1948 European Realists

Survivor of Buchenwald sits on UNRRA truck. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park

The Search portrays one of the major challenges after the end of WWII:  the liberation, registration, and care of displaced children who survived the concentration camps. The movie centers on one 9-year-old Czech boy, who hardly speaks, does not know his name, and does not know where he was born. He escapes from aid workers, but an American army engineer finds him and takes him in. Meanwhile, the boy’s mother is looking for him; by pure luck, mother and child are united.

Shot on location in eastern Germany, The Search looks like a documentary. Until Montgomery Clift comes on screen, it may as well be a documentary. Clift, as the army man, and Ivan Jandl, as the boy, give such natural, wonderful performances. Jandl communicates so much with his facial expressions and he carries the movie’s many silent sequences (accompanied by music) with a gripping intensity. I found the film moving, informative, uplifting: a must-see.

Source: The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Before Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, there was The Bicycle Thief. Like the earlier Italian film Open City (1945), The Bicycle Thief offers a realistic vision of daily life in Rome: its traffic, poverty, and diverse population. The movie follows Antonio, an unemployed man — his family so poor they even pawn their sheets — who at last succeeds in getting a job hanging posters. However, the work requires a bicycle and on the first day his bicycle is stolen. For the rest of the film, Antonio and his son search across Rome and come into contact with all of humanity: garbage collectors, priests, merchants, policemen, a fortune teller, prostitutes. Each unsuccessful episode in the search pushes Antonio into a deeper state of anxiety and desperation. The sudden “FINE” on the screen surprised me. I suppose there can be no happy, satisfying endings in Italian neorealism?


1948 Noir on Location

Three films set in specific places…

Wall Street. Source: The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Like Body and SoulForce of Evil stars John Garfield in a modern day morality play by Abraham Polonsky. Running at 78 minutes, this taut drama does not waste a second. The story follows two brothers: a Wall Street lawyer (Garfield), who signs on with the mob, and his older brother (Thomas Gomez), who runs a small “bank” (aka numbers racket). Not knowing anything about the numbers racket or betting, I found myself adrift. Still, John Garfield always delivers — here he plays a charismatic, intelligent, morally conflicted character whose perfect little scheme unravels into chaos.

When I have so little to say about a movie, I look to others: here’s Martin Scorsese on the influence the film has had on his work.

Williamsburg Bridge. Source: Library of Congress

Part police procedural, part documentary, The Naked City tells the story of a murder case, while interspersing scenes of daily life in New York City. As the narrator intones, this is just one of 8 million stories from the naked city. A visual homage to New York, as though Alfred Stieglitz had been behind the camera, the cinematography elevates this otherwise ordinary detective story (indeed, the film won Oscars for cinematography and editing).

When the film isn’t appreciating New York at night, its crowded streets, or its engaging population, the camera follows Detective Dan Muldoon, an old-timer on the force, and his rookie colleague, Jimmy Halloran, as they try to solve the murder of a model over the course of a week. The film shows the collaborative nature of police work and how the whole city gets caught up in the story: commuters follow the headlines, a crazy old lady comes to the police station with her theories about the case, while a crazy young man confesses to the murder. Shot on location, the film shows the amount of “legwork” involved with Halloran and others following up leads across the city. At last, the police corner the murderer on the Williamsburg Bridge, which provides ample opportunities for glorious views of Manhattan and the bridge trusses.

Unlike other noirs that feature romance or a web of ridiculous subplots, The Naked City sticks to straightforward police procedures. And unlike other noirs that underscore the depravity of the characters or present complex PIs with ambiguous morals, The Naked City, very much like the radio-program Dragnet, operates within a simple worldview. The cops are really good guys with cute families and fluffy bathrobes, while the bad guys, despite how friendly a harmonica-playing wrestler might seem at first, are really bad. 

Source: The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Released in July 1948, Key Largo offers star-studded summer entertainment and answers a question I’ve often pondered: “What happens when three normal people get trapped in a hotel with a bunch of mobsters during a hurricane?”. In this John Huston directed feature, everyone plays their bit: Humphrey Bogart as the wise guy; Edward G. Robinson, the mobster; Lauren Bacall, the gutsy, but vulnerable love interest; and Lionel Barrymore, the crotchety old man. Thomas Gomez of Force of Evil appears here as a chatty attendant to Robinson’s kingpin (the attendants are not unlike Snow White’s Seven Dwarves — each one with some distinctive trait).

So what does happen? In just a few short hours, Robinson’s Johnny Rocco manages to humiliate everyone, especially his old flame (Claire Trevor); shoot a cop; hoodwink another cop; offend the local Seminoles; and sell counterfeit money to a Miami-based gang — all without leaving the hotel! But Rocco makes a fatal mistake. He trusts Frank, Bogart’s drifter, a war vet who wants to live modestly and quietly and who appears to be motivated only by self-preservation. Forced to transport the mobsters back to Cuba, Frank executes a brilliant plan that leaves him the only man standing.

1948 Laughs

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. My first Abbott and Costello movie helped me understand why these two comedians “were among the most popular and highly paid entertainers” (Wikipedia) of the 1940s. In this film, the adorable, cherubic Costello (whose physical comedy made me think of Jim Belushi in Animal House) and the severe Abbott team up with Universal’s greatest monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and the Invisible Man. It’s a hilarious collision of horror and comedy and, since I saw all those horror movies from the 1930s, it was a treat to see everyone back again (for my timeline just a few years, but in real life some 15 years later). Definitely a good Halloween pick!

Unfaithfully Yours. I’ve said before that Preston Sturges has been a major discovery for me during this project, but I had doubts about Unfaithfully Yours. The synopsis on the Netflix DVD jacket disturbed me: a conductor suspecting his wife of infidelity envisions three forms of revenge, each set to a different orchestral piece. Jealousy and domestic violence the foundations for a comedy? Well, I have rarely laughed so hard and the final scene when the conductor’s insane murderous efforts all fall to pieces in an extended slapstick sequence left me gasping for air.

Rex Harrison and Linda Darnell star as the married couple, Alfred and Daphne De Carter. They brilliantly portray the peaks and valleys of the emotional whirlwind set off by an unsolicited detective’s report. After the conductor learns that his wife visited the room of his assistant, cold shock melts into a boiling jealous rage. That evening at his concert, the conductor obsesses over possible outcomes:  calculated murder, generous forgiveness, or a game of Russian roulette. The fantasies follow the accompanying music so perfectly and in each Harrison and Darnell strike the right tone effortlessly. I found it fascinating to see the same scene play out three different ways and then follow those imaginary strands through the conductor’s evening after the performance.

The supporting cast contributes to farcical aspects of the plot. Rudy Vallee plays the idiotic brother-in-law who interprets “keep an eye on” to mean “hire a detective”. The detective turns out to be a huge fan of the conductor and goes to the performance with his friend, a Jewish tailor, who shouts “Hooray!” instead of “Bravo!” at every possible occasion.

For as much as the story concerns presumed adultery, the movie also captures the tender, small moments that occur between a couple on a day-to-day basis. Dark, yes, but also clever, ironic, and devastatingly funny, Unfaithfully Yours is another gem from Sturges.

1948 Women

Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York 1904. Public domain. Accessed from Wikimedia

Easter ParadeAfter The Pirate, I had no idea what to expect from MGM’s Easter Parade, but it turned out to be a delight decked out in Irving Berlin tunes. Easter Parade was 1948’s second highest grossing film and the greatest financial success for Judy Garland and Fred Astaire (Wikipedia). Garland plays Hannah Brown, a chorus girl whom Don Hewes (Astaire) picks out on a drunken night to be his new dance partner after his former flame ditches him for a solo gig. Only problem is Hannah can’t really dance, so Hewes teaches her and they fall in love in the process.

Easter Parade may tell the usual backstage story, but the cast is brilliant. Back on her game, Garland exhibits a wonderful feel for the Vaudeville-era Berlin hits and she’s hilarious in the dance scenes — first as an unsuccessful ballroom dancer in a ridiculous feather dress and later as a strong physical comedian. Fred Astaire, ever the perfect gentleman, never flaunts his talent and always keeps his passion in check. While perhaps not the most romantic lead, the man has style. Check out his white suit with all the red accents along with the super cool slow-motion effect in this clip!

The supporting cast too deserves attention. Energetic tapper Ann Miller nails her debut film role as Nadine Hale, a narcissistic dancer who accessorizes her outfits with different dogs! Peter Lawford perfectly plays the dreamy nice guy and I was so happy to see Jules Munshin, whom I recognized from Take Me Out to the Ball Game and On the Town. Here, Munshin’s character, the waiter Francois, explains how to make his signature salad.

And there you have it. All the ingredients for a hit in 1948: music, dance, comedy, tepid romance, and big Easter hats.

The Red Shoes. What a treat to watch this stunning film again after some 15 years! The team of Powell and Pressburger strike again with their incredible aesthetics: a riot of color, surreal sequences, a dash of humor, and so very much drama. A short summary: ballerina (Moira Shearer) falls in love with composer (Marius Goring); their mutual boss (Anthon Walbrook) at the Ballet Lermontov furiously fires the composer and forces ballerina to choose between the “doubtful comforts of human love” and the austere life required to make her a great dancer.

The movie wonderfully portrays all that goes into the making of a new work of art and the experience of the artists, from the injustice of plagiarism to the frustration of relentless rehearsals. The Ballet Lermontov is filled with quirky personalities: the dancers, choreographer, designers, conductors. Mr. Lermontov spends his days with patrons of the arts, handling the press, developing new ballets, seeking new talent, and saying horrible things like “Don’t forget, a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit”. In short, The Red Shoes combines Children of Paradise‘s celebration of performance artists with the fantastic visuals of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.

The central question of the movie plays upon the usual mythology: must an artist suffer to be great? is austerity the path toward perfection? is there room for anything else in an artist’s life other than pursuit of her craft? Vicky Page, the ballerina in The Red Shoes, doesn’t get to have it all; trapped between her ambition and her love for a man, she suffocates.

Watch the Criterion Collection’s “Three Reasons: The Red Shoes.”

The Lady from Shanghai. This compact noir comes from Orson Welles, director, star, producer, and screenplay writer. The only thing Welles couldn’t control was the film’s final cut. I felt disoriented for much of the movie; everything happens so abruptly and, like 1945’s Detour, goes inexplicably wrong so fast.

Welles plays Michael O’Hara, an Irish drifter with the heart of a poet. After he saves Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) from a bunch of thugs, Elsa gets him a job on her husband’s yacht, traveling through the Panama Canal to San Francisco. During the sailing expedition, O’Hara falls for the tormented Elsa, observes her clever, but frequently drunk husband Arthur, and meets Arthur’s insane law partner George Grisby. O’Hara tells them their behavior reminds him of cannibal sharks. And yet, knowing that he’s in with an odd crowd, O’Hara thinks a good idea to make $5000 by signing a confession, prepared by the sweaty maniacal George Grisby, saying that he O’Hara has killed Grisby. Of course, when Grisby really does get killed, O’Hara is in big trouble. “Some people can smell danger. Not me,” he says.

Following the Criterion Collection’s example above, my three reasons to watch The Lady from Shanghai are to worship Rita Hayworth, who speaks Chinese and appears here with more of a Lana Turner look; to listen to Welles’ over the top Irish accent; and to watch the final shootout in a carnival funhouse.

Screenshot of Rita Hayworth in the trailer for the film The Lady from Shanghai. Public domain. Accessed from Wikimedia.

1948 Men

At this rate, the movie project will be lifelong. During my six-month hiatus in between years 1947 and 1948, I watched movies from the decade in which I am living! Highlights: completely silly Spy, silly in a different way Lucy, delightful Shaun the Sheep, freaky Ex Machina, and moving Tale of Princess Kaguya. I also snuck in some pre-1948 movies like the hilarious, they-could-only-get-away-with-this-in-1942 The Major and the Minor, starring Ginger Rogers as an adult masquerading as a 12-year-old to qualify for discounted rail fare.

Back to the scheduled programming:

John C. H. Grabill Collection, Library of Congress, Reproduction number: LC-DIG-ppmsc-02669. Public domain.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Watch this movie for the performances, not the slow motion adventure story about three acquaintances teaming up to mine gold in Durango, Mexico. Bogart excels as a madman, consumed with paranoia and greed for the yellow stuff. Walter Huston, meanwhile, deservedly won best supporting actor for his cackling, wise, old man with twinkling, kind eyes; he’s the real hero.

While many people love the film’s “We don’t need no stinking badges” quote, my lasting impression is the final scene:  the two surviving gold miners (Huston and Tim Holt) search for their sacks of gold only to realize that the glittering dust in the wind is their gold. All their efforts wasted, scattered, and done for. What do they do? They lock eyes and laugh. I love their response and recalling it has helped me find peace during some trying moments these last few weeks.

Red River. I couldn’t focus on the interminable Red River, which was one long cattle drive with occasional cuts to a book called something like “the Annals of Texas History”. I guess the fad of the montage (see the 1930s) faded into an obsession with opening every movie with a close up of a fancy leather bound book. The central conflict pits a stubborn old man (John Wayne) against a rational young man (Montgomery Clift) over where the cattle should go and where the railroad is. Clift has that method actor aura and looks remarkably like Tom Cruise. The film is his solid debut; I’ll look forward to seeing more of him in the early 1950s.

The Pirate. Hey, another movie that starts with a close up of a book!

“Two years in the Navy, three years off the screen, I shall never be the dancer I was,” Gene Kelly said to the Los Angeles Times at the start of the The Pirate film shoot.* Kelly may have felt he was past his prime at 36, but The Pirate proves otherwise. In fact, he’s smoking:  mustache, ripped quads, and I can’t tell you how happy it made me to see a man pole danceThe Pirate features Kelly tightrope walking, doing his own stunts; he does just about everything other than traditional hoofing. Even when the Nicolas Brothers — Harold and Fayard, tap dancers capable of unimaginable feats (here at ages 27 and 34) — join Kelly on screen, their routine is an all-out acrobatic tour-de-force without a shuffle ball change in sight. (Need ideas for your HIIT and plyometrics workouts? Look no further!)

Despite Kelly’s vitality, The Pirate doesn’t hold together. First, it’s hard watching the film without thinking about Judy Garland’s mental illness, and the trouble behind the scenes (learn more: essay by film critic Emanuel Levy). Second, the very same impulses that make The Pirate a clever, tongue-in-cheek musical are also the same things that detract from the film. At times, the stylized overacting offers laughs and makes a pointed parody of old swashbuckler movies and egotistical actors (Kelly plays an actor pretending to be a pirate to get his girl Judy); at other moments, the antics feel overwrought and Vincente Minnelli’s entire Shakespeare-meets-Caribbean aesthetic falls flat. Cole Porter wrote the music for The Pirate and I couldn’t stop thinking about his Kiss Me Kate (also 1948), which likewise employs a certain campiness and sets two intelligent lovers against each other in a battle of wills. But whereas Kiss Me Kate sparkles with wit and hilariously pokes fun at actors, The Pirate never achieves the same success.

*Sheridan Morley and Ruth Leon. Gene Kelly: A Celebration. London: Pavilion, 1996.

The Three Musketeers. Gene Kelly, here as d’Artagnan, once again exhibits his versatility in this lavish non-musical. MGM lines the cast with stars: Lana Turner, Angela Lansbury, Frank Morgan, June Allyson, and Vincent Price as Richelieu. The film has few ambitions beyond “glamour and adventure” (see the trailer). The most impressive sword-fight happens quite early on when d’Artagnan mercilessly and mirthfully humiliates the head of Richelieu’s guard. At the very least, I now know that the footage for Don Lockwood’s “The Royal Rascal” in Singing in the Rain comes from The Three Musketeers! How meta.


1947 Part 2 | A Matter of Aesthetics

Herald Square, 34th and Broadway, Manhattan. (3109776201).jpg
Herald Square. New York Public Library. No restrictions via Wikimedia Commons.

More movies and experiments with related images from Wikimedia Commons.

Miracle on 34th Street. I adored this fanciful movie which reminds its viewers that life is not all pragmatism, logic, and “reality”. A treat! Watch it to honor the late Maureen O’Hara, interred yesterday at Arlington National Cemetery (read more).

Unconquered. An epic (what else!) from Cecil B. DeMille, set in Colonial America. Though over two hours long, the plot rarely lags; it’s packed with politics, romance, and action. Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard star as leathery oranges in the over-saturated Technicolor. Even though the performances aren’t particularly mesmerizing and the Native Americans around Fort Pitt are portrayed as stone-faced dolts (Boris Karloff appears as a chieftain), DeMille at least succeeds in delivering gaudy entertainment.

Public domain. Wikimedia Commons.

Black Narcissus. I was supposed to really like this Technicolor feast from Powell and Pressburger. Hysterical nuns attempting to establish a school and hospital in a place so remote and windy it blows away their faith and sense? Eh. As with A Matter of Life and Death, the filmmakers’ focus seems more on creating dramatic, fantastic visuals than on compelling storytelling (sorry, I’m not one for mood pieces). I’ll concede that the climatic scenes when Sister Ruth goes mad and everything is red, red, red are perfectly constructed. And after Ruth devolves into a feral creature on the prowl? Gripping and terrifying: take a look.

Body and SoulJohn Garfield brings to life the emotional turmoil of a boxer, who loses everyone dear to him on his way to the top. A sports movie with noir cinematography, Body and Soul‘s subject matter depressed me and the sudden, simple happy ending didn’t bring much relief. So glad was I to be out of the movie’s world filled with manipulation, double-dealings, and greed. It’s a moralistic study of the ugly side of sports and the evils of “success”.

Jack dempsey ring loc 50497v.jpg
Not exactly what I wanted, but good enough. Jack Dempsey. Library of Congress. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

1947 Part 1

The project creeps on.

Danny Kaye ww2 45.jpg
Photo by Pfc. H. J. Grimm. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Silly and cute, SLWM follows a serial daydreamer whose reality suddenly becomes more interesting than the outlandish escapades he imagines for himself. I adore the ending when Walter finally lets loose on the people who have always pushed him around: “Your small minds are musclebound with suspicion. That’s because the only exercise you ever get is jumping to conclusions.” SLWM drags along until the last 45 minutes when this farcical comedy kicks into high gear. Danny Kaye is always entertaining and the film showcases all his talents:  accents, singing patter songs, slapstick.


Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Out of the Past. This delicious film noir from Jacques Tourneur, director of Cat People, hits all the marks: flashbacks, sour romance, double crossings, the charismatic criminal, the understated detective, and the mercurial femme fatale. Kirk Douglas is riveting as the shady millionaire. He radiates like James Cagney and serves as the perfect foil to Robert Mitchum, the smart, suave detective who can never quite extricate himself from all the trouble. Jane Greer too is perfectly unsettling as an entitled killer. With spot-on casting and an intriguing (yet mostly understandable) plot, Out of the Past wooed me and I’m joining the club that calls it “one of the greatest of all films noir”.

Public domain. Wikimedia Commons.

Gentleman’s Agreement. for Monica 
Gregory Peck stars as Philip Green, a journalist pretending to be Jewish for an article about prejudice. Green’s new social identity causes endless tension with his well-heeled girlfriend Kathy. She thinks she’s progressive, but she refuses to compromise her social standing by having a Jewish boyfriend or helping Green’s best friend, Dave Goldman, move into her neighborhood. The movie makes an excellent case that quieter, seemingly passive forms of racism are just as destructive as violence or overt prejudice.

On the one hand, it’s hard to believe that Philip Green is so shocked by the treatment he receives. His naivete is laughable: when he’s trying to get ideas for the article, he suddenly realizes that he could ask Jews about their experiences. What does he think investigative journalism is? Yet, it’s not surprising that Peck’s character would know nothing. Until Green starts identifying as Jewish, no one had ever told him he wasn’t welcome at a hotel or picked on his son. He can barely contain his anger each time an incident happens because he has been socialized to expect that he deserves better treatment.

Supporting actors Celeste Holm as a magazine fashion editor and John Garfield as Green’s friend Dave Goldman add real energy to the film. They bring much needed panache; Phil Green is so upstanding and righteous, he’s the least interesting character.

In short, the film may be clunky, but stick with it. There are powerful moments.

Public domain. Wikimedia Commons.

Monsieur Verdoux. Nowhere is Chaplin’s egomania more visible than in this film. The comedian is strangely well-suited to his role as a honest murderer, trying to support his family by wooing, killing, and robbing wealthy women. Martha Raye competes with Chaplin for the camera’s attention and almost steals the movie because she is so over-the-top and fun to watch. Though I am normally a die-hard Chaplin groupie, his limits as a director here are obvious: his message too heavy-handed, transitions (like a repeated shot of a train’s wheels) clumsy and overused, music too schmaltzy. But comedy flows from him effortlessly and with grace. He should have been dancer.