Wednesday, December 2, 2020




                                                             Curated classic films


                      I find myself thinking of some of the inspiring themes in films that we love to watch during the holiday season. Particularly, I am thinking about the ones that contain examples of sacrifice in light of the fact that it seems to be such an old-fashioned concept in this day and age. Maybe, it was always a hard sell, which is why Hollywood took it upon itself to persuade the public of its moral value.


In times of war and national emergency, Hollywood played a valuable role in convincing citizens to do their parts. Films which depicted the heroic sacrifices of soldiers stirred the public support of war efforts.  Just as films about the sacrifices made on the home front made everyone feel like part of the cause.


 (1943) is one of many films about World War II, some obviously better than others.  But it goes beyond an appreciation of those serving and risking their lives. It depicts the actual sacrifice, which must have happened countless times in countless wars, of lives for the greater good. It is the story of a group of men who stay back to hold a bridge to slow the enemy advance, thus assuring the successful retreat of Allied forces from the Philippines. The fictional tale is sold by a great cast, including the screen debut of Robert Walker, headed by Robert Taylor, who keeps his machine gun firing until the end. Directed by Tay Garnett.

 Many films dealt with life on the home front and the adjustments civilians made, some out of  a feeling of solidarity with serving loved ones and some, grudgingly, because they are always with us.  Since You Went Away (1944), directed by John Cromwell, with a fine score by Max Steiner and beautiful black and white photography by Lee Garmes and Stanley Cortez, was released during the war and reflected the somewhat privileged lives of one part of society with family members serving overseas. It has been criticized for being overly sentimental, but the cast -- Claudette Colbert, Joseph Cotten, Jennifer Jones, Robert Walker, Shirley Temple, Monty Wooley, Agnes Moorehead, and Hattie McDaniel, gives moving performances, and the scene at the train station with Jones and Walker brings tears every time. It is a favorite Christmas film.    

A look at life on the home front among the working class, Tender Comrade (1943)  is the story of women, alone, working in the defense industry who, finding it hard to make ends meet, pool their resources by moving in together.  It got into disrepute post-war when certain red-baiters accused filmmakers of promoting communism. Now we can laugh, but even star, Ginger Rogers, later repudiated the film, even though it contained one of her best performances as a war bride, whose courtship and marriage to Robert Ryan is told in flashback. Directed by Edward Dmytryk.


Still in the same war,  Casablanca (1942) is the iconic tale of romance and resistance activities in north Africa. Against the backdrop of desperate people trying to get out of the Vichy-administered city and Nazi-controlled Europe, Humphrey Bogart rekindles his romance with Ingrid Bergman, but, in the end, convinces her that they must part for the good of the war effort, because "it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." Directed by Michael Curtiz.

Not just ordinary people are called upon to sacrifice for a noble cause, even royalty has to make unhappy choices for the good of the state.  So it was with Queen Christina (1933) of Sweden, played by the Swedish Greta Garbo, in one of her greatest performances. Having fallen in love with the Spanish envoy, she must choose between personal happiness and her royal responsibilities. It is clear which she chooses by her expression in the last shot. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian.

The same choice is faced by a more modern monarch (if this is not an oxymoron), Audrey Hepburn's princess in Roman Holiday (1953).  While visiting Rome, she makes a dash for freedom to escape a suffocating life and falls in love with Gregory Peck, a reporter, who keeps his profession a secret as he escorts her around Rome. In a challenge to our suspension of disbelief, she chooses her responsibilities over Gregory Peck. Directed by William Wyler.

Sometimes it isn't the fate of millions that  motivate the sacrifice.  Sometimes, it's the fate of  only one person.  In Name Only (1939) Carole Lombard, a single mother who has fallen in love with unhappily married Cary Grant, vows to give him up if his disapproving parents allow her into his hospital room.  Seemingly, his doctors think it's the only thing that will save his life. Hey, it's a movie! With Kay Francis and Charles Coburn, directed by John Cromwell.

There are abundant examples in the movies of mothers and fathers who sacrifice for their children.  Who can forget the pathetically frowsy Barbara Stanwyck in the last scene of Stella Dallas (1937) peeking through the window at her daughter at home with her new socially-prominent family? Although, apparently she had not thought of changing her wardrobe and hair-do as an alternative to dropping out of her child's life. I mention this because it seems to work in other films.  Directed by King Vidor.

Women often sacrifice in films from the classic era by giving up the baby when there is no husband or the husband dies before the baby is born. Olivia de Haviland gives a wonderful performance in To Each His Own (1946) as an unwed mother who gives up her son, goes on with her life, successfully, but keeps track of him from afar. Directed by Mitchell Leisen.

In the well-known and favorite Bette Davis film, Now Voyager (1942), Bette and the man she loves, Paul Henreid, agree to sacrifice personal happiness together for the sake of his daughter. Irving Rapper directs Bette as the woman who emerges from under her domineering mother's control to become the woman who finds love and confidence with an unhappily married man.

One of the most-loved holiday films, It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and its theme of the value that a single human life can have, also represents a life that is full of sacrifice. From George Bailey's sacrifice of his own dreams so that his brother can realize his to the lifetime of deferring his own best interests to the interests of the town, Frank Capra directs James Stewart in one of his most effective roles and one of his most inspiring messages.

And my favorite holiday film, The Cheaters, from 1945, which exhibits another kind of sacrifice. A selfish, social-climbing family on the brink of bankruptcy decides, in the end, to tell their houseguest that she is the real heiress to their uncle’s fortune. They had brought her to their country home to prevent her from learning this from the newspapers, but she makes them ashamed of the plot by being everything they are not:  kind, genuine, and grateful. Directed by Joseph Kane.

Be kind, genuine, and grateful. 

Sunday, September 27, 2020


                                         Curated classic films

          In honor of  Hispanic Heritage Month, I am sharing my musings about what we get to know about some parts of the world from the movies.

         I caught the film, Juarez (1939), directed by William Dieterle,
a while back, and it started this train of thinking. Bette Davis and Brian Aherne didn't speak with accents though they were supposed to be Austrian, and everyone else, including Paul Muni, in the title role of the Mexican leader, Benito Juarez, did. However, this is always a tricky problem when everyone is speaking English, anyway, instead of the language of the film's setting. So we begin with this little inaccuracy and suspend our disbelief to learn the story of the Emperor Maximilian and the Empress Carlota, who in 1863 were installed as the royal personages of Mexico by the government of France only to meet an unhappy fate four years later at the hands of the justifiably-miffed Mexicans, led by Benito Juarez.

       Although the film is called Juarez and the role was given to

Muni, an actor who often played heroic roles (Louis Pasteur, Emile Zola, e.g.), greater attention is paid to the hapless Hapsburgs, Maximilian and Carlota, who are supposedly devoted to each other and their subjects, the people of Mexico. This, I thought was wrong when I first saw it. I thought Benito Juarez, the great liberator of Mexico, should have had a more interesting story to tell than the practically forgotten Maximilian and Carlota. However, I realized that if Bette Davis was in the film, it was going to be a Bette Davis film, and thus, the emphasis on her character. For all that, it was not wildly inaccurate as to the historical facts. While I thought that Aherne’s Maximilian was unbelievably na├»ve and principled, it turns out that he was actually thought of as an enlightened thinker, as monarchs go, and probably would have been a very progressive monarch if it wasn’t for the fact that the majority of Mexicans saw no need for any kind of monarch, particularly a foreign one. 

          Speaking of which, one could ask what the French were doing, occupying Mexico and installing Emperors, anyway. It
 happened that, at the time, the United States, instead of applying the Monroe Doctrine, was fighting a Civil War. As soon as it was over, the United States made its feelings known to France with troops at the border and arms supplied to Juarez, for emphasis, and the French decided to drop the whole Mexico thing. 

              Unfortunately for Maximilian, he took his responsibilities more seriously than the French. He refused to leave with them and was captured by juaristas and eventually killed by a firing squad for some really brutal tactics that had been employed in his name to fight the rebellion. All this you could have learned from watching this film. If you learned what I learned in school about Mexican history or about United States-Mexico history, you probably wouldn’t have learned this story. Mexico, our southern neighbor, has a less than significant mention in our history textbooks. Canada has even less. Thanks to Hollywood, I know something about Mexican history.

There were a number of films on the subject. (I can’t believe it was just the proximity of Hollywood to the Mexican border.) Besides Juarez, Vera Cruz (1957), directed by Robert Aldrich, takes place in the same period. It stars Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster, and it is basically a western with the Emperor Maximilian-Benito Juarez conflict as a backdrop. However, western fans would have enjoyed it because of the iconic portrayals of good guy, Cooper, and bad guy, Lancaster, with a sinister smile, in a style that was later a trademark of Sergio Leone's westerns, and, at the same time, been made aware of this period of time in Mexico.

Captain from Castile
(1947), directed by Henry King and starring Tyrone Power, Cesar Romero and lovely, Jean Peters in her first film, is the story of a young Spanish man, whose family has been targeted by the Inquisition, who joins Cortez on his way to conquer Montezuma and the Aztec civilization. Today, we appreciate that this is not an admirable thing, but the film mostly is about the romance of Power and Peters with his problems with the Inquisition as a backdrop. Great score by Alfred Newman.

Wallace Beery played the title role in Viva Villa (1934), called in the prologue, a ‘fictionalized biography’ of Pancho Villa. I assume this means that unlike other film biographies, MGM admits to making things up in this one. I remember only one thing about the film from when I saw it as a child and that was an enemy being buried in the ground up to his head, covered with honey, and left for the ants. I don’t know whether this might actually have happened or was one of those ‘fictionalized events’, but it left a strong impression of the cruelty of the image. Even if the filmmakers had been scrupulously accurate in every detail, I could not accept Beery as Pancho Villa even when I first saw it. He was a well-known actor who did not ‘morph’ into different personas in his work. Villa was a pretty colorful character, from what I’ve read, and a more accurate film biography could have been entertaining. Directed by Jack Conway.

In fact, Villa was deemed to be so entertaining that there were quite a

 few English language and countless Spanish films about him at varying levels of quality. There is the 1968 Villa Rides, directed by Buzz Kulik, starring Yul Brynner in the title role, and Robert Mitchum, as an American aviator, who joins the fight and the 1972 version, Pancho Villa, directed by Eugenio Martin, with Telly Savalas in the title role, neither much better in terms of accuracy, although Pancho

Villa does attempt to explain why Villa led a raid into New Mexico. Pancho Villa Returns from 1950 stars Leo Carillo as Villa, directed by Miguel Contreras Torres, from1955 The Treasure of Pancho Villastarring 

Rory Calhoun, as an American mercenary aiding Villa, with Gilbert Roland, and a young Shelley Winters, directed by George Sherman, and from 1958 Villa, starring Brian Keith and Cesar Romero, directed by James B. Clark.


          A film about the United States retaliation for Villa’s attack on the New Mexico town in 1916,
They Came To Cordura
(1959) doesn’t really make us understand why the United States army went into Mexico, (supposedly due to editing over-kill), but it is one film that touches on this little-known episode in the tumultuous, shared history of the United States and Mexico. Directed by Robert Rossen, the film features a respectable cast of Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth and Van Heflin.


       Marlon Brando’s portrayal of the Mexican revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata, in Viva Zapata, from 1952, as a subdued, principled hero was so convincingly sympathetic that it was responsible for my interest in Mexican history, my attraction to Orozco’s 1931 painting, Zapatistas, and a feeling of solidarity with the Mexican people and their quest for democratic government. This did not change when I eventually went to the library to find a book about Emiliano Zapata, and read that the story wasn’t quite as romantic as portrayed in the film. However, Zapata really was from the state of Morelos, he really did wish to return lands to the peasants, he
really did have a brother, Eufemio (played, in an Oscar-winning performance, by Anthony Quinn), he did join up with Pancho Villa to try to form a constitutional government with a third rival named Carranza, and he really was assassinated by forces loyal to Carranza, who had appointed himself president.

If you watched this film, you would have received some general knowledge of the progress of the Mexican revolution and some of the key players, not about President Wilson sending General Pershing into Mexico in 1916 to capture Villa and why, which would make an interesting film by itself. But this is a drama, not a documentary, and even a documentary filmmaker has to make choices about what to include and what not to include.

         Not to diminish the artistry of a really fine documentary, but the dramatic film, at its most artistic, can illuminate a story in such a way that it contributes to our understanding almost as well as a documentary. With a script by John Steinbeck, direction of Elia Kazan, photography by Joe MacDonald, music by Alex North, and acting by an ensemble of heavyweight actors, including Brando, Quinn, Joseph Wiseman, Mildred Dunnock, Jean Peters, and Margo, Viva Zapata can be excused for some inaccuracies, as its goals were artistic, showing what happens when individuals who are sincere in their idealism are met by the corrupting influence of power. 


       Later on, the movies seemed to discover that there were also stories to be told south of Mexico, and a Peruvian counterpart to Captain from Castile, is The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969), directed by Irving Lerner, about the clash of civilizations (so-called) embodied in two men, Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro and the Inca emperor, Atahualpa. Adapted from a successful play by Peter Shaffer, compelling performances are turned in by Robert Shaw as Pizarro, who promises to free Atahualpa, played by Christopher Plummer, if he delivers enough treasure, and then, doesn't. The film was promoted in 1969 as a heroic adventure, -- Pizarro, with only 167 men, conquering an empire of twelve million. Today, I think it would present a different slant.

            Filmmakers, sometimes, take on the role of witnesses, when the official stories don't reveal the whole picture, particularly with unofficial American involvement in the affairs of Central and South America.

Under Fire (1983) follows the harried and dangerous lives of photo-journalists in the middle of a civil war in Nicaragua before the fall of Somoza to the Sandinistas. Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris and Joanna Cassidy give fine performances. Directed by Roger Spottiswoode.

Oliver Stone's version of similar events in Salvador from 1986, is
considered one of his best. Starring James Woods as journalist, Richard Boyle, with James Belushi, in a fine, non-comedic performance, the film is shot documentary style, portraying brutal and disturbing scenes as civil war breaks out around Boyle.

      Staying in El Salvador, Romero from 1989 tells the story of
Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, who came to realize that his faith demanded opposition to the death squads employed by the repressive government to stop the dissidents. Directed by John Duigan and starring Raul Julia in a memorable performance as Oscar Romero, the priest who spoke out against the genocide occurring in his country and paid with his life.

         Down to South America, we have Missing from 1982, starring Jack Lemon, whose son goes missing in Chile during the coup d'etat of 1973. He goes to find him with his daughter-in-law, played by Sissy Spacek, and the political realities he finds shatter his previously-held beliefs. Based on a true story and powerfully directed by Costa-Gavras.

        Finally, I don't usually discuss documentaries, but I recommend that you try to find The Mothers of the Plaza of Mayo from1985 (I found it on the internet), the story of the women who protested continuously in the plaza in Buenos Aires to draw attention to the "disappeared" sons, daughters, loved ones who vanished in the so-called Dirty War, perpetrated by the military dictatorships in Argentina. At no small risk to their own safety, they challenged the government to give them answers.


Friday, July 31, 2020


                                 Curated classic films

Masksmasks, masks.  I’ve been thinking of masks. Did you know how many masks appear in film titles?

The most famous mask story is, of course, The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas, about Philippe, the twin of the French king, Louis, who is banished, and then one of  them is imprisoned with an iron mask so as not to be recognized, and somehow the Three Musketeers get together again in the plot to free him.

The story was made into several films, and many fans actually think the 1929 silent version, The Iron Mask,
which was Douglas Fairbanks’ final silent, was the best. Fairbanks stars as D’Artagnan with Marguerite De La Motte and directed by Allan Dwan.  So, I mention it, even though, I generally, assume most people won’t watch silents. This one is available, however, on DVD and on Amazon Prime.

The next noteworthy version was from 1939, a stellar year in American filmmaking. In The Man in the Iron Mask, Louis Hayward stars as both twins, with Warren Williams as D’Artagnan and Joan Bennett as the princess betrothed to one twin and in love with the other, directed by James Whale.

Believe it or not, Louis Hayward was in yet another version, from 1952, starring this time as D’Artagnan in Lady in the Iron Mask, where the royal twins are female, played by Patricia Medina. Directed by Ralph Murphy.

Although a made-for-TV movie, the 1977 version of The Man in the Iron Mask was quite a  lavish production with Richard Chamberlain in one of his best roles, or rather, two of his best roles, as both twins, with Louis Jordan as D’Artagnan.  Directed by Mike Newell, who went on to successful feature films like Four Weddings and a Funeral.

And who doesn’t remember Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu from 1932? The evil genius who seeks the mask of Genghis Khan to rule the world, and his nemesis, Sir Denis Nayland-Smith of Scotland Yard, played by Lewis Stone, are the stuff of legend, albeit, historically racist stuff.  But a classic from pre-code Hollywood, with a frankly seductive and sadistic, early Myrna Loy as Miss Fu Manchu.

Also from 1932, and starring Boris Karloff, Behind the Mask is a decent pre-code B picture that mixes a few chilling  (thanks to Boris) scenes with a crime drama – but no masks!  All about an undercover agent trying to infiltrate a gang of heroin smugglers, with Jack HoltConstance Cummingsdirected by John Francis Dillon.

From 1941, The Face Behind the Mask, stars Peter Lorre as an immigrant watchmaker who is horribly disfigured in a hotel fire.  Bitter because of his inability to find work, he turns to crime.  With Evelyn Keyes, and directed by Robert Florey.

Peter Lorre teams again with Sidney Greenstreet (after great
success in The Maltese Falcon) in a gem of a film noir from 1944, The Mask of Dimitrios.  Adapted from an Eric Ambler novel, the suspenseful tale of international intrigue, also stars Zachary Scott as an author who becomes interested in a body that washes up on the beach.

A pretty good Charlie Chan entry from 1945, The Jade Mask, has Charlie (the Sidney Toler Charlie) investigating murder in -- what else? -- a spooky mansion, with a mad scientist and number four son, played by Edwin Luke and assistant/chauffeur, Birmingham Brown, played by Mantan Moreland.  Directed by Phil Rosen.

The Devil's Mask (1946) is a noir-ish story with some horror touches, all surrounding a plane crash and a shrunken head.  The plot is hard to discern, but lots of atmosphere provided by director, Henry Levin.  Starring Anita Louis, Mona Barrie and Jim Bannon.

Also from 1946, Behind the Mask, stars Kane Richmond as Lamont Cranston -- the Shadow, who must prove he is innocent of the murder of a blackmailer.  Also starring Barbara Read and George Chandler and directed  by Phil Karlson.

The Mask of the Avenger (1951) takes place in revolutionary Europe where masked John Derek is fighting with Anthony Quinn  for his Italian homeland against the Austrian invaders. Lots of  swashbuckling.  Also directed by Phil Karlson.

Tony Curtis is a highwayman called The Purple Mask
(1955) who rescues his friends and harasses their political enemies. A Scarlet Pimpernel -ish costumer set in Napoleonic France.  Also starring Angela Lansbury, Colleen Miller, and Gene Barry.  Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone.

A mask story that's actually about its medical purpose is offered in this 1958 British film, Behind the Mask.  A young surgeon, played by Tony Britton, makes a  fatal mistake. Also starring Michael Redgrave and the screen debut of his daughter, Vanessa.  Directed by Brian Desmond Hurst.

A little modern for the classic time frame, but, hey, it is 35 years old, and how can you ignore a film that's actually called Mask?   The heart-breaking 1985 drama stars Cher as the mother who tries to make life as normal as possible for her son, a teen with a skull deformity, a role that added to her legitimacy as an actress.  The true-life story also stars Eric Stoltz, Sam Elliot and Laura Dern.  Directed without sentimentality by Peter Bogdanovich.

Finally, I am including the best mask film which doesn't actually say "Mask" in it's title, but it should, and in a later version in 1998, it was. It's The Mark of Zorro, (Only one letter difference!) from 1940, starring Tyrone Power as the masked irritant to the Spanish rulers of old California, and also as his alter ego, Don Diego.  With Linda Darnell as the love interest and Basil Rathbone as his nemesis. Great swordplay, if you like that sort of  thing, and who doesn't? Directed by Rouben Mamoulian.