A MAN AND A MAID: MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (1937)

May 19, 2015

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In 1936 Leo McCarey drank some expired milk. It was part of an ill-advised publicity stunt that had the crew of the Harold Lloyd comedy The Milky Way (1936) imbibe daily amounts of dairy. One of those fateful sips incapacitated McCarey with undulant fever, after which he went to Palm Springs to get healthy. As part of his unique recovery process he visited a casino, which is where he met playwright Viña Delmar, who would go on to write the screenplays for both Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) and The Awful Truth (1937). So we have food poisoning to thank for two of McCarey’s, and thus Hollywood’s, greatest films. They are both acutely observed movies about marriage that deal with the sacrifices required to maintain that union, with Make Way taking a tragic viewpoint from that of old age, and Awful Truth a comic one from youth. It was the latter, of course, with its joyous happy ending, that won the Oscar and the accolades, while the devastating Make Way was also a critical favorite but a popular failure. But when a film is released on the Criterion Collection, it can no longer be called under-appreciated. Make Way For Tomorrow was released earlier this month on Blu-ray from Criterion, in a crisp transfer that faithfully renders the thick grain of William C. Mellor’s naturalistic photography.

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Make Way for Tomorrow was a very personal project for McCarey. While recovering from the milk-induced fever, his father passed away, and he was too ill to attend the funeral. McCarey told Peter Bogdanovich he got the idea for the film because, “I had just lost my father and we were real good friends; I admired him so much.” He settled on the Josephine Lawrence novel Years Are so Long (’34) as the basis of the story, which contained the basic outline of a group of siblings struggling to take care of their aged parents. While in Palm Springs, McCarey recalled, he went to a gambling joint, and:

there I saw a most attractive girl; I tried to start a conversation with her, and she snubbed me. Now, my wife had given me this very good Cosmopolitan story to read: it was about old folks, and because I’d just lost my father, my wife had said to read it. It was by a gal called Viña Delmar, and I called the studio and told them I’d like an appointment with her for an interview; they called back and said she’s in Palm Springs. And I said, ‘Well, run her down in Palm Springs — that’s where I am.’ So another exchange of phone calls and they said she’d be over to my hotel at such and such at time. The desk announced that “Miss Delmar is here” to see me, and you can imagine both our surprise when it turned out to be the girl I’d tried to get to know at the gambling place.

They “found a mutual wavelength” and worked together on the screenplay. Their meet-cute sounds like something out of a McCarey screwball comedy, but whatever motivated their collaboration it created uniquely complicated characters – all of them have mixed, believable motivations. The children are selfish as all children are selfish, and the parents are invasive, judgmental and crotchety. The story concerns Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy Cooper (Beulah Bondi), a kind-hearted, if absent-minded, old married couple whose house is slated to repossessed by the bank. They gather their five children in the hopes of coming to a long-term solution. But instead the parents are separated and passed from child-to-child like a game of filial hot potato. Lucy is ensconced with her son George (Thomas Mitchell), his wife Anita (Fay Bainter) and their daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read). A perennial fourth wheel, she ambles into Anita’s bridge lessons and interrupts Rhoda’s dates. She feels unwanted, while her son feels under siege.

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Barkley is living with his daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon) and her family. Cora is an overworked housewife who grows to resent the added burden of her father’s presence, treating him more like a tenant than a personal guest. There are idle plans to reunite Bark and Lucy, but the children can never come to an agreement, and the film ends with one final separation, but not before a dreamlike revivification of their love, a sequence of miraculous power that affirms their bond just before it is severed for good.

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McCarey had little support at Paramount to film such a grim tale. He could only make the picture by tearing up his contract and working at a flat rate. Publicity was hard to come by because, according to a 1936 New York Times article, “the 250 correspondents and fan-magazine writers…shunned the sets during filming” due to a lack of star power. Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore didn’t move tabloids, but they give remarkable performances of a couple that live through and for each other. McCarey was a master of reaction shots since the slapstick days, from Charley Chase through Laurel & Hardy, and he could use the same technique for drama. Bondi and Moore’s looks are not deadpan reactions at a world collapsing around them, like Chase, but ones that build a life, moment to moment.

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Then there were poorly received test screenings. Again in the Times:

When the picture was completed it was taken 500 miles to Oakland for a sneak preview. There McCarey found he had been too faithful, that he had invested his story with too much reality. He had presented the problems without a suggestion of veneer and the audience resented it. “The children of the film reacted to situations just as the majority of children react, but the public isn’t ready for an excess of honesty yet.

He reshot entire scenes and “lightened the whole materially.” It is hard to conceive that Make Way for Tomorrow could be any more honest than it is now, but there is one scene of the children admitting their guilt that could be a sop to the masses. As their parents are taking one last cab ride together before their separation, the film awkwardly cuts to a nondescript living room, where daughter Nellie says, “If we don’t go to the station they’ll think we’re terrible.” George responds, “Aren’t we?”

Before Bark catches a train to California for a rest cure recommended by his doctor, and Lucy moves into a separate old folk’s home, they meet for one last time in New York City, where they retrace their honeymoon steps from decades before. The city opens up to them as if in a dream, as they are given a ride from a car salesman, free drinks from the hotel manager, and a waltz from the conductor. They drink, get a little tipsy, and are merry. Lucy recites an old anonymous poem about marriage, “A Man and a Maid” that closes:  “My dear, she said/the die is cast/the vows have been spoken/the rice has been thrown/into the future we will travel alone/With you, said the maid/I am not afraid.” Bark and Lucy use art and drink to delay reality, the excess of reality that so turned off viewers. But it seeps in anyway. Bark gets on a train, Lucy waves goodbye, with nothing left to sustain them but the memory of a transcendent love. The question is whether that is enough.

 

FILM DISCOVERIES OF 2014

December 23, 2014

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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

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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

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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

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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)

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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

 

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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

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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

 

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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

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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

 

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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

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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

UNFOLLOWING THE GOLDEN RULE: GOOD SAM (1948)

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.

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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.

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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.

THE LOOK OF LOVE: THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S (1945)

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As WWII was winding down, the most popular character in America was the singing priest Chuck O’Malley. As portrayed by Bing Crosby, O’Malley was an amiable reformist, trying to bring Catholicism out of the cathedral and onto the streets. Created in collaboration with director Leo McCarey, Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) were the highest grossing films of their year, and amassed ten Academy Awards between them. Adjusted for inflation, The Bells of St. Mary’s made more money domestically than The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Father O’Malley is a kind of Catholic superhero, trying to modernize the religion before it lapses into irrelevancy.

Following Going My Way, McCarey was one of the highest paid men in America, and he could call his own shots. He formed a production company, Rainbow, and started planning the sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s, which he sold to RKO (Going My Way was distributed through Paramount). He developed the story with screenwriter Dudley Nichols, which focuses on the efforts of Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) to acquire a new building for her crumbling school, which will soon be shut down because of code violations. Father O’Malley is the new parish priest who must try and corral her ambition.

Bergman was under contract with David O. Selznick, so RKO had to pay him $175,000 to borrow her services, as well as sell him the rights to Little Women and A Bill of Divorcement. Bergman recalled how Selznick attempted to dissuade her from accepting the role, arguing that she “would just be a stooge for Bing Crosby’s singing.” She was enraptured by McCarey’s energy, though, and felt that, “If you didn’t like him, there was something wrong with you.” It was a hefty sum for RKO to pay, but Bergman had just won the Best Actress Oscar for Gaslight, and teaming her up with Crosby was the safest box office bet in town. Crosby was an altar boy as a teenager, and attended a Jesuit secondary school, but dropped out of Gonzaga to pursue a career in music. Conversant with both laissez-faire parishioners and strict observers, he was the ideal personality to bridge the gap between the traditionalist and progressive wings of the Catholic church.

While the episodic Going My Way has a tendency to meander, The Bells of St. Mary’s is anchored by the bubbling rapport between Crosby and Bergman. In a reversal of traditional gender roles, O’Malley is presented as a tender nurturer, while Sister Mary is strict and assertive, even teaching a young boy how to box. Crosby is introduced to St. Mary’s school through a series of humiliations. He is chastised by the maid (Una O’Connor), who clucks “I see you don’t know what it means to be up to your neck in nuns”. In Going My Way he owns every room he’s in with his laid back charm, whereas when he lays back here, he accidentally hits a buzzer and rouses the whole convent. Upon entering the conclave, he proceeds to sit down on a shrieking kitten. And when he gives his welcome address to the nuns, another cat toys with a straw hat behind him, causing the sisters to erupt in laughter.

Despite these indignities, Father O’Malley is still eager to assert his masculinity, so after two kids end up in a brawl, he expresses pride that they stood up for themselves. He tells Sister Mary, “On the outside, it’s a man’s world.” Mary replies, “How are they doing, father?” Their shifting power relations are expressed through the direction of their gaze. Mary begins her retort with modesty, eyes looking down, but by the end of her pointed phrase they drift up and stare straight off-screen at O’Malley, with the edges of her mouth curling into a grin. In his reaction shot O’Malley exhales and looks down, mumbling, “not doing too good” under his breath. This oblique reference to the horrors of WWII is also a decisive moment in their relationship. From here on out they exchange roles – Mary will exert aggression, and O’Malley compassion, accepting his subordinate role in the school’s pecking order.   He becomes a matchmaker for an estranged husband and wife whose daughter attends the school, while Sister Mary teaches her kids how to swing a baseball bat and throw a punch.

McCarey modeled Bergman’s character after his aunt, also named Sister Mary Benedict, a member of the Immaculate Heart Convent in Hollywood. Bergman portrays her with impish exuberance, an admitted tomboy who still finds pleasure in upsetting the expectations of how a nun is supposed to act. Bergman is very loose and inventive, and contributed eagerly to the improvisations that McCarey encouraged. Off-hand gestures, like how she flips a baseball off her wrist in a sporting goods store, or exaggerates her footwork during a boxing lesson, were made possible by McCarey’s improvisatory process. During down time, the director would sit at a piano and spitball ideas with the cast, encouraging acts of wild spontaneity. Bergman was already feeling free, not having to worry about her figure since she was clothed in a nun’s habit for the entire feature. “I was like a child with money”, she recalled, “and in the country of the greatest ice cream.”

McCarey put this improvisatory process on the screen with the Christmas Play, which Sister Mary is overseeing. She lets the children write it themselves, and informs O’Malley that, “Every time they do it, the dialogue is different.” The children are clearly making it up as they go along, as Bobby (the son of musical director Robert Emmett Dolan) hems and haws his way through the story of the birth of Jesus, ending in a tableaux of golf-club wielding shepherds. Instead of closing with “O Holy Night”, the kids sing “Happy Birthday”. Despite being set at a Catholic school, The Bells of St. Mary’s is quite secular, presenting the church as more of a social services organization than a religious one.

This is made explicit with the subplot of Patsy Gallagher (Joan Carroll), whose single mother pays the bills through prostitution. O’Malley takes her in as a student without asking questions, and tracks down her errant pianist father. This whole section plays like canned melodrama, a staid commercial for the value of church in the community. It almost seems as if McCarey included these scenes so he could get away with the more subversive antics of the rest of the movie.

One of the next turning points in the film occurs during a secular song. Sister Mary is singing a traditional Swedish folk tune by the piano with the nuns gathered all around her. O’Malley is attracted to the scene by her lilting soprano. He steps towards the circle, and McCarey cuts into a shot from his POV. It is the most artful composition in this otherwise classically framed film, in which two black habits join in the foreground to make a “V” shape, with Sister Mary’s face centered in the middle, as if in a cameo necklace. It is a devotional image, but this is not a religious psalm, but a love song.

Her eyes are shaded downward as she trills the lyrics, which roughly translate to: “Spring breezes whisper and caress loving couples/Streams rush by/But they are not as swift as my heart”. As she winds the song to a close, her voice lowers. But she inches up her head and finally sees O’Malley, which makes her voice fly up the scale to hit her highest note, which breaks up into a chuckle and a grin: “Oh, Father O’Malley!” In recognizing his gaze, she breaks the spell, but the tenor of their relationship has changed.

Their reciprocal glances continue to build in intensity, as word comes down that Mary will be transferred to another convent out West. It is ordered by her doctor, but O’Malley has to pretend it was his decision. This betrayal of trust triggers her shift from secular to spirtual, folk song to prayer. Before her departure, she kneels in in the chapel. Her eyes are directed upwards as she pleads,“Dear Lord, remove all bitterness from my heart”. It is a rare acknowledgment of God’s presence in a film otherwise occupied with the physical. As she passes by O’Malley outside the doors of the convent, her stare is unwavering, as she searches for some flicker of regret in his face. But there is none.

As she is about to depart, her prayer is answered. O’Malley calls her back, and gives her the truth. He did not order her re-assignment. Sister Mary closes her eyes in ecstasy, a beaming smile lighting up her face. She simply says, “Thank you, father. You’ve made me very happy.” They hold each other with their gazes, neither breaking away. For the first time their looks are equal. This is as close as they can come to a declaration of love.

Aware of the erotic tension of this goodbye, Ingrid Bergman planned a practical joke on the final day of shooting. In one of the last takes she threw her arms around a stunned Crosby and kissed him passionately on the lips. Reportedly one of the priests on the set jumped up and yelled, “You can’t use that!” McCarey didn’t, but this missing negative should be as sought after as the original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons. Something else to pray for.

THE TOP TEN FILMS OF ALL TIME (SORT OF)

June 5, 2012

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Later this summer Sight & Sound magazine will unveil the results of their once-a-decade poll of the greatest films of all time. In 2002 they queried 145 critics, writers and academics, who placed Citizen Kane #1, the same place it’s been since 1962.  Re-affirming the greatness of Citizen Kane, and ranking in general, tends to inflame Manichean arguments taking the form of “this over that”. Is Citizen Kane “better” than Tokyo Storyor Vertigo? This attitude treats movies like sporting events, where one film is the clear “winner”.  These lists are intended to start conversations, but instead they end them (I find it’s far more fun to look at individual lists, where personal idiosyncracies shine through, as with James Tobacks’s selection of Jimmy Hollywood in the Director’s Poll). Part of the issue is seeing the same titles every time, embalming them in a canon of good taste, historical artifacts rather than living works of art. This ends up reducing the films the poll set out to glorify. So I am presenting an Alternate All Time Top Ten,  composed of films and directors that have never been represented on the Sight and Sound poll before. These aren’t better or worse than the films that will land on the S&S poll, just different, and hopefully will spark new conversations. I encourage you to post your own alternate lists in the comments.

The list is presented in alphabetical order.

Beau Travail (1999), directed by Claire Denis

When I saw this at the Market Arcade theater in Buffalo, probably in 2000, I was introduced to a new world of movie-making, one of sensuous power that proceeded by a logic of images rather words. An erotic reverie that transposes Herman Melville’s Billy Budd to the French Foreign Legion in Africa, it builds tension through the arch of bodies and the glint of hard sun on sand. A transformative moment for me, although my Dad didn’t like it.

***

The Clock (1945)directed by Vincente Minnelli

Minnelli’s first non-musical is still impeccably choreographed, as Judy Garland and Robert Walker meet-cute in NYC and fall into a whirlwind romance. Walker plays an earnest midwesterner on a two-day leave from the army, who falls instantly in love with Garland’s sophisticated urbanite. Compressing the entire wooing process into two nights, Minnelli heightens the tension of together-separate with big boom shots which pick the lovers out of the crowd, and then lose them in it.

***

Coeur Fidele(Faithful Heart, 1925), directed by Jean Epstein

The current Jean Epstein retrospective at Anthology Film Archives in New York City has been my first exposure to this feverish stylist, and my goodness are they sensual viewing experiences (as much as Beau Travail, say). This one, available on UK DVD/Blu, is about a foundling girl (Gina Manes) whose cheap adoptive parents marry her off to an evil bastard named Little Paul (Edmond Von Daele). She’s in love with sensitive guy Jean (Leon Mathot), who seems to spend most of his time staring at the sea (as do most Epstein characters). Filled with looming close-ups, dreamy super-impositions and sequences of fast-cutting that would make Tony Scott blush, it’s an experimental melodrama that floored me with its earnest audacity.

***

Duck Amuck (1953), directed by Chuck Jones

Where Daffy Duck meets his maker. This modernist masterpiece finds the titular mallard go ballistic when the animator keeps changing the backgrounds to his scenes. A Three Musketeers pastiche all of a sudden becomes a folksy farm routine and then a mountain skiing escapade. Eventually Daffy goes ballistic, yelling at the screen, until the hand of Jones comes in with his eraser… One of the funniest films ever made, which also just happens to be a wittily self-reflexive essay on the author as sadist (or as Bugs Bunny, which amounts to the same thing).

***

Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), directed by Robert Bresson

The funniest Bresson is also now my new favorite. Jacques (Guillaume des Forets) is an ascetic young painter enraptured by Marthe (Isabelle Weingarten), who attempts suicide after her boyfriend cuts off contact. Jacques promises to act as a go-between between Marthe and her man, as a way to get closer to her. They start strolling along the Seine most nights, zombies in unrequited love, hypnotized by a glass pleasure boat that sails down its waters, trailing its bossa nova tune.

***

The Green Ray (Le Rayon Vert,1986), directed by Eric Rohmer

The perfect summer movie! The wispy Marie Riviere plays Delphine, a neurotic young professional whose friend backs out of a trip to the Greek isles two weeks before departure. Already bummed out by her sometime (mostly never) boyfriend, she wanders from beaches to the mountains in a depressive state, forcing relaxation upon herself, but only ending up in tears. Riviere is a bewitchingly annoying presence, her sulkiness matched by her hectoring lectures on vegetarianism. She is an open wound, cringing at every touch. The healing process begins through another meet-cute in a train station (Rohmer must be a Clockfan!), and the intervention of a Jules Verne short story. There magic in books and sky, so Delphine finally chokes down her pain begins emerging into the world outside her head.

***

Make Way For Tomorrow (1937), directed by Leo McCarey

Bark (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi) Cooper have lost their house, and depend on the kindness of their children to take them in. It doesn’t work out that way in McCarey’s devastating drama of aging and loss, which was the model for S&S poll mainstay Tokyo Story. Orson Welles famously said it could make a stone cry. It is so affecting because it is so clear-eyed and unsentimental, with no last act redemptions. It is simply a story of two people in love whose lives fall apart.

***

Me and My Gal (1931), directed by Raoul Walsh

The first movie I wrote about here at Movie Morlocks, and one of the most energetic every made. Each frame pops with invention, whether it’s Spencer Tracy’s slangy NYC argot, trick shots or parodies of popular movies of the day, there’s something happening every frame. The whole production seems drunk, from Walsh on down to the gaffer, tossing around ideas and shooting the bull until the shooting day ended. The result is chaotic, messy and joyful – filled with the most life per square inch of film stock in history.

***

Mysteries of Lisbon (2010), directed by Raul Ruiz

A summation of Ruiz’s work, with its nested stories, unstable identities and swirling camera movements, and one that is endlessly pleasurable. I’m rather anxious to see the 6-hour TV version. Adapted from the 19th Century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, it tells the circuitous story of an orphan and his parentage, one which spans lifetimes and consumes hundreds of identities. It is a a ballet where every step both reveals and conceals, Ruiz’s camera unveiling truth at one edge and a lie at the other.

***

When A Woman Ascends the Stairs(1960), directed by Mikio Naruse

Hideko Takamine’s face is one of the great monuments of cinema, and here she gives a performance of shuddering uncertainty. She plays Keiko, a fiercely independent bar hostess in Ginza forced intent on opening her own place. But the world of men keeps throwing up obstacles to her self-actualization, her impassive expressions intimating only hints of the roiling uncertainty inside.

THE NEAREST THING TO HEAVEN: LOVE AFFAIR (1939)

March 22, 2011

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When two deeply affecting films are viewed in quick succession, they start to speak to each other. This weekend I watched Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) and Love Affair (1939), both for the second time. They have a radically contrasting approach to narrative, but both use visual patterning to pursue a kind of naturalized transcendence. In both, an idealized vision or emotion is brought down to earth, made approachable and concrete. Love Affair takes the melodramatic conceit of romantic love, based on separation and a purely spiritual longing, and places it in reluctant bodies, who squirm and flirt and have to work for a living.  Boonmee flattens the space between life and death, man and animal, ancient and modern. Ghosts are as natural as the oxen in the woods, and its characters react accordingly, with benign acceptance. In their own way, both films convey what my late, great undergraduate Philosophy professor, M.C. Dillon, wrote in Beyond Romance:

We are our bodies. Including the traces that other bodies have visited upon ours and the traces our bodies deposit in the world as marks of its passage. It is as bodies that we are and are known. In that broad sense, all our knowledge of each other is carnal knowledge.

Boonmee takes the supernatural and makes it tactile, while Love Affair brings romaticism into the intricate choreography of actors’ hands. I previously wrote about Boonmee here, so the following incoherent ramblings will focus on Love Affair.

The plot of Love Affair uses the classic scenario of romantic love, as laid down in the songs of the twelfth-century troubadors in the South of France. They sang of unrequited attractions, impossible to act on because of the custom, as Dillon writes, of using marriage as a means of consolidating family wealth. Dillon goes on to quote the Countess of Champagne, delivering a judgment in a court of love convened in 1174:

We say and affirm…that love may not extend its rights over two married persons. For lovers grant each other all things mutually and freely without constraint of any motive of necessity, whereas the married are in duty bound reciprocally to submit to the will of the other, and to refuse each other nothing.

Love and marriage are mutually exclusive, and this in turn fueled the thwarted erotic imaginations of the eras poets. All of the great romantic stories, Abelard and Heloise, Tristan and Isolde, are premised on separating the lovers. Dillon: “The point is that the intense experience of love they sought could not survive without the barriers that kept their fantasies alive by preventing them from knowing one another.” (Manoel de Oliveria’s masterful duo of Doomed Love and Francisca lays bare the masochistic tendencies of this mode). The ensuing centuries have done little to alter this pattern, aside from changing the tragic ending into one of happy heterosexual couple-dom. The barrier between couples remains, cycled through endless cliches, usually divisions in class or temperament. These tales typically end when the lovers first get to know each other.

Love Affair subtly tweaks this pattern, with director Leo McCarey introducing visual motifs to bring this love for all time into a love for right now. Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne gain a carnal knowledge of each other, in Dillon’s sense, in their first moments together, revealing themselves through their relation to space and their musical gestures. Their first meeting is through a porthole window on board a cruise ship, a tiny opening that halos faces, a partial, idealized view. It is a typically romantic image, Dunne’s face framed like a cameo necklace, and separated from Boyer by a thick wooden wall. In a usual romance, this first meet-cute would presage a long interval of Boyer searching for this mystery woman. Instead, Dunne walks around the corner, in an imposingly squared off fur coat, and continues her sarcastic banter. She goes from a beatific face to a fully embodied woman, and Boyer is immediately taken, grabbing her arm and urging her to listen to his own romantic woes.

It is from this moment that McCarey orchestrates a symphony of hand gestures to indicate their growing bond. In their first meeting, Dunne playfully taps her fingers on her purse, one of her strong moves of studied indifference. Later, the conversation turns to their respective fiancees, and Dunne lifts her pearl necklace to her mouth, a nervous, childish tic, revealing a bubbling insecurity. The flirtatious game they are playing against each other soon turns in to an effortless vaudeville act – their bodies simply work well together. After their initial dinner date, a photographer snaps an embarrassing candid, and with a choreographed bit of sleight of hand, Boyer hands the film to Dunne, who drops it in the ocean while pretending to straighten her hair. In this wave of hand motions, they have gone from antagonists to physical intimates, without a romantic word seeping from their lips, their dialogue being a thick flurry of quips and put-downs.

In the following sequence, Boyer tries to charm a little boy with a game of patty cake, but instead the kid dishes about the gossip surrounding Boyer’s amorous conquests. He feigns hitting the kid before walking away – here his hands fail him, able to work only with Dunne. This visual motif reaches its peak when they visit Boyer’s grandmother in Spain, who is played with quivering intensity by Maria Ouspenskaya. Dunne asks to see her chapel, and kneels in a gauzy, be-fogged light (Rudolph Mate was the D.P.). As she stares intensely at the statue of the Virgin Mary, beseeching silently for answers to her romantic plight, Boyer sits uncomfortably, peering at her. The telling moment occurs when Dunne concludes her prayer, and Boyer does the same, but nervously adjusts his tie as he finishes the sign of the cross. He is shaken out of his self-possession for the first time, just as Dunne was by grasping her pearls. Later, Boyer asks his grandmother to play the piano, and she responds, laughing, “look at my hands”, in apology for her coming performance.

But she continues with a lovely ballad which unites them all. McCarey begins with a close-up of Ouspenskaya’s wrinkled hands stringing out the notes and cuts to a single smiling shot of her, before framing a medium shot of all three, with Boyer and Dunne at opposite sides of the piano. As the music flows from her fingers, Dunne starts humming the tune, and so begins an exchange of glances in shot-countershot. First is Boyer’s adoring gaze on Dunne, followed by Ouspenskaya’s knowing grin towards him. They are all connected by their looks and by the grandmother’s expressive hands, which say more than either Boyer or Dunne have been able to in their circling flirtations. It is an expression of love flowed through Ouspenskaya’s fingers into Boyer’s gaze, and emerging from Dunne’s voice. This impossibly moving sequence is shattered by the brusque bellowing of the crusie ship’s horn, indicating the couple’s departure. The grandmother trails off from the melody, the spell broken, and breaks down in tears. Her grandson is leaving, and the piano’s flowing channel of emotion has been stopped up. From now on Boyer will have to express this bodily emotion on his own, and it’s unclear, after the scene in the chapel, whether he’s capable of it.

The expressive hands disappear once the couple departs the ship, but not before McCarey inserts one final image in this motif, of their clasped hands pulling apart. This begins the classically romantic section of separation, but in this case it is self-imposed. Both Boyer and Dunne realize that their union would mean the end of their comfortable lifestyles – they would lose their rich husband and family, respectively. So they pledge to learn how to make a living, and wed afterward. Dunne becomes a nightclub singer, Boyer a commercial (and later artistic) painter. One ingenious shot finds Boyer painting a Schlitz billboard when his agent yells up to him that he sold his first canvas. Their separation does not “prevent them from knowing one another”, in the usual romantic mode, but provides an opportunity to know themselves better.

In this section McCarey shifts to imagery of reflections in windows and mirrors, representing each character’s self-doubt about the solidity of their dreams. They pledge to meet at the Empire State Building in six months, after building a career. The melodrama’s machinations put more roadblocks in their path, but it ends in a joyful affirmation of embodied love. This final revelation begins in a revival of their first flirtatious meetings, when every word meant its inverse and meaning had to be read on their faces. But then in an extraordinary panning shot, Boyer sees the reflection of one of his own paintings, erasing the doubts represented in the earlier mirror shots, and proving the irreducible nature of their love. In the final image, they dry each other’s eyes with Ouspenskaya’s shawl, a talisman of their unspoken emotions, expressed previously only through gesture. Now they can cry freely.

For a film singing with images, I will end on dialogue, in which Dunne starts with the mystical and ends with a man, shuddering in her embrace:

“I was looking…up. To the 102nd floor. It was the nearest thing to heaven. You see, you were there.”

***

For M.C. Dillon (1938 – 2005), who taught me how to live and how to read Nietzsche, which are one and the same. When I told him I was going to Graduate School for Cinema Studies, he was befuddled – he implied that it was useless, and that I should pursue Philosophy – but then told me a story. He said when he was in the Navy, he had a stop-over in Monaco and attended a diplomatic party. There, he claimed, he danced the evening away with Grace Kelly.

MY SON JOHN (1952)

February 2, 2010

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Last Wednesday, TCM presented the first television screening of Leo McCarey’s My Son John in decades. It screened as part of the “Shadows of Russia” series, which tracked Hollywood’s depiction of the country from Tsarist times through Soviet rule. Programmed by the NY Post’s Lou Lumenick and the Self-Styled Siren‘s Farran Smith Nehme, it offered a wonderful chance to catch up with McCarey’s underrated rarity. The reason for its obscurity lies in its politics. Produced during the height of the House Un-American Activities Committee (for which McCarey was a friendly witness), it is strongly anti-communist, and has been dismissed in many corners as mere McCarthy-era hysteria. As Robin Wood wrote in Sexual Politics and Narrative Film, the film is generally presented in a condescending manner: “typically introduced with an apologetic chuckle signifying, ‘Nowadays, of course, we can laugh at this.’” The usually sage Robert Osborne adopted this attitude in his introduction to the telecast, referring to it as an embarrassment, and our own astute Morlock Jeff emphasizes the “hysteria” over its other virtues in his article on the movie.  I have to respectfully disagree with my colleagues.

To reduce the film to a kitschy red scare product ignores the complex dynamics occurring in the family unit. Dean Jagger plays the father, Dan Jefferson, an earnest American Legion member who can’t conceive of a world outside his small-town newspaper. He’s an ingratiating buffoon with a quick temper and a taste for the beer barrel at the Legion hall, likeable enough until he starts singing nativist jingles and tossing his son across the room. He is an intentionally ridiculous character, as McCarey told Peter Bogdanovich in Who The Devil Made It?, as unbending in his conservative beliefs as John is with his communist ones. Personally, McCarey may have gravitated more to the father’s view, but his artistic temperament, which cherished improvisation and spontaneity, would never allow a such a monolithic man to be a hero (hence Renoir’s famous quote that McCarey understood people better than any other Hollywood director). Instead he is thrown through a series of farcical scenes – the song, a drunken rant, an absurd whack of the bible – that display his child-like pettiness and his inability to adapt to the times. His paranoia is proven accurate, but this does not alter the boorish nature of his character. His wife Lucille is the one who uncovers her son’s secret, and is the true dramatic center of the film.

Lucille, played spiritedly by Helen Hayes after a 17 year absence from the screen, is the pragmatic one, calming Dan’s fears, enduring his rages, and attempting to understand John’s point of view. She is patient with her husband but also fiercely independent, evidenced when she secretly dumps the pills he foists on her for her “anxiety”. She coddles him like an impudent pup, with a condescending kind of love. He provides the bombast, but she is in control of the relationship. Hayes’ performance is a bit of a high wire act, managing swings from manic energy to swooning depression with a few broad strokes – her darting eyes and sing-song voice ease the way down to the tragic conclusion. I think she succeeds wonderfully, evincing a rock-ribbed faith in God (in the eyes), paired with a mischievous sense of humor (her staccato laugh).

There is an especially moving scene where John is describing the world’s duty to help raise up the poor, and she finds a connection to Catholicism’s similar tenets to tend to those living in poverty. The joy in her face at this empathetic moment is beautiful and devastating , because she has yet to understand the basic incompatibility of their world views, and hence their imminent separation (and also because of the intensity of McCarey’s close-ups). Her inability to transcend the barrier between these ideologies turns her into the central tragic figure of the film, and is why Dave Kehr calls it McCarey’s most “emotionally demanding movie after Love Affair“. Her capitulation to Dan, when she tells him he was right about their son, is another scene of devious power, with Lucille’s ashen face on a different plane from Dan’s obliging attempts at apology for his drunken antics the night before. It is a drama of generational feuding and familial fissure more than anything else, as Martin Scorsese has also noted.

John is played by the incredible Robert Walker with icy disdain, a callow kind of condescension that college boys convey upon returning home from their first few philosophy classes (I recognized a bit of myself in him). It ended up as his final performance. Walker died near the end of the shoot, necessitating a total rewrite of the final sequences, and some awkward matte work which included some shots from the final carousel sequence in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. It is these final scenes that have marred the reputation of My Son John more than anything else, as John’s dramatic turn away from communism had to be cobbled together out of scraps of old footage and stand-ins, rendering this already difficult arc impossible to pull off. Without an actor to improvise off of, the subtleties of McCarey’s character work fall away, the family drama fades into the background, and McCarey’s staunch anti-communism dominates, turning the last act into more of the straight propaganda film its critcs claim it is. But it still contains echoes of the emotionally wrenching work that came before, in the few shots of Helen Hayes’ eyes.

McCarey claims it could have been his best film if Walker had survived, perhaps an impossible claim with The Awful Truth and Make Way for Tomorrow on his resume, but it lies at the center of his thematic world – at the nexus of personal freedom and familial responsibility that winds through his greatest work. It may not be his best film, but it is an essential one.