Tag: Thomas Mitchell

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Gone with the Wind (1939)

For decades unchallenged as the best loved Hollywood film ever made, but showing some signs of its age, it’s still an undeniable marvel

Director: Victor Fleming

Cast: Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O’Hara), Clark Gable (Rhett Butler), Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes), Olivia de Havilland (Melanie Hamilton), Thomas Mitchell (Gerald O’Hara), Evelyn Keyes (Suellen O’Hara), Ann Rutherford (Careen O’Hara), Barbara O’Neil (Ellen O’Hara), Hattie McDaniel (Mammy), Butterfly McQueen (Prissy), Oscar Polk (Pork), Rand Brooks (Charles Hamilton), Carroll Nye (Frank Kennedy), Jane Darwell (Mrs Meriweather), Ona Munson (Belle Watling), Harry Davenport (Dr Meade)

For most of the twentieth century, if you asked people to draw up a list of the greatest Hollywood films of all time, you can be pretty sure this would be close to the top. A landmark in Hollywood history, everything about Gone with the Wind is huge: sets, run time, costs, legend. It’s crammed with moments that have developed lives of their own in popular culture. Its score from Max Steiner – luscious and romantic – is instantly recognisable, practically Hollywood’s soundtrack. It’s the most famous moment in the lives of virtually all involved and for decades whenever it was released, it raked in the cash. But as we head into the twenty-first century, does GWTW (as it called itself even at the time) still claim its place at the head of Hollywood’s table?

It’s the love child of David O. Selznick. Never mind your auteur theory: GWTW credits Victor Fleming as the director, but parts of it were shot by George Cukor (the original director, who continued to coach Leigh and de Havilland), William Cameron Menzies (the legendary art director, who shot the Atlanta sequences) and Sam Wood (who covered for an exhausted Fleming for several weeks). This is a Selznick joint from top to bottom. GWTW is possibly the ultimate producer’s film: a massive show piece, where not a single cent isn’t up on the screen. Huge sets, vast casts, colossal set pieces, thousands of costumes and extras. It’s an extravaganza and Selznick was determined that it would be an event like no other. And a hugely entertaining event it was.

It would also be scrupulously faithful to Margaret Mitchell’s novel, with a dozen screenwriters working on it (including Selznick). GWTW was the ultimate door-stop romance novel. Set in Atlanta, Georgia, the entire film is a no-holds barred “Lost cause” romance of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) is the passionate, wilful daughter of a plantation owner, desperately in love with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), who is attracted to her but all set to marry his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). Also interested in Scarlett is playboy Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). Romantic complications are set to one side when the Civil War breaks out, bringing disaster to the South. As the war comes to its end will Scarlett and Rhett find love, or will Scarlett’s fixation on Ashley continue to come between them?

GWTW’s casting was the sort of national obsession not even the casting of a superhero gets today. Every actress in Hollywood seemed to screen test for Scarlett O’Hara, with Selznick playing the search for all the publicity it was worth. No one suggested Vivien Leigh. But, lord almighty, Leigh was placed on this Earth to play Scarlett O’Hara. GWTW is dominated by Leigh, dripping movie star charisma. She would be synonymous with the role for the rest of her life, and it’s no exaggeration to say this one of the greatest acting performances in movie history. Leigh balances a character stuffed with contradictions. Scarlett is wilful and vulnerable, impulsive and calculated, childish and dependable, selfish and generous, spoilt and sensible, romantic and realistic… But Leigh balances all this with complete ease. It’s an act of complete transformation, an astonishingly confident, charismatic and complicated performance.

There was no debate about who would play the romantic hero, Rhett Butler. He basically was Clark Gable. And Gable was perfect casting – so perfect, he was almost too scared to play it. But he did, and he is sublime: matinee idol charismatic, but also wise, witty and vulnerable (it’s easy to forget that Rhett is really in the traditional “woman’s role” – the ever-devoted lover who sticks by his woman, no matter how badly she treats him, spending chunks the latter half of the film halfway to depressed tears). For the rest, Leslie Howard was oddly miscast as Wilkes (he seems too English and too inhibited by the dull role) but Olivia de Havilland excels in a generous performance as Melanie, endearingly sweet and loyal.

These stars were placed in a film production that’s beyond stunning. Shot in glorious technicolour, with those distinctive luscious colours, astonishingly detailed sets were built (plantations, massive dance halls, whole towns). Everything about GWTW is designed to scream prestige quality. It lacks directorial personality – the best shots, including a crane shot of the Civil War wounded or a tracking shot on Leigh through a crowded staircase, seem designed to showpiece the sets and volume of extras. It’s a film designed to wow, crammed with soaring emotions and vintage melodrama. Nothing is ever low key in GWTW: disasters are epic, love is all-consuming passionate clinches. They built stretches of Atlanta so they could burn it down on camera. It’s extraordinary.

And much of GWTW is extremely entertaining. Especially the first half. It’s an often overlooked fact that if you ask people to name things that happen in GWTW, nearly everything (bar the film’s final scene obviously) they will come up with is in the first half. Rhett behind a sofa in the library? Atlanta on fire? Rhett and Scarlett at the ball? Scarlett surrounded by admirers at a garden party? “I’ll never be hungry again?” All before the interval. The first half is a rollicking, fast-paced rollercoaster that takes us from the height of the South to the devastation after the war. It grabs you by the collar and never lets go, supremely romantic, gripping and exciting.

The second half? Always duller. Bar the start and finish of the second half (nearly two hours in all), it’s a Less memorable film. Sure, it has the O’Hara’s in extreme poverty, Scarlett reduced to converting a curtain into a dress to glamour up some cash to keep Tara. It’s got Ashley and Melanie’s adorably sweet reunion. And it’s got possibly the most famous line ever in movies “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” (not to mention “Tomorrow is another day”).

Other than that? It’s a bitty, plot-heavy series of forgettable, episodic moments which you feel really should have been cut. Who remembers Frank Kennedy? Or Scarlett’s lumber mill? Rhett pushing his daughter in a pram? The London sequence? There is a solid hour of this film which is flatly shot, dully paced and devoid of anything memorable at all. GWTW owes all its beloved reputation to the first half: and to be fair you’ll be so swept up in that you’ll give the film a pass for its middling second act. After all you get just about enough quality to keep you going.

But what about the elephant in the room? GWTW, like no other beloved film, has a deeply troubling legacy. They were partly aware of it at the time – after all, every racial epithet was cut, as is every reference to the KKK (it’s referred to as a “political meeting” and Rhett and Ashley’s membership is glossed over) and we never see the attack they carry out on a shanty town of former slaves. But GWTW remains, in many ways, a racist film peddling an unpleasant and dangerous mythology that the “Lost Cause” of the South was all about gentlemanly fair play, rather than coining it off plantations full of enslaved workers.

GWTW, in many ways, plays today a bit like a beloved elderly relative who comes round for dinner and then says something deeply inappropriate half-way through the main course. The dangerous mythology is there from the opening crawl which talks of the South as a land of “Cavaliers and cotton fields” where “Gallantry took its last bow…[full of] knights and their ladies fair, of Master and Slave”. The third shot of the film is a field of smiling slaves, working in a cotton field. Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar (at a segregated ceremony) and she is wonderfully warm as Mammy, but her character is another contented underling. At least she seems smarter than the other main black characters, Pork and Queeny: both are like children reliant on the guidance of their masters.

The Cause of the South is luscious and romantic, as are the people who fight it. Nearly every Yankee we see is corrupt, ugly and greedy, rubbing defeat in our heroes’ faces. It’s not quite Birth of a Nation, but the second half has a creeping suspicion of freed black people. A carpetbagger from the North is a smug, fat black man who mocks wounded Southern soldiers. Scarlett’s walk through the streets of a rebuilt Atlanta sees her startled and mildly hustled by black people who no longer know their place. Every prominent black character is sentimental about the good old days. GWTW would make an interesting double feature with 12 Years a Slave.

It’s this dangerous and false mythology that makes the film troubling today. It’s why you need to imagine the entire thing with a massive asterisk – and why you should be encouraged to find out more about the era than the fake and self-serving fantasy the film peddles as reality. But for all that, GWTW is so marvellous as a film that it will always be watched (and rightly so), even if it was always a film of two halves and only becomes more controversial in time. But watch it with a pinch of salt, and it is still one of the most gorgeous, sweeping and romantic films of all time: that’s why it still remains, for many, the definitive “Hollywood” film.

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.

High Noon (1952)

Gary Cooper stands alone in High Noon

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Cast: Gary Cooper (Marshal Will Kane), Grace Kelly (Amy Fowler Kane), Thomas Mitchell (Mayor Jonas Henderson), Lloyd Bridges (Deputy Marshal Harvey Pell), Katy Jurado (Helen Ramirez), Otto Kruger (Judge Percy Mettrick), Lon Chaney Jny (Marshal Martin Howe), Eve McVeagh (Mildred Fuller), Harry Morgan (Sam Fuller), Morgan Farley (Minister Mahin), Ian MacDonald (Frank Miller), Lee Van Cleef (Jack Colby)

It’s 10:35 am on the day of the wedding of retiring Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) to Quaker Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly). It should be the happiest day of his life – but events are interrupted by news that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a killer Kane put away, has been released and will arrive on the midday train with his gang to kill Kane. Kane’s first instinct – and the town’s – is for Kane to flee the town: but Kane doesn’t want to spend his life looking over his shoulder, and besides his friends and colleagues in the town will stand with him right? He decides to make his stand – to the outrage of his pacifist wife – only to find one-by-one the citizens of the town excuse themselves from helping Kane. After all, who wants to die?

Playing out like a Western 24, Kane has got a little under 90 minutes to put together a posse to give himself a fighting chance against these hardened killers. Zinnemann’s film is full of carefully placed shots of clocks that hammer home the ominous approach of Kane’s seemingly inevitable death. In a brilliant use of contrasts, Kane walks with growing desperation in virtually every shot through the increasingly abandoned town, mixed with clever cut-backs to the Miller gang waiting patiently at the train station (with deep focus shots of the train lines stretching on forever) for Miller to arrive and kick off the killing. Using a wonderful combination of low-angles, tracking shots and one superb crane shot that pulls out and away to show Kane stranded alone in the abandoned town, Zinnemann’s film stresses Kane’s isolation, anxiety and growing desperation.

Because Kane is scared. And why shouldn’t he be? He’s past-his-best and over-the-hill, a long-serving hero on his last day in the job, outmatched by his opponent. Why on earth wouldn’t he be desperate for help? John Wayne and Howard Hawks hated the film, loathed its perceived anti-American-spirit and, most of all, couldn’t stand the idea of a Western hero being scared and desperate for help. They even made a twist on the film, Rio Bravo, where Wayne played a marshal turning down any and all help in order to do what a man needs to do alone. For them that was a Western hero, and this self-doubting, anxious pussy Kane – the man even cries at one point! – was an abomination.

Cooper seemed to be no-one’s choice for the film – Heston, Brando, Fonda, Douglas, Clift and Lancaster all turned it down – but scooped the Oscar as Kane. Then 51, his obvious age and vulnerability – at one point Lloyd Bridges almost beats the crap out of him – make him feel even more at risk from this threat. In a performance devoid of vanity – other than perhaps Kane landing the radiant (and thirty years younger) Grace Kelly as his wife – Cooper is sweaty, nervous, twitchy and a mix of All-American duty and genuine nerves, resentment and terror at what feels almost certain to be his end. Kane knows why he must do it, but to Wayne’s disgust, he still doesn’t like it.

Carl Foreman, the screenwriter, was to be pulled before the House of Un-American Activities for his communist sympathies. And the entire film is pretty clearly a commentary on the McCarthyite era, specifically the abandonment of those pulled before the house by those who seemed to be their friends. Like the blacklisted Hollywood writers and actors, Kane opens the film with admirers and friends all of whom eulogise his greatness and decency: and all of them turn their back on him as the chips go crumbling down.

Most of the film is given over to Kane desperately going from ally to ally, only to find that he is offered only platitudes, excuses and outright cowardice. His deputy demands a recommendation for Kane’s job, and chucks in his star when Kane refuses. Old friends hide in their houses and refuse to come out when Kane comes calling. Lon Chaney Jnr’s retired marshal pleads illness. The judge rides straight out of town and suggests Kane does the same. At a town meeting in the church, the voices calling to help Kane are few and far between, and Mayor Thomas Mitchell praises Kane to the skies, before concluding the town would be better off if he could ride away and not come back. The one man who volunteers backs down when he finds out no one else has volunteered, and the only person eager to fight is a 14 year old boy. 

So much for loyalty and the American way. When the chips are down, words mean nothing and it’s the actions that show the man. Customers in the saloon talk about how life wasn’t that bad when the Millers ruled the town (to show how wrong this is, literally their first action when riding into town is to steal something from a milliners). Others moan that all this law enforcement from Kane has actually made business a bit worse for the town. Why do the hard thing, why make the stand, when it’s so much easier to just look down, keep quiet and let the just suffer while your life ticks on.

Cooper’s Kane is masterfully low-key, subtle, using only the slightest gestures to show deep-rooted, only barely hidden resentment and bitterness, covering fear. What he’s doing he’d give anything not to do, but he sees no choice. There is no other Western where the hero writes a will, and quietly weeps with his head on his hands on his desk. There is no other Western where the hero spends so long trying to make a manly task easier to do. There is no other Western where the self-serving cowardice and hypocrisy of the townsfolk are more blatant. No wonder Cooper – in the final insult for Wayne – drops his tin star in the dirt at the film’s end, as the townsfolk rush out to congratulate him on winning the duel. This is a film that looks at America as it really is – and many people didn’t like that one little bit.

Zinnemann’s direction is spot on, a perfect blend of tension build and technical mastery, mixed with superb dialogue from Carl Foreman. Not a word or shot is wasted, and every single character and event is carefully sketched in, established and build up with no effort at all. Cooper is superb, Grace Kelly just as good in a thankless role as the humourless Quaker wife who struggles with her life-long principles against her love for her husband. Beautifully filmed, with a wonderful score with Dimitri Tiomkin, High Noon is a classic for a reason, a masterpiece of slow-build and enlightened social commentary.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

Charles Laughton looks on with longing as The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Director: William Dieterle

Cast: Charles Laughton (Quasimodo), Cedric Hardwicke (Jean Frollo), Thomas Mitchell (Clopin), Maureen O’Hara (Esmeralda), Edmond O’Brien (Pierre Gringoire), Alan Marshal (Captain Phoebus), Walter Hampden (Archbishop Claude Frollo), Harry Davenport (King Louis XI), Katherine Alexander (Madame de Lys), George Zucco (Procurator)

Victor Hugo’s gothic romance–slash-tragedy has been turned into a film so often, it’s a wonder anything that happens in it remains a surprise. But this 1939 version is perhaps the most influential, where Hollywood decided to throw money at the fable and try and make something as close as possible to the spirit of the book. But of course with a happyish ending on the end – because, you know, it’s still Hollywood!

In 1470s Paris, the city is caught between the pressures of religion and new developments such as the printing press. In the centre of the city is the Cathedral of Notre Dame – where the bells are operated by foundling Quasimodo (Charles Laughton), a deformed hunchback driven deaf by the constant ringing of the bells. His benefactor, Judge Jean Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke), is running a vicious campaign to cleanse the city of the gypsies and beggars that make up a large part of its underbelly – but he’s hit for six when he falls in love (or rather lust) with beautiful gypsy woman Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara). But he’s not alone – equally smitten are naïve young poet Gringoire (Edmond O’Brien), arrogant Captain Phoebus (Alan Marshal), and Quasimodo himself. When Esmeralda rejects Frollo’s advances she soon finds herself in danger – and her only hope of safety comes from unexpected sources.

Dieterle’s background in German expressionism and silent cinema shines through in this visually striking and opulent studio production, with its superbly marshalled crowd scenes, brilliant use of near-impressionistic shadows and fabulous camera work that drifts over the impressive (and hugely expensive) set. Dieterle mixes this technical expertise with a real sense of emotion and character development, helped by some terrific performances from the cast. It’s a film that motors through the story of the novel, but skilfully repackages it as both a fascinating semi-romance and a sort of urban tragedy, as well as a subtle mediation on love and lust.

At the centre of it, you have Charles Laughton giving probably the definitive performance of the hunchback. Sweating under layers of make-up and an artificial hump, Laughton is nearly unrecognisable as the bell-ringer. His triumph is to make a gentle, tragic character emerge from make-up that suggests more Frankenstein’s monster than tragic hero. Nearly wordless for the first hour and a half of the film, Laughton does his magic with an expressiveness that speaks volumes of the loneliness in Quasimodo. Tenderly, he watches people knowing he can never be part of their lives – and look how excitedly he bursts out when he finally gets a chance to speak to Esmeralda one-on-one. Suffering punishment on the wheel, Laughton’s eyes convey the numb acceptance of pain as his natural state of affairs. But he also manages to bring out the gentle, childlike qualities of Quasimodo. It’s a wonderful, wordless, expressionistic performance – a triumph of physical acting and wonderfully judged emotional vulnerability.

The rest of the cast match Laughton stride-for-stride. Censor demands at the time required that Frollo be removed from his position (in the novel) as Archbishop, so the book-version of the character is split in two here. Archbishop Frollo is the sort of pious bore who can keep the Hayes committee happy. But Cedric Hardwicke gets to play the invented evil brother Judge Jean Frollo, the lecherous hypocrite from the novel. An authoritarian ascetic, Hardwicke’s Judge Frollo is lean, mean and utterly ruthless – and totally in denial about both his lustful feelings and hypocrisy. Hardwicke is virtually an archetype of the sinister authoritarian, but he manages to never chew the scenery. Incidentally, knowing the two characters are basically split from the original book, does allow moments of fun imaging the moral debates between the two as a sort of split personality discussion.

But there are plenty of other good performances as well – not least from Maureen O’Hara, who is charming and engaging enough to make you believe that the whole male cast is in love with her. Edmond O’Brian goes large at times with the passionate romance, but he does a very good job in the role. Thomas Mitchell is good value as the leader of the beggars, Clopin. There are strong performances across the whole film.

All these performances are framed within a fabulous design. The trouble and expense that has gone into the construction of the set is inspiring, the sweeping gothic arches and towers giving every shot something exquisite to look at. It also gives never-ending options for camera placement and impressionistic imagery for Dieterle. It works as well – the gloomy, imposing towers of Notre Dame are captured with real artistry, while the shadow it casts over the whole city of Paris serves as a constant reminder of the oppression the city lives in.

Dieterle also brilliantly films the crowd scenes, getting a superb sense of visceral emersion from these sequences. Whether the camera is in the mix, or flying above the crowds from the tops of Notre Dame, these scenes look equally fantastic. Dieterle handles the more action-related scenes with particular skill – Quasimodo’s rescue of Esmeralda from a death sentence is particularly well staged in its dynamism and graceful filming. 

Not every beat works. The portrayal of Louis IX as a sort of kindly old uncle seems off-piste from the very start. The early sequences sometimes get bogged down too quickly in set-up rather than getting into the action. Alan Marshal is rather wooden as Captain Phoebus, although the film goes surprisingly far in suggesting the dark desires and predatory sense of danger that comes from the character. Some of the beggar court sequences get similarly stuck in kitsch.

But these are minor beats. It’s a film that really understands emotions and makes the dramatic thrust work. It also has a dark sexual power, not least in Hardwicke’s Frollo: a seething mess of frustrated desires. It never loses sight of the sadness at the heart of its central character’s story, of his loneliness and isolation, and manages to communicate this brilliantly in every scene where the character appears – he is trapped by his muteness, his ugliness or his sadness at every turn. It’s a development that never fails to be engrossing and finally moving. It’s a film that is brilliantly assembled with real technical skill, very well acted and wonderfully directed.