Monday, May 30, 2011

A Memorial Day Salute: Soldiers and War Movies

"A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself."--Joseph Campbell

This post is dedicated to the memory of my uncle, Hubert W. Chesher, Private First Class, U.S. Army, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, who died December 18, 1944. Hubert survived the Normandy Invasion, but died on the second day of fighting during the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. He was awarded a Purple Heart and is buried in the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium.

This post is also dedicated to my ancestor, Balthazar Leffel, who served our country during the Revolutionary War, survived the war and lived into his seventies. It is dedicated to my son-in-law, Aaron, who served with the United States Army and was deployed twice to Iraq, and to his sister, Ryan, who continues to serve in the United States Coast Guard. It is dedicated to Edward Agnew, my children's grandfather, who, as a Navy Seabee, set a record for years of service. It is dedicated to my daughter-in-law's grandfather, John W. McKenney, who served with the U.S. Army in World War II and died two years ago. It is dedicated to my many friends and coworkers who have served, and continue to serve, in the United States Military. To each and every one of you, thank you.

My children's grandfather takes great pride in his work with the Navy, and he should. The Seabees serve an important and high-risk role in the military. They are among the first soldiers to arrive during fighting as they are the ones who build the bases, roads, and shore facilities. I learned this, of course, as a child watching John Wayne and Susan Hayward in The Fighting Seabees. Released in 1944, The Fighting Seabees takes place on a Japanese island, and although it is also a love story, the film does portray the dangers these soldiers encounter when performing their very important tasks. The film's dedication, posted on IMDb, states: "Proudly and gratefully we dedicate this picture to the Civil Engineer Corps and the Construction Battalions - the Seabees of the United States Navy who have fired the imagination of the world with their colorful exploits throughout the Seven Seas."

I often think of my own ancestor, Balthezar Leffel, when I watch another one of my favorite war movies, which takes place during the Revolutionary War. Released in 1939, at the beginning of World War II, Drums Along the Mohawk stars Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert. This film stars many other Hollywood greats, such as Edna May Oliver, who received an Oscar nomination for the film, and John Carradine, father of the equally famous Carradine brothers--Robert, David and Keith.

I think one of the reasons Drums Along the Mohawk impressed me so deeply is because of the stark realism of the film. Perhaps to those more familiar with the graphic realism of modern war films, Drums Along the Mohawk may seem amateurish, but it is not. The emotional realism in this film is shocking.

In Drums Along the Mohawk, at one point, the men in town all march down the road, leaving for the battleground, proud and determined, waving goodbye to their loved ones. They stumble and crawl back into town, severely injured, some dying, some carrying the bodies of fallen comrades.

Henry Fonda is one of the stragglers. When he sees his wife, impressively portrayed by Claudette Colbert, he collapses at her feet. At this point, Fonda, in my opinion, gives one of the finest performances of his career as he explains the horrific details of the battle to his young wife. He tells her of the death of a young man who stood beside him, and describes the death of another man who Fonda's character killed in battle, Fonda's voice, his facial expressions, his body language--everything he says and does is so convincing that the audience feels the character's pain, terror, and suffering.

Although there are moments of comedy and romance in this film, the stark realism is astounding. The importance of Drums Along the Mohawk is timeless. It speaks to all American soldiers and their families, and will continue to impact many generations to come.

There are many great war movies with plots, scripts, and performances that left me breathless, but they are so realistic that I could never watch them a second time. Cold Mountain is one such movie. Set during the American Civil War, Cold Mountain stars Nicole Kidman, Jude Law, Renee Zellweger, and an endless list of Hollywood greats for a supporting cast.

This movie is also profound in the intensity of its realism. At one point, the character, Mrs. Swanger, portrayed by Kathy Baker, is tortured. The torture, and its consequences, haunted me with nightmares.

For some reason, the scene reminds me of my great+grandfather, David Leffel, who was killed in a mob lynching during the American Civil War when he moved from Ohio to Texas with his family. There were so many tragic moments during the American Civil War.

Renee Zellweger won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for this film, which was nominated for an additional five Oscars. Jude Law was also nominated for an Oscar, but in my opinion, Cold Mountain deserved every honor offered by the Academy Awards in 2003.

Another great war film that I could never watch twice is Saving Private Ryan. Saving Private Ryan, released in 1998, won five Academy Awards and was nominated for six others, including a Best Actor nomination for Tom Hanks. The film stars Tom Hanks as Captain John H. Miller, and again, an impressive list of actors in supporting roles, such as Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Giovanni Ribisi, Dennis Farina, and the great, yet often under-acknowledged, Paul Giamatti. Private Ryan is portrayed by Matt Damon. His role is minor compared to the others in this film, though his character's presence on the battlefield is the basis of the entire plot. Saving Private Ryan was so successful it sparked a mini-revival in World War II films, such as the romantic, and shockingly realistic, Pearl Harbor.

Saving Private Ryan takes place during the Normandy Landings. As soon as I realized this, I immediately made the connection with my Uncle Hubert, eighteen-years-old, fighting desperately for his life and surviving the Normandy landings only to die during street fighting in Belgium. My father, though he was only a young child at the time, clearly remembers the moment my grandmother received the notice from the military that Hubert had died. Some memories last forever.

It was probably wise for me to wait until this movie was out on DVD to watch it at home. I sobbed throughout Saving Private Ryan, and I don't mean a few teary-eyed moments, I literally sobbed. This movie reaches into your heart like fingers, wraps tight around it, and never lets go. It leaves you gasping, speechless, unable to sleep for days, and praying for the safety of all of our soldiers, and for peace, and healing for those who have served, and healing for the families of those who have died in service of our country.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Thursday Thriller: Leave Her to Heaven

A train rushing down the tracks in the darkness, the perfect setting for the start of a mystery. This is where writer, Richard Harland, meets his stunning, young, socialite wife, Ellen Berent in Leave her to Heaven.

Richard Harland and Ellen Berent are soon happily married. Ellen is passionately devoted to Richard, the man who reminds her of her father, reminds her in a way that borders on obsession.

Obsession is an important word for this film, an apt description of Ellen Berent Harland's relationships with the men she loves. Based on the best-selling novel by Ben Ames, the femme fatale, Ellen, is portrayed to perfection by Gene Tierney, who actually struggled with mental illness for many years in her personal life, which may have brought a certain element of truth to her acting. Rita Hayworth was the first choice for the film, but viewing the finished product it is easy to see that no one could have played this role except Gene Tierney. Cornel Wilde was cast as Richard Harland, his quiet, reserved demeanor the perfect foil to Tierney's unpredictable emotional responses in the film.

Released in 1945 by American Twentieth Century Fox Technicolor, Leave Her to Heaven is a classic film noir. Film noir was first used by French film critic Nino Frank in 1946 to describe the dark, downbeat, post-war American films focusing on murder and mystery, and Leave Her to Heaven fits perfectly in this category.

Produced hortly after her first film noir, Laura, Gene Tierney's performance in Leave Her to Heaven stunned the audience with its intensity. Her Oscar nomination for Best Actress was not a surprise, the surprise came when she did not win! The film was nominated for a total of four Academy Awards.

As a dedicated fan of Gene Tierney, this film was difficult for me to watch, at first. I adored Tierney in so many of her films, particularly The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, my all-time Tierney favorite, and when I first started watching Leave Her to Heaven, I expected to see the same, sweet, refined character that eventually fell hopelessly in love with the handsome Rex Harrison. (Of course, who could resist Rex Harrison?)

Tierney'a portrayal of Ellen Brent Harland, however, is more than convincing, it is chilling. I highly recommend this film for its representation of the film noir classic and the outstanding performance of Tierney, as well.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Bell, Book, and Candle

My older sister and I spent many weekend nights in our childhood watching Frankenstein and Dracula movies. What can I say--she loved to scare me!

One night, she told me we would be watching a movie about witches, and I slid beneath the blanket on the couch, fully prepared to see black-gowned women performing sacrifices over campfires as their black cats peered from behind the forest trees, their green eyes glowing in the dark.

However, from the very first moments of Bell, Book and Candle I knew this would be a very different type of witchcraft movie! Bell, Book and Candle is a fun, charming romance starring Kim Novak as Gillian Holroyd, a bewitchingly beautiful witch who casts a love spell on San Francisco publisher Shep Henderson, played by Jimmy Stewart. Novak and Stewart also starred together in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo the same year Bell, Book and Candle was released.

Bell, Book and Candle is based on the hit Broadway play written by John Van Druten. Released in 1958, the film makes good use of the beat culture--one of the early scenes takes place in an underground bar with a French dancer gyrating provocatively on stage while Jack Lemmon plays the bongos with the band. It is Jack Lemmon's performance in this film that intrigues me the most, but then, Jack Lemmon's performances always intrigue me!

Lemmon plays Novak's brother, Nicky Holroyd, who wants to expose the family's secrets in a tell-all book. Lemmon's performance in this film is as powerful as ever, and almost overshadows Kim Novak. It is only be reducing his time on-screen that the director, Richard Quinn, managed to prevent Lemmon from becoming the star instead of the supporting role. The director is careful to restrain Lemmon's high energy, and at some points in the film, to use this energy to move the plot. In one scene, Stewart rushes into the smoky, noisy, basement bar and, without audible dialoque, the audience clearly understands the conversation taking place between Stewart and Lemmon through Lemmon's skilled use of body language.

Although the film opens with a Christmas scene and most of the plot takes place during winter, the skilled performances by Stewart, Novak, and Lemmon make it enjoyable any time of the year.

The film also stars comedian Ernie Kovaks who appeared in shows as diverse as Laugh-In and Sesame Street before the tragic car accident that took his life in 1962. The famed British stage actress Elsa Lanchester plays Lemmon and Novak's quirky Aunt Queenie Holroyd.

One of my favorite lines from Bell, Book and Candle is a typical Cold War response belonging to Jimmy Stewart. When Kim Novak tries to explain to Stewart that she is a witch, Stewart, trying to understand her emotional distress, asks, "Have you been engaging in un-American activities or something?"

My second favorite quote is in the first bar scene, when Shep Hendersen and Merle Kittridge first join the group of witches in the basement. They are listening to Nicky Holroyd play the bongos, and Aunt Queenie Holroyd Says: "Nicky and the boys play very well together. Nicky's the one playing the bongos. Up to a few months ago, he'd never studied music."
Shep Hendersen: "Ahh, isn't that remarkable."
Aunt Queenie Holroyd: "Particularly when you consider that up to a few months ago, he used to work in an herb shop."
Merle Kittridge replies: "Looks to me as if he's eaten one herb too many."

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mother's Day, Mommie Dearest!

I loved Joan Crawford as a child. She had so much presence on the screen. I first saw her in the 1939 version of The Women. The accurate portrayal of social-climbing, catty, gossipy, backstabbing women; the obvious absence of men in any scene in the film; the real-life competition between Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford--everything about this film makes it a classic, but it is Joan Crawford's performance as the sly home-wrecker that moves the film into the realm of a true work of art.

Joan Crawford, one of the most ambitious women in Hollywood, was accurately cast in this role. She often played the aggressive, unfaithful friend. Perhaps this is why few found it surprising when her adopted daughter, Christina Crawford, released her scathing autobiography, Mommy Dearest in 1978. The book was made into a movie in 1981 starring Faye Dunaway and Diana Scarwid.

The movie received mixed to poor reviews, though it faired well at the box office. According to IMDb, they started with a budget of $5 million and ended with $19 million from box office sales, $8.6 million in video rentals and international sales of $6 million. The movie quickly gained cult film and camp fans, which Paramount capitalized upon by changing its advertising.

When I first saw Mommie Dearest, I was a little disappointed. At first, I thought my disappointment stemmed from the fact that Christina Crawford was clearly trashing a woman whose acting I had long admired. I also wondered if my disappointment was with the ending, when Diana Scarwid's character, Christina Crawford, makes it clear that she is going to seek revenge against her adoptive mother by destroying Joan Crawford's professional image.

Then I realized that my deepest disappointment came from my suspicions that it was all true, that Joan Crawford had, indeed, abused her daughter.

As I looked back at the many Joan Crawford movies I have seen over the years, truly great films, such as Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, I realized that it was easy to see the intensely driven actress who made these films as the same woman who ran into her daughter's room in the middle of the night shouting, "No more wire hangers!"

Joan Crawford wasn't always the star we remember. Lucille LeSueur was born in 1905 in San Antonio, Texas to parents who were already in the process of divorce. Her mother married at least three more times, and one of her husbands, a Vaudeville manager, changed Lucille's name to Billie Cassin. She started her career as a dancer, and was a stunning beauty in her younger years. She finally changed her name to Joan Crawford after a Photoplay contest. Acting was her life. It was a way that she could escape the mixed-up years of her childhood. She was an obsessive woman, and one of her obsessions was her career.

Joan Crawford was an exceptionally-talented actress, but she was also a bully, and although I do not admire bullies, in the time that she worked in Hollywood, I find it easy to believe that a mix of aggression, drive, talent, and yes, a bit of bully, was needed for a woman to be a success in her field. She was nominated for three Oscars, and won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her 1946 performance in Mildred Pierce, which was recently remade starring Kate Winslet. She was obviously not the greatest mother to little Christina, however, from 1925 to 1972, Joan Crawford made 102 movies--a remarkable career for any Hollywood star.