Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Yet more old movies: The Counterfeit Traitor, Belle Starr and The Blue Bird

Last night's entertainment consisted of The Blue Bird, a lavish 1940 Darryl Zanuck production, adapted from a 1908 Maurice Maeterlinck play. It stars Shirley Temple, then aged 12, and it was her first flop. She strives valiantly in the role of the selfish daughter of a respectable German woodchopper, who, in what turns out to be an extended dream, goes in search of the Bluebird of Happiness (as one does), accompanied by her little brother, a Good Fairy ("Light"), and the family pets, a dog and cat who have both taken human shape for the journey. Our wee heroine eventually returns home (i.e. wakes up) to the realisation that happiness is not to be found in the selfish pursuit of luxury, but, rather, in being jolly nice and incredibly generous, especially to sick children. Her change in attitude is instantly rewarded by the news that daddy won't have to go and fight Napoleon after all (not that she seemed overly worried at the prospect of losing him in the first place).

The film was meant to capture the spirit - i.e. rip off - The Wizard of Oz (I'm not sure why, because that hadn't been a great success at the box-office on its release): it even starts in black-and-white and then shifts to colour when she Miss Temple sets off on her bluebird-hunt. Unfortunately, the movie failed to capture any of its predecessor's charm. Our star (the biggest box-office star of the '30s, in fact) searches for happiness in the past (her grandparents return to life, but Shirley has to leave them or risk becoming permanently trapped in the past); then she searches for it in a life of luxury, and then in - well I'm not sure: she and her companions are attacked by a whole forest-load of trees who are pissed off at the way Man keeps chopping their relatives down; and then - in an unintentionally creepy, nausea-inducing sequence - they hang around with "children who are yet to be born"(?), and Shirley discovers, to her delight, that she'' soon have a little sister. Who'll quickly die. Great!

All of this weird activity is rendered dull by the oddly static, stagey direction, and the unconvincing transformation of the lead character from psychotic dwarf to dimpled saint. The American audience apparently couldn't take their diminutive sweetheart as a raving ratbag - but the real problem is that she renounces her ratbaggery far too easily: you can sense the actress's relief at being allowed to return to sugary normality.

The acting honours go to Nigel Stock (i.e. Dr. Watson to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes), who is amusing as the pettish old buffer in the Luxury sequence - and Gale Sondergaard, who does an excellent job as a treacherous if somewhat well-built feline in human form.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend you do so, but the whole film is available to view here:

If The Blue Bird was designed to emulate The Wizard of Oz, the 1940 film, Belle Starr, was supposed cash in on the humongous success of Gone With the Wind. The eponymous heroine (very, very loosely based on an actual female outlaw), is a young Southern lady who, after her family mansion is burned down by Union officer Dana Andrews, gets hitched to a renegade former Confederate officer played by Randolph Scott, and joins his band of marauders as they resist the victorious Northern forces and the vile, criminal carpetbaggers and uppity "darkies" who've been unleashed on the defeated South.

Obviously, it's not a patch on Gone With the Wind: understandably, Belle Starr fails to match the earlier film's sheer historical sweep. Randolph Scott gives a decent enough performance, but romance isn't really his forte: he's too wooden a performer to be a convincingly swashbuckling gay blade. Dana Andrews, however, is broodingly effective as Major Thomas Crail, the conflicted Yankee officer, who loves Belle, but whose unbending sense of duty sends her running into Randolph Scott's arms. As for Gene Tierney, who plays Belle - she is quite superb. I've seen her in plenty of films, of course, but in Belle Starr, she is truly mesmerising - and spellbindingly beautiful (the cinematographer has a field-day lighting her extraordinary eyes). I can't find any clips of it on YouTube, but here's her screen test for the role:

Wowsers! Gene Tierney  had already appeared alongside Dana Andrews earlier in 1941 in John Ford's Tobacco Road, and they were teamed again - to great effect - in the noir classics, Laura and Where the Sidewalk Ends.

I'll end with a film of whose existence I was previously unaware: The Counterfeit Traitor, a 1962 WW2 spy film, set largely in Nazi Germany. Holden plays the real-life Stockholm-based Swedish-American businessman, Eric Erickson, who (according to the film) was blackmailed by the Allies into using his genuine business dealings with Germany in order to spy on them. Reluctantly, he plays ball, alienating his Swedish wife and their friends by becoming something of a public cheerleader for the Nazis. The Germans take the bait, and he gains access to those at the very top of the Nazi hierarchy. .His support for the Allied cause goes from grudging to wholehearted because of the oppression he witnesses in Germany (including a Polish forced labourer being hanged in order to persuade his co-workers not to strike), and because he falls in love with Lilli Palmer, a fiercely anti-Nazi German who is helping the Allies out of principle.

It's a bit slow, but the various moral dilemmas faced by Holden - who's in great form - are well-handled, and the depiction of daily life inside Nazi Germany is convincing. The acting's good throughout: Huw Griffiths is engagingly complex as Holden's ruthless spymaster, and the boy who plays the spiteful little Hitler-Jugend son of one Holden's business friends will make your flesh crawl. There's plenty of tension, and the action scenes - sparingly deployed - all work: Holden being saved from arrest in Copenhagen on his way back to Sweden by Danes on bicycles after his cover has been blown will have you cheering. His reunion back home with the Jewish friend whom he publicly disavowed, but who never lost faith in him, is genuinely touching.

The Counterfeit Traitor, which is being shown on Talking Pictures TV, is an unexpected gem - not a great film, certainly, but well worth catching.


  1. I think the actor who played Watson to Rathbone's Holmes was Nigel Bruce. Nigel Stock played Watson in the 1960's BBC adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

    1. Yes, exactly (as everyone keeps saying on W1A). A Diane Abbott moment.

      And, in case there was any doubt, you have, of course, secured the job as The Grønmark Blog copy-editor (luncheon vouchers included). See you 7.30 sharp, Monday morning. Bring your own pencils and wear a tie.

    2. Can I do the teas?

    3. Well spotted, ex-KCS. Inexcusable for a film buff Since his horrible
      remarks about great Scandinavian actor Richard Widmark the Great Blogger has been taking his eyes off the whatsits!

  2. Well, the prospect of luncheon vouchers and Helen's tea almost persuaded me but I already have enough on my plate as spell-checker for the Garudina.

  3. True story: I once knew someone whose father was a proofreader for the Grauniad, and he died of a heart attack. Sad, though understandable - but rather an extreme way to hand in your notice.

    1. The Guardian had PROOFREADERS??? You astonish me!