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When You Don’t Like a Great Classic Film and Introducing Others to Classic Movies

William Powell and Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey

William Powell and Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey

I always feel embarrassed and slightly apologetic when I don’t love a great classic movie. My Man Godfrey? When the subject comes up, I smile sheepishly and fidget. Dare I admit it? I didn’t like My Man Godfrey. I couldn’t take it. Carole Lombard drove me up the wall and for years I was convinced that I did not like screwball comedies. If My Man Godfrey was the quintessence of the screwball comedy, then there was no hope for me. But then I saw The Lady Eve and suddenly the screwball comedy genre opened its arms towards me and I embraced it…though I still don’t particularly like My Man Godrey. I love the actors, but not the movie.

My Man Godfrey also put me off from watching Carole Lombard’s movies and it was not until Hands Across the Table that I realized that she was actually very funny.

I suppose the lesson here is that just because you don’t like the banner title of a genre it does not follow that you won’t like the genre (or the actor) and that is why I am always leery of recommending movies. Sometimes the banner movie can actually scare people away from the genre (or actor). If you don’t like the acknowledged best, why would you like any of the others? My Man Godfrey frequently makes lists as a good movie to introduce non-classic movie lovers to classic movies, but because of my experience I wonder. Does it really appeal to non-classic movie lovers and I am just the exception or would another movie be better to recommend generally?

But people are so idiosyncratic in their tastes. Perhaps it would be better to simply suggest a movie you had fun with, regardless of its actual merit or the importance it had in movie history. I have a theory that the list of important classics has been partly predetermined by TV and what was available for the last fifty years: The Wizard of OzIt’s a Wonderful Life, etc. My eye doctor told me that he found classic movie acting to be over-the-top, but I wonder what movies form the basis of that assessment. It’s like when people see Douglas Fairbanks in a silent film and assume all silent acting was like him, when he represents one unique style among many.

The way I actually became interested in classic movies was not by targeting specific recommended films, but by picking an actor I liked and watching all their movies I could find: Myrna Loy and William Powell, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred Astaire. As a result, I saw their best films, mediocre films and even some bad films, but it gave me a  sense of the different genres and eras (pre-code, 1930s, WWII movies, 1940s, 1950s, musicals, melodramas, comedies).

Orson Welles

Orson Welles from Citizen Kane

But I still feel embarrassed when I don’t like a great classic. Another secret shame is the fact that I have not yet seen a film directed by Orson Welles that I have enjoyed: The Magnificent AmbersonsThe StrangerTouch of Evil. It’s almost tantamount to admitting intellectual inferiority to say that I didn’t appreciate Welles’ genius. The movies were interesting, well acted and completely failed to engage me emotionally (I enjoyed The Stranger the most, partially because it had Edward G. Robinson and I love him in anything). I haven’t dared watch Citizen Kane. It’s long been hailed as the greatest American movie ever made and what happens to your credibility when you don’t like the greatest movie ever made? It makes you a cultural philistine.

Though there is a vast difference between liking a movie and appreciating or understanding it.

A movie that I have never read a negative review of but can hardly stand to watch is Only Angels Have Wings. It’s not because it’s a bad movie – it’s a very good movie – but it frustrates me at every turn. A greater bunch of immature boy/men it would be impossible to find. And when Cary Grant gets mad at Rita Hayworth because she does not blindly stand by her disgraced husband (because she does not know he’s disgraced because he has not told her, even though she can tell something is wrong by the way the men are treating him) I couldn’t help wondering what he thinks marriage is, anyway. It is not ignorant trust. Women, apparently, are only good for supporting their men while their men figure out their problems in relation to other men and do their manly things while the women sit at home and worry.

Only Angels Have Wings

Cary Grant and Rita Hayworth in Only Angels Have Wings

Sometimes, movies just hit on a pet peeve for you and it becomes difficult to overlook the peeve to see the merits of rest of the film. And sometimes movies simply fail to engage you emotionally, the cause of which I find unfathomable. And sometimes, I am willing to overlook everything for the sake of an aspect I really enjoy. I have forgiven many a shaky musical plot for the sake of the dancing I love.

My policy now is to never recommend a movie, but instead talk enthusiastically about all the movies I have been watching. I talk partially because I love old movies and you talk about what you love and also because it gives friends and family the opportunity to decide if a movie sounds interesting to them or not. When I talk about enough movies, eventually something will pique their interest and they want to see it. And when they chose the movie, it gives them the initiative. I don’t have to urge it on them and they are now predisposed to like the movie.

What classic movies do you dislike, even in the face of universal acclaim? Have you ever had any luck recommending movies to others?

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2015 in Movie Thoughts

 

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Propaganda in American Films During WWII: and a brief review of Five Came Back (2014) by Mark Harris

Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in William Wyler's Mrs. Miniver

Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver

I’ve always been fascinated by the presence of propaganda in Hollywood movies made during WWII. It fascinates me because the propaganda is supposed to be for a good cause (to defeat the Nazis – what could be better than that?), but it always faintly annoys me when I encounter it in movies. Is this because it doesn’t fit in the story? I’ll be watching a movie and then suddenly, from way out in left field, somebody will start preaching and I’ll nod my head and say, “Yes, this is so a WWII movie.” Is it because the propaganda is so heavy-handed, obvious, and poorly incorporated into the film? Is it because I do not connect with the message they are preaching because I didn’t live through the war? Or is it because propaganda is, in and of itself, a bad thing?

I haven’t decided. I do like the movie Mrs. Miniver (1942) and that movie was purposed expressly by director William Wyler to be a propaganda piece, all about the brave British resisting and standing firm, who are made stronger when attacked. Even Hitler’s Propaganda Minster, Goebbels, thought it was an excellent example of propaganda. Wyler himself seems to have been mildly embarrassed by it (partially because he later went to Britain and was embarrassed by certain inaccuracies in his portrayal of the British). It seems to have been a movie that resonated with the movie going public, however. Is propaganda necessary? Was it necessary to win the war, to keep the American people engaged throughout the war?

I suppose what complicates the propaganda issue is the clumsiness of it. Because, of course, America not just fighting the Nazis. They were fighting the Japanese. Caricatures of the enemy, especially the Japanese, could be quite crude, if not outright racist. Appeals to patriotism, although estimable, provide an often rosy and inaccurate view of warfare.

And then there’s the obvious question of aren’t all movies just a form of propaganda anyway? George Steven, I read in Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back, came to believe that was the case. If that is the case, is it merely a question of how obtrusive the propaganda is? Is it only obvious propaganda that is bad, or propaganda that we happen to disagree with? According to The American Heritage Dictionary propaganda is “the systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those people advocating such a doctrine or cause.”

In that sense, I think I disagree with Stevens. I do agree that there is no such thing as a movie free of bias, opinion, belief, doctrine, but I think a useful way of looking at it would be a movie that is about the characters (or even just about the story) as opposed to a movie that is about a doctrine or belief with characters to support it…or perhaps I’m simply falling into the trap of saying that if the propaganda is well done, you won’t notice because the characters make sense and therefore it’s okay.

Frank Capra

Frank Capra

I’ve always liked to think about this topic, but what made it slightly more urgent to consider was reading Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. It is about the way that Hollywood responded to the war, but mostly about five directors who put on hold their careers so they could enlist in the military. John Ford, John Huston, Frank Capra, William Wyler and George Stevens all enlisted, though their jobs turned out to be a little different than what they had anticipated. It turned out that the military was also interested in propaganda. It wasn’t meant to be malicious, but it was meant to align with military goals (such as not blaming Emperor Hirohito too much for the war because they thought they might need to keep him as emperor after the war and they didn’t want Americans to hate him). The military didn’t want to show too much death and loss to the American public, or to dwell on military reversals. Compromises were repeatedly made and all of the directors found themselves staging reenactments of battles to present to the public as fact.

The war changed them all, though perhaps Frank Capra less so. He remained in Washington D.C. and put together his famous Why We Fight series. However, John Ford was at the Battle of Midway and at Normandy. John Huston made a documentary at the Aleutians and was in Italy some. William Wyler flew on bombing missions to get film and lost his hearing as a result. But no one was more affected than George Stevens. He was known for his delightful comedies, such as Woman of the Year, but when he returned he never made another comedy. He was at Normandy, as well, and he was there to film the liberation of Paris. But he was also there when America liberated Dachau and he was the one to put together the films that were shown during the Nuremberg trials as evidence of the atrocities committed against the Jews and also to show that the atrocities were part of long-established policies.

When he returned, he never talked much about what he saw and he could never go back and watch any of the footage that he had taken.

Although the book is mostly about the five directors, Harris does also deal a bit with the movie studio’s reaction to the coming war and to the war itself. Before WWII, Hollywood studio heads tended to avoid any reference to the European situation. This was partially because they sold a lot of movies overseas and they didn’t want to alienate any of their foreign markets (such as Nazi Germany) and also because many of the studio heads were Jewish and were leery of being accused of not being sufficiently American and dragging America into foreign affairs and only being interested in Jewish concerns – accusations that they had heard before.

Harris implies that the studios, actors and directors were essentially burying their heads in the sand because their movies did not reflect the very real international concerns, specifically regarding Nazism and their treatment of the Jews. There was virtually no mention of Nazism in any of the films until the war began. This, I thought, was an interesting question. Does the movie industry have a duty to address social issues or international issues or only certain issues that are particularly pressing and how do we judge which issues are particularly pressing? Should the movie industry have also addressed the Ukrainian Famine in 1932-1933 when millions of Ukrainians died during a famine that was caused deliberately by Stalin’s regime? Should they have addressed the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931? Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-1936?

Of course, what most movies during WWII were doing was not highlighting world realities but attempting to rally Americans to the cause and pep them up with patriotism. They rarely ever saw any of the disturbing images that were taken by Steven’s team during the landing at Normandy or afterwards at Dachau. John Huston’s documentary about veterans returning from the war who were suffering from psychological trauma was also suppressed by the military.

Of course, it is also true that documentaries containing reality can be structured for propaganda purposes. Even George Stevens’ footage of the liberation of Dachau could be used for propaganda, thought it is not itself propaganda. It is reality; harsh, horrifying, inescapable reality.

 
 

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The Hurricane (1937) – Disaster Film, Colonialism and Racism

The French flag is the symbol of colonialism in this movie. We see it at the beginning and we see it at the end, when it is being ripped to shreds by the hurricane. The movie was released in 1937 and directed by John Ford, who is best remembered for his Westerns and was often interested in themes of racism. The Hurricane is an interesting movie, very much of its times in how it blends a paternalistic attitude of the native people of the South Sea Islands with an attempt to expose the cruelties inherent in colonialism.

The biggest problem with Ford’s view is that the native islanders are portrayed as children that should be treated with the indulgence you would afford children. The other issue often mentioned is Ford’s decision to cast his two lead characters – both Polynesian – with Caucasian actors; however, I feel that the practice of casting white people in various non-white roles is such an old and long lasting problematic practice (it even occurs today) that it is unfair to single out Ford in this instance.

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Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall

The plot is a bit like Les Miserables meets disaster film. Terangi (Jon Hall) is a popular and free-spirited young man from the island of Manakura. He is first mate on a merchant ship and is engaged to marry the chief’s daughter, Marama (Dorothy Lamour). Everyone loves and admires him, even the governor and his wife. However, on a trip to Tahiti, a white man insults him and tells him to stand in the presence of his betters. Terangi is angry and knocks him out. He is sentenced to prison for six months, despite Manakura’s resident doctor (Thomas Mitchell) appealing to Governor De Laage of Manakura (Raymond Massey) to intervene.

Terangi doesn’t really understand what is going on and he can’t bear to be in prison and away from his new wife and tries to escape. He is caught and his sentence is upped to two years. The guards are cruel, he repeatedly tries to escape and the years pile up on his sentence. After six years of imprisonment, he has accumulated 16 years of prison time.

The Hurricane

Raymond Massey, Mary Astor, Jerome Cowan

Meanwhile, his family and friends are bitterly resentful of the governor’s contined refusal to intervene. Governor De Laage says that he must uphold the law, whilst his friend the doctor, his wife (Mary Astor), his priest (C. Aubrey Smith) and Terangi’s captain (Jerome Cowan) maintain that in this instance the law is unjust. Finally, Terangi succeeds in escaping for real and is reunited with Marama and their child. Her family are preparing to help them escape to another island when De Laage begins to get suspicious. However, before anyone can do anything else, a hurricane hits the island.

And I must say that the special effects are truly impressive. There are fifteen minutes, without music and only the church bell ringing, of rain and storm and water while people try to escape. It looks great…and all the better for not being CGI. When the actors were being hit with water and high wind and Mary Astor said in her book, A Life On Film, that the wind and the water hit their faces so hard that they would have little pinpricks of blood all over their faces.

In a way, the hurricane acts as a deus ex machina, but not in any way that anyone could have wished. It solves everything only because it is so terrible an event that the previous concerns no longer matter. The hurricane wipes the slate clean and those who are left must start afresh.

MV5BMTk1Njk2MzQ2OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzA0MTI0NA@@__V1_SX640_SY720_Although the movie was marketed as a romance between Terangi and Marama – and a lot of time is spent with them – the most interesting character is Governor De Laage and one’s enjoyment of the film seems to partly rest with whether or not one can sympathize with or at least handle Raymond Massey’s portrayal of the character. No one can play implacable to the point of harshness quite like Massey.

Andrew Sarris has an interesting view of the film, in his book You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet: The American Talking Film, History and Memory, 1927-1949. He writes that because Terangi and Marama are portrayed as Hollywoodized innocent victims, “the film’s dramatic focus shifts therefore to the Europeans, and particularly to one of the most fascinatingly civilized of all movie couples – Raymond Massey’s Governor De Laage and Mary Astor’s Mrs. De Laage. The Hurricane is ultimately their story as they argue with exquisite delicacy and tact the conflicting claims of the law and the heart.”

In fact, Mrs. De Laage seems to feel, unlike any other character in the movie, that she can appeal to De Laage’s heart. She always approaches him by addressing his heart rather than his reason (the doctor repeatedly appeals to reason without any effect) and he always responds by saying that it is not fair for her to attack him where he is vulnerable, as if the two of them have some secret knowledge that he is actually sentimental at heart even though no one else can tell. We do see it a little, at the beginning and the end, how much he loves his wife, as much as Terangi loves Marama, but he is more reserved about it. Massey and Astor do not have much time together, but it is still an intriguing relationship.

mary-astor,-raymond-massey-and-thomas-mitchell-in-the-hurricane-(1937)

Mary Astor, Thomas Mitchell, Jerome Cowan, Unidentified Woman, Raymond Massey

Sarris also argues that De Laage is far more subtle than sometimes supposed, not the cruel sadist and legalist that he is often called. It seems like he has trapped himself. He feels that he must uphold the law, not so much for the sake of the law but because if he does not act in solidarity with his fellow governors and lawmakers, then he is tacitly undermining the very principles of colonialism. If it is an injustice for Terangi to be put in prison for not knowing his place, then what business do the French have ruling over these people if they are not beneath them?

The result, unsurprisingly, of stubbornly and rigidly standing his ground is alienation and what the author of Jane Austen: Game Theorist, Michael Suk-Young Chwe, would call cluelessness. He alienates himself from his friends (the doctor and priest) and from all the people of the island, and one cannot help wondering a little about the state of his marriage (they seem a little tense together). As a result of his refusal to bend, he cuts himself off from everyone and he is the last one to know anything, such as when Terangi finally escapes from prison.

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Jon Hall and Dorothy Lamour

This cluelessness is brought about by a refusal to put oneself in the place of others, which means you cannot understand them, their motives, or what they are capable of doing. By standing firm in keeping Terangi in prison, De Laage shows remarkable cluelessness in not understanding the people he governs. For one, as my sister pointed out, it is a very small island and everyone’s probably related – like one large family – so when Terangi is wrongfully imprisoned, they all take it personally. He is basically trying to apply cold law meant for nations to a family, and it is not clear that the people of Manakura fully understand the whys and wherefores of the laws of the French.

There is a scene at the beginning when De Laage is reprimanding one young man for “stealing” a canoe (to take his sweetheart on a moonlit trip). The doctor argues for clemency because the young man had all the excuse in the world – moonlight – which isn’t the point, I think. What is probably going on is that, if the islanders are all family, they might be used to borrowing and sharing their possessions. A family member borrowing my car, even without my permission, is not the same as somebody I don’t know in a large city, taking a joyride. In this instance, De Laage is attempting to apply European laws to a situation that does not merit them. It is the inherent cluelessness of colonialism.

hur2

Thomas Mitchell

The doctor is an interesting character, because I think we are meant to agree with him, though I rarely wanted to. He is perpetually drinking and loves the island and never wants to go back to Paris. He is also one of the loudest voices against De Laage’s actions, or inaction. However, it is through him that we get most of the paternalistic arguments about how the people of Manakura are like children and need to be free like a bird. It is he who repeatedly makes bad arguments for good causes and although he gets along well with the native people of the island, he doesn’t seem to understand them better than De Laage. One can’t help but wonder what his past is and how much of his statements have to do with wish fulfillment, especially regarding being free like birds.

Ironically, all of these arguments, disagreements, suffering and misunderstandings go for naught. The hurricane hits and it essentially puts those who survive back at square one. In a way, it highlights the futility of human interactions in the face of nature. Nothing matters once an act of God occurs but survival; everything else seems petty. It’s like the flood of Noah in how it wipes away all else.

The film is currently available on youtube and can be found at this link, here, and if you would just like to see just the hurricane, click here. Below is the trailer for the film.

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2014 in Movies

 

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