[Originally published on Straight Shooting at Queen Anne News, September 30, 2012]
Ed. note: republished to mark its availability streaming on Criterion Channel this month.
Just a quick recommend, before it’s too late. One of my very favorite movies is making a rare TV appearance Monday, Oct. 1, at 5 p.m. West Coast time on Turner Classic Movies. To “very favorite” let me add an endorsement from an erstwhile colleague and friend, the late Donald Lyons. When, in the early 1990s, a New York City–area PBS station was about to show Me and My Gal as part of a package of rare Fox Films productions from the 1930s, I urged Donald to catch it. A few minutes after the telecast ended, he phoned to say, “You told me to be sure and watch Me and My Gal. You didn’t tell me it was one of the best movies ever made.”
[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]
The Cock-eyed World is a plodding, heavyhanded and rather entertaining sequel, with sound, to WhatPrice Glory?. The Flagg-Quirt stuff is less than thrilling, partly because of Edmund Lowe’s mismatched assets and liabilities, partly because the repartee keeps reverting to the “Aw—sez you” tack. But there’s a good deal to savor at an agreeably crude level. An early bit of in-joke dialogue has Quirt lamenting the newfangled notions about how a soldier should talk—seems that it’s not right for a soldier to swear anymore. Quirt and Flagg quickly exchange insults about how the lack of swearing will reduce the other’s working vocabulary to practically nil. This sidelong reference to talking-picture taboos out of the way, Walsh, McLaglen, Lowe and friends go about the business of making a rowdy picture without benefit of its predecessor’s “silent” profanity.
Flagg keeps his pet monkey in a chamber pot; Quirt gets thumped by a jealous Russian strongman who seems to be named Sanavitch and who looses a truly Herculean spray of saliva at Quirt’s face from a range of about two feet; Quirt calls Flagg a horse’s neck and “You great big horse’s ancestor”; Flagg greets a ladyfriend with “How’s my Fanny?” and the comic stooge (El Brendel) introduces a map-bearing Latin girl as “the lay of the land” (“The what?” asks Flagg with a straight face and great interest); and yet another female strikes the stooge, a Swede, as “yoos my tripe.”
[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]
John Ford was probably more conscious of the meaning of history than any other American director; in a sense, the evolution of his historical vision is the measure of his growth as an artist. This evident fact is often commented on but, surprisingly, almost invariably in only the most general terms. A natural, useful way of defining this evolution more precisely is to compare closely related films Ford made at different stages of his career. An ideal subject for such a study, a pair of films sharing a common setting, literary source and group of recurring characters, is JudgePriest and TheSunShinesBright. So closely, in fact, are the two related that it has become popular to describe the second film as a “remake” of the first. While such terminology is not exactly accurate, it does suggest that a comparative study of the two films should make it possible to analyze the evolution of Ford’s historical perspective in precise, concrete terms.
One way to measure the extent of this evolution is to compare the respective endings of the two films. Each conclusion revolves around a parade, but their tones are as different as their times, as day and night. JudgePriest ends with a sunlit parade; the final shot is of Confederate war veterans marching forward past both sides of the camera. In fact the parade literally surrounds the camera, as if to engulf the audience in the celebration taking place on screen (and the shot itself makes the ending uniquely processional in the work of a director whose final images are almost invariably recessive). In addition, the entire parade sequence is organic; everyone connected with it could be encompassed by a single longshot. Even the purely personal moments (such as a final feat of tobacco-juice-spitting marksmanship) are visually presented within their larger context, shown on a screen teeming with people.
The final image of TheSunShinesBright is of Jeff Poindexter (Stepin’ Fetchit) sitting alone on a porch in the evening, lazily playing his harmonica. The music is audible, but otherwise there is scarcely a sign of life on the screen; the shot could almost be a still photograph. The final image of a solitary figure suggests an individual isolation consistent with the visual fragmentation of the entire final sequence. Each character or group, all the (surviving) members of cast and community who have been important in the film, are given recognition time here (as in JudgePriest and countless other Ford films), but in this case the reintroduction is accomplished without any unifying group shots; we see each pan of the community but never the entire social organism. For example, while the title character in JudgePriest last appears on the screen as one (not particularly important) part of the veterans’ parade, in TheSun ShinesBright he is last shown walking away from the camera into his house alone. As he passes through a doorway, a room, and another doorway beyond the realm of natural lighting, we are watching an individual receding into legend rather than a social group advancing into a dynamic future.
Dante’s Inferno, the 1935 spectacle of destructive greed and carnival ballyhoo, opens on flames. It’s not hellfire but the boiler-room furnaces of an ocean liner where Jim Carter (Spencer Tracy) is ostensibly a stoker, though he manages to get out of work with a litany of manufactured injuries before he’s tossed out. He’s a born con man and hustler and he lands in his element: a carnival midway. When he’s shown a little kindness by Pop (Henry B. Walthall), the operator of a sleepy concession known as “Dante’s Inferno,” a mix of haunted house and cheap museum dedicated to the lessons of “the greatest poem ever written” (in Pop’s words), he returns the favor by taking over as pitchman and barks up a crowd for the attraction. The partnership becomes family when he falls for Pop’s pretty daughter Betty (Claire Trevor) and they have a son. It’s the beginning of a classic (and not particularly original) rise-and-fall drama of a rapacious man who tramples those who stand in the way of his ambition and leaves a trail of destruction as he bribes, blackmails, cheats, and cuts corners on his way to the top of the amusement racket, with just enough time left for a last-minute act of redemption.
This was one of Tracy’s final films for Fox before he left for MGM, where his talents were given a more respectful showcase. Now I’m not actually a big fan of Tracy but I confess to having a new appreciation for the actor thanks to those scrappy, bouncy Fox films of his early career. A lot of those scripts are undercooked (like this one) and the productions are sometime rushed but Tracy overflows with personality and the attitude of a guy who got wise knocking about on the streets. “I’ve had every trick in the trade kicked into me,” Jim tells Pop. “Now it’s my turn to kick back.” He presents himself with a sense of calm and control, however, like a man who is cagy about letting the world see what’s he’s thinking or feeling, which makes quite a contrast to guys like Cagney and Lee Tracy and the rat-a-tat streetwise heroes of the Warner street movies.