Nearly two decades before M.A.S.H., the Korean War romantic drama Battle Circus, starring Humphrey Bogart and June Allyson as a surgeon and nurse, covered much of the same territory. Indeed, the opening shots of a helicopter hovering above a landscape of tents looks uncannily familiar to any fan of the later film and TV series. This film was made while the war was still going on, and doesn’t quite have the sharp irreverence of the later takes on the conflict, but there are flashes of the same kind of black humour. (The wounded here are ‘incoming mail’.) It is also a lot more downbeat than some of the Second World War flag-wavers, which is perhaps inevitable in a film focusing not on soldiers, but on the army medics called to patch up the wounded and dying. I found the medical and military scenes powerful, but felt it a shame that so much screen time is spent on the rather unconvincing romance between Bogart and Allyson.
Bogart stars as Major Jed Webbe, a hard-bitten, weary surgeon with a gift for sarcastic one-liners, who shows the way forward to Hawkeye Pierce in M.A.S.H. Like Hawkeye, Jed is starting to show the strain of his daily struggle to save lives, and at one point is tempted to drown his sorrows with an illicit bottle of whisky. However, he is soon in trouble for this, even though he is off-duty at the time, as his commanding officer (Robert Keith) tersely points out that he must be sober and ready to work 24 hours a day, if required.
In another scene, after a young soldier has died on the operating table, Webbe briefly walks out of the room to cope with his emotions, and is followed by Lt Ruth McGara (Allyson), who tells him: “Don’t blame yourself for that man dying.” “It’s not just him,” he replies. “It’s all the others – all the young men, the futility of it all.” At another point he suggests that the Korean war will become the third world war in one lifetime – bringing out the fears of those living through it.
Once again I’m taking part in a blogathon – this time it is the Universal Backlot Blogathon, organised by Kristen of the Journeys on Classic Film website. A number of bloggers are taking part and covering a wide range of films made on the Universal backlot , to celebrate its 100th anniversary – please do visit Kristen’s site and take a look at the other postings.
First of all, a confession… I’ve belatedly realised that the film I’ve chosen to write about, William Wyler’s thriller The Desperate Hours starring Humphrey Bogart, was in fact mainly filmed on Paramount’s sound stages, with specially-built sets including a seven-room family house. Only some exteriors were shot on the Universal backlot. However, the way this film cranks up the tension to unbearable heights does have something in common with Universal’s famous horror films, even if in this film the horror unfolding is all too realistic, and the monster is just a man with a gun.
Carrying on with my series where I pick five films which have some kind of loose thematic connection – not necessarily the best or even my favourites, but five which interest me. Anyway, films about films seem to be my theme of the moment, as I’ve recently written postings about The Artist and My Week with Marilyn. So here are another five self-regarding movies. Be warned, there are spoilers in my first choice for anyone who doesn’t know what happens in the various versions of A Star Is Born.
What Price Hollywood (1932): This melodrama directed by George Cukor was the first version of the A Star Is Born story (as far as I know, anyway). It gives a very bitter picture of a Hollywood which chews people up and casts them aside. Lowell Sherman is absolutely stunning as the washed-up drunken film director Max Carey, dominating the film and drawing on his own real-life drink problem. Constance Bennett is also excellent as ambitious waitress turned rising star Mary Evans, but her romance with millionaire Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton) doesn’t really ring true and is a weak spot in a powerful film. I also love William A Wellman’s A Star Is Born (1937), which is very much a reworking of the same story, with great performances by Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, and the George Cukor remake, with Judy Garland and James Mason – just a shame that the complete version of that one is lost. But, anyway, Cukor’s pre-Code version has a witty toughness all of its own. And the suicide scene is unforgettable, focusing on the agony of the man whose life is over, and not seen as some kind of noble gesture to the rising star he loves, as in the remakes.
I’ve been meaning to write about one or two more obscure pre-Codes that I’ve seen in the last few weeks, but haven’t got round to it and my memory of some of them is already starting to fade. So here is a short posting on one of these, Big City Blues, starring Joan Blondell and with an all-too brief, though memorably violent, appearance by an uncredited Humphrey Bogart. Sadly, this movie isn’t on DVD as yet, though it is yet another one that we can hope Warner Archive may release. This posting is mainly an excuse to post the pictures and posters I’ve gathered together of this film.
This film, a predictable tale of a young man from the country who finds New York life too much for him, is really a very slight offering, at only 65 minutes. However, having said that, anything featuring Bogart or Blondell surely has an interest, while director LeRoy also has a following, and went on to do a great job on the better-known Three on a Match and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Big City Blues is also worth looking out for its typically gritty Warner Brothers’ portrayal of New York City life in the Great Depression. I saw this around the same time as Alfred E Green’s Parachute Jumper, an early Bette Davis film made the following year, and the two have slightly blurred together in my mind. Between them, the two give a picture of rootless young people wandering round the big city in search of a living, a good time, or just a meal.
I’ve been meaning to post briefly about an early Humphrey Bogart movie I saw recently. The pre-Code romantic drama Love Affair is in fact his first lead role, although he gets second billing to Dorothy Mackaill. Bogart is one of my all-time favourites, and I’d also count myself as a fan of Mackaill after being impressed by her in Wellman’s Safe In Hell, although I still need to catch up on her silent roles. I quite enjoyed this film, because I love the period, but, although it is only just over an hour long, it feels quite slow and stilted, as with many early 1930s movies. Watching films made by lesser-known directors such as Thornton Freeland, who was at the helm for this one, makes me realise once again just how good the likes of William Wellman, John Ford, William Dieterle and Howard Hawks really were.
As my movie-watching is increasingly outstripping my limited blogging time, I’m going to do a few shorter reviews of films I’ve seen recently, before they completely fade in my memory! This is also an excuse to post the pictures I’ve gathered together. This melodramatic pre-Code directed by the little-known Hobart Henley is no masterpiece, putting it mildly. Based on Booth Tarkington’s novel The Flirt, it is very static and soapy, with awkward, stilted dialogue, and has dated far more than many other films from the same era - but it’s interesting mainly because of its cast.
It was Bette Davis’ first film and also stars Humphrey Bogart – both are cast completely against what later became their types, with Davis as the “good” and dowdy sister, Laura, and Bogart as a smooth and charming young conman, Valentine. Looking at him in this you can glimpse why one early review of a stage performance said he was “as handsome as Valentino”. Zasu Pitts, star of silent classic Greed, also features as the family maid, Minnie, an added bonus – while Bert Roach, who plays a kindly, bumbling character in another silent classic, King Vidor’s The Crowd, is similarly kind and bumbling here.
I’ve now watched most of the movies from the Warner Brothers Gangster Collection Volume 3 box set – which is rather misnamed since none of the movies really seem to be true gangster films. Anyway, this early Humphrey Bogart offering is my favourite of those I’ve seen so far, along with The Mayor of Hell – which was also made by the same director, Archie Mayo. Judging from the films of his I’ve seen to date, it seems as if he was great at getting that Warner grittiness and working-class atmosphere, and, even when hamstrung by the Hays Code, he still pushed the boundaries as far as he could.
In this exposé of 1930s fascist organisations, Mayo was forced by the Hays office to remove some vital elements, such as explicit references to the ethnicity of the victims targeted by the Legion, a shadowy Ku Klux Klan-like organisation operating in some states of the US at the time. There are no African-Americans in the movie at all, and it’s only hinted that one of the victims might be Polish-Jewish, another Irish Catholic. Mayo even had to include a disclaimer at the start suggesting that the Black Legion was a fictional organisation – although I’m not sure if this was dictated by Hays or an attempt to avoid reprisals by the real terror organisations. In any case, this would have fooled nobody. The real Black Legion had recently been in the headlines over a murder case which provided much of the inspiration for the plot.
Continuing my current Howard Hawks obsession, I’ve just re-watched one of his most famous films, the one where Bogart and Bacall met. The chemistry between them is just as sizzling as I’d remembered it from watching the film years ago – but what really struck me this time, after submerging myself in Hawks in recent weeks, is how much the movie has his stamp on it.
The movie is loosely based on a famous Ernest Hemingway novel (I’ve read it many years ago but don’t remember much about it) and has a screenplay by Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, but the plot construction feels very Hawksian, all the same, and there are several lines which are similar or even identical to those in his previous films. “I don’t think I’ll ever shout at anyone again,” a line spoken wearily by a wife who has just faced losing her husband, is one of these, almost identical to a line in Ceiling Zero in a slightly different context.
The central romance plot is similar to that in Only Angels Have Wings, as a woman turns up by chance in a turbulent setting, falls for a stranger, and stays around to see whether they have a chance together even when he tries to ensure that she leaves. Here, the setting is Martinique under the rule of Vichy France, where Harry Morgan (Bogart) sails a fishing boat for hire, but becomes fed up with his current client’s refusal to pay the money he owes. (In the book, Harry made his living ferrying contraband between Florida and Cuba.)
I’m not quite sure what I expected when I decided to watch this Humphrey Bogart movie, made late in his career. But one thing I definitely didn’t bargain for was a scene with Bogie at the piano, dueting with Gene Tierney – and with a large group of children sweetly singing along for good measure!
That scene has to be the most unexpected moment in this film. However, the whole role is something of a change for Bogart, who spends most of the movie wearing a dog-collar. It seems he has been improbably cast as a teetotal Catholic missionary, Father O’Shea, who arrives at a remote outpost in a China torn apart by civil war and revolution.
I was struck now by how much it is a film of two halves. For me, the first half is brilliant – a powerful depiction of the tough conditions facing truckers – while the second half is a rather weak film noir with a far-fetched crime plot. However, I am aware some critics think just the opposite and love the noir part.
GRITTY DRAMA: Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan and George Raft
Spoilers behind cut