It is definitely spring here—my bulbs have begun to bloom at last, and though the trees are just beginning to bud (as in just barely), I cannot imagine they’re too far from leafing out. This past weekend, I visited one of my favourite local nurseries; they’re not fully stocked by any stretch, but I was able to scope out (native) possibilities for the front and side gardens as well as a few “anchor plants” for the pollinator’s garden I began plotting a couple of months ago.
Though I’ve already selected plenty of native, cottage-garden-type perennials and annuals for this project, I’d like a couple of plants that will not just melt away into the earth each winter but stick around to give the garden structure during the snowy/muddy season: maybe climbing rose, a huckleberry or red currant, or something like a spirea. Here in Columbus, we are lucky to have a great nursery specializing in native plants that are not just good for local wildlife, but are of course ready-made for our growing conditions; I am hoping to head over soon to see what’s available.
In addition to my garden plans (it’s good to have something to look forward to, isn’t it?), once this week’s round of thunderstorms is through, we’ll get the umbrella onto our tiki bar’s table and give everything outside a nice sprucing up—and I can’t wait. Surely I’m not the only one with cabin fever!
At any rate, I like this “Top Five” idea. It works for me and I know most of you, too, are eager to head outdoors after a long winter. It also saves a lot of time, which I’d rather use for researching & writing about other things; the TCM Wednesday posts as I’ve been doing them usually takes several hours to tap out. And…again…outside. Sunshine. Birds. Fresh air. Dirt to dig around in. Bumblebees. Flowers. It’s calling me. LOUDLY.
So…what’s up this week?
Since these both air Friday night, both star Claudette Colbert, both deal with World War II, and both are excellent viewing, I’m counting them as one. About the only thing I’d do differently is air Three first, as Since You Went Away is a bit more lighthearted. Of course, since it’s on at 3:30AM, you can DVR both and reverse the order later!
Since You Went Away is a bit unique among WWII films—it focuses on the homefront, and the women left behind by a man gone off to war. The women in this case are Claudette Colbert, her daughters (played by Shirley Temple and Jennifer Jones), and Hattie McDaniel, the family’s maid (she finds herself having to leave the family because they can no longer afford her on military pay, but…well, you’ll have to watch). As the war progresses, things get tight back at home, especially with the imposition of rationing and the housing shortage; as another way to make ends meet, Colbert decides to take in a lodger—an irascible, prickly retired Colonel played by the great Monty Wooley.
In addition to living with the Hilton family and their gruff lodger, little slices of what the war years were like work their way into the film most easily, thanks to everyday events: a chat with the grocery deliveryman, a night out with friends or at the movies. Keep in mind, too, that Since You Went Away was filmed and released during the war itself, so though there is the usual Hollywood sheen, I don’t think we see the sorts of inaccurate embellishments on the war years that we do now. The bar scene, which I found a clip of (the trailer being unavailable), is especially revealing of the mores and ideas at the time! I think the film gives us a fair look at what life was like for our grandparents’ generation—and reminds us that there are many families Stateside with spouses overseas in war yet today, going through similar things.
The film is, as you can imagine, filled with heart-tugging moments, but it never turns saccharine—thanks in large part to the talented cast and of course to producer David O. Selznick. The train scene is actually rather famous for forcing viewers to bring out the tissues, but the real, heartfelt nature of the film lasts throughout. It’s very real, and I think displays the best of the WWII generation: their optimism in the face of often crushing reality.
Since You Went Away also stars Joseph Cotten as a flirtatious lieutenant with a lifelong love for Colbert’s character (oblivious to the crush one of her daughters has on him), Robert Walker as the all-but-disowned grandson of Wooley, and there are sort-of cameos (small roles, really) by the likes of Lionel Barrymore and Agnes Moorehead.
At 3:30AM, TCM will screen Three Came Home, a decidedly more difficult-to-watch (due to the subject matter) film based on Agnes Newton Keith’s 1947 autobiography. When Borneo is captured by the Japanese, the American families living on the island are sent to prison camps—the wives and children separated from their husbands. Thus the women must deal with previously unimagined difficulties, starvation, fear, rape, and torture for, in the case of Keith, three years. Watch this movie and I guarantee (or at least hope) you’ll reconsider before you whine about something in your own life.
Claudette Colbert plays writer Mrs. Keith, and in this film, you see her give one of the finest performances of her career, her glamour stripped away. Colbert came to consider it one of her best films—though an injury suffered during the filming of a torture scene cost her the starring role in All About Eve.
Patric Knowles plays Agnes Keith’s husband, sent to another work camp on the island, but of more interest is the part of the camp’s colonel, played by marvellous Japanese silent film star Sessue Hayakawa. What a wonderful performance he turns in here! Having read Agnes’ book, he takes an interest in her, asking her to sign his copy of her book. Though his interest not entirely benevolent, she makes more than one appeal to the man for help, especially due to his obvious love for the children of the camp—an intentional but true contrast to his job as a colonel in the enemy army running prison camps.
Even as the Colonel in charge of all this misery, his is a very sympathetic character—there is one point at which I can almost guarantee you’ll be weeping for him. Hayakawa is very, very good in this film, maybe even Colbert’s equal. How I wish more of his films were easily available!
The three harrowing years Agnes, her son, and the other women in the camp survive is well-documented—sensitively, not…hm…p0rnographically, as they would be today—resulting in an uncommonly powerful film that deals with its subject very honestly, not glossing over what the captives suffered. It’s not easy to watch—not a lighthearted flick—but one you should not miss, not at all. As Keith herself wrote to the NYT after the film’s release,
I wrote Three Came Home for three reasons: For horror of war. I want others to shudder with me at it. For affection of my husband. When war nearly killed me, knowledge of our love kept me alive. And for a reminder to my son. I fought one war for him in prison camp. He survives because of me…The Japanese in Three Came Home are as war made them, not as God did, and the same is true of the rest of us.
Please don’t fail to catch Three Came Home—it is a superb film, truly, and one I wish had a larger audience. And enjoy Since You Went Away, too! Of all the films on this week that I’ve not seen in a long while, these are probably my favourites. I hope you like them just as much as I do.
Also worth watching: The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946) gets better with each viewing. You know I adore this film, and it captures my heart each time. 5:30AM.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
8PM Sunday, April 14
John Huston made numerous fantastic movies, but psychological exploration of three prospectors is in my opinion one of his best. Man’s greed and what it can wreak is a timeless topic and oft-told tale, but the unblinking honesty of the script and performances along with great photography that make Sierra Madre one of the best of them; this is a masterpiece of filmmaking, and among the best movies Hollywood has ever produced.
The common bond tough luck leads drifter Humphrey Bogart (Dobbs) and Tim Holt (Curtin) to befriend one another in Mexico. What work they find is unpleasant and rather fruitless, so it’s unsurprising they’re lured by the promise of gold in Mexico, about which they hear from toothless, loquacious and loopy Howard (played by John Huston’s matinee idol father Walter Huston in a terrific performance, second only to Bogey’s in this film, and barely so). Though Howard warns of the mindless greed sure to accompany a grand gold strike, Dobbs and Curtin can’t resist the prospect of gold. The three men join up to seek it out and bring some home…and the rest is cinematic gold which will, yes, leave you greedy for more—though re-watching Sierra Madre will cost you rather little (and be quite rewarding).
Tim Holt’s Curtin is a fairly easygoing fellow, honest, and level-headed. His character and his performance are a great foil for Bogart and Huston, who are both on different but similarly intense ends of the rationality scale. Some seem to discount Holt’s role, but it’s quite necessary with the other two.
Walter Huston, the director’s son, was a heartthrob from the early days of film. Not confident he could play the role of the crazy, toothless prospector Howard, he had to be convinced—and how lucky we are that he was. It was in Sierra Madre that I first saw Huston’s true power, stature, and ability as an actor (not having seen many more of his films prior). I have to say that though Howard is crazier than a gnat, you come to love him—because though he’s a bit off, he’s a real sage and likable to boot. Huston did a masterful job of turning what could be a stereotypical “crusty old prospector” role into something fantastic and memorable.
It’s hard to say which performance is better in Sierra Madre: Huston or Bogart? They’re both truly great. It is the astonishing descent of Dobbs into true madness, though, that startles and horrifies us into remembering Bogey’s performance for days. For the more gold the men find, the more hard and chill Dobbs becomes, so that in the end he’s more demon than man. I’ve seen a lot of Bogey movies, but to my mind, this is absolutely his best performance—better even than the tortured Rick in Casablanca.
Sierra Madre is a riveting film, and without it, one’s knowledge of movies is left with a big hole.
Also worth seeing: Dodsworth ’36 at 10:15PM. Also starring Walter Huston—it’s a night of his work, including the silent Mare Nostrum—Dodsworth is a fantastic, adult romance film. Mary Astor, David Niven, and Maria Ouspenskaya also star.
Winchester ’73 1950
8PM Monday, April 15
Considered the film that brought back the western, I must note that it’s been ages since I’ve been able to see this in its entirety, but it’s a great film even for non-western fans. Also, see it altogether once and you won’t forget it. It’s a revenge tale, in which lead Jimmy Stewart is top-notch as the son seeking vengeance for his father’s death…and the return of the Winchester 1873 repeating rifle he’d won, stolen by the same man…who happens to be his brother.
Joined by a friend, Stewart’s Lin McAdam single-mindedly seeks what he wants: justice. The longer he must wait and the longer anger and hatred simmers, the more and more this search looks like obsession and even psychological disturbance (which is why you won’t forget the film). This is all the more jarring because thief and killer Dutch Henry Brown is indeed McAdam’s brother; even an alluring dance hall girl (Shelley Winters) cannot distract either man from his quest.
The plot alone, really, gets a lot of people’s attention; as you can imagine, this is a very tense and intense film that elicits thought about vengeance and justice, cowardice and frustration, something westerns aren’t often credited with. But there’s plenty of action, too. It’s a good mix—and the photography, by cinematographer William Daniels, is gorgeous.
After City Lights, this is undoubtedly my favourite Charlie Chaplin film; it only loses me in the end, where his not bad-to-begin-with speech takes baffling, preachy lurches in the direction of the totalitarianism the entire film mocked and skewered. Other than that, though, it’s a great film—made before the horrors of Hitler’s concentration and elimination camps was fully known (else, Chaplin said after the truth was known, he would never have made the movie at all).
In this satire and commentary about Hitler’s Germany, Chaplin actually plays both leads—that of a harassed Jewish barber returned home from the battlefield and the despot himself (named Adenoid Hynkel, ruler of Tomania). The barber is suffering from amnesia after a plane accident during WWI; upon returning home at last, he finds his town ridden with Hynkel’s brutish storm troopers who persecute his fellow Jews. Even so, this does not prevent him from falling in love with a spitfire of a laundress (Chaplin’s future wife Paulette Goddard); after being arrested and sent to a prison camp, a series of mishaps lead to his being mistaken for dictator Adenoid Hynkel (according to the film’s opening, the resemblance between the two is “entirely coincidental”) on the eve of Tomania’s planned joint invasion of another country with Bacteria (Italy).
Dictator is Chaplin’s first talkie, but it’s also full of his trademark slapstick (the barber has a fair resemblance to The Little Tramp). It does seem odd to view this satire about Hitler, because it’s very funny indeed—knowing now what horrors Hitler inflicted upon the Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, those with physical and mental handicaps, and others he happened to consider lesser forms of human being unworthy of liberty, much less life. Perhaps the most famous sequence from this film is of Adenoid Hynkel’s ballet with a large balloon-globe; it’s completely zany, as we expect of Chaplin…but it’s Hitler, too, performing a bizarre pas de deux with the world he hoped to completely rule. This is, as others have said, a burlesque Hitler—mercilessly mocked and sent up. The “German” spoken in the film is hilarious—sort of pig-Latin German.
The Great Dictator is an interesting window into the mind and ideas of Chaplin—some of it good, some of it confused. It’s a fine film because I don’t think Chaplin was trying to be too clever by half; he was just being funny, thank God, while also making his point without dancing about it. His bluntness I definitely appreciate—but he was blunt with style, his own style, and that’s what makes The Great Dictator essential viewing.