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Essential: THE LETTER (1940)

TopBilled:

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There was nothing else she could do. Her lover had been unfaithful. So she sent him a letter to come to the house after dark. Then she waited to confront him.

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Mrs. Crosbie fired the gun several times, and she watched her lover die. She would make it seem like he had attacked her. She certainly couldn’t jeopardize her standing as a highly respected woman in the community. After all, she was married to an important man. And though he was often away on business, she was expected to be a model wife during those terribly long absences.

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It shouldn’t have even gone to court. What a complete waste of taxpayers’ money. She could afford a good defense attorney, and she wouldn’t have to testify. The stupid jury wanted so badly to believe she couldn’t possibly have committed cold-blooded murder– you could see it in their eyes. No surprise they found her ‘not guilty.’ Just as well, too, because convictions are meant for pathetic people who don’t have parties to attend or anything exciting to look forward to.

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Before Mrs. Crosbie could attend the next society function or begin a new affair, she faced a different sort of problem. Another woman now had in her possession a letter. Yes, the letter. The one Mrs. Crosbie wrote and sent to her dead lover. Mrs. Crosbie needed to get the letter back. So she summoned the chauffeur to bring the car around. Then she went into town to take care of this blackmail business once and for all. But people in the Chinese quarter had their own ideas about justice.

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Jlewis:

This is one of the great ones Bette Davis did during her Warner Brothers glory years. It isn’t as much fun as the wonderfully delirious IN THIS OUR LIFE, as far as Big Bad Bette pics go. For the record, DARK VICTORY and NOW VOYAGER feature Bette the Benevolent, JEZEBEL Bette the Buoyant and quite a few others boast Bette the B*tch.

Yet THE LETTER has been showered with praise from the critics over the decades and is still considered the great Warner star-power counterpart to Errol Flynn’s THE SEA HAWK in that all important year of 1940. This was the same year that Warner’s most popular “shortie” star Bugs Bunny made his debut (and would later quip “Bette Davis will hate me for this” when he over-acted with Elmer Fudd). Bette was Oscar nominated for THE LETTER…as was Bugs, but sadly not Errol. Since she had already won for DANGEROUS and JEZEBEL, Ginger Rogers got it this time around.

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W. Somerset Maugham’s sordid murder saga, based partly on the Ethel Proudlock case, first became a movie in 1929. This version, shot at Paramount’s claustrophobic Astoria studios in New York City, has been discussed quite a bit on the TCM forum in the past. It’s a nice early talkie pre-coder which Warner acquired copyright control over and released as part of their Archive collection.

In the 1929 version Herbert Marshall played Geoffrey Hammond, the murdered lover of a Mrs. Leslie Crosbie (Jeanne Eagels, who played the role a few months before her passing and received a posthumous Oscar nomination). Mrs. Crosbie is married to a man named Robert, a Singapore area rubber plantation owner.

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When Warner Brotheres decided to do a remake with William Wyler in charge and Bette became Leslie a.k.a. Ethel, Marshall got to play the naive husband Robert this time around and, come to think of it, we don’t see Mister Hammond on screen after his faceless moon-lit death scene. Apparently the very curious marital set-up involving Davis-Marshall pleased director Wyler enough that he cast the two again in his subsequent THE LITTLE FOXES (made for Goldwyn/RKO as a loan out effort between studios). Herbert sure displayed plenty of patience around Bette!

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The title refers to an incriminating piece of evidence: a letter that reveals Leslie’s affair with the murdered and, thus, countering her excuse that it was “in self defense.” Add to this the “spicy” detail that he too was a married man…and to a woman outside his race too. Then we get the usual blackmail situation involving a huge sum of money, eventually sucking up the plantation funds of hubbie Robert.

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Much of the fun is in the whole build-up with Bette’s performance. I always love that opening scene each time I watch it: one full-moon night at the plantation and a barely seen Hammond falling about as Leslie loosens the rod in a non flinching manner. Then she switches back into gentle “Jekyll” form, almost like a parody of post-cruise Charlotte Vale in her later equally famous role. As innocent as she could possibly look.

Even the Crosbies’ attorney and close friend Howard Joyce is mighty impressed at how well she can relate the “events of that night” in the exact same detailed manner each time. Howard is played by James Albert Stephenson, who was also Oscar nominated but, sadly, had only a year more to live, a fate echoing Jeanne Eagels.

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In the original Proudlock case of 1911, the murderess-assumed was eventually pardoned. In the ’29 version, she still survives any death penalty for her crime. By 1940, the Production Code demanded that “crime does not pay” so our beloved Bette must suffer the same fate as IN THIS OUR LIFE, but without any crashing chrome and wheels involved. Instead she meets her fate with a dagger she admires in local “Chinatown” and under the same moonlit setting she committed her initial crime.

A couple Oscar nominations were shelled out besides Davis and Stephenson. Again, no statuettes. These included Best Picture (losing to REBECCA), William Wyler’s direction, Max Steiner’s usual over-the-top orchestration (although more subdued here than elsewhere), Tony Gaudio’s cinematography (resembling George Barnes’ work in REBECCA that year with noir-ish silhouettes and frequent use of curtained windows and blinds highlighting the tortured, prison-like confines of our central characters) and George Amy and Warren Low’s editing, which deserves some additional attention here…

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Apparently there were two separate endings edited here. The unused version is an extra on the DVD. Initially she just meets her doom and the lace she had been working on is shown on the floor.

There was also no final scene between her and her husband shown before her demise. The released version is much meatier, thanks to the final spousal confrontation a.k.a. you deserved a better wife than me. Also a dagger she admires in the pawn shop is ceremoniously seen by her, then disappears. As if hypnotized by some force from above, she literally walks to her doom, fully aware that justice will be served. The fade-out involves a LOT of lace that she was working on…since she agreed with Howard about the intricate work helping her maintain her composure.

Let’s not forget that memorable line she tells her husband: “And, with all my heart, I still love the man I killed!” (This was the very last line in the ’29 version apparently, but we get more stuff after it in this one.)

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I guess her role was too short be Oscar nominated, but Gale Sondergaard sports a wonderful poker face as the revengeful Mrs. Hammond. In the original, her character was Chinese but, again, the Production Code made sure that was changed this time around. One thing so many of us forget in regards to 30s-50s Hollywood is that heterosexual relationships between different races were just as polarizing on screen as any “deviant” same sex one and Hollywood was first and foremost a business that needed to avoid any unnecessary public outcry. A Chinese woman marrying a European Caucasian was a definite no-no for the screen even if the guy is killed early on. Therefore, she herself is “Eurasian.” Go figure!

On the plus side, Sen Yung still gets a prominent role in this Asian-set story. He may never have been a star player like Sessue Hayakawa or Anna May Wong apart from his ongoing roles in the Charlie Chan series, but he still kept busy in so many supporting roles. Also getting billing are Willie Fung and Tetsu Komai, even if the latter is merely “head boy.”

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I also have to call out my beloved Cecil Kellaway of THE BEAST FROM 20, 000 FATHOMS and GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER fame even though his role is a bitty one.

Had this film been made today in our #MeToo era, the racial aspects would be emphasized as social commentary. The original case that inspired the play and movies was notorious in regards to social and racial inequalities of the era, with a European woman getting the light sentence that “natives” generally did not get.

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Consequently the cheeky Howard Koch screenplay adaptation here emphasizes a bit of this for good measure. For example, we see all of the well-to-do all well-dressed and well-fed at a party after Leslie is declared not guilty in her case. Granted, Leslie is earlier very appreciative that the “boys” do “take such good care of us” as servants, but they are still “boys.” Inter-mixing is taboo, as even Howard declares: “It’s strange that Hammond was able to keep his life so hidden. That gambling house he owned and especially the Eurasian woman. I think it was finding out about her that turned opinion so completely against him.”

We are reminded of how The Other Half live in crowded quarters working on the plantation at the start of the film and, later, Leslie and Howard make a visit with great hesitation and disgust to the all-Asian territory to retrieve the important letter.

Yet even there, Leslie is fascinated with all that is foreign and dangerous to her. Including strange men with provocative ways, unlike her workaholic but devoted husband, and daggers in a pawn shop. This woman was already in a prison before she committed any crimes.

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Thought I'd mention there is a later version of this story. It's an independent British film called EAST OF ELEPHANT ROCK (1977) that is currently on YouTube.

I watched it this morning, and I felt it had its merits. EoER is not exactly a remake of THE LETTER since it does not really follow Maugham's play. Instead it is based more directly on the news accounts of the Ethel Proudlock story. In this version Ethel's name has been changed to Eve, and her last name has been changed to Proudfoot. But all the main aspects of colonial life are present, as well as the details surrounding the murder.

I would go so far as to say EoER, while it has its flaws, is much better in its depiction of colonial life and the culture of the natives. One, it was directed by Don Boyd who grew up in a British colony in Africa. Second, it features Judi Bowker in the lead role and she was also brought up in a British colony in Africa. So Boyd and Bowker have an understanding of this particular way of life, which comes across on screen. Third, EoER was filmed entirely in Sri Lanka so unlike the U.S. versions that were done on studio sound stages, this one benefits from being filmed on location where the incidents actually transpired. Filming in Sri Lanka provides us with authentic atmosphere and Boyd uses a lot of native people for background characters which helps.

Other differences-- the murder in EoER does not take place until 70 minutes into the film (and it's a 93 minute film). This means the lover's role is greatly expanded, and he's played by John Hurt. We get a chance to see a more fleshed out portrayal of the lover and learn how he was ensnared by her.

The lover's native mistress is played by someone named Vajira, who has no other credits on the IMDb and comes across as a non-professional actress. This means her role is largely background, quite reduced from the 1940 version; and she is certainly not menacing like Gale Sondergaard's take on the character. The native mistress is depicted as being the murder victim's housekeeper. So she is not his wife and she does not have a business in an ethnic part of the city. 

The mistress has an uncle who aids her in getting a form of "justice" against Mrs. Proudfoot. In this scenario, "justice" comes in the form of being paid off by the Proudfoots.

Interestingly, there is no letter in EoER, which proves Boyd was not using Maugham's material as his source. On the day of the murder, Mrs. Proudfoot makes several urgent calls to her lover. We find out that she's begged him to come see her while her husband's away, so that she can confront him about the native mistress whom she had met a few hours earlier.

Mrs. Proudfoot is not incriminated by a letter since there is no letter. However, she may be incriminated by an audio tape in which the lover has relayed his thoughts about their ongoing affair and how Mrs. Proudfoot wants him to see her later.

Since there is no production code hanging over this version, part of her defense after she murders him is that he raped her...which may or may not be a lie. There is some ambiguity. Also Mr. Proudfoot the husband knows full well that his wife was unfaithful and yet he purchases the audio recording to keep it from being introduced in court. His goal is to punish his wife his own way after the trial ends.

There are no courtroom scenes. We only see her talking with her husband and her lawyer in a prison visiting room when court is in recess, where she is told about the existence of the tape. And then after the husband makes the purchase, it flash-forwards to her being released from prison since the trial ended and she got off the hook.

Anyway, EoER is not a perfect version and it lacks some of the punch that the 1929 and 1940 versions have, but it feels more authentic in presenting the situations the actual story is based upon. Plus, without the constraints of the production code it's freer to tell the story in a more liberated way without some of the unnecessary stereotypes we find in the 1940 version.

Our flawed female character gets away with murder and we are even meant to sympathize for her! As she and her husband leave at the end to return to England, they take a boat down a river and she looks wistfully at the countryside whizzing by...as if she is leaving the place where she had true love, before everything went wrong.

It's worth watching.

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Essential: M (1951)

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TopBilled:

Next week we will be reviewing THE 13TH LETTER, also from 1951. What’s interesting is that when I chose these films with Jlewis’ input, I didn’t realize ‘M’ is the 13th letter of the English alphabet. I suppose M in both these cases stands for ‘Murderer.’ 

In this remake of the well-known German original, the lead character is played by David Wayne and his name is changed to the more American-sounding Martin W. Meaning that our thirteenth letter could also signify his first initial. (In the 1931 version his name was Hans.)

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David Wayne was a stage-trained performer, having already earned a Tony in the late 1940s. He would earn a second Tony award a short time after this film was made. I mention Wayne’s theatrical roots, because I think you can detect that in his performance. Though I must say he does manage to give a somewhat naturalistic performance, even if the script doesn’t lend itself to that.

Some costars in this picture give less naturalistic performances. For instance, Martin Gabel plays a crime boss whose business is affected by M’s killings. Ironically, the crime boss and his thugs end up doing the ‘right thing’ by helping the cops nail M. Gabel presents a very highly stylized interpretation of his character.

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However, the campiness found in some of these performances makes the entire affair even more of a guilty pleasure. Probably Luther Adler, as a booze-addicted mob mouthpiece, gives the campiest portrayal which I am sure was intentional. He barely reins in the excesses of the character he’s been assigned, which sort of makes his on-screen death near the end much more of a relief!

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I have to single out one of my favorite actresses of the 1930s: Karen Morley. She was an MGM contractee back in the day and starred in several notable motion pictures for the Lion.

By this point in her career she was reduced to minor supporting roles, but she is nonetheless quite effective. The scenes with her playing the mother of a little girl who may become M’s victim are nail-biting. In a series of emotionally tense moments, she desperately tries to track down her missing child. In a way I wish her role had been expanded because more than anyone else, she conveys the pathos of the situation at hand.

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Today of course we have Amber Alerts, so when a child is abducted law enforcement agencies are much more organized to deal with these types of situations. But back in 1931 and back in 1951, the police (and psychiatrists) were less equipped to deal with child kidnappings and child homicides; and though this is a straight-forward drama it easily veers into the realm of horror. Martin W, our M, is a monster.

One thing both films neglects to show is why the guy became obsessed with kids. Is it because he was still childlike himself? Or had he been abused as a child when he was younger, and he was now acting out bits and pieces of what might have happened to him? There is even the unexplored idea of what shoes mean to him.

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The writers don’t exactly tell us why M is the way he is psychologically. I guess if we knew more about him, he might become less monstrous and more sympathetic?

In Jlewis’ review, he talks about how director Joseph Losey and many members of the cast were blacklisted. That definitely hovers over this picture, and the hideousness of M’s situation is transferred to the screen as an allegory of sorts about the hideousness of the McCarthy era, where progressives are hunted down and treated like criminals. The final sequence in the movie which includes a dramatic confrontation in a car park seems to be a form of therapy for this particular troupe.

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One final thing I want to mention here is the on-location filming. An extended sequence in the middle of the story takes place at the Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles.

When I lived in the L.A. area from 1991 to 2004 I would sometimes go downtown shopping and walk around the historic Bunker Hill district. There is a subway stop near the Bradbury Building. I would amble over and step into the courtyard of the Bradbury because it was so grand, I just wanted to be part of the place for a few moments. Nobody was hunting me down. My first initial is J, not M.

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Jlewis:

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Heard of this updated version even if I had not seen it before. It is often considered inferior to the original by many high brows in movie history books, but it is still referenced a lot as a pretty typical film noir of the fifties worthy of watching.

Curiously, it seems far less “noir”-ish than others since so much of it is filmed in broad daylight with only a few shadowy scenes at night.

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It more closely resembles a 1930s-40s “Crime Does Not Pay” 2-reeler from MGM, expanded to feature length. Intriguingly both versions of M share the same producer, Seymour Nebenzel, who had left Nazi Germany just like Peter Lorre (who is not in this version) and built a career for himself in Hollywood. His son Harold served as associate producer.

Have to backtrack to the first film M and the news events of 1931. Apparently that year was one in which many parents were feeling more protective of their children than usual and horror films frequently involved child killers.

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We also have the popular FRANKENSTEIN from Universal showing a scene of Boris Karloff the monster somewhat innocently tossing a little girl into the water and drowning her.

In the opening shots of this one, set in Los Angeles, we initially see people shown only below the waist and stepping onto a bus as newspaper headlines feature the latest murder, suggesting that the citizens of the big city are getting used to them. Also shots of various little girls talking to strangers, including an Asian American and African American one to show the villain does not care about race in determining his potential prey. Or does he?

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He zeroes in one one Caucasian girl named Elsie who just accepts a fair ground trip with him. Meanwhile we cut to scenes of her mother worrying about her not getting home in her apartment. We never see the crime committed but her ball and balloon bought at the fair are seen by themselves.

With the news coverage increasing in strength, paranoia in the community sets in. Any male adult not defined clearly as a father of kids of his own is considered a suspect. One helping a girl innocently is attacked by his neighbors. This reminds me of the “scare” films that Sid Davis produced later for the LA Police like BOYS BEWARE that suggested any unmarried man may be a homosexual who has eyes on your innocent teenager.

One character calls another a communist, instantly relating this film to the McCarthy Era that was going full throttle at this time. In fact, this was filmed in June-July 1950 just as the Korean War was getting started overseas. Yes, this is a liberal leaning film making commentary on America’s conservatives and their fear mongering. (Note the garage sign behind the killer in his final round-up scene: “Keep to the Right”.)

A couple familiar faces here. Jim Backus (voice of Mr. Magoo, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, Gilligan’s Island, etc.) plays the selfish mayor. Also Raymond Burr has a smaller role pre-REAR WINDOW and Perry Mason.

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The inspector is played by Howard De Silva, who experienced some blacklisting off screen due to his own political leanings and would stick strictly to the stage for a decade (no movies for a decade after SLAUGHTER TRAIL), but he enjoyed renewed stardom of sorts in the 1970s and ’80s with many TV appearances.

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Sharing some of the same screen credits as De Silva is Martin Gabel, playing Charlie Marshall the news boss, this being a key first in-front-of-the-camera role for the ex-Mercury Player (with Orson Welles). Luther Adler the attorney Dan Langley is probably the least recognizable to me but he too was prolific on screen.

The villain himself is shown right away so we viewers don’t have to guess. David Wayne is, fortunately for him, more famous today for his comic roles in ADAM’S RIB and HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE.

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Since there isn’t a lot of mystery in regards to the criminal’s identity, the primary focus is to show “how they catch him” as investigators and also provide some insight into the psychology of killers. We see him get aggressive when the music stops on the radio, relating his killing urge with some drug addict “fix”. Wayne’s best scene is his last when he expresses his whole tortured background to a crowd, much like Lorre in the earlier version.

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I enjoyed this as a relic of the period with beautiful cinematography (Ernest Laszlo likes to shoot from high angles) and expert direction of the actors (Joseph Losey), although it may not have wowed me with anything particularly new and novel that I haven’t experienced before in my long life of movie watching.

Most interesting to me is the fact that many involved with this movie had some sort of conflict with the HUAC so they were all making commentary on how mass “red scare” fears can destroy the rights of individuals a.k.a. not everybody who does not fit a certain cookie cutter role in society should be judged a criminal but you can’t stop mass hysteria. Also it is unusual for a murderer to presented in a positive…sort of… light, at least in a way for viewers to understand the “why” of his crimes (cue the big speech by attorney Dan Langley).

M (1951) may currently be viewed on YouTube.

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"In this remake of the well-known German original, the lead character is played by David Wayne and his name is changed to the more American-sounding Martin W. Meaning that our thirteenth letter could also signify his first initial." It suddenly dawned on me that a W can become an M when you flip it over.

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14 minutes ago, Jlewis said:

"In this remake of the well-known German original, the lead character is played by David Wayne and his name is changed to the more American-sounding Martin W. Meaning that our thirteenth letter could also signify his first initial." It suddenly dawned on me that a W can become an M when you flip it over.

Yes, it occurred to me as well. Thanks for mentioning this. 

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Essential: THE 13TH LETTER (1951)

TopBilled:

THE 13TH LETTER is a very moody, atmospheric remake shot on location in Quebec, though one gets the feeling a lot was lost in translation from the original French picture. Reviews of the earlier film say it offers a biting social commentary, but this film seems to shy away from that.

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Instead, 20th Century Fox director Otto Preminger has focused on the more entertaining elements of a man’s life unraveling because of adultery. It has hardly anything to do with society at large, unless the suggestion is that all society’s upstanding citizens are perverse in some way.

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The casting of THE 13TH LETTER is somewhat intriguing if not problematic. Charles Boyer is perfectly suited to the role of Dr. Laurent. But as much as one enjoys Michael Rennie, he’s a little too British to be believed as an immigrant who has lived in Quebec for any length of time. Undoubtedly, there are British immigrants in Canada; but an American actor like Gregory Peck could just as easily have filled the role, since there are Americans in Canada, too.

Even more out of place is Irish-born Constance Smith chosen as Boyer’s wife. When Rennie and Smith have scenes together, it feels even less like a story about French Canadians.

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Was it that Preminger wanted to cast the picture with the very best actors under contract, and most of those performers happen to hail from Europe? Why not cast the roles more authentically with Canadian actors, or at least hire gorgeous Micheline Presle as Cora Laurent. Or perhaps Danielle Darrieux, and with such casting allow Boyer to speak more French with his on screen wife.

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The one role, after Boyer’s, that is cast well belongs to Francoise Rosay as Mrs. Gauthier. In the hands of a lesser talent, the part of the vengeful townswoman would have been wasted. Rosay’s character, more than any other, drives the narrative forward. For it is her quest, along with ours, that aims to get to the bottom of the poisonous letter writing campaign. Who has exposed passions and stirred up a hornet’s nest of trouble in the local village..?

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Finally, there is Linda Darnell as Denise Turner, a bedridden woman who may or may not be a true invalid. Darnell is once more playing a devious-minded female, this time trying to get her hooks into the doctor played by Rennie. Though the film is technically a noir, Darnell is not exactly playing a femme fatale, because on some level the character’s disabilities will engender sympathy from the viewer.

Darnell and Rennie certainly generate sparks, but Preminger does not always photograph Darnell like he should. In this film, she sinks into a rather large bed and only when the director chooses to give her the obligatory close-up do we see some life radiating from under the covers. Because of Darnell’s apparent unimportance to Preminger’s cinematic world, she becomes a specialized but muted ensemble player. One would never know that she has received top billing from the studio for this picture if they were to tune in after the opening credits.

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Jlewis:

Funny how certain movies remind me of other movies that have little in common with each other apart from a few plot details. Multiple characters, including a good doctor and his patients, receive ominous “scarlet pen” letters with a hand drawn feather included.

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For some strange reason, I instantly thought of THE FOUR FEATHERS, most notably Zoltan and Alexander Korda’s glossy Technicolor 1939 version (out of several based on that book), in which feathers are enclosed as a symbol of being a coward during war time. I was not clear what they meant in the context of this movie at first.

The letters, as a whole, cause trouble for several people with some sort of I-know-what-you-did revelation. One recipient, an unseen Mr. Gauthier, is even driven to suicide. Michael Rennie (Klaatu in THE EARTH STOOD STILL) plays the good doctor Pearson, whose letter warns him to stop his “affair.

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Though he doesn’t seem to be having any despite him raising the temperatures of lady patients like Linda Darnell’s Denise (who ultimately gets him in the end) and Constance Smith’s Cora Laurient, who is married to Pearson’s older mentor Dr. Paul, played by Charles Boyer.

Other cast members include Judith Evelyn as the “good” nurse Sister Marie Cohen who may not always be good and June Hedin as ornery teenager Rochelle. I have to make special note of Françoise Rosay making the most of her supporting role as Mrs. Gauthier; she was a veteran of the French cinema since 1911.

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Speaking of the French, this is a remake of LE CORBEAU (THE RAVEN), directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot in 1943 while the nation was under Nazi occupation. A definite French atmosphere is reflected here in the bilingual town of St. Hilaire in Quebec that poses as our background setting. Plus we get Boyer and Rosay in the cast.

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Interesting to me the number of church scenes here. The residents of this community receiving scarlet letters are all worried about cleansing their souls. The ominous letter writer “does not respect the church” (per discussions) by sending them into the air during a mass being held.

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This is a pretty good who-done-it with a you-will-never-guess-the-outcome, but it has unfortunately fallen through the cracks over the decades. One reason may be its modest production values, compared to the more ambitious LAURA and other classics that the same director, Otto Preminger, and cinematographer, Joseph LaShelle, collaborated on.

In a way, it may share too much in common with other films of its particular genre and, therefore, is easily forgotten by most average viewers including those who enjoy it like me. Sometimes a movie can be too slick and professionally done for its own good. Alex North’s subdued score isn’t as memorable here as in other films he worked on.

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Most entertaining for me is Howard Koch’s dialogue, particularly coming from Charles Boyer’s Paul, touting whiskers that make him resemble an elderly Edward G. Robinson at times. (Koch, by the way, also worked on THE LETTER that we previously profiled.) When Paul swings a lamp and tells Pearson about the nature of light versus dark and asks “how can we be sure where one side begins and one ends?,” Pearson replies that all one needs to do is stop swinging the lamp.

Without spoiling anything, it does stop swinging…

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Essential: BAMBI (1942)

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TopBilled:

This month we are doing a version of Jlewis’ picks. I have since realized how knowledgeable he is about all things related to Walt Disney. As you may recall, a few years ago I had reviewed some Disney animation from the 1990s. But I thought we could revisit Disney and cover a bit more than animation this time around.

Jlewis has come up with a variety of titles that include animation and live action features. We’re starting with the animated classic BAMBI and truth be told, I don’t think I had seen it since one of the 80s theatrical reissues when I was a kid. It’s a film that lingers in your memory long after the initial viewing.

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Key sequences may currently be found for free on YouTube. These include the memorable scenes where Bambi’s mother dies, as well as the blazing forest fire that threatens the safety of not only the deer but a majority of other wildlife. 

The death of Bambi’s mother is certainly heavy drama and may be hard for some children to take. I guess that’s why it lingers in the mind. I came across some interesting comments under the YT clip I watched yesterday where people discussed the merits of how mama doe dies off screen. A gunshot is heard while she and Bambi run to safety. Bambi has run ahead but he is not rejoined by his mother. His father, the prince buck, finds him and explains his mother’s death.

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Disney plans to remake the feature in 2021/2022. Though that may be postponed due to the pandemic. I wonder if they’ll depict the mother’s death on screen in the remake. Will the violence of the story be presented differently?

The forest fire is another situation. We do not learn about any animals dying during the blaze, but realistically some of them probably would have perished.

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The most memorable image, in my opinion, is when the adult animals reach a haven along a shore with their young. The expressions on their faces as they find refuge makes me appreciate the struggle for survival. It’s something we all can relate to, wanting to keep ourselves and our youngsters from harm.

While watching the clips, I was familiarizing myself with the overall story. I read up on Felix Salten, the Jewish author from Austria who had first published “Bambi, a Life in the Woods” in 1923. I learned he had also written a sequel called “Bambi’s Children” in 1939 after he had sold the rights of the original story to Hollywood.

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In the sequel, we follow Bambi’s twins and there are now cousin characters that are introduced. Reading the plot summary, it seemed clear to me that Salten had woven in some sort of allegory about the Germans. The men that are hunting down these innocent creatures are quite Nazi-like in their pursuit to kill or capture their prey.

I would say that on some level Bambi is an eco-horror story. A potentially grim form of environmentalism about what is required to survive. Ironically, the film’s own survival was in jeopardy when a legal tangle occurred between Disney and a publishing company that purchased the literary rights from Salten’s heirs. But fortunately, the copyright issues were resolved and it continues to be available for subsequent generations. That’s a good thing because of what Bambi teaches us about ourselves. 

BAMBI may currently be viewed in its entirety on YouTube for a small rental fee.

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Jlewis:

I first saw BAMBI as my third major movie theater outing during one of its reissues. (There was a time when these animated features were brought back to theaters every eight or so years, before home entertainment and streaming services.)

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My previous movie experiences were LADY AND THE TRAMP, also in reissue, and HERBIE RIDES AGAIN. I think my parents took me to see the doggie film just before my sister was born so that they didn’t have to explain the whole “what is a baby?” situation to me. They viewed me no differently than Jim Dear and Darling viewed their cocker spaniel.

Not sure why I was taken to see BAMBI, but it was the film that had the stronger influence on my formative years. Not surprisingly, I did not become a fan of deer hunting and, when I lived in western Pennsylvania, detested how “man” would tramp through the neighborhood with their camouflage and rifles the week after Thanksgiving each year.

The movie didn’t have much impact on the sport anyway, but it did much to promote forest fire prevention. Although the United States Forest Service created its own icon with Smokey the Bear in 1944, Disney had a special arrangement with them that allowed Bambi and other characters from the movie to be freely used in TV and print ads. The forest fire in the movie is a key climax, but Leonard Maltin criticizes this impressive sequence in his Disney Films book of 1973: “The idea of giving the flames an animated life goes against the grain of the film and clashes with the meticulously drawn forest and the animals that the flames pursue.”

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Meticulous is a great adjective to describe BAMBI. Because it was so meticulous, it had one of the longest production periods among Disney animated features, if not quite as long as SLEEPING BEAUTY and THE BLACK CAULDRON.

Preliminary work began during the final stage of SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS when Walt Disney acquired the rights to Felix Salten’s novel through MGM producer/director Sydney Franklin, whom…I am guessing…had planned to make a live-action film for Metro using an animal cast. (MGM instead produced another deer pic, THE YEARLING, a decade later. Franklin himself is mentioned as a “special thanks” credit in BAMBI.)

Full scale production began one month before war broke out in Europe and continued through the famous animators labor strike of June 1941, coinciding with Bambi’s screen debut “cameo” in THE RELUCTANT DRAGON.

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James Algar, who later took on some of the live-action True Life Adventure films that I will be profiling shortly, was among several animation directors involved, along with Bill Roberts, Samuel Armstrong, Norman Wright, Graham Heid and Paul Satterfield. They were all either taking time out from– or working while others in the studio were busy with– PINOCCHIO, FANTASIA and DUMBO. Most of the work was completed by February 1942 but continued tinkering kept the release postponed until August.

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David Hand was the primary supervisor overseeing everybody with this special production and he is a rather interesting figure himself. In 1944, he moved to England and set up the most Disney-like animation unit there with full financial support by J. Arthur Rank, the most powerful tycoon in the British film industry.

Alas…the mighty Rank empire started to tumble before long and this unit didn’t survive six years despite all of the effort involved. The only difference between Ginger Nutt in the Gaumont British “Animaland” series and the gray squirrel featured in BAMBI is the rusty European coat and tufted ears. Likewise we also see a hare (lankier than Thumper the rabbit as an adult but still remarkably similar) and a lookalike mole.

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Like so many Disney films, there is little resemblance to the original. Felix Salten published Bambi: Eine Lebensgeschichte aus dem Walde (Bambi: A Life in the Forest) in serialized magazine form for the Vienna publication Neue Freie Presse in 1922. A decade later, the Nazis banned the book for various reasons, not all fully understood today; and Salten, a Jew, left for Switzerland at the time Austria was annexed to Germany. It was here that he wrote a sequel called Bambis Kinder: Eine Familie im Walde (Bambi’s Children: The Story of a Forest Family).

Disney not only changed much of the story material, but also the fauna featured. Salten’s original model for Bambi supposedly was a roe deer, but Kurt Weise, the illustrator of Whittaker Chambers’ English translation for Simon & Schuster (1929), depicted a majestic red deer instead. Regardless, the literary forest was populated by European critters, while Disney “Americanized” it all for the big screen.

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Mule deer, native of California, were initially subjects of study, but then the Maine Development Commission provided live white-tailed deer from the east for the animators to study after Maurice Day did extensive photographic work in that state for the artwork needed for the impressive multi-plane camera effects. In addition to Thumper the Eastern Cottontail and Flower the Striped Skunk, we also get chipmunks, gray squirrels, opossums and raccoon that are not found in Salten’s native Austria, along with an assortment of birds that don’t quite match species found anywhere.

Predictably both of the original books are much more graphic in their violence than any Disney film would dare to be. One key scene in the first book has Bambi and the Great Prince finding the corpse of a hunter accidentally shot by another hunter, proving to them that “man” (described as “He” in print) was no supernatural being. Faline had a brother named Gobo who gets adopted by a human and later is released back to the wild…only to get killed by that same human later. Walt Disney nonetheless decided to keep the killing of Bambi’s mother intact even though, as I will point out later, many children books published years after the movie often cut that scene out.

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We often tend to view Disney’s version of Bambi the character as adorably cute and a pleasing icon for any nursery bedtime post, but the movie itself still retains a dark edge since it was, after all, released during the dark days of World War II. Even if many deaths in the books were removed from screen, we still see at least one animal killed besides Bambi’s mother: a pheasant who gets too scared and flies into gun fire.

Her fall is followed by an intense battle scene featuring multiple pheasants and rabbits in particular that reminds me a lot of Jean Renoir’s horrible and vastly over-rated LA RÈGLE DU JEU (THE RULES OF THE GAME). I highly doubt that the animators saw it because that French film wasn’t released in the U.S. until after the war.

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The movie score is one of the darkest in the Disney canon despite the Silly Symphony-ish “April Showers,” “Let’s Sing a Gay Little Spring Song” and the optimistic opening number “Love is the Song” sung by Donald Novis that was Oscar nominated. Although Edward H. Plumb and Frank Churchill worked as a team here, the Churchill influence seems far greater, often keeping us viewers on an uncomfortable edge.

It was Churchill who devised that simple, yet very ominous, set of notes whenever “man is in the forest” that many have compared with John Williams’ JAWS. I am not sure if Churchill specifically supervised the “clash of the stags” sequence in which a young Bambi struggles to keep out of the way of charging bucks in the meadow, but it sounds like his work with a stark Wagnerian warlike influence. “I Bring You the Song” was co-written with Larry Morey as a standard romance, but Churchill makes it all very haunting and non-earthly; the visuals showing Faline and Bambi in the dark summer meadow full of fireflies reminds me a little of our earlier reviewed GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES in its hypnotic until-death-we-part atmosphere.

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On May 14, 1942, shortly after completing his work with the film and receiving an Oscar for his and Oliver Wallace’s work on DUMBO, Churchill sat at his piano and killed himself with a revolver. He had been dealing with depression for a while and was further saddened with the deaths of two close friends and orchestra members during the early months of the war. No, this was not the happiest movie produced by Disney.

***

The occasionally depressing undertones (not that the whole film is like that, obviously, since we see our star survive and become a daddy to twins) might have hindered it at the box-office initially. BAMBI is a film that was ahead of its time and, thus, only started earning a substantial profit with its first re-release in 1947.

This prompted Simon & Schuster to revamp its earlier 1941 Disney book version (published before the film’s release) with an all-new Little Golden Book in April 1948 recycling the text but using different illustrations.

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Mel Shaw, who worked on the movie as an animator, supervised the Big Golden Book version the following year which strangely covered just the first half of the story, leaving out the mother’s death. This particular deletion was a tactic repeated in subsequent Bambi books because too many parents of the burgeoning Baby Boom complained about having to explain what happens to “mommy” despite it being an important scene in the movie.

Other kinds of merchandising involved with the movie are worth mentioning, even if I am deviating a bit from the movie itself. (Forgive me, please.) The movie's first 3-D rendition appeared in 1951, courtesy of the TruVue stereo filmstrip company of Rock Island, Illinois with Nelson Williams in charge of the artwork...2-D illustrations turned 3-D with a special technique that was being fine-tuned. That company, in turn, was soon absorbed by Sawyers Inc. of Portland, Oregon, which already owned View-Master and put out both TruVue and View-Master versions involving model work by Joe Liptak (in a rarely seen today 7 image version) and the team of Martha Armstrong and Lee Green (involving 21 images). 

The Armstrong and Green version was one of View-Master's top Disney sellers between 1956 and 1988, after which it was replaced with a newer version that did not involve model work but also had the mother's death scene reinstated. Baby Boomers tended to fuss a lot less about such subject matter with their own children than their parents did.

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Thumper the rabbit, voiced by juvenile non-professional Peter Behn, was the key co-star who emerged with his own short lived comic strip and headlining his own Little Golden Book in 1944.

“He can call me Flower if he wants to” the skunk is interesting from today’s perspective in that he is totally accepting of all titles and confident in who he is, especially after a baby deer calls him a “pretty, pretty flower,” which causes him to blush as if he is in love with the “young prince of the forest.” (Sterling Holloway voices Flower as an adult.)

Yet make no mistake: all of these characters are strictly heterosexual and only “twitterpate” with the opposite gender. Thumper even gets mighty excited with his big feet (and we all know what big feet symbolize) when a false eyelash-ed and rosy cheeked female bunny fondles his…er…ears.

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Like Friend Owl, I was always annoyed with all of the twitterpating involved. Why doesn’t this movie get to the point? Apparently there was plenty of that going on after the war and a whole new generation was getting created much like the many baby animals featured in the movie’s finale. Spring time overtakes the burned out ashes of the great fire just as many contemporary audiences were hoping Europe and the world would rejuvenate after wartime.

Big Joel on YouTube has an interesting video title “How Disney Plays with Nature” that not just focuses on the Disneyesque approach to “mother nature” but also how the movie reflects pre-Eisenhower Era family norms.

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After his introduction, the Great Prince of the Forest only re-appears after mother’s death to get junior to fend for himself and then, later on, commands him that “you must get up” when he is injured. While this may reflect nature (since bucks are generally not involved in fawn rearing), it also reflects the broken family situations commonplace during the Depression and war years, especially with so many daddies having to go far away and/or spend long hours for work and armed conflict.

In many ways, the father-son relationship here was not unlike that of Walt and Roy Disney’s with their own stern father Elias. In addition, Thumper’s dad is never shown but referenced when his mother disciplines him…as many mothers often did at the time when their husbands couldn’t.

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A BAMBI II direct-to-DVD version was released in January 2006 that, like so many book and toy variations, reflected the changing times. It was not really a sequel but a fill-in-the-blanks revision of sorts…and a disaster in my opinion despite impressive animation by Australia’s Disneytoon Studios. It showed a juvenile Bambi seeking daddy love because…well…daddies are supposed to be kinder, gentler and more involved with their children by the 21st century.

Then again, I should not be too critical of what the Disney staff has done with Felix Salten’s original over the decades, since at least 15%-20% of the original content has been left in. This contrasts with, say, Daniel P. Mannix’s original version of THE FOX AND THE HOUND, a novel even more violent than BAMBI but transformed into one very alien looking, Gerber-fed fluff ball of entertainment.

In January 2020, a cgi reboot was announced by Disney to be starting production, making this the latest in a long line of old animated features getting a new face lift for a newer generation. It should be most interesting…

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What keeps the original alive today is how it presents childhood in all of its myriad of experiences. We see the deer learn to walk for the first time, talk for the first time, walk on snow, skate on ice and even experience hunger as so many children did during times of economic depression and war. There are also those little moments like his first reflection in the water surface…seeing himself for the first time, which leads to him seeing Faline for the first time as a reflection of his own reflection. We see him afraid of thunder showers and lightning, but deal with the harsh aspects of life…and death…and overcome it.

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This is not as good as having the View-Master reel set itself but, if you have glasses with a magenta/red lens covering your left eye and a green lens covering your right, you can get the full 3-D effect. It may also work if you have that special virtual reality lens many use with their iPhones to see 3-D material.

The earlier TruVue 3-D renditions of several characters, including Bambi at the 4:30 mark.

 

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Essential: SECRETS OF LIFE (1956)

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Jlewis:

Between 1948 and 1959, Walt Disney released (through RKO and his own Buena Vista company) a series of enormously popular nature documentaries under the umbrella name “True Life Adventures.” In total, there were ten films running under 35 minutes each (even if the last three were not officially billed as such in their opening credits) and seven full length features (but with PERRI billed as a True Life “Fantasy”). Combined (and there was also a “best of” compilation feature released in 1975), these won a coveted eight Academy Awards and three more nominations.

Concurrent to this series…and, yes, I will mention them too since they were very much like these in format and featured much of the same personnel…were the now-forgotten “People & Places” travelogues that sadly never made the VHS or DVD cut, despite equally being showered with awards and becoming a staple of the 16mm school market (the format that I saw most of them as a kid).

Fortunately the late Roy Disney Jr. began his career working on the True Life series and always had a soft spot for them, so…when he and Michael Eisner took charge of the mouse house in 1984, he made sure they still got shown on the Disney Channel and promoted their debut on VHS within a year after that.

In 2006, they received very special DVD treatments with Roy personally hosting and with each disc enclosed in a special mock film canister. So beautifully presented, these are prize processions for those of us lucky to get them for $20-25 at the time (they were sold at Walmart and other retailers), but are now commanding high prices on eBay today. The then eight year old theme park Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida got its usual promotion in these with cute little intros, but…more importantly…this revival of the series encouraged an all new series of Disney-backed nature documentaries titled “Disneynature” that are worth a whole discussion all their own.

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There really isn’t anything especially novel or innovative about the True Lifes that hadn’t been done before apart from some distinctive Disney animation here and there. A magic paint-brush animated mostly by Josh Meador that opens each film in its introduction and gets plenty of activity in SECRETS OF LIFE. The entire series was in glorious Technicolor (mostly 16mm Kodachrome blown up to 35mm). Yet even the novelty of color in nature films was not exactly a novelty when this series began in 1948. A quick history lesson here…

  • Color films featuring animals and flowers date back to 1908 using Charles Urban’s promoted Kinemacolor process. George Albert Smith and John Mackenzie filmed ANIMAL AND BIRD STUDIES at the London Zoo, however, since the technology wasn’t sophisticated enough to chase them in the wild.

  • Speaking of Charles Urban (whom I dedicated a “Shortie Checklist” thread to on the TCM forum), he was backing nature films well ahead of other movie pioneers, beginning with F. Martin Duncan’s close-ups of cheese mites, insects, hydras, amphibians and many other small critters in 1903, followed by the first time-lapse photography of plant growth and flowers blooming by F. Percy Smith by the end of that decade.

  • Smith, in turn, became part of a team working for British Instructional in a series titled “Secrets of Nature” (1922-1933) which was followed by the Gaumont-British backed “Secrets of Life” (1934-1947)…and, as you can see where I am going here, Walt Disney himself blatantly borrowed the title for our reviewed feature here.

  • Concurrent to all of these were the pioneering work of France’s Jean Painlevé, the subject of an excellent Criterion DVD compilation titled SCIENCE IS FICTION. His earliest stickleback fish footage predates SECRETS OF LIFE by three decades, but he was still making films in the early eighties.

  • Despite the war, Jacques Cousteau still managed to make his first undersea scenic using scuba gear in 1943, titled ÉPAVES.

  • Meanwhile Sweden’s Arne Sucksdorff gained some following U.S. side during the forties with some shorts distributed through 20th Century Fox’s Movietone. Later, his popular feature DET STORA ÄVENTYRET a.k.a. THE GREAT ADVENTURE competed against Walt Disney’s THE LIVING DESERT, the first of the True-Life features, at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival.

  • Also not to be forgotten was the famous Soviet “school” of documentary filmmakers. At least one 45 minute featurette, Boris Dolin and Viktor Asmus’ ZAKON VELIKOI LYUBVI (watch here: https://www.net-film.ru/en/film-58437), enjoyed some attention in the U.S. when it was edited down into an Oscar-nominated short subject by Warner Brothers as SMART AS A FOX. It clearly influenced Disney’s own PERRI, the aforementioned True Life “Fantasy,” a decade later with its baby animal in a season-changing forest but featuring a squirrel instead of a fox.

***

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Walt Disney was once asked by a lady how all of the prairie dogs were filmed in THE VANISHING PRAIRIE. His reply was that little cameras were attached to them on little harnesses. Obviously she was being hoodwinked but Disney was always honest about the movie magic being achieved by the most talented team of people he could assemble. The anthology Disneyland series on TV frequently showed “how it was done.” SECRETS OF LIFE received a special examination in the excellent SEARCHING FOR NATURE’S MYSTERIES, first broadcast on ABC in black and white on September 26, 1956 and later in full color (being filmed that way) on NBC the following decade.

So details the prologue: This is an authentic story of nature’s secret world…of her strange and intricate designs for survival…and her many methods of perpetuating life. These intimate and unusual scenes were made possible through the development of new photographic techniques…and through the skill and patience of many scientist-photographers.

Despite the many awards, the True Lifes did get their fair share of criticism, much of it spared with SECRETS OF LIFE. One mistake made in the promotion of the series was the claim that the footage was all documented “as nature intended” but it was, in reality, often manipulated for the cameras.

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While some titles like WATER BIRDS were praised for the clever editing of fowl in flight scored to Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2,” critics were less kind to THE LIVING DESERT re-editing scorpions as if they were square dancing and THE VANISHING PRAIRIE pitting bighorn sheep together with the “Anvil Chorus.”

Paul Smith was often accused of “Mickey Mouse-ing” the scores so that…literally, every action by any animal was documented with strings or keys. The desert film also featured animals pitted together in enclosed settings, although Paul Kenworthy’s hawk vs. rattlesnake and Pompilidae wasp vs. tarantula battles probably didn’t disturb animal rights activists since the participants weren’t as cute and cuddly as the lemmings shown “committing suicide” in the later WHITE WILDERNESS.

As the fourth of the features, SECRETS OF LIFE had its share of manipulated scenes but greater effort was made to be as factual as possible here. In addition, you can pretty much tell what scenes were shot indoors instead of outdoors, especially in the time lapse plant growth scenes shot against blue backgrounds.

The ant footage was done by Robert H. Crandall and his wife Fanny, partly in enclosed scenes indoors with some staged battles Roman gladiator style and also out in the field with a special glass over a cut ant colony nest, a procedure that was more intricate and smaller than the prairie dog set-up in the previous THE VANISHING PRAIRIE.

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The LA Times had a fun article on him back in 1990 which can be found here: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1990-12-30-me-10325-story.html 

Although bee hives were the subjects of numerous films of the past, including the Oscar winning CITY OF WAX (1934) by Horace and Stacey Woodard, Stuart V. Jewell went even further with his own honey bee footage. As documented on the excellent 9-26-56 broadcast mentioned above, he was able to locate the developing baby larvae in their hive cells and shoot them up close to help tell the most fascinating story of insect development. Jewell also supervised much, but not all, of the time lapse photography of plant growth. Even though the cameras were quite sophisticated, the overall process had not changed since the days of F. Percy Smith…one frame shot every few hours to speed up “time.”

Rounding out the long list of impressive cinematographers involved were Jack Couffer (Oscar nominated later for JONATHAN LIVING SEAGULL and still around, at the time of me writing this, in his nineties); George and Nettie MacGinitie of the California Institute of Technology’s marine division; Murl Deusing (an earlier contributor with Alfred and Elma Milotte in BEAVER VALLEY and other True-Life titles, mostly with birds but contributing some impressive aquatic footage here); Russian immigrant and microscopic specialist Roman Vishniac; Donald L. Sykes (an ex-Signal Corps cameraman who also did a lot of television camera work); Fran William Hall (another WW2 camera veteran who got the “bug” for filming bugs); and a couple names less well documented: Arthur Carter, William A. Anderson, Claude Jendrusch and Tilden W. Roberts.

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Although less famous than David Attenborough as a host to modern viewers, Winston Hibler enjoyed his time in the limelight as narrator to all of the “True Life Adventures” and “People and Places” series. He started with Disney in 1942 with story work for numerous animated features and got the narration role almost by default. He appeared in person on the ABC TV series, discussing the making of this series, but his soothing mid-western voice is still more famous today than his face.

You can’t help but be drawn in by the way he tells us a story regarding bee life: “Like most fairy tales, this one has a queen, ladies in waiting, magic potions and all the trappings of a proper fable.”

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This feature has four parts that aren’t entirely related to each other. Part one focuses on the plant world and all of the hazards of pollination and seed growth. Part 2 covers the bees, and Part 3 the ants. Part 4 is pretty scattered all over the place but, apart from a handful of invertebrates (i.e. dragonfly juveniles, diving spiders, barnacles, fiddler crabs), it seems mostly focused on fish like the stickleback, angler fish, archer fish and grunion.

If there is one criticism of SECRETS, it is that it meanders from subject to subject without some key star like THE AFRICAN LION or the desert or prairie setting to tie it all together. In a way, it feels like a composite of the original British produced namesake series of 1934-47 and featuring much the same subject matter. The introduction features earth formations created by water and the finale climax again shows a “restless earth” featuring volcanoes in Hawaii, shot in CinemaScope (while the rest of the film is standard “Academy ratio”).

One prominent secret of life is sex. Throughout the soundtrack, we hear Hibler discuss fertilization and still more fertilization…and propagating…with a no-nonsense ho-hum dictation. I can only imagine how he would narrate sex-ed films for 7th grade as well, discussing the different boy and girl body parts as they go through, um, changes. Of course, the male stickleback fish still produces “milk” to fertilize a female’s eggs since I am guessing the Production Code still held its defiance over other possible words. In addition, Disney was getting overly cautious following the huge uproar over the birth of a bison segment in a previous feature, THE VANISHING PRAIRIE.

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This series received a lot of attention in print throughout the fifties and into the sixties, courtesy of Western Publishing that put out many great children books on the individual films and the series as a whole. I particularly enjoyed my childhood Golden Press book, Wonders of Nature (1957) even though it lost its dust jacket and the pages have gradually worn. Also I have the Golden Press versions of three features, including this one, along with the Dell Comics versions, plus at least one of the Golden Stamps books of 1955 covering several titles.

There are flaws with this series, but its influence on an entire generation cannot be underestimated. So many of us became environmentally conscious after seeing these; note that the prairie title features the key adjective “vanishing” and we rarely see black-footed ferrets outside of captivity these days. With SECRETS OF LIFE, we gained a new perspective on the far less “human” arthropod and floral worlds, learning more than we expected about how seeds are planted….and the seeds planted for Earth Day and all that happened afterward can also be attributed, at least in part, to the Disney influence.

Here is a sampling of clips from the whole series, mostly culled from the 1975 compilation feature with all new Hibler narration:

https://www.imdb.com/video/vi3876435993?playlistId=nm0382548&ref_=vp_rv_0

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It is difficult to profile just one True-Life Adventure without commenting on multiple others. I really love that series, flaws included.

This is a nice video talk fest on the series (and the "People & Places" travelogues) that was uploaded on YouTube 11 months ago but dated 2016.

No clue how long these videos will stay uploaded due to copyright reasons and so forth. However they are so old and vintage that I doubt the Disney corporation fusses much over them. After all, they promote these old movies on Disney Plus and other money making outlets.

Although the Milottes did not work on SECRETS OF LIFE, they did many others in the series including the first one filmed in the Pribilof Islands during the summers of 1946 and '47: the Oscar winning half-hour SEAL ISLAND. Both Alfred and Elma died within a month of each other in 1989. This documentary was aired on the Disney Channel in November 1985 and is narrated by well beloved TV star Buddy Ebsen, who appeared on the Davy Crockett series for Disney. Fittingly, our review above follows BAMBI from last week. That animated feature influenced the True-Life Adventures to a degree and is noted accordingly here. They even use the "Clash of the stags" music from the movie that Frank Churchill worked on. Also interviewed are Lloyd and Catherine Beebe, who also did not  work on SECRETS OF LIFE but did others.

 

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Essential: MARS AND BEYOND (1957)

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TopBilled:

“Mars and Beyond” is an animated episode of Disneyland (Walt Disney’s weekly anthology television series which was renamed several times over the years). The episode aired on December 4th, 1957 and was directed by Ward Kimball. Paul Frees served as the narrator.

In Jlewis’ review, he covers some of the more technical aspects of the production. I didn’t exactly dislike what I viewed, but I was not terribly wowed by it either. I would suggest our readers watch it for themselves after reading what Jlewis has written, then make up their own minds.

  1. They were limited in their knowledge about space in 1957. One of the interviewed scientists admits they probably have errors in their calculations, so their efforts to gather information about the cosmos may be flawed.
     
  2. Imagine how limited our knowledge may seem to people 64 years from now. It’s about adding layers of understanding on to what is already known (proven), then refining our theories so the end results are more practical.
     

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  3. The animation is fantastic and holds up well. Perhaps this is because it’s creative (bizarre at times) and these are the unique imaginings of life on other planets. However, these imaginings seem quite fictional.
     
  4. I remember once, while teaching a group of students, I asked them ‘do you think the bible is a work of fiction or nonfiction?’ We could ask that same question here, is this episode of Disneyland mostly fiction or nonfiction.
     

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  5. Sometimes this piece doesn’t know if it should be a wild and woolly cartoon or a scientific-based documentary. Ultimately, it chooses to be both.
     
  6. Paul Frees’ voice-over narration is excellent. Only Orson Welles could have done it better.
     

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  7. I liked the sequence about the pressurized living colonies on Mars. However, I chuckled at the comment that they needed to colonize Mars due to overpopulation. There were around 3 billon people in 1957, compared to 7.8 billion in 2020. They had less than half our current world population.
     
  8. The piece was used by science teachers in classrooms. But I didn’t get the impression that it would encourage students to apply science in their daily lives. It entertains more than it inspires scientific inquiry.
     
  9. It presumes to tell viewers ‘this is what we know must be true’ about our neighboring planets. What would those neighboring planets say about us? It suggests that our knowledge (our earthly knowledge) is the most important knowledge in the universe.
     
  10. It is worth watching at least once. You may enjoy it.
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Jlewis:

Ward Kimball is one of the most interesting animators and animation directors working for Disney between the years of 1934 and 1973. Beginning as an in-betweener, he moved up the ranks as a star animator in the early feature classics, although one famous sequence of his involving the dwarfs sipping soup was cut from SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (but shown later on TV and DVD). He then moved on to doing much of the work on Jiminy Cricket in PINOCCHIO and the infamous crows in DUMBO.

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With his work in THE THREE CABALLEROS, he began deviating from the more naturalistic style of Disney animation, crossing into territory resembling the looser un-Disney Tex Avery crazies at MGM and Rod Scribner’s rubbery exaggerations in the Robert Clampett Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies at Warner Bros. In this one, he animated Donald Duck, José Carioca, and Panchito Pistoles doing a musical number that involves all kinds of surrealistic, wild activities breaking the walls of reality. By this time, he was a much trusted fixture at the studio and Walt Disney seemed to allow him more personal freedom to experiment than many others on the payroll.

When UPA stole some of Disney’s thunder by the end of the forties and into the fifties with its flatter, more Matisse-like design, Ward managed to get the big boss to allow him to change with the times. Not that Disney always stuck to just any one particular style of animation and some of their pre-UPA work could sometimes look UPA-ish, but there was a bit too much comfort with the overly detailed story-book look during the post-war period, a look that critic Leslie Halliwell would dub later in print as “chocolate box-y”.

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MELODY and TOOT, WHISTLE, PLUNK AND BOOM were short subjects that he co-directed with Charles Nichols which incorporated a more stylized approach that one would more often expect in the early fifties Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing Boing cartoons rather than the contemporary Mickey Mouse cartoons; the former was presented in 3-D and the latter, an Oscar winner, was in CinemaScope.

This distinctive “mid-century modernism,” as many art critics called it (as it infiltrated all kinds of book illustrations of the 1950s with a vengeance), reached its apex with a trio of elaborate (and expensively produced) TV specials that Ward supervised for the Disneyland show. Due to their production costs, they were also released as all-color theatrical “featurettes” both in America and abroad after their debut on black and white television.

MAN IN SPACE was produced mostly in 1954 and aired March 9, 1955, followed by MAN AND THE MOON on December 28. More production time was needed for the third installment, the most ambitious MARS AND BEYOND which premiered December 4, 1957.

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All of these capitalized on the growing interest in space exploration, the last airing in the aftermath of the Soviet Sputnik launch, an ominous Cold War period event that literally pushed the United States into a space race. Plus flying saucers had been the rage for a decade by then and Mars was a particular favorite location for those seeking life-on-other-worlds.

Ward Kimball appeared in MAN AND THE MOON almost like an overgrown child captivated about the wonderful age we are living in where space travel will soon become a reality. I can only imagine his equal enthusiasm in this decade discussing the future of virtual reality entertainment or self-driving automobiles like the ones put out by Tesla.

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Paul Frees, that great radio voice on so many classic old time shows and later the creepy voice used in the Haunted House of the theme parks, provides our ominous narration as we explore, cartoon style, the history of man’s curiosity with the heavens above.

It all starts in cave man times and progresses through ancient Egypt and beyond. We get humorous busts of the Greek pioneers that include Ptolemy who defeated other more progressive philosophers with his backward earth-centric views, views accepted by many in Europe until Copernicus came into the picture with the needed math skills to prove that the sun was center of the solar system.

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We then get a journey through the ever changing science fiction stories starting with French and Swedish writers in the 17th century and continuing into the 20th with H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, the latter with his own mock dictionary of Martian beasts.

Ward’s animation staff (featuring Julius Svendsen, Art Stevens and Jack Boyd with beautiful lay-outs by A. Kendall O’Connor, John Brandt and Tom Yakutis) has a field day recreating all of the imaginary outer-space creatures and humans on screen.

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Predictably anybody living on Venus is obsessed with love and romance and anybody living on Jupiter is expansive and huge, with the beings unable to even see each other and being afraid of Jupiterian horses (since Sagittarius is often aligned sign-wise with that planet and it is the sign of the centaur).

The whole UFO saga is investigated in zany cartoon form with pot shots at flying cigars that light up and the popular theory that aliens-are-walking-amongst-us-in-disguise. A hilarious bogus sci fi comic story is presented in the usual post-Playboy fantasy style with a lovely mink-shawled lady drinking martinis (?!), as secretary to a rather beatnik astrophysicist addicted to his pipe, suddenly getting abducted by aliens and having to fend for herself.

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Although the segment begins with a very sexist slant, she herself nonetheless gets to morph into a Wonder Woman action hero (something we rarely see during this time period) and wins out in the end by offering her adversaries atomic exploding cigars.

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Lots of smoking going on here! Donald Duck makes a curious cameo among an assortment of weird beasties and creepy crawlees.

Dr. E.C. Slipher of the Lowell Observatory steps in during one live-action mid-section, in an otherwise three quarters animated cartoon, to discuss the more realistic prospects of finding life on Mars.

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His prospects are not good, but that does not stop us from seeing more suggestions of what life could be like on Mars. After a brief showcase on how life evolved on Earth (cue the dinosaurs), we get clever montages of unusual worms and fish-like creatures (one oddball sponge-like beast vaguely resembles the angler fish seen in SECRETS OF LIFE) along with what appear to be spiny vacuum cleaners. I particularly like the flying wing-things that look like hang gliders.

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Things get very psychedelic at one point when the suggestion is made of crystal-like formations possibly becoming “life” and the screen explodes in kaleidoscope fashion. Must be due to all of the stuff that the production team was smoking, apparently not just tobacco. Throughout this show, George Burns provides some wonderful other-worldly music here, making this the ultimate retro “trip.”

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Like the previous two TV shows, we get in our final portion animated recreations of mankind journeying in futuristic space craft. Some of the designs, with Ernst Stuhlinger (backed by Wernher von Braun) shown presenting, are, in fact, ahead of their time and resemble what NASA is proposing today. There are also recreations of “high pressurized” enclosed cities recreated on our smaller planetary neighbor.

I have watched this one multiple times on DVD since 2004 (when it became a part of the Walt Disney Treasures with the other shows included) and never get bored by any of it. It ages in spots from a scientific perspective, but is much too eye-popping to be considered “old” in any other way. The opening shot of “Uncle” Walt talking to a robot puts viewers in the right kooky frame of mind.

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Back to Ward…

His later years, post-MARS AND BEYOND, are still worthy of a little history recap. He and Walt shared a love of trains and already his hobbies in the area had been a topic in one of Jerry Fairbanks “Unusual Occupations” shorts for Paramount as far back in 1944.

He also headed his own jazz band, although not everybody with musical tastes shared the same opinions regarding his Firehouse Five Plus Two.

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Despite their friendship and mutual interests, Ward and his big boss didn’t always see eye to eye, especially when it came to politics: Ward wasn’t as supportive of Nixon like Walt was in 1960, but…by the same token…he wasn’t entirely with the Democrats all the time either and even made an anti-LBJ film (independent of Disney) in 1968 titled ESCALATION.

On an artistry level, he nonetheless got to beat to his own drum (or trombone as he preferred with his band) by making product that was hardly Disneyesque in style, earning an Oscar for IT’S TOUGH TO BE A BIRD (1969) which echoed Terry Gilliam’s outrageous work on the fledgling MONTY PYTHON series that was just getting started on British TV.

His final efforts for the studio were his animation direction for BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS and a 43 episode TV show THE MOUSE FACTORY that ended in the spring of 1973, just about the time he decided he needed a rest at age 59. An elder spokesman among Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” he remained active in many TV and video interviews up until his death in 2002.

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Essential: THE LOVE BUG (1968)

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TopBilled:

When Jlewis first talked about this movie in a private message, I told him that I liked the sequel HERBIE RIDES AGAIN (1974) a bit better than the original. I suppose it has to do with Stefanie Powers and Helen Hayes, two actresses I always enjoy watching. In his review below, Jlewis adds a post-script about the sequel. 

I first became familiar with THE LOVE BUG and its sequels when I was in elementary school. I hadn't seen any of the movies at that point, but there was a monthly book order my third grade teacher oversaw. One month I used part of my allowance to purchase a book with a Volkswagen-- number 53-- on the cover. It was a retelling of the original story with pictures from the movie. That's when I was first introduced to Herbie.

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Recently I tried to locate reviews by Pauline Kael and Rogert Ebert on the original 1968 film but they do not seem to exist. I was curious to read what they might have written. Perhaps Herbie and his automotive issues were too quaint or low-brow for Ms. Kael. Ebert did review the remake HERBIE: FULLY LOADED in 2005, and he admits to not having seen the original film or its three sequels.

I found some user reviews on the IMDb. One person called the original film a live-action cartoon, whatever that means. Other reviewers on the IMDb mentioned how Herbie is a family friendly vehicle and he will win you over. It sounded like something a car salesman might say. I guess we all “bond” over the vehicles we use, some owners more than others. And people have been known to nickname their cars or trucks, the way Buddy Hackett’s character names Herbie. Though this may be taking the “relationship” a bit far.

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If Herbie himself is a live action cartoon, it must mean he is a non-vegetative auto. He is a car with a unique brand of energy. He exhibits feelings and has a mind of his own. He is very animated. In HERBIE: FULLY LOADED, he is even more animated due to the newer filmmaking technology. He blinks his headlights, he pantomimes (don’t ask how), he droops his bumper when he’s melancholy and uses those doors of his as if they are wings.

How much intelligence does Herbie have? (I won’t ask about the audience’s intelligence or the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief at some of the more outrageous stunts that occur.) If Herbie is intelligent, he is also sentient. Logically speaking, how would a car develop intellect and sentience? One has to wonder!

If he is a form of Artificial Intelligence, then Herbie is cinematic kin to HAL in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. And emotionally, he could be seen as the polar opposite of CHRISTINE, a set of wheels that had homicidal tendencies, thanks to Stephen King. Fortunately, because this is a Disney product, Herbie is not psychotic like Christine.

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If a car like Herbie has brains and a heart, then he probably also has a soul. And by extension, he can use these qualities to fall in love. Okay, this is starting to get a bit philosophical now…

In addition to our main character, there are the humans in the story who basically play supporting roles. Often these actors are replaced in the long shots by stunt personnel.

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The formula does not change from the original to the sequels to the remake. In each version we have a plucky car, a plucky hero (or heroine), a teeth-gnashing bad guy and a love story between the young leads, accompanied by a lot of racing footage.

I find it interesting that the original 1968 version features a sequence where Herbie considers suicide, and in the 2005 version, he is nearly wrecked beyond repair in a junkyard. I guess Disney is telling us that he’s mortal, he has a lifespan. But if Disney can keep rebooting this story and keep it humming like a well-oiled machine, I don’t think Herbie will run out of gas anytime soon.

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Jlewis:

THE LOVE BUG was filmed between March and July of 1968, a rather interesting time period in both United States history and Hollywood entertainment. As star Michele Lee reported in an interview, a major scene that made the final cut (but I am not sure which one, off hand) was filmed on the very day that they all learned of Martin Luther King Junior’s murder. This brings up the rather ominous fact that hardly any live-action Disney films prior to this one (the one infamous exception being SONG OF THE SOUTH) showed much diversity in their casts in terms of racial skin tones.

Although Walt Disney approved preliminary storyboard work just before his death in late 1966, there wasn’t much optimism that this comedy would fare any better than, say, BLACKBEARD’S GHOST.

In total surprise to both the studio and the industry, it triumphed over both Sam Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH and Dennis Hopper’s EASY RIDER, which were filmed simultaneously during that same four to five month period and also put on the market in 1969. Yes, even though the latter film received more printed commentary than THE LOVE BUG, those Harley Davidson “Captain America” motorcycles still got out-driven by a clean-cut Dean Jones in a run-down Volkswagen Beetle. As two San Francisco teens confess in a drag race through the streets against Herbie the Love Bug: “Outta sight man! I would have never believed it!”…“Groovy, Pop, groovy!”

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One would not expect an automobile to behave in a humanized fashion, despite cartoons that Disney made earlier like SUSIE THE LITTLE BLUE COUPE (with eyes added to the windshields to create a “face”), but this is a classic example of how creative entertainers can add a “soul” to just about anything mechanical, non-human and even non-animal.

Classic scene: Herbie attempting suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge and Dean Jones’ Jim Douglas out to stop him. This is after his jealous rage over Jim expressing more love for a rival Lamborghini and banging the cr!p out of it. The whole set-up a.k.a. “No, Herbie, don’t!!!!” is wonderful with its murky fog prevailing much like the London imagery displayed in a key scene previous in MARY POPPINS, which the British-born Robert Stevenson also directed. It is not so much what the car itself does, but the clever editing and the atmosphere that reflects Herbie’s emotions and “state of mind.”

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The human performers are all very appealing here even if they must play second fiddle to a set of four wheels. The top trio featured: straight-laced Dean Jones as race driver Jim Douglas, Michele Lee as Carole, the secretary of Thorndyke’s car sales who winds up as Jim’s love interest in the end, and the always wonderful Buddy Hackett (later a key voice in another Disney, THE LITTLE MERMAID) as Tennessee, the bumbling auto mechanic who had recently visited Tibet like the Beatles and “discovered my real self.”

Naturally he is the one to first discover that Herbie has a human soul after “it” follows Jim home from the car dealers. Among the multiple minor character actors is the frequently cast Joe Flynn, who milks his usual side-kick role in the climactic car race sequences with Peter Thorndyke.

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Ah, yes…Peter Thorndyke is our resident funny-villain. The British-born character actor David Tomlinson made three Disney features, two of them musicals that I fleetingly mention elsewhere in this review. Yet his greatest performance for the mouse house is certainly this straight-forward comic one. Watching a YouTube montage like “The Best of Peter Thorndyke” makes one wonder why he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar here. OK…maybe I should not go that far. I understand that a lot of the comedy here is slapdash slapstick with dialogue to match.

Much of the fun for me comes from Tomlinson’s little touches here and there in his Thrifty-shifty Thorndyke role. For example, when first meeting Jim, he is impressed enough to offer him sherry. Then he promptly pours it back in the bottle once Jim says he is only spending seventy five to eighty dollars.

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The scenes with him infiltrating Tennessee’s garage are loaded with classic little moments: when Tennessee tells him that “the secret of the little car” is its “heart,” something our star villain obviously does not have, he hilariously states that he’s “certainly going to make a note of that” and then promptly tosses his pen in a cup! The lines between these two are quite surreal in an Abbott & Costello sort of way: Thorndyke: “What part of Ireland did you say your mother came from?” Tennessee: “Coney Ireland.”

The story is pretty basic. Jim is a down and out race car driver who hits pay dirt with Herbie, a car with a human personality, but there is a lot of doubt and skepticism on his part. Ultimately the feisty Thorndyke tries to sabotage his chances in a wild country road race, with Herbie even getting dissected along the way and literally “coming apart” just before he hits the finish line.

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Despite the overall simplicity in story, the comic lines are vastly superior to other sixties Disney “comedies.” It is also fun having a no-nonsense Garry Owens provide announcer commentary as all of the hijinks occur.

I tend to view a lot of Disney films, both those made when Walt was alive and those made in the two decades following his passing, in two separate camps. There are those that are not very good, but have little things that hold my interest; a good example being the 1977 version of PETE’S DRAGON, a colossal mess that had me scratching my head in the theater as a preteen, but still manages one really great song that Helen Reddy handles, “Candle in the Water”. In contrast, THE LOVE BUG is an example of a generally very good film that still…somehow…disappoints in little spots here and there; its rather Mickey Mouse-ish style of music gets quite annoying after a while.

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Clearly this movie was written by the over-30 crowd that was not quite comfortable with the changing times. Although Dean Jones is convincing in a secondary role as a hippy, delivering the memorable line of “We’re all prisoners, Chickie Baby. We are all locked in…,” his subsequent comment on our star characters being “a couple of weirdos” is intended to be taken as put-down self-criticism.

Being that the writers were still working in a pre-Stonewall era, there are also subtle homophobic digs tossed here for good measure: his middle-aged male companion is dubbed “Guinevere”, referencing both Vanessa Redgrave’s character in CAMELOT (released shortly prior) and the popular belief among the older generation that men who wear their hair long have a gender identification problem. (A popular road sign that went up across the country in 1968 read “Beautify America. Get a haircut.”)

This brings me to the way the Chinese American characters are portrayed here. To be fair, it is a vast improvement over BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S in which Mickey Rooney poses as “Chinese.”

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Here we have Bensin Fong playing Mr. Wu, who takes ownership of Herbie and backs our stars financially in their race. He and the others (Brian and Harold Fong receive no on screen credit) are actually Asian-Americans getting key screen roles at a time when Hollywood films were mostly devoid of them. (Note too that we see only a few African Americans as extras on screen, with just one speaking role by an un-credited Eddie Smith.) At first, there is limited stereotyping: one highlight involves Tennessee talking in Chinese and later learning that Wu is perfectly fluent in English once “money” is discussed.

The one key scene that will likely make many modern viewers squirm involves a “Chinese camp” in which an older fellow purposely behaves like an “oriental” Steppin Fetchit servicing Thorndyke’s car. His son translates in broken English that he “says hurry is waste [and] waste is cracked bowl never that know rice.” There is not anything specific here that is outright offensive but there’s an overall attitude that the creators of this movie view the Asian Americans as “others.”

Again, one must always accept films as time capsules of the way we were, both the positive and the negative.

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Note how cheap the gas prices were back then! Also the fashions with Michele Lee’s miniskirt and short cropped hairstyle is making a comeback in the 21st century. Note too how simple car racing was in the sixties compared to the modern corporate sponsored NASCAR era.

Predictably the enormous success of this film spawned three sequels and a remake. It is rather curious that it took a full five years for the first of these to get made. HERBIE RIDES AGAIN was not nearly as good as the original (and neither were the others) but it does have special appeal for me personally as the first “all new” movie that I got to see in a movie theater. 

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Another curiosity about the Herbie franchise that I always found strange is that it generated far less merchandise than so many other Disney hits despite such a lovable central character. Although there were die-cast model replicas for the toy car trade and a trio of excellent View Master reels, there were not all that many chapter and coloring books out on the market in 1969 compared to the competition. It was not until 1974 that Herbie would grace the cover of one of Western Publishing’s Little Golden Books.

No doubt, this was due to the confusing state of the Disney company in those hypersensitive years shortly following the founder’s death. As long as brother Roy was still in charge, there was still some level of stability, but his death in December 1971, following the opening of Walt Disney World in Florida and the lackluster response to BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS, would provide a further blow…and push the company even further away from its big and small screen entertainment roots and more towards merchandising and theme parks, which were generally no more stable in revenue.

That special confidence that Walt gave the company took a long time to recover, having to wait until the era when Roy’s son and Michael Eisner took over. THE LOVE BUG was a colossal hit that could have impacted the company for the better, but was, instead, just a fluke phenomena that the company wasn’t sure how to milk properly.

Postscript:

I re-watched HERBIE RIDES AGAIN for either the third or fourth time. Not sure which. I first saw it in a movie theater at age six and absolutely adored it. Did not see it again for another dozen years or so, probably on TV or VHS in the eighties as a teenager. By then, I had seen enough of these types of slapstick car-crash affairs that it failed to impress me all that much. May have seen it again a decade after that but I am not sure. In any case, I decided to re-watch it again with a new set of eyes since TopBilled said he favored it over THE LOVE BUG.

My final analysis…OK. I still don’t like it as much as THE LOVE BUG but it is still a fun if, perhaps, uninspired Disney comedy. What is great about it are the stunts, far more ambitious than in the former.

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My guess is that the budget was bigger and it shows in the production values. Although a product of the early seventies (filmed in ’73 and released ’74), the fashions are not too retro; everything Ken Berry and Stefanie Powers wear is pretty much up to date with today’s styles. Powers sports a hair style more representative of the Watergate Era, like Michele Lee’s was five to six years earlier.

Except for the occasional seventies look here and there, what I find most interesting is that the story and editing style, along with the special effects, resemble something made a decade earlier.

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Also the gags: note the great soap bubble disaster echoing another film we reviewed, MOVE OVER, DARLING with Doris Day that was filmed in 1963. The scenes on the high rise were no different than countless comedies of yesteryear going back to 1923 and Harold Lloyd’s SAFETY LAST and, yes, the special effects with the matte work is pretty obvious (although still good for the early seventies).

Robert Stevenson and Bill Walsh were previously more edgy, poking fun at the flower power movement in the earlier film, but are more hesitant about rocking the boat here. Like far too many films of this type, we get our usual romance between the leads that involve a wedding at the end.

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Even Helen Hayes’ Mrs. Steinmetz gets a love interest with John McIntire (remember him in PSYCHO?). Speaking of Hayes, I found her much “cuter” in earlier viewings than I did this time around. Yes, it is fun seeing Berry’s Willoughby constantly worrying about her while she just ignores all danger and acts uber-confident, but a little of her “cute” factor goes a long, long, long way with lil’ ol’ me here.

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Keenan Wynn’s greedy Alonzo Hawk is much more enjoyable on screen but even his character seemed a bit too uninspired for me as a villain, except in the memorable dream sequences with multiple Herbies attacking him. No Asian Americans but we do get Don Pedro Colley playing a high profile construction tycoon putting Hawk in his place, something you would NOT have seen in a Hollywood film made a decade or more earlier unless there was some social commentary attached.

I do like both Barry and Powers as performers but also felt both characters were less fully developed than Dean Jones and Michele Lee’s characters in the previous film. She rather instantly takes a liking to him with virtually no hesitation, despite her talk with “grandma” about wanting to manage her own dating life without her help… and despite initially punching him in the face and later slapping him with a hot lobster. Wish he commented more on that humorous behavior when he decides to marry her, but that was just a one-off joke the writers soon forgot about.

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There was also a lot more tension between Jones and Lee in their portrayals, with Herbie playing a key role in uniting them together. Herbie does nothing for these two, as if he is merely their shared pet dog. It was as if writers just needed “a” couple at the end of this and weren’t terribly concerned so much about how-we-get-there as long as we-get-there. No fault of the performers. Just the material they were given.

I did miss Buddy Hackett and David Tomlinson. They put a lot of energy into their performances and helped make THE LOVE BUG a cut above so many other Disney live-action comedies. Still enjoy HERBIE RIDES AGAIN and do think the overall premise is a good one, even if Herbie himself was not all that relevant to an old lady’s house potentially being bulldozed for a high rise skyscraper.

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Two little tidbits...

Love the publicity shot of Buddy Hackett in his Nehru jacket. That is one of those short-lived fashion statements that is so easily dated to a specific year since hardly anybody was sporting them before and after. For the earlier in '68 opening of ROMEO & JULIET (which we may tackle again despite you already reviewing it earlier), it appeared as if attending celebrity Richard Chamberlain couldn't decide whether he wanted to wear one of those or one of the 19th century frilly shirt and vest combos that another Richard, Richard Harris, was making fashionable about the same time during his "MacArthur Park" / "Lucky Me... I'm finally free!" phase. Whoever was fitting him found a curious compromise between the two.

I think what was happening is that many men over the age of 30 wanted to look "hip" but not "hippy" as a reaction to all of the Flower Power that started during the Summer of Luv. The widely circulated image of Peter Sellers going all-the-way in I LOVE YOU, ALICE B. TOKLAS! was considered way too ridiculous. I think I mentioned before that my all time favorite episode of BEWITCHED is the "Mirror, Mirror on the Wall" one with Darrin (Dick York, the earlier one) under the influence of Endora's "vanity spell". At one point, even Darrin admits "I look ridiculous".

Regarding this key line: "If a car like Herbie has brains and a heart, then he probably also has a soul. And by extension, he can use these qualities to fall in love. Okay, this is starting to get a bit philosophical now… "

I am thankful the screenwriters have avoided giving Herbie a "girlfriend" and kept "him" or "it" nebulous enough for viewers to identify any which way they want to with Herbie. It is also fascinating how Buddy's Tennessee keeps describing Herbie to Dean Jones' Jim as if he is his "lover" of sorts. When Herbie leaves and attempts his suicide, it is due to Jim's infatuation with another car!

However, being that film was still pre-gay liberation, we obviously see Jim go off on his honeymoon with Carole in the end, just like the happy couple in HERBIE RIDES AGAIN. Must maintain those "traditions" even in the Disney films, where every fairy tale princess ends up with a prince. (Side note: I feel the basic weakness in HERBIE RIDES AGAIN is that Herbie doesn't have much of a "connection" with anybody, not even Helen Hayes' character, like he does with Jim.) As we discussed before, BAMBI was quite the overkill in the way each and every forest critter had to have an opposite gender match-up. That is, with one exception: Friend Owl. Although he hints that he was once "twitter-pated" himself and not exactly happy with the results, he is the one primary character in that movie whom we can all speculate "is he or isn't he?"

Then again... referencing that other Disney feature that pops up in these reviews occasionally, I have always assumed that Jock and Trusty were a couple more in love with each other than with anybody else in LADY AND THE TRAMP despite the two as a pair proposing to Lady when she was down in the dumps after her "prison" time and wanting to have nothing to do with Tramp. It is interesting that, after she politely refuses their offers, we see them more united as a couple than ever before. Both work as a team to save Tramp from the dog catcher and, when Trusty appears to be dead, we see Jock give the mournful moan of lost love. Then we see Jock taking care of injured Trusty at Christmastime and commenting on him to Lady and Tramp as if the two have been living together as an old married couple.

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Coming Up in April:

a child in danger

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April 3

THREE SECRETS (1950)

April 10

TOMORROW AT TEN (1963)

life in the suburbs

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April 17

ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1955)

April 24

THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975)

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I'm  looking  forward  to  your  review  of  The  Stepford  Wives.  I  have  the  dvd   and  recently  watched  the  movie. Katharine  Ross,  Paula  Prentiss  Nanette  Newman  and  Tina  Louise  give  very  good  performances   in  this movie.

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Essential: THREE SECRETS (1950)

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TopBilled:

The cast works so well in this one. Though I am a Ruth Roman fan, I expected her flashback sequence to be the weakest because it was saved for last and she was third-billed after Eleanor Parker and Patricia Neal. Parker gets top billing and the most screen time.

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In fact Parker gets the whole first half hour devoted to her character’s story, though there is a brief scene (supposedly on the same day all three adoptions occur) when she crosses paths with Neal and Roman at the adoption agency.

We learn in detail that Susan Chase (Parker) was pregnant with a soldier’s baby at the end of the war, and due to unforeseen circumstances she was forced to carry the baby to term on her own. At her mother’s insistence, she has put the child up for adoption though she quickly regrets it. A year or two later Susan has married a legal eagle named Bill (Leif Erickson). They have a strong marriage; however, Susan discovers she is unable to have any more children which causes more regret about not keeping her son.

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Neal gets the middle section of the film, which is slightly less than half hour. About 25 minutes is devoted to her character’s story arc. She plays Phyllis Horn, a career woman who in flashback is getting a divorce from a likable fellow named Bob (played by Frank Lovejoy). Just as the divorce has become final, Phyllis learns she’s pregnant. But she doesn’t tell Bob about it, since he’s already moved on with another woman.

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Phyllis gives up the baby because there’s no way to reconcile with her ex-husband; plus she feels raising a child might interfere with her job as a globe trotting reporter. This character could easily have been played by Katharine Hepburn, and sometimes I thought Ms. Neal was channeling Ms. Hepburn, to be honest. She’s the least maternal character of the three.

Roman’s arc begins around the one-hour mark, and she only gets 20 minutes, because the storytellers are reserving the last ten to fifteen minutes for the boy’s heroic rescue and the revelation about which one is the kid’s mother. But I have to say Ruth Roman really, and I do mean really, makes the most of her screen time.

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It occurred to me that she may be the most skilled of the three actresses in melodrama, because she teared up the quickest in her scenes and you could feel the gut-wrenching anguish and just how tormented her character’s life was. Arguably, she had the juiciest story to play because her character Ann Lawrence shoots a no-good lover (John Dehner), gets imprisoned, has the baby while in prison, and has the baby taken away from her. The murder scene was fantastically staged, lit and played. Kudos to Ms. Roman, director Robert Wise and cinematographer Sid Hickox for nailing it.

In addition to the casting we have a gimmicky story that works beautifully. I say gimmicky because it’s obvious the screenwriters had seen A LETTER TO THREE WIVES and were inspired by it.

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But this story is not about a cheating spouse…it’s about an adoption. The two films are similar in that we must wait till the end for the mystery to be resolved and we have three protagonists whose backstories are revealed in extended flashbacks. I would say, however, that THREE SECRETS is a more effective melodrama because I think when you put a child, especially a helpless child, into the scenario, it’s a lot more dramatic and emotional. The viewers can invest in a boy being reunited with his mother a bit more than a woman finding out if her husband was unfaithful. 

The editing is smooth, and there isn’t one wasted shot or one wasted moment. Lesser filmmakers would have dragged this out over two hours, but Wise keeps it humming along and fits all the drama into a most compact 98 minutes.

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He even manages to insert a bit of semi-documentary stuff that gives us a slight break from the melodrama, between Parker’s arc and Neal’s arc. We see reporters at the rescue sight leading us through some of the steps that volunteers and various officials undertake to reach the boy who is stuck on a ledge up along a mountain. I am sure a modern filmmaker, if he or she were to remake this story, would leave out most of the reportage but I find it valuable. It infuses a tale that could be otherwise over-the-top with some much needed realism.

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Jlewis:

Once again, we get the all familiar Warner Brothers shield (a co-production with United States Pictures) and that thundering Max Steiner-ish score (but with David Buttolph doing principal music), followed by the billing of three prominent ladies under contract with this studio. Patricia Neal a.k.a. Phyllis Horn needs no introduction to movie fans but the younger generation may still not be familiar with her unless they caught Paul Newman’s HUD on TV.

Eleanor Parker a.k.a. Susan Chase was later famous as the Baroness from Vienna whom every SOUND OF MUSIC fan hisses at and, intriguingly, Robert Wise directs her in both movies. Third lady of our trio is the less famous Ruth Roman a.k.a. Ann Lawrence, who would start work in Alfred Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON THE TRAIN nine months after finishing this one. Principal photography was mostly done in the final two months of 1949 and inspired by the Kathy Fiscus case making news at that time.

Frank Lovejoy a.k.a. Bob Duffy get a prominent listing above the supporting cast, being a favorite radio “voice” of mine in so many audio classics of that era. A bit wooden as an onscreen presence though. I should also add that the IMDb.com site reveals many blink and you miss extras of Hollywood legend here, from silent movie comedy star Billy Bevin to other famous radio voice greats like Eleanor Audley (a.k.a. the evil stepmother Lady Tremaine in Walt Disney’s CINDERELLA and the even more evil Malificent in SLEEPING BEAUTY), Willard Wallerman (the second Gildersleeve and hilarious in AUNTIE MAME) and John Dehner (who also did Disney voices on occasion but later became familiar in TV shows).

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An airplane crash starts us in the proper melodrama frame of mind. Before it happens, a cute tyke (Duncan Richardson) comments that the clouds “look like milk.” Can we get we get any more adorable here without suffering tooth decay? The plot here involves three mommies in question ready to claim this supposed orphan named Johnny Peterson, a “tough little son of a gun” who survives. You see, all three were pregnant five years ago and gave up their baby up for adoption. Plus Frank Lovejoy’s Bob was previously married to Phyllis but they divorced and he remarried just before she had the child, so he is a prospective daddy here as well.

Since kids being born out of wedlock or post-divorce were a big thing back then, with the Production Code making it an even bigger “thing” in the movies, we get our title from the fact that these women are initially keeping secrets regarding that all important birthday of September 15, 1944.

How all of them can remember the exact day so quickly and so accurately is an interesting situation in itself, plus Phyllis instantly recognizing Susan when the two meet again five years later after their mutual visit to the adoption agency. We must consider that all important “Hollywood license” that doesn’t quite match everyday real life. Yes, yes…I know. It is possible that all of these ladies have razor sharp memories and even kept diary notes.

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Edmon Ryan plays Hardin, a “hard” hitting newspaper reporter who pushes the plot forward, one with a past that includes Phyllis in the same profession. Then we have the whole rescue-the-child mission involving the Sierra Club of mountain climbers adding an adventure element to our story, including a rock avalanche impeding the rescue mission. This setting becomes the locale where each woman arrives and meets the others.

Like other women’s pictures of the postwar period, we get flashbacks done in sets of three. (Perhaps the most famous example to compare here is A LETTER TO THREE WIVES, done by rival studio 20th Century Fox.) When Susan hears the news of the crash on the radio, she instantly remembers (right on cue!) and we flashback to her story as she says a sobbing goodbye to her soldier boyfriend. He may not die in combat overseas, but…gulp!…he tells her “there’s someone else.” Fortunately mommy (Katherine Warren playing Mrs, Conners) does not judge her, encouraging her to give the baby up for adoption and getting over her “mistake.”

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Years later, she is ready to marry again, but must settle this baby situation first since it seems likely that she can not have any more with her new husband (Leif Erikson as Bill Chase).

Phyllis is the sophisticated one, dressed in her shape-shifting leopard spots when we first see her. A newspaper reporter, she is probably less conservative in her values system than Susan and, therefore, less ashamed and secretive about it. She and Susan have a chance meeting at the adoption agency in 1944 and the two meet again at the Sierras site…with Phyliis recognizing Susan instantly. Of course!

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Phyllis was initially married at the time she started on-the-nest and was busy as a war correspondent, a great career woman before such were fashionable. Keep in mind that, by 1949-50, many ladies were returning to the kitchen and nursery, often with great disappointment and disgust…and I do detect a certain negative vibe by the screenwriters regarding Phyllis being unsuccessful managing both career and wifely duties. Nonetheless Bob is hardly one we should side with here in the way he dumps her. “I happen to be a sentimental guy that comes from a family of twelve. I get lonesome when there are eleven people around…and even one.”

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Both Susan and Phyllis bond well with each other. Then Anne enters the picture. She staggers into the media arena as a drunk and gives the meatiest performance among the trio. Her story contrasts with the two “little maids who lost their way” and differs in that she actually narrates it for both screen and her listeners present. As is usual, these women don’t just have sex for the fun of it. They “fall in love” with men who don’t love them back, those awful heals. In Ann’s case, the heal is a wealthy business man who is insidious in the way he makes her get lost and she is involved in his death, partly by accident. Poor Ann has her child while serving time in prison! (Ted de Corsia plays her dance agent Del Prince.)

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Won’t spoil the (happy, if still very deceptive) ending, but you can kind of guess early on who is the real mother and who winds up with the boy regardless. While this is not a particularly great movie, it is still a highly entertaining potboiler and, like all Warner features of the era, delightfully lays the orchestration on pretty thick so that you are fully and emotionally invested.

Also I love how the studio productions of the era often recycled sets: Susan’s house being the same one that Joe McDoakes (George O’Hanlon) often used in those wonderful Warner shorties that alternated with Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies before the main WB feature in your local theater. Also it looks like some of the Sierra footage was yanked from earlier features like HIGH SIERRA as well.

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On 4/1/2021 at 1:36 AM, cinemaman said:

I'm  looking  forward  to  your  review  of  The  Stepford  Wives.  I  have  the  dvd   and  recently  watched  the  movie. Katharine  Ross,  Paula  Prentiss  Nanette  Newman  and  Tina  Louise  give  very  good  performances   in  this movie.

Not to jump too far ahead, but I have always enjoyed it in my three or so viewings over the decades. It has its story-line flaws (for example, I find it strange that the kids aren't as observant of "something strange going on" as Mommy is), but it is such a fun relic of seventies cinema. Today the whole happy housewife premise may seem quaint since so much has changed in the world, especially now that we have a female vice president, but it reminds me a lot (as I will mention in my own comments) of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Both share a phobia about the dangers of conformity: people in a community trying to be just like everybody else. One interesting story angle that is especially relevant for today is that the head of the "Men's Society" is owner of a biochemical company that may be polluting the local water. This can be read as a reference to the way so many of us today are addicted to prescription drugs (and the medical industries are making quite a profit from it) and may be quite robotic in our own behavior at times. Even if this movie is not a "great" one that is considered a classic, it is still a great one to discuss because there is so much material in the story premise to start conversations about ourselves and the society we live in.

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