Category: 1962


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When I think of John Ford, I think of the wide open Western expanses that define practically every shot of classics like The Searchers. When I think of John Wayne movies, I think of the straightforward moralism of The Cowboys. When I think of James Stewart (barring the final act of Vertigo), I think of the archetypal “Aw, shucks” All-American of It’s a Wonderful Life. So, when all three combine to make such a jarringly out-of-character film for all involved, it should be no secret that I found The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to be among the most interesting of the “classic” Westerns this side of High Noon.

Far more a commentary on the death of the Wild West than a traditional oater, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is unlike any Western of the era or, honestly, any other film of John Ford’s career. Removing itself from the iconic Western vistas that are Ford’s metier and placing itself in crowded homes and claustrophobic streets, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance captures the transformation of the West from a lawless frontier to the first stirrings of civilization and law & order. And most surprisingly of all, the film has something honest and fresh to say on ethics that remains fresh 52 years later.

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After his stagecoach is robbed by the brutal bandit and bully Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and he’s beaten within an inch of his life, East Coast lawyer Ransom Stoddard (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation‘s James Stewart) is rescued by the rough but generally decent gunslinger and rancher Tom Doniphan (The Longest Day‘s John Wayne). Ransom has had every penny to his name and every last worldly possession stolen by the untouchable Liberty Valance and as he has to start from scratch to recover his assets and make a name for himself in the dangerous town of Shinbone.

Shinbone’s Marshall, Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), is a fat, slovenly coward and even though everybody in town knows Liberty Valance is a crook and a murderer, he won’t lift a finger to bring him to justice. Tom is the only man in town with enough nerve and talent with a gun to stand up to Liberty, but Liberty knows well enough to stay out of Tom’s way to avoid taking a bullet from him. But Ransom wants Liberty brought to justice. However, unlike every other Western hero ever, justice to ransom doesn’t mean a shoot out in the streets. It means a trial and jail. But, in a town without a competent criminal justice system, Tom’s way of the bullet could be the only true answer.

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The film’s framing device is that decades later, Ransom Stoddard has returned to Shinbone for Tom’s funeral. Ransom is now a U.S. Senator and he could be the Vice-President of the United States if he wished. And, through a story given to a local newspaperman, we hear the real story of the legend that shot him into political stardom. But, in actuality, it gives the film an example to delve into one of the most important philosophical debates of all time: What is more valuable, truth or results? And, to an extent, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance comes down on the utilitarian side of that equation.

I can’t explore those themes too deeply without ruining the film (although, considering the fact that it’s 52 years old, I wouldn’t feel too guilty if I did), but time and time again, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance proves itself to be more psychologically and philosophically minded than the vast majority of its late 50s/early 60s peers. The film is essentially an argument that the American West that Ford himself helped to mythologize in the American conscious had to end, and that the typical John Wayne heroes of the past didn’t have a place in the modern world.

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James Stewart plays a character that is simultaneously a deconstruction of the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington typical Stewart idealist as well as an argument for why society needs men like him. I’ve probably said this before on this blog, but James Stewart is one of my all-time favorite actors (not necessarily one of the ones I think is the best), and along with Vertigo, this is certainly one of his most complex and demanding roles. And as we Ransom struggling to balance his desire for law & order and due process against the brutal realities of the old West, Stewart captures all of the character’s frustration and desperation.

John Wayne and Lee Marvin also shine in the two primary supporting roles (even if Wayne gets top billing in the film, Ransom is the main character). Tom may ultimately be a good man, but he’s also a bitter roughneck who isn’t afraid to be a bully when he needs to make a point. Along with The Searchers, it’s one of the more complicated characters of Wayne’s usually pure white hat career. And Lee Marvin might not have the most fully-written character in the titular Liberty Valance, but he makes the man drip venom and anger, and he steals every scene he’s in, even if he’s not afraid to chew the scenery a little bit.

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I wrote half of this review last night and True Detective is coming on in five minutes (seriously, watch that show; it’s the best new HBO show since The Wire and easily the best show on TV right now) so I’ll draw this review to a close. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the Western that even non-Western fans can get behind. In fact, it’s so drama-driven that fans of more traditional, action-driven old West epics may find it to be a bit of a bore. But for everyone with an open mind for the possibilities of Western storytelling, it’s a must see classic deserving of the title.

Final Score: A-

 

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Long time readers know that I have a soft spot in my heart for musicals. I used to review Glee eery week (I’m ridiculously far behind on that show and need to catch up. Like, I’m probably around six or so episodes back if not more). Because my mother exposed me to the movie Grease at a young age (it’s honestly one of the first non-animated movies that I can remember really becoming attached to) and I just have a naturally theatrical disposition, I love musicals. I can’t help it. However, I’m also completely aware of most of the problems musicals face in terms of structure, story, character, etc., and this may seem shocking but I’m not really crazy about many of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals of the 40s through 60s. Heresy, I know. By no means is 1962’s Billy Rose’s Jumbo a great movie (and honestly it barely qualifies to be a good one), but there’s just something about the spectacle of the film that I couldn’t help but find charming.

The Wonder Circus, led by Pop Wonder (Jimmy Durante) and Kitty (Teacher’s Pet‘s Doris Day), is on the verge of going under. Pop Wonder has a bit of a gambling problem, and the performers haven’t been paid in weeks and many are quitting the show. To make matters worse, the circus is hounded by a legion of creditors that Pop Wonder and Kitty have to appease just to stay afloat. And a rival circus family is after the star attraction of the Wonder Circus, the trained elephant Jumbo. Kitty’s level-head is the only thing holding the traveling company together. When the circus lays its stakes in a new town, one of their star performers quits the show and he’s replaced by the mysterious Sam Rollins (Stephen Boyd). Sam and Kitty quickly hit it off, but Sam is hiding something, and that secret might tear the Wonder Circus down with it.

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Every musical is only as good as the music in it (I think I’ve used that exact sentence in other reviews. Ruh roh rooby.), and in that regard, Billy Rose’s Jumbo was just okay. It had a handful of memorable tunes. “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” springs immediately to mind as well as “This Can’t Be Love.” But most of the tunes were sort of forgettable, and one of the songs, “My Romance,” which is one of Rodgers and Harts’s most well-known tunes just seemed kind of chintzy to me. So, while the book of the film (i.e. the music & lyrics for non-theatre types in the room) wasn’t spectacular, the movie saved itself with choreography and splendor that can only be described as magical. When the film captures the childlike innocence and majesty of the circus, it is a delight, and one wishes that the music was as memorable and charming as all of the action unfolding on screen.

The performances were also the film’s strong suit. Doris Day had a surprisingly strong and impressive voice and although I don’t remember many of the songs she sang (and I watched the film earlier today), I certainly enjoyed listening to her dulcet tones and though I knew this from Teacher’s Pet, she had decent comedic timing. Although, she seemed kind of old to be playing Kitty. She was 38… so yeah. The real scene-stealers though were Jimmy Durante and Martha Raye (who played Pop Wonder’s dim-witted fortune-telling fiancee). Jimmy Durante had great comedic chops, and he became the lovable loser at the heart of the film that I cared about even though he was destroying the business he’d spent his whole life building. And Martha Raye was arguably the only character that had me laughing out loud during moments where she volunteered to be shot out of a cannon or pined for Pop Wonder’s affection.

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If you like old-style 1960s/1950s musicals like Gypsy or Babes in Arms, you’ll find something to enjoy in Billy Rose’s Jumbo. It is undeniably charming, and if you have any bit of your childhood self left in you, it’s very easy to be entranced by the circus aspects of the film. But, if you’re not a musical fan or you only watch the more mature, nuanced musicals of the last twenty years or so, you should probably avoid this film. You aren’t going to find much to attach yourself to here. But, as someone who can shed my intellectual pretenses and just get lost in good music, impressive dancing, and flashy set pieces, Billy Rose’s Jumbo was a delight no matter how much my brain tried to tell me it shouldn’t be.

Final Score: B-

 

Trying to make a war film that is neither jingoistic propaganda or patent exploitation of historical tragedy is a very fine balancing act. During Hollywood’s history, there have been far, far too many movies about military conflict that are just clear-cut propaganda supporting the conflict that don’t even begin to look at the actual details of what brought us to this war in the first place or to place you inside the mindsets of the men fighting the war. They are just made to glorify battle and to satisfy the public that our men aren’t dying for no reason. This hasn’t been as common post-Vietnam (when war films became increasingly anti-war), but before that, it’s hard to find a single war movie that wasn’t meant to glorify battle. The second problem (exploiting historical maladies to make a film for entertainment) is the more common modern issue. Unless you are opening your audience’s eyes to something many people didn’t even know existed or you’re creating a genuinely original artifact or thematic statement, why rehash ideas that have grown completely old and stale. You’re simply making money off of other’s people past suffering, and where is the art in that?

1962’s The Longest Day doesn’t actually suffer from either of those problems (though it encounters others). This three hour long epic look at the D-Day invasion (whether this is the sea landing at Normandy or the parachutists landing behind enemy lines) tries to paint the complete picture of that day through stories told through the eyes of the Americans, the French, the British, and every surprisingly sympathetic Germans. So, there’s certainly a certain air of patriotism to the film and a focus on some of the heroism of not just our soldiers but of every nation fighting in the battle, but the film never tries to beat you over the head with a jingoistic pro-America message. Similarly, although the film came out 20 years after World War II, it’s safe to say that it’s detailed and specific approach to capturing the historical reality of what was happening in a scale that no one had tried to capture before means it wasn’t exploiting that horrific day. American audiences deserved to know what happened and film is our most universal storytelling format. It hadn’t been done to death yet. However, as I said, despite avoiding those two pitfalls of military storytelling, The Longest Day fails to live up to the standards set by modern military films like Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers which covered similar ground in a much more effective manner.

To the film’s credit, it has one of the most impressive and star-studded casts in the history of cinema. To wit, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Sean Connery, Robert Mitchum, Robert Wagner, Richard Burton, Sal Mineo, Rod Steiger, and I’m sure there were other big names that I missed when I watched the ending credits. This would be like if a movie had George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Will Smith, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Cruise, and Clint Eastwood all in one place today. It would never happen. No movie could afford that kind of budget for actors, but back then, epics in the vein of Cecil B. Demille were a little more common and thus this fantastic pairing was allowed to occur. It’s a shame that none of their characters have any memorable traits and that I literally don’t know the name of a single person in this film besides historical figures like Omar Bradley and Eisenhower. Everyone else is so one-dimensional and forgettable that I never took the time to remember who was who, why they were killing the specific Nazis they were fighting, or one single characteristic of their role other than things I associate with all of their parts (John Wayne is a bad-ass, Henry Fonda is dashing, etc).

As a history lesson, the movie is a success. As a movie with real artistic value, it’s pretty distinct failure. History buffs will assuredly delight in all of the locations that are named, all of the historical and (I’m assuming) accurately re-enacted battles. Real generals and lieutenants and other soldiers from the battle are named and ranked and we see how they lived or died (or both). There are lots of interesting tidbits about what was happening on the German side of the equation that led to us being able to pull this massive gambit off (mainly we caught them with their pants down and they made several strategic mistakes). Unless you’ve already went out and learned as much as you can about Project Overlord (I think that was the code name for the Normandy Invasion and what came after), you are guaranteed to learn something new about World War II from The Longest Day. However, if I want to watch a documentary about WW II, I’ll find something that Ken Burns made (I think his WWII documentary was called The War). I want to watch a film and create emotional connections with the action unfolding on screen, and in that regard, The Longest Day was colder than my NYC apartment without the heat on (which is to say what’s happening right now. I’m freezing my ass off).

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the gritty and graphic realism of Saving Private Ryan, but The Longest Day was just a little too soft. I understand that by the film code of the day, they couldn’t make it as violent and real as Saving Private Ryan, but if I judge the film by modern standards, you can’t make a serious war film that is rated G (which this movie is). I felt as if I was watching some History channel re-enactment and I never once connected with the action on screen other than bemoaning the sad sacrifices that this world had to go through to take down fascism. Maybe I should judge the film as a product of it’s times (where it would probably have seemed much more groundbreaking), but it is almost laughably simple by today’s standards. There were exactly two moments in the film of real emotional impact (one was a man hanging helplessly from his parachute caught on a building as he watched all of his friends be massacred and the other was the second to last scene of the movie where two men simply talk about the apocalyptic violence of the day) and that was it. So, for all history and military buffs, you may enjoy this more than I did, but for everyone who wants a little life in their films, you can steer clear.

Final Score: C+

Back in high school, I watched a lot of films that are considered classics and hallmarks of cinema that I distinctly remember not enjoying. Citizen Kane is the most obvious offender as it’s often considered to be the greatest film of all time while I found it quite conventional, although I blame a lot of that now on the vast majority of the films I’ve enjoyed since then copying most of its style. There were other big names to add to that list such as Raging Bull, Gone With the Wind, and The English Patient, amongst several others. I watched these films when I was younger though and my tastes in movies has noticeably matured since then. So, I was sort of excited when Lawrence of Arabia came in the mail from Netflix since it was another high-profile film that makes many “greatest of all time” lists that I simply did not enjoy. Sadly, my verdict remains practically the same, although perhaps it’s for different reasons now. As it is, Lawrence of Arabia remains a gorgeously shot film that overstays its welcome and fails to deliver on any substance to its historical adventure.

Lawrence of the Arabia is the true story of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a British military officer who is sent to observe the Arab revolt against the Turkish Empire in the early 1900’s. Lawrence is a very strange man however, and it’s the prime reason he was sent on this mission. He quotes ancient philosophers, has an unseemly tolerance for pain, and (this is strange for the time) has a genuine interest in Arab culture. Upon his arrival, he quickly impresses Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), the leader of a nomadic tribe of Arabs who is leading the rebellion of the Turks. At a seemingly unconquerable imapsse against the Turks, Lawrence devises a scheme that allows the Arabs to gain the first of many victories to come against the Turks while attempting to unify the various Arab tribes into one unstoppable army. What you gain is a portrait of troubled genius set against the backdrop of historical epic.

First, with the positives. Peter O’Toole made his debut role in this film, and he’s simply a natural. Lawrence is an incredibly complicated character (that the script doesn’t spend enough time exploring) with countless quirks and strange mannerisms. If the script failed to make Lawrence a complete character, O’Toole succeeded admirably. His transformation from an idealistic crusader to a shell-shocked veteran is natural and believable. He injects just the right amount of gravitas to the more emotional scenes of Lawrence’s life such as when he must kill his servant lest he be taken captive by the Turks and be tortured. Also, Omar Sharif (who was coincidentally enough in the last film I watched) was also great as one of the more important Arab characters in the film. When he is first introduced, he is seen as “barbarous and cruel”, yet he quickly learn that he is one of the more morally grounded characters in the film. The same great things can be said for Anthony Quinn and Alec Guinness although not at the same level as O’Toole and Sharif.

From a technical perspective, the film is simply a marvel. The wide shots of the desert vistas never get old, and neither does the spectacular attention to period detail. If you’re a history nut, you can easily find yourself getting lost in the costumes and architecture of the film. At the same time, when the film attempts to put together an action set-piece moment, they are pulled off quite well. When the Arab troops ride on the city of Aqaba with Lawrence at their head or rob a train, you get a sense that a lot of time and effort was placed into choreographing these moments. At the same time, Lean’s camera knows just how to capture the loneliness and desolation of the desert, and while there were probably too many never-ending treks into the desert, they encapsulated the isolation to a tee.

Now for the problems. Leaving aside the fact that its four hour length led the film to be more bloated than an aging Marlon Brando with countless scenes screaming for massive editing, the film was coldly historical. Rather than attempting to gain any insight into the events occurring on screen, the film simply let them speak for themselves. T.E. Lawrence is such a fascinating person, but the film only paid pat respect to his psychology, and it wasn’t really until the very end of the film that it ever examined just why he was doing anything. Compared to the more artistic The Last Emperor, Lawrence of Arabia is very stale, but beautiful, history lesson that could have accomplished much of its goals had the film simply been a documentary with dramatic re-enactments. Throughout the entire film, I only ever found myself being emotionally attached to Omar Sharif’s Ali. When your titular character is such a marvel and you leave him so frustratingly ill-defined, that is simply a flaw in writing.

Does the film have value? Absolutely. David Lean doesn’t make bad pictures. This one is simply cripplingly flawed in a way that keeps it from achieving true greatness. David Lean is one of those directors that never truly learned the meaning of “enough”, and it shows here more than any of his other films that I’ve seen. I would have enjoyed the film much more had the length been pared down to something more manageable and had T.E. Lawrence been greater developed as a character. As it, Lawrence of Arabia stands as a film that had the potential to be a masterpiece but instead fell quite short of its lofty goals. Here’s to hoping that I’m not forced to watch any more four hour films in the near future.

Final Score: B

 A couple of years ago, one of my friends went to New York City with our dorm as part of a trip. Like me, she’s a big theater buff, and so she, along with out Resident Faculty Leaders (we were both RA’s), went to go see the Broadway production of Gypsy. The way she talked about, it seemed like she really enjoyed it. When I saw that the 1962 film adaptation starring Natalie Wood, Rosalind Russell, and Karl Malden was coming up next on my Netflix queue, I got sort of excited. Well, my excitement was for naught. While parts of the film were good, particularly Rosalind Russell as the stage mother, the film turned out to be an over-long melodramatic affair with musical numbers that mostly left me wanting.

Gypsy is the autobiographical and musical tale of Louise (Natalie Wood), her sister June, and their stage mother Rose (Rosalind Russell). Louise grows up to be the most famous burlesque act of all time, Gypsy Rose Lee, but when she’s younger, she lives in the shadow of her sister June who her mother ships all across the country performing in various vaudeville shows. Rose is the archetypal stage mother that pushes career and stardom ahead of her daughter’s happiness. Karl Malden is also in the cast as Herbie, a traveling salesman/booking agent that enter’s Rose’s life and tries to help the girls find venues in which to perform.

Rosalind Russell is just spectacular in this movie. Every second she was on screen, the film was actually great. She played her with so much campiness and ham that it should have been ridiculously over the top but she made it work. She may be one of the worst mothers of all time, but I still kind of felt terrible for her at times. Karl Malden is one of cinema’s great character actors and he nails his role as well, but that’s what I expect from him. The only other Natalie Wood movies I’ve seen besides this are The Searchers and Rebel Without a Cause, and I thought she did a better job in both of those films. She’s not a great singer, and it really comes through in her performance.

This was a Stephen Sondheim musical, and the music was just of an infinitely inferior quality than the other Sondheim that I’ve seen, Sweeney Todd. There was only one really memorable number in the whole film, “Rose’s Turn”, and Chris Colfer did a better job with it on Glee than the movie did. He actually sang another song from the film and did a better job than Gypsy did with it as well. The only good thing I can say about the film’s arrangements was that it got post-modern at times by having so much of the film take place on a theatre stage since it was an adaptation of a stage musical and therefore it recaptured that aspect of the true experience of Gypsy.

I can recommend this to hardcore musical enthusiasts but that’s about it. At two and half hours long, it’s just far too much for anyone else to bear since the pacing is terribly slow. Honestly, the film has ruined any desire I have to see the stage version, although I should know that film adaptations often fail to capture the spirit and fun of musicals. The terrible Phantom of the Opera film by Joel Schumacher taught me that. I saw that live and it’s one of my all time favorite stage shows. Hopefully, my next film is more entertaining than this one.

 Final Score: B-

Maybe it’s the way he makes it sound like he’s forgotten his lines every time his talks. Maybe it’s his unplaceable southern drawl that sounds like no other accent you’ve ever heard before. Maybe it’s just how despite the fact that his hey-day was 60 years ago but I still do impersonations of him pretty regularly. Whatever it is, I love James Stewart. A week doesn’t go by where I don’t quote It’s a Wonderful Life at some point or another just because Jimmy Stewart is one of the few actors I can do a consistently decent impersonation of. So, I was obviously pretty excited to get to my first James Stewart film for this list, and while this film wasn’t perfect or even great, it was a pretty hilarious and early take on the dysfunctional family picture.

Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation is a film told in flashback, as it begins with Roger Hobbs (James Stewart) dictating to his assistant a suicide note that he apparently plans on writing after a particularly disastrous family vacation. Roger is in his late 50’s or early 60’s if I had to guess. This is an aging Jimmy Stewart, although Roger still has two kids who are old enough to live at home, his youngest child Danny who does nothing but watch television and his typical teenage daughter Katy who is acting out because she has to wear braces. He also has two grown daughters who have kids of their own. Roger and his wife Peggy (the beautiful for her age Maureen O’Hara) decide to take a family vacation at a completely run-down summer home on the beach and bring the entire family along. Needless to say, the vacation does not go well.

James Stewart is an absolute blast as the curmudgeonly titular Mr. Hobbs. His very effective dry wit is put to great use here. He had me cracking up half the time with things I’m not even sure were intended to be all that funny. There’s just something about the way he talks and carries himself that always makes me ready to laugh. There was one scene in the film that was just hysterical. The Hobbs have a pair of guests staying the night that they need to impress in order to help one of the son-in-law’s land a job. However, Mr. Hobbs ends up getting locked in the bathroom with the naked wife (no actual nudity on screen), and hilarity ensues. This is a film that proves that you don’t need obscenity, nudity, or gross-out humor to succeed in getting laughs (not that those things are bad).

The movie is far from perfect. Certain scenes feel like they drag on absolutely forever, and the scene in which Roger and his son get lost at sea definitely could have used some editing. Honestly, the film could probably have lost about a half hour of its length and been far the better for it. So, while the film definitely isn’t the best comedy I’ve watched for this blog, I enjoyed it quite a bit. If you’re a fan of old family comedies or Jimmy Stewart, you should definitely give this one a view. I think you’ll have a better time than the Hobbs had on their vacation.

Final Score: B