Sunday, July 29, 2012

World War II: 'They Were Expendable'

This is the second part of a four-part series looking at World War II films released in 1945 and early 1946. These realistic films were different from most as they attempted a realism not found in similar-themed films that focused on American heroics as a way to boost morale.  

The excellent “They Were Expendable” looks at the motorboat torpedo squadron 3 from before Pearl Harbor to mid-way through the war, when the decommissioned squadron gives way to a new fleet of PT boats that the Navy requested made.

The film was released by MGM, not always known for such realistic war-themed fare. Although the studio had released “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” and “Bataan,” it was mainly interested in lighter material, such as musicals, homespun series such as the popular Andy Hardy films starring Mickey Rooney, and the likes of “Lassie” and “Maisie.”

The director is John Ford, who spent several years with the war department filming such Oscar-winning documentary shorts as “December 7th” and “The Battle of Midway.” “December 7th” combined newsreel footage with recreated scenes. “Midway” was the first document of an actual U.S. military engagement and the first to use 16mm Technicolor photography. This battle was also the first one made by an established Hollywood director.  

So he brings first-hand knowledge to “They Were Expendable,” and it clearly shows. He’s also paired with his favorite muse, John Wayne. But don’t mistake this film as a John Wayne-saves-the-day flag-waving piece of propaganda. Wayne plays Lt. Rusty Ryan, a hot-headed boat pilot who is described by one character as “tall, dark and obnoxious.”  

The film’s other star is Robert Montgomery, playing Lt. John “Brink” Brinkley. Based upon W.L. White’s book, the story centers on the squadron commanded by Brink. Stationed in Manila Bay, Brink believes his squadron can be highly useful in combat, especially after Pearl Harbor is attacked. Unfortunately, the powers that be feel the squadron is too easy a target, too inexperienced and lightweight to do any real good during battle.

Even after fighting one good battle, the squadron is assigned to ferrying messages back and forth between ports. “I don’t want to be bored to death running messages,” Rusty complains, but there’s not much that can be done. Brink and Rusty realize it’s not just about fighting, it’s about respect.

Much like “The Story of G.I. Joe,” “They Were Expendable” does a strong job of detailing the conditions of war, this time in the Pacific. The sights and sounds of operating under fire is one excellent way that the screenplay and Ford demonstrate what tens of thousands of men were experiencing during the war.

Another is when Rusty must report to the hospital for blood poisoning that could potentially lead to his arm being amputated. While there he meets Nurse Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed). Theirs is a romantic friendship but all too brief. When she visits the officers for a meal, the scene may seem quaint today as the officers are on their best behavior, trying to suppress their giddiness that a woman is amongst them. But the rare presence of a woman had a positive effect on the fighting men, no matter what branch, as detailed by Ernie Pyle in his writings. Nurses worked hard during the war, but they boosted morale in a way the medicine could not. The lovely Reed is exactly what this role needed. 

The film also deals with such places as Bataan, Corregidor and the U.S.S. Arizona. Audiences in 1945 needed no further explanation, but today it’s worth noting that the first two were horrific battle locations in the Pacific resulting in heavy losses while the U.S.S. Arizona was sunk during the raid on Pearl Harbor. Audiences knew that characters being sent to Bataan or Corregidor would most likely not return.

Ford is a master at capturing the faces and reactions of his characters, whether it’s the Asian woman singing an American patriotic song or young sailors, barely out of high school, trying to look brave while clearly scared. There’s such poignancy to his work, especially at the film’s end. Instead of building to a big climax, he goes for something more subtle, a weariness among the men that never gives way to dejection. They may be tired, but they still fight on, firmly believing they must give everything they have to win. There is nothing expendable about these men.

As for the actors, Montgomery is stoic and fine as Brink. He’s mostly unflappable, but it’s a look here or quick glance there that registers his emotions, and I like Montgomery’s ability to convey these emotions within Brink’s official demeanor. Wayne is terrific. While he wants to fight, it’s not the usual gung-ho personality we think of with him. In fact, his best moment comes toward the end, when he gives a lovely eulogy played with a bitter tenderness.

“They Were Expendable” was released in December of 1945. Although “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” had been a huge commercial hit for MGM in 1944, “Expendable” was a bigger hit with critics. However, with the end of the war, it was clear to studios that war-themed films were no longer moneymakers. I’ll talk about that more in two weeks. However, next week, I’ll look at a documentary from John Huston, “San Pietro.”  

Friday, July 27, 2012

Welcome 2012 London Olympics

 Happy Olympics Day!

When it comes to sports, some people live for the Super Bowl, others for the World Series. I live for the Olympics. My love of the Games stems from my childhood. Growing up in a small Midwestern town, in an era before computers and 800 TV channels, the Olympics were a window to a big world beyond the 2,200 residents of my hometown. During the Winter Olympics, I could imagine skiing down mountains that looked so different from the flat farmlands that surrounded me. During the Summer Olympics, I visited a major metropolis in another country and dreamed of traveling there.

So tonight I’ll have my usual Olympics Opening Ceremony party, ready to watch the festivities unfold. London becomes the first city to host three Olympics, and its history as a host is rather intriguing, as its first two times were actually by default.

When Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France conceived the Modern Olympics, interest was strongest in Greece, so Athens became the first host in 1896. The Games were hugely successful, and the next Olympics were scheduled for Paris in 1900, de Coubertin’s hometown. However, these games were pretty much a disaster, as they were held as part of the 1900 World Exhibition. In short, they were treated as a sideshow.

Disgusted, de Coubertin had high hopes for 1904, when the games were awarded to the U.S. Chicago was initially named the site, but St. Louis wanted the games to be part of its Louisiana Purchase Exhibition. It was President Theodore Roosevelt who agreed that St. Louis should be the host. Unfortunately, the games were no better than 1900. For all of us movie fans who love “Meet Me in St. Louis,” Judy Garland is not singing about taking the trolley to watch the Olympics.

It was Greece that saved the Olympics movement. The country had planned to stage its own Games on a different four-year cycle – 1898, 1902, 1906, etc. However, it didn’t happen until 1906, and the success of these “interim” Games led to the continuation of the Olympic movement. BTW, this was the only games staged on this cycle.

So for 1908, Rome was initially awarded the games. But the eruption of Mount Vesuvius required funding to be redirected, so London was awarded the Games. It was here that the Opening Ceremony was first held (above). Although intense bickering broke out between various countries and the British, as the British ran and judged all competitions, the Games were considered a success. 

Flash forward to 1948. The Olympics have been canceled just three times in its history: 1916, 1940 and 1944, all because of world wars. London took on the difficult task of staging the first Olympics after World War II, with just a few years to plan. England was recovering form the war, and food shortages still abounded.

But the Games came off successfully, presided over by King George VI (for movie fans, it’s Colin Firth in “The King’s Speech”).

My favorite athlete from those Games is worth remembering: Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands (above). In 1936 she was 18 years old and competed in the Berlin Olympics but did not win any medals, although she did meet her idol, U.S. track star Jesse Owens. During the next 12 years she became a dominant figure in women’s track and field, and by the time 1948 came, she held six world records. She also had married, given birth to two children and, at 30, was considered too old to be a sprinter and track star.

She entered four events – the 100 meters, 200 meters, 80 meters hurdles and the 4x100 relay. She would have entered the long jump and high jump, but the schedules conflicted with the foot races.

Still, people were skeptical. A British official carped, “Why is a 30-year-old mother of two running in short pants at the expense of leaving her family?” An angry Fanny told husband/coach Jan, “I’ll show him.”

Indeed she did. She won the 100 meters in impressive style, and then took the hurdles race in a close contest. But the press kept questioning her about her decision to leave her family behind in Amsterdam to compete, and she nearly dropped out of the Games. But Jan convinced her to stay. The result: another gold in the 200 meters and a fourth gold in the relay. She became the first woman to win four golds in track and field in a single Games and only the second person to do this – Jesse Owens, her idol, had won four golds in Berlin.

To this day, no other woman has won four track and field gold medals in a single Games. That’s quite an accomplishment.

This time around, London has had time to prepare for the Games – seven years, to be exact. With luck, the Games will be a huge success, and we’ll toast the success of an athlete like Fanny.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

World War II: 'Story of G.I. Joe'

A few years ago I was reading an excellent book on 1940s filmmaking, “Boom and Bust” by Thomas Schatz, and one section discussed several World War II films released in 1945 and early 1946. They were cited as examples of excellence in realistic filmmaking, war films that some at the time considered anti-war films because they didn’t portray the usual Hollywood heroics.

So, based upon this information, I have decided to review four of these films starting today with “The Story of G.I. Joe.”

This superb 1945 film is one of the best World War II films released during the war itself and remains one of the best ever war films. It is based upon the writings of Ernie Pyle, the Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent whose columns could be found in newspapers across the country during the war.

One of my prized books is a ninth edition release of Pyle’s “This Is Your War,” first published in 1943. My version is from 1944 with the original dust jacket, and the owner even clipped one of Pyle’s columns from the paper and used it as a bookmark. It’s ironic that the column is about the difficulty Pyle had being on furlough after spending so much time in Europe and Africa. The book is a collection of his columns modified for a novel narrative, and this volume examines the fighting in North Africa.

What makes his writings so memorable is his ability to capture the human side of war. In addition to describing the battles, he evokes the camaraderie of the men, including their living conditions, accomplishments and fears. He wanted these men to be the subjects of his columns, listing names and addresses and spinning their individual tales with a keen eye for detail and humility. He praises these men not as heroes of war but as heroes of humanity, surviving what many of us today could never conceive of.

“The Story of G.I. Joe” perfectly captures the essence of Pyle’s writings. Pyle himself is a character in the film, played with understated perfection by Burgess Meredith (above left, with Pyle). In the film, Pyle keeps coming in touch with the men of U.S. Army Company C, 18th Infantry. The film begins in North Africa as men are heading toward their first battle in Tunisia. Pyle quickly fits into the group, and the men clearly like having him around. A sudden attack results in a death, which Lt. Walker (Robert Mitchum) replies with understanding, “The first death’s always the worst.”

Later in Italy, Pyle catches up with Walker and his men, who fondly remember the correspondent. Here Pyle is witness to an intense invasion of an Italian town. He also captures everything from the joy of mail call to the quickly arranged wedding of a soldier and an Army nurse. A large part of the film’s latter portion focuses on the company’s perilous location and how many weeks pass before they can move on, including a memorable Christmas holiday spent in a foxhole.  

The film is superbly directed by William Wellman. I love the beginning, as a private is allowed to keep a dog, a mutt, as Pyle joins their unit, who is also like a stray dog adopted by the men. Wellman also does a memorable job throughout the film by showing reactions – reactions of the men to the first man killed or of them simply listening to the radio broadcasts of Axis Sally, a German-American with a sexy voice who reminds the men of what they are missing back home as a way of getting into their heads.

In fact, the first 15 minutes clearly lets us know this movie is different from most flag-waving war films made during the 1940s. That’s because the Office of War Information wanted these films to boost spirits back home, whether it’s showing our men winning the war or telling us to hang in there and stay united against the common enemy. “G.I. Joe” forgoes the melodramatic heroics. Supporting characters come and go, and some are killed off unexpectedly. Sudden losses are common in wartime, and the audience experiences these as well.

Wellman isn’t afraid to show the rain and mud. Like Pyle, he understands the importance of details in telling this story. Late in the film, Pyle says, “The G.I. … he lives so miserably and dies so miserably,” and the film captures this. And yet, like Pyle’s writings, the film has great affection for its characters and what they are doing. 

The film also does a realistic job of portraying reporters. Pyle kept his ears open and mostly his mouth closed, listening to and watching what was unfolding, never forcing himself into situations where he was unwanted.  

The performances are outstanding throughout. In addition to Meredith, Mitchum (above) is magnetic, receiving his only Oscar nomination as best supporting actor. Also terrific are Freddie Steele as Sgt. Warnicki, a man whose wife has sent him a record recording of his son, and he’s obsessed with finding a record player. Wally Cassell as Pvt. Dondaro, the camp lothario, is also superb.

“The Story of G.I. Joe” was released in summer of 1945 and was well-received by the critics. Sadly, Pyle was killed in the Pacific in April of that year, just months before the film’s release. Thankfully, this film does a brilliant job of capturing the essence of his work while being an outstanding movie about the realities of war.  

Next up: A film about the war in the Pacific

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Coming Up: A Look at World War II

During the last few weeks, I've watched four films released in 1945 and early 1946 dealing with World War II. Three are from Hollywood; one is a documentary by a well-known director. So, starting Sunday, I will begin a four-week look at these films and their takes on the war.

In addition, as an Olympics fanatic, I will post mid-week about the Olympics to preview the London 2012 games, with opening ceremonies taking place on Friday, July 27.

Please come back and join me for these posts!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Audrey of the Month

Here's a lovely photo of Audrey. Simple yet stunning. Happy July! 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Pleasure in 'Paradise'

After watching “Trouble in Paradise,” I’m more convinced than ever that Ernst Lubitsch was the first director to truly grasp the use of sound technology.

During the past year, I’ve watched “The Love Parade,” “The Smiling Lieutenant” and now “Trouble in Paradise,” and I’m amazed at how well all three films hold up today. Early sound technology limited camera movement, while screenplays featured lengthy dialogue, Lubitsch made these films fresh by camera choices within a static set that provided a visual wit that matched the dialogue. He also brought forth the charisma in his actors – for example, Maurice Chevalier displayed his devilish charm in the first two films mentioned above.

With “Trouble in Paradise,” Lubitsch coaxes top-notch performance from the entire cast and shows complete mastery of a drawing room romantic comedy that puts modern films to shame.   

The film begins with a wonderful montage that shows how creative Lubitsch was, setting up his plot with a combination of visual and verbal snippets. It might be confusing at first, but stick with it as it all is explained. In short, Gaston (Herbert Marshall) and Lily (Miriam Hopkins) meet in Italy. Both are thieves, and each is attracted to the other’s physical and professional attributes.

They end up traveling Europe together, but they begin to weary of the nomadic, thieving life. So they hatch one last plan to score big, and that is to swindle perfume company owner Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis, below left with Hopkins and Marshall). She’s careless with her belongings, money and suitors – the Major (Charles Ruggles) and Francois (Edward Everett Horton), neither of whom seem to make any headway with Madame Colet. 

When Gaston returns a misplaced and very expensive purse, Madame Colet is taken with him. But when he is taken with her, this invokes the wrath of Lily.

Lubitsch simply got everything right with this film. At a time when writers were grappling with screenplays that didn’t sound like stage plays, he could emphasize the wit of a script without the need for ongoing dialogue. His films may consist of mostly interiors, but he had a way of focusing on even the smallest movement within a scene that nonverbally told the story or elicited a laugh. And in this pre-code era, he found managed to convey sexy with a sly wink rather than an overt situation.

Watch the opening dinner sequence between Gaston and Lily (below) – priceless for its wordplay, and yet while the camera is mostly focused on the two of them at a table, Lubitsch manages to pick up small details to keep it visually fun. As the scene escalates, it’s clear the two are lusting for each other. Or later in the film, a seduction scene between Gaston and Madame Colet turns into a sequence of two rooms with a variety of entrances and exits by the two characters, wonderfully choreographed visually.

Lubitsch could not have asked for a better cast. Marshall is handsome, suave and at his charming best. Hopkins is fiery and magnetic, while the lovely Francis manages to be flirty, smart, flighty and seductive while maintaining an air of class – no small feat! Meanwhile, Horton and Ruggles hilariously try to woo Francis, both knowing that neither will win yet wearily trying their best, forging an unlikely camaraderie.

“Trouble in Paradise” was released in 1932, and in this pre-Code film the battle of the sexes is light and fluffy and surprisingly adult. It’s sparkling fun thanks to all involved, and I can’t wait to see more of Lubitsch from this early era.