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People of Russia (1942)
Shows How Far the Studios Would Go for the War Effort
To paraphrase Orwell, Oceania was allied with Eurasia, Oceania always had been allied with Eurasia.
So it was in 1942, when the United States found itself allied to the Soviet Union, which as recently as the previous year had been a virtual ally of Nazi Germany.
Time to present a positive image of the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics. "People of Russia" demonstrates that Hollywood was more than up to the task.
Most of the film's footage is borrowed from a 1932 James Fitzpatrick Travel Talk. The conclusion is from a 1940 parade, probably May Day.
"A fully liberated people" Fitzpatrick informs us, march by the tomb of Vladimir Lenin "Who passed his miraculous power to another giant among men who shares, with the people of Russia, the respect and admiration of the civilized world - Joseph Stalin!"
Such a narration might well have been written in Moscow. Actually it was penned at MGM, the most conservative of the major studios.
All the film factories fell in line and churned out similar propaganda until 1945. Then, as it always does, the world turned and soon . . .
Oceania was at war with Eurasia. Oceania always had been at war with Eurasia.
The Fight for the Sky (1945)
There are two versions of this film, one running around 20 minutes and another running slightly over 40. The longer film features footage of fighter pilots relaxing while off duty and more extensive coverage of the briefing before their mission. Both films are packed with gun camera footage of aerial combat and strafing runs.
Ronald Reagan narrates the shorter version, which probably played in theaters and later on television. The narrator of the longer film isn't identified, though his is a familiar and very professional voice.
Reagan's narration refers to the unit shown as the 62nd Fighter Group, which did not exist. The airfield footage most likely was of the 56th Group. In one scene in the longer film a truck is seen bearing that outfit's designation on its bumper.
Images of several fighter aces appear at the end of both films. All shown survived the war, though some as POWs.
Either version of "The Fight for the Sky" is a fine tribute to those who flew and fought so valiantly in the skies above Western Europe in World War 2.
The Black Dahlia (2006)
A Tragedy Reduced to a Travesty
The main problem with filming any James Ellroy novel is what to cut. In "LA Confidential" Curtis Hanson did a great job of trimming the story to its essentials while still retaining much of Ellroy's style and tone. Unfortunately, in "The Black Dahlia" Brian De Palma has moved in the opposite direction, delivering a staggeringly bloated, over-produced, chaotic and convoluted work, turning what was the simplest and most straight-forward of Ellroy's LA Quartet books into a nearly incomprehensible film.
The Dahlia case has never been solved, which has led to a flood of true crime speculations, novels, and films, all which pose solutions to the mystery of who killed Elizabeth Short. These range from the credible to the ridiculous, but whatever their conclusions their success or failure depends upon how they build their case. There's something to be said for misdirection, especially if one is working in fiction, but De Palma's method of presenting the story is so oblique that by the time he arrives at a resolution you'll no longer care and most likely you'll laugh. And that seems terribly inappropriate, for the Dahlia case is not the stuff of black comedy.
From the very beginning one senses De Palma is off track when he stages a clumsy depiction of the Zoot Suit riot of 1943 (the Dahlia was murdered in 1947). This does nothing to advance the story other than to explain how LAPD detectives Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckert) first met, something that could have been done just as well and far more economically via a voice-over, but De Palma wants to take you over the top, even if he has to stumble to do so. The sequence where Blanchard and Bleichert box, which steals shamelessly from Scorcese's "Raging Bull", is more of the same. Of course borrowings have always been integral to De Palma's style, which only points to the poverty of his own.
By the time Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) meets her gruesome fate, the aftermath of which initially serves only as a backdrop, the film is bogged down amidst the two detectives' strange relationship with Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), the impending release of an obscure hood named Bobbie DeWitt, and a shoot-out that comes out of nowhere. The boys are swiftly transferred to the Dahlia case, but then drift in different directions. Blanchard seems to go obsessively crazy, while Bleichert is diverted by slumming, poor-rich-girl Madeleine Linscott (Hillary Swank), who eventually brings her catch home to meet the gallery of monsters known as her family.
There's plenty of period detail (not always accurate; e.g., STOP signs were yellow then, not red), fancy camera work, and stylish sets and costumes (much of which would seem to be out of the financial reach of the principals), but neither the characters nor the story lines are compelling. Bleichert finally gets to the bottom of the mess, though not many people will find either his path or the resolution remotely convincing.
James Ellroy's novel deserves a better treatment and Elizabeth Short's memory deserves more respect (she didn't make stag films), but directors like De Palma don't understand novelists' vision or the value of restraint. As a result we have films that feature elaborate trappings, shallow performances, and showy direction, rather than ones offering genuine depth and compassion.
There were nine people in the theater when I sat down to watch "The Black Dahlia" yesterday afternoon. An hour later only three remained. Those who left made the better decision.
Navy Blues (1941)
Mediocre Musical With Some Interesting Details
The best musicals offer memorable songs imaginatively staged. "Navy Blues" offers neither. Both composer Arthur Schwartz ("Dancing in the Dark") and lyricist Johnnie Mercer ("Hurray for Hollywood") did much better work elsewhere, as did choreographer Seymour Felix ("The Great Ziegfeld").
The leads are only so-so. Oomph girl Ann Sheridan looks great and Martha Raye is suitably brassy, but Jacks Haley and Oakie are hardly Abbott and Costello, and Herbert Anderson is woeful as Sheridan's romantic interest.
Plots are always secondary in musicals, though sometimes they help pick up the pace. Here, a typically thin story line is a good 20 minutes too long.
For all these weaknesses "Navy Blues" has some interesting aspects.
The cast features the already rotund Jackie Gleason in his first film. He doesn't have very many lines but you can't miss him as a young sailor named Tubby. Had this been made a decade later he would have been a natural for Oakie's role.
More significantly, this is a last look at the United States Navy on the eve of World War Two. These are real ships and real sailors on the brink of history.
When Oakie and Haley's characters disembark at Honolulu (actually San Diego), the ship in the background is the USS Curtiss, a seaplane tender that a few months later was damaged at Pearl Harbor. Twenty-one of her crew were killed on December 7th.
Other scenes appear to have been shot on an Astoria class heavy cruiser, of which there were six. The following year three of these ships were sunk off Guadalcanal, with great loss of life.
Surely many of the sailors parading behind the cast members in the closing sequence would not survive the war. Few could foresee that in the spring of 1941, but for us that sad fact gives the film a poignancy its makers never intended.
Blackbeard, the Pirate (1952)
The Most Entertaining Pirate Film
Between the opening credits and the first scene of "Blackbeard, the Pirate" viewers encounter the following verse:
The meeker the man, the more pirate he Snug in his armchair, far from the sea, And reason commends his position: He has all of the fun and none of the woes, Masters the ladies and scuttles his foes, And cheats both the noose and perdition!
It's called "The Armchair Pirate" and it serves as notice that what you're about to see isn't the true story of Blackbeard, but rather an everyman's fantasy of life on 18th Century seas.
Real pirate life must have been nasty, brutish, and short, but here it's spirited, colorful, and often uproarious. Most of the credit for this goes to Robert Newton who delivers a wonderfully unrestrained performance as Blackbeard. Critics routinely dismiss Newton's work as hamming, but it's the choicest, most savory ham acting you'll ever see.
Newton is ably supported by Keith Andes, Linda Darnell, William Bendix, and especially Skelton Knaggs as Blackbeard's henchman, Gilly. Well paced, cleverly plotted, and brimming with action, "Blackbeard" is the most entertaining pirate film of all. Just settle back in your armchair and enjoy the fun.
The Babe (1992)
Babe Ruth is bigger than any movie. No actor is capable of bringing him back to life. It's simply impossible to convey either his extraordinary athleticism or his flamboyant personality on the screen. Unfortunately, Hollywood keeps trying.
"The Babe Ruth Story" offered a sanitized version of Ruth's colorful life, with William Bendix hopelessly miscast in the lead. As one of Ruth's biographers once pointed out, millions of men look like William Bendix, but no one looks like Babe Ruth.
"The Babe" does offer an actor who at times bears a superficial resemblance to Ruth (especially when he's wearing a hat), but John Goodman is about as unconvincing as a ballplayer as Tony Perkins was in "Fear Strikes Out." Although he does better in some of the scenes off the diamond (often still wearing a hat), he can't begin to project Ruth's spirit and magnetism.
"The Babe" serves up the usual cliches and inaccuracies that plague most sports films. Sometimes this is done to advance the plot, in other cases it's just sloppiness. Here it seems to be a bit of both.
In one scene Colonel Jake Ruppert (NOT Jack Rubert) offers the Babe an opportunity to manage the Newark Bears rather than the Yankees. Ruth turns it down (this much is true), but then his wife storms into the office and gives Colonel Jake hell and then some. Yes, it's a crowd pleaser, but it's sheer bunk
If you want to see an accurate portrayal of the Babe, watch "Pride of the Yankees", the story of Lou Gehrig. In that film the role of Babe Ruth is played by none other than Babe Ruth. He's great.
Dodge City (1939)
OK Western With a Scene That May Have Inspired One in Rick's Place
I like Errol Flynn, but I don't think he's at his best in westerns. This one has a "clean up the town" storyline, plenty of action, but perhaps too much comedy, given the course of the plot. For the most part it's a typical product of Warner Brothers' golden era, with Flynn's usual supporting cast, including Olivia de Havilland, Alan Hale, and Guinn Williams.
The film does have one very interesting sequence, especially in light of future movie history. In a saloon scene about halfway through, a group of cowboys with northern roots, or at least Union sympathies, start singing "Marching Through Georgia." Not to be outdone, another group, led by Williams, begins to sing "Dixie." Before long, punches are thrown and a mammoth brawl breaks out.
Sound familiar? Except for the fight, the scene resembles the song duel in "Casablanca", made at Warners three years later. Although the screen writers aren't the same, I have to think this was the inspiration for the battle between "Wacht am Rhein" and "Les Marseilles."
Adequate Film on Neglected Topic
Code breaking is hard work. Though picks and shovels aren't required, the hours are long and the frustrations constant. The code breaking process is complex, relying heavily on logic, mathematics, and the assistance of computers. Code breakers themselves often are very weird people who make the common nerd seem comparatively normal. Given all this, it's understandable that hardly any films, aside from documentaries, have been made about the lives and loves of code breakers.
Until "Enigma", the one exception was "Breaking the Code", the story of Alan Turing, the mathematician perhaps most responsible for cracking the Enigma. But Turing's story, though psychologically fascinating, has its limitations for conventional film makers, the most obvious being the difficulty in creating dramatic tension and the absence of any female love interest.
Michael Apted's `Enigma' is the first real attempt to tell the story of the Bletchley Park code breakers within the framework of both a thriller and a heterosexual romance. As might be expected given the historical circumstances, the thriller aspects come off as rather subdued and the romance, such as it is, as rather restrained.
Set in the dreary England of 1943, where stiff upper lips were bearing the weight of four years of war, `Enigma' centers on mathematician Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott). His day and night job is code cracking, but Jericho spends much of the film attempting to solve the mystery of the disappearance of his former lover, Claire Romilly (Saffron Burrows). Jericho is assisted by the suitably frumpy Hester Wallace (Kate Winslet), but harassed by an elegant MI-5 officer named Wigram (Jermey Northam), who suspects him of both murder and treason.
The disheveled Mr. Jericho and the dowdy Miss Wallace spend much of the film on a last-name basis as they poke through files and try to decode intercepts Claire had in her possession. This leads them off into what seems a blind alley but eventually turns out to be the key to much of the mystery. In the midst of all this, Tom manages to tear himself away long enough to return to work, make a breakthrough, and help his mates recover the keys to a code the Germans had altered, thus changing the course of a critical convoy battle in the North Atlantic.
Slow paced and sometimes dense, `Enigma' is enlivened by Northam's portrayal of Wigram, who has a habit of turning up at inopportune moments and making matters difficult for Jericho. Northam has a lot of fun with this role and he looks great in his suits, providing a sharp sartorial contrast to the drab Jericho-Wallace line of wartime apparel.
Although some critics have compared `Enigma' favorably to works of Hitchcock, Hitch's touch was always lighter and his pacing livelier. And Dougray Scott is not Cary Grant any more than Kate Winslett is Grace Kelly, which is all well and good as this dark, serious film clearly benefits from the use of less glamorous performers.
Historically `Enigma' is reasonably accurate, though only so far as it goes. Alan Turing isn't even given a cameo and the original Polish contribution to the code breaking is barely acknowledged. Unfortunately, the film was not shot at Bletchley Park, some of which still survives, but at various other sites in England and Holland.
Recommended to those interested in code breaking and in World War Two. Others probably will find "Enigma" just that.
Not as a Stranger (1955)
The Doctor is In But He Won't Come Out
Many have panned Robert Mitchum's performance in this film, but I think that his lack of expression and emotion, other than anger, suits the character very well.
Mitchum's Marsh is a completely self-absorbed individual. He's committed to medicine and can't understand human failings, especially his own. His character's cold demeanor perfectly reflects the fact that Marsh has no outer life. If he often appears robotic, it's largely because he's programmed himself to shut out everything human, ironically in service to humanity.
Of course he's a great doctor, but he's pure hell to work or live with. Bursting with pride, insensitive to the point of cruelty, Marsh is unreachable and, in more than one sense of the term, untouchable. Mitchum conveys all of this very naturally, perhaps because so much of his performance is rooted in the dark world of film noir, where the actor first made his mark. He's a physician from the neck up, but he has the heart of a contract killer. That he heals instead of kills is his patients' good fortune, though of little solace to his friends or his wife.
Although Mitchum's interpretation remains controversial, many of the other performances in `Not as a Stranger' are beyond criticism. Olivia deHavilland, as his suffering spouse, is superb as always. Charles Bickford, an actor who deserves a much greater reputation, is the epitome of a small town doctor. And surprisingly, Broderick Crawford is excellent as a gruff professor of pathology.
On the other hand, Frank Sinatra's pediatrician isn't as strong, though he has some good scenes when he tries to help Mitchum see the error of his ways. Gloria Grahame, unfortunately, is stuck with a seductress role that just as well could have been cut.
There are other weaknesses. George Antheil's score, by way of Wagner and Richard Strauss, is pretty hard to take. The script and direction are uneven. Many scenes are compelling, such as when Crawford literally throws the book at Sinatra or when deHavilland and Mitchum have one of their confrontations. Others fall flat and there is a tendency, typical in most of Stanley Kramer's work, to keep making points at the expense of the story. For example, the med school sequences with Whit Bissell's greedy and unethical Dr Dietrich (interesting choice of name there) cover a darker side of the profession very well. There's really no need for Jesse White, terribly miscast as a lawyer who cozies up to Grahame, to bring up ethical issues much later in the film.
Recommended as an above average melodrama and as an interesting time capsule of mid-50s medicine. (Though I found it hard to believe patients were allowed to smoke in the wards!)
The Mark of Zorro (1940)
I Wouldn't Change a Thing
Most great films have their flaws but I can't think of any in "The Mark of Zorro." The casting, performances, direction, script, and score are all outstanding. I don't mind that it's in black and white as many scenes take place either at night or indoors. After all, Zorro himself is a creature of the night, clad in black, slipping in and out of the shadows. Technicolor would have done nothing for him.
Special praise for:
1) Power playing the fop. Most actors would have had trouble with this. I can't imagine Flynn prancing about in the role, but Power is completely convincing as Don Diego. No wonder his father can't believe he's Zorro!
2) Rathbone's villain. Evil personified, but he carries it off with such dash and style that you almost hate to see him killed.
3) Zorro and Esteban's duel. Unquestionably the greatest sword fight in film history.
4) The dialogue. More great lines and clever repartee than in a dozen swashbucklers.
5) Pallette as the sword-wielding priest and Bromberg as the corrupt alcalde. Two great character actors ideally cast.
Leftist critics have stressed that Zorro is ultimately a counter-revolutionary whose objective is to restore his father's rule, rather than to overthrow a repressive system. He may not be Emiliano Zapata, but clearly Zorro's motivations are reformist and well-intentioned. Liberating the peasantry is the stuff of another film. There's only so much a man can do in 94 minutes.
One of most entertaining movies ever made and perhaps the best swashbuckler of all time.