Thursday, November 23, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving - and a SALE!

If watching this movie is part of your Thanksgiving tradition, you might just be an old movie buff.  Wishing all our American readers a Happy Thanksgiving.

As long as I have you on the phone, I'll take this opportunity to mention as well that for the next several days, through Monday, November 27th, the eBook version of my book on the career of Ann Blyth -- Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. will be available at Amazon for half price. Because black Friday and cyber Monday are Thanksgiving traditions, too.  I guess.

Amazon has also included my book in its new "X-Ray" function which will allow for descriptions and explanations of names, places, and events by holding down on a highlighted word, to enhance your reading experience. In case you didn't know what the Copacabana was.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Hollywood Fights Back - A Radio Protest

Hollywood Fights Back was a radio program broadcast in two parts in the autumn of 1947. Some 50 Hollywood stars, writers, directors, as well as some journalists, and some members of the government, appeared in open defiance of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was then launching a twenty-year nightmare on the entertainment industry known as the Blacklist. Its repercussions were felt for a generation, and it has lessons which echo our troubled times today.  This is our entry into the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Banned and Blacklisted blogathon.

The group behind radio broadcasts, the Committee for the First Amendment, was formed in Ira Gershwin’s house as a response by alarmed members of the Hollywood community about the persecution by Congress of those they regarded as communists or as sympathizers of communists in Hollywood.

The program is startling, particularly the first episode which was aired on October 26, 1947, just as a group of their members and fellow actors were flying to Washington on a chartered plane to observe the proceedings by HUAC against the so-called Hollywood Ten, a group of writers who were to be skewered by the congressional committee headed by J. Parnell Thomas (R-NJ). Charles Boyer a led off the program in his resonant voice announcing their fourteen compatriots were carrying on, in person, “the fight for our rights as American citizens.”

Judy Garland, in a voice easily recognizable for her soft, girlish sweetness, sounds like her innocent but spunky characters in the Andy Hardy series or as Dorothy tugging at our heartstrings: “It’s always been your right to see and read anything you want to.  But now it’s getting kind of complicated.”  She says that Hollywood is hopping mad about being accused of being communists and that HUAC is about to strangle not only their creativity, but their freedom.  “I’ve never been a member of any political organization, but I’ve been following this investigation and I don’t like it.”  Her voice rises, impassioned, “It’s something again to say we are not good Americans. We resent that!”

Hollywood Fights Back: Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Lucille Ball

Gene Kelly follows noting that The Best Years of Our Lives (1946 – covered in this previous post, part 1 of 4) the film that won seven Academy Awards and is arguably one of the best if not the best film ever made in Hollywood, remarks “I understand that supporters of the Un-American Committee didn’t like this film. Did you like it?  Were you subverted by it? Did it make you un-American?”

The Best Years of Our Lives would be mentioned more than once in Hollywood Fights Back, and some of its stars, including Fredric March, Myrna Loy, and Dana Andrews, would take part in the broadcasts. One of the reasons the film is used in their argument, one of the reasons it met with disfavor by the HUAC is because of the famous scene where Homer, played by Harold Russell is told by Ray Teal that we fought on the wrong side in World War II and should have supported the Nazis. Homer of course becomes upset and in the physical altercation that occurs, Dana Andrews punches the Nazi in the face.  We discussed this scene not too long ago in this previous post. Depictions of extreme right-wing politics were not to be seen as negative, let alone traitorous.

How quaint, considering extreme right-wing treason is considered somehow righteous today.

There was another reason HUAC disliked this movie, and it is because Fredric March’s banker boss, Ray Collins, is portrayed as stuffed shirt who cares more about business than he does about helping returning veterans. The movies often portrayed wealthy men of business as stuffed shirts, sometimes even corrupt, and apparently then as now, the very wealthy, very conservative in our country feel that such depiction is suspicious and threatening, meriting punishment. To HUAC, it was regarded as subversive.

The blacklist – and later Senator Joe McCarthy’s hearings – was not just about politics of communist infiltration to overthrow the government. That alone would make the whole seamy affair seem patriotic and righteous. But it was never about that, because we were never under threat by communist infiltration and overthrow of the government. The politics was about conservative versus liberal, and the wealthy elite versus everyone the wealthy elite felt was a threat to their personal prosperity: liberal views which they felt led to higher corporate taxes and trade unions, and enemies of all stripes including the various racial and religious minorities some would invariably despise.

HUAC had been around since the late 1930s under Martin Dies, Jr. (D-Texas). It kept its eyes on actors who supported liberal causes like James Cagney (who would a few years later perform in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), in part to reaffirm before the public and the studios that he was patriotic), Katharine Hepburn, Melvin Douglas, and Fredric March.  Most did not suffer a threat to their careers, except for Lionel Stander, who was one of the earliest victims of what became known as the blacklist and it would be many years before he worked in film again.  Dies’ committee came under strong rebuke by the American public when it also claimed to have caught Shirley Temple in its net of possible communists.  She was ten years old.

But the politics was always deeply entwined with money. Walt Disney took revenge on his staff who took part in the cartoonists’ and animators’ strike in 1941 by publicly accusing many of them of being involved in communist activities, and he felt the strike was a communist activity that was personally meant against him.

During the Depression most people were terrified of the wolf at their door, but for the very well off and the very conservative, they viewed the wolf at their door as the liberals who under the successful four-term President Franklin Delano Roosevelt were able to invoke sweeping changes in our society that brought out reforms in economics, the stock market, banking, unions, and in social causes.

But 1947 was a different climate.  When Hollywood Strikes Back was aired while the fourteen compatriots went to Washington to observe and to protest HUAC, it was then under J. Parnell Thomas. He had begun his career as a stockbroker, later going into politics and he served seven terms in the House of Representatives as a Republican from New Jersey. He was one such who despised Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. One of his pet hates was the Federal Theater Project which brought work to thousands of actors, writers, directors and other theatre professionals during those starving years, and also brought new life and important new works into American theatre. Parnell declared that the plays were nothing but propaganda for communism or for the New Deal, which he felt was the same thing.

Money and political ideology were joined by the third member of this unholy triumvirate, prejudice. One of Parnell’s complaints was that the Federal Theater Project frequently featured plays referring to racial discrimination. Indeed, when HUAC was originally formed in the late ‘30s, it was responsible for investigating both left-wing and right-wing political groups, but calls for leaders of the Ku Klux Klan to be investigated were refuted by the then chairman Dies because he supported the Klan and spoke at Klan rallies. Other members of HUAC, including John S. Wood (D-Georgia) and John Rankin (D-Mississippi), an avowed anti-semite, also supported the Klan. Mr. Wood defended the Klan by arguing that “the threats and intimidation of the Klan are an old American custom.” They decided not to pursue any investigation against the Ku Klux Klan, as John Rankin agreed, “The KKK is an old American institution.”

Donald Trump, as has been widely reported, agrees.  We sometimes think we are always facing new problems, but they are usually very old problems in new wrappings.

After World War II, but long before the Russians obtained the Bomb, a shift was occurring led mainly by politicians and which would then sweep across the entertainment world, business and industry. The real shift on its axis began in November 1946 when after the election, the Republican Party gained control of Congress for the first time in fourteen years. HUAC, which had waned during the war years when the Russians were our allies, was shifted to the forefront and became once again a pet project of a party which now had the power to pull the strings. In May 1940, J. Parnell Thomas went to Hollywood to meet with studio execs about the problem of infiltrating communist ideals into movies principally through the Screenwriters Guild. The screenwriters’ Guild. Yes, this was about labor unions, not about invasion by the Russians.  We have much more to fear about Russian infiltration today than we ever did in 1946.

Now the focus of the committee would be about the film industry.

Jack Warner was the first person to testify before HUAC in September 1947. He wasn’t subpoenaed—he volunteered. He had spoken to the committee earlier that spring, in closed-door sessions, and had admitted to John Huston that he had named the names of “a few” people he “thought might be communists.” In a recollection by Warner’s son, Jack Warner panicked at the lights and the questions and spit out any names he could think of.  Power is always intimidating, even for a man like Warner who garnered plenty of power himself and enjoying wielding it.

That same month, back at Ira Gershwin’s house, a group of actors with astounding pluck, admirable idealism, and perhaps forgivable naïveté, formed the Committee for the First Amendment to support the ten screenwriters, known afterward as the Hollywood Ten, who were to be subjected to questioning in Washington, D.C., by HUAC. Myrna Loy, John Huston, William Wyler, and screenwriter Philip Dunne founded the group.

Other members included Jane Wyatt, Edward G. Robinson, Henry Fonda, Dorothy Dandridge, Melvin Douglas, Lena Horne, Marsha Hunt, Burgess Meredith, Frank Sinatra, Katharine Hepburn, Evelyn Keyes, John Garfield, Burt Lancaster, Ira Gershwin, June Havoc, Gene Kelly, Groucho Marx, Billy Wilder, Paul Henreid, and Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Many of them would later suffer for it.

On October 27, fourteen of the committee flew to Washington, D.C., to attend and protest the hearings. The day before, on October 26th, the first one half-hour episode of Hollywood Fights Back aired, and some members who flew to Washington had pre-recorded their contributions to the program. Howard Hughes, who was a conservative and actually supported HUAC, provided them a chartered plane at a discount. Although we may smile at Mr. Hughes’ business sense over his ideology, but this only underlines the real purpose of the actors going to Hollywood: no one saw themselves as defenders of communism, only of free speech. They were going in support of the First Amendment, as their committee name said.

The program was a stirring performance, as one actor after another tag-teamed on a tightly written theme of freedom of speech. The program was written by Norman Corwin, one of the finest writers during the Golden Age of Radio. It was he who wrote the program We Hold These Truths after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which we discussed in this previous post. Please see my post on my blog on New England history and culture, New England Travels, for more on the career of Norman Corwin, whom I’m pleased to say once wrote for my local newspaper, the Springfield (Mass) Republican.

The script is a marvel of simple messages and riveting urgency. There is no sense of preaching, rather it is like a college pep rally of hope and promise, a call to defeat to the bad guy, of the wonderful feeling of doing right and doing well. It is biting, angry, sarcastic, and exuberant.  Though their remarks are scripted and not off the cuff, is a rare treat to hear these stars as themselves for what they truly think.  In an era where the stars were kept at a mysterious distance from us, this was an unaccustomed intimacy.

Lauren Bacall mentions the new movie Crossfire (1947), “the American people awarded it four stars. The committee gave the men who made it three subpoenas.” Here she’s a tough-talking dame. Judy Garland sweetly implored us; Bacall’s taking no prisoners.

Joseph Cotten speaks, and Peter Lorre, June Havoc, and John Huston, who notes that in nine years of its existence HUAC had come up with only one piece of legislation, which was ruled down by the Supreme Court as being unconstitutional.

Danny Kaye quotes FDR in a speech from 1938 “most fair-minded Americans will hope that the committee will abandon the practice of merely providing a forum to those who for political purpose or otherwise seek headlines which they could not otherwise obtain.”

Marsha Hunt affirmed, “The committee uses methods that undermine the democratic process. By ruining reputations by publicity, inference and innuendo.”

Cornell Wilde and Melvyn Douglas speak and Richard Conte notes that among those who support HUAC are Nazi sympathizers and the KKK. Evelyn Keyes speaks and Burt Lancaster, Paul Henreid and William Holden. Robert Ryan speaks; and Florence Eldridge; and Myrna Loy, who notes that our First Amendment rights were first put into play by Jefferson, Madison, and Benjamin Franklin.

Robert Young notes that the methods used by the committee, refusing to let their victims testify, go back through the centuries: calls before tribunals included Galileo, Joan of Arc, the Salem witch hunt victims, and Roger Williams.

Lucille Ball recites Article 1 from the Bill of Rights:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It’s so important, she repeats it.

Van Heflin speaks, and Henry Morgan and Keenan Wynn reenact some of the circus dialogue at the hearing.

Hollywood Fights Back: Fredric March, Paulette Goddard,
Edward G. Robinson, and Audie Murphy

Other speakers include John Beal, Edward G. Robinson, Paulette Goddard, Fredric March, Artie Shaw and Vincent Price. Humphrey Bogart wants to know if democracy is so brittle that it can be subjugated by a look, or a line or a gesture. And notes that people’s beliefs are nobody’s business but their own.

William Wyler again refers to his masterful film, The Best Years of Our Lives:  “I’m convinced today that I wouldn’t be able to make The Best Years of Our Lives as it was made a year ago.” At the very end of the broadcast Judy Garland comes back and exhorts us to write our Congressman and to send it “airmail special.”

It was an inspirational beginning to the fight, a fight which continues today. Unfortunately, their battle was soon lost in a climate which no longer allowed for a difference of opinion.

“This has nothing to do with communism. It’s none of my business who’s a communist and who isn’t,” Bogart said in a statement in advance of the journey. “The reason I am flying to Washington is because I am an outraged and angry citizen who feels that my civil liberties are being taken away from me and that the Bill of Rights is being abused and who feels that nobody in this country has any right to kick around the Constitution of the United States, not even the Un-American Activities Committee.”

But the protest folded like a house of cards. This was due principally to two things: one, the fact that many of the Hollywood Ten either were or were formerly members of the Communist Party, seemed to taint the First Amendment Committee’s reputation. Lost in the message that it didn’t matter who was communist and who wasn’t because there wasn’t any plot to overthrow the government, was the overwhelming urge for the despotic to gain control, gain followers, and for those followers to throw all reason and integrity to the wind in their attempts to find a scapegoat to ensure their own safe harbor. This is a fight as old as man himself, and despite what we always like to think of as our sophistication and our basic human decency, when we turn into a mob we lose our humanity and our sense of right and wrong, and even a nation of laws can become a nation of wild impulse given the right circumstances.

John Huston noted of the circus in Washington, D.C., “It was a sorry performance. You felt your skin crawl and your stomach turn. I despaired of what was being done to the ten, but I also disapproved of their response. They lost a chance to defend the most important principle.” He also did not want to be associated with them, because it was getting dangerous. He would eventually take off for Ireland.

When the tide began to turn against them, the actors were clearly overwhelmed but no one was more vocal than Humphrey Bogart, who felt that he had been betrayed and embarrassed by the fact that the people who they were defending were actually communists. He even went so far in order to save his own reputation and his own career to write an article for Photoplay magazine in March 1948 affirming that he was not a communist. The tough guy panicked and caved.

Excerpts from Bogie's Photoplay article March 1948

But others caved worse. Another member of their group, Sterling Hayden, found himself in the hot seat when it was revealed he was for a brief time a member of the Communist party. His activity consisted of supporting a union of motion picture painters to take over some other film industry unions, and that union was controlled by members of the Communist party. Hayden’s interest in the party likely began during his service in World War II. He had been a member of the Marine Corps and later served as an Office of Strategic Services agent, which involved parachuting into Croatia and helping the Yugoslav partisans who were fighting the fascists. They were our allies.  The OSS was a forerunner of the CIA. He was awarded a Silver Star for gallantry and received a commendation from Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia. The partisans our government was directing him to support were communist; their courage and their work against fascism led him to take on their ideals. Though his participation in the Communist party back in Hollywood was apparently neither deep nor long-lasting, it nevertheless branded him for the rest of his life. But something else branded him even worse when he was called before HUAC when he confessed his communist ties and he named names, selling out friends and colleagues. It was an act which humiliated him and for which he felt guilt for the rest of his life, confessing his own self-loathing in his autobiography.

But because he played along, his career went on. Others who refused to cooperate with the committee on principle were put on a blacklist.

Before that happened, the second episode of Hollywood Fights Back aired a week after the first episode, on November 2, 1947. It is a less tightly written show, a less effusive and optimistic show perhaps because the seeds of doubt and fear and a sense of defeat had already crept in. Fredric March and Myrna Loy spoke again, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. reported that newspapers were supporting their efforts, echoed by Rita Hayworth, Lauren Bacall, Anne Revere, Lon McCallister, Burt Lancaster, Danny Kaye, Evelyn Keyes, Paul Henreid, and June Havoc. Groucho Marx and Keenan Wynn acted out dialogue demonstrating how a nicely a “friendly” witness was treated and how rudely an “unfriendly” witness was treated. Humphrey Bogart said “We sat in the courtroom and saw it happening. We said to ourselves it couldn’t happen here.”

John Huston, Marsha Hunt, Peter Lorre, and Burl Ives spoke, Geraldine Brooks and Jane Wyatt spoke, and Vanessa Brown. Playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart spoke and Hart referred to his work on the screenplay for Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and wondered if more such future bold scripts about religious discrimination would be allowed. We discussed Gentleman’s Agreement in these two previous posts here and here.

Composer Richard Rogers wondered, “Are we Americans trading our soapbox for the hooded sheet?”

Leonard Bernstein and Bennett Cerf spoke, and author Thomas Mann, an immigrant from Germany noted “an alleged state of emergency, that’s how it started in Germany. What followed was fascism, and what followed fascism was war.”

Sound familiar?

Dana Andrews spoke, “The committee recessed because they think they got what they were after – blacklist, people fired from their jobs, and a blanket of fear smothering free speech.” Dorothy McGuire and Gregory Peck spoke, and Richard Conte urged us to write to Washington. The show ended on a less inspiring note, with a greater sense of dread.

Bogart and some others began to distance themselves from the tainted ones, saying they had been duped. John Garfield and Edward G. Robinson agreed, but Bogart escaped the blacklist and Garfield and Robinson did not. Garfield would not even escape with his life, as when he was subpoenaed by the committee in 1951 and refused to name names, he was blacklisted, hounded, and died of a heart attack the following year. He was not a member of the Communist party. What started as the HUAC Hollywood investigation later melted into “McCarthyism” as Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) saw what a hit the witch hunt was, what a forum for publicity, and decided to parlay the smear tactics as the fastest and surest branding to success.

Sound familiar?

The Hollywood Ten, November 1947 about to be fingerprinted after being cited for contempt of Congress. Front row: Herbert Biberman, attorneys Martin Popper and Robert W. Kenny, Albert Maltz, Lester Cole. Middle row: Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, Alvah Bessie, Samuel Ornitz. Back row: Ring Lardner Jr., Edward Dmytryk, Adrian Scott.

The Hollywood Ten, those writers who were called to testify and answer questions refused to testify, so they were all cited for contempt of Congress. Many of them served prison terms, for contempt of Congress—not for being communists because, of course, being communist is not against the law. Belonging to a political party other than the Democratic Party or the Republican Party is not unconstitutional, a very simple fact that the meanest and most moronic among our society cannot understand or accept. The actual crime is in the overthrow of government, like the people today who hoard weapons so that they may fight their government and yet nothing is done to them because they have the powerful backing of the NRA that has deep pockets and has bought off many politicians. It is also like accepting support, monetary and otherwise, from a foreign government to win a presidential election in return for favors.

Then as now, most of the ideological fight is not about ideology; it is about money and prejudice and power.

In 1950, a fascist publication called Red Channels began to out people in the entertainment field accused of being communists or being sympathizers. Most of them named, over 150, found themselves blacklisted. The first among these was actress Jean Muir. But many others later felt the ax of the blacklist because of this publication, including Lena Horne, Marsha Hunt, Anne Revere, Hazel Scott, Artie Shaw, José Ferrer, Orson Welles, and Aline MacMahon. It would be many years before some of them were able to work again and by then their careers were effectively over. They could never gain the momentum back, never gain that part of their lives, their most creative years, or the income they would have earned.

J. Parnell Thomas, the stockbroker turned ultraconservative crusader and seeker of fame and headlines in the spotlights of his hearing room, also had a sorry end.  For several years he had been defrauding the Congress by claiming to hire several people whom he did not hire but he put them on the payroll for a kickback of their salary. He was investigated by a grand jury, and like those victims he had persecuted only a few years before, refused to cooperate and answer questions, claiming his Fifth Amendment rights—for which he had found them in contempt. He was indicted on charges of conspiracy to defraud the government, fined, and given a prison sentence of 18 months, however he only served nine months. He was sent to the same prison where, being nothing if not ironic, two of the people who he had persecuted as part of the Hollywood Ten were also serving terms: Lester Cole and Ring Lardner, Jr. Thomas, of course, was forced to resign from the House of Representatives and his later attempts at politics and business failed. He died in 1970.

Hollywood Fights Back: Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire,
Danny Kaye, Fredric March.

Hollywood Fights Back was a small but very important experiment in the long war against civil liberties in the mid-twentieth century. We may recall the blacklist, and the House Un-American Activities Committee, Joe McCarthy, and all the hearings and all the ringing of, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?” But that idealistic group of Hollywood actors and writers and other people interested in something so simple, so basic as the First Amendment should have equal importance, and perhaps even reverence, in our memories of that era.

Sixty years later, in September 2007, Hollywood Fights Back was re-created in a performance for ABC radio. Modern stars were going to take the parts read by those long ago Hollywood stars, including James Whitmore, Larry Gelbart, Cameron Manheim, Chris Trumbo (the son of blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo one of the original Hollywood Ten) and many more. But one person was there to re-create what she said herself: Marsha Hunt was on hand to read her own lines from the broadcast of 60 years earlier. 

It is now been 70 years since the original broadcast of Hollywood Fights Back, and Marsha Hunt, still with us, has recently celebrated her 100th birthday. She is the subject of Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity (2015), a documentary on those times. Those times? Our times.

Listen yourself on YouTube to the two episodes of Hollywood Fights Back, here the first episode from October 26, 1947, and here the second episode from November 2, 1947.

This post is part of the Banned and Blacklisted blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Read other terrific blogs in the blogathon here.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Preview of coming attractions...

Seventy years ago today - November 2, 1947 - the second of two half-hour radio programs aired called Hollywood Fights Back.  It was a cavalcade of some 50 stars challenging the House Un-American Activities Committee and its willful oppression of so many actors and actresses, writers, directors and producers.  Their participation in this event was nothing short of courageous -- and many of them would soon join the ranks of the unemployed for either being victims of the committee or for expressing sympathy for those that were.

Hollywood Fights Back is our topic for the upcoming Banned and Blacklisted blogathon hosted by CMBA - the Classic Movie Blog Association, and my post will appear in two weeks - Thursday, November 16th.

Another upcoming feature on this blog will be a series on women pilots in the heyday of air speed races and endurance challenges for daredevil pilots.  We'll have a look at Tail Spin (1939) with Alice Faye, Constance Bennett, and Jane Wyman; Women in the Wind (1939) with Kay Francis, William Gagnon, Victor Jory, and Eve Arden; Wings and the Woman (1942) on the exploits of real-life British pilot Amy Johnson; and finally, Flight for Freedom (1943) starring Rosalind Russell in a fictionalized account of Amelia Earhart.  

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Phantom of the Opera - 1943

Phantom of the Opera (1943) is a musical, a Technicolor feast for the eyes. There is a horror story in here, too, but it is cloaked in understanding and the eerie hindsight that dreams dashed can be a pervasive kind of horror.

Between the Phantom’s woes, portrayed with much more sensitivity than Lon Chaney’s infamous ghoul in the silent 1925 version, and the young soprano Susanna Foster’s real-life sorrows – there is enough pathos to make this movie a poignant ode to dreams that died.

The movie, more musical than monster, seems an homage to the world of operatic music than to the original nineteenth century penny-dreadful novel, though it was perhaps a smart move not to attempt to re-create the original classic silent story "note-for-note," as it were. We are given something extra, treated to the powerful baritone of Nelson Eddy and the beauty of Marta. Other “operatic” performances are not taken from operas, but are adapted works from Chopin and Tchaikovsky.

The Paris Opera of the late nineteenth century is the familiar setting for the tale, but there are differences in this movie – Nelson Eddy stars as the opera company’s baritone and Edgar Barrier plays Raoul, the local police inspector. Both men are romantic rivals for the hand of Susanna Foster, who plays Christine DuBois, a talented member of the opera chorus. The gents try to woo her, and Susanna enjoys their attention. Another man loves her and works to further her career – Claude Rains.

Mr. Rains is the Phantom of the piece – and there is no mystery about his identity. When we first meet him, he is not hiding in the shadows. He is in the orchestra pit playing the violin, a mild-mannered, middle-aged musician employee of the opera house. His encounters with Susanna are shy and awkward, and she gives him no thought other than he is a polite but odd old man. The Phantom is not a ghoul here, but a sad soul, and he breaks our hearts from the beginning. We discussed the original Phantom and the 2004 movie based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running stage musical in this previous post. We observed that the presentation of the Phantom had changed because of our evolution, not his:

      Perhaps a good deal of this transformation of the Phantom in our popular culture has simply to do with ugliness. Gerard Butler’s Phantom is a man with what looks like a few old burn scars on part of one side of his face. Nothing we can’t live with, even though he vainly keeps it covered. Lon Chaney’s face is a rotting, putrid skull. It gives us nightmares. The original book was written in the days when ugly was synonymous with evil, at least as far as storytelling was concerned. Chaney’s film was made, similarly, when the representation of evil was done mainly through an image of ugliness. We still have film monsters who are ugly to be sure, but they are evil and ugly, not evil because they are ugly. There was not a whole lot of sensitivity towards people with mental or physical handicaps in those days, when desperate parents were still leaving deformed children with carnivals. There wouldn’t be any empathy left over either for folks who were less than beautiful. In the code of old Hollywood, the heroes and heroines were beautiful, and the sidekicks and villains were not.

Today we have a bit different take on evil, on beauty, and on empathizing with those who appear different, and that perhaps is one of the reasons why the Phantom has changed. He needs to be repackaged in order to be sold. It would be difficult to film the same 1925 story and present it to a 21st century audience, with the same simplistic judgments. The Phantom’s evil as represented today is more psychological, and more a problem of society because he has been treated so shamefully. Instead of nightmares, he gives us second thoughts.

Universal was known for monster movies as being its specialty, but it also produced a large number, even more than MGM, of what could be termed teen musicals. It is from their stable of talent they drew Susanna Foster and began to groom her as one of their biggest stars. As such, Susanna had a featured role in Bowery to Broadway (1944), which we discussed here, with another youngster who was to replace Susanna as Universal’s leading songstress – Ann Blyth.

The 1943 Phantom is a kind of missing link between the two incarnations of silent ghoul and Lloyd Webber’s lavish musical.

The camera pans from Claude Rains playing violin with the orchestra in the pit, and pulls back to encompass a grand opera house interior, with every seat occupied by the well-to-do in their gowns, tuxedos, and jewels, in every box and loge. We finally pull back to the very end of the farthest rafters, the cheap seats, to reveal the enormous opulent glass chandelier. This, of course, has a prominent place in the story and the shot is breathtaking for its dual use as eye candy and premonition of things to come. It is more so a premonition because by 1943, though the original Phantom, while it may not have been as familiar to that generation, nevertheless had reached legend such that people knew the story they were about to see, or they thought they did.

There are flickering candles in every desk candelabra and overhead ceiling chandelier in every office, in every parlor and boudoir, casting shadows, and reflecting a warm glow. The film moves at a leisurely pace and we sink ourselves into its environment, from cold, gray streets, to actors adjusting costumes behind the flats backstage, to the grand but artificial sets on stage.

Claude rains plays Erique. He is a longtime employee of the opera house orchestra, but is fired because his playing has become slack, to which he attributes his hands and fingers becoming stiff. He may be one of the first people in classic films to be fired for a repetitive motion injury. But poor Erique has no workers’ compensation to fall back on. He is, worse still to any employer, getting old.

He is crushed by being dismissed, and wanders in a daze back to his one-room garret. We see he is living a poverty-stricken life, though his employer and others assume he must have a lot of money in savings from his 20-year career. However, we next see that he has spent his savings on a very expensive endeavor that is both a kindness and a fantasy. He has been anonymously paying for singing lessons for Susanna Foster, who does not know her benefactor. She has been studying with the Maestro – that’s our old friend Leo Carrillo, for three years.

Claude Rains also writes music, and he has an ace in the hole, a manuscript of a concerto he has been writing for years. He intends to have it published, thereby solving his money problem. However, the publishing house stalls him, treats him badly, and when he perceives that they are going to steal his work, in an angry rage he confronts the publisher, who is in conference with his lady friend. They are amusing themselves with his hobby of etching photos on steel plates with acid.  Nothing says love in the afternoon like etching photos on steel plates with acid. Rains attacks the publisher and strangles him to death, and the lady friend grabs the acid and tosses it in Rains’ face.

Whimpering in pain, Rains staggers out of the office and through a maze of rain-washed streets. He is hunted by the police. He takes refuge, of course, in the city sewers that lead to the bowels of the opera house – and we have our Phantom.

He steals his trademark mask and cape from the opera house costume department. It is a rather stylish sea-green mask with eerily arched brows painted on it. He steals supplies from the opera house and lives there and continues to support Susanna Foster’s career, mainly by trying to oust the pompous Diva with threats of violence. Something in his gentle, befuddled personality has slipped askew – he is more cunning, more sinister, and will do anything to get what he wants – and now he wants Susanna, no longer content to love her from afar.

Claude Rains has become strangely athletic and acrobatic in his rope climbing and rafter leaping, and that rakish forelock that drapes over his mask adds a cavalier touch.

Look for Hume Cronyn as one of the police inspector’s men who chase the Phantom through the opera house and try to lay traps for him.

Susanna Foster, at the center of the piece, is a delicate figure, but despite being the focus of the film—even more than the Phantom in this version—she seems not to have a strong screen presence here, though perhaps the role of Christine is too passive to appreciate Foster's abilities as an actress. She was known for having the ability to reach the note B above high C in her vocal range; and the film presents her beautifully, exhibiting this tremendous gift.  Perhaps this information was difficult for audiences who were not opera fans to appreciate, despite the Universal publicity department’s attempt to market it.  Phantom of the Opera was her most important film, her fifth film. She began in Hollywood in 1939 at the age of 12 years old in The Victor Herbert Story, and her path went from MGM, which never used her, to Paramount; to Universal, where they had a robust youth unit whose most famous star at the time was Deanna Durbin.

Reportedly, Susanna was brought on to keep Durbin “in her place,” giving the studio the ability to threaten to replace Durbin with another soprano if she did not conform to their demands of her. Durbin turned down the Phantom script and Susanna inherited the role. She only did a handful of films in her career. In 1945, Universal granted her wish to study opera and tour overseas, which she did, but then she decided to quit the movies.

She confessed to never being very ambitious and felt overwhelmed by the Hollywood machine, but she must really have been made of stronger stuff, for Susanna coped with more than her share of burdens. She grew up with alcoholic, abusive parents, but supported them and two younger sisters while she was still a child herself. When she returned from Europe and her movie contract was over, she reportedly gathered her resources, including selling her fur coat, to rescue and raise her two younger sisters and make a home for them. She eventually married baritone Wilbur Evans, but that union was unhappy. They did some stage work together, but when they divorced, though he was an absent father, he apparently demanded as part of the divorce decree that she not take their two sons more than 100 miles away from New York, thereby ending her attempts to have a comeback in film. She took work in New York City as a receptionist and did what she could with office jobs to support her two sons, with no help from her controlling ex-husband. Years later, she returned to the West Coast, and for a time, was homeless and living in her car.

According to author Bernard F. Dick in City of Dreams: The Making and Remaking of Universal Pictures (The University Press of Kentucky, 1997, p. 125), he notes that in 1989, Jane Withers and Margaret O’Brien learned that Susanna Foster was living in her car and “they came to her aid.”

Most poignantly, The Phantom of the Opera had begun an amazing new incarnation through Andrew Lloyd Webber’s blockbuster stage musical. At that time that Jane Withers and Margaret O’Brien were financially helping Susanna, Lloyd Webber’s Phantom was playing in Los Angeles. According to Mr. Dick, the two ladies “made it possible for her to see it.”

She had been the first singing Christine in a time when the Phantom began to appear less ghoulish to us and more troubled, more sad. For the first time, we saw his side of the story.

Susanna had a story, too. In her final years, her son (one had predeceased her) moved her back to the East Coast and was able to place her in nursing home care. She died in 2009 at the age of 84 at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey.

No horror story for the blog for this Halloween. At least, not the kind you were expecting.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima - 1952

Tomorrow, Friday, October 13th, marks the 100th anniversary of the “Miracle of the Sun,” the final apparition in Fátima, Portugal, of the Virgin Mary after several successive months of appearing to three children.  We turn our attention today to The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952), which dramatizes these events.

The story is inherently dramatic, involving the supernatural, as well as historical fact, but the obvious third leg of the stool—our human capacity for faith and what we choose to do about it—is not as strong an element in this movie as it might be.  Much of the unquestioning faith of the children, and the doubtful faith of their elders, seem conveyed as a lesson learned by rote.

One is tempted to regard this movie as an attempt by Warner Bros. to cash in on the tremendous critical and financial success of The Song of Bernadette (1943), made nine years earlier at 20th Century-Fox, and which garnered several Academy Awards.  That movie addressed the visions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes, France, in 1858 to Bernadette Soubrious. We discussed that movie here in this previous post.  Here, from that post:

The Song of Bernadette (1943) pits man against miracle in a many-layered universe. The first layer of this complicated universe is the historical 19th century event on which the story is based.  Then, there is the book by Franz Werfel and the World War II climate under which that book was written and published.  Finally, there is Hollywood, that tries diplomatically to be both pious and frank, spiritual and temporal, to present a money-making story, and yet present it under the auspices of a religious experience…
Man is by nature a creature which believes. We have religions and sometimes complicated protocols of faith. We have superstitions, and we have good luck and bad luck, and we have worries and fears and paranoia, and that is all part of what we willingly believe without proof. On the opposite side of man’s nature is an innate skepticism.

Someone who believes in the efficacy of the prayers of his own faith, may disbelieve the efficacy of prayers of another faith.  An atheist may disbelieve the efficacy of any prayer at all, and yet wholeheartedly believe in luck, or horoscopes, or that a co-worker who gives him a dirty look is out to get him.  It may be the co-worker is just in a bad mood, but that does not shake the belief of the paranoid.  A lot of logical, sensible people knock on wood.  Even people who believe in nothing believe in something, even if it is only the superiority of their own opinions.

So, we believe, regularly, commonly, without proof.  It may be part of our DNA.  But at the same time we are skeptical over someone else’s experiences. 
The Song of Bernadette shows these disparate sides of human nature and the clinging onto of human dignity more than it puts forward of one belief over another, or promotes miracles.

That The Song of Bernadette dramatizes the struggle of faith as something normal and yet at the same time, monumental, is one of its most intriguing elements.  There are many other factors which, added together, simply make Bernadette a much better movie, including a strong cast of familiar character actors, and a strong script.

The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima relies on a cast largely unknown to us, though there are numerous uncredited extras that may make you play the old game “spot the villager”: Mae Clark, Jack Kruschen, J. Carroll Nash, and Anne Whitfield (our Susan Waverly from White Christmas).  Jay Novello has a role as the father of two of the children, but the only featured adult role in this film belongs to Gilbert Roland, a favorite of mine whom we saw here in The French Line (1954) and We Were Strangers (1949).  Mr. Roland’s role is a fictional character, a lovable rogue who does not believe, but who attempts to protect the kids when townspeople and officials go after them from spreading tales about being visited by the Virgin Mary.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that it centers on the three kids.  Susan Whitney is Lucia, the eldest of the three who is the leader, and her cousins, Jacinta and Francisco, who are brother and sister, played by Sherry Jackson and Sammy Ogg.  All three child actors went on to do television in the 1950s, but Susan Whitney had the briefest career.  Sherry Jackson had an uncredited role as an extra in The Great Caruso (1951), which we discussed here.

 Unfortunately, there is no depth to the children’s roles as written or as played, so they come across as something of cardboard cutouts.  It might have been better if this had intentionally been made as a children’s film, giving them a stronger screen presence and focusing on their world rather than the angry grownups, who disbelieve them, try to silence them, imprison them, and ultimately relent in a burst of dancing sunlight.

Conversely, it might have also been a better film had it addressed that wider world in which these awesome, and harrowing, adventures take place.  That is the chief difference that would have stood apart from The Song of Bernadette, which had its roots in a novel about an event from the middle of the nineteenth century.  The Fátima apparitions occurred in one of the most tumultuous years of the twentieth century, and set the foreboding prologue for what was to come in decades hence.  It is the modern aspects of the story of Fátima that makes it so compelling, even eerie, and would have made a stronger film.

The historical setting begins before the 1917 start of the film story and extends beyond its epilogue of the modern basilica in 1951 at the site of the former apparitions.  In October 1910 Portugal endured a violent political revolution, one consequence of which was the closing of many churches and imprisonment of many clergy.  The three children of the story are poor, living a secluded rural life as shepherds, pastorinhos, and are unaware of most of the politics of their own country, let alone the enormous events taking place in the rest of Europe.  We are in the thick of World War I, begun with an assassin’s bullet and toppling the governments of several nations, leaving millions of dead strewn across muddy battlefields, and millions of refugees starving.

One government in peril is czarist Russia.  The coming communist regime will have consequences for the rest of the world, for the rest of the century.  When the Virgin Mary appears to the three children, she brings messages of future chastisement of the world if people do not repent and pray, including the daily praying of the Rosary, and the coming of a worse war if her warnings are not heeded.  She also tells the children, who are illiterate, they must learn to read and write, so that they may tell others of her messages to them.  The two younger children will die in the impending Spanish Influenza pandemic, which killed possibly as many as 100 million people worldwide.  These are only some of the modern events that serve as backdrop to the Marian apparitions of Fátima that made it a quite different tale to dramatize than the backdrop to the events at Lourdes, and which should have induced Warner Bros. to intentionally make Fatima a movie with a different slant and not lazily follow a template of how simple villagers take to miracles.

Interestingly, the real-life Lucia, who, as the Virgin Mary instructed her, did learn to read and write and carefully documented her experiences, recalled that when they were first told to pray that Russia might be converted, she had never heard of Russia.  The kids thought Russia was probably another little girl who needed prayers.  At the time of these apparitions from May to October 1917, Russia had not yet even become communist.  The request for prayers for Russia’s conversion was a prediction.

So too was the prediction of a second, more brutal war.  Though the Soviet Union eventually collapsed and the Cold War ended without nuclear war, still it does not take too much of a stretch of the imagination to concede the warning about the future spreading of Russia’s “errors” to the world include the current threat to overthrow our own government and democracy at the direction of the soulless Vladimir Putin, with the help of his acolyte Bannon and his puppet, Trump.  The political background of the story about three kids entrusted with heavenly messages, dire warnings, and even well-publicized three “secrets” is enough material to make a movie that is not only entertaining, but even astounding.

The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima remains today as a simple primer to show at Catholic school assemblies, but is little more than that, and I can’t imagine that was what the execs at Warner Bros. really wanted to create.  Perhaps miracles, in any form, are really too uncomfortable for us to tackle.  We want miracles, nice miracles, like winning the lottery, but when faced with miracles that carry so much weight and consequence, perhaps we really just don’t have the “courage of our convictions.”

The Miracle of the Sun was an event well documented by the press, as tens of thousands gathered to the spot where the three kids observed their last encounter together with the Holy Mother.  They had requested from her a sign that the grownups would believe them.  They were getting a little sick of being told to shut up, and put in jail.  The Blessed Mother came through big time.  While the multitudes stood in the rain, the sun came out and wobbled around, zigzagged a bit, changed colors, seemed to pulsate, and then the sun starting growing bigger, as if it was hurtling toward the earth.  The people panic.  This part in the movie where the sun comes at us is pretty scary, even despite the simple technical craft of the day.  You may find yourself running for the exits.

Then the show stops, and all the people, though having been standing in the rain for some hours, are completely dry, and the ground is all dry, and the newspaper men have quite a story to tell in their next edition.

In the movie, the rascal Gilbert Roland becomes a true believer when he sees the Miracle of the Sun, and we see him in the epilogue talking to Lucia, now a nun, many years after the event.  Oddly, the director chose to use the same child actress, Susan Whitney, to play the adult Lucia, but who speaks lip-synching to the voice of an adult actress.  It has a weird effect and seems a very poor compromise at establishing the continuity between the child and the adult visionary.

Lucia lived to be 97 years old, and died in 2005.  This past May 13th, on the 100th anniversary of the first apparition of the Virgin Mary at Fátima, Pope Francis canonized the two younger children, Jacinta and Francisco.  World-wide prayer services will commemorate the October 13th “Miracle of the Sun” and pilgrims to Fátima will likely add a great number to those who regularly flock to that site.  Fátima, unlike the well-intentioned movie, is indeed a modern tale with political and social threads; that is it’s compelling “hook” and is still with us.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A few thoughts on Ken Burns documentaries

The Vietnam War documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick  that was shown on PBS the previous two weeks is a triumph of historical reportage, the kind we've come to expect from the meticulous and thoughtful Ken Burns and his production team.  Some columnists made note that this presentation would not likely achieve the kind of immediate and powerful reception by the American public as did his marvelous The Civil War, produced in 1990.  The reasons stated for this is not only the obvious division that still remains over the Vietnam Conflict, but mainly because we have become a society that no longer seems to rally over a single television event.  We are scattered to our own interests, and with a wide array of cable TV options and Internet offerings -- which did not exist in 1990 -- we are not compelled to bridge the gap and sit around the TV like a national campfire and listen to old ghost stories.

This is, coincidently, the same reason there are fewer classic film fans and will be in the future: without common exposure in pop culture, i.e., more TV channels showing them, they cease to be part of our common experience and memory.

The Vietnam War is an often difficult program to watch, at least for those who remember those years, but it is also remarkably cathartic and brings an unexpected sense of closure.  It also leaves a taste of foreboding, as many of the issues of the government wanting in candor, and sometimes unashamedly corrupt, continues eerily today.  What I found most interesting was the use of a single narrator, the actor Peter Coyote, in the series.  In a way, it reminded me of another one of my favorite documentary series, World War I, which was produced by CBS in the 1964-65 season, and narrated by the wonderful Robert Ryan.  Both series have their moments of starkness and bleakness, and yet gentleness in powerful moments, and these two actors lend so much in their delivery of the narration.

Conversely, what made The Civil War unexpectedly delightful was the use of many actors and actresses voicing the comments of historical figures.  Burns used this tactic as well in his excellent The War (2007) documentary series on World War II.  We discussed this series in this previous post, about how interesting and effective was his refraining from using classic film footage, or popular music of the day to embroider the story of World War II.  It was a good choice for that series, for reasons stated in that previous post.  However, The Civil War heavily relied on music from that period to flavor the piece, and Burns returns to this in The Vietnam War with a deliberate and effective use of music from that era.

As far as exploring our common experience and memory as classic film fans and as students of this most important media explosion of the twentieth century, I'd love for Ken Burns and his team to make a documentary series about the Hollywood studio system.  To be sure, there are fewer left to interview for their personal experiences, but there must be a great deal of interviews and anecdotes already recorded, and archives rich with information on the cultural phenomenon of the studio era.  Presented in a long and leisurely many-episode series, with current actors and actresses to do voiceovers where it applied -- that would be something.

I understand Mr. Burns is tackling the subject of country music next.  Now if he could only mosey on over to Gower Gulch.

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