Feature film directors (and Meryl Streep) tell the tales of American feature film directors in the 1930’s and 40’s who were sent to war to make documentaries for the homefront… with one of the best motion-graphics-meets-stock-footage opening title sequences. If you’re interested in filmmakers and/or war, the whole thing’s just fascinating.
William Wyler, fresh off the inspirational Mrs. Miniver, rages against racism while Frank Capra is producing Private Snafu cartoons. Working (mostly) under Capra, John Ford and George Stevens are sent to film D-Day. John Huston makes the gritty San Pietro, using mostly reenacted fight footage but real dead bodies. And Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland proves himself a poor director. Stevens went on to film the liberation of concentration camps, while Wyler snuck a trip home and found the holocaust had killed his family and all their neighbors. In the end, Huston’s final work about emotionally wounded soldiers was censored for decades, Ford returned to make They Were Expendable, and Capra/Wyler/Stevens founded their own Liberty Studio, which immediately went broke on the flop It’s a Wonderful Life.
I’d love to watch a bunch of the original documentaries themselves, all available on netflix: Battle of Midway, Report from the Aleutians, San Pietro, Let There Be Light, The Negro Soldier, The Battle of Russia, Nazi Concentration Camps and Memphis Belle. But that’s six hours of WWII docs, and it’s Cannes Month now, and six movies I want to see opened in theaters this week, and a new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 just came out, and it’s baseball season…
Cute comedy, doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that’d be nominated for seven oscars, but there you have it. Town malcontent Cary Grant is arrested for a trumped-up charge. Everyone knows he’ll be killed by the town mob, so he escapes and hides out in old schoolmate Jean Arthur’s house. But she’s fixing it up for visiting law professor Ronald Colman, and when he arrives early, she arranges to stay in the house as his secretary so she can take care of Grant, keeping him hidden away from Colman in the attic. Colman is a self-important Good Man who refuses to deal with real people in real situations, preferring to stay apolitical and theoretical as he’s about to be appointed to the Supreme Court, so Arthur and Grant arrange run-ins between him and the corrupt town officials that are rigging Grant’s case, convincing him to bring his great influence into play.
Jean Arthur would be in Stevens’s The More The Merrier the following year, which I thought about while watching this – Jean and two guys in a single living space trying not to run into each other. Grant was between Suspicion and Once Upon a Honeymoon, and Colman played amnesiac in Random Harvest the same year. “This is a great country is it not?” I was happy to recognize the commie from Trouble In Paradise ten years later as a borscht peddler.
Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942, Leo McCarey)
Another nazi comedy, this one McCarey’s follow-up to Love Affair. Ginger Rogers has finally landed a rich baron (Walter Slezak, title star of Dreyer’s Michael, also in Lifeboat), follows him to various countries, each of which falls to Hitler soon after. This gets the attention of reporter Cary Grant, and French secret agent Albert Dekker (ultimate baddie of Kiss Me Deadly). Ginger proves her loyalty to the viewer by rescuing her Jewish maid (Natasha Lytess, Marilyn Monroe’s acting coach) before agreeing to spy for Dekker, while Cary takes a nazi radio propagandist job, like if Mother Night was a comedy. The spy game doesn’t work too well, so Ginger pushes the baron overboard on an ocean liner and sails away with Cary.
The More The Merrier (1943 George Stevens)
A different kind of wartime picture than Once Upon a Honeymoon. This one focuses on the high women-to-men ratio in the D.C. area, and a housing shortage that forced people to take roommates. The story is short on logic, but the cast is super cute – and I don’t mean Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea, I’m talking about Charles “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” Coburn, great scammer of The Lady Eve. It’s the usual setup, where sweetie Jean is engages to a boring dude (Richard Gaines, Edward G. Robinson’s boss in Double Indemnity) but oughtta be with Joel instead, so Coburn invents complicated ways to make that happen, but all while the three are roommates.
Nominated for most major oscars, but up against Casablanca. Coburn still won an award. Remade as Walk, Don’t Run with Cary Grant. The last comedy Stevens would make before heading to war. IMDB: “Joining the Army Signal Corps, Stevens headed up a combat motion picture unit from 1944 to 1946. In addition to filming the Normandy landings, his unit shot both the liberation of Paris and the liberation of the Nazi extermination camp Dachau, and his unit’s footage was used both as evidence in the Nuremberg trials and in the de-Nazification program after the war.”
Surprisingly not my favorite Astaire movie so far, despite its lofty reputation. Katy was not wowed, either. Sure the dances are very light and graceful, but now I’m spoiled on the showy gimmick dance scenes from later films The Band Wagon and Royal Wedding.
Fred, a performer unashamed to wear blackface and call himself Mr. Bojangles, is engaged to Margaret (Betty Furness of the original Magnificent Obsession), but his friends know she’s not right for him and conspire to make him miss the wedding.
Glowering bojangles with his fiancee:
So Fred runs off to NYC with his gambling buddy Victor Moore (of Make Way For Tomorrow, which I coincidentally watched the next day), and they stumble across future Preston Sturges character Eric Blore.
But more importantly, they find Ginger Rogers, whom Fred would so love to love, if only he weren’t engaged. Ginger also becomes engaged, to boring bandleader Georges Metaxa.
While a comic-relief Victor Moore causes hijinks and gets to know Ginger’s dancing buddy Helen Broderick (also of Top Hat). The two of them were more fun than Fred and Ginger.
The presence of actual black person Floyd Shackelford doesn’t take the sting off the Bojangles scene.
Stevens was a cinematographer since the silent era, shot some Laurel & Hardy movies, made big films like Giant and Shane in the 50’s. This came in the middle, among other musicals and romantic comedies.