Drawing on his own memories of his days as a pilot, William A. Wellman made aviation films right through his career, from silent masterpiece Wings right through to his deeply personal final film, Lafayette Escadrille. The Second World War film Thunder Birds: Soldiers of the Air is one of his lesser-known movies on this theme. This is really a slice of propaganda, looking at the training of young pilots and the close working together of the US and British forces. However, aside from a long voice-over intro and another voice-over at the end, where the Chinese pilots training at the field are also spotlighted, most of the movie is focused on a buddy story which turns into a love triangle, bringing back memories of Wings.
This film is admittedly far from being one of Wellman’s greatest – but, in purely visual terms, it might just be the most gorgeous spectacle that he ever made. The Technicolor is truly glorious, showing off the locations around Thunderbird Field in Glendale, Arizona, where Allied pilots gained their wings before going to war. Cinematographer Ernest Palmer’s colour footage of aircraft spiralling through a vivid blue sky in a series of daring stunt flights is the film’s most striking element, while the sweeping shots of desert scenery would grace any Western. Costume designer Dolly Tree also clearly decided to make the most of the opportunities presented by Technicolor. Leading lady Gene Tierney – who gets top billing despite fairly limited screen time – wears a succession of dazzlingly colourful outfits.
Where previous Howard Hawks films about the First World War focused on pilots, this one goes into the trenches. Warner Baxter, Fredric March and Lionel Barrymore star as beleaguered French soldiers struggling to cope with the ceaseless death and destruction all around them on the Western Front. A contemporary review in the New York Times criticised The Road to Glory for its mix of grimness and romanticism, and failure to draw any conclusions about the “ultimate value of [the soldiers’] sacrifice”. Yet, to a modern audience, the bleakness is the thing which resonates – the feeling of individuals caught up in events which they can’t control and don’t understand. While it isn’t as well-known as some Hawks movies, this film is now available on DVD in both region 1 and UK/region 2.
The drama centres on two melodramatic tales of human relationships, a love triangle between two soldiers and a nurse, and a father and son coming together on the frontline. However, the most powerful and memorable elements of the film, beyond these stories, are the portrayals of the war itself. There is some very stark photography of the men advancing through a ruined landscape full of darkness and shadows. Much of this footage was taken from a great French film, Raymond Bernard’s Les Croix de Bois, after Twentieth Century Fox bought up the rights. But this movie has its own story.
This will just be a fairly quick posting, as I don’t seem to have much time at the moment, but want to keep my blog alive! One reason I have picked William A Wellman to write about so much is that I tend to find his films are enjoyable to watch time and again. This is certainly true of Roxie Hart, which was actually the second of three movie versions of the Chicago story, based on the stage play by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Fans of the smash hit musical should be interested to see this earlier version of the same story, starring Ginger Rogers as showgirl turned celebrity criminal Roxie Hart. Interestingly it already feels like a musical, with a great scene where Rogers and the press corps tap dance around the prison.
Looking at still photographs from this movie, set in post-war Paris and loosely adapted from a short story by Ernest Hemingway, I was expecting film noir. The fact that it stars great actor John Garfield, opposite French actress Micheline Presle (billed here as Prelle), added to this expectation.
However, although some scenes do have that moody, brooding quality, and the shadowy black-and-white camerawork adds to this, the film as a whole is a strange mixture of noir and sentimentality. Director Jean Negulesco and screenwriter Casey Robinson both made some great films, but in this one they seem to be caught between two stools, with flashes of brilliance in between scenes which unashamedly manipulate the emotions. As many reviews point out, the main plot is almost like a reworking of The Champ, moved from the boxing ring to the racecourse.
One of the biggest attractions of this film is the footage showing Paris in 1950. By coincidence, I’ve just seen the new film Julie and Julia, which is also set in the city around this period. But the real black-and-white footage of the post-war bars and streets has a battered quality to it which a movie made in 2009 can’t quite recapture, although that is not to say anything against Nora Ephron’s film, which I liked very much.
I was originally attracted by this film because it stars Spencer Tracy – and I’m fascinated by his early work after seeing movies like 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, which I’ve reviewed here in the past, and Man’s Castle and Riff Raff, both of which I hope to review in the future.
Spencer Tracy and Henry B Walthall
In this movie, directed by Harry Lachman, Tracy once again plays a tough, arrogant character who is nonetheless more vulnerable than he at first appears. This time he is cast as a ruthless fairground worker who won’t let anyone or anything get in his way, as he rises to wealth by taking over and massively expanding a hi-tech attraction based on, you guessed it, Dante’s Inferno.
However, Tracy has nothing to do with the most striking scene in this movie – an amazing eight-minute vision of hell based on Gustav Doré’s famous illustrations to the great poem, showing the torments of the damned as they writhe in lakes of fire. I have read the poem (in translation!), and this section of the film does recall it, though the rest of the movie has little or nothing to do with Dante. It’s a stunning sequence and I find hard to imagine quite how it could have been made. Unfortunately, it seems to be difficult to find out exactly who did make it and when.
Seeing the names of Howard Hawks and Cary Grant together, I expected a lot from I Was a Male War Bride. Watching it, however, I felt slightly disappointed, as I soon realised this isn’t the masterpiece I’d expected – and nowhere near the sublime screwball comedy of their other collaborations like His Girl Friday.
Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed it, and wouldn’t quite agree with the critics who claim that it is “horrendously unfunny” – James Harvey’s verdict in the massive book I’m currently reading, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood. I think that’s slightly harsh. There are some amusing moments, and the basic story is intriguing – but, to me, the main problem is that the dialogue just isn’t as fast and as sparkling as a screwball comedy needs it to be. Quite a bit of slapstick comedy is thrown in to make amends, and is often funny – but razor-sharp exchanges of wit between Grant and Ann Sheridan could have been even funnier.
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!
Humphrey Bogart and Gene Tierney
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.