Without its production context this might appear as a fairly conventional war combat picture except for two factors: its celebration of survival masking a defeat is unusual for an American film and its length at 135 minutes is remarkable (and probably not necessary). Digging into that context, however, it becomes something else. John Ford spent the Second World War as head of the US Navy Field Photography Unit and director of several important documentaries for the US Military, two of which won Academy Awards. This film was his final action as a serving military officer in the Naval Reserve and he felt manipulated into making it at the behest of senior figures in the US Navy. The film was produced by MGM, the major studio with which Ford had most problems it seems. As part of the deal to make it, Ford insisted on an enormous fee, not for himself but as something he could use to set up a home for the veterans of his Field Photography Unit. He duly shot the film between February and June 1945 and it premiered at the end of December 1945. I’ve read the accounts in both the Tag Gallagher and Joseph McBride books on Ford and I still don’t understand what the US Navy’s purpose was. There seems to have been a push to get the film made some two years earlier but even that seems odd to me (and impossible for Ford).
They Were Expendable is an adaptation of a book by William L White, a biographical account of a ‘real’ US Navy officer John Bulkeley who commanded a squadron of Motor Torpedo Boats in the Philippines in 1941 (known in the US as PT boats, though the official designation was MTB). The central character, ‘John Brinkley’ in the film, is played by Robert Montgomery, who had himself been an MTB Captain in the ‘Pacific War’, as it is known in the US and had served under Bulkeley. The film script had several contributors but appears to have been mostly the work of the retired Navy flyer Frank Wead, who would become the subject of John Ford’s 1957 film The Wings of Eagles. The film narrative deals with a squadron of MTBs, a relatively under-rated form of naval power in 1941. In December 1941, Brinkley and his men, particularly his second in command, Lt. ‘Rusty’ Ryan (John Wayne) are disappointed that the Naval Commander in the Philippines doesn’t appear to rate the MTBs as an effective weapon, using them for ‘messaging’ and carrying important personnel. But when the Japanese attack cripples the US Navy in Pearl Harbour, the MTBs are thrust into the defence of the Philippines. Although distinguishing themselves in various conflicts the MTBs and their crews are finally forced to retreat to the last US stronghold in Bataan and Brinkley and Ryan are finally forced to abandon their men under orders, thus the ‘Expendable’ tag for the crews. The whole narrative reminds me of several British films from early in the war which were released as propaganda pictures with the message: “We have survived and we will return”. The turning point of the Second World War is usually taken to be the defence of Stalingrad in the East and the victory of the Second Battle of El Alamein in North Africa in late 1942. At the same time the Americans were leading a North African landing and conducting an offensive in Guadalcanal. If They Were Expendable had been in cinemas around the end of 1942 it would have made sense. When it finally appeared, the American public was thinking about the aftermath of war and the film must have had a different reading. Ford himself is reported to have disowned the film, outraged by interference by MGM executives who recut parts of the film and added music Ford wouldn’t have chosen.
Lindsay Anderson, who met Ford on location in Ireland for the Quiet Man in 1950 and then at Elstree a couple of years later for Mogambo, was astonished by Ford’s view of They Were Expendable. Ford claimed to be ‘horrified’ by the experience of making the film and claimed to have not even watched the final version. Later he sent Anderson a telegram saying that having been persuaded to watch it, he agreed it might have merit, but several years later had reverted to arguing that it was no good. The mystery in this story is that Ford claimed some of his important scenes were cut but also that his intention was to produce a 100 minute film, which suggests that 40 minutes or more of the final film wasn’t intended to make it into the final cut. This is baffling, but Ford often made contradictory remarks, especially to interviewers. In Ford’s eyes, Anderson hadn’t yet made any significant films so he was just a critic/writer (but Ford still seems to have respected Anderson’s view that Expendable was a fine picture).
What is finally evident in the Warner Bros. restored print on the Blu-ray? There is a standout performance by Robert Montgomery. The black and white photography by Joseph H. August is excellent. August was a Lt Commander in Ford’s Photography Unit and had shot a couple of Ford’s pictures in the 1930s. Wayne is relatively subdued but rather petulant as Rusty Ryan, but he has the film’s only romance, with a nurse (an officer of similar rank) played by Donna Reed, also very good. Two other familiar Ford faces are Ward Bond and Jack Pennick and there is an important cameo by Russel Simpson (Pa Joad and other Ford characters) as a boat repairer. It is a recognisable Ford film in many ways. As a war combat film it is effective with exciting action (but probably unlikely action since US Navy torpedoes were not very reliable in 1941) but also a focus on the relationships between Montgomery and Wayne, Wayne and Reed and most importantly, Montgomery and all his crews. There is a reference to General MacArthur in the sequence in which the MTBs carry departing top brass and MacArthur’s famous phrase “We Shall Return” introduces the closing credits. The film was shot mainly in Florida, which is ironic since Ford himself loved the South Pacific. Several commentators refer to it as having a ‘documentary-style’. I think that is pushing it but there is certainly time spent on procedural issues and it is important that ‘verisimilitude’ is a key issue. Ford had spent so much time in different theatres of war and he knew how service personnel behaved, so the film had a sense of truth about many scenes.
This film makes an interesting comparison with The Hill, being another production for MGM-British in 1965, also partially scripted by Ray Rigby with Emeric Pressburger (working under the pseudonym of Richard Imrie) and Derry Quinn. Their work was to adapt an original Italian story by Duilio Coletti and Vittoriano Petrilli. Why an Italian story? It’s simply because this production was instigated by Carlo Ponti who also brought his wife Sophia Loren to the package. MGM-British then added George Peppard (under contract to the studio) as an American star for what would be a prestige production. Ponti was the producer for MGM and the production was based at its Borehamwood studios and used various UK locations. Yet this is a British Second World War story and the director is Michael Anderson, best known in the UK for The Dambusters (UK 1955), arguably the biggest box office war film of the 1950s in the UK (or at least equal to The Cruel Sea (1953)). I remember the film’s release but not its prestige. I now realise that it is part of the pattern of ‘international blockbuster’ films, often produced as Hollywood ‘runaways’ by various producers based in or used to working in Europe. The Heroes of Telemark (UK 1965) is another similar title.
‘Operation Crossbow’ refers to the British and American attempts to attack the German ‘secret super weapon’ programme which produced the V1 and V2 rockets. British Intelligence was very good and a committee of the War Cabinet was formed to deal with the threat, headed by Duncan Sandys, son-in-law of Churchill and Minister of Works. He is played in the film by Richard Johnson and his appointment marks the start of the narrative. Running in parallel are the German attempts to correct a fault in the early production models of the V1 in 1943. The first V1s were launched on London soon after the D-Day landings in June 1944. A galaxy of British star names appear in the film and Sandys finds himself supported by John Mills as a senior Army figure and Maurice Denham as his RAF equivalent. Trevor Howard plays a Government scientist who is sceptical that any such ‘V’ weapons exist. (This character is historical, but seems to be exaggerated. There were other official scientific advisors who were much more positive.) As well as good intelligence, the British also have extensive air photography results and it is via educated guesswork and analysis of photographs that they discover the test site at Peenemünde on the German Baltic coast. Eventually they launch a major bombing raid when V1s begin to arrive over London. However, the film narrative now moves on to the more problematic V2 rocket which is impossible to stop once launched.
The British and Americans attempt to send agents masquerading as engineers into the main V2 development site in Southern Germany. This shifts the genre somewhat from an ‘air warfare’ combat picture to a form of spy film with Tom Courtenay, George Peppard and Jeremy Kemp as multingual scientists/engineers parachuted into Holland. This is a rushed job that means the agents are given the identities of feasible European engineers who are believed to have died, but this will cause problems later on. The agents’ aim is to open the doors protecting the rocket silo in time for a night bomber raid to attack the site effectively. Sophia Loren has a small part as the wife of one of the dead men whose identity has been used by British intelligence. I’m not going to list all the stars (mainly British and German-speaking) involved but this is one of the starriest casts I can remember.
I was quite surprised by the film which turns out to be more historically accurate than I imagined. All the characters appear to be based on real historical figures or are portrayed in a believable way. The film isn’t particularly gung-ho (apart from the climactic scenes) and the Germans are not typecast. All the dialogue in the film is delivered in the appropriate language and subtitled. Naturally I think this was a good idea and I thought it worked well, even if the language spoken by the Brits and George Peppard sounded like they were English students speaking another language for an oral exam. The photography by Erwin Hillier is excellent and there is a rousing Ron Goodwin score. Sophia Loren has only a cameo role and much as I admire and respect her, she is upstaged by Lili Palmer. Nevertheless she presumably attracted international audiences, possibly more so than George Peppard who was a big star in Hollywood at the time but lost that status at the end of the 1960s. Peppard and Jeremy Kemp would be reunited a year later playing First World War German flyers in The Blue Max. Operation Crossbow was shot using Panavision lenses and printed at 2.35:1 ‘Scope ratio. In London’s West End where it played for several weeks the film was projected in a 70mm blow-up and would I think have been impressive. Puzzlingly it doesn’t seem to have made it onto 70mm in the US.
What to make of the film now? Although it received some good reviews, the film failed in the US. In the UK it was reasonably popular, but I don’t know how it fared elsewhere in Europe. The problem appears to be that the attention to detail was appreciated but this also led to a possibly incoherent narrative. It is true that there is a switch from a ‘war combat’ narrative to more of an espionage drama, the two being linked by the scenes of the War Cabinet Committee. Perhaps critics and the general audience stumbled over the locations? The contemporary reviews in Sight & Sound and Monthly Film Bulletin both make mistakes in their synopses and plot details. Even Robert Murphy in his book British Cinema and the Second World War (2000) suggests that the V2 development base is in Holland, but we clearly see the agents entering Germany, complete with a title ‘Empire of Germany’. I do wonder if, because of all the documentaries and publications about the V weapons that have become available over the last 75 years, it is now much easier to follow the film narrative than it was in 1965? Perhaps also the film tries to do too much and as a result misses out key facets of the story? For instance, there is coverage of the V1 attacks on London and the successful anti-aircraft fire which destroyed a significant percentage of the V1s before they reached their target. However, Allied fighter-interceptors downed roughly the same number of V1s but this isn’t shown (far too expensive and technologically difficult?). The V2s couldn’t be stopped but they could be ‘diverted’ from the target towards open country, partly through intelligence directed against German technicians – again this is not mentioned.
To return to my starting point, in comparison with The Hill, Operation Crossbow suffers because of its much more complex historical narrative. It is also focused on the progress of the war, something which The Hill can ignore completely. The Hill has an American director and Operation Crossbow has an American leading man, but both provide evidence of the capabilities of UK-based production at the time which could attract major American names. Operation Crossbow also stands as a good example of the kind of American-funded international production common in the 1960s with the leadership of independent producers such as Carlo Ponti and the participation of a host of European actors. The film is available on BBC iPlayer for around 3 weeks. It’s a shame there is no UK Region 2 DVD, but the Italian and Spanish DVDs are available with the original soundtrack (but I’m not sure what that means in terms of the subtitled sequences). A US Blu-ray is also available and the film can be streamed on YouTube. Operation Crossbow is solid entertainment and worth investigating.
In the clip below Barbara Rütting as test pilot Hannah Reitsch attempts to find out why the V1 is unstable and veers to one side. Reitsch was a historical character who did fly a V1 with a specially constructed cockpit.
This is arguably the simplest possible structure for a documentary about a filmmaker that you could imagine. Brian De Palma (born 1940) sits in front of the camera and talks about his life and his work across six decades. The camera frames him head on and nobody else appears on screen. De Palma introduces clips from, as far as I could see, every one of his feature films as well as several early student films and at least one of his Bruce Springsteen music videos. There are also clips from various films that might have been important influences and some ‘behind the scenes’ footage and stills. I can’t remember if any of the footage is shown in split screen with De Palma’s own work – he was very fond of the split screen. The director proves an engaging raconteur and one blessed with both enough vanity to laud his own efforts and enough humility to recognise the clunkers. You would have to be pretty hard-hearted not to enjoy his tales. He was 75 when the documentary was released and he’s still going.
But what does he tell us and do we learn much about Hollywood? In a generally very positive review the New York Times critic A.O. Scott admits:
Mr. De Palma’s recollections are so vivid and warm that ancient war stories seem fresh. It’s hard for even the most determinedly forward-looking film critic to suppress a twinge of generational envy. Forty years ago, we would have been contemplating Carrie, Jaws and Taxi Driver, with the two Godfather movies in the rearview mirror and Star Wars on the horizon.
Well, I was there and saw all those movies when they were released. I had forgotten the extent to which, at the time, De Palma was so closely associated with Scorsese in particular and the other ‘Movie Brats’. The one De Palma didn’t mention, I think, in reference to the group was William Friedkin, though he does tell us that he soon became fed up of car chases and after The French Connection he thought it had all been done. I watched most Hollywood ‘New Wave’ movies in the early 1970s. For me, Lucas was gone after American Graffiti and Spielberg, though a fantastic technician, holds little interest for me now. De Palma, however, was important alongside Scorsese. Coppola was already involved in studio filmmaking in the 1960s, so my main interest in this documentary was to learn about De Palma’s early forays into New York filmmaking and to be reminded of films like Sisters (1972) and Phantom of the Paradise (1974), a film I’d like to see again. I learned a lot from this section, including which young actors De Palma worked with; Bill Finley, Jennifer Salt and Jill Clayburgh as well as Robert de Niro – who all appeared in The Wedding Party, made in 1963 but not released until 1969. At this time De Palma was effectively being mentored by Wilford Leach. De Palma had been a science major at university so his film training had been through short courses and projects. I realise now that Phantom of the Paradise was the first of his films I’d seen on release in the UK. After that I picked up on Sisters (1972) with Margot Kidder which became a cult film.
I was aware of De Palma’s fascination with Hitchcock and to the specific influences on his work that might be seen as ‘Hitchcockian’. In 1976, however, when I saw Obsession, I had not yet seen Vertigo (which was unavailable in the UK for several years). I remember that I was very impressed by Obsession but unaware of just how close it was to Vertigo, which De Palma had seen as an 18 year-old in New York on its initial release. Jimmie Stewart’s rooftop nightmare is in fact the opening clip of the documentary and De Palma talks about Obsession in some detail. He claims to be the director most influenced by Hitchcock. I can see the influences, but I’m a little surprised that having recognised the impact of seeing early French New Wave films as student filmmaker (he shows clips of Truffaut, Godard and Chabrol films) he doesn’t mention them (and particularly Truffaut and Chabrol) in relation to the Hitchcock influences in their work. And across the rest of the documentary he seems relatively disinterested in what is happening elsewhere outside Hollywood. This is a shame since one intriguing link I picked up was that Jessica Harper, the star of Dario Argento’s Suspiria in 1977 was also a lead in Phantom of the Paradise. I hadn’t made the link because I didn’t see Suspiria until the 1990s.
It’s also interesting that at least one reviewer describes this documentary as similar to the Truffaut-Hitchcock ‘conversations’ that became a book and then the documentary film Hitchcock/Truffaut (US 2015). That film didn’t really grab me and I’m not sure why. De Palma works better for me, possibly because of De Palma’s address to camera. It does make me wonder though what producer-directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow actually did on this film, apart from just letting De Palma ‘go’ and then hiring a good editor. The question about this documentary is why it achieves something beyond the conventional TV documentary which uses clips and strings of anecdotes from talking heads. I note that several critics refer to it as a ‘master class’ by ‘American cinema’s greatest storyteller’ etc. I think that might be over-selling it, but it is true that that De Palma does illustrate and analyse how he achieved the sense of movement and vitality that underpins his features. He is also in a unique position to discuss the emergence of ‘New Hollywood’ in the late 1960s and early 70s – and the difficulties directors like himself encountered with the new ‘corporatised’ Hollywood that developed from the 1980s onwards. I ‘enjoyed’ or was challenged by his films up to the 1980s but I mostly haven’t seen the later films so the final third of the film didn’t hold much interest for me apart from De Palma’s comments on the struggles he faced with studio executives and the frustrations of trying to step outside conventional formats and the “visual clichés” created by working with CGI companies.
The question in 2020, in the era of #MeToo, and debates about representation, is how we should view De Palma’s presentation of his female characters and whether he exploits the women he casts – or provides them with opportunities to drive narratives that have engaged wide audiences, including women as well as men. At one point he tells us that he really enjoys photographing women. He is also quite prepared to ask them to strip for scenes. For Body Double he wanted to cast a well-known porn actress but was foiled by the studio. But the same actress helped Melanie Griffiths prepare for her role in the film. I found the nudity to be an important part of Carrie, a horror film with a real punch and I did find Dressed to Kill to be very effective but disturbing. It would be interesting to know more about what the women in these films thought about them.
Carrie, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible have been on TV in the last few days in primetime slots, suggesting they still have wide appeal. De Palma’s films, at least from the earlier period have held up well, with the proviso that they happened before current debates about abuse of actors began. De Palma’s commentary in this documentary is enjoyable and informative and De Palma is currently on MUBI.
In the story of ‘studio Hollywood’, RKO Radio Pictures has the most tragic role. It’s possibly my favourite studio, but I do find that it is often the most misrepresented of the five majors. Why should that be?
In 1930, often quoted as the year which marked the emergence of the so-called ‘studio system’, RKO was the most recently confirmed major studio and arguably the one with the least prestigious background. Paramount (1912) and MGM (1924) were two of the most established studios, along with Universal (1912) and Columbia (1918). These latter two were ‘mini-majors’ because they were not fully vertically integrated – they lacked cinemas. All the major studios were formed by amalgamating production companies with distribution companies and theatre chains. Warner Bros had taken control of another studio, First National, and the Skouras Brothers Theatre chain in 1929. The fourth major saw Fox (formed in 1915) merging with 20th Century in 1935 to form the major studio that was familiar to cinemagoers for the next 50 years before the sale to Rupert Murdoch and then to Disney. Each of the six companies mentioned in this paragraph had their origins in a film production company established in the 1910s. RKO was a different kind of company.
In 1928 an agreement between the head of RCA (Radio Corporation of America), David Sarnoff, and Joseph Kennedy (father of JFK) of the production/distribution company Film Booking Offices (FBO) established an integrated studio. Kennedy had already assumed control of the Keith-Albee-Orpheum chain of theatres as well as two other small producers, the independent American company Pathé and the Producers Distribution Company headed by Cecil B. DeMille. The overall result of these various mergers and acquisitions was the creation of ‘Radio-Keith-Orpheum’ or RKO Radio Pictures, the fifth major studio.
Everything should have gone well. As the switch to ‘talking pictures’ was taking place, RKO had its own new ‘sound on film’ technology, Photophone, and FBO had some experience of working with sound. The three small production companies each contributed some studio space and facilities in Hollywood and in New York. But there were problems. The other four majors had better production facilities and more experience of making ‘A’ features. Even Universal and Columbia had better production facilities and United Artists, the distribution company founded by Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith in 1919 had the star power and relationships with major independent producers. FBO and the other smaller companies in the newly-created RKO had focused on smaller features and the 1920s equivalent of ‘B’ Westerns. The KAO theatre chain had been developed for vaudeville and now had to be switched over to focus on cinema business. The new studio also lacked a strong studio head with a real feel for the business. Investment decisions and production strategies needed to be sorted out. In October 1931 a series of events saw production come under the control of David O. Selznick who was appointed ‘Vice-President in charge of production’. Selznick was already yearning for his own studio but the challenge at RKO was one he relished and during 1932 he transformed the economics of RKO’s output, making more pictures for less outlay and and also cutting the studio’s overheads. He brought in new talent, including director George Cukor and the young Katherine Hepburn. But the Great Depression was already hitting the studios’ chances of maintaining the profits that the boom years of the introduction of sound had brought. Selznick left in 1933 to return to MGM, the studio with the strongest foundations. He would revisit to RKO to lease facilities on the Culver City studio lot to set up his own Selznick International Pictures in 1935. By 1937 Selznick had taken over the whole of the old RKO-Pathe studio lot. His only interest in RKO would then be as an outlet for his contracted directors and players such as Alfred Hitchcock and Joan Fontaine who in the 1940s would be rented out to RKO for films like Suspicion (1941).
The tragedy is that RKO’s basic flaws were never properly resolved and its potential synergy of radio and film never amounted to much. The studio made some great films and developed some of my favourite stars – Fred and Ginger, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Robert Mitchum. It invited in Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre Company but couldn’t handle him and the losses his productions cost them. It distributed Disney’s pictures and allowed Val Lewton to flourish for a few years. It was the starting point for Nick Ray and a (somewhat difficult) partner for Ida Lupino’s small film company. These latter two relationships were both developed after Howard Hughes took over the company. Hughes had control of the company from 1948 to 1955. In the latter stages of his control, Disney pulled out of its distribution deal and set up its own distribution through a wholly-owned subsidiary Buena Vista. Disney is today the biggest Hollywood brand. Other independent producers also pulled out and Hughes sold his controlling stake to General Tire and Rubber which had been buying radio networks in the US. The sale ironically took RKO back to its roots and the new company became known as RKO Teleradio Pictures. The film business lasted another four years before the studio was finally broken up in 1959. The final crucial act of RKO in film industry terms was the sale of its film library to independent TV stations which meant that by 1956 RKO films were on TV sets across the US at a time when the other studios were still, in public at least, not sharing product with television. In practice they were setting up their own TV production units alongside independents such as Desilu which were buying RKO facilities.
Silver Screen Classics
In 2020, following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, BBC programmers placed a group of RKO films on iPlayer in the UK under the group title of ‘Silver Screen Classics’. Recently they added a second tranche and now there are 38 features from the ‘studio period’ of Hollywood history. Unusually, these films are available for “over a year” – how come? The BBC will usually acquire rights for a set period and/or a specific number of broadcasts, but in this case it appears that these are just some of the titles which the BBC acquired for broadcast ‘in perpetuity’ from the ailing RKO studio in the 1950s. In 1987 the BBC produced a six part documentary series on the history of the studio. I’ve already included some of the BBC titles on this blog and more will follow, time permitting. If you are in the UK you can browse the 38 Silver Screen Classics titles on iPlayer here.
Here is an interesting visual history of RKO from TCM Cinéma, in French but with some wonderful photographs:
Powerhouse/Indicator’s 4 film box-set of ‘Ford at Columbia’ includes this fascinating and rather good title alongside three more from the 1950s, The Long Gray Line (1955), The Last Hurrah (1956) and Gideon’s Day (1957). This post is based on a viewing of a rented Blu-ray from the box-set. Because I haven’t got the whole box-set I haven’t seen the printed booklets that accompany each film, but the Blu-ray carries several useful extras.
The general consensus is that this film is somehow outside John Ford’s usual territory. Sheldon Hall’s presentation on the film entitled ‘A Trip Outside Ford Country’ is included on the disc. It’s true that if we consider Ford’s peak period to be between 1935 and the early 1960s, then this film is certainly ‘outside’. Most of Ford’s films in this peak period are rural, historical, set in small and often military communities. The most common genre is the Western. The Whole Town’s Talking is, by contrast, urban and contemporary and generically it refers to crime/gangster films and comedy, specifically screwball comedy. There are very few of Ford’s familiar actors or crew from the later period and the two stars are Edward G. Robinson and Jean Arthur. Edward G. Robinson hadn’t appeared for Ford before and wouldn’t do so again until close to the end of Ford’s career in 1964’s Cheyenne Autumn. However, Jean Arthur had worked with Ford on two films in the early 1920s, Cameo Kirby in 1923 and The Iron Horse in 1924, in minor roles at the start of her career. By 1935 she had finally established herself as a lead at Columbia. Ford was in 1935 coming off a long period of working mainly for just two studios, Universal in the 1910s and early 1920s and Fox in the later 1920s and early 1930s. Although he had already made dozens of films over a period of 20 years, he didn’t yet have the kind of prestige he would later gain (he won his first Oscar for his next picture, The Informer) and so this one-off at Columbia was likely to see him treated as an honoured guest director, but still one who would have to work within the studio’s usual structures. The point about the earlier work is, however, that Ford had made most kinds of films by this stage and there was no reason to suppose he wouldn’t make a good job of this one. Also during the early 1930s, Ford had worked with the cinematographer Joseph August, so he knew one part of the production was locked down (August and Ford worked together four more times after this film.) The story had been written by W. R. Burnett, famous as the writer of Little Caesar (1931), often quoted as the first ‘gangster’ picture and an early starring role for Edward G. Robinson. Later Burnett would write High Sierra (1941), the film that finally clinched Humphrey Bogart’s leading man status. Columbia must have been confident that Burnett’s story (with a screenplay by the staff writers Robert Riskin and Jo Swerling) would make a profitable picture and therefore brought in not only Ford but also Edward G. who was a contracted player at Warner Bros. Jean Arthur was by now a contract lead player at Columbia and there is some suggestion that her performance in this film encouraged Frank Capra to use her in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936.
As soon as the film begins we experience a glorious tracking shot along the rows of desks in an office. It isn’t on the scale of the famous shot from The Crowd (1928) but in its own way it is just as beautifully choreographed. One of the extras on the Blu-ray is a video essay by Tag Gallagher which analyses much of the camerawork. It’s necessary to set up the office and the first comedy situation as the little man who runs the office becomes faced with a dilemma because the one person who is missing is Arthur F. Jones, the mild-mannered accountant played by Edward G. Robinson. I won’t spoil the gag. Jones is the central character in the narrative, except that he has a doppelgänger, a murderous gangster, ‘Killer’ Manion, who has escaped from prison and is suspected of being somewhere in the city. Inevitably, Jones will get arrested as Manion and then inveigled into a scheme to try to catch the real Manion. It’s a classic comedy, and especially romantic comedy, idea for constructing a narrative. In her role as ‘Miss Clark’, Jean Arthur is the single woman in the office who ‘Jonesy’ (as she calls him) secretly admires. His role as Manion’s double will bring them together.
There is an enormous energy about the film in its crowd scenes, partly because Robinson and Arthur give lively performances and partly because of that strange convention that bedevils Hollywood crime films, causing police to arrive armed to the teeth in busloads and every photographer in the city jostling for space in the press briefing rooms. Ford and August handle all these scenes with aplomb and it’s interesting to see Ford working in this swift kind of screwball comedy. There is some remarkable optical work in doubling Edward G. without the use of digital FX. There are also some nice sight gags including the one above of Ettiene Girardot as Mr Seaver, Jonesy’s boss. I don’t think it’s making fun of a short man to enjoy the difference in height. There is an exciting finale but the weakness in the film for me is a failure to fully exploit the potential of Jean Arthur’s character, i.e. the screwball comedy elements get lost in the mix. (The Blu-ray disc includes an enthusiastic and enjoyable presentation on Jean Arthur’s career by Pam Hutchinson, but unfortunately there isn’t very much about her work on this particular film.) There is a suggestion that aspects of the original story don’t appear in the final cut as there were concerns that they would contravene the newly operational Production Code, so several plot developments take place off-screen (a kidnapping and Manion’s violence in prison). Having said that there is already a great deal squeezed into the film’s running time of 93 minutes. Two bits of IMDb ‘trivia’ are worth mentioning. First there is one of the worst ‘goofs’ I’ve ever seen in a Hollywood feature in which either continuity or the edit team missed the consequences of an action. It drove me mad for a while – Ford did have a reputation for sometimes not worrying about tying up loose ends. The second trivia point is that IMDb claims that this film prompted a Hindi cinema Shah Rukh Khan starrer Duplicate in 1998.
I’ll remember this film for Edward G. Robinson’s dynamic performance, Jean Arthur’s comic chops and Ford’s energetic direction. Oh, and there is another Fordian character with a running gag featuring Donald Meek as a claimant for the reward after he first spots Jonesy as Manion early in the film. Meek appeared in several Ford films, including as the mild-mannered booze salesman in Stagecoach. In retrospect it is a shame Ford didn’t continue with this kind of busy comedy.
I was profoundly moved by this film (currently streaming on MUBI) for many reasons. It’s a film about a mother, a wife and a lover as much as it is about a strong independent woman determined to pursue her art. The two can’t be separated. There is one line in the film spoken by Isabella Rossellini with genuine feeling, when she gives ‘charm’ as the one word to sum up her mother and that struck me quite forcibly. It’s perhaps a strange word to choose about your mother and in other contexts we are often suspicious about celebrities described as ‘having charm’, as if we know this masks other possible less acceptable sides to their personalities. But each of Ingrid Bergman’s four children agree that their mother was always fun to be with and they remember that fondly even though she was absent from their childhood homes for much of the time. When she was there she made it up to them. Her ‘absences’ were mainly to do with work but she was clearly so determined to pursue what she wanted that needing to be close to her children was not something that would stop her.
Bergman’s was a remarkable career, arguably not matched by any other actor. She began, as many Swedish actors of her generation, in drama school and then moved quickly into films with her first credited role in 1935 aged 20. She also got married for the first time in 1936. Her Swedish film career lasted until 1940 by which time she had already repeated one of her roles in Hollywood and from 1941 she quickly became a Hollywood star contracted to David O. Selznick. In a few short years Bergman became a beloved figure in the US before she ‘scandalised’ America in 1949 by moving to Italy to work for and fall in love with Roberto Rossellini, leaving behind her husband and her daughter. Her Rossellini years ended in the mid 1950s by which time she had moved to Paris, making a film for Jean Renoir and eventually re-connecting with Hollywood, mainly on European productions. The last part of her career was spent working out of London.
Ingrid Bergman was a different kind of ‘global film star’. All the stars (and the filmmakers) of classical Hollywood were ‘global’ in the sense that their films were seen everywhere. Several stars had travelled from Europe to America and possibly back – but usually to the same country they had left several years before. But few had made films (and sometimes appeared on stage) in productions in five different languages (Swedish, German, English, Italian and French). It was an extraordinary career. I offer all this as context since this documentary focuses more on Bergman herself and less on the films she appeared in. IMDb lists 55 credits for film and television (around full 40 feature films). I feel slightly distanced from the discussion of Bergman as an actor and star simply because I don’t approach her as a Hollywood star primarily. She herself in the documentary says that the films she made with Rossellini did not appeal to audiences and there is an implication that she herself didn’t like them or value them that much. This is disappointing since it was watching Stromboli (1949) in a BFI preview theatre which first caused me to become interested in Bergman and I’ve come to like the other films with Rossellini as well. This doesn’t mean I don’t necessarily like the American films – I think her playing in Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) remains one of the great viewing pleasures. I’ve also enjoyed Renoir’s Elena et les hommes (1956) and the Swedish June Night (1940).
In formal terms, this ‘bio doc’ might be grouped with the trilogy of similar films by Asif Kapadia which present the stories of Ayrton Senna (2010), Amy Winehouse (2015) and Diego Maradona (2019). As in those stories, the director, Stig Björkman (a celebrated veteran film writer, critic and journalist), has been able to ‘present’ the story of his subject entirely through either Bergman’s own words (recorded in diaries and letters) and images (captured on 16mm) plus archive film and television and the stories of her immediate family and friends. Alicia Vikander, in many ways a contemporary star with a similar career path, reads Bergman’s words from her diaries. The major difference between Björkman’s film and those of Kapadia is that Bergman’s is a much longer story and although it includes ‘media moments’ when she scandalised America, this is only part of the story and not a defining element of the whole. There are other lesser differences as well but overall this quartet represent a popular form of biopic, able to draw upon archive material with seeming authenticity – though of course each film is still written and edited and the choices made still determine how the narrative is likely to be read by the audience.
What emerges from Bergman’s story is a narrative that exposes her difficult childhood and teenage years when she lost her mother at a very early age and then her beloved father. This is then contrasted with her happiness in bearing four beautiful children in the difficult circumstances outlined above (i.e. the divorces and the absences). The film is full of insights and we learn that Ingrid’s remarkable poise and calmness for the camera comes from her early experience of being photographed by her father and this in turn led to her own adoption of a film camera (16mm and colour) to record her own children (she came from a middle-class family and was used to a life with the privileges of travel and nice homes). I’ve seen comments by viewers who claim to be easily bored by ‘home movies’ but I think that Bergman’s camera captures something lively and emotionally powerful. There are more ‘talking head’ ‘witness statements’ in this film than in those of Kapadia, I think (i.e. more statements recorded later). This wasn’t a problem for me and as an aside it seemed to me that more women spoke about working with her. It was interesting to hear Liv Ullman and Sigourney Weaver. I hadn’t realised that there was so much discussion about Bergman’s height (references vary but 5′ 8” to 5′ 9” seems most common) in Hollywood, but Sigourney Weaver explains that it was a relief to meet a female actor who had never been bothered by her height – which in the 1940s was tall for women. Out of all the Hollywood footage the most compelling is the first screen test Bergman had in Hollywood for Selznick, for which the clapperboard says “No Make-Up, No lip gloss”. Ingrid looks young, fresh, vital and very lovely with an immediate warm response to the camera. (See the last shot of the trailer below and the still above.) No wonder they wanted her.
I watched Ava Gardner on screen a few days ago and she was breathtakingly beautiful. Ingrid Bergman was also beautiful but she had something else as well. I’m still not quite sure what it was and it’s interesting that I have appreciated it more as I’ve got older. I’m going to look at her films again. As far as this documentary is concerned I should also report that Michael Nyman’s music is used throughout. Personally I like Nyman’s music but I know he is ‘Marmite’ – with great fans and also those who can’t stand the music. My only gripe about the film is that sometimes Alicia Vikander’s modern American-tinged accent grates. I like Ms Vikander as an actor ver much and I place the blame on the director. I’m sure she could have read the diaries and letters in a style closer to Bergman’s in the 1930s/40s. I’ve emphasised that the documentary doesn’t cover all the films, but even so I was disappointed that there is very little reference to her time in London in the final part of her career and the three pictures she made in the UK.
[Once last point for Keith. This film is listed as 1.78:1 aspect ratio, so the pre-1953 film footage should be Academy and it is, being placed inside the 16:9 frame. But having watched it on both my computer and on the TV screen and then on a recording I made when it was shown on the BBC Imagine . . . series in 2017-18, I noted that sometimes captions which had slid outside the Academy frame were clipped off by masking within the 16:9 frame. I’m not sure how that happened.]