Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Hopkins stars as Mary Rutledge, who arrives in San Francisco to find her impending marriage ruined by the murder of the man she meant to wed. Undeterred, Mary quickly gets herself into the good graces of the local crime boss and gambling hall owner, Louis Chamalis (Robinson). As Swan she serves as the attractive bait that lures gold-loaded miners to try their luck at Louis' rigged roulette wheel, but Louis becomes violently jealous when he suspects that she has met a man whom she likes better than him. The newcomer is handsome Jim Carmichael (Joel McCrea), a poetic miner ready to head back East if he can get out of San Francisco without losing his gold, his heart, and his life.
With its Western trappings and melodramatic perspective, the movie has to juggle the masculine elements of its world with the heroine's emotional narrative, a task made more complicated by the enforcement of the Hays Code. Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention understands that Mary is Louis' mistress, but the scenes tend to be coy enough that a stubbornly prudish person - say, Joseph Breen - could pretend that Mary's moral crisis is only about working a crooked wheel. Mary is the only female character with any screen time of note; it's clear that she's fighting to get by in an aggressively male society, and she does that by embracing stereotypes of hyper femininity like beauty, charm, and heartlessness. The dirty men of the city, agog at the arrival of a "white woman," carry her over the filthy streets to keep her dress from getting muddy; they treat her as if she were made of fine china, and she encourages it, especially because it subjects them to her control. Her chance encounter with Jim Carmichael catches her off guard and reminds her of the person she was before San Francisco, but that endangers both of them because it becomes harder for Mary to return to her life as Swan. She overcompensates at first, then relents, while around her the fierce male world erupts into violence and vigilante retribution. The ending lays bare some of the problems with the uneasy coupling of the two genres and their gendered worlds; it doesn't work, partly because it forces murderous Louis to shift abruptly from Western blackguard to melodramatic love martyr.
Hopkins gives a very solid performance as the morally conflicted Mary; she has a perfect look for the role but is also able to convey her character's calculated coldness and desire for gold. The men dwarf her physically, but she dominates the screen; only Robinson really wrests attention away from her, and he has help from his oddly piratical costume. Robinson doesn't really break any new ground with the Louis character, but he's always such a compelling villain that it doesn't matter. McCrea comes into the movie like a lamb to the slaughter; he seems too big and strong to be credible as a guy who only survives because of lucky chances, but at least it's easy to see why Hopkins' character likes him. The supporting players bring the Western atmosphere to life, with Walter Brennan in fine form as the mischievous coot, Old Atrocity, lovable in spite of his many flaws, and Frank Craven tragic and compelling as the crusading journalist who wants to tell the city the truth about its crooked ways. Brian Donlevy, always useful as a tough guy, doesn't talk much as Louis' muscle, Knuckles, but he does make his ominous presence felt. Donald Meek gets a few good scenes as Sawbuck, one of many miners to fall prey to Swan's spinning wheel, and Harry Carey leads the town's vigilantes with dogged purpose. With all of these actors in the mix, Western aficionados will have plenty to appreciate, even if the melodramatic elements of the picture don't appeal.
Be aware that Barbary Coast lives up to its setting's reputation for racial antagonism, especially of the Chinese. The picture earned an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography, but Howard Hawks went on to more enduring hits with Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Big Sleep (1946), and Rio Bravo (1959). See Miriam Hopkins in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Trouble in Paradise (1932), and The Old Maid (1939). Edward G. Robinson is best remembered today for noir films like Double Indemnity (1944) and Key Largo (1948), but he's delightful in the less familiar comedy, Brother Orchid (1940), in which he pokes fun at his earlier roles in gangster films. I find Joel McCrea irresistible in Sullivan's Travels (1941) and The More the Merrier (1943), but for contrast in his Western work try Ride the High Country (1962). If you thrill to tales of the Barbary Coast, check out Frisco Kid (1935), San Francisco (1936), or Flame of Barbary Coast (1945).
Tuesday, March 29, 2016
Hollywood, however, became home to many native Southerners, people who might have given Vivien Leigh and Leslie Howard some much needed dialect coaching on the subtleties and diversity of Southern speech. We don't always recognize them as Southerners because success in show business often required the erasure of regional distinctions like accents. Actors from many parts of the world acquired voices to match the industry's homogenized image of Anglo-American whiteness just as they acquired new names and even new biographies. Southern accents were particularly undesirable for leads, since they connoted ignorance and backwardness instead of cosmopolitan sophistication or even all-American integrity. Character actors and comedians could get away with their native dialects to a greater extent, but sometimes they ended up feeding the negative attitudes audiences had toward Southern speech. It was a circular trap well known to actors from any kind of ethnic or racial minority.
Dick Van Dyke's bad attempt at Cockney irks actual Cockneys. For one thing they tend to obliterate all regional variation, and in reality there are as many distinct Southern accents as there are types of BBQ sauce (seriously, we have a lot of types of BBQ sauce, but the only true one ordained by God is mustard-based, and I will fight you to the death in defense of it). Even in 1944 Hollywood knew it wasn't doing right by Southern voices, as this article in The Evening Independent makes clear. The whole thing has the air of a joke, but of assumed Southern accents Tallulah Bankhead is quoted as saying, "I've never heard one on either stage or screen that did justice to southerners." Bette Davis and Henry Fonda try it in Jezebel, Gary Cooper attempts it in Sergeant York, and Leigh does her honey belle thing in both Gone with the Wind and, later, A Streetcar Named Desire, but they all achieve about as much authenticity as a Bugs Bunny cartoon (like this one, which is all kinds of problematic, and I'm warning you now not to read the comment thread.)
Today things are different in the movie industry. Stars like Andy Griffith and Elvis helped to make genuine Southern voices more familiar to viewers, and the modern South shows up a lot more often in films and television shows. Still, our larger cultural sense of the South and its voices remains complicated. It's true that the South can be its own worst enemy in terms of the rest of the country's opinion of it (I'm looking at you, North Carolina and Alabama; you've both been busy lately). However, there are plenty of progressive Southern voices trying to be heard, with or without a "grits-thick" drawl. I have to wonder, when I'm listening for Southern speech in classic films, how those voices are reflecting, obscuring, and shaping a culture's identity. Maybe you will, too, the next time you sit down to Show Boat or Tobacco Road.
If you're really curious, you can hear my voice on this episode of BBC Radio's Last Word, where I'm talking about Jane Henson. My segment starts around 22.08 minutes into the broadcast.
Thursday, March 17, 2016
Another way to engage that era and its heroes - both honored and unknown - is to visit The National World War II Museum in New Orleans. This enormous museum complex takes visitors through the history of the war, on both the European and Pacific fronts, with richly detailed displays and presentations enhanced by a wealth of personal stories and artifacts. I recently had the good fortune to spend a full day at the museum, and I was tremendously impressed and deeply moved by what I found. This is an essential item for your bucket list if you have any interest in the World War II era, whether you're a classic movie fan or not.
The museum offers an outstanding centerpiece experience with the Beyond All Boundaries 4D film, which costs a little extra to do but makes for an immersive start to a day of touring. Narrated by Tom Hanks, the film includes motorized seats and props that take viewers right into the action from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo. Imagine Disney's The American Experience but wholly devoted to World War II and you'll get a general idea of the technical and narrative power of this attraction. It's actually worth the cost of admission all by itself. The interactive Final Mission also takes guests into wartime experience with a brief recreation of a submarine battle on board the USS Tang. In the Road to Berlin and Road to Tokyo exhibits, guests travel through time from the war's beginning to its end, pausing along the way to encounter artifacts, videos, and themed areas that recreate the many places in which battles were fought. At the start of your visit, you're issued a special dog tag that allows you to trace the story of one person connected to the war; you can check in with your person throughout your day at various displays, which helps to create the sense of a story unfolding in real time, not the distant past. From the moment you enter the train station themed start of the museum to the moment you leave, every exhibit offers a thoughtful, engrossing, and emotional experience.
Naturally, as a classic movie buff and fan of 40s films, I spent my day on the lookout for exhibits that connected with my cinematic passion. I was not disappointed. I found a display about Clark Gable's service with the US Air Force, although it didn't discuss the tragic death of his wife, Carole Lombard, who was killed in a plane crash while supporting the war effort by selling war bonds. Her death inspired a devastated Gable to enlist. I also located a display about the war work of director John Huston, who made films for the Army Signal Corps (which you can learn more about in Mark Harris' book, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War). In an area themed to look like the inside of a Quonset Hut, I found a truly gorgeous display of pinup girls, including Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, Lynn Bari, Evelyn Ankers, and Carole Gallagher.
While the exhibits were rarely specifically about the movies, they did show the importance of movie culture to the era, and a few displays really spoke to me because of the cinematic moments that they mirrored. An exhibit about the Merchant Marine brought Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) to mind; I learned a lot that enhanced my understanding of that film and its particular wartime moment. The bombers in the aircraft exhibit immediately made me think of that powerful scene in The Best Years of Our Lives when Dana Andrews' character, Fred, relives his memories of the war while crouching in the nose of a discarded plane. Every display helped me to understand the history that forged the era and its films, and I came away eager to rewatch wartime pictures with a better understanding of the themes and references that I might have missed before.
I also had a much more personal mission at The National World War II Museum. I was looking for references to the USS Franklin, the ship on which my grandfather, Stokes Albritton, served during the war. In the last years of his life he spoke frequently about his memories of the ship and his life in the US Navy, and I was glad to be the listener to those poignant, funny, and terrible tales. His son, John, was born in New York during the war; my grandmother lived there so that they could be together during his brief trips back to port. It was a long, long way from Jesup, Georgia, and she was alone with a baby most of the time. My grandfather was a gentle man, big but quiet, with a wry sense of humor and a razor sharp memory when it came to anecdotes and local history. On March 19, 1945, he was on the Franklin when she took devastating damage from a Japanese attack less than 50 miles from the Japanese mainland. As sailors died and flames roared around him, he replaced gunners who had been killed and fired until he was blown overboard by an explosion. He spent many hours in the water, surrounded by debris and dead men who had been his friends, before he was picked up by another ship and reunited with the Franklin. He was awarded the Purple Heart for his service.
Almost at the end of the day, as we drew toward the last few exhibits in the Road to Tokyo, I found the Franklin. A video showed film footage of the smoking ship; I wondered where in that carnage my grandfather was when the film was shot. A display spoke of the attack and the legend of "the ship that wouldn't die." Another display honored Father Joseph T. O'Callahan, of whom my grandfather had often spoken. For a moment I could hear my grandfather's voice, speaking of that day, in my memory. I felt as if he was with me again. That moment, so brief in a life that spanned 89 years, defined who he was a person. He might not have been famous, but he was my family's greatest hero, and it meant so much to see the story of his ship in the museum, there were millions of people could consider what it meant. It brings tears to my eyes even now to think about it. For this, and for everything else it does to keep these memories alive, The National World War II Museum will always have my gratitude.
Follow the link to learn more about The National World War II Museum for yourself.
Here's newsreel footage of the Franklin under attack.
You can also watch the 2011 documentary, USS Franklin: Honor Restored, to learn about the attack and its controversial aftermath.
Friday, March 11, 2016
Arthur plays Washington, D.C., resident Connie Milligan, who decides to help with the housing shortage by renting out part of her apartment. Despite her stated preference for a female tenant, she ends up with the elderly and devious Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn), who promptly decides to play matchmaker by renting half of his half to the first good-looking young fellow who turns up. When Connie finds out that Joe Carter (Joel McCrea) is also living in her apartment, she tries to evict both men, but Dingle never stops working to bring the couple together, even though Connie is engaged to an older bureaucrat named Charles Pendergast (Richard Gaines).
The story plays out as a screwball comedy, with lots of sight gags and physical humor that depend on the congested spaces of wartime Washington. In Connie's apartment, three adult strangers inhabit uncomfortably close quarters, especially when the bathroom is involved, but everywhere we see the humorous misery of people having to live, work, and play like sardines in a can. There's also a fair bit of gender reversal humor, since able-bodied young men are a rarity in the middle of the war, and the crowds of working women seem to enjoy being the predators instead of the prey. When Connie and Joe find themselves together at a club, Connie gets plenty of competition for Joe's attention; in fact, the other women are so wolfish that they make big, strong Joel McCrea look like a terrified lamb. There's a cartoonish quality to a lot of the jokes, especially the gag at the end, which only works because of our view of the apartment through its windows, but they're still quite funny. The comedy also flirts with the constraints of the Hays Code; it's not as daring as The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944), but it gleefully invites us to consider the scandalous possibilities inherent in its setup.
The performances of the three principal actors strike a wonderful balance between silliness and sympathy, making us root for their characters even as we laugh at them. Jean Arthur is very much in her element in this kind of role; she's feisty and feminine at the same time, capable of being ravishingly beautiful but also willing to appear onscreen in a housecoat and gobs of gooey face cream. Her character relishes schedules and order but isn't particularly eager to marry her boring boyfriend, played by Richard Gaines in a truly awful toupee. The two men who upend her life bring much-needed chaos and change, even if takes Connie a long to time to admit her attraction to Joe. McCrea plays Joe as both cynical and boyish; he talks a fast game but barks like a seal in the shower and plays train with Dingle as they chug around the apartment. Fans of the handsome actor will also appreciate how much of the movie he spends shirtless, which offers a nice balance to the frequent display of Arthur's shapely form. Bringing the romantic leads together is Charles Coburn's mischievous Dingle, whose motto for everything is "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" Although there's definitely something a little unnerving about the way he forces himself into Connie's company, Dingle means well, and his elaborate schemes toward the end of the picture demonstrate how far he's willing to go to bring Connie and Joe together. Coburn, always a reliable character actor and a brilliant comedian, is at his best in this role, which displays his charm, humor, and ability to enhance the effect of a funny leading lady.
Although The More the Merrier brought Jean Arthur her only Oscar nomination, she made many memorable films, including Capra classics like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can't Take It with You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). For more comedy with Joel McCrea, see Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942). Sturges also directed Charles Coburn in The Lady Eve (1941), which provided the actor with one of his most notable roles. George Stevens won Best Director Oscars for more serious fare in A Place in the Sun (1951) and Giant (1956), but for more of his romantic comedies try Swing Time (1936), Woman of the Year (1942), and The Talk of the Town (1942), which also stars Jean Arthur.