Gentleman’s Agreement

Gentleman’s Agreement, 1947, Twentieth Century Fox. Starring Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield. Directed by Elia Kazan. B&W, 118 minutes.

Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) has just moved with his mother (Anne Revere) and ten-year-old son Tom (Dean Stockwell) to New York, where he has a new job waiting for him as a magazine reporter. Phil is an experienced writer, and when he’s given an assignment on anti-semitism, he’s told it’s his particular skill his editor believes will give the topic strength it hasn’t had in the hands of lesser writers.

He struggles with the idea, uncertain at first if he even wants to take it on. It’s when his son begins asking him questions and his mother makes a few dry observations about his own prejudices he decides he wants to do it. Finding the right angle, however, seems impossible, until Phil, who is not Jewish, hits on the idea of living as a Jew in New York City for however long it takes to get the story he needs.

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Gregory Peck, Anne Revere

He’s met and fallen in love with Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire), a seemingly liberal woman whose deeply ingrained prejudices start to show as he begins to face the realities of bigotry. She is among a handful of people who know his real identity, and she’s careful to make sure the right people also know that truth.

Add to the mix Phil’s childhood friend Dave Goldman (John Garfield) who’s just moved to New York after serving in the war and is struggling to find a home for himself and his family. Dave, of course, knows the truth about Phil’s heritage, and as a Jew, he lends insight to the research.

The film won three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress (Celeste Holm, as the magazine’s fashion editor and Phil’s confidante). It was nominated for five others, including Best Actor (Peck) and Best Actress (McGuire).

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John Garfield, Gregory Peck, Celeste Holm

John Garfield, who was Jewish, generally played leading men, but accepted the supporting role because he believed in the importance of the film. The role of Phil’s son, Tommy, was played by Dean Stockwell, the veteran actor with one of the longest careers in Hollywood.

Gentleman’s Agreement was made in the years immediately following the Holocaust, when Americans were learning increasing amounts about the persecution of Jews and becoming sensitive to bigotry in their own country. Filmmakers, too, after the horrors of World War II, began to focus on more serious issues and take on “real”topics, such as alcoholism in The Lost Weekend and the trials facing returning veterans in The Best Years of Our Lives, and audiences responded well.

Interestingly, however, the film never mentions the Holocaust, a deliberate decision on the part of the film’s producer and director. Another point of interest is the use of racial slurs; words that are considered on par with profanity today were used in the movie without reservation and any apparent objection by censors.

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Dorothy McGuire, Gregory Peck, Dean Stockwell

The movie is still noteworthy for its ability to bring forth intelligent discussion of anti-semitism. Critics note that it focuses on only one region in the country, that is, the upper-crust society Philip Green is part of, but whether or not that is a fault of the film is debatable. This is one movie’s take on the topic, and it can’t be responsible for portraying the whole of the problem.

Gentleman’s Agreement is complex, as is its topic, well-acted and thought-provoking. It remains a worthwhile movie for anyone interested in what a film can do for shining light society’s ills, as well as those who enjoy classic movies at their best.

As of February 7, 2017, “Gentleman’s Agreement” is available on Netflix streaming service as well as DVD rental. Availability is subject to change.

Now, Voyager

Now, Voyager, 1942, Columbia Pictures. Starting Bette Davis, Paul Heinreid, Claude Rains. Directed by Irving Rapper. B&W, 117 minutes.

The story of a plain and painfully shy young woman, held tightly under the grip of her abusive mother, Now, Voyager is a melodrama elevated to an unexpected level of quality by fine performances and a somewhat unpredictable plot. Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) was a late-in-life child for her sharp-tongued mother (Gladys Cooper), and the overbearing woman has never let her forget what a burden that has been.

With the help of kind relatives, Charlotte is sent to a sanatarium (today known as a mental health facility), where, under the patient and loving care of Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), she evolves into a more confident young lady with style and panache.

The stay at the sanatarium isn’t all that helps cure her, however. She leaves the facility and goes on a cruise to South America, where she meets the dashing Jeremiah Duvaux Durrance (Paul Heinreid), a married man whose charm and attention bring her more fully into her own.

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Claude Rains, Bette Davis

But the trip ends, and Charlotte returns home. From there the story has both its predictable and surprising moments, with an ending only a melodrama of that era could pull off.

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Actress for Davis, Best Supporting Actress for Cooper, and Best Music, Scoring for Max Steiner. It won the music award, as well it should have. Reviews were mixed, in fact, they tended to be more critical than praising, but the movie did well, particularly with women, its intended audience. Melodramas (“weepies”) were popular with the female crowd at the time, and this one was better than most.

Producer Hal B. Wallis originally envisioned Irene Dunne in the lead, but when Davis heard about the film she vigourously campaigned for the part. She was under contract to Warner Bros., she argued, while it would cost the studio to borrow Dunne from Columbia. Also, as a native New Englander, she could understand Charlotte Vale and her lifestyle.

During production, Davis gained a reputation for fighting her own and her cast members’ battles with director Irving Rapper, who was said to go home every evening exhausted from the day’s work with his strong-willed star. Heinreid later said he appreciated her intervention on his behalf, including campaigning for a second screen test when his appearance on the first was “wrong in every way.”

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Bette Davis, Paul Heinreid

Many women wrote to the studio saying they saw themselves in the homely Charlotte, and believed if that transformation could be made for her, it could for them, as well. As Davis was not a classic beauty, this was yet another reason choosing her for the part was wise. It did, indeed, show the power of confidence, self-worth, and some savvy style decisions.

Now, Voyager has staying power because of its solid performances and very human storytelling, as well as the sharp cinematography and feminist perspective. For Bette Davis fans it is a must-see, and should be on the list of movies to watch for all classic film fans.

As of February 3, 2017, “Now, Voyager” is scheduled to air on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on Sunday, February 19, 2017 at 9:00 a.m. ET/8:00 a.m. CT and Friday, April 28, 2017 at 10:00 p.m. ET/9:00 p.m. CT. Scheduling is subject to change; check TCM’s schedule for the latest information.

 

Bachelor Mother

Bachelor Mother, 1939, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Ginger Rogers, David Niven, Charles Coburn. Directed by Garson Kanin. B&W, 82 minutes.

Polly Parrish (Ginger Rogers) has just been laid off of her seasonal job at Merlin and Son’s Department Store. It’s Christmastime, and she is in need of income, any income.

While at lunch on what appears to be her last day of work, she passes a foundling home and sees an older woman drop off an infant. Afraid the child may fall off the steps, Polly reaches out to pick him up, just as one of the home’s matrons opens the door. Inside, she’s unable to convince the home’s director the baby isn’t hers, but escapes the situation without a bundle of joy.

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Ginger Rogers

The foundling home tracks down her employer and convinces David Merlin (David Niven), the son in “Merlin and Son’s,” to give her back her job so she can care for “her” son. He does, but ends up paying an unexpected price for his generosity. Through a series of mishaps, the elder Mr. Merlin (Charles Coburn) comes to believe his son is the father of the baby, and expects him to do right by the child and his mother.

Bachelor Mother is an engaging comedy, predictable in some ways, yet clever in the details and twists that raise it above the level of bland storytelling. Nivens, Rogers, and Coburn each bring his or her own particular charm, with Rogers in particular showing an edgy, droll side. It doesn’t hurt that the baby is delightful, performing, it seems, on cue, although of course that likely wasn’t the case.

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David Niven, Ginger Rogers

Rogers initially expressed “deep reservations” about the script, stating the story line was thin and the characters “had no life.” However, her concerns proved unfounded, and in her autobiography she wrote, “I loved working with David Niven and the precious baby…(Garson Kanin) was imaginative and spontaneous and his good humor and lively sense of comedy smoothed out any problems along the way.”

The script was by prolific screenwriter Norman Krasna, who also wrote the screenplays for such movies as Mr. and Mrs. Smith and White Christmas.  It was based on a story by Felix Jackson, who received the film’s one Academy Award nomination, Best Writing, Original Story.

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David Niven

The film critic for The New York Times wrote “through smart writing, direction and performance, the theme is developed hilariously, with sudden and unexpected twists which never are permitted to affect the insane logic of the yarn’s progression.”

Perfectly enjoyable, Bachelor Mother is a comedy all classic movie fans should see. While the plot line of child abandonment hardly seems comic material, it’s handled in such a way that the improbable is easy to believe and the unbefitting is downright funny.

 

Anna Karénina (1935)

Anna Karénina, 1935, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Greta Garbo, Fredric March, Basil Rathbone. Directed by Clarence Brown. B&W, 93 minutes.

Anna Karénina (Greta Garbo) is bound in a financially and socially comfortable, yet deeply unsatisfying, life at home with her husband of ten years, Karénin (Basil Rathbone), and the son she adores, Sergei (Freddie Bartholomew). She wistfully, if somewhat indirectly, relates her feelings of malaise and longing to young Kitty (Maureen O’Sullivan) moments before she meets the dashing Count Vronsky (Fredric March). From there her life is changed forever.

Time and again, Anna and Vronsky defy society with their clandestine and illicit meetings. Gradually they are less discreet, and she is warned by her husband to stay away from the Count. Captivated by the intensity of her feelings, Anna makes a decision that has consequences she had been cautioned were inevitable, yet chose not to believe.

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Greta Garbo, Basil Rathbone

The restraints of bringing Tolstoy’s tome to the screen in little more than 90 minutes are offset by fine performances, stylish set decoration and costuming, and deft direction from Clarence Brown. The result, while not epic, is opulant and moving.

The movie was well-received critically, and did well in the box office, although it was met with mixed feelings by the general public. The London Observer‘s film critic wrote, “it is handsome and dashing, with enough social sense to present divorce as a problem to an age which has come to regard it as a commonplace.”

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Greta Garbo, Fredric March

A superb actress, Garbo’s experience in silent films served her well in Anna Karénina. Her final scenes in particular are subtly nuanced yet fully expressive, with all that is in her heart seen in her eyes, and barely a word said. She is the strength of this film. As the aggrieved husband, Basil Rathbone’s performance is taut and precise. While you may not have sympathy for the man, you understand his point of view. In contrast, Fredric March is perhaps not as compelling, but does not take away from the power of the story.

Dissatisfied with the way the adaption of Tolstoy’s classic had been handled in 1927 in a silent version of the tale titled Love, Garbo had long campaigned for another opportunity to bring Anna Karénina to the screen. She was met with resistance from her studio, yet remained undeterred until they gave in.

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Greta Garbo

Anna Karénina has been remade several times, and each version is a reflection of the era in which it is produced. The story, however, is timeless, and was brought to the screen in 1935 in a powerful manner, making this classic film one of the better movies of the early period of filmmaking.

 

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948, Warner Bros. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt. Directed by John Huston. B&W, 126 minutes.

After being cheated out of their fair wages and finding themselves dead broke in a foreign country, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) look to the gold hidden in the hills of Mexico as the way out of dire circumstances. They turn to a crusty old-timer, Howard (Walter Huston), to lead them in their search for buried treasure.

It’s dangerous in 1920s Mexico to search for gold; banditos and federales lurk behind every corner and will likely kill you before asking questions. But Dobbs and Curtin are determined, and Howard reluctantly agrees to go along as their guide.

The story isn’t in the search, however, it’s in the minds and motivations of the men seeking what they are unlikely to find, the drive that keeps them moving toward their goal of wealth and satisfaction, and the greed, fear and paranoia that soon accompany them in their quest.

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Walter Huston, Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt

Bogart was given his big break in John Huston’s directorial debut, The Maltese Falcon, and this film proved to further his career in yet another fashion with its grisly reality and harsh characterization. That Bogart was the top-rated actor of his time is no surprise, given his versatility and intelligent performances, and he played his unlikable character in such a way one is fascinated by the performance and drawn into the story despite the growing realization that Dobbs is truly unsavory and at times, malevolent.

Walter Huston, father of the film’s director, played bit parts in some of his son’s other films (he was seen as a “good luck charm,” although his appearance did not guarantee success), but this is the only movie of John’s in which he played a major role.  John Huston had long wanted to bring the novel of the same name to the screen, and he always envisioned his father in the role of Howard. As fate would have it, both father and son won Academy Awards for their parts in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Walter for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and John as Best Director and for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Tim Holt, best known for his likable performances in Westerns, rises to the occasion and proves himself to be far more capable an actor than many gave him credit for throughout his career. That likability comes through in this character, but he’s as tough as the rest, and is a fine contrast to Bogart’s roughness.

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Humphrey Bogart

Critics of the day had nothing less than effusive praise for the film, and summed up its nature eloquently. The New York Times movie critic made note of the film’s grim yet redeeming theme in this manner: “Mr. Huston has shaped a searching drama of the collision of civilization’s vicious greeds with the instinct for self-preservation in an environment where all the barriers are down…he has done a superb illumination of basic characteristics in men.”

Variety stated, “It’s a grim and brutal slice of life whose raw elements have been ordered onto the plane of tragedy through a terrific twist of irony. There’s a magnificent joker hidden at bottom, but spectators will find it so grisly and so bitter that this film moves out of the class of simple entertainment into the realm of vivid experience.” James Agee wrote of the movie in The Nation,  “nominally an adventure story, this is really an exploration of character as revealed in vivid action.”

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Tim Holt, Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is an outstanding film and has stood the test of time because of its insightful view into human nature set in the backdrop of a Western tale. The cinematography matches the mood in its stark and simple nature (John Huston once said of the detached style of filming, “I just wanted them to look like they were stewing in their own juices”).  That, together with the real-life settings of Durango and Tampico, Mexico, the all-to-authentic performances and the story itself, make it a classic worth watching.

Adam’s Rib

Adam’s Rib, 1949, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 100 minutes.

A distraught wife (Judy Holliday) seeks out her husband (Tom Ewell) as he meets with his paramour (Jean Hagen). With great inexpertise and a shaky aim, she shoots him in the shoulder, wounding his ego more than his body. Their story is headline news, and particularly captures the attention of Adam and Amanda Bonner (Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn), married New York attorneys on the opposite side of the courtroom.

Amanda, a defense attorney, seeks to represent the bewildered and aggrieved wife, while Adam, part of the prosecuting attorney’s team, is assigned the case. For Adam, it is cut-and-dry; the defendant shot her husband and admitted to it, therefore, she is guilty of a crime. Amanda, however, sees a double standard in the way women are treated in the court system and believes a just sentence would be no sentence at all.

The happily married Bonners find their union strained as a result of the courtroom drama, and their belief in each other challenged.

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Jean Hagen, Tom Ewell, Judy Holliday

The movie was nominated for one Academy Award for screenwriting. It was greeted with favor by the press, including The New York Times, whose critic called it “a bang-up frolic” and Variety, who reported the film was “a bright comedy success, belting over a succession of sophisticated laughs.”

This was one of the first major motion picture roles for Holliday, who had come to the attention of the theater-going public in the Broadway production of Born Yesterday. Holliday would go on to make a career of playing scatterbrained yet inadvertantly insightful blondes, the same way she portrayed her character in Adam’s Rib.

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Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

The script was written by the husband and wife team Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon.  Unlike many screenwriters of the time, Gordon and Kanin wrote independently and sold their scripts to the studios, so they remained free to write the stories they wanted without studio oversight. Working with George Cukor was beneficial, Kanin said in a later interview, because he “was a great respecter of the text.” Cukor, Hepburn and Tracy had input into the story, but the screenwriting remained the domain of Gordon and Kanin.

The sixth of nine films Hepburn and Tracy would star in together, it is perhaps one of their best, along with Woman of the Year. Their chemistry is obvious and, as we know, very real, and their talents equal and balanced. Both are masters of the use of subtle expression and moves, pure communication without words.

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Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

Adam’s Rib was timely in its portrayal of the woman’s issues of the day, and in many respects, the message is just as relevant today. The courtroom drama may become slapstick and story line a bit improbable at points, but that is part of most comedies, and this is a gem of a comedy.

 

Rebecca

Rebecca, 1940, United Artists. Starring Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier. Co-starring Judith Anderson, George Sanders. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. B&W, 130 minutes.

A naïve young woman of lowly means (Joan Fontaine), whose lack of confidence keeps her from so much as revealing her name, has met the dashing and wealthy Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), owner of the renowned Manderley estate. The two marry after a whirlwind courtship of only two weeks. It is Maxim’s second marriage; his first wife, Rebecca, tragically drowned in a sailing accident only a year before.

Quite in love, yet unprepared for the demands her married lifestyle requires, the young bride’s insecurities are played upon by both the forbidding and foreboding long-time Manderley housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) and Rebecca’s rakish cousin, Jack Favell (George Sanders). The late Rebecca still has a stronghold on the entire estate, and the new Mrs. de Winter finds herself faltering under it.

An unexpected discovery leads to a shocking revelation, and the newlywed couple teeter on the brink of credibility and consequences.

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Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine

The first American film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Rebecca was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress. It won two, for Best Picture and Best Cinematography, Black & White.

Based on the now-classic novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, the film is true to the book in virtually every way, save for a plot element that was necessary to change to meet Motion Picture Production Code standards. Hitchcock deftly worked that change so it is barely notable in the overall storytelling, and the impact of the story is not lessened.

Fontaine’s performance in particular is noteworthy; the subtle changes in her demeanor tell the bride’s story. While Fontaine had appeared in several films before this time, including small roles in Gunga Din and The Women, this became a breakout role for her. It led to other significant parts, including the lead in Suspicion the following year, for which she won the Oscar.

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George Sanders, Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier

George Sanders, who made a career of playing incorrigible characters, is pitch perfect as the wicked cousin determined to destroy Maxim, and in the process, take down the second Mrs. de Winter, the woman who replaced his highly favored cousin. And while you feel little sympathy for Mrs. Danvers, the character was given depth by the performance of Judith Anderson, who received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Hitchcock employed numerous tricks to set the mood for the story, including creating an emphasis on the omniscient presence of Mrs. Danvers in the young wife’s life by rarely showing the older woman walking or moving. She was nearly always seen standing still, seeming to appear out of nowhere, setting the fragile bride on edge in her own home.

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Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson

No less a character in the movie than the fine cast was Manderley, the de Winter estate. According to Hitchcock, the estate seen in its entirety was done in miniature, and was not represented by any existing structure in England or elsewhere.

Producer David O. Selznick stepped in after the initial cut of Rebecca was completed and made numerous changes, which, while some feel markedly made the film better and helped capture the moodiness and dark elements of the story, reportedly did not make Hitchcock happy. As a result, he is said to have changed his directing style after this film so that each scene was shot precisely as he wanted it and little extra footage was available for further edits.

A taut psychological tale of romance and betrayal, Rebecca is a film that has stood the test of time with its fine performances, artful direction and cinematography, and a captivating, complex story of the grip an untimely death can have on those left behind.