TopBilled

TopBilled’s Essentials

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Essential: WITHOUT LOVE (1945)

It felt like they beefed up the male lead character probably to suit someone of Tracy's caliber. And especially if he was going to receive top billing. But of course, this is really Hepburn's picture, based on a play written for her by Philip Barry.

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Curiously the title is mentioned once, maybe twice, in the dialogue. But given the stars' abundant chemistry, we can't really believe these two don't instantly like each other when they meet despite the fact Hepburn's character is supposed to be haughty, even rude, towards him. That is until she learns who he is, some important scientist her father had admired.

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I got the impression that when Hepburn's character discussed her father in scenes it was actually Hepburn using the dialogue to talk about her own real-life father. And memories of a first husband came from Hepburn's own memories of her earlier one-time marriage. It seemed like a form of method acting without contriving to be anything more than honest genuine heartfelt emotion. Such is the beauty of a Hepburn performance.

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I also got the impression there was a lot of sadness inside Hepburn, even in her most radiant, most effervescent moments. This becomes noticeable when you spend time with her on screen. I would say she's Tracy's equal in any scene, and that in some ways, she's a better actor than he is. There's greatness in her smallest movements and emoting.

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The two stars are aided by the film's strong supporting cast. Felix Basserman has a thankless role as a research boss who oversees Tracy's experiments in Hepburn's basement. He provides his customary good cheer. Patricia Morison is excellent in a showy supporting role as a society type. Then there's Keenan Wynn who plays a relative of Hepburn's and is involved with Morison. Wynn's character is a hapless drunk who seems to find himself, and a life with love, by the end of the picture. Lucille Ball is on hand too. She plays a working woman who gets Wynn, though why she saw him as remotely worth her time for two-thirds of the narrative is anyone's guess.

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Ball comes across well, in an Eve Arden sort of way, but seems too important to be playing a supporting role. Maybe in her early days at RKO this sort of part might have suited her, but at this stage, Ball was a star in her own right. Quite frankly, she seems miscast, though I did enjoy her friendship scenes with Hepburn which felt real. The movie is a bit too long at almost two hours. But the slower scenes do give us substantial glimpses into wartime marriages. Ones without love, ones with love; and ones that probably fall somewhere in between.

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WITHOUT LOVE airs occasionally on TCM.

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This is a better review than I'd have written, more generous. I thought Tracy and Hepburn were entirely miscast because their personas are too fixed for me to believe the central tension of the plot, or the character developments. He seems 20 years too old for the character he's playing - part of which is the unsettling reality of the change in Tracy from just five or 10 years earlier. Her character circumstances in this plot just don't seem to allow for the confusion she's projecting. Also, the plot does not seem to demand the sort of subtle character portrayals they are noted for delivering. They did much better in 'State of the Union', from around the same time.

At the same time, I think it's not a bad plot and the movie might have been more amusing with different leads, like Fred MacMurray / Loretta Young.

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1 hour ago, Brrrcold said:

This is a better review than I'd have written, more generous. I thought Tracy and Hepburn were entirely miscast because their personas are too fixed for me to believe the central tension of the plot, or the character developments. He seems 20 years too old for the character he's playing - part of which is the unsettling reality of the change in Tracy from just five or 10 years earlier. Her character circumstances in this plot just don't seem to allow for the confusion she's projecting. Also, the plot does not seem to demand the sort of subtle character portrayals they are noted for delivering. They did much better in 'State of the Union', from around the same time.

At the same time, I think it's not a bad plot and the movie might have been more amusing with different leads, like Fred MacMurray / Loretta Young.

Hepburn did the play on Broadway. As I noted in my review, it had been written for her. Most likely with the idea that it would be something she could sell to MGM to star in with Tracy. I don't think Tracy wanted to do it, but he liked working with her. Most of their films together were vehicles designed to showcase her talents, and his parts were not as central, though obviously still tailored to accommodate his leading-man status. Typically he's supporting her, while maintaining top billing.

I haven't read the play and would like to see how it changed when Donald Ogden Stewart (another person who often wrote material for Hepburn) adapted it.

STATE OF THE UNION seems kind of preachy, with Capra's ideologies thrown into the mix. WITHOUT LOVE is romantic, more about wartime relationships. And of course, it references housing shortages.

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42 minutes ago, TopBilled said:

Hepburn did the play on Broadway. As I noted in my review, it had been written for her. Most likely with the idea that it would be something she could sell to MGM to star in with Tracy. I don't think Tracy wanted to do it, but he liked working with her. Most of their films together were vehicles designed to showcase her talents, and his parts were not as central, though obviously still tailored to accommodate his leading-man status. Typically he's supporting her, while maintaining top billing.

I haven't read the play and would like to see how it changed when Donald Ogden Stewart (another person who often wrote material for Hepburn) adapted it.

STATE OF THE UNION seems kind of preachy, with Capra's ideologies thrown into the mix. WITHOUT LOVE is romantic, more about wartime relationships. And of course, it references housing shortages.

I agree that SOTU is preachy. I just think its a better use of their established personas.

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Essential: THE SEA OF GRASS (1947)

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Katharine Hepburn's character is on an adventure in this sweeping drama. She first appears when her train arrives in Spencer Tracy's town. We glimpse her surroundings and in a courtroom scene, we are shown the type of conflict her new husband (Tracy) creates. He's a wealthy landowner who wants to run homesteaders out of the area. She seems to overlook some of this in the beginning, but the basic idea is in evidence. The land, a vast sea of prairie grass, is his property the way she's his property, too.

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When she arrives at her new home she meets the men employed by her husband. These guys include a territorial cook (Edgar Buchanan) who provides comic relief as well as a good deal of compassion. From this point the plot moves swiftly. A woman she befriended on the train to New Mexico has a husband who is filing a claim on some of the land Tracy covets. This sets up an obvious battle, and Hepburn tries to get Tracy to rethink his approach with outsiders.

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Meanwhile we have Melvyn Douglas as a lawyer turned judge who calls himself Tracy's natural enemy. Douglas is politically and legally at odds with Tracy's plan to retain control over the land, and he helps the homesteaders. At the same time a romantic triangle develops between Douglas, Hepburn and Tracy. Hepburn was 40 when she made this picture but is meant to play younger. Tracy looks older.

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In some ways Tracy's land baron character in this story is similar to the role he played later in Fox's BROKEN LANCE. In that film he had grown-up sons. In this film he has a daughter who grows up on screen and is played by Phyllis Thaxter. There's also a second child, a son who is not Tracy's, but is fathered by Douglas. He's played by Robert Walker.

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The story is a period drama that combines elements of the western genre with soap opera. There are some excellent moments, like the part where Tracy's men attack the husband of Hepburn's friend and kill him during a raging blizzard. And there's a sequence where Walker kills a man, then tries to run off but is shot by pursuers during an intense manhunt. He ends up dying in Tracy's arms.

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SEA OF GRASS feels like a film Republic might have made with John Wayne and Vera Ralston. It also feels like a pro-environmentalism picture. The idea of protecting the land is of utmost importance. Maybe Tracy and Hepburn do not seem like the most logical choices to play the lead couple. Though it wouldn't necessarily have been any different if MGM had used Greer Garson or Walter Pidgeon. Mostly this is a well-produced film and its enormous success with moviegoers seems to validate the effort that was put into making it.

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THE SEA OF GRASS will air on TCM the 2nd of January.

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I'm going to do something a bit different in November.

I will be reviewing films I don't particularly like, but still consider essential.

My "criticism" will be sharper than it usually is, but I think you will still find the reviews interesting or at the very least thought-provoking. 

November: An opposing viewpoint

Sometimes there's another way to look at a classic film.

MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939) 
SHANE (1953) 
THE LONE HAND (1953) 
CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

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On 10/28/2018 at 8:02 AM, TopBilled said:

I'm going to do something a bit different in November.

I will be reviewing films I don't particularly like, but still consider essential.

My "criticism" will be sharper than it usually is, but I think you will still find the reviews interesting or at the very least thought-provoking. 

November: An opposing viewpoint

Sometimes there's another way to look at a classic film.

MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939) 
SHANE (1953) 
THE LONE HAND (1953) 
CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

I really don't care for Mr. Smith or Cafe Society either so I eagerly await your reviews.

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6 minutes ago, Gershwin fan said:

I really don't care for Mr. Smith or Cafe Society either so I eagerly await your reviews.

Thanks. With the reviews I will post in November...the goal is not to look at things negatively, but to present a different viewpoint. I think MR. SMITH and CAFE SOCIETY miss the mark in key areas, but of course, they're still entertaining.

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9 minutes ago, TopBilled said:

Thanks. With the reviews I will post in November...the goal is not to look at things negatively, but to present a different viewpoint. I think MR. SMITH and CAFE SOCIETY miss the mark in key areas, but of course, they're still entertaining.

I completely agree. They are objectively well crafted films. 

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OK... I am jumping the gun here and you haven't posted your review yet. Maybe you aren't doing this particular film first, but I might as well get into it.

Re-watched MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON again last night. Seen it multiple times but it had been a few years. Also watched another chestnut repeat on the previous night after a multiple year break, ROSEMARY'S BABY. Both films share a few striking characteristics in common, both strengths and flaws as you might say.

The story core in each is, once you think about it carefully, rather silly. One involves a political battle over a silly dam being built where one wants a silly boys camp. (What? Isn't there enough room in the state for both?) Combined with this is the ruthless tycoon Jim Taylor, swarming-ly played by Eddy Arnold in essentially the same role as Lionel Barrymore in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, buying up an entire state and eager to make a quick buck once the bill passes through Congress. (Actually this part relates very well to modern day Washington D.C. even more so than it did in 1939 because an awful lot of senators today are “bought” and vote only the way they are paid to vote.) Yet Jimmy Stewart's Jefferson is sure making a huge mountain out of a mole hill here. Jean Arthur warns him early on not to exhaust himself as he gets overly excited seeing the sights from his taxi. This eager beaver needs to take a sedative.

On the plus side, Claude Rains' John Pain accurately states that Jeff is simple but not stupid, so it takes him far less screen time than Mia Farrow's Rosemary to realize he has been hoodwinked. This brings me to the central plot core in the '68 film that is just as shallow as MR. SMITH. Rosemary is tricked by her husband to have sex with The Beast. Yet is he really Satan, since we don't even know what he looks like? Somehow I think it would be a much bigger world wide “deal” that would require more than just a cocktail party in a cramped NYC apartment celebrating.

However there is so much production, cinematography wizardry and a central powerhouse performance involved in each that you easily forget so much of the basic silliness. Frank Capra and Roman Polanski were at the top of their game and really put a lot into these films. I will start with the perfect casting. I love all of the "gee, I didn't realize they were in this film" peekaboos in “support” such as Dub Taylor, William Demarest and Jack Carson among the reporters in the former film and, in the latter film, Patsy Kelly being super grumpy and Hope Summers so icky-icky sweet and controlling that your teeth ache with cavity pain just listening to her. Both directors also successfully contrasted lead personalities here for dramatic effect. Note how neither Claude Rains' Joseph Paine or John Cassavetes' Guy Woodhouse can even look at the always honest and genuine lead star directly. In the former film, Senator Joe is strategically placed several seats down (obviously due to the seating arrangement, but the camera angles and clever editing heighten the effect) while Guy has his face covered in the dramatic climax while standing in the next room as far away from his wife as possible. Polanski was obsessed with showing so many characters cut-off by side doors a.k.a. just in the next room so that you can't see exactly what they are doing. In Capra's film, we see multiple characters entering different rooms as they either change their personalities almost like Superman's cape in a telephone booth or, as in Jefferson's case, having a new spiritual awakening not experienced before (such as his first visit to Lincoln Memorial and the senate room for the first time, with focus put on his facial expressions).

Particularly dramatic is the use of light versus dark in both films. What does Jean Arthur's Clarissa say about figures "casting long shadows"? Twice we see Arnold's Taylor in stark silhouette while those thumbling beneath him in cowardly allegiance are brightly lit since they have no place to hide from him even if he himself can easily become a creature of the night. Also shown in stark silhouette is Clarissa breaking through her cynicism to explain to a fallen Jefferson, who is only now shown in the dark for the first and only time because he has fallen into his “dark” side of despair, by telling him that he must bring what Washington needs... genuine honest goodness not tainted by financial greed. In other words, she must pull him out of the dark and bring him back into the light. When the Castevets (very lovable, if seedy, Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) officially enter a room from Rosemary's point of view, they walk through a dark hallway so that they are temporarily silhouetted just like Capra's cast members. We are as sensitive as Rosemary as to questioning whether they are operating in the light or dark.

In that classic piece of Capra-Corn (which I think are all a bit corny), director Capra knew how passionate Jimmy Stewart was about patriotism and love of the Land of the Free that the whole boy's camp is really not important anyway. It is just a springboard call-to-arms to get the actor all gung-ho. Remember that he wasted no time enlisting the moment the bombs were dropped at Pearl Harbor.

Likewise, Roman Polanski knew that Mia Farrow was obsessed with becoming the Mother of all Mothers, loving every child equally no matter what he or she looked like. Even if his eyes weren't “normal” like Guy's. Not that she ever got a good look at her husband's eyes since he was constantly looking way like Senator Joseph Paine, avoiding eye contact. I especially love how fictional Roman (Castevet, played by Blackmer) influences Rosemary by saying “you don't have to join us... just be a mother to him” much as the real Roman (the director) probably said the same to Mia to get her performance.

So... yes, both films have their flaws, but I love them both the same.

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Interesting comparison between MR. SMITH and ROSEMARY'S BABY. I wonder if anyone's ever compared those two pictures before.

When I post my review in a little while, you will see I went on a completely different track with MR. SMITH. It wasn't so much that Capra's situation was corny, but the biases contained in it. That's what I will be exploring. 

Check back...

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I am odd in what I see among multiple movies that otherwise have nothing in common. The problem with Capra is that he gets preachy. I used to like his 1946 holiday classic that has been aired to death on tv, largely because of the great performances. Yet it has lost its luster with me over the years and I find it a bit annoying to sit through today. There is way too much sermonizing and opinionated lecturing going on. In that one, Jimmy’s George hardly even thinks for himself with everybody telling him what to do. Maybe this is why Capra liked him as an actor? He obeyed authority figures on screen with little questioning? 

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Essential: MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939)

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A few things about this Frank Capra-directed classic bother me. First, we have to watch Jimmy Stewart getting schooled by Jean Arthur about the ways our government works. It's hard to believe that even the most naive simpleton did not get some basic civics course in high school, or that he could not go to the local library and look up a few things when he was appointed to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate.

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The fact of the matter is that Arthur's character, a woman, knows more about the government and its processes than Stewart, a man. Clearly, she is ten times more qualified than him, yet he is the one who gets to be Senator? I know, I know, the goons (played by Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee and Claude Rains) want an idiot in the seat so they can manipulate him. But why doesn't Arthur or the other women like her fight for the job themselves?

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As if that is not enough, Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin keep hammering the point that Stewart can get a bill passed into law that would benefit a boys scout-type group. This is repeated several times, and we even see a throng of clean cut all-American boys in the Senate chamber on the day that Stewart is trying to introduce the bill. They, of course, applaud him enthusiastically. Never mind the fact that there are no girls in attendance-- they simply were overlooked or not invited. And why couldn't Stewart introduce a bill that would benefit both boys and girls in America? There are long speeches where he talks about how boys need to know the way our government works. Again, aren't girls allowed to know that, too?

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The sexism of this movie becomes increasingly apparent when you realize that there are no women on the Senate floor. And none are seen even as extras in crowd scenes involving politicians. Surely Arthur's character cannot be the only woman in the nation's capital. The filmmakers give the impression that a boys club is running Washington while the female sex is back at home preparing dinner. Did you know that the first woman senator was appointed to fill a vacancy just like Stewart's character, back in 1922?

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And in 1932 a woman from Arkansas named Hattie Caraway became the first fully elected lady senator, a position she held until 1945. Ms. Caraway was not the only female senator in the 1930s. There were three other women in the Senate during this decade. Yet there are no women seen in the Senate chamber scenes of this film. They are not there, not even on the sidelines or in the background.

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I am not saying this film necessarily had to be called MISS SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, but there is way too much gender bias. And I don't see the purpose of it, unless the goal is to show that women do not have any say in our way of life in America. Debate it all you want, but doesn't that seem wrong to you?

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Yes. Capra has many issues with women in his films that is worth psychological analysis. Also the men in his films are often child like and uncomfortable with... women. Cue another film of his that I have referenced twice. Then again, George did manage to lasso the stork in that one once he figured it out. Yet ladies who do not marry and want a career become old maids with glasses working at the library.

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Regarding the men... unless they are Clark Gable who can keep Claudette Colbert under his authoritative control and remind her who is wearing the pants. I still like that movie even if it too is gradually losing its luster. I know. I am exaggerating a bit here.

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Yes, Frank Capra, as an Italian immigrant, had an idealized version of America that, at times, bordered on simplicity. Some of his films were described by the not-always complimentary term Capracorn. As you mention, TopBilled, women US. senators were not unheard of.  The inclusion of female senators as participatory characters would have benefited Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

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The inclusion of female senators as participatory characters would have benefited Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

I can't agree. The story was about good men vs evil men; a mini-encapsulation of history --politics, traditionally a male profession. Therefore, female politicians would have been anomalous; would have made this theme get entirely muddled. It would have torn our loyalties.

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Essential: SHANE (1953)

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I've seen clips of this film over the years and finally sat down to watch it. Sorry to say that while some parts worked for me, as a whole much of it did not. And I am afraid that if I list the many reasons why, the SHANE love fest attendees will take me to task! But here goes anyway...

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There are at least a half dozen things that do not work for me in SHANE. Number one, the relationship between the boy and Shane-- Joey seems to either have a crush on Shane (especially in the beginning) or to be mentally incapacitated to the point that all he can do is gawk and gush at anything Shane says or does. It comes off a bit odd and makes Claude Jarman's character in THE YEARLING seem much more normal.

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Number two, the casting of Jean Arthur who was past fifty at the time this picture was made-- she should have been playing Joey's granny. The close- ups have that Lucille Ball in MAME sort of blurriness to them.

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Number three, the music good as it is truly upstages most of the acting and so does the scenery. And so does the dog. But the music is definitely too much in some spots, and it should have been used more sparingly. The way it plays now, some of the music is so sweeping and melodramatic I half expected to hear Jean Arthur's character say the chickens weren't laying any eggs and that the music would swell up and we could collectively sigh.

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Number four, the fact that Palance was underused. Maybe a little bit of his meanness goes a long way, but I think he is used much better playing the same type of role in OKLAHOMA CRUDE twenty years later, where he dominates the action.

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Number five, it is a painfully slow narrative that is camouflaged by quick edits where characters do not even move. This only draws attention to the fact that the editor is trying to save the story from becoming too dull or tedious.

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And number six, there's the idea that all the poor folks are good upstanding citizens when I have yet to find any community where all the people are perfectly virtuous and one individual of power is the only corrupted member of society. It doesn't seem very realistic.

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Aside from a few props suggesting the fifties rather than the late 19th century like Jean’s make up and the modern children book used (and curious antlers on the farm that do not look like western American moose or wapiti), my main problem was that there are way too many Brandon face shots. More so than Fay Wray in KING KONG. I only recall a few close ups of Jean Arthur although she didn’t seem too old for me since Van Heflin looked rather tired in many of his scenes. They at least looked compatible as a middle aged couple with a kid. Maybe she had the kid at forty? Yeah... the Alan Ladd attraction of the kid was borderline Sal Mineo even if he is supposedly too young to be thinking of Alan like Sal.

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36 minutes ago, Jlewis said:

Aside from a few props suggesting the fifties rather than the late 19th century like Jean’s make up and the modern children book used (and curious antlers on the farm that do not look like western American moose or wapiti), my main problem was that there are way too many Brandon face shots. More so than Fay Wray in KING KONG. I only recall a few close ups of Jean Arthur although she didn’t seem too old for me since Van Heflin looked rather tired in many of his scenes. They at least looked compatible as a middle aged couple with a kid. Maybe she had the kid at forty? Yeah... the Alan Ladd attraction of the kid was borderline Sal Mineo even if he is supposedly too young to be thinking of Alan like Sal.

Re: Jean Arthur's age. She was 53 and Brandon DeWilde was 11 at the time the movie came out. But I think he's supposed to be playing younger than 11, and she probably thought she could still play a woman around 40.

I guess it's not her being 53 that's the problem. It's the fact that she does look like his grandmother in this film. I don't buy him being her son. They could have gotten around that by saying she was Heflin's second wife and the boy's stepmother. It's more believable that Heflin might have married an older woman after his first wife died. Then she's still the mother figure, even if she seems too old.

Van Heflin was 45. Alan Ladd was 40. And Jack Palance was 34. Just including their ages for comparative purposes.

Arthur's soft-focus closeups are very noticeable. They pull me out of the story. They should either have just filmed her from the waist up or else recast with an actress whose closeups did not require so much soft-focus lighting. Or since this was a western where working outdoors makes women look a bit more rugged, she could have allowed herself to be filmed without soft-focus lighting.

She was at the end of her movie career anyway. It wasn't like she had to keep being glamorous anymore. She could have even extended her movie career by allowing herself to look a bit rough in the closeups which might have launched her into a new phase as a character actress.

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The "hero worship" aspect of the film doesn't bother me.

Perhaps Shane was actually a fantasy figure for a boy who knew only the rough-and-tumble ordeal of ranch life.

Alan Ladd had such a compelling presence on the screen that he is perfectly cast as a young boy's fascination.

In this respect, the film is rather daring.

You should applaud its' risk-taking.

 

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Jlewis and I talked about this film in a separate conversation a few days ago. I told him that I prefer THE PROUD REBEL over SHANE. Maybe it's because Ladd was working with his real-life son, but the relationship in the later film just seems more believable.

And at the end of the film there's a closeup of Olivia de Havilland where she allows herself to be photographed without makeup or soft-focus lighting. It's just the natural outdoor lighting, and her features do not look glamorous at all. I think that film has a much more realistic approach to the subject matter and themes presented in it than SHANE which explores some of the same things.

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