Soaring Spectacle: 10 Reasons to Watch Wings (1927)

sterBig budget movies from any era typically don’t do much for me. Give me snappy dialogue and recycled sets over earthquakes and casts of thousands any day.

There are, however, a few exceptions to my dislike of big bottom lines… and William Wellman’s Wings, which cost a whopping $2 million to make, is exceptional in almost every way.

The story focuses on two young men who enlist as combat pilots during World War I: middle class, happy-go-lucky Jack (Buddy Rogers) and wealthy, contemplative David (Richard Arlen), both of whom love the same woman (Jobyna Ralston). The fact that neither man is in love with Clara Bow as Mary, Jack’s vivacious neighbor, taxes my suspension of disbelief, but the plot all makes sense in the end.

As Jack and David train and join the fight, they form an unlikely friendship, a mutual loyalty that will be put to the ultimate test by their romantic rivalry and by the sobering sacrifices of war.

If you haven’t seen it, remedy that as soon as you possibly can. I can hardly conceive of a better way to spend 2 hours and 20 minutes. It’ll probably cost less than whatever you paid to see any Oscars contender this year, and it’ll be way better.

In case I need to convince you of the glory of Wings, here are the reasons, in order of ascending significance (does that sound official enough?), why I consider it a great and historic film.

Warning: this post does contain some spoilers.

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10. It won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Picture.

On May 16, 1929 in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, industry professionals gathered at a banquet to celebrate excellence in contributions to American film from 1927 to 1928.

The event included practically none of the pomp or the fixtures that we associate with the Oscars today. It wasn’t recorded or broadcast. Douglas Fairbanks Sr. hosted a program consisting of about 15 minutes of award presentations.

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The winners, selected by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, had been announced far in advance. Studios received congratulatory telegrams in February of the previous year.

A welcome prestige nod for Paramount, Wings won the prize for “Outstanding Picture,” claimed by producer Lucien Hubbard. William Wellman, the film’s director, wasn’t even invited to the ceremony!

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9. You’ll see both male and female nudity. In a general admission film.

Do you have a friend who thinks silent films are boring? Well, first off, you need to make better friends. Second, you should sit the aforementioned loser down (use restraints if necessary) and play Wings for his or her benefit. Don’t worry: there’s a little something for everyone.

Want to see 3 naked men standing in a row? Keep your eyes wide open during the first 15 minutes of the film.

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Interested in the prospect of topless Clara Bow? You’ll see exactly that, briefly but unmistakably, about halfway through the runtime.

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Yeah, I went there. The things I do to encourage people to watch old movies.

And remember, no ratings system existed for movies in 1927. Audiences of all ages could enjoy what was, ahem, on display. It really was a simpler time.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I shall try to recover my dignity (doubtful) and proceed with my post.

8. Would-be filmmakers could learn a thing or two about how to balance spectacle with story.

A popular epic and a technical miracle, Wings glides above the clouds but never loses sight of its human dimension. The film’s reputation today primarily (and justly) rests on the scale and innovation of its airborne sequences. Yet all that derring-do would be meaningless if we didn’t care about the characters. And Wellman worked hard for the viewer’s emotional investment.

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Wings could serve as an instructive example for the industry today. It demonstrates that a colossal movie (and a box office juggernaut) can and should have a heart. As many recent blockbusters show, spectacle for the sheer sake of spectacle just doesn’t cut it as art.

7. It catapulted Gary Cooper to stardom—even though he’s onscreen for less than 5 minutes.

Even before the public knew his name, the female employees at Paramount sure did. When Coop walked by their offices, a collective sigh rose from the secretarial pool. As B.P. Schulberg’s secretary described the actor, he was “the most beautiful hunk of man who ever walked down this hall!”

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Cooper had already distinguished himself in a supporting role in The Winning of Barbara Worth, but remained a relative unknown.

It’s not exaggerating by much to say that if you blink during Wings, you might miss the ‘Montana Mule.’ Nevertheless, William Wellman tested dozens of actors for the small role of a pilot who dies during training before he chose Cooper to play doomed airman White.

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When White crashes, the shocking incident exposes the shadow of fear and peril that airmen lived under, even before they squared up against the enemy. Cooper’s strange blend of casualness and intensity spurred audience members all over the country to swoon over the bit player.

6. Buddy Rogers was adorable… and quite brave, to boot!

Due to the limitations of cameras and the instability of planes in flight, the leading actors of Wings both flew their planes at times and turned on the cameras to film their own close-ups. This wasn’t a big problem for the ruminative Richard Arlen who had aviation experience.

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But Buddy Rogers, a 22-year-old rising star from Kansas, had never flown a plane before. After each flight—and he spent almost 100 hours up in the air—he would vomit out of anxiety and motion sickness. Then he immediately got back to work.

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Even tough customer Wellman had to admire Rogers’s persistence and courage. But he had another trick in mind for the poor kid.

For a rowdy drunk scene set at the Folies Bergère, Wellman opted to make Rogers’s performance as genuine as possible. As the actor recalled years later, “Here I am this little boy, never had a beer or champagne, and Billy says, ‘Why champagne’s good for you, Buddy. It’ll relax you.’ And so he relaxed me, relaxed me, relaxed me. And he said, ‘Do the scene this way.’”

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Rogers carries the film on his narrow shoulders. We watch him convincingly transform from a carefree teenager to a traumatized hero redeemed by love. His sparkling boyishness and irresistible charm give way to abject despair and guilt. A beloved, important star of the 1920s and 1930s, Rogers is undeservedly forgotten today and due for rediscovery.

vlcsnap-2015-02-21-15h48m42s169 Looks like somebody’s not in Kansas anymore.

5. Even during earthbound scenes, the cinematography will astound you.

Wings dazzles the viewer with so many fluid camera movements and multi-plane shots that it would take far more space than I have here to go through them all.

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Perhaps the most impressive shot occurs during the Folies Bergère scene when the crane-mounted camera swoops over several tables of carousing couples (including a same-sex couple!), finally ending up on the rim of Jack’s champagne glass as he stares agog at the bubbles.

4. Clara Bow will awe you with her talent and range.

Sex symbol, 1920s icon, flapper ideal: sure, Clara Bow was all of those things, but first and foremost she was a tremendously gifted actress. Saucy romantic comedies made Clara Bow the biggest star in the world, but she proved just as adept in dramatic situations.

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Playing the girl-next-door who goes overseas in the female volunteer corps for the chance to see her sweetheart again, Bow lends beguiling credibility to a rather expedient part. Although one could argue that her role merely serves to add gratuitous helpings of ‘It’ to an otherwise manly war drama, her poignant performance justifies every second of screen time she gets.

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Her incandescent naturalness wins you over from her first entrance, parting a pair of bloomers on a clothesline and bursting with joy at the sight of Jack, her childhood crush. Few actresses in the history of cinema could exude such enthusiasm and energy without seeming strained. Even doing something as mundane as driving an army transport truck, she doesn’t fail to hold our attention with her wondrously animated face.

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Bow also evokes much of the film’s piercing melancholy. She imbues the movie’s wild centerpiece, the Folies Bergère scene, with a moral resonance and establishes a special bond with the audience. As the hero loses himself in an unselfconscious haze of alcohol and oblivion, she reflects his innermost sorrow to the viewer. Mature beyond her years, she understands the sadness of his pleasure far better than he does.

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3. William Wellman claimed it as his masterpiece. And that’s saying something.

Before he took on Hollywood, Wellman graduated with honors from the school of life by joining up with the Lafayette Flying Corps as a combat pilot during World War I—and coming home to tell the tale. Although 29-year-old Wellman had only directed a few movies by the mid-1920s, Paramount executives knew he possessed the real-life knowledge of military aviation necessary to oversee the massive production of Wings.

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Wellman would go on to direct a staggering run of great films. He helmed the virtuoistic gangster saga The Public Enemy (1932), the gritty, unforgettable social drama Wild Boys of the Road (1933), the uproarious screwball comedy Nothing Sacred (1937), the much-imitated Hollywood satire A Star Is Born (1937), and the seminal Western The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).

He’s also the man you can thank for the ass-kicking, scantily clad Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Night Nurse (1932), so hip-hurray for ‘Wild Bill’!

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Towards the end of his life, when asked to name the film of which he was most proud, he mentioned Wings. In fact, it was not only his best, but his most personal film, the perfect expression of all that he’d experienced and all that he could help others to experience through cinema.

Wellman makes a cameo appearance in the movie—but not in the air, as you might expect of a venerated pilot. Instead, he dies during the big attack at Saint-Mihiel, looking up towards the sky at the planes decimating the enemy. He croaks his last words as a blessing to those men in their flying machines, “Attaboy! Them buzzards are some good after all!”

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2. It conveys the bitter irony of war.

Over the course of the film, Jack mistakes his friends for strangers twice. The first time, he confuses Mary with one of the French floozies at the Folies Bergère. The second time, he mistakes David for a German flyer. And kills him.

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Shot down behind enemy lines and presumed dead, David hijacks a German plane and heads back to the base. On the way, he encounters Jack, mourning his comrade’s “death” and bent on revenge.

To me nothing looks like hell with the lid taken off more than Jack’s impossibly pretty face contorted in blooddrunk triumph and fury… not realizing that he just shot down his best friend.

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Similarly, after mowing down swaths of his German counterparts, we can read Jack’s lips as he callously mutters, “Bastards!” By dehumanizing his enemy, Jack lets his own humanity slip. No one can blame him for doing so; we would all do the same in his situation or perish.

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The point isn’t merely that Jack kills his friend, but rather that he remorselessly kills men who might’ve been his friends, who aren’t substantially different from himself and David. Put a cross or a tricolore on your plane and you become anathema to the other side. The irony of David’s death begs the question, why invest so much hate in symbols? Why take lives because of them?

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And, lest the film end on a note of victory, Wellman deals us another gut punch of sadness. When Jack returns to his hometown, his car passes through a street of jubilant neighbors who toss flowers at him. Wellman cuts to an unusual low angle shot from beneath the car’s steering wheel. The hero is looking down at something, but what? Then a cut to a higher angle divulges what Jack holds in his hand: a miniature teddy bear, David’s good luck charm, and the medal he promised to return to David’s mother.

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Meanwhile, David’s father stares blankly out at the celebration from behind a memorial flag. David’s girl Sylvia sits catatonic on the swing she once shared with the man she was going to marry. And Jack will have to trudge through the rest of his existence missing his friend, the man he gunned down. The loss of a single young life palpitates in the forlorn final images of Wings. As WWI poet A.E. Housman wrote:

Life, to be sure, 
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.

1. You won’t find a more stunning and authentic recreation of WWI in any film.

It is not easy for a modern mind to grapple with the awe-inspiring realness of Wings.

Its battle scenes use no rear projection, no models, and, obviously, no CGI.  No tricks of any kind. Just frame after frame of clouds, aircraft, and men risking their lives to execute a brutally beautiful aerial ballet.

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220 real planes and 13 cameramen were drafted into the fray. Thousands of soldiers participated in the battle scenes. The U.S. Army blasted and bombarded vast expanses around San Antonio, Texas to reproduce no-man’s-land.

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The finished film (especially its airborne sequences) stands as a record not only of extreme physical courage, but also of material marvels, of things that actually happened at a certain time and place. The thrills of Wings depend on an inherent, mechanical quality of film: that it captures and preserves reality.

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The stakes of the action emerge from the fact that, like a fingerprint, each frame is existentially bound to the fraction of a second that it photographed. What we see—a plane careening through the air, spiraling, trailing smoke, and crashing to earth, for instance—could perhaps be faked. But that fakery would undermine everything that makes us gasp when confronted with the real thing, so daring and dangerous that it seems locked in a perpetual present.

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In fact, I can think of few mainstream movies that so intoxicatingly engage cinema’s tensions between spectacle and documentary, between fiction and reality. Wings weaves the immediacy of cinema into the visual equivalent of WWI poetry.

By turns lyrical, giddy, sentimental, and ugly (as all great war movies must be), Wellman’s film transmits the chivalric pride and the wrenching disillusionment of WWI.

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Wings allows its audience to feel both the soaring adrenaline rush and the crushing futility of the war that stole the 20th century’s innocence. You share the cockpit with the characters. You see the clouds billow around them and watch the horizon come unstuck. Perhaps no movie has ever put its viewers inside a war as completely as Wings does.

The Academy deemed it an “Outstanding Picture.” And, for once, I agree entirely with The Academy.

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This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Outspoken and Freckled, Paula’s Cinema Club, Once Upon a Screen. Be sure to check out the other entries!

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The Reel War: Historic Pictures from WWI’s Celluloid Front

Dismissed as an insipid novelty less than a decade earlier, the film medium flexed its muscles during World War I as it never had before. Movies documented life in the trenches for eager audiences on the home front… while conveniently concealing gory realities. They cheered the hearts of those fighting the battles. They even helped to turned the tide by persuasively prodding America into the fray.

The war also forever altered the landscape of film production and distribution, decimating European national cinemas and establishing Hollywood as the industry’s juggernaut. Screenwriter Anita Loos observed, Hollywood “was an outcome of an economic situation created by war.” If the conflict shaped Hollywood, Hollywood shaped the war, as well. Propaganda pictures moulded public opinion with “real-life footage” actually shot on California sound stages. Movie stars, still a relatively new phenomenon, drew massive crowds and raised even more massive amounts of money for the war effort, demonstrating the unprecedented power of celluloid fame.

So, without further ado, I invite you to ponder these images, gleaned from a variety of sources, that convey the multi-faceted significance of film and filmdom during WWI.

mary_doug_and_charlie_againDouglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin insist that every part of America should make a contribution to the war effort by buying Liberty Bonds. (And, is it just me, or is Charlie giggling over Florida’s phallic shape?)

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The irrepressibly likable Douglas Fairbanks engages a sea of spectators while talking up the third Liberty Loan in front of the Sub-Treasury building in New York City. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

As the actor’s son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. remembered, “When my father tried to join up [for active service] he was personally written to by President Wilson at the time who said ‘For heaven’s sake, we’re not going to let you do that because you can do much, much more for the country by raising these vast sums which nobody else can do.'”

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Mary Pickford stirs up a crowd with her patriotic rhetoric at a Liberty Bond rally in Washington, D.C. on April 6, 1918. A single speech from Little Mary could harvest some big cash—millions in a day. Image from the Library of Congress [Source].

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Doug and Mary pose with relief packages. Another image from the Library of Congress [Source].

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Fairbanks, Pickford, and Chaplin make an appearance in Philadelphia, lobbying support and funds for the third Liberty Loan drive.

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Silent film actress Edith Storey knits a sweater for her brother in the Navy, while wearing a Russian Army uniform for her latest film. Wartime fan magazines often shared images of female stars working at their needles—in the hopes that their legions of fans would follow suit and contribute warm woolens for the boys overseas.

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The silent screen’s original vamp, Theda Bara visits a ward of wounded veterans. Though famous for playing carnivorous femmes fatales, the actress revealed her heart of gold by raising money for the war effort and visiting army camps to raise morale. (Image from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)

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This image showing Private Keaton of the Fortieth ‘Sunshine’ Division suggests that even the Great War couldn’t make a dent in Buster’s poker face. Still, the silent clown recalled his frustration with the fact that the U.S. Army clearly didn’t design uniforms with men of his build (a lean 5’5″) in mind; his standard-issue outfit made him “look and feel ridiculous.”

Although Keaton applied himself dutifully to army life, he reported in his memoirs, “It was not always possible to take that war seriously. In the first place, I could not understand why we, the French, and the English were fighting the Germans and the Austrians. Being in vaudeville all my life had made me international-mided. I had met too many kindly German performers—singers and acrobats and musicians—to believe they could be as evil as they were being portrayed in our newspapers. Having known Germans, Japanese jugglers, Chinese magicians, Italian tenors, Swiss yodelers and bell-ringers, Irish, Jewish, and Dutch comedians, British dancers, and whirling dervishes from India, I believed people from everywhere in the world were about the same. Not as individuals, of course, but taken as a group.”

Image from Wikimedia Commons via this article about Keaton’s service in WWI, which I recommend.

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Speaking of comedians… Max Linder, the ground-breaking French comic (right), convalescing from a major injury at an army hospital and holding hands with, I believe, a member of a Senegalese tirailleur unit. The first international film star, Linder projected a dandyish screen image and was known for his ubiquitous silk top hat—he’s all but unrecognizable in this cloth cap and ragtag bundle of clothes. Sadly, Linder’s career would suffer from the decline of the French film industry following the war; he directed and starred in feature-length comedies in the United States, but met with only limited success among American audiences.

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Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Studios, solemnly works under a service flag decorated with a star for each studio employee in the military—and there are 217 of them. German-born Laemmle, aiming to distance himself from a background which made him a possible target for prejudice and even boycotting, green-lit some of the most virulent anti-Hun propaganda films of the era. Years later, however, his studio would produce the acclaimed WWI drama All Quiet on the Western Front, which expresses a poignant anti-war message through its sympathetic German protagonist.

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Pickford in uniform? Did she single-handledly win WWI like she seems to do in the movies? Well, no, but she was the honorary colonel and “godmother” of a regiment, the 143rd Field Artillery, jokingly referred to as “Mary’s Lambs.”

A uniformed Pickford also presided over a group of studio employees known as the Lasky Home Guard who vowed to enlist and serve their country. As Agnes de Mille remembered, she “wore a splendid couturier’s outfit of patriotic grey with a little veil down the back. She looked splendid… and sent them to death very valiantly. The grisly part is some did go to death.”

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Two volunteers with the YMCA use a portable projector to show movies to an audience of soldiers in France.

In the Photoplay article that accompanied this image, Janet Cummings of the overseas YMCA service extolled the importance of movies to American troops: “Film has been the recruiting sergeant, the drillmaster, the morale-strengthener and the faithful comrade-in-arms of this country’s army in cantonment, on board transport, in front line camp, in the zone of the rear and in hospital.”

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American sailors crowd in to enjoy a comedy projected on their battleship’s patch.

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An open-air movie theater in an American army encampment. In this picture, however, no movie is playing. A boxing match is taking place on the stage in front of the screen instead.

Interestingly enough, the price of admission to screenings “over there” cost five or ten cents for an enlisted man. Many soldiers couldn’t spare a nickel, so Americans on the home front helped them out by buying and donating movie vouchers. At the time, railroads sold mileage booklets that would enable a traveler to ride for a certain distance. Hence, the film vouchers were affectionately called “smilage” booklets—letting the troops smile and forget their cares for an hour or so.

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Second-Lieutenant A.H.C. Sintzenich of the U.S. Signal Corps prepares to record some footage with his Debrie camera from a light railway track in Sussex, England…

debrie1 …and now Sintzenich braces himsele to take off and capture some aerial shots.

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D.W. Griffith (wearing a bow-tie) visits an active battlefield sector in France—just 50 yards away from the German lines—while developing his wartime drama Hearts of the World. Invited to Europe by the British government, Griffith was the only film director allowed to tour the trenches. (Previous three images from the National Archives and Records Administration.)

Yet, Griffith witnessing war firsthand—after faking it so often on film—described the experience as an anticlimax:

“It was exactly as I had imagined wars in many particulars. I saw, for instance, many troop trains moving away to the front. I saw wives parting from husbands they were never to see again. I saw wounded men returning to their families. I saw women coming away from the government offices, stunned with grief, a little paper in their hands to tell that the worst had happened.

“All these things were so exactly as we had been putting them on in the pictures for years and years that I found myself sometimes absently wondering who was staging the scene.”

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Please note that most images with no specified source were cropped and edited (by me) from digitized issues of Photoplay magazine, for which I gratefully acknowledge the Media History Digital Library.

Hands Up! (1926): Top Secret

rayIn 1926, two silent comedians made movies set during the Civil War. One was panned at the time, but went on to win its rightful place among the greatest movies ever made.

The other, praised upon its release, is all but forgotten.

Indeed, I’ve heard more than one silent movie devotee refer to Hands Up! as “the funniest movie you’ve never heard of.” Well, we really need to do something about the “you’ve never heard of” part.

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Sure, Raymond Griffith’s masterpiece isn’t as great as The General—and you’d have a hard time convincing me that anything is—but it comes mighty close. There was plenty of greatness to go around in that golden age of comedy. A contract player at Paramount, Griffith turned out hilarious, original comedy confections even within the constraints of the studio system. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the snide brilliance of the so-called silk hat comedian deserves to be rediscovered and enjoyed today. Modern audiences might even be surprised by how morally daring his comedy is.

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Unlike his contemporaries, Griffith rejected the role of the underdog, the harried little man you root for without reservation. By the time he was making feature films, Chaplin wanted you to like him, even when he was behaving badly. Keaton wanted to earn your esteem and to earn it the hard way. And Lloyd wanted to be your personal hero. That contrarian Griffith, far from trying to attract our sympathy, often goes out of his way to make us dislike him. He invites us to question his ethics and to savor his pratfalls all the more because of his doubtful motives and his urbane appearance.

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The comedian himself cited schadenfreude as a central ingredient of his humor. As he told Motion Picture magazine, “the high hat stands for aristocracy, for snobbishness, for aloofness. The boy in the street would rather fire a snowball at a silk hat than at any other type of headgear. In reality, he is taking a whack at what the hat represents, not merely at the hat itself.”

Griffith’s character does appeal to the audience through his competence and panache, but, boy, is he a smug, unscrupulous fellow. His one saving grace is that he makes us laugh with his pride as well as with his falls. It might not be off the mark to identify his persona as a proto-playa. Impressing us with his sheer nerve, he wins the audience over with his vices rather than his virtues.

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Directed by Griffith and Clarence Badger, Hands Up! takes full advantage of the star’s slippery charm. In the role of a Confederate spy known only as Jack, he inveigles to divert or destroy a shipment of gold that would save the Union cause. Brave, but decidedly not heroic, Jack literally carries a couple of aces up his sleeves, woos two women simultaneously, and cheats a Native American chief out of his headdress with a pair of loaded dice. He’s the man we hate to love.

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With his diminutive height and dapper style, Griffith accentuated the comic potential of his starkly un-rugged brand of manhood. In one of the most quietly funny moments of the film, Jack’s primary foe, burly Captain Logan (perennial villain Montagu Love) attempts to intimidate the spy in a stagecoach. Logan pulls out his enormous Colt revolver and casually examines it.

Never one to back down, Jack whips out his firearm—a dainty two-shooter, you know, like saloon madams keep in their garters—and fussily begins polishing it. The enemies sit as mirror images of each other, insouciantly posed but with the hypothetical line of fire from each of their guns trained unmistakably on the other.

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On the most obvious level, the wordless, macho exchange tickles us because of its, ahem, symbolism. (Oh, you men, always trying to prove who’s got the biggest, bestest gun!) More important, this bit of business illuminates an amusing contrast between the characters and how they fit into the movie’s historical context. Captain Logan fully embodies the robust masculinity that we tend to associate with our gun-totin’, hard-drinkin’ Civil War-era forefathers.

Griffith’s Jack, on the other hand, might strike us as comically effete for that period—and as rather unprepared for the toughness of his opponent. Yet, like his miniature pistol, he’s discreet and surprisingly useful in a jam. In a later scene, Logan holds a man at gunpoint, the tip of his Colt on the hostage’s head… whereupon Jack darts out from behind and jabs his foe in the belly with the ladylike pistol that looked so innocuous.

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In other words, Hands Up! suggests that caliber doesn’t matter; it’s the dexterity of the spy that counts.

The wit of Hands Up! often emerges from clever repetitions: sets of two parallel sequences, shown in succession, become outrageously funny as the differences (or the similarities) between the variations pile up. For instance, the film opens with scenes of the Union and Confederate agents receiving their orders respectively from President Lincoln and General Lee. First, bulky, straight-faced Captain Logan accepts his mission in a static conference room. Lincoln turns to Logan and to Allan Pinkerton, head of the Union Intelligence Service and future founder of the famous detective agency. The President confides, “Gentlemen—this is a secret between the three of us.”

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Immediately afterwards, Jack obtains his instructions in a scene that begins the same way, but ultimately overflows with kinetic hilarity. A succession of classics from the slapstick playbook embellish an interaction that, just a moment ago, served as standard exposition. As General Lee and his aide wait in a cabin under heavy Union fire and bombardment, Jack bounds off a horse and darts into the meeting place in a whirl of dust.

64Lee explains the commission and Jack accepts, just as a bomb detonates the cabin sky-high, leaving Jack and the General shaking hands in the debris. By leading us to expect identical (and thus rather tiresome) scenarios, Griffith and Badger undermine the viewer’s expectations—and then literally blow the roof off of them.

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Unfazed by the explosion, Lee echoes Lincoln’s words exactly, “This is a secret between the three of us!” An errant bullet mows down Lee’s aide.

Jack doesn’t flinch and dryly corrects the General, “The two of us, sir.”

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Now, that update is funny, but a pretty damn morbid kind of funny. Even Lee looks a trifle scandalized by Jack’s lack of shock. Griffith engineers a joke that depends on the audience’s desensitization to onscreen death, or at least to the deaths of characters we don’t know well. His barely-there quip reminds me of the wry James Bond one-liners that make us chuckle just after 007 has dispatched a henchman.

While I’m on the subject of everyone’s favorite super-spy, I’d note that our Jack comes across as downright Bond-ish in his luck with the ladies. The most fertile running gag of Hands Up! involves Jack courting two daughters of a pro-Lincoln mine owner with a series of identical gestures. Towards the end of the film, he’s trying to make a getaway with the gold when each sister stops him. Within the space of a few minutes, he proposes to not one, but both of the girls—in the exact same manner!

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Played through once, the mini love scene might provoke titters of laughter by gently lampooning melodramatic love scene tropes. Played through twice, with recycled intertitles and all, the scene’s satire on relationships ascends to a truly farcical level.

I won’t tell you how this love triangle resolves itself, but let me say if you’re thinking, “Um, threesome?” you’re actually quite close. I usually have no qualms about spoilers, but the ending of Hands Up! is as unexpected as it is uproarious, so I’ll keep that one top secret for now. It’s worth tracking down a copy of the film just to find out for yourself how the romantic subplots conclude.

28Cunning as its saboteur protagonist, the comic style of Hands Up! also draws deftly on illusion and ellipsis. For example, early on in the film, Jack is discovered as a spy and about to face a firing squad. The entire execution scene revolves around Jack’s clever ruses to distract his would-be executioners. We neither see him being caught, nor do we actually see him escape. The sections of narrative that most silent comedians might be inclined to emphasize and elaborate on have been omitted entirely.

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In fact, the audience only learns that Jack has escaped when the head of the firing squad does—and it gives us a moment of supreme tension. The line of gunners fires and we wince. Huh? What? Who kills off the protagonist? But Jack, apparently tied up and facing a wall, doesn’t collapse. The soldiers fire again. He’s still standing? How is that possible? The head of the squad steps forward to check—and realizes that his men had been shooting at a trompe l’oeil painting that the prisoner had daubed on the wall. (Evidently, Confederate spies are forced to take a course in rapid-fire oil painting before entering the field.)

54Later in the film, Jack relies again on the power of illusion to save his hide by tricking an enemy to fire at his reflection instead of him. Because the audience only sees into a fragment of the room where Jack is hiding, we can’t know that he’s stowed behind the door—away from the line of fire. In this instance, an illusion plus a spatial ellipsis generates tension and then relief. While the gunpowder clears, we see Jack hastily making his getaway.

mirrorNow, I’ve really only scratched the surface of this rich, action-packed classic. You really owe it to yourself to see the movie. Like many of the best things in life, Raymond Griffith’s best work demands a little effort—to track down a scarce DVD or scout for an even scarcer screening. I’m sending you, dear reader, out on a little mission like Jack’s: retrieve the comedy gold. Perhaps then this movie, and the sublime comedy of its secret agent protagonist, won’t be such a secret anymore.

44(Note: Hands Up! is not by any means politically correct by today’s standards. Duh. It was made in 1926 and was cartoonishly depicting 1864. That said, I refuse to make any apologies for a movie that’s still less offensive—and way more funny—than plenty of what you can watch on TV right now.)

This post is part of the Snoopathon, a blogathon celebrating spies in classic cinema, hosted by the amazing Movies Silently. Click the banner below to check out the other entries!

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Hearts of the World (1918): Battle Dress

hearts“It was exactly as I had imagined wars in many particulars. I saw, for instance, many troop trains moving away to the front. I saw wives parting from husbands they were never to see again. I saw wounded men returning to their families. I saw women coming away from the government offices, stunned with grief, a little paper in their hands to tell that the worst had happened. 

“All these things were so exactly as we had been putting them on in the pictures for years and years that I found myself sometimes absently wondering who was staging the scene.”

—D.W. Griffith, quoted in Photoplay magazine

The soldiers couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw the two girls—sylphlike belles swaddled in long coats, headed on a train towards no-man’s-land. One can imagine the battle-weary young men on their way to or from the trenches rubbing their eyes, thinking that the girls were some sort of mirage. Civilian women didn’t go to the front. Hell, even trained nurses didn’t go to the front. It simply wasn’t done.

And yet, there they were: Lillian and Dorothy Gish, accompanied by their mother, hurtling into the belly of a blighted war zone in France. They traveled to a ruined village, within range of bombardments from German long-distance guns. Brought over by that great general D.W. Griffith, the sisters had been drafted to star in his next picture, a WWI drama which would be called Hearts of the World, once its narrative took shape.

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Hardly any of the footage captured in France actually appears in the final film. Yet, what Dorothy and Lillian saw and heard there—and in England, during air raids that riddled the civilian population, crushing schools full of kindergarteners before the sisters’ eyes—haunted them. In her autobiography, Lillian shared a vivid snapshot of the kind of devastation she witnessed on a daily basis: “I remember the odd feeling I had seeing a coffee pot perched on top of a pile of rubble, the sole evidence that a house had once stood on the spot.”

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This shot of real town in France was included in Hearts of the World.

And let me reiterate: few surviving civilians came closer to WWI than Griffith and his crew. Even hardened war correspondents weren’t allowed such comprehensive access to the horrors of the front. The psychological impact of the sisters’ proximity to death and destruction added a shade of genuine trauma to their intense performances… even though those performances were safely captured in California.

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Now, it’s tempting to dismiss Hearts of the World as The Birth of a Nation II: This Time We’ll Only Offend the Germans. The plot certainly bears a resemblance to Griffith’s infamous Civil War epic. In an idyllic French village, Marie and Douglas, both children of American families, are torn apart by WWI.

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While Douglas goes to the trenches, Marie stays in the village. On the day that had been set for their wedding, a heavy bombardment all but razes the town and the French are defeated; Marie happens across Douglas’s unconscious body, faints, and believes him dead. When the Germans occupy the town, the beastly Hun in charge takes a shine to Marie. Will the Allies liberate the village in time to save Marie from The Fate Worse Than Death?

dorothyincostumeAlthough clearly not the heroine, Dorothy Gish’s supporting character soundly “stole the show,” even in Lillian’s words. She stands out as one of the few sexually aggressive and sympathetic women in Griffith’s oeuvre.

Playing a wandering lady minstrel, “the Little Disturber,” Dorothy exudes a free-spirited vitality and a quirky, Chaplinesque sensuality. In contrast to Marie’s goose-tending, rose-caressing demureness, the Little Disturber behaves with delicious impropriety.

She corners the man she likes (Douglas, Marie’s fiancé) and plants a kiss on the reluctant fellow right in a public street! Afterwards, when she returns in despair to a man she’d previously rejected, the Disturber flashes the new object of her affections with a look of such hostile amorousness that he cringes, unsure whether she’s going to smooch him or wallop him!

With her cute pageboy haircut and independent attitude, the Little Disturber no doubt resonated with the young women in the audience who had borne the brunt of the home front war effort and would shortly claim their right to vote—and bob their hair.

The fact that Dorothy copied her wiggly, zigzag walk from a streetwalker she saw in London speaks volumes about the endearing, working-girl vulgarity of the character’s persona. As she recounted to Kevin Brownlow:

“Griffith suddenly said, ‘Watch that!’ I saw she [the prostitute] had the darndest walk. And the way I walk in Hearts of the World is exactly the way that girl in the Strand was walking.”

Dorothy Gish keeps the spark of humor and hope alive even in the darkest moments of the film. Her Little Disturber demonstrates how the tribulations of war actually bring out the deepest virtues of certain individuals. Once frivolous and flighty, she nurses Marie, her former rival, back to health.

vlcsnap-2013-09-05-23h11m32s232Moreover, at the suspenseful climax of Hearts of the World, it’s not the hero who saves Marie, but rather the resourceful Little Disturber. With one well-placed hand grenade, she obliterates the whole pack of wicked Huns about to break down the door and capture Marie and Douglas.

Her feisty resistance interjects some unexpected humor into a scene where, when a collaborator catches her in the act of mourning for the French, wiping her tears with a tablecloth, the Disturber chases the traitor away with a broken champagne bottle!

Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 11.06.44 PMJoie de vivre: the Little Disturber abides with a song in her heart 

The Gish sisters’ interpretations complement each other beautifully. They were, by this time, veterans of the Seventh Art, and the scenes between them have all the delicate, practically invisible mastery of a well-sung bel canto duet. In one funny, poignant scene during the occupation, the Disturber finds Marie’s picture keepsake of Douglas and starts kissing it. Marie walks in and sees her. Their reactions—sheepishness on the Disturber’s part and tactful understanding on Marie’s—communicate a new bond between the two characters, a relationship all the more exquisite because it’s so surprising. Even such different women can become spiritual sisters through kindness and compassion.

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Lillian Gish teases all possible nuances out of Marie’s character, bringing a feverish, trapped quality to an otherwise routine fragile-but-unbroken role. You can discern the strains of harrowing, gritty fear that she would exhibit so thrillingly in Broken Blossoms. She traces her character arc from an ordinary, loving girl to a total emotional wreck back to an ordinary, loving girl with sweet simplicity. For instance, as she folds her unused wedding dress and puts it in a chest, she does so with all the tactile tenderness of a mother burying her only child.

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Later, as she totters across blasted fields in search of her fiancé, the floating lack of purpose in her movements translates her psychotic break even when we see her in an extreme long shot. This is a woman who has been emptied of all grief, all pain, all hope; she is almost a ghost.

vlcsnap-2013-09-05-23h14m34s7In a 1918 interview, Lillian remembered, “I saw one woman whose little brood of three had been torn to pieces by German nitroglycerin. She wasn’t crying. She wasn’t saying anything. But if there is a hell I saw it in the depths of her dry, sunken eyes. If I could reproduce that look on the screen they would call me greater than Bernhardt. And if I did I should go insane.” Well, she came pretty darn close.

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With material that might’ve come from a bad 19th century melodrama, Lillian gives us a performance of madness worthy of Ophelia.

All in all, Hearts of the World strikes me as both a throwback and a strikingly modern portrait of the first total war. Part pro-American propaganda, part anti-war drama, the film cobbles together footage from a striking range of sources—staged battles shot in England, real ruins shot in France, smuggled footage of the German army, and, overwhelmingly, scenes filmed on converted sets and stages in Hollywood left over from Intolerance.

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A French village… shot in England. The boy with the wheelbarrow is none other than Noël Coward in his first film role. No joke!

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Real footage taken at the front… behind German lines!

Hearts of the World pushes the reconstructive possibilities of editing to a logical extreme—even more so than Intolerance, I would argue. It’s the Kuleshov Effect on steroids: shells fired in France seem to “land” in California.

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However, the film was misleadingly marketed as mostly a documentary. This irresponsible advertising—combined with its graphic content—makes it another blot on Griffith’s checkered record. Perhaps that’s why the film remains so commercially ignored and elusive; I had to watch it on an old VHS cassette and get my screenshots from a documentary about Griffith. Which is ironic, considering that Hearts of the World smashed box office records among an American public that wanted to savor the Hun-bashing glory of their entry into the fray.

vlcsnap-2013-09-05-23h10m16s235Oh, and that VHS cassette even neglected to include the most infamous scene—“The Dungeon of Lust,” in which two lascivious German officers abduct and assault a peasant girl. (Did I mention that Erich von Stroheim chewed some of his first scenery in this?)

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Stroheim menacing a maiden…

vlcsnap-2013-09-05-23h07m46s21 …And Stroheim menacing an extra, while serving as Griffith’s military advisor for the film

Prepare yourself for opulent German orgies and gratuitous scenes of Lillian Gish being beaten by a hulking officer because she can’t pick up a sack of potatoes bigger than she is. You will see primitive, prejudice-nourishing panoramas of kink—that were disgustingly presented as Gospel truth.

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If you cannot quite bring yourself to forgive Griffith for such exploitation of the medium and its persuasive power, you’re not the only one. As Lillian Gish observed, “I don’t believe that Mr. Griffith ever forgave himself for making Hearts of the World. ‘War is a villain,’ he repeated, ‘not any particular people.’”

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Beyond question, Griffith hated war. And particularly World War I. He opposed American intervention from the start, and Lillian Gish described him openly weeping at civilian casualties. If he succumbed to the flattery of European governments and the pressure to produce a biased film, he nevertheless betrays his loathing for the inhumanity of it all.

Griffith’s distaste for violence reveals itself in his implication that World War I reminded him of a predictably directed movie, a mass of clichés. War, indeed, reduces the hearts of the world to just so many figures, formations, legers, plot devices. Other than the high-stakes chess players in their offices, we all turn into bit players, extras in a gaudy global production.

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The death scenes of both Marie’s mother and her father agonizingly etch the human toll of World War I onto the screen.

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This shot of her father’s dismembered corpse, reduced from a lovable individual to a pile of rubbish, translates the appalling meaninglessness of death in a vast conflict. Griffith illuminates both macro horror of war—the numb, dumb pointlessness of this death—and the smaller-scale ugliness of conflict. The orphaned little boys burying their parent under the floor tiles. The young girl unable to tear herself away from her mother’s body. The broken, shattered skeleton of a garden wall where roses once bloomed. As Griffith said to Lillian, “This is what war is. Not the parades and conference tables—but children killed, lives destroyed.”

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Cinematography by hardened war cameraman Alfred Machin, in addition to more lyrical footage taken by Griffith’s cameraman Billy Bitzer, contributes to the deliberately uneven, deglamorized portrayal of modern warfare.

5 1Despite its upbeat denouement, Hearts of World is perhaps not a film with a message, but rather a query to send into the universe. The film’s intertitle prologue best articulates it, wondering, “After all, does war solve any question?”

World War I certainly didn’t solve it. Which is why there was the inevitable sequel.  And we still do not have the answer. Although it’s not the coherent masterpiece that The Big Parade or Journey’s End turned out to be, Hearts of the World at least dared to ask the question, “What’s the purpose of all this carnage?” with words, images, and, thanks to the Gish sisters, searing performances.

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This blog post is part of the Gish Sisters Blogathon, hosted by The Motion Pictures and Movies Silently. Be sure to check out the other entries!

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Destination Tokyo (1944): Guys… and Dolls?

Wolf and NitaIf I mistook Destination Tokyo for reality, I might be inclined to think that, when women aren’t around, men mostly turn into a noble band of brothers who spend their time in ardent discussions of patriotism, responsibility, God, and philosophy. No offense, boys, but yeah right! Indeed, despite its fine, suspenseful construction, this movie would be about as colorless and invertebrate as a sea cucumber if not for one character.

In spite of my unreasonable love for Cary Grant, I admit that John Garfield walks away with the show as Wolf. This gregarious tomcat of a man brings a whiff of truth and humor to the screen, recounting his many conquests and elaborately comparing women to submarines—and subs to women! It’s as if all the sex drive, all the locker room talk, all the virility that we associate with the American male of the 1940s took refuge in the aptly named Wolf. Garfield’s lusty working class charisma buoys the film up and serves as the perfect counterpoise to Cary’s saintly, gracious paterfamilias.

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Two concepts of manhood.

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If Cary’s Captain Cassidy embodies what every American man of the time was supposed to be (or would’ve liked to be), Garfield’s Wolf is much closer to what the man of the time actually was, I’d say. In contrast to Cassidy’s manly perfection, Wolf is exuberantly imperfect. And thus, instantly lovable.

Now, we’ve all come to recognize the tropes that populate any war movie or all-male ensemble cast, including but not limited to: the voice of reason, the intellectual, the Hotspur, the white-haired father figure, the dreamer, the wet-behind-the-ears new guy, and, of course, the ladies’ man. Garfield’s character easily falls into the last category. Nevertheless, he refuses to be defined by that narrow frame.

Whereas another actor might ride this part, going with the flow of the snappy dialogue and waggish idiosyncrasies, Garfield tickles every emotional nuance out of his character. For instance, when he finds a phonograph record under the pillow of a dead companion, Wolf leads the men to play it and hear what it says—expecting something steamy, “Maybe it’s one of those censored records!” When, instead, he’s greeted by the voice of the fallen comrade’s wife, talking about how happy she is to be married to him, Wolf reacts with surprise, amusement, then with a creeping melancholy.

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This mega-bachelor, this charming skirt-chaser suddenly begins to understand what he might be missing, the joy of a relationship, not just a hook-up. Epiphanies are hard to act—they’re so easily overbaked. But Garfield gives us a small glimmer of mental movement behind that mug of his. He’s not converted, but he has gained something.

Unfortunately, much of the so-called “character development” that occurs during Destination Tokyo serves a blatant ideological purpose—the boy grows into a man, the atheist intellectual comes to embrace God, the high priority military operative learns the real nature of courage, not as an absence of fear, but as the mastery of fear. However, in the case of Garfield’s Wolf, the interiority that he communicates doesn’t bring about any major change in his persona.

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At the end of the film, he’s still planning to go and live it up with the dames when he goes back on shore. But he’s a different person. A slightly different person. In life, every experience changes us somehow until the changes add up to make the people we were distinct from the people we are. That transition isn’t complete yet, but watching Wolf in a state of becoming is magical—all the more because we don’t expect those delicate shadings of growth from a basic, carnal dude like him!

The movie’s use of cinematic language also positions us closer to Wolf than to the other men. Interestingly, Cassidy and Wolf are the only two characters in Destination Tokyo who can bring us back to land—that is, their memories trigger flashbacks to the home front that we the viewers can also see. Cassidy visits his wife and daughter in his dreams and, as he faces death, his son’s face flashes before his eyes.

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These idealized visions contrast with Wolf’s flashback to a dame (what else?) earlier in the film.

Whistling “Night and Day,” Wolf launches into a bawdy story about spotting a gal outside a lingerie store in San Francisco. “Ah, she was built for speed, like a destroyer… but kinda compact too, like a submarine. There she was a-comin’ down South Street, right on my starboard beam. The minute I sees her, I says, ‘Up periscope!’”

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Unsurprisingly, he’d been leering at some mannequins when this swell dame pops up—as does a beefy navy type, who horns in, proceeds to escort the babe into the store, and buy her something lacey and sheer as Wolf peers through the window in dismay, nose pressed to the glass. “There I am: anchored. Dead in the water… bulkheads busted in!”

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No sooner does the tomato get her frilly “thingamajig” than she leaves the interloper in the lurch—and turns to Wolf, asking, “Going my way, submariner?”

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Dissolving energetically back and forth between Wolf telling the tale and the actual scene, this sequence interjects a delightful bit of comedy and camaraderie. Wolf comes across as a storyteller with a gift for wringing his escapades for suspense value. He works his audience and the movie’s audience.

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Of Destination Tokyo’s flashback sequences, Cassidy’s images of his wife and children (in real life, the children of director Delmar Daves!) are solitary, linked only to his point-of-view. On the other hand, Wolf’s naughty story is a shared theatrical experience, staged in the imagination of any of the men within the movie who make up his audience—listening to the tale and trying to picture it. The strength of Wolf’s personality allows all involved to escape from the confines of the claustrophobic sub.

I also love the use of sound in this scene. As “Night and Day” continues to play over the soundtrack, almost like a music video, Wolf’s voice-over speaks all the dialogue that accompanies his memory. We hear both the growling tones of his rival and the suggestive voice of his would-be dalliance in Wolf’s voice. He performs his memory (or perhaps his fantasy), like a one-man repertory company! If I were a guy trapped in a metal capsule underwater, I’d want Wolf around…

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The script contributes another nuance to Wolf’s character by hinting that all the stories he tells might be fabrications—because, unlike the other men, he lacks a regular sweetheart. Indeed, there’s at least one clue in the flashback sequence that Wolf was embellishing his tale, if not making it up entirely: he refers to the woman as being “up to my chin” when she actually appears several inches taller than him. Although we do see the sexy scene that Wolf describes to us and seeing is usually believing, we begin to wonder just how much we can trust our narrator.

Is he merely compensating? Like many skirt-chasers, Wolf emerges as a particularly lonely man. In one poignant scene, all the men repose in their bunks, with pictures of their wives and fiancées, whereas womanizing Wolf lies there alone, like a forlorn little boy.

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Garfield imbues Wolf with a tender childishness that saves the character from cliché-dom—and from lecherous creepiness. We’re talking about a man brings A DOLL onto a submarine for heaven’s sake! Certainly, his act of bringing a woman-in-effigy, a hot miniature blonde, onboard strikes us as a slightly kinkier version of bringing, say, a French postcard or a Playboy centerfold. Wolf also explains that he uses the plastic dame as lure to get girls—a pick-up gag. He takes Nita the Doll into a restaurant and talks to it, to provoke the attention and curiosity of real women.

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However, the presence of a toy woman also reminds me of a security blanket or a teddy bear. During the intense depth charge scenes, Wolf braces himself against the shocks in his bunk with Nita beside him as a comfort.

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Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote about “transitional objects” like teddy bears, that enable us to transition from experiencing the world as a part of oneself and ones imagination to interacting with a real world, a network of relationships. Wolf seems unable to make that shift completely. Sex is a kind of transitional object for him, as indicated by his flashback, which may be real and may be imagined… or a mixture of the two. Wolf even refers to his physical strength standing in contrast to his “weak mind,” but the weakness stems not from a lack of intelligence but rather from a strange inability to dissociate imagination and reality.

He’s the one, after all, who puts up the silly sign “Los Angeles City Limits” in a Tokyo cave, as if he were mentally transporting himself somewhere else. He’s the one who kisses both the submarine and the torpedo, as if they were women, or perhaps extensions of himself. And who describes sexual encounters like naval battles!

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Nita the Doll, as a transitional object for an adult male, both a fetish and a comforting toy, helps us recognize the underdeveloped boy mentality that explains a lot of why people are willing to fight wars, I’d say. As much as Wolf epitomizes a certain type of hardboiled American manhood, his askew sexuality, his inability to lead a committed relationship, and his confused attachments to objects and fantasies reveal something damaged in him. Garfield’s natural vulnerability as an actor subtly discloses this weakness, underneath the shiny surface of the good-time guy.

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I know this analysis sounds like a bit of a stretch. I mean, isn’t Wolf just comic relief? Well, yes, I’m sure that’s how he was intended, but I feel like the weirdness of this character deserves to be decrypted a little more. In his own small way, he foreshadows the link between sexual dysfunction and annihilation that makes Dr. Strangelove such a brilliant parody. We witness Wolf’s loose link to reality in every loony military leader who takes his aggression or ego out on the world.

He Volunteered for Submarine ServiceAlthough Wolf isn’t unnecessarily violent, “weak mind[s]” like his are often the fuel for the violence of total wars—an unhinged fantasy life makes people do all sorts of strange things. Why else do military posters frequently involve sexy ladies? Because the two things sort of go together. Wolf wasn’t so odd to bring Nita onboard. As this WWII poster shows, girls and the submarine service went together in recruits’ minds.

Whether you buy my thesis or not, watch Destination Tokyo because it’s a startlingly accurate depiction of a WWII American sub, because Cary Grant practically glows with idealized male role model glory, because it portrays several amazing real life incidents—such as an impromptu underwater appendectomy! But, when you do watch it, keep an eye out for the woman who gets the most onscreen time—Nita, Wolf’s doll. And think about what she might say if she could talk.

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~          ~          ~

(As a postscript, I would like to address the fact that Destination Tokyo is very much a product of its time. Slurs on the Japanese like “Nips” and “Japs” abound in the dialogue and I’d be lying if I said that the rushes of victory that the film delivers don’t depend on the dehumanization of the enemy. What’s worse is that the script flat-out demonizes Japanese culture, stating that there’s no word in the Japanese language for romantic love. Okay, wise guys, then how did Shikibu Murasaki write The Tale of Genji?! All that bigotry is Destination Tokyoegregious. No argument there. You definitely wince hearing Cary Grant say, “I hear Japs are happy to die for their Emperor. A lot of them are going to be made very happy,” as bombs drop on the unsuspecting civilians of Tokyo. It ain’t pretty.

However, I would point out that the submariners’ attitudes toward the enemy are realistic, although indefensible. I mean, I don’t expect soldiers to say, “Hmm. Well, your average Japanese fellow is OK, but I’ve got to kill them for many ethical, social, and economical reasons.” War is Hell because it demands that men embrace this kind of nasty us-versus-them talk in order to be able to do what they must.

I think that’s a damn sight more honest than the plentitude of movies nowadays that swap out real people foes for grotesque CGI enemies that aren’t even human to begin with. Those fake panoramas of gore stultify us by letting us enjoy death where there never was any life. Which is why I’d question the ethics of movies like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings right along with Destination Tokyo.

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This 1944 movie does give us at least one moment of almost-enlightenment. When the beloved Mike is killed, Captain Cassidy launches into an informal eulogy about how Mike loved children and was proudest when he bought his kid a deluxe pair of 5-dollar roller skates. Cassidy insists that Mike died for a world filled with more roller-skates—even for Japanese kids, who deserve lives free from inculcated militarism and a doctrine of blind self-sacrifice. We’re still in the realm of propaganda and apologism. Those roller-skates are a rationalization, sure enough, but one that sounds more plausible, human, and admirable than mindless killing.)

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I am proud to present this post as part of the John Garfield 100th Birthday Blogathon, a terrific idea organized by Patti of They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To. Please check out the other entries and learn more about this amazing actor, lost from us, alas, all too soon.

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Getting out of the Boat: Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now

2“Never get out of the goddamn boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were going all the way. Kurtz got out of the boat. He split from the whole f**king program.”

I’ve loved Apocalypse Now from the first time I watched that orange feathering of napalm burn through lush tropical forests to the lilting, funereal strains of “The End.” That opening shot spoke to me, whispering the truth of how ugly things can be beautiful and how the camera can charm that beauty forth.

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It was like looking through the eyes of another, not through a point-of-view shot, not even through the lens of a different philosophy—but through the eyes of madness, of someone for whom destruction was lovely. I had never felt anything like it. It horrified me, shocked me, inspired me, and changed me. It may have been the first time in my life that I encountered Art, that grand, fearsome, traumatic thing that we hear so much about.

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On the other hand, Black Narcissus refused me any such revelation until it was almost over. Having bought a Criterion DVD at a jumble sale (the poor fool who threw it away!), I played it one lazy morning. For the first hour or so, I liked it, thought it was visually pleasing and stimulating in an academic sense. It wasn’t until Sister Ruth revealed her awful, predatory true self that the movie pulled me into the heart of its darkness.

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The bottom dropped out of reality. I just didn’t expect a pensive, patient little art film to do that to me—to come at me with a rush of cosmic fury and not relent for almost twenty minutes. “Holy ****!” I exclaimed to myself. “Sister Ruth got out the boat!”

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Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both won Academy Awards for cinematography thanks to the hypnotic, ethereal camerawork of Jack Cardiff and Vittorio Storaro, in 1947 and 1979 respectively. (Both films should have won Best Picture, but that’s a whole other blog post.)

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Above: Jack Cardiff. Below: Vittorio Storaro on location for Apocalypse Now

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Apart from the two movies’ shared aesthetic interest in exoticism, they are extremely different. In contrast to the classically trained, crafted acting style of the performers in Powell and Pressburger’s film, Coppola chose a stable of hardcore method actors. While Black Narcissus seemingly fits into the mold of a women’s drama, Apocalypse Now has claimed an immortal place in the annals of cinematic machismo.

Black Narcissus departs utterly from realism by shooting not in the Indian mountains, but in England—against huge blow-ups of aerial photographs of the Himalayas, brightly painted to striking effect. We all know that the production of Apocalypse Now, filmed on location in the Philippines, mirrored its plot. As Coppola lapsed into the Kurtz mentality and actors started to succumb to the harshness of the environment and the strain of shooting, reality bled into fiction.

Nevertheless, I cannot separate these films in my mind. To me, they’ll always be spiritual sisters. I don’t doubt that Cardiff’s vision for Black Narcissus influenced Storaro’s photography for Apocalypse Now, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

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Fearsome transformations….

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I have seen a precious few films that seem to be aware that they’re in color. I mean, yes, the costumes, the sets, the lighting in most non-black-and-white films have all been carefully selected for their hues and tones, but the emotional powerhouse of color remains untapped.

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Warpaint of different hues…

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Color speaks to us in ways that defy rational thought. Baudelaire once noted that color is the most important element of a painting, because even before we can make out the figures, at a distance, the harmony or dissonance of colors allows us to intuit the essence of the scene.

In my opinion, color needs to “put the zap” on our heads, to paraphrase a few lines of Milius’ brutally insightful script for Apocalypse Now. Seriously—this is why I tend to prefer black-and-white films. Why show me colors unless they’re going to astonish me? Color needs to tell us something, not in terms of symbolism, but in terms of emotion and reaction. Both Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now define dreamlike, vividly colored places, jungles and mountaintops, which not only magnify our perceptions, but also unleash our inner natures.

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Shades of observation: Sister Clodagh and Captain Willard.

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Apocalypse Now is not an anti-war film any more than Black Narcissus is an anti-religious film. Both of them transcend such unambiguous messages to tell us something much more vast about the soul of civilization. Sister Ruth certainly isn’t the charismatic genius that Kurtz is, since men have a cultural outlet for their madness—war—whereas women just get neuroticism. However, these two figures both revert to something primal and frightening. (Eventually Captain Willard does, too.) Sister Ruth and Kurtz split from the program of lies and moral rationalizations that govern the minds of their peers. Rather than persisting in fighting the call of the jungle, they give in. Their madness prompts some of the most fantastically beautiful images captured by a camera. 

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We watch traditions and codes of conduct plunge into a flamboyant psychosis that wasn’t so far away all along. Seductive, unreal colors, enhanced by sinuous camera strokes, hold us captive and enable us to feel the strength of those impulses towards annihilation, impulses that enthrall those who “got out of the boat.”

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As Nietzsche theorized, great tragic art must balance a tendency towards orgiastic self-destructiveness (the Dionysian) and the tonic splendor of appearances and expression (the Apollonian). If Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both depict the triumph of the Dionysian, of chaos and entropy, they nevertheless uplift us rather than depressing us. They temper our despair in mankind with our faith in art.

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Cardiff and Storaro extensively studied the great masters of painting—the color palette of Narcissus was based in part on Vermeer, and there’s quite a bit of Caravaggio in the way Apocalypse Now uses virtuosic contrasts of color and blackness. The compositional brilliance and luminosity that the cinematographers lend even to scenes of abhorrent violence or confusion strike a balance between these elements to produce cathartic experiences that, for me, have not been equaled by any other films.

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From lips to eyes… and from eyes to lips. Contemplating empty faces (Sister Ruth’s and the face of a Khmer statue) with camera tilts.

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Jack Cardiff had to campaign to get the sort of surreal, opalescent color contrasts he harnessed for a subliminal effect in Narcissus: “I was always fighting with Technicolor [representatives] because they wanted complete realism, whatever that was.” Instead, in certain scenes, he filled shadows with green light and colored the arc-lights slightly blue to suggest the distracting crystal coolness of the skies. Cardiff reflected that few viewers, perhaps one in ten or fifteen, would consciously notice these things, but that the choice would impact the mindset of the audience and contribute to the story.

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In addition to these more subtle manipulations, gathering momentum as the film unfolds, Black Narcissus overwhelms us with exaggerated panoramas of the edge of the world. The screen celebrates the giddy delirium that courses through Sister Ruth as she rings the bell on the edge of the cliff. We experience the rush of that chasm, shown in breathtaking canted angles.

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Later, through the translucent deep blues, febrile oranges, and acid pinks of her freak-out, we feel the terrifying release of Ruth’s transformation into a strange, unnatural creature—part modern woman, part painted devil.

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Kurtz’ poetic insanity penetrates the eerie iconography of Apocalypse Now. The glowing amber quality of light, the oppressive Prussian blue skies, the sulfuric yellow and psychedelic lilac gas flares, the impenetrable greens of the jungle all exteriorize the jewel-like ferocity of his Zen psychosis.

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“We’re all his children, man…”

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Kurtz, this faceless demigod, the diamond who cuts through bullsh*t, realizes that those who win wars must fully embrace “the horror.” But that appalling clarity, that knowledge also rots away at him from the inside out. Captain Willard’s voice-over tells us some of this, but such verbal information would be meaningless if Storaro didn’t paint this decay into every lopsided, eclipsed shot of Kurtz.

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Storaro, referring to his revolutionary use of color shading in Apocalypse Now, spoke of how he used the visuals, especially rich shades of black, to get in touch with the barbaric, “unconscious side” of humanity that Conrad’s novel conjured up: “The heart of darkness that he was looking at does not belong to another culture, another place, but part of our self.”

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Cardiff and Storaro both found intense, wordless ways of representing this slip into a primordial darkness, into a place beyond reason. When Sister Ruth begins literally to “see red” the screen suddenly snaps to pure blue as her rage forces her to lose consciousness.

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The first time I saw it, I though there was something wrong with the DVD, it startled me so!

Similarly, Apocalypse Now gives us an amazing shot in which the camera literally turns upside-down and then right-side-up, and then up-side-down again as Kurtz’ acolytes drag Willard through the mud to meet the elusive Colonel for the first time.

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Cinematography literally means writing with light and motion. Cardiff and Storaro wrote disorientation and temptation into the screen with shadows, with movements, with delicate shadings of color.

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The call of the jungle… Sister Ruth and Captain Willard stalk their prey.

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Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both dwell in the realm of exoticism, in the amplified Other that’s really just another guise for something flickering within us. These movies let me see Western civilization, the epicenter of my own values and all that I hold dear, transplanted and fragmented into a vibrant nightmare by the prism of madness.

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They also take me full-circle back to the primitive psychic engines of that civilization—Eros and Thanatos, sex and aggression—without asking that I transgress, without asking that I myself get out of the boat.

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~          ~          ~

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by three of the nicest ladies, coolest movie mavens, and best film bloggers out there, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled. Check out their blogs and this wonderful blog event! Find the blogathon on Twitter by searching the #31Days hashtag.

Journey’s End: Remembering Colin Clive on His Birthday

Journey's End“I’m no Clark Gable in the matter of looks; I require a good dramatic play before my fatal charm is discernible.” —Colin Clive

Fatal, indeed.

On this date in 1900, Clive Clive came into the world. In 1937, he died alone and unhappy in an oxygen tent, succumbing to alcohol-exacerbated tuberculosis. He didn’t stay here for long, but in some ways he never left.

He lives in a thousand imitations of his broken-reed voice, in horror movies that he hated making, in the dormant celluloid of films not available for distribution, and in my cinephiliac obsession. He always seemed to be a bundle of nerves—even beyond the diegetic gallery of tightly-wrapped characters he played, from the alcoholic Captain Stanhope to the blasphemous Dr. Frankenstein to the traumatized Stephen Orlac.

The twitchy, overblown energy of Clive’s performances, his harnessed panic, makes you somehow more aware of what the film critic Laura Mulvey has called death at 24 frames per second, the poignant passage of time as captured by the camera.

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There are many things that I would like to say to Clive, but someone else pretty much wrote it all down and actually sent it to him when he was still around to read it:

I want to thank you for the little bit of rare beauty you have given me, a real spark of something which does not exist in the world today. I am not speaking of your great acting nor the great part you brought to life so expertly. Others have done great acting before, and there have been many great parts written. I am speaking of something which, probably, was very far from the mind of the author when he wrote Journey’s End, and from your own when you acted it. Perhaps that which I saw in you exists only in my own mind and no one else would see it, or care to see. I am speaking of your achievement in bringing to life a completely heroic human being.”

This is an excerpt from a beautifully written fan letter by no less than Ayn Rand (!) who saw Clive perform in a stage revival of Journey’s End in 1934. She was herself a successful playwright at the time. Clive replied that her praise meant a lot to him. I hope that he internalized some of it. Whatever anyone may think or feel about Ayn Rand, I must admit that she seized on a key aspect of Colin Clive.

Journey's EndIt’s ironic that Rand, who championed iron wills and inner strength, should have so admired a man whose weaknesses and insecurities destroyed him. And yet, Clive was not just a downward spiral, but an aspiration towards something higher.

All of his performances have a grace and beauty to them, as if even the most loathsome characters could have been better people—should have been, but were cut off by some cruel twist of fate.

When Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein delivers his speech about clouds and stars and eternity, he becomes my personal definition of the heroic in mankind. In this case, I know exactly what Rand was on about.

Some actors have fans, and that’s just fine. Colin Clive has a cult. I wonder what he would have thought of us, the endless Googlers of his image, holding vigil over his memory. I’m not entirely sure that he would have been pleased. He may well have been a trifle freaked out.

But I would like to remember him on his 113th birthday with a few words about his first film, in which he recreated his signature stage role: Captain Stanhope, a part he seemed born to play.

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The cast of Journey’s End and James Whale listen to the radio on the set.

Directed by James Whale, Journey’s End reminds me a lot of Das Boot: quite long, claustrophobic, and character-driven. After two hours, confined almost entirely to the trench set, we feel as though we’re really in there with these damned, laughing fellows. We come recognize and cherish their foibles and mannerisms through the intimacy of the camera.

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I must confess, though, the first time I saw this, I found myself disappointed by how terribly uncinematic it seems. Then again, overwhelmingly stationary shots are par for the course in an early talkie.

Whale matter-of-factly plunks us down in the trench and lets most of the action unfold in medium long shots, with the occasional significant close-up—a yucky blancmange, a box of candles, hands opening a letter. Apart from the striking chiaroscuros of a few bombardment scenes and some muddy tracking shots, we get little sense of the innovating flair James Whale clearly had for making horror jump off the screen.

However, trench warfare isn’t cinematic, is it? It’s not a sweeping crane shot. It’s not lyrical in the least. It’s creaky, stale, and soggy. Journey’s End manages to convey these qualities aptly, while still mobilizing the force of our bond with the characters to hold our attention. By about ten minutes in, we like these unfortunate chaps. We wonder which ones of them are going to die. We hope that the causalities will be minimal.

The cast works remarkably well together. David Manners, in particular, will surprise you if you’ve only seen him play juvenile romantic leads. As Raleigh, he transforms from the fresh-cheeked schoolboy soldier into a mortified, disillusioned young man. Returning from a raid in which most of the men died, Raleigh collapses onto a bed; Whale gives us a close-up of Manners who really did pull out all the stops. He looks shattered, hollow-eyed, sweaty, and broken—a far cry from his wooden pretty boy reputation.

Journey's EndWhale does occasionally oblige us with moments of conspicuous filmic brilliance. For instance, at the very end, when the cowardly Hibbert hesitates to join the front line, we get a shot of the doorway to the top of the trench, where a body is being carried past on a stretcher in silhouette. It borders on allegory: the doorway to death. The image shifts towards abstraction, like the famous reaper shots in Dreyer’s Vampyr. A WWI veteran himself, Whale knew how to reduce trench warfare to a bare, razor-sharp grisaille. This touch foreshadows the morbid, metaphysical resonance of Frankenstein.

Just as Frankenstein begins before it starts with the sounds of weeping that precede the opening images of the funeral, the deep, booming bass of exploding shells begins over the credits of Journey’s End—and keeps banging away through the film until the audience’s nerves have gone to pieces, too. Pretty astute use of sound for 1930.

Journey's EndReturning to our leading man, Clive became Stanhope. Or perhaps Stanhope became Clive. One can understand why Whale insisted that Clive be imported from England immediately, as no other actor would do.

This was rather unusual, that a stage actor unseasoned by cinema experience be brought thousands of miles for a single part only. Well, from the moment Clive enters the dugout set—his face half-hidden from the camera by his metal helmet, brushing briskly by, trying to drop his knapsack on his bunk, then pulling the strap off where he caught it on his shoulder with a weary tug—his every movement rings utterly true. We never feel that he’s playing for the camera, which I consider a small miracle, since he had never acted for one before.

Drunk parts are notoriously hard and perhaps Clive wasn’t faking drunk. Whatever Clive’s consumption of whisky was during production, though, Stanhope’s state of inebriation varies through so many shadings of prickly, dreamy, and cheerily garrulous that we’re watching a person shot through a prism—all the emotions that usually coexist in diluted form come through in vivid contrast. He portrays a man fractured and fragmented into pieces, pieces that some central, guiding insight is trying like mad to hold together.

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The thing that nurtures Stanhope, his perspicacity, his ability to understand the point of staying strong in the midst of pointlessness, is also the thing that makes him need to numb himself out with alcohol. Like a plant which, when its growth upwards is blocked off, twists around but keeps on growing, Stanhope’s passion for life has been stunted by war into the desire to die like a man—the only option left. Part child and part old soul, Clive’s Stanhope shines with the feverish glow of the actor’s own incandescent torment.

I consider Stanhope the flip side of Clive’s Frankenstein. Both are individuals attuned to some higher significance. Stanhope delivers a marvelous speech about giddy stars and mortality that almost certainly inspired the famous monologue from Frankenstein (which was not in the shooting script, incidentally). We recognize in Stanhope, as in Frankenstein, a brutal hubris that holds everyone to a high standard—but himself to an almost impossible standard.

Journey's EndPerhaps most importantly, Whale shows both men (Stanhope and Frankenstein) to be rather childlike. Remember how Frankenstein, seeing Elizabeth, takes a few steps and collapses in his laboratory when his father comes for him? That moment echoes a scene in Journey’s End when, consumed by worries and heavily inebriated, Stanhope falls into his bunk and partially out of frame. His head and shoulders are off-screen as the fatherly Sergeant Osborne puts a blanket on him. It’s as if he disappeared for a moment, regressed into a place where he’s no longer trapped in the trenches, but he then calls pathetically, “Tuck me up!” In both films, Whale and Clive deliver moving depictions of men returning to helpless boyhood on the brink of exhaustion.

In one of the most moving scenes of the film, Osborne reads a letter from Raleigh, who happens to be the brother of Stanhope’s fiancée. Stanhope fears that Raleigh will unmask him as a drunkard and ruin his reputation with the girl he loves, but instead, as Osborne reads the letter, Stanhope hears nothing but kind words for his spirit and leadership. The play of emotions on Clive’s face is, as usual, extraordinary. We spot relief, yes, but also anguish, sadness, an attempt to gather his courage, as though he were facing down German machine guns. I have to commend Clive on this unique interpretation, but a very genuine one, as I believe that praise is the most humbling thing in this world. Praise frightens Stanhope more than criticism, because being a fine fellow is an ideal he has to live up to. Heroism is his curse.

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Clive exuded a borderline ludicrous modesty in his interviews, claiming that anyone could have done his parts well, that it was the writing or the directing that did most of the work. This quote, from a 1932 issue of Picture Show magazine, characterizes his attitude towards fame and his obvious talent:

“It took me ten years to learn my job on the provincial stage—of course, I’m still learning now; but I’m afraid it will take me a lot longer to learn anything really worthwhile about films. The technical side is so interesting, and if ever I do master this part of making pictures I would like to produce pictures and give up acting altogether. 

“You see, I’m little more than a puppet really as far as film work is concerned. The director does all the brain work. He is the man who makes the picture.”  

I think that praise frightened this self-deprecating man as much as it scared Stanhope. Well, that’s too bad. I want to praise how he ruffles a dying friend’s hair, while looking away from the body in horror. I want to praise how disobligingly nasty and snappish he acts at times in the film, yet still makes us care for him. I want to praise him for “the little bit of beauty” he bequeathed to us with his performance.

Watch Journey’s End and I think you will too.

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(Note: I refuse to post screenshots of this film because the print on YouTube, as well as the one on my DVD, look like they’ve been dropped in the mud at the Battle of Ypres. You can watch the full movie by clicking here, although it’s a crime against humanity that someone has not restored this magnificent film about the tragedy of war. Since no one has, I’ve decided to include a lot of publicity stills and materials in this post which I gleaned from the fantastic Tumblrs of missanthropicprinciple, sullivanstrvls, and, of course, colincliveforever. Do give them a look. They post terrific movie-related images and reflections and they have my gratitude.)