Affairs of the Heart: The Wedding Night (1935)

October 31, 2017

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The Wedding Night was doomed from the start. It was producer Samuel Goldwyn’s final attempt at making the Ukrainian actress Anna Sten into a Garbo-level star, and his persistence had become something of a Hollywood joke. The Wedding Night became known around town as “Goldwyn’s Last Sten”, but though it failed as a star-making enterprise, it was another sensitively directed drama from King Vidor, detailing an unlikely romance between a dissolute big city writer and a Polish farm girl.

The story by Edwin Knopf and script by Edith Fitzgerald concerns down-on-his-luck writer Tony Barrett (Gary Cooper), a former wunderkind turned hack (supposedly based on F. Scott Fitzgerald), whose latest cash grab novel was declined by his publisher. Swiftly running out of money, he moves into a derelict house he inherited with his wife Dora (Helen Vinson). It is there he meets the Novak family, Polish farmers who are putting up tobacco acreage as far as the eye can see. Their only daughter Manya (Sten) is due to be wed to local yokel Fredrik (Ralph Bellamy, of course).

Tony is inspired by the Novak’s work ethic, and begins to write a new novel. Manya takes on the role of sounding board, and once all of Tony’s servants quit and Dora heads back to the city, of a romantic interest as well. When Dora returns, Tony must make a decision – to upend Manya’s carefully controlled life, or remain with his wife to repair their tattered vows.

Tony Barrett is introduced at a society party in a bathroom, pitching his publisher on a book when, he says, “I know its tripe.” He still expects it to be published based on the fumes of his former fame, but is soundly rejected. Tony and his wife Dora seem perpetually soused – their biggest concern about the move was the safety of their box of scotch. But while rural life bores Dora, it begins to rejuvenate Tony, who finds a focus and work ethic he had formerly abandoned.

Vidor was unenthused with the assignment from Vidor, as he found both Cooper and Sten to have severe limitations, as Cooper kept mumbling and muffing his lines, while Sten’s thick accent was another hurdle. Regarding Sten, Vidor wrote, “Her pantomime flowed quite easily and freely, but her dialogue was quite a different matter. Her words and syllables were never quite synchronized with her gestures. Rather than a director, I began to feel like a dentist trying to pull the syllables out of her mouth before the accompanying gesture had passed by.”

But once Vidor started looking at the rushes, he discovered that Cooper gave “a performance that overflowed with charm and personality…a highly complex and fascinating inner personality revealed itself on the projection room screen.” He was a performer who played well for the camera, not for the crew. Sten is unable to overcome a certain stiffness and formalism in her performance style, though it is appropriate for her character, a woman in a tightly-controlled patriarchal family unit who for the first time is granted a certain freedom of movement – inside Tony’s house. Sten’s buttoned-up coolness is an interesting contrast to Cooper’s anxious warmth, his puppy dog desire to be loved.

Tony re-ignites his will to write mostly due to his exposure to the Novak family, who have successfully avoided assimilation into the American way of life, for better or for worse. They maintain something of an agrarian existence, living off the proceeds of the land, but treat their women like slaves and their children like servants. They are completely alien to him, and are a rich source of character detail for his novel. They are content for him to exploit.

Early on Tony is invited for dinner, and Vidor sketches out the power structure through his blocking of the characters, keeping the women on the periphery, rotating around the male Novaks, rarely puncturing the center of their frame. It is only on the night of her wedding that Manya stands in the center of the kitchen, isolated in dramatic overhead lighting as the other women work around her, sewing and cooking and preparing for her wedding party. Manya stands alone, more isolated than ever, miserable in the thought that she is being given this privileged moment, this space as the center of attention, only because she is to marry Fredrik, played with utmost buffoonery by Ralph Bellamy (king of the buffoons). The film was shot by the great Gregg Toland in a naturalistic, evenly lit style, though he is already experimenting with the deep focus that would get so much attention in Citizen Kane in the next decade.

Tony believes that Manya is aiding his work, but not through any Muse-like inspiration from the gods, but simply for re-instilling in him a work ethic. She is out there milking cows every day, because if not the job will not get done. So he takes to same attitude toward his writing, putting up the following sign at his desk: “YOU MAKE YOUR LIVING AT IT – YOUR PEN IS YOUR PLOW, YOU BLANKETY BLANK!” Vidor presents writing as just another form of labor, and that practicality is refreshing for this type of romance. And the love that emerges between them seems realistic because of this practicality, it is love not of the spirit but of the flesh. And with the flesh comes fathers-in-law, and this particular one is none too pleased that Manya had been spending so much time with a married writer from the city. And neither, of course, is Dora, who returns to mend their broken marital bonds. There is no villain, no wronged party, just the messy stuff of living.



December 23, 2014


Let the proliferation of year-end lists wash over you with a resigned calm. And let me add another one to the ocean of opinion. Today I’m presenting my top ten new-to-me movies of 2014. That is, older films that I have seen for the first time. They are the backbone of any movie-going year, whether it’s catching up to acknowledged classics (for me, The Best Years of Our Lives) or going trawling for obscure auteurist gems (Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby, Edward L. Cahn’s Redhead).  It’s a way to draw attention to a wider range of filmgoing possibilities, so you don’t have to read about Boyhood for the bazillionth time (though, if you do, my appreciation is over here). All credit goes to prodigious blogger Brian Saur from Rupert Pupkin Speaks, who collects “Favorite Film Discoveries” from writers, programmers and filmmakers every year, and asked me to contribute once upon a time. I found the exercise invigorating, more so than the usual end-of-year recycling, so you have him to thank or blame.

The films are presented in alphabetical order


The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, directed by William Wyler)

I had been indoctrinated in aversion to Wyler, from half-remembered slams by Andrew Sarris. This is not Sarris’ fault but my own, as he was a persistent re-evaulator, trying to undermine his own biases. But now that I’m here, my goodness what a movie. Wyler was a serviceman for three years, and knew who these men were and how they lived. The deep focus cinematography by Gregg Toland is justly famous, but it’s the gestures inside of it that make it work so beautifully. The orchestration of glances as the family silently reacts to Homer’s amputation isolates him even as he’s surrounded by well-wishers.

On Blu-ray from Warner Brothers


Broken Lullaby (1932, directed by Ernst Lubtisch)

Lubitsch’s only non-comic sound film is a post-traumatic post-WWI drama about a shellshocked vet who seeks penance for bayoneting a German soldier in the trenches. He travels to atone to his victim’s parents, but when he arrives, he can’t bring himself to admit his guilt. Instead he falls in love with their daughter. Like in many of Lubitsch’s comedies, it’s about a man who fakes his life so beautifully he almost makes it come true. It opens with a blast of dialectical montage, cutting rhythmically between a Paris belfry’s bells and a battlefield cannon, the drums of the soldier’s homecoming parade sliced in with a wounded vet’s screams. It is as potent a three minutes as anything Eisenstein concocted. But then, a stylstic shift into daring long takes and a subdued, declamatory kind of acting. There is an unbroken two-minute take of two mothers grieving over their sons that is devastating in its quietude.

Unavailable on home video or VOD


Carnival of Souls (1962, directed by Herk Harvey)

This miraculous motion picture is a dip into the Midwestern uncanny, ghosts haunting the long flat highways and abandoned amusements. It’s one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen, undoubtedly aided by viewing it on July 4th weekend, where bottle rockets were popping off behind my head every five minutes. I was too gripped to turn around and look at the firecracking kids outside, for fear I would see that face reflected in the window.

On DVD from Criterion (I watched it on Hulu Plus)


The Clockmaker of St. Paul (1974, directed by Bertrand Tavernier)

Tavernier’s debut feature is a subdued adaptation of a Simenon novel about a habit-minded watchmaker whose estranged son is wanted for murder. Shot in Tavernier’s hometown of Lyon, it traces the father’s ritualized walks through his city as he grapples with this rupture in his life. The outdoor photography is hushed and autumnal,the death of summer framing the father’s unspoken struggle over his son’s situation, which rouses the communist factory workers at which his son worked, as well as the accusatory owners. The father’s motivations and inner being are kept opaque, his inner workings as unfathomable as his clocks are understandable. So when his decision arrives, it is with the gathering force of a thunderbolt.

On Region 2 DVD from Optimum



Forgotten Faces (1928, directed by Victor Schertzinger)

The undisputed highlight of this year’s Capitolfest in Rome, NY, this is a visually extravagant crime melodrama. The story is a convoluted stew  involving gentlemen thieves, orphaned daughters, scheming mothers, and a devoted sidekick named Froggy (William Powell). Not memorable material, but the clarity and elegance of its late silent film style are often overwhelming. There are elegant tracking shots, provocative use of off-screen space, and complicated spiraling sets that are split in half and filmed in a Wes Anderson-esque dollhouse style. It’s enough to make one shake a fist at the sky and rue the coming of sound.

Unavailable on home video or VOD

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Good Sam (1948, directed by Leo McCarey)

I am morally obligated to write about every Leo McCarey movie someday, so this year it was Good Sam, a complicated moral fable about the unintended consequences of doing good. Gary Cooper is Sam, an inveterate do-gooder whose charity consistently leads to troubles, whether its debt, permanent visitors or missing cars. The film’s central theme is the impossibility of saintliness in a consumer society – one in which Sam becomes an object of ridicule (by his boss, his wife and the world at large), rather than lauded for his selflessness. Cooper is appropriately skittish and perpetually aghast, but the real star is Ann Sheridan as his put upon wife. Her acerbic realism cuts the sweetness of Sam’s saintliness, and she provides the greatest laughs in the film – especially when she busts out cackling at Sam as he uncharacteristically runs down a neighbor (who happens to be sitting right behind him).

On Blu-ray and DVD from Olive Films


The Long Day Closes (1992, directed by Terence Davies)

Note perfect reminiscence about growing up lonely and growing up in the movies, usually the same thing.

On DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection



Mongo’s Back in Town (1971, directed by Marvin J. Chomsky)

A relentlessly downbeat telefilm noir starring Joe Don Baker as the titular Mongo. Mongo is a beast intent on destroying his hometown. His milquetoast brother summons him back to San Pedro, CA in order to knock off a local competitor, but instead Mongo brings the whole criminal edifice down around everyone’s heads. Baker is gruff and relentless, an analogue to Lee Marvin’s Walker in Point Blank (1967). Nothing will sway Mongo from his own disgust. The rest of the cast includes Telly Savalas, Martin Sheen and Sally Field, all dumb witnesses to Mongo’s clumsy, bloody vengeance.

On MOD-DVD from CBS Films


Redhead (1941, directed by Edward L. Cahn)

I am contractually obligated to write about 10-12 Edward L. Cahn movies this year, and this one was my favorite (When the Clock Strikes finishing a close second). It’s a downbeat suicide comedy about a pair of mismatched lovers(one rich, one poor) who meet each other both on the precipice of leaping off a cliff. They save each other instead, opening a roadside diner and learning how to live on modest means. It’s death-driven, class-conscious comedy only possible in the dark, delightful world of Cahn.

Available to stream on Amazon Instant Video



A Touch of Zen/The Valiant Ones (1969/1975, both directed by King Hu)

One of the major events in NYC was the BAM Cinematek’s King Hu retrospective. I was only able to make it to these two, but they are jaw dropping spectacles. I preferred the relentless logic of The Valiant Ones, in which the intricately choreographed battles are mapped out on chess boards, and each faction is eliminated with unforgiving procession. The earlier Touch of Zen is more inside the head than the hands, a Buddhist fable of enlightenment in which blood turns into told and only through self-abnegation can come glory.

Both are out of print on DVD


Utamaro and his Five Women (1946, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi)

Wherein the life of an artist (here woodblock print portratist Utamaro) is presented as one of continuous battle, in which everyone suffers, his models most of all.

Available on Region 2 DVD from Artificial Eye


August 26, 2014

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“I’ve tried to break him of it…but he just loves people!”  -Lucille (Ann Sheridan) complaining about her husband Sam (Gary Cooper) in Good Sam

In 1948 Leo McCarey was coming off the biggest hits of his career, as Bing Crosby’s singing priest in Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) topped the box office. Both films were amiable attempts at humanizing Catholicism, moving from the inaccessible Latin mass to the lucid curative powers of pop crooning. They also feature McCarey’s talent for improvisation – Bells features a Nativity scene enacted by children who replace “O Holy Night” with “Happy Birthday”. For Good Sam, McCarey again returned to a religious theme, placing a man of saintly selflessness in the bourgeois suburbs. Sam’s insistence on giving away his time and money to those around him frustrates his wife Lucille, who has to deal with the human consequences of his do-goodism. That is, she has to care for all the strays he brings home as their nest egg slowly dissipates. Lucille is the cynical realist to Sam’s idealist Christian (they’re Episcopalian), but their love allows them to bridge the philosophical gap. It is, for the most part, a bitterly funny film. It posits the impossibility of saintliness in a materialist society, and McCarey mourns this loss through comedy rather than tragedy. Decades later, after the film had disappeared from view, McCarey stated, “the moment was ill chosen to make a film about apostleship.” This fascinating, frequently hilarious apostle-out-of-time feature  is now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films.


McCarey went independent after directing Going My Way for Paramount.  He formed Rainbow Productions to make The Bells of Mary’s, which was distributed by RKO. He had valuable experience with an independent artist early on. His first job in Hollywood was as an assistant to Tod Browning. McCarey recalled, “From film to film, I had the opportunity to propose ideas because the scenarios we were shooting were all original. It was a unique apprenticeship working with a man who wrote, directed, and edited his films himself.” The Bells of St. Mary’s grossed even more money than Going My Way, and sits at number fifty-one on the all time list (adjusted for inflation), one spot above The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. McCarey secured the same beneficial arrangement for Good Sam – a Rainbow Production released through RKO.

Good Sam originated with McCarey’s wife Stella. “I was working with Sinclair Lewis on another story and that’s when my wife told me, ‘Why don’t you make a picture about yourself? You’re always doing the most unbelievable things trying to help others.’” McCarey shared the story credit with John Klorer, with the script attributed to Ken Englund, who co-wrote Danny Kaye’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty the year before, another comic tale of a guy too kind to fit into corporate society.

Gary Cooper was going to play Sam Clayton from the start, and he is superb as the reticent nice guy (similar to his Professor in Ball of Fire). On their off days on the Good Sam shoot, Cooper and McCarey were friendly witnesses for HUAC (you can find their testimony here). Good Sam is their comic depiction of the value of religion to American life, of how it looked to them without people living by the Golden Rule. In such a world, saintliness becomes a joke. In his testimony, McCarey joked about why Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s weren’t hits in Russia:

McCarey: Well, I think I have a character in there that they do not like.

Mr. Stripling: Bing Crosby?

McCarey: No; God.

McCarey originally had Jean Arthur in mind for the part of Lucille, though she was unable to take the part. He had run into Ann Sheridan at the Kentucky Derby, who was eager to shed the label of “The Oomph Girl”. She had more than oomph to offer. Sheridan recalled their encounter in Modern Screen: “McCarey’s one of my idols; when I was a stock girl at Paramount he was a big shot there, and I’d always yearned to work with him. I have this mental picture of McCarey in Kentucky. He was standing up and lifting a julep glass when I came into his line of vision. ‘Annie’, he hollered, ‘how are you?’ ‘Fine’, I hollered back. ‘Let’s do a movie together’, he said. I said, “You’re on”, and kept walking”

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McCarey recounts the same meeting in a different issue of Modern Screen, in an article entitled, “My Love Affair with Ann Sheridan”. He was “struck for the nine-hundredth time with what a smick-smack, forthright, clear-eyed, redheaded, realistic gal this Annie Sheridan is.” McCarey claims that after she read the script she said she’d do it for nothing. Warner Brothers loaned her to Rainbow Productions after she agreed to add an extra picture to her WB deal. Though these articles were likely massaged by RKO PR, Sheridan’s excitement at playing a woman without “oomph” palpates off the screen. She is spectacular as Lucille: acidic, absurdist and reluctantly loving. McCarey came up through the slapsticks honing reaction shots, from Charley Chase and Max Davidson to Laurel and Hardy, mastering the art of looking askance at the world crumbling around you. Ann Sheridan has a barrage of exasperated looks to deal with Sam’s gullibility/generosity.

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Early on Sam invites a mechanic over for breakfast – and ends up paying for his neighbor’s repairs. Sheridan is a marvel of amusement and disdain. Upon the mechanic’s entrance she stares at Cooper mischievously, lowering her head and rolling her eyes up, backed by a disbelieving smirk – entertained by the absurdity of her cluttered life. Then the mechanic hands her dirty plates to clear, and the humor turns to contempt. Her eyebrows shoot down and her jaw drops in disbelief. Then a quick recovery into thick, dripping sarcasm. She asks for “the Crunchies too please” in a fake-civilized tone with a plasticine smile. Her hands full of plates, she raises her left arm so the cereal box can be shoved in her armpit – a perfect picture of overburdened domesticity. Staring needles at him, she says “Thank you” in a sing-song voice, and absconds with the dishes. This all happens in fifteen seconds, packing hilarity into every frame.

Her tour-de-force occurs about forty-five minutes in, when the deluge of needy humanity finally breaks her down. But not into tears – she expresses her defeat in an explosive laughter jag. Sheridan consistently shows how Lucille knows how to distance herself – to treat her life as a performance. The inciting incident is the capper to a day of good deeds with bad results. Sam had let his neighbors borrow his car over the weekend. It turns out they got into an accident, and the victim is suing. As Sam is the owner of the car, he will be the subject of the suit. When Sam comes home from work, he is ready to apologize to Lucille for all the hassles he brings home to her, oblivious to the fact that the neighbors are sitting in the living room. Sam’s apology, and his rare criticisms of others, send Lucille into convulsions. “No more Nelsons ruining our dinner, no more Butlers ruining our car”, he says, as Sheridan subtly shakes her head “no”, ramping up the joke she is about to play on him. When he calls Butler a “Four-eyed four-flusher”, she begins to break, the right side of her mouth curling up into a smile, soon followed by the left. She muffles a laugh through her nose. Soon she cracks and then, the torrent. Sam can’t understand why his sweet talk is making her laugh, so he asks, “Does my love border on the ridiculous?” Through choked chuckles she says, “Yes, in a way, yes.” It’s an uproarious scene that emerges out of everyday frustrations.


Sam’s generosity keeps backfiring, and eventually he’s squandered the entire nest egg, making it impossible for them to buy Lucille’s dream home. It is Sam’s turn to snap, and he hits the bottle. An alkie wanders into a bar, looking for a drink. The bartender wants to throw him out, but Sam still believes that “all he needs is a helping hand”. The drunk responds, “I can’t remember when I heard a more stupid remark. You’re not really helping me, all you’re doing is boosting your own ego. …You can afford to be condescending.” The idea that altruism is equivalent to self-love sends him into a spiral. He switches clothes with the bum, and seems ready for obliterate himself. A Salvation Army marching band agrees to take him home – the first kind act he’s received all day. This would be a bittersweet, complicated ending, a man of shaken faith receiving a salve.

However, McCarey and RKO opted for a miraculously happy closer that erases the satiric depiction of self-serving materialist United States of the previous two hours. It clumsily channels the communal spirit of the It’s a Wonderful Life finale, but McCarey was always better with couples than communities. As Robin Wood pointed out, he rarely even has time for families (Sam and Lucille have kids, although you’d barely know it). This particular miracle rings false, making Good Sam one of the only times McCarey places his faith in God above that of his characters. In his greatest work, they are intertwined, as in the transcendent, sanctified union of Love Affair, or the unspoken affection of a priest and a nun in The Bells of St. Mary’s.

The January 17, 1948 Showman’s Trade Newsreel reported that McCarey “decided upon an entirely new ending”, and that “preview audiences will be given their choice of two finishes”. What is not known is the content of the alternate ending, or what process led to McCarey re-shooting those pivotal sequences. There is some archival work to be done here, or perhaps a lucky discovery in some old subbasement.

Man of the West: Booklet Essay


Man of the West is riven with pain. Made in 1958 during the twilight of the Western genre, it is reflective and interiorized, mapping twisted psychological landscapes over the flattened physical ones. Director Anthony Mann was obsessed with transposing King Lear into the Western, with Lear figures appearing in The Furies (1950), The Man From Laramie (1955), and Man of the West. Mann had dreams of making a more faithful Western adaptation of Lear, and would pursue it the rest of his life. He was working on a version simply titled The King at the time of his death in 1967.

In The Furies and The Man From Laramie these dissipated patriarchs are corrupted cattle barons, while in Man of the West it is a sociopathic dementia-addled bandit named Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb) – who has three sons instead of Lear’s daughters. Gary Cooper plays Dock’s nephew Link, who was once in murderous thrall to Dock, but has since reformed and married. After a thwarted train robbery Link is absorbed back into Dock’s orbit, and is forced to confront the sins of his youth.

Man of the West was initiated by producer Walter C. Mirisch, who had moved his independent production unit from Allied Artists over to United Artists. He had an affection for aging, totemic Western stars, but tried to pair them with more “adult”, and violent, subject matter. Mirisch’s first production for UA was Fort Massacre (1958), a siege Western starring Joel McCrea. McCrea played a cavalry commander pushed to madness by his hatred of the Apache. The next star Mirisch wanted to dirty up was Cooper. So he sent him the novel The Border Jumpers by Will C. Brown, which Cooper approved. Instead of handing script duties to a genre veteran, Mirisch gave the job to Reginald Rose, who came out of high-toned television dramas, and who had written the popular film adaptation of 12 Angry Men (1957).

The script was a hard and violent character study, so Mirisch then brought on Anthony Mann to bring out its psychological subtleties. Mann had recently completed a remarkable series of five Westerns with James Stewart, ending with The Man From Laramie. In Laramie Stewart wandered into the Oedipal anxieties of a power hungry cattle family, the Western landscape a battleground of macho neuroses. The family unit in Man of the West is even more perverse, an all-male gang of thieves led by a half-mad old coot.

Dock Tobin seems to have cracked since Link’s departure, his crew a sloppy bunch of thugs and idiots, including a sweaty mute (Royal Dano) and a jumpy pervert (Jack Lord) Unlike Lear, there is no one left to inherit his ramshackle kingdom (an isolated ranch).  The re-appearance of Link ignites his old dreams, and so the old man ranting in a rocking chair flails to life, scheming a big bank job. He immediately begins remembering their past exploits: ”God forgive us we painted their walls with blood that time”.  But the bank no longer exists — it’s just another figment of past glories swirling in Dock’s head.

This is one of Mann’s most precisely choreographed films, with figures constantly activating each quadrant of the CinemaScope frame. The extended night sequence set at Dock’s ranch shows his command of composition. Link, along with two civilians, have been stranded by a botched train heist. The only home within walking distance is Dock’s, so LInk plays along with Dock’s delusion until he can figure a way out. At their first meeting in the ranch house the Tobin gang and Link stand stock still as Dock weaves his way between them, as if Dock had stopped time through his reminiscences. As the evening progresses it moves from Dock’s dreams to a living nightmare. The stillness of the Tobin gang remains (Jonathan Rosenbaum has compared these compositions to Antonioni), but the threat of violence ratchets up when Billie (Julie London) enters the room. Mann begins to utilize low-angle, looming close-ups, while the flickering of the lamplight captured by DP Ernest Haller gives the room an infernal feel. Eventually Link is held at knifepoint as Billie is forced to strip. It only stops when Dock asserts his newfound virility and orders everyone out, emptying out the frame. The whole sequence is a series of constricting horizontals, a visual template that reappears in the final shootout, done in between the floor slats of crumbling ghost town homes.

The whole film feels like an ending. For Westerns at large, for Anthony Mann’s artistic peak , and for the career of Gary Cooper. It is one of Cooper’s greatest performances, borne out of intense physical debility. At the time of shooting Cooper was almost sixty, and suffering from intense back pain, which he blamed on an old hip injury. For him the production was a test of how much pain he could endure. Mirisch marveled at his professionalism: “That particular day, I saw that Coop was very upset. When I asked him what the trouble was, he told me his back pain was just excruciating. …He told me that the pain of riding his horse down that street was almost unendurable. I could see it in his face. I suggested to him that he let his double…do the ride in a long shot. But he wouldn’t hear of it. He said, ‘No, I have to do it. You have to be close on me.’ And he did do the ride down that street himself.” It is unclear if his poor health was related to the prostate cancer that ultimately killed him in 1961, but his body was failing him. His performance is heroic – one of tensed, grimacing fragility, his reformed outlaw clinging to life out of sheer will.

Though he does not portray the Lear role, he conveys its complicated emotions more than Lee J. Cobb’s more straightforward, harrumphing villainy. Cooper is conflicted, violent, and obsolete, introduced gawking at the new railroad carving through the West. He recoils from the smoke belched out by these iron leviathans. He has to board the beast, and these opening sequences are almost slapstick, as Cooper fumbles with his seat and repeatedly lunges into the passenger ahead of him. He only regains his authority by entering into Tobin’s demented dream of their shared violent past. Cooper forces his body into its familiar ramrod posture to once again face down the bad guys, with his mortality pressing down on every frame.


September 11, 2012

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The Hanging Tree (1959) is a Western marked by illnesses and maladies, a portrait of a violent man at war with his own impulses. It deploys Gary Cooper as a crumbling totem, the actor’s aching hip tipping his performance from his famous underplaying into a kind of pained decrepitude. It is one of Cooper’s most emotionally wrenching turns, as he is seemingly aware that he was reaching the end of his career, which would end with his death in 1961. Then there is the sickness that felled director Delmer Daves over halfway through the shoot, necessitating that Karl Malden take over behind the camera, using Daves’ storyboards as guides. These sicknesses are made legible in the film, from the name of Cooper’s character, Doc Frail, to the sun exposure that fells Elisabeth (Maria Schell), the Swedish immigrant who Frail nurses back to health, and who tests the boundaries of the doctor’s seemingly impenetrable emotional defenses. Long unavailable in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the Warner Archive has released a handsome anamorphic edition of the film on DVD, transferred from an inter-negative. There is some light print damage, but nothing to detract from the grandeur of Daves’ compositions, shot on location in the Oak Creek Wildlife Area outside of Yakima, Washington.

Cooper personally shepherded the project at Warner Brothers, the second film he produced following Along Came Jones (1944), through his Baroda Pictures imprint. His daughter Maria told Lou Lumenick at the NY Post that, “The story meant a lot to him. He was a Montana boy and had a real resonance with the characters and the drama of the era when there was a push to stake claims. He was born in 1901 in Helena when it was a funny mixture of a rough and ready town at the same time Montana had more millionaires than any other state in the union. Helena even had a hanging tree, so that was not a foreign dramatic touch to him.” The story was adapted from the 1957 novella by Dorothy M. Johnson, and regards the arrival of Doc Frail into the gold rush town of Skull Creek, Montana. He hides  wanted thief Rune (Ben Piazza) at his cabin, but asks for a form of indentured servitude in return. Rune reluctantly agrees, for a while, if only to avoid capture. So when Elisabeth is discovered in the desert, half-mad and blind, Frail and Rune are tasked with healing her. They go about their task increasingly insulated from the madness growing outside their doors, as gold fever has whipped up the town in an anarchic frenzy, encapsulated in the raving, violence-mongering preacher Grubb, played with grandiose menace by George C. Scott, in his indelible big screen debut.

This outside sickness, one of extreme individualism, is one that Frail is sympathetic to, having been burned by intimate relations in the past. So as the trio of himself, Elisabeth and Rune develop into a loving co-dependency, he cuts them off. Warm and giving when they are in need, Frail cannot stand the sight of the others when they have grown self-sufficient, the power relations shifting against him. There is an unsettling shot where Frail walks Elisabeth out to a cliff’s edge and determines that her sight is returning. The shift in his tone from solicitous caretaker to distant acquaintance is chilling in its swiftness and severity. It is clear that Frail has performed this act before, forever retreating back into himself. Daves repeatedly frames them against the dizzying rocky slopes of the Oak Creek Wildlife Area, images of serenity that ironically contrast with the relentlessly neurotic and interior Frail.

Despite her near-death experience, only Elisabeth seems truly comfortable in the land, opening a gold panning outpost with gusto, eager to work as much as any man. This confuses her dopey macho assistant Frenchy (Karl Malden), who with his floppy hat and head bob, looks like a schnauzer begging for treats. He is an idiot, and one who does not seem to have advanced beyond Freud’s polymorphous perversity stage, believing that everything and everyone around him is available for his pleasure. Frenchy is the representative of the town’s descent into narcissistic madness. Frail recognizes himself in Frenchy, in their selfish rejection of society. Perhaps this is why Frail turns aggressively violent in Frenchy’s presence, a bitter rage which results in a scene of shocking violence at the same cliff where Elisabeth regained her sight.

Malden not only gave a singularly unsettling performance, but saved the project from imploding. According to the AFI Film Catalog, production began on June 17th, and Delmer Daves’ sickness forced him to leave on July 25th. For the rest of principal shooting, which lasted until August 13th, as well as post-production, Karl Malden took over as director.  He recalls this period to Rose Eichenbaum in The Actor Within:

During the last two weeks of the picture, the director got sick and went to the hospital. So I got a call on Saturday to come over to Coop’s house. I get there, and he says they might have to close down production. ‘That’s too bad’, I say. So he says, ‘why don’t you finish directing this picture?’ ‘Me?’ ‘You can do it, you directed Widmark in Counter Attack. You can do it.’ So I said okay, but if I find that I’m lost and I don’t know how to do it, and we have to sit there and figure it out, don’t scream at me.’ ‘Kid,’ he said, ‘I’ve never spoken angrily to anyone in my life, and I’m not going to start now.’ So I accepted and directed the picture for two and a half weeks. When it was finished, Gary Cooper went over to Warner’s and said to them, ‘star billing!’ That’s the first picture in which I ever got star billing. That’s the kind of man Gary Cooper was.

In order to depict the destructive community of Skull Creek, which burns itself alive in a drunken revelry of greed, the production team had to function as a supportive one. Cooper had a chronic bad back as a result of a broken hip he had as a teen which was never set properly, and it was bothering him mightily on the set. He couldn’t sit side-saddle on a horse, as Marie Cooper tells Lumenick, so a special saddle was created where he would be perched off to the side. This worked for his character, allowing him to literally talk down to the characters Frail is so desperately trying to separate himself from.

The Hanging Tree is a fragile Western, one in which psyches are as easy to shatter as entire communities. Money is both their curse and their salvation, able to put their necks inside a noose as well as buy their way out of it.  The only thing it can’t seem to purchase is happiness, at least that found outside of a bottle. The final shots, in which Elisabeth divests herself of all her gold and land, and instead nuzzles Cooper’s downturned head, are some of the most radical, and radically moving, in the Hollywood Western.


January 18, 2011


Two versions of the community-made man. Gary Cooper’s John Doe and Willem Dafoe’s Ray Ruby are nothing without their coterie of speech-writers, money-men and erotic dancers.  Meet John Doe (1941) and Go Go Tales (2007) each speak to the anxieties of being propped up by the labor of others, with main characters haunted by the possibility of losing their support and having to go it alone. They are paeans to American industriousness, satires of American greed and excess, and hum with the patter of the American workplace. Meet John Doe was recently released on a disappointing DVD by VCI (DVD Beaver has the specs here) and Go Go Tales is currently screening at Anthology Film Archives in NYC. It’s also available on an Italian Region 2 DVD.

John Willoughboy (Cooper) is a burnt-out ex-ballplayer with a bum elbow, in the days before Tommy John surgery. Living the hobo life with The Colonel (a zealous Walter Brennan), he’s hoping to make a quick buck at a newspaper when he sees a lineup outside. What tabloid journalist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is after though, is a flesh and blood dope to embody the outraged John Doe whose letter of civil disobedience she forged in order to pump up circulation and save her job. Soon she builds up John into a folksy voice of the people, promoting neighborliness into a kind of small-town socialism. His immense popularity, represented in nationwide John Doe Clubs, is co-opted by his backer, millionaire D.B. Norton, in a scheme to install a pseudo-fascist state.

The film is strongest early-on, replete with Capra’s pungent dialogue and rich caricatures. The punchiness starts in the opening, with The Bulletin’s old motto, “A free press means a free people”, jackhammered off to make way for The New Bulletin’s tagline, “A streamlined newspaper for a streamlined era.” This visual joke is more relevant than ever, and sets up the knockabout opening where a baby-faced, Mickey Rooney type axes the staff in pantomime, with gestural throat slashes underlined by whistles. Capra captures the impersonal devastation of this corporate takeover in a few flicks of the assistant’s wrists.

Ann, desperate to salvage her job, invents the John Doe letter, whose anti-government, DIY tone loosely echoes the rhetoric of the Tea Party movement (aside from the community organizing he supports). Soon Willoughby is speaking to millions of people around the country, as Ann hones Doe’s image around the philosophy of her late father. The political message Capra is trying to send gets increasingly slippery, as he is both satirizing the gullibility of the American people, who immediately believe in this rather dopey Doe, while still managing to lionize the work ethic and morality of those same citizens. The latter impulse drains the former of any impact. Capra had trouble reconciling these ideas, and filmed five separate endings, and was never satisfied with any of them. In his autobiography, he said:

For seven-eights of the film, Riskin [screenwriter Robert] and I felt we had made The Great American Motion Picture; but in the last eighth, it fizzled into The Great American Letdown.

Whether or not the film coheres thematically (I agree with Capra, it does not), the figure of Doe is surprisingly similar to the character of Ray Ruby in Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales. Ruby is the proprietor of Ruby’s Paradise Lounge, a struggling NYC strip club facing massive debts and a restive work force. Ruby is the manic and disarmingly sensitive patriarch of this whirling world of sequins and exploding tanning beds. His wild hopes rest on the American standbys of gambling and conning: playing the lotto and convincing his brother to stay invested.

Doe and Ruby face similar threats, the hellish bureaucracy posed by The New Bulletin’s maxim is transposed by Go Go Tales into the screeching landlord’s (Sylvia Miles at her harpiest) gentrifying threat that she’ll sell Ruby’s building to Bed, Bath & Beyond. Both Doe and Ruby will themselves into believing that they are self-made and impervious to these deprivations,  but they are heavily indebted to a web of investors, politicians and relatives to stay afloat.  This denial also fuels their finest qualities, creating a naive, idealistic belief in the power of community. In Doe’s case it’s a nationwide mission of charity whose tenets he adopts for himself, and for Ruby it’s the idiosyncratic camaraderie of his Lounge’s denizens. There are his raspy host Bob Hoskins, berating the tourists who idly pass the door, his whimsical Irish accountant/partner-in-crime Jay (Roy Dotrice), and a web of bar squatting wiseguys who provide a never-ending squall of vulgar cracks. Near the end, as the strippers and bouncers put on their weekly talent show of Bronx-accented Shakespeare and interpretive dance, Ruby gives a rousing speech that exposes the philosopher inside the crabby capitalist, and is one that Capra could have used as the sixth ending to Meet John Doe:

Everyone in this room has a chance to become more than they think they are. Freedom of expression, creativity, passion, love for each other, that’s what this is all about.