Tag: Beulah Bondi

Watch on the Rhine (1943)

Watch on the Rhine (1943)

Dialogue heavy, drama light, war-time propaganda, that was already dated by the time it was released

Director: Herman Shumlin

Cast: Bette Davis (Sara Muller-Farrelly), Paul Lukas (Kurt Muller), Lucile Watson (Fanny Farrelly), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Countess Marthe de Brancovis), George Coulouris (Count Teck de Brancovis), Beulah Bondi (Anise), Donald Woods (David Farrelly), Donald Buke (Joshua Muller), Henry Daniell (Baron Phili von Ramme), Kurt Katch (Blecher)

In 1940, dedicated anti-fascist campaigner Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas) arrives in the USA with his American wife Sarah (Bette Davis) and their children. They are welcomed by Sarah’s mother Fanny (Lucille Watson), but soon discover that America has little understanding of the dangers of Nazism – and that there is in danger in their refuge. Fanny’s other houseguest is Romanian diplomat Teck de Brancovis (George Coulouris) – whose wife Marthe (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is quietly in love with Sarah’s brother David (Donald Woods) – and he has every intention of selling Muller out to the Nazi embassy if he doesn’t pay him thousands of dollars. Can the Mullers escape?

Watch on the Rhine is adapted from a play by Lilian Hellman. Hellman was otherwise engaged and unable to write the script, so her long-term lover Dashiel Hammett came on board to open up the one-set play into a movie, with Hellman providing some additional speeches. Their best efforts can’t hide the fact this is a painfully worthy, preaching-to-the-choir propaganda piece. It’s packed with on-the-nose (if well-written) speeches and horrifically slow in its pacing and plotting.

First staged in early 1941, the original play did at least serve a clear purpose. It preached about the dangers and evils of fascism to a nation watching Europe tear itself apart. It was a heartfelt cry to understand that Hitler and his cronies were wicked men determined to let all the liberties America held dear burn. Its characters speechified at length about the conditions in Europe, the loss of freedom and the wickedness and danger of a political movement many in America felt was basically someone else’s problem.

This would have carried some real power as a rallying cry if the play had been bought to the screen in 1941. But, by 1943, American soldiers were already fighting Nazi forces in Africa and Italy: it hardly felt necessary to cry for intervention. Even by 1943, it was a period piece, looking back at a moment in time when fashionable types went to the German embassy for fancy dinners with black-shirted diplomats. And certainly, viewing it now, even its 1943 perspective looks slightly naïve and uninformed, in light of the horrors we now know were taking place.

Shorn of its original purpose to educate, the film comes across as a mix of heavy-handed propaganda (“This is why we fight!” it might as well be saying) and civics lesson.  It’s because, frankly, there is very little drama at all to take the place of the political lecturing. It’s fair to compare the film to Casablanca – another film that calls for action, released after a point when action had been taken. That could have been a propaganda piece: instead it’s a fast-paced, drama packed mix of romance and conspiracy thriller where Paul Henreid (remarkably similar to Lukas’ character here) struggles to gain the papers to escape from Vichy with a life-and-death urgency this film never musters.

Although Watch on the Rhine eventually works in a blackmail plot, where Muller’s plan to return to Europe and take on the leadership of the anti-fascists is threatened by George Coulouris’s smarmy diplomat, it takes so long to get to this (nearly an hour of screen time) your attention may well already have been lost.

Watch on the Rhine was directed – rather flatly, in one of his only two films – by it’s original Broadway director Herman Shumlin (heavily assisted by cinematographer Hal Mohr). The cast included several actors recreating their roles, including Lukas, Coulouris and Lucille Watson. Obviously, this left it short of heavyweights for the box office so the studio bought in Bette Davis to play Muller’s wife, expanding the role heavily (and insisting, against her protests, that she get top billing). Davis – exhausted after working intensely on Now, Voyager – took the part out of commitment to its message, but struggled with both Shumlin and serious personality clashes with Lucille Watson over their wildly differing politics.

Shumlin was unable to rein Davis in and Watch on the Rhine features one of her more melodramatic performances. Almost every scene features her staring off into the middle distance, voice trembling (not helped by Max Steiner’s music swelling magnificently practically every time she speaks). It’s a performance that never quite rings true, especially when compared to the underplaying from Lukas, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his low-key, restrained performance. He is quiet and genuine – and his pain and desperation when driven into a terrible moral choice is moving – but it’s hard to shake the feeling this fine performance was rewarded more for the words from his lips (especially since he beat Bogart in Casablanca). Watson was also nominated, playing the sort of role beloved by awards ceremonies, an eccentric old snob with a hidden heart of gold.

Watch on the Rhine is a rather dull civics lesson full of worthy speeches and very short on drama. It also has some of the most irritating child actors you will ever see (already infuriatingly precocious, the kids communicate their German background with stilted, precise accents). Even in 1943, its moment had passed and it never manages to create any dramatic point compelling enough to make you want to rewatch it. A film less worthy, and more willing to indulge in espionage thriller, would have been a distinct improvement.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

James Stewart discovers he has lived a good life in It’s a Wonderful Life

Director: Frank Capra

Cast: James Stewart (George Bailey), Donna Reed (Mary Hatch), Lionel Barrymore (Henry F Potter), Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy Bailey), Henry Travers (Clarence Odbody), Beulah Bondi (Ma Bailey), Frank Faylen (Ernie Bishop), Ward Bond (Bert), Gloria Grahame (Violet Bick), HB Warner (Mr Gower), Frank Albertson (Sam Wainwright), Todd Karns (Harry Bailey), Samuel S Hinds (Pa Bailey)

For many people it’s as much a part of Christmas as mince pies and Santa. Any list of the greatest Christmas films of all time – in fact any list of the most beloved films of all time – isn’t complete without It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra’s emotional, heart-warming, seasonal tale encourages us to take a breath and look at the riches in our life, to look past the surface frustrations and disappointments. It seems to have something to say to everyone. There’s a reason why it has been a staple of Christmas for decades.

The small town of Bedford Falls is a place George Bailey (James Stewart) has always dreamed of leaving for a life of adventure. However, circumstances always meant he has stayed in the town, running the family savings and loans business. He’s made a success of the business, raised a family with his wife Mary (Donna Reed – extremely good in an unshowy role), helped half the town into decent affordable homes, and changed his whole community for the better. So why is George standing on a bridge on Christmas Eve, contemplating throwing himself into the river? And will his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) persuade him there are things worth living for?

Capra’s film is very easy to see as a wallow in sentimentality. Certainly, the film is in love with its image of small-town America, here a nirvana of folksy lightness where everyone knows everybody’s name. In reality, America as a whole, even at the time, probably had more in common with Potter’s grasping capitalism or the nightmare vision Clarence conjures of a neon-lit Potterville of loose morals and vice. But the film would never have worked if it was just sickly sentimental – or if it had been a cynical satire for that matter. Instead it works because it is overwhelmingly human, empathy dripping from every pore. It invests us deeply in this whole community and succeeds in making the viewer relate to them at every step.

This is partly because Capra has such a masterful skill for how the little touches can make a story come to life. The loose banister cap that Bailey keeps dislodging in his home. The drawing Donna has made of George’s offer to lasso the moon. The film is full of small moments of character, that create the over-whelming richness of a whole life. It’s also a story full of charm and genuine feeling for its characters, that understands the pain little griefs and small tragedies have.

Perhaps that’s also one of the reasons for the love people have for it. Because, let’s not forget, this is a film set on the darkest day of its lead character’s life, when he considers ending it all. One of the things I find the most touching about the film is that it never stigmatises depression, guilt or feelings of inadequacy. If someone as universally loved as George can look at his own life as a disappointment, and that this feeling is treated as both reasonable but also mistaken in the best way, it reassures as all not only that we shouldn’t feel guilty for feeling this but hopefully that we are as mistaken as George is. Failure is all in the perception – and It’s a Wonderful Life reminds us that perception is often unreliable when we turn it on ourselves.

Capra’s film relies strongly on our bond with George – so the casting of James Stewart in the role plays off perfectly. Stewart is quite simply superb, completely human and deeply moving. Capra provides Stewart with several striking set-piece speeches (all of which he delivers with aplomb). The entire film is essentially a riff on Stewart’s charm and likeability – but also his everyday quality, the sense that when we watch him we are looking at someone like us. Stewart makes Bailey honest, decent and kind. You can immediately see why people like him. His principles and sense of justice drive him every day to do the right thing – and what makes him such a deeply relatable character is that this so often flies in the face of his own desires and interests.

What Capra also understands – and taps into so well here – is the darkness in Stewart. Because someone so like us is surely as likely to suffer from  depression and disappointment as the rest of us. You can never forget this is a man who has dreamed his whole life of leaving this town, of making it as an architect, of forging a broader life for himself. He never wanted to be the pillar of the community and family man he becomes. There is disappointment in Bailey at every turn, however much he treats the world around him with warmth. This isn’t what he wanted. No matter if it has won him love and respect from all around him.

And who hasn’t ever felt that? But we know that deep down – even if he doesn’t always realise it – Bailey is happy with his lot. That if he didn’t care deeply about town, friends and family he would have left years ago. We know he’s a good man: that later he will deeply regret berating his poor befuddled Uncle Billy (a gloriously cuddly Thomas Mitchell) for losing $8k and losing his temper at his wife and children on Christmas Eve. There is a pain for us to see such a good man, a loving man, who we feel we understand, angrily ask his wife why they had so many children. Everyone has lashed out like George – and everyone has, at some time, looked at where their life is and felt “I could have been more than this”. Far fewer people have taken the time to look at all the good alone in their lives and what a good mark they have made on the world.

But that’s the genius of the film. Taking its cue from Dicken’s Christmas Carol (I’d also say Lionel Barrymore’s brilliantly hissable Potter is clearly a version of Bleak House’s vile moneylender Smallweed), effectively Clarence is the Ghost of Christmas Present, showing George what the world would have been like without him. Sure some of this is overblown – Potterville for goodness sake! – but the impact is those personal stories. The brother drowned as a child. The pharmacist imprisoned for manslaughter. The affordable homes never built. The family that never even existed. The mix of science fiction and classic morality tale helps us all to reflect – so many of us have people all around who care for us, whose lives would have not been as rich as they are without us, however much we may disappoint ourselves at times.

That’s perhaps behind the love for the film. It’s about hope, while never closing its eyes to despair. It recognises that sometimes we are not happy – and it tells us that that’s okay, so long as we don’t lose hope. It encourages us to take a look at ourselves in the round and to appreciate the whole picture, not just a part of it. You can call that sentimentality if you want – but at Christmas time this message of hope and love is sometimes exactly what you need.

Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

James Stewart campaigns for truth and justice in Capra’s classic Mr Smith Goes to Washington

Director: Frank Capra

Cast: James Stewart (Jefferson Smith), Jean Arthur (Clarissa Saunders), Claude Rains (Senator Joseph Harrison Paine), Edward Arnold (Jim Taylor), Guy Kibbee (Governor Hubert “Happy” Hopper”), Thomas Mitchell (“Diz” Moore), Eugene Pallette (Chick McGinn), Beulah Bondi (Ma Smith), H.B. Warner (Senate Majority Leader), Harry Carey (President of the Senate), Astrid Allwyn (Susan Paine)

Capra’s film are known, above everything, for their fundamental optimism about life, friendship and the American Way. Few films cemented that opinion more than Mr Smith Goes to Washington, the quintessential “one man in the right place can make a difference” movie. And where else would that one man need to be, but Washington? Where laws are framed and ideals come to die. It’s our hope that those at the heart of the political system are there for the good of the people. Of course, even Capra knew most of them were there to line their pockets and do their best for powerful business interests. So who can blame Capra for a little fantasy where naïve, innocent but morally decent Jefferson Smith decides enough is enough?

In an unnamed mid-Western State (the story the film is based on named it as Montana), the junior senator unexpectantly dies. The Governor (Guy Kibbee) needs a new man. Should he go for a reformer or the latest stooge put forward by political power broker in the State Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). A tricky choice, so he splits the difference by appointing Boy Rangers leader Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) – because he’s wholesome and clean but also naïve enough to manipulate. Jeff heads to Washington, under the wing of Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) – but Paine is in the pocket of Taylor.

Taylor and his cronies want an appropriation bill forced through that includes a clause to build a dam in their state. The dam will be built on land secretly bought up by Taylor and others, making them a fortune from public money. When Jeff announces in the Senate a bill to host a national boy’s summer camp on that same land, it throws a spanner in the works. Despite threats and bribes, Jeff refuses to go along with the shady deal over the dam, so they set out to destroy his reputation. With the help of his secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Jeff mounts an epic filibuster in the Senate to clear his name, stop the dam and reveal the political corruption in his state.

Capra’s film is earnest, well-meaning and at times even a little bit sanctimonious and preachy – but it gets away with it because it’s also so energetic, honest and fun. It’s strange watching it today to think that the Senate at the time responded so poorly to it. Leading public figures either denounced it’s view of government and even tried to have it banned. Ironically of course, it probably inspired more people to get involved in Government than any other movie.

That was bad news for the corrupt political machines that ran so many parts of America at the time. Capra’s film is remarkably open-eyed about how these machines worked. Powerful business interests at the centre, with a raft of politicians in their pay – from Governors and senators on down. Jim Taylor – very well played with a swaggering, crude, bullying tone by Edward Arnold – only has to snap his fingers to get things done. During the film he mobilises the press, the police, the fire service and an army of heavies to enforce his will in the state and suppress free speech. The Governor (a neatly tremulous Guy Kibbee) is so firmly in his pocket, he can barely tie his shoe-laces without Taylor directing it. Senator Paine is patrician, dignified and has every inch of respectability – but he is soaking in filth up his neck from contact with Taylor.

It’s this system the film has a quiet anger about. Whatever happened to having “a little bit of plain, ordinary kindness – and a little lookin’ out for the other fella too”? Capra’s sprightly film also makes clear that we both don’t look too closely at how our government is really run and are very quick to hoover up any story we get from our political masters and accept it as gospel. An honest, decent man in the middle of all this is as unlikely a sight as you can imagine.

But that’s what these people get with Jefferson Smith – and discover someone who should be easy to manipulate, but doesn’t understand the rules of the game he’s playing. Instead Jeff thinks they are all there to help other people, not to themselves. Now you can argue, as some critics have, that law-making is the art of compromise – and that once the dam is under way, the benefits it will produce to Jeff’s home State (in terms of employment and energy) will be huge. So why shouldn’t Jeff bow down and move his boys camp in order to let the Bill go through?

Well the point is that Jeff isn’t opposed to the dam – he’s opposed to the corrupt profiteering that will spring out of it, and the way the cesspool of Washington (amongst all those fine monuments he so adoringly looks at) doesn’t care. This is a filibuster campaign to put honesty and decency back into American politics – and what’s not to like about that? It’s a film that firmly believes that one good man in the right place (that’s both Jeff and the President of the Senate, who tacitly encourages him) can change the day and save the country from itself.

There was of course no one better for such a job than Jimmy Stewart (and surely it’s this film that made him “Jimmy” to one and all). Capra had James Stewart in mind from the start – and it’s a perfect role for him, an iconic performance that stands as surely one of his greatest roles. Stewart has the skill to make Jeff endearing but not saccharine, naïve but not frustrating, innocent but not a rube, gentle but determined. Despite its corniness (and some of the film is very corny) you relate to his reverence for Lincoln’s memorial and the Capital. Stewart’s homespun charm is perfect, but it’s matched with the steel he could give characters. There is an adamant quality to his filibuster, his refusal to back down and go along with injustice. The final quarter of the film that deals with the filibuster is quite superb stuff, Stewart delivering some very-well written speeches with commitment, passion and bravura. It’s no understatement to say the film would work half as well as it does without him.

But then the entire film is also a feast of great acting, all sparked by a superb script from Sidney Buchman which mixes razor-sharp dialogue with wonderful speeches. Jean Arthur (who actually gets top billing) is very good as a cynical Washington insider who rediscovers her ideals – and finds her heart melting – under Jeff’s honest influence. Claude Rains gives one of his finest performances as the patrician Paine, a man who tries to close his eyes to his own corruption, but swallows down his own guilt and shame every day. Harry Carey gets a twinkly cameo as an amused and supportive President of the Senate. (Both actors were nominated for the Oscar, but lost to Thomas Mitchell for Stagecoach who also appears here in a fun turn as the drunken but principled reporter Diz).

Capra keeps the pace up perfectly, and his direction handles both smaller scale scenes of romance and idealism, with the larger scale fireworks of the Senate (a superb set, that looks so convincing it’s amazing to think it was built on a sound stage). His biggest trick here is to create a film that, in many ways, is a political lecture, but never makes it feel like one. Instead it delivers it’s messages on truth, justice and the American way with such lightness – but yet such pure decency – that it all works. It helps a great deal that the film doesn’t shy away from the corruption and – apart from a final turn that saves the day – resists melodrama and contrivance. Charming, funny but also thoughtful and committed, Mr Smith Goes to Washington is one of Capra’s very best.

The Snake Pit (1948)

Olivia de Havilland struggles with her sanity in the engaging The Snake Pit

Director: Anatole Litvak

Cast: Olivia de Havilland (Virginia Stuart Cunningham), Mark Stevens (Robert Cunningham), Leo Genn (Dr Mark van Kensdelaerik “Dr. Kik”), Celeste Holm (Grace), Glenn Langan (Dr Terry), Helen Craig (Nurse Davis), Leif Erickson (Gordon), Beulah Bondi (Mrs Greer), Lee Patrick (Asylum inmate), Betsy Blair (Hester), Howard Freeman (Dr Curtis)

Virginia Stuart Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) wakes up on a park bench with no idea where she is – and only the vaguest idea of who she is – and reckons she could be anywhere from a zoo to a prison. She’s actually in an asylum – or Juniper Hill State Hospital – and has been for some time, struggling with a schizophrenia and anxiety-related condition and with no idea of when – or if – she will ever leave. She is treated by the kindly, professorial “Dr Kik” (Leo Genn) and generally fails to recognise her husband Robert (Mark Stevens).

The Snake Pit is a very earnest but dramatically engaging and even quite moving story of one woman’s struggle to try and preserve her mental health, despite being stuck in a system that is a complete lottery with some patients lucky enough to be cared for and others dumped and forgotten. Litvak’s film is a passionate expose on the conditions that lack of funding and public interest had allowed to prosper in mental institutions in America, with parts of the facility little better than a Dickensian work-house, others like something out of Dante’s Inferno. It was a passion project for Anatole Litvak, who bought the rights to the book personally and pushed the studio to fund the creation of the film.

The story is centred around Virginia’s experiences of the asylum as she moves from ward to ward – low numbered wards being reserved for those considered likely to leave, with the ward number increasing as the prospect of the patient ever getting out of the asylum (or ever getting any focus from the doctors) decreasing. The staff are harassed, overworked, underpaid and frequently struggle with being heavily outnumbered by the patients, having only a few minutes a day for each one. They are also a mixed bag – there seems to be very little in the way of training – with some dedicated and caring, others seeing the patients as at best irritants and at worst little more than objects. Virginia’s real problems start when she gets on the wrong side of Ward 1 nurse Davis (Helen Craig), an officious, domineering bully who treats her patients like pupils in a finishing school and punishes ruthlessly any deviation from her rules.

Litvak’s film exposes the conditions here, but apart from the odd individual largely avoids attacks on the staff. Instead it seems to be the general air of indifference and disregard that society has for those who end up in these places that seems to be taking the brunt of the blame. Litvak’s direction is impeccable as he uses a combination of interesting angles, sympathetic close-ups and clever transitions and fades (which serve as a neat contrast for Virginia’s own struggles to understand where and when she is). In one particular tour-de-force moment, Litvak’s camera pulls up-and-away from Virginia in the middle of the hellish Ward 33 (the Snake Pit of the title), pulling away to make the ward indeed appear it is at the bottom of a pit with the patients a mass of figures within. 

Litvak’s film also benefits hugely from the simply superb performance by Olivia de Havilland. De Havilland brings the role such commitment and such emotional performance, that she is largely to thank for making the story (and not just the setting) as engrossing as it is. De Havilland is gentle, vulnerable, scared but mixes it with touches of determination and also carries with her a sensitivity that makes her as much a caring and gentle figure as it does a victim. She appears in almost every scene and dominates the film, handling the moments of quiet panic as well as she does the moments of immense distress. Her increasingly sorry state as she progresses down through the wards is heart-rendering, and her confusion and fear makes her someone we care for deeply, even while her concern and care for her fellow inmates – particularly a violent patient, played by Betsy Blair, who she takes under her wing and helps recover some of her equilibrium – makes her admirable and less of a victim.

Though lord knows she suffers enough, from claustrophobic locked-in baths (her screaming fit as she fears drowning being all-but-ignored by her dismissive nurses who have heard it all before) to being strapped into a straitjacket for god knows how long (after being provoked into an angry outburst by Nurse Davis). Around this she also undergoes bullying medical examinations from doctor’s unfamiliar with her case to watching her fellow inmates being mocked and laughed at my visitors. That’s not even to begin to mention the ECT treatment she undergoes at the start of the film (“to bring her back” from the edge of disappearing into a fantasy world), a series of detailed and observed procedures which are clinically sinister. 

Despite its many strengths, the film is dated in many ways. The original book avoided all reasons for Virginia’s illness. The film works overtime to give a “reason” for why she is, and of course this is rooted above all to issues related to Virginia’s failure to relax into the “proper” role for a woman in this man’s world. Her conditions are clumsily linked back to a troubled relationship with her mother and father, that led to a lack of development of maternal feelings. Guilt over a failed engagement has made her uncomfortable with marriage and nervous of men. Many of these revelations come out through a series of slightly clichéd therapy sessions that, for all the skill of Leo Genn’s performance as the doctor, carry the “and now we know all the answers” certainties of film psychiatry. 

Attitudes like this date The Snake Pit – so what if Virginia perhaps isn’t wild about marriage and isn’t sure if she wants children – and the film works overtime to suggest what will make her better above all is settling down into the sort of conventional life represented by her dull-as-ditch-water husband Robert, flatly played by Mark Stevens. While the film shows that healing like this takes time – and a lot of it – it also can’t imagine a world where a woman might find a life outside of the domestic norm healthier for them. But the film remains an emotional and moving one – moments like the one near the end where the patients listen enraptured, with enchanted faces, to a singer singing about home carry real emotional force – and it has a simply superb performance from de Havilland. Litvak’s film maybe slightly dated, but it’s still an impressive piece of work.