WARNER ARCHIVE ROUNDUP: SMILIN’ THROUGH (1941) AND WELCOME TO HARD TIMES (1967)

January 17, 2012

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The Warner Archive continues to summon the ghosts of Hollywood past onto DVD, a bit of studio witchery we should all get behind. One of their most intriguing recent séance jobs is Frank Borzage’s Smilin’ Through(1941), a haunting WWI melodrama. Despite the mammoth Murnau, Borzage and Fox box set, there are still great stretches of Borzage’s career missing on home video (including essential titles like Man’s Castle (’33, hopefully a Sony MOD candidate) and Moonrise (’48), which is streaming on Netflix)). Smilin’ Through, though flawed, has moments of doomed romanticism that rival anything else in his work, with superimpositions establishing the intractable hold the past exerts on the present. A similar theme is lugubriously told in Welcome to Hard Times (’67), a Western in which old studio hand Burt Kennedy flails to channel A Fistful of Dollars on a low budget. Originally made-for-TV, MGM decided to release it into theaters before airing it on ABC, after which it disappeared. Featuring a spate of studio standbys, including Henry Fonda and Aldo Ray, it’s a fascinating failure in which MGM hires old studio craftsman to make a film that blatantly reaches for the youth market.

Frank Borzage had moved from Warner Brothers to MGM in 1937, starting with Big City, and continued there through Seven Sweethearts (’42, also on the Warner Archive), after which he became an independent contractor. The Warner Archive has released seven of these titles, all of which (excepting the well-regarded Mortal Storm (’40)) are due a second look. His stay at MGM was not a smooth one, with the usual studio interference and hijinks (producer Victor Saville famously claimed to have directed the majority of The Mortal Storm, an idea debunked by biographer Herve Dumont).  In January 1941 Borzage was removed from a re-telling of Billy the Kid after initial location shooting (he was replaced by David Miller), and was shifted to a Joan Crawford project, Bombay Nights, which never materialized. He didn’t sit idle long, with production on Smilin’ Through starting in early May.

The project was a rather moldy chestnut, based on a 1919 play by Jane Cowl and Jane Murfin, that had already been adapted twice for the screen, in 1922 (starring Norma Talmadge) and 1932 (with Norma Shearer). The scars of a 19th century love triangle are torn open on the eve of WWI, as Sir John Carteret (Brian Aherne) refuses to sanction the marriage of his adopted daughter Kathleen (Jeanette MacDonald) to Kenneth Wayne (Gene Raymond, MacDonald’s husband), whose father had destroyed Carteret’s marriage decades before. Borzage opens the film on the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, celebrating 60 years of her rule. The camera pans left to a church, with the ramrod figure of Aherne the only figure not gesticulating in a celebratory fashion. He sourly says, “I don’t like anniversaries”, the weight of the past present in each of his deliberate steps.

He is momentarily levered back into the present by the appearance of Kathleen, the niece of the woman he loved, Moonyean (also played by MacDonald). Entranced by her forthrightness (and resemblance to Moonyean), he temporarily eases his obsession with the past, which manifested in conversations with his ghostly deceased love, and embraces an attentive, active role as a father. Immediately upon making this decision, and loosing the grip of his memory, Borzage collapses time in a gorgeous, layered montage of spring flowers and children’s games. Kathleen’s childhood is compressed into thirty seconds, the narrative resuming once Carteret is once again ensnared by his loss of Moonyean.

The world of the film becomes a kind of necropolis, with Kathleen first meeting Kenneth in the abandoned mansion of his father, Jeremy. They dust off his decanter of wine, untouched since his death, and hold hands for the first time while staring up at his portrait, deeply ensconced in Carteret’s memories of his dead nemesis. Carteret is entombing his family in his obsessive memory, and can only free them by telling his story, and moving on. Borzage privileges this moment in an extended flashback of his doomed wedding day, an unburdening and a confessional, that ends with Carteret cradling Moonyean in a Pieta-like pose, allowing himself to mourn for the first time, instead of simply nursing his hatred. It ends on a transporting image, of a ghostly Carteret-Moonyean and a physical Kathleen-Kenneth passing in the night, going in different directions on time’s arrow, but both savoring the moment.

Please read Kent Jones’ wonderful career overview in Film Comment for a fuller view of Borzage’s career.

***

In 1967, MGM was trying to crank out genre films on a budget by making deals with television networks, while still reaping the box office rewards from theatrical release. Kerry Segrave wrote in Movies at Home that the studio had renegotiated its deal with ABC, allowing the final three of their six co-productions to be released theatrically before they hit the tube. These were Day of the Evil Gun (starring Glenn Ford and Arthur Kennedy, 1968), Hot Rods to Hell(with Dana Andrews, 1967) and Welcome to Hard Times (1967). Warner Archive has just released Hard Times in a handsomely remastered DVD, and is an artifact of a studio’s shfit to producing tele-films and catering to the burgeoning youth market. Director/writer Burt Kennedy, famous for scripting Budd Boetticher’s psychologically astute Ranown cycle of Westerns, had moved from helming TV shows to becoming a reliable worker on cheap genre films. Right before Hard Times, Kennedy cranked out Return of the Seven (1966), a sequel to The Magnificent Seven (1960), and afterward he made a couple of popular comic-Westerns with James Garner, Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969) and Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971). Hard Times is the likely nadir of Kennedy’s work in this period, a slackly paced adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s first novel (Doctorow told the NY Times that the film was the “second worst movie ever made.” The worst? Swamp Fire (’46) starring Johnny Weissmuller).

The film concerns the Mayor and de facto Sheriff of the Western town of Hard Times, Will Blue (Henry Fonda), a dyed-in-the-wool cynic who only acts out of base self-interest. When a drunken hell-raiser (Aldo Ray, credited as “The Man From Bodie”), razes the town to the ground, Blue just watches from a distance, not willing to get involved. Blue and a local medicine show carny build up Hard Times again by turning it into a good-times destination for local miners. As business booms, Blue braces for the return of “The Man From Bodie”. The film opens with a bang, in a near-silent sequence that is an homage to (or straight rip of) the start of Rio Bravo. Instead of a drunken Dean Martin, it’s a buzzing Aldo Ray, who smashes a bottle in close-up, drinking from the shards that are left. Ray is framed to be a force of nature, presaged by a dramatic clap of thunder and causing  raging fires. Ray starts out as intimidating, but is reduced to cartoon villainy by this overdetermined symbolism, a hacky attempt to provide the stylish ultra-violence the young crowds desired, and were delivered in the Leone Spaghetti Westerns. Even the film’s cynicism seems half-baked, as Fonda’s brittle, passive exterior gives way to a conclusion of straining sentimentality. And opening sequence aside, the film is indifferently put together, despite the incredible rogues gallery of faces Kennedy had to work with. In addition to Fonda and Ray there is Warren Oates, Elisha Cook Jr., Lon Chaney Jr., Keenan Wynn and Royal Dano. As these weathered, instinctively expressive faces slide past the screen in this ill-conceived oater, it feels like a roll call at classical Hollywood’s funeral.

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