Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: BARBARY COAST (1935)

Howard Hawks made far better and more memorable films than the 1935 period drama, Barbary Coast, but the movie is worth watching for a number of reasons, not least of which is Edward G. Robinson with an earring. The title identifies the setting of this rather gritty picture as the wildest section of San Francisco during the California Gold Rush; within this powder keg location we find Robinson ensconced as one of his most flamboyant heavies, playing opposite a grimly determined Miriam Hopkins and a naive Joel McCrea. If you're a particular fan of any of those stars you'll find enough in Barbary Coast to keep you entertained, but the film also boasts several bonuses in its supporting players, including Walter Brennan, Brian Donlevy, Frank Craven, and Donald Meek. Basically a Western with a melodramatic slant, Barbary Coast isn't perfect, but it is an interesting depiction of a woman's struggle to survive in a world of violence, gold, and lawless, dangerous men.

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

Southern Voices on the Silver Screen

Hollywood has always had a complicated relationship with the American South and its inhabitants. In so much of the classic movie era, the South seems to exist only in the context of the Civil War; almost nobody appears as a resident of the region as it actually existed in the 1930s and 40s. Sure, the occasional hick or drawling belle shows up as an easy joke, but if you see Southerners represented in old movies you are usually watching a period piece with hoop skirts and cotton fields. Even then, the actors playing the Southerners weren't typically from there; Gone with the Wind was populated by Brits, not the sons and daughters of Dixie, and even Georgians who love the movie cringe at its tone-deaf, Tinseltown interpretations of a Southern accent (or Leslie Howard's refusal to attempt one at all).

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.

Tallulah Bankhead
I know something about how all of this works from personal experience. I grew up in rural South Georgia, where nobody ever told me that I had a strong Southern accent because everyone else sounded exactly the same. When I left the South for the first time, I was in high school, and I was stunned to be confronted by people who laughed at the way I talked, called me "Scarlett," and asked me if people where I came from wore shoes. The same thing happened, though to a lesser degree, when I went to college. In urban Atlanta, nobody sounded like me; peers and professors heard my accent and assumed that I must not be very bright. My History of the English Language class voted my speech "Most Pronounced Dialect" - I was actually asked to go to the professor's office and record it for the class to study. Embarrassed and determined to fit in, I quickly learned to change the way I talked, much to my mother's dismay, but I wanted people to hear what I had to say and not just the way that I said it. Today, you can still tell I'm from the South, but the voice of my childhood exists only on old cassette tapes. I have my own complicated relationship with my identity as a Southerner and the speech that comes with it.

Miriam Hopkins
That experience makes me listen carefully to Southern actors - and actors pretending to be Southern - in classic movies. Modern actors from the South do not feel pressure to change their natural speech except for specific roles (think of Reese Witherspoon or Channing Tatum), but the old studio system dictated actors' public personae to a far greater degree. This month I have been watching movies starring Savannah native Miriam Hopkins and trying to figure out how Southern she sounds. Sometimes I can hear it, especially if she's in a comedy, but in the dramas it seems fainter and less distinct. She sounds more like the other leading ladies of her era than someone who spent her childhood in Bainbridge, GA, where my uncle once pastored a church. In Tallulah Bankhead's dripping voice, however, I can always hear the tones of a moneyed Alabama upbringing, in spite of all the tobacco, booze, and globe-trotting for which the Huntsville born actress was known. I actually laugh out loud when her character claims to be from Chicago in Lifeboat (1944). Not with that accent she isn't! Like Dietrich and Garbo, Bankhead makes the otherness of her speech part of her allure, but she's an unusual example of the Southern type, and she never had a lot of success in Hollywood. Bankhead's costar in Lifeboat, Mary Anderson, was also from Alabama, but you'd never know it listening to her in that film.

Una Merkel
The character actors are more interesting to listen to because their Southern voices tend to be more noticeable. Charles Coburn, also from Savannah, makes good use of his rich, refined Southern voice, and I absolutely love to listen to Una Merkel's snarky drawl. A Kentucky native, Merkel never became a leading lady, but she did make a Southern voice sound funny and street smart, and I wish I had known about her when I was young and painfully self-conscious about the way I talked. When she died in 1986, the Los Angeles Times obituary described Merkel's accent as "grits-thick," which doesn't sound like a compliment but I guess evokes some essential Southern quality in regions where people don't actually eat grits. I'm still partial to Star Trek star DeForest Kelley, whose film career started in the 1940s, because he sounds like a real Georgian. Of course, he was one, just like his most famous character, Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy. When I was a kid, hearing him on Star Trek filled me with joy. His was the first smart, authentic Southern voice that I remember from the popular culture of my youth.

The fake Southern accents in classic movies usually sound awful; they grate on my ear the way 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

War Stories: The National World War II Museum

For many classic movie fans, the films of the World War II era hold special significance. These were the movies made during and immediately after the war, and the conflict impacted every aspect of American life, including film. Favorite stars like James Stewart and Clark Gable left the safety of Hollywood to join in the fight, as did directors like John Huston and John Ford, while Hollywood back home churned out pictures to boost morale and reflect the hopes and fears of the American people. For a lot of today's classic movie buffs, an early love for old movies was fostered by family members, especially grandparents, who lived through this era. Watching the films of the forties is a deeply personal way to connect with the experiences of the Greatest Generation; we reflect on the courage and sacrifices of our elders when we sit down with The Best Years of Our Lives, Since You Went Away, Casablanca, and even It's a Wonderful Life.

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.

Stokes Albritton

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

Classic Films in Focus: THE MORE THE MERRIER (1943)

Directed by George Stevens, The More the Merrier tackles serious wartime issues with a lively sense of humor, something contemporary audiences must have appreciated a great deal as they struggled with housing shortages, romantic complications, and the many other mundane problems of folks supporting the war effort from home. The Academy obviously approved of the picture, too; it picked up six Oscar nominations, including nods for Best Picture and Best Director, although it was supporting actor Charles Coburn who actually took home a gold statue for his work on the film. Modern audiences will find that the screwy humor of The More the Merrier appeals just as much today, thanks to the combined talents of Stevens, Coburn, Jean Arthur, and Joel McCrea, with the last two demonstrating marvelous comedic chemistry as reluctant roommates who strive to suppress the spark of desire.

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.