The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

    1. The Letter (Jean de Limur)
    2. The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström)
    3. Exodus (Otto Preminger)
    4. Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director (Kaneto Shindo)
    5. Employee’s Entrance (Roy Del Ruth)
    6. Paisan (Roberto Rossellini)
    7. Heroes For Sale (William Wellman)
    8. Some Came Running (Vincente Minnelli)
    9. Under Capricorn (Alfred Hitchcock)
    10. The Chosen (Joshua Kagan)

 

1. In All About Eve, at one point Addison DeWitt says:

           “I have lived in the theater as a Trappist monk lives in his faith. I have no other world; no other life – and once in a great while, I experience that moment of revelation for which all true believers wait and pray. You were one. Jeanne Eagels another…there are others, three or four. Eve Harrington will be among them. ”  

So just who is Jeanne Eagels? I knew the name from a weird Robert Aldrich pseudo-biography starring Kim Novak. Once again, TCM to the rescue! They recently showed one of the handful of films this legendary stage actress made before her death by drug addiction at the age of 39.  Interestingly, it is the first film version of W. Somerset Maugham’s story The Letter, which would later be remade as a star vehicle for Bette Davis.  This 1929 version is much rougher than the Davis version, the story grittier. As with much of early talking pictures starring stage stars it is, well, stagy. But what a treat to see and hear this theatrical ghost in one of her signature roles.  Apparently there is film out there of Eleanora Duse and of course that wacky Queen Elizabeth film with Sarah Bernhardt.  This though, was a historical treat.

2. Do we all now agree that, despite his mostly self-created image as a great film director, Otto Preminger really stank? Exodus was torture to sit through.  Between the dead camera work and the Actors’ Studio Method crap of Paul Newman I barely got out of it alive.

3. How nice to know that Under Capricorn is not the great failure that Hitchcock lovers paint it to be.  It is not a suspense or horror story.  It is a romantic historical drama in style of Daphne Du Maurier.  It is quite lovely, but I will grant you the experimentation with long takes doesn’t quite work.

4. How did Some Came Running get pitched as a project? I guess it was from a best selling novel by the guy who wrote From Here To Eternity but it is ultimately about nothing, except a lot of really interesting characters in conflict. I guess that should be enough!

5- Please see my post on Heroes For Sale, then please watch this little masterpiece.

6- What a trip down Memory Lane to see The Chosen! I read the book when it came out in 1970 and don’t believe I ever saw the film.  A pleasure revisiting this lovely characters as well as the nostalgic look at Brooklyn during WWII and just after.

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Heroes For Sale – Your Excuse To Keep Watching Movies!

If I were looking for a justification to prove that watching endless hours of movies is not just mindless entertainment, I would offer William Wellman’s Heroes For Sale for your consideration.

A few weeks ago, I was deeply involved in watching Ken Burns’ magisterial The Roosevelts: An Intimate Portrait. The personal glories and demons of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor are depicted against the backdrop of both World Wars and the Depression.  Using the three biographies as the thread linking the whole enterprise together, Burns effortlessly explains what America was like in the first half of the 20th Century.

Some days after The Roosevelts concluded, TCM showed William Wellman’s Heroes For Sale as part of its Friday Night Spotlight series on Pre-Code films.

heroes for sale

The resonance with the Burns documentary was profound. What was powerful in The Roosevelts was the long view of the subject which only comes from being created some 50 years after the events depicted.  Comparisons could be made regarding America’s involvement in the Spanish-American war and World Wars I and II because of this long view.  The contrasts in the approaches to progressive legislation by Teddy and FDR could only be drawn with a historical perspective.

Heroes For Sale, while not a documentary, offers a history lesson of a different kind.  Made in 1933, when the Depression was in one of its darkest periods, it tells the story of a World War I vet struggling to survive in the world of the Depression. He first has to overcome a morphine addiction which was a result of treatment in a German POW camp. The way our poor hero is kicked aside by the society that gives lip-service to the honor due veterans could have been written today. The fact that we are getting this in a film probably being watched by these same veterans it deals with,  gives it an immediacy that a documentary cannot capture.

The addiction licked, he moves from his small town to Chicago, where he finds comfort in Aline MacMahon’s coffee shop/soup kitchen/boarding house, as well as love with Loretta Young.  The charitable Aline and her dad give away as much as they sell in their restaurant and the breadline outside their shop becomes all the more poignant when you realize that the moviegoers of the time would probably see something similar when they left the theater and walked home.

heroes for sale

In the Roosevelt documentary, Capitalism and Communism are shown in contention for the American soul during the Depression, with the progressive Liberalism of FDR’s New Deal winning out.  In Heroes For Sale the two extremes are shown by the small-town bank owner who eventually commits suicide when it is found that he has been cheating his trusting depositors (sound familiar?) and by the mad inventor who lives in the boarding house who spouts Marx and revolution until he becomes wealthy and the struggle of the working man becomes irrelevant to him. Both philosophies have their drawbacks and ultimately fail the nation.

Richard Barthelmess, our hero, is the embodiment of the idealism of the New Deal, he keeps getting knocked down, but picks himself up and moves on, leaving goodness and kindness in his wake.

 

heroes for sale 2

The history lessons to be gleaned from watching this film are many. Not necessarily better than a documentary made today, but perhaps more thrilling since it is of the time itself.

I would love to hear your thoughts about film as history,  especially in light of recent rumors that Herbert Langer’s The History of Cinema, The Cinema of History might be republished sometime next year after an absence of over 40 years!