Posts Tagged ‘Raymond Massey’

My Classic Movie Pick: 49th Parallel for the O Canada Blogathon

When I learned that Speakeasy and Silver Screenings, two classic movie bloggers I enjoy reading, decided to host a blogathon honoring Canada, our kindly neighbor to the North, and its contributions to the film industry,  I jumped at the chance to participate.  Be sure to visit these two bloggers’  sites to read other fantastic pieces  about Canada and her film industry contributions through the years.

Print

 

 

After seeing some films made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger,  a British director and screenwriter/producer respectively, and being very impressed with their work, I decided to seek out more of their films to view;  their greatest amount of film work was in the 1940s-1950s.  In 1940,  Powell and Pressburger were  asked by the British government to make a propaganda film to help Britain’s war efforts and the suggestion was to make a film about mine sweepers.  Powell said he’d rather make a propaganda film that would wake up America from it’s neutrality.  Pressburger took Powell’s idea and came up with the screenplay;  a propaganda film that would scare the Americans and wake them up to the dangers of Nazi Germany being on their doorstep.  The  film idea was approved by both the British and Canadian governments and the film was shot on location, in Canada.

49th Parallel opening shot

49th Parallel refers first to the boundary that separates Canada and the United States and the film opens with a large map of the North American Continent, zeroing in on this boundary, showing how far to the West and then how far to the  East it stretches, a boundary between two friendly countries.   After the short geography lesson,  the movie jumps right into its plot and the story moves along fast, with lovely views of the Canadian lands in all of their vast differences.

U-boat 37, with it’s German crew, has been successfully sinking  trading ships in Hudson Bay.  After one  encounter with the surviving crew of a recently sunken ship,  the U-boat commander calls up 6 of his crew and tells them that they’ve been selected to be a raiding party, get to the shore, find supplies and information, kill if they have to.  After the 6 have made it to shore, they watch in horror, amid the cheers of the surviving crew in a lifeboat, as  Royal Canadian Air Force planes arrive on the scene, to rescue the crew, and to bomb  U-boat 37.  The 6 men are: Lieutenant Hirth(Eric Portman), Kuhnecke(Raymond Lowell), Vogel(Niall MacGinnis),Krantz(Peter Moore), Lohrman(John Chandos), and Jahner(Basil Appleby).   Their leader, Lieutenant Hirth, decides that they must make their way across Canada, to evade capture, and then make their way into the neutral United States and ask to be taken to the nearest German Embassy.

A lifeboat with surviving crew members of the latest trading ship the U-boat sunk

A lifeboat with surviving crew members of the latest trading ship the U-boat sunk

Eric Portman as Lt. Hirth, leader of the 6 men

Eric Portman as Lt. Hirth, leader of the 6 men

The 6 receiving their orders

The 6 receiving their orders

U-boat 37 is destroyed

U-boat 37 is destroyed

 

The 6  begin their trek and they encounter different groups of Canadians in  different parts of the vast country.  The first group they savagely take advantage of are three men at a fur trading post: Factor(agent for the fur company-Finlay Currie), Nick, the Eskimo cook  and handyman(Ley On), and Johnny, the French Canadian trapper(Laurence Olivier).   Tensions rise as the 6 Germans brusquely demand food, weapons, ammunition, and money.  Nick is cruelly bludgeoned by a rifle butt and is left on the floor to bleed, Factor and Johnny prevented from helping him.   Lt. Hirth states  incredibly racist comments about the Eskimos and American Blacks, which he says he read in Mein Kampf.  At one point, Johnny, exasperated by all of the info from Mein Kampf, pointedly states that though he and his two friends are from different ethnic groups they are all Canadians!  More violence erupts during a radio chess game that occurs nightly between Factor and a friend in Michigan, as Johnny takes a chance and yells for help that the 6 escaped U-boat men are holding them hostage.  Vogel shows a sign of human compassion when he gets Johnny his requested rosary to hold as he lays on a bed suffering from a gunshot wound.  Lt. Hirth had earlier refused to get the rosary and shares his strong atheist view that there is no God.  It is a telling sign that Vogel defies his superior officer by getting that rosary.   More deaths occur in the morning as the 6 Germans hijack a supply plane but as they escape into the air, Jahner is shot in the back by an Eskimo.  After flying for several hours, the plane is out of fuel and crashes into a lake below.  The men make it to shore, but Kuhnecke, who had piloted the plane, dies of a sudden heart attack.  Now the group of 6 has shrunk to 4 men.

"I'm Canadian, he Canadian, and he Canadian!"

“I’m Canadian, he Canadian, and he Canadian!”

Johnyy trying to tell Hirth that the Nazis are wrong

Johnny trying to tell Lt. Hirth that the Nazis are wrong

After trudging along a road heading west, with vast fields of wheat on both sides of them, the 4 Germans presently see a barn in the distance.  Vogel, Krantz, and Lohrman  notice a blonde girl working in the farmyard as they get closer.  Lt. Hirth directs Vogel to talk to the girl, Anna,(a very young Glynis Johns) and he discovers that they are in a commune, a Hutterite Community.  The Hutterites are a religious group that evolved from the same religious reformation that the Ammish and Mennonites came from in the 1500s.  The Hutterites came from Austria, before moving to Russia and then on to Canada and the Northern Great Plains of the United States.  You can read more about them here.    Lt. Hirth finds their communal way of life utterly ridiculous, as well as their religious beliefs but since Hutterites are descended from Germans, and they speak, read, and write German, he decides at an evening meeting to stir these people up and invite them to unite with he and his 4 men, to join the Reich and add to the great Aryan race.   The Hutterite leader, Peter(Anton Walbrook) begins a quiet rebuttal of all things Nazi.  It is a masterful scene of good acting, with a quiet yet strong voice that gets louder and more forceful as he lets Hirth know that there is no way the Hutterites would ever join the madness of the Nazi party.  Anna has developed a bit of a crush on Vogel, and the news that he is a Nazi greatly upsets her.  Vogel, who was a baker  in Germany before the war, critiques the new Hutterite baker’s work and shows him how to make better bread.  Vogel seeks out Peter and tells him that he is tired of the war and wants out.  He tells Peter that he’ll turn himself in to the local law enforcement.  Peter tells him that that will mean time in an internment camp but Vogel is ready to accept that if afterwards he can come back to the Hutterites and join their community.  Lt. Hirth discovers Vogel’s plans and puts a stop to it.  Now the group of U-boaters is only 3.

Peter becoming more forceful with his rebuttal

Peter becoming more forceful with his rebuttal

The begining of Peter's speech to Lt. Hirth

The begining of Peter’s speech to Lt. Hirth

Peter trying to ease Anna's fears about the Nazis in their midst

Peter trying to ease Anna’s fears about the Nazis in their midst

Vogel telling Peter he wants to quit the Nazis and join the Hutterites

Vogel telling Peter he wants to quit the Nazis and join the Hutterites

The 3 Germans keep walking west on long roads and run into a motorist who needs help changing a flat tire.  After knocking the man out and stealing his car, they make their way to Winnipeg and  a train station, and wind up at a major stop with all of the other train riders who get off to  attend a “National Gathering of Tribes”.  The helpful conductor tells Lt. Hirth that it is an interesting event and not one to miss.   Hirth, Lohrman, and Krantz reluctantly get off the train and split up, trying to blend in with the crowd.  Suddenly, a Canadian Mountie makes a special announcement. He tells the crowd(who hush immediately at his request-so polite!) that 3 of the U-boat escapees are thought to be in their area of Canada and could be in the crowd at this moment!  He gives out their descriptions, and mentions that one is holding a package wrapped in oilcloth.  He encourages all in the crowd to look at all of the people standing near them and a man recognizes Lohrman due to that package!  Lohrman tries to run but  is caught and arrested by the Mounties and taken away.  Now there are only 2 U-boaters.

A mountie and the crowd at the National Tribes event

A mountie and the crowd at the National Tribes event.  Lt, Hirth is in the dark hat, looking right at the Mountie!

Vancouver is the destination Hirth wants he and Krantz to head for.  Since they ran when Lohrman was arrested, they are soon lost in the woods near the Canadian Rocky Mountains.  Luckily for them, they meet British author Philip Armstrong Scott, who happens to be camping nearby and has lots of supplies, horses, and several guides with him.  His kindness and love of the arts  is rejected by Lt. Hirth as the signs of a wimpy, weak man.  As Hirth and Krantz destroy Scott’s writings and other belongings, they tie Scott up, gag him, and try to steal the horses. This is a bad idea as the horses and their noises alert the guides to find out what’s happening and they rescue Scott.  Lt. Hirth and Krantz flee and go in different directions.   The guides and Scott march into the woods and soon find Krantz and Scott gets some nice revenge.  Now Hirth is on his own to try and get to Vancouver.

Being rude to Scott

Being rude to Scott

Tying up Scott

Tying up Scott

Lt. Hirth and Krantz lost in the Canadian Rockies

Lt. Hirth and Krantz lost in the Canadian Rockies

Hirth is next shown on a plane, flying east.   We next see him hiding in a boxcar in Ontario, as  Canadian soldier, Andy Brock(Raymond Massey), who is absent without permission,  is being allowed to ride in the box car on his way back to his base.  Hirth is discovered by Andy and as Andy realizes Hirth is one of the U-boat Nazis, a scuffle happens between the two and Hirth knocks Andy out.  When Andy recovers his consciousness, he finds Hirth  wearing his uniform and  holding a gun on him.  The boxcar is soon examined by Canadian Customs Agents before it is sent over the border at Niagara Falls into the US.  Hirth’s gun keeps Brock quiet during the check.   When the box car reaches the US Custom Agents,  Hirth hands his gun over and  demands to be  taken  to the German Embassy.  The Customs Officials are flummoxed as they realize that  Hirth is from that U-boat, but not to fear!  Brock  comes up with a brilliant plan.  He points out that he and Hirth are locked in a freight hold box car and that they aren’t on the manifest.  Therefore, their freight car must be sent back to Canada to get the manifest corrected.  The Customs Officials agree and as Hirth shouts at them to send him to the German Embassy, Andy Brock rolls up his sleeves in order to prepare for his punishment of Hirth.

Lt. Hirth forcing Brock to keep quiet

Lt. Hirth forcing Brock to keep quiet

I like this film for it’s views of Canada.  Skeets Kelly and Henry Henter-Creer shot the film and they made the most of showing the wintry land around Hudson Bay, the vast prairies of Manitoba, and grandeur of the Canadian Rockies, the various lakes, and the nightlife businesses of Winnipeg, circa 1940.

I like this film for the fast-paced storyline. It doesn’t wander much from the goal of Lieutenant Hirth and it was no surprise to me when I found out that future movie director David Lean edited this film.

I also cheered when I watched the credits and saw that the music was conducted by Muir Mathieson and performed by the London Symphony.  Mathieson was a talented musician in his own right and was responsible for the music in many wonderful films.

I liked this film, of course, for the actors and Ms. Johns.  Eric Portman is superb as the icy, chillingly evil Lieutenant Hirth.  He believes in Nazism, in Hitler, hates God and all who believe in Him.  There is a funny scene at Philip Armstrong Scott’s camp where Hirth and Krantz can take a shower.  It’s an outdoor shower, but nicely set up with hot water and cold water, in separate buckets, with pull ropes on each bucket. Krantz wisely pulls on both buckets to get warm water for his rinsing off but Hirth scoffs at him and states he’ll only use cold water and despite his stoic toughness act, he lets out a shriek due to the coldness of the water.

Laurence Olivier, as Johnny the French Canadian trapper, gets top billing in this movie, as evidenced by some of the movie posters I saw when researching the movie. Some critics  made fun of his attempt to sound French Canadian, but I’m not an expert on that accent so I can’t judge if his effort was truly bad or not.  His performance is sincere and  touching.

Niall MacGuinnis  is good as Vogel.  He is physically the largest of the 6 man crew, and at first one assumes he is going to be the somewhat slow, dim, but loyal member of the group.  We start to see his character’s doubts about the war and Nazism when he gets Johnny’s rosary, when he folds his hands in prayer after Kuhnecke’s death by heart attack despite getting a hateful glare from Lt. Hirth, and the full change happens to him at the Hutterite Community.

Anton Walbrook, who was Austrian in real life, fled Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s and headed to England.  His speech against Nazism is really from his heart and it shines through on the film.  By his request to Powell and Pressburger, half of Walbrook’s fee for doing the film was given to the International Red Cross and his costars, Olivier, Leslie Howard, and Raymond Massey all agreed to work for half of what they would normally have been paid since they felt it was an important film to make, to help get America into the war.

Leslie Howard is great as the British writer of books about Native American tribes.  He is so consumed with his work he doesn’t pay much attention to  news or world events and this air of obliviousness causes Hirth and Krantz to underestimate him as a weakling.  It is a tense, yet satisfying scene as author Scott  and his guides track Krantz’s hiding spot in a cave and despite Krantz firing shots at Scott, who is unarmed,  Scott calmly approaches the cave, counts off the shots fired, and despite  getting hit in the leg, manages to grab Krantz and beat the daylights out of him, amazing his guides!

I was able to view 49th Parallel via my Roku box and Amazon Prime.  The film is shown periodically on Turner Classic Movies and it is available through their TCM Shop, a Criterion Collection dvd.  It is also available for sale through Amazon, or view it through their instant rent program.  Also, some kind soul has put the entire film up on Youtube.

Lastly, one of the movie posters used to advertise this movie was somewhat misleading and a bit funny, to me.  One poster showed Oliver, Howard, and Massey looking muscle-bound, walking at an upward, front-facing angle, ready to use their physical might to take on the evildoers.  In real life, muscle-bound isn’t the word or image that comes to my mind when I think of Leslie Howard, Laurence Oliver, or Raymond Massey!  Plus, this poster shows Olivier carrying Glynis Johns in his arms, saving her from something.  In the film, their characters never meet!  The other movie poster used  was a bit more subdued.

Please find 49th Parallel and discover a gem of a film, a love letter to Canada, it’s land and it’s people.

The wacky movie poster!

The wacky movie poster!

The better movie poster

The better movie poster

 

My Classic Movie Pick: The Woman in the Window

Poor Edward G. Robinson.  He reached stardom playing evil gangsters, mob bosses, when in reality, he was a good stage actor who could play drama, comedy, and tried at various times in his Hollywood career to break out from the “gangster” label.  Fritz Lang, an Austrian-German director who had arrived in Hollywood in the 1930s to get away from the Nazi’s, who had banned one of his films in 1932, gave Robinson a chance to play a role that wasn’t a gangster part.  The film was 1944’s The Woman in the Window. The Woman in the Window Robinson plays middle-aged  Professor Richard Wanley, a professor of Psychology.  His wife and kids have recently gone on a vacation and he is alone at home.  He decides to hang out at his club one evening, spending time with some good friends at their Men’s Club: District Attorney Frank Lalor(Raymond Massey) and Dr. Barkstane(Edmond Breon).  As Professor Wanley walks to the club, he notices a painting of a beautiful, young woman in the window of a nearby shop.  He stops to admire the painting and when he meets his friends, they spend some time discussing the beautiful woman in the painting.   On his way home, Wanley again, stops to admire the painting and the subject of it appears hauntingly, her reflection in the window, catching Wanley off guard.

Prof. Wanley noticing the painting.

Prof. Wanley noticing the painting.

Prof. Wanley having fun with his pals at their  Club.

Prof. Wanley having fun with his pals at their Club.

The beautiful Alice Reed's reflection in the window.

The beautiful Alice Reed’s reflection in the window.

The beautiful, young woman is Alice Reed(Joan Bennett) and she knows that this middle-aged man is entranced by her beauty.  She decides to demurly take adavantage of Professor Wanly.  She invites him to have a drink with her at a local bar.  Then she invites him to her apartment for more drinks.  As Wanley admires more works of art in Alice’s apartment, an angry man bursts in accusing Alice of cheating on him and he tries to attack her.  Alice grabs a pair of scissors and tosses them to Wanley, who the angry man has turned his attack on and Wanley stabs the man in the back, killing him!  So much for a quiet evening of drinks, art, and talking!

Looking at paintings with Alice at her place.

Looking at paintings with Alice at her place.

Prof. Wanley being attacked by a very angry friend of Alice's!

Prof. Wanley being attacked by a very angry friend of Alice’s!

In shock after murdering a man.

In shock after murdering a man.

The mild-mannered professor is in a state of shock.  What should he do?  Here, he thought he’d just enjoy a nice evening with the beautiful woman in the painting and now a murder has happened, a murder he committed in self-defense, but a murder none-the less.  Robinson does a wonderful job portraying a middle-aged man, who despite having a wife and two children, a satisfying job, and good friends, is just a tad bit lonely.  He feels a tad bit vulnerable due to the fact that he is aging.

Joan Bennett is good as the femme fatale of this piece.  She is beautiful, she knows it, and she’s more than ready to make Professor Wanley her fall guy.  What her hard-boiled, hidden persona doesn’t expect is to develop true feelings for the professor.  I wouldn’t call it love, but she does care about him and starts to feel guilty for how she is manipulating him when the mastermind behind the money-making plot via blackmail, Heidt(Dan Duryea) enters the scene, demanding that they get more  money from the professor.

Heidt and Alice discussing getting $5000 from the Professor.

Heidt and Alice discussing getting $5000 from the Professor.

Duryea is so excellent as the real baddie of this film.  In real life, Dan Duryea was a very nice guy.   A married man with kids, acting was his talent and he supported his family with his skills.  For some reason, he made his mark as playing bad guys but instead of not taking those roles, he took them and ran with them.

Behind the scenes shot of Duryea and Robinson.

Behind the scenes shot of Duryea and Robinson.

The Woman in the Window airs from time to time on Turner Classic Movies and I’ve put the movie’s trailer here for viewing.  The film is available to buy through Amazon.  It was also available at one time on Netflix and may still be available.  Lastly, some kind soul has put the entire movie up on Youtube! For a great film noir with a twist of an ending, seek out The Woman in the Window.

TWITW ending hint

My Classic Movie Pick and for the Mary Astor Blogathon: The Hurricane

In 1936, writers Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall published their 7th adventure novel, The Hurricane.  Their 4th novel, Mutiny on the Bounty, published in 1932, had been  such a literary sensation that MGM turned it into a film in 1935 starring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton.   This time around, studio mogul Samuel Goldwyn wanted to make a movie based on a Nordhoff and Hall novel  and he hired John Ford to direct this tale of wrong-doing, injustice, and  love, amidst the onslaught of a South Pacific hurricane.book cover for The Hurricane

Goldwyn made a promise to Ford, that he could make the film in the actual South Pacific and even wait for a real hurricane to come along and use footage of it in the film!  With Ford’s love of the sea and his penchant for realism in his films, he jumped at this chance.  Unfortunately,  only a few weeks after agreeing to make the film, Goldwyn contacted Ford and said he’d changed his mind about filming on location.  He told Ford to just put wind machines on a back lot at the studio and film it there.  That  caused Ford to lose interest in the film but thanks to a strong cast, script improvements by Ben Hecht,  and outstanding special effects by James Basevi, The Hurricane was a hit  and it still holds up to today’s audiences.

The two main characters are Dorothy Lamour as Marama, this being only her second film, and Jon Hall as Terangi.  Coincidentally, Hall was the nephew of James Norman Hall, one of the novel’s authors.  Mary Astor is Madame De Laage, the govenor’s wife and Raymond Massey plays the govenor.  C. Aubrey Smith is Father Paul and Thomas Mitchell plays Dr. Kersaint.  John Carradine plays a sadistic jailer and Jerome Cowan plays Captain Nagle.The_Hurricane_Trailer_screenshot_Mary_Astor

The setting is the beautiful island of Manakoora.  Terangi is first mate on Captain Nagle’s trading ship.  Terangi also marries Marama, the daughter of Mankoora’s chief.  There is an elaborate and beautiful wedding ceremony and feast sequence where Governor and Mrs. De Laage are honored guests, and lovely leis are placed upon Mary Astor.  Father Paul is there to pray a blessing of thanks for the trading ship’s safe arrival and to perform the wedding.   The newlyweds happiness is short-lived.  While on a trading ship excursion to Tahiti,  a white man who is bullying Terangi gets a deserved punch in the jaw.  Unfortunately, the bully is a man with influence and he gets a Tahitian official to sentence Terangi to 6 months in prison.  Terangi’s friends go to Governor De Laage, the French Governor of Mankoora.  He is a hard-nosed, no nonsense, follow the letter of the law kind of guy.  He refuses to have Terangi brought back to Mankoora to be pardoned.  Even when Madame De Laage pleads with him to relent and bring Terangi back because his wife is expecting a baby, the Governor won’t listen.  After many escape attempts, Terangi manages to do so, but accidentally kills a guard in the process. He arrives back in Mankoora as a terrible hurricane is heading towards the island and in a selfless act, he ties his wife and daughter to a tree, then he ties a rope from that tree to the church, where  Mrs. De Laage, Dr. Kersaint, and Father Paul are sheltering, along with a large group of islanders.  Governor De Laage is out on the ocean on a schooner, hunting for the escaped Terangi.  Dr. Kersaint manages to head out to a canoe where a woman is in labor and he delivers that baby during the hurricane!  Terangi leads Mrs.  De Laage to the tree and ties her to its upper branches as he has done for his wife and daughter.  Father Paul won’t leave the church behind and tells all of them not to worry about him.  After the hurricane has blown through and utterly destroyed the island, we learn that Terangi and his family have survived, as well as Mrs. De Laage, Dr. Kersaint, and his tiny patient and the mother.  Governor De Laage can see with binoculars that Terangi is still alive, and that he has also saved Mrs. De Laage.  She, in turn, urges Terangi to grab a canoe and sail away with his wife and daughter.  When the Governor arrives at his wife’s side, he sees the canoe in the distance and she tells him it is just a log.  He knows it is Terangi, but embraces his wife and agrees that it is just a log.

In reading about Mary Astor and her career, I learned that she began acting in silent films in the 1920s.  She easily made the transition to talkies and was adept at playing in comedies or dramas.  Her role in The Hurricane was not that of the lead, but one of the co-starring parts.  With her elegance, and calm demeanor, she was the perfect choice to play the warm-hearted wife to a hard-hearted governor, such as the one Raymond Massey portrayed.

Mary Astor as Madame De Laage with Raymond Massey as Governor De Laage.

Mary Astor as Madame De Laage with Raymond Massey as Governor De Laage.

Director John Ford was known to choose one actor or actress to be the one that got “picked” on during the entire production run of a movie.  For whatever reason, Mary “won” that title during the filming of The Hurricane.  She reportedly took his jabs and comments with good humor and later said, “I think ‘laconic’ is a good word for John Ford and for his technique of direction”,…”No big deal about communication with John.  Terse, pithy, to the point.  Very Irish, a dark personality, a sensitivity which he did everything to conceal.”1

For the actual hurricane scene, Special Effects director James Basevi was given a $400,000 budget.  He spent $150,000 to build a native village on a back lot and then spent $250,000 to destroy it! The planning of the scene, the production of it, and the filming took 4 months.   Usually Basevi didn’t like to discuss how he made his special effects magic on any film, but The Hurricane was one film where he was quite open as to how he got that great scene completed.  His village set was 600 feet long with wharves, huts, a church, and palm trees.  The beach ran into a lagoon, which was actually a 200 yard-long tank. Across this tank were put up airplane propellors, mounted on towers to create the fierce winds.  Water from 12 fire hoses streamed in front of the propellors’ blades to send water and spray over the actors and the set.  Wave machines churned up the waters of the lagoon.  To show a tidal wave, Basevi let loose 2000 gallons of water down chutes topped by big tanks.2

A very kind soul has put the hurricane scene up on Youtube and  I have watched it over and over.  Those are really all of the main actors in that scene.  Mary Astor is soaking wet and trying to grasp that rope to safely get from the church to that giant tree, with Terangi leading her to safety.  It is a very impressive scene, and I am delighted to report that Turner Classic Movies will be showing The Hurricane on Wednesday, May 29th, at 11:00 p.m. CST.

To see an exciting film directed by John Ford and one of Mary Astor’s subtle and warm-hearted performances, set your dvrs and  don’t miss The Hurricane!

Terangi attempting to save Madame De Laage!

Terangi attempting to save Madame De Laage!

Thomas Mitchell as Dr. Kersaint, delivering that baby!  Mitchell was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Hurricane.

Thomas Mitchell as Dr. Kersaint, delivering that baby! Mitchell was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Hurricane.

The De Laage's elegant dining room.The De Laage’s elegant dining room.

This blog was written in conjunction with The Mary Astor Blogathon, hosted by two great classic movie bloggers: Tales of the Easily Distracted and Silver Screenings.  If you visit their sites, you will read other wonderful blogs all about the wonderful Mary Astor.

Sources sited for this blog: 1 Davis, Ronald L., John Ford: Hollywood’s Old Master, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman and London, 1995. Page 88.

2Zinman, David, 50 Classic Motion Pictures:The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of: Vintage Films From Hollywood’s Golden Age, Limelight Editions, New York, 1992.  Pages 112-113.

Astorthon1

Father Paul(C. Aubrey Smith) and Madame De Laage

Father Paul(C. Aubrey Smith) and Madame De Laage

My Classic Movie Pick: A Matter of Life and Death

The Archers logo from A Matter of Life and Death

The Archers logo from A Matter of Life and Death (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Matter of Life and DeathIn September 1945, Michael Powell and Emeric  Pressburger began production on  a new movie for the studio that they created, The Archers.  The film, written by Powell and Pressburger, was called A Matter of Life and Death in the United Kingdom.   For the U.S. audiences, it was re-titled Stairway to Heaven.   This film was one of the more unusual ones that the team of Powell and Pressburger ever created.  A romance, with a history lesson, and a fantasy, all rolled into one concept.  The British cast members were led by David Niven, Roger Livesey, Marius Goring, Robert Coote, and Kathleen Byron.  American actress Kim Hunter was the female lead and Canadian actor Raymond Massey also starred in the movie.

The plot centers around RAF pilot Peter Carter(Niven) desperately trying to land his damaged and burning airplane after a mission over Germany on May 2, 1945.  His crew has already bailed out as he had ordered them to do, not revealing that his own parachute was all shot up.  He manages to contact June, an American radio operator based in England.  He talks with her movingly as he knows his life is about to end, and he makes the decision to jump from his plane without a parachute before it crashes into the sea.  By all accounts, Peter should have died but Conductor 71(Marius Goring, dressed as a very pompous French Aristocrat, circa the French Revolution) misses Peter due to the thick fog over the English Channel on the night of May 2nd.  Thus, Peter wakes up on a beach in England, instead of being led to Heaven by Conductor 71.   The next morning, after Peter awakens on the beach and realizes he is alive, he happens to meet June, who is bicycling back to her home for some sleep as her shift has ended.   As Peter and June spend time talking to one another,  so surprised and relieved that Peter survived the jump, they fall in love.  Conductor 71 finds Peter and is able to freeze time, in order to greet Peter and tell him that Peter should really be dead and that he must take Peter to Heaven now.  Peter demands that there be an appeal, after all, it’s not his fault that the Conductor messed up.  Now that June is in his life, he doesn’t want to go to Heaven.  The Conductor has a consult with his superiors who agree that Peter can make an appeal.  The Conductor returns to Earth to tell Peter that he has three days to prepare his case for staying on Earth.  He is allowed to pick a defense counsel from anyone who has already died, but has a hard time deciding on who to choose.

.Roger Livesey Stairway to Heaven

Meanwhile, June has a friend, Doctor Reeves,(Roger Livesey), who is fascinated by Peter’s survival, and thinks that the visions of this Conductor are a result of a brain injury; chronic adhesive arachnoiditis from a slight concussion Peter suffered two years prior.  Reeves schedules Peter for surgery to correct the problem and to rid him of the visions.  Unfortunately, Dr. Reeves is killed in a motorcycle accident before the surgery is to take place, but now he can be Peter’s Defense Counsel in Heaven.   With Dr.  Reeves in place for the defense, Heaven chooses its prosecutor for this unusual appeal and Abraham Farlan(Raymond Massey) is picked for the task.  Mr. Farlan was the first American who died in the American Revolution and there is no love lost between him and England.  He even admits he is shocked and saddened that an American maiden, such as June, and a Bostonian too, could fall in love with an English man!  As Peter is given anesthesia and is unconscious for his surgery, the court trial in Heaven begins.   Immediately, Dr. Reeves challenges the make-up of individuals in the jury, which are individuals who hate the British.  The judge agrees to let this jury be replaced with a mixture of modern day Americans.

Events from World History and British History are cited by Reeves and Farlan, and finally Reeves requests that June be allowed to take the stand.   This poses a problem as she is still alive, not a resident of Heaven, so Conductor 71 solves that problem by causing June at the hospital, awaiting the outcome of Peter’s surgery, to fall asleep so that she can then give her testimony to the Heavenly court.  Reeves proves that June truly loves Peter as she shows that she is willing to take his place in Heaven so that he can go on to have a longer life on Earth.   “…nothing is stronger than the law in the Universe, but on Earth, nothing is stronger than love,”  says Dr. Reeves in his summation.  I won’t reveal anymore about this movie’s end as I want anyone who reads this blog to search out the film on their own to see it!  The production team made a very creative decision to film all of the Earth scenes in rich technicolor and all of the Heaven scenes in black and white, a reverse of what was done for The Wizard of Oz.   Jack Cardiff, an Oscar-winning cinematographer, shot this film for The Archers, and his love of the craft shows.  It is a beautifully lensed  film.   To convey that it takes a while for the characters to travel to Heaven, a huge escalator was built by a team of engineers.  They dubbed the project “Operation Ethel” and it took 3 months to build it and cost 3000 pounds.  The escalator had 106 steps, each step being 20 ft. wide, and it was driven by a 12 horsepower engine.  Unfortunately the noise from that engine was so loud that all the dialogue for those scenes had to be re-dubbed in studio.  There was also a 9 month wait for the film stock and Technicolor cameras because they were in use by the U.S. Army to make their training films!

A Matter of Life and Death was chosen for the first ever Royal Film Presentation on Nov. 1st, 1946, then it went out to the general public in the U.K. on December 15th, 1946.  It had it’s first showing in America, under a new title: Stairway to Heaven, on Dec. 25th, 1946, in New York City.   The Archers Studio, aka Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, made wonderful movies to view, usually filmed by Jack Cardiff,  with very interesting plots and this is one of my favorites that they produced.  Other films in their canon that I have seen and enjoyed are: I Know Where I’m Going, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Contraband, 49th Parallel, and  A Canterbury Tale.  A Matter of Life and Death is available at Amazon and Turner Classic Movies will air it on April 18th.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 79 other followers