Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Hollywood classics: The Story of G.I. Joe, Dodsworth, Ceiling Zero, You Only Live Once and Little Women

I'd imagined The Story of GI Joe (1945) to be a morale-raising, rip-roaring, hairy-chested, WW2 shoot-'em-up: it was, after all, directed by William "Wild Bill" Wellman, and starred Robert Mitchum. it turned out to be a sensitive, almost wistful salute to the ordinary American infantryman. The film's actual title was Ernie Pyle's Story of GI Joe. Ernie Pyle was a war correspondent who accompanied American troops as they slogged through Tunisia and Italy. The film is based on stories and dialogue from his war-time reports, which were printed in 400 daily and 300 weekly newspapers...

...There aren't any heroics, as such. There's a small-scale gun battle in a bombed-out monastery, but the film focusses on the daily grind of soldiers as they trudge through mud,  celebrate Christmas, get married (after the exhausted GI marries his Italian bride and they retire to a caravan on their wedding night, he immediately falls asleep), miss their loved ones (one soldier spends most of the film trying to find a record player so he can hear his infant son talking on a disc sent to him by his wife), go mad, and get killed.

The film's two outstanding performances are provided by Robert Mitchum - then practically unknown (see the contemporary poster below) - as Lt. Bill Walker (what a superb actor he was, given the right material and the right director) - and the equally wonderful Burgess Meredith, as the 44-year old journalist, who died in action just before the film was released. I found this self-explanatory letter while reading about Pyle on the web:
My father took a photograph of Ernie Pyle in the Pacific in 1945, shortly before Pyle was killed. At the time Pyle was surrounded by a mob of admiring G.Is. You'd have thought they were in the presence of Bettie Grable or Rita Hayworth rather than a short, balding, middle aged newspaper-man. When Pyle was killed in action a few days later while accompanying the infantry, the solders erected a monument at the place where he died. On it were engraved the words, "On this spot the 77th Division lost a buddy."

The Story of GI Joe was a box-office success, as was A Walk in the Sun, a similarly understated movie about ordinary US infantrymen in the Italian campaign, released six months later. Burgess Meredith was instrumental in getting that film made (it was based on a novel written by an American journalist), and he provided the voice of the narrator.

If you want to see The Story of GI Joe, you'll either have to wait for it to turn up on the TCM channel or buy it on DVD.

I recently bought a Spanish DVD of  Dodsworth, the 1936 film version of a Sinclair Lewis. Directed by William Wyler, it stars Walter Huston as a wealthy industrialist who, restless,  sells his company and heads for Europe with his snobby wife, Ruth Chatterton, who, afraid of growing old, longs for glamour, class and culture. She immediately embarks on a series of affairs, starting with David Niven on board the ship taking them to Europe, while Mr. D strikes up a platonic friendship with fellow-passenger, Mary Astor.

The Dodsworths drift apart and agree to divorce: waiting for it to become final, he wanders unhappily around Europe until he bumps into Mary Astor again in Naples, and she invites him to stay at her idyllic, rented home by the sea, while the wife plans to marry a young Austrian nobleman. The nobleman's mother refuses to agree to the marriage, and Ruth Chatterton contacts Walter Huston and suggests a reconciliation, to which he agrees out of a sense of duty, much to Mary Astor's sorrow. When the Dodsworths board the ship back to the States, the husband realises what a terrible mistake he has made, disembarks, and heads back to Mary Astor.  It's a superb film, beautifully written, directed and acted (particularly by Walter Huston), and handsomely mounted.

By way of contrast, the same year saw the release of Ceiling Zero, directed by Howard Hawks, and starring Pat O'Brien as the operations manager of an airline company, and his war-time buddy James Cagney as a devil-may-care, womanising pilot. The film practically invented a new Hollywood genre - the non-genre picture: there's drama, comedy, romance, adventure, a closely-knit group of professionals doing a dangerous job, there's a tough gal involved, and everyone talks twice as fast as anyone does in real life (Pat O'Brien might well hold the world record for the speed with which he delivers his lines in this film - to the point where I found some of the exchanges incomprehensible).

Cagney and O'Brien are superb at this sort of stuff, and Cagney proves once more that he could portray a character who's a selfish shit, while somehow retaining our affection: Cagney, anxious to chase a young female would-be pilot, gets another pilot to take his place on a flight, the weather turns ugly, and the pilot dies (don't worry, the film ends with Cagney sacrificing himself to make up for his bad behaviour). Many of Ceiling Zero's elements reappear in Hawks's great hit, Only Angels Have Wings (1940), and there's another 1940 film, Torrid Zone, directed by William Keighley, again starring O'Brien and Cagney, which is practically a remake. Great fun.

Another classic I could only find on DVD was Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once (1937), a very early example of film noir. For some incomprehensible reason, nice girl Sylvia Sidney has got herself mixed up with jailbird Henry Fonda. The film opens as he's leaving prison after serving a third term, and ends in disaster as he tries to shoot his way out of prison while waiting for his death sentence to be carried out. It's one of the most beautifully put-together films I've ever seen - there's a shot of Henry Fonda in his multi-barred death cell, and one of Sylvia Sidney's highlighted face appearing in a door hatch through which she has to speak to her lover in prison which both took my breath away, and there's a magnificently-realised scene in which a gang of robbers wearing gas masks swarms over an armoured car which they've bombarded with tear gas which made me want to applaud. But the film's outlook is so unrelentingly liberal that it made me want to throw up. I presume that the Great Depression made it easier for audiences to sympathise with criminals who "never had a break", but the idea that Fonda's character was doomed from the moment when, as a kid, he was sent to reform school for beating up another kid who was maltreating an animal struck me as a ludicrously inadequate excuse. I spent most of the film looking forward to Fonda getting his well-deserved comeuppance for being such a whining, self-pitying, chance-spurning sad sack. Despite that, it's a brilliant piece of film-making.

I'll end with George Cukor's 1933 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, which is available of Amazon Prime. I watched it as a duty, because it appears on so many lists of all-time great films - and adored every minute of it. It's visually gorgeous, the clothes and the interiors in particular (the March home was apparently an exact reconstruction of Louisa May Alcott's house in Massachusetts) - and the acting is magnificent. Katharine Hepburn's performance occasionally teeters on the edge of self-parody, but in the end is an absolute triumph. Sheer Hollywood Golden Age perfection. It won the academy award for best-adapted screenplay - but how it  lost out to Cavalcade for Best Picture and Best Director is anybody's guess.

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