Films: Drama/Romance


Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


EDGE OF DARKNESS. Warner Brothers, 1943. Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Walter Huston, Nancy Coleman, Helmut Dantine, Judith Anderson, Ruth Gordon, John Beal, Morris Carnovsky. Director: Lewis Milestone.

   Many of Errol Flynn’s movies have a sense of lightness to them. That’s often what makes them such watchable, timeless films. Flynn is most often cast alongside two comical companions or in singular pursuit of a lovely girl who initially despises him, but eventually comes to love him.

   He’s the gentleman forced into fighting for a just cause. Think the swashbuckling Captain Blood (1935) or the epic, iconic Dodge City (1939). They are adventure stories, where Flynn portrays the elegant good guy who defeats the bad guy and, in the end, gets the girl. But there’s a sense that all the fisticuffs and gunfighting have been in good fun, even if more than a few people have gotten banged up or shot down along the way.

   Edge of Darkness, while an exceptionally good war movie, is neither fun, nor would one would call a happy film. Indeed, it’s one Errol Flynn movie where he doesn’t portray a particularly elegant man and there aren’t any bad guys, at least not in the lighthearted sense of the term.

   In Edge of Darkness, a story about Norwegian resistance fighters during the Second World War, the proverbial bad guys – the Nazis – aren’t merely bad. They are evil. And they can’t be reasoned with, tricked into changing their ways, or laughed aside. They must be killed. It’s this premise, coupled with great cinematography and superb performances by Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Walter Huston, and Helmut Dantine, that set this beautifully gritty Warner Brothers war film apart from other anti-Nazi films of the era.

   Directed by Lewis Milestone with a script by Robert Rossen, Edge of Darkness is a very powerful film about a simple man’s determination to free his country from the grip of totalitarianism. Flynn portrays Gunnar Brogge, a Norwegian resistance leader in the small fishing village of Trollness. He’s determined to get weapons from the British and to use them to strike against the Nazis occupying his town.

   Brogge’s commitment to methodical planning is tested when he discovers that a Nazi soldier violated his girlfriend, Karen Stensgard (Ann Sheridan). Further straining the already tense situation is the fact that Karen’s brother collaborated with the Nazis in Oslo and that her father, Dr. Martin Stensgard (Huston) is not fully committed to violent action against the German invaders.

   There are some very tense moments in this well-acted film, including a scene in which Brogge, along with others, is forced to dig his own grave — literally. The most memorable scene in the film, however, may belong to actor Morris Carnovksy, a veteran of the Yiddish theater and Broadway. Carnovsky, portrays Sixtus Andresen, a town schoolteacher who refuses to yield to the demands of the top Nazi thug in Trollness, Captain Koenig (Dantine). It’s a poignant reminder than individuals do have a choice when faced with tyranny.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


JUKE GIRL. Warner Brothers, 1942. Ann Sheridan, Ronald Reagan, Richard Whorf, George Tobias, Gene Lockhart, Alan Hale, Betty Brewer, Howard Da Silva, Faye Emerson, Willie Best. Screenplay by A. I. Bezzerides, based on a story by Theodore Pratt. Director: Curtis Bernhardt.

   Although it may not have the most compelling plot or the best action sequences, the Warner Brothers melodrama Juke Girl benefits strongly from Ann Sheridan in a starring role. She portrays a tough, streets smart juke joint dance girl in a bustling Florida farming and packing plant town. Her commitment to the smoke filled music hall life is tested when she encounters Steve Talbot (Ronald Reagan), a charming itinerant farmhand with a strong commitment to the plight of the common man.

   The plot, which occasionally seems to deviate sharply from where one expects it to be heading, follows the story of two friends, Steve Talbot (Reagan) and Danny Frazier (Richard Whorf) as they arrive in Cat Tail, Florida looking for work. They soon come to learn that the small town is all but run by packing magnate Henry Madden (Gene Lockhart) and his strong man, Cully (Henry Da Silva).

   Soon after arriving in town, Steve falls for Lola Mears (Ann Sheridan’s character) who is working at the town’s smoke filled juke joint. But he doesn’t fall as hard for the tyrannical Madden. In fact, he decides he’d rather work for small time tomato farmer Nick Garcos the Greek (George Tobias) than the packing plant owner.

   This strains his relationship with Danny (Whorf) who wants to work for Madden. Along for the ride and trying to keep the peace is character actor Alan Hale, who portrays Yippee, one of the locals with a strong conscience.

   For a time, things go okay for Steve and Lola. They help Nick ship tomatoes to market in Atlanta, and there’s even talk of their settling down together. But Lola abruptly skips out on Steve. She still doesn’t think of herself as the settling down type. Things then get even worse for poor Steve when there’s a warehouse murder, which the townsfolk blame on him.

   The movie abruptly veers from a melodrama to something of a crime film. But even so the crime aspect remains a mere sideshow to the story about the relationship between Steve and Lola, two rural working class lovebirds trying to make their way in a rough and tumble world.

   That said, aside from championing honest work, the film really isn’t very political. There’s no heavy-handed message here. Reagan’s character isn’t as much a labor leader as he is a guy originally from the wheat fields of Kansas who wants hardworking farmers to get a fair deal.

   Juke Girl isn’t the type of film that will likely stick with you for days and weeks after you’ve watched it. But it is nevertheless an enjoyable film, far less gritty than the films noir of the late 1940s, but one that hints strongly at a world where the greedy and the unscrupulous would gladly prey on the weak.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


THE SMALL BACK ROOM. The Archers / British Lion Film Corporation, UK, 1949. Released in the US as Hour of Glory (1952). David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Michael Gough, Cyril Cusak, Leslie Banks, Sidney James, Robert Morley, Geoffrey Keen, Anthony Bushell, Renee Asherson. Based on the novel by Nigel Balchin. Cinematography: Christopher Challis. Written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger

   The small back room of the title is in a once tony Park Lane building where myriad agencies including Professor Mair’s Research Section are situated. It’s just one of dozens of similar wartime sections belonging to no one in particular and answering to no one save a handful of civil service bureaucrats, politicians, and ministry officials, all maneuvering for influence, power, and glory. It’s 1943, and amidst the war petty politics and back stabbing still go on.

   Boffin Sammy Rice (David Farrar, Black Narcissus, 300 Spartans, Meet Sexton Blake), is above all this. All he wants is to do his job, contribute, romance his girl Suzy (Kathleen Byron), and find some way to dull the pain and the shame caused by his tin leg.

   He’s content to run his section and use Suzy as a vent for the anger his constant pain causes, which only makes him feel guilty and more useless. An expensive bottle of Scotch he keeps in his apartment in plain view is the one escape, not to kill the pain — neither it nor the dope the doctors give him will do that — but to make him forget. He has sworn not to touch it, though he does get drunk in a local pub owned by ex-boxer Knucksie (Sidney James). That bottle is a symbol of more than his pain, it also symbolizes the life he has bottled up in its smoky depths as well.

   As the film opens Lt. Stewart (a young Michael Gough) of the bomb disposal unit arrives at Professor Mair’s section with a top secret problem soon assigned to Sammy; a booby trapped device being dropped by the Germans that has so far killed three boys and one man. It may be aimed at children to demoralize the British populace, but so far they haven’t found a live one to study, and when they do they need a man like Sammy to tell them how to handle it.

   Meanwhile everything is complicated by Sammy’s problems, political back-fighting led by R. B. Waring (Jack Hawkins), the glad handing minister whose purview the section falls under, Mair’s incompetence, a soldier tech with a problematic wife (Cyril Cusak), and Suzy’s growing anger that Sammy will not stand up and fight for what he knows is right but hides behind his pain and that unopened bottle of Scotch.

   The Archers of course were directors, producers, and screenwriters Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger (The 49th Parallel, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, to name a few classics) who adapted this version of the novel by Nigel Balchin (Mine Own Executioner and the screenplay for The Man Who Never Was), a British novelist whose works in the manner of Nevil Shute were both suspense novels as well as serious mainstream novels. This is one of his best remembered novels and a fine example of his abilities.

   There’s an exceptional cast for this one, even in bit roles: Robert Morley, Geoffrey Keen, even Patrick Macnee gets a closeup if no dialogue, and Farrar, Byron, Gough, Hawkins, Cussak as a stuttering technician, Anthony Bushell as a bomb disposal officer, and Renee Asherson as a corporal assigned as stenographer to a bomb disposal unit are all outstanding. Asherson has a fine scene where she reads the last instructions dictated from the site where an officer was killed trying to defuse the bomb to Farrar who will be the next man to attempt it. It’s a thousand times more effective than filming the scene itself could have been.

   Christopher Challis’s cinematography must be mentioned as well; the location shots capture much of the wildness of some of the remote regions the booby-trapped devices carry Sammy and Stewart to, as well as the claustrophobia of crowded pubs and nightclubs with blacked out lights, tiny labs in the small back rooms of the title, and without the usual scenes in bomb shelters or footage of burning London, sketching in the aura of wartime England subtly. As it likely was for most ordinary people in London and the rest of the country, the war is always a presence even when it isn’t at the forefront.

   One outstanding sequence in the film is a surrealistic waking nightmare as Sammy waits for Suzy, the only person who can distract him from his pain, and must battle not only his pain, but the attraction of the bottle. As the clock ticks maddeningly, his pills fail him, and the bottle looms larger and larger until he even sees its outline in the pattern of the wallpaper, he breaks down.

   It’s a nerve-wracking scene, and wrenching to watch the otherwise taciturn and stoic Farrar deteriorate before your eyes. It’s as uncomfortable as anything in The Lost Weekend and as surreal as the famous Salvador Dali sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and the shadows and light interplaying on that craggy face make some memorable impressions. There is a moment when in his pain he stamps down on the tin leg to crush the pills and the agony on his face is palpable.

   It won’t take much imagination or provide much of a challenge to know Sammy will end up defusing one of the booby trapped devices, the twin of one that has already killed, and with a hell of a hangover, in a climactic scene of tension, or that doing so will decide his future and the fate of his relationship with Suzy, but that is dramatic structure and there is no way around it in book or film, even if anyone was silly enough to want one. It’s a tense scene and all involved wring every sweaty drop of fear out of it.

   Neither the film nor the book is as well known here as it was in England, but if you can find the trade paperback edition I recommend both it and Balchin’s Mine Own Executioner (also an excellent film with Burgess Meredith and Kieron Moore) highly. And if you know the work of the Archers, especially of director Michael Powell, then that alone is enough to recommend the film.

   And for what it’s worth Farrar was a cousin of mine, and we share the family nose, no small connection, so forgive me if I think it is one hell of a performance for an actor who a few years before was playing Sexton Blake in B films.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


WATERLOO BRIDGE. MGM, 1940. Vivien Leigh, Robert Taylor, Lucile Watson, Virginia Field, Maria Ouspenskaya, C. Aubrey Smith. Director: Mervyn LeRoy.

   Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, Waterloo Bridge has elements that all combine to form an excellent movie: two exceptionally talented and strong leads, a hauntingly tragic romance, and Academy Award-nominated cinematography. There’s also a memorable, Academy Award-nominated score by Herbert Shothart, who won an Oscar for his score to The Wizard of Oz the previous year.

   Waterloo Bridge stars Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor as hopelessly doomed lovers, their romance both kindled, and interrupted, by the violence of the Great War. As the film’s narrative begins, a camera pans a London crowd. It’s early September 1939 and Britons are in the street listening to a newscast announcing that Great Britain is now at war with Germany.

   Soon, we see a grayed and somewhat tired looking Colonel Roy Cronin (Taylor) entering a car en route to London’s Waterloo Station. He asks the driver to go by way of Waterloo Bridge and to drop him off at the bridge. He’ll walk across, he says. Cronin exits the vehicle and stands on the bridge amidst the steel girders, his forlorn eyes looking out in the distance.

   We witness him removing a small, white figurine from his jacket pocket. As he remains lost in thought, we hear a voice. It is unmistakably that of actress Vivien Leigh. Through this scene we learn that his story will be told by way of Cronin’s mental flashback, a glimpse backward to an earlier time, a more innocent time. The image on the screen morphs back in time, but not in place.

   Cronin is now standing on Waterloo Bridge, but the steel girders are gone. And there’s an unruly combination of automobiles, horse-drawn carriages, bicyclists, and pedestrians. We’re now seeing a younger, more vibrant Cronin. It’s the Great War and London’s under German bombardment.

   The air raid causes a panic, especially among a group of ballerinas bustling their way across the bridge. Among them, a beautiful woman, Myra Lester (Leigh), who drops a white figurine – her good luck charm – in the street in front of Roy. The two meet for the first time and soon make their way to shelter in the Underground. Their physical proximity in the subterranean transportation network leads to emotional closeness. An unlikely whirlwind romance begins.

   But if war is anything, it is cruel. And the First World War will be mercilessly cruel to these two would-be spouses. Myra is a ballerina, working under the direction of the authoritarian Olga Kirowa (Maria Ouspenskaya) who forbids her to have contact with Roy. But no bitter old woman will let the vibrant Myra from seeing her love. Their love blossoms, and there is talk of marriage. But alas, it is not to be. For Roy, at the very last minute, is called to the front.

   Things get worse. Myra, along with her friend, is promptly dismissed from the ballet company and lives a meager existence, hoping to see Roy again one day. Things then become even worse. She reads in the paper that Roy died in the wartime. It is soul-crushing, causing her to spiral downward into a life of prostitution. Her entrée into the world’s oldest profession is, symbolically, on Waterloo Bridge.

   It is at Waterloo Station, however, that Myra’s tragic fate will be forever sealed. In one of the most vividly portrayed tragic scenes I’ve seen in a 1940s film, Myra makes her way through a crowd in Waterloo Station. Men are returning from the front and she is on the prowl for a client. She tries to look pretty. A smile is forced. She looks awkwardly confused, her face betraying a remarkable sadness. Then we see her eyes and a close up of Myra’s face.

   Her horror is unmistakable. Whom does she see? Roy, of course, a smiling, gallant Roy emerging returning from France. The man who she thought dead, the soldier’s whose non-death caused her to chose to sell her body as a wartime commodity. Roy pursues her and there’s talk of marriage once again. But this is a tragedy, after all. Unless you are a complete cynic, it’s difficult not to be moved by Myra’s fall from an almost marriage into the depth of psychological despair.

   Waterloo Bridge is also a metaphor for innocence lost on a much grander scale. The carnage of the Great War tore British society asunder, ushering in a wave of poetry and literature that reflected the tragic break from the Victorian Era. The peaceful pre-war world would never return. So it is with Roy Cronin, a man scarred by sadness, standing on Waterloo Bridge in 1940, remembering his lost Myra as the world plunges into another maelstrom.

   It’s a wonderfully sad film, with some great moments. Leigh, who apparently wanted real life husband Laurence Olivier to portray Roy Cronin, is simply magnificent. Taylor is very good here too, if a bit – how shall I put this – just too American to convincingly portray a British officer. But that doesn’t stop the on-screen chemistry between the world-weary Myra and the ebullient, if unconvincingly naïve, handsome Roy.

   All told, Waterloo Bridge is a very good film, although one must suspend disbelief to image these two characters falling in love so fast. But war has a strange way of doing things to people. The prostitution angle, which is exceedingly important to the plot, is more hinted at than anything else, probably due to the Production Code. We never even see Myra with a client. But we all know what path she chose for herself. And by the time the film is over, we know how the Great War ended for Myra and Roy. A well made tragedy that is worth seeing.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE JUGGLER. Columbia Pictures, 1953. Kirk Douglas, Milly Vitale, Paul Stewart, Joseph Walsh, Alf Kjellin, Beverly Washburn, Charles Lane. Director: Edward Dmytryk.

   The Juggler is a good, although deeply unsettling, film about a Holocaust survivor with what we’d now likely call post-traumatic stress. Directed by Edward Dmytryk, this Stanley Kramer production stars Kirk Douglas (born Isser Danielovitch) as Hans Muller, a German Jewish refugee who arrives in Israel in 1949, just after the nascent Jewish state had defeated several invading Arab armies.

   The film’s title comes from Muller’s profession. Prior to his traumatic experiences in concentration camps and losing his wife in the war, he was a famous juggler and entertainer in Germany. Muller (Douglas) is the definition of a sad clown, a man who, from the outside looking in, jokes around to cheer others up.

   But he’s deeply scarred man inside, plagued by guilt for not leaving Germany earlier. (For historical purposes, it’s interesting to note that Muller’s character is an assimilated German Jew rather than an Eastern European Jew from Poland or Russia, people who didn’t face the same historical choices as did German Jews, many of whom did emigrate to Palestine in the 1930s.) After a tense encounter with a refugee camp doctor who urges Muller to seek the aid of a psychiatrist, Muller flees the confines of the Israeli resettlement camp for the city of Haifa.

   While walking on a city street, Muller witnesses a policeman talking to another man. This triggers something terrible inside of him. He begins to run. In a vividly realized scene, a frantic Muller courses down stone steps. The policeman, who we soon learn was looking for a suspect, chases after him. In a fit of fear and rage, Muller strikes the policeman with his feet, seriously injuring the Israeli cop.

   Enter Israeli investigator, Karni (Paul Stewart). Karni, along with a witness, seek to track down the man responsible for the injured Haifa cop. The trail leads them to the resettlement camp and eventually they have a face and a name. That man’s name is Muller. Karni is resolute. He will get his man.

   In the meantime, Muller has teamed up with an Israeli orphan boy by the name of Josh. The two of them hike through the beautiful countryside of northern Israel, eventually settling in at an Israeli kibbutz close to the Syrian border.

   It’s there that Muller encounters Yael (Milly Vitale), a woman who is willing to give the hurt Muller a second chance at life. When Karni shows up, however, she realizes just how troubled a man her love really is. Muller barricades himself in one of the kibbutz’s buildings, loaded rifle in hand.

   The final showdown is in some ways reminiscent of Edward Dmytryk’s The Sniper (1952), also produced by Stanley Kramer. In that film, a deeply troubled war veteran goes on a killing spree in San Francisco, eventually holing himself up in a small boarding house room. In The Juggler, the protagonist/anti-hero isn’t responsible for murdering anyone, so much as for failing to acknowledge how desperate in need of help he really is.

   While The Juggler was not a commercial success and is at times, a very uneven film, it remains an important work. It should be of particular interest to persons interested in Kirk Douglas’s filmography. Douglas is really good here, delivering his performance with a mixture of drama, humor, and pathos. His fits of anger seem extraordinarily real and have an unnerving sense about them.

   Indeed, there’s almost something noir about Muller’s plight. He’s a man who commits a crime and is hunted by the police. But at the end of the day, he’s hunted – and haunted – by so much more than a lone Israeli detective. It’s not the easiest film to watch, but it’s worth the effort.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


THIS IS MY AFFAIR. 20th Century Fox, 1937. Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Victor McLaglen, Brian Donlevy, Sidney Blackmer, John Carradine, Douglas Fowley, Robert McWade, Frank Conroy, Alan Dinehart, Douglas Wood, Sig Ruman. Screenplay: Lamar Trotti, Allen Rivkin (uncredited: Kube Glasmon, Wallace Sullivan, and Darrel F. Zannuck). Directed by William A. Seiter.

   This film is a nostalgic romantic musical set at the turn of the nineteenth century with a pair of real life lovers in obvious love with each other — no, it’s a tough crime tale about a super gang of bank robbers threatening the safety of the nation’s economy — no, its about a tough young undercover operative who falls in love with the showgirl sister of one of the criminals he is sent to arrest — no, its about corruption at the highest levels of government — no, it’s about Teddy Roosevelt — but it’s also a tough prison drama as the hour counts down to an innocent man’s execution — and it’s a psychological drama as one man tries to break another to reveal the mastermind behind the bank robbing scheme…

   Well, actually it’s all of that, and with that many elements it shouldn’t work, but still they do.

   I first saw this as an adolescent, and again as a young adult, then it was over forty years before I saw it again earlier this week on You Tube, so I was surprised how accurate my memory was about it, and shocked to find it was every bit as good as I remembered it. Not many films manage that. The look, script, performances, careful recreation of the era from familiar names and slang to the very acts performing on stage, all meticulously recreated and still retaining the charm they possessed then and when first released.

   The film opens with a group of nuns and children touring Arlington National Cemetery in contemporary (1937) times. They pause at General Sheridan’s grave, then the next stone reads Lieutenant Richard Perry, who no one has heard of, though as one nun notes he must have done something great for his country.

   The tour walks on, the camera lingers, and slowly fog and clouds take us back to Washington DC in the McKinley administration and a party at the White House where we meet Vice President Sidney Blackmer as the loud and ‘bully’ Teddy Roosevelt (the first of many times to play TR), then young Lt. Richard Perry (Robert Taylor) recently back from the Spanish American War with medals and the praise of his commander Admiral Dewey (Robert McWade).

   Perry barely gets to flirt with a pretty girl, however, before he is called back to a meeting alone with President McKinley (Frank Conroy). It seems a gang of bank robbers in the Midwest have been so successful they threaten the economy and the Secret Service is helpless because of a high level leak in Washington.

   Perry is known to be rebellious, independent, brilliant, and brave. He will be McKinley’s personal operative, communicate only by a special mark on letters he sends, and his status and existence unknown to any other human.

   You can see where this is going.

   Perry goes deep undercover and sets out on his quest to find the man at the top. (Several IMDb reviews missed entirely that McKinley isn’t sending him to catch bank robbers, but a high placed traitor in Washington — the perils of reviewing films before watching them.) The trail leads to Chicago and a new elegant saloon replete with illegal gambling run by Bat (Baptiste) Duryea (Brian Donlevy) and brutal practical joker Jock Ramsay (Victor McLaglen).

   The star of the show is Bat’s half sister Lil Duryea (Stanwyck) who Jock believes is his girl, though she does everything short of throw a drink in his face to discourage him.

   Naturally Jock is none too pleased to see handsome Perry take and interest and despite her best efforts Lil take an interest back.

   If the middle section drags a little, keep in mind Taylor and Stanwyck were about to marry and very much in love and this was designed to take advantage of that publicity to bring in women audiences. We may complain today there are too many musical numbers and the romance goes on a bit, but audiences in 1937 did not. They wanted to see the real life lovers devouring each other with every glance and Taylor and Stanwyck deliver. Especially Stanwyck who does everything but melt when she looks at Taylor.

   Perry soon realizes the key to the bank robberies and Mr. Big is Bat and Jock, and through Lil to them, but he’s is also in love with her by now. Still he penetrates the gang and soon Bat begins to see the advantage of a smart smooth operator over crude Jock with his unfunny practical jokes and card tricks that never work. And his sister loves Perry as well another bonus, because Bat is not without nuances, including genuine affection for Lil.

   Perry manages to get a letter to McKinley, but when the president informs his cabinet and Vice President, the traitor is among them. Perry had planned to resign and get out with Lil, but he is too close to run now.

   The Midwest is too hot, so they plan to hit a bank in Baltimore, but plans go awry when the police spring a trap and Bat is killed. In due order Jock and Perry are caught, tried, and sentenced to death for the man killed in the holdup shoot out. (Justice actually did move faster then — or at least law did.)

   Perry still doesn’t know who the top man is and plans to work on Jock as the date of execution approaches. The following scenes between Taylor and McLaglen are well done as Jock begins to unravel under the pressure. Perry plays Iago to Jock’s Othello who falls apart with fear and anger as the date of his hanging approaches, and the pull never comes to free him. Both men are effective in these scenes.

   It’s an impressive scene when Jock does break with half a dozen policeman in his tight cell struggling to restrain him.

   Now Perry can write the President, and gets warden John Hamilton to send his specially marked letter so he can be freed and the traitor exposed. Which, as any good dramatist would stage it, is the point when news reaches Perry that McKinley has been shot, and dies without waking up.

   Oooops.

   Perry’s only hope is to tell Lil the truth and send her to President Roosevelt (Sidney Blackmer), but when she finds out he was a policeman and her half brother died because of him, she turns on him and Perry has no where to turn as the hours near for the execution. The warden and the priest come for Ramsay, who has regained enough composure to do card tricks for the priest, and who looks forward to Perry hanging next.

   It isn’t giving that much away that Lil realizes she loves Perry goes to TR, is not believed, then is, then isn’t again until McKinley’s secretary calls a second time to confirm he was instructed to look with specially marked envelopes, but is it in time…

   Of course it is, this is Hollywood, not Stratford-on-Avon. Movie audiences still don’t want to mix too much irony with romance, and killing off Robert Taylor at that point would have killed the box office and word of mouth. These things aren’t film noir, happy endings, if at all possible, are required. Things would soon darken as the war approached, but in 1937 the odds of Taylor and Stanwyck not ending up in clench were microcosmic.

   The film was originally designed for the popular team of Tyrone Power and Alice Faye, then when they were out, Fox borrowed Taylor from MGM, and since he and Stanwyck were soon marrying this was guaranteed box office gold.

   Stanwyck sings her own numbers, and is sprightly, sexy, tough, and — well she’s Barbara Stanwyck and at a point in her career when she made one good or great movie after another. Taylor has some strong scenes in the prison and handles them with skill, his desperation quite real, and his manipulation of Jock has a tough sadistic edge we would not see in him again until the post war era.

   McLaglen chews the scenery with the best of them and yet delivers moments that will recall his Oscar-winning role in John Ford’s The Informer. Donlevy does well with a good bad man, but then he always did. The rest of the cast is capable with Douglas Fowley and John Carradine as henchmen.

   But one actor stands out.

   Sidney Blackmer’s Teddy Roosevelt comes close to stealing the movie every time he is on screen. He is full blooded, bully, enthusiastic, boisterous, loud, and altogether Teddy. He played TR in at least three other movies (uncredited in William Wellman’s Buffalo Bill), and on television, and like Raymond Massey’s Lincoln, it is the role he is best remembered by.

   He was still a popular character actor as late as his role in Rosemary’s Baby but he seldom had a part with this much energy. He also played Anthony Abbot’s (Fulton Ousler) Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt in The Panther’s Claw, and Colt was modeled on TR.

   Director William A. Seiter had a good career that began in 1915 and lasted into television (he made the switch in 1955) up to 1965. If not an auteur, he was capable and professional in the manner of a George Sherman or Woody Van Dyke and helmed all sort of films ably, while screenwriters Lamar Trotti and Allen Rivkin went on to better things.

   This is a nostalgic postcard from the past, tinted with sepia and rose colored glasses, the early years of the 20th Century as only Hollywood could do them. You wouldn’t be too surprised if Perry turned out to be Nicholas Carter and this came straight from the Nickel Library and the pen of Frederick Rennasler Dey himself.

   If the film misses a beat I have never noticed it. It is exactly what is means to be, and to expect anything more or damn it for not being anything else is to totally miss the point that it is perfect for what was intended.

   I cannot find it in myself to criticize any film for being exactly what the audience wanted and the director, screenwriters, and producer intended. Doing anything different would have upset the delicate balance that allows this to work, and in 1937 no one wanted to see the film noir version of this story.

   It’s like complaining because there is no CGI in Snow White or Bert Lahr doesn’t look much like a real lion in The Wizard of Oz as far as I’m concerned, it completely misses the point. It is well and good to not like it for what it is, but don’t condemn it for not being what it was never intended to be.

   For what it is, its a wedding cake topper for an attractive young couple when they were at their most beautiful and has just the right mix of romance, comedy, melodrama, and grit to entertain anyone who loves movie movies. It is a perfect example of they don’t make them like that anymore with all the flaws and genius that statement encompasses. Seeing it again after forty years I was astounded at what good taste my fourteen year old self had in liking it and remembering it so well at the time.

   To think they used to give away dishes to get people to come in and see movies this good.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


THE FUGITIVE. RKO Radio Pictures, 1947. Henry Fonda, Dolores Del Rio, Ward Bond, Pedro Armendariz, J. Carroll Naish, John Qualen, Fortuno Bonanova, Rodolfo Acosta. Screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on the novel The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. Directors: John Ford and Emilio Fernandez, the latter uncredited.

   Asked by a journalist to name the top three American film directors of all time, Orson Welles replied honestly: “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.”

   Certainly Welles was being clever, but he was also being honest. When it comes to film directors, there is John Ford and then there is everyone else.

   I will be clear. I would reply to this day exactly as Welles did, though I would add the finest film director who has lived to this date.

   So take this project, The Fugitive, the film version of Graham Greene’s stunning novel of faith, guilt, and redemption, The Power and the Glory, only surpassed in his own work by The Burnt Out Case, his finest achievement as a serious novelist. Add to that a screenplay by the brilliant Dudley Nichols, and topped with a cast of Ford’s favorite everyman Henry Fonda, and what you have is …

   A misfire.

   A misfire, because you could not find two men more diametrically opposed in outlook, philosophy, and their shared Catholic faith than John Ford and Graham Greene. Ford’s film adaptation is faithful and direct, often straight from the novel. But where Greene wrote his novel as a deeply conflicted Catholic uneasy with his faith and all too aware of the futility of his heroes victory, John Ford made a movie about the Christ-like sacrifice of a flawed priest and the ultimate triumph of the church through the ascension and symbolic resurrection of his hero.

   It’s the exact same story, save Greene’s novel is one of the closest he came to writing a tragedy, Ford’s is a sentimental and triumphant parable about the redemption of the faithful in Mexico through the sacrifice of a flawed man rising to ascension in the footsteps of Jesus.

   The story is simple. In the 1930‘s parts of Mexico were under the control of a secular anti-Catholic, anti-faith, near police state where there was a bounty on the head of any priest ministering to the people. The Catholic Church responded by sending priests in lay disguise into the country to attend to the religious needs of the faithful from last rites to confession. The hero of Greene’s novel is one of these, a Mexican priest returned to serve his flock.

   Here Ford and Greene hove close to each other. The young priest (Henry Fonda) is what was known then as a ‘whiskey’ priest, one who had failed in his duties, fallen into sin, and in this case even had an affair with a Mexican woman, Dolores del Rio. On the ship entering Mexico with the priest is an American bank robber (Ward Bond) who will play the good thief to the priest’s Jesus, also true to the novel.

   Meanwhile a lieutenant in the Federales, Pedro Armendariz, knows a priest has entered his territory and is determined to find and execute him.

   Greene’s hero, is frightened, uncertain of his mission, tempted by drink and sex, and struggles with his faith in lieu of the pressure on him from all sides to turn back and abandon this suicide mission. Ford’s priest is seeking redemption, is near Christlike in his determination to repent for his sins, and finds peace in his mission and ultimate fate.

   Greene’s novel is never sentimental and only symbolic in its questioning: an allegory of fragile men battling intolerance and evil, but flawed and weak and ultimately all too human. Though Greene’s hero meets the exact same fate in front of a firing squad after being betrayed by metizo J. Carroll Naish, a whining slimy treacherous Judas figure, his death in the novel redeems no one, not even himself.

   Ford’s film, though is full of beautiful Christian imagery borrowed from the great works of religious art from Michelangelo and Leonardo to Rembrandt. Shot in stark black and white on location in Mexico, it is a stunning looking film as you might expect from Ford. Ford’s priest dies as triumphal as the risen Christ with the Lieutenant’s Pontius Pilate unable to wash the innocents blood from his hands. In the novel the Lieutenant at best feels a certain guilt at having killed the priest, and questions his work.

   Nothing demonstrates the difference between film and book as the ending does, though it is almost word for word the same in both. After the whiskey priest dies, a Catholic family silently mourns him and waits for a relative to die without the last rites. There is a knock at the door and a child goes to open it. A man stands in the doorway and begins to announce he is a priest, but before he can speak the child silences him with a finger to his lip, and he enters the darkened home.

   In Greene’s version we are meant to recognize the futility of the priest’s sacrifice. However noble it was, the Church would always send another man because the Church transcended individual sacrifice. In a sense Greene’s hero has saved no one’s soul but his own and maybe the thief’s. He accomplished little, died for his efforts, but was only a cog in the machinery of faith. His sacrifice was an illusion that has meant nothing to anyone but himself and will be forgotten by everyone but a handful of people, lost even as his body lies in unconsecrated ground no last rites read over it to ease his soul heavenward.

   The book is not tragic because he does overcome his flaws, but just how necessary that sacrifice was is questioned. It is the work of a deeply faithful and conflicted Catholic, himself held captive by guilt and self recognition. The novel is a deep and troubling question about the necessity of sacrifice and the blindness of faith.

   That same scene in the Ford film is triumph, the rising of Christ Himself, reborn in this new anonymous priest. The Church has defeated the forces repressing it. The priest has defeated his enemy’s in death and his own inner demons, their power is broken, the faithful have triumphed, the music rises, the priest silhouetted in the door way is Christ, the child mankind saved by his Grace.

   Ford’s film is sentimental, worshipful, a paean to the power and glory of the Church, and yet the title of the novel, The Power and the Glory, is ironic and the Church would have triumphed and continued with or without the priest’s sacrifice. The film is heavy handed, it’s message delivered with a sledge hammer of symbolic images and barely concealed metaphors. A revival would be less obvious.

   The novel leaves questions unanswered, the ending is ironic and a bit bitter, the priest’s sacrifice of little matter however Christ-like its nature. Greene is uncertain if it is necessary or pointless for a good man to die. Good Catholic that he was, Greene is clearly wishing he could change the outcome and let the priest find happiness with the woman. The author’s conflict, not the parable. make this a great book.

   The Fugitive is not a bad film. Like most Ford films, it is gorgeous to look at, literate, and the acting by Fonda, del Rio, Bond, Armedariz, and Naish well above average. It would likely be a more respected film if it had just had the courage to question faith and sacrifice as Greene’s novel did. Instead it is as sentimental about the faith as Going My Way or Boys Town.

   The power of the novel is lost in Christian symbolism, the glory of its telling sacrificed to just another heavy handed Hollywood religious parable about as subtle, but not half as much fun, as de Mille.

   Greene famously disliked the film, with some justification, both as the author and as a noted film critic, but then he was never very happy with any of the American films of his work, and expecting him to appreciate one by the sentimental Irish American patriot John Ford was probably too much to ask.

   The Power and the Glory did get a more faithful adaptation in a film made for British television and released theatrically, starring Lawrence Oliver as the whiskey priest and Claire Bloom the woman he loves. This version dares to ask the questions and pose the conundrums Ford’s film shies from. It may be the only time in history the made for television version was better than the theatrically released feature. It is certainly one of the few times anyone made a better film than John Ford using the same source.

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