Memorial Day Movies: They Were Expendable (1945)

“This isn’t going to be some goddamned two-bit propaganda flick.”

-John Ford to Vice Admiral John Bulkeley, USN

John Ford put off making They Were Expendable for over two years. He was busy with his Field Photo Unit making war documentaries, and he wasn’t eager to to go off active service. He was completing post-production on The Battle of Midway (1942), and dealing with the negative reaction to December 7th (directed by Gregg Toland), a Pearl Harbor re-enactment whose depiction of a less than prepared Navy led to its shelving, and to the future censoring of the Photo Unit’s output. Joseph McBride, in his magisterial biography Searching for John Ford, writes that “the navy reacted to the long version of December 7th ‘by confiscating the print and ordering Ford to lock up the negative.”

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A Newfound Appreciation for Cecil B. DeMille

In my research and readings over the past month, the name Cecil B. DeMille has popped up several times. DeMille was an important part of the film industry from the early Hollywood era until the 1950s when he died. DeMille’s type of conventionally crafted, star-studded filmmaking with a pinch of melodrama seems ill-suited to the tastes of contemporary viewers who equate his name with “old-fashioned” moviemaking—if they know his name at all. But, contemporary audiences are quite different than they were in DeMille’s day. Few movies today please that mainstream audience C.B. was such an expert at courting; instead, the major Hollywood studios chase after adolescent boys with explosions and bad editing, or they target children with the latest entry in a lucrative franchise, hoping that 3-D will cover up a dumbed-down script. Older audiences who prefer indie films– with their unhappy endings, nonlinear structures, provocative content, and performances by actors instead of stars–are probably uninterested in DeMille’s glossy, glamorous spectacles.

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The Duke vs. The Dust Bowl

A 1930s Dust Storm

Above: A WPA image of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s

A certain influential Mr. Turner–no–not the estimable Ted, but Frederick Jackson Turner the American historian, once pointed out that “the forging of the unique and rugged American identity had to occur precisely at the juncture between the civilization of settlement and the savagery of wilderness. The dynamic of these oppositional conditions engendered a process by which citizens were made, citizens with the power to tame the wild and upon whom the wild had conferred strength and individuality.” That was at the end of the 19th century, just as the American Western frontier was closing, but the impact of that view of America still has resonance today.

Watching the distinctly different Three Faces West (1940-Bernard Vorhaus) as part of the John Wayne Day for Summer Under the Stars celebration on TCM, the scholarly Turner’s sometimes controversial ideas came back to me out of the blur of my increasingly distant undergraduate days (or is it daze?). This Republic studios movie is among the least known of Wayne‘s movies, but one of the more interesting–since it came at a time when he was just beginning his ascent to a plane somewhere between a movie star and a force of nature. It incorporates ideas old and new, some of them still contentious, in the course of a brief 79 minute story that effectively portrays the savagery of that wilderness as it affected the lives of Midwesterners in the Depression era.
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The Last Swashbuckler by Peter Bosch

small alan

A Note from  Moira:
When I heard the news that Stewart Granger was to be July’s Star of the Month on TCM, I was delighted for two reasons. As regular readers might have guessed, part of my happiness stemmed from my lifelong enjoyment of the adventure films touched on appreciatively in last week’s nod to Errol Flynn in this blog. Such movies also were animated with renewed zest during Stewart Granger‘s high time in British and Hollywood films.

My second reason for joy was the offer by my friend, Peter Bosch, a writer and a recent TCM Fan Guest Programmer to have an interview he’d conducted with Mr. Granger published here. I think Peter, (fondly known to many of us on the TCM Message Boards as Filmlover), does an excellent job of capturing Granger‘s acerbic wit and honesty in this glimpse of the man as he launched his well done autobiography in 1981.

All Too Human a Father

John Wayne, looking worried,with good reason, in Trouble Along the Way (1953)“What do you know about love? I think love is watching your child go off to school for the first time alone… sitting beside a sick kid’s bed waiting for the doctor, praying it isn’t polio… or that cold chill you get when you hear the screech of brakes, and know your kid’s outside on the street some place… and a lot of other things you get can’t get out of books, ’cause nobody knows how to write ‘em down.”

~John Wayne as Steve Aloysius Williams in Trouble Along the Way (1953)
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The Late Film: Red Line 7000 and El Dorado

Red Line 7000

In introducing El Dorado at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Andrew Sarris bemoaned  Howard Hawks’ future. He peered silently at the sparse crowd, and declared that the turnout was unsurprising. The recent class he offered on Hawks at Columbia University, he told us, was the least popular of all his auteur courses. Where have all the Hawksians gone? Well, I’m right here, and BAM tried to draw them out in their recently concluded program, “The Late Film”, which screened Red Line 7000 and El Dorado on consecutive nights, a crash course in late Hawks and a lesson about what cultures decide to preserve and forget.

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Birth of a Latinophile

alamo-insert

I honestly can’t account for why I became a Latinophile.  It seems doubly strange to me to be one, given that THE ALAMO (1960) was such a seminal work for me as a kid.  I grew up with the legend of those “13 days of glory” and the soundtrack to the John Wayne film (I only saw the actual movie much later) with its stirring ballads and rousing charges and wished, at the age of 7 or 8, that I could go back in time with a machine gun to help Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie defeat “the Mexicans.”  I was staunchly anti-Santa Ana and all of his uniformed “rudos” as a pre-teen – I hated their striped pants and plumed hats – and yet obviously something was working deep within me, changing me.  Maybe it was my parents’ bossa nova records, maybe it was all those boil-a-bags of Spanish rice, maybe it was finding out that BATMAN‘s archvillain “The Joker” was played by a Cuban, Cesar Romero, the “Latin from Manhattan” … I really can’t tell you. But within a few short years of my battle cry being “Remember the Alamo,” I was pumping my fist in the air with a hearty “Viva Santo!” [...MORE]

Hank Worden: Ol’ Mose Knows

Hank Worden as Mose Harper, trying out his rocking chair in "The Searchers" (1956)

A few weeks ago, Jenni, a regular reader of this blog, asked if we could write more about character actors here. In an effort to satisfy her and my curiosity about one of those too often obscure figures, I’d like to offer this brief profile of an unforgettable actor whose name took me years to discover. He went by character names such as these on screen: Old Timer. Old Codger. Old Geezer. Old Coot. Old Miner. Old Con. Flophouse Bum. Sleepy Martin. Flunky. Barfly. Squint. Curly.  You get the picture. He seems to have been born old, and perhaps bald. He could also convincingly play some minor character with a menial occupation, if any.

Hank Worden (1901-1992), an actor who worked in the business of show from 1930 to 1991, often appeared very briefly–even without credit, in movies directed by Hollywood hacks, journeymen and the legendary likes of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway and King Vidor. He also appeared in self-parodying dreck such as  Please Don’t Eat the Babies (1983), though he brought to even those unworthy vehicles a vague sweetness and strangeness that was simultaneously endearing and disturbing. The impression he made during his brief spotlight moments, in particular in his role as the addle-pated Mose Harper in Ford’s masterwork, The Searchers (1956),  place his best characterizations somewhere West of both Shakespeare’s Fools and the characters from Samuel Beckett’s absurdist Waiting for Godot. Almost all Hank‘s characters have a strange, off-kilter style as they react to the world in an often odd, demented fashion, apparently clinging to some shreds of an identity that appears to have been torn up by the roots long ago.

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They stamped the terra!

humphrey_bogart-stamp1But for the requirement that you first have to be dead in order to qualify, I think it’s the ultimate honor to have your mug immortalized on a postage stamp.  I picked up a sheet of the new 42 cent Edgar Allan Poe stamps a few weeks ago and I actually thought, for about five minutes after I bought them (“Now you’re working for the Poe-st Office” I cracked to the teller and we both did the horse laugh.), that I’d keep the whole sheet for the sake of posterity… but with the economy the way it is and my net worth the way it isn’t, I can’t indulge in an almost $8 keepsake.  I’ve been paying bills this week and slapping Poe stamps on all the outgoing mail and  little of me dies every time I let one of those suckers go.  But anyway, all this has me thinking about stamps, specifically those bearing the likenesses of movie stars and filmmakers from Hollywood and beyond. [...MORE]

The O’Hara Factor

Maureen O'Hara in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)With St. Patrick’s Day almost upon us, in this, the second of my attempts to honor women in film history during March, I need to get a bit personal.

Growing up, my red-haired sister and I always felt different, even though our parents, both of whom were of Irish descent, taught us to take a quiet pride in the achievements in arts, letters, and public life by the Irish around the world. While we adopted their low key approach to this ethnic pride as Irish-Americans, while honoring others in this melting pot, we soon learned that you just can’t blend in easily with a crowd when you have this unmanageable mop of red curls that refuse to behave. Short bobs, annoying barrettes and preventive measures to stave off the endless threat of some wickedly painful sunburns were sometimes our lot. People would literally stop us on the street to talk about this undeniable feature, asking us if we were from Ireland, much to our embarrassment.  Kids, being nature’s hard-core conformists, did enjoy pointing out regularly that we were “different.” That may not sound too bad, and it wasn’t, in retrospect, but phrases such as “red-headed stepchild” or comments about “fiery temperaments” really did make us feel a bit odd at times. Throughout history, the hair color, caused by a set of recessive chromosomes that have been reported in recent news stories as nearing extinction, has been the subject of fascination and quite often outright persecution.  I should probably be happy that I was born in a relatively benign era when titian-colored tresses didn’t get you burned at the stake, buried alive, mistaken for a vampire, or stoned at birth.  [...MORE]

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