Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: COVER GIRL (1944)

Rita Hayworth gets top billing in director Charles Vidor’s musical romance, Cover Girl (1944), but most modern viewers will be drawn to the picture as an early Gene Kelly vehicle, and it’s true that the movie would be a lot less memorable without him. Although it’s not the most iconic picture made by either performer, Cover Girl offers a worthwhile look at Hayworth’s star power and Kelly’s rise to fame during the 1940s. Moreover, it's a fun musical outing that pairs two talented dancers with tremendous screen presence, and fans of Hayworth's earlier work with Fred Astaire will appreciate an opportunity to contrast her pairing with Kelly.

Hayworth plays Rusty Parker, a dancer who goes against the wishes of her sweetheart and boss, Danny McGuire (Kelly), by trying out for a magazine’s cover girl contest. She wins the competition and attracts the notice of the magazine’s publisher, John Coudair (Otto Kruger), who long ago fell in love with Rusty’s grandmother, Maribelle (also played by Hayworth). Coudair encourages Rusty to abandon Danny’s small-time Brooklyn show for the glamour of Broadway, especially when a wealthy show producer wants to make her his leading lady on stage and at the altar.

Although her singing is dubbed, Hayworth proves herself as a dancer in the numerous musical scenes. Her signature red tresses are also on full display, and she does look stunning, particularly in the turn-of-the-century costumes worn by Maribelle. By the time Cover Girl was made, Hayworth already had years of screen experience and had become an established leading lady; just before Cover Girl she had co-starred with Fred Astaire in You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) and You Were Never Lovelier (1942). Kelly, in contrast, was only two years into his Hollywood career, having started out on Broadway and then gotten his big break in For Me and My Gal (1942) opposite Judy Garland. Still, the highlights of the picture belong to Kelly, especially the delightfully surreal mirror dance sequence, in which Kelly dances with his own reflection after it escapes from a shop window. Choreographed by Kelly and Stanley Donen, the number would launch the collaborative screen efforts of the pair and lay the foundation for future efforts like On the Town (1949) and the glorious Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

Hayworth and Kelly make the movie worth watching, especially for the Hollywood musical devotee, but the dual plot involving Rusty’s grandmother is pretty thin, really just an excuse to give Hayworth more screen time in various costumes and hairstyles. Phil Silvers, who is much funnier with Kelly and Judy Garland in Summer Stock (1950), adds little to the story and distracts from the romance with his ill-timed gags, while the wonderful Eve Arden deserves more attention and development as Coudair’s wise-cracking, hard-working assistant, “Stonewall” Jackson. Modern viewers probably won’t appreciate the parade of real-life cover girls as much as the original audience, but they will find a lot to enjoy in Leslie Brooks’ performance as the bitchy, ambitious dancer Maurine, who constantly tries to upstage and sabotage Rusty’s career.

Cover Girl was nominated for five Oscars and won for Best Musical Score. Charles Vidor would go on to direct Hayworth in her signature role in Gilda (1946). For more of Rita Hayworth, see Blood and Sand (1941), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), and Pal Joey (1957). You’ll find Gene Kelly in The Three Musketeers (1948), An American in Paris (1951), and Brigadoon (1954). Catch Eve Arden in Mildred Pierce (1945) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and give Phil Silvers another look in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author owns all rights to this content.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: PEOPLE WILL TALK (1951)

Cary Grant is best remembered today for a long list of great films, including comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940) and Hitchcock thrillers like Notorious (1946) and North By Northwest (1959). Although not as well-known as those undisputed hits, People Will Talk (1951) is a warm and very funny romantic comedy about the human side of the medical profession. Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the movie stars Grant as a sympathetic doctor who insists on the individual humanity of each of his patients, even though his concern for them often goes far beyond the limits of his professional obligation.

Grant plays Noah Praetorius, a successful physician with a habit of collecting people who need him, from the mysterious Mr. Shunderson (Finlay Currie) to the desperate Deborah Higgins (Jeanne Crain). His popularity and success make him the target of a jealous colleague (Hume Cronyn), who hopes to discredit Praetorius by dredging up the secrets of his previous work, his unconventional methods, and his unusual associates.

The romantic angle depends on Praetorius’ evolving relationship with Deborah, a single young woman who attempts to kill herself when Praetorius tells her that she’s pregnant. The doctor saves her life and lies to her in order to prevent a second attempt, but somewhere along the way he falls in love with her, too. Grant balances the serious and comic aspects of this situation perfectly, and Jeanne Crain gives the troubled heroine a powerful appeal. The idea of a romance building around an unmarried woman’s pregnancy seems surprising, even shocking, for the time, but the movie handles it with delicate sympathy, with the details about Deborah’s dead lover calculated to make a contemporary audience forgive her transgression and deem her worthy of the hero’s unconditional acceptance.

Several especially engaging character actors provide ample support for the romantic leads and help to steer the movie back into comedic territory. Finlay Currie proves a real scene-stealer as the simple-minded Shunderson, whose history turns out to be both pitiful and bizarre. Hume Cronyn is delightfully petty and vindictive as Grant’s chief antagonist, Professor Elwell, and Margaret Hamilton has a great uncredited appearance at the start of the film as a former housekeeper who knows something about the good doctor’s past. Walter Slezak and Sidney Blackmer round out the cast as some of the doctor’s loyal friends, and there’s a wonderful scene in which the three men act like children in their enthusiasm over a toy train set.

Try Holiday (1938), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) for more Cary Grant comedies. You’ll find Jeanne Crain in Leave Her to Heaven (1945), A Letter to Three Wives (1949), and Pinky (1949). A four-time Oscar winner, Joseph L. Mankiewicz also directed memorable women’s pictures like Dragonwyck (1946), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), and All About Eve (1950). Look for the wonderful Scottish actor Finlay Currie in I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), Great Expectations (1946), and Ben-Hur (1959). Finally, catch Hume Cronyn in Lifeboat (1944), The Seventh Cross (1944), and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

An earlier version of this post originally appeared on Examiner.com.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: IN OLD CHICAGO (1937)

Mrs. O'Leary and her troublesome cow make their obligatory appearance in this 20th Century Fox tale of urban disaster, which lets the viewer know up front that In Old Chicago (1937) is more a fable than a history lesson. Like the earlier San Francisco (1936), this picture sets a very personal story against the backdrop of a critical moment in American history, and it also sports an impressive round of special effects to demonstrate the scope of its climactic conflagration. Until the fire breaks out, however, there are plenty of fireworks between the stars to keep the audience watching, with Tyrone Power and Don Ameche as sparring siblings and Alice Faye as the love interest who may or may not be enough to make Power's opportunistic heel go in for reform.

Power plays Dion O'Leary, the son of Irish immigrants and a shrewd if unethical businessman. His brother, Jack (Ameche), is a straight arrow type who becomes a lawyer and eventually a politician, thanks largely to his scheming brother's secret efforts. In the sprawling, dangerous city of Chicago, the two represent starkly different visions of the city's future, although they unite in their love for their hard-working mother (Alice Brady) and affable baby brother (Tom Brown). Each is eager for the downfall of crooked Gil Warren (Brian Donlevy), who runs the city as his personal domain. Dion also nurses a passion for his business partner and star singer, Belle Fawcett (Alice Faye), but his unscrupulous methods constantly undermine their chance for romantic happiness.

Power, Ameche, and Faye were among Fox's most reliable stars, and the studio cast them in a variety of pictures in different combinations, but In Old Chicago offers an excellent opportunity to study the differences in the two leading men. Both charismatic, dark-haired, and talented, the two actors work in opposite directions as the clashing brothers. Power shows the darker side of his relentless energy, while Ameche's debonair persona inclines toward gentility. Faye, always compelling with either leading man, does her musical numbers with her usual charm but becomes most interesting when thrown into company with the disapproving Mrs. O'Leary, especially after the fire erupts and plunges the city into chaos. In a cast of first-rate players, Alice Brady stands out in the role of the Irish matriarch; she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance, which combines all of the classic images of maternal strength and suffering, along with some adorable beer swilling and a fanatical devotion to her dead husband's portrait.

Two years before the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind (1939), In Old Chicago offers a spectacular display of flaming ruin, which serves as the film's climax and thrusts our protagonists into life or death peril. Fox lavished money on the fire sequence, which includes enormous sets blazing and expansive views of people fleeing the disaster and then suffering through the smoke and misery of the aftermath. The Academy Awards didn't yet have a category for Special Effects; otherwise, In Old Chicago would certainly have been a strong contender. Still, as impressive as the effects are, they wouldn't have the same impact without our attachment to the terrified members of the O'Leary family, who find themselves separated and struggling to survive through the very worst moments of the fire.

Be sure to appreciate character actor Andy Devine in a supporting role as Dion's pal, Pickle. In Old Chicago earned six Oscar nominations and won two, including Brady's award for Best Supporting Actress. Director Henry King reunites with Power, Ameche, and Faye for Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938), and his other pictures include the Power vehicles Jesse James (1939), The Black Swan (1942), and Captain from Castile (1947). Power and Faye also star together in Rose of Washington Square (1939), with Power once again playing the heel. Ameche stars with Faye in Hollywood Cavalcade (1939), Lillian Russell (1940), and the delightful comedy, That Night in Rio (1941). Alice Brady, sadly, was near the end of her career in 1937; she died in 1939 at the age of 46. See more of her in The Gay Divorcee (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936), and her final picture, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939).

Friday, January 30, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: MOROCCO (1930)

Marlene Dietrich makes her Hollywood debut in Morocco (1930), with Josef von Sternberg, her director for The Blue Angel (1930), presenting his star to the American cinema scene. True to the promise of its exotic locale, Morocco offers a feast of smoldering gazes and sexual tension, raised to a fever pitch by relentless desert heat. Dietrich, a world weary siren, stirs the blood of two leading men, Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou, both compelling as rival embodiments of passion and ease. Just as it did for American audiences then, Morocco provides a fine introduction to Dietrich now, giving us a chance to experience her ineffable allure at the very height of its power.

The story opens in Morocco with Tom Brown (Gary Cooper), a member of the Foreign Legion who passes the time by seducing every woman he sees. The wealthy Monsieur La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou) and jaded singer Amy Jolly (Dietrich) soon arrive by boat, although Amy rejects La Bessiere's constant offers of service. Tom, naturally, makes a play for the cool chanteuse, but he and Amy feel drawn to each other more powerfully than either can explain. Unfortunately, Tom's previous affair with the wife of Adjutant Caesar (Ullrich Haupt) has consequences that may take him beyond Amy's reach forever.

Dietrich certainly makes an impression with her performance, especially during her first appearance at the crowded club where foreigners and natives gather. Dressed in a man's tuxedo and completely unconcerned about the rabble's reaction, she seduces with languid assurance and a knowing gaze. She compounds the sexual ambiguity of her man's clothes by kissing another woman on the lips in payment for a flower from her hair, a daring act even in a Pre-Code film. In case we miss the point of all this, Dietrich then comes out in a skimpy costume and sings "What am I bid for my apple?" Both La Bessiere and Tom buy apples, making their sexual interest clear, but only Tom ends the song with the key to Amy's room. Throughout the film, Dietrich's persona exudes experience; she knows the difference between sex and love, enough that Tom's many affairs don't trouble her at all. Real devotion, however, is new to each of the three main characters; Tom discovers decency he didn't know he possessed, while La Bessiere adores Amy so selflessly that he will even help her into the arms of his rival, if that is what it takes to makes her happy. For Amy, a woman's devotion is embodied by the small band of women who follow the Legionnaires. The camera lingers on them as she watches them shoulder their burdens and trudge across the barren sand after the men they love.

Morocco is a talking picture that retains the aura of a silent film; its characters express themselves more eloquently and honestly with looks and actions than with words. They are not given to long-winded speeches, even in response to the most complicated questions. When La Bessiere asks Amy if she loves Tom, she answers, "I don't know. I hope not." Still, when she looks at him, we have no doubt about the state of her heart. Tom presents himself as an unrepentant cad. "Anybody who has faith in me is a sucker," he says, yet we later find him carving Amy's name inside a heart, as lovestruck as any earnest boy, despite the native girl perched on his knee. Madame Caesar, played by Eve Southern, rarely speaks at all, but her burning eyes follow Tom with desperate desire. The visual quality of the picture emphasizes the symbolic, from Amy's slow destruction of La Bessiere's card to the final scene, in which Amy's action, utter madness in any real world, is the only ending imaginable.

Morocco earned four Oscar nominations, including nods for Dietrich and von Sternberg. For their later Hollywood collaborations, try Shanghai Express (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil is a Woman (1935). Catch more of Dietrich at her best in Destry Rides Again (1939), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and Touch of Evil (1958). Gary Cooper won Best Actor Oscars for Sergeant York (1941) and High Noon (1952), but he was a silent film veteran whose big break came in 1926 with The Winning of Barbara Worth. Urbane Adolphe Menjou also stars with Cooper in A Farewell to Arms (1932); his other films from the 1930s include Morning Glory (1933), Little Miss Marker (1934), and A Star is Born (1937).

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: BALL OF FIRE (1941)

In Howard Hawks' Ball of Fire (1941), Barbara Stanwyck turns her tough dame persona to comedic purpose, a feat she also performed that year in the Preston Sturges comedy, The Lady Eve (1941). Both are terrific examples of the screwball genre, but while the Sturges picture relies on biblical allusions, the Hawks film ventures into the world of fairy tales. The ball of fire that Stanwyck plays in this movie is a street savvy Snow White, a little drifted perhaps, but still sweet enough to charm seven reclusive professors and one very inexperienced Prince Charming, represented to great effect by Gary Cooper. With Hawks' lively direction, a brilliant screenplay by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, and winning performances from Stanwyck and Cooper, Ball of Fire has plenty to offer already, but it becomes a veritable treasure trove of delights thanks to a supporting cast that includes Dana Andrews, Dan Duryea, Henry Travers, Oskar Homolka, S.Z. Sakall, and an utterly unrecognizable Richard Haydn.

Stanwyck plays nightclub singer and mobster moll Sugarpuss O'Shea, who has to hide out from the district attorney's office when her boyfriend, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews), is pinned for a murder rap. A perfect spot conveniently appears at the home of a group of professors working on an encyclopedia. The grammarian, Professor Potts (Gary Cooper), needs a consultant about modern slang, and Sugarpuss certainly knows her way around a colorful phrase. Sugarpuss takes up residence in the house, much to the delight of the seven elderly professors and the bewilderment of the much younger Potts, and soon enough the bashful scholar falls for the duplicitous dame. Joe Lilac, however, has his own plans for Sugarpuss, and the mild-mannered academics must take on a crew of gun-toting gangsters to help true love conquer all.

Cooper is surprisingly hilarious as the straight arrow Potts, but Stanwyck gets all of the best lines, thanks to a plot that hinges on her character's knowledge of slang. Always a great talker, the actress gets dialogue that really zings in this picture, although the modern viewer might sometimes be as befuddled as Professor Potts about what it all means. Slinging slang from "corny" to "yum yum," Stanwyck's character teaches Potts a previously unknown physical vocabulary, as well, making the kissing scenes especially fun. In gowns designed by Edith Head, Stanwyck is truly radiant, particularly in a spangled number that catches the light just so to throw sparkles onto the screen and stardust into Cooper's eyes. Cooper makes a perfect match for the actress; his Potts is a dynamic character, stuffy and focused at first, then suspicious and confused, and at last a head over heels romantic driven by love. He ends the picture a yodeling, boxing man on fire. It turns out that kisses can wake up Prince Charming just as well as they work on Snow White.

The supporting players are all winners, from Dana Andrews as the scheming Joe Lilac to Allen Jenkins as the garbage man, but the actors playing the professors are some of classic film's most beloved characters. They give the animated dwarfs of Snow White (1937) plenty of competition for cartoonish appeal with their quirky passions and odd bodies. Familiar faces abound. S.Z. Sakall and Leonid Kinskey are both remembered by most viewers for their roles in Casablanca (1942), while Henry Travers is best known as the bumbling angel of It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Oskar Homolka, who had played the heavy in Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936), proves a scene-stealer among the group, especially when his character attempts to drive. The most memorable of the bunch, however, turns out to be Richard Haydn, heavily made up as Professor Oddly and employing the same bizarre voice he would later use as the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland (1951). A widower and a botanist, Oddly trades laughs for sentimental tears in his best scene, in which he recalls his love for his long dead wife. It's almost impossible to recognize the actor known today as Max in The Sound of Music (1965), but Haydn it is, making his second big screen appearance at the age of 36, four years younger than Gary Cooper.

Take a moment to appreciate Kathleen Howard and Mary Field as the movie's other women, and be sure to notice Elisha Cook, Jr. in a bit role early on. Ball of Fire earned four Oscar nominations, including a nod for Stanwyck as Best Actress, but went home empty-handed. For more comedy from Howard Hawks, try Twentieth Century (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938), and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Survey Barbara Stanwyck's remarkable career with Baby Face (1933), Double Indemnity (1944), and The Furies (1950). Gary Cooper won Best Actor Oscars for Sergeant York (1940) and High Noon (1952), and he also stars with Stanwyck in Meet John Doe (1941) and Blowing Wild (1953). Get a better view of Dana Andrews in Laura (1944), and don't miss Dan Duryea in Scarlet Street (1945).

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: SORRY, WRONG NUMBER (1948)

Adapted by Lucille Fletcher from her own original radio play, Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) successfully translates its tale of murder and hysteria into the new medium without losing its connections to its radio roots. Anatole Litvak directs this tense noir thriller, which cranks up the suspense as Barbara Stanwyck's invalid anti-heroine becomes more and more unhinged, convinced that someone is coming to kill her at 11:15 pm on a lonely, hot night in the middle of New York. Great performances from Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster drive the film, which offers an ironic commentary on the way in which a domineering woman's constant manipulation pushes her husband toward increasingly desperate criminal acts.

Stanwyck stars as Leona Stevenson, a wealthy invalid left alone in her New York home when her servants, nurse, and husband all manage to be out at the same time. Needy and irritable, Leona hunts for husband Henry (Burt Lancaster) by repeatedly calling his office and complaining to the telephone operators, but then she stumbles into a conversation in which two men plot to kill a woman at 11:15 that very night. Leona is horrified, but her anxiety only increases as other callers begin to fill in the details of a complicated plot involving Leona, her husband, and the extent of their marital discord.

Stanwyck's performance dominates the picture, and it earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (she lost to Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda). It was the fourth and final Best Actress nomination of her career, though she never actually won. Still, the role of Leona shows why Stanwyck remains such an icon among classic Hollywood's leading ladies. She can be good, she can even be funny, but she is always most delightful when she's very, very bad. Like Stanwyck's other noir characters, Leona is a combination of strength and weakness; she goes after innocent Henry like a tiger on the prowl, then blackmails him with her tantrums and physical frailty to keep him tied to her and her father's company. She discounts Henry's need to accomplish anything for himself and makes him so addicted to her upper class lifestyle that his original integrity dissolves into base, ugly greed. She loves him and destroys him; the story unfolds to us in flashbacks that reveal how she poached him from a rival (Ann Richards), made him a captive of her father's company, and drove him to crime. At the same time, Stanwyck manages to make us feel bad for Leona, whose terror is very real as the moment of the killing draws near. She wants to save the unknown victim, and she wants Henry to love her. We'd have to be heartless monsters not to pity the sick woman, hysterical and heartbroken, sobbing into the phone as her world comes apart.

The story's origins as a radio play help to explain the way the narrative is constructed, with a single character confined entirely to telephone conversations and flashbacks as actions. There are moments in Sorry, Wrong Number where you can close your eyes and experience the very auditory nature of the events. We constantly hear trains passing, phones ringing, lines disconnecting, and other sounds that add to the mounting tension. Leona communicates with people from her past through the telephone, first her father (Ed Begley), and then Sally Hunt Lord (Ann Richards), and these conversations trigger memories that fill in the years between her first meeting with Henry and their current state. A late revelation from her doctor (Wendell Corey) devastates Leona, while the mysterious calls from Waldo Evans (Harold Vermilyea) make no sense to her but clarify the awful truth to the viewer. The last moments of the picture revel in dramatic irony, since we know something that Leona never figures out. Henry, too, has his moment of poetic justice, with the last line of the movie, "Sorry, wrong number," dripping with the implications of what has just happened. Time is up, and nobody has any more nickels. Such is the very essence of noir.

For more of Barbara Stanwyck's fatal women, see Double Indemnity (1944) and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). Burt Lancaster's other noir films include The Killers (1946), Brute Force (1947) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957); he won the Oscar for Best Actor for Elmer Gantry (1960) with four career nominations in all. Anatole Litvak also directed City for Conquest (1940), The Snake Pit (1948), and Anastasia (1956).

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND (1936)

Like most biographical and historical movies, The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936) takes liberties with its source material, but for the most part it does so in the service of a more compelling narrative. The film's director, John Ford, has always been associated with a certain kind of romanticized historical moment, and Ford's hallmarks turn up in every facet of this period drama, including its themes, its use of music, and its cast. With Ford at the helm and Nunnally Johnson on the screenplay, The Prisoner of Shark Island delivers an exciting story inspired by the experiences of Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth and subsequently found himself imprisoned at Fort Jefferson on the desolate islands of Florida's Dry Tortugas. In the middle of the riveting action, classic film fans will find a number of favorite stars, including Warner Baxter, Gloria Stuart, Harry Carey, and John Carradine, whose performance as a vicious prison officer is especially effective.

Warner Baxter takes the lead as Dr. Samuel Mudd, who unwittingly aids Lincoln assassin Booth one fateful night in 1865. Tried by a biased court to appease an angry public, Mudd avoids execution but is sentenced to life in prison at Fort Jefferson, where horrific conditions make any term likely to end in death. Mudd's devoted wife, Peggy (Gloria Stuart), and father-in-law (Claude Gillingwater) strive to free him without success, even though a former slave, Buck (Ernest Whitman), serves as an inside man to assist Mudd in the prison. When yellow fever breaks out on the island, Mudd has the opportunity to save those who have treated him so cruelly and prove himself a better man.

Although most of the movie was shot on sound stages, Fort Jefferson was and is a real location, a perfect inspiration for this kind of harrowing prison tale. In its finest moments the picture captures the desperation of men trapped in such a place, especially when fever sweeps the island and critical supplies run dangerously low. Warner Baxter plays Mudd with vigor and intensity; he has particularly good scenes during his escape attempt and his bout with yellow fever. Whatever we might make of the real Samuel Mudd, this one clearly descends from the Count of Monte Cristo and the Man in the Iron Mask. Such characters require fierce antagonists, and Mudd gets a very sharp one in John Carradine's Sergeant Rankin, who delights in tormenting the doctor at every opportunity. Several shots offer Carradine's distinctively hawkish features in breathtaking closeup to make the most of every line and nuance in the actor's face, where we read his intelligence, energy, and cruelty as only a performer like Carradine can render them. Gloria Stuart makes a lovely sufferer in her scenes of anguish over Mudd's fate, while Harry Carey has a very solid role as the island's commandant, a good man who ultimately corrects the injustice done to Mudd.

Race ultimately proves a thornier problem for The Prisoner of Shark Island than historical fidelity, and the movie's depiction of black characters may explain why it is less celebrated today than other Ford films. Ford tries to show Mudd as a humane former slave owner and even a faithful friend to Buck, but at the same time he populates the screen with stereotypes who reinforce racist assumptions. In the picture's worst scene, Mudd approaches a mob of terrified black soldiers who have holed up together to avoid the yellow fever outbreak. Even though they are armed, the soldiers obey Mudd because they perceive him as a Southern master due to his voice and bearing. The encounter suggests that Mudd possesses an authority over the black soldiers that his Northern, non-slaver captors lack. It's not a particularly surprising attitude, given that Gone with the Wind (1939) and other movies about the Civil War South engage in the same tactics, but for the modern viewer such material can be very hard to take. In spite of those issues, the movie has enough going for it that it deserves some serious attention, especially from Ford fans, and it might usefully serve in a thoughtful discussion about Ford's engagements with race in his later, better known films.

Be sure to note the brief appearance of Frank McGlynn Sr. as Abraham Lincoln; the actor portrayed the president at least a dozen times, and you can also see him in the role in The Littlest Rebel (1935) and The Plainsman (1936). For contrast, try Ford films like Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) or the much more progressive Sergeant Rutledge (1960). Silent movie veteran Warner Baxter is not as familiar today as many other leading men of his era, but he won the Oscar for Best Actor for In Old Arizona (1928), and you'll find him in 42nd Street (1933) and the series of Crime Doctor pictures. See Gloria Stuart in The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and Titanic (1997). If you want to learn more about the real history of Samuel Mudd and Fort Jefferson, visit the National Park Service site for Dry Tortugas, or better yet make a special trip to see the island for yourself.


PS - I was inspired to watch The Prisoner of Shark Island by my own trip to Dry Tortugas National Park. Here are some photos of the real site that you can compare with the film's recreation of it. No, there were no sharks in the moat!