Tag Archives: Donna Reed

It's a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)

It’s a Wonderful Life is going to be a tough one. When I was a kid, during the public domain days, Wonderful Life was omnipresent. It became a joke because of that omnipresence. But also because it’s undeniably sappy. And it has angels in it. It’s so saccharine, I didn’t even notice my eyes tear up for the finish. It’s so devastating, I also didn’t notice when they teared up at Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed on the phone. Because It’s a Wonderful Life has all these things going on and some of them don’t actually interact with the other, which might be director Capra’s greatest achievement with the film. It’s well-intentioned, feel-good, historically relevant character study as epic. It’s a Wonderful Life is an epic. It’s a short one–the film speeds by in its 130 minutes–but it’s an epic.

The film has four credited screenwriters–including Capra–and a legion of uncredited helpers. The film has the rather expedient structure of heavenly intervention. Let’s face it–God magic is the best magic–and Wonderful Life is aware of the promise it’s making with God magic. A Greek chorus would probably be less awkward, especially since there’s angel bickering. Mind you, angel bickering shows up before Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy Stewart doesn’t appear until twelves minutes into the picture. And it’s all about him. Jimmy Stewart doesn’t start his character–Robert J. Anderson starts the character and it’s great. The opening scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life are phenomenal. Capra goes all out with it.

Because most of It’s a Wonderful Life concentrates on Stewart and Reed, which is great because they’re amazing together and if it weren’t for the the last third of the film, Reed would easily give the best performance. The way she watches Stewart is exceptional. It’s a Wonderful Life has some strange cuts–apparently Capra even processed zoomed for emphasis–but the sound design always carries it. The film’s setting is about its sound, about its residents’ voices. Capra brings characters back in at just the right moment, in just the right scene, so the nightmare sequence at the end even scarier. Anyway, the sound and Reed. Capra will go for these different takes, jarring the viewer and forcing a reconsideration of the character. With Reed, it’s a little different. Capra’s direction of Reed during the courtship is about making her the film’s center.

Once Stewart and Reed get married, there’s a handoff to Stewart. Reed literally disappears. Capra figures out a way to show she’s still essential, but she doesn’t have to be omnipresent. There’s a lot of frantic qualities to It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s like the screwball comedy came home from the war.

So around halfway in, the film enters a different relationship with its protagonist. After Stewart being crushed again and again in the first half, the film has to show him get some reward. It’s a Wonderful Life is a mix of pragmatism, hopefulness, and cynicism. Stewart has to live up to the promise of the character before he showed up on screen.

Stewart has to make the viewer dislike him. The scene where he terrorizes the family is so freaky. The architecture designs, given room with the family’s things, are tragic. It answers a question It’s a Wonderful Life told the audience to ignore–sure, Reed’s actually perfect, but would Stewart have made it if he’d gotten away from home? Yeah. But he’s not even angry right, because when he’s angry, he’s supposed to be telling Reed he doesn’t need her and everyone knows he’s lying and is supposed to know he’s lying. He’s betraying the viewer’s expectation–and Capra knows how to do it too. The film’s a wonderful mix of sensibilities. Capra changes the pace, the tone. He introduces memorable characters in the second half. He doesn’t care. It’s awesome.

The nightmare part–does it even have an agreed upon term (it better not be some alternate timeline thing)–is this great twist. We’d been promised God magic and what did we get. Henry Travers, who looks as adorable as he sounds. Travers gets very little screen time and a phenomenal introduction. Capra still has these amazing scene constructions for the finale. And I think It’s a Wonderful Life, in terms of acts, fits Dan O’Bannon’s second act to third act transition mark better than anything else. The bridge. It’s Capra trying some things he’d tried before without success and scoring, time and again.

Very off track, which is the thing about It’s a Wonderful Life–there’s too much. There’s so much to process, so much to appreciate, so much to consider. It’s impossible for me to watch it without thinking about it in terms of anticipation and recollection. I don’t even think I watched it in order when I first saw it. Or it had been cut down to fit a two-hour block and was missing a bunch. I’ve been thinking about how the film works since I was a kid. It’s brilliant. Capra does it. He goes for it, he does it.

Great supporting performances from Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, especially Gloria Grahame. Frank Faylen and Ward Bond are awesome. H.B. Warner, Samuel S. Hinds. Everyone else but especially those people.

Technically outstanding, especially William Hornbeck’s editing and Clem Portman and Richard Van Hessen’s sound. They make Capra’s forceful moves work.

Dimitri Tiomkin ’s score actually doesn’t help with those forceful moves, but enables them further. Only then that great scene construction brings it through. It’s a Wonderful Life is like shifting plates in perfect rhythm.

And now I’m never going to write about it again because it’s all I’d want to do.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Jo Swerling, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Capra, based on a story by Philip Van Doren Stern; directors of photography, Joseph F. Biroc and Joseph Walker; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring James Stewart (George Bailey), Donna Reed (Mary Hatch), Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter), Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy), Henry Travers (Clarence), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Bailey), Frank Faylen (Ernie), Ward Bond (Bert), Gloria Grahame (Violet), H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower), Todd Karns (Harry Bailey), Samuel S. Hinds (Pa Bailey), and Robert J. Anderson (Little George).


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Shadow of the Thin Man (1941, W.S. Van Dyke)

Shadow of the Thin Man has a healthy mix of comedy and mystery. The resolution to mystery is a little lacking at the end, but the film moves so smoothly until then it’s easily forgivable. And there is one amusing final twist (along with a good final joke).

Most of the comedy comes from William Powell playing responsible parent. Myrna Loy doesn’t have any scenes alone with their son, Richard Hall; instead, she has scenes commenting on Powell’s behavior around Hall. Thanks to Van Dyke’s direction–he excels in the oddest set pieces in Shadow, with a comedic merry-go-round sequence being a standout–the film always implies Loy’s active parenting without ever having to show it.

Why not show it? Because it’s nowhere near as funny as Powell’s.

As for the mystery, Powell and Loy keep stumbling into murder investigations. Eventually they take a more enterprising role. There are a lot of suspects and suspicious characters, ranging from the likable Barry Nelson and Donna Reed to Loring Smith and Joseph Anthony’s racketeers. None of the suspects, save Stella Adler, are particularly good but they’re all decent. The script doesn’t do the actors any favors. Anthony in particularly doesn’t get enough screen time.

Instead, Irving Brecher and Harry Kurnitz’s script concentrates on the investigation and how Powell and Loy make discoveries. The mystery’s resolution isn’t spectacular, but the journey to it is rather good. Van Dyke’s pacing, both for tension and comedy, is outstanding.

Shadow is a fine time.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; screenplay by Irving Brecher and Harry Kurnitz, based on a story by Kurnitz and characters created by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by Robert Kern; music by David Snell; produced by Hunt Stromberg; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (Nick Charles), Myrna Loy (Nora Charles), Barry Nelson (Paul Clarke), Donna Reed (Molly Ford), Sam Levene (Lieutenant Abrams), Alan Baxter (‘Whitey’ Barrow), Henry O’Neill (Major Jason I. Sculley), Stella Adler (Claire Porter), Loring Smith (‘Link’ Stephens), Joseph Anthony (Fred Macy), Lou Lubin (‘Rainbow’ Benny Loomis), Louise Beavers (Stella) and Richard Hall (Nick Charles Jr.).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | THE THIN MAN.

They Were Expendable (1945, John Ford)

They Were Expendable has a gradual pace. Not knowing the film’s subject matter–just genre–going in, it all unfolded quite deliberately in front of me. The opening is a PT boat exercise. The film’s special effects are spectacular; it’s impossible to tell what’s an effect and what’s an actual boat in the water. These scenes–there are only a handful of them in the film–are breathtaking. There’s an attack on John Wayne’s boat from multiple bombers, which is the final action sequence, but earlier there’s the PT boats shooting at bombers, with only one visible composite shot. It’s stunning work–and one could easily let it overshadow the rest of the film.

Robert Montgomery and Wayne share the spotlight. It oscillates from man to man, but they’re great together and those scenes, with their concise dialogue, do a lot of work for the film. Montgomery’s performance is amazing–the best in the film and the best I’ve seen from him. He’s already weary trying to convince his superiors the PT boat is a valuable asset and following the start of the war and the subsequent losses, his stress becomes visible. Montgomery looks with tired but determined eyes–he has an amazing scene with a fatally injured sailor, probably the film’s most powerful scene….

Well, maybe not. That scene has a lot of dialogue (Frank Wead writes some great dialogue–something I was worried about when the titles rolled), so maybe the scene where there isn’t a lot of dialogue is more powerful. Wayne’s story arc has him romancing nurse Donna Reed–their scenes together and the whole handling of the romance is singular–and invites her to dinner with his fellow officers. It’s an almost silent scene with the men inexpressibly grateful for the female company. It reminded me of The Grand Illusion.

Wayne’s arc isn’t just the romance, he’s also dissatisfied with being in the PT boat squadron (not for any good reason, just because he wants the glory assignments). Wayne develops through the picture, softening first due to a friendship with Louis Jean Heydt and then with the Reed romance. The film doesn’t spend any time discussing Montgomery and Wayne’s lives before the Navy, which is an interesting move. It makes everything about how they act and react to the situations around them.

The script’s got a lot of humor in it, mostly from Ward Bond (whose expression following the kid asking Macarthur to sign his hat is fabulous), but also from Montgomery and Wayne. The film establishes their characters as friends who are amusing watch right off, so whenever they get together, there’s going to be something good.

Ford’s composition is flawless here. There are his early indoor shots, but when he gets outside, he really flourishes. He shoots low to high a lot here, creating a substantive mood. It ties the battle scenes together with the romance scenes and so on.

In some ways, though, They Were Expendable isn’t exciting. Going into it, I thought Ford was going to do a great job with a war picture and he does. He might do a little better than I expected….

It’s a fine film, full of quiet beauty. Ford doesn’t engage with this beauty, but like the swaying palm trees, he’s certainly aware of it. The film takes a step back from its content, allowing the viewer to fill the space in between.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by John Ford; screenplay by Frank Wead, based on the book by William L. White; director of photography, Joseph H. August; edited by Douglass Biggs and Frank E. Hull; music by Herbert Stothart; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Robert Montgomery (Lt. John Brickley), John Wayne (Lt. JG ‘Rusty’ Ryan), Donna Reed (Lt. Sandy Davyss), Jack Holt (General Martin), Ward Bond (‘Boats’ Mulcahey C.B.M.), Marshall Thompson (Ens. ‘Snake’ Gardner), Paul Langton (Ens. ‘Andy’ Andrews), Leon Ames (Major James Morton), Arthur Walsh (Seaman Jones), Donald Curtis (Lt. JG ‘Shorty’ Long) and Cameron Mitchell (Ens. George Cross).


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