Tag: Gary Merill

Twelve O'Clock High (1949)

Twelve OClock High header
Gregory Peck takes on the burden of command in Twelve O’Clock High

Director: Henry King

Cast: Gregory Peck (Brg General Frank Savage), Hugh Marlowe (Lt Colonel Ben Gately), Gary Merrill (Colonel Keith Davenport), Millard Mitchell (Mj General Pritchard), Dean Jagger (Major Harvey Stovall), Robert Arthur (Sgt McIllhenny), Paul Stewart (Major “Doc” Kaiser), John Kellogg (Major Cobb)

It’s tough at the top. Imagine how much tougher it would be if you job involved pushing people to their limits, and then a little bit further, in a job that puts their lives at daily risk? It’s the sort of burden commanders of American Bomber wings faced during the Second World War. It’s already got to Lt Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill), a decent guy and much-loved officer, who has grown so close to his men he can’t face sending them off to get killed over Europe any more. He’s replaced by Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck), a by-the-book tough son-of-a-bitch who won’t tolerate men who can’t or won’t do their duty. But will the pressure of constant action, escalating casualties and a growing bond with his men also get to Savage?

With Peck at the top of his game, in one of his finest performances of stoical dependability and Lincolnonian authority concealing a carefully nurtured warmth and humanity, Twelve O’Clock High is a very different war film. Here the focus is much less on derring-do and heroism and more on the unbearable psychological pressure a life on the front lines brings. It’s all presented with a documentary style realism – so much so, that the film was used for decades in the USAAF as a training film on successful styles of command.

It’s about the impact that sustained trauma has – how it can make even the toughest man eventually paralysed by over-thinking, uncertainty and doubt. Davenport is a very popular CO – and good in the job in many ways – except the key one: he’s lost the ability to push the men and his willingness to sacrifice them. Essentially, in the nicest possible way, he’s damaging morale by letting the company reflect his own exhaustion, depression and amiable defeatism. He’s lost the ability to push men to want to achieve everything they can for the cause: meaning they are now doing the military equivalent of punching the clock, delivering the barest minimum an attack requires. Mistakes and errors are tolerated and, perversely, casualty rates are rising.

It’s what Savage is sent in to fix. Which he does by essentially blowing apart the cozy, boys-club feel of the Bomber Group. Air Exec, Lt Colonel Ben Gately (a great performance from Hugh Marlowe), is stripped of his command (for not leading from the front) and assigned to commanding the “The Leper Colony” a plane crewed by those Savage believes least likely to pull their weight. Drills are bought in and under-performance is no longer tolerated. Dropping out of formation for whatever reason – a move that puts the rest of the Bomber Group at risk – is punished harshly (a pilot is demoted to the “Leper Colony” for breaking formation to support another a plane, a decision that could have doomed the Group to death). Savage is the ultimate heartless drill sergeant.

Only of course he’s not: as Peck makes clear, the burdens of command weigh as heavy on him as they did on Davenport. But Savage is a professional who knows tough love is what’s going to keep most of the Group alive, accomplishing their missions and bringing the war to an end. And Savage’s policies work: the Bomber Group starts to achieve well above their previous performance. The pilots greet Savage by handing in a group transfer request, but by the time the request is heard by the army (Savage’s adjutant Stovall having delayed the requests with red tape) as a man they back the General. Savage gets then to take pride in themselves and their unit – so much so that, during their first strike on German soil, off duty men smuggle their way onto planes to be part of the mission. (Savage of course doesn’t let slip his pride, rebuking men for abandoning their posts on the base).

Underneath it all, Savage is starting to feel closer to his men. A young pilot, decorated but starting to get worried about flying, is mentored and encouraged by him. Gately responds to the tough love from Savage by aiming to prove to him he is indeed the best pilot in the squadron – winning Savage’s respect, not least when he flies several missions concealing a spinal injury. The pressure inevitably builds on Savage as he finds it harder and harder to maintain his professional demeanour while becoming closer and closer to his men (he even refuses a transfer back to his original job in HQ, as he feels the group isn’t ready for him to leave yet).

It all builds to one of the most famous breakdowns in film, as Savage goes from physically unable to climb into the cockpit to a confused state on the runaway and then catatonic until the Group returns home. This is beyond daring stuff for a 1940s Hollywood film, a true portrait of the effects of wartime pressure on a hero, which never once questions his competence and cowardice but in fact holds up the qualities that led to his breakdown as admirable ones. Peck plays all this with great power and control – and if Savage shrugs off his catatonic state later and the film doesn’t really explore the long-term impacts, the very fact that it showed someone as admirable, competent and professional as this suffering psychological damage from war was quite something.

It’s not a perfect film. King’s shooting style is often unimaginative and the film takes too long to get going – much of the first half an hour is a slow chug towards Davenport being relieved and Savage taking the post. More could be made of the impact of the war on the rest of the men on the group: it’s telling that only Jagger’s Stovell gets a scene where he also is allowed to let off steam against the pressure, getting drunk the night of a big raid, and he won an Oscar for it. But as something very different in Hollywood’s approach to the War, it really stands out as a companion piece to The Best Years of Our Lives.

All About Eve (1950)

Anne Baxter and Bette Davis become deadly rivals in All About Eve

Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz

Cast: Bette Davis (Margo Channing), Anne Baxter (Eve Harrington), George Sanders (Addison DeWitt), Celeste Holm (Karen Richards), Gary Merill (Bill Sampson), Hugh Marlowe (Lloyd Richards), Thelma Ritter (Birdie), Gregory Ratoff (Max Fabian), Marilyn Monroe (Claudia Casswell)

At a theatre awards ceremony, a table of people watch Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) collect the Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement. She thanks them all effusively. They stare at her with mute loathing. I guess that’s show business. Mankiewicz’s biting and witty film boasts possibly one of the greatest scripts for the movies ever written, a biting expose of rivalries and backstage politics, that also manages to find a lot of warmth for its characters. Arch, but in its own strange way tender hearted and hopeful, its Mankiewciz’s greatest achievement.

Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is a gifted actress and one of the leading lights of Broadway, as well as the on-stage muse of playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), close friends with his wife Karen (Celeste Holm) and in love with her director Bill Sampson (Gary Merill). But Margo is just beginning to worry, now she has reached her forties, that her parts are drying up. Into her world arrives Eve (Anne Baxter), a besotted fan who swiftly becomes first her assistant then her understudy and eventual replacement. Despite her sweet exterior, Eve is fiercely ambitious determined to find fame and success – and only cynical theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) seems to notice.

All About Eve cemented Mankiewicz as Hollywood’s go-to for high-brow literary entertainment. Which is odd when you think about it, because what makes All About Eve work – and enduringly popular – is that it’s a fantastically quotable soap, played with relish. It’s not a million miles away from a ten-part, cliff-hangers aplenty Netflix drama. But it stands out because of Mankiewicz’s craft – when you pen lines as cutting, acerbic, tender and true as those in All About Eve, is it any wonder that Hollywood sees you as the next Fitzgerald?

And the dialogue is sparkling, from start to finish. From a cuttingly dry opening voiceover from George Sander’s Addison DeWitt – beautifully delivered, crammed with cynicism, cattiness, pride and purring contempt (“Minor awards are for such as the writer and director since their function is merely to construct a tower so that the world can applaud a light which flashes on top of it.”) that it sets the tone for a film where dialogue is king. Mankiewicz is not much of a visual stylist – only the final shot, a besotted fan starring into an endless series of mirrors – sticks in the mind, and his approach as a director is intensely theatrical, but it doesn’t matter when his dialogue sings.

All About Eve works as both a supremely entertaining peek behind the curtain and also a neat parable about ageing, change and relevance. Perhaps there are few better examples of the changing of the guard, than the impact of growing old on a woman in theatre: from girlfriend to mother, with hardly a role in between. It’s the change Margo is dreading. And as she grows too old for her leading lady roles, what has she actually to show for it? Not much in the way of family or happiness.

If Eve looked closer, perhaps she’d wonder if it was worth it. As Margo makes clear in her dressing room and at a party thrown for Bill, she’s not got much to look forward to. (It’s not often commented on that the film’s most famous line, “Fasten your seatbelts it’s going to be a bumpy night”, is followed by an evening of Margo’s maudlin self-pity). For all her glamour and fame, it’s clear Margo is unhappy: “So many people know me. I wish I did” she says at one point, and for all the whirlwind of her life, she’s not exactly over-burdened by close friends.

It’s easy to forget, because All About Eve is so well known for being a bitchfest – and Mankiewicz’s cutting one-liners are genius – that you forget its lead is a sad and lonely figure, and the film presents a conservative view of motherhood being a crucial role for a woman. We don’t automatically remember this speech’ but it’s crucial for Margo: “There’s one career all females have in common – whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And, in the last analysis, nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed – and there he is.”

Margo is the signature part for Bette Davis, but memory has distorted it. You can expect it to be a parade of sharply barbed attacks, but it is much more than this. Yes, she does these with aplomb (“I wouldn’t worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be”), but under the regal grande dame, there is a rather vulnerable woman, scared about where her life is going and terrified of being unloved. For all the Davis fireworks, it’s an affecting – and perhaps this is why it became such a gay icon, during those years of people forced into the closet –vulnerable and lonely performance.

That vulnerability contributes to the sense of vampire story. Eve arrives in the dead of night, inveigles her way into Margo’s life and then slowly takes that life over. Eve is almost draining Margo’s life force, leaving her even more aware of the lonely impact of her choices. There’s the suggestion of sexual obsession in Eve – standing on stage, holding Margo’s costume in front of her and imagining the applause, Eve seems as much besotted with Margo as she does with becoming her. And of course Eve is a unknowable fake. Anne Baxter’s gentle, butter-wouldn’t-melt sweetness is just the right side of phoney. Only Thelma Ritter’s (very funny) bitchy dresser detects dictates her invented backstory about a deceased husband is baloney (“What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.”).

Later Birdie will comment Eve is studying to become Margo – and that’s spot on. As Eve moves further up the ladder, Baxter drops her gentleness and becomes increasingly steely. “A contempt for humanity, an inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition – and talent. We deserve each other” Addison will tell her – and he’s spot on. Eve’s driving motivation is ambition, and anyone is fair game if it will help her move up the greasy ladder of theatrical success.

Eve uses everyone. She manipulates Karen into making Margo missing a performance – then invites the press in advance to her performance, which is met with raves. Afterwards Eve gives an interview in which she lacerates Margo as a bitter has-been holding her back. It’s enough for Karen – and Celeste Holm is very good as this gently supportive woman, with the firmest principles of anyone on show here – but the men can’t let go. It takes an attempted seduction to drive away Bill, but the weaker Lloyd seems to be sucked into her web (the film is coy about the implied affair). It should be clear that Eve is a force draining energy out of everything she can, determined to get to the top.

And we know she gets there: after all we’ve seen her win the Sarah Siddons prize! But Eve has none of Margo’s soul. The film ends with her meeting the even more vainly empty Phoebe, who Addison immediately recognises is intent on the same scheme as Eve was. And so, the whirligig of time brings in its revenges. Eve has learnt everything from Margo, except how to be a human: she has all her technique and none of her heart. The film even manages to feel a bit sorry for her – a woman who has achieved everything she wants, and finds it makes her neither happy nor popular.

It’s the heart of Mankiewicz’s film, perhaps even its warning message. What is the point of all this greatness, if all you have to show for it are false-friendships with poisonous pals like Addison? It’s the moral message behind a film filled with one-liners and wonderful speeches, a masterclass in theatrical writing for cinema. Bette Davis is superb, funny and heartfelt. Baxter is quietly terrifying. Ritter and Holm are superb and Sanders is so well case in this role, you wonder if Mankiewicz somehow invented him specially for it. All About Eve may be grand, soapy entertainment – but soap has never been smarter than this.