Command Decision (1948)

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Catch-22

Command Decision is my favourite film in the wasteland of mediocrity that is Clark Gable’s post war career; a period which only had a few highlights. The opening stock footage is the only action seen in the film as Command Decision is a movie consisting of wordy drama; quality actors delivering quality performances.

Gable himself was a bombardier during the war and spearheaded the production of Command Decision thus it must have been something he had real passion for. The role of Brig. Gen. K.C. “Casey” Dennis is not cocky Gable as he often portrayed, nor does he have a leading lady to play off. Dennis is a man under strain which you can clearly see on his face; in order to fight Nazis he must first fight his superiors, politicians as well as dealing with the press and even attending to matters such as farmers complaining about early morning take offs frightening their cows (“When did I ever get the impression this war was against the axis?”). Above all he is a man with life and death on his hands and even the outcome of the war. He may not see the battlefield but he still has an unpleasant job to do.

Walter Pidgeon however gives my favourite performance in the film as Major General Kane with his monologue in which he speaks off how the US Air Force struggled for years in an effort to get it equipped and running is the highlight of the movie. It is four minutes long, there are no cuts with actors interacting with Pidgeon along the way while he moves around the room with the camera following him; hair raising acting.

Van Johnson gives the film its comic relief to contrast the serious, downbeat nature of the film. As Sgt. Evans he rarely takes himself totally seriously from his wisecracks to sitting at Dennis’ desk when he’s not around. Johnson was often case in military roles and it’s not hard to see why; he was a boy next door with the essence of an eager young patriot. However Evans’ inability to take himself seriously could show a cynical side to his character as someone who doesn’t have much faith in the war machine; in fact the one scene in which he does act in a more serious manner is the moment in which he praises Dennis and shakes his hand after Dennis lambasts Edward Arnold’s congressman who criticises him for recklessly causing heavy loss of life.

Command Decision is a movie which covers a lot making it one worth viewing more than once in order to take it all in. Giving the film the benefit of the doubt in its accuracy, it’s an educational experience. Compared to a film like The Dawn Patrol (original and its remake) there is a world of difference in flight commanding between the world wars; much more high tech, bureaucratic and on a larger, industrial like scale.

Like the flight commander in The Dawn Patrol, Dennis gets hounded for the decisions he makes which leads to the message I ultimately take from Command Decision. Dennis’ decisions are causing a heavy loss of life of US airmen but the success of these missions to destroy the Nazi’s secret weapon in Schweinhaven (not a real place) could change the outcome of the war and save a greater number of lives in the long term. You can’t afford to appear virtuous and care only for the immediate loss of life in order to get results. However as Kane knows, without a good publicity and political support there not be much of an air force and how do you do that is your actions appear reckless to the laymen; a real catch-22.

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The Pirate (1948)

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Caribbean or Caribbean? Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

At the beginning of The Pirate we learn Manuela (Judy Garland) has a life of servitude ahead of her while she yearns for a life of adventure. She desires to be taken away by the legendary Mack the Black, swooning over dreams of stolen treasure, maidens captive, of villages destroyed; kind of twisted don’t you think? Regardless I don’t think anyone can project an innocent yearning for adventure better than Judy Garland. The Pirate was a different role for Garland; more exotic, less girl next door and more grown up. For once she plays the object of desire and I find she pulls this off perfectly as although I’ve never found Garland to be a woman of sexual appeal, I do find her one of great beauty (why she was ever referred to as an ugly duckling is beyond me). At heart however Manuela is still very much a Judy Garland character, a down to Earth girl with aspirations for greater things.

The title of The Pirate could come off as misleading. Gene Kelly isn’t a pirate but rather a performer named Serafin masquerading as one. No the pirate of The Pirate is Mack the Black, whom in a odd turn of events is actually the man Manuela is going to wed in an arranged marriage known as Don Pedro, the mayor of a small Caribbean town who has put his life of crime behind him  and kept it a secret. The Pirate is enhanced on second viewing knowing the true identity of Don Pedro as he speaks of his dislike of travelling on the sea and telling Manuela home is the perfect spot; remind you of another Judy Garland film? There is even a moment in which Manuela frantically tells Auntie Inez (Gladys Cooper) she wants to go home which feels like Wizard of Oz redux. The second half of the pirate is one huge comic, screwball like farce which doesn’t fully work for me; it’s amusing but not so much laugh out loud making me prefer the first half to the second.

The Pirate shows Gene Kelly had the ability to be a natural swashbuckler while his introductory sequence in which he gives a lengthy monologue promoting his acting troupe has to be one of his most entertaining non-musical moments on screen. However what really makes his role in The Pirate stand out among his other films is the oozing sexuality he projects on screen; more than any other film he did. Serafin is a real Don Juan with his Gable like moustache as well as with his tightly fit pirate attire and the wipe he is seen sporting in the film (plus that cigarette trick, what a play-a!) His introductory song Nina is one steamy number with Kelly flirting and dancing with oodles of women (just look at that state his hair is in by the end of the number) while the topical setting just enhances the eroticism. The Pirate is another movie in the “how did they get away with that club”. You can censor all you want but you can’t tell someone to simply stop projecting natural sexuality.

Although Judy and Gene do display affection for each other at points in the film, the romantic element of The Pirate comes off to me as secondary. Serafin pursues Manuela for reasons other than love as he can tell she is going into a life she doesn’t want due to his ability to know an entire woman through their body language. This gives his character another element and shows he isn’t totally  shallow and just out to get laid; he wants to prevent Manuela from going down a path she doesn’t want to and expose the adventuress that she is as well as her hidden performing talents. By the end it’s evident they share a more of a professional association than a romantic one, nor is there even a final kiss between the two.

Mack the Black is the musical highlight of the film and an interesting change of pace seeing Judy Garland doing a more racy number. Mack the Black was the replacement for a number titled Voodoo of which the negatives where burned at Louis B Mayer’s instance over the number’s reportedly scandalous content. Would it be considered shocking by today’s standards, was it even that shocking to begin with?  – One can only imagine. As the audio still survives, the song itself is one of the darker, more eerie songs in the MGM library but doesn’t strike me particularly memorable. Perhaps going with Mack the Black was the right decision after all. Be a Clown on the other hand is notably the basis for the song Make ‘em Laugh from Singin’ In the Rain and plagiarised it may be, Make ‘em Laugh is a far superior rendition in my view. The ballet sequence in The Pirate however is a treat with a real sense of three dimensional depth. The sequence with its many explosions and Gene Kelly’s masculine athleticism makes for one of the more primal musical numbers in film history.

The production values of The Pirate aren’t quite up to MGM’s usual standard with clear dividing lines on the sky backgrounds, visible wires holding Gene Kelly on the tight rope and even a very visible thread attached to Judy’s hat as its hoisted away by the wind. Come on MGM, you can do better than that. Ultimately The Pirate is not my favourite MGM musical but is unique enough to make it worthwhile.

Adventures of Don Juan (1948)

The Don Patrol

You could look at it cynically and view Adventures of Don Juan as a career life support, seeing Errol Flynn going to back to doing what made him famous in the first place after a string of unsuccessful pictures at the box office but it is none the less Errol Flynn returning to do what he does best. Despite not having done a swashbuckler since The Sea Hawk in 1940, Adventures of Don Juan manages to recapture the magic of his earlier days in this very dialogue driven swashbuckler. Flynn’s signs of ageing are increasingly apparent but considering his health and status as a star this would have been the final time Flynn could have headlined a big budget production such as this.

The Technicolor here doesn’t have the striking vibrancy of The Adventures of Robin Hood but the beautiful, detailed backdrops and very large scale sets with immaculate attention to detail are superb. The only complaint I have production wise is the very obvious use of footage taken from The Adventures of Robin Hood which sticks out from the rest of a movie which was filmed a decade later. It’s a shame they couldn’t get Michael Curtiz to direct for one last Flynn adventure or Erich Wolfgang Korngold to do the music score, none the less Max Steiner’s score does the job. I also previously knew Viveca Lindfors as the teacher from the 1985 comedy The Sure Thing. To see her 37 years earlier play a Spanish queen in the 17th century was such a contrasting role.

Unlike John Barrymore’s take on Don Juan in 1926, Flynn’s Don Juan uses the character’s insatiable lust for woman for laughs rather than for tragedy (I doubt a film in tone of the Barrymore Don Juan could be made during the code era). Flynn’s Don Juan is a charmer but with a tad buffoonery to him, who’s love making antics threaten relations between England and Spain. However Flynn injects some John Barrymore into his performance with his manner of speaking, which it should then come as no surprise that Flynn would later portray Barrymore in Too Much, Too Soon. What is also taken over from the Barrymore Don Juan is the famous breathtaking epic dive down the stairs; and it does not disappoint.

The two villains in Adventures of Don Juan, the King of Spain (Romney Brent) and the Duke de Lorca (Robert Douglas) attempt to hatch a plan to build an armada in secret for world conquest and use shady tactics along the way such as abducting subjects by force for the navy. This was only a few years after the Second World War had ended and the memories of Hitler where still vivid in people’s minds. Robert Douglas channels a bit of Basil Rathbone in his performance while the partnership between these two villains is the classic Emperor/Darth Vader set up; with one figure taking the public limelight and the other pulling the strings behind the scenes; as the Duke de Lorca puts it, “I have no desire to sit on a throne, I much prefer to stand behind it”.

Rope (1948)

Is Murder an Art?

Rope is one of those rare movies which is totally engrossing within less than five minutes, no doubt in my top 5 films by the master himself. Hitchcock successfully recreates the theatrical experience for the big screen. The set of Rope looks a bit fake and washed out and even the colour cinematography has a washed out feel to it, this all being part of the charm of course. The actors strand in unnatural positions when talking, avoiding having their back facing the audience when speaking; unnatural for real life that is, normal for the warped reality of a stage play. Above all, the entire movie takes place in real time through a series of ten minute takes and all this happens while there is a dead body in the room.

The characters played by Farley Granger and John Doll as well as their teacher (James Stewart) hold a Nazi like ideology that murder is “an art a few superior beings should be allowed to practice”, rather than those such as say, people who are Harvard undergraduates. The character’s discussion on the justification for murder is chilling as they make it sound scarily convincing. Rope is based a true story from the 1920’s and adapted into a play in 1929 although it’s clear the movie is set during the period it was made due to the fashions and the mentioning of movie stars from the era. It does seem unlikely in the aftermath of the atrocities during the Second World War that people would be so openly discussing such fascist ideas which were more common in the United States during the 20’s and 30’s.

The movie is about homosexuality although I didn’t catch onto this. I’m not the best person when it comes to identifying gay characters unless they’re really gay (hey sisters!). I’ve heard criticism of Stewart being miscast in the role as he apparently doesn’t make a convincing gay character thus the homosexual love triangle from the play is not present in the film. Judging the film on its own merits however Rope is a major step in his evolution as an actor, away from his gawky roles he was known for up until this point. His breakdown at the end is one of the acting highlights of his career and gives me the chills watching it.