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Essential: THE BIRDS (1963)

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TopBilled:

A lot of Alfred Hitchcock’s films are overanalyzed. This one especially. I don’t want to go the obvious route and discuss Tippi Hedren’s character, Melanie Daniels, in feminist terms. There are plenty of scholars who have already done that. They endlessly describe Melanie’s hysteria in the movie. These same scholars also describe Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) as a man surrounded by high strung women.

Quite frankly, this type of analysis can be tedious. It could be done with any film that has a memorable heroine. Any film in which the hero is defined by the women in his life– girlfriends, wives and mothers.

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Jessica Tandy plays the matriarch in THE BIRDS, and in some ways she pulls our attention away from Hedren. Not sure if that’s because the script gives her a slight advantage, or because Tandy was ten times the actress that Hedren is. At any rate, Tandy’s commanding presence makes us sit up and take notice.

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Evan Hunter’s screenplay does a good job fleshing out the character of Lydia Brenner, so we glimpse what type of maternal hold she has over Mitch. It is a mother-son dynamic that is carried over from previous Hitchcock features.

In STRANGERS ON A TRAIN Marion Lorne’s society matron indulges bad seed Bruno (Robert Walker)– all the doting, fussing and hand wringing in the world is not going to save him. A decade later in PSYCHO, the mother is physically absent (unless you count her mummified corpse), but Mrs. Bates still haunts the proceedings. She is unable to bring Norman (Anthony Perkins) back from the dark side. In fact, it could be argued that she is pushing him towards the dark side.

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In THE BIRDS Lydia is a judgmental fixture in the life of her son and by extension, she is a part of his love life, approving or disapproving each choice he makes. Tandy plays her straightforward– not as a comic archetype the way Lorne does in the earlier Hitchcock movie– so we take this woman seriously. She hovers over what happens in their seaside community as if she’s the queen bird.

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Some critics make a big deal out of the birds representing nature and how the mood of the birds is supposed to reflect the moods of the main human characters. But let me ask you something. If you and I went into a jungle and a lion attacked everything in site, would that necessarily represent my mood or your mood? I doubt it. If anything, what the animal is doing would create a specific mood in us, as we would be reacting and trying to flee such a dangerous situation. And that’s what happens in this movie.

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I also find it interesting that people had to ask Hitchcock in interviews after the film was released, what the birds symbolized. They couldn’t figure it out for themselves? Why not let the birds symbolize whatever you want them to symbolize. Or let the birds just be one big MacGuffin, an essentially meaningless plot device that propels the story forward and gives it a strange sense of cohesion.

I won’t go into the sound effects, which are generally convincing. But I would like to mention the editing. In film school, we examined scenes where Hitchcock creates a sense of identification with the characters by giving us a variety of subjective camera angles. He also uses wide angles to connect the people to their environment.

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I find these shots to be excessive and gimmicky. However, what I do find interesting is the fact that Hitchcock devised a mathematical formula when making THE BIRDS. He wanted to figure out how many seconds each shot should last during the story’s most dramatic montages, in order to build suspense.

Without some of Hitchcock’s cinematic experiments, his films might quite boring. But as it is, THE BIRDS is a real scream.

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Essential: THE BIRDS (1963)

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Jlewis:

Today we remember this as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s blockbusters and a key precursor to the fanatical Nature’s Fury cycle of the 1970s (a.k.a. WILLARD, NIGHT OF THE LEPUS, JAWS, FOOD OF THE GODS, ORCA, KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS, etc.). Yet it also enjoyed a fruitful life during the decade leading up to the cameras rolling on the Universal-International lot.

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Daphne du Maurier, who previously provided Hitch with JAMAICA INN and REBECCA as original source material, published this as a short story within The Apple Tree: A short novel and some stories for Victor Gollancz Ltd in the UK.

This was 1952 and it only took a year for America to receive the first of two popular radio adaptations: the hour-long Lux Radio Theater aired on CBS on July 20, 1953 (listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMHwlqrnsgI ) with Herbert Marshall and Betty Lou Gerson as stars.

I personally favor the shorter half hour episode of Escape that succeeded it on July 10, 1954, even if Ben Wright and Paul Frees may be less fun to listen to than Herbert Marshall. It cuts to the chase, features the great state-of-the-art sound effects that the anthology series was famous for and is less preachy. (You can sample it too here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PK99w-4ctAc )

The great Tiffany network also covered it a third time, but for television as part of Danger on May 31, 1955. Sadly, this is one of those lost episodes that we cannot revisit, being a live broadcast with, in my guess, more primitive special effects work than the movie. Maybe it will some day be rediscovered on some old kinescope?

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Daphne du Maurier supposedly disliked the movie, probably due to all of the changes that screenwriter Evan Hunter made with it. It is also quite Americanized, but I personally feel that the setting chosen, Bodego Bay in California, is still a good enough facsimile to Cornwall in ol’ England. In addition, a few supporting players sport British-like accents, with at least one actually from there: Ethel Griffies playing the daffy ornithologist “Mrs.” Bundy. The primary male lead, Rod Taylor, was an Australian who had always been successful moderating his accent.

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There is no denying that it is a visual feast, making great use of Ub Iwerks’ then revolutionary sodium vapor process (employed in Disney’s DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE). This allowed images of humans and the almighty feathered together in the same frame despite being shot with separate cameras at different times. Today we can see the outlines and color changes between carefully matted images much more distinctly than most ’60s audiences at the time because we are now accustomed to computer generated imagery.

Then again, not all of the effects were created in the camera or in post-production. There were some birds who performed alongside the star actress herself and, despite her own future as an animal rights activist, they were hardly friendly towards her. It was as if somebody else was directing their behavior on some subconscious level.

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Hitch was the master director, but he wasn’t always the nicest man to work with and could be quite devious. Star Tippi Hedren bonded about as well with him as hot oil with water, unlike a number of other blonde bombshells gracing the Hitch filmography. She claimed in later years that he made unwanted advances on her and, after her rejections, he tried to ruin her career. (Tippi’s daughter Melanie Griffith also had a tale to tell as well regarding a meeting with Hitch as a child.)

Now…we won’t go into all of the gossip here, but it is interesting to note just how eager he was to cast Grace Kelly in his next feature MARNIE over Tippi but, as expected, the Princess of Monaco couldn’t oblige on account of her royal duties.

As soon as filming started in March of 1962, the press was all over the production like the crows invading the children monkey bars outside the one room school-house as Tippi smokes her cigarettes. Although no mention was made of any possible conflicts between director and star, there was still some gentle teasing regarding the two.

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As if mysteriously paid by one of her agents, Tippi was dubbed the new “Grace Kelly” (imagine that!) on the December 4, 1962 cover of Look. An ominous raven tries to conceal her face with its all-black wings in some attempt to bring her smug look down some notches. Later, a smiling Hitch appeared with very docile (for him, that is!) pet crows on the Life magazine cover of February 1, 1963; his arms are stretched with a fittingly “What me worry?” look of innocence that resembled that other famous Alfred, Alfred E. Neuman, but still reminding us all of just-who-is-in-charge.

Thinking of all of this, however, makes it a fun viewing. Remember how we all were teased back in PSYCHO about Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his love of stuffed birds. “I think only birds look well stuffed because they are rather passive to begin with.” Or so we think until this next film proved otherwise.

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THE BIRDS may be regarded as a highly influential horror piece, impacting the zombie genre as well as animals-on-revenge pieces of later years, but it is also a bit dated and even occasionally dull. Not only are the special effects a bit old-hat, but also the overall sense of realism. Characters behave in typical Hollywood fashion and, despite her bloody head wounds, Tippi’s makeup foundation and hair-do is flawless throughout.

Aside from the unprovoked attacks coming from gulls, sparrows and crows (with gulls and crows all together in our climactic end-of-the-human-world apocalypse scene but not much happening with the two lovebirds in the cage), we get the standard 1950s (in a ’60s film) boy meets girl fluff.

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Rod Taylor’s Mitch Brenner is a lawyer who works weekdays in San Francisco but lives in coastal Bodego Bay with his much, much younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) and an over protective and widowed mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy, who curiously sounds almost as British here as Ethel Griffies).

A past love interest of Mitch’s, Suzanne Pleshette’s Annie Hayworth, lives in that town as a school teacher just to be near him. Since we know right away Tippi’s Melanie Daniels is the woman who is Mitch’s primary interest now and not Annie, it is obvious which lady gets her eyes pecked out in a gruesome ambush. Fortunately we don’t see that aftermath in graphic detail like we do the lonely farmer’s, a disaster that traumatizes Lydia.

Melanie as a character is introduced as the wealthy daughter of a newspaper tycoon whose rival at another newspaper often pinned negative tall tales about her in its “yellow” print.

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Thus, Mitch claims he knows “all about her” when he first meets Melanie at a San Francisco pet shop and misjudges her at first. Yet the usual romance unfolds, under the great drama of birds-on-the-attack.

One of the townspeople question if “she” is responsible for all of the avian atrocities since they first happen with her in a rowboat. The message here is that one must not judge strangers too harshly, even in a small town where everybody seems to know where everybody else lives. Eventually Lydia accepts Melanie despite being a bit distant at first, since all of them share a wartime experience (with birds if not other humans) that brings them together.

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Being that we have focused on Tandy lately, I should say she does an adequate job with such a limited role. Her husband Hume Cronyn was a friend and occasional performer for Hitch, but curiously she didn’t appear in other Hitch theatrical films, although she did make three appearances on his TV show.

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At some point I need to check out the trio of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS episodes that Jessica appeared in: "Toby", "The Glass Eye" and "The Canary Sedan". Maybe because this film has already been over-analyzed to death, the TV shows might have been an even more intriguing option?

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3 minutes ago, Jlewis said:

At some point I need to check out the trio of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS episodes that Jessica appeared in: "Toby", "The Glass Eye" and "The Canary Sedan". Maybe because this film has already been over-analyzed to death, the TV shows might have been a more interesting option?

I've seen "Toby" on Hulu, which has episodes from the first three or four seasons of AHP. If I recall correctly, Toby is the name of a cat. And Tandy's character, a lonely woman, is obsessed with the cat. It's not bad, but because it was shot mostly on a TV studio sound stage, it is very limited in terms of sets.

One thing I wanted to add about Tandy's husband Hume Cronyn-- he worked not only as an actor for Hitchcock, but also as a writer. He came up with the story for ROPE and he wrote the adaptation for UNDER CAPRICORN.

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Essential: DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989)

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TopBilled:

I saw this film in one of the libraries at the University of Southern California. I was attending film school in the mid-90s, and an Israeli girl I knew was finalizing a deal with an independent production company to finance a new movie. She was a big fan of NOBODY’S FOOL (1994) which was Jessica Tandy’s last screen role. 

If I was going to write a screenplay that my Israeli friend could produce, I would probably need to write an elderly character like the kind Tandy often played at that time. These characters struck a chord with people.

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As part of my research, I watched DRIVING MISS DAISY. My first “exposure” to the film was back in early 1990, when my grandparents went to see it at a suburban movie theater outside Chicago.

I have to tell you a bit about my grandparents. My grandmother grew up in a well-to-do family during the Depression but married ‘down.’ She always had an air about her, and this wasn’t just reserved for her in-laws, but for others in her peer group that she felt were beneath her.

After my grandparents saw DRIVING MISS DAISY, they came home to tell me and my aunt about it. However, my grandmother’s comments were more about the other people in the audience. She marveled at how many of them were in walkers and wheelchairs, I guess because she thought they were largely confined to nursing homes, unlike her! 

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The film, which went on to earn the Oscar for Best Picture, appealed to a 60+ demographic. It earned well over $100 million, in 1990 dollars. No small accomplishment. Was DRIVING MISS DAISY an old folks movie? For a certain generation that identified with the story, it probably was. At any rate, I hope my grandmother enjoyed the movie although I cannot be certain, since for her it was more a chance to gawk at other moviegoers. 

As I was reading up on the film this week, I looked at Roger Ebert’s review which is a bit of a time capsule itself. Ebert references my other favorite critic Pauline Kael, describing how much Kael loved Morgan Freeman.

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Freeman made three very different films in 1989. In addition to playing Hoke the dependable chauffeur of Miss Daisy, he also played a high school principal in LEAN ON ME; and he was a grave digger turned soldier in GLORY. A versatile performer to be sure.

Ebert tells us that Tandy gives the performance of a lifetime, which I don’t quite agree with (yes, she earned an Oscar)…but I think her best performance is in A WOMAN’S VENGEANCE which we already covered earlier this month. She does a wonderful job nonetheless.

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One thing Ebert said which I agree with 150%– details about Daisy, Hoke and Daisy’s son (Dan Aykroyd) are conveyed through gestures and subtle actions, not usually through any specific dialogue. It’s a drama you have to keep focused on, or else you miss some of the meaning that is conveyed without words.

Besides the wins for Best Picture and Best Actress, the film earned plaudits for makeup and for Alfred Uhry’s screenplay, which he adapted from his off-Broadway play. Some trivia here…Dana Ivey was the original Daisy in the first stage production. The role had also been played by Julie Harris on tour, and by Wendy Hiller in London.

In 2010 the play was revived, and that time Vanessa Redgrave was Daisy. As for Hoke, Morgan Freeman originated the role in the first stage production; Brock Peters played the character on tour; and James Earl Jones was Hoke in the revival with Redgrave. There was even an Australian mounting of the play, which starred Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones. 

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Going back to my grandparents…my grandmother never learned to drive. My grandfather shuttled her around their Chicago neighborhood, from boutiques to beauty salons to restaurants and back home. Oh yes, and occasionally to the movie theater.

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Jlewis:

This Best Picture winner, directed by Bruce Beresford (who failed to get nominated himself) and produced by the legendary ex-Fox executive and successful Steven Spielberg backer Richard D. Zanuck for Warner Brothers, does not get much love and respect these days. Then again, few Best Picture winners do after the awards are dished out since nobody can agree on what deserves an award. In the spring of 1990, this was up against FIELD OF DREAMS and MY LEFT FOOT, along with the (strictly my opinion) lesser DEAD POETS SOCIETY and BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY.

Not making the top category cut were such memorable titles as GLORY (which some feel has the better Morgan Freeman performance, but gave Denzel Washington his first win), HENRY V (the memorable Kenneth Branagh version we’ve covered), THE LITTLE MERMAID (what millennial has not seen it on VHS or that all new format of DVD as a kid?), DO THE RIGHT THING (Spike Lee’s anti-DRIVING MISS DAISY), WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (only nominated for original screenplay and nothing else) and even the constant TV broadcast favorite STEEL MAGNOLIAS (which nonetheless earned a nomination for Julia Roberts at the start of her box-office rise to fame).

Most films reflect their age, improving like fine wine or smelling like spoiled milk and more often being a combination of both. Fortunately this one has never received the kind of backlash that AMERICAN BEAUTY, the big Oscar winner a decade later, received after the Kevin Spacey controversies during the #MeToo movement, but it does provide some comparison to more widely loved winners such as GONE WITH THE WIND, suffering a bit in the wake of Black Lives Matter, and MIDNIGHT COWBOY which, despite being made by a then-closeted director who later tackled SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY, does reflect the pre-Pride era in its casual use of three and six letter F-words spoken by the lead (and supposedly heterosexual) characters.

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In regards to DRIVING MISS DAISY, it depicts a very accurate, honest and straightforward portrait of a typical inter-racial (non-sexual, of course) relationship between Jessica Tandy’s Daisy Werthen and Morgan Freeman’s uneducated, rural farm raised Hoke Colburn.

The setting is a Georgia undergoing dramatic changes between the years of 1948 and 1973. Dan Aykroyd’s Boolie decides that his mother needs a chauffeur after she drives the Hudson into the neighbor’s yard and she objects to this while constantly declaring ”I am not prejudiced.” However, the last scene at a nursing home where a 97 year old Daisy talks to Hoke one last time, we see her display a far closer bond with him than with her own son. (Curiously her late husband is never discussed despite a visit to his grave.)

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Now…some viewers in 1989 may have disliked it for being too antiquated and congenial. Viewers of 2021 are often harsher. Morgan’s Hoke puts up with a lot without complaining here, despite how Daisy initially treats him. In one scene, he just grumbles about how ”things are not changing fast enough” (paraphrasing here) outside of Daisy’s ear-range as he caters to her attending a Martin Luther King dinner speech that she did not invite him to.

Most modern viewers would expect him to say that to her face so that she will be forced to respond. Instead she continues to operate as if she did nothing wrong. Yet I must ask these key questions to all viewers: Is it better to just present people in the past acting the way they did and not necessarily the way we wanted them to? Or should they always ”own up to it” on screen so that all viewers are encouraged not to behave the same?

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Remember that we ourselves can not change our own actions in the past or the actions of those long deceased. I feel that this movie presents the past as it was rather than the way we wished it to be, but fully understands why this is often accused of being ”rose colored” for not criticizing the social norms of the past as much as it should.

Likewise, we can equally criticize how Boolie hardly ages on screen and looks to be in good health, despite his jokes at his ”Man of the Year” acceptance speech. Yet he is constantly smoking cigarettes as so many workaholic mill owner businessmen did back then and died an early age as a result. Even Betty Draper in Mad Men, if not her ex-husband, suffers the consequences with lung cancer.

It should be noted, despite her own wealth and nice living conditions, Daisy is occasionally a victim of her times, namely the antisemitism of a post-war America that should have known better post-Holocaust.

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A bigoted Alabama cop in a 1956 scene critiques Daisy for being Jewish just as he also comments on the one driving her. A decade later, her synagogue gets bombed and Hoke has to explain to her that it is always ”the same people” regardless and begins to tell her his own childhood experiences that were far worse than hers, as she still remains baffled over ”who would do such a thing?”

Daisy is a very polarizing character much like Shirley MacLaine’s Aurora in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT. You either relate to her or hate her for being so stubbornly strong willed. I personally had relatives, long deceased now, that resemble her quite a bit and I don’t necessarily view them all that harshly in hindsight. People are people dealing with the times they are living in, for better and for worse.

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I love how her house remains fairly constant in its furniture and antiques through the decades depicted, as if it is her little bubble she can retreat to when not coping well with the outside world. After an emotional breakdown when she confuses the past with the present (thinking she is still a school teacher in the 1890s-early 1900s), but soon acknowledges that Hoke is her best friend, you just know that call that he made to Boolie will not end with a positive outcome.

To be fair, Boolie tries his best to be a good son. He does care about his mother, despite never having enough time to deal with her, and tries his best to express affection for her in the way he is often kissing her on the forehead. Unfortunately, he is seldom as honest with her as Hoke often is. She is forced to go to the nursing home and lose control over her life, which results in obvious bitterness towards Boolie right to the end when she tells him to go flirt with the nurses.

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Boolie’s wife Florine (Patti LuPone) is especially fake in her over eager enthusiasm when talking to Daisy. Yes, I have known many people who behave like her, overly praising me in a way that I don’t quite buy as genuine. Daisy’s constant grumbling about her is pretty accurate, since we get that classic scene of Florine yelling at the hired help on Christmas, a non-Jewish holiday she accepts in order to fit in with Georgia high society, over the silly lack of coconut in the kitchen. This is more reflective of the real Florine that Daisy can see quite well enough with her radar vision.

I should note Esther Rolle’s supporting performance as Idella the cook and housekeeper, who dies suddenly of a heart attack while watching daytime soaps on TV. However she isn’t as interesting to me as Hoke since we only get a hint at her life outside of her job here, mostly in the large turnout at her funeral resembling Annie’s in IMITATION OF LIFE. It is a minor performance that doesn’t amount to much, but she does it well enough, portraying a stubborn woman who mirrors Daisy in her acceptance of the way things are without fighting the system.

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I noted a few anachronisms in FRIED GREEN TOMATOES and saw a few little ones here too, but must still praise this production for its very keen attention to detail and getting so much of it correct history-wise. For example, a clever set of eyes can detect a few eighties model cars…out of focus, of course…in a few car-window shots here and there. This was made before computer generated imagery was done on a more routine basis to fix errors camera crews made.

My main criticism after viewing it multiple times since its release to theaters is that the story often just meanders in a series of sometimes unrelated episodes, without the strong enough threads connecting it all. Would I have liked more backstory on her late husband or discussions of Boolie’s childhood to understand the family dynamics better? Probably.

This is all about a person who was born in the Old South of 1876 and how she reacts to the changing times during the final decades of her life. Personally I feel Jessica pulls it off rather well in her Oscar winning performance. After all, it is her name and not anybody else that is featured in the main title.

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Just wanted to mention that on Tuesday September 28th, TCM is airing THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED which we've reviewed on this thread. Times shown are Eastern Standard Time.

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Coming Up in October:

claude rains at universal

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October 2

THE MAN WHO RECLAIMED HIS HEAD (1934)

October 9

THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)

October 16

THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD (1935)

October 23

THE WOLF MAN (1941)

October 30

PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943)

 

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Essential: THE MAN WHO RECLAIMED HIS HEAD (1934)

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TopBilled:

I guess if I were to schedule this title at a film festival I would run it alongside ALL MY SONS (1948), the post WWII melodrama based on a work by Arthur Miller. In that one, Edward G. Robinson stars as an American businessman who profits from selling munitions during the war. His actions lead to the deaths of young men from his community who had gone off to serve. Robinson’s character becomes estranged from his son (Burt Lancaster) and by the end of the movie has been sufficiently confronted, made to feel sufficiently guilty and has sufficiently unraveled.

We have another man unraveling in THE MAN WHO RECLAIMED HIS HEAD. This time it is a Frenchman named Paul Verin, portrayed by Claude Rains.

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He starts as a peace-loving writer who inevitably becomes involved in the battles of WWI. Paul is by his very nature a pacifist, and I suspect in his most innocent phase, represented the idealism and anti-war sentiment espoused by scenarist Jean Bart. Bart’s play in three acts and sixteen scenes ran on Broadway during the autumn months of 1932 with Rains in the lead role. Rains was so invested in the story that he persuaded the executives at Universal to purchase the property for him and adapt it to the screen.

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As the tale unfolds we learn that Paul Verin had written essays about the importance of remaining neutral. However, he has been duped by a publisher, Henry Dumont (Lionel Atwill), who is in actuality a warmonger unbeknownst to Paul. This seems conveniently ironic but here we get the crux of the drama, and Paul’s own inner conflicts escalate when he learns he’s been “betrayed” by Dumont. It drives him mad.

A subplot involves Paul’s wife Adele— played by Jean Arthur on Broadway and by a blonde Joan Bennett in the film. Adele is an ornamental social climber who pushes Paul to achieve financial success so she can escape poverty.

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She has a relationship with Dumont which on some level is over emphasized, so we can side with Paul even more and sympathize when he’s in the throes of madness. There is considerable hammering home that Paul’s been betrayed by Dumont. Plenty of reason for him to exact revenge in a most spectacular fashion.

There is some debate about whether this is a true horror film, though it does have dark tones and atmospheric touches that border on the horrific. The carnage of war carries over into Paul’s personal life and builds to a shocking final scene that is hinted at in the beginning.

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Only Rains can project such pathos on to the audience in such a commanding yet disturbing way. As we shall see this month, looking at the five different horror-tinged films that Rains made at Universal, he is a performer who mixes raw terror with virtuoso emotionalism.

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Jlewis:

A straight-forward drama with pacifist themes, this was made a few years after the success Universal had with ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and reflected the mood of the times. “What’s a war for, papa?” asks a four year old to daddy. “It is not for you, my sweet.” In 1934, Americans were doing their best to avoid all of the rising troubles in Europe, Depression-wise and rise-of-fascism-wise.

Perhaps because it dwelt with serious political issues and was rather downbeat (with violin heavy orchestration to make it especially doom and gloom), it was not one of Claude Rains’ more successful efforts during his early career. The original play he also appeared in was equally unsuccessful but still bought by the studio with a certain optimism for success. Yet most average moviegoers favored their movie entertainment to be uplifting escapist entertainment.

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It teams Rains with Joan Bennett and Lionel Atwill, the latter a talented actor who is more infamous today for his wild sex life as referenced in Kenneth Anger’s two Hollywood Babylon books (but was it really, compared to today’s generation?). Claude plays Paul Verin, married to Joan’s ambitious we-deserve-a-better-life Adele (i.e. she influencing him to get jobs he is not emotionally committed to just so that she can keep up with the swells) and both parents to a cute-pie girl (Juanita Quigley, also appearing as Claudette Colbert’s daughter in the popular IMITATION OF LIFE at this time).

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Atwill is a successful French politician Henri Dumont who hires Paul to write anti-war articles in the early 1910s and, curiously, Paul is OK not receiving credit for them. He is also tolerant of his wife spending extra time with his boss to the opera and other places instead of being dedicated to her wifely and motherly duties. After all, Paul is more concerned about her happiness than his.

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Then greedy arms dealers get both the politician and his ghost writer to swing the opposite way against their inner consciousness.

The title is not to be taken literally. This is not THE INCREDIBLE 2-HEADED TRANSPLANT. Well…maybe there’s a little touch of it if we read between the lines in the final scene. Paul loses his “head,” regaining it later, by agreeing to be manipulated by others just like his politician boss. The story is a surprisingly modern…and most cynical…one if we look at the current situation in Washington D.C. these days with so many in Congress dedicated more to their donors than serving the people who voted for them. Back in the 1930s, films like this and MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON were very critical of this kind of “bought by others” legislation, but these days you rarely see such films being made for, well, rather obvious reasons.

This is a story told within a story, a popular genre that peaked in the thirties and forties but only regained popularity during the FRIED GREEN TOMATOES and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION era. Paul tells it all to his childhood friend, now a lawyer, Fernand de Marnay (Henry O’Neill) in a bombed out Paris setting of 1915. He is now a criminal on the run and must give himself in for an act of madness.

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Overall, this whole production is a tad too lightweight for my tastes, but I love the film’s noir-ish and occasionally gothic lighting by Merritt B. Gerstad. Makes it all look more like a horror movie than the standard weepie drama it is. Love the brief scene of the little girl walking down a dark stairway even though it serves little purpose to the plot.

Not sure what exactly director Edward Ludwig and screenwriters Jean Bart and Samuel Ornitz were trying to achieve here, except to make this some kind of showcase for Claude’s dramatic talents…and it is. Claude is at his best making little speeches of great emotional conviction, like the one confronting his boss on the eve of war in 1914. It is a scene featuring “La Marseillaise” in the background, but played in a rather different context than in the much more famous Claude Rains film of 12 years later, CASABLANCA: the French people being depicted here are much more willing to go to war than merely get pushed into it.

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Oh…and Claude always makes the perfect doting daddy to little Juanita’s Lynette.

I won’t reveal what happens in the dramatic climax, which gives Claude’s Paul the chance to go…mad. There is one gruesome element that is suggested by the “satchel” Paul carries with him to his lawyer, which the film-makers leave up the viewers’ imaginations.

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Essential: THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)

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THE INVISIBLE MAN is probably among the top three Claude Rains films. The other two being CASABLANCA and NOTORIOUS. It was Rains’ Hollywood debut, however it was not his first motion picture which has often been erroneously reported. He had been in a silent British film in 1920, eighth-billed. During the thirteen year gap, he concentrated primarily on stage work in Britain before emigrating to the U.S.

He is superb in Universal’s THE INVISIBLE MAN. It is a role where he must rely almost entirely on his voice and the ability to bring a character to life without using his body. Fortunately Rains has the type of voice that lends itself to the imagination and it’s rather easy to envision Dr. Jack Griffin even if he is invisible.

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The screenplay by R.C. Sherriff is of course based upon H.G. Wells’ novel, first published in 1897. Interestingly, it took over 35 years for anyone to “picturize” Wells’ classic but luckily these duties were eventually taken on by director James Whale. Whale had previously directed a film based on one of Sherriff’s most successful plays, JOURNEY’S END. And after the resounding success of THE INVISIBLE MAN, they’d collaborate on two more motion pictures– ONE MORE RIVER in 1934; and THE ROAD BACK in 1937; both at Universal where Whale was basically a ‘house’ director.

Speaking of houses, Whale had previously helmed the memorable horror-comedy THE OLD DARK HOUSE in 1932 which featured Gloria Stuart. She is also in THE INVISIBLE MAN as the love interest. Critic Pauline Kael uses words like bosomy and fleshy to describe Stuart, which is somewhat ironic since our lead character is not visible and is fleshless.

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In order to convey Griffin’s fleshless qualities but still give him some semblance of a human form, we have him wrapped in clothing and bandages. His unique physicality, along with Rains’ voice, convinces us he’s real even if the overall situation is unreal. Griffin’s goal, per Wells, is to be able to go anywhere undetected and to sell his secret formula to a government leader who might use invisible armies to conquer the world. It’s a notable concept, and Wells identifies the secret formula as monocane. I should point out that there is a drug called monocaine which is an anesthetic.

The fictitious drug in Wells’ story not only causes invisibility but also aggression and madness. Rains is at his most masterful in “showing” us what a megalomaniac Griffin becomes as he unravels (pun intended).

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Universal produced a sequel, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, in 1940. That time Vincent Price took over the lead role. Directorial chores were handed to someone else, since Whale’s career was winding down. But John P. Fulton, who devised most of the witty effects of the original, returned to provide more special effects. And although the sequel lacked the freshness of the original, there was still enough interest among moviegoers that Universal made several more Invisible films (six altogether). Also, Universal remade the original in 2020.

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Jlewis:

Jennifer Jessica Rains, the successful actress daughter of Claude Rains, recalled in a backstory documentary about the time her dad took her to a revival showing of this 1933 masterpiece in Downingtown, Pennsylvania circa 1948 and spent much of the running time explaining to her how each of the wonderful visual effects were done.

He also told her how claustrophobic he was when they made that skeletal cast of his face for the final scene, being a WW1 veteran with haunting gas related experiences (and ultimately losing much of the vision in one eye).

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Of course, it did not take long before other attendees at the showing to notice that a voice among them in the dark matched the ominous one they heard on screen! Earlier, the theater owner recognized him instantly and begged him not to pay for his ticket.

It takes a great voice to make such an, ahem, invisible performance stand out. Small surprise that Vincent Price, equally famous for his voice, also appeared in at least two of the many follow-up sequels (of sorts) in later years: THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, which took seven years to come out…and as a cameo in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN…but, oddly, not ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN in which Alfred Franz took over. Unlike Price, however, this first film marked the actual U.S. film debut of the great Claude Rains, who suffered a disastrous screen test but his voice was considered just too unique to ignore.

There is much more that THE INVISIBLE MAN has to offer. We get other still familiar visible faces.

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Playing the love interest of Jack Griffin (Claude’s title character, but she was not in the original H.G. Wells novel) is Gloria Stuart, more famous as the aging Rose a.k.a. Kate Winslet in TITANIC a full 64 years later. And as her father we have Henry Travers, the guardian angel Clarence to Jimmy Stewart in all-too-often-shown-on-TV IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE just 13 years later. Plus we get the delightfully delirious Una O’Connor who also appeared in another James Whale directed Universal classic, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, along with too many other classics to keep track of.

It also boasts one the most famous boo-boos in special effects history. Plot-wise, our star character must be totally naked in order to maintain his invisibility but the police follow his boot prints, rather than bare foot prints, in the snow. The effect was achieved in stop-motion animation with wooden feet stamping artificial snow; this being a film shot between June and August in sunny California.

Aside from that, the visual wizardry is always genuinely stunning, even in that curious but memorable scene.

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Any moving objects Bewitched-style required tremendous planning and clever use of hidden wires and strings, while the half dressed Jack required the unclothed parts to be photographed in black velvet against a black screen. Then, using multiple projectors, the whole “matting” process involved combining separately filmed strips as one image on a rephotographed reel.

This technical novelty was not new, being fine-tuned in the 1920s with such classics as the Douglas Fairbanks version of ROBIN HOOD (with a castle appearing much bigger than it really was thanks to lifted models and paintings) and the original big budget version of BEN-HUR (with mechanical “people” for the spectators of a chariot race) but really hit its stride by 1933 with both this film and the earlier KING KONG, the former combining a stop-motion animated character with live performers.

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Back to the cast, I should also comment on William Harrigan as Dr. Arthur Kemp (competing for Jack’s girl while he is out and about) who refuses to go along with Jack’s ambition to rule the world as an invisible mad man and, therefore, must pay with his own life.

It is a thankless role and one he pulls off rather convincingly and sympathetically. After all, he wasn’t doomed in the Wells original. James Whale and screenwriter R.C. Sheriff couldn’t resist bumping him off in order to counter the previous romantic rival of a “mad” scientist, Doctor Frankenstein, in Whale’s 1931 blockbuster. Before his doom, the villain even lectures his victim on how it will happen…

“Just sit where you are! (a.k.a. tied up in the car) I’ll get out and take the hand-brake out and give you a little shove to help you on. You will run gently down and through the railings. Then you’ll have a big thrill for a hundred yards or so until you hit a big boulder. Then you will do a somersault and probably break your arms. Then a grand finish up with a broken neck. Goodbye, Kemp. I always said you were a dirty little coward. You are a dirty, sneaking rat as well! Good-bye.”

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Griffin is a character who frolics in nothing but trousers, frightening a village lady, by singing “here we go gathering nuts in May” (being a nut case himself), so we are supposed to take a lot of the horrific dialogue with a daffy sense of humor. Hammy? Perhaps. Fun and exciting. Of course!

This is not a film about subtlety and, as Ian McKellen (who played James Whale in GODS AND MONSTERS) commented frequently, the director was a master at creating what the (mostly gay) audience in the 1970s would later label as “camp.” You can be over the top, but you must take yourself seriously. MOMMIE DEAREST is obviously not in the same league as THE INVISIBLE MAN but Faye Dunaway morphs into her role with as much concentration and passion as Rains here.

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Running 70 minutes, this is on par with the bulk of the major theatrical features of the early thirties, not too long to outstay its welcome and not wasting any minute on screen with added fodder.

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Essential: THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD (1935)

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As most people know the original source material for this film comes from Charles Dickens’ last work which was incomplete at the time of his death. There is much speculation regarding how the author would have finished the story, which was one of his darkest and most nihilistic works of fiction. Universal played up the novel’s non-ending when advertising the film which arrives at its own Hollywood-type conclusion.

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Claude Rains was not the first choice to play John Jasper, the opium addicted choir master who becomes obsessed with the title character’s girlfriend. The studio initially wanted Boris Karloff who was not available. Interestingly Karloff was also the first choice when the studio was casting THE INVISIBLE MAN two years earlier. But a falling out between Karloff and director James Whale prevented that. So on two separate occasions Rains stepped in for Karloff. Karloff would return the favor when Rains was unable to appear in Universal’s proposed sequel for PHANTOM OF THE OPERA which was considerably revised and became known as THE CLIMAX (1944).

Back to Edwin Drood. David Manners portrays the title character. Though some articles online claim this was Manners’ last film, that is not true; since he would appear in five more pictures– two of them at RKO. Manners then left acting behind and focused on traveling and writing.

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Manners does not appear in the final portion of the film since the character of Drood vanishes, which gives us our mystery. Where has he gone, what has happened to him, was he murdered?, etc. These are the questions left dangling by Dickens’ unfinished manuscript.

In addition to Rains and Manners, there are other distinguished members in the cast. Drood’s girl is played by Heather Angel, and Douglass Montgomery is cast as a rival for her affections.

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British actress Valerie Hobson is also on hand as another young lass. The handsome performers are assisted by ornate sets that provide a melodramatic, Gothic-styled quality. The studio allocated a sizable budget for this production, and it shows.

When John Jasper suggests that his nephew Drood has been murdered by Neville Landless (Montgomery’s character), Landless also disappears— but then returns in a disguised form to investigate what really happened.

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John Jasper is the culprit in this version, but of course, Dickens may have intended for him to be “innocent” after all, if Drood was meant to turn up alive and well at the end. We’ll never know. But we do know that in this format, making Jasper the villain, and having Rains play the part, is very satisfying.

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Jlewis:

I first must note the delightful dream montage shots that open this Victorian era costume piece, a big budget adaptation of the famous unfinished Charles Dickens novel of 1870 that was directed by Stuart Walker. Too bad there are no audio-visual interviews with the special effects team involved in this little set-piece, since it would be interesting to know just what, exactly, was on their minds at the time that they worked on this.

Note the way the church steeple breaks up the scenery like some male anatomical part standing, ahem, upright against the sky. It is symbolic of our key Victorian Era male protagonist trying his best to keep his libido under control. Images of a girl, soon revealed as Rosa, about to marry a boy are broken up by, again, a church steeple!

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Not that this is THAT kind of film, so to speak. It soon morphs into your usual elegant English speak with costumes and period settings, typical of Dickens. Plenty of church-y music throughout. Gotta love the 19th century and all of its prudishness!

Claude Rains plays John Jasper, an opium addict who goes to church for his choir singing right after his nightmarish experiences (shown just after the opening credits) and coughs up a storm.

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Despite his addictions, John appears…at first…to be the calmer of two men obsessed with a particular Rosa Bud (no relation to Citizen Kane’s sled, played by Heather Angel).  The other is hot headed Neville Landless (Douglass Montgomerey). When the title character (David Manners), who is the one officially engaged to their shared object of desire, disappears mysteriously, we have two suspects involved.

Dickens did not reveal the ending to this who-done-it because he passed away and the book was nonetheless published incomplete to a baffled readership. Universal executives were eager to present their own made-up ending and boasted a rather ambitious publicity campaign promoting it.

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This was among Universal’s more expensive productions of the period, rivaling other studio efforts such as MGM’s DAVID COPPERFIELD. Intriguingly, this was released only a month after the other in February 1935 and can certainly hold its own against it in production gloss, even though there is no W.C. Fields involved here.

Roughly 48 minutes in, we get an uncharacteristic London storm raging Christmas-time, this being the night Edwin disappeared. Humorously, the special effects team goes a bit wonky and overboard here. The whole thing almost becomes THE HURRICANE with dramatically flooded streets and a street light toppling. In downtown London!? Oh my, oh my…speaking of storms, did you ever notice how sunshiny the recreated back-lot Londons in Hollywood always look at other times, contrasting to the real locale with its constantly cloudy overcast?

Claude does his best to ham up his role of John, making the moves on Rosa while Edwin’s case is still being investigated. In reaction, Rosa then makes a move on Neville, telling him that her engagement to Edwin was actually broken and she is confident he is innocent of foul play. Ahhh…the love triangles of drama!

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Meanwhile, John is ruthless in trying to solve the case of his missing nephew while also pursuing his other un-drug related obsession: piano playing. I kinda wish the writers milked that little detail a bit more, sort of like Bette Davis’ lace-work in THE LETTER which equally kept her calm at all times.

Wonderful supporting cast here. As a chip-chip-cheerio Major Sapsea, we have E.E. Clive. More important in his screen time is Francis L. Sullivan as Rev. Crisparkle, making another of his trademark pompous performances.  (He also appeared as Jaggers in Universal’s just previously released GREAT EXPECTATIONS, a role repeated again for David Lean’s version over a decade later.)

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Both Brit actors were occasionally imitated in vintage animated cartoons without any direct name referencing. Valerie Hobson is Helna, the equally quick-talking sister of Neville, and Walter Kingsford is another familiar of that decade’s film output, playing Mr. Grewgious.

Witty dialogue highlight hag-dressed Princess “Puffer” in John’s opium sequences, Zeffie Tilbury being quite the veteran actress at this time. “Pleasant dreams, dearie?” She tries to pin the disappearance on John in revenge after some of his provoked behavior.

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A clever twist involves Neville disguising himself as a white whiskered old man investigating Edwin’s tomb in his own way. Also the surprise of a missing corpse! Yet you can pretty much guess who the culprit is before long, since Claude’s character is the more menacing of the two suspects and the one pretty Rosa is NOT interested in. Plus we need the usual romantic happy ending that is the stuff of Hollywood, so that we can get over the dramatic suicide scene.

Overall a fun film.

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Essential: THE WOLF MAN (1941)

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Released six years after WEREWOLF OF LONDON, Universal’s original entry in the series– and just two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor– THE WOLF MAN lives in infamy as one of the studio’s most popular horror films. Though initially panned by some critics in late 1941, it would prove successful with audiences and was a bigger hit at the box office than its predecessor.

While the real-life horror of the second world war played out during the next several years, horror as a movie genre evolved from serious “A” budget fare to lower budgeted whimsy and ultimately turned into a form of self-parody. But THE WOLF MAN is done in a fairly straightforward fashion…no small feat.

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The film was given more than a modest-sized budget for hair and make-up– plenty of that is on display in the form of the title character, played by Lon Chaney Jr.

Chaney Jr. had been known up to this point as the son of Lon Chaney Sr., who specialized in grotesque characterizations during the silent era. Chaney Jr. was also regarded for his role as the mentally challenged Lennie in the stage version and subsequent 1939 screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

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But when he was hired to play Larry Talbot in THE WOLF MAN, the actor found his greatest role and lasting fame. His screen immortality would be assured with this iconic appearance as well as a succession of appearances in several sequels. 

Bela Lugosi, who is cast as a gypsy’s son, had coveted the lead role here. But Bela’s star was waning. Interestingly, Chaney Jr. wanted to play the PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in the studio’s 1943 remake of his father’s most well-known picture, but Claude Rains snagged it.

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Rains, our focus this month, takes an important supporting role in THE WOLF MAN. He’s on hand as the estranged British father of Larry Talbot (Chaney Jr.). Their relationship is a Greek tragedy of sorts. When Larry becomes bitten during a brawl– and experiences the curse of a werewolf– a killing spree occurs. His refined dear old dad must stop him and put him out of his misery forever. Otherwise a lot of innocent people will be hurt.

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Jlewis:

While it may not be Universal’s first nor best werewolf movie, those being WEREWOLF OF LONDON released six years earlier and the Polygram produced and Universal-ly distributed AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON of four decades later (this is one of my personal favorites of the horror-comedy genre, with director John Landis pulling all the stops in bold creativity), THE WOLF MAN still holds up fairly well despite a somewhat simplistic storyline.

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It was a big success in its day, just like the Dracula, Frankenstein and Invisible Man series started a decade earlier but, curiously, the former ’35 film was the one intended to start a franchise. The ’41 reboot was more successful at doing this, with six follow-ups made over the decade that also featured Lon Chaney Jr. in the title role even though he often shared billing with other beasties on screen.

The wonderful make-up and special effects work was credited to Jack Pierce, who also worked on the earlier version but less successfully. Still images and publicity shots dominated so many movie books and horror fan magazines in the 1960s and ’70s that many of my generation, including me of course, were persuaded that this movie must be as wonderful as THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Understandably, we were often a trifle underwhelmed when we finally got to see it in its entirety.

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I will get into some nitpicking of the plot details in a moment, but I first must praise the performances and production values. Not everybody is great here but nobody disappoints either. Lon Chaney Jr. plays Larry Talbot who becomes the unfortunate title character bitten by a wolf-human (played clumsily by a German shepherd rather than a Pierce costumed character) and forced to metamorphose each full moon until he is finally put out of his misery by his own father, played by Claude Rains as John Talbot.

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The always delightful Maria Ouspenskaya is the doom and gloom fortune-teller Maleva and Bela Lugosi plays a fellow traveler with the same entourage (also named, guess what?…Bela) whose fate predates Larry’s. Warren William and Ralph Bellamy are the usual psychiatrist and “colonel” investigator needed for such who-done-it spookfests and are, well, adequate if not spectacular.

Ditto Evelyn Ankers as the love interest Gwen Conliffe to Larry…but she eventually winds up with the man (Patrick Knowles) she was originally engaged to since Larry is prevented to have any happy ending here. Her best friend Jenny (Fay Helm) is an unfortunate early victim (by Bela, not Larry) and her demise is genuinely startling and frightening in the early part.

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Again, the production values are super. Yes, the painted backdrops inside studio-bound sets and matte work involving the Talbot estate are way too obvious to us more cgi-influenced viewers of today.

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Lots of great fog machines at work here, making it just as fun as I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. I mentioned earlier in my review of THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD that the London setting was too sunshine California-based, but this imaginary European setting (supposedly set in Wales) is much more convincing to me with plenty of gothic architecture and retro automobiles on the roads. Plus plenty of overcast.

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Also love the transformations done in dissolves, which do the work almost as well…if lacking a certain “wow” factor…as Rick Baker’s elaborate effects in the ’81 movie. I especially love that wonderful panning shot of muddy doggie footprints that lead to Larry’s open bedroom window, followed by human prints and the camera then stopping on a sleeping Larry’s feet.

He later realizes that something happened at night that he was not aware of, but feels he is guilty for, and dutifully cleans up the evidence simply out of impulse. Lon Junior really is a great actor here and I have nothing but admiration for him in this groundbreaking role worthy of his father’s appreciation, had he been alive.

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Gwen works at an antique shop where Larry flirts with her and purchases a walking stick with a silver wolf head on it. This is a key moment that I must fuss over a bit here because I feel we need better explanations by more substantial characters other than pretty “oh hum, gee whiz” Gwen to explain its importance so that we later understand the whole “why” Larry is able to kill a “wolf” with it and John kill him after that.

At times, I feel that director George Waggner and screenwriter Curt Siodmak are much more interested in the production aspects rather than the story details themselves and, perhaps, more attention could have fleshed such plot-points better.

Also the stock 70 minute running time may speed the action a little too much here. It is suggested that father and son have not seen each other in a while, but they bond beautifully as a good father and son should (i.e. who would not like having Claude Rains as daddy?), but there is a lot of interesting family backstory overlooked here.

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Since we are profiling Claude this month, I should note that his supporting performance is good, as always, despite not having as much to do on screen as Lon. I guess his big moment of dramatic entertainment comes at the end when he repeats the same act his son did, killing a monster without realizing he is a human…and his own son to boot.

Earlier in the film, he is way too subdued for the kind of Claude performances I tend to favor. Plus he and Lon look nothing alike and are hard to pass off as related, making me wonder if another actor would have been better cast in that role. Yet it does add another feather to Claude’s Universal horror cap and gets us motivated for next week’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA…

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Essential: PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943)

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In the early 1940s, Universal decided to remake Gaston Leroux’s classic horror story, which had been filmed earlier with Lon Chaney Sr. in 1925. Originally Henry Koster was assigned to direct, but his ideas about the relationship between the phantom and Christine, the story’s delicate heroine, were rejected by studio bosses.

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Koster had wanted to up the stakes between the main characters by making Christine the daughter of the phantom. Perhaps an unusual way to look at it, though it might better explain why he’s obsessed and so determined to make her music career successful. Of course, there would be no “romance” that way.

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Universal did not wish to incur the wrath of the production code office, or alienate audiences, with any hints of an incestuous relationship. So the original story was kept intact, where the phantom is merely someone from the girl’s village who always admired her. The studio sought Boris Karloff to play the phantom, but he was unavailable so Claude Rains was borrowed from Warner Brothers. As we’ve discussed in other reviews this month, Rains made several notable horror films at Universal– such as THE INVISIBLE MAN and THE WOLF MAN.

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For the role of Christine, young soprano Susanna Foster was cast. She became very popular with moviegoers as a result of her appearance in this picture, and she was immediately put in several follow-ups. One of those was THE CLIMAX, conceived as a sequel to PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, which wound up starring Karloff. For the part of love struck baritone Anatole Garron, Universal hired Nelson Eddy. He had just finished a long-term contract at MGM. Given Eddy’s popularity in films with Jeanette MacDonald his presence helped ensure the success of this remake.

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The studio pulled out all the stops. In addition to top-notch stars and skilled character actors, the film benefits from exquisite set design, stunning Technicolor; and of course, a splendid soundtrack that is its greatest attribute. Not surprisingly PHANTOM OF THE OPERA became a smash hit for Universal when released in August 1943, and it went on to earn two Oscars. It also gave cinema a phantom as only Claude Rains could play him.

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Jlewis:

Before diving into the glossy musical version of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA 1943 with Claude Rains, a forerunner to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage adaptation and eventual movie of 2004, I must first give a nod to the straight-forward spook-piece that was PHANTOM OF THE OPERA 1925 with Lon Chaney Senior.

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This was among the key silent films I watched more than once as a child, along with the usual Chaplin and Keaton, but I did not see the semi-restored version with some of its original Technicolor sequences (using the more primitive 2-strip system) until the 1990s. It stood out as a key film that one of my grandfathers (mother’s father) saw when he was a kid of the twenties as well.

Apparently he was so frightened by Lon’s character that he did not return to the flickers for a whole month or so, which would have been a record for any typical kid who managed to get enough allowance from parents to attend them as often as he or she could. Movies were big business back then since there was no TV, Netlix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube, etc.

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Movies were still big business during World War II, with only radio as competition, and Hollywood could afford to make a lot more of them in color by then, a key reason why the Technicolor company was pretty swamped in the summer of 1943 despite wartime shortages in manpower.

Feature films in the format often waited longer “on the shelf” than their monochrome counterparts, with several key releases such as DU BARY WAS A LADY, FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS and LASSIE COME HOME having been completed back in 1942 and were only just making their theatrical runs. Yet Universal studio, like 20th Century Fox, may have had a bit of more clout in getting their product out in a timely fashion, since PHANTOM was filmed between January and April and only waited four months to make its August 12th premiere.

Claude Rains was busy working on PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE in August 1943 and was riding high at the box-office with such hits that year as CASABLANCA and FOREVER AND A DAY (although his scenes in that omnibus production were shot two years back). These were all done in glorious black and white, but he was no stranger to Technicolor himself.

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His first appearance before those huge bulky three strip cameras was back in 1937 for GOLD IS WHERE YOU FIND IT, followed by THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (of course, how can we forget his delicious take on Prince John?) and SONS OF LIBERTY, a Warner 2-reeler that always brings me to tears with his heart-felt portrayal of Haym Salomon in, perhaps, my personal favorite performance of his.

Here, he was in good hands too with Hal Mohr and H. Howard Greene behind the cameras. Greene, in particular, had been working in both 2 strip and 3 strip Technicolor since the mid 1920s, including the color parts of the original BEN-HUR, the delightfully campy Bali docu-drama LEGONG: DANCE OF THE VIRGINS, A STAR IS BORN, BLOSSOMS IN THE DUST and the Sabu version of THE JUNGLE BOOK.

As mentioned, this is a musical. Therefore, Nelson Eddy gets higher billing in the title credits than Claude. (He too was no stranger to Technicolor, appearing previously in SWEETHEARTS and BITTER SWEET with his frequent MGM co-star Jeannette MacDonald.)

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In a situation resembling our previously reviewed THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD, Eddy’s character of Anatole Garron, baritone of the Paris Opera, fancies the same object of desire as Claude’s Enrique Claudin the struggling violinist.

She is Susanna Foster’s Christine DuBois, the gorgeous soprano whom Enrique secretly supports from the sidelines after he gets disfigured by acid thrown at him and haunts the opera house as the Phantom.

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Some of his efforts are quite diabolical, such as the famous sawing off of the mighty chandelier to disrupt a performance.

Turning this romantic triangle into a romantic rectangle is Edgar Barrier’s policeman Raoul Dubert who is tentatively engaged to Christina but wants her to give up her career. This is where the story gets most interesting from a feminist point of view. This singer loves her career far more than any man and will not give up what comes first in her mind. As a result, we get a rather unexpected ending not traditional to old time Hollywood romantic fade-outs.

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After Enrique is out of the picture with his tragedy under falling rubble in the underground caverns, Anatole and Raoul wind up as a couple stuck in a doorway and…well, your guess is as good as mine as to whether they just stick to a lunch date or do something more. In any case, it is an interesting closing that reminds me of other interesting closings, such as Humphrey Bogart’s Rick saying “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” to Claude Rains’ Captain Renault in CASABLANCA and Joe E. Brown’s Osgood telling Jack Lemmon’s Jerry/Daphne that “Nobody’s perfect” in SOME LIKE IT HOT.

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This is a fun suspense piece and Claude does give the best performance here under the direction of Arthur Lubin. However I should point out some of the interesting supporting cast members too, such as Fritz Leiber playing real historical figure Franz List, Miles Mander as a bubbly Maurice Pleyel, Jane Farra as the other career oriented dame Biancarolli, straight-faced J. Edward Brombert as Amiot and funnyman Fritz Feld as Lecours. After a month discussing Jessica Tandy, we should also mention that Hume Cronyn is in this too even though his part is small. None of these characters are all that important compared to our basic foursome.

This has some connections with an earlier film reviewed, THE INVISIBLE MAN, in that we don’t see Claude’s face through a chunk of the film’s running time. That and the multiple romantic connections resembling EDWIN DROOD and the monster transformation theme to THE WOLF MAN make all of these films interconnected.

If there are any flaws to this, maybe the musical stretches…stretch a bit. It only runs 92 minutes but sometimes this movie feels a bit long with each viewing. I think I have seen it three times so far.

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Coming Up in November:

confession is good for the soul

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November 6

CHILD'S PLAY (1972)

November 13

ABSOLUTION (1978)

November 20

MASS APPEAL (1984)

November 27

DOUBT (2008)

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Essential: CHILD'S PLAY (1972)

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Our theme this month– “Confession is good for the soul.” In the four films we’ll be reviewing in November, the main characters deal with revelatory moments. Some want to hide the truth, some confess. These are Catholic stories that highlight the imperfections of the church. I don’t think they’re damning stories, since there is still hope for redemption for the individual Catholic and for the church itself.

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CHILD’S PLAY, directed by Sidney Lumet, is a somewhat obscure motion picture. It is based on a hit Broadway play that ran for 342 performances and later transferred to the London stage. Playwright Robert Marasco had worked at a Catholic school and he knew the ins and outs of such an environment.

The Broadway production featured Fritz Weaver and Pat Hingle. Neither were box office draws, so Paramount’s feature film version has James Mason and Robert Preston in the lead roles. Two very different actors with unique approaches to the material. The characters they play experience an undercurrent of hostility towards one other and a mutual distrust of each other’s motives– despite perfunctory niceties exhibited in front of their students and coworkers.

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Mason is great at playing Jerome Malley, a longtime Latin instructor who is unravelling. His downfall is spurred by the abuses of the teen boys in his classroom. He is also dealing with the grave illness of his mother. To say he’s miserable is an understatement. His life is devoid of joy or any real pleasure.

Preston plays Joseph Dobbs a well-liked English instructor, a man who seems to be the complete opposite. Dobbs is a sadist who is orchestrating the attacks on Malley, using the boys to wage a psychological and spiritual war. His motives are unclear at first, but gradually we learn he is jealous and insecure. Dobbs covets Malley’s top spot on staff and he likes to lord control over the boys.

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Into this unholy atmosphere we have Beau Bridges as Paul Reis (played on Broadway by Ken Howard). Reis is a former pupil of both men, now graduated from college. Reis returns to the high school to take a position as a gym instructor. There are some shocking moments where he learns how violent and twisted some of the boys are.

Reis is caught in the middle between Malley and Dobbs. He’d studied under both of them in his youth and must now function alongside them in a professional capacity. Some scenes imply that his own soul is a battleground between Dobbs and Malley.

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I enjoy the slower parts of the film and am glad that Lumet is not in a hurry to get to the bigger turning points. We are given plenty of time to think about how these characters co-exist, how they bring out the best and worst in each other. Of course we suspect early on that Dobbs is gaslighting Malley, setting him up as a deviant (which he might well be).

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Malley does confess his sins during a pivotal scene. Then abruptly he takes his own life.

Dobbs wins. But he excoriates the boys, since it is not a victory without recriminations. However, the boys turn on Dobbs. The final few minutes inside the church lead to Dobbs’ own confession– and it is spectacular.

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At the end, a symbolic candle goes out. We are left to ponder Dobbs' fate and fate of the boys. What will become of them? Can Reis save them? Or has Reis been corrupted by both of his mentors?

***

Jlewis:

I was initially turned off by this one at the very start, showing a boarding school boy strangled and close-up shots of his flesh getting cut by a knife.

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A teen prank apparently and not murderous, but…well, I was never meant to go into the medical profession for obvious bloody neurotic reasons. Other viewers may actually enjoy this scene. The early seventies was a period when Hollywood producers were testing sensibilities in taste and shock value, even those bankrolled by the major studios who were desperate to see what would stick with the public.

Maybe I should have been warned ahead of time and just skipped the opening scene? It isn’t long before we settle into the usual star-studded drama based on a popular play.

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Robert Preston starts out as a gotta-love-me language teacher like he was in MUSIC MAN, playing Joe Dobbs. David Rounds plays Father Penny a.k.a. “I believe in God but I also believe in Satan,” who is investigating some of the “child’s play” involving knives and such.

James Mason, whom I can see in just about anything since he is high on my list of favorite performers, is a disheveled competing teacher who is far less liked by his students than Joe and an intense psychological rivalry is going on between the two.

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There is a key discussion of Joe’s with Paul (Beau Bridges), the younger gym teacher starting out at this school, that brought memories for me of a previous boarding school Paramount release, Lindsay Anderson’s IF… (1968), as they examine the latter’s capabilities on the gymnastic handlebars. Joe is quite flattering of Paul, who eats the attention up. At first.

Later in the film, Paul (note how his name relates to early Christianity with a renewal transformation theme) will give a very righteous speech against Joe that some modern viewers may possibly read today as commentary on the way many political “false prophets” incite the masses.

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Basic plot: the students are all going a bit deranged at this all boys school. It is important to put this film in its proper perspective, being released between “The Devil Made Me Do That” ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE EXORCIST with echoes of CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED a decade previous.

Also Paramount was coasting off the success of IF… as well, which showed the dark side of boarding school life with all of its structure and discipline.

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The adults are very much in charge here, manipulating innocent young minds as if they were a bunch of fascist brown shirts ready for action.

Despite the setting being a religious school, religion takes a backseat here. Essentially this is just your standard character suspense thriller featuring a showcase performance…actually two, but Preston is clearly having more fun with his role than Mason. Joe’s “what happened in the chapel yesterday?” questioning of his students is quite tongue-in-cheek since you can pretty much tell that he knows already.

Joe seems well liked by all but is he doing something against Jerome behind the scenes? (Spoiler alert: yes indeedy!) 

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I should mention Gerald Hirschfeld’s deep focus photography in dreary color here, a few times with Mason’s Jerome in the background and Preston’s Joe close to the camera lens. As in the old Orson Welles days, this is an interesting way of presenting who shows the greatest power regardless of how far apart they are physically. 

There are lots of dark stairways that are as gothic as any 1930s Universal horror piece with itty bitty crucifixes on the walls. Joe’s “I taught a thousand boys here” speech is especially well presented with his face half-lit by the lamp, showing a man with both a light and dark side to his face.

Due to its graphic opening scenes, I didn’t feel motivated at first to sit through this one. Then I eventually got immersed into it as I often do with films of director Sidney Lumet, more famous for 12 ANGRY MEN, THE PAWNBROKER , NETWORK and THE VERDICT (also with Mason). It is hardly a great film compared to the others. I feel that its biggest flaw is that the two lead performances dominate so much that everybody else falls on the wayside.

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I personally wished we had more scenes with the students themselves since I doubt they are merely all sheep being lead by a wolf to allow others in their flock get attacked. Nonetheless this film is a noteworthy product of its time with the typical tragic “gotcha” climax similar to DON’T LOOK NOW and a few other seventies titles of note.

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Essential: ABSOLUTION (1978)

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Having been raised Catholic, I can remember at a very young age making the sacrament we called ‘First Confession.’ Later, it was referred to as the sacrament of ‘Reconciliation.’ After going into the confessional, we would be given our penance, in which we were usually asked not to repeat the same mistakes. (God knows, some of us did repeat the same mistakes and we wound up back in the confessional a week later.) To atone for our wrong-doing, we would recite prayers, including one known as the ‘Act of Contrition.’

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To this day, it’s still my favorite prayer. I will admit my views of Catholicism have changed over the years, but my feeling that confession is good for the soul has not changed.

In ABSOLUTION (1978), there is a lot of confessing going on. Richard Burton is a head priest and overseer of teenage boys at a private Catholic school in Britain. The boys are evil, and Burton is desperate to save them from themselves. Soon he gets involved in a diabolical plot that leads to murder– lured into it, because of the things he is told in the confessional.

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The plot is a bit far-fetched in spots, but it works, thanks to Burton’s fine acting and the movie’s many atmospheric touches. You never know if Burton’s character is being manipulated because he’s an unfortunate victim, or if it his own sinful nature that is being controlled by demons. We see the toll this all takes on him and his faith.

Burton’s career was on the upswing after his success a year before in EQUUS. He was eager to capitalize on this resurgence in popularity. ABSOLUTION was a personal project for him, a film in which a great deal of his own money was used for the production. He believed in what the story could facilitate for himself as well as the audience.

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On the now defunct IMDb message boards, a guy who played one of the boys in the story posted how he was hired to be in the film. He said Burton took a liking to him and had asked the director to cut to reaction shots of him during group scenes when he didn’t have dialogue. This was because Burton wanted to ensure that he was given adequate screen time.

Their on-set friendship began one day when the boy had gotten separated from the rest of the young cast and accidentally ended up near Burton’s trailer. Burton’s door was open and he saw the lad and beckoned him to come inside and talk. Burton was still struggling with a drinking problem. This chat and subsequent chats kept Burton distracted and helped him stay sober, at least while the movie was being made.

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The boy was hearing Burton’s various confessions and it made an impression on him that he never forgot. In real life, Burton was battling great private demons…not unlike what was happening to his character on screen.

***

Jlewis:

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Our previous title was set at a religious boys school but religion played a somewhat minor role. Here it is much more prominent, but again mostly in relation to just one very tormented lead character. While CHILD’S PLAY was all about the adults, namely one played by Robert Preston, calling the shots in a rather demonic set-up, we here have teen boys taking charge of an adult priest.

There are a few elements of THE EXORCIST and THE OMEN sprinkled in, but the atmosphere starts out as a black comedy of sorts with various characters looking quite impish, especially lead star Dominic Guard. Later things get more gruesome in a horror spook way.

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A rather snooty Richard Burton, who usually isn’t snooty in most of his movies, plays Father Goddard of a certain St. Anthony’s in England, turning away a motorcycle hippy Blakey (Billy Connolly) seeking employment in the opening scenes, being judgmental of school plays featuring cross-dressing (after all, there are no girls at the school for the girlie parts), catering to his one “pet” Benjie (Dominic Guard) and being nasty towards other students like nerdy Arthur (Dai Bradley).

Arthur, in turn, tags along with Benjie like a homesick puppy, much as Benjie looks at Father Goddard with puppy like eyes.

Being a teacher’s pet is no fun for Benjie so he decides to play a practical joke on dreary unfunny Father by going into confession and claiming, incorrectly, that he had sex with Blakey (judged “un-natural and wrong”) and, subsequently, had murdered him.

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Benjie later claims he murdered Arthur as well…or Father Goddard thinks that anyway. In the beginning, he is bamboozled with a scarecrow buried beside a big tree (and with a shovel conveniently provided), but later finds two corpses. One is inevitably Blakey, but we are frequently questioning who his real killer is.

For the most part, this is a who-done-it thriller. It is also among the strangest Richard Burton films I have seen, but I can understand why he was motivated to take on the role. Playing a tormented figure obsessed with “virtue” who goes literally mad by the diabolical teens under his care makes for one great actor’s unraveling. I won’t spoil the plot any further but the priest himself soon commits acts he never thought he would do.

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I am not sure of all of the details as to why its release in the UK was limited and a full decade went by before it reached U.S. theaters, following Burton’s death. Yet it is a strange indy film with a bizarre plot that might have been difficult to market at the time. My guess is that most stumbled upon it as a VHS release later on, rather than seeing it in a theater.

This film was somewhat entertaining to me in an offbeat sort of way.

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Essential: MASS APPEAL (1984)

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Earlier this month we reviewed CHILD’S PLAY which was based on a hit Broadway play by a gay Catholic writer who had worked in a Catholic school. This weekend we are reviewing MASS APPEAL, which is also based on a hit play that was written by a gay Catholic writer. In this instance, Bill C. Davis the playwright had been the product of a Catholic education and later was a professor at the Marist school he attended in his youth.

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Mass Appeal was Davis’ first play. It was initially workshopped off-Broadway where it came to the attention of actress Geraldine Fitzgerald who took over as the director and steered it towards a successful Broadway run in 1981-82. After receiving several Tony nominations, Universal purchased the rights but did not use the two performers that made it a success on stage– Milo O’Shea and Michael O’Keefe.

Instead the studio hired Jack Lemmon to play the older priest, Father Timothy Farley; and when O’Keefe wasn’t available, Zeljko Ivanek was cast as the young seminarian Mark Dolson.

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Lemmon was a box office name and had been in a string of motion pictures since the mid-1950s. In this offering and MISSING (1982) he shed his usual comic persona to take on a more deeply resonant role. Don’t get me wrong, some of Lemmon’s trademark sarcasm and witty asides can be found in his Father Farley , but this remains a very human characterization, a man with an unhappy childhood whose soul is burdened.

Ivanek who majored in theater, and had a short-term role on the soap opera The Edge of Night, was considerably less experienced– though just as talented– and he makes a good foil for Lemmon. 

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Comparisons between these two and the priest characters in GOING MY WAY (1944) are inevitable. But a lot had changed in the Catholic Church between 1944 and 1984. A lot has changed between 1984 and now. MASS APPEAL begins with a dialogue by Farley about why there are no women priests. Yes, there still are no female priests in the Roman Catholic Church, but there are altar girls now, which was not the case in the early 1980s. Also, a big deal is made about seminarians being assigned as deacons. But today deacons in the Roman Catholic Church can be married.

The opening scene, where Mark Dolson shows up to see Father Farley preach, and he subsequently challenges him in front of the parish, is an interesting way to introduce both characters. The production was filmed on location at a church in Claremont, California which is supposed to stand in for a church in Connecticut. The play only features Farley and Dolson, but the movie includes various parishioners; a sister and parents for Dolson; a housekeeper (Louise Latham) for Farley; and a somewhat villainous monsignor (Charles Durning).

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We learn early on that the monsignor wants to stop the flow of neurotic priests into the parish churches. Neurotic meaning homosexual. The monsignor dismisses two seminarians, never seen on camera, who are said to enjoy a close romantic friendship. Dolson is sympathetic and criticizes the monsignor, which causes the monsignor to give him over to Farley for mentoring. Later when Dolson makes a startling confession, the monsignor decides to drop him from the seminary. This occurs in spite of the fact that Dolson is committed to celibacy and would still make an excellent clergyman.

Before speaking directly to the monsignor, Dolson spills his guts to Farley in the rectory. There is a confession scene that occurs at the dinner table where Dolson tells Farley he’s had sex with both women and men before entering the seminary. Farley is taken aback by such candor, but does not react prudishly.

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Farley suggests Dolson lie to the monsignor and deny having been with men, because if he doesn’t, this will mean the end of Dolson’s career as a seminarian. However, Dolson is unable to lie to the monsignor and tells the truth about his past.

Prior to Dolson’s confession, we have an outdoor scene where Farley makes his own confession to Dolson about how Farley failed his mother and has experienced ‘hints of hell.’

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Mixed into all this we have commentary about song-and-dance theology and the different types of homilies priests perform. These include what-if sermons, why sermons and remember-when sermons. At every turn Farley encourages Dolson to be personable in order to become popular and to avoid coughs from congregants which signify boredom!  Farley counsels his young protege to keep interactions with the faithful as friendly as possible.

There is talk about how priests can work to prevent divorces and prevent abortions, as well as a scene where they console the inconsolable (after the death of a loved one). Farley claims the inconsolable are in the most exalted position of all, implying that their pain and suffering makes them supreme Christian examples!

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At the height of this paternal advice we have Farley persuading Dolson to deliver a sermon about dead tropical fish, which will convince the congregation that Dolson loves them because he loves fish and wants to hear their silent screams for help. The religious symbolism is laid on a bit thick in this scene, but the surrealistic sermon is fun to watch, mostly for Lemmon’s reactions near the altar while Ivanek delivers his monologue at the pulpit.

Ivanek later said the fish sermon was filmed 15 times and that some of the explicit dialogue about how the fish die, which I imagine is contained in the play, was cut because it was considered ‘too jarring.’

Part of what makes this story work is the dry humor and the honesty that imbues the careful line deliveries by the two leads. But at the same time we have cliches about drunk priests, closeted priests and materialistic church-goers who cannot be bothered to be very religious. I was still willing to stay with it to the end, because I liked the whole McCarthy-esque aspect of the monsignor trying to get priests to out each other, to supposedly root-out evil in his seminary and in the diocese as a whole.

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When I finished viewing the film, I had a few questions, Namely, why wouldn’t Farley offer to pray for Dolson after Dolson’s told the monsignor the truth about his sex life? In fact, why didn’t we see these men pray together in any scenes (except the end when Farley leads his congregation in the Nicene Creed)? Also, would an established priest really go to bat for a young seminarian like this, urging his conservative flock to support someone who had basically been deemed unsuitable by a powerful monsignor?

At the end Farley says we have to be allowed to shape what’s shaped us. But isn’t that asking the impossible? Or about as likely as a woman becoming a priest in the Roman Catholic Church?

***

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Jlewis:

It is good to get a light-hearted dramedy about Catholicism, this time with Jack Lemmon in his prime years and a veteran TV director Glenn Jordan at the helm. Curiously Jordan only handled two other theatrical features besides this one. The style here resembles something you would see in an ABC’s “Movie of the week” with a few echoes of GOING MY WAY to boot.

Lemmon was one of the few lead performers in our selection this month, but not the only one, who was actually raised Catholic and not necessarily against his upbringing; this being in contrast to, say, Richard Burton of ABSOLUTION who was pretty much an atheist despite being a huge star previously in THE ROBE. Nonetheless Lemmon was, off-screen, pretty liberal in his politics and pushed to see many established “sacred cow” traditions overturned in order to accommodate the 20th century.

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His role here as Father Tim Farley starts out as slightly old-fashioned and “please don’t rock the boat”-ish, while the younger (32 years younger) Željko Ivanek gets to play the more outspoken seminary student Mark Dolson. That is, until Father Tim finds a new calling in life under Mark’s influence.

Monsignor Thomas Burke (Charles Durning) thinks Mark is just some fresh kid wet behind the ears who needs disciplining. Therefore, Tim is put in charge of him and struggles to keep the choke collar on him. “He is very young and high spirited, like a thoroughbred at the starting gate.”

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Right away, Mark starts pushing buttons with the local establishment by questioning in sermon dissertations about women potentially becoming priests and whether or not two male members of that district’s clergy should be expelled for being “more than just friends” since love is love regardless.

Ah…yes…THAT ongoing battle was going on even back then. One amusing moment early on involves Tim pushing Mark to discuss, of all things, jelly doughnuts instead of “social issues” at Sunday mass.

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For the record, Mark admits to bisexual relationships before joining the church in one confession, as typical of the changing times, and the reaction is what you would expect with an eagerness to sweep under the rug anything “they” did not want to deal with.

I was bothered a bit by the bestiality joke by Lemmon regarding goats here, but his character’s heart is in the right place and you gotta love how he soon jumps into an in-joke about fellow actor Ivanek’s birthplace right afterwards.

This is your typical getting-to-know-you relationship picture between two men of different generations but with the added twist of the older one changing to fit the younger one’s perspective rather than the other way around as is often the case in these storylines, including (to some degree) GOING MY WAY.

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As much as I like Lemmon as an actor, he is even more talkative here than in SOME LIKE IT HOT or GRUMPY OLD MEN which, I feel, works against his character. Often I don’t think I am watching a priest or, rather, a method actor transforming himself into a priest for the screen, but Lemmon playing his usual Lemmon with his usual witty one-liners. Ivanek’s Mark comes off far more priest-like which, of course, fits our story here. Viewers are supposed to side with him after he gets expelled for pushing too many buttons but still see how devoted he is to his calling to serve.

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I enjoyed this film much more than the previous two even though I also felt it was a trifle too light-weight in tone, typical of a great many dramedies of the 1980s. However, had I seen it in 1984 as a teenager (even though I was not Catholic and may not have understood all of the details discussed at the time), I certainly would have been awed by the risks this film takes in questioning the church as it does. Especially given the outspoken speech that Tim gives towards the end.

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Essential: DOUBT (2008)

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The opening shots show us cars and fashions of the early 1960s with dialogue mentioning JFK’s recent death, so that make no mistake, we know when this story is supposed to take place. Also, the first sermon we hear is on the topic of doubt, which gives us the main theme right upfront.

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Later we see Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), the only black altar boy of St. Nicholas parish and school, telling Fr. Brendan Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) he wants to be a priest. I remember serving as an altar boy with friends of mine in my youth and none of us ever said this. The last thing we wanted to become was a priest. We were too busy being kids.

There’s an initial classroom scene where Sister James (Amy Adams) informs her pupils the only thing they have to fear is fear itself, etc. Another obvious nod to the film’s main theme….causing me to ponder, what are these characters going to doubt and be fearful about?

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The principal at St. Nicholas is Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep). She presides over the goings-on in a most brittle-like fashion. Streep is borderline camp with this put-on accent she’s affecting and the way she clutches her cross– making sure we know she’s an east coaster as well as a genteel holy monster.

I do like the contrast between her and Hoffman, which is glimpsed almost immediately when we see how they eat. On one hand there is the austerity of the nuns’ dinner table, and on the other hand, there’s the joviality of the priest’s dinner table.

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Everyone’s uniformly terrified of Sister Aloysius. But these same everyones like Sister James, even if she is not exactly a proficient educator. About 25 minutes into the film, Sister James develops suspicions about Fr. Flynn and Donald, which “endears” her to Aloysius. This I found a bit over the top and unintentionally humorous.

It sets up a strange meeting between the two women and Flynn in the principal’s office. There are little bits of business done to reveal these characters in ways that are hardly subtle– his wanting sugar (to show us he enjoys earthly pleasures), his sitting in the chair that Aloysius normally assumes (to show us who’s boss), his wanting a secular song included as part of the upcoming Christmas pageant (to show us he’s not entirely into sacred religious music), and so forth.

Eventually the nuns stop beating around the bush and they tell the priest their concerns about his interactions with Donald. Sister James reveals she smelled alcohol on Donald’s breath after a recent visit to speak with Flynn at the rectory. Flynn has a plausible answer, saying the boy was caught sneaking wine by the caretaker and he was counseling the boy. But Aloysius isn’t believing any of it.

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As a parable and work of fiction, DOUBT is an interesting way to examine character and conflict within Catholicism. But it does not seem realistic to me. The sisters would not call Donald’s mother (Viola Davis) without verifying the priest’s account with the caretaker, or without first speaking to the monsignor. Also, the priest would not “retaliate” by making a pointed sermon on gossip the following Sunday.

Furthermore, there is artificial suspense about whether or not he is actually guilty. Despite the fact that he likes to touch the boys and he suggested taking the boys on a camping trip. It’s an allegory, pre-Vatican II, about church sex abuse, produced in 2007-2008, when recent cases were in the news.

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The most objectionable part involves the mother’s visit to the school, which opens up a dramatic can of worms. This is not your ordinary parent-teacher conference. At first Mrs. Miller seems clueless about why Sister Aloysius has invited her to the school to speak about Donald. But then we find out she knows more than she has let others believe.

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During a long walk she describes her son’s nature to Sister Aloysius, implying the 12 year old kid is gay. She indicates that her husband beats Donald because of this. Then, as if that were not enough, she suggests she is willing to sacrifice Donald to a priest accused of pedophilia if it gets her boy ahead in life. After all, the man is willing to show love to her boy, which is something her abusive husband won’t do. Really?

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This leads to a huge confrontation back in the principal’s office between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. Aloysius expresses her certainty of Flynn’s guilt and her fundamental distrust of him. She tells a whopper of a story to test whether or not he’s the type of man who should remain in charge at St. Nicholas. She is waiting for his confession, and so are we. Ultimately, he resigns from his job (and gets a promotion to another parish!) which Sister Aloysius later relays to Sister James.

John Patrick Shanley’s morality tale hinges on one universal truth: if you do not become a confessor, then you will be a liar. Of that there is no doubt.

***

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Jlewis:

DOUBT…can be a bond as powerful and sustainable as certainty.

So says a somewhat over confident in himself (at least among fellow men of the cloth) Father Brendan (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to his Bronx congregation of December 1964. This was a period when great changes were taking place with the Second Vatican Council cross-questioning centuries-old Catholic traditions in the ever-changing 20th century.

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At first, we see Father Brendan as representing the “new” church of tomorrow while Meryl Streep’s Sister Aloysius, playing her role with an equal Saturnian consumption as her Miranda Priestly of THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, is an upholder of old traditions. Both are at odds with each other and both fallible to their inner emotional turmoils.

John Patrick Shanley is the director and apparently the original source’s author as well. Scott Rudin is the indestructible big name producer and this film bears his successful high drama stamp. In addition to Streep and the late Hoffman, at least two other big TV and screen names get to shine here: Amy Adams as Sister James, in a role vaguely resembling Beau Bridge’s Paul in CHILD’S PLAY and equally caught up between two conflicting rivalries at war, and Viola Davis in a smaller stand-out role as the mommy of Joseph Foster’s Donald Miller, the first black student in St. Nicholas Catholic school.

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The big battle boils down to Sister Aloysius plotting to bring Brendan down with suspicions of something “inappropriate” involving him and Donald. Idle gossip is the Devil’s workshop as they say. This Sister may or may not be committing the great sin of bearing false witness…and we are not sure until the final act.

We only know minor details of her own past, being married during the war in Europe, but are clueless as to why she makes such ready assumptions that Brendan is this certain “type” she knows about.

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The speed with which he leaves the school and parish, but still succeeds with a promotion since the church is still dominated by men and not women in control, confirms any questions of “doubt” in her own mind even though she later confesses to Sister James in the end that she always has doubts in herself.  Read what we wish to read here: is she cut from the same cloth as Brendan and this is why she became a nun?

A rather depressing movie for me but also a very fascinating and well-put-together one, featuring plenty of clever visual gimmicks. For example, we get gusty wind and falling branches representing Sister Aloysius’ rage at times, adding a certain Gothic quality that reminds me a bit of CHILD’S PLAY.

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Father Brendan comments in his final sermon on how “the wind” takes him to new destinies and he tries, unsuccessfully, to keep his conservative rival’s office window open to allow the wind in and she repeatedly shuts it. Also two references to a light bulb breaking when he and Sister James are in conflict with her. In a possible homage to the popular mini-series THE THORN BIRDS, Brendan has his own saved flowers in his bible, potentially suggesting certain past “loves” that may not have been physically expressed but emotionally felt.

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I won’t beat around the bush here. Streep is wonderful and, easily, the most chameleon-like actress of her generation. Although all four stars were Oscar nominated here, she pretty much eats up the scenery with her role. Intriguingly, each stand-out performance by the other three involves arguing or debating with Streep, as if she is the primary creative influence on them.

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Roger Ebert loved this film and thought it was realistic simply because, as a Catholic schoolboy of the earlier 1950s, he remembered not being allowed to write with ballpoint pens as indicated here. Funny how you just need to remind a viewer of something little that he or she had half forgotten in youth in order to make them have no doubt in the plausibility of your story.

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Coming Up in December:

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December 4

GOING MY WAY (1944)
THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S (1945)

December 11

THE RAINS CAME (1939)
THE RAINS OF RANCHIPUR (1955)

don't worry be happy

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December 18

LADY FOR A DAY (1933)

December 25

BRIGHT EYES (1934)

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Essential: GOING MY WAY (1944) & THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S (1945)

TopBilled:

GOING MY WAY is not what I expected. It’s very slow in spots, but that is not a negative criticism…the slowness allows us to absorb the characters and their situations. Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald have a field day together, and it’s no wonder Paramount teamed them in two more unrelated films. Interestingly, Fitzgerald was nominated as supporting actor and best actor (something that would not be allowed later by the Academy).

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In the reviews I have read, I’ve never seen anyone call this a religious musical but that’s definitely what I would label it. It has more music than the sequel, and sometimes the plot comes to a halt so we can hear characters sing. Not just Crosby, but other ones too– like the woman who gets her own scene performing from Bizet’s ‘Carmen’. It lends to the overall entertainment value, but it does take us away from the main story line, which is what’s happening at the church.

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The last section choked me up more than I expected it would, where they bring the old Irish woman in to be reunited with her son. Leo McCarey and his cast were pouring it on, but it works– because we see how one man (Father O’Malley) helped change all their lives in a very short amount of time. The choir boys, who seemed derivative of the Dead End kids; the elder priest; the priest at the nearby parish; the young girl and her new husband and father-in-law; the opera singer; and O’Malley himself– they’re all part of a kaleidoscope of faith.

*****

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I think I like THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S a bit better than GOING MY WAY. The contrast in acting styles between Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman really underscores the fact these are two very different people trying to carry out the Lord’s work. The filmmakers seem to have refined the formula they established in the first film. Again, Crosby’s character has to work his way in and challenge how things have always been done; and again, he builds personal relationships with the children and a couple in love (in this instance, a school girl’s separated parents).

Similar to how the church was struggling in the earlier story, it’s the school that is struggling in the sequel. Plus we have another money-obsessed villain in the form of Henry Travers. And while the various characters experience their ups and downs and individual crises of faith, the very existence of the institution itself is called into question.

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This all comes full-circle when Bergman’s character is diagnosed with tuberculosis and must leave at the end, reminiscent of how Crosby left before.

They could have gone right on making a series of these films, with the Father O’Malley character bouncing from place to place like Maisie Ravier. But maybe it’s good they stopped after the second one, because it leaves us wanting more and arriving at our own conclusions about the fate of each person and where their faith took them.

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***

Jlewis:

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GOING MY WAY pulled an impressive stunt  in 1944 by earning both the biggest box office gross that year and the coveted Best Picture Oscar, while starring that same year’s most popular actor according to the annual Quigley lists, Bing Crosby, and he, in turn, won the Best Actor Oscar. This stunt would repeat exactly five decades later with FORREST GUMP and Tom Hanks. Both films were bankrolled by the same studio: Paramount.

Consequently most movie fans and critics tend to view the two equally: “good” but hardly “great” and likely to get on most (but certainly not all) viewers’ nerves when seen for a second time. You either love them or loathe them since their overall tone, as well as the lead stars’ personalities, are so laid back and easy going.

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The line in the 1994 film of “life is like a box of chocolate” is as much a tipping point for many as that ‘44 song “Swinging on a Star,” which was one of those huge hits on the Billboard charts that you could not avoid in the forties…much like “Doggie in the Window,” “I’m Henry VIII, I Am,” “Disco Duck,” “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and “The Macarena” in the subsequent six decades of the 20th century. Then again, I loved the monkeys singing it as they were a-swingin’ on cardboard stars in a vintage Jerry Fairbanks/Paramount “Speaking of Animals” short film made a bit later.

I have to bring up Jack Benny here briefly. On April 4, 1948, there was a deliriously funny radio episode on his Lucky Strikes Program in which, after “borrowing” Ronald Colman’s Oscar for A DOUBLE LIFE in the previous week’s show and losing it in a gun held stick-up, Benny tries to compensate by “borrowing” (again) Crosby’s statuette won for GOING MY WAY three years earlier. Apparently Crosby, the featured guest star that episode, wasn’t terribly concerned about its welfare and was more than willing to lend it to Benny. That is, after one of his sons was done using it a bathtub stopper!

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I think that sums up the appeal of Crosby in a nutshell. He was just so “oh hum” about life. This is why he dominated the Hollywood box office in the forties. Many Americans were in constant stress with war and other struggles and he offered welcome home steadiness. (Also why a certain holiday song of his never left the charts for a decade, since it too offered a few minutes of tranquility during times of constant stress.) I think this explains the later appeal of Tom Hanks as well since he too is an Everyman type whom many of us instantly feel at ease with, like the most trusted and comforting family member.

Basic plot for GOING MY WAY: Father O’Malley (Crosby) comes to St. Dominic’s as “fresh blood” to oversee aging set-in-his-ways Father Fitzgibbon, played by lovable Barry Fitzgerald. Initially there is a personality clash between the two priests who are separated by three decades in age and experience.

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At one point, Fitzgibbon gets so upset learning of O’Malley’s possible replacement of himself that he over-reacts with an attempted runaway scene worthy of any hot blooded teenager. Yet they do become buddies in the end with the junior priest even reuniting the older gent with his mommy, who is well into her nineties but still able to visit all the way from Ireland.

Also an Oscar winner for this film, most viewers may be more familiar with Barry Fitzgerald in other films like THE QUIET MAN or being familiar with his voice, lampooned in cartoons featuring various stock Irish characters (one example being the Porky Pig toon WEARING OF THE GRIN years later).

Before the emotional happy scene towards the end, there are some episodic incidents that include city boys (including Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer of earlier Our Gang fame) getting organized into a musical group (of course!) and with a professional soprano (Risë Stevens of the Metropolitan Opera) joining them later on a rendition of the title tune of the picture; this makes it a partial musical of sorts allowing some Bing-sing.

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A stolen turkey is sadly fated to become Fitzgibbon’s dinner and, while I am guessing no critters were killed in its making, this is nonetheless a fate shared with the last surviving rooster in the Civil War torn Atlanta of a previous Best Picture (a foul time for all fowl). There is also sudden building damage from a fire. Then there is a wayward teen girl named Carol (Jean Heather) who gets assistance from the young priest and inevitably marries a soon to depart soldier Ted Haines Junior (James Brown), son of Gene Lockhart’s hypercritical Ted Haines senior, instead of just getting a job at Lockheed.

Frank McHugh has a likable supporting role as another priest playing third party to the relationship, along with your usual salt-of-the-earth housekeeper Mrs. Carmody (Eily Malyon). Additional cast members of note doing their bit include Porter Hall, then famous musical talent Fortunio Bonanova and William Frawley.

Leo McCarey, a veteran of many classic comedies like THE AWFUL TRUTH along with a few serious dramas previously,  does a good job with his direction, preventing this from being a totally icky affair. It almost becomes one…but not quite. You can not help liking the cast who seem to genuinely care about each other.

***

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Although MRS. MINIVER spawned a sequel eight years after its release, GOING MY WAY beat it as far as Best Picture sequel-ing goes. Only took just over a year for director and lead star to reunite (since the latter film’s script was actually written first), but this time with another studio: RKO Radio. (Seven other Best Pictures also had sequels, with one of these also winning a Best Picture Oscar even though THE GODFATHER II was partly a prequel.)

I had seen GOING MY WAY multiple times but surprisingly THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S only once before. Kinda realize why…it is a much more predictable outing. Yet all of the Bing Crosby films have charm for me, even if I found him a trifle more disappointing here than his other roles.

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Setting is different: St.Mary’s has a school not unlike some we have profiled last month. Much nicer and cozier place to attend. This gives RKO the excuse to use all new sets (or recycled from unrelated projects) and not have to bother with other cast members of the previous film apart from Crosby.

In THE GODFATHER (a Paramount production like GOING MY WAY), THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S gets referenced in a key scene with Kay asking Michael if she would make a good nun. I guess Diane Keaton could be just as convincing as Ingrid Bergman in such a role despite neither actress being all that “nun-like” in their off screen lives. Bergman is totally committed to her role as Sister Mary Benedict and makes her a rather fun nun. Maybe she is not as goofy as Sally Field, who later proved nuns could get aerial as well, but she still knows how to play baseball with the girls and teach little Eddie how to box.

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Ok…I admit that I am biased here. I absolutely adore Bergman. Love her more than Bogie in CASABLANCA. Crosby is adequate here too but he just plays his usual Crosby self, no better and no worse than GOING MY WAY. In contrast, she has a way of sponging out all of your emotions as a viewer simply by her facial expressions.

A lot more focus is on the kids here than in the previous film, which makes this one more of an acquired taste for some. No doubt this was a big family movie outing during late 1945 and early ‘46 for many simply because there was much more kid and adult interaction involved than other mainstream releases. However a lot depends on your tolerance level. The first grade nativity play was so overtly cute that I almost passed out from a sugar overdose.

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There is a subplot involving Crosby as O’Malley reuniting the parents of a girl named Patsy (Joan Carroll) that was your usual 1940s domestic fluff and only the slightest variation of what he did in the previous film, but I did feel that Martha Sleeper was better than average as the mother, limited in her role as it was. Also the reunion gives Crosby a third chance to croon by a piano.

Two fun character actors livened the show up a bit: Henry Travers of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and THE INVISIBLE MAN and Una O’Connor who also appeared in THE INVISIBLE MAN. Travers has the bigger role as the city council man and big business owner who owns a big high rise that the Sisters are praying he will donate as a new school.

The old school’s financial vulnerabilities and his eagerness to use the real estate as a parking lot set up the first basic drama of our tale. (Both films had similar story points here regarding crumbling buildings, although the former had the added trauma of a fire impacting the church.)

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A second drama involves Sister Mary’s TB diagnosis that the doctor informs O’Malley of and not her, making her wonder exactly why she is being sent away from the school she loves so much. To be honest, her dilemma was really the only one that mattered to me before “The End” credits rolled.

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