Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Film Review: The Purple Heart

"The Purple Heart"  *** (out of ****)

"The Purple Heart" (1944) was released a year before World War II ended. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not occurred yet (they would not occur until August of 1945) but America had performed air raids over the city of Tokyo. Those air raids serve as the basis of this American propaganda drama involving prisoners of war.

Eight American soldiers have been captured by the Japanese army and have been put on trial, in a civilian court. The soldiers discover they are being trialed for murder. The air raid over Tokyo killed innocent women and children because bombs were dropped on schools and other non-military locations. The soldiers deny this but the trial proceeds anyway.

For this reason it is interesting to remember the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Imagine what kind of movie could have been made after those events, and the devastating effects that had, due to radiation, which, some say, is still around today.

But "The Purple Heart" really wants to stir patriotic pride in the American audience that watches this movie and make us hate those nasty, mean Japanese soldiers and their undemocratic ways. We are supposed to get angry as we see what kind of sham trial the soldiers are going to have to endure. They are not even allowed to cross-examine witnesses. We are supposed to think this would never happen in America. We are better than that. Unfortunately, I will have to burst everyone's bubble and remind them of President Roosevelt's order to relocate people of Japanese ancestry, many of whom were American citizens, and place them in internment camps. This was done between 1942 - 1946. In fact it is mentioned in this movie, as a threat to the Japanese, to force them to release the soldiers.

But, this is a movie review. Readers don't want a history lesson. Still, I believe it is important to understand the culture in which movies are made. Movies reflect their time period. "The Purple Heart", as it is now, could not have been made today. It is a product of 1940s America. It emulates a typical American mindset found in several movies during the early part of the decade and promotes stereotypes which would make most modern viewers cringe.

Yet for all of "The Purple Heart"s sentimental, patriotic sensibilities I was unable to become emotionally involved. Perhaps my heart is black but I didn't swell up with pride as I saw the young American soldiers. I didn't hate the Japanese enemy. I simply sat and watched the movie, found some moments of acting effective, others a bit heavy handed and a few unimpressive. At its best this is a rather unbalanced drama.

Of course I can understand why 20th Century Fox wanted to release this picture and I can believe there was an audience in 1944 that would want to see movie and appreciate it but I can't help but feel the movie doesn't go in for the jugular. It could have had a stronger message about human rights and the rule of law, as another movie with Dana Andrews did, "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943). It could have further exploited the trial as a mockery as Stanley Kubrick did in "Paths of Glory" (1957), which I couldn't help but think of as I watched "The Purple Heart". And its not that the movie's director, Lewis Milestone, wasn't capable of giving the audience great movies. Mr. Milestone, a two-time Academy Award winning director, was the man behind the great World War I anti-war movie, "All Quiet On The Western Front" (1930), the great silent gangster picture "The Racket" (1928) and had directed another WW2 story only a year before, "The North Star" (1943) also with Dana Andrews, which scored multiple Oscar nominations. But, as time has pointed out, "The Purple Heart" is not a revered classic.

When it becomes apparent the soldiers (Dana Andrews, Richard Conte and Farley Granger among them) are not afraid of being charged, the Japanese switch tactics. The best way to conquer is to divide. The Japanese General Mitsubi (Richard Loo, supposedly one of comic Dick Cavett's favorite actors) agrees drop the charges against the soldiers if they will reveal the location from the which planes came. If a location is given the soldiers will be treated as POWs. When the leader of soldiers, Captain Ross (Andrews) hears the proposal, he immediately dismisses it. To which Gen. Mitsubi reminds him, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. So, one by one the soldiers are brought in for interrogation to see who will reveal the location. Of course, this makes the soldiers suspicious of one another. Who among them is the weakest link? Which one of them would not be able to stand up to torture?

This would give the movie the opportunity to humanize the soldiers, giving us flashbacks of their civilian lives. While there are some background stories given, it is another flaw of the movie that we really never come to know these men. They are nothing more than symbolic figures - the proud Americans and are suppose to represent the resiliency of the American soldier.

The best performance in the movie would have to be given by Richard Loo, who was not Japanese but born in America and of Chinese descent. American movies didn't have Japanese actors portray Japanese characters during the war. Mr. Loo does a good job playing the villain, making the audience hate his character, and in typical fashion is shown to be a ruthless soldier himself, determine to make the Americans suffer, as the Japanese do not care how many lives are lost in their effort to defeat the Americans. Look at the movie's poster, with the sinister Japanese figure looking down on the American soldiers. It was meant to make American audiences fearful of the enemy and force us not to see them as "people" but instead "the other".

You can't help but notice a lot of "ugliness" in "The Purple Heart" with the stereotypes and propaganda told throughout the story, yet I recommend it. It is your average WW2 American movie. Nothing about it really stands out to me as exceptional, and that is probably why it is not better known today. Yet, I can't fault the movie for what it does. America was at war. Japan was the enemy. You tell me American movies made today don't do the same thing with Middle Easterns? It is all the same tactics. Nothing has changed.

"The Purple Heart" is not a great movie but for some viewers it may serve as an interesting time capsule. It will also give younger movie fans the opportunity to see Dana Andrews and Richard Loo act as well as became familiar with director Lewis Milestone. Mr. Milestone and Mr. Andrews have worked on better movies, so don't allow this movie to cloud your judgement of them. See "The Purple Heart" for what it is, an interesting piece of American propaganda during WW2.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Film Review: Never Give A Sucker An Even Break

"Never Give A Sucker An Even Break"
*** (out of ****)

W.C. Fields tries to wise us up in his final screen comedy.

Long before there was a television show about nothing, the great comedian W.C. Fields gave us a movie about such a topic, "Never Give A Sucker An Even Break" (1941).

The "movie" takes place at a movie studio called Esoteric Pictures. This is an obvious joke. Esoteric means something that is only understood by a small group. Mr. Fields made his movie at Universal Pictures. The opposite of esoteric would be universal. However, esoteric may also refer to the amount of appeal a "movie" such as "Never Give A Sucker An Even Break" may find with the general public and perhaps even Mr. Fields style of comedy.

W.C. Fields created a comedy persona built on a man that drank regularly and heavily. He was married, but more often than not, in a loveless marriage, and considered his wife a nag. He didn't like children, including his own, whom usually showed him no respect (long before Rodney Dangerfield) and could not hold a steady job, preferring to go out drinking instead. And yet, the characters Mr. Fields played would win the day. Society could not change him. It would need to learn to adapt to him. It is not the ingredients to make a "lovable" comic.

Mr. Fields takes elements of this persona and has created not a movie but an excuse to show off his character to the public and give them one more opportunity to laugh at his antics. Mr. Fields goes as far as not even bothering to make up a character name instead Mr. Fields plays a variation of himself playing W.C. Fields, actor and comedian. In his opening scene he stares lovingly at a poster of his last movie, "The Bank Dick" (1940), acknowledging he is playing himself, the W.C. Fields.

Fields (the character in the movie) works at Esoteric Pictures and hopes to break his niece, Gloria Jean (played by Gloria Jean, who was actually meant to be the next Deanna Durbin) in the business at the same studio. The studio head, Franklin Pangborn (played by Franklin Pangborn, who co-starred with Mr. Fields in other comedies) is very taken by her. In the course of the same day however, he has also agreed to meet with Fields to go over a new script he has written. And that's the story. Both Fields and Pangborn read the script, as we see the story on-screen.

In the screenplay Fields and Gloria are on a plane as Fields, about to pour a drink, accidentally knocks the bottle out of the plane, as he sits in the open-air observation deck (don't ask!). In an immediate panic, Fields jumps out of the plane to catch the bottle and ends up landing in a small Russian town and meets a beautiful young woman, (Susan Miller) and her mother, (Margaret Dumont). Somehow or another (does it really matter?) Fields gets word to Gloria of his whereabouts and she rushes to him.

These scenes are interrupted by Pangborn who lashes out at Fields in disgust and confusion. These scenes actually remind me of a joke used in the Bing Crosby / Bob Hope road comedy, "Road to Utopia" (1946) where Robert Benchley plays a narrator, hired by the studio, to interrupt the movie for us, as the studio executives feel the movie is so bad, it needs to be explained. In the case of the Pangborn character, he merely says what the audience is thinking. None of this makes any sense. Finally Pangborn says he has had enough of Fields' script and demands he leave.

"Never Give A Sucker An Even Break" couldn't really be called a satire on the movie industry, as it doesn't make enough astute observations about movie making nor it is autobiographical, despite actors playing "themselves". It can be described as a faux documentary, making it years ahead of its time, though it wasn't shot in the style of a documentary, to make it more authentic. And, as mentioned, it is not really a "movie" in the tradition sense. It lacks a three act structure. There is no protagonist and antagonist. There is no central conflict. No character arch. It is right about at this point readers are asking, why watch this "movie"? The answer is simple. It's funny. You'll laugh. I can't promise you will understand it all but you will laugh and have a smile on your face.

Naturally though the movie is not for everyone, though its defenders consider it a surreal, comedic masterpiece. If you have never seen a W.C. Fields comedy before I would strongly advise against seeing this as your introduction into Mr. Fields comedy. A better introduction would be "It's A Gift" (1934), which shows Mr. Fields struggle with home life, hitting on all the targets typical for a W.C. Fields comedy.

"Never Give A Sucker An Even Break" is just for the fans, those already familiar with the Fields persona and just looking for an excuse to watch him one more time for about an hour (the movie's running time is 70 minutes). But, don't kid yourself. Yes, the "movie" lacks structure. Yes, it is surreal or absurd, ridiculous or any other word you care to use, however, it is smart in its own way. The movie comments on the audience's notion of a hero and story and what a movie is supposed to be. Something as ridiculous as this might lead someone to say, how could they release something like this in Hollywood? Good point and the joke is on us, because they did.

Many of the comedians in Mr. Fields era, didn't do well with heavily plotted stories (i.e. the Marx Brothers, Wheeler & Woolsey, Olsen & Johnson) as storylines took time away from the comedy routines, which would be the highlight of any movie they appeared in. The comedies which worked best were the ones that gave the teams or comedians plenty of room to do their comedy. Once comedies started getting bogged down with music and romance, the comedians were put in comic relief roles. "Never Give A Sucker An Even Break" is pure comedy. There is nothing else holding the "movie" together. In a certain respect we can almost look at this as Mr. Fields' "Citizen Kane" (1940), a movie in which he was nearly given complete artistic freedom to make, as movie studios often tried to censor Mr. Fields' humor, a point he makes in this movie.

The "movie" was directed by Edward Cline, who supposedly had a good working relationship with Mr. Fields, as Mr. Cline also directed "The Bank Dick" and "My Little Chickadee" (1940) with Mr. Fields and Mae West. The script was by Mr. Fields, who used the pseudonym Otis Criblecoblis. Mr. Fields had written other screenplays, using other pseudonyms as well.

I can't call "Never Give A Sucker An Even Break" a great comedy or a prime example of Mr. Fields' humor, or even say I understand everything on-screen however the movie is funny. Mr. Fields is always a pleasure to watch. So don't be a "sucker". See "Never Give A Sucker An Even Break".

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Film Review: The Flame of New Orleans

"The Flame of New Orleans"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

Watching Marlene Dietrich in a romantic - comedy such as "The Flame of New Orleans" (1941) I'm reminded of a famous quote from the actress Mae West - "When I'm good, I'm very good, but when I'm bad I'm better". That essentially describes the screen persona of Ms. Dietrich and which movies feature her at her best.

Ms. Dietrich gained international acclaim in the 1930s playing women who brought men to their downfall by luring them with sex. The movies were usually directed by Josef von Sternberg and were dramas. But then someone got the idea, why not put Ms. Dietrich in a comedy. Why not have her play against type. It could, in theory, work, but the final product isn't a success. Not exactly a failure mind you, but not a success. Why? Because Ms. Dietrich is better when she's bad.

Mr. Von Sternberg and Ms. Dietrich tried the comedic approach once with "The Devil Is A Woman" (1935). It was entertaining and I gave it a mild recommendation but "The Flame of New Orleans" never really takes off.

If you could rate a movie based on expectation I suppose you'd have to rate "The Flame of New Orleans" high. The movie was directed by the great filmmaker Rene Clair - "I Married A Witch" (1942), "The Ghost Goes West" (1935), stars the wonderful Ms. Dietrich and has a supporting cast of excellent character actors; Roland Young, Mischa Auer, Andy Devine and Franklin Pangborn and was written by Norman Krasna - "Hands Across the Table" (1935), Fritz Lang's "Fury" (1936) and Alfred Hitchcock's "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" (1941). But expectations and good intentions don't mean much. It's the final product that counts.

"The Flame of New Orleans" begins with the kind of lunacy we'd expect to find in a Preston Sturges comedy, with a wedding dress drifting along the Mississippi River and two fishermen finding it. Where did the dress come from? Who does it belong to? Where's the bride's body? A narrator tells us we are going to find out the answers. The dress belongs to Countess Claire (Dietrich) a woman with a fancy title but no money. She is new to New Orleans and would like nothing better than to find a rich man and marry his money, er, I mean fall in love. With her beauty she won't find a storage of rich men eager to spend time with her. But, which among them is the most desperate that she can easily take advantage of? Perhaps it is Charles Giraud (Young).

And so we are dealing with the same ingredients found in Mr. Von Sternberg and Ms. Dietrich's collaborations - beautiful women who is a gold digger and is aware of her beauty and what men will do to be with her. She finds an innocent man with money whom she can easily manipulate. As the song goes, something's gotta give and its going to be the man's integrity and money. Here though is where the comedy comes in. How easily can Claire manipulate him? And, how can Claire stop her past from catching up to her and keep Charles from finding out?

Mr. Clair and Mr. Krasna have come up with a good comedic scenario involving Claire pretending to be two different women, one the respectable countess, engaged to Charles and the other a woman of what used to be called "ill repute", in order to clear her tracks when a man (Auer) claims to have known Claire and um, had a good time with her. This remark is heard by Charles and questions Claire regarding its validity.

This storyline is mixed with one revolving around Claire and a poor sailor, Robert (Bruce Cabot), giving us the tired, old cliche story of what is a girl to do, marry for love or money. Claire is attracted to Robert but what will it get her? At least Charles comes from a respectable family, has plenty of money and can give Claire a comfortable life.

Both sub-plots don't gel nicely together and feel somewhat clumsy, the structure of the movie is a bit off with neither sub-plot being fully explored. The movie also lacks big laughs, which could have made up for any plot holes. If I find a movie funny enough, I'll recommend it and overlook any flaws in the plot. Nothing about the movie is exaggerated, where situation escalates, heightening the comedy. Everything feels tame.

Then there is the issue of Ms. Dietrich herself. The right director, like Mr. Von Sternberg, could accentuate her beauty. Mr. Clair doesn't do that. He doesn't make the viewer fall in love with Claire. He doesn't make the obvious, obvious to us. Ms. Dietrich was a beautiful woman. Her looks are one of the central points of the movie - the way men, in particular Charles, reacts to her looks, why not play that aspect of the movie up?

Still, for what it is worth, Ms. Dietrich is suitable in the role. Comedically there isn't much for Ms. Dietrich to do. The comedy arises from the situations created and the performances given by Mr. Auer, Mr. Young and Mr. Pangborn. Ms. Dietrich could play comedy but not when playing a temptress. She is worth watching in "The Lady Is Willing" (1942).

Mr. Krasna allegedly did not approve of Mr. Young in the role and felt he was miscast. I'm not sure how Mr. Krasna saw the role but Mr. Young does a good job, there just wasn't enough for him to do. His character is one of those cowardly men that acts tough around a pretty girl to show his authority and social standing. Mr. Young brings that to the screen nicely.

I feel as if "The Flame of New Orleans" could have used some physical comedy and create moments of bedroom farce. Maybe a better director for the movie would have been Preston Sturges, who could walk that fine line and create movies with wonderful dialogue filled with nice zingers and slapstick comedy.

As for Rene Clair, "The Flame of New Orleans" is almost "too normal" for him. His English language movies usually had more fantastic plots, revolving around the supernatural. He directed some great French comedies in the 1930s which had a Chaplin-esque quality to them. That brilliance isn't really on display here. Perhaps because he is not in his natural element - plotwise.

"The Flame of New Orleans" was nominated for one Academy Award - best art direction, which it lost to John Ford's "How Green Was My Valley" (1941). The movie is not a complete success but not a failure. It is somewhat worth watching if you are a Marlene Dietrich fan or enjoy the films of Rene Clair, and quite frankly, why wouldn't you? Still, both the actress and the director have done better. This collaboration should have worked better. Instead the flame becomes nothing more than a dying ember.