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Month: July 2021

Story of G.I. Joe, The (1945)

Story of G.I. Joe, The (1945)

“He’s over 38 — he don’t need to be here!”

Synopsis:
42-year-old journalist Ernie Pyle (Burgess Meredith) follows “doughfoot” members of an infantry unit fighting in Tunisia and Italy during WWII — including the lieutenant (Robert Mitchum) who first allows him to tag along; a tall private (John R. Reilly) who marries his Army-nurse fiancee (Dorothy Coonan Wellman) during a brief stop; a woman-obsessed Italian-American from Brooklyn (Wally Cassell); and a sergeant (Freddie Steele) desperately trying to find a record player in order to hear his young son speak for the first time.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Burgess Meredith Films
  • Journalists
  • Robert Mitchum Films
  • Soldiers
  • William Wellman Films
  • World War II

Review:
William Wellman directed this powerful depiction of life on the ground for infantrymen during World War II, as captured and portrayed by war correspondent Ernie Pyle (who, tragically, died by enemy fire in Japan before the film’s release). It’s notable for featuring Robert Mitchum in an Academy Award-nominated breakthrough role:

… and for casting 150 paid, real-life infantrymen who were about to be shipped back out to the Pacific:

Wellman’s sure directorial hand — assisted by DP Russell Metty — is in evidence throughout, and thankfully we don’t seem to be given a sugar-coated version of the unit’s harsh existence. There is a cute dog that hops on board near the beginning of the film:

… but he primarily serves to remind us how many simple pleasures and comforts these boys have left behind. Some sections feel slow and deliberate — but that’s likely precisely the point, given that plenty of interminable wait time was always intermingled with fear, high-octane fighting, and loss of compatriots. Be sure to check out TCM’s article for a detailed overview of the film’s production and reception, and this page for additional info as well as numerous photos of Ernie Pyle himself on the set of the film — including several of him standing side-by-side with Meredith.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Robert Mitchum as Lt. Walker
  • Burgess Meredith as Ernie Pyle
  • Russell Metty’s cinematography


Must See?
Yes, for its historical significance in honoring such a beloved journalist and the brave men he shadowed. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant

Links:

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

“If we could go deep enough, we’d all be surprised at the creatures down there!”

Synopsis:
When a biology professor (Paul Lukas) and his assistant (Peter Lorre), along with a harpoonist (Kirk Douglas), find themselves trapped in a secret submarine helmed by mad Captain Nemo (James Mason), they plot their escape — but not before many life-harrowing adventures ensue.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • At Sea
  • James Mason Films
  • Jules Verne Adaptations
  • Kirk Douglas Films
  • Paul Lukas Films
  • Peter Lorre Films
  • Richard Fleischer Films
  • Submarines

Review:
Walt Disney rolled the dice on this big-budget, live-action, Cinemascope extravaganza, made just before he opened the first Disney Land. It ended up costing more than any other movie at that time — and it didn’t make a profit for awhile — but it was an enormous success, and generations of kids grew up adoring it. In addition to still-impressive special effects and art direction (both of which won Oscars):

… the movie features a typically powerhouse performance by Mason as Captain Nemo (what perfect casting):

… and holds our engagement until the end. A definite highlight is the harrowing battle against a giant squid (which had to be completely reshot when the initial conceptualization didn’t work):

While this film isn’t must-see viewing, it will likely be of interest to film fanatics given its place in Disney and cinema history.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • James Mason as Captain Nemo
  • Oscar-winning art direction and special effects
  • Fine Cinemascope cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly worth a one-time look for its historical importance.

Links:

Stars in My Crown (1950)

Stars in My Crown (1950)

“What you want is your town back again.”

Synopsis:
When a young preacher (Joel McCrea) arrives in a small southern town just after the end of the Civil War, he marries a local woman (Ellen Drew) and becomes an adoptive father to Drew’s orphaned nephew John (Dean Stockwell). As an adult (Marshall Thompson), John narrates various tales from his childhood — including a racist landowner (Ed Begley) trying to force a Black farmer (Juano Hernandez) to sell his land; a young doctor (James Mitchell) romancing the local schoolteacher (Amanda Blake) while taking over the practice of his dying father (Lewis Stone); a traveling magician (Charles Kemper) arriving to give a performance; and a fatal outbreak of typhoid.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alan Hale Films
  • Dean Stockwell Films
  • Doctors and Nurses
  • Jacques Tourneur Films
  • Joel McCrea Films
  • Juano Hernandez Films
  • Lewis Stone Films
  • Priests and Ministers
  • Racism and Race Relations
  • Small Town America
  • Westerns

Review:
Jacques Tourneur directed a handful of westerns in his varied career — including Canyon Passage (1946), Wichita (1955), Stranger on Horseback (1955), Great Day in the Morning (1956), and this lyrical adaptation of an autobiographical novel by Joe David Brown. The storyline meanders through a young boy’s memories of his uncle’s near-miraculous impact on locals — to an extent that whitewashes and smooths over highly complex topics (i.e., deeply entrenched racism), but perhaps can be excused as part of a child’s idealized sense-making. McCrea is well-cast in the central role as Preacher Josiah Doziah Gray:

… a man so convinced of the goodness and rightness of Christian values that he attempts to persuade all townsfolk — including a former war buddy (Alan Hale) and his bustling family — to come to services regularly:

The most disturbing (and problematic) aspect of the film by far is the recurring subplot about Hernandez standing firm in his rejection of an offer to buy his land. He doesn’t back down from vile Begley and his henchmen, but must continually kowtow to local whites, and nearly sacrifices his life to murderous Klansmen for his principles:

… until:

[SPOILERS ALERT]

… McCrea saves the day in a seriously unrealistic sequence that many have taken issue with. Indeed, those who rankle at seeing tales of “white saviors” should be forewarned that this is very much a story along the lines of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962); viewers wanting to see Hernandez standing up more forcefully for himself in the face of racism should check out Intruder in the Dust (1949). Meanwhile, the film’s other significant subplot — about the sudden emergence and transmission of typhoid among the town’s children — is a scary reminder about our human vulnerabilities, one that hits all too close to home these days.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joel McCrea as Josiah Gray
  • Strong performances by the supporting cast

  • Atmospheric cinematography


Must See?
Yes, as a fine (if somewhat troubling) feel-good film by a master director. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Good Show
  • Important Director

Links:

Lost Patrol, The (1934)

Lost Patrol, The (1934)

“I’ll tell you what I know: nothing. I don’t know where we are, I don’t know where we’re going.”

Synopsis:
During World War I, a sergeant (Victor McLaglen) takes leadership of his patrol — including Morelli (Wallace Brown), Pearson (Douglas Walton), Brown (Reginald Denny), McKay (Paul Hanson), Cook (Alan Hale), and religious fanatic Sanders (Boris Karloff) — when their lead officer is shot by an unseen Arab; meanwhile, more bullets continue to kill off members of their group one by one.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alan Hale Films
  • Boris Karloff Films
  • Deserts
  • John Ford Films
  • Survival
  • Victor McLaglen Films
  • World War One

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “exciting John Ford adventure-character study about a British military regiment that gets lost in the Mesopotamian desert during WWI” and suffers “from heat and lack of water” as they’re “picked off one at a time by Arabs” is a “prototypical Ford film in that it vividly depicts men in relationship to a hostile environment and in conflict with one another as to how to combat their circumstances,” and allows us to see “how the various men react to their hopeless situation.”

He notes that “these themes are most evident in [Ford’s] westerns” and that this film is “very similar to Stagecoach in that it also intermingles dialogue scenes with sequences that rely strictly on visuals and music (Max Steiner won an Oscar) and recall the silent cinema.”

He calls out the “strong characterizations, especially by Victor McLaglen as the sergeant” (McLaglen has never been sexier):

… “and Boris Karloff as a skinny religious fanatic who goes insane in the intense heat” (though Karloff overplays his role):

Ford builds tremendous tension by not showing the shooters until the very end; bullets seem to come literally out of nowhere, ensuring we understand that this group is trapped between a rock and a hard place. A particularly heart-wrenching moment comes when a bi-plane lands nearby and the cheery British pilot is about to rescue them but barely makes it a few steps from his plane before being shot dead, despite vain attempts by the soldiers to prevent him from moving forth.

Steiner’s score is used to particularly jarring effect in this sequence. Despite its utterly bleak setting and narrative, this film remains surprisingly engaging and is well worth a look. It would make a good double bill with Zoltan Korda’s WWII-era desert survival flick, Sahara (1943).

Note: Peary points out that “in some ways [this film] predates Aguirre: The Wrath of God,” which is an intriguing if not entirely apt comparison.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Victor McLaglen as the Sergeant
  • Fine location shooting in Yuma, Arizona
  • Harold Wenstrom’s cinematography
  • Max Steiner’s score

Must See?
Yes, as a tight little survival flick.

Categories

  • Good Show
  • Important Director

Links:

Canyon Passage (1946)

Canyon Passage (1946)

“You gave me your word you’d quit poker!”

Synopsis:
In 1850s Portland, a businessman (Dana Andrews) hoping to marry his sweetheart (Patricia Roc) helps his gambling-addicted friend (Brian Donlevy) reconnect with his fiancee (Susan Hayward). Meanwhile, the local bully (Ward Bond) goads Andrews into a fight; a shopkeeper (Hoagy Carmichael) sings songs while keeping an eye on the town’s affairs; and nearby Indians become increasingly agitated by the invaders on their land.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Brian Donlevy Films
  • Dana Andrews Films
  • Gambling
  • Jacques Tourneur Films
  • Lloyd Bridges Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Susan Hayward Films
  • Westerns

Review:
Jacques Tourneur directed this Technicolor western just after making Experiment Perilous (1946) and just before helming his noir masterpiece Out of the Past (1947). Canyon Passage is a beautifully shot, colorful tale with a keen eye towards historical authenticity and several intriguing characters — but ultimately, we don’t learn enough about the key players to become sufficiently engaged in their travails. Andrews is presented somewhat cryptically as a hardworking businessman who’s oddly cavalier about his wealth:

… and willing (but not eager) to marry beautiful, kind, though incompatible Roc:

He’s clearly most attracted to the woman (Hayward) already engaged to his best friend (Donlevy):

… thus setting up a complex love quadrangle. Without knowing more of their back story, it’s hard to know why Hayward is committed to Donlevy — who we have a hard time liking or sympathizing with given his self-proclaimed aversion to working hard for his money:

… not to mention the fact — as shown in a couple of scenes with the solemn wife (Rose Hobart) of a professional gambler (Onslow Stevens) — that he’s far from faithful:

Meanwhile, bullying Bond is sufficiently menacing but one-dimensional as the local fight-loving thug:

… and the inclusion of Carmichael as a “minstrel” lurking on the sidelines is a curious one (though clearly designed to allow him to sing a few of his own ditties and provide some minor comedic relief):

Thankfully, Andy Devine is given a refreshingly candid line to speak regarding the local Indians: “It’s their land and we’re on it, and they don’t forget it.”

… though the Indians are reduced to nameless, faceless baddies as usual by the end:

I’m curious how much Ernest Haycox’s source novel (adapted by Ernest Pascal) might elaborate on some of my questions and concerns above.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Beautiful Technicolor cinematography

  • Fine attention paid to historic authenticity

  • The impressive cabin building sequence

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended for one-time viewing.

Links:

Sahara (1943)

Sahara (1943)

“We must get water.”

Synopsis:
An American tank sergeant (Humphrey Bogart) and his crewmen (Bruce Bennett and Dan Duryea) — working alongside a British medical officer (Richard Aherne), a French corporal (Louis Mercier), and four other soldiers in the North African desert — pick up an Italian deserter (J. Carrol Naish), a Sudanese sergeant (Rex Ingram), and a German prisoner-of-war (Kurt Kreuger). Soon water supplies run low, and Bogart must successfully convince encroaching German forces that he has enough water to trade for rifles.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Deserts
  • Dan Duryea Films
  • Humphrey Bogart Films
  • Lloyd Bridges Films
  • Rex Ingram Films
  • World War II
  • Zoltan Korda Films

Review:
Zoltan Korda helmed this WWII-era fighting flick focused on both the need for international cooperation to defeat fascist enemies, and the prime necessity of water — the source of life — above all else. Bogart is suitably grizzly and no-nonsense as Sgt. Joe Gunn (what a name!), whose love of his tank “Lulubelle” is compared to that of a man for his horse.

The situations he and his men encounter — enemy forces both within and without, but first and foremost a constant search for water — are deftly handled, with plenty of tension and close calls:

Perhaps most satisfying are the character arcs given to supporting characters Naish and Ingram, who each contribute in a vital way to the survival of the crew while enduring racism and xenophobia.

Fine location shooting and atmospheric cinematography (by Rudolph Mate) make this an exciting “good show”, and well worth checking out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Strong performances by the ensemble cast


  • Rudolph Mate’s cinematography

  • Fine location shooting in the Borego Desert

  • The exciting climax

Must See?
Yes, once, as an overall good show. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Good Show

Links:

Tight Little Island / Whisky Galore! (1949)

Tight Little Island / Whisky Galore! (1949)

“Any man who stands between us and the whiskey is an enemy!”

Synopsis:
When a cargo ship full of whiskey goes down near a Scottish island, its drink-loving residents rush to rescue what they can — but a by-the-books captain (Basil Radford) is determined to return the loot to its rightful owners.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Comedy
  • Joan Greenwood Films
  • Scottish Films

Review:
Scottish-American director Alexander Mackendrick made his (directorial) debut for Ealing Studios with this gentle comedy, set on a remote Scottish island and focusing exclusively on the impact of whisky (or lack thereof, due to wartime rationing) on the local population. It shows a group of people united in their efforts to secure what they want and need:

banding together against Customs and Excise men (as personified by Home Guard C.O. Radford):

… and also the impact that drinking has on a young man (Gordon Jackson) smothered by his overbearing mother (Jean Cadell):

Thanks to a bit of drink, Jackson finally works up the courage to tell Cadell he’s going to marry to his girlfriend (Gabrielle Blunt).

Meanwhile, Blunt’s sister (Joan Greenwood) is romanced by a returning sergeant (Bruce Seton) much older than her:

… and a dying man (James Anderson) is resurrected by the presence of his favorite libation.

Favorite random line: “Mother, where is my helmet? You were using it to feed the hens!”

Note: Film fanatics will likely be tickled to see Catherine Lacey from Michael Reeves’ The Sorcerers (1967) in an earlier role here.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gerald Gibbs’ cinematography

  • Fine location shooting on the Isle of Barra

  • Several humorous moments

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended.

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Tall Target, The (1951)

Tall Target, The (1951)

“Anything could happen in Baltimore — it’s a nest of secessionists!”

Synopsis:
On the precipice of the Civil War, a detective (Dick Powell) concerned about a rumored plot to assassinate President-Elect Abraham Lincoln encounters a variety of individuals traveling by train — including a Northern colonel (Adolphe Menjou); a mysterious man who has taken over his ticket and identity (Leif Erickson); a chatty abolitionist author (Florence Bates); a mother (Barbara Billingsley) and her young son (Brad Morrow); and a Confederate officer (Marshall Thompson) travelling with his sister Ginny (Paula Raymond) and Ginny’s personal slave, Rachel (Ruby Dee).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Adolphe Menjou Films
  • Anthony Mann Films
  • Assassination
  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Dick Powell Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Trains and Subways

Review:
Near the beginning of his career as an “A film” director, Anthony Mann helmed this noir-ish historical thriller bearing an uncanny narrative resemblance in many ways to The Narrow Margin (1952) (scroll to the bottom of DVD Savant’s review for more details). The title character himself — Abraham Lincoln (Leslie Kimmell) — doesn’t appear until the very last shot:

… and it’s no spoiler to say, of course, that he survived this initial attempt at taking his life — but the storyline remains surprisingly gripping until then, despite knowing this outcome. Mann (working with DP Paul Vogel) creates an impressively claustrophobic atmosphere on board the train, with shadowy figures literally lurking around every corner, and violence a possibility at all times.

We don’t quite understand at first who each of the characters is or what they stand for, but this suits the narrative perfectly: only gradually do we understand the complex web of deceit being carried out (thank goodness for Powell’s tenacity!).

A subplot involving a slave (Dee) is handled especially well, allowing her to give a surprisingly nuanced performance for such a minor role.

Meanwhile, smarmy Menjou is perfectly cast as a supportive colonel with more up his sleeve than he first reveals:

… and Bates is memorable as a blunt-speaking abolitionist who thinks nothing of asking Dee outright, with gleeful anticipation, “Tell me, my dear: how does it feel being beaten? They did beat you, of course?”

Perhaps most eerie of all is how powerfully the storyline here echoes our current polarized political landscape:

It’s easy enough to believe in a story of complex sedition like this given… Well, given recent events. Enough said.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Paul Vogel’s cinematography

  • Ruby Dee as Rachel
  • Adolphe Menjou as Colonel Jeffers
  • Numerous tension filled moments

  • Fine historical sets

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful drama by a master director.

Categories

  • Good Show
  • Important Director

Links:

Mister Rock and Roll (1957)

Mister Rock and Roll (1957)

“How do you account for it — this terrific success?”

Synopsis:
A young musical sensation (Teddy Randazzo) falls for a journalist (Lois O’Brien) covering a story on rock ‘n roll, with neither knowing that O’Brien’s manager (Jay Barney) intends to spin her reporting into a report about the negative impact of rock music on juveniles. Meanwhile, Randazzo’s manager (Alan Freed) tells the tale of how he helped spread rock ‘n roll across the country, and attempts to convince the public that rock-loving teens are good and decent at heart.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Morality Police
  • Rock ‘n Roll

Review:
After appearing as himself in Rock Around the Clock (1956), Rock Rock Rock! (1956), and Don’t Knock the Rock (1956), Alan Freed was given the title role in this film which was ostensibly about his historic role in bringing rock music to teenagers through radio:

… but was really just one more excuse for a variety of then-popular stars to perform. It’s listed as a Camp Classic in the back of Peary’s book — likely no longer true, but this designation makes sense given how trite and stilted the dialogue and storyline are: boy (Randazzo) meets girl (O’Brien), they have a misunderstanding, boy croons a couple of songs, and the couple reunites by the end.

We’re treated to perhaps the worst ever attempt by a singer (Randazzo) to pretend he’s playing the piano:

… and numerous painful (unsuccessful) attempts at injecting humor:

Meanwhile, one can’t help wondering, what in the heck is that photo of a handsome young guy doing in the top right corner of Randazzo’s dressing room mirror?

Thankfully, the film culminates in a suitably raucous, socks-knocking dance sequence:

… and check out the Black female saxophonist! Could she have been a member of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm?

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A few enjoyable musical acts

Must See?
No; you can skip this one.

Links:

Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959)

Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959)

“I just came here for the fun of it.”

Synopsis:
Various jazz musicians perform at the fourth annual Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island while the America’s Cup races occur nearby and spectators enjoy beautiful summer weather.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Concert Films

Review:
This groundbreaking concert documentary — notable for setting the tone for future entries in this sub-genre — was the result of jazz photographer Aram Avakian and fashion photographer Bert Stern teaming with jazz producer George Avakian (Aram’s brother) to capture musical performances from the annual Newport Jazz Festival, along with plenty of footage of attendees — young and old, Black and white, Beatnik and refined — relaxing and enjoying their time together. Indeed, the pleasures of this film come not just from the music, but from the improvisational way in which the festival is presented, capturing the spirit of this particular place in time. Personal favorite musical highlights include Thelonious Monk performing “Blue Monk”:

… Anita O’Day (high on heroin at the time, as she later admitted) scatting away skillfully:

… the cellist from the Chico Hamilton Quintet (Nate Gersham) privately playing the Prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1:

… and (of course) Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars performing with characteristic verve and joy:


But the carefully edited interstitial footage is often just as illuminating, beautiful, or (unintentionally) amusing:





This musical treat will likely be a repeat favorite for jazz-loving film fanatics, and should be viewed once by all simply for its historical relevance.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many enjoyable musical performances

  • An eclectic look at audience members enjoying the festival




Must See?
Yes, as an invaluable historical artifact and archive. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant

Links: