Sullivan's Travels

Joel McCREA AND Veronica Lake in Sullivan's Travels. Image source: https://s3.amazonaws.com/criterion-production/stills/9345-7df190402f3717915587e8ea50d0e0f7/Sullivanw_original.jpg

Joel McCREA AND Veronica Lake in Sullivan's Travels. Image source: https://s3.amazonaws.com/criterion-production/stills/9345-7df190402f3717915587e8ea50d0e0f7/Sullivanw_original.jpg

I'm a big fan of comedic films. The films discussed thus far, save Vertigo, all have comedic elements built around their core. Many might think that the comedy is vapid and doesn't deliver enough pure quality, but I disagree. Preston Sturges's 1942 film Sullivan's Travels is a good reason why.

The film is about a young comedy director, John L. Sullivan, (Joel McCrea) who yearns to move onto more thought-provoking content. He thus disguises as a homeless person so he can experience the true struggles of life firsthand, and then translate that into film. It's only when his plans go awry that he learns what it means to struggle, and the importance of his work.

The film received somewhat mixed reactions when it first released, but has since become regarded as a classic. This, I could not understand at first glance: the film is quite good on its own, and there is nothing hidden and extra to it that reviewers could have missed. Perhaps the message of the story (or the way it was delivered) didn't sit well with them? When I thought about it a bit more, however, I realize that it's lukewarm initial reception may be due to its somewhat self-contradictory nature.

Poster for the film Sullivan's Travels. Image Source: https://jimmyrhall.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/poster-sullivans-travels_04.jpg

Poster for the film Sullivan's Travels. Image Source: https://jimmyrhall.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/poster-sullivans-travels_04.jpg

The film is somewhat guilty of hypocrisy, to be honest. While its message is that comedy does need to be preachy in order to contribute to society, it conveys this message in the same way it decries. I'm not sure if it was intentional. Still, in the end, Sullivan's Travels manages to balance its comedic elements with the preaching it somewhat dislikes. Hypocritical, but it still works out.

One of the most remarkable moments in the film is the scene within the church, where-in the film treats African American characters with a high degree of respect. Not only that, this scene is integral to delivering the central message of the film, making their role within the film a very important one. This is all without resorting to stereotypes. For a film of its era, this is definitely worthy of praise.

One thing I don't understand is why Veronica Lake's character, the main female lead, goes unnamed during the movie. My best guess is that is a loose allusion to Chaplin, but even then it makes little sense. It doesn't really detract from the film in any major way, but it does feel a bit weird, looking back on the film.

The film would inspire another film: O Brother, Where Art Thou? by Joel and Ethan Coen, named after the movie Sullivan wanted to make. The movie is a comedy about the Great Depression, contrary to what was Sullivan's original vision. In many ways, it is a reflection of the moral of Sullivan's Travels.

My thoughts are a bit scattered when it comes to Sullivan's Travels. It is an all-around decent film, proof that the comedy can provide to society. Still, inadvertently or not, it feels as though it's guilty of the preaching it looks down on. This means that while the film is enjoyable to watch, it suffers a bit when examined in-depth. Perhaps that means that the film has achieved its simple purpose: deliver quality entertainment. It's also kind of funny how Sullivan's Travels is a comedic moralistic film about how pure comedy films are just as good, if not better, than moralistic films.


Bryan Mackay

Bryan Mackay is a recent graduate from Carleton University. At his time at university, he minored in Film and thus learned a lot about the film medium and industry. He started this blog in order to post his thoughts on films made before 1970 that caught his eye for thematic or stylistic reasons, hoping that others may be interested in his thoughts and opinions on several films.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Western! Tales of heroic, womanizing cowboys taking aim at no-good trouble makers who kick puppies. Of course, the West itself wasn't so black-and-white, and eventually audiences got tired of the theme. This is probably why the genre as a whole puttered off after the first half of the 20th century. In their stead came the increasingly-popular gangster films, recently freed from the stifling constraints of the Hays Code. More recent western films have tried to add grit to the subject in order to make things a little less simple morally. (ie: Unforgiven, a film about a former outlaw) This week's film was a sort of early precursor to that type of practice, while simultaneously serving as a goodbye to the genre as a whole.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a 1962 Western film directed by John Ford. Unlike his then-recent films, he shot this one in black-and-white. There are many reasons given for this decision (stylistic choice, budget saving, disguising the ages of the main actors) which suggests to me that this was all around a good decision to make. Despite somewhat troubled production, the film would pay off big time: it grossed double its budget, and has become known as a classic movie, one of Ford's best.

Poster for the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Image Source: http://i.cdn.turner.com/v5cache/TCM/Images/Dynamic/i145/themanwhoshotliberty_1962_mp_hs_1200_072820111120.jpg

Poster for the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Image Source: http://i.cdn.turner.com/v5cache/TCM/Images/Dynamic/i145/themanwhoshotliberty_1962_mp_hs_1200_072820111120.jpg

The film is presented as a flashback, told in the 1960s. We follow United States Attorney Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) as he moves into a town in Arizona's Old West. There he encounters the gruff, bloodthirsty outlaw, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), who beats him up. He also meets Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), a heroic and cocky cowboy who makes fun of him. The film then follows Stoddard's efforts in modernizing the small Western town, introducing education and law, with the end-goal of bringing statehood. Surprisingly, Liberty Valance gets shot.

The script is well-made, balancing the serious themes of the film with very comedic elements. As a result, it becomes a film that is both enjoyable to watch and enjoyable to analyze. This is the type of film I really like to watch, providing a comfortable feeling without being complete fluff. For instance, there's Doniphon calling Stoddard “pilgrim,” which is intentionally funny and gives the film a lot of charm. It helps that the nickname relates to the themes of the film.

The acting is decent all around. Sometimes it edges towards being unintentionally funny, like when Stoddard is declaring that he is a United States Attorney.  Still, the way he declares it only adds to the already pre-existing comedic of the movie while simultaneously showing the audience how out-of-place Stoddard is compared to the rugged know-all Doniphon. Plus, it doesn't come up during any serious sequences.

Lee Marvin and John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. http://media.nj.com/oscar_awards/photo/libertyvalancejpg-b9cbccbf055fbcca_large.jpg

Lee Marvin and John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. http://media.nj.com/oscar_awards/photo/libertyvalancejpg-b9cbccbf055fbcca_large.jpg

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a film about legend, and how it is spread and preserved. At the same time, it is about the death of a legend: namely, the cowboy of the Western. This film cruelly deconstructs Ford's earlier tales of wandering heroes saving the day. Their stories come to an end, as legality and modernization sweep the Wild West and transform it. The arrival of law and order means there will be no more riding off into the sunset.

The New York Times review for this film had several qualms with the film. The reviewer complained about the film being anti-climatic, something I must disagree about. The film closes poignantly, with a line still quoted today. Everything comes together in a way that delivers a nice impact. There may also be more nuance to the character Liberty Valance than first appears, though it is more symbolic value.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an excellent watch. It's a perfect balance of entertainment and meaningful themes, and deserves its status as a classic film. 


Bryan Mackay

Bryan Mackay is a recent graduate from Carleton University. At his time at university, he minored in Film and thus learned a lot about the film medium and industry. He started this blog in order to post his thoughts on films made before 1970 that caught his eye for thematic or stylistic reasons, hoping that others may be interested in his thoughts and opinions on several films.

Lolita

The Motion Picture Production Code, otherwise known as the Hays Code, was a set of morals enacted by Hollywood from 1930 to 1968 that films were supposed to abide by. This included removing unnecessary swearing, explicit sexuality (read: three seconds of kissing) or making crime look good. For instance, a gangster film had to end with the criminals getting their just desserts, just so it appeared to the audience that crime never paid.

It was thus only natural that someone would decide to make an adaptation of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's controversial novel about a pedophile's obsession with 12-year-old girl. That someone was Stanley Kubrick, fresh off of his three-hour epic, Spartacus. He worked closely with Nabokov during production. The film's marketing exploited the book's controversy: the trailer for the film asks the question “How did they ever make a film out of Lolita?” over and over again. They don't say what the film is about, because chances are everyone knew already.

Poster for the Film Lolita. Image Source: https://www.movieposter.com/posters/archive/main/136/MPW-68230

Poster for the Film Lolita. Image Source: https://www.movieposter.com/posters/archive/main/136/MPW-68230

The film opens with the murder of a drunk (Peter Sellers) by a particularly vengeful British man (James Mason) over ambiguous reasons. The film then flashes back several years and reveals that our to-be murderer, Humbert Humbert, is the main character. Staying with the Haze family, he becomes disturbingly and unhealthily infatuated with the family's 16-year old daughter. What follows is a man's tale of obsession and ruin.

The original novel utilized an unreliable narrator, and the film tries to replicate it as best as it can. The film follows Humbert very closely, giving the audience insight into his depravity and obsession. Due to the nature of the film, however, we do not really get an insight into his mind and how it works, something the original novel does.

The shift to film format does give the adaptation one stylistic advantage over its original. The novel was written as the memoir of a guilty Humbert, giving him the power of knowledge over the reader. The reader only knows as much as they are told. The film flips this on its head. The in media res style of the beginning of the film allows the viewer to see the shadow of the man Humbert murders over the events of the film. Humbert, meanwhile, is completely ignorant of his role until the very end of the movie. This was a distinct choice made by Kubrick and Nabokov in order to maintain the viewer's interest.

Peter Sellers and James Mason in LOlita. Image Source: http://madamepickwickartblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/lolita1.jpg

Peter Sellers and James Mason in LOlita. Image Source: http://madamepickwickartblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/lolita1.jpg

I feel as though the censorship placed on the film by the Hays Code actually allowed for a better film. Rather than making things explicit, the nature of the relationship is left somewhat up to the imagination, something that works quite well due to the film's shift from a memoir format. Furthermore, the full extent of the controversial relationship is not the true subject of the book and film so much as Humbert's own obsession and flaws as a character. That said, there is at least one scene where you instantly feel like something was omitted due to regulations: and indeed, it was.

Despite its depressing story, the film is also pretty funny. The scenes with Peter Sellers are surprisingly funny, and one is essentially a prototype of his future role as Dr. Strangelove in Kubrick's next film. There is also a scene involving a cot that somehow turns into screwball comedy, of all things. The film manages to balance its tone very effectively.

Meanwhile, James Mason plays a strong villain protagonist as Humbert Humbert. Maybe it's his Britishness at work, but he manages a good two-faced personality: his affable friendliness and his manipulative nature known only to the viewer.

James Mason and Sue Lyon in Lolita. Image Source: http://www.movieactors.com/photos-stars/james-mason-lolita-50.jpg

James Mason and Sue Lyon in Lolita. Image Source: http://www.movieactors.com/photos-stars/james-mason-lolita-50.jpg

Lolita is an excellent watch, if you can get over the premise. I highly recommend watching it.


BRYAN MACKAY

Bryan Mackay is a recent graduate from Carleton University. At his time at university, he minored in Film and thus learned a lot about the film medium and industry. He started this blog in order to post his thoughts on films made before 1970 that caught his eye for thematic or stylistic reasons, hoping that others may be interested in his thoughts and opinions on several films.

One, Two, Three

Vertigo will not be a film that appeals to everyone. As I said in my last post, its surface problems are likely to alienate normal viewers, and those interested in the medium of film will have to dig a little deeper to see the messages underneath. With that in mind, this post will look at a simpler and more readily accessible film.

The poster for the film One, Two, Three. Image Source: http://spicyip.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/one-two-three-movie-poster-1020372727.jpg

The poster for the film One, Two, Three. Image Source: http://spicyip.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/one-two-three-movie-poster-1020372727.jpg

One, Two, Three is a film directed by Billy Wilder, released in 1961. The film itself was shot before the Berlin Wall was fully constructed. As a result, the world within the film is a divided Germany without a wall. This results in a film that feels bizarrely optimistic about post-war politics in a way only a comedy can achieve. A review by The New York Times at the time of the film's release wished that the Berlin Crisis was as easy to solve as the film.

While the film received some praise when it was first released, it was somewhat controversial in terms of its subject matter, a fact reflected by the box-office numbers. Because the film was shot before the Wall was built, and released afterwards, many believed the subject matter came too soon. Allegedly, an unrelated screenwriter, Abby Mann, found the film so tasteless in the face of the crisis, she apologized for it at the Moscow Film Festival. Time has allowed it to become more popular financially, in markets such as Germany. Overall, it is critically well-regarded, though not as an all-time classic.

One, Two, Three is about a Coca-Cola executive in West Berlin (played by James Cagney) with big ambitions. His boss orders him to take care of his daughter (played by Pamela Tiffin) for two months. As luck would have it, she ends up married to a young capitalist-hater from East Berlin (played by Horst Buchholz). Now he has to sort out the consequences and make everything look fine and dandy before his boss returns. It's a classic “hide the truth” comedy, with the obligatory mid-film twist.

James Cagney and Liselotte Pulver in One, Two, Three.  Image Source:  http://auteurasaurus.tumblr.com/post/98958970/one-two-three-billy-wilder-1961-ingeborg

James Cagney and Liselotte Pulver in One, Two, Three. 

Image Source:  http://auteurasaurus.tumblr.com/post/98958970/one-two-three-billy-wilder-1961-ingeborg

The film itself is hysterical, with all sorts of jokes and situations that remain funny to this day. The script is top-notch, accentuated by funny characters from America, Russia, and Germany who pull off their roles brilliantly. My favourite is the main character's German underling, who manages to pull off a memorable butt monkey role. Buchholz's role as an angry young communist is also amusing.

When you think about it, the film has some good historical value, representing the lighthearted post-war optimism that existed at the time of its production. Furthermore, its modest box office performance shows us a sort of fatigue with this optimism, especially in light of the construction of the Berlin Wall. In a way, this film shows two extremes of post-war American expectations.

Horst Buchholz in One, Two, Three.  Image Source: http://prettycleverfilms.com/files/2013/12/still-of-horst-buchholz-in-one-two-three-1961-large-picture.jpg

Horst Buchholz in One, Two, Three. 

Image Source: http://prettycleverfilms.com/files/2013/12/still-of-horst-buchholz-in-one-two-three-1961-large-picture.jpg

On that same vein, while the film may have historical value, its comedic aspects mean it has little to no political value. The politics within the film are too simplified for any greater understanding of the politics of the time, and the audience is left with fewer messages than a film such as Dr. Strangelove, another Cold War comedy. The timeline of its production (shot before the Berlin Wall, released after) means it was somewhat outdated at the time of its release. Still, it serves as a funny parody.

Beyond entertainment and historical value, there's not much else to the film. It's a simple film all around, created to be funny. There are no real insights behind anything. Sunset Boulevard was a film about the death of the silent era and the obsession with legacy, and it managed to balance those elements with comedy in order to produce a classic. One, Two, Three is by comparison a pure comedy. I don't believe this is a bad thing for a comedy, but it does make it a somewhat less notable film.

One, Two, Three is a good watch for anyone looking for comedy. Those looking for something deeper won't find what they're looking for. But for what it is, the film is great.


BRYAN MACKAY

Bryan Mackay is a recent graduate from Carleton University. At his time at university, he minored in Film and thus learned a lot about the film medium and industry. He started this blog in order to post his thoughts on films made before 1970 that caught his eye for thematic or stylistic reasons, hoping that others may be interested in his thoughts and opinions on several films.

Vertigo

This blog is dedicated to looking at films released before 1970. I chose this period in particular to look at because it was an earlier, growing period in cinema's life,  establishing the styles and technology that would be used in more recent films. My first post will be on what has become one of Alfred Hitchcock's most widely-praised films: Vertigo.

 POSTER FOR VERTIGO (1958) IMAGE SOURCE: COMMONS.WIKIMEDIA.ORG

 POSTER FOR VERTIGO (1958) IMAGE SOURCE: COMMONS.WIKIMEDIA.ORG

The history of the film following its release in 1958 stands in opposition to its now beloved status. Upon its initial release, it received mixed reviews and wasn't a box-office hit. It would be followed by North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds, massive successes that have gone on to become culturally significant. Hitchcock liked the film, but thought the story didn't make much sense in hindsight. Dying in 1980, he would never see it become a beloved film.

As time has gone on, however, Vertigo has become better regarded by film critics. It has gotten to the point that it's considered one of the best films of all time, on par with Citizen Kane. The sudden surge of popularity for one of Hitchcock's seemingly less relevant films is at first baffling, but a closer look reveals just what it is about the film that shines.

Vertigo is about Scottie, (Jimmy Stewart) a detective recently discovered to have vertigo. Vertigo is a condition where the person's equilibrium is off, causing dizziness and loss of balance. Because of this, Scottie is horribly afraid of heights. Scottie's friend, a wealthy man, hires him to watch over his wife Madeleine (played by Kim Novak), who has been acting bizarrely. What follows is a psychological thriller about romance, obsession, and time.

 JIMMY STEWART IN VERTIGO (1958) IMAGE SOURCE: VERDOUX.WORDPRESS.COM

 JIMMY STEWART IN VERTIGO (1958) IMAGE SOURCE: VERDOUX.WORDPRESS.COM

Vertigo has an interesting premise, a cruel twist on the “boy meets girl” story. However, the means of reaching this premise are quite contrived. I believe this is likely what kept Vertigo from being noticed at first: the plot that unfolds during the film is painfully contrived at times. From a character's plan that seems overly-reliant on someone else doing something specifically, to the main character finding one person among a city full of people. This film runs on pure impossibility and insane chance.

Another mark against the film is the script. The extreme corniness of the dialogue within the film is almost unbearable sometimes, be it romance or comedy scene. It's a far cry from the overall wit of Rear Window, an earlier Hitchcock film with Jimmy Stewart that managed to balance the two elements remarkably well. While Vertigo is also a much more sad and personal film than Rear Window, the weakness of levity are a detriment to the film overall.

Despite these flaws, Vertigo does several major things well, helping the movie become a great film. The first is the acting, which is quite good. Kim Novak's acting, in particular, is outstanding. However, the exact intricacies of her ability are not apparent until watching the film a second time. At that point, you get a real feeling of the soul of these characters, even with the dialogue.

The cinematography is superb, so much that the film carries with it a haunting atmosphere. Even during the presence of a contrived plot and terrible dialogue. The type of zoomed shot (a dolly shot) used in order to show off the main character's sense of vertigo became named after the film. The use of colours helps to accentuate the rather dark events of the film, eventually creating a creepy, possessed feeling.

Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958)  Image Source:  http://trueclassics.net/2010/09/14/vertigo/

Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958)  Image Source:  http://trueclassics.net/2010/09/14/vertigo/

The themes presented by the film are strong. The few moments of good writing lead to good insights about time, death and obsession; so much so that this film inspired the film La Jetée, which in turn inspired the film 12 Monkeys. Much has been written about the film's underlying themes: Film critic Dave Kehr, for instance, sees Vertigo as a film about Hitchcock's passion for film. He cites that as a reason why the film has become a darling of critics, yet ignored by the general public.

In short, Vertigo's appeal lies under the surface. It's a great film, despite its obvious problems. It's definitely worth a watch; maybe just in time for Halloween? You could do a lot worse.


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BRYAN MACKAY

Bryan Mackay is a recent graduate from Carleton University. At his time at university, he minored in Film and thus learned a lot about the film medium and industry. He started this blog in order to post his thoughts on films made before 1970 that caught his eye for thematic or stylistic reasons, hoping that others may be interested in his thoughts and opinions on several films.