Red Dust

The surrealistic processes of the screenplay turn a drunken hired hand into a tramp, then a Hudson blueblood married to a nice guy with fever.

This is indicated in the “miracle” of turning liquid rubber on a Cochin-China plantation into crude rubber by means of acetic acid.

Critics were unimpressed or stunned.



In New York, where they believe their own press, this is part of Hollywood’s “self-loathing” and partly incomprehensible (Mordaunt Hall). Everything that is not Lola Burns, there’s a joke, is whims and fancies and fictions, the Latin lover, the great director (shooting retakes of Red Dust for the Hays Office), the adoption racket, the Boston Brahmin poet-lover, the kook outside the studio gates who thinks they’re married, half of it supplied by the publicity man who, wouldn’t you know, gets the girl.

A complete understanding of the trade and the product from a certain point of view, nowadays recognized as a comedy nonpareil.



A tragicomedy of many layers, sharp perspectives and refracted angles.

A snob marries a Broadway star and repents himself to suicide, she’s blamed.

His social set hounded him, his father disapproved. The girl tried to help him, “his unhappiness was too deep.”

A tale of between the wars, sad but true.

This was too fine to perceive, anyway Variety and A.S. of the New York Times found it so. The unendurable comedy, so fast, so polished and so free, ran by before it could be grasped, the snob’s mirror is the star’s act early on, a shipboard fling to Latin America and a bandito who woos and flees.

Right in the middle is the story of an American who was in England once.


Captains Courageous

The story of the earthly abode as a place of work. The Fall of man, the ministry of Christ, the Crucifixion and the Ascension are assembled along lines suggested by Kipling.

The magnate’s son is a chink in the “whole armor of God”, he’s dropped in the drink and fished out by the schooner We’re Here. It dawns upon him what life is, and what else there is. The last of him is on his father’s knee, dory in tow, describing the fish he’s caught.

The shifting metaphor and relations between each structural shift are the classic film technique. Fleming is at pains to show “the seriousness of life” and gradually builds momentum in a gung ho on the Grand Banks that is only a prelude to the race for port. The mast is split, Manuel the fisherman goes to his seat in the dory of Jesus, a wreath is dropped at the same angle as the boy overboard, the father’s wreath adjoins it, stretto and close.

The prismatic construction deals with the actors variously. Freddie Bartholomew and Spencer Tracy are two sculptures in the round, all the rest are relief. The wicked boy is Joan Bennett at her most conniving, his cleverness and genuineness fasten on the wisdom of life reduced to a deck at sea. The Portugee is a recognizable St. Nicholas whose songs swell from his fullness of spirit (the boy is a co-editor of the school paper, his father donated a printing press). The rest are Lionel Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, John Carradine, Charley Grapewin, Mickey Rooney et al.

The calling of the disciple is by way of Tracy’s great aria on Jesus as the great fisherman. The Passion completes the middle, oceangoing section.

The opening has the rich young man at home and school bribing and blackmailing his fellows. By the close he is an apostle.


Test Pilot

The metaphor should be obvious, how many productions see disaster at the birth and later on take many passengers.

The title character and his mechanic take the action from Burbank to Wichita (where the pilot meets his wife, they’re married in Indianapolis) to New York, with a visit to Cleveland for the air races (they don’t go to Sweden with the prize money).

Fleming plays an even game to Cleveland, then it’s all cards on the table ahead of Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings.



The Wizard of Oz

The prologue determines all the events that follow. Dorothy observes that Hunk is accident-prone, Hickory strikes a statuary pose, and Zeke is alarmed at her fall into the pigsty. Upset because Miss Gulch has a grudge against Toto, she runs away and meets Professor Marvel, whom she takes for a mind reader.

When the cyclone knocks her unconscious, she dreams them all as the brainless Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Wicked Witch of the West, and the Wizard (who never really fooled her). The best her wisdom knows is the maxim “there’s no place like home,” which serves to end her dream and affirm the source in the epilogue.

It’s the structure that makes it such a great and influential film. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon, and Bergman’s The Magic Flute all reflect it. Candy is an echo, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has the same structure. Many other films owe a debt, including a number of musicals. Its real pride of place is as the cinematic representation of a dream outrivaling Bu˝uel, Bergman and Polanski (who topped Rosemary’s splendid nightmares by representing sleep itself in Tess). The great precedent is March of the Wooden Soldiers.

Everything in the body of the film actually occurs within Dorothy’s mind and expresses it. You could make a great work of art out of all this, and that would be The Wizard of Oz.

Victor Fleming is not the man to stand for any nonsense (he directed Captains Courageous), which is a singular boon. Where King Vidor in the prologue tracks in, Fleming tracks out over the yellow brick road as Dorothy sets off for Oz. His lateral tracking shots gear up perspectives along that road, characteristically. He knows, most importantly, when it’s enough.

Ray Bolger’s dance is the forerunner of Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘em Laugh” in Singin’ in the Rain. The screenwriters have the funniest jokes around. “How long,” the Cowardly Lion asks the Tin Man, “do you stay fresh in that can?” The lyricist gets into the act, dreaming along with Dorothy. “What put the ape in apricot? Courage!” The Wizard says of the Witch’s death, “Ah, liquidated her, eh?”

The flying monkeys effect a landing on the floor of the sound stage en masse, which is a very remarkable effect, and still more, one of them scoops up Toto and takes off again, filmed at a high angle.

Fleming and Vidor have a great eye for apparitions. The actors are not burdened but inspired by their apparatus, and give superlative performances. Judy Garland, an expert comedienne and dramatic actress, has only to open her mouth and sing “Over the Rainbow” in that aerodynamic voice to power it all.

Vidor’s prologue is a masterpiece in itself. The cyclone is a terrifying combination of debris blown horizontally, the funnel cloud in faux perspective, and windows and doors flying about. A year later Charley Grapewin (Uncle Henry) played Grandpa in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath.

The set designs come from a great tradition devised by the likes of Vincent Korda and Van Nest Polglase, to name a few (the sufficient name is Cedric Gibbons, who supervised forty films that year).


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

This is the decisive work on which Ken Russell’s Altered States is based.

It’s very hard to answer Fleming’s critics because they are all wrong.

The problem set forth in the first scene is Shakespeare’s cakes and ale and ginger, Dr. Jekyll’s formula is meant to bowdlerize them out of existence, Aguecheek and Belch, it makes him a brute.

The fine distinctions drawn all throughout are conveyed in a single close-up of Lana Turner’s gloved hand holding a page of the Times and a letter from home, the textures of the glove and the two kinds of paper are rendered perfectly.

Turner escaped the critics’ notice, Ingrid Bergman nearly as much. Freud seems to have bothered Howard Thompson, he made it out in his New York Times review that the film was “hokum”.

Mr. Hyde combines elements of Bela Lugosi, Cary Grant, and Chico Marx, the sum total of this (as in the ventriloquist’s act of another day) with Spencer Tracy is Ed Begley.

Russell’s theme and Chayefsky’s satire make up a sufficient analysis and homage.


Tortilla Flat

Among his terrible enemies who do nothing but drag him down, a Monterey paisano hurls himself into a passionate crisis and, near death, excites the pity of one who redeems himself, if only for a time.

That’s one happy view of the thing, the structure is more involved, call it the parable of the sower or an allegory of novel-writing, one part ragged devotion to put a golden candlestick on the altar of Saint Francis, one part blind frenzy, one part drunken idleness, “a bit of propaganda for common vagrancy”, Bosley Crowther calls it (New York Times).


Joan of Arc

These notes refer to the butchered studio re-release at two-thirds the original length.

Fleming sees the military engagement above all, a sage impression rendering all the rest superfluous except Joan’s personal sanctity, therefore Dreyer and De Mille have been taken into account.

The curious dramatic point is Mosaic, Joan charges the enemy “not as Your messenger”, without benefit of her voices, and is captured, this rather than submit to the King’s peace, bought for a fortune.