EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE: The Real Housewives of 1940’s New York

Director Mervyn LeRoy has a stable full of thoroughbreds and he lets them run.

Let’s get this straight right off the top:  I love this film.

We’ll start with James Mason, who plays Brandon Bourne, a rich man who knows all the right people, goes to all the posh places, wears tailored suits but beneath that thin veneer is nothing but a weak, worthless cad.  He cheats on his devoted wife as a matter of course, safe in the knowledge that she will accept—if not believe—his flimsy excuses about where he’s been and his empty promises that each time is the last time.

Gardner and Mason

Though Brand will take up with any beautiful woman who will have him, Isabel Lorrison has her claws in particularly deep.  Ava Gardner is never better as the woman who knows she can snap her fingers and make another woman’s husband come running.  Her part in the film is smaller than the others, but she makes her mark, stealing every scene she’s in.

You’ve got Van Heflin, an excellent actor who isn’t as remembered as he should be playing Mark Dwyer, the man who is everything Brandon Bourne is not, and who longs to show Brandon’s wife what real love and devotion look like.

Stanwyck and Van Helfin

And at the center of it all, you’ve got Barbara Stanwyck as the stoically long-suffering wife, Jessie Bourne.  Through all the subplots about Mark Dwyer and his childhood friend, Brand and Isabel, a murder mystery, and an exploration of the different neighborhoods in New York, this is a film about how Jessie Bourne comes to leave her long marriage.  You watch her suffer the small indignities of having to pretend everything is fine with her friends while they all know the truth of her husband’s infidelity.

The film is filled with scene after scene you can feast on:  Brand coming home after staying up all night and groveling to Jessie, who keeps forgiving but not managing to forget.  A reticent Jessie squirms with discomfort when her friend (in one of Nancy Reagan’s first roles) questions her about Brand’s philandering.  Isabel taunting Brand, knowing he won’t be able to give up their trysts.  Mark Dwyer and Jessie falling in love while he makes eggs and mushrooms in her kitchen.  The icy showdown between Jessie and Isabel.

Gardner and Stanwyck face off

It’s all leading to Jessie finally calling it quits.  When Brand comes home to face the music for the final time, I couldn’t wait for Jessie to let him have it.  I wanted this shy, stoic woman to finally let it rip—to scream, list his myriad indiscretions, throw things at him.

But this is not Jessie Bourne’s way.

In one of the best acted scenes of Stanwyck’s long career, her Jessie Bourne listens carefully while Brand lists all the reasons she should take him back one more time.  He’s scared because he knows how far he’s pushed her this time, but he believes—he always believes—that he can find a way to get her back.

When he’s finally finished, Jessie looks at him with dry eyes.  You can hear the tears in her throat, but she’s done all the crying she’s ever going to do for Brandon Bourne. No screaming, no throwing things—Brandon has finally killed all Jessie’s love for him and there’s nothing either of them can do to change it.

Stanwyck kills the delivery, and it’s a damn shame I couldn’t find a YouTube clip of it. This tumbler gif from duchesscloverly will have to do:

East Side, West Side is a well directed, excellently acted melodrama.  It’s the life and love of New York City’s upper crust in the 1940’s.  It’s got everything—love, drama, murder, infidelity.  

It’s a fine film that should be more celebrated and remembered.

Give it a shot.

GILDA: Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption

You may not know it, but you’ve seen Gilda.

In the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins play inmates in the Shawshank State Penitentiary.  In a famous scene, Andy Dufresne (Robbins) slides into the seat behind Red (Freeman) in the prison’s crowded movie theater.  

Red-

Wait, wait, wait, wait,” Red insists, holding up a hand.  His eyes are transfixed on the giant movie screen before him.  “Here she comes.  This is the part I really like.  This is when she does that shit with her hair.”

Oh yeah, I know,” Andy says with a smile.  “I’ve seen it three times this month.”

We then see what has Red and Andy transfixed.  A black and white film, two men in suits walking into a room.

Gilda, are you decent?” one asks.

The camera closes in on a woman who throws her head back and Rita Hayworth’s face fills the frame.

Me?” she asks with a mile-wide smile and anything-but-decent voice.

The prisoners hoot and holler, Red laughs, and Andy smiles.

The Shawshank Redemption is based on the Stephen King novella with the lengthier title Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.  As anyone familiar with the film or novella knows, Andy escapes by spending years digging a tunnel out of his cell, which he covers with a poster of Rita Hayworth.

When it came to having a poster of Rita Hayworth hanging on his wall, Andy Dufresne was in good company.  The poster in the film was made from a famous shot of Hayworth taken by Bob Landry for the August 11, 1941 issue of Life magazine.  It became one of the most popular pin-ups of American troops during World War II.  

Andy Dufresne and Rita Hayworth in The Shawshank Redemption

If you watch Gilda—or even just the few seconds of her that show up in The Shawshank Redemption, you know why Stephen King, Andy Dufresne, and millions of G.I.’s picked Rita Hayworth as their preferred pin-up girl.

Rita Hayworth looks good on a poster.  But looking good on a poster is modeling, not acting.

Gilda is a film mostly remembered for two scenes, both showcasing Hayworth’s innate sex appeal.  The first is her opening scene in the film as showcased in Shawshank.  In the second, Gilda dons a black strapless gown and long black gloves and sings “Put the Blame on Mame” to an appreciative crowd.  During the song, she yet again “does that shit with her hair” before slowly rolling down one glove and discarding it.  This one glove striptease—the director didn’t dare risk having Hayworth remove both gloves—shocked and titillated audiences of 1946 as much as anything on the screen today.

Rita Hayworth’s Gilda is seductive and mysterious, equalling loving and hating her one-time lover and eventual husband Johnny Farrell.  She drives Farrell mad by playing the part of a femme fatale, though in truth she only has eyes for him.

Yet outside those two scenes, Gilda drags.  Johnny Farrell and Gilda sparring mostly falls flat, and it’s hard to understand why they love and hate one another so deeply.  The twist that Gilda is not a femme fatale but has been faithful to both her husbands is obvious to the audience and only makes Johnny look like a fool for suspecing her of serial infidelity.

Rita Hayworth’s femme fatale lacks the chilling calculation of Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or the confident sex appeal of Lauren Bacall’s Slim Browing in To Have and Have Not.

Part of the problem is that Hayworth’s true talent was dancing, and she doesn’t get to do much of that here.  She was as good a dancer as Ginger Rogers and made two well-danced but mostly forgotten films with Fred Astaire.

But the best stars of the golden age have what the French call je ne sais quoi, an indefinable charisma that you can’t look away from, no matter how bad the film.

Whatever it is that makes audiences want to watch films that are seventy-five years old, Rita Hayworth doesn’t have it.

There’s no shame in it.  Most people don’t.

Mildred Pierce: Crawford at a Crossroads

The career of every actress—then and now—approaches a hairpin turn at around age forty.  It begins with the slap in the face the first time a star loses a coveted role to a younger woman.  The box office draw slips and no longer justifies the huge salary earned from your prior successes, leading to the potentially fatal “box office poison” designation.

The actress cannot continue doing what had previously brought her monumental success—if she tries too hard for too long, she will drive her career off a cliff.  But if she finds a way to survive this icy, harrowing turn, forty becomes the end only of her first act.  

And presents the chance to become a legend.

In 1945, Joan Crawford was going over the cliff and everybody knew it.

After eighteen years as MGM’s glamour girl, she asked to be let out of her contract because she wasn’t getting any good parts.  If it was a bluff, Louis B. Mayer called it.  He was happy to have her bloated salary and fading looks off MGM’s books.  

It looked like she’d landed on her feet when she signed a lucrative contract with Warner Brothers—she was still Joan Crawford, after all—that included control over the roles she played.

This control was nearly her undoing.

Despite the new contract, she didn’t work for two years.  Warners sent her scripts, but she kept turning them down.  It was true that many of the parts weren’t very good, but what rankled was that they were age-appropriate. 

She could not—would not—accept that she was no longer an ingenue.  

The flow of scripts slowed to a drizzle and eventually dried up.  She was gaining the reputation of being difficult to work with.  She was no longer worth the trouble.

No one was waiting for Joan Crawford’s comeback.

The realization that she may never work again ignited her fighting spirit.

She would not go gently into that good night like Garbo or Norma Shearer.

She needed a part—a good part, certainly, but she had to get off the sidelines.  She had to convince the world—and perhaps herself—that she had worth as an actress beyond youth and beauty.

She set her sights on Mildred Pierce.  Producer Jerry Wald and director Michael Curtiz were adapting James M. Cain’s novel about a woman whose tireless and unselfish efforts to provide for her daughter ultimately turn that daughter into a treacherous monster.

The producer and director had Barbara Stanwyck in mind for the title role, and it’s easy to see why.  Stanwyck—famously less vain than other stars of her caliber—had relatively little trouble adapting herself to more mature roles.  

Many times when I hear that someone else was slated to play an ultimately iconic role, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part.  But I can see Stanwyck as Mildred Pierce—she would’ve brought her natural style, and highlighted Mildred’s tough exterior that coated a core of vulnerability.  

But although I’d like to see the alternative universe version, I think Joan Crawford was still the right choice.  The plot of Mildred Pierce rhymes with that of Stella Dallas, and while it would’ve been interesting to watch Stanwyck play another self-sacrificing mother, Crawford had never played anyone like Mildred and thus brought a freshness to the role.

The wardrobe for a Stanwyck Mildred Pierce would likely have been entirely different—more housewife and waitress, less successful restaurateur and fading glamour girl trying to hold a younger man.

And I am just not willing to sign up for a world in which we are denied the sight of Joan Crawford as Mildred rocking those mountain high shoulder pads.

Nobody, but nobody rocks shoulder pads like Joan Crawford

In any case, Crawford had set her sights on Mildred Pierce as her comeback vehicle and wasn’t going to let anyone—not the director’s dislike, the producer’s wavering, or her friend Stanwyck’s desire to play the part—stop her.

She fought for the part, insisting she understood Mildred better than anyone.  She even did a screen test—a humiliating comedown for an actress of her statue—to convince the skeptical director that she could bring the required gravitas to the part.

She got the role.

Mildred Pierce is a first class melodrama.  When she divorces her husband, Mildred—who had seemingly never worked outside the home before—humbles herself (much as Crawford did to get the role) by taking a job as a waitress and baking pies.  Mildred finds she has a head for business and eventually buys the restaurant.  She has more success, turning her single restaurant into a chain.  

Like Crawford, she is less successful in her personal life.  Her practical business sense does not carry over into the men she picks for romance.

The fuel that drives Mildred’s ambition is providing for her daughters, especially Veda, who has expensive taste and social climbing ambitions.  In indulging her, Mildred creates an ungrateful beast who brings them all down.

Mildred Pierce was the triumph Crawford needed.

She received the first Academy Award nomination in her long career.  Much has been made of the fact that she did not attend the Oscars due to illness.

Uncharitable readings are that she faked the illness for attention.

A more sympathetic interpretation—and the one I choose to believe—is that Joan feigned illness because she was too afraid to lose that Oscar in public.  Her career was riding on the success of Mildred Pierce and her career was her life.  Losing the Oscar didn’t mean her career was over—the movie was a success—but winning the Oscar would cement her comeback.

She won.

There is a dramatic photograph of her receiving the Oscar in bed in her hotel room, the most glamorous sick woman you ever saw.

She was still Joan Crawford, after all.

She’d made the hairpin turn.

And the second—and in some ways more successful—half of her career began.

Miracle on 34th Street: Believe In Santa

It’s easy to make a passable Christmas movie, but hard to make a great one.  

A great Christmas has to walk a tightrope— sentimental but not saccharine.  Funny but not crude.  Traditional but original.  Appealing to the entire family.  Eminently rewatchable.  

They absolutely have to stick the landing—a reminder of the true meaning of Christmas that has your heart melting and not your eyes rolling.

It’s nearly impossible.

Most Christmas movies are quickly forgotten, around for a season and only half-watched as you munch on popcorn and contemplate gifts for those hardest to buy for on your Christmas list.  They’re enjoyable but predictable, a pleasant two hours passed but quickly forgotten.

But when a filmmaker manages the impossible, the results are magical.

Beloved Christmas movies become part of family Christmas traditions, watched each year as the tree is trimmed or after all the presents are opened.  They are souvenirs of childhood, keys to unlock the sweet nostalgia of good times with the ones we love.

Love Actually.  Home Alone.  National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  White Christmas.  Christmas in Connecticut.  A Christmas Story.  All make me laugh and feel as warm inside as a Christmas hot toddy.

So does Miracle on 34th Street.

Unnecessarily remade multiple times, the 1947 original is a classic and earned Edmund Gwenn a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Santa Claus.

It starts out with a setup that can be seen any night of the week on the Hallmark Channel—skeptical all-work-and-no-play Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) falls in love with her idealistic neighbor Fred Gailey.  Doris hires a man to play Santa Claus in the Macy’s Day Parade and soon discovers that he believes he is the real Santa.  Fred is charmed.  Doris is dismayed.

Miracle gives us our first real look at Natalie Wood, who plays Doris’ equally skeptical daughter.  Under her mother’s tutelage, Susan does not believe in Santa Claus or anything else that defies good common sense.  

At only eight years old, one can already see the star that Natalie Wood would become in films like Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story.  Her Susan is charming as a girl who has not been allowed to indulge in childish fantasies and acts like a little adult.  

Fred and Kris Kringle—the man hired to play Santa—work together to crack open the hearts of the stubborn Walker women.

So far, so good.

But when Kris Kringle is thrown into an insane asylum for insisting he is Santa Claus, the movie makes an unexpected U-turn from fantasy-laced romance to courtroom drama.

To get Santa out of the asylum, lawyer Fred sets out to prove in court that Kris Kringle is the one true Santa Claus.

Here’s where the movie gets original and funny.  Not laugh-out-loud funny, but clever.  Fred’s legal maneuverings are based around the idea that no one involved—not the judge, not the prosecuting attorneys—want to be quoted in the newspaper as saying Santa doesn’t exist and therefore breaking the hearts of the city’s children.  (And more importantly in the case of the elected judge, his constituents.)  Those involved in the case against Santa are shunned at home by their wives and children.

Meanwhile, Doris and Susan are ultimately won over by Kris Kringle.

When the post office begins delivering all the mail addressed to Santa Claus to Kris Kringle at the courthouse, Fred uses this as proof that the U.S. government officially recognizes Kris Kringle as Santa Claus.

The judge rules in his favor, Santa is released from the looney bin, and everyone makes it home in time for Christmas Eve dinner.

Little Susan gets the last scene in the film when she becomes a true believer in Santa when he manages to deliver her impossible Christmas request—a lovely house in the suburbs, which a newly engaged Doris and Fred agree to buy.

It’s a great film, and if you’ve never seen it, make a point to this week.

To all my readers, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season.  I’m grateful to all those who read and support this film series in particular and my writing in general.  Even with the pandemic, I have much to be grateful for this holiday season.

I’ll be back next week at the usual time and place for the last movie blog of 2020.  Then it’s full speed ahead into 2021.

Gaslight: Driving Ingrid Crazy

Sweden produced two of Hollywood’s most revered actresses.  The first was Greta Garbo, queen of the silent screen and film’s first true mega-star.

The second was Ingrid Bergman.

Bergman won her first of three Oscars for her role in 1944’s Gaslight, a performance so riveting that it beat out Barbara Stanwyck’s breathtaking turn as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity.  (Part IV of this blog was dedicated to my bitterness that Stanwyck never won an Oscar.  But even I cannot begrudge the Academy for rewarding Bergman for her excellent work here.)

Bergman plays Paula Alquist, a young woman who moves back into the house where her aunt was murdered with her new husband.  Though at first blissfully happy, the honeymoon is soon over as Paula begins to lose and forget things.  At her husband’s insistence, she becomes a recluse, convinced she is too ill for visitors and that she is slowly losing her mind.  

She is isolated and alone but for the servants as her husband goes out every night to work on his music compositions (none of which ever seem to be completed.)

But things are not as they seem for Paula—she is perfectly sane and well.  She is the victim of her husband’s sadistic obsession.  He is the one hiding things to make her believe she has lost them.  He is the one removing pictures from the walls and then telling Paula she did it.  He has narrowed her world to that claustrophobic house, creating an alternative universe where he can slowly and deliberately drive her insane.  She has no one else to talk to, no one else to rely on, no one else to inform her of her sanity or the outside world.

I won’t reveal her husband’s motive, or how Paula eventually extricates herself from his clutches, because it is a suspenseful film of psychological manipulation that I encourage you to watch.

It’s tense, tightly plotted, and will have you squirming in your seat—not from any gruesome violence—but by watching Paula’s escalating distress at her sincere belief that she is losing her mind while her husband stands by and adds fuel to the fire.  It is a cruel and premeditated strike playing on a person’s greatest fear—that they are no longer in control of their own actions.

Bergman and Charles Boyer are wonderful and convincing in their roles as the tortured wife and sadistic husband.  Their portrayal was the third version of the gaslight story—the first was a 1938 play, followed by a film version in 1940.  The film was remade by Bergman and Boyer in 1944.

Even if you haven’t seen any of the versions, you likely know the term gaslight.  It’s used often today in the news and psychiatric circles to describe a form of psychological manipulation when one person (usually, though not always, a man) tries to control his victim by making them doubt their own perceptions and judgement.  It involves isolating, doubting, trivializing, and humiliating the other person.  It is psychological rather than physical abuse.

In the stage and film versions, Paula notices that when she is alone at night, the light dims in her gas powered lamps.  This would normally indicate that someone has turned on the gas in another part of the house.  (Like water pressure going down if too many taps are on)  Her husband insists she is imagining the gas dimming because it only happens when she is alone.  He knows, however, that she is perfectly sane because he does not actually leave the house every night to work as he tells her, but goes up into the attic and turns on the gas.

It’s a metaphor for all of his psychological manipulation, and the manipulation that is still practiced today.  To gaslight someone is more than to merely lie to them.  It is to manipulate until the person no longer believes their sense of the world is true, and no longer trusts their own judgement.

It’s a terrible way to torture someone.

But it makes for outstanding cinema.

The Philadelphia Story: Triumph of the Transatlantic Accent

If you watch a lot of movies made in the 1940’s, eventually you’re going to ask— 

Why do they talk like that?

You know what I mean—that half British, half American sing-song way of clipping out words and extending the vowels.  It indicates an upper crust, old money,  ivy-league sensibility, and doesn’t sound like anyone who ever actually lived.

I introduce you to the Transatlantic accent.

The Transatlantic (sometimes called Mid-Atlantic) accent is unusual in that it was not developed naturally based on the peculiar region where one grows up but was instead deliberately taught in fancy, northeastern boarding schools in the 1920’s-1940’s to indicate one’s place in the upper class.  The Hollywood studios loved it and encouraged their stars to take elocution lessons to perfect it.  

If you want a masterclass in the Transatlantic accent, you need go no further than The Philadelphia Story.

This film lets three of Hollywood’s greatest stars—and two of the best examples of the Transatlantic accent—talk and talk and talk for nearly two hours.

Perhaps that sounds like a criticism, but it isn’t.  The great charm of The Philadelphia Story is in the talking.  It’s a movie that started out life as a play, and is full of snappy dialogue— innuendo, subtle jokes, and those wonderful accents.  Most everything happens—the advancing plot, the expression of emotion, the twist ending—through dialogue rather than action.

The great Katharine Hepburn, who is said to be the only person ever born speaking with a Transatlantic accent, plays Tracy Lord, a haughty Philadelphia heiress who has divorced one husband and is on the verge of marrying another.

Hepburn’s voice is one of the most recognized in the world.  She had a lot in common with Tracy Lord—she too was a bit haughty and aggressive and had the air of the wealthy progressive Bryn Mawr girl that she was.

Tracy Lord is judgemental but not icy cold, and she has a soft side that is uncovered through the course of the film.

Cary Grant is her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven, another rich American aristocrat who likes teasing Tracy but is still very much in love with her.  Grant was British himself, but had developed a Transatlantic accent that is nearly as recognizable as Hepburn’s.

But it is third-billed Jimmy Stewart who steals the film as Macaulay “Mike” Connor, a reporter sent to cover the wedding who at first disdains Tracy’s high society ways but grows smitten when he learns there is more to her.

Jimmy Stewart’s accent is just as recognizable, though not a Transatlantic.  It is a one-of-a-kind stutter-step that he would perfect throughout his career.  

On the eve of Tracy’s wedding, Mike and Tracy—who never drinks—get drunk, go for a swim, and are discovered in a way that while innocent, looks quite indecent.

A hungover Tracy cannot remember exactly what she has and hasn’t done, and the haughty goddess of Philadelphia is laid low.  She learns the lesson that not everyone can be perfect, and despite her fiance’s willingness to forgive her indiscretions, and Mike’s proposal of marriage to quell the scandal, it is her mischievous and flawed first husband Dexter whom she truly loves and can now appreciate.

It’s amazing that Katharine Hepburn won four leading acting Oscars—more than anyone else—and did not win one for this film that so typified her and her career.  It was Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal that earned him the only acting Oscar of his career.

The Transatlantic accent fell out of fashion after World War II, even if Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn didn’t.

A study of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart is incomplete without The Philadelphia Story.  The film  is a charming story that is artificial in speech and setup but always satisfying. 

Mrs. Miniver: Prestigious Propaganda

Part VI: The Fabulous Forties

It is with some regret that we leave the great films of 1939.  However, we are entering the 1940’s, the best decade in Hollywood history.  The movies of the 1940’s radiated the glamour most often associated with Old Hollywood.  

Unlike the quick transition from silent films to talkies, color films moved into the mainstream at a turtle’s pace.  Despite wowing the public with technicolor in 1939 with The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, black and white was still the default for most movies made in the 1940’s.  Color did not become a standard feature until the early 1950’s.

Actors and directors gained more independence from the studios, and the studios began making fewer, better films.  In 1946, more Americans went to the movie theater than any other year in film history.

In Part VI of this blog, we’ll take a romp through some of the best known and most loved films of this decade, as well as hopefully discovering some hidden gems that are less known to the casual viewer.

The films made in the 1940’s were defined by World War II—as both distraction and propaganda.  The Office of War Information collaborated with Hollywood to make films that focused on the war effort and the importance of defeating the Axis powers and celebrating American contributions on the homefront and the battlefield.  And the disillusionment after the war led to film noir, a dark genre that highlighted the cynical and predatory nature of man.

In the crowded field of mediocre propaganda films, Mrs. Miniver stood out.

Director William Wyler already had a reputation for prestige pictures—when he started Mrs. Miniver, he’d made six films that had been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, including Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, and The Little Foxes.  He’d go on to garner 7 more nominations (including some wins) post Mrs. Miniver.

Wyler had a way of getting the best out of his actresses—Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Audrey Hepburn, and Barbara Streisand would all win best actress Oscars starring in William Wyler films.

So too would Greer Garson, for her titular role in Mrs. Miniver

When Wyler started the film, the United States was neutral, but by the time it was released in 1942, Roosevelt had declared war.

Mrs. Miniver tells the story of an ordinary British family who “keeps calm and carries on” in the midst of the Blitz.  Mrs. Miniver moves—as do many of Wyler’s films—at a leisurely pace.  The war does not immediately come to Belham, their fictional village outside London.  Mrs. Miniver indulges herself by buying an expensive hat while her husband Clem does the same with a car.  Their son Vin meets and falls in love with Carol.  There’s a subplot about a competition of who can grow the most beautiful rose in the village.

Yet during it all the threat of war looms, and soon enough it is upon the Minivers, who do their duty with courage and honor.  Vin joins the Royal Air Force, Clem stocks their bomb shelter and hangs blackout curtains, and Mrs. Miniver successfully disarms a German soldier who breaks into her home.

You can’t help but watch the film with a sense of foreboding—it is clear that this film is meant to show the courage and sacrifice of Kay Miniver and her family, and you know that someone she loves is going to die.  Will it be Vin, shot down in the line of duty?  Or Clem, who has taken his fishing boat to help evacuate the soldiers at Dunkirk?

But when the death comes, it is an unexpected gut punch.  Mrs. Miniver and Carol, now Vin’s beautiful young wife, are driving home from the rose festival when a German fighter plane goes down and crashes in a field in front of them.

It takes a moment for the horror to hit Mrs. Miniver and the audience—Carol has been hit by a stray bullet.

She is no soldier.  She was not intentionally targeted by the Germans.  She has her whole life ahead of her.

Yet she is the Miniver who will not survive the war.

Teresa Wright as Carol Miniver

The film does not end on this note of senseless tragedy, but with renewed purpose and hope.  A preacher gives a rousing speech telling his congregants that they must all fight the war.  They must persevere in the name of freedom and to defend their way of life.

We in this quiet corner of England have suffered the loss of friends very dear to us, some close to this church. George West, choirboy. James Ballard, stationmaster and bellringer, and the proud winner only an hour before his death of the Beldon Cup for his beautiful Miniver Rose. And our hearts go out in sympathy to the two families who share the cruel loss of a young girl who was married at this altar only two weeks ago. The homes of many of us have been destroyed, and the lives of young and old have been taken. There’s scarcely a household that hasn’t been struck to the heart. And why? Surely, you must have asked yourselves this question? Why, in all conscience, should these be the ones to suffer? Children, old people, a young girl at the height of her loveliness? Why these? Are these our soldiers? Are these our fighters? Why should they be sacrificed?

I shall tell you why. Because this is not only a war of soldiers in uniform. It is the war of the people, of all the people. And it must be fought not only on the battlefield, but in the cities and in the villages, in the factories and on the farms, in the home and in the heart of every man, woman, and child who loves freedom. Well, we have buried our dead, but we shall not forget them. Instead, they will inspire us with an unbreakable determination to free ourselves, and those who come after us, from the tyranny and terror that threaten to strike us down. This is the People’s War. It is our war. We are the fighters. Fight it, then! Fight it with all that is in us! And may God defend the right.

President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill used this speech to inspire Americans and Brits.  It was played over the radio, printed in magazines and in leaflets dropped on German-occupied countries.

Winston Churchill said it was “propaganda worth 100 battleships.”

It was a huge commercial success and a top box office draw in 1942.  It was nominated for 12 Oscars and won six, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress for Greer Garson.

Wyler was not there to receive his Oscar in person; he’d joined the Air Force and was in Europe filming combat missions for war documentaries.

I don’t think contemporary audiences can truly appreciate the impact Mrs. Miniver must have had on American moviegoers in 1942.  We’ve been stuffed to the gills with World War II movies, everything from Patton to Schindler’s List to Saving Private Ryan.  Few subjects have been covered as thoroughly on film.  We’ve seen the homefront, the gory horror, and the atrocities committed in concentration camps.

Against all the guts, gore, and angst, Mrs. Miniver feels quaint.  Her encounter with the German soldier, while riveting in its day, is not violent enough for our bloodthirsty modern sensibilities.

But at the time, this was the first film that most people saw explicitly about the war.

More importantly, we know how the story ends.  Britain triumphed; so did America.

But the audiences in 1942 didn’t know that either would.  Pearl Harbor was fresh; many were predicting imminent British defeat.

The fight for our way of life was in full force; and all anyone knew was that many more would die before victory or defeat was determined.

That final sermon probably made their hair stand on end.  

When I give this film a verdict of “Had Its Day, But That Day Is Done,” it is an acknowledgement of the gap between the 1942 and 2020 audiences that can never be bridged.

The beauty of watching these old films is how relevant they sometimes are to the modern world, or how universal the stories.  Or that the emotional impact is similar, despite all the years between us and the original viewers.  A film like Gone With the Wind gets under my skin in the same way it did audiences in 1939.  Those people didn’t experience the Civil War either.  

But Mrs. Miniver is locked to a moment in time that audiences felt in their bones in a way that I can never access.

Like watching Garbo speak for the first time in Anna Christie, or the beast menacing Fay Wray in King Kong, I guess you had to be there.

We Interrupt 1939 To Bring You Rebecca: The Unlikely Triumph of the Second Mrs. DeWinter

#31 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

By 1939 Alfred Hitchcock was a famous British director, and he wanted to come to America.  Knowing his talent, producer David O. Selznick took time out of his day making Gone With the Wind to lure Hitch into signing a contract with Selznick International Pictures.

It’s hard to imagine two more different people working together than Selznic and Hitch.  Selznic was obsessed with every detail, and saw every film he made as an epic, a one-of-a-kind crown jewel.  He meddled in every piece—micromanaging the scriptwriting, the directing, the costuming.  He wrote epic memos berating his staff for creative decisions he disagreed with and thought nothing of throwing out a raft of complete work only to start again.  He did want to make movies on an assembly line like the other studios.  He wanted one-of-kind handcrafted films.  Though he felt he thrived in chaos, it is no exaggeration to say that he nearly killed himself making Gone With the Wind.  When caught in a creative fever, he would work day and night for months or years on end.  Though he made the greatest movie of all time, he burned himself out early and was more or less out of the picture making business by age fifty.

Hitch, by contrast, was a deliberate plodder.  He thought out every scene in advance, and thus his shoot on set was clean and efficient.  He hated chaos.  He demanded absolute authority in matters of directing, but stayed out of script and production decisions that were not in his job description.

It was a collaboration that couldn’t last.  But for the few years they held it together, Selznick and Hitch made some excellent films, the first and finest of which is Rebecca.

Rebecca is a masterpiece.  A timeless tale of mystery and romance, it is one of the worthiest Best Picture Winners in Oscar history.  And because watching the mystery unfold is the chief pleasure of this film, I won’t spoil a bit of the ending or key plot points.

The film opens in the French Riviera, where a young, orphaned woman played by Joan Fontaine is swept off her feet by widower Maxim DeWinter, an older but dashing man.  After a courtship of only a few days, Maxim proposes marriage.  Deeply naive and in love, the woman accepts.  After a happy, carefree honeymoon, Maxim takes his young bride home to Manderly, a famous and ancient old family mansion by the sea.

In Manderly, our heroine is isolated, left alone for long stretches in the big empty house, and Maxim falls into extended stony silences.  Though Maxim never mentions his first wife, everyone else is quick to tell our heroine how he adored his first wife, Rebecca.

That’s right.  Joan Fonatine is not Rebecca.  She is the unnamed heroine of the story, referred to only as the second—and apparently inferior—Mrs. DeWinter.  (That bit of brilliance is a credit to Daphne DuMaurier’s novel, where the second Mrs. DeWinter is the narrator of a tale that does not bear her name.)

Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, adored Rebecca.  According to her new sister-in-law, Rebecca threw the best parties, knew the best people, and wore the best clothes.  She knew how to dance, flirt, charm, host a party and run an estate like Manderly.

Our narrator doesn’t have a clue where to start.

Thanks to Hitch’s deft camera work and a haunting score, the audience begins to suspect that everything with Rebecca’s memory is not as it seems.  We begin to somehow understand the dread and terror our heroine feels at the sight of Rebecca’s stationery in her writing desk.  When Mrs. Danvers lovingly paws Rebecca’s lingerie and monogrammed pillows, her coldness toward the second Mrs. DeWinter takes on a decidedly sinister air.

The audience asks the question the second Mrs. DeWinter is afraid to ask herself.

Is Maxim haunted by his wife’s accidental death…or something more ominous?

It’s triumph owes its greatness first to Daphne DuMaurier and her sublime gothic novel of the same name.  Then to David O. Selznic, who insisted Hitch hew as close to the source material as the production code would allow.  And to Alfred Hitchcock, who kept a story about a woman who lives in the shadow of her husband’s dead first wife from becoming melodramatic schlock and instead has the audience tensing as she turns every corner in the big empty house she can’t make a home.  And finally credit goes to Joan Fontaine, who was believable and sympathetic as a woman who feels so achingly inferior she is afraid to admit to her housekeeper when she breaks a decorative china cupid.

You pull out any four of these pieces and the whole puzzle falls apart.

Together, you have that Hollywood magic.

Rebecca was released in 1940, not 1939.  So why have I interrupted the Greatest Year in Movies to discuss Hitch’s first American hit?

Today Netflix is releasing their Rebecca remake starring Lily James in the Joan Fontaine role, Armie Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers.  I’ve gushed all over Selznick and Hitch’s film, but with this casting, I’m excited to see the remake.  For all their brilliance, Hitch and Selznick had their hands tied by the production code—they had to water down the novel’s ending, and I think Maxim and the heroine did their best communicating in the bedroom.  With the freedom of modern filmmaking, I’m excited to see what they will do with DuMaurier’s unforgettable tale.

Armie Hammer and Lily James in the Netflix remake. I was sold as soon as I saw the headband.

Can Netflix recreate the magic and bring something new to this classic romance?

Here’s hoping.

*You can watch Hitch’s original Rebecca for free on YouTube here.

Sorry, Wrong Number: Zero For Four

#27 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

By 1948, Barbara Stanwyck had made fifty-six films.  She’d played gold diggers, murderers, adulteresses, and burlesque queens.  She’d made screwball comedies, melodramas, film noir, mysteries, and romances.

For her fifty-seventh film, she played something entirely new and completely unforgettable.

Sorry, Wrong Number was a film version of a hugely popular radio show.  It tells the story of Leona Stevenson, a bedridden woman who overhears a murder plot on the telephone and over the course of the film discovers she is the intended victim.

Leona Stevenson—neurotic, weak, and waiting for rescue—was quite a departure from the go-get-’em dames Stanwyck normally played.

The plot is outrageous nearly to the point of lunacy, Leona Stevenson is a thoroughly unlikeable woman, and half the film is Leona in bed, talking frantically on the telephone as she pieces together the murder plot—and the possibility of her husband’s involvement—together.

It shouldn’t work.

And yet it does.

Through flashbacks, we learn that Leona was a vain, spoiled young woman who has grown into a shrewish wife.  She married a man beneath her, and has trapped him into a lifestyle he cannot afford without her father’s money.  When she doesn’t get her way, she throws fits that aggravate her weak heart. Yet Stanwyck has a way of infusing even this woman with a depth that makes the audience understand and root for her.

All the while, alarm bells are going off in the minds of the audience.  Is Leona really about to be murdered, or is this another of her neurotic episodes?  Does her husband have some hand in the plot?  Why?  Does she really have a weak heart?

Though the film was directed by Anatole Litvak, the story has a Hitchcockian feel.  The suspense is built masterfully through the flashbacks, booming music, and Leona’s fear that spills into paralyzing hysteria.

The ending—which I will not spoil here—will leave you breathless. The world is filled with kids who saw this movie on television and grew into adults forever afraid of a ringing phone.

Maybe that’s why we all started texting.

Stanwyck earned her fourth Oscar nomination for the role of Leona Stevenson.  Once again she competed in a field of legends with fellow nominees Ingrid Bergman, Irene Dunne, and Olivia de Havilland.  She ultimately lost to her friend Jane Wyman for her role playing a mute in Johnny Belinda

Stanwyck was forty-one years old with fifty-seven films under her belt.  Twenty years in the movies and by any measure she’d had a damn good run.  When she was starting out in the business, she’d told herself she would retire at forty.  That’s what many of her contemporaries did—Irene Dunne, Garbo, Norma Shearer all more or less hung it up at forty.  Her marriage to Robert Taylor was on the rocks, and might have been saved had she curbed her ambition.  She was going prematurely grey and didn’t want to dye her hair.  

She would never get another shot at the Best Actress Oscar.

But Barbara Stanwyck quit the movie business?  Not a chance.

Sure, she was twenty years into her career, but it turned out she had nearly forty more to go.

And several of her most iconic performances—on the big screen and the small—were in a future she couldn’t yet see.

Christmas in Connecticut: “The Things a Girl Will Do for a Mink Coat”

#26 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

When I found a battered DVD copy of Christmas in Connecticut in a secondhand bookstore, the clerk told me it was his mother’s favorite Christmas movie.

I can see why.

Elizabeth Lane is the ultimate wife and mother.  In her popular columns for Smart Housekeeping, she writes of her bucolic life on a farm in Connecticut with her husband and baby.  She spends evenings beside a crackling fire in her stone hearth.  She uses a spinning wheel and scours the local antique shops for the perfect rocking chair.

But mostly, she cooks.

Her recipes have sent Smart Housekeeping’s circulation soaring, and sailor Jefferson Jones salivates over them while slurping tasteless broth in a hospital while recovering from war wounds.  He dreams of an old-fashioned Christmas dinner with all the trimmings at Mrs. Lane’s table.

Through the magic of movies, his nurse just happens to know the head of publishing at Smart Housekeeping, and she’s soon arranged for Jefferson to spend his first Christmas out of the hospital at the Lane Farm in Connecticut.

So far, so good.

Then we get our first look at the Martha Stewart of 1945.

Barbara Stanwyck is dressed in a sleek white blouse, picking at a breakfast of sardines on a coffee saucer and pounding away at a typewriter.  The radiator hisses, and her undergarments are hanging on a line on her balcony that overlooks the heart of New York City.

Last time I checked farm wives didn’t run around in wardrobes designed by Edith Head.

Her panicked editor arrives with the news that their boss invited a sailor to her home for Christmas.

The problem, of course, is obvious:  Though her publisher doesn’t know it, Elizabeth Lane is a fraud.

She has no farm, no husband, no baby.

And she can’t cook.

But she just bought a gorgeous mink coat that’ll cost her six month’s salary, and she’s willing to do anything to keep it and her job.

Which means this bachelor girl needs a farm, a husband, and a baby pronto.

Christmas in Connecticut is a frothy, fun Christmas romantic comedy.  The best scenes of the movie are when Stanwyck, the career girl, has to pretend to be the perfect farm wife and mother despite the fact that she can’t cook, doesn’t know how to change a diaper, and is completely bewildered when a cow shows up in the kitchen.

Dennis Morgan plays the charming sailor who finds himself falling in love with the hostess he believes is married.  Stanwyck’s character heartily reciprocates the sentiment, and the plot thickens before resolving itself quite happily.

Stanwyck is as charming and convincing as ever in the role.  

Good Christmas movies hold a special place in our heart, because we watch them over and over during the holiday season.  They are meant to be watched with out of town family members, or as a rest from a day shopping at the mall.  They reinforce—either with heavy sentiment, or, as in Christmas in Connecticut—with a light touch—the importance of love and family.  They can make you nostalgic for the Christmases and family you never had.

So this December, take a break from the Hallmark Movies.  For one night, put aside Die Hard, Home Alone, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, It’s A Wonderful Life, and White Christmas.

Pop some popcorn, put on your fuzziest socks and warmest pajamas, and curl up with Stanwyck and Christmas in Connecticut.

You’ll be glad you did.