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Les Miserables (1952)

It’s a testament to the inherent power of Victor Hugo’s story that even in a lesser film adaptation of Les Miserables, something of that power comes through. The 1952 adaption by 20th Century Fox is definitely a lesser adaptation, but there is something about that story of a convict hunted by the law and struggling to do right that never fails to uplift: redemption, mercy vs. the law, love, suffering, persecution, and revolution – good stuff.

The story occurs during the reign of Louis XVIII, who was restored to the throne after the overthrow of Napoleon, and Louis-Philippe. The convict and fugitive, Jean Valjean, is portrayed by Michael Rennie, fresh off his success as Klaatu in The Day The Earth Stood Still. His nemesis, Inspector Javert, is played by Robert Newton (who ineluctably made me think of a pirate). Sylvia Sidney appears as the doomed prostitute, Fantine, and her daughter, Cosette, is played by Debra Paget. Cameron Mitchell is Cosette’s love interest, Marius. The Thenadiers are entirely eliminated from the film, along with their daughter, Eponine. The good bishop who shows mercy to Valjean is Edmund Gwenn (of Kris Kringle fame).

Adapting Les Miserables is always a challenge, though it certainly hasn’t stopped anyone. There are numerous adaptations. Characters and subplots have to be cut. The key seems to be creating a thread that holds it all together and keeps the film from turning into episodic snapshots. For the musical, the central thread can best be summed up in the song “Do You Hear the People Sing” – “will you join in our crusade/who will be strong and stand with me/somewhere beyond the barricade/is there a world you want to see.

In the excellent 1935 film – starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton – all other characters fade and the film becomes a deeply felt conflict between the two men, who represent mercy and the law respectively. Their interactions crackle with tension and Charles Laughton in particular is compelling as Javert.

Valjean (Rennie) and Fantine (Sidney)

That central tension is missing in the ’52 adaptation and the film becomes somewhat episodic and aimless. There isn’t a central focus. Part of the problem is the script and the other part is the cast. Robert Newton is a marvelous Long John Silvers and a marvelous Bill Sykes, but as Javert, he lacks the kind of concentrated intensity and conviction to make one believe that he would kill himself because of an inability to reconcile mercy with justice. As my sister put it, it’s like he chases Valjean into the sewers because he’s personally affronted that a convict would show him pity.

Michael Rennie himself looks rather dashing, occasionally reminding me of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in his voice and manner. He seems a bit young to be Jean Valjean. The years of suffering and conviction are missing. Which might explain why the last bit of the film turns into a kind of love triangle between him, Marius, and his ward, Cosette.

Debra Paget as Cosette by far gets the most to do of any Cosette I have ever seen. Cosette is usually overshadowed by Fantine, by Eponine. She often comes off more like a plot device, a motivation for nearly every character, rather than an actual character herself. However, in this version she is more integrated (somewhat at the expense of Javert). She knows the history of Valjean. She seems to have more freedom of movement, more agency (deciding whether to stay with Marius or go to England with Valjean). But the film plays around with the idea that Valjean loves Cosette and Marius certainly believes it, thinking Valjean is using Cosette’s gratitude to keep her near him. It’s an odd twist for the story to take, pushing it into soap opera territory.

On the whole, it is an underwhelming Les Miserables, but as I said, some of that inherent grandeur remains. It’s just such a great story. The confrontation between Javert and Valjean over the sickbed of Fantine. The chase in the sewer. The slaughter of the revolutionaries. The forgiveness and grace of the bishop towards Valjean. Javert’s suicide. Valjean confessing that he is the convict to a court about to condemn an innocent man. These are the moments that make it into every single adaptation and never lose their impact, though that impact varies. If you have to see only one Les Miserables, however, I would recommend the 1935 version with March and Laughton.

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2017 in Movies

 

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The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954)

download-10The Korean War (1950-1953) is not a war I am as familiar with. It is sometimes called The Forgotten War and unlike WWII, Hollywood made very few movies about the conflict – during or after. But in some ways, that is what The Bridges at Toko-Ri is about: men fighting a forgotten war.

Based on the popular novel by James Michener, which was in turn based on several different true stories, the movie focuses on Lieutenant Harry Brubaker, jet pilot in the Navy, stationed on an aircraft carrier and flying fighter-bombers. He is bitter, however, because he also fought during WWII and cannot understand why it had to be him who was called up again to fight. He would rather be back home with his wife, two daughters and his successful business as a lawyer.

The story is more like a slice of war-life. There is no overarching point, per se. The bridges at Toko-ri must be destroyed, says Admiral Tarrant (Fredric March) to show that the US will never give up in the war. He believes in the fight, but most of the men are simply doing a job. There is the loyalty the men show to each other. Mickey Rooney and Earl Holliman play two men whose job it is to rescue downed pilots in their helicopter. Charles McGraw is commander of the the pilots, a tough man, but one who takes care of his men.

There is a lot of footage of the carrier, the planes taking off and landing, flying and bombing, and it is impossible not to have a feeling of awe at what they do and the dangers they face, even the work that Mickey Rooney’s Mike Forney rescuing pilots.

The Bridges at Toko-ri has a very different feeling than the war films made during WWII. There was a sense that America was 100% behind the men fighting during WWII, but in The Bridges of Toko-ri, there is a sense that America is largely unaware of what is going on. This is also true for Brubaker’s wife, Nancy (Grace Kelly), who Admiral Tarrant warns will have to face the reality of the dangers her husband faces.

toko-ri-3At first, I was a little surprised to see Grace Kelly’s name in this film. It’s such a small role; she is only in the film for maybe twenty minutes, but she actually makes the most of it. Nancy has come to Japan to see her husband, having cut through all the red tape and regulations that usually prevents the wives from coming. What she represents in the story is everything that Brubaker left behind and regrets: his home, his job, his life, his children, and of course, his wife. She has to represents everything and she does it very well, bringing a fair amount of passion to the role that makes the sense of what Brubaker could lose by dying all the greater.

William Holden is excellent and it is his film entirely. He’s bitter, but not in a broody way. He mostly does his job, is deeply grateful to Forney for saving his life early in the film, deeply touched by his wife’s presence, scared at the prospect of attacking the bridges and simply doing his work. Admiral Tarrant asks in the end of the film, “where do we get such men?”

The cast is all good. This is the first time I’ve seen Mickey Rooney in anything other than his MGM musicals and comedies, but he’s actually great as the scrappy helicopter pilot who can’t seem to keep out of brawls. Fredric March plays a profoundly sad admiral, who already lost both sons in WWII and has a soft spot for Brubaker, who reminds him of one of his sons.

Spoilers – the movie does not end happily for anyone, though the mission to blow the bridges is successful. It’s a surprisingly gripping tale, though it is not the kind of film I usually watch. It seems to suggest that the reason these men fight is because that is what these men do. If they were home, they would have been working to accomplish the task at hand. Because they in Korea, they are working to accomplish the task at hand. The film is essentially a homage to these men.

toko-ri-4I didn’t intend it this way, but I just realized that this film was the perfect film to review today. It is Veterans Day in America and I wanted to thank each and every veteran – and their families.

This post was also written as part of the 2nd Wonderful Grace Kelly Blogathon, hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. In honor of Grace Kelly, I wanted to pay special attention to her role, despite it being small. In many ways, you could argue that she is wasted in this role, but the character is all the better for her performance. It’s the kind of role that could easily get lost, but she demonstrates what good acting (and sheer star magnetism) can do for a small role. I’ve been wondering recently how her career would have developed if she had kept on making movies. What would she have done in the ’60? What kinds of roles would she have taken on (I read that Hitchcock wanted her for Marnie)? But I am at least grateful for the films we have.

Thanks so much to Wonderful World of Cinema for hosting and be sure to read all the rest of the entries, which can be found here.

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Posted by on November 11, 2016 in Movies

 

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Nothing Sacred (1937)

downloadAlthough I didn’t watch it for this reason, Nothing Sacred turned out to be a perfect and hilarious companion film to Dark Victory. It is a satire of celebrity, media sensationalism and the strong urge of people to experience compassion via entertainment.

Wally Cook (Fredric March) is the best journalist at the Morning Star, though he is currently in the bad books of editor Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly) for a hoax involving a bootblack (Troy Brown) disguised as a sultan (the bootblack is found out when his wife, played by Hattie McDaniel, shows up with their children). But Wally is a very persuasive man and convinces Stone to relieve him of writing obituaries and let him follow up a story of a young woman dying of radium poising. His idea is to bring her back to New York, where she will naturally become the toast of the city (because she’s dying), which will sell lots of Morning Star papers.

The young lady, Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), lives in Warsaw, Vermont, the unfriendliest town around. People say “yep” and “nope” and won’t give information without first being payed, while their children are downright mean (one child bites Wally on the leg for no particular reason). Hazel wants out and it’s hard to blame her. She thought she was going to get a free trip to New York (because she’s dying), but when Dr. Downer (Charles Winninger) tells her that he made a mistake and she’s not really dying, she doesn’t know whether to be happy or sad (“It’s kind of startling to be brought to life twice – and each time in Warsaw!”). So when Wally Cook arrives and wants to take her to New York, she jumps at the chance and brings Dr. Downer along with her to help her play at being terminally ill.

Hazel Flagg becomes a sensation. She’s in all the newspapers (which are then shown to wrap fish), goes to events where moments of silence are observed in her honor. She’s pointed out at nightclubs, receives the key to the city and encounters tearful people everywhere she goes, all drowning in admiration and sadness for her. She starts to feel guilty about making everyone so sad. But worst of all is that Wally starts to fall in love with her (in between arranging a funeral were a quarter of a million people will attend and a state holiday declared) and Hazel is afraid that when the hoax is discovered she’ll ruin his career.

they have both socked each other in the jaw

they have both socked each other in the jaw

Of course her hoax is discovered, but nothing goes as one would expect. People are simply too invested in the narrative of the girl heroically and inspirationally going to meet her death.

William Wellman directs this film (with an irreverent script by Ben Hecht) at breakneck speed. Sometimes, comedies can get tangled up in the end with sentiment, but not Nothing Sacred, which lives up to its title. But the romance still manages to be sweet, as Wally asks Hazel to marry him, even though he believes she’s going to die, and talks about how a few perfect moments are better than a lifetime. It’s funny – because she’s not going to die at all – but it’s also sweet. It’s also funny because she’s just tried unsuccessfully to fake a suicide (which he believes is real) because she can’t see any way out of the mess she’s gotten herself into. Dripping wet, they pledge their love in a packing crate and are then interrupted by a fireman. And then Wally forgets to offer his coat to his fiance, leaving the fireman to do the gallant thing.

Fredric March is not an actor I’ve thought about much one way or the other (though I’ve enjoyed many of his movies), but I was impressed with him here. As Wally, he shifts believably from journalist huckster to sincere lover without overplaying either, though in the end he remains a little bit of both. He’s a grounded comedian, but still gets his laughs.

Carole Lombard is another actor I have been warming to. I first saw her in My Man Godfrey, which convinced me for the longest time that I did not like Carole Lombard. She was hyper and generally too much for me. But Hands Across the Table changed my mind and I’ve come to agree that she is a very fine comedian. It’s hard to put my finger on just what makes her so funny. Oftentimes, it’s simply her facial expressions, though she can certainly do slapstick with the best of them.

There are so many laugh-out-loud moments (one favorite is the attempted-suicide scene – with practically the entire city looking for her). And though it was made two years before Dark Victory, moments still play like a satire, such as when Hazel says she wants to go off alone to die – “like an elephant.” And I got a big chuckle out of the four radium poisoning specialists who come to analyze Hazel. Sig Ruman leads the way as Dr. Emil Eggelhoffer, from Vienna. The other doctors are from Prague, Moscow and Berlin and I couldn’t help but wonder how they got these doctors together. This is 1937, so presumably one is a communist and the other a Nazi.

nothing-sacred-fredric-march-carole-lombard-1937

these stills are in black and white, but the film is in Technicolor, a relatively early example of this

Near the end, when Oliver Stone has discovered that Hazel is not really dying and is sputtering with anger, Wally says that the people of New York ought to be thanking the Morning Star for what they did, even if Hazel is a fake. It gave people what they wanted – an opportunity to feel maudlin and sorry for someone. That got my attention, because I had been reading an article a little while ago in the Wall Street Journal called “Leonardo DiCaprio, Meet St. Augustine,” by Daniel Ross Goodman. The author was discussing why people enjoy watching movies where people suffer (and why actors tend to win Oscars for portraying people who suffer). According to St. Augustine, it’s not sadism; it’s an innate desire to experience compassion and remind ourselves that there is goodness in us. As Goodman writes, “When we see suffering depicted in a movie, our empathetic itch is scratched, giving us the sensation that we have exercised true empathy.”

Nothing Sacred mocks this thoroughly…at least the hollow side of this phenomenon, where people can congratulate themselves secretly for feeling good without ever doing anything genuinely compassionate. Though I wouldn’t say that is the message of the movie. It’s not a message picture, but a very funny satire that shrewdly hits on some truths about human nature.

 
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Posted by on April 6, 2016 in Movies

 

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