100 American Films to Save: Mirrors (1946-1952)

You can find the introduction and index for this series here.

DragonwyckJoseph L. Mankiewicz1946Narrative feature
Nightmare AlleyEdmund Goulding1947Narrative feature
I Remember MamaGeorge Stevens1948Narrative feature
“Goodbye, Miss Turlock”Edward L. Cahn1948Short
Strange VictoryLeo Hurwitz1948Documentary
The Secret LandOrville O. Dull1948Documentary
Holiday AffairDon Hartman1949Narrative feature
CagedJohn Cromwell1950Narrative feature
Devil’s DoorwayAnthony Mann1950Narrative feature
The Lusty MenNicholas Ray1952Narrative feature

The cool exhalation of cigarette smoke and refinery fumes that frames American noir smells most like the postwar 1940s. The immediacy of the stories, the sense that it could all be happening in a seedier part of town where the brims on hats were pulled lower was what made the genre essential. For that reason, the idea of “historical noir” is a practical non sequitur; I don’t think there are a lot of people who are itching to call Basil Rathbone a major noir figure because of the Sherlock Holmes movies he did. What makes Dragonwyck worth saving is that it makes me want to believe in historical noir.

Gene Tierney, who had already starred in noirs like Laura, a paragon of the genre, and Leave Her to Heaven, which proves on its own that noir and Technicolor can coexist, stars as the too-beautiful daughter of a Calvinist family who catches the attention of the local patroon. Vincent Price had supported in both of those films with Tierney, but opposite her he is an absolute revelation. The noirish trappings of the film include murder, attempted murder, poison, drug addiction, and class distinction. The history only taps into that last, but, with apologies for sounding like a total dork, it’s the crumbling of a landed class in a post-Jacksonian society which is most fascinating. Van Ryn may be a total psycho, a character more repulsive and distasteful than the monsters Price would go on to play in greasepaint horror films like House of Wax and The Abominable Dr. Phibes, but the sickness in him is inseparable from his obsession with maintaining the old rituals which started to fade during Rip Van Winkle’s time. The proof of his villainy is in his manipulation of justice in the Hudson River Valley long before it’s shown in the wickedness he perpetuates inside his manor. Dragonwyck, in spirit if not in setting, anticipates the lefty spirit of noir as Samuel Fuller or Joseph Losey would interpret it.

I liked the Guillermo del Toro adaptation of this film more than I expected to, and perhaps if the original had never been made I would have more reason to be sympathetic to it. The 1947 Nightmare Alley is not like Dragonwyck or Tomorrow, the World! I don’t look to Nightmare Alley for the story of grifters or cheats, because the meteoric rise of Stan the carnival gofer to the Great Stanton is too exceptional to be credited as symbolic. What fascinates me in Nightmare Alley is the balance it strikes between old stories and new ones, the way that it makes Stan Carlisle perpetually watchable by doing things we’re used to seeing. “There are three women in every man’s life” is such a corny, old-fashioned idea that they gave it to a broken Ted Chaough at the end of Mad Men. It’s a phrase that with purposely goofy misspellings would suit A Song of Ice and Fire just as well as Nightmare Alley. But lands’ sakes, if Nightmare Alley doesn’t manage to make “there are three women in every man’s life” into an epitaph. Opportunity is Zeena, payday is Molly, dividends are Lilith. As any American of a generation to see this movie would tell you, dividends are a fickle thing. Stan walks into each of their lives with a grappling hook hidden behind his back, intent in making each slim torso a step on his ladder, disinterested in what happens to their bodies once he’s finished trampling their spines as he finds just the right footing. A humble beginning is not a guarantor against arrogance, and arrogance is the great foot snare of climbers such as Stan. If there is something particularly American in it, it’s in the honest way that it takes its teeth to the neck of a squawking hen with the face of Horatio Alger.

Does any culture romanticize its civil servants, bureaucrats, and public officials? The closest I think we get to it in America is in a film like “Goodbye, Miss Turlock,” which plays into all the stereotypes we have about schoolmarms and still manages to be effective despite that reliance. Narrated by John Nesbitt, the quintessential voice of the ’40s voiceover, the story of Miss Turlock is one about dealing with children of different ages and abilities crammed into a one-room schoolhouse with the bell, churchlike, overhanging it. It is not an integrated schoolhouse, and given that the film ends with this school closing in the late ’40s to yield to a more consolidated educational model, it’s unlikely that it ever would have become one. We see the middle-aged Miss Turlock, a woman of terrific wisdom and perception about children, in the course of her day. She knows which students need the softer touch and which need the hard hand. She knows how to manage the classroom, which is a story of maintenance, and that is to say a story of breakdowns. In this rural, presumably Protestant community, she is the celibate equivalent of a nun, an essential fixture in the community but who is necessarily outside of it. At the end, all the boys and girls, now middle-aged or better themselves, come back to see Miss Turlock on the school’s final day. They bring their own children with them, who will wind up at county high schools with hundreds or thousands of their species (if not necessarily of their own race!) but who will never quite understand the smallness of the one-room schoolhouse, the forced intimacy of smell and assignment and familiarity in one loathsome and nostalgic package. Miss Turlock and her ilk across the countries must be retired, like dirt roads, to make way for the Interstate.

I hesitated to use “nostalgia” for “Goodbye, Miss Turlock,” but despite some similar ideas, it’s unfair to call I Remember Mama a nostalgic film. It’s much too good for that.

George Stevens has as many films with just rock solid titles as any director could hope. An American Tragedy became the much more evocative A Place in the Sun. Shane and Giant belie titanic ideas within five-word titles. Woman of the Year and The Talk of the Town and The More the Merrier are familiar and catchy without feeling rote. All that bad luck, I think, has been taken on by I Remember Mama, which I supposes is a little bit melodious but mostly marred by myriad m’s, making a misguided murmur marring the movie’s memory. Of course, I Remember Mama would welcome that sacrifice, or at least Irene Dunne’s Mama Hanson would welcome it. I avoided this one for ages because it just seemed like it would be schlocky, a play turned into a movie that easily crosses two hours, endless vignettes of immigrant fortitude and disappointment in tidal array. Seldom have I been more wrong about a film going into it. I Remember Mama is, sure, about an immigrant mother from Norway who is the stickiest glue for her family living in San Francisco. She is unfailingly loving and creative, persistent and judicious. In short, it is a tremendously wholesome movie where, yes, people learn some life lessons and stuff. If I were a parent of small children, I think the sequence where Marta goes into stealth mode in order to sneak into her little girl’s hospital room and sing to her would stand out; given that I am fond of cats, anything with the hard-luck alley cat and cuddler “Uncle Elizabeth” is a winner for me. The chapter that gutted me, and there are a few with fillet knives, featured an older daughter receiving a coveted gift from her parents. She has wanted this brush and mirror and other pretty things in order to make herself a pretty adult thing, but upon finding that the cost of it was her mother’s most valued possession, a brooch hocked for her gift, Katrin is simply obliterated. I felt a real terror watching Barbara Bel Geddes break down, given up for her own vanity and selfishness and pretension; how could she possibly set that right? I Remember Mama is about grace, and it makes itself that way without cloying.

The next two films are both documentaries from 1948 which come in around the hour mark, and both of them are made with recourse to World War II as a signpost. For Strange Victory, the question of why a nation committed to fighting Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy with its entire might still allows their ideology to thrive is almost unanswerable. The Secret Land is far less incisive and critical, but in its way a totally rapturous picture. The picture is about exploring Antarctica so that it can be mined for oil and other natural resources, which has aged as badly as Strange Victory has aged well. But there’s a thrill in watching highly trained Americans working as a unit for the benefit of knowledge rather than doing it for destruction, imperialism, or anti-communism.

Using three Hollywood stars who were veterans of World War II to switch off narration duties, The Secret Land provides an overview of the aforementioned Operation Highjump. The poster makes it seem like The Thing from Another World without the alien (or, I guess, knowledge of The Thing from Another World), and it’s not not that. The Secret Land is pretty plain about the failures of the Navy in how they set up the mission, in how difficult it was for even their prize icebreakers to allow the disparate sections of the fleet to go where they needed to go. This would be stunning footage no matter when it was taken, but the fact that it’s from the late ’40s is just staggering. Also, to lovers of furry friends: husky puppies trained to be sled dogs grow up in front of our eyes. I made lots of noises. You can watch Strange Victory here (as well as on Criterion), and like Nightmare Alley and I Remember Mama it is well worth the time on its own merits. Unlike The Secret Land, there is nothing cute about it. There’s a good case to be made that America’s two great wars, the Civil War and World War II, both ended in failure because the victorious side in battle did not make enough efforts to win the peace. (That Lincoln and Roosevelt died in the waning days of their wars, naturally or otherwise, is one of those historical coincidences so frightening it’ll just about make you believe in Satan.) The sins which prompted the Civil War were not properly atoned for with the bloodshed, and so Jim Crow took hold to replace a system of similar intentions. The sins which prompted World War II were not properly atoned for with the bloodshed, and so the same hatred that American servicemen and -women had been sent to combat were, perhaps, even stronger in America than they were in the late Third Reich.

It’s not a romantic comedy, precisely. And it’s not one of those films which have become canonized because of their holiday settings like It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street. It’s kind of a movie about the awkwardness of post-war life for veterans, but it’s never as harsh about that struggle as The Best Years of Our Lives or Til the End of Time. Nor does it have the name brand director that those other films have, as Don Hartman was (and is) remembered better as a screenwriter than a director. No matter what it doesn’t quite have, Holiday Affair has immense charm, and it’s difficult to imagine romantic comedies from the late ’80s on, what with their increasing insistence on having some kind of seasonal peg, without this old-fashioned winner.

People will occasionally carp about how straightforward it should be to make a decent romantic comedy. Put together two hot people, add in some reason they can’t be together, shake with ice, purr distractedly for ninety minutes. To borrow from, gulp, Aaron Sorkin, if they were the inventors of Facebook, they’d have invented Facebook. What no one ever gets deep enough into is that the chemistry on screen between the two leads is hard to predict! How reasonable the original boyfriend/girlfriend/obstacle is has to spot on, because too far to maniacal and we wonder what the lead is doing with them and too far to good and we wonder why we should like the lead. And whether there’s something more in the picture, some idea typically brought about through the characters’ jobs, adds in a whole new barrel of monkeys. Holiday Affair is not a perfect movie, but on all three of those counts it is simply wonderful. Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh are an incredible onscreen couple with instant chemistry, and no matter what your taste in human sexuality is, those two almost certainly fulfill it. Wendell Corey is a reasonable choice for Leigh, but we know that he is neither as good with her son as we’d like and that she doesn’t feel attraction to him like she does for Mitchum. (I mean, look.) And what I like best about this movie, even more than how proto-Rock Hudson in All That Heaven Allows Mitchum is or how appealing single mom Leigh is, is the extra stuff. Steve’s a veteran who’s never really figured out what he wanted to do after leaving the service. Connie’s husband died in the war and left her a widow in her early twenties with a son who never knew his father. Holiday Affair is, more quietly than your average noir but also much more completely, a movie about our expectations for people after the war. The young widowed mothers should marry responsible men for practicality; the young aimless men should find an aim. It’s not that simple, Holiday Affair says, and it takes a Christmas miracle and a New Year’s resolution to put the right people together.

Anthony Mann’s stretch of 1950s westerns is one of those reputable and beloved blocs in American movies, but when people discuss those films they start with The Furies or, more commonly, Winchester ’73, and then lay all their love on The Naked Spur or Man of the West. Little iconoclast that I am, the best of these in my mind is probably Devil’s Doorway.

While regrettably putting Robert Taylor in makeup that is supposed to make him look like an Indian, the movie, like Broken Arrow from the same year, belongs in that category of Hollywood pictures that use awkward and inappropriate technique in order to make laudable points. Broken Arrow is based on the true story of white betrayals of Indian peacefulness. Devil’s Doorway sets up a scenario where an American with a flawless CV is physically attacked for wanting to keep what’s his. Lance Poole literally won the Congressional Medal of Honor in the Civil War, but he is home in Wyoming for about thirty seconds before white men decide that a Native American shouldn’t try to become a rancher, gain wealth, etc. Lance’s fellow Shoshone end the film fighting the white men after their land and their lives, and when the U.S. cavalry comes, they join the fight against the Shoshone defending themselves rather than stepping in against the white opportunists. The last reel of Devil’s Doorway is gutting; the only thing that Lance can gain from the cavalry as he dies is the token of respect which he more than earned with his own military service. The Naked Spur is frequently given as the darkest of Mann’s westerns, but with respect to the fine psychological drama of that picture, none of Mann’s work is so dark and pessimistic as this.

As a genre, prison movies are woefully underrepresented in the National Film Registry. The ones they have already tend to be star vehicles rather than prison movies: Cool Hand Luke, White Heat, Jailhouse Rock. The Shawshank Redemption is there, and the less said about it the better. I decided for the sake of variety to limit myself to one, which is why we only have Caged here rather than similarly strong films like I Want to Live! or Riot in Cell Block 11 or Brute Force or The Big House or, just to plug a Ford, The Prisoner of Shark Island. Caged is, more than any fiction movie about prison I’ve seen, about the dehumanization of the prisoner. What happens to Marie, a tenderhearted young woman who gets mixed up in a rough situation, wracks her like some exotic virus. It happens fast, and it’s going to kill her. The warden, a humane reformer like the one from Brute Force or Riot in Cell Block 11, is interdicted by the savagery of the matron, played by Hope Emerson with a brassier sadism than Hume Cronyn’s leering malice in Brute Force. Prison makes Marie a criminal. When she went in, she was an expectant mother and a hopeful one, believing she might be paroled in short order. Caged wallows in a truth which so many TV writers made much of finding in Orange Is the New Black so many years later: what’s real on the outside is not the same as what’s real on the inside. This is a showcase for a number of terrific actresses, but Eleanor Parker’s performance as the justly convicted naif unjustly treated in jail is totally unforgettable, and if I dare say so, better than anything in the prison movies the National Film Registry has already.

One more Mitchum for the road: The Lusty Men. (I decided, for the sake of talking about something different as much as anything else, that I’d leave They Live by Night off this list, so you’re welcome for that.)

It’s not my favorite Ray, and even by the standards of ’50s dramas this has an ending which I think is a little too neat to get behind. I also think the film’s sensitivity is a little overstated, especially by male critics who so often seem to need the permission of a Bob Mitchum or Bill Holden to let them soften up a little bit. What I think is most interesting about The Lusty Men is its counterintuitive wisdom. Jeff McCloud is a success by most of the standards that his fellow westerners care about, and it shows because of how excited people are to meet him even if he’s down on his luck. He’s become famous within his cohort, and he’s made a lot of money. That in his thirties he is physically broken down, without family or friends, and carelessly separated from his winnings in the rodeos matters less. The point, for other people, is largely that he’s done those things, that he was big. It’s very American to look at someone who was something and think that he could be that thing again rather than making a sober judgment about his capabilities because he was something. What attracts the common man to Jeff McCloud has the same basis as the reasons why, in our time, Adam Neumann and Billy McFarland will get more chances to set people’s money on fire. The sadness in the film is, for me, even more in the way that Jeff’s greatness is so clearly past than it is in the way he’s taken advantage of by Wes Merritt (a marvelously slimy Arthur Kennedy covered in dust and mud). We have this false dichotomy, I think, of believing that our heroes either fade away or burn out young. The Lusty Men shows that both can, and typically do, happen concurrently.

2 thoughts on “100 American Films to Save: Mirrors (1946-1952)

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