All Quiet on the Western Front

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All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Telling a World War story from the German perspective was not a common occurrence in classic film, but in 1930 Hollywood did just that with All Quiet on the Western Front. Based on the classic novel by German World War I veteran Erich Maria Remarque, the story is told from a neutral position that describes the personal impact of war on the soldiers without delving into the political motivations for the conflict itself.

The lengthy story follows a group of classmates who are inspired to enlist by the exhilarating speech of a teacher. The heat of the moment and peer pressure leads a great number of them to join up together, but basically none of those boys will make it out unscathed. After surviving training, the men go to a combat zone where chaos has hit a town. They are joined up with older soldiers and want to know where they can find some grub, but the incumbent soldiers have been without food for much longer. The young men bond with “Kat” Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim) over the pig he has procured for dinner and the cigarettes and other loot the boys hand over as payment for the meal.

The men next spend sleepless days in the trenches waiting for a bombardment to cease. One soldier, Kemmerich (Ben Alexander), loses his nerve and runs out of the bunker and is injured. This boy once bragged about the nice boots his uncle gave him to use at the front, but at the hospital his peers beg him to give them up because his leg has been amputated. Kemmerich dies in the hospital with Paul (Lew Ayers) by his side, who retrieves the boots for another soldier. Mueller (Russell Gleason) is quite pleased by the comfort the boots afford, but he will expire and the boots will pass on to another soldier, who will also find no need for them.

Paul slowly becomes our protagonist and we particularly bond with him when he spends most of a day in a shell hole with a French soldier he has stabbed. The enemy is slow in dying and Paul suffers a range of emotions as he promises to save the man and becomes furious that he will not awaken to forgive him. Paul is later wounded and sent to a hospital where he learns about a “dying room” where men are taken just before they pass so that a bed in the ward can be freed. He becomes hysterical when taken to this room, but returns triumphant. The injury has afforded him leave and time to return to his home. There his parents are quite proud and insist he wear his uniform, but Paul cannot relate to his former way of life and his inability to cope leads him back to the front early. By this point, all but Kat are no longer part of the Second Company he once knew.

I read the book of “All Quiet on the Western Front” when I was in college and do not remember too much of it. What has always stuck in my mind, however, is the story of the boots and their importance to the men and their movement from one individual to the next. I also distinctly remember how detailed the experience of Paul in the hole with the dying soldier was and how much space was spent describing that encounter.

The story is one of the more honest accounts of war that does not overly dramatize the experience. Although the film starts out with equal attention paid to all the young men, before we know it we find ourselves intensely invested in Paul. When the character returns to the classroom of that inspirational teacher while on leave, I could not help but notice the stark contrast between the young, fresh-faced boy who started the film there and the sullen-eyed man who returned to it.

Ayres’ performance is remarkable. He plays consoling, hysterical and cynical all very well and is easy to sympathize with. It is a wonder he was not nominated for an award. The movie did win Best Director for Lewis Milestone and Best Picture at the Oscars that year.

  • All Quiet on the Western Front is set for 8 p.m. ET Feb. 6 on TCM.

The Ice Follies of 1939

Gasser

The Ice Follies of 1939

      If the idea of Joan Crawford and Jimmy Stewart as ice-skating pros excites you, The Ice Follies of 1939 will disappoint you. Despite their characters’ professed careers, the actors do not really do as much on the ice as their body doubles do, nor as much as the International Ice Follies, members of which are included in the cast.

     The Ice Follies is essentially the Ziegfeld Follies –you guessed it– on ice. Stewart’s character Larry Hall is a great skater who has the ambition of creating a show that features skits and songs written just for ice skaters. He starts the film working with his long-time partner Eddie Burgess (Lew Ayres) and newly acquired partner/girlfriend Mary McKay (Crawford). That act quickly gets the axe, however. Larry and Mary foolishly get married despite the financial turmoil, but the woman goes out to find a job in Hollywood and gets picked up as a star.

     The third-wheel position has Eddie hit the road, and it is not long before Larry gets the same idea given Mary’s fame has grown beyond his tolerance. As part of the actress’ contract, she must remain single, so their marriage is kept secret.

     Once on his own, Larry reunites with Eddie and the two work up the funding to back the Ice Follies concept. As time goes by, Mary becomes a sensational star on screen while Larry becomes the king producer of the ice show. The couple tries to reunite but finds the career demands on each member too great to overcome, at least until movies and ice skating unite.

     This black and white picture concludes with a lengthy color sequence featuring our stars watching their on-screen collaboration: a movie starring Mary and featuring Larry’s direction of ice skaters. This ending epitomized what the movie was really about: an excuse to feature the International Ice Follies. True, some of theBroadway Melody and other follies-esque movies were mere platforms to feature certain talents, but it was unfortunate this ploy became part of a movie featuring three really great stars. Stewart, Crawford and Ayres could have held their own in a romantic movie without the backdrop of ice skating, yet there the gimmick is.

     The Ice Follies of 1939 sits among the many frivolous romantic movies Joan Crawford made early in her career. The main actors’ performances were just fine despite their inability to ice skate. The picture could have been a really heart-string tugger had it been developed separately from the Follies’ inclusion. The story of a movie star and the estranged husband who pulls himself up to equal social stature while still failing to reinstate their romance has potential. It just was not realized here.

Holiday

Ring a Ding Ding

Holiday (1938)

     Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn always make a nice duo on screen and Holiday is no exception. Although the flick takes place around New Year’s Eve, the title of the film refers more to what Grant’s character aspires to do: take a holiday. The trouble is, Grant’s Johnny has proposed to a woman belonging to a wealthy family. He was unaware of her financial standing at the outset and fails to tell her he plans soon to give up working and spend some time living his life. However, fiancée Julia, played by Doris Nolan, plans to make her hardworking beau into a wealthy employee at her father’s company, which sounds less than ideal to Johnny.

     That is the jist of Johnny’s predicament as gradually laid out through the course of the film. I would say Hepburn’s Linda, sister to Julia, complicates matters, but she really doesn’t. The free-spirited older sibling is so fond of Johnny she wants nothing more than to have him as a brother-in-law. It is obvious from the start that Linda and Johnny are better suited for one another with their goofy personalities. Hepburn being a bigger actress than Nolan also makes it a dead giveaway. What I found surprising, however, is that the relationship between the two stars does not necessarily indicate they will end up together. There are no longing or twitterpated glances between the two nor sexually tense moments. Not until late in the picture when at the official ringing in of the new year Grant starts to lean toward Hepburn for a kiss do we get any indication he might be into her. Even after that instance, however, Grant continues to try to make things work with his intended. In the end they do end up together, of course, but I was certainly left doubting that until the final minutes of the picture.

     Holiday is a truly fun movie. Grant shows off his acrobatic talents, and he and Hepburn illustrate how well they mesh by bouncing comical line after line off each other. Lew Ayres also shows up as a loveable drunk brother. He was a different sort of drunk than I am used to seeing on film. Despite his handicap, he was loving to Linda and fond of Johnny. His drinking did not create problems nor was it the butt of jokes. Lastly, Edward Everett Horton plays a long-time friend of Johnny’s in possibly he least nervous role I have ever witnessed. Horton also had many a witty line and offered the humbler, non-wealthy side of the equation, which also happened to fit in perfectly with Linda.  Holiday is surely a fun pick any time of the year, so do not let the title place it on the back burner for next Xmas.

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