A Night at the Opera

Great gags, lovely songs and a foretaste of Fellini’s E la nave va to start (Wood’s film is reportedly a war casualty, chopped down a bit to excise Italy), the fun begins in New York.

Enough dynamite to flitter all the opera houses, The Three Tenors, The Three Irish Tenors, and The Venerable Peeb. Which is to say, a correct understanding of the art.

Wood’s considerable resources are placed au service de la révolution, and the beautiful quick cuts only come into play when he is called upon to represent Il Trovatore on stage (the technique, one might say, is full setups jump-cut, as it were, before they fully resonate). This is probably the best way to film the Marx Brothers (it’s certainly true of The Three Stooges), but it’s possible that any treatment could be met by them with a full response. The Sam Wood musical is unexpected and, in a word, musical, as he cuts and arranges his shots very independently of the action, quite differently from the line of M-G-M development, in a kind of counterpoint.

Where he is called into play, he proceeds without hesitation. The stupendous stair gag is well-filmed and topped with a visual punchline.

Variety and the New York Times (Andre Sennwald) were receptive, Sennwald on the dim side.

Dave Kehr, campaigning for the Ellsworth M. Toohey Award, is anti-Wood (Chicago Reader).


A Day at the Races

The Standish Sanitarium at Sparkling Springs Lake, about to be foreclosed on and made into a gambling house, pulls through with a win on Hi Hat (rider Stuffy).

The great set pieces might have been filmed a number of times and reassembled to best advantage so as to convincingly represent the comedy perfected on stage. Wood is more confident even than in A Night at the Opera, and puts his experience back into the picture in a thousand ways, especially the vast construction of the racetrack finale, and Vivien Fay’s charming ballet number, etc.

He uses two angles on Chico’s ivory-tickling, one a beautiful master shot and the other a key to clarify the action. His unrestrained filming of Harpo demolishing the piano is followed by beautiful close interpretive work on Harpo playing the innards (which, as pianists know, are called the “harp” of the piano).

Sam Wood seems an unlikely choice to direct the Marx Brothers, but the skill and studious energy he devoted to his own productions are not only meritorious in themselves, they resulted in a brilliant film the extremely grave subject of which quietly brings out the great strength of the director who made Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Our Town.

Both this film and A Night at the Opera seem to belong to the Forties more than the Thirties. Buñuel seems not to have forgotten the examination scene in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie or The Phantom of Liberty.


Our Town

The play is re-composed for cinema to accomplish the transition of its artifices, and the result is a marriage fantasy brought to childbirth. This is involved with the cinematic apparatus, it opens with a rear-projection view of the town from Rip Van Winkle’s vantage point. At the request of the Stage Manager, Mr. Morgan (the Assistant Director here, he might be), the picture behind him changes from 1940 to 1901, etc. A virtuosic piece of acting by Fay Bainter and Beulah Bondi is curtly but politely ended by him, to their surprise. He ends another shot by placing his hand over the lens and removing it on an entirely new scene.

The first things you notice are Wood’s very frank compositions, which almost constantly extend from extreme close-up to deep background, when they are not close-ups plain and simple, with a rare long shot. This is a technique like nothing so much as Ozu, and Wood often gives the Western equivalent of Ozu’s “tatami shot” by placing the camera at the level of an ordinary chair in the scene.

Next is the extraordinary artifice of William Cameron Menzies’ set constructions, which easily sustain Wood’s very demanding camera positions. The whole effort tends toward abstraction rather than, as in To Kill a Mockingbird, re-creation strictly speaking.

The Magnificent Ambersons looks to have been generally influenced by this film, which also bears on It’s a Wonderful Life and countless others. Aaron Copland’s score harmonizes picture and script in tight situations (as Leonard Bernstein’s does in On the Waterfront, similarly), enabling the director to pivot at times on the music rather than one or the other, so it would seem.


Kings Row

Alas, one of those placid romantic movies about coming of age, told from an objective standpoint. This is where measures are taken all around, and the wise man grows out of it.

Eastwood’s The Eiger Sanction presents a variant.


For Whom the Bell Tolls

This is Whitman’s idea, a universe of particular meaning.

Hemingway’s Spain, a place of warring children overseen by lunatic ringers.

Fascists must be fought, the point need hardly be explained in 1943, Communists must be endured (internal contradictions rend Pablo, he is slow), they think they are the people.

Maria is Spain threatened by both, as Roberto says. He is the military arm lost in the absurd conflict, though the final image is of a man on one good leg (Renoir’s The River) blazing away at the enemy.

Wood’s construction has repercussions for many other directors, mainly Lean (The Bridge on the River Kwai, etc.), Brando’s hilltop in One-Eyed Jacks is El Sordo’s, to name another example. Wood’s GI remake is Saratoga Trunk, where Flora Robson has the Katina Paxinou role.

Akim Tamiroff bearded and hairy greatly resembles Alan Bates. Variety and the New York Times revered the film but thought it too long at nearly three hours, it was shortened to slightly more than two.

“The worst-paid matadors in the world.”


Casanova Brown

The marriage, shown in flashback, goes aground because the wife’s mother is an insane astrology buff and non-smoker who simply will not have it, she troubleth her own house to the bare foundation (and what a house, it bears a passing resemblance to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue).

Brown’s middle name is probably Quincy, he is a modestly-paid professor of literature, he tells the story to his second prospective father-in-law.

Crowther (New York Times) didn’t recognize der Führer in Mrs. Drury, and mistook the film (“a childish film,” he says) for a lot of fuss over a baby girl he didn’t even notice is quite charming.

Halliwell is under the “very mild” impression that all this is risqué on the subject of unwed mothers.

Blake Edwards has in it a precedent for the style of Micki + Maude.


Saratoga Trunk

Wood’s stupendous masterpiece was shown only to servicemen during the war, and after proved too much for all but the hardiest of critics. The opening shot of Clio Dulaine and her servants returning by ship to New Orleans from Paris gives fair warning, and the following scenes of her taking up residence in her late mother’s dilapidated home on Rampart Street are so detailed and intensely worked that anyone must sit up and take notice, but then Gary Cooper enters the picture from somewhere in Sternbergland, and the thing takes off wildly as a wartime allegory.

Flora Robson in blackface and sharp eyebrows as the maid Angelique was nominated for an Academy Award, her mummery sets the tone of a counterattack with ostracized Clio, the daughter of a rejected mistress.

Ingrid Bergman abstracts the plangency and strikes out in this portrayal like a ballerina cutting marble at every turn. She wants to fight back by marrying rich, Cooper helps her, there’s a railroad scion (“a mama’s boy”) up North with a trunk line sought after by the ruthless tycoons who ran Cooper’s father off his Texas ranch, they’ve set gangs at every depot to intimidate the passengers, back in Texas men get hanged for what these well-respected Easterners do.

The Texan’s name is Clint Maroon, he organizes the resistance. New Orleans is full of musical cries like Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, a passing rosebush offers a blossom to strolling Clio, one farther down to Angelique, and another much lower to Clio’s dwarf manservant Cupidon (Jerry Austin), who smiles with the rich savor of it.


Command Decision

The vital bombing run for the war effort is always the one named by the pubic relations officer, but this one really is, in three stages, three towns, three German factories making the new jet fighter in 1943.

That’s air superiority. All three targets are beyond the reach of fighters, so the bombers fly in unescorted with very high losses.

The brass objects, the politicians object, the commander is relieved two-thirds in, the decision falls to his replacement.

One of those stainless-steel models ornaments the shelf behind him.

Wood’s best effect is the play achieved in a virtuoso long take to show the provenance, otherwise he’s all over an American air base in England.


The Stratton Story

The career man who shoots himself in the leg literally and figuratively and must with some difficulty regain his footing.

The construction is an intricate triumph that puts the has-been in the bullpen as a coach, inspired by the up-and-comer who makes a comeback inspired by his infant son. This is the sort of legerdemain best practiced in front of the camera.

A hobo on the rails, a Texas farmboy, a California girl, the Chicago White Sox, the Yankee lineup, the beauty of the game, Frank Morgan’s clean-shaven face in all its athletic candor, simple elements.

T.M.P. of the New York Times considered it an honor “set before the world to bring comfort and courage to the afflicted and to remind the rest of us just how well off we are.”

Halliwell’s Film Guide rates it as “not very interesting.”



A certain lady held captive by the Apache renegade Diablito and his war party. She is effectively the post laundress loved by a second lieutenant though she is married to an enlisted man who beats her. The lieutenant in turn is the sometime scout prospecting for gold under Diablito’s nose.

That is the inner structure, this is formally expressed along the lines of a John Ford analysis (Ford repays in The Searchers and Two Rode Together).

The opening shot inspired Penn’s Little Big Man, Wood in very short order attains a Frederic Remington view.

Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, full of contempt, waxed eloquent as imitation fruit. The Catholic News Service Media Review Office credits the direction “with enough energy to make it all seem to matter.”

An extraordinarily rapid, intricately precise masterpiece with a conscious feeling for the savagery and cost of war.

“Well produced and acted,” Halliwell’s Film Guide critiques.