Bachelor Bait

A marriage fantasy based upon the notion of an unmarried city hall clerk servilely dispensing marriage licenses, he lacks “confidence” which is “front”.

Sacked, he founds a profitable matrimonial bureau for saps like himself, so profitable it’s bought and raided on the same day.

Which leaves him all alone in the empty offices vis-à-vis the city hall secretary with a large check burning a hole in his pocket.

Leonard Maltin, “a cute romantic farce.”


Kentucky Kernels

A lovers’ spat, attempted suicide, an orphan who inherits a feud, all a misunderstanding, of course.

Banesville, Ky. The beauteous G.W. (raspberries, light bulbs and a blowtorch to the irascible enemy).

The Great Elmer and Company (Wheeler and Woolsey), magicians.

“Seems destined to be applauded most heartily by the 10-year-olds in the audience” (from F.S.N. of the New York Times, mere Gotham windage).


The Nitwits

The curious rhyme sought in vain by a mad tunesmith is “yes we have no oranges, / glad to see me aren’t yuz”, naturally, anyway the royalties aren’t forthcoming on a big hit like “You Opened My Eyes”, therefore it’s no wonder the head of the firm is shot and killed despite the private detective he’d hired to protect him against the Black Widow’s letters demanding money.

Wheeler and Woolsey have a truthtelling gadget and run a cigar counter in the lobby, whence no doubt Hiller’s See No Evil, Hear No Evil.

TV Guide, “too much time is spent on the ins and outs of the music publishing business.”


Swing Time

Certain combinations of director and material have surprising results. Richard Lester and The Beatles, Sam Wood and The Marx Brothers, George Stevens and Astaire-Rogers, all produce vast conceptions rather unexpectedly.

Stevens had three things going for him at this time. He was a cinematographer, and nothing misses his eye here. He creates very important effects with an atmospheric feel by constant attention to his field of vision. Penny and Romero are seen in a long shot against a glittering nightclub background (after what’s gone before, the emotional effect is similar to a dissolve in Richardson’s A Taste of Honey). Astaire opens the mirrored door this scene is actually being reflected in, and there you are. The last shot has Astaire and Rogers singing a duet in front of a window overlooking New York on a wintry day. Just before the last chord, this painted backdrop is suffused with sunlight striking the “buildings” (the Zhivago effect).

The first sixty minutes are one of the most beautiful sustained pieces of inspiration in all of cinema (up to Helen Broderick’s remark to Astaire, “Your petticoat’s showing.”). Astaire does a slow take on this that leads to a fade-out and stems (like much of the film) from Stevens’ work with Laurel & Hardy, whose depth of comic perception is unmatched. Stevens’ third ally is his own art, dealt out with incomparable grace to throw swift light across his unblinking comedy, and remove all traces of dullness from the scenes.

Hence the handful of fadeouts, which simply let the whole film go for a moment, as if to take a deep breath. Because the rest of Swing Time is as wonderful as the first act, but in different keys (note how the incredibly funny treatment of the material negotiates an easygoing performance of the songs).

Astaire’s tribute to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson is a great study, a brilliant number, an original film idea, and as good as anything at M-G-M.

That opening follows Astaire from a stage number to getting his pants pulled down to landing on his act in a dancing school to getting his pants removed a second time. Somewhere in the middle you get the unsurpassable Victor Moore in the scene with the tailor.

Swing Time is ahead of its time so far it almost seems out of time. That’s Stevens’ fourth dimension, a sense of the cinema like music in its appreciation of time passing. And then, Jerome Kern, Van Nest Polglase, and all the writers take some of the credit, too.


A Damsel in Distress

The circumstances of Anglo-American relations between the wars. The betting is on in the great house, a certain Reggie is the favourite.

A Scotsman of yore, Leonard of the loverly leap, looms large.

Our Yank and his PR staff do a little Shakespearean brushing up, the Coney Island of love is a thing of aplomb, Burns and Allen are as straightfaced and daffy as anything in Blighty, and there you are.

Academy Award, Hermes Pan.

“And those Gershwin songs” (Variety).

“Hardly suited to the spontaneous glories of the 30s musical” (Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader).

“A bit on the twee side” (Tom Milne, Time Out) “with its Wodehouse plot and mock Englishisms, the result would be questionable...”


Gunga Din

The poet Rudyard Kipling rides out with a British regiment that is nearly ambushed, he witnesses an immortal act of bravery and memorializes it.

All the preceding action before the climax is illustrative and pictorial, how the lakes of India hold emeralds for unsuspecting travelers, how the temple of Kali is surmounted with a golden cupola, and then how Gunga Din climbed atop that to warn the regiment.

Which is to say, he is the highest treasure of India, just as Kipling’s poem (so cruelly misunderstood in the New York Times review of Stevens’ film) is one of the treasures of English poetry (the Times furthermore thought the film was “not an adult picture”).

Magill’s Survey of Cinema maintains “it would not do to overanalyze Gunga Din... it is full of a lot of nonsense...” The remakes by Garnett and Sturges are doubtlessly to be considered like Blake Edwards’ supreme entertainment on the theme, The Party, with its greatly appreciative little Apu joke.

McLaglen as Kipling’s Irish sergeant is a sight to behold (all the cast are great, everything about the film is great), would we could have his reading of the deathless line, “Buy a palanquin, ye black scut?”

A film misunderstood even at the time, but very successful in spite of its admirers. Stevens shares the glory with his locations, as later in The Greatest Story Ever Told.



Penny Serenade

To speak only of film directors, every one of them has seen failure at one time or another, and all that entails is exhaustively described in this film, which represents the continuation as taking up art yet again.

At first, the artist finds himself unknowingly amid a terribly rigid culture that falls apart at his touch (Japan, the earthquake). The complicated reasons for his failure (the local newspaper) are rather obscure, but how many films of the highest value have had their light fluffed out on release by some silly misapprehension, only to manifest later as masterpieces?

It doesn’t happen that often, but less infrequently than one would like to admit, perhaps.


Woman of the Year

The authors of this film will brook no nonsense. You may speak of the great world and “the argument of military necessity” (E.E. Cummings), call yourself the father and mother of your country and sleep well, but unless you play ball you’ll sleep alone. Rage (dir. George C. Scott) makes precisely the same point.

It can be said of everyone involved in this production that they were capable of creating it, and that’s enough, though it appears that for once at least the implications may have eluded Franz Waxman, and Stevens is made to dance on his toes by Hepburn’s exquisite abilities as a physical comedienne in the kitchen scene at the end.


The Talk of the Town

A mill owner burns down his own firm for the insurance and claims a night watchman has died (the man is alive in Boston).

A judge is in the owner’s pocket, trial is held for a free-speaking citizen who had assailed the condition of the mill.

An eminent law professor, later named to the Supreme Court, gets to the bottom of it.

Stevens’ excessive symbolism, if you call it that, is the symbol of his virtuosity, he handles this with a minimum of trouble.

He anticipates right away Mankiewicz’ joke, “everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end,” then about halfway through he introduces the bloodhounds.

The curious structure is an anticipation of The More the Merrier.


The More the Merrier

The greatest comedies count this in their ranks, Stevens’ bureaucratic ramblings in Washington during “the emergency” dealt with on a most practical basis like Beckett’s “sexual hemisphere”.

The film was much admired at the time (Coburn won an Oscar), nowadays one is inclined to disprize the ending, the honeymoon, the point of it all, for no very good reason, no reason at all, strange.

For a film so pointed, it is decades and more ahead of its time, and yet quite common parlance amid Preston Sturges and Laurel & Hardy (and Frank Capra for the ending from It Happened One Night).

The emblem is Coburn in a taxi between McCrea on his right and Arthur on his left, with a cigar in his right hand and a sheaf of papers in his left.

Agee had one of his very worst nights at a screening in this instance. “Every good moment frazzles or drowns,” he incredibly wrote (Halliwell says).


That Justice Be Done

The Nuremberg Trials offer a system of justice applied where none had existed before. The proper conduct of the case is therefore understood to constitute in itself a proper conclusion.

This is distinguished from the standard practice of jurisprudence in locales that had been violated by incursion or by traitors such as Quisling, and from specific instances of atrocity against U.S. military personnel, which are answered by U.S. military tribunals.

A comparison can be drawn between the U.S. Government position in this brief official film and the one presented by Stevens in The Talk of the Town, where it concerns the law.


Nazi Concentration Camps

Legal evidence at the Nuremberg Trials, filmed by Lt. Col. Stevens and his crack team of Hollywood professionals, only a fragment of what they saw.



When it comes to Shane, we have The New Yorker calling it “self-importantly self-conscious,” and Halliwell seconding that purblind notion, and Ebert parading his Freudian psychology, and Arthur Knight bumbling through the “revitalizing visuals” like Neil Armstrong blowing his line (“One small step for a man...”).

Worst of all, the best of all critics (Truffaut and Godard) speak of “superWesterns” and “outright phoniness.” So it’s necessary to say a few words, clumsy, inadequate and downright misleading as they will inevitably prove to be. The modes are pure and simple, location exteriors, day for night, sound stage for the Fourth of July dance. A town of few and isolated buildings, already weatherworn. Its muddy street with puddles of sky recurs in Tom Horn.

The editing allows for long takes sometimes punctuated with camera movement. Shots are rapid and many, to accommodate the multiple perspectives of the characters. Dissolves are inserted at key points in a surreal image that blossoms through the scene, as after Shane and Starrett vanquish Ryker’s gang at Grafton’s general store and saloon, they disappear through the swinging doors away from the camera and then, by dissolve, advance toward it for a second like two pioneers, seated at the front of Starrett’s wagon.

The real interest of the psychology is in the characters and not in any analysis that can be thrust upon them. In a scene of definitive weight, the homesteaders condemn Shane as a coward, and in a glancing scene are revealed to be cowards themselves, while he is nothing of the kind. Stevens develops this theme through to the end, when Shane finally adjures them to stand up.

None of it is new. John Wayne went through it all in Robert N. Bradbury’s Lawless Range. When Henry Huntington bought a Gutenberg Bible for his library, his friends chided him for it, and he admitted that his soul would have been edified as well from “a 10¢ Douay” as from the sumptuous volume. The translator desires not a running crib or pony but the living water wherever he happens to be situated vis-à-vis any original.

Fortunately, to our rescue rides the brilliant analysis provided by Eastwood in Pale Rider. This gives a reading of Shane’s “motivation” opposed, like Shane himself, to Ryker’s slander. The natural psychology of the piece concerns itself with all manner of men and their conditions. Woman speaks in kind, and the child according to its lights. Horses, dogs, participate consciously. Shane’s horse fairly speaks for him in the first scene. Stevens has rendered articulate the terse Western form.

From that very first scene, you can see that Clarence Brown’s The Yearling has come as a revelation, and the essence of the argument is revealed. A stag is drinking at the river, with mountains blue in the distance, as a boy takes careful aim with a rifle that is later shown to be unloaded, and a rider appears...



La Reata. Rise and fall of the Emperador.

The finest display of cinematic technique bar none in certain of its many aspects, the perfection of dissolves (cp. Clayton and Richardson in England) especially (Thompson remembers the house in John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!).

The cinematographic influence on Kubrick is at its highest, adding The Greatest Story Ever Told, fellow cameramen (the pantry figures in The Shining).

The construction is “two by two”, longhorns and The Rare Breed (dir. Andrew V. McLaglen), Texas and Maryland, cattle and oil, Texians and Mexicans, cattle and sheep classically at the last. The death of Angel, the death of Pedro.

Long takes, very static, or rapid intricate cutting, rare intercutting.

The technique exposes J.R. or isolates him.

Academy Award and Directors Guild Award to Stevens.

Bosley Crowther (New York Times), “a heap of a film.” Variety, “an excellent film”. Kevin Thomas (Los Angeles Times), “just too long.” Film4, “a classic Hollywood epic,” a long way from home. Dave Kehr (Chicago Reader), “much of it is awful.” Douglas Pratt (Hollywood Reporter), “a real movie.” Boxoffice, “it overwhelmingly fulfills the promise of its title.” Geoff Andrew (Time Out), “a long yawn.”


The Diary of Anne Frank

Hitchcock is the top critic, he registered every nuance one may well believe and certainly adopted two elements directly in The Birds, these are the shattered attic window (birds are seen flying, sea gulls) and the plea of Anne for Peter van Daan, “he hasn’t done anything.”

Variety admired the “technical perfection” and Otto Frank by Joseph Schildkraut and the rest of it but expressed an opinion, “simply too long”, heeded by the studio, whereas the full-length version with Alfred Newman’s overture and exit music is vital for an understanding.

Crowther lauded the film in the New York Times as a grand failure lacking in “spiritual splendor”, and this he laid at the feet of Millie Perkins as Anne.


The Greatest Story Ever Told

The Greatest Story Ever Told is an exceedingly complex film in an exceedingly complex style, as many critics have borne witness. It so happens that two other directors filmed some scenes, according to report, that were included in the final print, and these will perhaps serve to clarify the style, which in turn reflects the substance.

Owing to the shooting schedule’s demands, Jean Negulesco is said to have directed the Nativity sequence, and David Lean the concurrent one of Herod the Great. Now, it may be that each director’s work can be identified by its style, but perhaps it may be seen that these scenes are also filmed in a utilitarian way, each shot aiming for a single effect, such as Mary lit by a single lamp, or the solidity of Herod’s court. The very characteristic of every shot or sequence directed by Stevens in this film is that it achieves a multiplicity of effect, either within the camera or by editing (and editing may account for these early scenes as well). Stevens’ compositions can be quite bewildering at first, because of the variety of counterpoints he obtains by every means available to him, and there is a study to be made of these means. The simpler the shot, the more rapidly it’s cut, even to montage. It remains to be said here that Negulesco and Lean, if it’s true they shot footage, may have been repaid with a couple of shots (a two-shot of Martha and Mary in their first scene, and a shot of Jesus looking like Lawrence as he arrives outside the tomb of Lazarus).

The complex teaching or dramaturgy of the film is what necessitates this style, as it generates a supple, sturdy rhythm to carry images across scenes, or to allow resonances to develop. Stevens could count on a public well-versed by then in exegesis, it’s sufficient that the two Herods make the gesture of Saul, as the broken rabble of Jerusalem look to a son of David. Herod Antipas has married his brother’s wife, who is Mary Magdalen and the woman taken in adultery, an image of Jerusalem, “who stones the prophets,” and of the woman who is healed.

Lazarus is the young man burdened with riches. The “eye of the needle” is just that or what amounts to the very same thing, the Needle Gate in Jerusalem’s walls, a small night entrance through which a laden beast of burden could not fit. A long shot of his raising shows this, as the tomb is a tiny entrance at the base of a wall of mountains.

Two other films are cited in conjunction. Meet John Doe is suggested when Jesus teaches his first disciples under a low wooden bridge, over which Roman horsemen pass, then two lame men, then a young man who stops to listen, climbs down, stays the night (Roman foot-soldiers pass overhead) and follows them all next day (The Seven Samurai). Earlier, Jesus, Mary & Joseph ride out to Egypt past crucified corpses on either hand lining the road, in a direct homage to Spartacus.

Stevens subscribes to Dreyer’s view of the Roman occupation as decisive. A Roman officer in armor dissolves to old Aram’s unseeing eyes, which shortly Jesus heals by placing his hand upon them, then releasing it. Still, Aram does not see until Lazarus is raised, an event foretold when Peter’s coat is stolen under the bridge, and the apostle repines.

The most arcane teachings are to a certain extent left that way. The agony in the garden suggests Isaac and Abraham, who “was glad to see my day,” and the first line of Psalm 22 (“My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) is spoken from the cross. The psalm is prophetic not only of the Messiah, but of Israel’s situation (verse 20 specifically figures in Pilate’s first scene, for example).

What is it that happens to men? Jesus responds with the Lord’s Prayer. The New Covenant is as unequivocal as the Old, but its ministrations are an infinitely and surprisingly tender mercy. After the raising of Lazarus, Jesus modestly stands at a modest city gate, enters to cheers, rides upon a milk-white ass to the Temple, and casts out the moneychangers, who sell offerings. The Transubstantiation is the universal sacrifice, that of the King of the Jews (who is God) on a Roman cross.

The style is formally articulated according to its lines. At the end of the sequence of images pertaining to adultery, Jesus strides through the crowd to a small dock with his back to the camera, and nets and a boat on either side of him, a Dalian image, and this is echoed immediately in Herod’s court as John the Baptist is put to death, Herod strides through the dark, torchlit halls with his back to the camera, a Dalian variation.

Charlton Heston’s performance as the Baptist is easily one of his finest. The strangeness of his attire (which made Bosley Crowther think of Tarzan) simply expresses the savage condition of Israel in its oppressed and fallen state. All of the actors are required to have technical exactitude in extremely condensed roles. Crowther complains of being distracted by so many stars, but they are there for a reason, and anyway if he had read the opening credits or the press material given him, he wouldn’t have been taken by surprise.

The instrumentality of Jesus’ knitting logic was demonstrated most simply in a little-known series of films by Edward Dew called Jesus, the Christ (with Nelson Leigh). Stevens has a way of isolating an element in the thronging composition, such as Uriah in the synagogue, who hears the command to walk in the light and does so, though he had been lame. Mercy, not vengeance is preached. The torchlit crowd advanced upon by Roman soldiers recite the 23rd Psalm, then “he that hath clean hands” and “the Lord mighty in battle” as they are crushed. Cut to a knock on the door of Peter’s house (interior day). Who’s there, he wants to know. “Me,” says a voice. He berates James the Younger for not identifying himself, and is told, “It was me!”

There is a strange prefigurement of computer-assisted design in the untoward proportions of the stonemasonry at Pilate’s residence and the Sanhedrin (Stevens leaves the idea taken up by Dreyer of a third, “political” Sanhedrin up in the air somewhat). Crowther had the inestimable advantage of seeing The Greatest Story Ever Told in Cinerama at 221 minutes, whereas at least two reels are now missing. He could not see Judas’ motivation, which is exhaustively given here as that of a young fool, after all. “A great leader,” says Judas, “the greatest teacher of all,” but rather too much for him. His suicide by falling into the flames of the sacrificial basin is intercut with the Crucifixion, and the reason for it is that Caiaphas breaks his promise not to do Jesus harm.

Jesus dies as a threat to the Roman order and to Herod’s reign. Blasphemy is not a charge that can be made to stand. Another formal device has a blast of trumpets from Jerusalem’s walls as an answer to the birth of Jesus, the raising of Lazarus, and the Entombment (the last a little more feebly) just before the Resurrection repeats the Hallelujah Chorus (Handel) ended as disciples rush to Jerusalem with the news about Lazarus.

Pilate’s power “comes from above,” but he is seen to have none at all directly when loyalists to the regime and Pharisees clamor against Jesus (quelling his adherents), and rebels call for Barabbas. Satan is played by Donald Pleasence, and has a hand in all this. Crowther remarks the image of the moon in the Temptation scene, a glowing world, “which bears on its face the seeming profile of continents on the earth.”

A certain amount of trouble was given to critics by Stevens filming on location in the American West (it gave him a lot of trouble, too, the story goes), yet Pasolini filmed The Gospel According to Matthew in Italy, and Halliwell calls it cinéma-vérité.

Another Hathaway division of the screen has Pilate in the lower half and statues of Mars, Hercules and Jupiter above him while he despairingly asks, “What is truth?” John Wayne has two shots and one line to express the conquering Galilean.

“God is a spirit, and is to be worshipped in spirit and in truth,” as Jesus tells the Samaritan woman in a scene either not filmed or missing from the currently available print, which gives the final meaning expressed by Jesus’ last words on the cross. His disciples awaken, remember the prophecy, and find the tomb empty. The dispensation of limitless goodness and forgiveness is treated by Stevens at the beginning and ending like Paul on Mars Hill, the camera bringing into view a conventional portrayal of Christ on any church wall, then expounding what this image represents.

The Massacre of the Innocents isn’t enough for Herod the Great, he most fears “the child of imagination” (who is Joseph) as dangerous to his worldly considerations (cf. the white horse in Viva Zapata). Kubrick saw in all of this yet more material for 2001: A Space Odyssey, and used it. The Flight into Egypt is alluded to later by John the Baptist in prison against the cruel hopes of Herod Antipas, in such a way as once again to resonate with an evocation, again of Joseph.

A generally detailed style requires a detailed analysis, of which these notes are a sketch. The genuine difficulty is measured by Crowther, who found a work as vast and subtle as Shane no trouble at all.


The Only Game in Town

The Only Game in Town is a perfect example of a late masterpiece completely ignored by critics even when, as Vincent Canby’s review demonstrates, they claim some knowledge of the earlier work (he assures us that the play by Frank D. Gilroy, with Tammy Grimes and Barry Nelson, who directed it, and Leo Genn as the divorcé, was a “Broadway flop”).

A Las Vegas dancer kept on the string by a married businessman falls in love with a cocktail pianist. It’s pure George Stevens material. The virtuoso part is given to Warren Beatty, voluble and witty. Balancing this are the emotional reserves of the girl, who is played by Elizabeth Taylor. The unusual third part is unusually cast with an unfamiliar actor, Charles Braswell.

The playwright has supplied a very funny screenplay articulated dramatically for the love affair, the actors are put to proof under Stevens’ direction, which is centrally a study of color filming by natural light (a room lamp in the apartment, for example, or light streaming in through the windows at various times of day). These are two of the finest performances in the cinema, the third is as well-played as it could be.

Everything Stevens knows is in the film, and some things that are surprisingly new.

The lover’s penchant for gambling is set off by his elation, on his own he loses everything. Later, with an old lady to haunt him at the tables, he loses it all again but wins it back and then some by taking the dice himself rather than betting on every shooter to win. And the only game in town is marriage.

The girl, who is a little like Kim Novak in Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm, has a lot to deal with.

The businessman’s surprise visit with a long-promised divorce decree as a wedding gift before a honeymoon in Europe and “anywhere you want to go” ends with him walking out as equably as he came in. It’s quite a fresh reading of the role taken by Fred MacMurray, for example, in Wilder’s The Apartment.

Nothing of this was noticed at the time, and Stevens stopped making movies. Nowadays, since tradition is the last bad review, the film is mainly scandalous for its failure and notorious for its principal photography in France, where Henri Decae presumably shot the main scenes in the girl’s apartment.

The score by Maurice Jarre is unusually bouncy and jazzy, more or less continuous and in the background.

There’s a great feeling for Las Vegas as a dull town of plungers and rakes with a grab-bag of outsized consumerism all around, redeemed by whatever it is that makes such things less valuable.