Posts Tagged ‘Lillian Gish’

My Classic Movie Pick: The Night of the Hunter

Once in a great while I can get some of my kids to watch a classic movie with me. It helps that the movie earned 4 stars, and so it was, last Friday night, the 19 year old commuter college kid and the 12 year old 7th grader agreed to sit down with me, munch on popcorn, and watch The Night of the Hunter.  Children!!!!

The Night of the Hunter poster 1

I added that previous word with the many exclamation points because it is a phrase uttered a lot by the main baddie of the plot, Robert Mitchum.  Robert Mitchum, good looking, with a half-opened eye type of stare, he could play heroes with the best of them but when it came to playing a deviant, or in this film, a sociopath with no conscience-or only a slim one, he was one of the best. The man could sing,too!  Mitchum’s character claims to be a traveling preacher, and several times in the film he is singing hymns aloud and I was pleasantly surprised by Mitchum’s strong voice.

This movie was Oscar-winning actor Charles Laughton’s only directorial effort and it’s sad that when it came out in 1955 critics didn’t support it.  I found it a stylishly lit and shot film by cinematographer Stanley Cortez, an interesting and effective musical score by Walter Schumann and very well-acted by the adult and  child actors.   How hard it must have been for Mitchum, who was a dad in real life, making this movie where his character  acts nice one minute to the two main children in the movie, and then in the next minute, he snaps at them in a sociopathic rage??  I hope he and director Laughton bought the kids a lot of ice cream and candy to make up for the scary stuff they had to deal with for the cameras!

The plot is pretty simple, based on the novel by Davis Grubb and screenplay by James Agee.  It’s the early part of the Great Depression and Ben Harper(Peter Graves) is on the run. He’s robbed a bank and has a large stash of money that he needs to hide before he’s arrested by the state police who are hot on his heels.  A bank guard was killed during the robbery.  Harper sees his two kids playing in the yard of his home, John(stoically played by Billy Chapin) and Pearl(Sally Jane Bruce, who has an adorable speech impediment when trying to say her “R’s”).  Harper grabs Miss Jenny, Pearl’s doll, and stuffs the money into the doll’s body  and he makes the children swear that they won’t reveal to anyone where the money is hidden.  As Harper is pushed to the ground and arrested in front of his kids, it’s sad as John starts to groan and utter “No!”, over and over, louder and louder with each utterance, as the pain of realizing that his dad will go to prison hits the boy.

Ben Harper(Peter Graves)needs to hide the stolen money fast.

Ben Harper(Peter Graves)needs to hide the stolen money fast.

Ben’s wife, Willa(played as if in a mental fog and excellently done by Shelley Winters) has no idea about the hidden money.  As bad luck would have it, a sociopath who claims to be a preacher, Harry Powell(Robert Mitchum at his evil, crazy best) lands in the state prison for a stolen car and ends up being Ben’s cell mate.   Powell knows Ben will soon face his date with the noose, so he tries to get Ben to spill in his sleep where the bank robbery money is hidden.  Ben doesn’t spill and is hung for the murder of the bank guard.  When Powell is released from prison, he searches for and finds the town where Willa and her kids live.   Powell, turning on the charm, gets Willa’s bosses at the ice cream shop, Icey and Walt Spoon(Evelyn Varden and Don Beddoe) to think he’s a nice guy and then Powell turns on his charm at Willa.  Pearl likes Powell too, and it’s only John who is skeptical of this new man who soon has finagled his way into becoming Mom’s new husband.

Ben won't tell Powell where the money is hidden.

Ben won’t tell Powell where the money is hidden.

Powell charming the ladies at the church picnic.

Powell charming the ladies at the church picnic.

Willa falling for Powell

Willa falling for Powell

 

Powell turns his criminal mind to Willa, breaking down her spirit into thinking she has to be “pure” and “clean” before he’ll show her any love.  It’s a sad scene when she hears the real Powell lashing out verbally at Pearl, which Willa overhears as she’s walking home from work.  She is smiling as she leaves the ice cream shop but when she hears Powell scream and say horrible threats to her 4 year old daughter, Willa’s face falls into a stunned look, because now she knows that John hasn’t been lying to her; Powell has been trying to get the children to reveal where the bank money is hidden, ergo, the marriage to this man is a sham.

Spoiler Alert: Willa isn’t long for this world and the scene where she is lying in her bed, with her hands folded as if in prayer, and Powell stands over her, dramatically with a large knife raised up over her, the framing shot or outline around the characters looks like an outline of a church around them-this movie is full of imagery, strongly referring to good and evil.

John and Pearl are asleep when their mother is murdered and Powell hides Willa’s body.  He proceeds to turn on his charisma and tells sympathetic townsfolk that Willa ran away with another man, a traveling musician.  With the mother gone, Powell turns on the pressure to get the children to reveal where the money is hidden.  With a knife at John’s throat, Pearl finally buckles and tearfully shouts out that the money is in her doll.  As Powell starts to laugh, while sitting on the cellar floor, John cleverly causes a shelf of canning jars to fall on Powell’s head and he and Pearl manage to run away and grab a john boat and head down the Ohio River.  Powell can be heard groaning and screeching due to his head injury as he also tries to grab the children before they get to the boat.  It’s a tense few minutes but the children succeed in escaping their evil stepfather’s clutches.

John lies to Powell and tells him that the money is hidden in the cellar floor.

John lies to Powell and tells him that the money is hidden in the cellar floor.

Managing to escape Powell

Managing to escape Powell

Lillian Gish enters the film at this point, as Rachel Cooper.  We don’t know a lot about Rachel’s character.  There’s no mention of a deceased husband, but just one son who she doesn’t see much anymore.  She lives on a nice little farm and has taken upon herself to take in run away children and try to give them a good home and some spiritual sustenance too, with  her nightly telling of bible stories.  She takes in John and Pearl, and soon has a run-in with the pursuing Powell.  There’s a scene at night, as he’s warned Rachel that he’ll come in the night for those two kids, and he is in the vicinity of the farm singing a hymn and Rachel is ready for him, sitting in her rocking chair with a shotgun in her hands, and she also begins to sing the same hymn, loudly, to let Powell know that she’s alert and he’d better watch out!  It’s an intriguing scene, the dueling hymns, one sung by the embodiment of evil and one sung by the embodiment of good.

Offering to tell Rachel and the kids his story about L-o-v-e battling H-a-t-e.

Offering to tell Rachel and the kids his story about L-o-v-e battling H-a-t-e.

Rachel doesn't believe Powell's lie that he's the devoted dad of John and Pearl

Rachel doesn’t believe Powell’s lie that he’s the devoted dad of John and Pearl

Rachel ready for the lurking Powell

Rachel ready for the lurking Powell

I’ll not give away anymore of this film’s plot because I want you to seek this movie out and view it for yourself.   I would also be remiss for not mentioning 4 minor characters in the film: Evelyn Varden as Icey Spoon, Willa’s boss.  Varden makes Icey a loud, foolish busybody who pushes poor Willa to marry Powell.  Don Beddoe is very good as Icey’s long-suffering husband who wisely doesn’t think Powell is all that wonderful.  James Gleason as Uncle Birdy, a retired riverboat man, who is still grieving for his deceased wife and  who’s old boathouse is a haven at times for John. It is Uncle Birdy who sadly finds Willa’s dead body in the river.  Finally, Gloria Castillo as Ruby, the teen girl who Rachel has taken in.  In Ruby’s desperate search for love, she bumps into Powell and spills the beans as to where John and Pearl are living and she unfortunately keeps thinking Powell might be a good man to fall in love with!

The Night of the Hunter is available to rent or purchase via Amazon,  Turner Classic Movies will air it on November 11th at 8:00 pm ET/7:00 pm CT and it’s also available to buy at TCM’s Shop and it’s the Criterion Collection dvd that they’re selling.  If you visit Youtube there are several clips posted from the movie, a trailer or two, and quite a few sites saying to click on their link and you can view the movie.  My cynical side doesn’t trust those sites, so click on those links at your own discretion.

So grab some popcorn and favorite beverage, settle back, and let Robert Mitchum, as evil, crazy Harry Powell try to tell you the story of h-a-t-e and l-o-v-e, but be sure you have Lillian Gish and her shotgun on your side!

TNOTH lovea nd hate

 

 

 

My Classic Movie Picks: The Scarlet Letter

My post today is about a silent film and is also a contribution for the Gish Sisters Blogathon, which is being hosted this weekend by two great blogs dedicated to classic films, Movies Silently and Motion Pictures.  Click on the posted links to read more wonderful blogs by other classic film fans to learn more about these two talented actresses and sisters, who got their start during the silent film era.Gish Sisters Blogathon

In 1925, Lillian Gish was at the top of her game in the movie world.  She was a popular leading lady in dramatic films, popular with the movie-going audiences in America, and she decided that she wanted to make a film about Nathanial Hawthorne’s classic novel , The Scarlet Letter.  She approached the head of MGM studios, Louis B. Mayer about getting this film made.  He pointed out to Miss Gish that the book was on a list of banned books that would not be allowed to have movie versions of them created.  With this answer not deterring her in the least, Miss Gish wrote a letter to MGM’s head of censure, Will Hayes, and then she wrote letters to the heads of church groups and ladies groups around the country, pleading her case that a tasteful and important film about Hawthorne’s book could be made.  Miss Gish must have had a way with the pen. Her letter writing campaign worked and her project was given the greenlight.  TSL movie poster 1

Since this was Lillian’s project, she had a say in who the director would be and who the leading man would be.  For a movie about Puritan settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, she made two very interesting choices for director and leading man: she picked Swedish director Victor Sjostrom and Swedish actor Lars Hanson.  In her memoirs, The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me, Miss Gish said she felt that the Swedes were closer in feeling to the actual Puritans than the Americans of 1926.   Frances Marion wrote the adapted screenplay from Hawthorne’s novel, and the cast also included Henry B. Walthall, Karl Dane,William H. Tooker, Marcelle Corday, Fred Herzog, Jules Cowles, Mary Hawes, James A. Marcus, and Joyce Coad as Pearl.

I had read Hawthorne’s book about 5 years ago and as I like to do if a movie is based upon a book, I like to find that movie and watch it.  I knew there was a movie made in 1995 starring Demi Moore and Gary Oldman, but when I read some of it’s reviews, I decided that that version was not the one I wanted to see.  Over and over again, I kept running into commentaries that said the 1926 silent version, starring Lillian Gish, was the best version of Hawthorne’s book.  Turner Classic Movies came to my rescue when they aired the movie during their “Silent Sunday Nights”, which is when the channel shows silent films.  I set the dvr machine and voila!  I was able to view this silent classic.

I, like a lot of movie viewers, had a distorted view of silent films.  They’re all about a damsel in distress, tied to railroad tracks by a villain in a black cape with a huge black moustache, and she’ll be saved by a handsome hero.  The acting will be hammy and over-demonstrative, and the music will be by either a piano or an organ.  I am now the first to admit that I have been wrong about silent films.  The acting isn’t hammy, the stories and plots are interesting, and many have been set to new orchestrations with various instruments that enhance the films quite a lot.

Gish’s The Scarlet Letter follows Hawthorne’s book well and the acting of it is superb.  Gish and her leading man, Hanson, do so much with their eyes as they depict their characters’ feelings.  Theirs is not an effort of histrionics but of subtle shifts, keyed in on their faces, and their eyes.  The sets looked very authentic, as did the costuming, and Sjostrom’s direction kept the telling of Hawthorne’s tale moving along at a good pace; it doesn’t get slow or draggy.

Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne

Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne

Swedish actor Lars Hanson as Rev. Dimmesdale

Swedish actor Lars Hanson as Rev. Dimmesdale

Gish portrays Hester Prynne, a beautiful Puritan woman who’s husband has been lost at sea.  She has had an affair with another man in the community, became pregnant, and has given birth to a daughter, Pearl.  The story opens with Hester being presented to the community, she standing on a platform holding her infant and refusing to name the father.  She is informed that she must stand there for 3 hours to suffer from her shame, and a huge, red letter A must be worn by her on the front of the bodice of her dress.  As Hester stands there, hearing the grumbling commentary from her neighbors, she notices her husband, Roger Prynne( Henry B. Walthall) in the crowd!  He’s not dead!  He, seeing his wife’s shaming, asks people near him in the crowd what has happened.  After he is informed as to why Hester is being punished, he vows to find the father of the child.

Hester being publicly shamed

Hester being publicly shamed

After the 3 hours are up, Hester is escorted from the platform back to the jail.  She has refused to name the father of her child to the one of the  local ministers of the community, Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, and after Dimmesdale leaves the jail, Hester’s long, lost husband Roger arrives to see her, saying  he is a doctor, who ‘d like to check on the health of the baby and the mother.  Once Roger is alone with Hester and has checked over Pearl, he tells Hester not to reveal who he really is, he’s taken a new name, Roger Chillingworth, and if she ever reveals who he is, he’ll cause the destruction of the child’s father.

Rev. Dimmesdale praying with Hester, after she refuses to reveal the father of her baby

Rev. Dimmesdale praying with Hester, after she refuses to reveal the father of her baby

The rest of the movie’s plot follows Hester and Pearl  and how their life evolves over time in the community, how some busybodies in the town think Hester is an unfit mother due to Pearl’s misbehavings and they seek to have Pearl taken away from Hester, Hester going to Rev. Dimmesdale for help in convincing those with authority not to take her child from her, and Prynne/Chillingworth, a diligent detective, figuring out the puzzle of who Pearl’s father is.  I don’t want to reveal all of the plot as I want the readers of this post to find the film and view it for themselves.  I cannot stress enough that this version of The Scarlet Letter, albeit a silent film, is the best version of the story ever made!

Asking Dimmesdale for help leads to deeper feelings being revealed!

Asking Dimmesdale for help leads to deeper feelings being revealed!

To add a bit more information about Lillian Gish, and her sister Dorothy, I thought I would mention the college that I attended, Bowling Green State University, in Bowling Green, Ohio.  The Gish sisters were natives of Ohio and BGSU(as the college is ususally referred to)decided in 1976 to dedicate a small theater in Hanna Hall after the two sisters.  Lillian was delighted with this effort and through the years that followed, she sent items from her and her sister’s careers to be put on display.  When Lillian passed away in 1993, many more items from Gish’s estate were sent to BGSU.  You can read all about the Gish Theatre here at this link.  I kick myself quite a lot that when I was a student there in the middle 1980s, that I didn’t take any advantage of visiting this on campus theatre nor did I take any advantage of expanding my limited viewings of classic movies, silent or talking.  I would like to visit the theatre the next time I am in Ohio, after I visit with my relatives first, of course!

Lillian Gish, probably at the time the theatre honoring her at BGSU was opened.

Lillian Gish, probably at the time the theatre honoring her at BGSU was opened.

Please seek out The Scarlet Letter, the 1926 version that Lillian Gish had the foresight, talent, and endurance to see that it was made.  It is a moving film, tenderly acted, a film made with real craftmanship.  The film did come out on a  dvd in 1997 so that would be one way to see it.  There have been some scenes from the film placed on Youtube, and  Turner Classic Movies  will also be airing the film on October 14th at noon est/11:00 cst.

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