Wings

Wowza!

Wings (1927)

     What makes a movie worthy of the first ever Academy Award for Best Picture? What constituted greatness in 1929? Apparently a couple million dollars and more effort than perhaps has ever been put into the production of a film.

     Wings would not have been possible had so many parties not come together to make it happen. Whether it was the director with flying experience William Wellman,  the starring actors who took flying lessons and filmed themselves in the air, the stuntmen whose spiraling-toward-death aerial moves were caught on film, or the $15 million-worth of equipment and personnel the military supplied to make the war flick as realistic as possible.

     This Paramount Picture was released on Blu-Ray this year and luckily with it came the release of a DVD reprint, copies of which have been hard to come by. This latest remastering produced images so clear they sort of blew my mind given they are 85 years old. The opening shot in particular is spectacular in clarity. The new edition also allows the viewer to watch the scenes with a re-recorded symphonic score complete with sound effects or an organ rendition. With the sound effects, one can almost forget she is watching a silent flick.

     Wingstells a story of love and war. Two young men are in love with the same high-class girl and both leave for WWI together. This Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), is preparing a locket with her photo in it for David (Richard Arlen) but when Jack (Buddy Rogers) arrives at her home first, he misunderstands the gift –and Sylvia’s affections– as being for him. Sylvia convinces David her love lie truly with him, but the men head to training with a rivalry brewing.

     After their tensions grow to a boiling point, the pilot trainees box each other until David is down and out. From then on the two are best pals. But the thrill of learning to fly –a lifelong dream of Jack’s– is sobered by the near instantaneous death of tent-mate Cadet White, played for a minute and a half by Gary Cooper, who crashes during a training exercise minutes after meeting the boys.

     Once overseas, American flyers Jack and David make a great pair but Jack is proving himself an obvious hero. During their time in France, a girl from the men’s hometown, Mary (Clara Bow), arrives as part of volunteer women’s group. Mary has been in love with Jack and good friends with the young man who is oblivious to her feelings. Mary comes across Jack drunk in the arms of a French woman at the Folies Bergere and fights to get him back by herself getting gussied up. The evening ends with Mary discovered changing back into her uniform in Jack’s room, leading her to resign in disgrace. Jack meanwhile was too drunk to know it was she who visited him.

     Jack and David’s relationship also gets a black eye when the two have a spat over Sylvia’s picture as David seeks to prevent his pal from discovering it was meant for him. The two head to the skies without their ritual “All set?” “OK”  routine and David crashes amidst enemy fire. He survives but flees the Germans on foot. He will later commandeer an enemy plane to get back to the Allied side, but Jack will see the lone plane as a target.

     The practical effects in Wings are beyond belief. Wellman had cameras bolted to the wings and bodies of planes to get all the amazing aerial shots of the battles and crashes. Planes were created with two cock pits for the actual pilot and the actor, Arlen had been a pilot in WWI and Rogers was also trained to fly the vehicles. In doing so, they would operate a camera affixed directly in front of them and do their own multiple takes as they conveyed expressions of victory and concern. When one German plane spirals from the sky, the stunt pilot is filmed face on and we can see the actual spinning background. Much of that is thanks to Wellman’s insistence that filming take place only with blue skies and clouds. Without clouds, he knew, there would be no context for the planes’ movement.

     I’m so excited to finally cross the first movie to win Best Picture from my Oscar list. True that the first ceremony was held in 1929, butWings spent two years in theaters at ticket prices of a hefty $2. It also one for Best Special Effects. I cannot imagine how blown away audiences were with the flight scenes in the movie at that time because they sure take my breath away now.

Source: DVD Extra “Wings: Grandeur in the Sky”; TCM.com

Meet John Doe

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Meet John Doe (1941)

     Gary Cooper was a wonderfully diverse actor. He could just as easily play the confident and tough lawman, lover or soldier as he could let Director Frank Capra break him down into an apologetic everyman. That is how we find him in Meet John Doe, a movie that also presented me with the least sexual Barbara Stanwyck I have ever seen.

 
     Like the small-towner in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Cooper plays a nobody who becomes more than a somebody, which essentially makes this picture a combination of the aforementioned film with A Face in the Crowd. Like the former, our leading man is manipulated/discovered by a female reporter and like the latter the protagonist becomes a national symbol with masses of followers.
 
    When the wealthy B.D. Norton (Edward Arnold) purchases The Bulletin, Stanwyck’s Ann Mitchell finds herself fired like many others at the newspaper. She’s required to write one last column before she heads out, however, so she fabricates a letter from a reader who says he will jump off town hall on Christmas Eve because he is fed up with the ills of society. The item becomes a sensation and Ann and her editor Connell (James Gleason) are forced to find someone to act as this John Doe or be humiliated by a rival paper.
 
     In interviewing a host of down-and-out men who come forward claiming to be the letter’s author, Ann and Connell agree John Willoughby (Cooper), a former small-time baseball player, is the perfect fit. They put him up in a hotel and hide him from the world while Ann gets to work writing more of “his” letters about his outrage against society to run in the paper. John is eventually put on the radio, reading a speech Ann wrote using inspiration from her deceased father’s diary. The man is a sensation and John Doe Clubs start popping up around the nation.
 
     John is upset that the whole persona is a lie but he cannot deny the good it is doing through these clubs that involve neighbors accepting each other and working together for the common good. Publisher Norton is even sponsoring these clubs around the country, although it is easy to see he must have something sinister in mind.
 
     That something is a run for president, and Norton plans to have John endorse him at a big rally for the clubs. Ann writes the speech but is stuck in moral turmoil as her involvement in the ruse has brought her a significant increase in salary. John plan to reveal the whole scheme to the rally crowd, but Norton puts out papers revealing the fraud before he can speak, thus making him the object of the mass’ rage. Although he had never intended to jump from town hall as the fictional John Doe said he would, the real one sees it as a way to reunite his followers.
 
     Meet John Doe is not without its romance. Although Stanwyck’s character is solely career focused, John cannot help but be fascinated by the woman. She resists him until the end, all the while be showered with gifts from Norton’s nephew. Nevertheless it was strange to see Stanwyck in a role that was neither sweetly romantic nor severely seductive. This brunette version of the star does a fantastic job of pulling off a massive ruse all while convincing us she is a pure and admirable person.
 
     It goes without saying that Cooper is great. He had by this point in his career such a rugged face that he could be perfectly believable as the ragged, dirty bum we first meet and as handsome, romantic personality he becomes. UnlikeA Face in the Crowd, his character never becomes power crazed but instead fights the urge to run away from his new life, much like his Mr. Deeds character.

Feature: A Movie Through Its Posters — Love in the Afternoon

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Billy Wilder’s international appeal does not surprise me but I had no idea his 1957 Love in the Afternoon was so widely distributed around the world. When I search for movie posters to accompany my posts, I usually find a couple different versions for any given movie and sometimes a foreign one. When I looked for a visual for Love in the Afternoon, however, I found these:

 I frankly had a hard time finding the American poster (it’s the black curtain one; bottom row, left) as every other country seemed to name the movie after its protagonist: Ariane. The wide variety of styles illustrate how other countries thought they could best market this movie about a young woman’s romance with an international playboy.

The countries of origin are (from left to right, top to bottom): Denmark, France, France, France, Germany, Italy, Italy, Italy, Italy, America, Poland, Spain.

The French posters vary greatly in their style whereas the Italian ones all have the same feel to them. Although it is similar to the American poster, the German version using the drawn shade is my favorite. Its colors are beautiful while still capturing the same symbolism as the American take. Which do you prefer?

Despite the curtain, however, there are no such concealing devices used in Love in the Afternoon to hide this secret romance. Cello student Ariane (Audrey Hepburn)  lives in Paris with her father Claude Chavasse (Maurice Chevalier), a private detective specializing in illicit affairs. His latest subject is American businessman Frank Flannagan, played by Gary Cooper, and the jealous husband of a client is prepared to gun the man down for sleeping with his wife. Hearing this, and admiring Frank’s photograph, Ariane takes matters into her own hands. She ultimately finds herself climbing into the playboy’s suite and switching places with the woman so that the gunman has no cause to shoot.

Intrigued by this woman, Frank desires to see her again, but because of her father and her cello lessons, Ariane can only visit him in the afternoon. After one brief encounter, the American hits the road, but when he returns next year Ariane has a game of her own going. She offers false stories of a long list of lovers thus making Frank extremely jealous. Lucky for her, when the man finally discovers her true nature he is not dissuaded.

Being an Audrey fan, I love this movie unceasingly. Despite looking like a teenager and playing a character not far gone from that age, Audrey was 28 but still plenty shy of Cooper’s 56. The relationship should seem obscene, yet it does not. Audrey manages to play the alluring woman Cooper’s lover could easily desire while still maintaining some innocence. To those wanting to think their relationship consisted merely of some afternoon chat time, Wilder inserts hints that suggest otherwise. The passage of time, often preceded with something like the shedding of a fur coat, indicates the relationship spent plenty of time in the bedroom, whether we want to believe that of Audrey or not.

Wilder did a great job with Love in the Afternoon of catching Audrey in the finest lights. There were a handful of shots throughout when I thought, wow, she’s gorgeous. One could collect numerous artistic snapshots by freezing on certain of this woman’s expressions as she laughs, cries and loves.

The Divorce of Lady X

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The Divorce of Lady X (1938)

     I had not planned to watch a movie when I turned on The Divorce of Lady X, yet somehow I got sucked in. For one, this was my first time seeing Laurence Olivier in color, which took me by a somewhat delighted surprise. Also I was intrigued by the Merle Oberon character’s brash forwardness –all while wearing a hoop-skirted dress of Civil War-era style.

     When a fog traps a large party of women attending a fancy ball in a hotel where barrister Everard Logan (Olivier) is also stranded, a brazen young woman (Oberon) talks her way into sharing this stranger’s two-room, two bedded suite. Before Logan knows what has happened, this Leslie has taken his bed and his pajamas and forced him to sleep on a mattress in the sitting room. He is quite furious, but by breakfast the two are getting along swimmingly.

     The trouble starts when Mr. Logan, a divorce attorney, goes to work the next day and meets with a client/friend (Ralph Richardson) who says his wife stayed the night in another man’s suite and at the same hotel where Logan had just rested. Naturally, the barrister assumes his mysterious Leslie –who wore a ring on her third finger– is this Lady Mere and he has just destroyed a marriage. In actuality, Leslie Steele is the daughter of Judge Steele (Morton Selton), who often presides over Logan’s cases. When Leslie visits the man’s office to return his pajamas, she realizes his confusion and goes along with the ruse. The two continue to court as Logan ensures the witness to Lady Mere’s indiscretion is unable to identify him as the correspondent and as he learns that Lady Mere has had quite a few ex-husbands. Leslie even gets the actual Lady and Lord Mere to go along with the charade as she prepares to reveal the truth, but the woman will not get the reaction she expects.

     The Divorce of Lady X  was not much more than a cute romantic comedy. Olivier and Oberon are well-suited together as they will again prove a year later in Wuthering Heights. Our sympathy easily rests with our male protagonist who is being taken for a ride by a somewhat snotty and inexperienced woman. The story actually reminded me some of Love in the Afternoon in which Audrey Hepburn‘s Ariane conceals her name and concocts a false and extensive list of ex-lovers to make her more desirable to Gary Cooper‘s loverboy Frank. Both these women think that being a bad woman makes them more appealing to their mates. Although Ariane’s experience drives Frank wild with jealousy in the 1957 movie, it causes a cringe for Mr. Logan who cannot seem to stop himself from loving the troublesome dame regardless of her past.

The Pride of the Yankees

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Pride of the Yankees (1943)

     I think one of Gary Cooper’s greatest gifts is that although he seemed well suited for playing powerful, strong, intelligent men, he could just as easily play a naive, humble gent who is completely oblivious he is the almighty Gary Cooper. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is one such example as is The Pride of the Yankees.

 
     Like most classic-era biopics, The Pride of the Yankees takes some liberties in the telling of the life of baseball great Lou Gehrig. Although it maintains that the young man attended Columbia University to study engineering, how he got in is another story. In order to establish his mother as a loving, yet persistent force in shaping her son’s career, Gehrig is depicted as getting into school on his mother’s cooking there. Instead he attended on a football scholarship. Mother Gehrig (Elsa Janssen) in the movie pushes her boy to be an engineer like his uncle and is adamantly against a sports profession, so when Gehrig signs with the New York Yankees, the young athlete and his father conceal it from the mother, who is now ailing in the hospital and in need of money to support her stay. She learns the truth when the papers proclaim Gehrig’s call up to the major leagues where he (accurately) goes on to play 13 years without missing a game.
 
     In the movie, Gehrig meets his future wife Eleanor, played by Teresa Wright, when he goes up to bat for the Yankees the first time and slides across a row of bats on the ground. Sitting in the front row, this daughter of the hot dog king calls him “tanglefoot” and starts a barrage of laughter in the stands. Gehrig manages to see her off the field and the two hit it off, eventually marrying. When Gehrig becomes weak and is eventually handed an unfavorable diagnosis, the man forbids all in the know from telling his wife of his fate, but Eleanor knows it anyway. The film closes on a high note with Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day, held in reality in 1939, two years before his death.
 
     Pride of the Yankees was released two years after the legend died and is an amiable tribute. Cooper does a tremendous job playing the simple, rather unremarkable personality Gehrig is said to have had. He is a very honest, unselfish character, which makes him easy to love and easy to miss for any moviegoer. The only drawback I saw to the movie is that Cooper, 42 at the time of the movie’s release (two years older than Gehrig would have been that year), is unable to hide his age in playing college-age and early ball-playing Gehrig. The crows feet that form with his smile belie his age, making a good portion of the movie unrealistic in appearance. Wright, on the other hand, was appropriate looking for the younger years of the couple, but the only aging she does is via slight modifications to her hair and clothing styles. The same can be said of Babe Ruth, who plays himself. Although his performance is fine, he looks beyond ball-playing age. If not for these complaints, the film would be near perfect.
 
Source: LouGehrig.com

CAPA Summer Movie Series (Columbus, Ohio)

For those of you who live in central Ohio as I do, you will be glad to hear CAPA has posted its lineup for this year’s Summer Movie Series. I have seen a lot of these but am always willing to rewatch something if it’s on the big screen.

I’ll definitely be seeing Hitchcock’s Frenzy as I’ve been meaning to give that another chance. Other must sees if you haven’t already include Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Grapes of Wrath, High Noon, Bringing Up Baby, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Big Sleep.

Sadly, no Audrey Hepburn movie this year as there usually is. For those who have not experienced a favorite or classic movie on the big screen in a theater full of people who love the movie as much as you, it really is a memorable experience. I recommend it.

It’s a Great Feeling

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It's a Great Feeling (1949)

     I’ve never really been sold on Doris Day as an actress; however my vocabulary on the subject is limited. I would not say that It’s a Great Feeling –her third film– really showed her in the best light, but the flick itself is somewhat intriguing. Self reflexive pictures are not much of a rarity, with many titles from the thirties and forties showing us the backstage drama of theater and movie production. This movie, however, takes it to a new level.

     With the exception of some side characters and the producer role, Day is the only character who does not play herself. It’s a Great Feeling depicts the efforts of two actors –Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan– to convince the producer of their picture to hire an unknown actress/singer looking for a break. Besides screen tests, the story involves no actual filming of their feature, “Mademoiselle Fifi”. Instead, the duo try to have producer Arthur Trent (Bill Goodwin) discover Day’s character on his own by planting her as an elevator operator, cabbie, optometrist’s assistant, etc. Each time she comes into contact with the man, however, she flutters her eyes, quivers her smiling lips and emits a bizarre squeaking sound. Trent gradually loses his mind as he cannot understand why he keeps seeing the same woman everywhere he glances and fails to pick her up as a potential actress. Meanwhile Carson and Morgan are unsuccessfully vying for the protagonist’s affections.

     The story is a bit scatter-brained as the trio endeavor to force discovery of the young unknown onto their producer, instead of just offering her up themselves (Carson is directing the picture). The songs are pretty good, made better by Day’s lovely singing voice, but the best entertainment the flick offers is in its cameos. Not only does the film’s director David Butler show up to decline directing “Mademoiselle Fifi,” but so do King Vidor, Michael Curtiz and Raoul Walsh. Because the film is set primarily on the Warner Bros. lot, we are entreated to a variety of the studio’s stars at the time: Ronald Reagan, Gary Cooper, Jane Wyman and the prettiest and youngest Patricia Neal I have ever seen, and the list goes on. I particularly enjoyed Joan Crawford‘s spot during which she starts an uproar that concludes with her slapping both Carson and Morgan. In response to “what was that all about,” she says “I do that in all my pictures.”

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