I heard about a Jonathan Rosenbaum lecture series on 1950’s cinema, and thought it’d be fun to catch a couple nights, using it as an excuse to watch the titles on the schedule I hadn’t seen before (this and Bitter Victory). We watched the movies on our own, then met for the discussion. I sat in bed with a beer, imagining joining hundreds of others watching a J.Ro performance from a stage or lecture hall somewhere, but whoops, there were only ten of us for a cameras-on small-classroom situation.

It’s an anthology feature, the first and third segments (and I think the framing pieces on a cruise ship) by Reinhardt (a former Lubitsch protege). Part one is about Moira Shearer doing what Moira Shearer does best – but the wrinkle is she has a heart condition and can’t dance or she’ll die. But she says she can’t live without dancing – so, very Red Shoes, but also brings to mind Le Plaisir, an anthology film from two years earlier which also opened with a dancer collapsing. Shearer sneaks away from her keeper Agnes Moorehead and meets theater director James Mason, who is writing a whole new dance around her style, and this all ends in tragedy but it’s fun while it lasts.

Upsetting my auteurist preconceptions, the Minnelli segment in the middle was my least favorite – in part because it’s starring and narrated by an obnoxious little boy (oh no, this is 12-year-old Ricky Nelson, only 6 years before Rio Bravo). He detests his governess Leslie Caron (soon after debuting in An American in Paris) who reads mushy French poetry all day, so a witch (late-career Ethel Barrymore) agrees to make him grown-up for one night so he can experience independence. But when he’s grown-ass Farley Granger, he suddenly develops a taste for French poetry and for Leslie Caron.

Ricky and the witch:

Granger in the best scene, not with Caron but with… Zsa Zsa Gabor!

In the final story, disgraced acrobat Kirk Douglas rescues suicidal bridge jumper Pier Angeli, then since he needs a new trapeze accomplice and since she has nothing to lose, he trains her for his next big act. Most of the rest of the movie is these two being impossibly fit, doing legit aerial stunts. I don’t buy a single thing in this segment, but it has a good ending and it’s great fun. The Reinhardt segments really shine by showcasing talented people exercising their skills.

Aside from the movie – after all the books and articles I’ve read by Rosenbaum, finally I’m seeing him live, in an underlit room on a Zoom meeting, talking about orgasms. As to whether the film seemed hokey, “it’s the kind of hokiness I’d like to take a bath in.” Reinhardt and the actors were discussed, and the stories and why/whether they succeeded, and realism. The part that got me was his talk about existentialism, which apparently does not mean what I’d assumed it meant, the stories being all about the present tense. “The fact that you exist is more important than why you exist.”

This is France, but we’re not bothering with subtitles or even accents, because those hadn’t been invented yet in the 1950’s. WWI, fighting against Germany, with rightly celebrated tracking shots through the trenches, from the clueless higher-ups patrolling the men they know nothing about, to the middleman Major Kirk Douglas, a serious star some five years after The Big Sky. Posh general Adolphe Menjou (in one of his final films) has pressured scar-faced general George Macready (evil older husband of Gilda) into commanding an attack to capture a hill in exchange for a promotion. The attack will be a huge failure, killing hundreds of men. Two higher-ups (Gen. George and Lt. Roget) will act supremely dishonorably, the former by sending men to die in a pointless and poorly-planned maneuver and ordering fire upon his own troops, the latter by personally killing a subordinate with a grenade in a cowardly moment. But both will get off without punishment, instead picking three soldier representatives to die by firing squad for the operation’s failure, futilely defended in military court by Kirk.

Three dead men: Paris (Kiss Me Deadly star Ralph Meeker) because he’s the only witness to Lt. Roget’s murder of a soldier, Ferol (Timothy Carey, who doesn’t fit in with the rest of the movie, but it’s wonderful) and Arnaud (Lloyd the Bartender from The Shining), who had a great pre-fight speech about death vs. pain, and gets knocked down by Ferol in their holding cell and has to be executed while unconscious on a stretcher.

I thought of it as a powerful anti-war film (with a different approach to the insanity of war than Dr. Strangelove), but Gary Giddins’s commentary says it’s not exactly anti-war, but “about power, class, manipulation and the absurdity of war as a continuation of those civilian instincts.” He also says the pre-battle politicking between officers isn’t in the source novel.

The Future Mrs. Kubrick:

Menjou at Marienbad:

J. Naremore:

Kubrick is especially good at drawing sharp visual and aural contrasts between the château where the generals plan the war and the trenches where the war is fought. The Schleissheim Palace outside Munich, where much of the action takes place, later became a location for another film that depicts upper-class intrigues amid the architecture of a decadent past – Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad – and the opening sequence in the palace interior, where Adolphe Menjou suavely manipulates the ramrod stiff but insecure George Macready, was influenced by one of Kubrick’s favorite directors, Max Ophuls, who had died on the day it was staged.

Three wives go off on a boat trip to somewhere, it’s not important, knowing that one of their husbands has run off with local temptress Addie Ross (who is cleverly not shown). Many flashbacks ensue.

Military farmgirl Jeanne Crain (Leave Her to Heaven) is married to Brad, and even though she’s kinda the movie’s lead, neither of them has much going on. Ann Sothern (The Blue Gardenia) is a radio writer whose husband Kirk Douglas (between Out of the Past and Ace in the Hole) tells off her insufferable bosses when they come for dinner. Oh, and she forgets Kirk’s birthday and she works too much. Linda Darnell (Unfaithfully Yours, also a movie about imagined cheating) is a hot gold digger from a poor family who landed dumpy, rich shop owner Paul Douglas (Clash By Night). He’s the husband who ran off with the unseen Addie, though he comes back, and all three wives get happy endings, though oddly we don’t see Jeannie’s.

Also: the great Thelma Ritter plays a family friend of Linda’s. Based on A Letter to Five Wives – two wives got cut. Remade in 1985 with Ben Gazzara as the shop owner.

Kinda like Rio Bravo in the sense that you’ve got good, tough characters who team up against serious odds, but the ending leaves me less with the sense that I’ve seen an epic drama or action flick than a buddy comedy. It’s too darned happy to be a Western, gives the same sense of companionable fulfillment as a Renoir movie.

Bigetsu Skyogatari:

Colorfully narrated (“Jim seed somethin’ in the trees, and Jim were the curious sort”) by elder fur trapper Zeb (Arthur Hunnicutt, baddie in The Tall T), who we don’t even meet for twenty minutes. Starting in 1832 Kentucky, the movie mainly follows Jim (Kirk Douglas, year after Ace in the Hole) and Jim’s new buddy/Zeb’s nephew Boone (Dewey Martin of a couple other Hawks movies). They’re both going west, searching for freedom and profit, Jim more aimless and easygoing, Boone seeking his uncle and hoping to revenge his brother’s death by bagging a few native Blackfoot.

Jim, Boone, Zeb:

The three men meet in jail after a bar brawl, then join an ambitious trapper named Frenchy (Steven Geray of Verboten!), who hopes to bypass the monopolistic fur company headed by frilly-shirted top-hatted MacMasters (voiceover man Paul Frees). Frenchy’s secret to being able to trade with the Blackfoot, who won’t deal with MacMasters’s people, is that Frenchy has one of the chief’s daughters Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt, in her only film), is escorting her home. After we’re introduced to the strong, stereotype-defying Teal Eye, the movie compensates by hiring along the drunk, buffoonish Poordevil (Hank Worden, a marshall in Forty Guns).

Noble Indian:

Nutty Indian:

I think it takes months to go up the river, the men mostly pulling the boat upstream with ropes. MacMasters’s muscle man Streak kills a couple men, and more are killed by the Blackfoot’s rival Crow tribe hired by Streak, but Jim, Zeb and Boone, hired for the trading group’s protection, finally wipe out the lot of the sneaky sonsobitches. Meanwhile, both of the younger guns have fallen for Teal Eye, and there’s some drama over that. Zeb was once in the same situation, left a girl behind and she killed herself – and he was lying to Boone about the whole murdered brother thing. Boone is told none of this, because apparently it’s better for a man to make his own uninformed decisions, but opts to stay behind with the Blackfoot at the end anyhow.

My new favorite method of torture: having a strong fellow squeeze two baddies’ heads together

Tag G.: “Action is only an extension in character, and character, like the action it ignites, is biological, zoological. Vast events in many Hawks films are pushed by character.” So he analyzes their characters, answering why Zeb is telling his story about Jim instead of about himself or his own nephew Boone, when Jim gets lost and injured, has no particular goals, and doesn’t get the girl. Jim and Zeb are men of talk and whiskey, while Boone is a man of action. At the end of the trip, Frenchy and Boone have destinations – Jim and Zeb just have each other.

The first major studio film in the sound era to be shot all on location – I watched the long/original version, not the contentiously cut-down theatrical release.

Now that I’ve seen this twice (both times on 35mm at Emory) I’m positive it’s one of my favorite movies. Perfect actors, dialogue, camera and lighting, perfectly paced and scored. It’s such an ideal film that while walking out, I almost fell into the trap of wishing for the glory days of Hollywood because they can’t make ’em like that anymore. Close call – I’m feeling better now.

Criminal flunky Joe (Paul Valentine of House of Strangers) tracks down Robert Mitchum (early in his career) working at a small-town gas station, says that big badman Whit (Kirk Douglas, a few years before Ace in the Hole) wants to speak with him. Mitchum drives up to Whit’s house with his cutie girlfriend, tells her his long flashback story along the way. We spend such a long time in flashback that once the action picks up again, I keep forgetting we’re back in the present.

Mitchum was originally hired by the baddies (both with prominent chins) to track down Kirk’s thieving runaway girl Jane Greer (whose IMDB page is more interesting for trivia about how Howard Hughes used to stalk her than for her film roles). He finds her in Mexico, falls for her, and they run off together, live in hiding for a couple years until discovered by his partner (Steve Brodie, a cop in Losey’s M, also in The Steel Helmet, later Frankenstein Island and The Wizard of Speed and Time). She shoots the partner and runs off, Mitchum belatedly discovering that she’d also stolen Kirk’s money for which she’d been claiming innocence.

So now Kirk wants Mitchum to steal some incriminating files for him, but plans to frame Mitchum along the way as revenge for absconding with Kirk’s girl (now back in the fold). Mitch gets the scoop from Rhonda Fleming (of The Spiral Staircase, Spellbound), and steals the files, but can’t avoid the frame-up and flees home followed by the gangsters and the law.

Mitchum gets unexpected help from his deaf-mute employee, who dispatches Joe with a fishing-rod yank off a cliff. The kid was Dickie Moore – the youngest actor in the movie, but the one who would retire first, near the end of his child-star film career. The Femme proves to be extremely fatale, shoots Kirk to death, then drives herself and Mitchum into a guns-blazing police roadblock. The “happy” ending is that Mitchum’s sweet small-town girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston – in her short film career she played Tarzan’s Jane once, and four characters named Ann) is free of his big-city corrupting influence, and can be properly courted by local cop Jim (Richard Webb, also of The Big Clock), in a world devoid of excitement or interest.

The author of the “unadaptable” novel wrote the screenplay himself, would later co-write The Big Steal and The Hitch-Hiker. Shot by the great Nicholas Musuraca, who practically invented film noir with his lighting – or lack thereof – on Stranger on the Third Floor in 1940. Nominated for nothing, in favor of timeless classics like Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, Ride the Pink Horse and Green Dolphin Street. Bah! Remade in the 80’s with Jeff Bridges, James Woods, and re-starring Jane Greer as the femme fatale’s mother.