Favorite Film Discoveries of 2018

I have a hard time letting go of things. (Said the girl who mostly watches movies made decades before she was born.)  It usually takes me a full month of the new year before I start using the right date. Perhaps that’s why it’s taken me so long to publish this list.

Before I definitively say goodbye to 2018, I wanted to write a little—or a lot, as the case may be—about my favorite discoveries from this past year. After immersing myself in old movies for most of my life, I’m delighted by the fact that classic cinema still has plenty of surprises in store for me, whether rare movies hibernating in vaults or well-known flicks that I simply needed to sit down and watch.

1. Lilac Time (George Fitzmaurice, 1928)

What’s it about? In the last days of WWI, spunky French farm girl Jeannine (Colleen Moore) boosts morale among a squadron of British flyers and comforts them when tragedy strikes. After new pilot Phillip Blyth (Gary Cooper) arrives, his teasing rivalry with Jeannine blossoms into love… right before the big attack from which no man is expected to return.

Why do I love it? The Big Parade it ain’t, but this romantic drama sure knows how to wring a tear or twenty from my eyes. In its own intimate yet vast way, Lilac Time captures the terrible wrench of the Great War. The sequence that will haunt me most is each pilot sitting in his “crate” and taking a few moments to say goodbye to life. One man jauntily ties a silk stocking around his neck in remembrance of a Paris good-time girl. One pins a photo of his fiancée to the cockpit. One closes his eyes tight and prays, “Deliver us from evil, Amen!” And Phillip embraces Jeannine in tight, rapturous two shots filled with yearning and peak movie star wattage, evoking all the shining youth and potential chewed up by the senseless conflict.

I adore classic movies that conspire to trigger olfactory memories. Smell-o-vision of the mind, you might say. Watching Gary Cooper and Colleen Moore confess their love among clusters of lilacs conjures the flowers’ sweet, creamy aroma, borne on a spring breeze. That scent, transmitted to the viewer’s nose by a redolent image, plays a poignant role in the last act as well. The imaginary fragrance showcases the intense, almost supernatural ability of silent cinema to envelop you and appeal to your senses through a visual medium alone. Of course, my feelings for this film may also be rose-tinted—or lilac-scented, as it were—by the fact that I saw it at the Rome Capitol movie palace… 90 years to the day from when it opened the theater in 1928.

Where can you see it? It’s not currently available on a legit DVD, but there’s a fuzzy print on ok.ru.

2. The Rescue (Herbert Brenon, 1929)

What’s it about? In this adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel, honorable expat ship captain Lingard (Ronald Colman) has pledged to help local chief Hassim reclaim his throne. When a slinky European temptress (Lili Damita) begs Lingard to save her bungling, arrogant husband from a hostile tribe, the conflict between loyalty and lust threatens to destroy the captain’s moral universe.

Why do I love it? The Rescue was the final screening of this year’s Capitolfest, and that was a good call because few films could follow this late-silent masterpiece and register at all. The sobering conclusion wrecked me like a load of TNT, while the quality of the film left me high on the knowledge that such buried treasure still exists. The essence of Conrad’s world is all there, exotic and brutal and unflinching in its depiction of ugly messes made by Europeans playing games with other peoples’ lands and cultures.

The complex plot of subtly shifting allegiances has largely melted away from my memory, yet certain shots and moods have seared themselves in my consciousness… Hassim’s sister, Immada,  prophesying disaster with indignant puffs of breath rippling the surface of her gold-trimmed veil. Secretive shipboard conversations with life-or-death stakes, framed by lamplit mosquito netting. The femme fatale in a shimmering dress and sheer shawl wandering the deep tropical darkness, a torch in her hand.

And, most devastating of all, a man on a beach watching a ship being blown sky-high—and all his promises with it. An unforgettable shot, followed by an equally unforgettable close-up of Ronald Colman. Among explosions, shimmering seas, and Damita’s famous legs, Colman’s wounded face, creased by despair, is the most moving spectacle of all. Instead of tacking on a Hollywood ending, The Rescue ends faithfully to Conrad, without a shred of triumph. It’s one hell of a film.

Where can you see it? Maybe another rare film festival, but nowhere else at present.

3. Seven Keys to Baldpate (Reginald Barker, 1929)

What’s it about? In this adaptation of Earl Derr Biggers’s novel, a writer of potboilers (Richard Dix) accepts a wager from his friend that he can churn out a novel in 24 hours. Holed up in a gloomy, snowbound hotel, he encounters nothing but distractions in the forms of cutthroats, nosey innkeepers, crooked politicians, dangerous dames, and the girl of his dreams.

Why do I love it? Sometimes you enjoy a movie just as much as you think you will. This was one of those movies for me. It’s the perfect film to watch on a frosty night while curled up with a cup of cocoa, which is exactly what I did. I love old dark house movies in general, but this one has a certain weight and style that sets it apart. There’s something about the transitional feel of many 1929 talkies, with their dense, ornate visual textures and slightly awkward, roomy staging, that I find enchanting. You’re peering through a gap in film history into some strange alternate universe.

The oh-so-meta twist (and the twist on the twist) of Seven Keys to Baldpate feels surprisingly fun, if slightly lame to a modern viewer. Self-awareness can be a frightful bore when it’s secretly self-congratulatory; it’s easier to roll your eyes at tropes than to play them straight and get the desired effect. But the meta bits in Seven Keys to Baldpate round out this love poem to the tangled pleasures of the old dark house movie in all its formulaic, unreal glory.

Where can you see it? It’s available in a Warner Archive DVD set along with 2 other adaptations of the play.

4. The Storm (William Wyler, 1930)

What’s it about? A blizzard traps two WWI vet buddies, an aristocratic British playboy (Paul Cavanagh) and a simple, sincere Canadian (William ‘Stage’ Boyd), in a cabin with a fugitive’s beautiful daughter (Lupe Velez). As provisions run out and both men make a play for Manette, will their friendship survive? Will they?

Why do I love it? My dude William Wyler out here using cinematic space like a boss!!! Seriously, though, the myth persists that early talkies were uniformly static and theater-like, and Wyler shatters that in the first 15 minutes of The Storm. To give just 2 notable examples, we get a humorous crane shot, as our hero drags a nasty swindler to the top of a building to show him that the sun has not yet set (so the baddie can’t foreclose). Shortly later we’re treated to a riveting chase scene by land and canoe, as resourceful Manette springs her smuggler daddy free from the grip of the law. Then we spend the rest of the movie in a snowy, claustrophobic cabin that becomes a dynamic battleground for romantic rivalry, a confined space shot with extraordinary assurance and variety.

Watching this movie, it occurred to me that Wyler was to emotion what Hitchcock was to violence (not that you won’t find plenty of violence in Wyler’s oeuvre too). Both were top-notch masters of suspense, but while Hitchcock was often building up to murder or a death-defying escape as the climax, Wyler was building up to heartbreak, to some relationship reversal or revelation that would change lives forever.

When I saw this ultra-rare film at Capitolfest, few of my pals rated it as highly as I did. But I still find myself thinking about it months later. Mostly thinking that I’d give an awful lot to see it again.

Where can you see it? Probably nowhere outside of a film festival. And it’s a Universal film, so it will probably remain in not-on-DVD limbo for eternity. Sigh. Maybe we could lobby TCMFF to show it?

5. La Nuit du Carrefour (Jean Renoir, 1932)

What’s it about? In the wake of a big robbery and a murder, Inspector Maigret (Pierre Renoir) investigates among a cast of eccentrics at a garage in the country. And… well, I have no clue beyond that. There are double crosses and assumed identities and discarded husbands, but really the plot is clear as Nutella.

Why do I love it? Because it’s a shadow-cloaked, fog-shrouded film noir that somehow time-travelled to the 1930s. A film noir with the sleek lines of everyday deco and the hissing eeriness of early sound movies. Sounds like the dull thump of a car door take on an alien tonality, and voices seem less modulated for microphones. That’s not to say that La Nuit du Carrefour is primitive. Au contraire. From the opening credits, as a melancholy Italian song is punctuated by audiovisual snippets of a heist—a blowtorch opening a safe, the screech of a getaway car—you know you should brace yourself for brilliance.

Some blame La Nuit du Carrefour‘s unintelligible plot on a mythical missing reel, but I don’t quite buy that. The film would lose much of its enigmatic, trance-inducing luster if it were comprehensible. In any case, there’s a very special place in my heart for crime thrillers that make absolutely no sense and don’t give a damn about it. (Lady from Shanghai and The Big Sleep, I’m looking at you.) If you get the ambiance right—and La Nuit du Carrefour surely does—narrative logic is for suckers.

Still, the main reason why I put La Nuit du Carrefour on this list is the obscure Danish-born actress Winna Winifried who continues to stalk my imagination, smirking coyly behind a cigarette. Her performance is such an off-putting cocktail of gamine charm and decadence that you’re never quite sure if she’s a little girl playing at being a femme fatale or a femme fatale playing at being a little girl. Her presence amps up the film’s surrealness. Certain shots of her lounging on a bed while caressing her pet tortoise, smoking, and gazing at herself in a silver hand mirror wouldn’t be out of place in an avant-garde film of the era. There’s something fetchingly macabre about her; if you found out in the third act that she was Dracula’s daughter, you wouldn’t be a bit surprised. And IMDb lists no death date for her, so perhaps she really is.

Where can you see it? It’s not on a U.S. DVD that I know of (Yoohoo, Criterion! It’s Renoir! This one has your name on it…), but you can currently watch it on rarefilmm.com.

6. The Emperor’s Candlesticks (George Fitzmaurice, 1937)

What’s it about? Rival spies, a Polish baron (William Powell) and a Russian countess (Luise Rainer), hide a secret letter in a pair of matching candlesticks unbeknownst to each other. When the candlesticks are stolen en route, the duo must race against time to retrieve their communiqués. But as they fall in love, they have to face the reality that success for one’s mission will mean death for the other.

Why do I love it? Because it’s a meringue-topped slice of glorious, glamorous escapist intrigue. It’s an act of devotion to fur and whimsy and the pleasures of studio-era filmmaking. I caught up with The Emperor’s Candlesticks on WatchTCM because I had nothing better to do and was mildly shocked that nobody had recommended it to me before.

Director George Fitzmaurice excelled at spinning lush, spicy tales of times gone by and lands far away. He was wise enough to let the The Emperor’s Candlesticks be the soufflé it wants to be. The frisson of danger fuels this romp, but its best bits border on screwball comedy. Powell is his usual swoon-worthy bon vivant self and Rainer, fresh from her back-to-back Oscar wins for dramatic roles, appears to be having oodles of fun.

With the MGM dream team in full force (Decor by Gibbons! Gowns by Adrian!), one standout is Franz Waxman’s sprightly yet sweeping score with its variations on Vasiliev’s “Two Guitars.” Watching fur-caped Luise Rainer flit along a corridor to the sound of a mischievously twanging guitar is the kind of opulent treat that reminds me why MGM—usually not my favorite studio by a long shot—was such a powerhouse of popularity.

Where can you see it? It was available as part of a Luise Rainer DVD set from Warner Archive, but that’s apparently out of print (though used ones are selling on Amazon). It occasionally turns up on TCM.

7. The Razor’s Edge (Edmund Goulding, 1946)

What’s it about? In this adaptation of Maugham’s novel, WWI vet Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power) breaks with the shallow world of his fiancée, Isabel (Gene Tierney), to go on a journey of spiritual discovery. After finding enlightenment in the Himalayas, he knows he must return to the people he left behind and help them as best he can.

Why do I love it? Because it’s an epiphany on celluloid, that’s why. A sprawling epic of awakening and suffering that rejects easy answers in favor of a noble dedication to seeking meaning and embracing compassion. Look, I shouldn’t have procrastinated this movie for years. (I’ve owned the DVD since, like, 2010. I heard Robert Osborne list it as one of his favorites in 2013. What the actual f*** is wrong with me?) But maybe the universe wanted me to procrastinate, because I got to watch this movie for the first time at the Nitrate Picture Show where it reduced me to a puddle of ecstatic tears.

Coping with his own wartime trauma, Tyrone Power imbues Larry with warmth, gentleness, and exquisite uncertainty. Frankly, the role of Dude Who Abandons Everybody to Go Find Himself Then Comes Home with Transcendent Wisdom is tricky to play without seeming whiny or holier-than-thou. What Power does so well is to convey that Larry is always questioning himself without judging others. He radiates empathy.

The performances are uniformly splendid. Best remembered for Grand Hotel, director Edmund Goulding evidently had a gift for harmonizing these kinds of ensembles. Gene Tierney morphs from a conflicted debutant into the epitome of envenomed sweetness, gleefully wrecking another woman’s life merely to satisfy her vanity. As fellow nitrate aficionado Emily West said to me after the screening, “She’s scarier than she was in Leave Her to Heaven!” I couldn’t agree more. Then there’s Anne Baxter who rips your heart out through your chest at least twice during this movie. And Clifton Webb who, despite the odds, makes you love his cranky, ghoulishly superficial socialite, living a life so empty that the meaning of his existence hinges on an invitation to a ritzy party delivered on his deathbed.

Goulding’s eye finds beauty of many kinds to adorn this wandering tale. The sea shimmering behind Isabel and Larry as he confesses his disillusionment to her. A man’s tiny figure perched among the snowy peaks of the Himalayas. Rain mingling with smoke in the window of a dive bar for coal miners. Tyrone Power’s face overlaid by shadows of trembling palm fronds as he processes tragedy by reciting Keats. Icy, doll-like Gene Tierney sipping temptation from a crystal aperitif glass. Ultimately the most beautiful sight of the film is its closing shot, as rough seas heave and Larry loads onto a seamer for parts unknown, still seeking the meaning of life, knowing that the meaning of life is seeking.

Where can you see it? You can stream it on Amazon, YouTube, and elsewhere.

8. Corridor of Mirrors (Terence Young, 1948)

What’s it about? A pampered socialite gets involved with a controlling aesthete who insists she’s the reincarnation of a long-dead woman whose portrait he owns… a woman who destroyed the man who worshipped her. Will history repeat itself?

Why do I love it? I thought this movie was trying to kill me with a surfeit of dark Gothic glamour and opulence, so intoxicating was the spell of its baroque art direction and cinematography. Brocade gowns and glittering necklaces and diadems and rows of reflections and deep, echoing hallways and a lavish Renaissance-themed party sequence… this movie is a seduction for the eyes. It immerses you in delirious sensuality laced with perversity. If Charles Baudelaire had directed a film noir, it would’ve looked like Corridor of Mirrors.

Sure, the ending is a cop-out, but a last-minute attempt to restore the status quo cannot erase the stoic grandeur of Eric Portman laying down his life rather than live in the shadow of unrequited love. Nor can it deny the darkness lurking in our heroine’s soul, witnessed by the sadistic, contorting laughter that possesses her and provokes the film’s spiral into tragedy. From its hypnotic opening voice-over, Corridor of Mirrors is the story of a woman with festering passions and secret regrets. No amount of tidy explanations can exorcise the bejeweled demons that haunt this bizarre romance.

Where can you see it? Filmstruck. Oh, dammit, Filmstruck is gone. Did I mention that I am still not over that? Welp, there’s a subtitled version of it in a dark corner of ok.ru. Maybe it will show up on the Criterion Channel.

9. Intruder in the Dust (Clarence Brown, 1949)

What’s it about? When independent black man Lucas Beauchamp is accused of murder, white teen Chick Mallison races against the clock to prevent a lynching and find the real killer.

Why do I love it? I first saw this Faulkner adaptation in full at TCMFF, introduced by historian Donald Bogle and former child actor Claude Jarman, Jr. According to Bogle, 1949 was a breakthrough year for black representation in classic Hollywood films. The fact that Intruder in the Dust emerged from MGM is something of a marvel. According to Jarman, studio boss Louis B. Mayer objected to the subject matter: “He was still in Meet Me in St. Louis.”

Intruder in the Dust is a memorable example of a message picture wrapped in a genre film. It’s both an engaging mystery and a harrowing depiction of racism in the Jim Crow South—racism that runs the gamut from frothing-at-the-mouth bigotry to genteel apathy.

One could label Intruder in the Dust another white savior story. Still, it doesn’t let white audiences off the hook. On the one hand, classical cinema offers few images of allyship more inspiring than fragile spinster Miss Habersham blocking an angry mob as the ringleader menacingly sloshes gasoline at her feet. But, on the other hand, lest the white audience get too complacent and self-congratulatory, Clarence Brown doesn’t shy away from the discomfort of showing a lynch mob filling the streets of a small town with frightening casualness, as if waiting for a 4th of July parade. A little girl licking an ice cream has never been so horrifying.

The film doesn’t idealize its white teenage protagonist, who initially quakes with rage at the idea that he could be beholden to a black man. What begins as Chick’s self-serving quest to pay his debt turns into a confrontation with the worst parts of his community and himself. Arguably an Intruder in the Dust copycat, To Kill a Mockingbird shows the perfect family that is of course perfectly opposed to racism; the conflict is entirely external. By contrast, Intruder in the Dust forces its white viewers to confront the reality that even the those who see themselves as good white people, like Chick’s uncle, need to honestly examine their beliefs and prejudices in order to take the right kind of action.

On paper, it’s a film centered on Chick. But Juano Hernandez as Lucas Beauchamp dominates this film. A cutting glance from him is an indictment so powerful that I can’t believe it made it to screens in 1949.

Where can you see it? It’s on DVD from Warner Archive.

10. Mystery Street (John Sturges, 1950)

What’s it about? When a woman’s skeletal remains wash up on a Massachusetts beach, a Portuguese-American detective and a Harvard Medical School professor work together to solve her murder.

Why do I love it? Don’t be fooled by the proto-CSI premise. John Alton’s cinematography illuminates a metaphysical morality play within this clever police procedural. Beatifically handsome Ricardo Montalban roves the noirverse like an avenging angel, destined to triumph over the slimy bigot killer who snuffed out glowing, foolish blonde Jan Sterling. Alton shows us a sordid, soiled world with flashes of grace. A knocked-up bargirl calling her sugar daddy while a scheming landlady eavesdrops from the staircase becomes a tableau worthy of Rembrandt. A cop holding up a lightbulb to examine a ruined car acquires all the drama and surprise of a Gerard van Honthorst painting. Where others might see only the mundane and the gritty, Alton seemed to see a spiritual tug-of-war worthy of the old masters.

Like the thousand and one forensics shows it paved the way for, Mystery Street is compulsively watchable. Every time it’s on TCM I make an excuse to see it. It’s that good.

Where can you see it? It’s available on DVD.

11. Summer Interlude (Ingmar Bergman, 1952)

What’s it about? A successful but emotionally closed-off ballerina returns to the island where she first fell in love. There she remembers her happiest days, cut short by a tragic accident. Can she heal from the wounds of the past and salvage her future?

Why do I love it? Because it gave me a newfound appreciation of Ingmar Bergman. Stephany Kim, an L. Jeffrey Selznick School graduate and Nitrate Show friend of mine, and I had a good chat about this; we found that we connected with Bergman’s early melodrama more than with the auteur’s greatest hits. Sometimes a unconventional artist can speak to you best through the pleasures of a conventional form. With its quicksilver shifts between vitality and doom, between fresh-faced, windblown hope and barren despair, this un-revolutionary tale of love and loss acted like a magnifying glass for a perspective that’s uniquely Bergman.

I have to mention one particular shot, a revelatory extreme close-up of Maj-Britt Nilsson in stage makeup, her every pore visible. The framing, the mood, the loving yet painfully intimate focus on a woman’s face all belong to Bergman. This image as a key turning point in our heroine’s psychological journey offers an unmistakeable point of fusion between the story and the auteur’s signature.

At the first Nitrate Picture Show, Kevin Brownlow joked about how his wife refers to an agonizingly gorgeous day as “nitrate weather.” The silvery sparkle of Summer Interlude on nitrate managed to channel the wistful beauty of a summer remembered, a summer that seemed like it would never end but inevitably did.

Where can you see it? It’s in the Criterion Collection.

12. Duelle (Jacques Rivette, 1976)

What’s it about? A Paris hotel concierge is hired to investigate the whereabouts of a vanished lord. Soon she discovers that her own brother is mixed up in a fantastic rivalry between demigods hellbent on possessing a mystical diamond that will allow them to remain on earth.

Why do I love it? Let’s start with the clothes. No, really, there is not a single style in this film that you could not steal and totally rock today. The slick 1930s-and-40s-reborn-as-1970s looks—especially the dapper satiny tailored looks—heighten the atmosphere with a enticing, magical aura of glamour unstuck in time.

Rivette’s films are weirdly difficult to find, but several I’ve succeeded in seeing abound with wonderful roles for women. Not a token Strong Role or two for women, but almost all-women ensembles, each player with a rich, theatrical part. Watching scene after scene of great actresses interacting with other great actresses makes you realize what you were missing.

Duelle harkens back to those eccentric supernatural/occult noir crossovers of the 1940s, following in the footsteps of The Seventh Victim and Alias Nick Beal. However, in place of the rain-slicked, abstracted streets and dry-ice fogs of studio Hollywood, Rivette harnesses the spooky enchantments of Paris. How naturally that sparkling yet grungy city lends herself to the fantastic! When the light goes out in hip dance clubs, deadly goddesses reveal their true aspects and vow destruction. Parks and aquariums serve as rendezvous points for cryptic exchanges. Metro tunnels and platforms transform into terrifying traps for the man who dared meddle in celestial affairs.

Where can you see it? It’s streaming on Amazon! Shoutout to Miriam Bale for pointing this out and recommending the film on Twitter.

13. Time After Time (Nicholas Meyer, 1979)

What’s it about? H.G. Wells dreams of escaping to a more enlightened era, so he’s building a time machine in Victorian London. Unfortunately for Wells, one of his dearest friends turns out to be Jack the Ripper (don’t you hate it when that happens?) and hijacks the time machine to escape the law. Determined to bring his former pal to justice, Wells follows Jack into the bewildering world of 1970s San Francisco.

Why do I love it? That overused label “one of a kind” really does apply to this time-travel mashup that’s part thriller, part sci-fi, part rom-com with a dose of historical fanfic. Time After Time juggles many genres and tones and manages to do them all well. It’s the romantic element, though, that makes the film tick. The winning chemistry between courtly, freethinking Wells and his flirty, independent 20th century beloved beams with sincerity and tenderness worthy of your favorite old Hollywood romantic team.

The “time traveler wondering at today’s ordinary gadgets” schtick can get old fast, but Malcolm McDowell’s befuddled curiosity floats the film beautifully. More important, any sense of “wow!” is tempered by Wells’s bitter disappointment in a future scarred by and obsessed with violence, a world that hasn’t yet caught up with his lofty ideals. By contrast, Jack the Ripper fits right in, gleefully savoring horrors on the TB news and enthusing about the lack of gun control in this brave new world. Time After Time’s sober lens on the then-modern would remains chillingly apropos.

Where can you see it? You can buy it to stream on Amazon, YouTube, and a number of other places.

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Odyssey of Nostalgia: The Human Comedy (1943)

PosterIf you can watch The Human Comedy and not cry at least once, I don’t think I want to know you.

Of course, I realize that the hip thing for a modern reviewer to do is denigrate the film as mawkish propaganda… which is only a small part of why you’ll never catch me doing so.

As for the greater part, the timelessly moving scenes in Clarence Brown’s WWII-era coming-of-age drama, written by William Saroyan, more than outweigh any syrupy sentiments. Seen from a vantage point of seventy years later, many of its intimate vignettes powerfully memorialize the personal sacrifices of all those who served—and all those who loved them. Although it may idealize, preach, and meander, the film delivers a handful of unforgettable moments, so heartfelt and honest even in their MGM glossiness that they reawaken the emotional impact of an anxious period which is, sadly, slipping away from living memory.

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Most important, The Human Comedy deserves our respect as a tender, thoughtful elegy for America’s fallen soldiers of WWII. Because the majority of the action takes place in the little California town of Ithaca, the story conveys the loss of an individual with greater poignancy than a standard war movie could.

The main plotline centers on high school student Homer Macaulay (a captivating and unusually soft-spoken Mickey Rooney) who, to help support his siblings and his widowed mother, takes a job delivering telegraphs. (By the way, are you picking up on the Odyssey allusions yet?) Homer thus becomes the frequent bearer of the worst possible news: condolence messages from the War Department. Working in a telegraph office with old-timer Mr. Grogan (Frank Morgan), Homer sees the tidings coming in on the wire for the first time. Far away from the violence of the battlefield, the clatter of typing and the neutral, freshly inky letters of “We regret to inform you…” translate the sorrow of the news by reminding the viewer of an absence, a hole in the lives of the recipients. We don’t see the death. We don’t know the details. And the matter-of-fact precision of the telegraph machine only accentuates the sadness of the news and the helplessness of those about to learn of it.

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Homer grabs the message and heads out on his bicycle to change someone’s life forever, riding to the outskirts of town. Greeted by grey-haired, heavily-accented Mrs. Sandoval, the messenger obviously wants to escape the situation… but Mrs. Sandoval can’t read English, so he’ll have to break the news himself. Hesitating and looking down at his telegraph, Homer rips it open and the message drops to the floor.

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Here, Clarence Brown seizes the opportunity to slow down the pace and draw the audience into the suspense. A cut takes us to the hem of Mrs. Sandoval’s skirt as she picks up the letter, and the camera fearfully tilts up to reveal her expectant face. In the reverse shot, Homer fumbles for a way to break the news slowly. “It’s from the War Department.” Cut to Mrs. Sandoval; she doesn’t understand, but seems to intuit what she’s about to hear. Cut back to Homer. He looks down. He looks up. Finally he forces himself to meet the mother’s eyes. “It says that your son is dead, Mrs. Sandoval…” We anticipate that the bereaved mother will fall apart, as Brown again cuts to the mother’s face, but instead it’s Homer whose voice trembles as he stammers that maybe there was some kind of a mistake.

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The almost clumsy naturalism of the performances, Homer’s futile attempts at denying the news, and, above all, the straight-forward elegance of the staging imbue the exchange with the delayed-reaction horror of unimaginable loss. The scene (which you can watch here) is a masterclass in self-effacing, yet potent continuity system filmmaking.

As the news finally sinks in, Mrs. Sandoval collapses into a rocking chair and starts to sing a Spanish folk song. Unexpectedly, after such a realistic segment, part of the screen dissolves to show a younger version of the bereaved mother, rocking her son as a baby, and then back to the present.

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Is this the mother’s vision? Or Homer’s? Homer lingers in the half of the frame untouched by the flashback, but he’s still visible, included in her vision. Well, I appreciate the ambiguity, but I personally read the effect as a fusion of their mourning in a moment of intense empathy. After all, the WWII-era in America, despite a number of underlying social problems, did encourage people to pull together and feel the pain of others.

And I consider it significant that the first mother Homer must inform is clearly coded as a new American, someone on the margins of Ithaca’s establishment. Since this is an MGM film, even the outskirts of town are quaint and cozy, but you needn’t be a historian to recognize the tiny houses as a glamorized immigrant shantytown. The Human Comedy, for all its schmaltziness, acknowledged that the costs of American ideal were often inflicted most severely on those who’d barely been able to enjoy the benefits of being American. I also applaud that the first war-related death that comes to our attention is an American who differed from the Andy Hardy-esque Anglo-Saxon denizens of Ithaca. The film reminds its audience that anyone who chooses to lay down his or her life for America is a true American, regardless of his or her background.

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Moreover, Homer’s bond with Mrs. Sandoval transcends class and cultural differences to honor a sacrifice and to grieve a loss. Although Homer’s reaction surely stems in part from his worries about his own brother, I believe that the connection he feels goes deeper than that. And therefore never send to know for whom the telegraph comes; it comes for thee.

In this scene and elsewhere, the film wistfully examines the dynamic between absence and presence. Indeed, a narration from beyond the grave opens the film, as Mr. Macaulay explains how, although he has passed on, the essence of his character thrives in the places and people he cared about.

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With Mr. Macaulay’s face superimposed over the images, swooping aerial and crane shots float over the town, eventually zeroing in on the youngest Macaulay son, Ulysses. I strongly suspect that this metaphysical opening influenced It’s a Wonderful Life, made three years later. These sun-dappled, gently descending shots approximate the dead man’s benevolent point of view, almost like a guardian angel’s.

Mr. Macaulay is there, but he is not there—like those who left to fight.

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Despite their physical absence, their continued presence can be felt in numerous ways. For instance, the audience’s first glimpse of Marcus Macaulay arrives when Homer proudly takes off his delivery boy cap to show a group of G.I.s the picture of his brother he keeps there, forever on his mind. To stress the spiritual link between this talisman and the real young man, a dissolve from the photograph introduces the first actual shot of Marcus. In addition to obvious symbols of remembrance, like service flags in windows, the incidents of daily pleasures and frustrations in the town allow us to observe what many of the soldiers are missing… and how they are being missed.

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In perhaps The Human Comedy‘s most tear-jerking sequence, Homer reads his brother’s latest letter aloud to Mr. Grogan. It sounds almost anti-cinematic, doesn’t it? A teenager reading a letter to an old man in a telegraph shop. Yet, in the simplicity of this scene—basically long take medium shots, interrupted by the occasional close-up of Grogan—Marcus’s absence aches.

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Only Marcus’s words, spoken by his brother, remain of him in the moment. Marcus isn’t there, but ironically his presence is felt so acutely, precisely because he’s not there. And Rooney’s halting, sensitive reading of the letter conjures that void where a brother should be. He is utterly spellbinding. Van Johnson, who played Marcus, got tears in his eyes just thinking about Rooney’s performance in a 1992 interview, recalling, “I just think it tore everybody to pieces.” Get your hankies, folks, is all I can say.

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As you watch The Human Comedy, and I hope you will, notice the preponderance of long shots, especially those in deep focus, with a clear foreground and background. Director of photography Harry Stradling Sr. (who worked on Suspicion and A Streetcar Named Desire, to name just two of his best) endows the film with an open, multifaceted look. Instead of showcasing just the stars in the cast, he tends to compose shots with a number of faces and details. Even the most dramatic scenes mostly avoid the glut of close-ups we’ve come to expect from serious acting. It’s as though the film were urging us to remember that, although it tells the stories of certain individuals, everyone’s got a story and they all matter.

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In “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, the French film critic André Bazin argued that deep focus photography, which often involves more than one center of attention, facilitates a more democratic style in film. Unlike manipulative montage-driven tactics, this technique enables the eye to wander the frame so that a viewer can interpret the visual information for himself.

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Now, if you’ll pardon my egregious oversimplification of film theory, The Human Comedy visualizes the American ideals of diversity and democracy through its cinematography. Although the film certainly never yields in its endorsement of patriotism, the liberty allowed to the eye reflects an ethos of freedom and independent decision-making.

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Propaganda doesn’t leave much room for choice, but Brown and Stradling’s abundance of long takes and multiple planes of action and focuses of interest offer the audience a wider world than one might expect.

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In a narrative sense, to evoke part of that wider world, The Human Comedy cultivates one major character who ostensibly doesn’t initially fit with the apple-pie ideal of contentment and family in Ithaca. As Marcus Macaulay’s best friend in the army, Tobey George listens with rapt attention to Marcus’s stories of home.

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Tobey confesses that, as an orphan who doesn’t even know his real name, he lacks everything that motivates Marcus. To nourish Tobey’s hope of coming through the war alive, Marcus invites his comrade to share his memories, to adopt Ithaca as his fantasy hometown.

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In one telling scene, Marcus and Tobey ride on a mortar being transported to the front as Tobey says his prayers aloud—and it sounds as though he’s reading from Marcus’s thoughts, as he recites the litany of home-town sights he longs to visit and to protect through his service. As Brown switches from close-ups of each man looking wistfully into the distance, we can sense the transfer of thoughts and dreams between men from very different backgrounds.

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Through Tobey, The Human Comedy quietly admits that Perfectville, U.S.A. is largely a chimera. After all, like many, if not most, soldiers, he could just as easily have lived and died without experiencing the joys of a tight-knit family and community for himself. Yet, by granting this outsider the ultimate homecoming, the movie gives viewers from all walks of life permission to yearn for that ideal.

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At the end of the film, as Tobey hovers by the Macaulay household, he gazes in at Mrs. Macaulay, Bess, and Mary singing and playing an old-fashioned love song. Framed, contained, and shining, the domestic scene seems like a window into heaven, in contrast with the shadows of the evening and the silhouette of Tobey’s head and shoulders from behind. Here Tobey stands in for the audience members who are also beholding this vision of harmony and probably wanting to be a part of it. He watches the family the way we’re meant to watch the movie. This shot actually echoes an earlier shot during a brief sequence in a movie theater. In both cases, the darkness is punctuated by a square of light and a potent image of hope.

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The Human Comedy isn’t as naive as it might appear. Guess what? People didn’t get any more complex in the last seventy years or so. You can love an abstraction and try to make it seem real… while never losing sight of the fact that it’s an abstraction. In this way, Clarence Brown subtly reveals and celebrates cinema’s power to build dreams—like the myth of Ithaca and the Macaulays—that can sustain a population through tough times.

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No wonder Louis B. Mayer—a ferociously patriotic adopted American—considered this film his favorite of more than 800 movies made under his reign at MGM.

Still, if The Human Comedy rejoices in its own ability to refine and market collective fantasies, it acknowledges that the true credit for those dreams belongs to those who defend them. This drama honors the lives lost in WWII with glowing sincerity by glorifying the values and ideals they fought for, even if those ideals never fully existed in their lives.

In other words, most of us don’t make it to Ithaca—even the men and women who gave their lives for what it represented. But, thanks to them, Americans can keep on dreaming of it. And as long as we do, perhaps, like Mr. Macaulay’s narration suggests, those brave individuals are still living in us.

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