A Forgotten Film to Remember: The Whole Town’s Talking (1935)

MBDWHTO EC017

I once took a couple of noncredit courses on the early films of John Ford. I thought I knew a great deal about Ford, but, as taught by talented filmmaker and learned film scholar Michael G. Smith, the courses proved to be a revelation. I was surprised at some of Ford’s influences (German Expressionism!!!!), and I enjoyed the diversity of genres and stars that made up his pre-Stagecoach output. I was reminded of this experience when I came across “John Ford in the 1930s,” a collection of films currently streaming on FilmStruck.

Included in this collection is The Whole Town’s Talking, a 1935 comedy that doesn’t have much of a reputation among Ford biographers. I admit that the first time I saw it, I didn’t realize that it was the work of Hollywood’s premiere director of westerns. In this little comedy, Edward G. Robinson stars in a dual role as mild-mannered hardware clerk Arthur Ferguson Jones and cold-blooded gangster Killer Mannion, who has just broken out of jail. The police arrest Jones, believing him to be Mannion. After they release him, reporters create front-page headlines out of this unfortunate case of mistaken identity, which draws the attention of the real Mannion. The gangster kidnaps his look-alike to use his identification papers in order to continue his crime spree.

[...MORE]

A Queen Too Many

Mary_of_Scotland_1936_MO-103

Mary of Scotland (1936), released by RKO, is an interesting historical drama with a touch of romance directed by John Ford. In 1936, Ford was hardly a novice; he had directed over eighty productions, including Academy Award nominated films Arrowsmith (1931), The Lost Patrol (1934) and The Informer (1935). Although he had success in some of his early films, Ford had yet to hit his creative stride, which arguably didn’t begin until the 1939 masterpiece, Stagecoach. In Mary of Scotland, we only catch but a glimpse of Ford’s genius.

[...MORE]

Opening the Vaults: John Ford’s The Black Watch (1929)

Screenshot (96)

In the era of declining DVD sales, Hollywood studios are still experimenting with how to exploit their extensive libraries, if they choose to do so at all. With their Warner Archive line of manufactured-on-demand DVDs, and Warner Archive Instant streaming service, Warner Brothers has been the most aggressive in remastering, distributing and marketing their holdings. Universal, MGM, Sony and Fox have all started their own DVD-MOD labels, but with little-to-no publicity and questionable commitment to quality (Fox was notorious for releasing old cropped and pan and scan transfers to their MOD-DVDs). Some license titles to boutique labels like Twilight Time, Kino Lorber (my employer), and Shout! Factory, while Paramount has made the surprising step of launching a free YouTube channel with hundreds of titles, which they are calling “The Paramount Vault.” For now it is a branding exercise that doesn’t delve very deeply into their catalog, but Paramount starts dropping restored Republic Pictures films on there, I will take notice. Since Netflix has shown little interest in films made before Millennials were born, the one place that might turn a buck is iTunes and other transactional VOD providers (where you pay-per-movie), which have shown an insatiable desire for content regardless of the production year. And for their centenary, 20th Century Fox is releasing one hundred of their films to iTunes in HD, many of which have never been available on home video (you can see the full list at Will McKinley’s blog).  Announced in October, some of the rarer titles have recently appeared in the iTunes store, including John Ford’s first all-talkie feature The Black Watch (1929). Not included in the massive Ford At Fox box set and impossible to see otherwise except on fuzzy bootlegs, this is a promising development for the future accessibility of 20th Century Fox’s film library.

[...MORE]

Ship of Fools: The Long Voyage Home (1940)

HollywoodBar6

From L to R around table: Thomas Mitchell, Billy Bevan, John Ford, George Schreiber, Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Luis Quintanilla, Barry Fitzgerald. Behind John Ford are Joe Sawyer, Bob Perry, Jack Pennick, John Qualen, and Ernest Fiene. Danny Borzage is playing the accordion.

The Long Voyage Home (1940) was self-consciously an art film. An atmospheric bummer adapted from four one-act plays by Eugene O’Neill, it was the first  movie made for John Ford’s independent production company Argosy (co-founded with Merian C. Cooper). This offered Ford an unusual amount of freedom, and co-producer Walter Wanger commissioned prominent fine artists (Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Luis Quintanilla, Georges Schreiber, and Ernest Fiene) to come on the set and paint whatever they wanted.  In the biography Searching for John Ford Joseph McBride quotes the director as saying “I didn’t like the idea at first, but the artists proved to be a grand bunch of guys.” Ford and cinematographer Gregg Toland did their own painting with light, making The Long Voyage Home his most visually experimental film. There is the deep focus that Toland made famous the next year in Citizen Kane, plus low-light chiaroscuro and trick shots like anchoring the camera to the floor of the ship so the audience has a plank-level view of a storm, the waves crashing over the lens. It screened on 35mm (a UCLA restoration) in the Revivals section at this year’s New York Film Festival, but it is also streaming on Criterion’s Hulu page, if you are digitally inclined. At points the film feels like a workshop, to try out techniques Ford was unable to use on his bigger studio pictures, which gives The Long Voyage Home its patchwork quality. And yet Dudley Nichols’ sensitive script is able to tie the anecdotal structure together, and it remains a profoundly moving experience of unmoored men at sea, fruitlessly trying to claw back to land.

[...MORE]

Christmas on Celluloid: “Donovan’s Reef”

Donovan's Reef 1963 posterI confess a fondness for Christmas movies that stray from the typical snow-covered farmhouses, nostalgic small-towns, holiday-decorated department stores, and parties overrun with good cheer. While non-traditional Christmas movies rarely achieve classic status, they are interesting for unusual or personal reasons.

I have always had an affection for Donovan’s Reef, partly because I watched it on Saturday Night at the Movies with my father when I was a little girl, and he enjoyed it so much. But, I was also taken with the film’s tropical setting, which made for an exotic backdrop for Christmas. I can’t help but wonder if my obsession with the romance of the tropics began with Donovan’s Reef.

Directed by John Ford in the twilight of his career, Donovan’s Reef takes place on the (fictional) Polynesian island of Haleakaloa, which was saved from the Japanese by three Navy buddies—Dr. William “Doc” Dedham, Michael Patrick “Guns” Donovan, and Thomas Aloysius “Boats” Gilhooley. Based on the names alone, it is easy to tell that this knockabout comedy is going to be all about the boys. Thinking Haleakaloa a paradise, the three sailors can’t get the island out of their minds after the war. Doc returns to found a hospital for the islanders, while Guns establishes a couple of businesses, including a saloon called Donovan’s Reef. Gilhooley jumps ship from time to time to swim ashore to Haleakaloa for the sole purpose of starting a fistfight with Guns on their mutual birthday—apparently something of a tradition. The actual narrative begins when Doc’s adult daughter, Amelia, arrives from Boston to find her long-lost father. Doc attempts to hide his island family from her, because he fears she would not accept that he had married a native woman and fathered three children. Guns steps up and pretends the half-breed children are his. In typical Ford fashion, Amelia and Guns are attracted to each other but can’t get along.

[...MORE]

John Wayne: The Early Years

This is John Wayne month here on TCM and that means a five day marathon of movies, starting this week, starring the Duke.   Seeing as he acted in well over a hundred movies (closer to two hundred, really), it also means that plenty come from early in his career.   Doing my part, I even wrote up two early oaters, The Big Stampede and Somewhere in Sonora.  The fact is, most stars have brief early careers before someone realizes they have the charisma necessary to be a top marquee name.   Marlon Brando, to use an easy example, had one film, The Men, before A Streetcar Named Desire.  Even though he was famous on Broadway at the time of The Men‘s release, it did nothing for his superstardom.  When Streetcar was released, it was a different story.  He became a star, immediately, and his pre-A-List career remains that one, single movie.  An even more extreme example is Katherine Hepburn.  Her very first movie, A Bill of Divorcement, made her a star.  By her third movie, Morning Glory, she was an Oscar winner.  Pre-A-List career: non-existent.   But some actors, like the Duke, have pre-A-list careers that are almost as long, in number of movies made, as their A-list careers.   In Wayne’s case, it made him a better actor.

JohnWayne01

[...MORE]

All aboard the Stagecoach!

I missed y’all last week, due to a technical difficulty.  And thanks to that glitch, I missed posting about John Ford’s Stagecoach in advance of last Sunday’s screening on TCM.  Which is a shame, but at the same time Stagecoach is one of those classic movies so towering in its importance that it practically dwarfs all efforts to really appreciate it–here is the film that made John Wayne a star, that proved that Westerns could move from the B-movie ghetto to being major Hollywood fare, and that then established the character types and narrative tropes that would fuel all those subsequent Westerns inspired by it.  That’s a lot to pull off in just 96 minutes.  More to the point, it’s a set of accomplishments defined primarily by what comes later, by what we know about Stagecoach‘s precedent-setting legacy.

In other words, forget that I missed putting it in context when it aired on TV last week–what would it have been like to experience it back in 1939?  That’s almost beyond our reach altogether.  But c’mon, let’s give it a try, shall we?

 stagecoach-poster

[...MORE]

Tracing My Irish Roots Through the Movies

qm
John Wayne & Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man (1942)

When I was a child my family regularly celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day on March 17th. My parents and grandparents encouraged me to wear green and my mother would often make my brother and I a meal that consisted of corned beef and cabbage or my personal favorite, Irish stew with dumplings. But whenever I’d ask family members about our Irish ancestors I was usually ignored or met with a wry smile and a joke about our criminal connections. The truth is that most of my Irish ancestors were apparently kicked out of the British Isles in the early 1800s and ended up in Australia, which was a penal colony at the time. As a youngster I didn’t exactly understand what it meant to the larger world to be related to convicts but I was made to feel somewhat embarrassed and ashamed due to my family’s reluctance to discuss our personal history. Now that most of my immediate family has passed on I’ve taken it upon myself to delve into our past and uncover our Irish roots. It’s been an incredibly rewarding and eye-opening experience but I’ve had to rely on my own powers of investigation along with lots of paper documents and books to give me a better understanding of who I am and how I got here. I’ve also turned to one of my favorite obsessions for insight, the wonderful world of movies.

[...MORE]

On the Death of Harry Carey, Jr.

careyjrcardDuring the last phase of his career, Harry Carey, Jr., appeared in small but significant parts in some of the few westerns produced in Hollywood during the 1980s. In Walter Hill’s The Long Riders, he played a stagecoach passenger named George Arthur, who is robbed by members of the James-Younger Gang. When George reveals that he had fought for the South during the Civil War, Bob Younger shakes his hand. The unreconstructed rebel bonds with the outlaws as he helps them rob a cowardly passenger who lies about fighting for the Stars and Bars. As the gang rides away with guns blazing, George walks toward the camera, murmuring in amazement, “I’ll be god damned and go to hell”—a proper testimonial after an encounter with legends. The stage hold-up is one of my favorite scenes in the film because it is Harry Carey, Jr., who delivers this line. As a member of John Ford’s stock company, Carey had walked among a few western legends himself, albeit cinematic ones.

Carey died last week at the age of 91, and most obituaries identified him with Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond, Ben Johnson, and the other actors associated with Ford’s troupe. Carey was proud of his close association with Ford and his westerns even when he didn’t fully agree with the great director’s attitude toward his actors. In his autobiography Company of Heroes: My Life As an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company, he declared, “. . . I’ve only had one teacher. That man was John Ford. He was my nemesis and my hero. There were times when I was not an admirer—but when the day’s work was done—I loved him.”

careygodfathers2

HARRY CAREY, JR., c. 1948

[...MORE]

Two’s A Crowd: The Whole Town’s Talking (1935)

edward-robinson-x2-whole-towns-talking

In an early Christmas present, the Museum of the Moving Image screened a 35mm print of John Ford’s unaccountably hard-to-see The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) this past Saturday. Unavailable on home video, aside from out-of-print VHS tapes going for $60 on Amazon, it deserves to be as well known as his Oscar winning drama from the same year, The Informer (his third film in ’35, Steamboat ‘Round the Bend, is no slouch either). A box office hit which revived the career of Edward G. Robinson, its descent into relative obscurity is puzzling, aside from the larger trend of studios choosing to ignore their own history. It has not even been released on Sony/Columbia’s DVD burn-on-demand service, which was made for titles like this.  In any case, it is an elegantly constructed farce that showcases the astounding range of Robinson, who can play delicate meekness and gruff murderousness for equal laughs.

[...MORE]

Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.