Trader Horn (1931)

It’s Academy Awards time, and the usual jamboree of films you like that have been ignored and others you consider average that are lauded by the process. I have seen fewer of the Best Picture nominations than normal, however I believe anything would have to be pretty damn good to beat Roma, which I found utterly outstanding, and in some places genuinely very moving. On the flipside there’s Bohemian Rhapsody, a title that appears to have been damned by many as a poor entry in this year’s consideration. For my part, it was one of those rare occasions of being enchanted by a movie I didn’t necessarily think was very good – whether the chance to relive some damn fine tunes, enjoying Rami Malek’s performance, or being cast back in time to a mythologised Live Aid, I had a great experience and am kind of looking forward to catching it again.

Naturally, this is hardly the only year to contain nominated films that are largely considered sub-par. Let’s cast our minds back to 1931, when the Oscars were in their infancy and a really quite ordinary Oater like Cimarron could come out on top. Wesley Ruggles’s Western at least has a sense of epic sweep; other nominees were just a bit poor, like the (then child star) Jackie Coogan vehicle Skippy, and the film I’m talking about in this piece, Trader Horn. There’s a lot that isn’t good about Trader Horn, some of which I’m not even going to try and address here. It was a product of its time, reflecting contemporary social values, so its dim view of the native Africans, the status of the white visitors as always being on top, the perception of the animals as, at best, things to look at and, at worst, things to be shot, are all rendered more or less moot in a piece written nearly ninety years down the line.

Beyond those elements, it still isn’t a very good piece of work. The intention was to make an African adventure, filmed by director W. S. Van Dyke and his crew in various African countries, with all the pitfalls and setbacks you can imagine taking place as a consequence.  Crew and cast members went down with disease, one was eaten by a crocodile, Van Dyke himself contracted malaria and star Edwina Booth took a full six years to recover from her maladies suffered on location. The resulting film is a mixture of stock footage of the wildlife, reshoots in California, and further work done in Mexico to bypass American rulings on the ethical treatment of animals. If this sounds like a mess, then by some wonder the finished effort just about holds together, though there are many moments when the action just stops for the characters to admire the African wildlife, presumably to get in those all-important money shots. Unedifying reports emerged from the production of the mistreatment of animals, for instance stories of lions being starved in order to entice them to really go for their prey in one of the film’s scenes.

The story follows the antics of real-life explorer and trader, Alfred Aloysius Horn, the eponymous Trader Horn, here played by Harry Carey. Horn is on safari with Peru (Duncan Renaldo), the son of an old friend. The pair learn that a girl who was lost some twenty years ago as a baby might still be alive somewhere in the jungle. Sure enough, they find a village, and the girl has become a beautiful young blonde woman (Booth) who, being white, is naturally worshipped as goddess by the people. Horn, Peru, and the former’s native retainer Rencharo (Mutia Omoolu) are about to be killed in a typically grisly fashion, fastened to wooden crosses, mounted upside down, and then burned to death. But then Peru catches the girl’s eye and his smouldering, longing look is enough to persuade her to make her people stop the sacrifice. Shortly after, she escapes with the trio, pursued by the angry villagers and attempting various stunts and adventures to stave off their new enemies, starvation, thirst and the bevy of wild animals they come across.

A film made firmly in the pre-Code era, Trader Horn comes with its fair share of risque material. Booth is forced to spend the film nearly topless, though at least she gets some skimpy material to cover her breasts in a move that is not offered to the native women. Of far greater interest is the footage presented of the animals. Though there’s little here to trouble the makers of Planet Earth this stuff must have been impressive at the time, however Carey delivers strings of ‘facts’ about every creature the characters come across in what seem like endless stops on their safari, sometimes when they are supposed to be running from their pursuers. This gets in the way of any real attempt at characterisation. We don’t learn much about Horn, let alone the other cast members, and any attempts to get an inkling of the girl’s back story are stymied by the fact she speaks the same language as the natives and not a word of English.

Ultimately the film’s a surprising bore, given the possibilities presented by the material, the mine of rich stories Horn must have brought to the table. This was a man who fought against slavery and once rescued a princess, the latter presumably very loosely providing the basis for the film’s plot. Watched now, there’s some interest to be gained from seeing something with twenty first century eyes that must have absorbed viewers at the time, considering the vast human effort that went into making a talking picture with the resources available in a part of the world that didn’t easily support such an endeavour. I’d love to see Trader Horn: The Journey Back, a 2009 documentary about the making of the film that calls to mind the risks, indignities and ailments incurred during the notorious filming of Apocalypse Now, and I suppose there’s something about the vision behind it that should be applauded, even if the methods were often inhumane and downright barbaric. Certainly it’s little more than a title for Oscar nomination completists, a reminder that the recognition of very ordinary films by the Academy is by no means a recent innovation.

Gone with the Wind (1939)

When it’s on: Sunday, 24 December (9.00 am)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

Gone with the Wind is a film lover’s film. There’s much about it that’s flawed and certainly a very great deal of material that appears woefully out of date. It’s too long, overly melodramatic, glassy eyed about a semi-remembered past that was far from happy for everyone involved, and its main characters aren’t even especially likeable. And yet, for all its shortcomings it may very well be the last word in romantic Hollywood movie making. Production levels were about as lavish as it was possible to get. The performances are universally fantastic, particularly the leads. The use of Technicolor is nothing less than exquisite, notably in the film’s first half bathing the Old South in soft, fleshy tones that give way to the red and orange tinted violence of the approaching Civil War. Clearly, making the picture was the definition of a labour of love, a drive by all involved, from producer David O Selznick downwards, to honour Margaret Mitchell’s bestselling novel in suitable fashion, and the result is a feast for the senses.

A couple of years ago I got the opportunity to see it on the big screen. For once, it was the chance to catch a movie like Gone with the Wind in the way it was meant to be exhibited, with all those real life  problems left outside the cinema and escaping into the idealised world presented to us… Of course it should always be like that, but this is one of those films in which you can really lose yourself. It’s nearly four hours long, much of it scored by Max Steiner’s elaborate music, which weaves in a string of tunes recalling the patriotic surge from the American Confederacy prior to and during the Civil War.  The production is sumptuous from start to finish, whilst its narrative can find resonance with just about every viewer, in particular the main plotline depicting the fall and rise of its ‘heroine’, Scarlett O’Hara, all her imperfections laid bare on the screen as her innate indomitability prevents her from falling into despair and ruin, and makes her a character just about worth cheering on. Watching Scarlett in self-absorbed action, you know Melanie is the film’s real champion, that Rhett deserves better and that a future with Ashley would be no future at all, yet she’s performed with such gusto and the camera loves her to such an extent that you end up cheering on this really quite awful woman as she pushes, schemes and cheats her way towards some ever-elusive goal. She might, to borrow a quote from Oliver Stone’s Nixon, be the darkness reaching out for the darkness, but rarely has ‘the darkness’ been this much of a joy to watch.

Mitchell’s original novel was a saga about well heeled families in Georgia on the cusp of the Civil War, the conflict that ruins their wealth and way of life, and what happens next. It was a runaway hit, optioned by Selznick as soon as it was published (despite Val Lewton, then a staff member at the studio, saying it was a bad idea) and taking three years to bring to the screen. The book was so popular that speculation about the adaptation was an ever present companion. Fans followed the tales of endless casting sessions, the search for the perfect Scarlett that seemed to take in just about every young actress available at the time, the knowledge Selznick carried that Gone with the Wind was a potential millstone – get it wrong and feel the wrath of millions of readers. For such a notable perfectionist the production could have killed him, Selznick’s notoriety for constant revisions and meddling coming to the fore as he struggled over all aspects of its development. Writers came and went. Sidney Howard earns the main credit for the script and wisely refused to leave his farm in putting it together, putting him at a merciful distance from Selznick’s orbit, but this was a screenplay that kept being dabbled with, leading to the near chaos of Selznick making further amendments while filming took place. George Cukor was the original choice as director. He would be replaced with Victor Fleming, who ended up being one of a number of unit directors as the production had so much to shoot in its race to be completed.

And then there’s the casting. Clark Gable was the early favourite with book readers for the role of Rhett Butler, its morally ambiguous yet charismatic anti-hero, but he had major misgivings about accepting the part and only came fully on board with the recruitment of Fleming, a ‘man’s director’ who in sensibility was a close call for Butler himself and who put the actor instantly at ease. Vivien Leigh’s recruitment as Scarlett took the most convoluted of developments. Numerous A-List actors were considered – Bette Davies, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn were the best known – and fascinating footage remains of the test screenings made with various people. In an alternative reality Scarlett could have been played by Lana Turner, whose test shows just how far she was from possessing the command required to fill the shoes of such a big character. Leigh was a relatively late consideration, due no doubt to the lack of knowledge about her in America. Her background, patrician English after a wealthy upbringing in colonial India, was about as far from Scarlett O’Hara as it was possible to be, and yet Leigh’s star was on the rise. A success on stage and making a fine transition to the screen in Fire Over England, she was just as famous for her real-life romance with Laurence Olivier, which would lead to the pair becoming for a time the world’s most famous couple. As difficult as it might be now to imagine anyone else playing Scarlett, for some time Leigh was an obscure outside bet, yet in hindsight most certainly the right choice and worth the Herculean effort they made in working towards her.

I’m not going to spend too much time here talking about what happens in the film. It’s one of cinema’s best known entries, something enjoyed by millions of people and while adjusted for inflation all-time box office lists throw up any number of variations, Gone with the Wind is invariably near the top.  Chances are you have already seen it, and if you haven’t then you’ll know Tara’s Theme, ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn‘ and be likely to have a good impression of its arcs and themes – it is that famous. For many viewers it may be their favourite slice of cinema, an opinion I don’t share, indeed I wouldn’t even call it my choice of the year – in fairness, 1939 was famously a banner year for cinema, with the likes of Stagecoach, Goodbye Mr Chips and The Hound of the Baskervilles up there as personal selections.

It was certainly an enduring winner with audiences and the Academy however, until Ben-Hur remaining the record holder for the most Oscars won, a reflection of the sheer human and technical achievement it represents, and certainly on the latter score it’s a marvel. The fire in Atlanta, heralding the arrival of Sherman’s Union army, was achieved when the crew burned down sets and props from previous MGM productions; that enormous structure collapsing in flames was in a past life the massive gates from which Fay Wray was tied up in anticipation of King Kong‘s arrival. This was shot months in advance of the rest of the production, the scenes featuring the actors added in later. One of the film’s most enduring scenes shows Scarlett staring aghast into a street filled with injured and dead Confederate soldiers, thousands of them, a moment demanding more extras than the production could source, meaning some of the wounded were dummies with limbs that could be artificially moved. The complicated crane shot had to pick up the sea of human victims and come to rest with the tattered Confederacy flag in the foreground, ensuring that none of Culver City, which lay just beyond the set, was accidentally shown. Occasionally, the technical trickery doesn’t quite work. One shot has party-goers driving in their coaches along the long drive to the Twelve Oaks ranch, but they start to vanish and become translucent as the footage is spliced into the the separate image behind.

The film isn’t without its controversy, especially for current audiences. The Old South was notoriously a slave-owning culture, and its ‘darkies’ can be seen happily at work, almost certainly a depiction of the good treatment meted out at Scarlett’s home of Tara but giving little impression of the horrors suffered by slaves as a matter of routine. Scenes depicting the Klansmen were edited out, avoiding comparisons with the difficulties watching The Birth of a Nation and certainly a good thing. Selznick ordered a production that was for its time sensitive to black people, though it still leaves an uncomfortable taste, notably in its setting of Scarlett’s world as a lost paradise, an idyll that can never return in the aftermath of the Civil war, while clearly it wasn’t so for all its denizens. In the film’s favour, this is the South as seen from its heroine’s perspective, a young woman who in its early scenes is very much still a child with a lot of growing up to do, and her feelings about Rhett are also made clear here. While everyone grows excited about the prospects of war and the opportunities for gallantry it represents, only Butler, hardened and cynical, says openly that the Union will win. It’s a jaded, real world view that’s obviously right, backed up with cold facts rather than romance and honour, but it jars with the audience and with Scarlett, who’s both fascinated with Rhett and repulsed by him.

The work by Leigh and Gable aside, there’s some excellent support from Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniel. The former eschews much of the glamour and beauty associated with her usual roles to play the delicate, ailing Melanie, Scarlett’s love rival for the favours of Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). As Mammy, Tara’s house servant and peddler of pearls of earthy wisdom, McDaniel is absolutely memorable, with a tough veneer that cracks sparingly but those moments, when they come, are earned. Thomas Mitchell is reliable and idiosyncratic as Scarlett’s father, doomed to madness as his safe world collapses around him, and there’s a sensitive performance from Ona Munson as Belle, in the film’s early scenes a ‘fallen woman’ who secretly loves Rhett and would probably have made the better match with him, if he hadn’t in turn spent the film’s running time chasing Scarlett in this ever-spiralling game of ill-fated loves and obsessions. If there is a duff note then it’s Howard’s Ashley, not a fault of the actor but a role in which he’s tasked to play the stolid, spectacularly dull symbol of the South’s virtue. Unlike Leigh, Howard does little to cover his British accent and in terms of raw charisma and spark is effortlessly relegated into second billing by Gable. This makes something of a mockery of Scarlett’s enduring obsession with him – he just doesn’t stand up next to the mustachioed main man, but then Gone with the Wind is a film of tragedies and this is just one of them.

In the end it’s possible to see it as both a long-winded and a very long bore. It tells of a world that no longer exists, told at a time that similarly belongs in the past, and a number of the concerns expressed in the film have little relevance today. And yet it’s the sort of picture that demands that everyone watches it at least once. The first reason is for its rightful status as a cinematic landmark, something that utterly captivated contemporary audiences and is still exhibited on big screens, particularly in its ‘home town’ of Atlanta, which is no mean feat for a work that’s pushing eighty years old. There’s also a timeless quality to it, a strange statement to make of a story about the long lost Old South, yet the characters of Scarlett and Rhett, both selfish and far from heroic, have swathes of fascinating nuance, look great, and are perfectly played. Finally, for film lovers there’s simply too much to enjoy here. If for no other reason then for those iconic shots of characters in silhouette, filmed against the kind of painterly vanilla skies you never see in real life, it’s a beautiful looking movie, a testament to Fleming’s direction and the painstaking production values by Selznick. The latter, credited for a number of wildly successful film offerings and remembered as a neurotic meddler in his studio’s projects, was never better rewarded for his relentless work ethic and eye for detail than he was here, and when it comes to rendering personal visions onto the grandest stage possible that’s something worth celebrating.

Gone with the Wind: ****

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

When it’s on: Thursday, 25 December (9.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

A library of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers has made its way into the Christmas schedules (two of which will be covered here), and BBC4 have chosen The Lady Vanishes for a primetime slot on the big day itself. A good thing too. With the possible exception of The 39 Steps, it’s the peak of Hitchcock’s career as a British-based director and makes for wonderful entertainment.

As with many of the best Hitchcocks, the success of The Lady Vanishes pivots on a very simple plot twist. A young woman, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is travelling on a train that’s crossing Europe. Her companion is a genial middle-aged lady, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), who disappears after Iris has had a nap. Asking after her whereabouts, Iris is told by her fellow travellers that there was no lady and she must have imagined her entire existence. Having received a blow to the head before joining the train, there are grounds to suggest that may have been exactly the case, particularly as the eminent Doctor Hartz (Paul Lukas) indicates there might be psychological reasons for her ‘creating’ Miss Froy. But Iris isn’t convinced and sets about trying to prove that the lady was on the train; in this she’s helped by a raffish English musicologist, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave).

That’s the central storyline, however there’s so much more to The Lady Vanishes. Iris has come across Gilbert before, when he disturbs her sleep in the hotel where they’re both staying. He’s a cad, a charming cad but a cad all the same, and his offer to assist her on the train carries a delicious undertone of dislike and irritation. There are strong hints that Miss Froy’s disappearance might have something to do with areas of Europe through which they’re travelling falling under Fascist control, suggesting the plain looking lady might be an unlikely secret agent for the British secret services, and that certain passengers on the train may be working for countries that were quickly becoming enemies. Cecil Parker and Linden Travers play fellow travellers Mr and Mrs Todhunter, only they’re an eloping couple, fleeing from their marriages to be together. The pair’s arguments about the need to be discrete and their fluctuating levels of devotion to each other have them making decisions about Miss Froy’s disappearance that help the plot move along.

Best of all, finding great popularity with British audiences and remaining a big draw for the film, are Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as English tourists Charters and Caldicott. Inserted purely for comedy purposes, the pair are used to poke fun at typically ignorant English attitudes to the dangers of the time; while Europe is collapsing into war and a lady has just gone missing on the train, their only interest is the England Test Match taking place in Manchester and their desire to make it back in time for the final day. Radford and Wayne were such a hit with the public that Charters and Caldicott would go on to appear in a number of further movies; the actors played a very similar pair of characters (obsessed with Golf rather than Cricket) in the later Dead of Night.

Redgrave and Lockwood were both very much up and coming talents at the time, indeed this is the former’s earliest screen credit after some distinguished work in theatre. As thrown together sleuths they have real chemistry together, matching the growing attraction that develops between their characters as the sense of peril rises and they find themselves increasingly depending on each other. The dialogue crackles also. The Lady Vanishes was an unusual Hitchcock film for the relative lack of involvement the director had in the screenplay. Known for working on treatments at their earliest stages as part of pre-production, in this instance he pretty much stuck with the script handed to him by British writers Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, who themselves channelled the source novel by Ethel Lina White, considering the plot to be ready made for a screen adaptation.

The Lady Vanishes starts relatively gently, taking time to introduce its characters and appearing very light in tone. The levels of suspense, however, increases all the while, Lukas’s Doctor emerging as a villain along with various passengers to the extent that Gilbert and Iris have no idea how to tell friend from foe. There’s enough going on to tease at complicated back stories from even minor characters, such as the nun looking after Hartz’s completely bandaged patient who is discovered to be wearing high heels.

A major success upon its release for Gainsborough and Hitchcock, The Lady Vanishes landed him with various awards, including the Best Director accolade from the New York Film Critics.  It helped him to negotiate the best possible deal for himself in America, landing him a contract with David O Selznick. His absolutely best work was still in the future, but this picture was an important keynote in establishing him as a major Hollywood player.

The Lady Vanishes: *****

If anyone has stumbled across FOTB on Christmas Day, may I take this opportunity to wish you the very best of Christmases, and thank you for visiting.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 24 December (1.50 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

Channel 5 dominate their Christmas Eve schedules with three stonewall classics. they start at 9.30 am with the epic Gone with the Wind, a stretch at more than four hours long but well worth the sofa creasing investment for a genuine slice of Golden Age cinema. Later in the afternoon, there’s the 1951 adaptation of Scrooge, routinely considered the best amidst a sea of Christmas Carol flicks with the always fantastic Alistair Sim at its crotchety centre. But if there’s one film in which to invest the time, for me it’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, a box office smash from 1938 that redefined the matinee swashbuckler, it’s nothing less than an absolute treat.

Even as early as the thirties, the legends surrounding Robin Hood had already been committed to celluloid several times, the earliest entry dating from 1906 whilst the 1922 version starring Douglas Fairbanks had set the standard for all to follow. By the mid-1930s, Warner Brothers’ track record of scoring ticket selling gold with gritty crime dramas started to fall foul of the Hays Code, which imposed censorship standards upon studios based on moral acceptability. Searching for material that would meet the criteria, Warners opted for a new version of Robin Hood, tapping into the Boys Own potential of a pure-hearted, good versus evil action movie whilst chopping away the excesses that had made the Fairbanks film a bit of a trawl at times. Lopping off the lengthy introduction to the tale that involved Robin returning from the Crusades to focus on his adventures in Sherwood Forest, the studio went on to create a smash hit that would also gain approval at the Academy Awards. Three key elements would go on to set it apart – sound, colour and Errol Flynn.

The Adventures of Robin Hood was of course made at a time when sound came as standard, the ‘Talkies’ now fully ingrained a mere decade after they had began consigning silent cinema to a thing of the past. However, the production made the most of the technology. Professional archer Howard Hill was drafted in to play a small role (he features in the film’s archery contest), but also lent his shooting to the noise made by the arrows as they left bows and found the mark, thanks to the meaty sound produced by the thicker type of wood he favoured. It’s this attention to detail that helped make the film a hit. The arrows suddenly sounded like they had real impact, one felt no doubt by the extras who were paid $150 dollars each to take one in the chest from Hill’s bow. Further gold came from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score. Born in Vienna, Korngold moved to America to compose the score and narrowly avoided becoming a Jewish victim of Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria, which made him claim that Robin Hood saved the lives of himself and his family. In return, he produced a suite that captured the heraldry completely befitting a tale of legend. The main theme is memorable enough, but his music adds real dramatic heft to the scenes involving Norman oppression over England’s Anglo-Saxon population, whilst there’s delight to be had from the film’s romantic moments, Korngold accompanying the growing love between Flynn and Olivia de Havilland with motifs that suggest the development of her understanding for his cause in fighting the good fight. It seems incredible to learn that Korngold initially begged to be released from his contract as he saw his work as utterly inappropriate to the style of film being made; the pair fit together perfectly.

Technicolor was still something of a novelty in the 1930s, yet it was a process that could make films look fresh and modern. Some, like The Wizard of Oz, used to it brilliant dramatic effect, juxtaposing the black and white of the Kansas based scenes to the bursts of colour when Dorothy has her adventures in the land of Oz. The three-strip process was expensive, and as costs on Robin Hood escalated it was agreed that colour would add to the film’s storybook feel, all those pennants, flags and crests showing up fantastically well. During the location shooting in Chico, California, which stood in for Sherwood Forest, the crew would spray-paint the foliage to make it look ‘greener’. The aim was to replicate the atmosphere evoked from those evocative, watercolour images in the books about the legend, and there’s little doubt it worked perfectly, leading to the film’s Oscar for its production design.

Initially, Warners turned to their marquee star, James Cagney, to play Robin Hood, and the very prospect of this short, angry, wholly American tough guy as England’s medieval outlaw hints at a very different film from the one that emerged. Industry differences ruled Cagney out, however (he walked out on Warners for breach of contract), and had them searching for a new Robin, a trail that led to Errol Flynn. Still an emerging force, the Tasmanian had impressed in 1935’s Captain Blood, a swashbuckler that pitted him against Basil Rathbone (Sir Guy in Robin Hood) and had him demonstrate sizzling chemistry with Olivia de Havilland. All three were contracted for the major starring roles in The Adventures of Robin Hood, de Havilland doing well as a principled and memorable Marion, but it’s Flynn who owns the film with his cheerful and physical performance. Handsome and carefree, he makes every scene he’s in look natural and easy, setting the tone for future Robin Hood portrayals whilst his ‘light as air’ style makes him instantly likeable as the outlaws’ leader. Rathbone is excellent as the brooding Sir Guy, leading a great triumvirate of villains alongside Claude Rains’s camp Prince John and the doltish Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper). Of the merry men, Eugene Pallette almost steals the show as a wisecracking Friar Tuck, forever fending off jokes about his size, and Alan Hale Snr reprises his role from the Fairbanks Hood film as Little John.

The production was originally offered to William Keighley as director, but as the footage was reviewed the lack of urgency and excitement in the action scenes led to his dismissal and replacement with Michael Curtiz, the reliable Hungarian responsible for Captain Blood and who would go on to helm the peerless Casablanca. Curtiz understood that Robin Hood was to be made as a fantasy, with little attention paid to the realities of medieval life and struggles, and instead placing the emphasis on action and fun, the result emerging as a tightly focused effort that ran little over 100 minutes. It must have dazzled contemporary audiences, with its opulent Technicolor palette and sheer joie de vivre. Thanks to the ‘no expenses spared’ approach, the rarely bettered action scenes and Flynn’s ability to fill the lead role so spiffingly, it’s barely dated at all. Comparisons with the many revisions that came later still leave it on top. As far as this writer is concerned, it’s up there with North by Northwest and Raiders of the Lost Ark as near perfect, good-time cinema.

The Adventures of Robin Hood: *****

Destry Rides Again (1939)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 23 December (1.50 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

Destry Rides Again came out in 1939, the same year as Stagecoach, and it seems that it will go down with the epitaph ‘The One that wasn’t Stagecoach.’ 1939 was the year that also brought us Mr Smith Goes to Washington, the tale of an idealistic young Senator played with such conviction by James Stewart, at this stage a star on the rise. Stewart was suddenly hot property, and ensured Destry Rides Again would be pumped out quickly to capitalise on his winning ‘Aw shucks’ charisma. In the years that followed, especially after his experiences in World War Two, Stewart’s range would broaden and become far more complicated, but for now it was easy to see him as the idealistic young American, with his provincial, awkward manner of speaking, his steadfast resoluteness and offbeat appeal.

The real star of the show at the time, however, was Marlene Dietrich, the Berliner who was approaching 40 and presumably nearing the tail end of her long, glittering career. As Frenchy, the owner of lawless Bottleneck’s rowdy saloon, she’s a jaded singer who’s seen it all, betting the pants off other barflies over card games and being embroiled by association with the schemes of the town’s unofficial boss, Kent (Brian Dunlevy). She knows all the twists and angles, and she also sings for the bar’s denizens, her tunes lampooned mercilessly in the later Blazing Saddles (fascinating for viewers like me who saw Saddles first and had no idea Madeline Kahn was satirising Dietrich throughout the film).

Like the rest of Bottleneck, she is at first optimistic when former soak and new, ‘tame’ Sheriff Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger) declares he will clean up the town by hiring as his deputy the son of famous lawman Tom Destry, and then falls into jaded cynicism when young Destry (Stewart) turns up and shows he’s far from the action hero she thinks is needed. Destry Jr doesn’t carry guns. He orders a cup of tea at the bar. He talks of resolving problems without shooting, which sends everyone into confusion and makes him appear at first ridiculous. And Frenchy, the one who seems to have had her hopes dashed hardest, turns to the bottle and enters into a no holds barred catfight with another woman.

Destry might indeed abhor violence, but he has steel. Resolving as much as he can without resorting to reaching for ’em, he nonetheless shows he knows how to shoot in one bravura scene, and only dons the pistols when there’s no other way. The parallels with America itself are clear enough. Fashioned as the peace loving, pacifist nation that only entered conflict when the bloodletting became too great, the USA was wavering over whether to enter the brewing conflict that would escalate into the Second World War and provided decisive when it finally flexed its mighty muscles. The same with Destry, who resorts to action when Dimsdale is gunned down senselessly, the shameful result of a town that uses violence cheaply.

For Stewart, this and Mr Smith were career making turns, transforming a jobbing actor into one of Hollywood’s major stars, though the juxtaposition between Destry and the characters he played in his 1950s Westerns are stark. Dietrich worked hard on the film, at turns tragic and comic, retaining her beauty whilst looking lived in and with sad stories to tell.

The film’s part comedy, but one with dark overtones as the situation in which Bottleneck finds itself in is all too credible. Credit goes to Donlevy as the oily Kent, his eyes on everyone whilst remaining a credible low key villain. It’s good stuff, and alongside Stagecoach helped to revitalise the Western genre.

Destry Rides Again: ****

Swing Time (1936)

Swing Time

When it’s on: Monday, 7 January (8.50 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Four years ago, BBC4 treated us to a week of ‘Golden Age’ nostalgia by repeating The RKO Story, a fantastic documentary series that looked into the history of the long lost studio. After each episode, the channel screened a film that had some relevance to the chapter,which is how I was first introduced to the virtues of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Swing Time.

Since then, I’ve picked up a number of Astaire-Rogers titles and, like most viewers see Top Hat and Swing Time as the pick of the nine in which they performed together (I’m yet to catch The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, however, which by happy chance is scheduled after Swing Time today). Opinion seems neatly divided over which is the better picture – Top Hat has its Irving Berlin score, the fantastic ‘Venice’ set and Edward Everett Horton, and maybe it comes down to something as unfair as the one you see first that determines it. For me, I kind of fell in love with Swing Time. It was a perfectly lovely confection, put together with care and heart despite this being the pair’s sixth collaboration, at the height of their success and yet determined to outdo the last hit. The plot was daft, poking fun at Depression-era America and existing merely to string together the song and dance numbers. There was a sequence in which Fred Astaire danced in blackface. The story turned on marriages being broken up, and yet this stuff was being played for laughs. I adored it and I adore it still. For me, it’s a hundred minutes of unimpeachable light entertainment, the sort of thing you can wallow in and while it’s on keep all your troubles at bay. It’s that darn good.

Swing Time was directed by George Stevens, a departure from the usual Mark Sandrich and possibly the better for it as he brought a meticulous approach to the production that helped to polish the dance routines to such a level that they look effortless, which of course they weren’t. Perhaps the pick of the bunch, Astaire and Rogers’s Never Gonna Dance, a paean to their seemingly doomed romance, was shot again and again, the camera performing impossibly elaborate movements to keep up with the pair, and at one stage Ginger’s feet were bleeding into her shoes through sheer effort. And yet the routine is a complete delight, the song both gorgeous and beautifully sung by Astaire, who wrung all the despair and emotion out of the lyrics, whilst the dancing, which begins slow and melancholic before speeding up into a complicated series of twirls and spins, is nothing short of glorious. It’s so good that one forgets the hours of practice, the endless takes, the fact we get just one cut throughout the performance to change camera position, which obviously means they were doing that stuff for real, and all this before appreciating the ravishing set decoration of the Silver Sandal nightclub, or the stars’ clothes.

And yet Swing Time has an even bigger treat, the Bojangles of Harlem sequence, performed by Astaire as a club turn and featuring some of the most complex routines committed by him to celluloid. Controversially to modern eyes, Astaire ‘blacked up’ for the scene, though the scene was intended to be a tribute to Bill Robinson, and Fred made up the entirety of his facial skin rather than going for a Minstrel Show caricature, which makes a difference. Again, the segment features few cuts, three by my counting and these only necessitated by changes to the set. You choose your own favourite bit, whether it’s Astaire dancing alongside and with a troupe of women dressed alternately in black and white costumes, or his performance before a screen of three ‘silhouettes’ that apparently are reflections of himself, which they turn out not to be when they fail to keep up with him and, licked, stride off. The technical background to this sequence is as jaw dropping as what appears in the film; Astaire was filmed performing the routine once, providing the silhouette version and then simply copied it for the final version, keeping near perfect time with his dizzyingly quick prior rendition.

Elsewhere, Stevens keeps Swing Time running at a brisk pace, meaning one can almost ignore the half-hour that’s elapsed before any dancing takes place. By then, the major plot points and characters have been uncovered. Astaire plays John ‘Lucky’ Garnett, a professional dancer who at the film’s opening is about to be married to Betty Furness’s society girl. It’s a decision that goes ill with his troupe, who realise once he’s wed that’s the end of their business concern and so conspire to scupper the big day. They succeed, playing on Lucky’s love of gambling to hold him up, so that by the time he turns up to the wedding it’s all over. Furness’s blowhard father tells him he can have another go once he’s earned $25,000, no mean feat in an America still suffering the after-effects of the Wall street Crash, so Lucky heads for New York, employing the classic ‘Depression’ method of stowing onto a freight train car and taking with him best friend and stooge ‘Pop’ Cardetti (Victor Moore). Happy but penniless, Lucky is nevertheless impeccably dressed and groomed, and it isn’t long before he comes across Rogers’s dance instructor, both getting her fired and then reinstated when he makes her give him some tuition, all for the sake of worming his way into her affections.

The budding partnership between them is such that they’re quickly entered for auditions, whilst Pop endears himself to Rogers’s cynical older friend and stalwart, Helen Broderick. But there’s a catch. Rogers’s character is already adored by a suave band leader, played by Georges Metaxa, who just happens to hold the key to their dancing future together. The stage is set for a yarn in which Lucky not only has to break off his previous engagement but also persuade Rogers that her future’s with him. Hilarity ensues, along with dancing, lots of dancing, as the natural chemistry between the stars defines their growing affection for each other.

It’s all good natured stuff, with some fine comic moments along the way. I especially like the scene in Furness’s house, as the pets’ attitude to Astaire shifts with her father’s moods, along with the complexion on a portrait of some old family member. The performances of Moore and Broderick, who serve as the comic relief counterpoints to the more romantic relationship between the headliners, are also fine, though Moore has little of the class of Top Hat’s Horton. And whilst it’s clear Astaire is the real star, the script gives Rogers ample opportunities to shine, indeed this is a great, fleshed out and blousey performance from the female half of the partnership. Ginger emerges as utterly adorable, no pushover and worth chasing.

Swing Time: *****

The Saint Strikes Back (1939)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 25 July (12.00 pm)
Channel: BBC2
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George Sanders had already featured in fifteen films over the course of a five year career in the industry before his starring turn in The Saint Strikes Back. It was the first of five appearances as Simon Templar, released over a breathless two year period that seems almost unimaginably quick on the draw. The part and actor met at the right time. Not yet a star, indeed destined never to rise to stratospheric levels of fame, Sanders nevertheless was a perfect fit for the Saint, bringing his urbane style and silky voice to bear as the supremely confident Robin Hood of the modern era. And if there are shades of James Bond in his playing, then it feels natural that the Saint was kind of a forerunner for 007. Fortunately, by 1930s standards his way with the ladies doesn’t extend as far as outright bedding, but rather winning over the delightful Wendy Barrie with his charm and cleverness.

Whilst Louis Hayward did well enough in the role, Sanders is effortlessly watchable and in fact makes his acting feel unforced and easy. His work alongside Jonathan Hale, returning from The Saint in New York as Inspector Fernack, is the stuff of genius. Unconvinced by his accomplishments in New York, the copper tails Templar because he suspects the Saint is up to no good, only to be fooled time and time again. On one occasion, Templar makes Fernack think he’s been given the slip whilst they’re on a plane making a routine stop in Dallas, so off he runs into the terminal, still wearing his pyjamas and dressing gown, only to find the flight, with his quarry still very much on board, taking off without him. Later, Templar feeds Fernack into nodding off, leaving the Inspector with feverish dreams about lobsters on swings, a freaky bit of surreal humour for the time.

Elsewhere, Sanders gets some incredible dialogue to play about with, at one point comparing San Francisco in winter with Naples in April, only to confess they’re both in fact very different. Later, Barrie’s character forces him to reveal his reasons for helping her. He replies it’s because ‘I love you. But don’t let’s get sticky about it. I’m really a very shallow person. I also love fireflies, mockingbirds and pink sunsets.’ All good stuff, though Sanders manages to get across the Saint’s inscrutability and shadowy past. Nobody knows who he really is, and when it’s suggested late in the film that he might marry Barrie, he politely declines and ends the picture leaning against a lamp post in foggy San Francisco, watching the world go by and letting the mist consume him.

The emptiness at the heart of the character is only teased at. The film’s little over an hour long and there isn’t time to go into such plot developments as Templar’s back story, and it’s moments like these that we must hold on to. Sanders has little of Hayward’s gritty edge. His Saint is all charm, talking his way both in and out of trouble with errant ease. It’s so effective that director John Farrow’s attempts to give added dimensions to Templar are fragmentary and never really the point.

By all accounts, Saint series author Leslie Charteris had little time for either Sanders’s or Hayward’s takes on the part. He wanted Cary Grant and apparently thought Roger Moore’s portrayal on the small screen was the closest to ‘Sainthenticity’ anyone managed. Sanders might have agreed. He was critical of his own talents, claiming ‘I never really thought I’d make the grade. And let’s face it, I haven’t.’

The Saint Strikes Back: ***

The Saint in New York (1938)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 24 July (12.00 pm)
Channel: BBC2
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Ah, summer holidays. A chance for the BBC to throw out a season of classic movies, for no one in particular and not necessarily in the right order. But here we are, presented with the welcome sight of eight RKO pictures based on Leslie Charteris’s Saint novels. BBC2 screened a double bill yesterday, and are doing the same today. The second title is one of the series’ later entries, The Saint meets the Tiger, but first we get The Saint in New York, which also happens to be the franchise opener. It’s to be hoped that later in the holidays, the BBC will follow its Saint run with another scheduling of MGM’s Tarzan films, whilst Mrs Mike would ask for a post-modern, ‘knowing’ second chance for Charlie Chan.

Back to the Saint, with Louis Hayward in the first of his two film appearances as Simon Templar (the second would be years later). The film was intended to be a B-movie quickie, and that’s exactly what it was, Ben Holmes directing economically in ensuring the finished product ran little over the 70-minute mark. It opens with men talking, essentially discussing the set-up for the entire plot. They’re police, involved in the protection of New York, only the Big Apple’s suffering a crime wave and six men have been identified as responsible. The rozzers don’t know what to do. They appear entirely unable to stop the criminals, until someone mentions Simon Templar aka The Saint.

In one of those narrative developments that must have made perfect sense in the 1930s, the NYPD effectively holds up its hands, declares itself beat and hands over all responsibility for dealing with the problem to a vigilante, indeed it’s made clear Templar doesn’t always work on the side of the angels. Nonetheless, he takes on the challenge of cleaning up the city, beginning with his shooting of a recently acquitted criminal who was about to execute one of the high ranking police officers. It isn’t long before he’s more or less in control, working his way through the less savoury elements of NY and building up to uncovering the identity of ‘the Big Fellow’, who runs the criminal fraternity from a position of complete secrecy.

It’s nothing new, and I don’t imagine for one moment the intention was to take the crime genre in a fascinating new direction. In Hayward’s hands, Templar seems to float through all the perilous situations in which he finds himself, as though he knows he’s the hero of the story and can never die, so why worry about it? If Hayward appears to be channelling anybody, then it’s definitely Orson Welles – the same amused expression, intonation and quickfire quips, which makes him both agreeable and impossible to identify with.

Yet there are moments worth waiting for, glimpses of an imaginative piece of work that occasionally shine through. Particularly good fun is the bit where the Saint escapes through a first floor window, only to perform an elaborate acrobatic manoeuvre to lever himself onto the roof. I also like the appearance of character actor stalwart Paul Guilfoyle, whose role in the film is to provide a commentary on the Saint’s actions – doing so soon makes him an admirer of Templar, ironic as he’s on the opposite side.

In another world, The Saint in New York might have been directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who was certainly interested in taking on the assignment. In his hands, it’s almost certain the film wouldn’t have looked so cheap or prosaically made, but for all the film making by balance sheet, it’s never terrible. And for all Hayward would be overshadowed in the role by George Sanders (we’ll do a Sanders Saint tomorrow), he’s still better than Val Kilmer could dream of being.

The Saint in New York: **

The Drum (1938)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 11 July (1.25 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

The Drum is one of those films that holds up the British Empire as a really good thing. Set in the north-west frontier of the British Raj, the British overlords are benevolent and decent. The Indians are either deferential and admire their masters, or untrustworthy and plot endlessly to overthrow them. Needless to add, the latter are The Drum’s villains, to a man devious pieces of work, whereas the good natives are represented by the open, friendly face of Sabu, for whom this film was something of a vehicle.

Selar Shaik Sabu was an orphaned 12-year old, working as an elephant driver in Mysore after the death of his father, when by chance he was discovered by a passing British film crew that just happened to be looking for someone to play the lead role in a film called Elephant Boy. It was a product of Alexander Korda’s company, London Films, and Korda wasted no time in getting Sabu to sign a contract. Over the next few years, the youngster would appear in a number of Korda pictures, from the very good (The Thief of Baghdad, Jungle Book) to the likes of The Drum, a by the numbers flick that glorified all things British. The timing of the film’s release was no coincidence. War was on the horizon and Korda decided what the public needed was a picture that exemplified the virtues of the home nation, whilst painting a positive picture of the Empire to our friends across the ocean would be no bad thing.

Unfortunately, The Drum – which was directed by Korda’s brother, Zoltan; another sibling, Vincent, was heavily involved in the production design – isn’t the best made of advertisements. Technically, it’s absolutely fine, though the enormous cast of extras was deployed in Harlech rather than India and featured an army of ‘blacked up’ faces, which is never the most comfortable thing to see. That said, people offended by such sights could do with being reminded that The Drum was very much a product of its time, when such antics were commonplace. Raymond Massey in make-up is still Raymond Massey, which means he’s as charismatic a villain as one could find in contemporary cinema and remains one of the film’s more watchable elements. Indeed it’s kind of strange, given what Massey’s revolting prince gets up to, not to feel a little sympathy for someone who simply wants to gain independence for his people.

The story is precisely the yarn of stiff upper lips getting the better of an undisciplined force of natives one might expect to find. Where it suffers is in a pace that can at best be described as leisurely. Considering the narrative moves in an obvious direction, it takes an age for anything to happen, and whilst in more skilled hands this might have involved a cranking up of the tension, in The Drum it’s simply a case of waiting around. Leading the roll call of fine British actors is Roger Livesey’s kind-hearted Captain Carruthers. Livesey’s presence is pretty much a guarantee of quality, but there’s little for him to work with in the straightforward, decent character he plays here. Valerie Hobson is elegant and resourceful as his dutiful wife, and Francis L Sullivan turns up occasionally as the Governor.

Sabu, who was top billed, vanishes for large swathes of the film. Playing a young prince who’s usurped and on the run, the main point of interest is his effort to warn the British of Massey’s plans against them, which is where the drum of the title gets involved. This he learns from a young drummer boy in a scene that is both mawkish and almost pre-designed to give the young Sabu an opportunity to act someone of a similar age off the screen.

A film for viewers with the most chest-beating of dispositions then, though the inevitable battle, when it finally happens, makes for decent viewing, surprisingly for its era getting across the confusing mess of conflict, whilst Livesey turns out to be a hardcore man of action when he gets his hands on a machine gun.

The Drum: **

Drums along the Mohawk (1939)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 10 July (11.25 am)
Channel: More4
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1939 really was the key year in John Ford’s development as a film maker. Turning to tales of American history for inspiration, he directed films covering late nineteenth century Western pioneers (Stagecoach), the events that helped build the character of one of the USA’s greatest presidents (Young Mr Lincoln), and Drums along the Mohawk, set in the Revolutionary era. Faced with the competition, and indeed that of Gone with the Wind, which dominated historical epics released that year, it’s tempting to see Mohawk as the lesser work, a footnote in Ford’s lengthy filmography.

Certainly, there’s little of the earnest melodrama present in Victor Fleming’s lengthy Oscar vacuum. Drums along the Mohawk is less than half the length of Gone with the Wind and presents its main characters essentially as stoical pioneers with a collective ‘make do and mend’ approach in the face of considerable perils. The impression should be obvious enough – the Mohawk Valley settlers represent the American spirit at its steadfast, dependable and redoubtable best. When any of the settlers’ homesteads is ransacked and razed by Indian raiding parties, they simply move on to the next free plot and start all over again. At the film’s close, Henry Fonda turns to Claudette Colbert and tells her they’d ‘better be getting back to work, there’ll be a heap to do from now on’, which comes after a stirring, flag-raising sequence and sums up the idealised American mentality at its finest, indeed Fonda and Colbert’s characters are really nothing less than Mr and Mrs USA. He’s reliable and firmly believes in doing the right thing. She shows a fierce determination to rough it in the cause of standing by her man.

That these sentiments don’t melt the film into hopeless sap is a mark of Ford’s greatness as a storyteller. There’s a considerable effort to show the progress of Fonda and Colbert’s newlywedded settlers as something that happens organically rather than according to narrative conventions. Especially touching is their arrival at the log cabin he’s built, the first time Colbert’s seen it. It’s pouring down and the humble little house looks a world away from the fine living she’s enjoyed in Albany to that point. The arrival of Christian Native American, Blue Back (Chief John Big Tree) to welcome them is the final straw. Colbert gets uncontrollably hysterical and Fonda has to slap her in order to shock her into calming down. Blue Back promptly returns with a switch so that Fonda can maintain household discipline, but it’s clear he’ll never need to use it. Their love is too strong. Her despair is fleeting. Despite its lowliness, the cabin becomes an earthly paradise for the young couple, who are soon seen happily farming and planning their future together.

The film never quite manages to convey the loneliness and sense of great distance that tortured real life settlers, instead portraying the loosely dotted community as happy and there for each other, gathering at the fort for square dances, assemblies of the local militia and forging friendships. Prominent amongst them are Ward Bond’s eternally cheerful Adam Hartman, and Edna May Oliver as widowed landowner, Mrs McKlennar, who lets the young couple move in with her and help out when their home is torched. Oliver’s salty attitude steals the show. When it’s her turn to suffer an Indian raid, she forces her invaders to help her move the bed out of the room they’ve recently put to the torch.

Given the political realities of 1939, Drums along the Mohawk is careful not to cite the British as outright villains, instead labelling the American Tories with the ‘bad guys’ motif. This has some basis in the actual history of the Mohawk Valley. It was invaded by Colonel St Leger as a diversion to the main attack on Albany, much of the fighting carried out by Indians in the pay of Tory, Guy Johnson. In the film, Johnson becomes Caldwell, an eyepatch-wearing wrong ‘un played by John Carradine, who co-ordinates the attack on the fort, which during the exciting climax is defended by the local militia.

This follows the militia’s mobilisation and departure to aid the Revolution’s war effort. Ford’s focus remains on the women, the agonies they experience in waiting for their men’s return and inability to get any news in advance. When they eventually make it back, ragged and riddled with injuries, the reunification of Colbert with Fonda is an incredibly touching moment, due in no small part to the care in which Ford has shown their growing love and the pair’s on-screen chemistry. Rather than lavish money on filming an actual battle, Ford has Fonda relate his personal experiences to Colbert, which he does in gory, minute detail. Famously, the scene was filmed by the director asking Fonda questions and getting him to improvise his answers while remaining in character.

Fonda also carries off one of the film’s most blazing scenes, when he leaves the besieged fort to seek reinforcements. Pursued on foot by Indians, the chase lasts an entire day, Ford getting in some brilliant shots of the runners silhouetted against vast, dramatic skies. This was the director’s first colour film, and he took advantage by creating a gorgeous palette, never better looking than in the lengthy chase.

Drums along the Mohawk is simply a wonderful slice of entertainment. Both the director and his main star did more celebrated work together and Gone with the Wind took the plaudits for historical drama shot in colour, but the effort here to create a seldom seen part of American history on screen is beautifully put together, rarely gets overwhelmed with mawkishness and gives its female characters something to do beyond waiting for rescue. Colbert’s character grows visibly; as the Indians invade the fort and break into the room where the women hide, she waits for them with a loaded musket. Her development from the spoiled girl who cries at the sight of a Native American could hardly be expressed more clearly.

Drums along the Mohawk: ****