Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fighting, Faith and Cowardice during World War I

"The Fighting 69th" is a flag-waving war film from 1940, and it throws nearly everything but the kitchen sink into its 90-minute running time.

But that's not necessarily a good thing. The movie is easy to watch, but it's not focused. It covers faith, cowardice, biography and war in a standard hit movie package, complete with comic relief, flag-waving monologues and star turns by its leading men.

It's a crazy concoction, but it doesn't quite work. As the title denotes, this should be the story of the Fighting 69th, a real-life regiment from New York City. In the film, the regiment is at Camp Mills, NY, being prepared to go overseas and fight during World War I. Private Jerry Plunkett (James Cagney) is a cocky, mouthy recruit who is immediately disliked by most of the men around him. But Fr. Duffy (Pat O'Brien) takes a liking to Plunkett, much to the chagrin and puzzlement of the others, particularly Sgt. Wynn (Alan Hale, below with Cagney).

When the men finally make it to France and the front, Plunkett's over-eagerness to start fighting leads to a battle that kills a number of his fellow soldiers, making his estrangement from the others even more pronounced.

I'm not one to discuss the ending of films, because I hate to spoil anything for future viewers. However, be forewarned that I will be doing so below.

To begin with, "The Fighting 69th" isn't sure what to focus on. You would think this would be a biography of the famed fighting division. However, it really isn't, focusing more on Plunkett and Fr. Duffy while filling out the ranks with the usual parade of stock supporting characters that could be transplanted from one war film to another. Outside of cursory facts, I learned very little about this division.

The film is also bookended by both a prologue and epilogue about Fr. Duffy. Yet the film really isn't about him, either. Sure, it goes into the idea of faith and relying on it during the ravages of war. But this isn't a biography about Fr. Duffy. It's as if the film simply says, "He's a man of God. Therefore, he is good. And therefore, we will show him doing good things." Bing Crosby's Fr. O'Malley had more to do in "Going My Way" than O'Brien does here.

Then there's Plunkett. Cagney is a force of nature on screen, and he clearly has the most magnetism of anyone in this film. But his character is so unlikable. And, since the movie is all over the place in terms of its focus, the treatment of Plunkett is cursory, and ultimately he's not about the 69th, which detracts from the overall cohesiveness.

I wish the film hadn't been so set on being a typical action movie. For one thing, a film that was about Plunkett might have been fascinating, particularly when it's revealed that he's a coward. But this is 1940, and such a story might have been too deep or dark to pursue at that time. Instead, I grew to dislike Plunkett so much -- he continues to be responsible for getting most of the supporting cast killed in battle -- that I didn't care what happened to him. When George Brent's Major Donovan calls him a "rotten soldier," I wanted to cheer, even as it became clear what the finale of the film would be. But Plunkett's redemption comes too late. It simply became a plot element.

For all of Cagney's on-screen presence, I thought he had wandered out of a gangster film and onto the wrong set by mistake. However, O'Brien and Cagney (above) -- who apparently worked together on nine films -- were a popular duo, and this film was a hit for Warners.

And while the U.S. wasn't involved in World War II yet, the film certainly did its part to prepare people for what may come. Donovan's rainbow division soliloquy, in which he breaks up a fight between the Fighting 69th and the regiment from Alabama, delivers such lines as "We're all one nation now" and "If you must fight, wait until you get overseas."

Warner Brothers would hit a home run the next year with its World War I biography "Sergeant York." "The Fighting 69th" should have been this good.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Audrey of the Month

Ahh ... holiday. We just got back from one to FL, where we were sooooo lazy. Everyone needs one of those vacations every so often.

And while on this vacation we watched "Roman Holiday" for the umpteenth time. I LOVE THIS MOVIE! And I won't apologize for screaming out my total devotion. So, here's a shot of Audrey from that most wonderful film. Doesn't she look happy on the Vespa? Even she makes breaking the law look elegant.

Now, everyone sigh together ... AHHHHHH.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Second Verse, Same as the First ...

Henry VIII, I'm not I'm not. However, thank you to everyone who took my recent poll. Looks like most of you are happy with what I'm doing. I'll see if I can incorporate the fans who want some themes/star profiles. Here's hoping year two is as productive as year one!

And I'm really diggin' my new look. Although it was suggested that the white text is hard to read on the black background, so I may be playing around in the next few weeks with font size and/or other colors. I hope the person who suggested that won't be disappointed if the tests don't work and I leave it as is.

I'll try and get Audrey of the Month up in the next few days. TTFN ...

Friday, July 9, 2010

Visit the 'Hollywood Canteen'

In 1944, the second canteen movie was released. And like its predecessor, "Hollywood Canteen" was a box office hit that landed in the top five-grossing movies of the year.

Its simple mix of movie stars, romance and wartime morale boosting portrayed within a giant variety show works nicely as a light, entertaining film. And, in a way, it pays tribute to the power of film during this time and the important role that movie stars played.

The real Hollywood Canteen was modeled after the successful Stage Door Canteen. Bette Davis and John Garfield, both under contract at Warner Brothers, were the driving force for creating it. And from 1942 to Thanksgiving 1945, the canteen served millions of armed forces personnel who needed only their uniforms to gain entry. Everything else was free, and Hollywood talent -- both in front of the camera and behind it -- worked side by side serving the patrons.

It was inevitable that Warners would make a film of the successful establishment, although it took some time as there was some wrangling over how to pay stars for their brief appearances in the film -- particularly non-Warners talent!

The story is simple. Corporal Slim Green (Robert Hutton, cousin of Woolworth heiress Betty Hutton) and his buddy, Sgt. Nowland (Dane Clark), have returned from the Pacific and are on a brief leave in Hollywood. Slim and Nowland want to see some stars, and Slim goes to the Hollywood Canteen, hoping to catch a glimpse of his favorite, Joan Leslie.

Davis and Garfield -- playing themselves -- are impressed by the fresh-faced Slim and arrange for him to meet Leslie and give her a kiss. When Slim and Nowland return the next night, Slim is the one millionth guest, and he wins a date with anyone of his choosing. Of course, he selects Leslie, and a mini-romance blossoms between them (above).

And mixed into this simple plot are tons of stars and recording acts. Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra play a great number; Roy Rogers and Trigger make an appearance and he sings "Don't Fence Me In"; The Andrews Sisters sing their version of "Don't Fence Me In" (below) which, as a recording with Bing Crosby, was the number one song in the country when this film was released; Carmen Cavallaro and His Orchestra get a chance to shine; violinist Joseph Szigeti and Jack Benny have some fun with their dueling violins; and appearances by Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Jack Carson, Jane Wyman, Eleanor Parker, Joe E. Brown, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet (who has an amusing bit with Lorre) and Eddie Cantor, singing "We're Having a Baby," which was immortalized on TV by Desi Arnaz. Even Joan Leslie's sister is played by her real sister, Betty Brodel. And both Leslie and, at the end, Kitty Carlisle sing the lovely, Oscar-nominated "Sweet Dreams, Sweetheart."

I was charmed by this film in many ways. For one thing, this is a film that realizes it's not going to be great art. The plot incorporates what far-away soldiers were probably dreaming about: a date with a star, a home-cooked meal, a tour of a movie studio. Its focus is simple, the star sightings are many and major, and the various numbers are engaging. If anything, there's one too many numbers, including a crazy dance piece featuring Joan McCracken that feels like something experimental that Gene Kelly would have done in the 1950s. And yet seeing the Andrews Sisters perform one of their major hits in this age before YouTube and television is a real treat.

Second, this movie celebrates the impact of movies and stars on society at that time. I remember my dad, who was in the Navy during World War II, telling me about the movies they watched, with one of his favorite stars being the #1 pinup girl of the war, Betty Grable. And when you watch Grable's movies today, they may not be brilliant but they are fun, and they did exactly what was needed at that time -- entertain audiences and boost morale. So it makes sense that "Hollywood Canteen" opens with Slim and Nowland in the Pacific waiting for the latest Joan Leslie film to arrive. When it does, a makeshift screen is erected, and even in the pouring rain everyone is watching. While today's movie business spans the world, Hollywood's impact on the troops was so important during the war that the simple sighting of stars could make one believe just for a moment that they weren't in a foxhole or the jungle.

I have not seen "Stage Door Canteen," and it's interesting that "Stage Door's" writer, Delmer Daves, directed "Hollywood Canteen." Some may consider this movie cornball, but I enjoyed this little time capsule, an ode to a specific place in a this pre-TV/computer era when such simple entertainment was all that was needed.

Monday, July 5, 2010

'Comedy' Needs More Time

"No Time for Comedy" is an odd romp featuring James Stewart and Rosalind Russell that I wish worked a little better and had a little more fun.

This 1940 film is based upon S.N. Behrman's popular 1939 Broadway play and is about Broadway itself. Russell is successful stage actress Linda Paige, who's toiling away in a new play that no one likes. When the unknown playwright Gaylord Esterbrook (Stewart) shows up in NYC, his first trip to any big city, his small-town demeanor puts off most people except for Paige. She's willing to continue in the play and convinces others to do the same, despite a questionable third act.

The play is a hit, Esterbrook and Paige marry, and the two form a successful union -- both professional and personal. However, after a number of successful collaborations, Esterbrook is wooed by a benefactress (Genevieve Tobin), who loves to take talented men under her wing and try to impress great art -- and love -- upon them. The men end up demanding that they be taken more seriously, and Esterbrook is no exception.

This was the only time Russell and Stewart worked together, and it's a shame on two levels -- they clearly have chemistry and this piece doesn't give them enough to do. Considering that this was released in the same year that Russell made "His Girl Friday" and Stewart made "The Philadelphia Story," "No Time for Comedy" is a featherweight and almost dull by comparison.

Which is a shame, because the elements are there. Perhaps this worked best on stage. After all, it was a hit with Laurence Olivier, who was on Broadway with this piece between making "Wuthering Heights" and "Rebecca." And you can easily dissect the film into three parts.

But somehow the discussion in the opening part of the film about Easterbrook's first play, in which everyone loves the first act but wonders about the next two, applies to this movie. The first act is genuinely funny. Stewart plays the fish out of water role so well, giving Esterbrook a child-like excitement about seeing a subway or being in a skyscraper. Stewart is charming all the way, and it's easy to see why Russell falls for him.

But in the second act the laughs fade away. Tobin is initially fun but her Mandy wears thin, and it becomes hard to see why Stewart is so enamored with her. If I were Russell, I'd kick him out and say "good riddance."

It's interesting to note that Tobin is the wife of the film's director, William Keighley. This is her last film appearance, and the two were married for nearly 50 years. And, it's surprising to see how one of the movie posters (pictured above) features Stewart and Tobin, with Russell nowhere in sight. I'm guessing the character of Mandy is supposed to be a scene-stealer, which is why she's more prominently featured.

Actually, the best supporting player is Louise Beavers as Clementine, a bit actress who then becomes Russell's maid. Beavers has the best lines and continues to be funny when the story hits its bumps.

The climax is no real surprise, and by the end I was wanting more. Not more of this film, but more of Stewart and Russell and another pairing of these two. "No Time for Comedy" is pleasant enough, but these fine stars had already proven that they could do better.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

A New Year, A New Look

Hello everyone! It's been one year since I started blogging, and if I could I'd invite all of you over for cake to celebrate!

However, in lieu of that (which is too bad, because my birthday was recently and I baked a homemade lemon cake for myself -- delicious!), I've given myself a facelift. How Joan Rivers of me ... except it's my blog that has a new look, not my actual face. (And no cracks from my friends!) Although my new headshot perhaps reflects all the cake I've eaten recently ...

I'd also like your thoughts on what I should do in year two. My sophomore year, so to speak. I can keep going along as I have, or I can modify to make the blog more cohesive. If you have other thoughts to share, just leave a comment or e-mail me.

Now go enjoy the holiday and have some cake! (Perhaps my next blog entry should be about "Marie Antoinette"?)