Category Archives: 1951

Westward the Women (1951, William A. Wellman)

Robert Taylor leads over a hundred women from Missouri to California. It’s set in 1851, so California is the other side of world. I thought it was going to be cute from that description. Taylor’s films were often aware of being Robert Taylor films, but of those 100+ women, only one thinks Taylor’s good-looking, so Westward the Women isn’t one of those Taylor films. It’s a rough film. It has cute moments and funny moments, heart-warming moments too, I suppose–but it’s rough. It might even be mean. I’m not sure to what degree the filmmakers realized how mean the film was getting.

Some of Taylor’s work in the film is his best. At a certain point, the film runs out of things for him to do and concentrates on the romance, which is fine, but he ceases to be the focus. The rest of the performances are all right (except Taylor’s love interest, once the romance starts), but the script betrays the two best supporting ones. Hope Emerson is excellent in the role of a New Englander who talks exaggerated ship-speak for everything. There’s a poor Japanese guy–played by Henry Nakamura, who did little else–who’s got the worst stereotypical dialogue, but a rather important role in the film. Again, his character loses steam in the last part.

The romance shares the second half’s focus with the more interesting aspect of Westward the Women. At a certain point, the women are left alone with Taylor and have to toughen up for the journey. There’s a great scene–I can think of a good adjective for it–when a woman is in labor in a wagon and a wheel breaks off. A group of the other women hold up the wagon while she gives birth, which would not be an easy task, and then proceed to fawn over the newborn. There’s another great, similar scene at the end, but I can’t give that away.

When I said before the film was mean–it kills characters left and right. The only sympathetic character it doesn’t kill is the dog. In addition to showing the difficulty in crossing the country, it throws the audience off guard. You never know if a character is going to make it or not. Even with this tension, however, the film ambles a little too much. It’s got a long present action–at least four months, but it might be more like seven–and since only a handful of the women are realized, the film is mostly in summary. But it’s real pretty summary. Wellman’s direction of the desert landscape is wonderful. Not only is the scenery incorporated into the story (unlike the frequent Monument Valley backdrops) but his camera angles take full advantage of them.

However, the film doesn’t take place entirely in the desert, only thirty minutes of it does. So, you have those twenty or thirty minutes of great direction, an hour or so of a great Taylor performance, a half hour of the great relationship between Taylor and the Japanese guy, and Emerson only getting rid of the lame seafarer dialogue at the end. Still, it’s a good film–it might be the only widescreen academy ratio film I can think of.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by William A. Wellman; screenplay by Charles Schnee, based on a story by Frank Capra; director of photography, William C. Mellor; edited by James E. Newcom; music by Jeff Alexander; produced by Dore Schary; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Robert Taylor (Buck), Denise Darcel (Danon), Hope Emerson (Patience), John McIntire (Roy Whitman), Julie Bishop (Laurie), Lenore Lonergan (Maggie), Marilyn Erskine (Jean), Beverly Dennis (Rose), Henry Nakamura (Ito) and Renata Vanni (Mrs. Maroni).


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Bright Victory (1951, Mark Robson)

Mark Robson made some great films. I first saw Bright Victory before I knew who he was (I think Victory was probably my first Robson, actually). I saw it on AMC in 1997 probably. Julie Adams is in it and maybe I had AMC flagged for Julie Adams movies somehow. I can’t remember if they had a website. Somehow, I saw the film. It was probably my first Arthur Kennedy film too. Kennedy’s one of those actors who’s fallen through the cracks. He never did a disaster movie or a guest on “The Love Boat.” He’s a fantastic actor and Bright Victory offers him a great role.

It’s World War II and Kennedy is blinded. Unfortunately, even though he’s the protagonist, he’s not altogether likable. He’s a Southern bigot who can’t wait to get home to marry in to money. From the title, it’s obviously Bright Victory does not end badly for Kennedy’s character. I could ramble about Bright Victory, I just realized, so I’m going to need to rein it in. First, the film’s from 1951 and a 1951 film making the lead out to be a jerk for being a bigot is a rarity. Robson had done another film about race relations (Home of the Brave), but Bright Victory is a Universal-International picture, not a smaller studio like that one. I remember, in 1997, I had never seen the issue discussed in this filmic era. Since, I’ve seen some films cover it, but never so straightforwardly.

The script, by Robert Buckner, stays with Kennedy for most of the film. The rare deviations–once for the culmination of another blind soldier’s story arc and then for a scene with the fiancée, played by Adams–don’t stick out. The film’s constructed with a roaming eye. Since Kennedy’s learning how to be blind, so is the audience. The roaming eye doesn’t stop with that usefulness, however, it goes on to become the film’s most interesting presentation principle. Bright Victory features a few scenes–three I can think of–where the characters talk to each other, but never let the audience know what’s going on. Both the characters know, but we do not. That device is never used–it’s probably one of the particularities I noticed about Bright Victory back when I first saw it.

Last, I need to go over the actors. This post is already one of the longest I’ve done–I haven’t seen Victory since the first time, probably, so I could go on and on. Peggy Dow stars as the rival love interest. She has a few particularly great scenes. James Edwards is Kennedy’s friend, again, has some great scenes. Jim Backus (from “Gilligan’s Island”) shows up and does well–Backus was a great 1950s character actor. Will Geer plays Kennedy’s father and the two have a wonderful scene together, elucidating how Kennedy’s blindness has changed their relationship. When I finished the film, I realized it managed to posit Kennedy could not have made his personal achievements without the blindness, but did never became melodramatic, contrived, or hackneyed.

TCM has the film now–they’ve played it twice–and you can even vote for a DVD release on their website (even though it’s a Universal title). It’s absolutely fantastic, just like much of Robson’s work.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Robson; screenplay by Robert Buckner, based on a novel by Baynard Kendrick; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by Russell Schoengarth; music by Frank Skinner; produced by Buckner; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Arthur Kennedy (Larry Nevins), Peggy Dow (Judy Greene), Julie Adams (Chris Paterson), John Hudson (Corporal John Flagg), James Edwards (Joe Morgan), Nana Bryant (Mrs. Nevins), Richard Egan (Sgt. John Masterson), Jim Backus (Bill Grayson) and Will Geer (Mr. Nevins).


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The Tales of Hoffmann (1951, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)

In honor of Dennis Arundell’s translation of The Tales of Hoffman‘s lyrics (into English), how visually flawless, how totally heartless.

Hoffmann is not an adaptation of the opera, rather a filmic performance. Depending on your opinion, this approach is either the benefit or failure of the film. The performances–hopefully–were meant to be judged on their singing and dancing, because there’s no real acting going on. No characters being created, no conflict being charted. I spent the entire film looking at the clock.

The film is beautiful. The Archers do color German expressionist–but manage it well, with a few moments Fellini lifted. Except Fellini added human conflict to the moments, making them more than pretty. There’s a few really amusing moments when they concentrate on one of the supporting characters, not because she’s necessary, but because they can’t totally ignore the dramatic need….

Powell and Pressburger are so good–so beyond good–everyone ought to be a completist, making The Tales of Hoffmann a necessary viewing. If you like opera, you might even enjoy it.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; screenplay by Powell, Pressburger and Dennis Arundell, based on the libretto by Jules Barbier and the stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann; director of photography, Christopher Challis; edited by Reginald Mills; music by Jacques Offenbach; production designer, Hein Heckroth; released by British Lion Film Corporation.

Starring Robert Rounseville (Hoffmann), Moira Shearer (Stella and Olympia), Ludmilla Tchérina (Giulietta), Anne Ayars (Antonia), Pamela Brown (Nicklaus), Léonide Massine (Spalanzani, Schlemil and Franz), Robert Helpmann (Lindorf, Coppelius, Dapertutto and Dr. Miracle), Frederick Ashton (Kleinsach and Cochenille), Mogens Wieth (Crespel), Lionel Harris (Pitichinaccio), Philip Leaver (Andreas) and Meinhart Maur (Luther).


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The African Queen (1951, John Huston)

As I started The African Queen, I wondered what the hell John Huston ever did to earn him such a good rep. Maybe it was The African Queen.

Besides the amazing cinematography, the film’s laid out beautifully. Get Bogart and Hepburn in a boat together, in WWI Africa, and see what happens. The film starts looking like a documentary. I can’t think of any other Hollywood production that treated native Africa with any regard and I think it threw me off a little. Jack Cardiff’s cinematography and the British accents–Bogart seems kind of like guest-star in the first bit, doesn’t he?–also threw me. Then, about thirty-six minutes in, I started to get it.

The ending, of course, makes the film. Most films are made by the ending, no matter when they were made. Kind of like how a novel sort of needs a kick-ass close too. Well, not sort of at all. The most interesting aspect of The African Queen is the romance. Besides that Bogart was probably closer in age to Hepburn then he was to any previous love interests (except maybe Mary Astor) sets Queen apart. While, yes, younger female actors could hold their own against older men, somewhere after Faye Dunaway (and Michelle Pfeiffer?) they’ve lost that ability. A point that has nothing to do with The African Queen.

It’s a great film. I can’t believe Vivien Leigh (for Streetcar) beat Hepburn for this one. Wow. Vivien Leigh beat Eleanor Parker for Detective Story that year too. You know, I remember when I used to (this is the early-to-mid 1990s) get pissed when someone good lost the Oscar to someone bad. How bad must it have been when four good people lost to one ham? I suppose people didn’t care that much back in 1952, but still….

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Huston; screenplay by James Agee and Huston, based on the novel by C.S. Forester; director of photography, Jack Cardiff; edited by Ralph Kemplen; music by Allan Gray; produced by Sam Spiegel; released by United Artists.

Starring Humphrey Bogart (Charlie Allnut), Katharine Hepburn (Rose Sayer), Robert Morley (Rev. Samuel Sayer), Peter Bull (Captain of the Louisa), Theodore Bikel (First Officer of the Louisa) and Peter Swanick (German Army Officer).


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