Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) directed by John Ford, starring Henry Fonda, Alice Brady
(Note: This is my entry in the John Ford Blogathon, hosted by Krell Laboratories.) Young Mr. Abraham Lincoln (Henry Fonda) is a man of weighty thoughts but light experience, at least when it comes to the rule of law. All he really knows, he's only learned from books. But after he loses his first love Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore), Lincoln makes up his mind to study the law in earnest. However, his first case will prove to be as great a challenge as he could ever have imagined. The Clay family have come to town for a Fourth of July celebration. At the fair, the two brothers (Richard Cromwell and Eddie Quillan) get into a fight and a man ends up dead with a knife in him. Both Clays are accused of murder. Both are determined to take the blame, trying to spare their brother from a hanging. Their mother (Alice Brady) is a witness to the crime but absolutely refuses to say a word; she'll never sacrifice one to save the other. The other key witness to the crime is J. Palmer Cass (Ward Bond), a friend of the victim; he insists that he saw the stabbing by the light of the moon and refuses to budge on that point. Lincoln agrees to take on the case, but all the fates seem against him. He's got a town braying for the blood of the two Clay boys, a town that's ready to lynch them at any second. He's got a jury that's already biased against the case. He's got no testimony to counter the accusations. His defendants won't tell the truth of what happened. And he himself is as green a lawyer as ever walked into a courtroom. But that won't stop him from putting up one hell of a fight. Little does he know that it's only the beginning for him.
Of all our presidents, Abraham Lincoln is arguably the most cinematic. Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson had more bombastic personalities and George Washington was the more standardized hero, but Lincoln stands out as uniquely well suited to the big screen. He's both the approachable, folksy "rail-splitter," the common man striving to better himself, and the mythical, untouchable paladin for human rights. He's a figure we can look up to in awe, but, to snag an old election phrase, someone we could also imagine wanting to share a drink with. Consider that in the very same year, we got both a big-budget, prestigious, Oscar-nominated film inspired by Lincoln's efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment and a splashy fantasy action flick about Abraham Lincoln, the vampire slayer. Lincoln presents, in many ways, the archetypal image of what Americans want to think about themselves. Sharp and tricksy but also reasoned and wise. Compassionate yet stern as steel. A humble background but the will for power.
John Ford's 1939 biographic film, Young Mr. Lincoln, is a testament to those ideas of Abraham Lincoln and in that regard, it's a beautiful, modest, rather slippery piece of work. "Biographic" is a term I use very loosely here, because the movie has little interest in retelling the facts of Lincoln's life. It marks off a lot of the famous little anecdotes about his early career, like the time when he told the story of the dog and the pitchfork in court or the time he asked Mary Todd to dance ("I want to dance with you in the worst way"). But it carries precious little in the way of facts. The movie invents wholesale a story about him defending a pair of accused murderers and devotes most of the runtime to that. With the overwhelming abundance of storytelling material in Lincoln's actual life, the choice to depict him as a crusading Atticus Finch seems oddly limiting at first glance.
However, once you get past that mental hurdle, Young Mr. Lincoln offers a portrait of Lincoln that is deeply affecting and more complicated than you might expect from the synopsis. In fact, the Lincoln here has a lot in common with the 2012 Spielberg version of Lincoln. They're both presented as canny, thoughtful men, not above using a little trickery or insults to get their way. The Lincoln in this film cracks lowbrow jokes, hems and haws over his true intention and calmly manipulates people. He even cheats to win a game of tug-of-war at one point and John Ford cuts away without tipping his hand as to whether we're supposed to applaud his smarts or be disconcerted by his casual disregard for rules. Without showing Lincoln's political career, the 1939 film manages to throw in a great many hints about his political aptitude. This film also highlights Lincoln's essential isolation from other people, ending in a famous scene of him walking alone up a hill that surely must have been in Spielberg's mind when he filmed the final scene for his version. The key difference between the 1939 and 2012 biopics is that the Spielberg story is about the collaboration and compromises Lincoln and other people must make to form that more perfect Union. Ford's film, by contrast, presents Lincoln as a singular figure, one whose struggles are not truly shared or understood by anyone else.
Sometimes, an actor's star persona is virtually indistinguishable from his offscreen one, as in the case of Clifton Webb. Other times, it's almost a night and day contrast; the down-to-earth homemaker turns into a sultry temptress on silver nitrate or vice versa. Personally, I hold to the theory that you can usually unearth bits and flashes of the actor's true self underneath the performance, no matter how wide the gulf seems at first. Vincent Price's joy in living, Joan Crawford's drive for self-improvement, Rita Hayworth's need to please. It's there if you know where to look for it. But Henry Fonda is one actor that strains that theory of mine to the breaking point. On film, Henry Fonda is the purest personification of honesty. He isn't just a good guy. He's the hero struggling in the dark, his eyes fixed on some distant mountain peak of perfection that the rest of us can only imagine. He could take characters as decent and honorable as Tom Joad, Juror No. 8, Wyatt Earp, and Abraham Lincoln and convince you that they were possible. And yet in real life, Henry Fonda was a cold, unreachable man who alienated his loved ones and quite frankly, acted like a shit to them much of the time. After you've read a few of the Fonda family bios, it seems frankly unbelievable that this man could dig deep enough to find the fathomless generosity and compassion of his most famous roles.
However, when you look at Henry Fonda and compare him to the other famous "good guy" actor, James Stewart, the connection snaps into place. The hallmark of a Fonda hero, as opposed to a Stewart hero, isn't heartfelt emotion, it's thought. Fonda heroes are always staring off somewhere into the middle distance, thinking their way towards a solution. Unlike Stewart, who so often ends up loving too well and not too wisely, Fonda is more isolated, more cerebral and less open. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stewart's climactic speech has him distraught and anguished, voice cracking, fiery and exhausted. In Grapes of Wrath, Fonda's famous speech has him looking offscreen, patient and undaunted, slowly struggling his way towards the understanding that he himself belongs to a larger whole. And there is a certain coldness to that kind of hero. He can't belong to us in the way Stewart can.
All this is leading up to a notion of mine that when Henry Fonda plays the John Ford hero, it results in films that tend to be quieter and less easy to pin down than Ford's films with John Wayne. My Darling Clementine, The Grapes of Wrath, and Young Mr. Lincoln all have their fair share of Fordian humor and American nostalgia, but they keep us at more of a distance (I have a feeling that Mr. Roberts might be the exception that proves the rule but don't tell me, I still haven't seen it). I realize that I have spent almost this entire review talking about Henry Fonda and not the supporting cast, which includes some famous names, including Ward Bond, Donald Meek, Alice Brady, and Richard Cromwell. And that's for the very good reason that this film is really Fonda's showcase the whole way through. When he's not onscreen, you're waiting for him to come back. The other characters don't really register, although I appreciate the sly touch of having the aptly-named Donald Meek play Lincoln's slick, confident opponent. Alice Brady's performance as the anguished mother of the defendants is also good, but the script rarely gives her more than one note to play. Truthfully, Young Mr. Lincoln, while a great character study for its protagonist, does suffer a little by making the supporting characters so simple. John Ford films in general rely heavily on archetypal characters, but I can't help feeling that they came across as richer and deeper in movies like How Green Was My Valley or Stagecoach than they do here.
The greatest joy this film has to offer for John Ford fans, aside from Fonda, is the aching beauty of its camerawork. His shots of Lincoln rambling through the woods look like something you want to hang in a gallery, they're so well framed. Ford's ability to find both emotion and mythic resonance in his stories is also just as evident here as it is in his more famous films. There's an early scene with Lincoln talking to his first love Ann Rutledge out near the river. She encourages his dreams, he compliments her hair. The sun is shining. The mood is tentative and hopeful; their romance is just barely beginning. When she walks away, Lincoln tosses a stone in the river. The ripples slowly transition to shifting blocks of ice in the dead of winter. The camera finds Lincoln making a slow, deliberate walk to Ann's grave to replace the flowers there. The cruel, lovely simplicity of the image cuts straight to the bone.
For me, the best John Ford films are built on moments like that. Moments that make us feel like we're seeing an elemental truth of human experience. While I wouldn't rank Young Mr. Lincoln as one of his greatest films, if only because his best is so very great, it carries enough of those moments to make me very glad that John Ford and Henry Fonda chose to make their idea of Abraham Lincoln. In 1939, they were without a doubt the best men for the job.
"What I'm afraid of is that some of the jurors might not know you...and that'd put me at a great disadvantage."
The scene in which Lincoln takes on an angry lynch mob. It's a simple scene on the surface, but it's so elegantly constructed that if I taught film classes, I'd make it required viewing for all my students. Abraham Lincoln has just taken on the case of the two Clay brothers and a raging mob descends on the cell, ready to storm it and kill the boys then and there. Lincoln appears just in time and throws himself between the crowd and the door, armed with nothing but his lanky body and the sound of his voice. Rather than just appealing to their better natures or diffusing the situation with humor or angrily calling them out, Lincoln applies all these strategies in one speech, revealing his incredible political aptitude for the first time.
I love the way that Ford matches the shifting camera angles to Lincoln's shifting tactics. In the first part of the scene, when Lincoln appears in front of the door, Ford's camera goes for a jarring, extreme close-up of his back turning around. When he turns, the camera has traveled sharply away from him and he's a distant, almost frightening figure in black, loudly proclaiming that he'll beat up anyone who tries to pass him. As the crowd argue with him, Lincoln gradually turns the conversation into subtle mockery, poking fun at himself in order to draw a laugh from them ("I'm just a fresh lawyer trying to get ahead...and you boys act like you want to do me out of my first clients"). Ford brings the camera closer and now Lincoln is in the middle of the frame. He's more approachable now, but rather cool and dispassionate. The crowds starts to calm. Ford cuts to a beautiful closeup of Lincoln, now leaning against the doorframe, his head bowed. He begins speaking regretfully of the nature of lynch mobs, subtly drawing the conversation away from the comical waste of money to the real moral cost. The humor's gone. Then he actually calls out one of the mob by name, reminding him of his honorable name and piety. He paints a picture for the crowd of this same man going home to read his bible and turning to the passage, "Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy." By now, the crowd has been thoroughly subdued. Their battering ram is almost slipping from their hands. Lincoln looks up and says softly, "Why don't you put it down for a spell, boys, ain't it getting heavy." He has won a total victory. Moreover, Ford's camerawork matches Fonda's performance so perfectly in this scene, Lincoln can't help but win over the movie audience as well.
I've talked before on this blog about miscasting. It's one of my eternal fascinations. Not just the plainly ludicrous decisions like casting Susan Hayward as a Tartar princess or Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist. No, I'm more interested in those casting glitches where everything seems like it should perfectly line up and yet it still goes wrong. Why are some of the greatest acting legends of all time so stymied by roles that other, less talented people can carry off like gold medalists? So I decided to draw up a list, focusing not so much this time on just the movies but on the performers themselves. Why are great actors unable to play certain parts?
Please note that I'm aware some of my readers will fiercely disagree with my selections here. I welcome a good debate so feel free to bring up any rebuttal in the comments section. Also, since I never like dwelling too much on the negative, stay tuned for Part Two, where I talk about the times when seemingly miscast actors turned in great performances. Without further ado, here's my list: Cary Grant Can't Do Costume Pictures
Of all the great film stars, perhaps nobody was as skillful and deliberate in managing their career image as Cary Grant. He turned down roles other actors would have sold their entire toupee collections for and he ended up with a resume that's enough to send the nicest, most easygoing man in Hollywood reeling with sheer envy. He worked with the best directors, the greatest leading ladies. But there was famously one thing that Grant spent most of his career avoiding and that was this: he would not do historical costume pictures. After seeing himself in The Howards of Virginia, a critically reviled flop about the Revolutionary War, Grant said, "I don't belong in costumes." He stuck to that notion for seventeen years, until agreeing to star in The Pride and The Passion, another film that got a sound drubbing from critics and audiences alike. The standard answer to why Cary Grant just doesn't seem right for costume pictures was that he was too modern. He was to the tuxedo born and nothing else would do. But I'm inclined to take issue with that a little. After all, he does a perfectly good job in Gunga Din and in that one, he was a good twenty years away from the twentieth century and nearly forty years from the nearest cocktail party. The man wore costumes well and while he looks admittedly kind of silly in The Howards of Virginia, if you just look at stills of him in The Pride and the Passion (the performance itself is another matter), he wears the old British naval uniform with perfect dignity. Grant's voice and mannerisms are distinctive of course, but if the public can accept Tony Curtis as a Greek slave and Clark Gable as a Southern gentleman and Robert Ryan as John the Baptist, why then is Grant singled out? No, I think the reason lies somewhere in the fact that Grant is a natural clown. He needs to kid his surroundings to belong to them. If he tries to be self-serious, he turns stiff. And the problem is that most historical epic films are just that, they're epics. They're trying to preserve history like a monument and Grant is one actor that should never be set in marble. He can fit in just fine when the movie is a historical romplike Gunga Din. But if the subject is weighty, forget it. In short, I think he misfires in costume pictures for the exact opposite reason that Charlton Heston succeeds in them. Because Heston is serious enough to believe himself anywhere and Grant is smart enough to disbelieve himself everywhere. Barbara Stanwyck Can't Play Ingenues
People who follow my blog know that I'm a firm believer in the "Barbara Stanwyck Can Do Pretty Much Anything" Doctrine. She could do comedy, Western, film noir, drama, crime, soap opera, horror, and do it all with no apparent effort. That alone makes her stand out from the other female acting icons like Crawford and Davis. They could reach her heights but they never rivaled her range. The one gap I've really found in Stanwyck's career is this: she could never really play the innocent. Even in her earliest movies like Ladies of Leisure and Shopworn, she's already cynical and experienced, a young woman who's had plenty of hard knocks and starts to get suspicious if she can't see one coming. This characterization carried her through most of her career, but even for someone like Stanwyck, there were times when being a tough cookie just wouldn't cut it.
While Frank Capra can be credited as the director who discovered and refined Stanwyck's talent for hard-edged, secretly vulnerable women, he also gave her some fairly awkward roles as well. Take her part as the lovelorn, self-sacrificing heroine of Forbidden. The movie opens with Stanwyck as the shy, bespectacled librarian (!), who only opens up to life after she falls in love with dapper Adolphe Menjou (?). Remember that ridiculous scene in It's a Wonderful Life where we get the dreaded reveal of Donna Reeds, sans makeup, as the town's spinster librarian? Nearly the whole first half of Forbidden plays like that scene. Stanwyck can't even begin to settle into character until the second half, where she gets a new job and starts trading sexy banter with Ralph Bellamy (?). Capra would push Stanwyck's credibility even further by casting her as the naive missionary in The Bitter Tea of General Yen. But this is where it gets interesting. Stanwyck should, by all rights, be utterly wrong for this part. She's no sucker and she's no saint. Despite that though, Stanwyck manages to plow through the role because she plays the missionary, not for gentleness, but for bull-headed, stubborn pioneering spirit. She's deluded, but not soft.
By this point, I've seen fifty Barbara Stanwyck movies and I never cease to marvel at how Stanwyck takes the same tactic whenever they force her to play innocent girls. She plays them like bulldozers. Whether they're sweet wives smiling through their tears (Ten Cents a Dance), power-behind-the-throne spouses (The Great Man's Lady) or feisty Irish tomboys (Union Pacific), they're always 100% determined. It doesn't always fit the role, but it sure as hell fits Stanwyck and that's enough to lift the curse of miscasting.
Claudette Colbert Isn't Motherly
Clearly, Hollywood didn't agree with me on this one since it was happy to cast smiling, purring Claudette Colbert in quite a lot of maternal parts, particularly as she aged. Most famously there was Since You Went Away, with Colbert doing the American version of the Mrs. Miniver character, but there's also Imitation of Life, Tomorrow is Forever, Family Honeymoon, and Parrish. I can only speak for Imitation of Life and Tomorrow is Forever, but I can't help thinking that whenever that potent Colbert charm gets hit with a dose of syrupy sentimentality, the result is like a batch of rock candy. It glitters alright but it's too sweet to eat and too hardened to melt on your tongue.
In Imitation of Life, Colbert is in top form whenever she has to run her business or trade banter with her friends. She's smart, witty, sophisticated, she's the epitome of everything you want Claudette Colbert to be. But the minute her bratty moppet of a daughter is onscreen, lisping and begging for her rubber duck (bet you didn't know that the actual closing line of Imitation of Life is "I want my quack-quack"), Colbert coos and giggles and plasters a warm, motherly smile on her face. It's about as artificial as it gets. It makes the ending of the film, in which Colbert agrees to postpone her wedding to Warren William until her teenage daughter gets over him, even more risible than it might otherwise have been. I can't watch Colbert getting all trembly and noble without wanting Sandra Dee to teleport in from the 1959 remake and snap, "Oh, mama, quit acting!"
The funny thing is, there is a strong note of "come-to-Mama" in Colbert's love scenes. Watch her in something like Cleopatra or Midnight and it's totally there in her mannerisms, in the way she bends over her leading men. She tends to them, she humors them, and all the time she knows she's wiser than they'll ever be. On her, it works and she's mesmerizingly sexy and confident. But when it comes to motherhood, or rather the oft-times sickly sweet, sentimental vision of motherhood that Hollywood went for in the '30s and '40s, Colbert just can't make it work. After all, it's pretty hard to look like you're burning with the sacrificial flame of unconditional love when you can't even be bothered to turn your head to the left.
Gregory Peck Can't Be Wicked
Of all our acting legends, I find Gregory Peck to be one of the most off-and-on in terms of what he can and can't do. Whenever I start to think he's overrated, I'll remember To Kill a Mockingbird and The Gunfighter and ask for forgiveness. Then, I catch a glimpse of him in something like Moby Dick or Cape Fear and gnash my teeth in frustration that these parts didn't go to actors who would make more of them. But just when I've decided that the man is hopelessly stiff and humorless, I'll catch a rerun of Roman Holiday and be enraptured all over again by how charming and romantic he can be. It's Audrey Hepburn's picture, but it's easy to forget how much support Peck gives her and how graciously he draws attention to her side. Really, for someone who came to embody straight-arrow decency in movies, the man is surprisingly mercurial in what he brings to the screen. So many actors, especially those tagged as bland or boring, shine particularly bright when they get to play evil. Gene Tierney won her only Oscar nomination for playing a child-drowning madwoman in Leave Her to Heaven. Robert Montgomery got some of the best notices of his career for his turn as a psychopath in Night Must Fall. Robert Walker, cast over and over again as a boy next door, turned out to be one of the greatest villains in cinema as the complicated killer Bruno Anthony in Strangers On a Train. But Gregory Peck does not belong to this class. He is never worse than when he plays bad.
Case in point is his performance as bad, bad Lewt McCanles in Duel in the Sun. He plays the dangerously seductive, totally amoral rancher's son who merrily proceeds to wreck Jennifer Jones' life, just because he can. At this point in his career, Peck was preternaturally gorgeous. He always had incredible screen presence. He looks like a man who could drive a woman to the brink. But his performance in Duel in the Sun is the most unconvincing thing ever, a weird combination of campy, over-the-top line readings and stilted boredom. To be fair, nobody really comes off that well, performance-wise, in Duel in the Sun. Still, I think there's a difference between the acting of Jones, who comes off more like a well-meaning performer undone by over-direction and bad scripting, and Peck, who just cannot fit this role. He's just not the wicked seducer. Having also seen him try to play a more redeemable version of the type in How the West Was Won, I think I can say that with some confidence. However, I still haven't seen The Boys From Brazil, so maybe Peck finally does manage to unlock his evil self by playing a Nazi. I'll have my fingers crossed for him.
Gene Tierney Isn't Lower-Class
"I suppose you were a model of all the virtues when you were young." "Certainly I was. I won a prize for deportment at school." That bit of dialogue comes from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir but it could just as easily come from several other Gene Tierney movies, including nearly all her best ones (Laura, The Shanghai Gesture, Leave Her to Heaven, Dragonwyck, Heaven Can Wait). She belongs to that class of actresses (Grace Kelly is another), who can't help but remind you of the good little girl in the classroom, the one who wins all the prizes and has a stunning debutante ball when she turns eighteen. Onscreen, she's the born aristocrat. Well-bred, well-mannered, and smooth as silk. Tierney was often a harder actress to cast than she seems at first glance. She's not really warm onscreen, but there's a sweetness and mildness to her presence that's difficult to shake. This made her too cool and remote for "America's Sweetheart" roles and too nice for tarts or rebels. Her best parts could turn that to her advantage, letting her play women whose gentle nobility shone through in difficult circumstances. She could play costume parts with ease because that kind of feminine ideal half-belonged to another era anyway. And when she did play villainesses, as in Leave Her to Heaven or The Razor's Edge, she turned them into "good girls gone bad," women who probably had won prizes for deportment in school, women so perfect that of course they had to snap. The Shanghai Gesture takes that idea to a whole new level, giving us cool-as-ice-cream Tierney in the first half and dragging her down into a sullen, opium-addicted slave in the second. Still, Darryl Zanuck didn't always choose the right parts for his star and Tierney also got miscast quite frequently, having to play everything from Western outlawsto South Seas island girls. But for me, one of the more interesting misfires is Tierney in the screwball comedy Rings on Her Fingers. The movie is a poorly concealed rehash of The Lady Eve, with Henry Fonda once again playing the lovestruck sap and Tierney cast in the Barbara Stanwyck role as the con artist falling for her mark. And you pretty much find out everything you need to know about how wrong Tierney is for this part in the very first scene of her as a wisecracking, cynical shopgirl. She's smacking her gum, she's rolling her eyes and trying out a Brooklyn accent. She's about as convincing as Wallace Beery in drag. Tierney might have been able to play a lower-class character if said character was sweet and polite. But a chip-on-her-shoulder floozy? Forget it. The filmmakers themselves must have figured this out pretty quickly, because they shove Tierney into the role of adoring and reformed spouse only halfway into the movie, dooming any hope of real comedy. Gene Tierney herself illustrated the nature of her screen persona in an anecdote in her memoirs. She and Groucho Marx were entertaining the troops during World War II and he talked her into coming out on stage and doing a sassy little bump and grind. Tierney was doubtful but did it. The crowd responded, not with catcalls or applause, but with dead silence. When she went back to Marx, he told her, "You were right, you can't do a bump." Tierney ruefully summed it up by saying, "Marilyn Monroe would have done that bump and looked adorable. On me, it was all wrong."
Humphrey Bogart Ain't Upper-Class
Humphrey Bogart had the most perfect sneer in movies. It was perfect because he always aimed it above and not below. Bogart fans know the fun always starts when someone tries to plant their boot on him because that's the moment when Bogart hunkers down, grins, and proceeds to shred them. He knows it's probably a lost battle, he knows they're not worth his busted bones, but he'll do it anyway. Bogart's so good in these moments that it's easy to forget how many miscastings the man had to suffer through in his career. Some are obvious, like the Irish horse trainer in Dark Victory. But there's a less immediate problem that crops up with Bogart, one that kicks the old "Classic Hollywood stars only played themselves" chestnut right down the stairs. He just couldn't play rich men. He couldn't play top of the heap. When he tries to play a self-satisfied businessman in Sabrina, the result is a world of awkwardness.
This one's a puzzler because in real life, Bogart was upper class. His family was pure New York high society, complete with a fashionable apartment in the Upper West Side, a cottage on the lake, and the money to send their rebellious son to the most prestigious prep schools in the state. Hell, Bogart even started out his stage career by playing the kind of namby-pamby rich dweebs who signaled a change of scene by calling, "Tennis, anyone?" And one look at a photo of young Bogart shows that he polished up pretty nicely. For all that though, Humphrey Bogart never belonged in glittering romantic comedies. He only found his true cinematic self on the rougher side of things. He needed something to fight against. If ever he'd been cast in an Ernst Lubitsch film, which one do you think would've detonated first? Burt Lancaster Can't Be Repressed
Burt Lancaster's ambition as an actor carried him so far and in so many different directions, from lovelorn thugs to fast-talking con artists to dignified Italian noblemen, that when he actually does manage to hit a wall, it reverberates like a shock. He was nobody's idea of a man who could disappear into a part. And yet, looking back, it's rather remarkable how the man could twist his beaming, tanned presence to suit the requirements of a part; he could be elegant or rough, reckless or controlled, brilliant or brutish. He could even pretend to be intimidated by Hume Cronyn. But the one thing he couldn't do is the one thing that ends up sinking an otherwise decent performance in Come Back, Little Sheba. He can't be insignificant.
Part of the problem with casting Burt Lancaster as the repressed, miserable alcoholic "Doc" Delaney in Come Back, Little Sheba is simply his youth. Even though the movie tries to age him up a bit with grey hair, there is no way to make the handsome, thirty-nine-year-old Lancaster look like any kind of probable mate for fifty-four-year-old Shirley Booth. The whole point of the character is that this man has tied himself down to a lifetime of regret with a dowdy, unappealing woman. The only option left is to find some way of growing old with her. Except that there is not one single frame of this movie in which Lancaster doesn't look perfectly capable of hopping in his car, cruising down to the nearest night club, picking up five or six of the prettiest women, and then riding off into the rising dawn. But even if you try to squint through the age difference, the problem is that Lancaster doesn't seem like an ordinary man. His miseries will never be common ones. He is incapable of convincing me that he would spend any length of time pondering the whereabouts of a dog named Sheba.
At the time, the movie, adapted from William Inge's play was an example of the '50s fascination with gray, downbeat realism. But looking at it now, J.J. Hunsecker had more realism in the flickering light of his match than anything Come Back, Little Sheba has to offer.
Julie Andrews Can't Play Hitchcock Blondes
People who've grown up watching Mary Poppins and Sound of Music might be tempted to chime in here with, "Well, of course she can't!" This is after all, the most famous nanny in movies, the woman with a song in her heart and a soul of pure sunshine. Her costar Christopher Plummer compared working with her to "being hit over the head with a big Valentine's Day card every day." But still, I can't shake the feeling that there must be a deeper explanation for why Julie Andrews just seems so painfully miscast as the troubled Hitchcock heroine in Torn Curtain.
After all, nobody excelled at bringing out the buttoned-up sensuality and yearning of blonde actresses like Hitchcock did. He looked at warm, earnest Eva Marie Saint and saw a femme fatale just waiting to break out. He took lovable Doris Day andsubtly chipped away at her image in The Man Who Knew Too Much, revealing a woman of buried resentments and animal desperation. But Torn Curtain never finds anything to excavate in Andrews; she just comes across as gracious, pleasant, and hopelessly straight-laced. You'd think it would be near impossible for a woman to be rolling around under the covers with 1966-era Paul Newman without generating some kind of electrical charge. But Andrews' tinkling laugh and repeated titters of "Oh, Michael" just flash freezes the whole thing. Did Hitchcock lose interest in the movie? Was Andrews unwilling to let loose a little? Was it those ugly costumes (surely some of the most unflattering stuff ever put on a Hitchcock leading lady)? Whatever the reason, it makes for some memorable miscasting. The Master of Suspense met his match and it was Mary Poppins. Vivien Leigh Will Never Be Mousy
We never actually got to see Vivien Leigh take on the role of the shy, shrinking Mrs. DeWinter in Rebecca. She wanted the part very much, more because it offered the chance to play opposite her lover Laurence Olivier than for its dramatic potential. But even though Selznick and Hitchcock humored her with a screen test, they both agreed that she was all wrong. It wasn't even a close call. According to Hitchcock himself, Leigh was "uniquely strong," a bold, determined woman who was "absolutely right to play Rebecca but Rebecca never appears in the film." Instead, Joan Fontaine got the part, winning both an Oscar nomination and an A-list career. There's a surplus of explanations for why Leigh never fit the role. She was too ravishingly beautiful and raven-haired to be believable as an awkward girl trying to melt into the wallpaper. Her sexual attraction to Olivier was too obvious when they worked together; nobody would buy them as as an estranged married couple. Or, as Hitchcock put it, she was just too strong, too much of a Rebecca. All very good reasons. Except...does it really explain everything? After all, Fontaine herself was the polar opposite of Mrs. De Winter in real life. She was witty, sharp, and more than capable of shoving off her troubles. And while it's plainly ludicrous to imagine Vivien Leigh cursing her lack of beauty, is it really that much more believable when it's Joan Fontaine?
The other reason I toyed with this one is that Vivien Leigh actually can play an innocent, awkward girl. Anyone who's seen her play Myra, the crushed-by-circumstance young lover in Waterloo Bridge knows she's capable of more than devious minxes and psychotic beauties. I struggled for a long time, wondering why Leigh might find it easier to work her way into the head of the painfully innocent Myra and not the shy, naive Mrs. DeWinter. The conclusion I came to is that Leigh just can't play characters who don't ask for anything. Myra reaches for love with both hands and ends up rushing to her fate. Mrs. DeWinter is terrified of asking for anything from life. When you see Leigh talk to Olivier in the test, she's arch, even amused. She can't sell that timidity. In life she was a woman who never stopped grasping for more and if she was the same way on film, audiences can only be grateful we got the benefit of so many memorable, daring, desperate, impossible female characters. Characters that remain unforgettable because they want so much and get so little in the end.
Earle Slater (Robert Ryan) is a man with little to offer the world. An ex-con twice over, middle-aged and penniless, Slater is staring down the barrel of a merciless future and he knows it. All he really has is the unconditional love of Lorry (Shelley Winters), but that love comes attached with small gifts of money that Slater hates himself for using. He needs to get some kind of score or his chance for happiness will be gone forever. So when crooked ex-cop Dave Burke (Ed Begley) comes to him with a too-good-to-be-true plan for a heist, Slater snatches it up with both hands. There's a snag, though. Burke's plan depends on the cooperation of smooth-talking musician Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) to play a delivery boy. Thing is, Ingram's black and Slater is a racist. Even with everything at stake, Slater can scarcely bear to share the same room with Ingram, let alone cooperate on a crime with him. For his part, Ingram loathes Slater completely but his own massive gambling debts force him to go along. Dave has his hands full trying to keep this shoddy little trio together. As the clock ticks down to their one chance for fortune and freedom, these three men will have to ask themselves if they really have what it takes to beat the odds.
Odds Against Tomorrow is film noir's answer to The Defiant Ones. When asked the question, "Can a bitter white racist and a proud black man put aside their differences in the interests of survival," the answer here is simply, "No." Hate is enough to overpower all other instincts.
The canny trick of Odds Against Tomorrow is the way it eases into that question. It doesn't immediately announce itself as a social problem movie or even as a caper flick. Instead, it spends most of its running time slowly introducing us to our three main characters: the old, blindly optimistic Burke, the desperate Slater, and the troubled young Ingram. We get insight into the fears that push them forward. Burke took a fall as a crooked cop and wants to get a little of his own back before it's too late. Slater is violent and miserable, lashing out at a world that doesn't want him. Ingram is addicted to gambling and weighed down by responsibility for his ex-wife and daughter. By the time the movie gets around to the actual heist, we're fully aware that hatred isn't just a social disease or an impediment to common sense. For men like these, hate and anger are tools for survival. One way or another, they've become life's losers and the only way they can put one foot in front of the other is by finding something else to blame for their problems.
The performances in Odds Against Tomorrow are uniformly excellent, from the trio of inexperienced thieves to the unhappy women that love them, but what really knocked me out in Odds Against Tomorrow was the visual style. There was an unwritten rule in Hollywood for decades that movies about social issues had to be in a gritty, unadorned black-and-white in order to underline the seriousness of the story. Director Robert Wise takes that rule and slices right through it, avoiding both the boring, TV-episode look of other '50s kitchen sink dramas, and the gorgeous, slick camerawork of the classic film noir.
Instead, Wise's compositions borrow the best from both styles, alternating between slanted shadows and corner and disorienting, overexposed location shots. This technique creates a bleak, chilly landscape with blindingly white flashes of light along the horizon. Far from looking seductive or glamorous, the city in Odds Against Tomorrow looks almost as if it's gone through some kind of nuclear winter. Wise even adds in a few infra-red shots here and there, so Ryan at times is walking under a black sky with distorted white clouds. The effect is desolate and eerily beautiful. Just as Ryan and Begley's middle-aged thugs are fighting against the realization that life holds no more chances for them, the movie itself looks like the last document of a world slowly being burned out of existence.
It is a hard, perilous business, trying to steer the ship of Robert Wise Appreciation through the dark waters of film criticism. No matter which direction you go, you hit sharp rocks. Turn the conversation to Citizen Kane and Wise's editing career and you run smack into the film fans who will forever hate Wise as the scissors-wielding mediocrity who butchered The Magnificent Ambersons. Turn the conversation over to Wise's directing success and you inevitably run up against someone grinding their axe against The Sound of Music or West Side Story. Try to find some calmer waters with the auteurists and you find a general sense of frustration at the slippery Wise, a man who went from beguiling fantasy-horror flicks all the way to gargantuan Hollywood crowd-pleasers without much hint of personal connection to his stories. Really, the only safe place for Robert Wise love is with the film noir fans, who are quite happy to hold up Born to Kill, The Set-Up, and Odds Against Tomorrow with the best that film noir has to offer.
I think one of the reasons Wise never quite achieves critical darling status is that he was one of the most chameleon-like of directors, subsuming himself to the demands of his story. Given a classic haunted house tale like The Haunting, he delivers exactly that. Given a blockbuster musical property like West Side Story, with its uneasy blend of passionate feeling and vague attempts at social relevance, he delivers that, too. His background in film editing seemed to give him an edge in making films that moved fluidly and consistently in whatever style he chose. With a great story, he can be superb. With Odds Against Tomorrow, he had a simple idea but a sharp script by Abraham Polonsky (yes, that Abraham Polonsky, blacklisted screenwriter of Body and Soul and Force of Evil, here relegated to sneaking his work in through an alias). Wise seems particularly inspired by the material and his direction here is as beautiful as anything he accomplished under Val Lewton. It's an unusual thing, to see a '50s movie about racism that looks as good as this one does. In addition to scripting and direction, Odds Against Tomorrow also has the benefit of a jagged, nervous jazz score by John Lewis. The score careens back and forth from a restless background rhythm, like an onlooker tapping his toe in the background, to blasting, dissonant crescendos. The music is practically screaming at these characters to get out while they still can, but they're living in a film noir and so they don't take the warning.
While Begley, Ryan, and Belafonte all do excellent work, it's no surprise that Robert Ryan emerges as the central protagonist and the most compelling character in the movie. Ryan was already a practiced hand at playing bigots (Crossfire, Bad Day at Black Rock), bullies (Caught) and out-and-out villains (The Naked Spur). Despite being shy, compassionate, and devoted to liberal causes in real life, Ryan had the ability to tap into something dark and raw onscreen that seemed to go beyond the hammy theatrics of villainy. His characters always seemed to be running away from human connection. Ryan's 6"4" frame made him tower over costars and yet there was a painful vulnerability to his tormented loners. Nobody could do self-loathing like Ryan.
As Earle Slater, he's a fascinating mess of contradictions, a man who's both tender and vile. Ryan's introductory scene has him scooping up a little black girl running on the street and telling her, "You little pickaninny, you're going to kill yourself flying like that, yes you are." Ryan's voice is so gentle that the impact of the words doesn't fully register until you see him coldly rebuffing the friendly overtures of the black elevator operator, his whole body vibrating with disdain that this man dares to approach him. Slater is no less cruel in his treatment of women, either. He's brusque to girlfriend Shelley Winters, using her and cheating on her. And yet, there's a moment early on where Winters embraces him and Ryan buries his head on her chest, his eyes aching with the need for affection and understanding.
No less striking is a scene where Ryan responds to the goads of a group of teenagers and ends up decisively punching one out. In a John Wayne movie, this would be the classic moment of the Duke proving his mettle against a callow younger generation. Here, the moment quickly turns embarrassing and awkward for Slater as the boy's whimpers and obvious pain make him look like a sadist. A bartender chastises him and Ryan's face, briefly flushed with triumph, turns confused, even childlike. "I didn't mean to hurt him." Slater's long since given into his worst impulses as a person and these brief flashes of a better nature reveal how painful life is to such a man. He knows enough to know he'll always be in the wrong.
As Slater's forgiving girlfriend Lorry, Shelley Winters gets one particularly good exchange with Ryan. When he tries to explain his scheme as something in her best interest, because what will she do when he gets old, Winters bites back, "You are old now!" Her face briefly reveals a tired certainty that this man will lie to her and fail her, no matter what he promises. It says a lot for the nature of the typical Shelley Winters role that the part of Lorry, hopelessly devoted to an ex-con, is relatively confident and astute in comparison to her standard role. At least nobody's trying to murder her this time.
The other two parts of the criminal trio, Begley and Belafonte, are both excellent in their respective parts. Begley has the least showy part; Burke's just the old-timer trying to make good. But Begley brings the man to life by focusing on his blind, grinning optimism. Burke is a man who knows he just has to score, he just has to make good, there are no other options.
Belafonte plays Ingram, the only one in the trio who's still young enough and outwardly confident enough to make good without resorting to crime. His first introduction reads like a photo-negative of Ryan's; Belafonte turns up in a shiny car, playfully offers money to all the neighborhood kids to leave the car alone and then makes friendly conversation with the same elevator operator on the way up to Burke's flat. It's only later on that we get a glimpse of the demons that torment Ingram. When charm and persuasion fail to keep his debt collectors off his back (helped along by Burke's machinations), Ingram reveals a simmering resentment and outraged pride, pounding out his frustrations at the night club and yelling out interruptions to his friend's song.
Even better is a scene with his ex-wife Ruth (Kim Hamilton in a brief but lovely part). The two reveal that they're still desperately attracted to each other and they'd gladly marry again if not for their little girl. Ruth can't trust this gambler to be a good father for her daughter. Ingram reacts to her blunt resignation with a blistering tirade about his wife's white friends. "Drink enough tea with them and stay out of the watermelon patch!" Just like his mirror image Slater, Ingram can't accept that his own faults have driven him into this corner. He'll grasp at anything to avoid taking on the responsibility and this need for blame will carry him away from the real love that he wants. However, and this is the only major fault I can lay on this movie, Belafonte's rage is never as well-defined as Ryan's. His character is not so complex and while it's implied that he harbors a resentment against the injustices of the white community, his actual history is never explained. This muddles the motivation for Ingram at the end of the film, in a climax that depends on our willingness to believe that both Ingram and Slater have passed the point of reason. We've already seen that Slater has little to live for and might even welcome death. Ingram, on the other hand, has quite a lot to live for and still has plenty of hope for the future. It doesn't make much sense that he would choose hatred and vengeance over simple self-preservation. While I may quibble at the journey we take to get there, the ending of Odds Against Tomorrow fulfills every bleak promise that it makes. Our heroes are rewarded, maybe not as they all deserve, but by the pitiless rules of the world they live by. They are made equal in spite of themselves. And isn't equality the shining hope of every Hollywood social problem film? Odds Against Tomorrow is what happens when such cockeyed optimism gets rewritten in the icy language of film noir.
Favorite Quote: "Aren't things ever easy for you, Earle?" "Only when I get mad. Then they get too easy." Favorite Scene:
has a brief but unforgettable part as Ryan's neighbor, a married mother
who starts out knocking on Ryan's door for a babysitter and turns out
to be a secret sadomasochist, thrilled by the ex-con's murderous past.
Grahame starts out a little stilted in her line delivery, almost as if she's asking for a cooking recipe rather than for detailed descriptions of a manslaughter charge, but the old black magic comes out when Ryan gives into her demand and starts talking. She wants to know what it's like to kill someone and before she can backpedal back into respectability, Ryan leans in. "I enjoyed it," he murmurs into her ear, offering it up like the seduction she wants. Grahame's lids flutter with arousal, and in response, Ryan's whole body seems to relax for the first time. He keeps talking. Even before he tugs Grahame's top off to reveal her bra and the movie cuts to black, you realize that this right here is the climax he's been waiting for. This is the moment where he can live out his sadistic impulses with no shame. And yet, you can't fully be sure how much Ryan's character is really revealing himself and how much is him playing up to the desires of this woman. The performance is that good.
something poignant and almost sweet about the casting of Grahame in
such a small but still memorable part. If any woman represented the
greed, desire, and masochistic longing of the film noir genre (The Big Heat, In a Lonely Place, Human Desire, Sudden Fear),
she did. In 1959, Grahame was still beautiful, still sensual, but the
trampy, troubled women she'd played through the decade were starting to
be replaced by different types. Back in 1947, she'd co-starred with
Robert Ryan in Crossfire, another film that blended social issues
with crime drama. She'd been the tart, he'd been the racist. But back
then, Grahame and Ryan had been fresh on the scene and their incendiary
talents had won them critical acclaim. They were new, they were modern,
they were exciting. Now fast forward to Odds Against Tomorrow,
twelve years later and they're playing the same noir archetypes. They're
older, wearier, and the regrets of time are palpable. Having them
together again in a movie like this feels almost like a true goodbye to
the golden age of film noir.
John Wayne: The Life and Legend (2014) by Scott Eyman
"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." In the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, this most famous of Western lines comes as the final death blow to a man's idealism. Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), the supposed hero, realizes in an instant that his life, career, and love have been handed to him by the man he can never repay, the real man who shot Liberty Valance, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). He can't even make the gesture of telling the truth; nobody will believe him and nobody wants to. The words are sardonic, a cold summation of the entire Western genre.
John Wayne's not even in the scene; his character is dead by the movie's end. But to anyone who knows a little about John Wayne, it's hard not to take those words as an equally accurate summation of the Duke himself. This is after all, the same man who defined onscreen masculinity for over three decades. This was Hollywood's most famous cowboy, the indomitable hero of the frontier; even as the rest of the world changed around him, Wayne remained the same. However, as Scott Eyman makes clear in his latest biography, John Wayne: The Life and Legend, for Wayne, the words "printing the legend" would not have been an insult. For him, they would have been a badge of honor.
Scott Eyman has tackled many difficult subjects before, including Cecil B. DeMille (Empire of Dreams), Louis B. Mayer (Lion of Hollywood), and John Ford (Print the Legend). In the case of John Wayne however, the challenge is not about struggling to find material or sifting through contradictory interviews. It's about trying to write a nuanced portrait of an actor who, despite his obvious intelligence, talent, and ambition, so often seemed to be deliberately trying to erase any nuance or contradiction from his life. At some point, the man and the myth blended together for all time.
Born Marion Morrison in 1907, Wayne grew up as a bright, well-liked boy in Glendale, California, the son of a cold, ambitious mother and a kind but shiftless father. Despite the anti-intellectual image he would gain later in life, Wayne was a top student, one who liked reading and schoolwork as well as athletics. As he loved to point out to people, he could say "isn't" just as well as "ain't." Although he liked to act as if the movies were something he just fell into on accident, beginning as an extra and a prop man on the Fox lot, Eyman paints the portrait of a serious, dedicated actor who was eager to learn everything he could right from the start.
Although he got a huge push by starring in The Big Trail in 1930 (a well-publicized but expensive flop), Wayne ended up in the back-breaking, frenetic world of the old Western serials and B-movies for the rest of the decade. He wouldn't really break into the big time until John Ford chose him to star in one of the most influential Westerns of all time, 1939's Stagecoach. His appearance as the soft-spoken, tough, and honorable Ringo Kid set the basic outline for the iconic John Wayne character. Rough around the edges but a gentleman at heart. Honest and direct. Doesn't lose a fight. Never backs down. Never gives up. In his long career, Wayne would stretch this basic characterization in many different directions, giving audiences the flinty, vengeful Tom Dunson in Red River, the drunken Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, the romantic Sean Thornton in The Quiet Man, and, in the biggest gamble of all, the anti-hero Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, an enigmatic, hate-filled man who comes close to redemption and love, but can never, ever find it.
If there's one main flaw to Scott Eyman's otherwise meticulous, well-researched, and generous work on John Wayne here, it's this: he doesn't spend enough time talking about the performances. Of course, I realize that's likely my own personal bias talking here. When I read movie star biographies, it's the movies and the performances that I want to hear about. I'd much rather read about the tragic dimensions of Ethan Edwards and Wayne's approach to the role than I would his thoughts on Nixon. In fairness to Eyman, he makes it clear that he's not trying to analyze the movies themselves, but the life surrounding those movies. And in that regard, he does an excellent job. Like his previous work on Cecil B. DeMille, Eyman is a master at reclaiming respect for artists whose divisive politics and wholehearted embrace of ideas now considered corny and out-of-date can sometimes lead modern audiences to dismiss them. The John Wayne that comes across in this book is a thoughtful, multi-talented, and hard-working actor, one who liked Noel Coward and J.R.R. Tolkein more than Zane Grey and one who took on all the burdens of idealized image with good grace. Wayne knew that he owed all his success to his audience and he believed it was his responsibility to live up to that image.
This belief would cost him plenty. Although he played the soldier many times onscreen, Wayne never served in World War II and this failure ate at him, fueling the macho militarism he would express later in life. He was equally controlling of his onscreen behavior, turning down any role that would stray too far from his image. Because he was so adept at keeping his image intact, Wayne would often be accused of being a movie star instead of a serious actor. Someone who just kept "playing himself." Eyman has no patience for that kind of labeling and his account of Wayne is admiring but unapologetic. He doesn't shy away from the many uncomfortable things Wayne said and did in his later years, but he does try to keep them in context.
Just like John Wayne's films, Eyman's biography is at its most compelling when the Duke is desperate and driven rather than when he's comfortable and secure. The stretches detailing his long career in the poverty-row Westerns are a standout; Eyman's descriptions of the unrelenting pace and harsh conditions make them sound roughly on par with a stint in the Marines. Cast and crew worked grueling hours, subsisted on a milk-and-bread concoction called "graveyard stew," and tried to look tough standing in front of ramshackle sets so cheap that the crew would paint them no higher than the leading man's head. In one memorable anecdote, Wayne and Yakima Canutt, the great stuntman, end up being ordered to a 5 A.M. shoot at a rock quarry in the San Fernando Valley, just after coming off a midnight studio shooting the very same night. Wayne was forced to borrow a friend's car, tear home for a few hour's sleep, and then rush to the still-dark quarry. There, he found Canutt waiting in the dark, the first man on set, huddled silently next to a fire. Canutt remarked, "It doesn't take very long to spend all night out here." After that, the two men were friends for life.
For all their faults, the cheap Westerns and serials gave Wayne a great deal to carry with him. An unfailing work ethic. An appreciation for the rough-and-tumble camaraderie that could develop on the movie set. And above all, it instilled in him a deep gratitude for his later stardom and for the man who helped him reach it, John Ford. Wayne never forgot those ten, frustrating years before Stagecoach. Even though he had to bear the brunt of Ford's legendary sadism on set, to an extent that made even other Ford veterans shake their heads in wonder, his loyalty and admiration for "Pappy" never wavered. The man famous for taking no guff from anyone on or off-screen, the man who never backed down from a fight, was strangely docile when it came to Ford. By comparison, the teenage Natalie Wood had no problem telling the venerated director to "go shit in his hat" when he told her off during filming of The Searchers.
The relationship between John Ford and John Wayne is perhaps the deepest mystery to be found in Eyman's biography. By comparison, his three failed marriages (all to fierce, proud Hispanic women--the Duke had a type) are relatively uninteresting by Hollywood standards. Whenever he played romance onscreen, Wayne was the strong man out of his element. He was humbled but never fully domesticated by his own tender feelings. It made him the perfect costar for Maureen O'Hara; she was strong enough to stand her own against him, but tender enough to bring out his softer side. Eyman pays indifferent lip service to Hollywood rumor that Wayne was in love with O'Hara as well as the somewhat more credible one that he was in love with the beautiful and tragic Gail Russell (his costar in Angel and the Badman and Wake of the Red Witch). But thankfully, Eyman is uninterested in gossip and scandal. He's far more concerned with the many enduring friendships John Wayne made and the great movies that came out of them. In fact, Eyman's so thorough in uncovering each and every positive thing ever said by someone who knew John Wayne that I almost started to pine for something negative, if only to add a little spice.
However, John Wayne: The Life and Legend succeeds in its primary goal: to tell the life and legend of John Wayne. Few actors could so easily lay claim to the title "legendary" as John Wayne. And few biographers could tackle so weighty a subject with the even-handed eloquence and tactful appreciation that Eyman gives us here. For any fans of Wayne or even for people looking to find out more about him, this book makes a great start. It's long but leaves you feeling like there's so much more to discover.
"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." True, but there's still a thousand different ways to tell that legend. I'm glad I got to read this one. Final Six Words: Intelligent, balanced account of Wayne's life Note: This book was given to me as a review copy by Simon & Schuster. It is currently available for purchase at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Indiebound, and directly from the Simon & Schuster website.