Tag: Anna Lee

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford rant and rage in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Director: Robert Aldrich

Cast: Bette Davis (Jane Hudson), Joan Crawford (Blanche Hudson), Victor Buono (Edwin Flagg), Marjorie Bennett (Dehlia Flagg), Maidie Norman (Elvira Stitt), Anna Lee (Mrs Bates), BD Merrill (Liza Bates)

Age isn’t kind on the careers of Hollywood actresses. Move into your 40s and the part offered quickly becomes “the grandmother”. It’s a fate that saw the careers of some of the greatest actresses of the Golden Years of Hollywood crash screeching to a halt. However, these actresses remained popular with many cinema goers. So it occurred to Robert Aldrich, why not throw a couple of them into the sort of roles that can riff on their careers and public images? Match that up with jumping on the bandwagon of films like Psycho and you could have a hit on your hands.

That’s what he got as well with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) is a former “infant phenomenon” on the stage, whose career fell apart as soon as she hit puberty. Her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford), on the other hand, grew up to have a promising career in Hollywood – which then collapsed when a late-night driving accident (which Baby Jane is widely believed to be responsible for) left her paralysed from the waist down. Now in middle age, Jane and Blanche live in domestic disharmony, Blanche trapped upstairs at the mercy of Baby Jane, whose longing to rebuild her career sees her head down an ever steeper spiral of insanity.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane started a new genre in Hollywood – the freak hag-horror or psycho-biddy genre (those names alone show that at its heart this genre was basically demeaning) which saw Hollywood Grande Dames (frequently Davis and Crawford, though others got a look-in as well) parley their reputations into ever more formulaic riffs. Films like this quickly became cult viewing. Their extremes of make-up and performance, matched with the arch camp of the leading ladies hamming it up, made the genre extremely popular – and left films like Whatever Happened… far more fondly remembered than they deserve.

It’s popular to see Sunset Boulevard as a sort of precursor to this genre, a first try-out in taking an older era of Hollywood and turning it into a ghastly waxwork show. But Sunset still has affection  for what it shows (and above all captures the tragedy of the death of Silent Hollywood, treating its characters as people rather than freaks), while Whatever Happened has none, basically seeing the past as a parade of monsters, and these relics as waxworks to be mocked. There is no affection here for the past successes and glories of either star, instead we are invited to sit back and wonder at how far they might be willing to go to see bums on seats again. All of this to make money for the producers. Far from the art of Sunset Boulevard, this feels more like the exploitation of screen greats.

Although of course both stars were more than happy to get involved, even if they were less than happy working with each other. The background to the film, to be honest, often carries more interest than the very long, often slow, horror/black comedy during the film’s over-extended run time. Famously Davis and Crawford were long-standing rivals and their relationship over the course of making and promoting the film disintegrated into cheap one-upmanship and bitter recrimination. While the feud does probably give some edge to the screen antics, the very fact that it’s nearly the first thing people remember about the film probably tells you how memorable the actual experience is.

Davis throws herself into all this with creditable abandon. (She was Oscar nominated and Crawford wasn’t – although Crawford got the last laugh, having arranged on the night to collect the Oscar on behalf of eventual winner Anne Bancroft, performing on Broadway that night.) Davis designed the freakish but iconic look of Baby Jane, all painted face and little girl mannerisms, and her demented attempts to recreate her childhood act in her 50s (culminating in a bizarre and skin-crawling “Writing a Letter to Daddy” dance which was weird enough watching a 12 year old perform) can’t be faulted for commitment. Davis also manages to invest the bullying and cruel Jane with a deep sense of loss, regret and guilt (for her sister’s accident) that frequently bubbles over into resentment. It’s certainly a larger-than-life performance and Davis frequently dominates the film, even if the role is basically a cartoon invested with Davis’ own grace and glamour.

It doesn’t leave much for Crawford, whose Blanche is frequently left with the more po-faced, dull and reactive lines. Crawford doesn’t often make Blanche as sympathetic as you feel she should be – although the part plays into one of her strong suits of playing the martyr – and the film saddles her with a late act twist that doesn’t have enough time and development to really make much sense. However again you can’t fault her commitment, either to screams or to a scene where she attempts to climb down the bannisters of the stairs from her trap on the upper floor, where the effort, strain and pain on Crawford’s face are astonishingly real.

Those stairs dominate many of the shots of Aldrich’s serviceable and efficient direction – although he lacks any sense of the mix of cruel poetry and dynamite sensationalism that Hitchcock bought to similar material in Psycho. But it works nicely to give a sense of Blanche’s confinement and as a visual metaphor for the trap the house feels like. Aldrich also throws in a couple of other decent flourishes, not least as Davis’ lounge turns into a proscenium stage as she imagines returning to the big time.

But the film itself is, despite it all, lacking in any sense of kindness or warmth really for either its stars or old Hollywood. We are instead invited to gasp at them in horror, while the film drags on at great lengths, stretching a very thin plot (barely a novella) into over two hours of screen time. There are effective moments, but it’s a film that seems barely serviceable today.

Fort Apache (1948)

Henry Fonda and John Wayne face off in John Ford’s Fort Apache

Director: John Ford

Cast: John Wayne (Captain Kirby York), Henry Fonda (Lt Colonel Owen Thursday), Ward Bond (Sgt Major Michael O’Rourke), Shirley Temple (Miss Philadelphia Thursday), John Agar (Lt Michael O’Rourke), Dick Foran (Sgt Quincannon), Pedro Armendariz (Sgt Beaufort), Miguel Inclan (Cochise), Victor McLaglen (Sgt Festus Mulcahy), Guy Kibbee (Captain Wilkens), George O’Brien (Captain Sam Collingwood), Anna Lee (Emily Collingwood)

Fort Apache was the first of Ford’s “cavalry trilogy”, exploring problems and personality clashes of remote cavalry posts in the middle of what used to Native American territory. Contrary to what you might expect, this is a complex, intriguing film that brilliantly explores tensions between very different ways of thinking and issues of class in America, which are so often overlooked. If it sells some of the tensions of clashing ideals down the river with an ending that fully endorses the myth over the reality, the fact the film makes clear that the idea of a well-meaning army all pulling together is a myth says a lot.

John Wayne is Captain Kirby York experienced, more liberal minded acting commander of Fort Apache. Aware of the difficult balance of maintaining good relations with the Apache tribe while protecting American expansionist interests, he’s perfectly suited for keeping the peace in the West. Unfortunately he’s replaced by Lt Col Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), an arrogant, class-conscious – if polite and honourable man – who applies the letter of the law to all his dealings, so obsessed with rules (he protests “I’m not a martinet” while bemoaning the lack of proper uniform in the dust filled heat of the West) that he sees no reason to moderate even the most corrupt of the local officials who have driven the Apache to revolt, instead demanding the Apache submit. Disaster is on the cards.

Ford’s film revolves around the personality clash between York and Thursday. While both dutifully respect the chain of command, it’s clear that York has a closer bond and understanding with both the men under them and the complex considerations to balance when dealing with the Apache. Thursday, on the other hand, is an arrogant, prickly character, bemoaning his “demotion” from a field rank of General in the Civil War, to an “obscure” fort. A posting he is determined to escape from with an honour laden victory as soon as possible. 

With Ford’s romantic regard for the ordinary soldier and regular Joe, the sort of posh New-Englandish Thursday is a clear stand-out. A stiff-backed martinet, he never listens to others (he constantly needs to be reminded about names) and has a snobbish disregard for Lt O’Rourke (a callow John Agar) whose father, far from being officer class, is an Irish Sgt Major at Fort Apache. Thursday is notably uncomfortable at such Fordesque events as a NCO ball, or when talking with the men – he even looks unsettled in the desert, wearing full uniform and avoiding a hat in favour of an army cap with a dust-sheet attached at the back (no Ford hero would be seen dead wearing such a thing). 

The character works so effectively because he is played so delicately and skilfully by Henry Fonda. Cast against type – and looking older – Fonda plays Thursday as a frustrated man, terrified of failure who simply lacks the flexibility to adjust to situations. Rules instead are there to be followed in detail, regardless of his personal feeling. Corrupt government agent Meacham he treats with contempt, but he will defend his incompetent regime in Apache land to the death. With the Apache he can’t see past his own inbred ideas of superiority, treating them with a paternal disappointment, certain that they are no match for American cavalry might (spoiler, they certainly are). Fonda however keeps Thursday human, a flawed, rigid man dropped into a role he is ill-suited to and struggling to adjust.

John Wayne offers an equally careful performance as York. Unlike Thursday, York adjusts his actions and decisions based on situations and personalities, rather than enforcement of rules. Army regulations can be respected but applied with sense. Meacham to him should be hounded out of town as the root cause of all the problems. Cochise, the Apache chief, he treats with respect and honour – abiding by deals and attempting to compromise with him to find a peaceful solution (a negotiation Thursday of course torpedoes with his arrogance and intransigence). Wayne is often thought of as the action hero, but here Ford starts to explore his elder statesman quality, as well as his underlying decency and honour as an actor.

Other sub plots interweave neatly around this. John Agar’s young O’Rourke flirts with Thursday’s more liberal daughter (played brightly by Shirley Temple) – needless to say this relationship meets with no approval from Thursday. Thursday’s old colleague Sam Collingwood – now a time-serving captain at the Fort – is paralleled with him and York, as a time-server and mediocrity, a decent family man but lacking the will to do what he knows is right. Ward Bond provides both comedy and also a warm fatherly quality as Sgt Major O’Rourke, proud of his son and re-enforcing discipline on his (mostly Irish of course!) soldiers. 

And of course the action is handled extremely well. A chase sequence with Apache, cavalry and a wagon (under-manned and out-gunned, because Thursday believes a few men and rounds of ammunition should be enough to see off the Apache) is filled with excitement. And, of course, the film builds towards the inevitable disaster Thursday’s rigid mismanagement was always heading towards: a suicide charge against a well defended Apache position, fighting to defend a corrupt agent who Thursday and York both know should be replaced.

It’s a film that quite daringly shows that American’s “mission” in the West was often founded on corrupt officials, and that the military leaders were sometimes rigid, incompetent martinets who led their men to avoidable disaster. It’s shame then that the York – and the film – chooses in a flash forward at the films end to promote the idea of Thursday’s charge being a glorious defeat, rather than an avoidable disaster. And that, this printing of the legend, is important to protect the “why we fight” idea of America. It’s the downside of Ford’s love of the past, of the mythology of the West, that even in the end of a film about incompetence, it’s still seen as noble and important to protect people from the truth and promote the legend, than tell the truth. But then for Ford, protecting the memory of the ordinary soldiers who died is the key – and if that means never questioning the how or why, well then that’s a price worth paying. It’s an idea we perhaps have far less sympathy with today.

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood raise Roddy McDowell in How Green Was My Valley

Director: John Ford

Cast: Walter Pidgeon (Mr Gruffydd), Maureen O’Hara (Angharad Morgan), Donald Crisp (Gwilym Morgan), Roddy McDowell (Huw Morgan), Sara Allgood (Beth Morgan), Anna Lee (Bronwyn), Patric Knowles (Ivor), John Loder (Ianto), Barry Fitzgerald (Cyfartha), Rhys Williams (Dai Bando), Morton Lowry (Mr Jonas), Arthur Shields (Mr Parry), Richard Fraser (Davy), Frederick Worlock (Dr Richards)

John Ford is by far-and-away best known for his Westerns, many of which are classics. So it’s a bit of a surprise that Ford always claimed the film closest to his heart was this occasionally sentimental drama about a young boy growing up in a Victorian Welsh mining town. Perhaps it was partly because, despite winning four Best Director Oscars, this was the only time Ford directed a Best Picture winner.

Following the remembrances of young Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowell), the youngest son (of several) of Gwilym Morgan (Donald Crisp), long-running foreman at the mine. The village is beautiful and life seems idyllic – until harsh economic conditions start to take their toll on the village. Wages are cut, moves towards unionisation are harshly resisted by the management, one-by-one the sons are laid off in favour of cheaper labour and the slag of the mine slowly turns the village into a dirty, stained mess. At the same time, the village is shown to be increasingly insular and judgemental, distrusting of outsiders, and suspicious of the preacher Mr Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon) and the attraction between him and Huw’s sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) – made worse after she marries. Huw’s youthful innocence and naivety are met with an increasing attack from reality.

Ford’s film is today a controversial choice for Best Picture – among the films it beat were The Maltese Falcon and, most strikingly of all, Citizen Kane. It’s tough for any film to hold onto the same level of public affection, when it’s widely seen to have robbed a film commonly held up as one of the best (if not the best) of all time. But How Green Was My Valley is no travesty of an Oscar-winner. On its own merits it’s a solid, impressive, sentimental piece of episodic film-making that won’t disappoint you, even if it doesn’t inspire as much as it should.

John Ford directs a handsomely mounted film, full of luscious monochrome shots. It’s a shame that the original plans for the film – to shoot on location in Wales in technicolour – were prevented by World War Two, as the sweep of the real locations would have added a real epic scope to the drama, not to mention make the decline of the village even more obvious visually. But the recreation of the Welsh mining village they planned to film in (in Malibu of all places!) is faultlessly impressive, and Ford creates a real Celtic charm in his shooting of the film.

Celtic is perhaps the key word here as, along with the location, the other thing that ended up jettisoned in the film was its Welshness. There is precious little – if anything – Welsh about this film. It contains one Welsh actor (Rhys Williams), and Ford’s cast use a parade of actors ranging from an attempt at Welsh from Crisp to an imperious mid-Atlantic drawl from Walter Pidgeon. Most actors however settle solidly for something close to Irish – and it’s pretty clear to me that Ford, proud of his own Irish heritage, basically saw this a story of the old country forcing its sons to head to the new country, in the same way his own parents emigrated. It also makes sense for casting the film – there seemed to be precious few Welsh actors in Hollywood at the time, but a parade of Irish actors. 

But look past the film’s complete lack of Welshness – not to mention its presentation of the Morgan’s family home as far more clear and spacious than it would have been in real life – and pretend this is an almost Irish story, and you can focus on the film’s strengths. Although presented with sentiment and nostalgia, How Green is actually a more coldly realistic film than that. While shot with a luscious regard for the past, the film’s themes work to undermine this as much as possible – dealing with disillusionment, depression, unemployment and societal collapse. While Huw may remember the past as being a glorious country, we can see from the tumoils of his family that it was far more complex than that.

Of his siblings, most lose their jobs at the mines and are forced to emigrate. One who remains loses his life due to the mine’s working practices. Their father buries his head in the sand, and refuses to support any moves towards unionisation or the worker’s attempt to improve their lot. The family relies totally on the mine, but by the end of the film have been more-or-less destroyed by it. Even Huw’s sister Angharad, who has a good marriage to the son of the mine owner, finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage with her affections for Gruffydd the source of cruel comment from the village. The valley may be green on the surface, but it’s far darker underneath. 

And poor Huw either doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care. After struggling through bullying from a teacher at school, he finishes school and is awarded a scholarship – only to reject it in favour of remaining to work in the mine, having learned all the wrong lessons from his life (and to the horror of his father). Ford stresses Huw’s youthful naivety by not ageing up Roddy McDowell (very good) at all as Huw – Huw remains forever a 12-year-old-boy, even as events race on. It’s a neat capturing of both the older Huw (who narrates) imagination of what he was like, and also serves to stress how Huw’s nostalgia is framing the story we are seeing. It also makes Huw seem even weaker and vulnerable than he is – a shot of Huw labouring in the mine behind a seemingly giant cart hammers home his weakness – Ford shoots many scenes with low-angle lenses to make us visually emphasise with Huw and to see the world from his perspective.

How Green’s main weakness is its hesitation to commit to either the cold reality, or the hazy nostalgia that the film’s filming style uses. It lands between the two stools, wanting to tell us the truth while also wanting us to leave with a warm feeling towards the simpler times of the past. It’s perhaps not helped in this by the episodic nature of the script, which moves from event to event without much in the way of overarching narrative. It makes for a film that leans even more towards a slightly maudlin view of the past as a series of entertaining stories, which serves to cover even more the darker themes of the film.

Ford’s cast are a mixed bag. Donald Crisp is superb as the father, part imperious patriarch, part loving father – and won the Oscar. Equally good is Sara Allgood as his wife, the ideal loving mother that a son would remember, but with a spine of steel. Maureen O’Hara brings a passionate romanticism to Angharad, while Barry Fitzgerald and Rhys Williams are entertaining as a drunken trainer and his boxer protégé. Mnay of the rest of the cast though are weaker, with Walter Pidgeon rather stolid as Gruffydd and many of the actors playing Huw’s brothers reduced to balsawood under the burden of odd accents and earnest characterisation.

Ford’s film is a very good one that, if it catches you in the right mood, will certainly move you. I am not sure it caught me in the right mood on any of the occasions I saw it, but I appreciate its technical assurance and excellent direction. It fails to really find an effective balance between its darker tones and its nostalgic outlook, but it still works for all that. It’s not Welsh but it is a good film.

Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

Brian Donley on the run in Fritz Lang’s Nazi occupation thriller

Director: Fritz Lang

Cast: Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (Reinhard Heydrich), Brian Donlevy (Dr Franticek Svoboda), Walter Brennan (Professor Stephen Novotny), Anna Lee (Mascha Novotny), Gene Lockhart (Emil Czaka), Dennis O’Keefe (Jan Horak), Nana Bryant (Hellie Novotny), Margaret Wycherly (Ludmilla Novotny), Tonio Selwart (Chief of Gestapo Kurt Haas), Alexander Granach (Inspector Alois Gruber), Reinhold Schünzel (Inspector Ritter), Jonathan Hale (Dedic)

Film dramas “ripped from the headlines” have a mixed track record. Making a drama about an event that happened so recently the dust has hardly settled leaves you open to making decisions in your film that could later be exposed as mistakes. Few films in history are more headline-ripping though than Hangmen Must Die!, a film about the assassination of Heydrich, the planning of which must have started almost immediately after the news broke.

Dr Svoboda (Brian Donlevy) is on the run in Prague after shooting dead Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s deputy in occupied Czechoslovakia. After a chance meeting, he pleads with Mascha Novotny (Anna Lee) for shelter – but this only serves to endanger her family, particularly her father Professor Novotny (Walter Brennan), in the affair. Meanwhile the Gestapo, led by Alois Gruber (Alexander Granach) investigates and the Nazis take hundreds of Czech notables, including Novotny, into custody as hostages. The Germans promise to execute hostages until the assassin is handed over.

First things first: unlike 2016’s Anthropoid, this film is a complete work of fiction. It is first and foremost a film made by European exiles in the middle of World War II to sing the praises of those defying the march of fascism. Heydrich only appears at the start of the film, played with a sinister, mincing campness by von Twardowski (a notable German socialist exile). Despite this, the arrogance and cruelty of Heydrich is hammered home, with his lines delivered in a bullying, untranslated German. The film uses a dark humour to stress his villainy, Heydrich nonchalantly strolls down a crowded meeting room, forcing those in attendance to remain saluting, swivelling to follow Heydrich, until he finally settles and returns the salute allowing them to relax. It’s a neat little joke and perhaps one of the clear signs of the hand of co-writer Bertolt Brecht. Take a look at the sequence (and rest of the movie as well!) here:

That’s one of the film’s other claims to fame: noted director Fritz Lang worked with fellow exile Brecht to craft the script. As such, the film is a slightly unusual mix between the left-wing, idealist politics of Brecht and the film noir style of Lang. The primary aim is to serve as a propaganda tool, and the courage and bravery of the Czech people is repeatedly stressed. With a few key exceptions, the Czechs are loyal, honest and willing to make huge sacrifices. Lang films this with a stirring simplicity, low angle shots, skilful use of light, and dynamically involving crowd scenes, bringing this courage visually to life. Brechtian touches, such as a crowd of Prague locals confronting Mascha (with increasing menace) when she considers betraying the assassin to save her father’s life, are perfectly complemented by Lang’s skilful film making. The film’s final tribute to the heroes of Europe, with the people of Prague joining together to sing a hymn to the fallen hostages, surges with a left-wing Brechtian political outrage.

What’s most unusual about the film – and one of its problems – is the curious mixture of tones. Perhaps because of its film noir styles, perhaps because of the American accents of many of the Czech characters (interestingly, the exiles overwhelmingly play villainous Germans), this film becomes a sort of behind-the-lines 1930s hard boiled gangster thriller – with the difference that the cops are the baddies. The Gestapo go about their jobs like gangster gumshoes from Hollywood movies. The Czech people, for all their gumption, look and act like streetwise New Yorkers. It’s an odd tone that takes some getting used to.

On top of that, the film shows several hostages (including characters we get to know) shot due to the refusal to hand over the assassin. I can’t watch this without thinking about how little it gets near the true horror of Nazism. The Gestapo here are relative pussycats, compared to the brutal lengths they went to in real life: the Gestapo chief even prudishly talks about a need for evidence. Compared to the thousands of civilians killed in real life, this is nothing. The Germans even essentially “give up” in a coda and accept a defeat. This makes terrific propaganda of course, but it just ties into the sense that this film doesn’t even begin to touch the villainy of the occupation. It makes for better entertainment, but it’s strange to watch today.

Finally, the last problem with the film is the rather mixed performers. Put simply, Brian Donlevy is totally miscast as the assassin, a B-movie actor who is far too American for the part, and incapable of giving the role the depth it needs. Svobada just isn’t interesting or sympathetic. Anna Lee is similarly bland, while the less said about O’Keefe as her fiancée, the better. Not one of the American actors is completely convincing in their role, although Walter Brennan is close to an exception, effectively gentle and wise as the brave Novotny. The best performances are from the exiles, with Graucher in particular excellent as a shrewd, soulless, corrupt detective, with no guilt about the means he uses.

The film culminates in a rather hard-to-follow and far-fetched attempt by the resistance to frame a collaborator (played with weaselly self-importance by Gene Lockhart) for the crime. This plot tends to meander, but there are several very good scenes showing the Czech resistance, including a wonderful sequence in a restaurant that goes from a sit-down, to an unveiling, to a shootout. Lang skilfully builds the tension throughout, and the creeping relentlessness of hostage executions and Svoboda’s attempts to run from the Gestapo are very well done. Sequences such as Svobda ducking into a movie cinema, only to find a keen collaborator inside, sizzle with excitement.

In fact there are many excellent moments in the film. It is beautifully filmed, with a gorgeous use of expressionist shadow and camera angles to create a claustrophobic, doom laden world. Lang’s strength of plotting by-and-large works very well. Though it can’t bring across the full horror of Nazi occupation, the dread of the Gestapo is clear in the movie. “Enhanced interrogation” is underplayed, but it is sinisterly embodied in the fate that befalls an arthritic shopkeeper. We see him exhausted, but not broken, in a prison cell, forced to constantly pick up a chair under interrogation with her weakened hands. Later, a character throws himself out of a window rather than risk being interrogated to reveal information about the resistance. The hostages are brutally dispatched, with the level of panic, fear, collaboration or defiance having no impact on their fates.

It’s a fractured film, overlong but very well filmed, which creates a brilliant tribute to the strength of the Czech people. Trim 20 minutes off it and I think this could have been a great thriller.  It’s a strange mix of acting styles, but the marriage of Brecht and Lang works very well (it’s a real shame Brecht never made another film) and the drama of the film carries it over the strange bumps in the road. Brecht, by the way, spent the rest of his life rubbishing Lang, as he couldn’t understand why Lang put all the plot and character into a movie Brecht saw as being purely political.

It’s in many ways a strange historical monument – perhaps its makers couldn’t imagine the depths of Nazi atrocities, perhaps Hollywood wasn’t willing to bring such horrors to the screen. It’s not perfect, but in its own way, it’s a piece of cinematic history.