100 American Films to Save: Dismay (1955-1965)

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

FilmDirectorYearType
It’s Always Fair WeatherStanley Donen and Gene Kelly1955Narrative feature
The Man in the Gray Flannel SuitNunnally Johnson1956Narrative feature
Peyton PlaceMark Robson1957Narrative feature
Last Train from Gun HillJohn Sturges1959Narrative feature
The Crimson KimonoSamuel Fuller1959Narrative feature
Home from the HillVincente Minnelli1960Narrative feature
Advise and ConsentOtto Preminger1962Narrative feature
Jason and the ArgonautsDon Chaffey1963Narrative feature
Bikini BeachWilliam Asher1964Narrative feature
“The Wonderful World of Tupperware”George J. Yarbrough1965Industrial film

There’s a demo of “Too Much for One Heart” from Miss Saigon that I adore, even more than I love the actual song that showed up in the show. It starts like this, with a contradiction:

Outside there is a war,

But here the night is still.

The jasmine buds have bloomed

The way that jasmine will.

It’s a beautiful idea. And for the first three movies in this bunch, I think it applies just as beautifully. It’s Always Fair Weather, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and Peyton Place, in reverse order, deal with those ideas. First, that a war is raging, but that from the current vantage point it’s impossible to know it. Things are going on in much the same fashion as they did before, and barring some change that is not about the war itself, they will continue to do so. Not even the most bellicose period in human history can change the little predictable processes of a small New England town, edging and eroding with the perpetuity of the tides but showing no more difference than a rainy rivulet in sand.

“With the Marines at Tarawa” is the film that I always put at the top of my list, as it were, when I make my nominations for the actual National Film Registry. Peyton Place is the movie I had in mind when I started this particular project. It’s not a great movie. Shoot, it’s far from a great movie, although Mark Robson has a gift for melodrama that, at its best, brings forth a The Seventh Victim or a The Harder They Fall. It’s certainly an attractive movie, with pleasing shots and pleasant scenery, and if several of the actors are as wooden as Robert Frost’s birches, then that’s “balanced” with Arthur Kennedy’s performance which recalls late-stage Joan Crawford. Peyton Place makes its final dramatic plea with a monologue which demands that the people of the town stop being so nosy and gossipy with one another; if we were to take that seriously, than a movie like Peyton Place could never exist, because even a movie as clumsily bowdlerized as this one is still letting the audience mainline fifteen years’ worth of loose talk in 150 minutes. The young men go off to war in the later stages of the film; it’s 1943 when Selena goes on trial for killing her father, who had enlisted in the Navy and then come back to town to, well, rape his daughter again. (Can you imagine anyone in Bedford Falls coming back from World War II to do that? Can you even imagine anyone in Pottersville doing that?) This is a movie which leaves the residue of a much muggier milieu on the skin than New England is supposed to, but it’s terribly interesting to me that Peyton Place suggests that war only brings death. The people of the town are who they always were, but in uniform now. That’s the basic premise of another one of those interminable, moral, handsome melodramas of the ’50s: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

Like Peyton Place, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was based on a popular novel. And like Peyton Place, which for people of a certain age is probably easiest to remember because it goes between “Princess Grace” and “Trouble in the Suez” for Billy Joel, it’s a movie which has a pop culture throwaway moment. In Season 2 of Mad Men, Jimmy Barrett makes a crack about Don Draper being “the man in the gray flannel suit” which is not the actual reason that Don punches him in the face but probably doesn’t help matters. If I were a writer on Mad Men, I’m not sure I would have wanted to call that much attention to the fact that Don is a Mojoverse spoof of Earth-616’s Tom Rath. Gray Flannel Suit posits something similar to Peyton Place, an observation which was obvious to Preston Sturges during the war but which few others felt all that comfortable saying at the time: putting on a uniform doesn’t make a man a hero. Tom is not indecent, on the whole. Certainly he’s got more of a sense of decency hanging around in there than the average guy on Madison Avenue, who he butts heads with, but he also probably has more illegitimate children running around Italy than the average guy on Madison Avenue. For a film with practically British stodge, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is sitting with ideas and frankness that one more readily associates with the Beats in this time period. It’s still much too square for a Lawrence Ferlinghetti or an Allan Ginsberg, but there’s a howling in this movie nonetheless.

That leads us to the first of this group, It’s Always Fair Weather, a dance film which ultimately gives in to a madcap ending more along the lines of The Pirate than The Best Years of Our Lives. There is no bomber graveyard in this film, which doesn’t quite know how to connect Gene Kelly’s solitary hopelessness to the vein that Dana Andrews all but opened for us in the previous decade. For whatever its shortcomings are on that front, there’s a forthrightness in the first act which is stunning. You come home from the war with buddies you’ve never left in years, who have seen and known things that no one else will be able to comprehend. You expect that even when you separate from them, you will remain close with them as you rise up the ladder of success, whatever that looks like. And then, in split screen, after the thrill of dancing with trash can lids on their noisy feet, bastardizing tap and making it new all at once, we watch these guys turn middle-aged and stale in a minute. Ten years is no time at all, only enough time to show them entrapped in a system as intractable as the one which Charlie Chaplin had been run through in Modern Times. Biff Lomanism runs rampant throughout this picture, and can only be interdicted by the might of MGM.

The conflict between justice and family is one that Americans, despite a national legacy of injustices that makes us look like a teenaged delinquent compared to older nations, have never quite figured out how to draw. Last Train from Gun Hill, as much as any other movie I’ve ever seen from our country, lays out a scenario which pits the two against one another in gory detail.

Two men are longtime friends, with great respect for each other as men, as leaders, and, importantly for how this shakes out, as gunfighters. Morgan is a lawman; Belden is a cattle baron. The cattle baron’s son rapes and kills the lawman’s Native American wife while she’s riding with her son. Morgan would bring the man in no matter what, but given the circumstances the stakes could not be higher for him. He rapidly deduces that Belden’s son (and a friend) are the guilty party, and he confronts Belden. Belden has to make the decision that Americans in our time are still unable to cope with: reporters with access unable to really dig into the people they need to get their stories, politicos and organizers who need donations and will not ruffle wealthy feathers, people with family members who express hateful and seditious speech. In Belden’s shoes, what do you do? Can you look a man who has been grievously wronged in the face and tell him that you cannot sacrifice your flesh and blood to his deserving, dangling fate? To do so would be to do the scrupulously right thing but also to admit that you are an abject failure yourself. Your son is the worst kind of man imaginable, and you cannot escape the blame for having brought him into the world and your own inadequacy as a virtuous man. Or do you hand your son over to Morgan, and destroy your line and your last family member? For the sake of the movie, Belden chooses the security of his son over the righteousness of his son’s punishment. He dies for it, because it’s a movie.

Only two Sam Fuller movies are in the National Film Registry, and they’re the two you’d probably expect: Pickup on South Street and Shock Corridor. The question of which Fuller to nominate lingered as long for me as it did for any other director, with the possible exception of Raoul Walsh, because there are few directors who have the kind of constant concern about a recognizable American life which Fuller had. One rarely gets the feeling from a Fuller movie that his characters are on an adventure; even his war movies feel like they have less episodic movement than something like Shock Corridor. Things are happening, but events are not frequently in the hands of his characters. They are not first movers; most of them couldn’t find the First Mover with a telescope. So as much as I’m drawn to (seriously, we’re going through these) obvious picks like The Steel Helmet and The Big Red One, or a less obvious choice for military anti-glory in Merrill’s Marauders—a film about yellow journalism, Park Row—a film about how crime poisons normal folks, such as The Naked Kiss or Underworld, U.S.A.—one of his several westerns—I ended up choosing The Crimson Kimono.

It’s not one of Fuller’s more fleshed-out films. The first three-quarters of this movie feels almost boilerplate even with James Shigeta as one of the leads, the Japanese-American partner of all-American cop Glenn Corbett. And then there’s a falling out between Joe and Charlie, who have both fallen for the women they’re keeping in their apartment to protect her from a murderer. (The LAPD appears to have been more fun once upon a time.) There’s a kendo bout which is much more than a kendo bout; in the end the girl chooses Joe rather than Charlie, a decision which absolutely floored me. One fully expects the movie to send the white people off together; if they made this movie in 2019 rather than 1959, they’d have sent Chris to Charlie rather than Joe. In winning Chris, Joe loses his best friend. Charlie cannot abide the thought of the woman he wants with his best friend, and so their friendship and their professional relationships alike are fractured for good. The things that movie says imply that Charlie doesn’t bear any kind of hatred for Joe, does not feel any antipathy for Asian-Americans. It’s impossible not to wonder about the purity of Charlie’s heart, and if this ally is only an ally as far as he can maintain some feeling of superiority.

Home from the Hill gets a way better performance out of George Hamilton than it has any right to, all while getting evocative work from Robert Mitchum, George Peppard, and Eleanor Parker. Here’s another one that kind of goes off the rails in the final stretch, and yet its director, like Sam Fuller, is the kind of director who I had to sift through to decide which one I’d pick. Granted, there are six Vincente Minnellis in the National Film Registry already, so my choices were a little thinner, but five of them are musicals. Home from the Hill is a more Southern version of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, where the man in question does not hide inside his clothes but instead seems to burst right out of them. Paternity and breeding are the primary concerns of Home from the Hill, where we see the two sons of Wade Hunnicutt, one legitimate and one certainly not, both rise to become more like their father. Theron, played by Hamilton, is temperamentally more like his mother, who has been estranged from Wade for like, forever; Rafe, played by Peppard, is in all respects but one his father’s son. Like his father, he is a consummate outdoorsman and ladies’ man, and unlike his father he lacks cruelty. It’s a soapy drama, to be sure, but of the group including itself, Peyton Place, and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, this is definitely the finest effort. One expects Hamilton to be the weak link like Lee Philips is in Peyton Place or Jennifer Jones is in Gray Flannel Suit, but that reedy, pliant frame of his supports our understanding of the gullible little nerd who his father intends to toughen up and make a Hunnicutt out of. The film takes its time to get to its narratively sodden conclusion, but what it does along the way with events like Theron’s first snipe hunt is even delicate.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but here’s a bloated movie which makes it concern about the hamstringing of American potential known through a parable about a specifically American place. We’ve covered New England and New York City, Texas and Los Angeles. Here’s the version in Washington, D.C., a version which is not in the slightest about “average Americans” from “working families” who are concerned about “kitchen table issues” and care about “Main Street” rather than Wall Street. Advise and Consent interests me not because of its content, particularly, although the windows it peeks through about homosexuality, Communism, and other things that are much cooler today than they were sixty years ago are hypnotically stained. It’s interesting because after so many years of Eisenhower, and with the appearance of televised presidential debates, the emphasis on John F. Kennedy’s celebrity, and Robert Drew’s over-the-shoulder documentaries about the American political system, Americans were clearly ready for a juicy Beltway story in the same vein of Peyton Place. And unlike sanctimonious post-Dallas political dramas like The Best Man or Fail-Safe, there’s not much in the makeup of Advise and Consent that makes believe that politicians are going to come through as basically right and honorable. The way the senators act is, essentially, the way that you’d expect good old boys who belong to the same kind of elite club to behave. Maybe you get some kind of moralistic rush from watching Charles Laughton vote against Henry Fonda’s confirmation but not asking anyone else to do so, or maybe you get it from watching Walter Pidgeon give George Grizzard what for with words but not with official action. All of that must fade a little compared to the vindictive way those men attack one another which is not unlike the way cinematic high schoolers do revenge.

I’m typically kind of a tool about separating American films from British ones, and although there’s a good argument to be made that this probably more a British production than an American one, I couldn’t leave out Jason and the Argonauts.

I was tempted to include 20 Million Miles to Earth instead of Jason, because the alien from that film, especially in its juvenile state, is built into the frames with stunning seamlessness. It looks incredible. But 20 Million Miles is, like King Kong, a movie that makes me really sad, and I decided I’d choose joy. It takes a minute to get to the real joy in Jason and the Argonauts, I think; not until Talos appears in all his grandeur did I start to feel it. But Talos looks at us. I love how often this film lets those clearly fabricated figures look right at us. Talos and the Hydra and, most of all, those skeletons, have these clearly vacant, dead eyes, and yet they look directly at us, seeing us, taking account of us just as we are trying to take account of them. We’re at a disadvantage when we look at them. They swing swords and necks at the camera, competing with us, belligerent and seemingly insurmountable. I suppose if I had seen this when I was a child, the Hydra jump scare would have freaked me out, but as an adult I watch this movie and chiefly feel the wonder that children don’t often find in a movie. Children so often take a movie as a matter of course, as a reality not all that much different from weekday errands or daycare; this is why one does not lightly show a little kid something like A Nightmare on Elm Street. As an adult, the tremendous technique in Jason and the Argonauts is an invitation to childlike wonder, a wonder that accepts like a child but asks “How?” like a grown-up.

It typically takes a series of films longer than three tries to reach the point of Dadaesque incomprehensibility. The Beach Party movies are not most series of films.

Beach Party tries to be something recognizable, Gidget for the surfin’ teens with kid sisters at home who wish they were Gidget. Muscle Beach Party expands on weirdo promise with its strange Don Rickles-led subplot, but still functions fundamentally as parody. Bikini Beach is absolutely working as parody, too. The Potato Bug is as clear a Beatles corollary as anyone’s ever put on film, but the strangeness of it is in watching Frankie Avalon play this proto-Austin Powers with the kind of disgust people usually save for Kenny G. Then there’s the Keenan Wynn role, playing the unhip adult who ultimately gets with it. Robert Cummings played this more or less straight back in Beach Party, but by the time we get here, Wynn is a caricature of a caricature of a rich guy. He doesn’t have a goofy little majordomo to boss around. His comrade is a guy in a gorilla suit who is preternaturally talented at all things. This movie has scenes with Boris Karloff (making a crack about Vincent Price) and Stevie Wonder separated from one another by mere minutes. Meanwhile, Annette Funicello is completely unchanged from how we’d seen her before, and Harvey Lembeck still deserves the hoosegow for whatever the hell he was up to. Bikini Beach is just a wacky picture, one where the impulse is to cut loose and throw everything at the wall after growing up in a world where the spirit of Peyton Place lives on. Disorganized, joyful, self-aware, and borderline unwatchable: the Bikini Beach guarantee.

In that spirit, I’m not going to pretend that the terrible title of this half-hour industrial film, “The Wonderful World of Tupperware,” has nothing to do with how it got here. For sure, the lunatic title of this movie is the gateway that got me to watch it, and even the presence of Anita Bryant singing a novelty song about the product at a Tupperware convention couldn’t scare me off.

This is shorthand. Not just because “Tupperware” is such a Cold War product, the kind of thing you get into when the idea of petroleum deposits doesn’t make your average American think about fighting the longest war in the country’s history over access to them. It’s shorthand for American-made industry, where you can watch people who look like a neighbor or grandma or what-have-you take the Tupperware off the assembly line and pack it, rather than assuming that their jobs have been outsourced somewhere else. It’s a film about a chicken-in-every-pot mentality which Americans were closer to the end of than the beginning. And it’s also sort of like a long segment from Mr. Rogers where he shows you how it’s all made by machine. This is comfort food with the stomachache included.

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