Thursday, August 17, 2017

Punching Nazis in the Face - The Best Years of Our Lives - 1944

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) is rich with profound and moving scenes.  The current events of the past week bring to mind the scene with Ray Teal in the drugstore.  He is, as we learn by his conversation, a far-right fanatic, one of those who believed President Roosevelt started the war, and that the Nazis were the good guys. 

Harold Russell stops in the drugstore to visit Dana Andrews, who works behind the counter as a soda jerk.  Ray Teal notices Harold Russell’s prosthetic hooks:

He says, “Terrible to see a guy like you that had to sacrifice himself, and for what?”

Harold Russell responds, “’And for what?’  I don’t get you, Mister.”

“We let ourselves get sold down the river.  We were pushed into the war.”

“Sure, by the Japs and the Nazis.”

“No, the Germans had nothing against us.  They just wanted to fight the Limeys and the Reds.  And they would have whipped them, too, if we didn’t get deceived into it by a bunch of radicals in Washington.”

“What are you talking about?”

Ray Teal taps his newspaper, likely a publication that fans his views and his inbred ignorance, and strokes his arrogance.  “We fought the wrong  people, that’s all.  Just read the facts, my friend.  Find out for yourself why you had to lose your hands.  And then go out and do something about it.”

Dana Andrews, who has been listening, interrupts.  “You’d better pay your check, Brother, and go home.”

Ray Teal, insulted, fires back to the hired help, “Well, who do you think you are?”

“Pay the cashier right over there.”

Ray Teal huffs, “That’s another thing.  Every soda jerk in this country’s got an idea he’s somebody.”

Teal goes to the cashier.  Homer follows him, wanting to pursue Teal's meaning.  “Look here, Mister what are you selling anyway?”

Teal proudly, stubbornly announces, “I’m not selling anything but plain, old-fashioned Americanism.”

Homer replies, angrily, “Some Americanism.  So we’re all a bunch of suckers, hey?  So we should have been on the side of the Japs and the Nazis, hey?”

Teal taps his folded newspaper, “Again, I say, just look at the facts.”

Homer blows up, they argue.  Homer wants to punch him, but can’t because of his prosthetic hooks.  So Dana Andrews sails over the lunch counter to break up the fight, and punches the American Nazi in the face.  It is a satisfying thing to watch.  

It will not change Teal’s views, however.  We probably know that even though we never see him again in the movie.  We can imagine he will avoid Andrews on sight from now on, and feel himself to be a victim, not just of Dana Andrews, but of a society where his dumbass and putrid views are polar opposite to what the Constitution prescribes. 

Neither do we see any resulting lawsuits against Andrews for the assault, but then the movies like to end arguments with punches, and end bad guys with instant death; the courtroom that should be the final arbiter usually isn't dramatic enough for Hollywood.

It is a brave and prescient scene for the day, acknowledging that not all Americans were united about the war, and that being anti-Nazi was going to have to be a stance we would need to continue to take if we wanted to keep ourselves free.

The bitter scene is followed by a tender, touching scene, as Homer notices the flag pin that fell off Teal’s lapel and landed in the floor.  Homer picks up the flag pin with remarkable dexterity with his hook, and puts it in his jacket breast pocket, near his heart.

Dana Andrews may have landed the punch, but Homer saved democracy by scooping it up off the dirty floor and protecting it.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

We Hold These Truths - Hollywood Broadcast

A week after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a program celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights was produced on all four radio networks of the day – CBS, NBC Red and Blue networks, and the Mutual network.  It was narrated by James Stewart, and a host of Hollywood players joined him in bringing to life not only the struggles of post-Revolutionary War America to come up with this Bill of Rights, but how important it was to reflect on it, and rely on it, in a time of modern troubles.  The program was performed live.

It is a remarkable and deeply emotional dramatization that not only speaks to us today, but sings, shouts, cries, and cheers.  Norman Corwin wrote the beautiful script, performed on December 15, 1941, and it is estimated over half the U.S. population listened to it.  Performed in a Hollywood studio, live hookups also included performances in New York City, and an address by President Franklin D. Roosevelt from Washington, D.C.  Bernard Herrmann composed original music for the program, and at the very end of the show, Maestro Leopold Stokowski conducted “The Star Spangled Banner.”

James Stewart was, at that time, a corporal in the Army Air Corps, loaned to the project for the occasion.  His fellow players included Edward Arnold, Lionel Barrymore, Walter Brennan Marjorie Main, Bob Burns, Walter Huston, Edward G. Robinson, Rudy Vallee, and Orson Welles.

Walter Huston, rolling his r’s, introduces the program.  Then, the familiar voice of Lionel Barrymore is brought to the mic.

“My name is Barrymore. I’m one of several actors gathered in the studio in California….”  He joins 130 million fellow Americans in praise of a document “that men have fought for, that men are fighting for…”

He announces the cast, and adds, “Our names are meaningless unless your names are added.”  

Then one by one, the cast fills in, leaving their Hollywood personas and adopting the guise, in our imaginations, of post-Revolutionary Americans.  Jimmy Stewart like his character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939),which we covered in this post, leads us on a tour of modern Washington, D.C., and as he describes monuments and their inscriptions, we are reminded of the movie, for he is intentionally channeling Mr. Smith’s awe and wonder.  

Not only the message, but the script beams with elegant writing, no longer in fashion.  Perhaps it is too idealistic, and we have learned to distrust everything.  

On the National Archives building it is written,  “ What is past, is prologue.”  We hear the clicking of footsteps as Stewart climbs the stone steps to see the Bill of Rights in glass – the old parchment with faded writing.  Then Stewart and the other actors proceed to bring it alive.  “The words are dim, but not the meaning of the words…”  Perhaps not.  Perhaps we need this lesson.

Stewart brings us to the hall as the great men rise to speak and call the roll, to sign their names the draft when Constitution is written, which is then brought back to the states for review, but the people are suspicious.  They want guarantees of certain protections.  And so, this is the story of how the Bill of Rights came to be added as the most important addendum in history.  

Other actors jump in to be those common people in the different states who express their curiosity for the new document, but who want more guarantees, more explanations of just what they have won in the Revolutionary War.

Walter Huston is a blacksmith.   He doesn’t want anyone telling him he has to pray the way somebody else tells him.  Doesn’t like state religion.  Wants to make sure there won’t be any.

Others are suspicious of authority.  They know that just wanting law and order isn’t enough—Nero had such.   

Marjorie Main plays a woman whose husband died in the war.  She wants guarantees that he didn’t die  in vain.

Edward Arnold is a bricklayer who argues that the work is unfinished.  There’s only a foundation and no house.

So many voices, so much dissent, so much yearning for rights.   We are taken on a journey not only through history, but through the minds and souls of this nation.

Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, James Madison lend their voices, and George Mason warning us not only about a monarchy, but a “tyrannical aristocracy” taking over, the monied class.

Now the First Congress begins sifting through the amendments to the Constitution and hammering them out for the future.  It’s not an easy job, but it’s important and they persist.  Stewart passionately narrates, cajoles, shouts.

Most profound is Orson Welles’ impassioned speech.  He takes over at this point and adds the other voices to the founders of the Bill of Rights – not just the men in Congress, but from the victims of the ages – “They had much help, the many nameless and unknown – from bleeding mouths, burnt flesh – from numberless and nameless agonies.  The delegates from dungeons, they were there.  The delegates from ashes at the bottoms of the stakes were there.”

We hear a voice, weak, pleading.

Orson continues, “The gallows delegates, whose corpses lifted gently in the breeze, they too…”

His voice grows booming, horrified:  “The Christians killed for being Christians, Jews for being Jews, the Quakers hanged in Boston town, they made a quorum also… The murdered men, the lopped off hands, the shattered limbs, the red welts where the whip lash bit into the back.  Must you know what they said?  Must you know how they argued?  Must you be told the evidence?

“Listen, then!”

We hear a blood-curdling scream.

“That was an argument for an amendment.”

They are words for our times, how shockingly, sickeningly current.

“How much of all this must be told to be believed?  How much of this must be diagramed: X marks the spot where decency was last observed?”

Nero was there, Caligula, Cotton Mather, all the tyrants were observing in the hall.  “All the long and bloody history of fanaticism, murder in the name of God.”  

Christ was there too.  “He, too, sat in the Congress, the mild Man, with scars in His hands and feet where the spikes went through.  He was a consultant in the business at hand.  Had He not died because the rulers of the realm denied free speech?  Was He not nailed up on a cross between two thieves because His preachments were considered treason?”

Orson growls, wails his words.  “Out of the agonies, out of crisscrossed scars of all the human race they made a Bill of Rights for their own people…To stand against the enemies within, connivers, fakers, those who lust for power, those who make of their authority an insolence.”

Listen to Orson’s impassioned speech, and think of now.

The Bill of Rights “Threw up a bulwark…and made a sign for their posterity against the bigots, the fanatics, bullies, lynchers, race haters, the cruel men, the spiteful men, the sneaking men, the pessimists…”

The Bill of Rights is ratified!  Jimmy Stewart breathes easier and brings the document to the thirteen states.

Then Edward Arnold, Walter Huston, Marjorie Main, Walter Brennan and others join in as the amendments are read, each one, and voices answer to illustrate what each one means.  We go to the homes of farmers, the blacksmith shop, all the new citizens.  The war gave them separation from Great Britain, but the Constitution and the Bill of Rights makes them citizens.

We hear a woman tending the grave of her soldier husband.  We hear a Colonial folk tune.  Through all, James Stewart’s folksy ruminating weaves a thread to guide us to the present.  Edward G. Robinson is a political protester who praises the rights that allow him to speak and fight corruption in city hall.

“A promise is a promise,” Jimmy Stewart says, “Has America’s been kept?”

It is a fair question, but in only a short time Japanese Americans would have their rights taken away by virtue of their ethnicity.  It was not the Bill of Rights that failed them; it was their fellow citizens and a president and government who shamefully allowed their mistreatment.  Even in those days when war was declared and Americans were coming together for mutual support, even in times of great pride, patriotism and cheerleading, something monstrously unfair could occur.  How much easier it is to occur in times when we are not one, when we are fighting amongst ourselves?  When a foreign enemy knows how to divide and conquer.  Abraham Lincoln said:

“From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia...could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide.” 

We've come to that suicidal brink, however, with the aid of Vladimir Putin’s mafia, and the fascism that is rotting our government. We have far superior technology in our media than they did when this radio program was broadcast in December 1941, but we have lost the gift of eloquence that they possessed then.  Such well-written and carefully crafted words would today seem to be talking above the heads of the crowds whom the spokesmen try to reach.  Maybe because they are above the intelligence of the spokesmen.

This was a live program, so neatly coordinated, so passionately and intimately put together.  Listen to this program and marvel not only at how it was written, acted, and produced according to the technology of the day when we were only a week at war, but marvel – for God’s sake, marvel at the message of warning, of love, and of integrity, of pride for our Bill of Rights.

At the end of the program, James Stewart introduces in a soft, gentle voice President Roosevelt, who then speaks live from Washington, D.C.   “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the people of the United States.”

Of the people.

It was reported by Screen Guide magazine in the March 1942 issue, from which some of these photos are taken, that after James Stewart introduced the President, he ripped off his earphones at the mic, and burst into tears.

Listen to We Hold These Truths or download at the Internet Archive, or here at YouTube.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Requiescat in pace - June Foray - 1917-2017

Animator and director Chuck Jones said of June Foray, "June Foray is not the female Mel Blanc; Mel Blanc was the male June Foray."

For a cartoon voice artist, there can be no greater tribute.  There were other tributes as well during her long career, many awards, among them she holds the honor of being the oldest person--at age 94--to be nominated for, and win, an Emmy.  June Foray died last week just shy of her 100th birthday.

I take particular pride in noting that she came from my neck of the woods, western Massachusetts.  She was born and raised in Springfield, graduated from Classical High School in that city, and her first work as a voice artist came on the local Springfield radio station WBZA.

Fortunately for us, her work was recorded on video, audio, children's records, a wide array of media--and the sound media that gave her a career will continue to give us enjoyment of her talent.   She lived a century, and her work reflects the media explosion of that remarkable century.  Here is a clip on YouTube of only some of her voice characters.  Have a listen, and look at her cartoon characters.  You can't help but smile.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Drive-in Movies - Ape Shall Not Kill Ape

I went to a drive-in movie recently. The last time I went to a drive-in movie was, I think, in 1970, around 47 years ago. What a shame this delightful experience is so little known today.

My thanks and a nod of acknowledgement to the Mansfield Drive-In in Mansfield, Connecticut, where my twin brother John and I relived the experience of our eight-year-old selves.  Back in 1970, we saw a double feature of Doris Day in With Six You Get Eggroll (1968) and The Boatniks (1970), which I mentioned in this previous post about drive-in movies.

The Mansfield Drive-In has three screens, with double features playing on each.  Our double feature was War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) and Wonder Woman (2017).  We didn’t finish the second movie as it was getting into the wee hours and we had an hour drive home.  By that time, I confess, I was a little weary of violence and simplistic characters that would entertain a child or someone with the mind of one.  Not that I don’t applaud Wonder Woman’s getting her due on the big screen—hurray for the girls—but she’s still no match for Tracy Lord, Stella Dallas, Ilsa Lund, or Mildred Pierce, if you get my drift.  Margo Channing would have chewed her up and spit her out.  Heck, so would Birdie.

As for the Apes, I noticed that though the makeup and CGI combined had made the ape creatures incredibly realistic compared to the original series, the script was much more inferior when it came to dialogue or any kind of message, or indeed, any kind of point at all.  There was actually very little dialogue.  The new movie follows the ape leader Caesar on an act of revenge with no purpose.  It is left to others with more sense to save the ape colony.  The original Planet of the Apes (1968) I had blogged about last summer when it came to the big screen at the local cinema as part of the Fathom Events partnership with Turner Classic Movies was not as sophisticated technologically, to be sure, but it had a far more literate and intelligent script.  This is from my blog post on that experience last year:

The other thing that surprised me was how the themes in this much-parodied pop culture movie-turned-“franchise” have remained relevant: the ape council’s rejection of science because it threatens the power of a fundamentalist government, the refusal to acknowledge truths that are not politically convenient, the cycle of prejudice and subjugation. Rod Serling wrote the script based on Pierre Boulle’s novel, and Serling's introspective and intellectual imprint is all over this movie.  There is a late 1960s feeling of the exhilaration of rebellion, without all the tired dystopian bilge we are beaten over the head with today.

When Charlton Heston comes upon the half-buried Statue of Liberty and screams his last lines, I’m sure all in the theater were quite familiar with the end of the movie, but there was still an awed silence, then the audience erupted in applause.  

I am still tired of dystopian bilge.  I find its parallel with the current fascist regime in the White House and Congress to be appalling, and yet is somehow something we have allowed to happen by our lack of meaningful entertainment, our shallowness, and lack of a true spirit of adventure, despite our ape leader trudging through the snow to kill his enemies, and despite Wonder Woman leaving her island paradise to save mankind.  As a society, we have gotten lazy and stupid. Instead of taking charge and defining our era, we have sat back and allowed it to define us.

Hey, TCM, hey Fathom Events...what I'd love to see is some classic films on the drive-in screen.  Can you do that?

What I found totally unexpected and quite charming in this drive-in movie experience was the pre-movie 1950s and 1960s music on the FM frequency we were to hear the sound from – no more speakers on your car door (we brought our own radio so as not to drain the car battery) –and also the classic TV commercials that reminded us Boomers of the heyday when drive-ins could be found pretty much anywhere.  There are no more drive-in theaters in my area – the closest are the one in Mansfield, Connecticut, and another in New Hampshire—but back in the day there was one in my town and several more within probably five miles.  They are all shopping plazas now.

Next on the screen, another totally unexpected delight, was the classic “Let’s all go the lobby…” promo cartoon and the audience in their cars and lawn chairs erupted in cheers and applause.  It was not for the quality of the grainy 70-year-old cartoon urging us to go to the refreshment stand “and have ourselves a treat” that they applauded.  It was for the memory of simpler joys and being too young then to really appreciate them.  

I did see a little girl in her jammies, and that was cute.  I remembered those days, and having to be carried into the house by my father when we got home because I had fallen asleep in the back seat.  

But I also saw a grown woman in pajama bottoms.  Well, I’ve seen people wearing them at the post office, too, so I don’t know if she expected to fall asleep or that was just what was in her closet.

Between the two features, we got another ten-minute burst of a “Let’s all go to the lobby….” adventure with the well-dressed, white, middle class American family who ate refreshment stand goodies like goats eating the lawn, and large hot dogs and cups of soda coming to life and dancing for us.  It would have been surreal, except that it was so comfortingly familiar and innocent.  It was the kind of stupidity that didn’t make one angry; it made one smile.

Interesting that nobody clapped for the science fiction characters who had adventures in our place—not representing us but substituting for us; the audience applauded the dancing popcorn cartons and the voracious cartoon family that could not get enough treats.

Perhaps more than the apes and humans seeking revenge on each other, I enjoyed the black sky full of brilliant stars.  The Big Dipper hung just over the top of the screen.  The summer night air was heavy with scents from the woods nearby and freshly cut fields, and maybe bug spray.

We left before we got too tired because if we had fallen asleep, nobody was going to carry us into the house.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

George M. Cohan's movies

Independence Day wouldn't be the same without Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).  Fortunately, Turner Classic Movies seems to agree.  James Cagney might well be inextricably linked to George M. Cohan, to the extent that Cohan's career in theatre far outstrips his handful of film appearances.  Cohan did, however, make a few movies.

His first, Broadway Jones (1917) transferred his stage persona to screen, though a silent film is obviously not the best showcase for a musical star.  It was based on his stage show and filmed by his own company, Cohan Feature Films Company.

His play Seven Keys to Baldpate (1917) was his next try at films.  Hedda Hopper was his co-star.  This and his next film were produced by Famous Players.  That was Hit-the-Trail Holliday (1918), a comedy about a temperance crusade --  before Prohibition.

The Phantom President (1932) is interesting for its election year subject, and especially that his co-star was Claudette Colbert and Jimmy Durante.  This was produced by Paramount.  Have a look at a clip here.

Gambling (1934) was George M.'s last movie, for Fox this time.  Films were not his forte -- like some stage actors, he preferred the live audience reaction -- but his prodigious theatre career is remembered mainly by Cagney's movie about him. 

photo by JT Lynch

The statue on Broadway is, like Cohan himself, larger than life.
photo by JT Lynch

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Mini posters from the flea market

Someone discovered the two small posters, mounted but unframed, at a flea market.  My Little Chickadee (1940), starred Mae West and W.C. Fields, as pictured, in the comedy western.  These two stars were old vaudevillians. Their skits were polished from decades of performing their well-known characters live in theaters across the country.  The movie is less an amusing look at the nineteenth century American West as it is a revival of early twentieth century popular entertainment...and a spoof by both stars about their own stage personas.

The poster is modern souvenir kitsch, such as you may find on the walls of any home of a classic film fan.  The art department of Universal Studios would marvel at this.  

Stanley and Livingstone (1939), from 20th Century Fox, was made the year before My Little Chickadee, and likewise looked back on a more innocent if more adventurous era as the reporter played by Spencer Tracy attempts to track down the missionary in the wilds of Africa.

We were on the brink of entering World War II when these movies with old-fashioned themes became hits of the modern era.  The posters are in public domain, copied and copied, and put on mugs, magnets, and any other handy item that will hold a brightly colored illustration.  The merchandizing is not publicizing the movie anymore, however; it's publicizing the art department of the studio.  Unsung and forgotten, but whose work is still appreciated, and apparently, still just as marketable as the movie.
My thanks to Gail Watson for these posters and her knowledge of collectibles.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

A salute to two classic film bloggers

I'd like to shine the spotlight today on two fellow classic film bloggers and their splendid achievements: Raquel Stecher, and John Greco.

Raquel pens the Out of the Past blog, which is celebrating a ten-year anniversary. Have a look at her anniversary post here.  I've been a regular reader of her blog for many years, and probably among my favorite posts are about her annual participation in the TCM Classic Film Fest.  Her exploration of classic movies has brought her on a wonderful journey, which she shares with us with eloquence and enthusiasm.

John Greco, who writes the Twenty Four Frames blog likewise shares his passion and knowledge on classic film in very entertaining and informative posts, but John also has other talents: he is a professional photographer (you can peruse and purchase some of his work here at Fine Art America), and also a writer.

John's latest eBook is a collection of short stories called Devious Tales.  With a decidedly noir streak and some very surprising endings, this book of dark tales will intrigue and fascinate fans of mysteries.

Classic film bloggers seem to enjoy a wide range of interests and excel at many talents, and my admiration for Raquel and John is not only for their blogs, but that their blogs have led to other adventures.  Well done!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

March of Time: Teen-Age Girls - 1945

The March of Time short subject Teen-Age Girls (1945) is a window on a societal ripple in postwar America that is, unusually, both dated and prescient.  The documentary examines the emergence of teens as a new and important demographic, particularly females in this case, with a lighthearted and even amused attitude, but with a curious reservation—perhaps not unlike the way a parent first notices that a child isn’t a child anymore.

This is our final post in this series about how Hollywood depicted children during World War II.  The March of Time apparently felt, and perhaps not wrongly, that the dawn of the Teen-Age was as likely to be as influential a force in American society as the nuclear age.  The narrator begins:

Of all the phenomena in wartime life in the United States, one of the most fascinating and mysterious…has been the emergence of the teenage girl in her own right.

This was not something Hollywood evidently considered earlier in the war, when the worldwide emergency seemed to put children’s needs secondary and yet led to a future where teens would dominate the culture and even the economy.

In almost a spoof of an anthropological study, a group of sociologists and psychiatrists sits around a conference table while a teenage girl narrates her world for them in an authoritative interview.  We are shown scenes of empowered bobbysoxers in sweater sets and pearls, rolled up jeans and oversized white Oxford shirts, loafers and lipstick, and she tells them about her tribe.  The narrator concurs:

Where once teenagers were without group identity, lingering diffidently in the uncertain period between childhood and womanhood, today they constitute one of the most highly individualized and acutely noticeable groups in the nation.

Acutely noticeable perhaps, but individualized?  The teen girl authority emphasizes just the opposite—an almost authoritarian attitude of fitting in.

If a girl doesn’t dress right, the way everyone else is dressing, she’s just out…You want them to think I’m different or something?

They want their own rooms, their pinups, their pin money.  There is also a rather proud and defiant desire to not be, or even appear to be, intellectual.  

We don’t have time to read newspapers much.

When the teen authority announces that her tribe thinks about serious and important things, and even discusses them in a radio talk show with other teens, we are seen a circle of them around a microphone discussing whether they should go steady with just one boy, or more. 

They gather at slumber parties and like it when boys catcall at the windows.  Despite this,

We’re not in a hurry to grow up—get all serious and morbid like older people.

The documentary notes that the music and fashion industries were already starting to pay attention to this new demographic, though it would be another decade before the cultural and economic scales would tip irrevocably to young adults.  Perhaps their elders were rendered meek, fatigued and demoralized by what they had endured during the war years to the point of not being able to keep their teen girls from hogging the phone.  What the enemy didn’t get out of them, their own American teens finished them off.

However, the complaining and impertinent squeak from the girls would be child’s play indeed compared to the revolt by the next generation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which would in turn be considered mild compared to today’s cell phone zombies whose interaction when pulled away from their texting is frequently one of rude disdain minus the revolution.  Did their evolution begin with the bobbysoxers in their sweater sets and “keep out” signs on their bedrooms?  

The kids with latchkeys on strings around their necks, coming home to an empty house because the folks were at the war plant and big brother was in the Marines became, in their twenties in the 1950s, the Silent Generation.  If they were conformists and uninvolved politically, nevertheless their buying power would change American society, though after their first declaration of independence in 1945, they appeared to lose steam.  Feminism would come to their daughters before it came to them.  Would Hollywood ever really pay attention to them?  In the late 1950s and early 1960s they would be parodied as company men and housewives, (indeed, unlike their Rosie the Riveter mothers, this generation might have been the first where most of them did not work outside the home, or become involved in a home business) consumers of washers, dryers, and tranquilizers.  The flower power generation’s revolt was geared at World War II era parents, so the Silent Generation even missed the prominence of being defied.

How ironic, to form the vanguard of this new dynamic force in society—the teenager—to be “acutely noticeable” as teens in 1945 and yet to fly under radar for decades to come.  March of Time’s Teen-Age Girls was released this day, June 15, 1945.  The war in Europe had ended, but there was still fighting in the Pacific.  A pause at the beginning of the last summer of the war brought a reflection on what the postwar world would be—and a brief thought to the teens among us who had collected scrap for the war effort, and wrote to servicemen, and wanted, somehow, to matter.

This is the end of our series on Hollywood’s depiction of children during World War II.  Previous posts in this series are:

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Search - 1948

The Search (1948) is tenderly filmed.  The plot of the story carries the weight of the world and the eternal suffering of children during war, but lifts our hearts, though they may be breaking, as if on wings of angels.  Those angels are UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation) workers, and a young GI, and even us, if we have taken this movie to heart and take something away from it.

This is the fourth post in our series on how Hollywood depicted children during World War II.  This time, we leave the well-fed American kids behind, and step back to Europe in the aftermath of war.  It is said that the first casualty of war is truth.  The final byproduct is refugees. 

We encounter a small boy, one of the millions of refugees after World War II who have been released from concentration camps.  He is brought with nameless others to an UNRRA central tracing bureau to be processed and, if possible, reunited with relatives searching for them.  The movie takes on documentary-like qualities as we follow the children upon their arrival, sleeping in a boxcar on top of each other, ragged, sallow, starving, and sick—and terrified of the UNRRA personnel in uniform.  It is how they began their journey to the concentration camps; it is how the war ends for them.

Aline MacMahon, one of Hollywood’s finest and most valuable players, is in charge and interviews the kids in many languages.  Ivan Jandl plays Karel, a boy who was separated from his mother at Auschwitz.  His father and sister are dead.  He does not speak, only automatically repeats, “Ich weiss nicht,” (I don’t know) to answers put to him.  He is like a zombie, wooden, haunted, and barely able to function.  He also suffers from amnesia from the trauma of the concentration camp.  His number is tattooed on his arm.

In a moment of panic, he and another boy escape and wander the ruins of this German city.  Attempting to cross a river, the other boy drowns.  Though director Fred Zinnemann crafts a gentle telling of the story, it is nevertheless unblinking in its frank observations of the tragedies we witness.  Karel loses only his knitted cap in the water, and when that is recovered by UNRAA staff, they believe him to have drowned as well.

Alone now, Karel wanders aimlessly, until he meets Montgomery Clift, an Army engineer, part of the army of occupation.  Clift feeds him, takes him back to the building he shares billeting with Wendell Corey.  In days to come, the boy is cleaned, dressed in new clothes, and Clift teaches him English by naming objects in pictures torn from magazines.  Karel seems contented, but he still cannot emotionally or by memory connect with his past.  Clift wants to take him back to America.

That involves tremendous red tape. 
Eventually, he will take him to the UNRAA camp to help facilitate his adoption of Karel, whom he calls Jim.  This was Montgomery Clift’s first film, and he is a marvel of natural and riveting screen presence.  Many of his joking remarks and responses to the boy seem ad libbed and he has a wonderful off-the-cuff and in the moment delivery.  He is a lighthearted young man, quick with a funny quip, but the deeper he becomes involved with the boy the more sober he becomes.  (And his character may remind us of his role in The Big Lift-1950, which we covered here.) When he tries to form a plan to get the boy to the U.S., Wendell Corey counters that it is impractical and the rules impeding this are necessary: “We’d have all of Europe in America if we didn’t have those rules.”

Clift responds, “So what?”

“You’re the one who used to make cracks about those filthy DP’s, remember?”

“I did?"

“Yes, you did.  Not so very long ago, either.”

Clift answers, “Well, now I’ve learned something.”

Indeed he has, and we still struggle with that argument today.

Mr. Clift has a nice, easy rapport with the Ivan Jandl, who was from Czechoslovakia and only made a handful of films.  He is a splendid interpreter of this role: unaffected, natural, and perhaps wise beyond his years in his intuitive relationship with the camera.  It is also a wise choice on the part of director Zinnemann to follow the boy with long scenes of no dialogue.  We see deeper into the child’s world if we are allowed to adopt his mindset and we can do this more easily if we take on his silent observation of the world around him.

One of the most affecting scenes in the movie is when Wendell Corey’s wife and young son arrive to share their housing.  Clift will be rotated back to the U.S. very soon, but Corey will be part of the army of occupation for a while yet.  Karel observes Corey’s son interacting with his mother.  At one point, the son cries and the mother comforts him.  This triggers a long dormant memory in Karel.  He asks Clift, “What is a mother?”  Charmingly inventive, Clift points to one the magazine photos thumb tacked on the wall of their room that he has used to teach the boy English.  It is a photo of a long-eared funny-looking bloodhound sitting next to a smaller pup.  Presumably, he has used this photo to teach the boy the word “dog.”  Now Clift points to the bigger dog and says, “This is the mother.”  Then to the puppy, “This is the child.”

Karel chews on this a while, and grows distressed. Looking at the photo, his expression becomes pained, and he struggles with a scene that remains in his mind of a woman who had been with him in the camp.  As he sits and almost like an automaton, draws lines on a paper, he suddenly remembers the pattern of the chain link fence in the camp.  Earlier in the film, we are given a flashback scene of when his mother was taken from him, separated into a different camp.  She calls to him, and kisses him through the small opening in the chain link fence.

It all comes back to Karel now, and he sobs, and he demands that Clift help him find his mother.  “Where is my mother?  I have a mother.  I know I have a mother.  Where is she?”  Clift believes Karel’s mother is dead, and tries to distract him with talk of going to America.  Karel is angry, and sneaks out in the night.

We follow him again across the ruins of war-torn Germany, until eventually; Clift finds him and takes him to the UNRRA camp where he hopes to begin the paperwork of adopting Karel.

Earlier in the film, we are shown that Karel’s mother, played by celebrated opera singer Jarmila Novotna, whom we also saw here in The Great Caruso (1951), has survived and is searching for him.  In a nail-biting series of circumstances, they continually miss each other.  Aline MacMahon helps to put together clues, and we are given the gift of finally seeing mother and son reunited.  I don’t know if we could take this movie if that didn’t happen.

The Search is really a very simple story, simply filmed, about very complicated geopolitical issues, and that is the wonder of it.  It allows us to see a large picture on a very small scale and connect with it in a personal way.  The movie was filmed, at least in part, in Europe so the location shooting is stark and genuine.  We do not have the optimistic and jingoistic approach of helping children in wartime as we saw in The Piped Piper.  We were still fighting the war then.  We are in the aftermath now, where at least as far as the mind of a child refugee is concerned, the world is borderless, without nationalities or allegiances—but it is not free.  It is a nightmarish maze of confusing obstacles.  Every grownup who displays compassion is a monumental hero.  

Come back next Thursday when we finish our series with a look at another March of Time short subject, a world away and back to America with the dawn of a new age—not the nuclear age, but the Teen Age.

Our previous posts in this series are:

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