Category: Hollywood

The Magnificent Ambersons (US 1942)

Produced at the RKO Studio and scripted and directed by Orson Welles; this film is a flawed classic, missing about forty minutes of the original version. It is screening on BBC 4 this coming Thursday [May 19th] as one of the titles accompanying the six part documentary, The RKO Story Tales from Hollywood’ [Hollywood the Golden Years: The RKO Story]. This is a six part series, each episode an hour long, originally produced and transmitted in 1987. It makes a welcome return to terrestrial television and is accompanied by a number of classic titles from the RKO Studio. The series was jointly produced by the BBC and RKO Pictures. The RKO studio closed in 1957 but had a reinvention in the 1980s as RKO Pictures Inc. This company controlled the archive of studio records and titles. These offer a wealth of information on RKO presented by Edward Asner. But what makes the series stands out are the interviews with surviving stars and production personnel from the studio era. This provides an impressive and fascinating account of the studio; something that is rarely offered in contemporary cinema programmes.

On Thursday May 19th part four of the series deals with the period in which Orson Welles worked at RKO. Following the seminal Citizen Kane Welles then made an adaptation of the novel ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ [Ambersons] by Booth Tarkington. Not that well known now in the early decades of the C20th Tarkington was a popular and highly respected writer; he won Pulitzer Prizes for two of his novels, ‘Ambersons’ and Alice Adams. The latter was filmed at RKO in 1935. In fact both ‘Ambersons’ and ‘Alice Adams’ were also filmed in silent versions in the 1920s.

Tarkington was the chronicler of ‘mid-western USA’; in another sense that central cultural artefact in US Americana, ‘small-town America’. As well as the two award-winning novels Tarkington also wrote a series of  ‘Penrod’ stories; following young boys growing up in a Midwestern town. Welles read these and other Tarkington works in his youth. He remained an admirer. Welles himself and his biographers frequently drew attention to the parallels between his childhood and characters and settings in the Tarkington novels. Simon Callow, in his biopic of the years leading up to Welles’ Hollywood ventures , ‘Orson Welles The Road to Xanadu’. quotes a description of a mansion in ‘Ambersons’ which was very similar to Welles’ first home.

In fact, Welles adapted the novel in his long-running series of radio adaptations; in October 1939 in the Campbell Playhouse on CBS. In this version Welles played the key protagonist, George Amberson Minafer. However, when it came to a film, with a character seen and heard, Welles settled for the narrative voice. In one of those innovations of which Welles was so fond, even the credits were voiced by Welles as narrator.

The story in the novel and the film follows the declining fortunes of the Amberson clan.

Major Amberson had “made a fortune” in 1878, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then. Magnificence, like the size of a fortune, is always comparative, as even Magnificent Lorenzo may now perceive, if he has happened to haunt New York in 1916; and the Ambersons were magnificent in their day and place. Their splendour lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city, but reached its topmost during the period when every prosperous family with children kept a Newfoundland dog.

The Amberson elders with Eugene

Times moved on and the family fortunes declined as new social movements and new technologies arose. The Ambersons’ decline was symbolised in both novel and film by the arrival and rise of the motor car. The Major’s daughter Isabel was courted by a host of ‘ineligible’ young men. Finally she chose and married Wilbur Minafer,

a steady young man and a good churchgoer . . .

The marriage dashed the hopes of another young romantic, Eugene Morgan, who left town. The Minafer marriage was passionless and Isabel devoted her love and attention to the child George Amberson Minafer. He was bought up a spoilt and arrogant child and young man; one whose behaviours caused many townspeople to wait for his ‘comeuppance’. Meanwhile Eugene returned to town, a widower and with a daughter. He became a pioneer in the new motor-car business and grew wealthy. Young George disliked Eugene and his business but found Eugene’s daughter Lucy very attractive. Minafer suffered from bad investments and died. Eugene renewed his romantic interest in Isabel but George prevented the potential union. Later Lucy turned down George’s proposal of marriage, partly because of his behaviour, partly because of his arrogance.

After Isabel’s death it was discovered that family fortune has evaporated. The great Amberson mansion was sold. George and his Aunt Fanny, who for years has carried a passion for Eugene, were forced into lowly lodgings. George, for the first time in his life, was forced to work in manual labour at Eugene’s factory; ‘comeuppance!’. Then George was injured in an accident and in both versions he is visited in hospital by Eugene, but there are different resolutions in the situation of the characters.

The film of Ambersons was shot at the RKO Studio and around Los Angeles. When production finished Welles had directed a rough cut of approximately 132 minutes. Welles, in characteristic fashion, was already involved in a new film, It’s All True; to be shot in Latin America, mainly Brazil, and a film supporting the US war effort and its ‘Good Neighbour policy’ in Latin America. Welles accepted the full-length Ambersons needed cuts and entrusted this to the editor Robert Wise. After some editing and two previews the film was seen as a likely box office failure. Welles, who had the unusual option of a ‘final cut’ on Citizen Kane, had lost this option after changes in his contract. RKO bosses took over and Wise’s editing finally produced a version running only 88 minutes. There were reshot and additional scenes, [some by Wise, some by Fred Fleck]; moreover the finale of the film was reshot to produce a clear resolution.

Welles was appalled by the cuts and changes in the release version. Film critics and later audiences have tended to see the result as an example of Hollywood ‘commercial butchery’. What remains and what is known of Welles’ original version suggest a film that would have offered an equivalence to Citizen Kane though with a very different tone and some rather different stylistic achievements. The Studio later destroyed the original negatives so that a ‘director’s cut’ was not possible. In the 1970s Welles toyed with the idea of completing the film in some way but nothing came of this. There was a rough cut with sound sent for inspection by Welles as he worked in Brazil. This has never been found, though fresh searches are regularly organised, it remains  a lost ‘holy grail’ rather like Erich von Stroheim’s earlier butchered masterpiece, Greed (1924).

Welles wrote a number of letters and memos suggesting ways of reducing the film’s length; these were mainly ignored. Peter Bogdanovich in ‘This is Orson Welles’ (1993, a series of interviews and supporting materials) provides a lot of detail and extracts. At one point Welles suggested a ‘happy ending’ which differs from that imposed on the film. Bogdanovich also includes records from the preview screenings and it is apparent that the audience responses were not as bad as suggested; a minority of comments were positive. However, there was new studio management, and as with Von Stroheim and M-G-M, there seems to have been a basic antagonism to Welles and his project.

Yet the surviving film is still a fine example of Welles’ film-making. The overall elegiac tone of the film is maintained until the changed ending; Welles reckoned the first sixty minutes were a reasonable approximation of his intent.. Cinematically it has many bravura qualities reminiscent of Citizen Kane. There are great set pieces like a sleigh ride in the snow: an Amberson grandiose entertainment in the impressive mansion: the gloom of the decline as family members die and the fortune melts away: and the settings in the changed circumstances of George and Fanny. As with Kane the sets that Welles required to be designed and constructed are really impressive and innovatory; some of the ceiling effects late in the film are impressive. Many of the craft people are not credited in the film version. This includes the production design by Albert S. Agostino. Mark Lee Kirk gets a credit as Set Designer, which presumably included the Amberson mansion built with moveable walls to allow long tracking shots in the interiors. The cinematography by Stanley Cortez is excellent, there are Welles typical use of chiaroscuro and long takes: fine tracking shots: and the use of blocking and reflections in windows and mirrors.  But Welles found him too slow compared with Gregg Toland who filmed Citizen Kane and he was dismissed before the end of principal cinematography; a couple of personnel worked on late shots uncredited. The sound team are likewise only partially credited though their work is as impressive as the cinematography; both contributing to the powerful ambience created in the Amberson mansion and the later lodging house.  Wise’s editing is good, allowing for the studio imposed cuts: but the latter replaced a lengthy camera movement for the ball sequence with a number of cuts: and there was some more uncredited editing work. There is no music credit though the surviving music is fine: the score was by Bernard Hermann but his music was also cut down by the studio and replaced in places so he had his name removed from the credits.

George watching and watched by Fanny

The cast are very good. Dolores del Rio really achieves Isabel and Tim Holt makes an excellent George. Richard Bennett is the Major and patriarch. Both Joseph Cotten as Eugene and Anne Baxter as Lucy make fine contributions. And there is an outstanding performance from Agnes Moorehead as Fanny; her late scene after the family collapse is memorable. Another Welles regular, Ray Collins, as Isabel’s brother Jack, brings a slightly caustic note in the decline. But dominating the whole film is the narration of Orson Welles. Unseen but with one of the memorable voices in Hollywood cinema, much of the tone of the film is down to this audio aspect.

The parallels between Welles himself and the Tarkington character are found in his childhood and subsequently as an adult film-maker. Ambersons seemed to many a ‘comeuppance’ for this young, thrusting and egoistical artist; this was especially true in the Hollywood studios. Welles never again enjoyed the control he exercised on Citizen Kane or during the actual production of Ambersons. In the 1970s Welles appeared in a lengthy interview on BBC television. At one point he commented,

I always liked Hollywood but they never reciprocated.

One can see this, not just in Ambersons, but in later projects made in Hollywood studios. The best of these was Touch of Evil (1957) but that film was re-cut and changed. Welles produced a long letter setting out how he had envisaged and filmed the original. In 1998 this was the basis for a restored version which approximates to the vision of Welles. But to date material for a likewise restoration of Ambersons is wanting. Charles Higham in his biography comments finally,

some streak of anti commercialism drove him . . .

I t is true that Welles was more interested in art than in commerce but recognising him as an iconoclast [as does Bogdanovich] is better. He was iconoclastic about the studios: about theatre: many features of genre movies: styles of management: and the dominant political discourse. Successful directors in Hollywood needed to love, or at least fit in with, the box-office, Alfred Hitchcock is a prime example. The ironies in the making of Ambersons in many ways parallel the ironies in the Tarkington original novel and in the film itself.

Higham also recognises Welles artistic talents, his biography is sub-titled ‘The rise and fall of an American Genius’; more accurate would be a ‘US genius’, but Welles achievement in theatre, radio and film do stand out in these arts. But he was a wayward genius. His ego interfered with his work with supporting artists. He often did not give due credit where due credit was due. Stanley Cortez was taken off Ambersons because Welles found his work to slow. But the many of the replacement shots after his exit were poorly executed.

Welles and Cortez

And Welles was overly ambitious. He was always juggling a number of artistic projects; often too many even for his talent Thus in the later stages of the Amberson production Welles was involved in producing, scripting and acting in Journey into Fear (1943): He was producing an unfinished segment [Bonito the Bull] for a planned film It’s All True: preparing for his trip to South America for what was eventually the proposed but unfinished film, It’s All True: a CBS radio series The Lady Esther Show: and politically, with the Pacific war beginning, involved with the Roosevelt government in ideas for the war effort and in addition a campaign to save Soviet diplomats in danger from the Nazis. This also was typical of Welles’ career.

Even so, Welles’ career, and this particular film, stand out in the world of film, radio and theatre. The story of the vicissitudes of The Magnificent Ambersons, told many times in various biographies and studies, is a depressing one. Yet the film that remains is still a fine experience and well worth watching many times. It is some years since I saw a screening on 35mm, its original format. However, the digital facsimiles on the BBC should be of good video quality. And the impressive soundtrack of the movie will be good. A flawed Orson Welles film is still a greater experience than much of the alternative product produced in Hollywood.

The RKO Story: Tales from Hollywood is available on the BBC I-Player for a short period; in a slighty different order from the transmission.

  1. Birth of a Titan

The founding of the Studio as sound arrived and its early days and films: only available until May 22nd

  1. Let’s Face the Music and Dance

The 1930s musicals, mainly Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

  1. A Woman’s Lot

The woman stars, Lucille Ball, Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers

  1. It’s All True

RKO and Orson Welles

  1. Dark Victory

RKO and film noir [including HUAC] and Robert Mitchum

  1. Howard’s Way

Howard Hughes and the studio; and its demise.

Each episode has two classic RKO title accompanying it.

Episode 1 King Kong (1933) and The Thing From Another World (1951)

Episode 2 Bringing Up Baby  (19380 and My Favourite Wife (1940)

Episode 3 Top Hat (1935) and The Gay Divorcee (1934)

Episode 4  Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Episode 5 Suspicion  (1941) and Angel Face (1953)

Episode 6 Not yet listed but the BBC already screened Hughes’ The Outlaw (1943) between episodes.

‘This Is Orson Welles Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich’ (1993) has a detailed breakdown by the editor Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Welles original Ambersons and what remained of this in the studio version.

Sidney Poitier: The Bedford Incident (UK-US 1965)

This film is topical again with NATO again confronting Russia and in danger of starting a nuclear conflict. In terms of its importance in Sidney Poitier’s career, this is a rare example of a film in the 1960s which does not focus on his African American identity in any way. Of course, there may be those in the audience for whom his presence is a surprise in a positive or negative way but that is not the direct concern of the narrative.

Richard Widmark is the driven Captain Finlander

The ‘Bedford’ is a US Navy destroyer equipped with new technologies for submarine hunting and its captain Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark) is a determined hunter. Also on board is Commodore Wolfgang Schrepke of the Deutsche Marine (Eric Portman) who twenty years earlier was an ace U-boat captain. He is an observer for a NATO ally and also an adviser on submarine tactics. At the start of the film a helicopter delivers two extra passengers, a magazine journalist Ben Munceford (Poitier) and a doctor, Lt. Cmdr. Chester Potter (Martin Balsam) who has been in the US Navy Reserve since 1945. The other leading player is Ensign Ralston (James MacArthur), a likeable and talented young man being treated harshly by Finlander who thinks this will make him a better officer. All the action takes place on the destroyer which patrols the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland. Finlander hopes to catch a Soviet submarine in Greenland territorial waters (i.e. in NATO waters). He identifies a ‘mother ship’ (a Russian trawler) and works out that a submarine is not far away and that it is a conventionally powered rather than nuclear vessel, meaning it can’t return to base under the Arctic ice. It may, however, have nuclear torpedoes. Eventually Finlander’s crew detects a submarine within NATO waters. How will the potential contact work out?

The fictitious USS Bedford as a model and a British frigate

I saw this on release in 1965 and it has stayed with me. I’m now intrigued by the production as well as the taut narrative. It wasn’t unusual for Hollywood productions to shoot in the UK during the mid-1960s but usually that meant either a British production with Hollywood backing for a British story or an American film set in the UK. This is an American story set in the North Atlantic with an American cast, apart from the always reliable Eric Portman. Yet the production actually took place at Shepperton Studios with footage at sea shot in the Mediterranean using facilities in Malta. There was model work in the tank at Shepperton and footage of a similar British ship (a frigate) in the Med. The crew was almost entirely British, including Gil Taylor as cinematographer and Arthur Lawson as art director. Lawson worked on many shipboard narrative features. He was a regular on shoots by the Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, including The Battle of the River Plate (UK 1956) which also used Royal Navy ships filmed in the Med to stand in for the (South) Atlantic. The Bedford Incident is very much a film of ‘connections’. The director James B. Harris was mainly a producer (this was one of only five films he directed) and he worked in the UK with Stanley Kubrick on Lolita in 1962. It is said that they fell out over Dr Strangelove (1964), which Harris wanted to be a straight drama. The Bedford Incident might therefore be his anti-nuclear war film. Eric Portman had played at least two Germans before, once as a U-boat Leutnant in 49th Parallel (1941), one of a trio of Powell and Pressburger films in which he featured.

Sidney Poitier as Munceford the journalist

Widmark and Harris were producers on the film with Denis O’Dell as associate producer – I presume that he was the  link to the British crew and creatives. He had also been associate producer on The Long Ships in 1964 which also starred Widmark and Poitier. That film was a UK-Yugoslavia co-production through Warwick Pictures an UK independent with a strong link to Columbia which also distributed The Bedford Incident. Widmark and Poitier were friends, going back to No Way Out (US 1950). A further link between some of the people working on this film was Richard Lester. The film was written by James Poe, an experienced writer on several high profile films, including Lilies of the Field (1963) for which Poitier won the Best Actor Oscar. The original novel of The Bedford Incident was written by Mark Rascovich who in the Second World War had been a flyer across the North Atlantic and in Africa. He did write other books but they were not adapted.

Eric Portman as Commodore Schrepke

The film had a positive reception except for some high-profile critics. It has got a good reputation now, including among navy veterans despite a number of mistakes including a mix of British and American equipment and some outdated terminology. For my purpose here, the central issues are about the Munceford-Finlander relationship and also the extent to which the film tells us something important about the Cold War and subsequent nuclear confrontations. Poitier’s journalist has been described by some critics as a form of liberal intellectual who is intent on challenging and investigating Finlander. We learn that although he is aiming to research a general piece about life on a navy ship, he has specifically asked to visit Finlander’s command. This was after he discovered that Finlander had been passed over for promotion immediately after being feted for his actions in forcing a Russian submarine to surface at the time of the Cuba crisis. The inference is that Finlander is a dangerous ‘hawk’ in his approach to his job. Wikipedia’s detailed analysis of the film suggests that Munceford is similar to the character in The Caine Mutiny who challenges Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) – except that he is more likeable than the Keefe character on the Caine. Widmark apparently based his performance partly on the persona of Barry Goldwater who was seen as a ‘hawk’ at the time of his presidential campaign in 1964. However, there is also the suggestion that Finlander is a modern Captain Ahab hunting his own Moby Dick and there are some whale references in the script.

Martin Balsam is Lt. Cmdr. Chester Potter. The medical orderly in the foreground is played by Donald Sutherland in early role.

This is really Widmark’s film and Poitier does not have as much screen time. I feel he is also a slightly comic character at certain times, clearly not used to life on the ship which is constantly on alert. He is often taking photographs and at one point seems in danger of being swept overboard. Perhaps he is in some ways simply a ‘civilian’ who is too light-hearted for Widmark’s Captain. But this means he is really the audience’s representative on the ship. He is also a determined journalist and an acute observer as well as someone concerned by Finlander’s behaviour. But his character is not the only one challenging Finlander. Both Potter and the German Commodore attack or criticise Finlander – and both have naval experience. Potter might have been a reservist for twenty years and he has returned to service in order to escape something in his personal life, but he is a doctor and an officer and not a rating. He is prepared to stand up to Finlander – but he cannot in the last resort disobey orders. But the most chilling line in the film goes to Commander Schrepke. He gives Finlander good advice and doesn’t attempt to pass criticism directly. When Finlander challenges him and says “Do you think I am a desperate man”, he replies “No. But you frighten me”. I won’t spoil what happens at the end of the film. It is certainly worth waiting for.

The criticism of this film is that it is conventional. It’s true that it is quite a static film and for much of the time it is more like a stage play. Its strength however is that the four leads are all very experienced and capable actors and carry the script through some of the more surprising actions of the captain. The fifth central figure, James MacArthur as Ensign Ralston, has less to say but his actions are significant. Widmark and Poitier work well together but perhaps it is Portman and Balsam who are very strong supports that ensure the the narrative works as a Cold War lesson. The Ukraine War reminds us that we have spent nearly 70 years in a state of nuclear ‘preparedness’ I guess that for some younger audiences this could be quite an eye-opener. The film is highly recommended and it is available on many of the streamers.

Sidney Poitier: A Raisin in the Sun (US 1961)

Ruth (Ruby Dee) and Walter Lee Younger (Sidney Poitier)

I’d known about this film for a long time, but never attempted to see it. I assumed it was a ‘worthy’ filmed play. But when I began to watch as many Sidney Poitier films as possible, I decided to rent the Criterion Blu-ray available on Cinema Paradiso. My assumptions proved misguided at best. I was totally gripped by the film, staying up until 2 am to watch it through. I knew it was of some cultural importance but I didn’t actually know the half of it.

Lorraine Hansberry (from pbs.org)

The original play was written by Lorraine Hansberry and when the production reached Broadway in 1959, she became the youngest, the first African American and only the fifth woman to write a Broadway play. Hansberry died tragically young at the age of only 34 from cancer in 1965. She also provided the inspiration for the Nina Simone song, ‘Young, Gifted and Black’.  What a woman! Her parents were middle-class and it was their experience in moving into a previously all white neighbourhood of Chicago which provided the central idea for the play. The Criterion Blu-ray includes a host of extras, including background on Ms Hansberry.

Lena (Claudia McNeil) wants to grow flowers in her own garden . . .

The production took some time to reach Broadway via openings outside New York and it was a struggle to put on the show – but eventually it found its audience and especially Black theatregoers (though not without dissenting voices). Its success meant that a Hollywood adaptation was inevitable and the rights were acquired by Columbia. The studio were prepared to allow Lorraine Hansberry to adapt her own play, but they weren’t prepared to hire the play’s original African American director Lloyd Richards (who was actually born in Canada as the son of a Jamaican migrant father), claiming he had limited experience of either film or television. At that point he had appeared as an actor on television and as himself in two TV series about the theatre. Instead, Columbia hired the Canadian director Daniel Petrie who had ten years of experience directing dramas, including live plays on US TV, but only one feature film for the cinema (The Bramble Bush in 1960 with Richard Burton and Barbara Rush). Columbia also kept a tight reign on Hansberry. Supposedly worried that the film might be off-putting for white audiences, they barred the use of African American speech patterns and several subjects that Hansberry wanted to broach. Fortunately they didn’t veto the original cast so all the principal players appeared in the film.

. . . no longer only house plants? This MCU shot signifies the power of a cinematoc melodrama

Plot outline

The play features an African American family on Chicago’s South Side. It appears to be a family located on the boundary of working-class/lower middle-class. They live in a rented two bedroom apartment. Father has died and it is his life insurance money that drives the narrative. Mother (Lena) is about to cease full-time work as a domestic servant. Her eldest son is Walter Lee, a chauffeur and her daughter Beneatha is a student hoping to enter medical school. Walter Lee is married to Ruth and they have a son Travis. Walter Lee wants to use at least part of the money to open a bar with two friends. Some of the money should be used to pay Beneatha’s school fees. As the plot develops, it becomes clear that Lena has plans to use the money to put a deposit on a house in a white suburb – the only decent house she can find at the right price. If she goes through with her plan there will be consequences, possibly for Walter Lee and Beneatha. There is also the possibility of a reaction from white residents.

Beneatha (Diana Sands) with her Nigerian boyfriend Joseph Asagai (Ivan Dixon)

The film’s title is taken from the 1951 poem ‘Harlem’ by Langston Hughes:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

The concept of ‘deferred gratification’ is often quoted as marking the difference between working-class and middle-class approaches to life in capitalist societies. In this play, Walter Lee’s aspiration, after working as a chauffeur for many years, is a business venture whereas Beneatha is prepared to give up several years of earnings in the hope of earning a higher salary in future. For Walter Lee, earning money, ‘making money’, is what defines him as a man. For Beneatha it is acquiring learning and culture that will define her. But for Lena it is family that is most important and that means a home in which the family can thrive. These are universal issues but Hansberry’s play also presents the specific context of African American life and weaves the specificities of certain issues into the narrative. The play’s origination in housing issues and specifically the racial segregation experienced, even in the North before the ‘Fair Housing Act’ as part of the 1968 Civil Rights legislation, is one aspect of this. Beneatha has two suitors in the play. George Murchison is a successful business man and an ‘assimilated’ African American. But Beneatha spends more time with Joseph Asagai, a Yoruba student from Nigeria who tries to educate her about Africa (many (most?) African Americans of this era knew little about Africa). Hughes’ poem about a ‘dream deferred’ points to all the problems associated with African American life in the 1950s.

The filmed play

Stage adaptations have long had a bad rap among film critics and scholars and I confess to having avoided them whenever possible. However, in this case I think the adaptation works. The first major issue is whether to ‘open out’ the play in order to make it more ‘cinematic’. This can produce a very artificial sense of shooting an outdoor scene just for the sake of it. Petrie uses three main scenes outside the apartment – Walter Lee seen as a chauffeur at work and again in his local bar meeting his friends and the whole family visiting the house in the suburbs. The first of these is not strictly necessary but the other two add something significant. But the vast majority of the long running time (128 minutes) remains in the apartment. The studio set was designed and lit to enable particular framings and shot compositions. The most notable feature of the camerawork is the use of deep focus. This means that on occasions shots can be organised so that the whole depth of the apartment could be utilised with characters in the foreground, middle ground and background. There is also a number of high angle and low angle shots inside the rooms. The overall effect is not an expressionist style in which the the mise en scène plays an exaggerated role, but a form of realism in which the emotional playing of the actors can be highlighted. Charles Lawton Jr. was an interesting choice as cinematographer. He was a veteran, often associated with Westerns. Two of the directors he worked with were John Ford and Orson Welles, both known for deep focus staging. He had also worked on live TV plays.

Walter Lee responds to African drumming when Beneatha wears an African print

Since the cast were very familiar with the script they were able to approach their roles with confidence and move freely through the set. As well as Sidney Poitier playing Walter Lee and Ruby Dee again playing the Poitier character’s wife on screen, the other two main players were Claudia McNeil as Lena and Diana Sands as Beneatha. I’m not sure if stage productions are less age-specific in casting, but Claudia McNeil was playing much older than her real age – she was only twelve years older than Poitier. All the central performances are excellent. Most reviews of the play and the film acknowledge the standout performance as Poitier’s and argue that it is a play focused primarily on Walter Lee. I didn’t feel this so strongly. I wouldn’t want to put one performance ahead of the others, but as a narrative I thought this was Lena’s story. Perhaps it is because I see it as a family melodrama which in film and television is usually focused on the women.

This composition of Lena and her daughter in deep focus and with Ruth, the daughter-in-law in the background and two mirror images is a familiar family melodrama image

Commentary

This does appear to be a play which is both specific to the African American experience in the 1950s and early 1960s but is also relatable for universal audiences. As I watched it I did think of the so-called ‘kitchen sink’ dramas of the British New Wave including the stage play Look Back in Anger (1959) and the literary adaptation A Kind of Loving (1962). I was also reminded of a Spanish film, Luis García Berlanga’s The Executioner (1963). These may all sound unlikely comparisons but they each explore working-class ‘aspirations’ around more or less the same period. They also each use a similar form of what is now known in Europe as social realism. To be more specific, The Executioner uses a neo-realist idea in that a young man accepts the job of executioner for the Spanish state because it confers access to public housing (he has no desire to execute people but he needs a house for his wife and child and father-in-law). A Raisin in the Sun follows the same neo-realist idea – introduce a simple change to the lives of an ‘ordinary family’ and explore what happens. In this case $10,000 dollars of insurance money, rather than ‘solving’ the family’s problems exposes some of the tensions which lie below the surface of family life in South Chicago.

A ‘Big Close-up’ of Poitier as Walter Lee

Walter Lee with his ‘business partners’ in the bar

I feel that director Petrie, cinematographer Lawton and the whole creative team were able to showcase the emotional performances of the principal players. The images presented in this post (including a selection of screengrabs from dvdbeaver.com) show how a stage play can be adapted effectively for the big screen. Poitier is well served by Petrie. His very physical performance is enhanced by the camerawork and compositions. When I consider how Poitier is presented in this film, I see a distinct change from the 1950s roles in films like No Way Out (1950) and Edge of the City (1957). In those films he still feels trapped within the concept of the ‘good Negro’ but Walter Lee is allowed to be human, to ‘fail’, to be cruel and insensitive and to be shamed by his mother. It is the strength of the characterisation of the three women in his life that makes this possible.

The Criterion website is an excellent resource and carries two useful essays on the film as well as details of the Blu-ray and DVD. If you are going to watch this film, I urge you to consider watching the Criterion disc.

Sidney Poitier: Edge of the City (US 1957)

(from left) Malick (Jack Warden), Tommy (Sidney Poitier and Axel (John Cassavetes)

1957 marked a turning point in American cinema when it was becoming easier for blacklisted personnel in the industry to get jobs and to find sympathetic subjects to work on. Director Martin Ritt began his film career in television but was eventually forced out in the early 1950s after an anti-communist newsletter that accused him of supporting communists in US trade unions. Like Nicholas Ray, his background was the 1930s theatre and the Federal Theatre Project. He was also closely allied to Elia Kazan. After four years back in the theatre world he made Edge of the City as his first cinema feature and looking through the credits of the film I notice several of his creative colleagues are associated with socially conscious films of one kind or another. Ritt himself would go on to have a successful career even though he started relatively late as a director, being nearly 43 when the film was released. His is one of the names I remember from the 1960s because of the progressive subject matter of his films.

Edge of the City presents a story set in the docklands of New York and features John Cassavetes and Sidney Poitier as joint topliners. Axel North (Cassavetes) is a young drifter who blags his way into a job as a stevedore (US: longshoreman) based on a tip he must have received, only to discover that he has been duped and that he has to pay a cut of his wages to gang leader Charlie Malick (Jack Warden). But on his first day he also makes contact with another gang leader, the more friendly Tommy Tyler (Poitier). The two quickly form a bond. Though Axel remains wary, he ends up renting a room close to Tommy’s home. Tommy turns out to be be a ‘good guy’ who introduces Axel to his wife (Ruby Dee in one of her several roles with Poitier) and small son. The couple even find Axel a date with Ellen (Kathleen Maguire) and invite them both to dinner and dancing in a club. Axel is very nervous and by chance an incident threatens to reveal something about his background – we already know he has a difficult relationship with his parents. Gradually he opens up to Tommy.

Lucy Tyler (Ruby Dee) in the foreground with Axel and Ellen Wilson (Kathleen Maguire) who develops a relationship with Axel

The closer Axel and Tommy get, the more we fear that trouble at work will emerge created by a vengeful Malick. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I won’t recount any more of the plot except to say that the work confrontation does provide the climax of the narrative. I want instead to make more general comments. The first is to express some disappointment that we don’t learn too much about the job which appears to be confined to a small area in which boxes and other larger containers are being loaded onto railway freight wagons. The presentation of parts of New York is in line with the general realist work familiar from late 1940s films and 1950s filmed TV series. The jazz-tinged score by Leonard Rosenman is perhaps the marker of a period when black and white features like this used jazz as a sign of modernity. The dancing featured in the film seemed almost free-form to me but I’m no expert on dance at this time.

As my title for this post makes clear, I chose this film because of Poitier. At this point in his career he was mostly playing supporting roles. It would be in the following year with The Defiant Ones (1958) that he would receive joint top billing in a major feature. In Edge of the City, though Poitier had featured in prominent roles in several ‘A’ films, his billing was shared with Cassavetes. Two years younger than Poitier, Cassavetes had many TV credits to his name but only two films, being ‘Introduced’ in 1956 in Don Siegel’s Crime in the Streets. Intrigued by the background of this film I started to research it more deeply. I discovered that it was in effect a remake of a celebrated TV play from 1955 titled A Man is Ten Feet Tall written by Robert Aurthur and directed by Robert Mulligan and Hal Tulchin for ‘The Philco Television Playhouse’. Poitier repeats his role as Tommy Tyler but the rest of the cast for TV was different. I think the TV version was only 60 minutes whereas the film is 85 mins – I’m guessing that the Axel’s back story featuring his parents is one of the extra elements.

Axel watches Tommy and Lucy dance.

Edge of the City is Axel’s story and, though a major presence, Tommy Tyler is a secondary character. In institutional terms Poitier’s career is not moving forward. The role itself does seem to confirm the Poitier persona as a ‘good Negro’ in 1950s terms. But his ‘goodness’ is presented through the way he welcomes Axel and looks after him. In some ways Tommy seems just too welcoming, too friendly. Is he a bit isolated at work himself? Is it that he ‘feels’ Axel’s sense of isolation and that the two of them would both benefit from a strong bond of friendship? We don’t really learn how Tommy came to be a gang-leader. Come to that, we get only brief glimpses of the management of the dock work. I’m tempted to compare Edge of the City to two other features set around the same time. In Flame in the Streets (UK 1961) it is the possibility that a West Indian migrant might become a factory foreman in a London company that causes major problems within the trade union. The film stars Earl Cameron – in some ways the UK’s own Poitier figure, but not so successful. In 1959 Harry Belafonte heads a starry cast in Odds Against Tomorrow, a New York-set crime film with a little of the same feel for New York as Edge of the City. Belafonte had a quite different career compared to Poitier. Perhaps his star image as a popular singer was a major factor in winning him lead roles starting with his second film Otto Preminger’s Carmen (1954)? Belafonte also moved into co-producer and later producer roles, including his 1972 film Buck and the Preacher, directed by Poitier and starring the two of them.

Axel and Tommy need to remain vigilant at work.

The promotion of Edge of the City and much of the writing around the film focuses on Malick’s ‘bigotry’ and in particular his racism. Malick is certainly a bigot and a bully and racism is part of that bigotry. But I’m not sure that institutional racism in terms of employment opportunities on the docks is represented in the film. I’ve seen reviews that suggest that the dock workers are all white except Tommy, but this isn’t true. There must be four or five other black workers but I don’t think they are speaking parts – perhaps their silence is a feature of their secondary status? (See the black worker in the background of the image above.) But Tommy is certainly vocal and in a position of some authority. It does look as if Malick’s gang is whites only, but I can’t be sure. Although I enjoyed the film, I was disappointed that there was no union presence as such and that other workers were prepared to stand back both when Malick was the attacker and when he was losing a fight or an argument. Tommy doesn’t seem to be associated with the other black workers. Edge of the City is not really attempting to copy On The Waterfront as some reviews suggest. Axel is really the protagonist and the narrative is his ‘journey’ towards finding himself and finding the courage to act. Poitier’s character is arguably another ‘good Negro’ teaching whites how to work and live with dignity and purpose – and suffering for it.

Possibly the film is trying to do too much. Axel’s back story is a driving force and is gradually revealed over the course of the film. It means that the potentially interesting characters of  Lucy and Ellen are perhaps not developed as much as they could be. Cassavetes was well on the way to stardom with this film. It seems to have taken longer for Poitier, though in the end he made it all the way to the top and Cassavetes moved into directing independent films with acting as something to help pay the bills. Martin Ritt would work on a range of films deemed ‘liberal’ including other ‘men at work’ pictures and others with black protagonists. He again worked with Sidney Poitier, alongside Paul Newman Joanne Woodward, in Paris Blues (1961) and later with Cicely Tyson as part of a sharecropping family in the South in the 1930s in Sounder (1972). Despite my misgivings Edge of the City is definitely a film worth watching and an interesting step forward for Sidney Poitier.

John Ford #8: Sergeant Rutledge (US 1960)

The ‘noble’ Sergeant Rutledge, seen from a low angle (Screengrab from dvd.beaver.com)

(This post was first published in 2017 before I began a long project aimed at re-assessing the output of John Ford by re-watching and writing about as many of Ford’s films as I could find, numbering the posts as I go.)

Given that John Ford was the most lauded director of the studio era with four Academy Awards and one of the most critically appraised filmmakers during the development of contemporary film studies in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s perhaps surprising that some of his films have not been given more attention. Ford was prolific and ‘independent’. There are a lot of films to choose from, so perhaps that’s the reason, but the more I think about it – and the more I enjoy watching Ford’s films on TV – the more I wonder about how his films have been studied. Sergeant Rutledge certainly deserves more attention.

This 1960 release is unusual in several ways but primarily because it places Woody Strode as the Cavalry Sergeant of the title at the centre of the narrative. As one blogger has pointed out, it gives us an African American character in a courtroom drama accused of the rape and murder of a young white woman a couple of years before the more celebrated To Kill a Mockingbird. For John Ford it marks something of a change in his representation of both African American and Native American characters (though he seemed to slip back again in later films). The Apache in the film generally appear to be ‘authentic’, though the narrative does not give them speaking roles. But at least we are spared the conventional speeches in English. Overall, I don’t think Sergeant Rutledge is ‘coherent’ as it mixes genres and Fordian elements such as casting and acting styles in unusual ways, but this is possibly a good thing. It’s certainly worth investigating.

The film begins with the arrival of Lt. Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter, one of the leading actors in Ford’s 1956 film The Searchers) and  the opening of a military trial in the 1880s when Arizona was still a ‘territory’. As the first witness Mary Beecher (Constance Towers) begins her testimony, we flash back to her return from the East after many years away. She is heading for her father’s remote ranch and on the train she meets Lt. Cantrell who reluctantly drops her off at a lonely railway halt. A band of Apache warriors have broken out of their ‘reservation’ and Mary is rescued from danger by Woody Strode’s Sergeant Rutledge, who appears from the darkness, wounded but still able to attack the two warriors who approach her. We realise that Rutledge was escaping a crime scene and now he has been brought back to the fort where Cantrell is representing him. The rest of the film narrative unfolds through flashbacks as each of the witnesses give statements. At first, we don’t know what Rutledge is supposed to have done and Ford uses the courtroom drama mixed with the suspense story. Gradually the story unfolds and we see that Rutledge is taken into custody but then, along with Mary Beecher, is taken on Cantrell’s mission to return the Apache to their reservation. This then introduces the third genre repertoire of the action stories of the ‘Indian Wars’.

Lt. Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter) with Cpl Krump (Rafer Johnson?) (uncredited)

Woody Strode (1914-94) was a football player and imposing athlete (6’4″) who began to get bit parts in films and then later TV from the early 1940s onwards. By the 1950s he had regular screen work, but mainly in action adventure films, several set in Africa. In 1956 he played the King of Ethiopia in The Ten Commandments. Sergeant Rutledge was his first film for John Ford and one of his first leading roles. He would go on to appear in three more of Ford’s late films followed by other major Westerns (famously in the opening sequence of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)). It is significant that Ford had not used Strode before, especially as Strode had Native American as well as African American ancestry. Because of his imposing physique, Woody Strode would struggle to escape the confines of stereotypical roles. He was both ‘imposing’ and also ‘noble’. It’s worth noting that the other significant Black role in the film, Sgt. Skidmore, is played by Juano Hernandez (1901-70) an actor from a Puerto Rican background who doesn’t have the same physical presence as Woody Strode, but whose credits suggest a more varied range of roles. His first role was in an Oscar Micheaux ‘race’ film (i.e. an all Black cast and intended for a Black audience) in 1932.

The release of Sergeant Rutledge came at a crucial time for the progress of the Civil Rights movement in the US and the possibilities for African American actors. Major stars such as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were still mainly involved in social or crime dramas/melodramas/musicals at this point. It was still unusual to find African American actors in Westerns. In one sense, Sergeant Rutledge was undoubtedly progressive in featuring a ‘Negro troop’ in the 9th Cavalry based on the historical records of two such cavalry regiments (and four, later two, regiments of infantry) in the US Army after 1865. The troop presented a variety of ‘types’ and provided small roles for several uncredited Black actors. This didn’t go far enough for cultural activists but it was a start. Tag Gallagher in John Ford: The Man and His Films (1986) is one of several scholars who repeat the words of Woody Strode quoted in Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington’s John Ford (1975) in which the actor says he will never forget Sergeant Rutledge and how Ford “put classic words in my mouth . . . You never seen a Negro come off a mountain like John Wayne before . . . I carried the whole black race across the river”. Strode is referring to the long sequence in which the Sergeant first escapes and then returns to help the troop under attack.

Sergeant Rutledge was not a commercial success in North America. I’m not sure how the film played in Europe but as with The Searchers, the European film posters shown below are interesting. The French title of The Searchers translated as ‘Prisoner of the Desert’ which always struck me as more acute than the US version. Sergeant Rutledge appeared in two guises, both of which highlighted the Black soldier. One uses the title Le Sergent noir and the other Capitaine Buffalo (this is the Belgian poster with the Flemish title listed as well).

The French poster

The Belgian poster

Captain Buffalo was in fact the working title of the film in Hollywood and the film opens with the Captain Buffalo song. The reference here is to ‘Negro soldiers’ who were known as ‘Buffalo soldiers’. The name is said to have come from the Native Americans who fought Black soldiers in the Indian Wars after 1866. Although the name was commonly used in the US Army, it didn’t circulate quite so widely in the mythology of the Hollywood Western. Although I have been reading and watching Westerns on TV and at the cinema since the 1950s, I don’t think I heard the term until the 1970s and it was really Bob Marley’s song, released in 1983, which popularised the history outside the US. ‘Captain Buffalo’ is an ironic title, referring to Rutledge’s leadership qualities in a troop which was ‘all Negro’ but with a white officer. The French poster is more explicit in its reference to the ‘Black Sergeant’ and both posters announce the controversial elements for a film from 1960 – the Black fist in handcuffs and the frightened white woman seemingly running from the sergeant – depicted in ‘noirish’ lighting. Compare this explicit representation with the UK ‘quad’ poster, which I believe was based on the US poster (UK posters have generally been ‘landscape’ rather than ‘portrait’ shaped).

UK poster

This poster tells us nothing about the story as such. Rutledge is simply ‘a MAN’ and Woody Strode is listed as a secondary star to Billie Burke (who has a minor role as the judge’s wife). The sergeant in the poster has a skin tone very similar to Hunter’s Lt. Cantrell – you have to look closely for signs of ‘blackness’. Why is he shown with unfastened handcuffs? The contrast to the French poster is remarkable. Sergeant Rutledge was a commercial flop despite its similarity to The Searchers in terms of setting. It was based on a novel by James Warner Bellah whose short stories had formed the basis for Ford’s earlier ‘Cavalry trilogy’ of the late 1940s – She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache and Rio Grande. He would also write the screenplay for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the best reviewed of Ford’s later works. Why did Sergeant Rutledge flop? I can’t help feeling that besides the lack of confidence shown by Warner Bros. in their promotional material, the film’s uneasy mixture of drama, suspense and comedy might have created poor ‘word of mouth’. Comedy is nearly always present in Ford’s films but it is usually better integrated in relation to the drama. I wonder too if the film suffers from the lack of a strong central performance from John Wayne or one of Ford’s other familiar leading men. Willis Bouchey as the Colonel and courtroom judge is a good character actor, but doesn’t dominate the group of officers who run the trial. It’s no surprise that the action sequences with Jeffery Hunter and Woody Strode holding the action together work more successfully. It wasn’t until after the screening that I realised that Constance Towers had been in Ford’s previous film The Horse Soldiers, the 1959 cavalry picture set during the Civil War and not written by Bellah. In Sergeant Rutledge she seems to be older (or perhaps more mature) than the young women linked to the young officers in the earlier cavalry films, but on reflection she seems well cast. Later she would appear as the lead in two strong Sam Fuller films, Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964).

As well as a film of its time, indeed of its ‘moment’, Sergeant Rutledge has to be read as a film in the final third of John Ford’s long career. One aspect of this is its role in confirming Ford’s long attachment to the ideals of the American military. It is important that the Rutledge character is finally exonerated by the Army and through the Army’s procedures. It may be the last such film in Ford’s list. The last few films seem to offer evidence of a director being deliberately playful with some of those traditions among groups of men. The second aspect of Sergeant Rutledge is more problematic in representing Ford’s ideas about race and identity. I think the film stands up alongside The Searchers as an attempt to question the attitudes in most Westerns of the 1950s, but I don’t think it’s possible to make any judgements without referring back to Ford’s earlier films about Judge Priest, and especially The Sun Shines Bright (1953) which needs to be a future task. It also requires a return to Two Rode Together (1961) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964), two films which revert to the practice of casting Europeans as Native Americans, while still questioning representations.

John Ford #9: When Willie Comes Marching Home (US 1950)

Bill Kluggs (Dan Dailey) with his parents and the ‘girl next door’, Marge (Colleen Townsend)

At first glance this feels like one of the strangest John Ford titles. There is no recognisable Ford stock company (apart from a brief appearance of Jack Pennick) and you have to dig quite deep to find any crew or creative inputs obviously linked to Ford. It’s a comedy and it includes some musical moments, two familiar Ford traits, and it is set in what seem at first familiar Fordian communities – a small town and then the US military (the Army Air Force). From that basis it is possible to move forward and make sense of the film. Why did Ford make the picture? The late 1940s and early 1950s were very stressful and difficult for John Ford. In industrial terms he was trying to stabilise the position of his production company with Merian C. Cooper, Argosy Pictures. A deal with RKO saw some success with the first two pictures of the Cavalry trilogy. But with Howard Hughes taking over the studio, Ford looked forward to a deal with Republic Pictures, the independent formed by takeovers of several ‘poverty row’ outfits by Herbert J. Yates in 1935. Republic’s most high profile pictures were low budget Westerns (including those of a young John Wayne). Ford’s time working with Yates would have its ups and downs but it did allow him to make The Quiet Man in Ireland in 1952.

In his personal life and his position as a leading member of the Screen Directors’ Guild, Ford was also struggling with how to react to the anti-communist witch hunt led by HUAC. Ward Bond and John Wayne were ‘commie hunters’ whereas Ford most of the time presented himself as a Democrat – at least before the 1960s. How Ford behaved in the late 1940s does not make much sense according to Joseph McBride’s 2001 book, but appears to have been largely self-serving and designed to keep himself free of any restrictions. McBride suggests that Ford was disturbed by a rumour that he was under investigation by the US Army and since he valued his military connections, he sought to distance himself from suggestions that he was anything but ‘patriotic’. When it became difficult to make the pictures he wanted to make Ford tended to look towards 20th Century Fox and Daryl F. Zanuck, even if he and Zanuck didn’t always get along. Perhaps this explains why Ford made a ‘military’ picture at Fox in 1950 and followed it with a documentary in Korea in 1951 and another odd wartime picture What Price Glory in 1952. He made two Westerns for Argosy and his biggest success The Quiet Man at Republic – all six films were released between 1950 and 1952, he was never a slacker!

The farewell at the station . . .

When Willie Comes Marching Home has a central character William ‘Bill’ Kluggs (Dan Dailey), a young man with some musical talent from a respectable lower middle-class family in the small town of Punxatawney, West Virginia. We meet him on a night in December 1941 playing with his band in a local drug store. He can scarcely believe it when his next door neighbour comes rushing in to tell him war with Japan has started. Bill is determined to be the first to enlist. He succeeds and is soon off for basic training. But several months later he is posted back to Punxatawney where a new airfield and base has been constructed. He’s embarrassed when the town throws a party to celebrate his return and to honour him as the first to sign up to fight. But it looks like Bill will never get to fight as a series of events conspire to keep him at the base. The townspeople don’t know why he hasn’t gone to the Pacific or to Europe and his local reputation takes a nosedive. Eventually, in June 1944, another chance event sees him sent to England in a new B17 bomber. This then turns into a crazy adventure in France which elevates him to an absurd heroic status, which the townspeople don’t really believe. What will they make of him when he gets home?

Bill is captured and interrogated by the Maquis. Corinne Calvet plays the maquisard who interviews him.

The film’s script was based on a real incident in the Pacific War involving Sy Gomberg, who started a Hollywood writing career on the basis of this original story (which gained an Oscar nomination). The film won the main prize at Locarno and it proved a modest box office winner with a $1.7 million gross (Ford’s Rio Grande, the third part of his cavalry trilogy, was released in the same year and made $2.25 million). Fox was the second most prolific studio in 1950 and the second biggest box office earner behind MGM in what was a declining market. When Willie Comes Marching Home was a satisfactory production for Fox, so why does it seem a strange Ford picture? First, it is short at just 85 minutes. It seems that a US DVD release includes outtakes that suggest that Fox cut out some of the musical numbers. It has been suggested that the film could have been a rare Ford musical. As it is, the film is mainly a broad comedy with Ford’s familiar comic vignettes extended across the film. Dan Dailey is the only ‘star’ in the film with character actor William Demarest (best known for his work with Preston Sturges) as Bill’s father. The two young female starlets Corinne Calvet (who was French and played a maquisard) and Colleen Townsend (as the ‘girl next door’) are both lively and effective in their roles. The film was photographed by Leo Tover who was an experienced DoP who had worked for Jean Renoir and William Wyler and the music was by Alfred Newman the eldest of the three Newman brothers and the most distinguished. The editor James B. Clark had edited Ford’s Oscar-winning How Green Was My Valley (1941) – for which he was nominated. So Ford had talent at his disposal.

I think Dan Dailey is impressive in the film and I was surprised simply because I hadn’t seen his musical roles for MGM earlier in the 1940s. He is arguably too old: he was 34 when the film was released but is convincing as a younger man. He must have got on with Ford as he was cast in two further Ford army pictures in the 1950s. This does make me wonder, however, if audiences would have expected more musical numbers in this 1950 film and why Fox cut them out? The film looks good and sounds good, although there is a distinct difference between the musical numbers, the comedy sequences and the realist long shot compositions of some of the military sequences. Though the narrative takes Bill to Europe, action in France is represented by sequences shot in California.

Bill meets yet another officer who tells him he must stay in the US to train new recruits.

But what does it all mean? Ford was well known for his wartime work with the Field Photo Unit and with his documentary films about Pearl Harbour and The Battle of Midway (both of which won Oscars) among others. He was not averse to going straight to the top to get what he wanted for these films (he was after all the leading American film director and a senior officer in the Naval Reserve). But he was more interested in supporting the enlisted men, who he later helped through his foundation of what was popularly called the ‘Field Photo Farm’ which provided a refuge for the men he had worked with in the Unit. When Willie Comes Marching Home can be seen as remembering the men who didn’t necessarily fight overseas but who were serving soldiers, flyers and ship’s crew based in North America. The film can also be seen as a satire on the armed forces’ regulations and procedures. Much of the comedy is very broad but some of it works in different ways. As Tag Gallagher points out in his book on Ford, various comic routines are presented in a series of elements. One sees Kluggs approaching a succession of officers in an attempt to get a transfer onto active service overseas. The officer ranks he approaches increase in seniority each time but the result is always the same – a refusal but a promise to recommend Kluggs for a Good Conduct award. He is then promoted each time until he reaches Master Sergeant. Tallagher also usefully observes that the film resembles Ford’s silent and pre-war films with a large cast and often gags that could work without dialogue. Finally we can see the film as a commentary on the bland conservative nature of this small town Middle America (when its West Virginia location made me think of the Judge Priest films or The Prisoner of Shark Island). A Fordian sense of community rests on respect and honour and genuine communal feeling, not the ‘War Fever’ whipped up by propaganda..

I have actually seen the next military picture that Ford made in which Dailey stars alongside James Cagney in a remake of the Raoul Walsh 1926 picture What Price Glory set in France in 1918. Corinne Calvet is the French girl again and William Demarest also returns. I need to watch it again in light of When Willie Comes Marching Home.