Saturday, June 23, 2012

Cemetery Scenes: The Presence of the Dead in John Ford’s Westerns

The great Westerns strike a balance between the opposing experiences that define life on the frontier; they understand that the thrill of adventure comes hand in hand with the very real threat of death. Cowboys and cavalry fire their guns and gallop across the open land like eternal mythic heroes, but all around them we see evidence of mortality and feel the burden shouldered by survivors. Nowhere is this memento mori sensibility more present than in the Westerns of John Ford, where dead characters frequently function as mute participants in the lives of the protagonists, watching and listening from the grave while those still living struggle to make sense of the events that unfold. In three of Ford’s best known films, My Darling Clementine (1946), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and The Searchers (1956), cemetery scenes highlight the relationships between the living and the dead and remind us of the human cost of settling the Western frontier.

In My Darling Clementine, Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp is a quiet, reflective character, and his visits to the lonely grave of his youngest brother, James, remind us that Wyatt has already paid dearly for his life on the range. Only briefly alive in the film, James is the sacrificial lamb whose murder roots his brothers in Tombstone and spurs them to action against the corrupt Clanton family. Ironically, Wyatt seems to talk more to his dead brother than he does to the two who are still alive, perhaps because James is no longer bound by the masculine code of behavior that normally governs men’s relationships. The graveside chats with James allow Wyatt to reveal a more sensitive, communicative side of himself, one that must be carefully guarded in the world of living men, where stoicism and action are highly prized. James’ persistent presence, symbolized by his grave, also reminds the audience why Wyatt and his remaining brothers are in this fight, not because they enjoy killing but because justice demands it. 

The humanizing element of the cemetery scene is particularly important in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, in which John Wayne’s aging Captain Nathan Brittles frequently visits the graves of his wife and daughters. We never learn the exact cause of their deaths, although the graves indicate that all three died more or less at the same time, suggesting either an Indian attack or some terrible accident. While the younger men vie for the attentions of Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru), Brittles clearly considers himself still married to his dead wife, making reports to her about events at the fort and his own reflections on them. Other reminders of the dead family appear throughout the film. Photographs of Mrs. Brittles and the two daughters repeatedly turn up in important shots, and the frame that holds them is decorated with a yellow ribbon that connects them to Olivia and the other women of the fort. It’s clear from the way that the film treats the Brittles family relationship that Olivia functions as a surrogate daughter to Nathan; she is about the same age that his daughters would be had they lived. Bittersweet and tender, these moments in the film soften Wayne’s character and suggest the importance of love and family even to career soldiers on the rugged frontier.

In The Searchers, the film’s critical cemetery scene takes place very early, when young Debbie Edwards (Lana Wood) is kidnapped by the Indian raiding party led by Scar (Henry Brandon). The grave in question belongs to Debbie’s grandmother, the mother of Wayne’s troubled protagonist, Ethan Edwards. The grave suggests the way in which the Edwards’ tragic frontier story repeats itself, with the elder Mrs. Edwards also a victim of Indian attack. Just before her entire family is murdered by the Comanche raiders, Debbie is sent to the grave to hide, but this time the dead can provide no consolation to the living. Mrs. Edwards serves only as a silent witness to her granddaughter’s fate. Driven almost to madness by these repeated losses at the hands of the Comanche, Ethan launches an obsessive search for his niece (who might actually be his daughter, but that’s a different thread of the film’s twisted plot). His goal is to kill Debbie and thus return her to the family circle symbolized by the Edwards cemetery plot, which will complete the connection between Debbie and her grandmother, even though Debbie actually survives the original attack. Although it offers no protection to the little girl, the grave does offer the audience a better understanding of the Edwards story and a glimpse into the true origin of Ethan’s hatred.

In each of these films, the cemetery represents the presence of the past in the lives of the protagonists. For Wyatt Earp, Nathan Brittles, and the Edwards clan, the cemetery holds family members who remain crucial to the stories of the surviving characters, reaching out beyond the grave to motivate, comfort, or bear witness. In their own ways, they are as important as any of the living characters in the films, reminding us that the dead are always with us. 

This post was originally published at the now defunct classic movie blog, The Cinementals.

Monday, June 18, 2012

LEGO Monster Fighters: Making AFOL Dreams Come True

2012 is turning out to be a banner year for LEGO themes, with LORD OF THE RINGS and SUPER HEROES already taking shelves by storm and several new series of the hot minifigure line making their debuts. Still, the best new line for the AFOL crowd might well be MONSTER FIGHTERS, a horror themed collection with obvious connections to classic movie monsters as well as a decidedly steampunk sensibility.

MONSTER FIGHTERS brings a lot to the table. The monsters themselves are solid updates of the previous monster minifigures released in the STUDIOS collection and minifig series. The new ghosts, for example, are especially welcome and feature some neat little details that make them more interesting overall than earlier versions. Additional zombie figs are sure to delight collectors who missed out on them in the original series of minifigs, bringing AFOLs that much closer to full cast recreations of Michael Jackson's "Thriller." Other great monsters include the Swamp Creature, Mummy, Vampyre, Vampyre Bride, Monster (and accompanying Crazy Scientist), and the improved Werewolf with Wolverine style claws for greater An American Werewolf in London gore.

The fighters provide some long-desired accessories, including a fabulous bowler hat, a dashing epee, and some excellent steampunk body parts like a mechanical leg. I would personally like to thank whoever had the inspired idea to name one of the fighters Rodney Rathbone, an obvious homage to Basil Rathbone, who starred in a large number of horror movies in addition to playing Sherlock Holmes. The other fighter characters include Major Quinton Steele, rocking an updated variation on earlier British explorer figs, and the much-appreciated heroine Ann Lee, whose name evokes horror star Christopher Lee. As a group they're a good mix of classic Universal, Hammer, Corman, and 80s style horror characters, giving fans the opportunity to create a lot of interesting scenarios in their MOCs.

Unlike the LOTR sets, female figs are included in this collection, which merits several points of favor from the Virago. Ann Lee is even featured in a reasonably priced set, although the really glorious Vampyre Bride is only found in a high-end set. We'll also be getting a Zombie Bride later on this year, when the zombie set finally appears in the US. Thank you, LEGO, for not having the only female character be a victim this time! I doubt it will pacify the angry bloggers and media types who got riled up over LEGO FRIENDS, but Ann Lee is exactly the kind of female character I want to see more of in LEGO themes (hey, LEGO - EOWYN! - hint, hint!). I know as a female AFOL I represent an incredibly tiny niche, but it's nice to have characters like Ann Lee turn up in affordable sets in high profile roles. It makes me feel like LEGO cares about my business and the geek girl market in general.

The vehicles in the collection are a little hit or miss, but the parts in them can easily be cannibalized to make more interesting and less clunky cars. I admit that the vehicles are often my least favorite part of a LEGO theme, which explains my greatly cooled interest in STAR WARS sets. The MONSTER FIGHTERS line does a better job including play set structures and scenarios, with the $180 Haunted House due out this fall as the highlight of the collection. The bricks in the sets include some very handy pieces, especially for castle and town builders, and the glow-in-the-dark bricks are especially cool.

I admit that I'm hoping to see a lot more MONSTER FIGHTERS before the line is discontinued. So far, 2012 has been one of the best years yet for the AFOL community in terms of new themes that really attract our interest. Keep it coming, LEGO!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: THE STRANGER (1946)

Orson Welles’ tense post-war thriller, The Stranger (1946), is not as famous as his most iconic films, but as an example of Wellesian noir it stands up very well against The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and Touch of Evil (1958), and it shares with both of them a delirious sense of the workings of fate. Filled with symbolic flourishes and characteristically dizzying camera work, The Stranger offers plenty of nail-biting excitement in the cat and mouse game being played by the two male leads, but it also provides an unusual perspective on the conventional noir good girl in its heroine, a woman who turns out to be less of a doormat than her husband believes.

Welles stars as Charles Rankin, a teacher hiding his past as a Nazi mastermind in a sleepy Connecticut town. To complete his disguise, Rankin weds the unsuspecting Mary (Loretta Young), the daughter of a prominent judge. Rankin’s secrets threaten to come to light when Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), a war crimes investigator, tracks him down. With his own life on the line, nobody is safe from Rankin’s desperate schemes, not even his surprisingly loyal wife.

Welles plays Rankin as a male femme fatale, a devious seducer with a tightly wound, even obsessive nature. The nervous, wild intensity of his gaze lets us know that he’s a psychopath long before the revelation of his concentration camp atrocities. Robinson is his polar opposite, calm and collected even in the most dangerous encounters. His character, Wilson, strongly resembles Barton Keyes in Double Indemnity (1944), in which Robinson also broke out of his gangster stereotype. The two men function as the living doubles of the devil and angel who pursue one another atop the town’s great clock; Rankin is a force of chaos and death, while Wilson comes brandishing the sword of justice. The ending might be heavy-handed where that symbolism is concerned, but it’s still very exciting to watch.

Loretta Young has a complex part to play as the victim of Rankin’s deception. He dismisses her as a convenient prop for his disguise, but he underestimates the power of her love for him and her outrage at his inevitable betrayal. It isn’t his past as a Nazi mass murderer that turns her against him, but his attempt to get rid of her as the only person whose testimony can destroy him. Noir fans who tire of the good girl’s incessant martyrdom will love the end of this film, where we find out that even the nicest girl has her limits.

Give Richard Long some attention as Mary’s handsome younger brother, Noah. You might recognize him as Ma and Pa Kettle’s industrious eldest son in The Egg and I (1947) and its sequels. Look for more of Welles the actor in Citizen Kane (1941), Jane Eyre (1943), and The Third Man (1949). Loretta Young’s other films include The Farmer’s Daughter (1947), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), and Come to the Stable (1949). See Robinson in more typical roles in Little Caesar (1931) and Key Largo (1948).

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: GRAND HOTEL (1932)

Directed by Edmund Goulding, Grand Hotel (1932) is unique in the annals of Oscar history; it is the only Best Picture winner not even to be nominated for any other awards. Despite the Academy’s odd response to the film, Grand Hotel offers a lot more to the modern viewer than mere Oscar trivia. The ensemble cast includes many of classic Hollywood’s greatest names, and the microcosm of the hotel offers a fascinating study of the human condition as experienced by its guests.

The plot follows the overlapping stories of several guests at the Grand Hotel in Berlin, including an unhappy ballerina (Greta Garbo), an impoverished baron (John Barrymore), a dying middle-class worker (Lionel Barrymore), a desperate industrialist (Wallace Beery), and a pragmatic stenographer (Joan Crawford). In just a few nights, their lives are changed forever, even as life goes on within the hotel and beyond its walls.

Each character plays an important part in the overall story, and each is connected to the others in some way, although the entire cast never assembles in a single scene. This is probably for the best because it becomes almost impossible to know which actor to watch when three or more of them get together in a shot, particularly when the two Barrymore brothers simultaneously interact with both Joan Crawford and Wallace Beery. There’s a tremendous amount of scene-stealing going on, even from Lewis Stone as the jaded doctor who wanders in and out of the picture like a one-man Greek chorus.

Twists of fate abound, particularly where John Barrymore’s Baron and Beery’s General Director Preysing are concerned. Their actions propel them toward an encounter that is as tragic as it is inevitable. The Baron, a rake and a thief, rediscovers his own better nature in the arms of the dancer Grusinskaya (Garbo), while the Director’s pretense of morality rapidly collapses under the strain of a crucial business deal. The other characters are more or less caught between them and their changing fortunes. Doom hangs over them all, and the ending only partly alleviates our sense of it. The wheel turns, and all are carried with it, a point underscored even by the porter (Jean Hersholt) awaiting the birth of his child.

Edmund Goulding also directed The Dawn Patrol (1938), Dark Victory (1939), and The Razor’s Edge (1946). See more of John Barrymore in Dinner at Eight (1933), Twentieth Century (1934), and the hilarious Midnight (1939). Brother Lionel is best remembered today as Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), but he played much more sympathetic characters in A Family Affair (1937), Captains Courageous (1937), and You Can’t Take It with You (1938). See Joan Crawford’s Oscar-winning performance in Mildred Pierce (1945) and Garbo’s great comedic role in Ninotchka (1939) for more of those iconic leading ladies. Wallace Beery tied Fredric March for Best Actor for his performance in The Champ (1931), but you can also find him playing Long John Silver in the 1934 adaptation of Treasure Island.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

LEGO Lord of the Rings: Frodo's Face

LEGO totally nailed Frodo's "Ring" face.
You have to hand it to LEGO - when they get something right, they really get it right! The single best detail in the LOTR sets is Frodo's "Ring" face. In the films, Frodo falls under the power of the ring when he puts it on, and Elijah Wood's impossibly large blue eyes become great pools of suffering and fear. The minifigure's expression presents marvelous opportunities for drama in LOTR scene recreations. All of my Frodo figures will probably look this all the time, but the reverse side has a more placid expression for non-traumatic Frodo moments.

Yes, the one ring has become the one armband, but LEGO people don't have fingers.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: THE LITTLEST REBEL (1935)

Before Gone with the Wind (1939), even before Jezebel (1938), there was another 1930s Civil War melodrama, also starring one of Hollywood’s top leading ladies as a Southern belle caught in the crossfire of the conflict. That would be The Littlest Rebel (1935), with a heroine played by that tiny dynamo of tap dancing charm, Shirley Temple. Directed by David Butler, The Littlest Rebel takes a decidedly optimistic view of the war in general, but it isn’t really any more sentimental or more problematic than those better known period films. In fact, Shirley’s character, Virgie, is a lot more sympathetic than either of the spoiled debs played by Vivien Leigh and Bette Davis, and we get some wonderful musical numbers from Bill Robinson to sweeten the deal. 

Temple plays Virgie Cary, a true daughter of the Confederacy who lives with her adoring parents on a big plantation filled with remarkably contented slaves. When the war begins, her father (John Boles) goes away to fight, but her mother (Karen Morley) dies as a result of the ensuing hardships. Virgie’s father returns home to bury his wife, where he is captured by the Union, but Virgie reminds the commanding officer (Jack Holt) of his own child so much that he helps the father and daughter escape. Both men end up sentenced to death by the Union for their actions, and it’s up to Virgie and Uncle Billy (Bill Robinson) to appeal to President Lincoln (Frank McGlynn, Sr.) in order to save them.

Dickensian sentiment rules in The Littlest Rebel, especially during Mrs. Cary’s death scene, but the film’s attitudes would have gone over quite well in the era that the story depicts. Shirley is unapologetically adorable, and her dance routines with Robinson showcase her real talent as a performer. John Boles makes for a very handsome daddy, while Jack Holt provides a rougher exterior for contrast, even though he turns out to be just as susceptible to Shirley’s charms. Most of Shirley’s films involve the formation of a new family to replace one that the child protagonist has lost, but The Littlest Rebel is unusual in its decision to provide Virgie with two daddies to make up for the loss of her mother. 

Children who watch the movie will need to talk over a number of issues with an adult. The war is represented as beyond Virgie’s comprehension, which is natural enough, but the 1935 depiction of racial issues is really almost as thorny as the concept of antebellum slavery. Shirley briefly appears in blackface (although for more or less practical purposes), and the slave children on the plantation treat her as a tiny queen. Bill Robinson’s character is relatively dignified, but Willie Best’s broadly comic slave, James Henry, belongs more to the Stepin Fetchit school. It’s worth noting that the Union soldiers in the movie aren’t any nicer to the slave characters than the Confederates, which makes one wonder what their motives for fighting are supposed to be.

If you like Shirley in The Littlest Rebel, there are plenty of other films to see. I’m particularly fond of her two pictures with director John Ford: Wee Willie Winkie (1937) and Fort Apache (1948), although both of them will appeal to grown-ups more than children. See more of John Boles in Stella Dallas (1937) and the Temple picture, Curly Top (1935). Don’t miss Stormy Weather (1943) for a really great showcase of Bill Robinson’s talents, although you can also find him with Shirley in The Little Colonel (1935), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), and Just Around the Corner (1938).