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Tag Archives: William Holden

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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Sunset Boulevard (1950)

MV5BMTc3NDYzODAwNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODg1MTczMTE@._V1_SX214_AL_Sunset Boulevard defies categorization. It’s a film noir, gothic, horror, melodrama, suspense, tragicomic romance. It’s surreal, but properly grounded in reality. You laugh, you cry, you cringe, but you never look away. It’s absolutely spellbinding. And has there ever been such a weird, yet utterly compelling ending as when Norma Desmond descends the staircase, now completely lost in her delusions, believing that the media cameras are really the cameras of Cecil B. DeMille and that he is shooting her as Salome, descending the stairs of the palace? When watched in isolation on youtube, the scene looks melodramatic, but when seen as the climax of the film, it is shiveringly effective.

I’m gushing a bit. I had very high expectations for this film and in one of those rare instances they were actually met. I even went out of my way to prepare for watching this. I wanted to see Gloria Swanson when she really was a big star in the silent era. I wanted to see some of the movies that Erich von Stroheim had directed during the silent era and also some of the movies Cecil B. DeMille made during the same time (some with Gloria Swanson). Fortunately, since the film is so iconic and most people have a general idea of the plot, it still feels fresh even though you know what’s going to happen. The drama is not in what happens, but how it happens.

Sunset Boulevard is often called a critique of Hollywood, which it certainly is, but this film is not limited to that. It’s about individual people more than monolithic Hollywood. It’s about obsession and ambition, wanting love (intimate love and also the more general and all embracing love of fans, people you don’t even know). It’s about wanting to be someone important, to be acknowledged, to earn money, to have a career that provides meaning and identity. These are universal themes that have meaning anywhere, it’s just that Hollywood magnifies these things, so it is an ideal setting.

Gloria Swanson and William Holden

Gloria Swanson and William Holden – surrounding by pictures from her lost glory days

The film manages the unique feat of having both an unforgettable beginning and an unforgettable end. The movie opens with the body of Joe Gillis (William Holden) floating in a swimming pool, shot three times with a revolver. We then hear his voice narrating throughout the film, telling the story of how he got there, how Joe Gillis, a struggling screenwriter, became involved with the fading, forgotten silent movie star who cannot accept that her time has passed.

On a side note, it seems incredibly cheeky of director Billy Wilder to have a corpse narrate our story, but somehow it doesn’t come off as macabre unless you think about it too much. There is a sharp, biting humor that pervades the entire film, especially in Joe Gillis’ narration, wryly commenting on the action in hindsight.

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is borderline insane throughout the entire film and one of the things that impressed me is how Swanson never goes over the top. It seems like she does, multiple times, but it is believable and not just theatrics. It is like the character Norma Desmond is acting all the time. She cannot behave normally and naturally. She is always putting on a show for some invisible audience, using the people she interacts with as her props.

It is amazing, however, how much sympathy both she and William Holden garner for their extremely flawed characters. She is imperious, arrogant, commanding, childish, and manipulative. She has attempted suicide several times and is quite willing to threaten it if she thinks it will get her what she wants. But this fact is also tragic. Even if she is incapable of killing herself without grand gestures, she is still unhappy enough to be willing to die. If she can’t be Norma Desmond, a beloved and needed movie star, then she isn’t anybody at all.

Nancy Olson and William Holden

Nancy Olson and William Holden

William Holden’s Joe Gillis is also a flawed character and capable of a little manipulation of his own. When he first meets her, he thinks he can manipulate her into giving him a job to brush up her ridiculous script of Salome that she believes she will make her comeback with (though she hates the word comeback; “It’s a return!”). He doesn’t mind taking advantage of an extremely vulnerable and deluded woman. He also doesn’t seem to have a problem flirting with his friend’s fiance, Betty Shaefer (Nancy Olson).

Erich von Stroheim is fascinating as Norma’s inscrutable butler, Max. Max was once a promising director in the silent era who discovered Norma Desmond when she was sixteen and made her into a star. When her career was wrecked by sound, he asked her to take him on as her butler/jack-of-all trades – he can even play the organ like a regular cliched horror villain. It is not clear what his motivations are. Does he feel guilt over how he made her into a star and set her on the path that has so crippled her emotionally? Does he still love her madly, does he share in her obsession over her own greatness? It is never clear. The only thing that is clear is that he made things worse by feeding her delusions that she is not forgotten. He writes fake fan letters and requests for her autograph, confirming to the end her own image of herself. Is it the image he gave her at the beginning? Is he perhaps her evil genius? But he doesn’t play it like a moustache-twirling villain. There is pathos in his unwavering devotion to her.

Gloria Swanson and Cecil B. DeMille

Gloria Swanson and Cecil B. DeMille

Joe Gillis’ love interest, the aspiring screenwriter Betty Shaefer, is played by Nancy Olson. It was only her second movie, but Wilder chose her because she could bring a breath of fresh air into a very gothic and cynical film. Cecil B. DeMille also does a fine job playing himself, the director who made so many pictures with both Gloria Swanson and, in the film, Norma Desmond. I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised at how natural he seems; he did start his career as an actor on Broadway, though he quickly turned to directing plays and then silent movies.

Reality meets art so often in the film, it is astonishing, once again, how cheeky Billy Wilder was. Gloria Swanson’s career really did deteriorate after the coming of sound and when she made Sunset Boulevard she hadn’t made a movie in nine years, though she was not sitting around in a ruined home bemoaning her glory days. She was evidently a very busy woman, starting businesses, acting in summer stock, promoting health foods. Erich von Stroheim was also a promising director from the silent era, but because his movies always went massively over-budget, over long, and because he wasn’t a ‘team player’ and pushed the censorship envelope, his career was ruined and he was reduced to acting in bit parts, often as Nazis.

William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Nancy Olson, Erich von Stroheim

William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Nancy Olson, Erich von Stroheim

When Norma Desmond shows Joe Gillis footage from one of her silent movies, it is footage from a 1929 silent film called Queen Kelly, that was never completed. It was directed by Erich von Stroheim and starred Gloria Swanson, but owing to censorship concerns and huge financial issues, Swanson and her backer, Joseph P. Kennedy, pulled the plug on the film. It was the end of his directing career and hers petered out soon after.

According to an interview with Nancy Olson, in one of the documentaries on Sunset Boulevard: Centennial Collection, Billy Wilder told her the movie was about people who were on the make, which makes sense with my idea that it is not a film exclusively about Hollywood, despite how often reality meets art in the film. These are people who are willing to sell themselves to achieve their goals.

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2015 in Drama, Film Noir

 

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Sabrina (1954)

1954 – Starring Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, William Holden – Directed by Billy Wilder – Screenplay by Billy Wilder and Ernest Lehman – adapted from the play “Sabrina Fair,” written by Samuel Taylor 

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Sabrina is a Cinderella-like story with a smidge of class commentary thrown in, buried in layers of enchanting, rose-colored charm about living and not just existing lifelessly. It’s all about the charm of life…through the charm of Audrey Hepburn, Billy Wilder’s beautiful direction, the songs…even Humphrey Bogart manages charm in this film.

There are two important songs in this film, but the most important is the French song, “La Vie en rose,” which translates roughly as seeing life through rose colored glasses. But not only does Sabrina see the world that way, she manages to make the world conform to her rosy viewpoint.

Sabrina (Hepburn) is the daughter of a chauffeur and has evidently spent her entire life living vicariously, watching her father’s fabulously wealthy employers, the Larrabee family, live their fabulously wealthy lives. She’s also loved the youngest son, David (Holden) her whole life without ever being noticed by him. All this living through other people has so depressed her that she attempts suicide and is only saved by David’s all-work-and-no-play older brother, Linus (Bogart).sabrina-sabrina-1954-8216027-500-361[1]

Her father sends her away to Paris, to attend a cooking school, and it is there that she meets her fairy godmother. He is an old baron (who adores cooking) and he teaches her the secret of living life; living it herself, and not through other people. When she returns to America, she has been transformed: fully alive and completely glamorous. And David falls instantly for her.

However, Linus is planning on a merger, involving his company and the company of David’s fiancé, Elizabeth. To prevent it from falling apart if David were to dump Elizabeth, he sets out to make Sabrina fall in love with him instead of David.

There’s definitely a class element to this story, but not in the usual way. Classism is mostly represented by Sabrina’s father – who believes there is a “front seat and a backseat and a window in between” and David and Linus’ father, who suggests firing Sabrina’s father to get rid of her. The younger generation, however, doesn’t seem to have any class hang-ups. Even Linus only cares about his merger, not that she’s the chauffeur’s daughter.

And so, ironically, it’s not a class barrier that Sabrina runs into; it’s corporate business. Linus is wedded to his business and has to learn to live his own life, just as Sabrina did.

The other song that is important in the movie is “Isn’t it Romantic?” It is David’s song, just like “La Vie en rose” is Sabrina’s. It’s the song he plays whenever he is romancing a woman and it represents the world, David’s world, that Sabrina was living vicariously.475px-Holden-Hepburn-Sabrina[1]

Of course, once she learns how to live, she no longer needs David or his world. Instead she falls in love with Linus, and he finds himself coming alive through knowing her. David really doesn’t need anything from Sabrina; he just wants her because she’s beautiful and enchanting, but Sabrina and Linus really have something to offer each other and it is to Linus that Sabrina sings her theme song “La Vie en rose” in a lovely little moment, while he’s driving her home and she turns the brim of his hat down to look less stiff.

Humphrey Bogart was pretty much a crank throughout the entire filming process. He knew that Billy Wilder had wanted Cary Grant originally and felt that Sabrina really wasn’t his kind of film. I’ve read quite a few people who agree with him; feeling that he’s too old and too much like a gangster to be effective opposite Audrey Hepburn.

thKZ31OO8RIt does seem like Audrey Hepburn made something of a career playing opposite men who were at least 25 years older than her (Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Rex Harrison), but I actually think it works with Bogart. In fact, because Humphrey Bogart has that persona that the audience knows (cynical, tough, unsentimental), it underlines that he’s living a tough, cynical life and really is in need of Sabrina and her liveliness. But Bogart also does an excellent job of showing that he has a warm heart, as well, which really sells it.

Note: This post was prompted by mild confusion – I don’t think I ever understood this film before. My first careless thought on viewing this film was that it was a variant on the Cinderella story, but that seemed unworthy of Billy Wilder and I had always been rather puzzled about why Sabrina tried to commit suicide. When I considered that aspect, it came together for me  – a story about choosing to find life charming (the film does not deal with whether it actually is or not) and choosing to live – in an experiential and participatory way rather than just existing inside oneself, without feeling or noticing.

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2014 in Movies

 

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