Category Archives: 1953

Stalag 17 (1953, Billy Wilder)

Stalag 17 opens with narration explaining the film isn’t going to be like those other WWII pictures, where the soldiers are superhuman and the film bleeds patriotism. No, Stalag 17 is going to be something different—first off, it takes place not on the battlefield, but a German prison camp. Through coincidence, the camp is entirely full of sergeants, which causes a lot of personalities butting heads (but also personalities jibing). This story—the one narrator Gil Stratton is going to tell-takes place right before Christmas 1944. The explanation of the setup is the only time the film feels like a stage adaptation; director Wilder always has filmic uses for Stratton’s narration. Even when the plot’s moving along and the structure is very play-like, it never feels like one. The setting—a barracks in the camp (Stalag 17)—is naturally confined, but never naturally stagey.

The film opens in the aftermath of a failed escape attempt. Two guys try to get out, get caught. Right after they leave, scrounger and black market entrepreneur William Holden bets against the men escaping. His barrack-mates are incensed at his bet, but think little of it until there are subsequent hints there might be a mole in the barracks. Now, the audience already knows there’s a spy because Stratton’s talking about the time they had this spy in the barracks, but it takes the characters a while to catch up. It’s a wonderful play on expectation. The film runs a couple hours and 17’s well into that second hour before there’s much about the spy hunt. Until then, the film’s mostly humor. Because even though it opens establishing the barracks “brass”—barracks boss Richard Erdman, barracks security Peter Graves, barracks tough guy Neville Brand—in conflict with Holden—all with Stratton narration—pretty soon barracks goof-balls Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss take… well… center stage. In the non-stagey movie. It’s around Lembeck and Strauss, at least initially, the action plays out. There’s the introduction to the barracks German guard (Sig Ruman), there’s the growing suspicions of the prisoners, there’s Otto Preminger’s camp commander, who manages to be an opportunistic, mean-spirited jackass before he’s anything else. None of the prisoners have anything like Stockholm with the Germans, but it’s clear these German soldiers aren’t the crème de la crème… starting from Preminger down. So the Preminger stuff is funny and funny in how it’s dangerous, without ever being too dangerous.

The film’s very careful about how it portrays the comedy. Lembeck and Strauss are practically a slapstick duo, but Wilder never lets it get out of hand.

Once it’s clear there’s a spy, everyone—starting with the increasingly violent Brand—suspects Holden. Top-billed Holden is simultaneously perplexed and offended, but the film doesn’t increase his time onscreen. It’s still an ensemble, Holden’s still a standout, but he doesn’t get that spotlight just yet.

Not when there are still two more characters to bring in. Don Taylor (who’s second-billed but barely in the film and crucial to the plot) and Jay Lawrence (who’s like third-to-last billed, has nothing to do with the plot, but basically has a whole character arc about being integrated into the barracks culture).

Even after everyone starts suspecting Holden, it takes a long, long time before they act. When they do, no one seems to think through the repercussions, which the script mostly avoids and otherwise just barely addresses, while the performances imply the changes. When it all does end up falling on Holden, it’s not just the plot, it’s how the film’s going to acknowledge its character arcs. They all play through Holden’s perspective, which the film has ever so gently been assuming through the second act.

Of course, then Wilder switches it up again in the third act because, even though Holden’s giving this big, great movie star performance, it’s an ensemble piece.

Wilder completely relies on Holden but is subdued when it comes to needing to rely on him. It’s really cool, how Wilder and co-screenwriter Edwin Blum do all the character arcs. Because the actors are all usually onscreen, or at least they’re all in the same location; sometimes they’re background, sometimes they’re in the main action. And their arcs keeping going throughout; doesn’t slow down for anything, not even when opportunist Preminger thinks he’s finally going to get a promotion and he starts getting more story time.

The best performances—wildly different ones—are from Holden and Strauss. Strauss goes crazy, Holden never breaks a sweat. Wilder and Strauss figure out a way for him to devour scenes whereas Holden’s almost entirely passive. And both actors have to sell those character behaviors without explored motivation. No one, not even Taylor or Lawrence, get much introduction; Stalag 17 picks up in the middle of everyone’s story. Wilder doesn’t even slow down to set up narrator Stratton, which turns out to be fine. Initially odd, but eventually obviously good.

Brand is good as Holden’s de facto nemesis. Erdman and Graves are both fine. Taylor’s good. Great small turn from William Pierson; Wilder understands how to leverage straight comedy and doesn’t shy away from it. The guys playing it straight (like Brand, Erdman, and Graves) are kind of at a disadvantage. They’re not as memorable, which works out because it’s Stratton narrating it from—presumably—the present day, so almost ten years later.

Lawrence is really funny and great at the impressions. Again, Wilder knows how to execute straight comedy and does so.

Great editing from George Tomasini, especially great photography from Ernest Laszlo.

Stalag 17 is an outstanding success and a peculiar one. Not for how it succeeds—cast, crew, script—but for how succeeding plays out on screen. It’s like Wilder had to find a way to tell the story accessibly so he makes all these wide swings and always connects. Or if it’s not him connecting it’s Holden, who takes very short, measured swings, but always connects. It’s a great picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Billy Wilder; screenplay by Wilder and Edwin Blum, based on the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski; director of photography, Ernest Laszlo; edited by George Tomasini; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Holden (Sgt. J.J. Sefton), Neville Brand (Duke), Richard Erdman (Sgt. ‘Hoffy’ Hoffman), Peter Graves (Sgt. Frank Price), Robert Strauss (Sgt. Stanislaus ‘Animal’ Kuzawa), Harvey Lembeck (Sgt. Harry Shapiro), Don Taylor (Lt. James Dunbar), Jay Lawrence (Sgt. Bagradian), Gil Stratton (Sgt. Clarence Harvey ‘Cookie’ Cook), Sig Ruman (Sgt. Johann Sebastian Schulz), and Otto Preminger (Oberst von Scherbach).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE FOURTH GOLDEN BOY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA, MICHAELA OF LOVE LETTERS TO OLD HOLLYWOOD, AND EMILY OF THE FLAPPER DAME.


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The Moon Is Blue (1953, Otto Preminger)

William Holden never seems out of place in The Moon Is Blue, but occasionally the film seems out of place having William Holden in its lead role. He’s not mundane, he’s a star. The film isn’t about the mundane but it needs to acknowledge the possibility of it. Holden ain’t it.

He’s top-billed but not the protagonist. At the start, it plays like he might be, but no. The protagonist is Maggie McNamara. The film just follows Holden because–star wattage or not–he’s a lot easier to figure out than McNamara. The film covers the first twenty or so hours of them knowing one another (it’s a play adaptation). In that time, Holden picks up McNamara at the Empire State Building, they have dinner at his apartment, she meets his neighbors (David Niven and Dawn Addams), her father (Tom Tully) punches Holden out, Holden watches her on TV (she’s an aspiring actress, he’s a successful but not famous architect). A lot happens in the film’s ninety-nine minute runtime.

Being a stage adaptation, there are limited locations. About seven total. Most of the film takes place in Holden’s apartment, where he and McNamara stop off before an impromptu dinner date. They get there by cab, which is when Moon starts forecasting its twist. McNamara is going to talk real–Moon was infamous at time of release for the onscreen use of the word, “virgin”–and she’s fairly aware of what Holden (and then Niven) have in mind for her.

So a lot of Moon Is Blue is McNamara saying something honest and unvarnished to Holden or Niven (sometimes both) and the men reacting. It plays out, usually, in an approximation of real-time. Holden goes into the evening aware of McNamara’s disinterest in being seduced, Niven comes into it wondering (but very gently) if he can get around it. Age also plays a factor. Twenty-two-year-old McNamara wants a middle-aged man; thirty-year-old Holden (well, thirty-five playing thirty) isn’t old enough. Forty-one-year-old Niven (actually forty-three) more fits the bill, but by the time she meets him, she’s smitten with Holden.

Of course, Holden’s just broken Niven’s daughter’s heart. Addams is the daughter. She and Holden’s failed romance subplot gets introduced quietly in the first act, but really plays through in the second. Second act is where Moon gives up the pretense of not being McNamara’s movie.

She’s excellent. The part’s quirky and McNamara keeps up with it, always ready for Holden or Niven’s reactions. Holden’s good but his part is thin. Thinner than Niven’s, who’s just a rich, lovable lech. Moon stops Holden’s character development at the end of the first act (even when there are later revelations, they don’t turn out to be consequential at all). It’s not his story, it can’t pretend to be. And Holden keeps getting better, the less there is for him to do. Wonky third act material or not, Holden’s great in it.

Niven’s hilarious. He doesn’t have much character development, but Niven’s performance is so loud it both doesn’t matter and seems like there’s more depth to him.

Addams is basically caricature. She’s fine. Great costumes for her (courtesy Don Loper). While her character is important to the narrative, it’s not a big part for Addams. Intentionally, the costumes end up doing a lot of the heavy lifting.

F. Hugh Herbert’s screenplay (from his stage play) is good. The dialogue is better than the plotting, which falls apart in the third act.

Preminger’s direction is superb with the actors, strong with the pacing, troublesome with the composition. He’ll compose these excellent two or three shots, in medium or long, but his close-ups are dull. It works because the performances are so good, it just doesn’t excel. Much in Moon Is Blue excels. Preminger doesn’t keep pace, stylistically.

Even with the third act hiccups and the bland close-ups, The Moon Is Blue is still an excellent comedy. McNamara, Holden, and Niven do no wrong.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Otto Preminger; screenplay by F. Hugh Herbert, based on their play; director of photography, Ernest Laszlo; edited by Ronald Sinclair; music by Herschel Burke Gilbert; produced by Preminger and Herbert; released by United Artists.

Starring Maggie McNamara (Patty O’Neill), William Holden (Donald Gresham), David Niven (David Slater), Dawn Addams (Cynthia Slater), and Tom Tully (Michael O’Neill).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE 3RD ANNUAL GOLDEN BOY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MICHAELA OF LOVE LETTERS TO OLD HOLLYWOOD, EMILY OF THE FLAPPER DAME, AND VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA.


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Harvest (1953, James Sheldon)

Dorothy Gish isn’t just top-billed in Harvest, host (and narrator) Robert Montgomery introduces the episode hyping her presence. So it’s a tad disappointing when it turns out Gish gets less and less to do throughout the hour-long television play. When she does get things to do, they happen off-screen. Instead of giving her an arc, writer Sandra Michael actually takes away from Gish in the third act, giving time to a newly introduced character.

It might be okay if there were something more interesting going on, but there’s really not. Most of Harvest has to do with nonagenarian Vaughn Taylor preparing for his one hundredth birthday. Mentally preparing, not party-planning. Taylor’s in a bunch of makeup and sort of dodders around, talking too loud about how grandson James Dean isn’t going to take over the family farm.

Dean gets a lot to do. He’s in love with city girl Rebecca Welles, who just can’t understand why he’d want to stay on that smelly old farm anyway. Dad Ed Begley doesn’t know Dean doesn’t want to be a farmer–writer Michael knows Begley and Dean ought to have some scenes together because the characters have things to talk about, but Harvest skips every single one of those conversations. Instead, Begley either tells Gish or Taylor he’s talked to Dean.

The action takes place around the house, specifically the kitchen, occasionally the front porch. Harvest takes some side trips–into the city, out into the field, 1,000 miles away to check in on Gish and Begley’s other sons–but it’s mostly just the kitchen. Where Gish prepares coffee, Begley sits silently, Dean sits jittery, and Taylor dodders.

Harvest doesn’t take any of its characters seriously enough. If it’s going to be about homesteader turned farmer Taylor turning one hundred and watching his family farm collapse, the writing needs to be better and a better actor needs to be playing the part. Director Sheldon doesn’t do much with his actors, but no one’s anywhere near as problematic as Taylor. While Begley is mostly scenery (which is almost better than when he gets lines because Michael writes them so poorly), he’s better than Taylor’s “best” scenes.

Dean’s okay. Harvest cuts away from his character development just as it gets interesting. Gish is okay. She really doesn’t have anything to do but make coffee in a percolator but she does it with a level of engagement far beyond anyone else. Begley looks lost.

Welles is pretty bad.

Montgomery’s narration is obnoxious, but no worse than the frequent choir singing reminding the viewer how blessed are the starving farmers and aren’t they quaint. Keep hope alive for tomorrow is Harvest’s motto (or some such thing). Instead, it seems like the television play just wants to avoid responsibility for its content.

Sheldon’s direction–outside his lack of interest in the performances–is fine. Harvest never feels cramped, one primary set or not.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by James Sheldon; written by Sandra Michael; produced by Robert Montgomery; aired by the National Broadcast Company.

Starring Dorothy Gish (Ellen Zalinka), Ed Begley (Karl Zalinka), Vaughn Taylor (Gramps), James Dean (Paul Zalinka), Rebecca Welles (Arlene), John Connell (Chuck), John Dennis (Joe), Joseph Foley (Herb), Nancy Sheridan (Louise), Mary Lou Taylor (Fran), and Frank Tweddell (Mr. Franklin); narrated by Robert Montgomery.


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A Long Time Till Dawn (1953, Richard Dunlap)

A Long Time Till Dawn is usually able to keep disbelief completely suspended. It’s a television play and Rod Serling’s teleplay is more ambitious than the budget or the constraints of the medium. Most of the sets are interiors and fine–a diner, a living room, a bedroom. They can even get away with a front porch, though it is where Dawn stretches its visible credulity the most.

The porch scenes are also a stretch due to Ted Osborne’s performance. Osborne is just a small town man. His daughter-in-law (Naomi Riordan) has suddenly come to live with him, running away from New York City, back to small town New Jersey. It just happens she leaves New York the day before her husband (James Dean) gets out of a six-month stint in prison.

Riordan’s timing never gets discussed. It’s apparently just narrative efficency, not her trying to hide from Dean. Though when Rudolf Weiss, playing Dean and Riordan’s kindly New York neighbor (a delicatessan owner), tells Dean about Riordan leaving it’s like a) she doesn’t want Dean to know where she went and b) she’s been gone a while.

Weiss tells Dean about Riordan’s departure just after copper Robert F. Simon has stopped by the diner to warn Dean not to become a repeat offender.

So of course Dean has to beat up Weiss to find out where Riordan has gone. Then he heads home to Osborne and Riordan’s dread and hope. Simon follows soon after to investigate Weiss’s assault. Because even though everyone can just drop everything and go to small town New Jersey, Dean and Riordan never did it before Dean’s small time crook phase.

From the dialogue, it seems like that phase was about a sixth of the three years Dean and Riordan spent in New York. Serling’s teleplay has very, very little logic going for it. Ditto Dunlap’s direction (the finale has Osborne talking about some character who was just onscreen but Dawn forgot to take notice).

At its best, Dunlap’s direction is utterly mediocre. More often it’s a problem. Dean’s excellent, Simon’s excellent, Weiss is excellent. Riordan is okay. Osborne is not. He gets these lengthy monologues and he clutches the melodrama heartstrings so tightly their effectiveness withers.

Up until the third act, though, it really seems like Dawn is going to make it. But it doesn’t. The third act set pieces are poorly executed–thanks to Dunlap and the budget–and Serling’s denouement, largely thanks to Osborne, is a fail.

It’s a shame. Dean’s phenomenal, even when the writing is a little weak. When it’s more than a little weak, not even he can do anything with it (not with Dunlap’s direction “aiding” him), but his performance is mostly great. Simon also makes a lot out of his part. Serling gives the characters a lot of texture–except Osborne, which is bad–and Simon takes advantage.

A Long Time Till Dawn needs a better director, a better performance in the Osborne part, and a few rewrites.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Dunlap; written by Rod Serling; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring James Dean (Joe Harris), Ted Osborne (Fred Harris), Naomi Riordan (Barbie), Robert F. Simon (Lt. Case), and Rudolf Weiss (Poppa Golden).


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