Sergeant York (1941)

Inspirational Heroes Blogathon 5

Render Unto Caesar

It’s refreshing to watch a film like Sergeant York with it’s straight up old-fashioned Boy Scout, trying- to-do-what’s-right hero. There’s no edginess, no irony or need for an anti-hero here and while there’s a place for that I enjoy seeing a protagonist who’s trying to reflect the best of humanity; many will find this boring and corny but I dig it. Who better to play such a role than the boy scout-iest of actors (along with Jimmy Stewart) – Mr. Gary Cooper as Alvin C. York; the story of a contentious objector whom in an ironic twist of fate became a war hero. Although you do have to ask if Cooper was too old for the role of York as at the beginning of the movie he is presented as a pathetic man-child still living with his mother.

Sergeant York is the black sheep in Howard Hawks’ filmography, lacking his trademarks and in many ways the opposite of what you would expect from him. Sergeant York is a film which espouses traditional morality and notions of marriage. Joan Leslie as York’s love interest Gracie Williams is anything but a Hawksian woman; rather is as innocent and wholesome as you can get. The real Alvin C. York himself initially refused to allow Hollywood to make a film about his life over concerns of the morality espoused in their films resulting in Sergeant York being as wholesome and old-fashioned as it is in a film in which religion and the community dominate everyday life. However it’s not religion which triggers York’s reformation but rather the love of a woman which allows the audience’s identification with the character not be a purely religious one. Likewise the foreshadowing from Pastor Pile (Walter Brennan) to York being struck by lightning avoids making the plot device more contrived.

At its heart Sergeant York is a movie about pacifism. While its examination of the topic is very much pacifism 101 it is still thought-provoking stuff and lets the audience make up their own mind as the film doesn’t propagate a point of view (including that which York comes to) onto the viewer. The discussions within the film, on York trying to determine the right thing to do, present both religious and secular arguments in relation to pacifism. On the religious side York states that the Bible is against killing as his reason to be exempt from military service but the draft board states the Bible can be interpreted as its followers choose. On the secular side of things, York is handed a book on the history of the United States by one of his superior officers and is told if he wants to worship God in his own way, plough his fields as he sees fit and raise a family according to his own likes then the cost of that heritage is high – In the words of Team America; freedom isn’t free. One of the most striking images in the film is that of York and his dog sitting on a rock on the side of a cliff overlooking the wilderness in a state of deep thought as the words “God” and “Country” are repeated in his head serving as inspiration for the challenge of wrestling with weighty decisions (What Would York Do?).

It’s clear Joan Leslie in the role of York’s future wife Gracie can only just manage to act herself out of a paper bag but manages to get away with it on endearment alone. However the show stealer is Walter Brennan and those amazing eyebrows as the father like figure Pastor Pile; I don’t think anyone can play an endearing old man better than Brennan. The other cast member that sticks out to me is Dickie Moore as Alvin’s younger brother George. I’m not sure if his performance is supposed to be funny or not but his monotone reaction to everything makes me laugh.

Sergeant York is one example in media of Appalachians being presented in a dignified manner rather than being the butt of jokes. In Sergeant York there are presented as uneducated and sheltered but not as a pack of simpletons. As it turns out the writers and filmmakers had little choice in this matter as the real York and several townsmen in Tennessee refused to sign releases unless the film was an accurate portrayal of history. Likewise not a single character in the film, both in York’s rural Tennessee home or at the army barracks in which he trains, seem to know what the war is about but then again no one knows what World War I is all about.

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Gentleman Jim (1942)

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A Boxer and a Gentleman

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

There’s something about Gentleman Jim which makes the film uplifting, it has a real aura of celebration to it. There’s nothing better than hearing Auld Lang Sang during the opening credits of a piece of classic Hollywood filmmaking. Compare this to the many bleak biopics which portray historical figures going through unprecedented amounts of suffering, Gentleman Jim really stands out with its combination of comedy and drama which never takes itself too seriously to create something unique; historical accuracy be dammed!

Errol Flynn and Jack Carson make for a fun duo as a pair of part time con-men. Flynn’s reaction at the film’s beginning to the pickpocket currently in the act of robbing him, just a quick “get outta there” and a slap on the wrist as he continues himself to con other people, it’s so brief you would almost miss it and if it doesn’t show what a great actor he is then I don’t know what will; such sly confidence.

Gentleman Jim is a movie full of blink-and-you-miss-them moments of subtle comedy. One of my favourite of these is the moment in which a child asks his mother during a fight “why doesn’t daddy look that like in his underwear” and her response of “shh, he did once”. I love the child’s reaction with his eye’s rolling up as if he’s saying “oh, I totally get it”. The movie does also have its more overt moments of humour in the form of Corbett’s entertaining family of screwballs led by a scenery chewing Alan Hale. Yet even Hale’s chewing of the scenery is outdone by Ward Bond as the over the top, manly force of nature that is John L. Sullivan.

Gentleman Jim differs from most boxing film partially due to its time period setting. The film acts as a piece of 1890’s nostalgia when there would still have been people alive in 1942 to remember this period. It is easily apparent the filmmakers put great strides into recreating the time period with its lush sets and great attention to detail. However the other aspect which makes the movie stand out amongst boxing pictures is its presentation of boxing as a real gentleman’s sport, making the movie really live up to its title. This isn’t a story with Rocky Balboas nor does it take place in sweaty, gritty inner city gyms. I guess somewhere along the way the sport of boxing became less sophisticated and more middle to lower class.

Classic Hollywood films are generally not known for their realistic boxing scenes with their use of sped up footage and not very convincing punches. Gentleman Jim does a better job than other boxing films of the era. Flynn learned to box for the role and no body doubles where used while the fights for the most part do come off as convincing.

The meeting between Corbett and Sullivan after their fight is the film’s real tearjerker moment: what true gentlemen. An acceptance that your time has come to an end and that it will happen to all of us eventually.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It Happened One Christmas

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Why yes I do cry like a baby over it’s a Wonderful Life: every time. That ending is such a huge release after such as a dark and depressing alternative reality. I’m always left shaken up by it and need a break before I can watch another movie as well as making me want to make amends with loved ones. I’m sure everyone who watched It’s a Wonderful Life thinks to themselves what the world would be like if they were never born. The struggle of George Bailey is relatable to a wide spectrum, and I know for myself it really hits home. Being stuck in a dead end town and feeling you will bust if you don’t get away from it; having your life not going the way you intended it to while your siblings appear to be doing so much better than you. But in at the end George Bailey realises what he’s got when it’s all gone, above it all, God’s greatest gift. It’s a Wonderful Life takes placed in a world in which God exists (and can focus his time on this one person over the rest of the world, but I digress). I’ve never felt however for It’s a Wonderful Life to have a religious agenda, it’s merely just a plot device for the film’s fantasy elements.

Lionel Barrymore’s performance as Henry F. Potter I feel is a tie between his brother John’s roles in Twentieth Century as the best performance from the Barrymore clan. Potter is one of the biggest douche bags in movie history; the archetype evil business mogul and ripe for comparisons with real life figures. In 2012 it was Mitt Romney, in 2016 it’s Donald Trump. Not only has he no charitable side, he directly steals money in order to destroy his competition. Unlike other screen villains, Potter does not get any comeuppance as the end of the film, although you could say he’s destiny as a sick, frustrated and lonely man who hates anyone that has anything he can’t have is punishment enough. Potter isn’t a total caricature though, he is more three dimensional than that. He’s a man who knows how to conduct and run a business and understands that high ideals without common sense could ruin a town. But George Bailey is no fool, he is a natural born leader, even if he doesn’t realise it. He stands up to Potter without giving it a second thought, runs a building and loan which is a real estate empire itself; even his father states to him that he was born older than his brother.

Moments like the make shift honeymoon suite in the broken down house which they later make their own or the recurring gag with the mantle at the end of the stairway represents the kind of writing which elevates It’s a Wonderful Life above the majority of other movies. Like the greatest of films you notice something new on every viewing. Likewise nobody can do moments of intimacy like Frank Capra, the movie is full of scenes in which it is simply two actors talking with no background music, yet creates raw human emotional like no other. Take a scene such as George and Mary walking through a neighbourhood at night while George talks about his ambitions for the future, the rest of the world ceases to exist. Many will be quick to put down Capra’s work as so called “Capracorn” or as Potter puts it, “sentimental hogwash”. Get off your high horse and stop thinking you’re above such emotion – cinema is about the manipulation of emotions.

It’s hard not to feel sentimental for the representation of small town America on display. Bedford Falls itself is a town full of interesting and unique characters. It actually reminds me of The Simpsons. Potter himself is essentially the town’s own Mr Burns in The Simpsons – the people of Springfield hate Burns but are dependent on him for their energy needs. Likewise the people of Bedford Falls hate Potter and would be dependent on him for their housing if it wasn’t for the competition of the Bailey Building & Loan.

Due to its public domain status the film was shown on some TV networks in 24 hour marathons. I’d happily watch one of those network as I can’t stop watching It’s a Wonderful Life no matter what point in the movie I begin. Could you get a more perfect marriage between actor and director than James Stewart and Frank Capra? Collaborating on a perfect trilogy of films, with each one better than the last. It’s a Wonderful Life? It sure is.