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Meet John Doe (1941)

downloadFrank Capra and Christmas go together like baked apples and cinnamon. Even some of his non-Christmas films have a Christmas vibe. But I’ve always had a slightly ambivalent feeling about Capra’s films, partially because I can never figure out exactly what he’s trying to say. There often seem to be contradictory messages. I like to be able to take the meaning of a film and crystallize it and no film defies crystallization more than Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe.

And after watching it this morning on TCM, I still can’t decide whether I like Meet John Doe or not. Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper are adorable together (two of my favorite actors), the cast is good and it is certainly a thought-provoking movie. Heart-warming, humorous, cynical, sentimental and totally irritating. I am eternally fascinated. It’s also a Christmas film.

When a newspaper is taken over by the wealthy business tycoon D.B. Norton, Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) loses her job along with many other people. In revenge, she writes one last column, purportedly from a man threatening to commit suicide by jumping off City Hall on Christmas Eve in protest against the current state of society. The column causes a sensation, with people writing and calling in, begging “John Doe” not to jump and the paper is besieged with accusations that John Doe is a fraud. The frazzled editor Henry Connell (James Gleason) finally manages to find Ann, who tells him that she made the letter up, but she has an idea to capitalize on it. Why not find a man to play John Doe and milk the sensation for all it’s worth? If Connell isn’t willing, she threatens to tell their rival paper that it was all a fraud.

download (1)What they first have to do is find a man who looks like an all-American John Doe and Connell and Ann interview various tramps who show up at the newspaper looking for work or claiming to be the “real” John Doe. The man they ultimately choose is John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a baseball pitcher turned tramp who hurt his arm and is looking for work so he get can get enough money to have a specialist fix it. Ann talks him into being John Doe and they put him in a hotel, get him new clothes and coach him on how to act.

But John Doe fever catches on beyond anyone’s expectations, especially after he makes a speech over the radio (written by Ann) about the average guy. It causes such a sensation that J.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) takes notice of how people are reacting. Perhaps he can use the sensation for his own ends, riding the new John Doe wave to the White House, and maybe beyond. He enlists Ann to handle Willoughby, despite Connell’s growing discomfort with the direction the fraud is taking and the increasing complexity of the lie, which is only resolved in a riot and an attempted suicide.

The film’s message is all over the place.  It is a warning that fascism could come to America, media exploitation, a call to the working man to stand together, a protest against commercialism and greed, a tender romance. Capra believes in the common man’s capacity for kindness and at the same time their capacity for mobbing and naivete. He also seems to be warning against the danger of centering a movement on the appeal of one person (John Doe) and at the same time asking if an ideal or principle can still be valid when it is based on a lie. But Capra never seems to fully develop any of these themes.

Annex - Cooper, Gary (Meet John Doe)_03My biggest frustration with the movie is the character of Ann Mitchell: a living contradiction. She is part cynical newspaper exploiter and part sentimental idealist who supports her mother and two sisters. The reason she’s so desperate for work is because her mother is always giving away their money to help people. There’s some irony there. Her father was an idealist who was generous to a fault. Is her money-at-all-costs attitude a reaction against her father’s excessive generosity? This unspoken tension is never resolved. She seems to idealize her father. One moment she’s flatly telling Norton what she wants is money and the next she is starry-eyed with enthusiasm for John Doe and what he stands for. It’s like a reverse Pygmalion; she’s in love with the man she created…who she created somewhat in the image of her father.

Also interesting is that John Willoughby seems to lose his identity in John Doe. By the end, he believes completely in what John Doe stands for and that he really is John Doe. He has no identity apart from that and whether or not Ann loves him for being John Willoughby or John Doe is never answered. The ending is downright confusing. Even Capra said he tried various endings and never could figure out how to bring it to a satisfactory close. There are messianic overtones. Ann basically asks John to take on the mantle of John Doe; he sort of dies and is reborn on Christmas Eve as the man of the people.

The cast – as in all Capra films – is unmatched. Only someone as skilled and genuine as Barbara Stanwyck could make a mess of a character like Ann Mitchell still appealing and interesting. She’s especially great as the fast-talking journalist (listen to her try to sell Connell on her idea, talking a mile a minute…she sells him on it, too). Gary Cooper is earnest and sincere and has adorable chemistry with Barbara Stanwyck (I love them in Ball of Fire, too).

Edward Arnold, Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan

Edward Arnold, Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan

Walter Brennan plays the tramp who is a tramp by choice and doesn’t believe in civilization. He calls people helots, but even he can’t do without human connections and never does find it in his heart to abandon John, even when John becomes a tacit accomplice in the fraud. Edward Arnold is the would-be fascist with his brown-shirted motorcycle brigade, quietly menacing as he polishes his spectacles. And James Gleason is excellent as the hard-boiled newspaperman whose sympathy is with the people. Even smaller roles, such as Bert, the man who tells John Willoughby what the John Doe movement has meant for him, are well played.

Perhaps what the core of film is about is helping people. It sounds simplistic, but if every single person helped their immediate neighbor the world would be very nearly perfect. The John Doe movement was about the average person helping their neighbors, finding humanity, dignity and comfort among each other, apart from politics, government, the media or corporations. In one of John Doe’s speeches, he talks about what it would be like if the spirit of Christmas prevailed all year long. But Capra also recognizes the many conflicting realities of the world that prevents it. But that does not invalidate the principle. What Capra ultimately seems to want to convey is that no exploitation or lie can invalidate a true principle.

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2015 in Movies

 

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White Christmas (1954)

download (1)This Christmas I did not watch as many Christmas movies as I usually do, though I had a huge list of films I intended to see (someday, I really am going to watch It Happened on 5th Avenue and the 1951 A Christmas Carol). Partly, this was because I went out of town for the holidays. But the day before I departed, I was able to watch one last Christmas film with my friend, Andrea Lundgren. We watched White Christmas.

In general, I tell people that I prefer Holiday Inn to White Christmas (partly because of Fred Astaire), but I do enjoy White Christmas and my cousin – who is just discovering classic movies – recently told me that he loved White Christmas, particularly the dialogue, and since I watched it with my friend who also loves this movie, I was in a highly receptive frame of mind.

I think what I appreciated most this time around is the interaction between Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. They play Bob Wallace (Crosby) and Phil Davis (Kaye), who meet in the army during WWII. When Davis saves Wallace’s life, he uses it as guilt leverage to wheedle his way into a musical partnership with the already popular and famous Wallace. Fortunately, it turns out well, because Wallace and Davis become an even bigger hit as a duo act, then go into musicals and become producers. In fact, their success is so far beyond what Davis had ever hoped for that he now wants Wallace to ease up a bit and stop working so hard and give Davis a little free time.

How Davis intends to accomplish this is to get Wallace married with tons of kids and he keeps pushing girls at him without success, until they hear the Haynes Sisters perform: Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera-Ellen). That finally does it, with Bob Wallace and Betty Haynes attracted to each other…which is fortunate, since Phil Davis and Judy like each other. As Andrea wondered, what would have happened if they both liked the same girl? Awkward.

Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, Vera-Ellen

Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, Vera-Ellen – singing about snow while on a train…which I love, because any time spent on trains automatically makes me like the movie better

Bob Wallace and Betty Haynes are pretty slow movers when it comes to relationships, but between the mutual machinations of Phil and Judy, they manage it so all four of them spend Christmas in Vermont at a lodge that turns out to be owned by their former general, General Waverly (Dean Jaggers). General Waverly’s having a tough time, though. There’s no snow in Vermont and his ski lodge is empty of custumers. He’s also feeling a bit cast off and useless, put out to pasture while the world moves on. But Bob, Phil, Betty and Judy set out to help by putting on a Christmas show (“let’s put on a show” is another venerable classic movie tradition).

White Christmas is kind of a conglomeration of bits and pieces of story ideas, songs, and performers, cobbled together to make one story, but that is part of its charm. Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney provide the vocals; Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye dance. Crosby and Kaye bounce off each other in bromance fashion and Clooney and Vera-Ellen play close-knit sisters. We start out in war-torn Italy in 1944, move to the Florida of nightclubs and musicals and end up in cozy Vermont. There is the war, the ambition of entertainers, the desire for family and a home, and the pain of being passed over in retirement.

Even the music is cobbled together by composer Irving Berlin from his vast oeuvre. The title song, “White Christmas,” was originally introduced in Holiday Inn by Bing Crosby in 1942 (a song that resonated across the country and among the servicemen abroad) and most of the other songs were introduced in previous films and musicals. “Count Your Blessings,” however, was specifically written for this film.

white_christmas_01One of the things I particularly noticed this time was Bing Crosby’s delivery of dialogue. It’s not that he isn’t believable as a romantic lead, but it seems like he is at his absolute best in a buddy picture scenario. His best partners are guys: Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye. He brings an apparently spontaneous, easy-going, free-flowing and entirely natural sounding dialogue and dynamic to his interaction with these men that is unique to him. As my cousin told me, what he liked most about the film was the dialogue. He felt it was still relevant today; how people actually talk to each other.

While Andrea and I were watching, she wondered how old Rosemary Clooney was. Neither of us knew, but it turns out that she was the youngest of the four lead actors. She was only twenty-six and playing the older sister to Vera-Ellen, who was around 33. At the same time, Bing Crosby was around 51 and Danny Kaye 43. I recently watched Susan Slept Here, starring Dick Powell at 51 and Debbie Reynolds at 23 (they were supposed to be 35 and 17 respectively) and one of the first things anyone mentions about that film is the age gap, but I’ve never heard one comment about White Christmas. But as Andrea observed, Rosemary Clooney has a natural “gravity,” which makes her seem more mature. It also goes to show that in movies, age is often relative. It’s how it appears more than it how it actually is.

Side note: I did not realize that Michael Curtiz directed this film. What an incredibly versatile and seriously underestimated man. He’s probably directed more classic favorites than any other director: CasablancaThe Adventures of Robin HoodMildred Pierce, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Captain BloodAngels With Dirty Faces…he directed the kind of classic films even non-classic film lovers know.

No review of White Christmas is complete without a few musical clips. This scene always cracks me up; watch how Bing Crosby can hardly keep a straight face while Danny Kaye hams it up with zest. Rosemary Clooney recorded both parts in this song, singing for both herself and Vera-Ellen.

Trudy Stevens dubbed all the singing for Vera-Ellen, except the “Sisters,” number, which was done by Rosemary Clooney. “Snow” was originally written for “Call Me Madam” and was titled “Free.” It wasn’t used, however, and Berlin later scrapped the lyrics and added different ones for White Christmas.

I think this performance pretty accurately captures why the song struck such a chord during the war, particularly among servicemen away from home.

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2015 in Movies

 

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We’re No Angels (1955)

We're_No_Angels_-_1955_-_poster“What a cast!” was my first thought as I read about the Christmas film We’re No Angels: Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, Aldo Ray, Joan Bennett, Basil Rathbone, Leo G. Carroll! And directed by the incredibly diverse Michael Curtiz? Woohoo!

“What was that?” was what I first wondered when I had completed watching it. I suspect that I am going to get into trouble if I try to analyze the film too closely. But purely on a superficial level, on the strength of it’s cast and script, We’re No Angels is both sentimental and somewhat darkly comedic and deliciously enjoyable. After all, how many angels kill the villain with a snake to bring peace and happiness to the heroes? I suppose that’s why they’re not really angels. I’m getting ahead of myself.

In 1895 on Devil’s Island in French Cayenne, three convicts escape from prison on Christmas Eve. They are Joseph (Humphrey Bogart), Albert (Aldo Ray) and Jules (Peter Ustinov). And Adolphe, Albert’s poisonous pet snake. Because there are many convicts on parole on Devil’s Island, they figure they can walk boldly into the city and no one will notice them. Their plan is to forge passports, steal clothes and murder the owner of the general store where they plan to get their materials and then slip away on a ship back to Paris.

The general store they select is run by the vague and ineffectual Felix Ducotel (Leo G.Carroll), who is nevertheless a kind and honest man. Joseph wants to hang around until dark, so he offers to have the three of them fix Felix’s roof. While on the roof, they listen to Felix talk to his wife, Amelie (Joan Bennett) about their business difficulties, their daughter, Isabelle (Gloria Talbott) and Cousin Andre (Basil Rathbone), who is the rich business man who owns their general store. He is arriving that evening from Paris with his nephew (who Isabelle loves) to look at the books. Since Felix is a hopeless businessman, their fear is that Cousin Andre, who is a ruthless businessman, will throw them in prison.

As the convicts listen, they are drawn into the family’s concerns and their inherent goodness, but Joseph insists that they stick to the plan and cut their throats that night (“Now that’s the kind of thing that makes people stop believing in Santa Clause,” Jules complains). But instead they end up helping sort out the family’s affairs, both business and romantic, and go out of their way to give them a Christmas they’ll never forget.

Humphrey Bogart, Pete Ustinov, Aldo Ray

Humphrey Bogart, Pete Ustinov, Aldo Ray

We’re No Angels is based on a French play and is a somewhat offbeat story. The three convicts are just as much avenging angels as good angels. They literally appear from on high (the roof) to help, even if they are kind of peeping toms. Bogart plays the scam artist who can sell anything (including combs to a bald man), cook any books and forge anything. Ustinov was a successful safe cracker who is only in jail because he murdered his wife. Aldo is the lug who murdered his uncle for not giving him money when he asked and likes to chase women.

But the Ducotel family doesn’t seem to mind having murderers, rapists and scam artists around. They are hopelessly naive, but honest and treat the three convicts like anyone else…actually, more like family friends. They even invite them to share their Christmas dinner with them. Jules begins to have second thoughts about murdering them that night, but Joseph insists they remain strong.

We came here to rob them and that’s what we’re gonna do – beat their heads in, gauge their eyes out, slash their throats…soon as we wash the dishes.

The three of them make a great team, always lolling about, stealing from the local community (the Ducotel’s become the unknowing repository of stolen goods), offering sage advice, cooking dinner, arranging flowers, washing dishes, being insolent to the villains, playing matchmaker, singing a carol in three part harmony. They combine a recognition of goodness with a perfectly open zest for criminality and rejoice when Cousin Andre unexpectedly arrives, because in the words of Jules, he was getting tired of all this niceness. But for all their talk about cutting throats and murder, it’s clear they’re really just big softies.

Peter Ustinov, Humphrey Bogart, Basil Rathbone, Leo G. Carroll, Aldo Ray - Rathbone wants to look at the books before Bogart has time to alter them

Peter Ustinov, Humphrey Bogart, Leo G. Carroll, Basil Rathbone, Aldo Ray – Rathbone wants to look at the books before Bogart has time to alter them

All three actors – Bogart, Ray and Ustinov – approach their roles lightly and seem to be having a great time. I particularly enjoyed Ustinov and Bogart, who I don’t usually associate with comedy, but he certainly can deliver a line. Basil Rathbone as Cousin Andre is also fantastic, showing up later in the film to make a big impression as the walking cash box. To an angry Isabelle, he says with complete indifference, “Your opinion of me has no cash value.”

Oddly enough, by being fugitives from prison, it actually frees the three of them from having to follow society’s laws, or even it’s most basic morals dictates. Joan Bennett as Amelie mentions to Joseph several times that she envies him for doing what he wants. Ironically, they also do what she dreams of doing, but would never do – which is kill Cousin Andre. So, crooks make it possible for the innocent people to go on being innocent and happy by committing murder? Somehow, that seems morally dubious, but hey! It’s a fun film, heartwarming despite that.

Bogart with his stolen turkey, while Ustinov admires his “beautiful big brown eyes.”

Bogart makes a sale and Joan Bennett is somewhat overwhelmed by the three convicts many talents.

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2015 in Movies

 

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