Thursday, August 18, 2016

Seven Days in May - 1964

Seven Days in May (1964) uses a most meaningful and chilling biblical term in the crackling dialogue: “false prophets”. It is this phrase, so well known, and occasionally exploited by religious fundamentalists, that we hinge this post on, and not so coincidentally, this election year.

This is the fifth and last movie we will discuss in our series on the treatment of fascism in classic films. The previous four films were The Mortal Storm (1940), Address Unknown (1944), Storm Warning (1951), and Keeper of the Flame (1942).

“False prophets” is the term used by star Fredric March to describe General Edwin Walker, a real-life figure, who attempted a political career, unsuccessfully, after President John F. Kennedy accepted his resignation in November 1961. Walker, an outspoken critic of political figures and members of the government he felt were communist sympathizers – naming, in his accusations, President Harry S. Truman, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and others in government, used his position in the Army to impose his extreme right-wing views and attack those who did not agree with him.  Crossing the line of propriety, not to say prudence, among military figures who desire political power is nothing new. General Douglas MacArthur, also frustrated in political aspirations, was removed from his position by President Truman when he attempted to sidestep the authority of the President and run the Korean War in his own manner, which included his intention to escalate a full-scale war with China.

Adolf Hitler was a soldier in World War I who blamed Germany’s defeat on the politicians, and thought he could run things better, too.

The story in Seven Days in May is fictional, but that it was, and is, entirely plausible makes the movie an important voice not only of those tense days of Cold War crisis when nuclear weapons raised the ante in a war of words with the Soviet Union, but remains relevant today. Nuclear weapons have not gone away. A new demagogue has risen from the dark corners of a free and tolerant society to exploit it. Donald Trump, however, was not a soldier or representative of our arms services. He has declined membership and avoided the draft on several occasions. But he has more support and free range than any false prophet in our history. The lazy, shallow, and inept media, and a moronic legion of extreme right-wing supporters, has allowed this. They even celebrate it.

Though we have seen much in this election year alone to make us jaded, nevertheless I don’t think that keeps us from feeling the power of Seven Days in May, the shock of the characters facing an unimaginable threat to our democracy.  Though it was made at the height of the Cold War, and is set in a vague not-too-distant future of the early 1970s, the theatricality of the movie (it is really a series of “drawing room scenes”); the sharp, literate dialogue; the fast-paced plot; and the stellar acting make this movie as equally relevant today as it is a timepiece from an era when the media wasn’t so much a “loose cannon” as it is today, providing a showcase for other loose cannons.

I first read the novel on which the movie is based when I was in high school, and re-read it before preparing for this post. I understand much more about politics and government, and life, than I did at sixteen – but the eerie chill that something like this could happen remains just as profound in middle age as it did in my teens, but the movie works even simply an entertaining thriller of Cold War intrigue, if one is unaware of how real it is.

Directed by John Frankenheimer, everything in the film is a purposeful tool, right down to the credits which count off to seven numerals superimposed over the Articles in the Constitution. The arrows in the talons of the eagle on the presidential seal, they are weapons. They are a threat – but not to foreign enemies. They also resemble missiles.

We begin with an orderly protest of marchers carrying signs in front of the White House. We, today, might be first struck that the protesters are well-dressed, conducting themselves with cordial dignity. Compared to protest mobs today, it looks like a country club cotillion. We are not sure exactly what they protest, but soon there is a group of counter protesters. They are for the president. They are against the president. They are for a nuclear weapons treaty. They are against the treaty. In another moment, the scene becomes less strange and more familiar to us – the two factions get loud, ugly, and start to beat each other up.

Fredric March is a beleaguered President, who has just signed a pact with the Soviet Union over the use of nuclear weapons. His ratings in the polls has dropped. His doctor warns him about his high blood pressure. He is a man of principle, but he is discouraged and fed up.

Among his confidants is a Southern senator played by Edmond O’Brien, terrific in the role as an acerbic, no-nonsense career politician. He also has a drinking problem, which he recognizes with a mixture of sadness and amusement. Martin Balsam is an adviser. The movie is so jam-packed with the best actors of the day, just picking them out is entertaining.

Burt Lancaster shines as a General of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who has come to The Hill to testify to a senate committee that he feels the treaty with the Soviet Union is a bad idea, that it makes our country vulnerable. He makes several impassioned points. “There hasn't been a single piece of paper written in the history of mankind that could serve as a deterrent to a Pearl Harbor. I sometimes wonder why we haven't learned that lesson by now. Every twenty years or so we have to pick ourselves up off the floor bleeding and pay for that mistake. Those mistakes are delivered to us C.O.D. by peace loving men. And bought and paid for with the lives of other men. Men in uniform.”

Kirk Douglas is Lancaster’s aide, a Marine Corps colonel who agrees with Lancaster’s view that the disarmament treaty isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Mr. Douglas will soon become embroiled in a mystery, a political controversy, and inevitable disillusionment in the man he most admires – Burt Lancaster – when he discovers that Lancaster is planning to take over the government and appoint himself as dictator in a military coup.

It begins, innocently enough, when Kirk Douglas discovers betting slips left by the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the coming Preakness horse race. He is amused by this, and especially amused that an admiral is too cheap to cough up a ten-dollar bet.

Soon, the young aide who let this funny gossip slip, as well as the code used by the betters: ECOMCON, has suddenly been reassigned. He’s there one day, gone the next.

An old friend of Douglas, played by Andrew Duggan, is a colonel who has been assigned to a new secret base in Texas, and he confesses to Douglas that he is baffled by the mission for which he and his men are training: not defense, but seizure of the government. Douglas, fearing something is going on behind his boss’s back, keeps his eyes and ears open. We follow him to a Washington cocktail party, where he meets up with Ava Gardner, who happens to be Lancaster’s former mistress, whom Burt has dumped.

We follow Douglas as he tails the car of a firebrand right-wing senator to Lancaster’s home in the middle of the night. We follow Douglas through a darkened parking garage, and through the halls of the Pentagon. We come to understand, as he does, eventually, that Burt Lancaster is plotting to take over the country. Lancaster has established the secret base, unknown to the President and other members of the government, and will take over all the media first, shut them down, and then throw the treaty out.

Douglas, choked by his suspicion, brings it to the President, but neither Fredric March nor his staff believe him at first. Still, they look into the matter.

Edmond O’Brien is dispatched to Texas to find out where this secret base is. He is kidnapped and held in confinement at the base. Knowing his problem with alcohol, O’Brien is brought a steady supply of whiskey to quiet and disorient him, which he heroically pours down the toilet. Andrew Duggan checks on the prisoner, and O’Brien manages to convince him about the plot to overthrow the government. Duggan fires on his own men to free O’Brien in a daring nighttime escape. Then Duggan disappears.

President Fredric March was slated to attend scheduled war games exercises in a secluded bunker with Lancaster, but he declines to go, insisting he is going to go to his fishing camp instead. He doesn’t; he cleverly remains safe at the White House, and it is discovered that Lancaster’s henchmen arrived at the fishing camp on a mission to kidnap March.

Martin Balsam is sent to an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean to obtain the confession of the admiral who knew about the plot, but decline to place his “bet”. He is played, in his acting debut, by John Houseman. A masterful scene, as Houseman squirms, wishing he  had more time. His gentlemanly guilt turns our stomachs.  But the pot is not foiled just yet. The tables are turned when Balsam, signed confession in hand, dies in a plane crash. Houseman will later lie and insist he never signed any confession document.

Douglas is sent to New York to woo and con Ava Gardner out of her love letters from General Burt Lancaster in an attempt to use anything against him to stop him from taking over the government. It is a chore that sickens him.

It’s a nail-biting finish, but an 11th-hour lucky break for the doomed democracy occurs, and Fredric March, proof in hand, demands the resignations of all the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Lancaster, with that steely-eyed glare that bores through the unfortunate person to whom he is speaking, arrogantly declines, and openly declares his intentions to take charge. He insults the President, and the presidency, and declares war on democracy to get what he wants. 

Their firey exchange:

Lancaster, resplendent in his uniform, his broad shoulders, his ramrod straight posture of a proud, accomplished man. He is filmed from a low camera angle, so he looks even taller, mightier:  “I'm here to tell you face to face, President Lyman, that you violated that oath when you stripped this country of its muscles, when you deliberately played upon the fear and fatigue of the people and told them they could remove that fear by the stroke of a pen. And then when this nation rejected you, lost faith in you, and began militantly to oppose you, you violated that oath by not resigning from office and turning the country over to someone who could represent the people of the United States.”

President Fredric March, sitting, older, looking defeated and horrified, “And that would be General James Mattoon Scott, would it? I don't know whether to laugh at that kind of megalomania, or simply cry.”

Lancaster, addressing himself in the third person, the telltale sign of the depth of his conceit: “James Mattoon Scott, as you put it, hasn't the slightest interest in his own glorification. But he does have an abiding interest in the survival of this country.”

March responds “Then, by God, run for office. You have such a fervent, passionate, evangelical faith in this country, why in the name of God don't you have any faith in the system of government you're so hell-bent to protect?”

But with evidence in hand, and a still-free press in place, and men in the military—like Kirk Douglas and Andrew Duggan—who may not agree with politicians, but who agree that as military men their purpose is to defend the Constitution and not to circumvent it—Lancaster’s coup collapses. Lancaster accuses Kirk Douglas of being a Judas. “Are you sufficiently up on your Bible to know who Judas was?”

Douglas, at attention, looks him in the eye and answers, calmly, without any passion, “Yes, Sir, I know who Judas was. He was a man I respected and admired—until he disgraced the four stars on his uniform.”

It has been noted that the Pentagon did not want this movie made, but that President John F. Kennedy supported it, through his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, and “conveniently” left for weekends at Hyannis so the film crew would be free to film exteriors in front of the White House.

Fredric March offers a summary of the evil of the day: “He's not the enemy. Scott, the Joint Chiefs, even the very emotional, very illogical lunatic fringe: they're not the enemy. The enemy's an age, a nuclear age. It happens to have killed man's faith in his ability to influence what happens to him. And out of this comes a sickness, and out of sickness a frustration, a feeling of impotence, helplessness, weakness. And from this, this desperation, we look for a champion in red, white, and blue. Every now and then a man on a white horse rides by, and we appoint him to be our personal god for the duration. For some men it was a Senator McCarthy, for others it was a General Walker, and now it's a General Scott.”

I would suggest, however, that this is not a sickness specifically of the nuclear age. Hitler’s rise to power was not a product of the nuclear age, nor Napoleon’s, nor any dictator through history who exploited misery, spread lies, and relied upon the ignorance and bigotry of an easily-manipulated populace to steal power. The only distinction between the dictators or would-be dictators of history and Donald Trump is Trump has the advantage of a media enamored of “reality” television, who regards him as entertainment and thus has given him a platform and stature he would not have so easily attained in another age. He has been given a free ride to fame. He has learned through the process that he can do whatever he likes, the more obnoxious he is, the more attention he gets.

The truth is what he decides it will be. His rabid followers will not complain so long as they agree with him. When he goes after them, they will have no one to turn to for help—except any trace of democracy that might be left to shield them.

Benjamin Franklin announced at the close of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787 that his colleagues had created “a Republic—if you can keep it.”

President Barak Hussein Obama told the delegates assembled in the same city at the Democratic National Convention this year that “democracy works, but we’ve got to want it.” As regards Trump, the President noted, “We don’t look to be ruled,” he said. “Anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end.”

It is up to us to make sure they fail, those “false prophets.”

Returning to that term, for those extreme right-wing fundamentalists who are so fond of looking ahead, almost gleefully, to Armageddon, a warning of “false prophets” occurs several times in the Bible.  We use the imagery of the Bible too much like a Rorshach test, seeing what we want to see.  Look hard and see if you can recognize Donald Trump.

In Matthew 7:15 (quoting from the King James Bible):

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

And from John 8:44:

 He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.

This concludes our five-part series on how fascism was depicted in classic films. I would like to conjecture why modern filmmakers don’t cover, intellectually and passionately, the issues of our own times, instead of wiping them away with allegorical stories of space warriors and fictional superheroes. But I don’t know the answer. Perhaps the wish to be “politically correct” has made seeming to take a partisan editorial stance in a film too uncomfortable, leaving one too open to criticism, sort of "damned if you do and damned if you don't," or is just unprofitable. 

Or maybe our society, and especially our movies and media, just needs to grow up.

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Keeper of the Flame - 1942

Keeper of the Flame (1942) is a daring examination of the existence of fascism in this country. We had come late to the fight against fascism in Europe, and in wartime it was easy to identify those monsters.  But this movie takes a hard look at American fascism. We were not safe from it then; we are not safe from it now.  However, Hollywood, that fantasy factory that brought us so many upbeat, escapist movies prettied up by the Production Code, could still be remarkably vigilant when it came to the depiction of American ideals on screen—when they were being maintained and when they were not.

This is the fourth film in our series on the treatment of fascism in classic films.  We’ve already discussed the foreign-born variety in The Mortal Storm (1940), Address Unknown (1944), and then our home-grown variety among racist thugs in Storm Warning (1951).  Today we take up a film that tackles the notion that the bad guys aren’t always the ones in the propaganda posters, and that fascism often comes to us from the minds, and wallets, of rich and powerful people.  Evil in our midst is always a tricky subject. The audience does not like being preached to; the studio does not like being accused of taking a partisan political position, in order to protect its bottom line.  It was reported that studio head Louis B. Mayer was not happy with this film, feeling it equated fascism with wealth.

But Keeper of the Flame, directed by George Cuckor, brilliantly transcends that with an eerie mystery story, a moody and atmospheric setting, and stellar acting. It is an early example of film noir.

Spencer Tracy stars as a reporter, a foreign correspondent just back from Europe where things have become too hot for him to remain. Though we had many terrific political correspondents back in that era, for me he brings to mind William L. Shirer, whose Berlin Diary was published soon after Mr. Shirer left his political beat in Germany when things got too hot for him. His voice was one of the earliest to warn a complacent American on the danger of Adolf Hitler’s powers of seduction.

This post also serves as our entry into the TCM Summer Under the Stars blogathon, hosted by Kristen Lopez at Journeys in Classic Film. Today is Spencer Tracy day on Turner Classic Movies, and though Keeper of the Flame is not on the roster, this move is a great example of his cool, understated acting, and of how Tracy, however troubled he was in private life, or what private demons he fought ( or didn't fight), embodied the image of the decent American. He was quiet, cool, contemplative, intellectual in a sort of masculine regular-guy way. He could be wry, sarcastic, but his characters were basically humble, even if he didn't take any guff from anybody.

It was as if he could see straight through any situation and see the truth of it.

But in this movie, he has a little trouble getting down to the truth.  Keeper of the Flame is probably my favorite in the Tracy-Hepburn partnership.

Yes, Kate’s in this one, too, and I think it is one of Katharine Hepburn’s best roles, though many feel she is too passive a character here. I like her work in this film for its hesitancy, its reserve. We are used to seeing her bounding through a set like a gazelle. In an unusual twist, she commands our attention by trying to avoid it. We don't know if she's stuffy, haughty, reclusive, or just deeply hurt.  She’s photographed beautifully here, and her grieving widow is, like Tracy, played in an understated manner that complements her enigmatic character.

The cinematography is splendid, and the telling of the story reminds one of Citizen Kane (1941).  We begin with screaming headlines and the sudden, shocking death of Robert Forrester, a much-beloved national figure, as his car plunges into a ravine one stormy night. We don’t know much about him, but bit by bit through the film the layers are peeled away and we have a better picture of him through the people that knew him best: his employees, his household staff, his mother, and his wife—Katharine Hepburn.  Even the great man’s home, a large, remote, wooded estate, is reminiscent of the “Shangri-La” of Charles Foster Kane.  Yet, there are even darker tones here, and it is not just the stormy weather.

Spencer Tracy comes to the nearby town where the great man lived where tributes are being paid, and a flurry of reporters are trying to beat each other’s time to get inside scoops, spinning flowery prose on the loss to the country.  The funeral is witnessed by thousands. Tracy, a great admirer of the great man, is also here to pay his respects.  He is not here to write any stories; he has had enough of politics in Europe.  He’s back home in the U.S. for the first time in years, and he’s looking forward to kicking back and relaxing.

His reporter colleagues include a competitive Stephen McNally, who we’ve covered in previous villain roles, but here he was in his first year of film acting, in, amazingly, his 11th bit part of 1942.

Especially delightful is Audrey Christie as a wisecracking “girl reporter”, who teases the Production Code by helping out Tracy, who needs a room, by inferring to the desk clerk at the local hotel that she and Tracy are married.  The flippancy of the reporters adds a lot of fizz and sparkle to the early part of the movie and throws us off the scent.  We might be prepared to think we are entering a romantic comedy, but very soon, and quite unexpectedly, a mystery pops up.

It is entirely due to Tracy’s powers of observation. In all the throng watching the funeral procession, he is most curious about a young boy, clinging to a lamppost to get a better view, sobbing over the death of the great man.  Tracy comforts him, befriends him, and soon finds himself roaming around the great man’s estate because the boy has found a secret entrance for him.

The boy, very well played by Darryl Hickman, is the son of the great man’s gatekeeper, played by Howard Da Silva.  He is making himself sick over a sense of guilt because he did not warn the deceased that the bridge was out, which led to the great man’s auto crash. Soon, Tracy finds himself on a hunt for some truth—but he doesn’t know what. He only senses that there is a greater story going on, one that he is reluctant to cover, but that he cannot ignore.

Through the mysterious, rather bitter, remarks of the gatekeeper, through a bizarre stolen interview with the great man’s vague mother, played by Margaret Wycherly, and through the careful wall put up by the grieving widow, Tracy slowly finds himself smack in the middle of a huge conspiracy. The great man may have been murdered. At least, that’s what his mother thinks. “Men like Robert aren’t killed by accident. They’re stabbed in the back.”  She doesn’t like her daughter-in-law at all.

Now Tracy is compelled to ferret out the truth he can no longer ignore, not just because he is a reporter and that’s his job, but because he admired this man so deeply, that it is a matter of honor to avenge his death by bringing the murderer to justice.

But his mother also drops another odd remark: “Big people have big houses and little people work for them.”  It turns out to mean a lot more.

Clues point to the grieving widow.

Spoiler time.  Go get yourself a snack if you don’t want to hear.  But if you’re going to stay and listen, then pour yourself a stiff drink.

Kate knew the bridge was washed out that night.  She could have warned her husband.  She chose not to.

Tracy, who has been falling for her a little bit, impressed and almost transferring his hero worship from the deceased to his valiant widow, is gobsmacked and disgusted. He’s only too happy to turn over this venomous—but wait. There’s more.

It doesn’t come out all at once, that’s the brilliance of this film.  Like Tracy, we must become observant searchers of the truth.  We cannot just sit back and be entertained with a mystery story, we are obligated to participate, to assemble the jagged puzzle pieces in our mind and come to terms with what we cannot possibly believe.

Kate unwillingly, as one sickened, relates to Tracy her realization in the early years of her marriage her discovery of her husband’s populist fascism. “They didn’t call it fascism.  They painted it red, white, and blue and called it Americanism.”

His supporters were private individuals who wanted power, but couldn’t get it democratically.  The campaign was a tapestry of hates. Hates for Jews, for city dwellers, for Catholics, for blacks, which appealed to the Ku Klux Klan.

“What was really shocking to me was the complete cyniscm of the plan. Each of the groups was simply to be used until its usefulness was exhausted.”  Again, as we mentioned earlier in this series, the cannibalistic nature of fascism that attacks its own.

“In the end, all the poor little people who never knew what the purpose they were lending themselves would be in the same chains.”

Tracy, coming to terms with the shock of this news about his hero, merely whispers his name, “Robert Forrester.”

Miss Hepburn adds, like a whimper, “He envied the dictators.”

Tracy whispers again, in horror, “Robert Forrester.”  His hero.

Hepburn’s further revulsion intimates a greater, more personal horror for her in her humiliating marriage, where she was, “A poor creature who couldn’t give him sons.” It’s a long speech, which she delivers delicately, with levels of awe and shame.

When she failed to warn her husband of the collapsed bridge, it was a moment’s decision. His paid saboteurs were waiting for his cue to being the plan of taking over the government. His chief lackey and henchman is his oily and conniving secretary, played by Richard Whorf, who is terrific in the role.

Also look for Percy Kilbride as a laconic cab driver, and Forrest Tucker as Kate’s ne’er do well cousin in an excellent supporting cast.

“Now he’s in your hands,” she tells Tracy.  The great man’s legacy, as well as the weakness of a great society to be exposed is a terrible crisis. She tried to keep his murder secret not to protect herself, but to protect the country from tumbling off into the ravine, too, in its blind devotion to a con artist.

Tracy counters, “People are not children. Sometimes they act like children when you get them scared or confused, but down in their hearts they know and they’re not afraid. They want the truth, and they can take it.”

It is a speech for the ages, and the hope on which I pin the outcome of the coming presidential election and the millions of Trump supporters who are apparently blind to his lack of integrity, his lack of intelligence, and the evil of the man.  Are they, too, lacking in integrity and intelligence?  Are they, too, evil?  I don’t know.  Like Hepburn, I, too, am horrified at the danger my country is in.  But like Tracy, I have hope in the basic decency of the American people, and I feel that courage is needed now more than ever to face the crisis.

Hollywood faced this issue unblinkingly with a fictional character. (We see another treatment in director Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe, covered previously here.) Movies today ignore the elephant in the room.

It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.  The evil henchmen step in to salvage the plan to takeover of the government, and Tracy and Hepburn are trapped by fire, shot at, and one is them is murdered.  The ending gives us a comforting bit of flag-waving as the bad guys are exposed and the country is safe now that it knows the truth.

But our country knows the truth, and yet it is not safe. There are too many who do not care about the truth.  Fascism is too appealing to them.

Hitler would have been right at home at the Republican National Convention. It would have been a bizarre, but strangely comforting, homecoming for him. Trump campaign signs hammered into American front lawns would have made him smile.

Come back next week when we wrap up this series with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in a frightening and fascinating treatment of a planned military coup in Seven Days in May (1964).


My audio book version of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star., narrated by Toni Lewis, is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Oh, my God, I’m home! You maniacs! You blew it up!

I recently saw Planet of the Apes (1968) on the big screen at the local cinema as part of the Fantom Events partnership with Turner Classic Movies. This has apparently been a popular series, with several releases every year for the past few years, bringing the novelty of classic film viewing back to the big screen.

This is part eight of our year-long monthly series on the current state of the classic film fan.

Though I regard a 1968 film as “too new” to be a classic, in this respect, I think I was not alone: the age demographic of the audience surprised me. I had expected a larger audience of young male sci-fi geeks. Instead, there were mostly middle-aged and senior citizens, I would say equally divided as to gender. Along with a younger couple that brought a few kids, the total audience numbered probably 25 people. 

It was a fun experience, and Ben Mankiewicz’s interview with “Dr. Zaius” before and after the movie made me laugh.  Except for the crack about Dr. Zira going to Smith College, which brought a few chuckles from the audience (Smith College is in my neck of the woods), I think I was the only one really laughing my head off through the whole thing. A rather dour mob. New Englanders. Probably brooding over the winter to come.

The other thing that surprised me was how the themes in this much-parodied pop culture movie-turned-“franchise” have remained relevant: the ape council’s rejection of science because it threatens the power of a fundamentalist government, the refusal to acknowledge truths that are not politically convenient, the cycle of prejudice and subjugation. Rod Serling wrote the script based on Pierre Boulle’s novel, and Serling's introspective and intellectual imprint is all over this movie.  There is a late 1960s feeling of the exhilaration of rebellion, without all the tired dystopian bilge we are beaten over the head with today.

When Charlton Heston comes upon the half-buried Statue of Liberty and screams his last lines, I’m sure all in the theater were quite familiar with the end of the movie, but there was still an awed silence, then the audience erupted in applause.  Though I enjoyed Mr. Mankiewicz’s and “Dr. Zaius’” vaudeville act at the end, it sort of wrenched one out of the really stunned moment at the end of the movie.  I think I would have preferred the TCM studio-filmed epilogue played straighter and not for laughs at this point, maybe an interview with someone connected with the production.

I have seen the other “apes” films, including the newer ones that are really nothing but CGI, lightweight and without the, forgive me, “human” feeling of the original series, and missing the theatricality of the original.  I can remember seeing one of them where computer animated characters bounced through a traffic jam of cars on a bridge, and the image was so irritating – like someone flicking something in your face to grab your attention – I closed my eyes. I like being able to explore the screen, drink in the image, and not have to flinch at constantly flashing images created by people who apparently have attention deficit syndrome and must think I do, too. 

I don’t.  Knock it off.

They are meant to appeal to a younger generation where video games are the main entertainment, and who apparently have a fondness for gray tones.  And revenge.

I wonder how many other people in the audience were regular viewers of TCM? Were any of them wondering who this guy was interviewing “Dr. Zaius”? Would the teen and twenty-something male sci-fi geeks whom I had expected to be there have any familiarity with TCM? Would they understand that I could enjoy the novelty of seeing a movie from my childhood nearly 50 years ago, on the big screen, and yet not call it a classic because it was too new?

How many of you have attended any of these Fantom Events series of classic films in your local cinemas? What did you think?

My local cinema is actually in another town.  My town once had some four or five second-run movie theaters, favorite haunts of three generations, small quaint palaces of enchantment, and all gone now.  We had a drive-in, too, once, but gone now.  I drive back across the river to my own town without any movie theaters.  (“Oh, my God, I’m home! You maniacs! You blew it up!”)

Just the word “Cineplex” depresses me.

Not that I mind watching classic films on TV; that’s where I first discovered them.  I think I’ve mentioned here before that when I was a very young child, I imagined what would be my perfect old movie watching experience: I would have a big cardboard box where there would be a screen inside on one wall, and a little low seat inside for me to sit and watch.  A door I could close.  I could press a button and watch any movie in the world I wanted.  There would be another button to push that would dispense any kind of candy.

I think I came up with this idea when that inevitable sadness overtook me after watching a movie to the end credits and knowing I might not ever see it again.

What strikes me is that I seem to have envisioned something like a VCR-function of this box to play movies at will; and that I apparently created what would be a solitary environment, though there were many movies (like the Three Stooges shorts) that I preferred to watch with my twin brother.  I could never have imagined watching them on a big screen with many other people in the audience, like in the old days.

The candy angle to my invention needs no explanation.

If you had your druthers, and could watch a classic film in any format, what would you like?  A subscription service where you could pick your choice out of hundreds of titles?  Watching on your computer, your iPad, your TV? Do you prefer Blu-ray, or DVD? Is large screen, or portability more important to you?

Would you attend classic film festivals if they were smaller, less expensive, and closer to your hometowns? What would you like to see programmed at these festivals?

Or would you just rather sit inside a cardboard box and watch Manhattan Melodrama (1934) in complete solitude, with any kind of candy you want?  Do you want to do the programming?

Past posts in this series here:

Part 1 of the year-long series on the current state of the classic film buff is here: A Classic Film Manifesto. 

Part 2 is here: Cliff Aliperti’s new book on Helen Twelvetrees.

Part 3 is here: An interview with Kay Noske of Movie Star Makeover.

Part 4 is here: Evolution of the Classic Film Fan.

Part 5 is here: Gathering of the Clan at Classic Film Festivals.

Part 6 is here: John Greco’s new book of film criticism: Lessons in the Dark.

Part 7 is here: Tiffany Vazquez, new TCM host.

Come back next week when we continue our series on the depiction of fascism in classic films with Keeper of the Flame (1942).


My audio book version of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star., narrated by Toni Lewis, is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Storm Warning - 1951

Storm Warning (1951) is a bold slice of moody noir that is unabashedly a “message film” and is successful, however, by neither lecturing opponents, nor preaching to the choir, but by holding up a mirror and whispering, “Is this you?”

Ginger Rogers stars as a model who interrupts a sales trip for her company to detour to the sleepy southern town where her younger sister lives, for a long-delayed visit.  Her kid sister is played by Doris Day in her first dramatic role.  Steve Cochran plays Doris Day’s husband.  He is a truck driver; she works at the town’s entertainment center, which is really a glorified bowling alley that substitutes for nightlife in this town (Its owner, Ned Glass, is probably the nicest guy in the movie. A tougher job than you might think, considering his clientele.) She is expecting a baby.

Miss Rogers witnesses a murder. A group of Ku Klux Klan thugs drag a guy out of jail, beat him up, and then shoot him. Ronald Reagan plays the county prosecutor who investigates the murder. The movie is quite good, solid acting and moody cinematography, a fast-paced plot, that makes the film stylish and intriguing, and a bit creepy. That this movie has such entertainment value is important, because it is so obviously a message film. We have commented before on this blog that message films do not always appeal to the public, even when it is a message they need to hear. Nobody likes being preached to. The particular success of this movie is that though the audience is being lectured, they may be unaware of it, because it really is a good crime story – because the criminals are average Joe’s. Sometimes having an easily identifiable, sneering, Snidely Whiplash villain can be a bit tedious. We know where the plot is going. The bad guy is going to get his in the end.

But when the villain is pretty much everybody in town, and finding a bad guy to prosecute is like herding a bunch of cats, the story becomes more interesting because we don’t know who all the bad guys are, which ones of them are going to be brought to justice, and is there any justice at all?

One of the most common comments about this film is the complaint that the victim of the Ku Klux Klan murder is not a black man. He’s a white reporter.  There are very few African Americans in this movie. Many viewers feel that because of the prejudices of the day that the studio, Warner Bros., pulled a punch. That’s a valid complaint. Maybe they did.  It was certainly a big risk to offend the southern distribution market.  However, there is another way to look at this. I think in putting across the message, Warner Bros. did a sly, subtle, and intelligent maneuver by not making this film solely about racism.

Put a white robe and a white hood on a guy and we automatically identify the Ku Klux Klan with its brutality against blacks. We know that message. But some people, even those disgusted by this prejudice, may forget that blacks were not the only victims of the Ku Klux Klan. They also lynched, brutalized, and terrorized Roman Catholics, Jews, foreign-born individuals, and not a few journalists who were poking their noses in Klan business. The Ku Klux Klan are racist, but they are also fascists. Racism and fascism go hand-in-hand; you cannot have one without the other.

If Storm Warning does not particularly address racism against blacks, it does tackle the broader view of fascism, because the Klan in this town is made up of average nice people whose membership in this heinous organization they defend with a sense of self-righteousness. They feel they are above the law. When they are not terrorizing others, they threaten fellow members to stay in line. There must always be a constant threat, or there is no reason for having a Klan.  As we mentioned in last week’s post on Address Unknown, fascism is always cannibalistic.

This is our third entry in our series discussing how old Hollywood tackled the subject of fascism. We discussed The Mortal Storm (1941) here, and Address Unknown (1944) here.  Those two movies dealt with fascism and the rise of Hitler in Germany. Today we discuss native-born fascists. The Ku Klux Klan, not the only fascist hate group, but certainly the most well known, was born from the ashes of the Civil War, but the height of the clan really occurred during the 1920s, an era of great prosperity, and rose mainly in the Midwest, chiefly Indiana, the home state, coincidentally, of Republican vice presidential nominee Michael Pence.

Recently, a group of historians made their opposition to Donald Trump’s candidacy on social media.  One of them was 93-year-old William E. Leuchtenburg, whose The Perils of Prosperity 1914-1932 is a book I’ve long admired. He addresses the rise of the Klan in the 1920s among fundamentalist conservatives, the atrocities committed, and their astounding political power—until sexual and financial scandals drove them underground again.

At the recent Republican Party convention, congressman Steve King (R-Iowa) made headlines with his white supremacist remarks, and upon closer examination by the press, the so-called “Confederate” flag and the Tea Party’s (erroneously claimed) Gadsden flag on his desk.  

We know the old adage that politics makes strange bedfellows, and that even those who believe themselves to be virtuous will march in lockstep with people who are not, turning a blind eye to corruption, even evil, if it suits their purpose.

Donald Trump’s bullying rhetoric is asinine, his grandstanding is immature, unintelligent and without integrity, and so naturally appeals to those who are immature, unintelligent and without integrity, both in those politics and with the general public. There will always be some to whom his antics will appeal (including the television media, whose lust for ratings these days makes them the most shallow segment of the Fourth Estate).

Today’s film, Storm Warning, deals with fascism on its most lowest level, the small town, where the big men in town are not hidden, even if they wear a hood. Indeed, the funniest line of the movie is when Ronald Reagan approaches a Klan rally and sees a man completely covered by robe and hood and addresses him, “Hi, Ed. How are things at the dairy?”

None of these men are very powerful, and none of these men are very bright, and so we might not feel terribly threatened by them. But when they are all in a mob, they become a frightening spectacle indeed. It’s the particular sleight-of-hand of fascism. Whip people up into a frenzy, make them feel they are above the law, and then turn them loose. And then if they do wrong, whose fault is it? Who can we pinpoint to blame? It’s a wonder this country hasn’t suffered several slipped disks with all the shrugging we do.

Ginger Rogers suffers an obstacle course of horrors in this movie. She witnesses the murder while hiding in the shadows. It is a powerful scene as she stumbles away in the dark night, shaken, leans behind a lamppost and vomits. She finds her sister at work at the bowling alley and they go home together, and she tells her sister about the murder. Then her sister’s husband comes home.

Steve Cochran is an affable workingman, weak minded and easily influenced, and somewhat immature, who drinks a little too much and when he gets a little rowdy, is always astonished to find there are consequences to his behavior. He meets Ginger Rogers for the first time and welcomes his sister-in-law in a warm and friendly manner.

Ginger is frozen in horror at the sight of him. Steve Cochran was one of the mob who attacked the dead guy. We will find out later in the movie that it was Cochran, having had too much to drink, and getting excited at the mob frenzy, was the one who actually shot the guy.

Miss Rogers’ acting in this movie is quite good, understated, and believable.  She suffers the humiliation and the guilt of going on the stand at the inquest and lies about what she saw in order to protect Steve Cochran. She doesn’t like the guy, but Doris Day has begged her to keep his name out of it, and Ginger would do anything for her sister. Later, when she gets him off, Steve will get very brave, and very drunk, and spy on Ginger when she is changing her clothes and packing to leave. He catches her in her slip and makes overtures. Instead of shrinking away from him, Ginger stands right up to him, does not even pretend to cover herself, and lets him have a good long look while she tells him to his face that he is a “stupid, vicious ape.”

Then he attempts to rape her, but Doris comes home in time, pulling him off Ginger. Doris finally comes to the realization that her husband is really not such a nice guy, and she is ready to leave him. Now Ginger is free to go to the authorities and tell them what she saw. Cochran, panicked, punches Ginger and drags her to a Klan meeting to suffer their punishment.

I like Cochran's work in this movie, he is charming and exasperating, and scary at the same time.  We last saw him play a very different villain here in Slander (1957), where is character was more cool and intellectual.  He was a handsome actor, with a good solid range.

I also like Ronald Reagan’s acting in this movie. It is low key and understated. With his Fedora pushed back off his head and his low, quiet voice, he represents a decent man of authority in town. He is not an outsider, he grew up here. He is not so much a shocked crusader of human rights, just a guy who knows this town inside out and is sick of its imperfections. He’s tired and disgusted. But he plods along trying to do his best, persevering, and hoping one day to catch enough evidence on the Klan to put somebody in jail.  So far, he has been unsuccessful.  He is not an idealist, but a pragmatist, knowing nobody’s going to have a very good life in this burg if everybody’s a slave to a bunch of rowdies.

As regards another complaint about this movie and it’s skirting of the racial injustices in the South at this time period of the early 1950s, no one in this movie speaks with any regional southern accent. This time around, I don’t feel that that is typical Hollywood sloppiness. I really sense that this was a subtle and quite intentional move to bring the subject to a level where it applies to everybody. Though the Klan was a product of, and continues to be, a blot on the South, it is also possible to discuss racism as it applies to everyone in this country without pinpointing a particular group of people. Sometimes when we pinpoint one segment of our society of being guilty it is very easy for us to wash our hands of the guilt. We say, oh, that’s those people. We would never behave that way ourselves.

But fascism is a template that fits anywhere. In today’s political climate there is a great resentment, and perhaps always has been, of “Washington.” Ronald Reagan complains to the boys at the police station, “Every time someone from New York or Washington pokes his nose into our affairs, we holler, ‘Foul!’ Well, if we don’t want them meddling, one of these days we’re going to have to start cleaning up our own nests.”  He is calm, world-weary, and his quiet voice tells us he is sick of the lynchings and sick of trying to tell his best friends and neighbors what is so obvious: stop dividing the world into us and them. That is where fascism has its roots.  There is an inherent thuggishness in an "us" and "them" attitude.

The minor characters show the warts and make his point for us. The bus station baggage claim guy played by Paul E Burns, is afraid to stand up to the Klan.  It sickens him, and sobbing, he begs Ronald Reagan not to question him because he’s afraid they will burn him out.  He regrets being a coward. Later some of the boys will rough him up teasingly, and Ginger Rogers will come to his rescue.

Even the Klan’s leader shows his contempt for his own men. “You know these boys. Without those hoods, they are no heroes. That’s why they need the hoods in the first place.”

The scene with the reporter arriving to do man-on-the-street interviews at the enormous crowd in front of the courthouse is quite good. It looks real, not stagy, as the reporter struggles to pull his microphone cable through the crowd, and he makes comments and ask questions and the people either pipe up or else tell him to get lost. This is the only scene where we see a few African Americans in the crowd. I think it is used intelligently. They show us quite visibly that this is a topic that includes them. Almost as if to say, yes, the murdered guy was white, and we haven’t mentioned racial prejudice here, but you know we really are talking about that, don’t you? You know what this is really about, don’t you?

In case we missed it, the local Klan boss played by Hugh Sanders puts it bluntly in his defense of the Klan to Ginger Rogers, “You have to think of all the good the Klan does. Without us, a girl like you wouldn’t be safe in the streets at night.”

Safe from whom?  We know to whom he’s referring. If he had bluntly said or referred to in the most vulgar vernacular, that she was in danger of being raped by black men, it would have been a different movie. Yes, it would have been bolder, but it also would have switched the focus for people who automatically turn that message often their minds because it offends them, because they do not wish to face their own prejudice, or else because they feel their own prejudice is justified. By talking about racism as fascism and applying it to everybody as a principle that is evil and a danger to everybody, we reach more people because the audience cannot say, oh, you’re talking about them, you are not talking about me. Because I am not like that.

Yes, we’re talking about you.

By the way, I love the reporter’s Ted Baxter voice. Why do not radio and television reporters speak like that anymore?

We are also talking about Ginger Rogers. She is a girl of integrity, street smart, and even though she is a high-tone fashion model, we know she is not upper crust, not removed from the realities of the day. When the ad man accompanying her on the trip makes passes at her at the beginning of the movie, she sends him off like an expert fencer and shoves him on his way. This gal is a tough dame. She is no pushover.

But she rolls over and plays dead for the Klan and lies to Ronald Reagan in front of everybody, because she thinks that protecting her sister’s husband will get her sister out of a jam. It is like putting a Band-Aid on a severed artery. She just wants to smooth things over and leave town as quickly as possible. In such innocent ways do we become complicit with corruption.

A nice touch when, trying to squeeze out of the close crowd at the end of the trial, she and the dead man's widow are pushed together, face-to-face, and Ginger squirms under the woman's accusing stare.

When she leaves the courthouse, Ronald Reagan, frustrated in defeat, tells her off and actually shoves her out the door, “Now, beat it.” He tells her over the sound of the jubilant men outside whooping and hollering because they have won and nobody’s going to go to jail, “They just found out the law cannot touch them. You did that.”

It’s a powerful ending with two scathing realities: first, Reagan tells the Klansman at the rally, a huge burning cross above them lighting up the black sky, “It’ll take more than these sheets you’re wearing to hide the fact that you’re mean, frightened little people, or you wouldn’t be here desecrating the Cross.”

They are mean, and they are frightened and they’re letting their fears make them mean.

They kidnap Ginger Rogers, but things are too hot for them right now to just kill her outright. Instead, they will punish her with whipping.  The scene could easily be gratuitous—most movie whipping scenes tend to go for eroticism, to varying degrees, certainly when the victim is female. Instead, they slash her in the face with the bullwhip, repeatedly, to scar her.  We don’t see any marks on her – the magic of Hollywood—but the image of her being hurt in this manner does not stray into eroticism and therefore seems more profoundly cruel.

But the Klan in the 1920s, as Dr. Leuchtenburg points out, had a particular fondness for stripping naked “fallen” women – according to their standards (which included divorcees) – and whipping them.  Filming such a scene would have been truthful, but impossible to film without it being also gratuitous.

I have to applaud Warner Bros. for the courage of the second reality: to just let the movie end in tragedy with no happy ending, no, “Maybe we were wrong and things will be better now,” and no romantic clinch between Reagan and Ginger Rogers.  There is no flirtation between them; indeed, as mentioned above, he gives her a shove in disgust.  He’s arrived in the nick of time like the cavalry to save her, but he’s not her boyfriend.  The only clinch at the end is when Ginger Rogers cradles the dying Doris Day in her arms.  Day has been shot, accidentally, by her husband who was aiming for Rogers.  The end.  Go home and chew on that for a while.

Fascism is always racist, opportunist, and corrupt, and it poisons every level of society. 

But it doesn’t start there.  “Populist” movements have a big hand in keeping fascists in power, but they don’t have the clout to put them there. That takes money.  All the dictators of the world had their backers, wealthy men holding the purse strings, powerful men in the military, some to drive the vote to their best interests, and some to grab public office for themselves.  This will be the case in our last two movies: Keeper of the Flame (1942), and Seven Days in May (1964), which we’ll discuss in August.

Next Thursday, however, a break with a return to our monthly state of the classic film fan series. See you then.


My audio book version of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star., narrated by Toni Lewis, is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.