Filling in for History: Gary Cooper and The Pride of the Yankees (’42)

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To view The Pride of the Yankees click here.

Lou, what else can I say, except that it was a sad day in the life of everybody who knew you when you came into my hotel room that day in Detroit and told me you were quitting as a ballplayer because you felt yourself a hindrance to the team. My God, man, you were never that.Joe McCarthy, New York Yankees’ manager, 1939

In June of 1939, New York Yankees’ beloved first baseman, Lou Gehrig, announced his retirement from baseball. The idea that the Yankees would lose Gehrig, affectionately nicknamed “The Iron Horse,” a moniker honoring his unwavering dedication to his team, fans and the sport, was unfathomable. In many ways, Gehrig was the heart and soul of the team, and by extension all of baseball. By all accounts, he was an all-around decent, upstanding guy, and a damn good ballplayer, too. Over the course of his fourteen years with the Yankees, Gehrig appeared in 2,130 consecutive games, breaking the previous record set by famed shortstop Everett Scott (1,307 games), in 1933. (This record would stand until 1995 when Cal Ripken Jr., the current record holder, surpassed Gehrig’s impressive feat.) And throughout those games, Gehrig played through broken bones and concussions, aching muscles and fevers. Nothing stopped him. He was the ideal baseball player, and every manager’s dream, with a perfect combination of talent, strength and humility. Quitting was not in this man’s vocabulary, and his perseverance was an inspiration. Even with a “slump,” beginning during the 1938 season, an inevitability in even the best baseball player’s career, Gehrig pushed himself even harder. And despite growing fatigue and a noticeable change in his legendary strong, left-handed swing, Gehrig maintained his poise and leadership on the team, while his teammates and fans remained hopeful of a triumphant return to form for The Iron Horse. But Gehrig’s strength and work ethic were no match for the deadly disease which was silently, but quickly destroying his body.

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The Politics of Singing: Une Chambre en Ville (1982)

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To view Une Chambre en Ville click here.

Jacques Demy’s reputation has long suffered from an inferiority complex among the French New Wave filmmakers. Fans and critics find movies like The 400 Blows (1959) and Breathless (1960) challenging and daring while movies like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) are beloved all time classics, certainly adored but not considered the kind of serious art that the others were doing. If you’ve read my pieces on Demy before, you already know I think this is rubbish. But as Demy’s career grew, it expanded outwards and allowed for far more risk-taking and innovation than his earlier work. By the time he got to Une Chambre en Ville, he was making movies that were as innovative and daring as anything coming out of the early days of the New Wave. Une Chambre en Ville, not nearly as famous as many of Demy’s earlier works, is riskier and more challenging than almost anything he ever did.

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Moorland Suspense: A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)

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To view A Cottage on Dartmoor click here.

“The longer one stays here the more does the spirit of the moor sink into one’s soul, its vastness, and also its grim charm. When you are once out upon its bosom you have left all traces of modern England behind you, but on the other hand, you are conscious everywhere of the homes and the work of prehistoric people. On all sides of you as you walk are the houses of these forgotten folk, with their graves and the huge monoliths which are supposed to have marked their temples. As you look at their grey stone huts against the scarred hillsides you leave your own age behind you, and if you were to see a skin-clad, hairy man crawl out from the low door, fitting a flint-tipped arrow on to the string of his bow, you would feel that the presence there was more natural than your own.”
― Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

I thought of these lines from The Hound of the Baskervilles (my favorite of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels) while watching A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929). Anthony Asquith’s silent film begins with the introduction of a wild looking man (Uno Henning) as he scampers like a scared rabbit across the English moors. He is clad in a frayed prison uniform and a mop of untamed hair rests uneasily on his head. As his feral eyes searched the bleak landscape I began to wonder: Was he hunting something or was he being hunted?

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Went the Day Well? (1942): A Special Kind of War Film

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To view Went the Day Well? click here.

It always warms my heart to see how many Ealing Studios films we have stacked around here at FilmStruck. Rivaled perhaps only by Hammer Film Productions, it’s one of the most-loved brand names in British cinema, especially in its native country, and one I’ve happily brought up in the past. Most people associate Ealing with the classic run of comedies that became major international successes (often starring Alec Guinness), but its legacy runs so much deeper than that. One of the very best Ealing films, Went the Day Well? (1942) is a perfect example of how to make a wartime message film that goes so far beyond propaganda and still works like a charm today. [...MORE]

The World’s a Stage: The Golden Coach (1953)

THE GOLDEN COACH, (aka LE CARROSSE D'OR), Anna Magnani, 1953.

To view The Golden Coach click here.

The Golden Coach (1953) begins with a red curtain raising on a stage, the camera pushing in until the edges of the theater disappear and the story proper begins. Jean Renoir’s feature about an Italian theatrical troupe setting up shop in Peru foregrounds its artificiality, a play within the film that is a performance for our benefit. Near the end the troupe’s star actress asks, “where does theater end and life begin?” a question Renoir had been asking since his beginnings in cinema. It is a question without an answer, but indicates the space in which Renoir prefers to operate, within that intersection where playfulness and improvisation meet the social structures that try to contain them. The Golden Coach focuses on Camilla (Anna Magnani), a dynamic stage presence who bewitches three of Peru’s most eligible bachelors, but cannot decide who she ultimately desires. She can only find clarity while on stage, and heartache off of it. So in an extraordinary conclusion, the film makes an argument for perpetual performance, instead of turning your life into art, make art of your life, regardless of the consequences.

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A Forgotten Film to Remember: Green for Danger (1947)

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To view Green for Danger click here.

One of the advantages of streaming is having an entire catalogue of films at your fingertips to explore titles that would otherwise go unnoticed. This summer I decided to focus my viewing attention on British films, partly because so many of them were unknown to me and partly because British movies are my least favorite national cinema. I thought that I would apply the Man Ray Challenge (see my post dated July 24) to some of the British films in the FilmStruck library: What can I find to recommend in a body of work I am predisposed to dislike?

So far, so good. Over the summer, I dusted off two forgotten films that I thought movie-lovers might enjoy (All Night Long [1963] and Obsession [1949]), and, while I was sorely tested to find something to recommend about Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), eventually I did in the previously mentioned Man Ray Challenge post.

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Murderous Morality Play: 21 Days (1940)

21 DAYS, (aka 21 DAYS TOGETHER), from left: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, 1940, 21days-fsct02, Pho

To view 21 Days click here.

What would you do if you killed a man, quite by accident, and then had the great fortune of someone else being arrested for it? On top of that, the person arrested for it actually doesn’t object to the arrest and is so guilt ridden about the rest of his life he wants to die. That’s the basic premise of the Basil Dean directed thriller from 1940, 21 Days (aka 21 Days Together), with a terrific script by Dean and Graham Greene. Laurence Olivier is the accidental murderer, playing the role with surprising restraint, considering this was the Olivier of the 1930s and he still hadn’t been schooled by William Wyler on screen acting in Wuthering Heights (1939). If you’re confused by the timeline, that’s because 21 Days was made in 1937 with Vivien Leigh as the love interest. Shortly after filming, the film was shelved for a year while producer Alexander Korda developed other projects. Then Leigh won the lead role in Gone with the Wind (1939) and Korda, sensing that little Civil War movie was going to hit it big (like everyone else at the time), shelved the movie until after Gone with the Wind was released, at which point 21 Days was released with Vivien Leigh getting top billing. Hey, Korda was no fool and even if Leigh was given nothing else to do for the film’s rapid fire 75 minute running time than stare at Olivier all googly-eyed (and, yes, that’s pretty much all she does), her billing was enough to get people into the theaters. Once there, I suspect they felt it was well worth the price of admission. 21 Days takes the basic trope of the wrong man and turns it into a rather satisfying study of conscience and ego, and just how far someone will go to protect their name and reputation.

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Explosive Terror in The Wages Of Fear (1953)

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To view The Wages of Fear click here.

In The Wages of Fear (1953), based on Georges Arnaud’s novel The Salary of Fear, director Henri-George Clouzot takes an incredibly simple premise and somehow creates over two and a half hours of psychological suspense in one of the greatest thrillers ever made. The Wages of Fear was a defining moment for Clouzot’s career, earning him critical praise and great financial success, which ultimately secured future projects such as his 1955 masterpiece Diabolique starring Simone Signoret and Woman in Chains in 1968. Not only did this film bolster Clouzot’s standing in the industry, it inspired many psychological thrillers to come, including William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), which was a remake of sorts for The Wages of Fear. (Although Friedkin has previously asserted that Sorcerer is merely an adaptation of Arnaud’s novel, and not a remake of Clouzot’s film.)

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History and the Movies: Michael Collins (1996)

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To view Michael Collins click here.

“If the price of freedom, if the price of peace, is the blackening of my name, I will gladly pay it.”

Those are the words of Michael Collins as spoken by Liam Neeson. Actually, to put it more accurately, those are the words of Neil Jordan, writer and director of Michael Collins(1996), as spoken by Liam Neeson portraying Michael Collins. It’s the kind of thing Michael Collins may have said but didn’t. And maybe that’s all that matters. History and the movies have always been uncomfortable bedfellows and I have long argued that I don’t care if the history is correct in the movie as long as A) the movie works and B) the history is broadly accurate in spirit. As I wrote here years ago, I’m watching the movie for the entertainment, not the history lesson. If I want to learn the history, I can read about it whenever I want. So when a filmmaker changes certain aspects of history to further dramatize the story, I don’t usually mind as long as no one’s character is being irreparably smeared (see First Officer Murdoch in James Cameron’s Titanic). And, indeed, Jordan does change certain things in his effort to make the fight for Ireland’s independence more accessible to a wider audience without completely rewriting history. He does pick on Eamon de Valera (Alan Rickman) just a little bit by portraying him as a self-centered and jealous leader, a president of the Republic of Ireland who would rather start a civil war than agree to favorable terms he didn’t negotiate (the Anglo-Irish Treaty). In actuality, he believed the terms weren’t favorable and refused to cave on his principles. Michael Collins, on the other hand, both historically and in the movie, felt the treaty, which insured a certain measure of independence for Ireland, was a necessary first step. But does any of this make for a good movie?

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Question Authority: The Ruling Class (1972)

The Ruling Class (1972) Directed by Peter Medak Shown: Peter O'Toole

To view The Ruling Class click here.

If you want a lesson in how awards are inadequate indicators of talent look no further than the case of the late, great Peter O’Toole. Before his death in 2013, O’Toole was nominated for an Oscar 7 times but he lost on every occasion. In 2002, when the British actor was 70-years-old, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally found it in themselves to give O’Toole an Honorary Award for his professional achievements but he wanted no part of it. The proud thespian sent a letter to the Academy reminding them that he was “still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright” and requested that they “please defer the honor until I am 80.” His children finally convinced him to accept the Honorary Award and you can currently watch his acceptance speech on YouTube.

O’Toole’s speech was short and snappy but also eloquent and deeply touching. I suspect that the working-class lad who had fought long and hard to get onto that stage was thinking of the back rows of the Kodak Theatre and the poor folks at home who could only view the events on TV. To accommodate those of us in the cheap seats he was well-prepared, on point and most of all, entertaining. O’Toole’s professionalism is unsurpassed and to this day it remains one of the most memorable and moving Oscar speeches I’ve seen. It also slyly illustrates how wrong the Academy had been for neglecting the man and his unique talents during the previous 40 years.

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