Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Gentleman's Agreement (1947)

Director: Elia Kazan


Bigotry historically has been a major component to much of the world’s atrocities throughout recorded history. 1947’s Gentleman’s Agreement is a motion picture that is a direct attempt to confront the issues of bigotry focusing on racism, more particularly anti-Semitism. It was an interesting and controversial issue to take on within Hollywood whose major industry was primarily founded and operated by immigrants of Jewish decent. Starring Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, and John Garfield, in what may have been his best performance, this film was a strong statement picture in the days following World War II, surprisingly earning great box office numbers and being one of the year’s greatest critically acclaimed features.

Gentleman’s Agreement is a social drama about a journalist who pretends to be Jewish to research for stories on anti-Semitism. When journalist Phil Green (Gregory Peck) is approached with the idea of writing a series of articles on anti-Semitism he concocts the best way to dive into the subject is by taking on the persona of being Jewish to see how people react to him. He discovers the subtle, but major impact on the bigoted nature that underlines the public subconscious that shuns people of Jewish descent from opportunities and inclusion within society, and how some hide their ancestry in order to keep from prejudice. For Phil the hurt strikes home as his son, Tommy (Dean Stockwell), is bullied for being part of his Jewish ploy, while discovering how people treat him while they think him a Jew, and watching best friend Dave (John Garfield), who is Jewish, being kept from living in certain communities and lack of job offers.

Most difficult of all is Phil realization of beloved fiancée, Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), the niece of his publisher and creator of the idea for the study on anti-Semitism, failing to attempt to stop others from sharing their prejudice ways. Kathy struggles with the idea of making a difference in the underlying predisposition of society, which puts her and Phil’s relationship in jeopardy, seeing her as a part of the problem upon the release of his well-received series of stories. With eyes opened Kathy learns an important lesson from Dave and efforts to help protect him and his family move into an understood anti-Semitic community, a movement that brings reunited her with Phil.

The picture is a strong, defiant film that took a major stance on an issue that, though in the right, was a controversial to conserve about in the time it was produced. With powerful writing and wonderful acting the feature tackles a social issue that American culture was still battling. Despite it not taking on the perhaps more prevalent issue of racial segregation that permitted most walks of American life, this  in the year where Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Gentleman’s Agreement is a step in the right direction for Hollywood towards breaking down the unjust barriers of society’s ills. With time and society’s evolution the feature lacks the punch it provided originally as much in the world has changed, but kept in context it is a marvelous picture with a great message and a equally engrossing tilt on the subject.

In battling the issue of antisemitism it is ironic that the film was produced by one of Hollywood’s most powerful executives who happened to not be of Jewish decent. Darryle F. Zanuck, the studio head at 20th Century-Fox, made the decision to produce the adaption of the Laura Z.Hobson’s novel after he was refused membership at the Los Angeles Country Club under the false assumption that he was a Jew. Production would be difficult as Zanuck was met with resistance, including a decline from Cary Grant to star as Phil Greene in fear of the role in such a picture could damage his carrier. Many of Hollywood’s other executives, those of Jewish descent urged Zanuck to not make the feature for sake of causing further underlining animosity for their heritage and the industry filled with successful Jewish men.

Ultimately the Gentleman’s Agreement would become somewhat of a passion project, helmed by Elia Kazan who was well on his way to becoming known as a director of powerful issue pictures, beginning with 1945’s critical success A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Gregory Peck would take on the role of Green despite his agent’s insistence on him passing, while co-star John Garfield was eager to take on the more secondary role due to his conviction on how important the film would be for combating antisemitism. Despite Peck not getting along with director Kazan on set, his performance earned him his third Best Actor nomination in four years at the Academy Awards, who would happen to be nominated alongside Garfield honored that year for him performance in Body and Soul.

Amid the kick back in the industry Gentleman’s Agreement opened to generally favorable reviews from many of the industry’s critics and publications. The largest draw back observed was the feeling that the love story between Phil and Kathy was a bit forced, a sentiment shared by Elia Kazan after completing the film. Surprisingly the feature would be the top grossing movie for 20th Century-Fox, a second highest grossing of all pictures that year. Cementing its success, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and coming away winning three major categories, including Best Director, Best Supporting Actress for Celeste Holm who plays a secondary love interest for Phil, as well as the ultimate prize for Best Picture. All these accolades justified Darryl Zanuck for the picture many thought would cause more trouble than good.

That award season also saw Dorothy McGuire earning herself an Oscar nod for his convicted role as Kathy, a character that serves as the vessel in which the film delivers its strongest lesson, that doing nothing to stop prejudice can be as damaging as being the deliverer of the injustice. To round out the award highlighted cast was the Best Supporting Actress nomination for Anne Revere playing the supportive mother of Phil Green who helps see him through the ordeals of being shunned for his work standing in as a Jew.

However, with all the success, not all was roses for the members of Gentleman’s Agreement. In the rise of the Red Scare in America the leftist views such a feature had many members of the production summoned to testify for the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1951 Anne Revere would refuse to appear and would not appear in a feature film again for nearly 20 years. John Garfield testified, but would not cooperate, leading to his temporary blacklisting in Hollywood. Supporting actor Albert Decker, who for a short time served in the California State Assembly, was critical over the purpose of the committee and he too was blacklisted. It appeared in a country returning from the war and a government frightened of Soviet infiltration was not willing to embrace the evolution in the nation’s psyche, holding to a heavily conservative nature and unwilling to accept power of Hollywood’s voice as the medium began to advance as a tool for political statements outside of warfare.

Hollywood was beginning to see just how powerful it was with the creation and mass acceptance of “issue” pictures. Gentleman’s Agreement was but a step in the right direction with an artistically wonderful feature that preached acceptance of one’s character over the judgement of one’s heritage. It is always touchy to delve into such issues, and it is perhaps best captured in a scene where Gregory Peck attempts to explain antisemitism to his son, played by the exuberant Dean Stockwell. In the scene Peck in his most fatherly way struggles to explain bigotry to his young son, not wanting to break his naïve yet positive outlook on the world with this ideal of hatred, struggling to explain a real world problem without being combativeness.

That is what this movie was, a vehicle to opening the audience’s mind to contest evil with intelligence, centering on the good in man to defeat the ingrained prejudice of prior generations. The handsome success would manifest the film’s triumph, but the great accomplishment is how tame the film would become in future generations where less people may be affected by such tribulations.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The (1947)

Director: Norman Z. McLeod

Adapted from the celebrated short story by James Thurber, this Technicolor picture starring talented funny man Danny Kaye is remembered for its vibrant character, as well as it bright colors. Molded to allow its star to perform his talented mix of physical, verbal, and musical comedy the film manifests far more of its lead actor, Danny Kaye, than its source author, James Thurber. Its result was a grand box office number, a frustrated novelist, and generations of Kaye fans, entertained by his brand of humor.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a Technicolor musical comedy mystery following the story of a problematic daydreamer who finds himself mixed in an adventure even he cannot believe. Walter Mitty (Danny Kaye) is a proofreader at a New York publishing company that suffers from an overactive imagination and chronic daydreaming, commonly imagining himself as a dashing, confident hero which is practically his opposite in every way from his much more meeker self. His constant lack of attention leaves Mitty to appear apologetically bumbling and forgetful to all in his life, which includes his overbearing mother (Fay Bainter), his idea stealing boss (Thurston Hall), and a fiancée (Ann Rutherford) and her mother who will one day control him.

When Walter runs into Rosalind (Virginia Mayo), a beautiful mysterious blonde who appears to be the girl of his dreams, he gets pulled into a cryptic adventure protecting her from a series of tough goons in pursuit of her. The escapade is so random and unbelievable to Walter that it makes him question his own reality as Rosalind appears and disappears randomly through what would be his normal day, wondering if this is all just one of his elaborate daydreams. On his wedding day Walter pieces together that Rosalind is real, running from the alter to save her from the band of baddies led by Dr. Hollingshead (Boris Karloff). When Walter is rebuked by his mother, his boss, and his fiancée for his actions our hero finally stands up for himself, resulting with him happily marrying Rosalind and earning himself respect he had only in his daydreams.

The picture proves to be a vehicle that wonderfully showcases the humor that Danny Kaye manifests so well. From his verbal talents of being able to sing tongue twisters, babbling off long and complicated series of nonsense, and goofy accents, to his creative slew of characters that he appears to pull out at whim, he remains centered enough to still play the straight man of the story. There is plenty of Kaye hamming it up for the camera with his boundless expressions of flabbergasted confusion and much more, making sure that there is a singular focal point to this motion picture. The feature is light and bright, focusing on the playfulness and fun of Walter’s daydreams and his adventure while being able to not take itself too seriously, resulting in many situations for humor and the happy ending where the meek main character earns his confidence and the girl.

When James Thurber optioned his short story for $10,000 to producer Samuel Goldwyn he hoped for a much truer adaption than what he would eventually get. The film was to reunite Director Norman Z. McLeod and stars Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo from a pair of previously successful comedies, 1945’s Wonder Man and 1946‘s The Kid from Brooklyn. With Norman Z. McLeod, who best known works came from comedies with the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, as well as the Topper series, and Danny Kaye, known for his comedy acts and radio shows, this film appeared to be set in the direction of more zany humor than what Thurber would have intended.

From the beginning Goldwyn was experiencing troubles with the script for the feature, claiming that Thurber was hired to consult to aid in forming the script. However as the film moved towards production the scripted conformed to fit the stylings of Kaye’s performances, allowing him to structure a plot that showcased his many different characters with acts and numbers that provided Kaye’s own twists to be seen throughout. It is clear to see Kaye is fully invested in the film and delivers a performance that is bursting with energy and silliness that is rounded out with the plot of a daydreamer questioning his reality. Thurber was not amused. With a possibility to change the title before its release Goldwyn stuck to the original inspiration for its namesake, however Thurber would joke that the film should have been titled “The Secret Life of Danny Kaye.”

Virginia Mayo returns to star in her third picture alongside of Kaye, coming off her performance in the Academy Award winner for Best Picture  The Best Years of Own Lives, where she portrayed a greedy girlfriend. Although her performance here is much more flat and she appears nearly caked in her makeup under the bright lights for this Technicolor film, she is lovable and the hook to the story that makes Walter Mitty a bit more grounded.

From the number of supporting characters through the picture Boris Karloff presents himself a wonderful villain. Best known as the iconic original Frankenstein’s monster for the 1931 Universal classic, Karloff with his wonderful British accent and proper ways, yet menacing scowl simply grabs the attention of the audience every moment he is on screen. It is understandable how difficult it may have been for him burst through the typecasting as a villain, but his performance is enduring in this brief role in this silly comedy.

Also notable for her appearance in this picture is the Academy Award winner Fay Bainter with her soft yet domineering manner as Walter’s mother. Character actor Thurston Hall brings humorous not so sly quality to his performance as Walter’s boss, Bruce Pierce. Former Andy Hardy female mainstay Ann Rutherford portrays Walter fiancée Gertrude with her very overbearing and judging mother played by the lovable Florence Bates.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty proved to be a critical and box office success for Samuel Goldwyn, despite it not being loved at all by James Thurber. With time many have come to rank the picture as one the greatest comedies in American cinematic history. There are others that find the talents of Danny Kaye to be playing too much to the camera taking away from what was a creative story. It is undoubtably the talents of Danny Kaye was loved by many as his career continued with great success for decades to come, a symbolic performer that tended to stay within a realm of family friendly humor with his gift of gad, music, accents, play on language, and even dance and Walter Mitty was a grand vehicle for that.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty would return as a silver screen idea in the late 1990s, bouncing around movie scripts and various names as possible stars for the picture. Eventually 2013 saw a new Secret Life of Walter Mitty directed by and starring Ben Stiller, which was in part produced by Samuel Goldwyn Jr. and John Goldwyn, the son and grandson of the original’s producer, Samuel Goldwyn. The remake would hardly resemble the Danny Kaye original which by many movie fans tend to consider fan superior.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Fun and Fancy Free (1947)

Animation Directors: Jake Kinney, Bill Roberts, HamiltonLuske
Live Action Director: William Morgan

The high class animated features of Walt Disney’s past including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, and even Fantasia appeared a great distance away following the end of World War II and their 1947 release of Fun and Fancy Free. The late 1940s was a period of economic recovery for Walt Disney and his animation studio, finding small success in the releasing of “package films” to help rebuild the finances and experience that would eventually lead to a second classic age of animated features for Disney seen in the 1950s. For this, their forth package film, comes a picture featuring two primary stories featuring celebrity narrators, as well as appearances by some of the studio’s star characters in what amounts to be a short feature film that barely holds together.

Fun and Fancy Free is an animated package picture featuring two primary shorter stories, one a tale of a circus bear who escapes captivity to live in the wild, and the second an interpretation of “Jake and the Beanstalk” featuring the classic characters of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy. Loosely bound together with Jiminy Cricket, of Pinocchio fame, as a sort of master ceremonies an animated character roaming in a live action world serves to bridge between the halves of the film. The fist half of the picture shares the tale of “Bongo,” a circus performing bear who dreams of living free of his demeaning confinement, narrated by singer/performer Dinah Shore. In this extended short all the characters are mute, leaving Ms. Shore’s narration key to the storytelling, as Bongo escapes from his circus train enclosure only to discover he is ill prepared to survive in the forest and must learn to fight for his new love interest from a more beastly rival.

Later Jiminy finds his way to a child’s party where ventriloquist Edgar Bergen shares the tale of “Mickey and the Beanstalk” to the birthday girl, Luana Patten. Following closely to the classic “Jack and the Beanstalk” story Mickey, Donald, and Goofy appear as poor, hungry farmers who find themselves in a land above the clouds by way of a magical beanstalk. There our heroes must rescue a singing golden harp from the clutches of an evil giant, an act that would return prosperity their once prosperous valley. Throughout the tale we cut intermittently back to Edgar Bergen and his two silly dummies conversing showcasing the narrators talents as the short meanders to a conclusion. In a anticlamtic fashion when our heroes escape the clutches of the villain, the giant leaves the audience with one last joke by interrupting Mr. Bergan while roaming through modern Hollywood.

Of the package features to this point Fun and Fancy Free feels to be the most disjointed. Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros served as travel logs and lightly educational studies of international culture, while Make Mine Music at least had a theme of music as a story telling element. Fun and Fancy Free however lacks a coherent theme. With Jiminy Cricket the feature attempts to sew together the idea living with fewer worries in carefree happiness, as the title insinuates. However, the two main stories have nothing actually in common. The additions of Dinah Shore and Edgar Bergen, although they are talent in their own rights, appear tacked onto the short subjects to add additional appeal to the marquee for the feature. In the end, the picture is fine for the showcase of the Walt Disney animators, products that are slightly better than their common short subjects, but far from their pre-war quality in style and substance. It was still some of the best character animation of the time, but for a studio capable of far more, it does feel like a cheap product to call a feature for Walt Disney.
That feature was in fact not much more than a stop-gap, an inexpensive utilization of material with intent to keep the animators practicing, producing a relatively inexpensive feature to earn profits with intent reinvest in later, more lavish features. Disney and his animators had considered a Jack and the Beanstalk retelling featuring studio face Mickey Mouse since before WWII, and after the financial shortcomings of Bambi and Fantasia the framework for “Mickey and Beanstalk” was in production before the attack on Pearl Harbor indefinitely put the film on hold. Around this same time an adaption of Bongo, a short story by Sinclair Lewis, was considered as a possible circus animal based follow up feature to the successful and relatively inexpensive feature film Dumbo. As American Armed Forces stationed themselves at the newly finished Disney studios in Burbank, CA and the nation entered the war, Bongo too was put on hold in the writing stages as Walt Disney became dedicated to the commissioned propaganda and training films for the American war effort.

Following the war Disney began to reestablish themselves into feature animated films by copying a semi-successful package style first practiced with their Good Neighbor projects, Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros when they released Make Mine Music in 1946 which was especially various original short subjects edited together under a theme. For “Mickey and the Beanstalk,” much of the animation was completed before the war, but revealed to be lacking the means to make it a feature film. Initially plans had “Mickey and Beanstalk” paired with an approximately equal in length adaption of “The Wind and the Willows,” but plans changed and it was combined with “Bongo” which saw a somewhat rushed production since it needed no recorded dialogue for animation.

The talents Dinah Shore and Edgar Bergen were made to add box office appeal, as well as flesh out the film’s relatively short running time in order to make the film suitable as a feature film. The 30 year-old Shore was a famed singer of the day whose talents had led to brief appearance in a handful of motion pictures and various radio and musical concerts. Here she serves as an unseen narrator delivering the tale of Bongo via a story record album Jiminy Cricket is listening to, which allows Ms. Shore’s expressive tones and beautiful singing voice to tie together the silly story of a bear out of his element. Edgar Bergen, however, received significant screen time as narrator while also performing with his ventriloquist dummies. Famed for his radio shows and various appearance in many motion pictures Bergen is clearly very comfortable in front of a camera, albeit his time on screen does get in the way of the far more interesting “Mickey and the Beanstalk.” His performance is amusing, but ultimate unnecessary, lacking relevance and energy to help save the picture.

For the first time in a Walt Disney feature film the animated character voice talents receive on screen screen credit as Pinto Culvig, Clarence Nash, and Cliff Edwards, voices of Goody, Donald Duck, and Jiminy Cricket appear in the opening credits. Walt Disney reprises his voice work as Mickey Mouse, a task he had been performing since Miskey first spoke in 1928. This would be the final time Walt would do the voice work for his animated alter ego on a regular basis, passing the work along to sound effects artist Jimmy MacDonald. Walt would only return to voice Mickey again during the run of the popular children’s program “The Mickey Mouse Club”, as an act of love for the show’s material during a very busy period during the mid-1950s.

Just as abrupt as the movie begins the feature ends, leaving a feeling of a rushed, unpolished film by Disney standards. The picture, released in September 1947, did generally well with audiences, but suffered once again from the critical let down of not meeting the high level of quality some hoped Disney would have returned to after the war. In time the two halves of the film would be better known as separate pieces airing on Disney television programming.

Of the film’s two halves “Mickey and the Beanstalk” is probably the more famous of the two as it features the studio’s biggest star alongside of his perhaps more famous friends Donald Duck and Goofy. The short edits out Edgar Bergen’s live action segments, and most of his narration, leaving in only what was necessary which leaves moments of lengthy, awkward silence and odds cuts and dissolves. However, many may not notice as baby boomers and later generations would grow up with this edited version as their definitive version of the cartoon.

Like Make Mine Music, and Melody Time, Fun and Fancy Free would become a feature many Disney fans may have never known about as the shorts were known better in pieces then in their feature forms. Fun and Fancy Free suffers more from package style than its brothers as the most disjointed of the package film run. The Adventure of Ichabod and Mr. Toad two years later would be similarly assembled as two shorts butted up as one feature film, but its loose tie as literary works would play better as a theme. Fun and Fancy Free is interesting to view purely to observe how the shorts where originally released, but the divorce of the two shorts stands better alone than that lacking product this feature delivered to audiences.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Pearl, The (1947)

Golden Globe for Best Cinematography

An adaptation of the John Steinbeck novella, this Mexican-American picture would become one of Mexican cinema’s greatest praised productions during the nation’s golden age of movie making. Directed by the acclaimed filmmaker Emilio Fernández, The Pearl manifested his creative influences from cinematic pioneers from across the world. Its result was the most praise feature film out of Mexico during its time, produced in two languages it would become a historically celebrated picture on both sides of the Mexican-American border.

The Pearl is Mexican-American drama of a poor diver who discovers a valuable pearl with hopes of bringing his family wealth and prosperity, only to unleash the ugly greed by those who covet his new found treasure. In a poor off the coast of Mexican a meager diver, Quino (Pedro Armendáriz), discovers a grand pearl which he dreams will free he and his wife, Juana (María Elena Marqués), from poverty. Greedy trade dealers wishing to take the treasure for their own attempt to swindle and steal the pearl from Quino, sending the poor diver with his wife with infant son in hand running for their lives. Suffering through the hardships of the wilderness, Quino eventually kill is attackers, but not before losing his son during the scuffle. Returning to their home feeling the pearl had brought nothing but death and despair, Quino and Juana hurl the pearl into the ocean, ridding them of the prize that charged their lives for the worse.

The story is simple with simple characters, a flat villain, lacking and stiff dialogue, and less than inspiring performances. However the filmmaking is wonderfully constructed, shot on location in Mexico the picture is shot and assembled in a manner that harkens to the stylized filmmaking of Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. Playing with shadows, silhouettes, extreme low angles, and emphasis on actions captured in still close ups, this film feels more connected to the pioneers of European and Russian cinema than the style more commonly seen in nearby Hollywood that permeated the all theaters of North America at the time. Because of this the picture feels much more intimate and emotional while being bringing with it a grander feel despite its rather meager budget.

Heavily influenced by the filmmaking of Sergei Eisenstein, director Emilio Fernández brought a much more unique feel to his craft, elevating the quality of Mexican cinema. Having worked for a time in Hollywood in various positions, including as stunt double for Douglas Fairbanks and as the fabled model for the famed Oscar stature, Fernández was introduced to Eisenstein’s work. At this impressionable time in his life Eisenstein directed and released Que viva Mexico!, a feature the Russian born director produced in Mexico while Fernández was learning the craft in Hollywood, capturing his imagination with this very unique style. He would take back to his homeland these stylistic visions, molding himself in in a similar manner, becoming a master on filmmaking in Mexico, with the The Pearl becoming the breakout internationally.

As much as this picture was Emilio Fernandez’s vision, the picture was under the creative control of author John Steinbeck. Originally serialized for the magazine “Women’s Home Journal” the story was not officially published until after the release of the motion picture. Steinbeck was attached to the production from the very beginning, penning the screenplay to adapt his own work for the silver screen. Inspired by the pearl rich region along the Mexican coast Steinbeck, whose name was attached above the title, would arrive on set in the middle of production causing brief delays in production with his sometimes unwanted input on the picture.

Simultaneously shot in English and Spanish the film was among the very first Mexican produced features with a wide release in the United States, with distribution by RKO. Bi-lingual Mexican American stars Pedro Armendáriz and María Elena Marqúes carry the load of performing in English and Spanish. Making the film play well in both markets portraying the husband and wife fighting to stay alive and save their treasure. Their performances are somewhat lacking, but that can be attributed to the poor, unnatural dialogue from the script. They deliver lines as if nearly out of breathe ent to equate to the awe like state of the two, but it comes off overly-dramatic many times. Their best performances come when absolutely no dialogue is given, allowing the universal understanding of expression and body language to do the speaking. Both actor and actress were big stars for the Mexican cinema during their country’s golden age, with Armendáriz’s career spanning across the boarder into Hollywood, becoming a favorite of director John Ford’s westerns.

The relatively short feature film released to generally positive critical praise with The Pearl winning multiple Ariel Awards, the Mexican equivalent to the Oscars, including Best Director and Best Actor. State side the film was praised from its look as the film was awarded a Golden Globe in cinematography. For Emilio Fernández The Pearl cemented him the greatest director in Mexican cinema as the film played well internationally, including competing in the 1947’s Venice Film Festival. His style would set new standards for the Mexican industry as his depiction of Mexican culture, music, and dancing in the The Pearl would become the generic styling of Mexican culture depicted in movies for years to come.
With time critics have not been so kind with The Pearl. As with any medium styles change, and with that Fernández’s own style evolved to be observed as too slow and old fashioned for the Mexican cinema decades later. Select critics and historians have come to look at The Pearl as not the masterpiece it once was, but rather viewing it as overly simple and borrowing heavily from the Eisenstein style, feeling Fernández was less than unique. However in 2002 the picture was elected for preservation in the National Film Registry, a great honor of American cinema, for the film’s impact on American culture as this picture connected Mexican and American cultures through the creative means of the movies.

Gentleman's Agreement (1947)

20 th Century-Fox Director: Elia Kazan Starring: Gregory Peck , Dorothy McGuire , John Garfield Honors: Academy Award for ...