This was the second of two ‘B’ Pictures Ida Lupino made at Columbia in early 1939. Director Ben Stollof had become known for comedy short films and then B pictures at RKO. Ida Lupino had already made one film with him in 1937, Fight For Your Lady, when she was loaned out to RKO by Paramount. Now Stollof appeared to be making a film to be ‘presented’ by Columbia. Ida would at least have had some idea of what to expect. She was upset to be working on films like this, a 66 minute ‘gangster comedy’, but she was also grateful for the work after ending her contract at Paramount.
The plot is straightforward. Ida’s character Lila has fallen for Fred Leonard (Lee Bowman) in New York. They have agreed to marry and Lila is to travel ahead to Macklin City where Fred’s mother Hattie is a rich widow and the owner of a bank. Hattie (Fay Bainter, the star of the film) tends to treat each of Fred’s successive girlfriends as a replacement secretary and she sets a bemused Lila to work on her correspondence. But then by chance she discovers that a protection racket is being operated in the city which bizarrely seems to be focused on all the dry-cleaning shops. Hattie is not the kind of woman to take any kind setback lying down and when she is charged a little extra by her dry cleaner to cover his rising costs, she finds out about the protection racket and sets out to fix the problem. The police and the city mayor seem to be powerless so Hattie determines to fight the local gangsters herself. This involves re-visiting one of her previous ‘good deeds’ when she reformed a mobster who is now her loyal helper. Frankie O’Fallon (Warren Hymer) is charged with finding a gang of reformed criminals to act as a ‘counter-mob’, breaking up this new racket.
Hattie is rich and can therefore pay the men and equip them with an arsenal of weaponry and a bullet-proof car. A crime comedy ensues with familiar characters. Fay Bainter (1893-1968) was only in her mid-forties but is dressed almost as a Victorian matriarch. She therefore refers to the familiar figure of the warring granny, the older woman who appears almost as a motherly figure towards the reformed mobster. Jokes can be made about her naïvety but we know that she is much sharper and more resourceful than the average dim-witted hoodlum. Bainter was in fact a distinguished stage actor who had not been long in Hollywood. In 1939 she was still ‘hot’ having achieved the rare accolade of two Academy Award nominations in 1938. One was for Best Actress, playing opposite Claud Rains in White Banners for Warner Bros. She didn’t win for that but she did as Best Supporting Actress for another Warners film, Jezebel – now remembered as a Bette Davis classic directed by William Wyler. Davis won the Oscar for Best Actress. Fay Bainter played ‘Aunt Bessie’ but she was only 15 years older than Davis. There is a story here I think about how Fay Bainter goes from double Oscar nominee to lead in a ‘B’ picture in the space of a year. It was only a temporary setback and she returned to ‘third-billed’ roles in ‘A’ films during the early 1940s. Ironically she would work with Lupino again in 1947 on Ida’s last Warners’ picture The Deep Valley, when Ida Lupino was the star and Fay Bainter was fourth-billed.
In this film, Lupino has little to do apart from point up the antics of Bainter’s character. She does give the film a little sex appeal, at the beginning offering a passionate farewell to her fiancé and later donning a slinky black dress in order to entrap the lead hoodlum in a nightclub. Overall, however, this is perhaps the flimsiest role for Ida that I’ve come across so far. Fortunately, she would soon get the more prestigious role in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes that would give her a stronger promotional platform.
The Lady and the Mob can be found online by searching for the title.
I didn’t take too much notice of the Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson when I first came across them (on TV, I think). I didn’t really approve of updating them to include Nazis and ‘modern’ spies etc. What I didn’t realise was that the first two films were ‘A’ releases with significant budgets made by 20th Century Fox in 1939. Subsequently, Fox allowed their control over the rights to lapse for various reasons and they were taken up by Universal who began to produce a series of ‘B’ pictures with smaller production budgets in 1942. Eventually, Universal made a total of twelve films in which Rathbone and Bruce continued their characterisations up until 1946.
My interest in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is because the film featured Ida Lupino as the female lead. 1939 was a key year for 21 year-old Ida as she appeared in this and Lone Wolf Spy Hunt as well as her breakthrough ‘serious’ ‘A’ picture, The Light That Failed that opened on Christmas Eve. (Her fourth film that year was another Columbia ‘B’ picture, The Lady and the Mob released between Lone Wolf Spy Hunt and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.) See the ‘Ida Lupino Project page‘ on this blog.
The investment in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is evident in several ways. Daryl F. Zanuck, Vice-President of production, appears to have taken a direct role in the production, though what he did exactly isn’t clear. The money is most obvious in the quality of the sets and the camerawork of Leon Shamroy. Shamroy was known for working with minimum lighting and the final chase sequence up the Tower of London is particularly fine. London is fog-bound as the hackney cabs race through the street sets designed by Richard Day and Hans Peters. There is plenty of music in the film credited to several composers and, something of a treat, Holmes in disguise as a music hall entertainer, sings ‘I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside’ (actually not written until a few years after the narrative is set). The script was written by Edward Blum and William A. Drake (who had won an Oscar in 1932 for his script for Grand Hotel). The director Alfred W. Werker was seen as a safe studio director and this was considered one of his best films. Rathbone and Bruce are accomplished as the leads and would eventually become the benchmark for all future pairings. Ida’s part is substantial in terms of screen time and she was third-billed.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes followed The Hound of the Baskervilles, released earlier in 1939 as the second 20th Century Fox Holmes and Watson film. (‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ was originally the title of the first collection of Holmes short stories published in 1892.) The film script was officially adapted from a play by William Gillette and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first staged in 1899 but the the narrative as filmed bears little resemblance to what became a popular play. It revolves around the rivalry between Holmes and Professor Moriarty. As it begins, Moriarty is being acquitted of murder in a London court of 1894 and Holmes is too late to submit new evidence. The two men meet and Moriarty vows to find a way to defeat Holmes by carrying out an audacious criminal act that Holmes will be unable to prevent. This involves Moriarty setting up an elaborate murder plot which will intrigue Holmes and take up his time allowing Moriarty to carry out the ‘crime of the century’. The murder plot is set in train by a cryptic message sent to a pair of siblings whose father was killed on a specific date. The young woman Ann Brandon (Ida Lupino) pleads with Holmes to take on her case and protect her brother. As the plot progresses, Ann becomes the main target for Moriarty’s diversionary attack. Once Holmes realises what Moriarty has done, the chase is on and the film finishes with that climactic chase at the Tower of London sees the end of Moriarty.
William Donati in his biography of Lupino tells us that it was a New York radio performance by Lupino opposite Orson Welles in a ‘Mercury Theatre on the Air’ mystery play which persuaded Twentieth Century Fox to offer her the role of Ann Brandon. Ida had just married the South African actor Louis Hayward and intriguingly The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes featured a cast list made up almost entirely of ‘British Empire actors’. Out of the twenty actors at the head of the cast list, only two weren’t born in the UK, South Africa, Australia or the British West Indies (and one of those was Greek). In this context, Ida was perfectly cast and she had no difficulty playing a young woman in late-Victorian London. 1938-9 was a difficult time for Ida. She had ended her contract with Paramount, deeming the roles she had been offered either by her own studio or on loans to other studios as not developing her career in any way. Instead of seeing her as an actor capable of diverse leading roles she was invariably cast in lower budget films as variations on the floosie or young ‘flighty thing’. Ida’s own response to this was to change her appearance, so out went the ‘painted doll face with the peroxide hair’ and in came a more natural look for a slimmed down Ida. The two Columbia ‘Bs’ she made in late 1938 and early 1939 were her first films for a year. When she finally got a part in a more prestigious pic like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes it was definitely a step up from her perspective.
I enjoyed The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It’s good entertainment, handsomely mounted. Ida Lupino does a good job. True she doesn’t get a chance to really show the range of her talent, but the role is substantial and she matches the other established actors. The film was and remains very popular (it has an IMDb rating of 7.4). It did Ida no harm to be in a major studio production with high production values and from this point on, Ida Lupino moves towards being an ‘A’ List movie star. The next two films she worked on were crucially important.
My Glasgow Film Festival stint this year started with a sparkling DCP of a pre-code classic directed by Dorothy Arzner. This screening launched the festival’s mini-strand of ‘Women Make Film’, designed to complement the 5 part Mark Cousins documentary with that title which is screened this weekend.
Fredric March plays Jerry, a gifted newspaper columnist in Chicago with a drinking problem who meets the heiress Joan Prentice played by a young and beautiful Sylvia Sidney. She doesn’t drink and has an over-protective father who isn’t keen on the relationship. But Joan and Jerry are determined and with the help of Jerry’s drinking buddies they manage to get married and Jerry settles down to write plays. When one is accepted by a producer everything seems to be going too well and, sure enough, problems arise when the leading lady of his play turns out to be an old flame or rather the old flame Claire, played by Adrianne Allen. This character intrigued me as Ms Allen was born in Manchester and may have travelled to the US for this role. She spent most of her later career on the English stage and was at one time married to Raymond Massey and mother to both Daniel and Anna.
Adrianne Allen is not the only British interloper since Cary Grant has an early Hollywood role as the leading man in the play. Claire’s return to Jerry’s life causes him to start drinking again and to alienate Joan. But Joan decides that the only way to respond to Jerry’s drinking and his renewed interest in Claire is to start drinking and partying herself in a ‘modern, open’ marriage. It can’t end well and in fact the ending of the narrative is quite down and realistic even if it still manages some Hollywood conventions.
In his introduction, Alan Hunter filled in some of Dorothy Arzner’s career details. Arzner’s work is not as easily available to view as it should be and GFF has done a good job in making this film available on the big screen. As well as Arzner’s handling of the actors and the choreography of the action, I was impressed by David Abel’s camerawork with its lively feel and use of bold images that reminded me of both German and Soviet cinema of the 1920s. These pre-code films are often much more dynamic than might be expected for still relatively early sound cinema — the technology was developing quickly.
The shock of the film in terms of the coming Production Code is in the realistic representation of drinking culture and the view of a marriage in which the partners openly display their infidelity during social gatherings. Films like this still feel ‘modern’. The code had a damaging effect on adult stories in Hollywood, though it did bring out the ingenuity of filmmakers.
I’ve always enjoyed Fred Astaire pictures, especially the 1930s RKO Pictures films with Ginger Rogers, so I was delighted to discover Carefree on BBC iPlayer. I don’t think I’ve come across the film before and I was taken by its use of psychoanalysis. The set-up is conventional with perpetual cuckold Ralph Bellamy as Stephen Arden approaching his friend Tony Flagg (Astaire), a psychoanalyst, to see if he can help cure Stephen’s fiancée Amanda Cooper (Rogers) of her phobia about marriage.
Unsurprisingly, Tony meets Amanda and they fall for each other. He then tries aversion therapy under anaesthesia and hypnosis to shift Amanda’s attention back to Stephen and this backfires. It’s obvious how all of this is going to work out, but who cares? The joy of these films is primarily in Fred and Ginger’s dancing and there are some terrific sequences here. The songs are by Irving Berlin and I recognised only one tune (‘Change Partners’). The story seems to be that Fred thought one song was such a clunker that he refused to sing it. The ‘Yam Song’ was therefore sung by Ginger and I think Fred was right, which is not a criticism of Ginger’s singing. It’s nice to know Berlin was human and could produce something I didn’t enjoy. All this throws the onus back on Fred’s dance ideas. We get a choreographed routine where he drives golf balls to musical accompaniment. Genius! More spectacular is the dance that follows on from the ‘Yam Song’. It took my breath away because of its sheer physical athleticism as well as grace and beauty.
The plot reads more like a screwball romcom than a musical comedy and I thought immediately of Bringing Up Baby for some scenes, especially with Fred in evening dress and Ginger in a long dress in a country club as substitutes for Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. The screwball element is provided mainly by Ginger being forced out of ‘amnesia therapy’ too soon which results in some crazy driving and playing with a skeet gun – the phallic connotations of which are entertaining in this context. The same sequence also includes an early role for Jack Carson as Fred’s ‘nurse assistant’. The Bringing Up Baby references are partly explained by having Dudley Nichols as a writer on both films which were produced in the same year at RKO. I don’t think the film was as successful as the earlier RKO musicals, but like Bringing Up Baby, I think it looks terrific now.
Carefree has 19 more days on iPlayer in the UK. Here’s a clip in which Amanda can’t admit she’s attracted to Tony so she invents a dream which acts as a kind of critique of psychoanalysis. I love her dress with the heart and arrows.
The 70th Berlinale is presenting an extensive selection of films by this key Hollywood director. The majority of the films are screening from 35mm prints and several are in their original Technicolor format. The silent films will have musical accompaniment provided by Frank Lubet, Maud Nellisen and Richard Seidhof; the latter two provided accompaniments at the 2018 Weimar retrospective. And Kevin Brownlow, who advised on the programme and who was responsible for some of Vidor’s silent films being restored, will be giving an introductory talk.
Vidor was a long-serving and extremely successful director. He started at Mutual Film in 1913 after working as a newsreel cinematographer and cinema projectionist. He made his first feature, The Turn in the Road, in 1919 and in 1922 signed with the Goldwyn Company, later to become the premier studio of M-G-M. He carried on directing features into the 1950s, but made a couple of essay films before he died in 1982.
Vidor had many successes and was nominated five times for the Academy Best Director Award, but was pipped on every occasion by another filmmaker. This was an experience shared by quite few of the outstanding directors working for Hollywood studios. He did receive an Honorary Life-time Achievement Award in 1979. I remember that Charlton Heston once argued in an interview that the nominations for Academy Awards were what really counted as these were made by one’s peers in the industry.
Bud’s Recruit, 1918. This is newly restored two-reeler which was part of a series by ‘Judge Brown’ [not actually a judge], involved in the reformation of boys. This episode is more about youthful patriotism than reformation. Vidor directed a number of these.
The Other Half, 1919. An incomplete five reel film which stared Vidor first wife, Florence. Two soldiers return from World War I; one is a manager at a factory, the other an ordinary worker; and there is conflict over their differing interests.
The Sky Pilot, 1921. This is a new digital restoration of a feature length drama adapted from a novel of the same name. The ‘sky pilot’ is not an aviator; the title is slang for a religious preacher. He arrives in a small Canadian valley where he has to prove his relevance. Some impressive action sequences and the finale is paralleled in a later Vidor western.
The Real Adventure, 1922. Another restoration but still incomplete. Florence Vidor plays a wife who makes a career independently of her husband.
Wine of Youth, 1924. A drama adapted from a play, produced at M-G-M, about a young woman faced with two very different suitors; the film stars Eleanor Boardman, later to grace Vidor master-work, The Crowd.
The Big Parade, 1924. A restored version of the film that made Vidor’s name, one of the great successes of the 1920s. US soldiers join the war in France. It stars John Gilbert and Renée Adorée as his French sweetheart. The film features fine cinematography by John Arnold and Charles Van Enger.
Bardelys the Magnificent USA 1926. Also a restoration and also starring John Gilbert with Eleanor Boardman. A swashbuckler tale from the pen of Rafael Sabatini set at the court of Louis III.
La Boheme, 1926. A version of the famous opera by Puccini,but based on the source novel, ‘Scènes de la vie de bohème’ by Henri Murger. It starred John Gilbert, Renée Adorée and Lillian Gish. The latter star was the dominant person in the production; her status in Hollywood meant she could choose her roles and have a important input into productions.
The Crowd, 1928. This is the outstanding Vidor film of the silent era. The main characters are a young couple, Mary and John Sims, played by Eleanor Boardman and James Murray; the latter relatively unknown. The film was atypical of major Hollywood productions. The narrative, following the couple making their way in 1920s New York, is fairly downbeat. The style, showing the influence of the revered German film industry, mixes actual location with with stylised studio special effects. The cinematography by Henry Sharp is outstanding. The production experimented with a number of different endings, some more downbeat than others. The film was released in two different versions but the ending that remains is ambiguous and is capped with a bravura final camera movement. The film received nominations for what were the first ever Academy Awards.
The Patsy, 1928. The first of three films where Vidor directed Marion Davies, a fine comedienne. She plays the put-upon daughter by her imperious mother and elder sister. But she starts to assert herself. One sequence has Davies doing imitations of Hollywood female stars in order to garner attention; one of her specialities.
Show People, 1928. The film stars Marion Davies, probably at the peak of her career. It follows the rising career of a star struck youngster who goes to Hollywood. Her rise to stardom has a strand of irony regarding the studio town. And the film has a large number of cameos by actual Hollywood stars. The film was released with a synchronised soundtrack of music and sound effects; this the year of the arrival of sound in the industry.
Hallelujah, 1929. This is a milestone film, a drama with an all-black cast. It was also Vidor first sound film, marrying location filming with studio recorded sound. Vidor personally pushed the project. He had grown up in the Southern state of Texas and he wanted to show Negro life as he had observed it. However, M-G-M, relying on white audiences, with screenings and cinemas for black people frequently segregated, was nervous of such a project. This partly explains that the film features negative stereotypes of Negroes in the period. And black audiences mostly had to see the film in segregated auditoriums. The film uses Negro music and spiritual along with dialogue with a real sense of vitality and with some impressive set-pieces. The film was controversial but remains a milestone in the studio output.
Billy the Kid, 1930. This biopic of the frequently filmed outlaw was produced in the early sound aspect ratio of 1.20:1. It was also filmed in a 70mm format ‘Realife’, but no copies of the latter survive. Wallace Beery appears as Pat Garret.
Street Scene, 1931. Adapted from an award winning play the film is in three acts, the opening act almost entirely restricted to one set. Here we see and hear the residents of a block of New York apartments. This is a sort of populist drama of ‘little people’. In acts two and three the settings expand as does the camera work by George Barnes and Gregg Toland, often impressively mobile for early sound. The final act is the most melodramatic. A lead player is the young Sylvia Sydney.
The Champ, 1931. This is a conventionally plotted boxing film, as a fighter, past his prime, attempts to make a come back. Wallace Beery in the title role won the Best Actor Award and Frances Marion, the scriptwriter, won Best Story.
Cynara, 1932. Adapted from a novel, the film is composed mainly of a flashback. A lawyer, played by Ronald Coleman, revisits an affair which ruined both his marriage and his career.
Our Daily Bread, 1934. This was an independent production produced and directed by Vidor. A couple similar to the husband and wife in The Crowd, [John and Mary Sims – Tom Keene and Karen Morley], move to a rural farm during the Great Depression;. The drama focuses on co-operation and the development of a collective. But this is not socialism. The property and leadership of the commune is held by John Sims. And the major threat in the film, alongside the depression, is a city moll out of sync with the collective. The cinematography by Robert Planck and editing by Lloyd Nosler is very fine, especially a bravura sequence where the farmers dig an irrigation ditch.
The Wedding Night, 1935. This film has some parallels with Our Daily Bread but lacks the sense of community. A writer (Gary Cooper) moves back to his rural home in order to produce a novel. This creates problems in his marriage. He also develops a relationship with a young Polish girl, (Anna Sten) and the film has a very strong romantic feel but also a tragic ending.
So Red the Rose, 1935. This is an adaptation of a Civil War novel. Margaret Sullavan leads as a wife who waits on the plantation as the men, [including Randolph Scott], are away at the front. The novel preceded ‘Gone With the Wind’ as this film adaptation preceded that of Margaret Mitchell’s novel. There are numerous parallels but this title is only a third of the length of Selznick’s epic.
The Texas Rangers, 1936. This western has a familiar plot as two ex-outlaws become rangers and have to hunt down their old colleague. Their is also a a complication involving an Apache war party.
Stella Dallas, 1937. This is the second version of a 1920s novel about maternal self-sacrifice. The film has an impressive lead performance by Barbara Stanwyck and a tear-jerking final sequence.
The Citadel, 1938. This was a British production by M-G-M at the Denham Studio . adapted from A. J. Cronin’s novel which follows the attempts of a crusading doctor to fight illness, disease and medical bureaucracy. His battle is first in a Welsh mining town and then in the poorest area of London. Robert Donat was impressive as the idealistic doctor.
Northwest Passage, 1940. Based on a novel of the same name and set in the C18th with wars by the British colonialists against the French and the Indians. The much sought passage is never passed in the film, but is the goal of the an expedition led by Major Robert Rogers (Spencer Tracy) in the never-made second part. The film is fired by the ambition and consequent privations of the expedition which starts out as an attack on Indians/Native Americans, here getting a pretty bad deal by the colonialists and by Hollywood. Vidor’s first film in the new Technicolor process.
Comrade X, 1940. Here the Soviet Union gets the negative representation by Hollywood. The adventure her involves a US correspondent using a pseudonym ‘Comrade X’, and as a romantic interest a Moscow bus conductor (Hedy Lamarr). As in a parallel comedy, Ninotcha, capitalist charm outplays Soviet morality.
H.M. Pulham Esq., 1941. Based on the novel of the same name a married and conservative business man remembers in a flashback an earlier love, Marvin (Hedy Lamar). Later in the film they meet again, but now both are married and have commitments.
An American Romance, 1944. The romance is the rise of a immigrant Stefan (Brian Donlevy) as a steel and aeroplane magnate. Vidor wrote the story aiming at an ‘epic of steel’. The film used a lot of documentary footage of industry and factories. Shot in Technicolor, the studio cut it from 151 minutes to 1121 minutes: Vidor was gutted.
Duel in the Sun 1946. Famously nicknamed ‘Lust in the Dust’. The film had five other directors after Vidor shot the bulk of the film but as an ‘auteur film’ it should be credited to David O. Selznick. It was an adaptation of a western novel. Its explicit content [for the period] led to problems because of the Motion Picture Production Code and objections by religious organisation. The leads are Jennifer Jones as a Mestizo, Pearl, and Gregory Peck as Lewt. Peck gives one of his best performance as a villain rather than a goody. The ending is much discussed and one of the great finales.
The Fountainhead, 1949. Adapted from the novel by Ayn Rand who also scipted the film; demanding that none of her dialogue was altered. Despite the additional tropes of Hollywood movies the film does exemplify Rand’s extreme individualism . The hero, an architect played by Cary Cooper, resists the most powerful pressures to compromise his artistic vision. The added melodrama produces a hot-house feel to the film.
Beyond the Forest, 1949. Adapted from a novel and including noir-like city sequences. The star, Bette Davis, was unimpressed with the film claiming it had “the longest death scene ever seen on the screen”. [Certainly surpassed by Bernardo Bertolucci and John Malkovich]. Davis’s character is the most extreme example of her screen persona, exploiting men and people, though this catches up with her. The studio, for the sake of morally sensitive audiences [and the arbiters of the Motion Picture Production Code] inserted an opening title warning of the ‘evil’ in the story.
Lightning Strikes Twice, 1951. Adapted from a novel ‘A Man Without Friends’. This is a western in which a woman is involved with am a man who is possibly guilty of murder. She is played by Ruth Roman and he by Richard Todd; the latter had starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950) which treats the situation rather differently.
Japanese War Bride, 1952. A Korean veteran marries a Japanese girl and bring her home to California. There she faces prejudice and outright racism. The film’s treatment of the issue caused a stir on release.
Ruby Gentry, 1952. A small town/rural drama. Jennifer Jones is the titular character, ‘born on the wrong side of the tracks’. She suffers from the prejudice of the small-minded attitudes in a southern coastal town. But she also suffers from her passion for Boake Tackman (Charlton Heston), from a local aristocratic family, Boake Tackman. Their relationship rises and falls and ends tragically.
Man Without a Star, 1955. Kirk Douglas plays the titular character in this Technicolor western. As Dempsey Ra he rides into a Wyoming cattle town and then a range war. The conflict is between small holders and a cattle baron. Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crane). At the end Dempsey rides on his way, following ‘no particular star’.
War and Peace, 1956. This handsome adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic novel was filmed in Technicolor and VistaVision. It was an Italian/USA co-production by Ponti-DeLaurentiis. The film mainly follows the plot, condensed, rather than the characters and themes of the novel. However, the leads in the film – Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer – are good. The Battle of Borodino is impressive and Herbert Lom gets the opportunity to play Napoleon.
Solomon and Sheba, 1959. The film was shot in Technirama but also screened in 70mm. Originally Tyrone Power was cast as Solomon and when he died was replaced by Yul Brynner. Gina Lollobrigida played Sheba and had a percentage deal in the film. The plot likely left biblical scholars scratching their heads. And there was at least one risqué scene with Lollobrigida. Biblical epics were popular in this period but this is is not the best example.
Many of Vidor’s films are genre titles. However, even here, in many of them,, there are familiar themes which propose an auteur approach. The themes are not necessarily religious despite his adherence to Christian Science. What does occur frequently are characters who push the physical situation as far as they can; often suggesting a belief in the power of the mental over the physical. He presents both male and female characters driven by some ambition of passion. Vidor was in some senses a populist, making a number of films about ‘little’ or ordinary people and their problems and situations. However, he is generally conservative and collective action is nearly always subservient to leadership.
Vidor used extensive location filming throughout his career, even in period when the Hollywood companies rarely ventured from their studios. And his film offer a skilled use of the moving camera, so that there is generally a strong sense of dynamism and movement. And Vidor usually got involved in the editing of the films, not always the Hollywood way.
Vidor was always looking to work on individually interesting films and produced several. He quietly supported the independent The Plow That Broke the Plain (1936). He frequently worked on the scripts and/or provided the stories. He was also an important influence on the spoliation of directors in the studio system. He was a founding member of the Screen director’s Guild,later the Directors Guild of America.
The Berlinale pages have an overview of Vidor and his films by the staff involved in selecting the programme. It is an extensive selection including all his major films and also a number of minor titles. Some of the films are extremely difficult to see and some have not been seen for a considerable period so this is a great cineastes’ opportunity.
There are plenty of films that feature train journeys, several where the whole narrative takes place on a train, but the number of films that combine an exciting narrative and involve every aspect of railway operation is very small. The Train not only fulfils those criteria but it is also brilliantly performed, photographed and directed. 1964 is around the peak period of ‘Hollywood in Europe’ when American money helped fund films that were both co-produced with European film industries and used European crews and actors. The film is an adaptation of a French memoir, Le front de l’art by Rose Valland. Wikipedia has a useful entry on the story of this remarkable woman. Franklin Cohen and Frank Davis wrote a screenplay loosely based on Valland’s book and several other writers also contributed. IMDb implies that the film may have had a separate French version, presumably dubbed as the dialogue is almost entirely in English with some German, despite the use of French actors.
The narrative deals with the short period in August 1944 when the German command in Paris realised that the Allies would reach the capital within days. Plans were quickly made to send armaments and men back to Germany by train despite the danger posed by Allied air attacks. Colonel Franz Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) has his own plans to send to Germany the stolen artworks he has been guarding in a Paris Museum. Mlle. Millard (Suzanne Flon) who has catalogued all the works informs the Résistance, pleading that the train must be delayed but not damaged. She emphasises the importance of France’s ‘artistic heritage’. The man who has the skills to organise a complex résistance plan is Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster), the Paris ‘yardmaster’ and effective controller of the line. At first he is reluctant to risk the lives of résistance fighters and undercover workers as well as the ‘civilians’ who may be killed in reprisals. But eventually he is convinced by the argument and creates a highly complex plan that will involve dozens of railway workers across Northern France. I won’t spoil the clever tricks played on the German guards on the train.
This is a long film (133 mins) but the energy levels never drop and the film is spectacular in its use of landscape and railway infrastructure and locos etc. As long as younger audiences can get over the fact that it is in black and white and in the European ‘widescreen’ format of 1.66:1, everyone should enjoy the film – remember though that it is a résistance film and there are many deaths as well as victories for the rail workers. Director John Frankenheimer, though he emerged from US TV, initially as an actor, built a career which focused on large scale action pictures – often in a European setting. He also worked with Burt Lancaster on several films. Lancaster himself was a frequent visitor to Europe, making films in the UK and Italy as well as France. Paul Scofield offers a relatively early example of a Brit chosen to portray a Nazi Colonel with arrogance and an obsession about getting these artworks to Berlin. Elsewhere, however, the film offers us the great Michel Simon as an engine-driver close to retirement, Jeanne Moreau (as entrancing as always) as the proprietor of a ‘station hotel’ and Albert Rémy as Labiche’s right-hand man. The film is photographed by Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz and music is by Michel Jarre.
I saw this film on release in 1964 and though I didn’t remember the details of the plot, I do remember the impact it made on me, sitting in the stalls of Blackpool’s cavernous 3,000 seat Odeon. It would be good to see it on the big screen again. Once you’ve seen it, you should also look out for René Clément’s La Bataille du rail (France 1946) which tells the story of the sabotage of the railways by résistance groups in a neo-realist style soon after the events themselves.
In the clip below, Labiche has managed to sabotage the train and halt it, but an Allied air raid is due and his men must paint the roofs of carriages white to warn the bombers not to destroy the paintings.