closed to him. In desperation, he takes a job in a club conducting an orchestra.

   The act is a comedy turn, which submits the conductor and musicians to vegetables thrown by the audience. When his daughter’s suitor’s wealthy parents learn of this public spectacle, they connive to separate the couple and Hersholt falls into a deep depression.

   The machinations of Roscoe Karns lead to a performance of the symphony by the Hollywood Bowl Symphony orchestra (performing indoors) and the conductor’s acclaim as an unrecognized genius.

   It sounds treacly, but the performance. are uniformly excellent and the public humiliation of the musician is a striking forerunner of Emil Janning’s role in The Blue Angel. Splendid photography by Gilbert Warrenton. A real find.

THE RACKETEER. Pathé Exchange, 1929. Robert Armstrong, Carol Lombard (sic), Roland Drew, Paul Hurst, Kit Guard, Al Hill, Hedda Hopper, Jeanette Loff. Story: Paul Gangelin, with dialogue by A. A. Kline. Director: Howard Higgin.

   The Racketeer was one of the earliest films of the sound era, and it shows. The players orate rather than speak in normal tones — most of them, that is, not all of them — and use their hands and excessive gestures to make sure the audience knows what their characters are thinking and doing.

   And yet the story itself is actually quite good, filled with nuances and little bits of action, if not full scenes, that mesh together in quite a fascinating, if not always satisfying, fashion. One cannot blame the actors. They do what the director wants them to do, and the director…

   Well, I’m no expert, but I have to assume that this early in the game he had to rely on two things: his instincts, left over from the silent era, and the limitations of the equipment he was forced by necessity to use.

   If you can understand and live with those limitations, this is an enjoyable film. Robert Armstrong is the racketeer of the title, a ruthless fellow when he has to be, but the screenwriter makes sure we know from the beginning that he also has a pragmatic, practical side. He turns one of his underlings who has betrayed him over the police, for example, instead of the usual long ride to nowhere.

   And he slips a vagrant violinist on the street fifty dollars rather than let a cop run him in. And this is the incident that begins the story itself. The vagrant has a girl friend (Carol Lombard), and as chance would have it, she needs a helping hand from this very same gangster to keep from being caught after cheating at poker at a charity function.

   Which begins a love triangle of sorts, not overtly per se, but a quiet, tacit one, one that (as expected) boils over at the end. Robert Armstrong is his usual professional self, but I’m afraid that at the time I might not have predicted much of a future in talkies for his leading co-star, already a veteran of some 40 or so silent films, but she learned, and how.

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