Film Noir Review: The Harder They Fall (1956)

“Some guys can sell out; some guys can’t.”

Humphrey Bogart is the icon of film noir. Despite working tirelessly in genres like drama, romance, and comedy, the man affectionately known as “Bogie” is best remembered for the dozen or so noir films he made between 1940 and his death in 1957. The iconography of the man is so transcendent, in fact, that the signature trench coat and fedora look so often associated with noir is pulled from one of his non-noir releases, Casablanca (1942).

All things considered, the ties between Bogart and film noir are justified. It was the one-two punch of High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon (both 1941) that made him a star, it was the commercial gloss of The Big Sleep (1946) that made him and Lauren Bacall Hollywood’s reigning “It” couple, and it was the psychopathy of In a Lonely Place (1950) that resulted in some of his finest acting. The movement was good to Bogart, and he to it, which made it fitting that his final release, The Harder They Fall (1956), fell squarely within the film noir wheelhouse.

Bogart “pulls no punches” on the film’s poster.

The Harder They Fall is a straightforward boxing noir, replete with the fixed fights and crooked promoters. The narrative hook that helps the film stand out is that it’s told from the detached perspective of sportswriter Eddie Willis (Bogart). Willis hit the skids when his newspaper folded, and he’s resorted to doing PR work for manic promoter Nick Benko (Rod Steiger). The crooked nature of the gig reaches a breaking point, however, when Benko recruits a massive boxer named Moreno (Mike Lane) and begins fixing all of his fights so he can increase ticket prices. Who needs good boxing when you can pay to gawk at size?

The film is based on the novel of the same name by Budd Schulberg, which is fitting, given the similarities to Schulberg’s scripts for On the Waterfront (1954) and A Face In the Crowd (1957). All three films deal with artifice of schemers, and the lengths that individuals must go to break through and restore the balance of truth. Willis is perhaps the least likely candidate for martyr, given his willingness to promote Moreno early on, but the gradual transformation that the character undergoes is one of the film’s strongest elements.

Eddie Willis (Bogart) tries to balance empathy and exploitation.

Bogart was no stranger to playing tough guys with hearts of gold. He’s the quintessential actor when it comes to this archetype, and several decades into his career, he was still finding different ways to package these familiar tropes. The feigned toughness of his earlier roles gives way to a fatherly relationship with the clueless Moreno, and the delicate line Bogart walks between empathetic and exploitative is masterfully balanced. Willis isn’t a monster, he’s merely a guy doing an unpleasant job.

On the flip side, Willis gets an enormous kick out of insulting Benko and his team. Bogart’s laconic delivery was still sharp as ever, and one of the film’s singular pleasures is seeing it collide with Rod Steiger’s brash intensity. The two men were separated by a generation and an acting approach, but despite Bogart’s apathy towards the “Method” style, their scenes together have an undeniable rhythm. It helps that screenwriter Philip Yordan provided them with some choice dialogue. My favorite line comes from Willis in a moment of supreme disillusion: “A man past his forties shouldn’t have to run anymore.” It perfectly sums up the mindset of a man who’s had enough.

Dueling approaches: The sardonic Bogart and the manic Steiger.

The biggest issue the film has is the relatively nondescript plotting. The direction by Mark Robson is solid, but the events unfold at an awkward pace, especially towards the final act. It robs the ending of it’s rightful momentum, and pulls some of the enjoyment out of repeat viewings. Robson was no slouch when it came to boxing-themed noir, as his masterful film Champion (1949) can attest, so it makes this a particularly strange case of the right ingredients resulting in a slightly (just slightly) underwhelming stew.

I’d also chalk up some of my underwhelmed feeling about the finale to the story, which takes the relatively bland route of having Willis pen an expose on the boxing industry. In comparison to the grandiose gestures of other Schulberg protagonists, it feels like an ending that was slightly defanged.

Mark Robson’s direction evokes his earlier with horror master Val Lewton.

Ironically, the film was released with two different endings, furthering the notion that it didn’t know where it wanted to go. The second ending is even more slight than the first, as Willis merely calls for an investigation into the sport of boxing. A punchier outcome would have done wonders here.

The Harder They Fall, despite its unflattering title and uneven pacing, is a worthy swan song for Bogart. The actor was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly before production started, and despite the physical pain he was experiencing, he never let it inhibit his work. He remained at the top of his game, and his presence helps to elevate this decent film into the realm of being very good. Such is the power of Bogart and film noir. Few combinations have ever been so consistently fruitful.

TRIVIA: The film was loosely based on the life of boxer Primo Carnera, who unsuccessfully tried to sue the film’s makers on the grounds that it damaged his reputation.

…..

–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub

Danilo Castro is a film noir aficionado and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.

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Western RoundUp: Preview – 2021 Lone Pine Film Festival

Western RoundUp: Preview – 2021 Lone Pine Film Festival

The 31st Lone Pine Film Festival – October 7-10, 2021
The 31st Lone Pine Film Festival – October 7-10, 2021

After a challenging year and a half, it’s wonderful to see some beloved aspects of “normalcy” returning here in the United States.

One such example is the Lone Pine Film Festival, which returns to Lone Pine, California, for its 31st edition in October 2021.

Last year, like many film festivals, the Lone Pine Festival went “all virtual.” I was impressed with what was presented online and wrote about it here at Classic Movie Hub.

This year the festival will be held in Lone Pine from October 7th through 10th. The theme is “The Great Western Comeback.”

Lone Pine Film Festival 2021, "The Great Western Comeback"
This year’s theme is “The Great Western Comeback”

The Lone Pine Film Festival strikes me as the ideal experience as we ease back into normalcy. While the screenings take place indoors, much of the festival takes place in the great outdoors, so those preferring to limit their time indoors have numerous options. Outdoor activities available at the festival include the opening night buffet and closing night campfire, numerous movie location tours, a parade, a stunt show, a panel discussion, a nondenominational Sunday morning Cowboy Church service, and horseback riding.

The festival begins with a buffet reception in the parking lot of Lone Pine’s Museum of Western Film History, where it’s often possible to mingle with some of the festival’s special guests.

This year the guests will include Patrick Wayne, Claude Jarman Jr., Bruce Boxleitner, Robert Carradine, Darby Hinton, William Wellman Jr., Jay Dee Witney (son of director William Witney), Wyatt McCrea (grandson of Joel McCrea and Frances Dee), Cheryl Rogers Barnett (daughter of Roy Rogers and stepdaughter of Dale Evans), and Diamond Farnsworth (son of Richard Farnsworth).

Discussion moderators will include Rob Word and Steve Latshaw. Musician Jay C. Munns, a festival regular I’ve heard accompany several silent films at past festivals, will also be on hand.

There will be approximately 20 films shown at this year’s festival. Highlights from the film schedule include:

Red River (1988) Movie Poster
Red River (1988)

*An opening night screening of a TV version of Red River (1988), postponed from the 2019 festival. James Arness, Bruce Boxleitner, and Gregory Harrison starred in the roles played in the original 1948 film by John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, and John Ireland. Boxleitner will be on hand for a Q&A session with Rob Word. I’ve met Boxleitner at past festivals; he loves classic movies!

The Grey Fox (1982) Movie Poster
The Grey Fox (1982)

*The Grey Fox (1982) starring Richard Farnsworth, introduced by his son Diamond.

Hangman's Knot (1952) Movie Poster
Hangman’s Knot (1952)

*Hangman’s Knot (1952), starring Randolph Scott and Donna Reed, with costar Claude Jarman Jr. present for a Q&A session.

Rio Grande (1950) Movie Poster
Rio Grande (1950)

*John Ford‘s Rio Grande (1950), starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, with Claude Jarman Jr. and Patrick Wayne participating in interviews. Wayne had a small part in the film, his first screen role, while Jarman played Wayne and O’Hara’s son and even learned to perform Roman riding for the film alongside Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. I wrote about my love of Rio Grande for Classic Movie Hub in March 2020.

The Great Man's Lady (1942) Movie Poster
The Great Man’s Lady (1942)

*Wyatt McCrea and William Wellman Jr. present The Great Man’s Lady (1942), which starred Wyatt’s grandfather, Joel McCrea, directed by Wellman’s father, William Wellman.

Under Western Stars (1938) Movie Poster
Under Western Stars (1938)

*The world premiere of a 4K remaster of Under Western Stars (1938), starring Roy Rogers, introduced by Cheryl Rogers Barnett.

The Long Riders (1980) Movie Poster
The Long Riders (1980)

*Robert Carradine will be present for a screening and discussion of The Long Riders (1980), in which he appeared with his brothers David and Keith, as well as the Quaid, Keach, and Guest brothers.

Hidden Valley (1932) Movie Poster
Hidden Valley (1932)

*Hidden Valley (1932) with Bob Steele, whose “B” Westerns I’ve really come to appreciate thanks to past festivals.

High Sierra (1941) Movie Poster
High Sierra (1941)

*High Sierra (1941) with Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino. The final car chase was filmed outside Lone Pine, and Bogart’s car may be seen in the Museum of Western Film History!

There will be 15 different tours available at this year’s festival, some of which will take place at two or three different times over the course of the long weekend. A majority of the tours will feature locations from movies shown at the festival, including The Cattle Thief (1936) with Ken Maynard, The Cisco Kid and the Lady (1939) with Cesar Romero, the Hopalong Cassidy film Bar 20 (1943), Border Treasure (1950) with Tim Holt, the previously mentioned Hangman’s Knot (1952), and the outstanding crime film The Hitch-Hiker (1953), which was directed by Ida Lupino.

There will also be a sunrise tour of the Alabama Hills, a tour of Alabama Hills sites that were photographed by Ansel Adams, and another tour focused on the area’s geology.

Those considering attending the festival might want to know that I’ve been in Lone Pine three times since August 2020 and have always found ample options for eating outdoors if that is desired.

As I write there are not currently state or local mask or vaccine card mandates, but visitors should, of course, be aware that that is subject to change. Inyo County, where Lone Pine is located, currently recommends but does not mandate wearing masks indoors, and the festival also encourages them when inside.

The Lone Pine Film Festival is always a favorite, melding varied activities with a relaxed vibe, in a gorgeous Western setting. I highly recommend attending if at all possible.

To get a more detailed sense of the festival experience, readers can also check out my preview of the 2019 Festival as well as my post-festival article on some of the fun had that year.

For more on the Lone Pine Film Festival, including ticket information, please visit the festival website.

– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub

Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns.  She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals.  Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.

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Cinemallennials: Casablanca (1942)

Cinemallennials: Casablanca (1942)

Casablanca Cinemallennials

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Cinemallennials, it is a bi-weekly podcast in which I, and another millennial, watch a classic film that we’ve never seen before, and discuss its significance and relevance in today’s world.

In this episode, I talked with Alexandra Riba about one of the most iconic and beloved films of all time, Casablanca.  From its multi-dimensional characters and timeless themes to its writing, cinematography, and score, Casablanca is often referred to as ‘the perfect film.’ Many filmmakers have been influenced by its themes and elements – some have included direct references to it in their films, while others reflect some of its brilliance into their own works.

Casablanca - Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Ingrid Bergman
Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), joins Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), Victor Lazslo (Paul Henreid), and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) for a drink.

Set during WWII, Casablanca follows the story of American Richard Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), owner of Rick’s Café Américain in refugee-filled Casablanca, who must decide whether or not to help his former lover, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and her freedom-fighter husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Heinred) escape Casablanca so that they can continue their fight against the Nazis.

Casablanca - Humphrey Bogart and Dooley Wilson
Rick’s Cafe – Humphrey Bogart and Dooley Wilson (on piano)

The film was adapted from an unproduced 1940 stage play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison called Everybody Comes to Rick’s. The story was based on Burnett’s experiences when he traveled with his wife to Vienna in 1938 to help Jewish relatives smuggle money out of the country, and later, when they both frequented a nightclub in the south of France, where a black man played jazz and the clientele consisted of French, refugees, and Nazis.  

Casablanca - filming Humphrey Bogard and Ingrid Bergman
Director Michael Curtiz behind the camera capturing one of cinema’s greatest finales.

Many of the cast were refugees themselves, fleeing their own countries and eventually making their way to America. Conrad Veidt who plays Major Stasser, the menacing Nazi officer, defied propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels by identifying himself as Jewish when asked to declare his race in a questionnaire meant to purge the film industry. Veidt was not Jewish, but his wife was, and there was nothing in this world that would compel him to break off his relationship with her or to break off his support of the German Jewish community. Helmut Dantine who played Jan (the young refugee who gambles to try to earn money to purchase travel visas for him and his wife) was imprisoned in a concentration camp after opposing the Nazis in Austria before being released and arriving in California. Madeline Lebeau, who plays Yvonne – and who has a beautifully impactful scene in which she is crying while passionately singing La Marseilles –made the exact journey to freedom many wanted to make in Casablanca. After fleeing from the Nazi invasion of France, Lebeau and her husband obtained transit visas and eventually arrived in America. These are only a few examples of the journeys that influenced the emotionally resonant performances in the film that still impact audiences all over the world today.

Casablanca - Conrad Veidt and Madeline Lebeau
Conrad Veidt as Major Strasser and Madeline Lebeau as Yvonne.

During this episode, Alex and I will be discussing topics such as doing what’s right in order to help others, how non-action can beget violence, and the relationship between sacrifice and love. Throughout Casablanca, the main characters are presented with a choice to do the right thing (and lose everything they love in order to benefit the world) or to benefit themselves alone (and keep the things they love the most). This moral dilemma still resonates today as more and more global conflicts arise, but by watching Casablanca, we as the younger generation can be made aware of how our choices can impact others and the world around us.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Cinemallennials, which you can find here on apple podcasts or on spotify. Please reach out to me as I would love to hear your thoughts on Casablanca, especially if you’re a first-time viewer too!

— Dave Lewis for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Dave’s CMH Cinemallennials articles here.

Dave Lewis is the producer, writer, and host of Cinemallennials, a podcast where he and another millennial watch a classic film that they haven’t seen before ranging from the early 1900s to the late 1960s and discuss its significance and relevance in our world today. Before writing for Classic Movie Hub, Dave wrote about Irish and Irish-American history, the Gaelic Athletic Association in the United States, and Irish innovators for Irish America magazine. You can find more episodes of Cinemallennials, film reviews and historical analyses, on Dave’s website dlewmoviereview.com or his YouTube channel.

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Classic Conversations: Ben Mankiewicz on His Grandfather’s Oscar-Winning ‘Citizen Kane’ Coming to Theaters

TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, grandson of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz

Among classic movie lovers, the topic of the greatest film of all time is one that always leads to a lot of controversy. I tend to be an outlier when I read such lists. I’m shocked by all the people who call Vertigo the best film ever, there are so many other Hitchcock films I prefer. I’ve never seen Ozu Yasujiro’s Tokyo Story or Carl Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. I appreciate Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now but am more of a fan of his Godfather trilogy. I studied Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin in film school and admire its achievements, but I don’t think it would even make my Top 25. I adore Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain but I lean toward Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon as my favorite MGM musical of that era. But there’s one film that always appears on the lists of all-time greats that I never quibble with: Orson Welles’ 1941 film Citizen Kane, co-written by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz.

If you’ve never seen the extraordinary Citizen Kane on the big screen, now’s your chance! For the film’s 80th anniversary, TCM Big Screen Classics, together with Fathom Events, is screening Welles’ masterpiece around the country on Sunday, September 19, and Wednesday, September 22.  Just go to this link and type in your city or zip code to find theaters near you that will be showing the film. Trust me, you don’t want to miss this spectacular achievement, loosely based on the life of media moguls such as William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, Samuel Insull, Harold McCormick, and others. Yes, Hearst really did prohibit mention of the film in his newspapers, which severely hurt the film at the box office, yes, he went after Orson Welles in a big way, and yes, part of Hearst’s enmity towards Welles was based on his perception that the film also skewered his love, actress Marion Davies. But no, neither Orson Welles or Herman Mankiewicz in any way based the tragic Susan Alexander Kane on Davies. Both men knew Marion Davies and knew the successful actress and glittering personality to be the polar opposite of the unfortunate second Mrs. Kane. 

Herman J. Mankiewicz

I had a chance this week to talk to TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, the grandson of Citizen Kane’s storied screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz—one of the few screenwriters in history to be portrayed in not one but two feature films (by John Malkovich in the 1999 film RKO 281, and by Gary Oldman in last year’s Oscar-nominated Mank). Ben will be providing filmed commentary for the theatrical screenings next week and I was delighted to join the roundtable discussion of journalists talking to him about the legacy of this film. I asked Ben what kind of lore this film had in his life as he was growing up. Did he grow up watching it and acknowledging his grandfather’s work, or did he come to appreciate it more later on?

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane

“I definitely came to appreciate it more later on,” Ben replied. “I grew up in DC and my father (the late Frank Mankiewicz) was a fairly big deal in Democratic politics. He worked closely with Bobby Kennedy, and then, after Kennedy was murdered, he ran George McGovern’s presidential campaign. My dad was always the smartest person in any room he was in. Growing up, I knew there was this Hollywood wing of the family that my dad had very consciously fled from. I always knew that Herman had written Citizen Kane and I was aware of the family line—that Orson Welles had somehow tried to steal the credit for my grandfather’s movie! But, to be honest, movies back then were not that important to me. That changed in college but it was really when I was in my twenties that I started to get a lot more interested. I remember watching Citizen Kane with a lot more cognition of my grandfather’s role and thinking, ‘Okay, this is obviously very good and it’s very clever, and it sounds like a Mankiewicz wrote it, but I’m pretty sure this Welles guy deserves a tremendous amount of credit no matter how much of the script he actually wrote!’ I mean, yes, I think Herman deserves the overwhelming lion’s share of the credit for writing the screenplay but let’s not kid ourselves: this is Orson Welles’ movie. Period.”

Mankiewicz talked to us about last year’s Mank which told the story of the writing of Citizen Kane and the relationship between his grandfather and young Orson Welles.  “I thought it was a wonderful movie. I started sobbing at the title card, for crying out loud! You know, I never met my grandfather (Herman died in 1953) but the character that David and Jack Fincher and Gary Oldman gave us was exactly how my father described him. It was like my father had talked to Fincher, but he didn’t, he died in 2014. When I watched the film I just kept thinking how much my dad would have loved it—this exploration of my grandfather as this urban, smart, funny guy, yet also a drunk and a gambler who was reckless and filled with self-loathing. My dad would have recognized that torture that Herman put himself through and which, frankly, was the reason why my dad, who would’ve been a great screenwriter, wanted nothing to do with the movies.”

“When I see my grandfather’s work in Citizen Kane, I know that I am never, ever going to come close to matching that accomplishment! But that’s okay. My name has certainly opened doors for me and given me a lot of advantages even if I know I’ll never be able to match my ancestors.” Mankiewicz was asked what he might ask his grandfather if he could interview him on his TCM set. “To be honest, I would probably get hung up on the self-loathing. It seems pretty clear that Herman saw value in Kane and knew he’d written something that mattered, but he could never really shake this idea that what he was doing wasn’t worthwhile. My guess is that it came from his own father, the one who had first emigrated here from Poland in the 1880s. Herman and Joe (Ben’s great-uncle, the Oscar-winning director, screenwriter, and producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz) had that struggle throughout their lives. 

With its incredible cast of actors including Welles, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, Ruth Warrick, and Dorothy Comingore, most of them making their film debuts, its brilliant and innovative cinematography by Gregg Toland, and its Oscar-winning screenplay by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz, don’t miss the chance to see the 80th anniversary screening of Citizen Kane on the big screen where it belongs. And, for the record, Ben Mankiewicz agreed with me about Vertigo. “Not even on my Top 10 list of favorite Hitchcock films!” Duh…North by Northwest and Rear Window leave that film in the dust! [Now I better hide from my classic movie friends…]

–Danny Miller for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Danny’s Classic Conversation Articles Here

Danny Miller is a freelance writer, book editor, and co-author of  About Face: The Life and Times of Dottie Ponedel, Make-up Artist to the StarsYou can read more of Danny’s articles at Cinephiled, or you can follow him on Twitter at @dannymmiller

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Silents are Golden: A Closer Look at – Sunrise (1927)

Silents are Golden: A Closer Look at – Sunrise (1927)

German director F.W. Murnau, probably best known for his horror classic Nosferatu (1922), is also renowned for his masterpiece Sunrise (1927). This beautifully stylized drama about the travails of a young rural couple has universal appeal – its full title is Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. More than a few historians have made the case that Murnau’s poetic film is nothing less than the finest silent ever made.

Sunrise (1927) George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor
The two stars, George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor.

Thanks to the flurry of interest in his artistic 1924 feature The Last Laugh, Murnau was whiled away from Germany by William Fox who offered him a pricey 4-year contract. Fox had been hoping to compete with other big studios and wanted to have the prestige of having a talented European director in his stable. He had also been deeply impressed by Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), an Expressionist masterpiece. Murnau was not only happy to deliver, but also brought a crew of top German screenwriters, cinematographers, designers, etc. along with him. This included Carl Meyer, one of the writers of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, (1920), and designer Rochus Gliese, the mastermind behind Sunrise’s elaborate sets. Other European directors had come to work in Hollywood before, but once Hollywood saw what Murnau could do, it would arguably never be the same.

Murnau decided to base his first American film on the story “A Trip To Tilsit” by Herman Suderman. It had its dark elements, and could easily have been treated more cynically by a different director: A young farmer is tempted away from his loving wife by a conniving “vamp” from the city. The vamp wants him to murder his wife and frame it as an accident so they can run off together, and after initial misgivings, he agrees. When the day arrives, however, he’s unable to go through with the murder, and the poor wife flees from him in terror. Deeply remorseful, he follows her and asks for forgiveness. Finally, he wins back her trust, and during a day in the city, they begin to fall in love with each other all over again.

Sunrise (1927) George O'Brien and Margaret Livingston
The farmer and the tempting vamp, Margaret Livingston

The story has a quasi-fairytale quality, with its unnamed characters known only as “The Man,” “The Wife,” and “The Woman from the City.” The year and the exact setting are unclear since the couple’s clothing looks vaguely Old World while the vamp has on a stylish, all-black outfit. Landscapes are shrouded in fog, and the bright, exciting city has impossibly wide streets. Murnau, accustomed to German Expressionism, wanted Sunrise to be stylized without sacrificing a sense of realism. Thus, the settings are slightly dreamlike, giving the feeling of a remote farm, and the feeling of a city seen by a country couple for the first time.

Sunrise (1927) George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor City
The main character explores the Big City.

Ingenious camera and design tricks were key to the dreamlike quality Murnau wanted. The camera appears to float behind George O’Brien during the night scenes in the swamp, a difficult feat to pull off in the days before Steadicam. This was done by simply fastening the camera to tracks that ran in a “t” shape on the studio’s ceiling. Dramatic lighting and in-camera dissolves added to the Expressionist effect and intertitles were used sparingly (the most famous involves the word “drowned,” which wavers and “drips” down the screen).

Sunrise (1927) Melting text scene effect
“Couldn’t she get drowned?”

The famous city set (which cost $200,000) used forced perspective to appear much wider and grander than it was, with the buildings in the background being built much smaller than the ones closer to the camera. Reportedly, Murnau completed the illusion by hiring little people to walk in the background. Numerous cameramen, set designers, filmmakers, and other industry folk came to check out Murnau’s sets and see what the top German talents could do in Hollywood – Sunrise‘s design would be deeply influential. (And the city set would be used in subsequent films, too.) All in all, it took five months to prepare the sets in an era when many Fox films were churned out relatively quickly.

Sunrise (1927) City set
The famous city set.

For his leads, Murnau chose George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor. O’Brien had first come to Hollywood to become a cameraman and ended up doing stunt work and bit parts before starring in John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924). Gaynor had also done bit roles before signing with Fox in 1926, and by 1927 was famed for her sensitive, wholesome characterizations. Previously, O’Brien and Gaynor had been paired in the very successful 7th Heaven (1927), which had made them household names. Both would deliver wonderful performances in Murnau’s film, with touches of Expressionism–most evident in O’Brien’s body language early on.

Sunrise (1927) Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien
Gaynor and O’Brien.

Sunrise was also given a “sound on film” score that added sound effects, enhancing the experience. 1927 was the same year The Jazz Singer was released and is considered the official start to the talkie era. Thus, any use of sound was all the rage. At the New York premiere, Fox’s Movietone documentary shorts preceded the feature and were admired for their “natural sound” almost as much as the feature itself.

While it had highly-publicized premieres (the west coast opening was attended by a number of stars) and attracted many critical accolades, Sunrise only performed modestly at the box office. But its influence would turn out to transcend temporary, monetary gains. Its fluid camera movements and brilliant design inspired many directors, who tried using the Murnau touch in their own films. It was considered the high point of the silent era – an era that was soon about to end.

Its place in cinema history has only grown over the years, often making prestigious“top ten greatest films” lists. In 2012 Sight & Sound ranked it #5. Its timeless appeal has been evident to every generation who gets to experience it–and inevitably, fall in love with it.

Sunrise (1927) title card
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

…..

–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.

Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.

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Silver Screen Standards: Claude Rains

Silver Screen Standards: Claude Rains

I couldn’t decide between several movies I had in mind for this month’s column, and then I realized that they all had something in common – Claude Rains.

Rains is one of those actors whose presence makes any film better, whether he’s appearing in melodrama, horror, period adventure, or film noir. While he’s rarely the leading man, Rains commands the screen so thoroughly that he always holds his own and sometimes even steals his scenes from the ostensible leads. His magnificent voice and acting range serve him well in many of classic Hollywood’s most iconic pictures, from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Casablanca (1942) to Now, Voyager (1942) and Notorious (1946). It’s no surprise that he earned four Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor but fairly incredible that he never actually won, especially because it’s so hard to imagine these enduring classics being nearly as great without him.

The Invisible Man (1933) Claude Rains
Rains broke into movie stardom with his incredible performance as the title character in The Invisible Man (1933), in which an ambitious scientist experiments on himself and becomes a homicidal maniac.

Claude Rains was born into an acting family in London on November 10, 1889, and he made his own stage debut at the age of 11. His service in World War I left him nearly blind in one eye due to a gas attack, but after the war, he was able to resume his acting career and relocate to the United States, where he worked on Broadway until movie stardom came calling with his breakout debut performance in James Whale’s 1933 horror masterpiece, The Invisible Man. Although he returned to horror occasionally and to great effect, especially in The Wolf Man (1942), Rains avoided being typecast and played a variety of roles in several genres, where his characters ranged from the paternal to the suave and even homicidal. Having arrived in Hollywood rather late in his career, and in his mid-forties, Rains still managed to appear in nearly 80 films and television programs before his death in 1967 at the age of 77 (he also managed to fit in six marriages and five divorces). His final film appearance came in 1965 with the role of King Herod in The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Rains’ voice made him a star, given that he was literally invisible throughout his first starring role, but his later pictures proved that his talents went far beyond his voice. He could brood, stare, and smirk with equal brilliance; he could kill with kindness or a wolf-headed cane. He transformed himself into a preening Prince John, almost unrecognizable in a page boy wig, in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), but he needed only a uniform and a jaunty amorality to become Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca (1942).

Casablanca (1942) Claude Rains
Bogart and Bergman are great, but Casablanca (1942) wouldn’t be the same without Rains’ slippery but likable Louis.

His ability to slide between likable and villainous modes served him particularly well in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Notorious (1946), and The Unsuspected (1947), although he could and did play morally upright types, especially in his films with Bette Davis. In Now, Voyager (1942) his kindly, paternal doctor guided Bette’s heroine through emotional upheaval, while in Mr. Skeffington (1944) he played the long-suffering title character opposite Bette’s vain, tragic socialite. It was hardly a stretch to cast him as the Devil in Angel on My Shoulder (1946), as so many of his best characters have a devilish air about them, although his angelic role in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) is more surprising. Costume dramas and period films saw him in a variety of guises, playing the Earl of Hertford in The Prince and the Pauper (1937), Napoleon III in Juarez (1939), Julius Caesar to Vivien Leigh’s Cleopatra in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), and finally King Herod in the star-studded biblical epic.

Personally, I prefer a wicked Claude Rains to a virtuous one, and my favorite performances from the actor are his title role in The Invisible Man and his duplicitous Nazi in Notorious. In the first role, Rains cuts loose with murderous abandon and also highlights his talent for a darkly comical turn, while in the second he plays a far more covert sort of murderer whose expressions suggest the dangerous edge beneath his smooth veneer. His Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood is delightfully horrible, but he has to share the villains’ spotlight with Basil Rathbone, and his tortured title character in Phantom of the Opera (1943) actually gets far too little screen time to make enough impact on the audience, especially in comparison with other adaptations of the story. Rains gets a meatier part to play in The Unsuspected, where his magnificent voice perfectly suits his role as the host of a murder mystery radio program.

The Wolf Man (1942) Claude Rains
Rains plays a stern but ultimately tragic father to Lon Chaney Jr.’s cursed title character in The Wolf Man (1942).

If you’ve seen all of his most memorable pictures and want more, The Unsuspected is definitely a top pick, but Rains also makes noteworthy appearances in Kings Row (1942), Moontide (1942), and Where Danger Lives (1950). If you’re just starting to appreciate Rains’ career, see his four Oscar-nominated performances in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Casablanca, Mr. Skeffington, and Notorious, and then move on to other major roles in The Wolf Man, Now, Voyager, and Deception (1946). For a really deep dive into Rains’ life and work, check out the 2008 biography, Claude Rains: An Actor’s Voice, by horror film historian David J. Skal and Rains’ daughter, Jessica Rains.

— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub

Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.

Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.

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Monsters and Matinees: A lifetime of being terrorized by ‘Grizzly’

Not all movie monsters fade away with the end credits.

They might make a lasting impression because of their greatness (Universal monsters), uniqueness (The Blob) or silliness (Attack of the Killer Shrews). They can feed on our fears or leave us with new ones like being afraid to swim in the ocean (Jaws).

In extreme cases, they leave us with life-long phobias that have no basis in reality. Take me for example: I’m terrified of quicksand (from watching Tarzan movies), walking into another dimension (The Twilight Zone) and seeing an apparition behind me in a mirror (too many films to mention).

The jaws of death in Grizzly, a 1976 horror film that owes a lot to the classic Jaws.

My biggest irrational fear: being mauled to death by a bear.

I stay clear of bear exhibits at zoos and other attractions. I don’t go near the woods and certainly won’t camp out overnight. Even staying in a cabin isn’t an option because bears can break windows and knock down walls. I know it’s true because it happened in Grizzly.

The 1976 creature feature about a powerful bear who could rip through barriers, was resistant to guns and as smart as humans was so terrifying that I watched it only once as a kid and never again. Yet an extreme fear of being a Grizzly victim stays with me today.

Family and friends laugh about it. They send birthday cards with pictures of bears and forward bear memes and articles. It became, pun intended, too much to bear. Finally, it was time to face this fear and that meant going back to where it started: to Grizzly. Would it be as horrifying to watch as an adult as my childhood memories led me to believe? I was surprised at the answer.

The movie

Grizzly opens with a nice helicopter ride over a national park. The pilot is talking to two senators about needing the government’s help in protecting national parks from campers and the damage they do. (Bad things always follow a speech like that.)

Suddenly, a lovely musical score by Robert O. Raglan (performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra of London, no less) begins to soar along with the gorgeous overhead shots of picturesque mountains, forests and streams. It’s serene and romantic – are we watching a travel video or a horror film? Both. (That music returns again and again and was one of the surprises of rewatching the Grizzly.)

Cut to the busy town below that’s overrun by backpackers and campers despite it being off season. There are so many that Forest Ranger Michael Kelly (played by Christopher George) has brought his crew together to deal with the problem. “We’ve got more backpackers pitching tents than raccoons in the woods,” quips one of the rangers.

An innocent camper becomes the first victim of the title character in Grizzly.

They’ve got a right to be concerned because those backpackers are about to meet the title character.

Two young female campers are the first victims and authorities are perplexed. Perhaps the girls got too close to a cub (save that for Grizzly II). Or the bear was hungry.

“But bears don’t eat people!” Ranger Kelly insists.

“This one did,” the coroner replies.

Leading the hunt for the bear, Ranger Kelly is joined by war veteran and our helicopter pilot Don Stober (played by Andrew Prine) and the park’s naturalist Arthur Scott (Richard Jaeckel) who camouflages himself in animal hide and arrives with bad news.

As Ranger Kelly, Christopher George makes it his mission to find the deadly Grizzly.

“We’ve got a grizzly – and then some,” Scott says. It’s at least 15-feet tall – twice the normal size, judging by its claw marks on a tree – and weighs more than 2,000 pounds. That massive size can mean only one thing: It’s an ancestor of the Arctodus ursus horribilis – the mightiest carnivore during the Pleistocene era.  

“What is a million-year-old grizzly doing here?” he’s asked.

“He’s looking for food,” Scott replies.

The film gets into a routine from there: People hunt the grizzly. The grizzly hunts the people. Someone dies. Someone does something stupid. Someone else dies. The hunt continues and it starts again.

This is not a movie where bodies are simply discovered either. Each death is telegraphed, with the tension building as the grizzly stalks its intended victim. The music abruptly becomes ominous. We see the clueless victim from the grizzly’s point-of-view. The grizzly grunts, huffs, growls yet only the viewer hears him. (“Run!” we scream in our heads. “Run!”)

There’s not much a human can do against a bear that stands at least 15 feet tall and can take on a helicopter as in this scene from Grizzly.

Immense claws pound the ground as the grizzly gets closer, the music speeds up. It’s intense. There’s none of that fake “teen popping up in a bear costume” schtick to lighten things up, either. (The film’s only comic relief is a scene of backpackers running down the mountain as an evacuation order is announced.)

At multiple points you’ll think “Oh no … the bear is not going to kill (fill in the blank).” Oh, yes it will – this bear is heartless and will claim more victims than you might imagine before it is done.

And it may remind you of another movie monster.

Borrowing inspiration from a classic

On its release, Grizzly was ripped apart for being an unabashed copy of Jaws, made a year earlier.

Judging from the film’s poster that proclaims “The most dangerous Jaws in the land,” it seems the studio would relish the comparison.

In addition to a similar plot (just insert bear for shark), the characters are the same. We see the Roy Scheider authority figure in Christopher George; the grizzled Robert Shaw shark hunter in Richard Jaeckel’s naturalist; the Richard Dreyfuss role is now the pilot who wants to protect nature; and the mayor who won’t close the beach is the park supervisor who, you guessed it, won’t shut down the park.

Grizzly isn’t anywhere near as good, of course. Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote that it was “such a blatant imitation of Jaws that one has to admire the depth of the flattery it represents, though not the lack of talent involved.”

While my second viewing made those Jaws comparisons clear, that didn’t matter to the adult me who still finds creature features entertaining even if the effects and story don’t hold up.

Let’s take the nightmarish images of bloodied limbs flying across the screen that have haunted me since that first fateful viewing. Today those scenes look so phony you can picture the person just off camera throwing the fake prosthetics. Yet it didn’t matter. It was the idea that a bear could rip your arm or leg off that terrified me, not the ketchup-like blood and the fake arm.

And there was the crux of my lifelong phobia of bears. No matter how weak the movie or how fake the effects may have looked, it was the idea that one of those large claws could slice through my flesh and bone while I walked through the woods picking flowers that was terrifying.

It’s something I could never have imagined without seeing Grizzly. It doesn’t matter that today I see the movie with the flaws I never noticed as a child, the result is the same. Watching Grizzly today didn’t ease my fear of bears, it solidified it. This city-dweller still won’t take chances when it comes to bears.

A long-awaited sequel

Grizzly may have been bashed by critics, but not by moviegoers. Made for only $750,000, it was a financial hit as it pulled in $39 million. Money talks so there was a sequel. If you never heard of it, that makes sense since it would take 37 years to make it to the screen.

Grizzly II: Revenge, also called Grizzly II: The Predator and Grizzly II: The Concert, grew to film folklore after sitting on the shelf for nearly four decades. Part of the curiosity about the film grew because of the brief appearances by future stars George Clooney, Laura Dern and Charlie Sheen. (Given their stardom today, the trio was given top billing in the film and on the posters.)

A young Laura Dern and George Clooney are about to meet a very angry bear in Grizzly II: Revenge.

It was filmed in Hungary in 1983 by André Szöts, whose only other directing credit was a TV movie titled Vasárnap Budapesten.

The story is simple: After poachers kill a cub, a mama grizzly goes on the attack – at a rock concert. (The filmmakers staged a rock concert in Hungary for the film that also stars John Rhys-Davies and Louise Fletcher.)

But a producer left early in filming, taking money with him. There were behind-the-scenes fights. And the mechanical bears either broke down or were stolen, depending on the report you read.

The film remained unreleased until producer Suzanne C. Nagy cut through the legalities, added some stock footage, trimmed it a bit, played up the appearances by Clooney, Dern and Sheen and premiered Grizzly II: Revenge at the 2020 Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival. The reviews have not been kind as it was called a “grievous sequel” by the New York Times and “a terribly shot, badly dubbed, weirdly framed, disjointed rip-off of Jaws,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Judge for yourself. Both Grizzly and Grizzly II: Revenge are available to watch through streaming and rental services.

 Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Toni’s Monsters and Matinees articles here.

Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.

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Noir Nook: “Killer” Noir

Noir Nook: “Killer” Noir

Film noir is not easy to define. Sometimes, it’s not even easy to determine whether a film is noir or not. Whenever I’m asked to describe film noir, I respond that generally speaking, noir films portray a universe typified by corruption, pessimism, and hopelessness, and are commonly distinguished by shadows, reflections, and unique camera angles.

I like to also note that the titles of noir features often contain words that serve as a telling descriptor of this era of filmmaking – such one-word titles as Desperate, Pitfall, Caught, Cornered, and Framed are ideal indicators of the noir sensibility, as are frequently used words in noir titles like ‘fear,’ ‘guilty,’ ‘strange,’ ‘cry,’ and, of course — ‘kill.’

In this month’s Noir Nook, I’m taking a look at my top five noirs with some derivation of the word ‘kill’ in the title – or, as I like to think of them: ‘killer’ noirs.

The Killers (1946)

Loosely based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, this film opens with the murder of a gas station attendant and ex-boxer known as ‘The Swede,’ by two hired killers. The remainder of the film, consisting of numerous flashbacks, focuses on the efforts of an insurance investigator to determine who killed the Swede and why.

Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946)
Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946)

The film stars Burt Lancaster as the Swede, here making his big-screen debut. The cast also includes Ava Gardner, as duplicitous femme fatale Kitty Collins; Edmond O’Brien as the insurance investigator; and William Conrad and Charles McGraw as the memorable murderers of the film’s title.

Noir veteran Robert Siodmak earned an Academy Award nomination for his direction of The Killers (he lost to William Wyler for The Best Years of Our Lives) – it was one of numerous noirs he helmed, including Phantom Lady (1944), Cry of the City (1948), and Criss Cross (1949).

The Killing (1956)

This film centers on an intricately, intelligently designed plan to carry out a racetrack heist. The scheme involves an odd mixture of characters possessing a variety of motives, including a mousy cashier who is desperate to hold onto his gold-digging wife, a bartender caring for his beloved, invalid spouse, and a policeman whose penchant for gambling has left him dangerously in debt.

Marie Windsor and Sterling Hayden in The Killing (1956)
Marie Windsor and Sterling Hayden in The Killing (1956)

Using a unique, non-linear storytelling technique, director Stanley Kubrick – who was only 28 when the movie was released – entwined a large cast to create a fascinating film that’s one of my all-time favorites. Some of the film’s most memorable characters were brought to life by Sterling Hayden, as the mastermind of the heist; Elisha Cook, Jr., as the cashier; Marie Windsor as Cook’s spouse; and Vince Edwards, who throws a monkey wrench into the entire proceedings.

Born to Kill (1947)

Featuring two particularly unsavory lead characters, Born to Kill focuses on a double murder, the man responsible for the killings, and the woman who knows he’s responsible but is drawn to him in spite of – maybe even because of – his crimes.

Claire Trevor and Lawrence Tierney in Born to Kill (1947)
Claire Trevor and Lawrence Tierney in Born to Kill (1947)

Lawrence Tierney plays the aptly named Sam Wild, a social-climbing psychopath who doesn’t hesitate to kill even though he’s warned by his buddy (Elisha Cook, Jr., again) that it “just isn’t feasible.” And the woman who can’t stay away from him is portrayed by the always excellent Claire Trevor. Others in the cast include Isabel Jewell, as Laury Palmer, one of Sam’s luckless victims; Esther Howard, a friend of Laury’s who tries to find her pal’s killer; and Walter Slezak, a canny private detective.

The film was directed by Robert Wise, whose pedigree not only included several first-rate noirs – notably The Set-Up (1949) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) – but also such classics as West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). During his career, he won four Academy Awards and numerous other well-earned accolades.

The Killer Is Loose (1956)

Wendell Corey, who often gets a bad rap for his rather nondescript characters, appears in this feature as you’ve never seen him before, playing “Foggy” Poole, an unbalanced escaped convict, bent on some eye-for-an-eye revenge against the cop who accidentally – but fatally – shot his wife.

Joseph Cotten and Rhonda Fleming in The Killer is Loose (1956)
Joseph Cotten and Rhonda Fleming in The Killer is Loose (1956)

The cop is portrayed by Joseph Cotten, and his wife – the object of Foggy’s vengeful desire – is played by Rhonda Fleming. Others on hand include Alan Hale, Jr., best known for his role as the Skipper on TV’s Gilligan’s Island, and John Beradino, who some of you may recognize from the ABC soaper General Hospital, where he played Dr. Steve Hardy from 1963 until his death in 1996.

The Killer Is Loose was directed by Budd Boetticher, who directed Randolph Scott in the 1956 western Seven Men From Now and went on to helm five more acclaimed westerns starring Scott, known as the Ranown Cycle (named after Scott and his producer, Harry Joe Brown).

The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)

An especially timely noir, given the world’s current pandemic state, this feature is about a woman who smuggles stolen diamonds from Cuba – but that’s not all she’s brought with her. Unbeknownst to her, she’s also been infected with smallpox, and upon her return to the Big Apple, the disease quickly begins to spread.

Charles Korvin and Evelyn Keyes in The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)
Charles Korvin and Evelyn Keyes in The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)

The smuggler/smallpox carrier is Sheila Bennet, played by Evelyn Keyes. As she grows increasingly sicker, it turns out that she’s not only being pursued by health officials trying to stop the disease from mushrooming, but also by federal authorities trying to track down the hot diamonds. And that’s not all – Sheila also discovers that her husband (Charles Korvin), who involved her in the smuggling racket, is two-timing her – with her SISTER! Let’s just say that there’s a lot going on in Sheila’s life.

Unlike the other directors in this “killer” group, the director of The Killer That Stalked New York – Earl McEvoy – is all but unknown today, and only helmed three feature films during his career. He had more experience (although usually uncredited) as an assistant director on such films as The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and The Stratton Story (1949). Sadly, he died in 1959 at the age of 45.

And that’s my top five ‘killer’ noirs! Do you have any ‘killer’ noirs on your favorites list? Leave a comment and let me know!

– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Karen’s Noir Nook articles here.

Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
If you’re interested in learning more about Karen’s books, you can read more about them on amazon here:

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Classic Movie Travels: Donald Meek

Classic Movie Travels: Donald Meek

Donald Meek Headshot Hat
Donald Meek

A beloved character actor, Thomas Donald Meek was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on July 14, 1878, to Matthew and Annie Meek. Meek was one of four children, with two older sisters named Annie and Maggie as well as a younger brother named Marcus. His family moved to Canada and, later, the United States, eventually settling in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In Pennsylvania, Meek worked selling dry goods but was also eager to perform on the stage. At the age of eight and long before his family’s move, Meek expressed an interest in acting, first performing publicly in a comic pantomime.

Next, Meek joined an acrobatic team called “The Marvells,” touring throughout the U.S. but leaving the troupe after sustaining many fractures after a fall. Following six months of recovery, he fought during the Spanish-American War in Cuba. There he was wounded in battle and also lost his hair after falling ill with yellow fever. When World War I came about, he enlisted again. Meek served as part of the Canadian Highlanders as a corporal.

Donald Meek You Can't Take it With You (1938)
You Can’t Take it With You (1938)

Acting would lead Meek to tour the world. He toured several countries as part of a stage version of Little Lord Fauntleroy and lost his Scottish accent during his wartime travels. After his first few Broadway roles, Meek would find consistency in taking on comedic roles.

Meek would marry Isabella “Belle” Walkin in Boston in 1909, and the couple would relocate to Hollywood. The couple would remain together until Meek’s passing.

As movies grew in popularity, so did Meek’s interest in them. Though he worked at various studios, he took on scores of roles with rapidity and quickly became a highly sought character actor. Among his screen appearances were The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Stagecoach (1939), State Fair (1945), and dozens more. In total, Meek would execute over 120 roles in film.

Donald Meek State Fair (1945)
State Fair (1945)

Though Meek wished to retire one day and grow hybrid roses, he was not able to realize this dream. He passed away from leukemia on November 18, 1946. At the time of his passing, he was working on Magic Town (1947). Meek was 68 years old.

Today, some of Meek’s residences remain.

In 1910, Meek and his wife lived at 105 Clarendon St. in Boston, Massachusetts, though the home no longer stands.

By the 1930s, they were living in California. In 1936, they lived at 11200 Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles, California, but this home no longer remains. Their 1940s home at 1977 Mandeville Canyon Rd., however, does stand. The home housed Meek, his wife, and their cook, Edna Leslie. This is the home today:

Donald Meek 1977 Mandeville Canyon Road, Los Angeles, CA
1977 Mandeville Canyon Road, Los Angeles, CA

Their home at 1500 Beverwil Dr. also stands today and is pictured here:

Donald Meek 1500 Beverwil Drive, Los Angeles, CA
1500 Beverwil Drive, Los Angeles, CA

Meek was posthumously awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His star is located on the East side of Vine Street’s 1700 block in Los Angeles.

Donald Meek star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Meek’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Though few tributes to Meek exist, his face continues to be a familiar one to classic film fans.

–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub

Annette Bochenek pens our monthly Classic Movie Travels column. You can read all of Annette’s Classic Movie Travel articles here.

Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a PhD student at Dominican University and an independent scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for Classic Movie Hub, she also writes for Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco SocietyMagazine.

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Western RoundUp: Hour of the Gun (1967)

Western RoundUp: Hour of the Gun (1967)

It’s been a few months since I devoted a Western RoundUp column to a single film, so this month I’ll focus on my first-ever viewing of Hour of the Gun (1967).

Hour of the Gun (1967) Movie Poster
Hour of the Gun (1967)

In doing so, I’m also returning to the topic of Wyatt Earp.  I previously wrote about Earp on film for Classic Movie Hub in 2018, focusing in that column on Frontier Marshal (1939), Tombstone: The Town Too Tough to Die (1942), and Wichita (1955).

In Hour of the Gun Earp is played by a taciturn James Garner, with Jason Robards as Doc Holliday.  I’ll note at the outset that in discussing the film I’ll be going into some detail, assuming many readers are familiar with the general outlines of the characters.  Those seeking to avoid spoilers may wish to watch the film prior to reading this review.

James Garner, Jason Robards and Robert Ryan in Hour of the Gun (1967)
James Garner, Jason Robards, and Robert Ryan in Hour of the Gun (1967)

Hour of the Gun was directed by John Sturges, who had previously directed another film on the Western legend, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957).  That film starred Burt Lancaster as Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc.  It’s still on my future Wyatt Earp viewing list along with Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994).

One of the unique things about Hour of the Gun is apparent as the opening credits begin: The movie begins, rather than ends, with the famed gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

I’ve only seen one other movie which “frontloads” the gunfight at or near the beginning, Dawn at Socorro (1954).  The Socorro characters are not named Earp, Holliday, or Clanton, but they are very clearly based on them.

Jason Robards, Frank Converse and James Garner in Hour of the Gun (1967)
Frank Converse, Jason Robards, and James Garner

As also depicted in Tombstone: The Town Too Tough to Die, shortly after the O.K. Corral Morgan Earp (Sam Melville) is gunned down while playing billiards.  The combined incidents of the O.K. Corral and Morgan’s death leave Earp and Ike Clanton (the great Robert Ryan) as mortal enemies, with Earp determined to hunt down Clanton and his gang by fair means or foul.

Earp is accompanied on his quest by the loyal Doc, whose ability with a gun belies the fact that he’s in failing health.  One by one they track down members of Clanton’s gang, leading to a climactic confrontation with Clanton himself.

James Garner Hour of the Gun (1967)
James Garner

The script by Edward Anhalt conceives Earp in far different terms than the gentlemanly Earp of a Fonda, Scott, or McCrea; this Wyatt mostly (but not completely) stays within the confines of the law, but he’s frankly a rather mean man.  Earp cares about his family and his friend Doc – though he and Doc try to hide it most of the time with brusque talk – but anger is the consuming emotion in his life.

It’s quite interesting to see Garner, so often identified with more lighthearted characters, in such a tightly wound role.  There’s a stunning scene in the last half hour of the film where Earp shoots someone over and over and over yet again, long past the point of necessity, as he unleashes his rage.

James Garner Hour of the Gun (1967)
James Garner

At the movie’s end, though Earp assures the dying Doc he’ll take a prestigious law enforcement job in Arizona, he tells their friend Dr. Goodfellow (Karl Swenson) that he has no intention of doing so.  As Earp rides away, a lonely future seems to stretch before him.

Although in some respects Garner’s performance is fairly one-note, at the same time he’s a good enough actor to be compelling.  The viewer watches him closely, trying to infer what’s going on in his mind from his actions and especially the look in his eyes.

James Garner Hour of the Gun (1967)
James Garner

Robards is quite good as Doc, managing to avoid pathos despite Doc’s alcoholism and poor health.  This Doc at times seems to be the voice of Earp’s conscience, particularly when Wyatt determines to follow Clanton into Mexico without a badge.  Doc also provides what levity exists in the film; it’s interesting that Robards and Garner flip expectations in this regard.

Ryan has relatively little screen time, but all eyes are on him whenever he appears.  He’s frankly terrifying, controlling a large gang of rough men with ease.  His performance caused me to remember Spencer Tracy‘s comment when working with Ryan on Bad Day at Black Rock (1955): “He scares the hell out of me.”  It’s remarkable acting from someone who offscreen was a quiet family man who co-founded a private elementary school.

Jason Robards, James Garner and Monte Markham in Hour of the Gun (1967)
Jason Robards, James Garner, and Monte Markham

Other pleasures of Hour of the Gun include William Windom in a small but entertaining role as a gambler who owes Doc money and is drafted to serve as a deputy, and a young Jon Voight as villainous Curly Bill Brocius, a role played in previous films by actors including Joe Sawyer and Edgar Buchanan.  

The supporting cast also includes Steve Ihnat, William Schallert, Albert Salmi, Charles Aidman, Lonny Chapman, Larry Gates, Monte Markham, and Richard Bull, who like Karl Swenson was later a longtime regular on TV’s Little House on the Prairie.

As befitting a John Sturges film, there are some excellent action scenes, beginning with the gunfight which opens the movie; another particularly good sequence is a gunfight at a train station, choreographed in an exciting fashion.

Robert Ryan in Hour of the Gun (1967)
Robert Ryan

While the depiction of gunfight deaths is relatively restrained in most of the movie, there are a couple of violent moments which tag the film as being made in the late ’60s, including a character taking a bullet in the forehead.  It wasn’t more violence than I could handle, but it was definitely more than I expected.

The film feels slightly padded at 110 minutes, and I think it could have been shaved down closer to 90 without viewers missing anything of significance.  A good example is a prolonged sequence of a woman, never seen again, waking up her husband in time for him to witness an attack on Virgil Earp (Frank Converse).  A full minute probably could have been excised right there.

James Garner, Jason Robards and Robert Ryan in Hour of the Gun (1967)
Hour of the Gun (1967)

I was somewhat amused by a title card over the gunfight telling viewers “This picture is based on fact.  This is the way it happened.”  That statement can be taken with the proverbial grain of salt, for too many reasons to detail here.

The fine cinematography was by Lucien Ballard, with much of the movie filmed on location in Arizona and Mexico.  The score was by the great Jerry Goldsmith.

Overall I felt Hour of the Gun, while not reaching greatness, was a solid, worthwhile entry in the cinematic history of Wyatt Earp.

– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub

Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns.  She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals.  Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.

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