The easy rise of a gang boss from robbery and murder to the whole Northside and the city before him. He still keeps his hand in. The chum of old leaves the gang for a dancing career, and that sets up the final image of the gangster shot through a billboard for the act.
Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times considered Fairbanks “miscast”, but Robinson “wonderfully effective”. Variety, “a swell picture”.
Five Star Final
“I’m not paid for opinions,” says the Evening Gazette editor’s secretary, ten years before Citizen Kane. Question of a publisher’s intentions, “human interest” drives circulation, “politics and tariff stuff is the bunk.” Rumi’s offal, the editor washes his hands all day long but serves it up. “I think you can always get people interested in the crucifixion of a woman,” says the secretary. “LOVE NEST RAIDED”. John Osborne has this sort of thing in The World of Paul Slickey, the Voorhees case (“she shot a man twenty years ago”) comes up again in Dieterle’s I’ll Be Seeing You. “Does it point a moral? It’s a great big wicked city, we can’t be alone.” Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema) insists, “as long as he is not mistaken for a serious artist...” Frankenstein’s monster shows himself a great actor as Isopod. Fuller remembers the newspaper wars in Park Row. The Inquirer’s bulldog goes to press when it hits the stands, the title.
Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times, “’the production races along without a desultory instant.” Variety, “a bit of symbolism inserted in the picture is, for once, a help.” Dave Kehr (Chicago Reader), “long stretches of melodrama.” Tom Milne (Time Out), “Victorian melodrama.” Leonard Maltin, “sometimes falls apart”. Halliwell’s Film Guide, “dated but still powerful melodrama”.
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
Rosenberg’s complete analysis of this as Cool Hand Luke leaves nothing to be said, except to point out some small particularities. Aboard ship, a Texan in the Sunset Division returning home from France remarks, “if anybody says ‘inspection’ to me, he’s gonna be S.O.L.,” an early record of this slang term. At the depot in Lynndale, after James Allen has expressed his idea of a homecoming, LeRoy sets up his shot so that a building is partially obscured in the background, with only the letters “MOOT” visible on its signboard. Hitchcock said to Truffaut, “do you remember, in The Man Who Knew Too Much, there’s a scene in the dentist’s office? At first I had intended to do it in a barbershop, with the hot towels masking the men’s faces. But just before the shooting I saw Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, with Paul Muni, which has a scene just like it. So I transposed it to a dentist’s office, and while I was at it, I changed a few other things I didn’t like.”
The later depot scene, after Allen has escaped and bought a new suit of clothes, is remarkably like The Great Escape.
Gold Diggers of 1933
The story is very ancient, Judah and Tamar, but that is only the basis of an overriding metaphor. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.”
Berkeley’s brilliant inventions are what cinematography can do, and the whole thing goes right into Russell’s The Boy Friend, with the comedy and the rhythmic structure and the superb direction and performances.
Oil for the Lamps of China
The title might be (as will appear) Lamps for the Oil of China. A Cosmopolitan Production, “by Alice Tisdale Hobart,” says the main title. LeRoy goes still further and half-a-dozen times interposes quick shots of the book being read as transitional dissolves, a rare practice significantly remembered by Robert Stevenson in Jane Eyre.
At the opening, you are amidst the cream of the 1935 crop, a series of dissolves takes you into the Atlantis Oil Co. of New York, where an executive is giving a pep talk to the new men sitting in tiers around a Chaplin-sized globe. The ideal, he says, is to bring light to China after centuries of darkness, and this is “the ideal of a man.” Pat O’Brien’s face in close-up tells a whole story in the suggestion of a sigh.
And it’s off to China, with the look of Von Stroheim’s Greed and the feel of Sjöström’s The Wind, for a brittle introductory scene that starts numerous threads running through the film. LeRoy then takes off into an ascending series of episodes that lift the weight of the novelistic apparatus from his delicate theme, the first is set in Yokohama (Teru Shimada is the teahouse proprietor), with a Butterfly effect from the musique de fond, a subtle distinction in O’Brien’s view of the sophisticated Japanese, and a foreglimpse of Huston’s The Night of the Iguana.
Gradually the theme is revealed to be very similar to and almost a prefigurement of Satyajit Ray’s in Company Limited, which may be stated as the power of inspiration in a corporate structure.
Office politics in New York are described as dictating company policy in China. O’Brien’s loyalty is shown in a difficult scene evoked by George Stevens for Penny Serenade. O’Brien’s savoir faire is a natural rapprochement based on study and appreciation of the Chinese and their culture. Josephine Hutchinson rounds out the trinity of thought, “two things matter to a man—the woman he loves and the work he does.”
Even in drought, famine and cholera, O’Brien must fill his quota, but “God was good to us, even if China wasn’t.” O’Brien’s Chinese counterpart Ho says, “the company is to you what my ancestors are to me.” O’Brien tells his wife, “it’s my identity, it’s my work, it’s me!”
The Communist onslaught brings on an amazing gag when a staff car knocks a mule-cart off the road. Tony Gaudio’s lustrous cinematography (he shot The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Letter and The Red Pony, among other notable films) has a few beautiful effects, like Ho racing to the rescue in a rickshaw, floating swiftly through the scene.
Ho is shot down. O’Brien (briefly contemplating a laughing God) rescues the office monies from expropriation and is wounded, without benefit to his prestige. The company’s new regime opposes a tyranny of “the highest bidder” to O’Brien’s recognition of “face and tradition,” and he is passed over for promotion as “not progressive enough for the new regime.” The practice of forcing out senior staff to avoid paying pensions is shown to have been commonplace even then. But, says Hutchinson, “happiness is bought—and we’ve paid for ours.” O’Brien’s invention of a low-cost kerosene lamp given away to the local population has been appropriated by a higher-up, but she reveals the patent is his, and the company president reinstates him as the most qualified man for the job, anyway.
“So you see, honey,” he says, “the company does take care of its own.” “Yes, dear,” she answers.
The New York Times complains that “it presents the Chinese Communist movement as a vulturous gangsterism,” which aside from proving Gore Vidal’s point about the Times (“a bad newspaper”) misses the beauty of Keye Luke’s swift performance as the British-trained Communist officer sent to confiscate company funds. “We’re in a time of social changes,” he says, “and social changes cost money.”
They Won’t Forget
The nominal form is a consideration of the Leo M. Frank case, fictionalized.
The structure has three areas or modes to consider, the first two of which have been noted by reviewers, who all cite Lang’s Fury as a precedent on lynch mobs, some note the analysis of press corruption and political malfeasance without citing the other precedent, Milestone’s The Front Page, these aspects go together.
The main concern, witness the title and the opening quotations from Lincoln and Lee, is a hardening of the Southern mind against the institutions of the North, a war still waging. This has been overlooked by critics, successive films have taken up the rather more obvious themes, LeRoy probably has an eye toward the European situation as he deals with a particular sectionalism in this way.
Between Whale and Bernhardt, between Camille and Anna Karenina, the one about the soldier in France and the girls on the home front, remembered on the day that Britain entered the war against Hitler.
Crowther (New York Times) found no merit in the anecdote, but praised Vivien Leigh’s performance.
The lights going out are famously evoked by LeRoy at the Candlelight Club from Haydn, Pauline Kael’s comment was “the director uses candlelight and rain more effectively than he does the actors” (cited by Halliwell, who describes the film as “lush, all-stops-out”). For Variety, “a persuasive and compelling romantic tragedy.” For Time Out Film Guide, “purest corn, of course.”
LeRoy directs this for the significance of it, rather than to dramatic effect. This accounts for the discrepancy between reviewers then and now.
Cukor is supposed to have been dropped after filming with Paul Lukas, then Hitchcock refused, and LeRoy hired Conrad Veidt. This requires clarification.
Most of the film is handled as described, with a flatness tempered by commentary from a barman or a waiter, until the great café scene initiates LeRoy’s involvement, with a complex camera movement. His two “political policemen” enter the café and question Taylor extensively, and this is the first effect sought by LeRoy after establishing the general uneasiness of a police state. “This isn’t a country, it’s a Coney Island madhouse. A door looks like a door, until you try to walk through it. People look like people, till you try to talk to them, then something squirts in your eye.” The essential characteristic of the situation is the domination of the individual by the state, as revealed in the scene with the police commissioner. The door to his office has three lines elegantly set above the lintel, “One People, One Realm, One Leader”. If questioned on state policy concerning the arrest and murder of a citizen on factitious charges, the commissioner demands to know the source of the questioner’s information.
The second effect was sought in the first place. Nazimova’s coffin is carried in darkness with her inside it still alive, the sequence laying the political police over an image of Poe’s “The Premature Burial “ or “The Fall of the House of Usher”. Cukor’s sequence, which must be the Countess’s palace immediately following (despite Conrad Veidt’s presence), is a beautiful piece of moviemaking that shows the cast and settings to best advantage and removes all doubt as to the abilities of Taylor and Shearer. Mayer probably fired Cukor for just this reason. LeRoy knocks the whole film into a cocked hat. “I’ve had it up to here,” says Taylor, making the salute of the One Leader. There is a monstrous story to be told, he tells it monstrously. René Clément’s Is Paris Burning? has something of the same idea, and the ending is modified to serve in J. Lee Thompson’s The Passage. Kipling is cited. “We meet in an evil land / That is near to the gates of hell.” The title anticipates Casablanca in a way by its secondary reference to the love affair of the Countess and the General.
The second theme of Little Caesar is now a literary one, a third is added from Capra’s The Power of the Press, a more complicated picture emerges of the fix in the big city.
“Lacks purpose” according to T.S. of the New York Times. Variety has “underworld meller”, Tom Milne (Time Out Film Guide) something “nothing can salvage”.
A sublime joke, echoed by Ritt in Stanley & Iris. Shell-shock case meets girl, turns scribbler, gets a position, a taxi runs him over and he remembers himself, lord and master of Random Hall, he takes over the family business with some misgivings and makes a fortune. Why, he even stands for Parliament, with the Liberals, quite forgetting the girl, who’s there all the time.
Another LeRoy film that the greatest experts on all matters pertaining to the cinema, professional film critics, have never understood, and that famously includes James Agee.
Under a spreading chestnut tree
The village Smithy stands.
You, John Jones!
It comes to him forcefully, after a day at the war plant making P-38s, doing his duty as air raid warden of an evening, just exactly what the war means.
A unique and terrible reel of film from the War Activities Committee of the Motion Picture Industry.
Introduction at the Sorbonne. Early lab work. Engagement and marriage.
Becquerel’s photographic work with pitchblende provides the key. Endless refinements later there is radium.
“Every inch a great film” (Variety). “Among the ten best films of the year... a high accomplishment on the screen” (Bosley Crowther, New York Times).
Shakespeare’s incandescence, in Virginia Woolf’s phrase, is certainly evoked.
Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
Raid on a smelting plant, Doolittle, 1942.
The metaphor is marriage, it costs the bridegroom’s leg, his left.
All kinds of problems with the Ruptured Duck, left engine, top turret, interphone.
It sinks just off the China coast.
The pilot always wanted to be an aeronautical engineer, anyway. A masterpiece of the cinema all the way, from Trumbo’s screenplay to LeRoy’s filming.
The House I Live In
“Nazi werewolves” right outside the recording studio get a stern talk from Frank Sinatra, and the title song.
The dull, dreary, appalling toil of war has but one aspect to commend it, a Circean muse, the vision of judgment.
East Side, West Side
The terribly difficult construction of this was entirely lost on Bosley Crowther of the New York Times and therefore “just about hits the low-water mark of interest, intelligence and urgency.” It can most usefully be compared on the dramatic side to Bergman’s Lubitsch comedy A Lesson in Love. One rises in society, it may be, with the years, certainly a famed actress with a daughter married to an investment counselor, who is unfaithful. The actress, played by Gale Sondergaard, is a minor character who appears once to set up the scene at the beginning and once to conclude it at the end, the single most important character after all. Her fascination for the husband is projected onto a love affair that ends fatally, the actress’s contempt is so complete. The daughter leaves him, her love ceases at once. A major psychological problem treated or anyway presented thus far, and Variety did not divine it either. It means nothing in Halliwell’s Film Guide, where Penelope Houston says as much, too.
Nero’s place in history is at the center of a court that includes Seneca and Petronius, Lucan is a guest. They temper his madness with fit judgment and wit, but his venturesome æsthetics (he is a singer of rotten lays) get him carried away into the grand symbol, the objective correlative of Rome’s ruin, philosophized over but made manifest in the burning of Rome for a Neropolis in his own image.
Million Dollar Mermaid
Méliès is directly invoked for the underwater ballets, but the overall image is one devised by Hans Richter and given to Busby Berkeley’s choreography.
It opens with the awful, tragical news that New York’s Hippodrome is a thing of the past. These wastrel times, as if keeping a building were less than constructing it! A sequence of shots follows the credits that unfolded for Ken Russell, François Truffaut and Federico Fellini. The spirit of Charles Dodgson is invoked for the passage down the Thames. 2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick) remembered Kellerman’s first press conference.
Attenborough replicated the Hollywood scenes for Chaplin. Consequences remained for Hockney and Godard.
The little girl with blue eyes and blond hair braided down in two pigtails kills for things she covets or to silence a witness, she has no compunction about it, her death comes on the eve of her next murder, planned for a lady who dotes on her and can’t see through her.
The structure is complicated by considerations of heredity, it’s happened before, but by the time Leroy the janitor is heard screaming behind locked doors in his cellar on fire, let alone the famous bunker ending, the significance of the childish sociopath has been made plain, and yet to one’s utter astonishment even young Truffaut had no idea what it was all about and fulminated like Bosley Crowther of the New York Times and every other critic from that day to this in a very humbling lesson for the profession or to gratify the filmmakers’ wish that the ending not be disclosed.
A complete analysis of Wellman’s Gallant Journey, with the author of Twelve O’Clock High (dir. Henry King) and Strategic Air Command (dir. Anthony Mann).
The title is Ad Inexplorata, Glenn Edwards’ portrait is seen.
Critics such as Bosley Crowther of the New York Times having failed with the earlier film failed with this (Time Out Film Guide, Halliwell’s Film Guide, “humourless flagwaver”, a favourite phrase).
no time for sergeants
There is only one Mervyn LeRoy, no other director would have and could have handled the material so successfully. A number of great films might have been made of it, but none like this, LeRoy having estimated it so justly. A most unexpected service comedy with an A-bomb in it and Cline’s Private Snuffy Smith behind it.
USAF draftees include a Georgia man from the piney woods who upsets the rotten apple cart with his obliging ways so terrifically he wins a medal and a transfer to the infantry, which is what he wants, it’s where the real fighting is done.
It turns into Nichols’ Catch-22 before too long, but nothing is more savage and complete than this all-pervasive satire, it’s even ahead of Stevenson’s The Absent-Minded Professor in the two generals’ momentary hesitation before the medal ceremony, “too many witnesses”.
LeRoy takes his time like a country mule, basks in every moment, invents a new style, pays attention to every detail, minds every minute, lets the thing speak for itself, can hardly believe his good fortune, congratulates everyone, smokes a good cigar and goes to bed, “satisfied with great success”.
The casting is very careful and exact, like the direction and everything else. “The goddamn Air Force”, as Altman would say.
Home Before Dark
It is quite a classic study from Ibsen perhaps, and as a technical point simply shows how from Rebecca or Suspicion one arrives at A Woman under the Influence, though LeRoy’s construction is typically massive and complex to such a degree that criticism as generally practiced is rendered superfluous (Bosley Crowther and Halliwell’s Film Guide found the thing literally meaningless, Variety somewhat less so).
The FBI Story
KKK, land sharks, hoodlums, Nazi spies, Communist spies, an unusual case beginning the mundane lecture to new agents, one combining insurance fraud and mass murder.
The whirlwind of crime, the slow, steady pace of the Bureau.
Crowther of the New York Times was quite averse to this, Variety not so much. Halliwell was bored, the Monthly Film Bulletin is cited by him, “insufferably cosy.”
Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is a steady reference, Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance shortly follows the attack on a small-town newspaper.
Teatime. An allegory of the war, with that famous account of a pogrom at a Jewish children’s clinic.
Weiler of the New York Times could not reconcile it, Time Out Film Guide scoffed.
Nevertheless, one of the great works of the cinema.
The story goes that Stravinsky received a telegram during the run of The Seven Lively Arts in New York, GREAT SUCCESS and all but better with a reorchestration of his ballet, and that he wired back SATISFIED WITH GREAT SUCCESS.
“I can think of only one sure way to clean up in this business, a new series, I’ll take the great sex novels, Lady Chatterley, The Chapman Report, have ‘em rewritten for the ten-to-twelve age group.”
One of the pillars of Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (cp. Manhattan Murder Mystery). The playwright’s riposte to the critics, “well, it’s not uneven.”
Pure LeRoy, the divination of infinite variety across a living room set (and, briefly, dinner at Chez Roberto in “the silliest snowstorm you ever saw... look at those big flakes swirling around, they look so phony”).
“I’m worried about Philadelphia.”
“Well, I guess most people are.” Then there’s the fellow with Frost’s oil lamp you swerve to avoid who warns you to stay off the soft shoulder, “you’ll never get out.”
“Like who, for instance?”
“Like—like Carl Sandburg, for instance!”
“You don’t think Carl Sandburg is beautiful?”
“I want something guaranteed not to improve my mind.”
“Who’s your decorator, Vic Tanny?”
“You heard of The Lost Weekend? Well, this is the found weekend, and it’s worse!”
“You know there’s something very mysterious about your feeling for Mary? It’s like gas, you can’t get it up and you can’t get it down.”
“Oho, there’s a touch o’ the poet in you.”
“You know, if you repress things, eventually you become devious.”
The publisher and the wit, their lawyer, the middle-aged actor and the health food nut. Everything but the kitchen sink and that briefly, too, and the bedroom.
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, “all that happens is that five determined persons exhaust themselves in talk.” Catholic News Service Media Review Office, “director Mervyn LeRoy does little with the static screen proceedings, allowing the play's comic banter to turn into leaden exchanges that throttle the possibility of finding any charm in this sentimental tale of a divorced couple's reunion. ” Craig Butler (All Movie Guide), “a diverting little piece of fluff.” Halliwell’s Film Guide, “feeble... the camera asleep in the stalls.”
Moment to Moment
An answer to Sagan’s Goodbye Again (dir. Anatole Litvak), particularly elegant.
The opening sequence figures handsomely in Chabrol’s La Fieur du mal.
The grace and simplicity are an English virtue, from Hindle Wakes (dir. Maurice Elvey or Arthur Crabtree) to The V.I.P.s (dir. Anthony Asquith).
American artist dead at Cannes, a Navy man, Greek, only a flesh wound, amnesiac, perhaps a jest at Truffaut for one hell of a bad review (The Bad Seed). The statue at Mougins here goes similarly unnoticed, in a way, but there is horse racing, and modern art is a puzzle (Fondation Maeght).
A tour de force for Jean Seberg aping Barbara Rush and Tippi Hedren most marvelously, neck and neck with Honor Blackman as the grass widow next door, Arthur Hill, Sean Garrison, Grégoire Aslan “in the running” so to speak.
Stradling cinematography, Mancini score, Mercer lyrics.
New York Times, “if only Mr. LeRoy had run a tight wire through his handsome production.” Variety, “doesn’t entirely jell”. TV Guide, “standard suspense film”. Craig Butler (All Movie Guide), “a very bad movie.” Halliwell’s Film Guide, “malarkey”.
A particularly elegant analysis in the long run is Cassavetes’ A Woman under the Influence.
The title describes a relationship to Tennessee Williams’ Boom (dir. Joseph Losey).