On Sunday afternoon I watched my next film. On Monday – the day I planned to write the review – I unfortunately had a bad fall while walking to work, and have broken my kneecap. I am now forced to spend the rest of my week keeping my leg as still as possible until this following Monday, when I can get surgery to stabilize it and then start proper recovery.
As a result, my review is going to be an eensy bit delayed, hence my throwing up Buster Sign. Come Friday I may go stir crazy and try a draft anyway, but for now I’m still figuring out how to maneuver myself to and from the bathroom without Roommate Russ having to tend to me. (I think I got it, fortunately, which is a bit of a relief for us both.)
I think with this film it’s more about….inner beauty?
I had quite a dim view of The Man From Laramie for the first several minutes. I’m lukewarm on Westerns as it is, and that opinion dipped even lower when the opening credits were scored by a corny choir singing the praises of the main character. They dipped even further when I finally met the mysterious “Man From Laramie” they were singing about – and saw that despite the choir claiming he was “a man with a peaceful turn of mind” and “sociable and friendly as any man could be”, our lead was kind of a jerk.
To be fair, Will Lockhart (James Stewart) has cause to be grumpy. He’s come from Laramie to the small frontier town of Coronado with three wagonloads of supplies for the general store, but is also on a more personal mission to find the guy who sold guns to the Apaches nearby; the Apaches had in turn used those guns in an ambush against an earlier wagon train, amid which his brother died.
No one seems all that knowledgeable about the matter – or interested in helping him. Coronado is largely under the sway of the biggest local rancher, Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp); Alec had spent the past several years ruthlessly building up his ranch, using force and intimidation to buy out most other ranchers. His monopoly extends to the town businesses, including the general store run by his niece Barbara (Cathy O’Donnell). Barbara is engaged to one of Alec’s ranchhands Vic (Arthur Kennedy), but is still much kinder to Lockhart than anyone else in town.
Barbara’s cousin Dave (Alex Nicol) is a different story. He comes upon Lockhart helping himself to some salt from the salt flats near town – Barbara suggested he take some of the salt back to Laramie to trade. But the salt flats are part of the Waggoman property, and Dave sees fit to punish him for the “theft” by burning all three of his wagons and shooting half his mules before Vic can stop him. Alec later repays Lockhart for the loss, but it sets up a wedge between Lockhart and the Waggomans – and Vic, who was ostensibly supposed to be keeping an eye on Dave and whose pay gets docked to cover the loss. Vic, Barbara, and the sheriff all subtly urge Lockhart that it’s probably best if he leave town – but Lockhart is determined to find the gun runner, and his search ultimately threatens the whole Waggoman empire.
I’m going to be super-coy with what I mean by “the Waggoman empire” because it was the bit that most surprised me. The story of the relationships between Alec and his son Dave, Alec and “almost a son” Vic, Dave and Vic, Vic and Barabara, and the Waggomans and the town unfolded slowly; so much so that early on I felt like the film was introducing a lot of unnecessary plot threads just for the sake of keeping the story going. But screenwriters Philip Yordan and Frank Burt went on to not only tie all the threads together, but weave them into an interesting tapestry in which this “Man From Laramie” was ultimately more of a supporting player. Not that Stewart is all that idle – he’s got about three or four decent fight scenes, he crashes a Pueblo wedding, and he’s got a handful of heartfelt talks with different characters. But he’s just the story’s catalyst; the meat of the plot is all Waggoman family drama.
There’s even some comedy, thanks to Aline MacMahon as “Kate Canady” – a character I liked immediately. Kate is a rancher herself, one of the few holdouts against the Waggomans. We first see her when Lockhart and Vic get into a fistfight on Coronado’s main street; Kate is driving by in her wagon, but stops to watch, grinning ear-to-ear and enjoying it immensely. She offers Lockhart a job as a ranch hand while he’s in town, and won’t take no for an answer – popping up repeatedly for the next several scenes to make her pitch, until she is finally in a position to dangle the position as a literal get-out-of-jail-free card (long story). When Lockhart finally gives in, protesting that she’s “a hard, scheming old woman,” Kate just grins and adds “and ugly, too!” But she’s not just comic relief – Kate has her own history with the Waggomans that’s ultimately more complex than her just being the plucky holdout.
There’s one element of the film for which I may have been at a disadvantage. Director Anthony Mann chose to shoot in the then-new Cinemascope technology, showcasing the sweeping New Mexico landscape. Many critics raved about how gorgeous the film looked – but they were watching in theaters, and I was watching on my TV at home. Granted, I have a decently-sized flatscreen, but it still probably pales in comparison to what a theatrical experience would have been. So the story caught more of my attention – and pulled me in despite myself.
But they really should have ditched that God-awful theme song.
My biggest problem with melodramas, as you know, is that they’re a little too sticky-sweet, overly-sentimental and formulaic for my taste. Other film critics have argued that melodramas are often unfairly dismissed because they deal with “women’s issues” – love and family, things like that – so I try to give them as fair a shake as I can. And yet, it’s not the subjects that make me sniff at melodramas; there are a handful of love stories coming later on the list that I loved, and two are among my top five favorite movies of all time. What I dislike is that melodramas often handle their love stories in a hokey and overly-sentimental way, where the romantic leads are usually a heterosexual couple and their wished-for outcome involves moving to a twee little house in the suburbs and ultimately having 2.5 apple-cheeked kids.
All That Heaven Allows at least sort of plays with that. Our heroine Carrie (Jane Wyman) already lives in the suburbs and is already a mother. The kids are grown, however – two college students who come home on the weekends, sometimes. But Carrie is a fairly recent widow, so this leaves her rattling around the house alone much of the time. Her best buddy Sara (Agnes Moorehead) keeps trying to get her to join the local country club and mingle a bit, and her kids keep nudging her to remarry a stodgy boring widower named Harvey, but Carrie isn’t really ready for either.
But she still feels like she should socialize a bit, so one afternoon she spontaneously asks the gardener, Ron (Rock Hudson), to help her finish off a pot of coffee. They get to chatting, Carrie learns more about Ron, and…sparks unexpectedly fly, to the point that within a few months they’re talking marriage. Nearly everyone in Carrie’s life is against the match – her son thinks it’s a betrayal of their father, her daughter writes it off as a sexual aberration, the ladies in town think Ron’s a gold-digger and the men think Carrie’s loose.
…..Will Carrie listen to convention, or will she listen to her heart?….
To be fair, the film does say some interesting things about class and convention amid the treacle. Sara is forever inviting Carrie to dinner or lunch parties at her place, but she all but trash-talks the other guests; Sara hates them, but convention dictates she has to socialize with them, so she does. It’s no wonder that Carrie wants to give it a pass – same too with the dreary club, filled with gossipy folk prone to spying on each other to see if anyone steps out of line, and same to with Harvey, whose mealy-mouthed proposal where he speaks of “companionship” makes Carrie snooze. Everyone in Carrie’s social circle is either a doctor, banker, or lawyer, or is married to one. Even her egghead daughter Kay gives up pursuit of a psychiatry degree when her boyfriend Frank proposes.
Roy’s friends are all way more interesting – a pair of tree farmers, a beekeeper who moonlights as a modern artist, a lively Italian couple and their shy daughter. Carrie meets them all at a potluck Roy’s buddies hold one night, where everyone eats on a table made up of sawhorses and then someone breaks out an accordion and they have a dance party, with Roy taking a turn singing a mildly raunchy song to Carrie. It’s a much livelier and friendlier world, and it’s little surprise Carrie is intrigued when Roy asks her to join him in it.
Still, I felt that the “love connection” itself was a bit weak – partly because it came so fast, and partly because Roy is more of a caricature than a character. He is almost perpetually dressed in plaid flannel, he reads Thoreau’s Walden aloud, he’s been fixing up the old mill house on his property and he eschews fancy food for home-grown simplicity; he’s a stereotypical Hudson Valley hipster. His friends gush to Carrie in one scene about how he encouraged them to give up their own 50s-conventional lifestyles, giving up careers in advertising to start their own organic farms. Carrie’s a bit more of a presence, speaking her mind and asserting herself in small ways throughout. Even when she considers giving Roy up at one point, it’s from a place of strength and assertiveness (she’s asked Roy to be patient and let her kids get used to their being a couple, and calls his bluff when he drops an ultimatum).
Even the look of the film emphasizes this. Roy is often in total shadow – lots of scenes take place before the huge picture window at Roy’s mill, but Roy seems always to be just outside the light, reduced to a mere silhouette. Meanwhile Carrie is always dazzlingly lit, whether she’s on the balcony at the club or in a vacant lot picking out her Christmas tree or nuzzling by the fire at Roy’s. There’s even a telling scene where Carrie’s reflection gets featured; her son has been nagging her to buy a TV to “keep her company”, but Carrie’s getting much more into real life with Roy and keeps turning him down. Then her son surprises her with a TV when she and Roy are on the outs; and as he’s gushing about how she “need never be lonely now” with it, talking about how she can see what’s going on anywhere else in the world, Carrie just studies her reflection in the screen – sitting on her prim couch, in her drab housedress, all alone.
So, yeah, there are technical and aesthetic things to admire about this film. I just wish the characters and plot points weren’t so dang formulaic (Roommate Russ chuckled when he overheard me snap “oh give me a break” aloud at one particular development).
….Oh – and I tried not to think of it, but I did snicker at one of Rock Hudson’s uber-hetero lines. Just once.
This was one of the films that every so often reminds me that I’m having a different sort of film education than is typical. Roommate Russ studied film in college, and spoke after we watched about the different ways in which this film presaged the French New Wave movement – later filmmakers apparently all but copied some of Bob le Flambeur’s techniques, style, look, camera angles, and the like. However, I knew none of this at the time, so that all was going straight over my head.
Bob le Flambeur is a French gangster film – only without gangsters as such. Bob Montagne (Roger Duchesne) did have some wilder days, but after a stint in jail for bank robbery, he confines himself to gambling, living on whatever modest proceeds he can keep from his winnings (he has a bad habit of winning great sums in one place, but then moving on to another game and losing much of what he’d won). Occasionally he’ll loan money to friends or invest in local businesses, like when his friend Yvonne wanted to start a restaurant. He’s on friendly terms with the local police inspector (Guy Decomble), whose life Bob saved some years back. He’s showing the ropes to a younger gambler, Paolo (Daniel Cauchy), trying to keep him from getting lured into seedier jobs. He’s morally opposed to the local pimp Marc (Gerard Buhr), to the point that when he sees Marc waiting to make his move on a young woman, Bob sweeps in and gets her a different job at a local bar. Marc vows to get back at Bob somehow.
Still, Bob is largely doing okay – going through a bit of a thin streak gamblingwise, but otherwise okay. But then Bob’s friend Roger (André Garet), a safecracker, learns a tasty bit of gossip. Apparently, the main casino at the resort town of Deuville regularly has about 800 million in cash in its safe, and the security isn’t all that tight. It’s enough to tempt Bob into carrying out one last heist, and he assembles a team for the job, concocting a foolproof plan and putting the team through several ad-hoc rehearsals. But then Paolo, who’s started dating Anne, boasts about the plan to impress her one night; and when Anne later goes on her own date with Marc, she gossips about the plan to him – leading Marc to hatch a plan of his own.
….So in other words, this is straight-up film noir gangster stuff. Except in French. Although the police seem much friendlier to Bob than in other film noirs – the Inspector isn’t too fussed by Bob’s habits (gambling is technically illegal, but the Inspector looks the other way), and Bob isn’t upset when the Inspector pays a visit to check on various neighborhood crimes. Bob also seems to have a weird sort of morality and fussiness; he’s got a regular cleaning lady, he’s got a strong moral objection to pimps, but he recognizes the streetwalkers as disadvantaged women and tries to help them. Without playing any funny business – when he offers Anne a place to crash for a night she seems all too willing to treat it like a hookup, leading Bob to politely – but firmly – tell her that no, she’ll take the bedroom, but he will sleep on the couch.
Bob’s such a good guy, in fact, that I’m wondering if it hasn’t backfired on the film. Both Roommate Russ and I agreed that the film seemed to pick up quite a bit once the casino plot was introduced, and beforehand it felt like a whole lot of set-up emphasizing that Bob was a Big Tough Gangster With A Heart Of Gold. People talked to Bob about various loans he’d made them, they talked about Bob and the cool stuff he’d done for them, and when Marc spoke against Bob he got into trouble about it. I found myself getting a little antsy waiting to see Bob do something.
I have a feeling that when we start getting into the French New Wave stuff, I’ll think back to this and say “oh, I get it now.” But for now it’s just a simple heist film, one that just happens to have a lot of beauty shots of Montmarte.
So periodically there is a new edition of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book, and when that happens there are changes to the list. And when that happens, I have more films to add. A new version of the book drops next month; early indications show that the updates may include the following films:
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood….
I’ll hold off adding them until the book is actually published and in stores and someone can check what it involves. But thank God they included The Lighthouse – it got very little attention at the Oscars and it absolutely should have had more.
When I asked Roommate Russ if he wanted to watch this with me, I described it as “a bedroom farce by Ingmar Bergman.” That description flummoxed him so much that he didn’t speak for a full ten seconds.
Okay, I went for the obvious joke there. But it’s been interesting for me to get a look at the earlier films by so many Titans Of Filmmaking – people I’ve only known by reputation, or at the end of their careers. And Bergman is one – I’ve always had the impression that he did these very serious moody films, when his earlier career was a bit fluffier.
For example, this film. Frederik (Gunnar Björnstrand) is a middle-aged lawyer, who remarried the much younger Anne (Ulla Jacobson) when his first wife died. However, he played around a bit before he did, and for a while was hooking up with the glamorous actress Desiree (Eva Dahlbeck); and, in truth, still carries a torch for Desiree and still sneaks out to canoodle with her now and then. Anne is unaware, but she’s innocent about a lot of things – she was so young when she and Frederik married that the thought of sex scared her, and the marriage has been unconsummated for two years. She’s also struck up what she thinks is an innocent friendship with Frederik’s adult son Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam), a dour divinity student tortured by some un-familial feeling towards his stepmom (and occasionally taking it out on the family’s uncomplicated and flirtatious maid).
Meanwhile, Desiree is also hooking up with an army officer, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle). Carl-Magnus is also married, and also married someone younger; his wife, Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist), is a school chum of Anne’s. But Carl-Magnus doesn’t hide his affairs. Charlotte puts up a snarky front, but is secretly devastated over Carl-Magnus’ infidelity. Not that Carl-Magnus would notice anyway – he’s too distracted by the fact that he caught Frederik at Desiree’s place one night and is feeling pretty territorial.
It’s clearly a big mess that’s satisfying no one, and Desiree has had it. She throws a lavish Midsummer-Night party at her mother’s estate for Frederik and Carl-Magnus’ whole families, adds a lot of wine, and stands back, letting nature take its course and the various mis-matched lovers sort themselves out.
Yeah, see? A bedroom farce. Not that we actually see much sex – the most we see is some ardent but clothed cuddling between Frederik and Anne, and the maid Petra almost flashing Henrik (someone comes in and interrupts). The farce stays modest too; there’s some schtick about a bed sliding through a trap door and some fluff about Fredrik ending up in Carl-Magnus’ nightshirt; but while silly, they’re only a bit silly, and still pretty chaste. There’s a good deal of wink-wink nudge-nudge quipping – for everyone, even Desiree’s mother (Naima Wifstrand), whom we meet primly bundled up in her bed playing Solitaire as Desiree plots her party. But her comments about Desiree’s dilemma prove that she sowed more than a few wild oats in her own time, prompting a bemused Desiree to ask if she’s considered writing her memoirs. “My dear,” Mom says slyly, “I was given this estate for promising not to write my memoirs!”
So if you only know Bergman by reputation, that is quite unlike what you might expect of him. And what you’re left with is ultimately a cute, gently titillating comedy, where things end pretty happily for everyone (even the maid).
Little Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson) is a widow living in genteel squalor in a crumbling house in London. She decides to rent out a spare room, partly for the money but mostly for the company; otherwise she would only have her parrots for company. The only taker is an eerie-looking gent named Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness), who claims that he’s looking for a spare room for him and his four friends to use as a rehearsal studio for their string quintet group.
However, Marcus and his cronies are actually a group of criminals preparing for a bank-van robbery. Marcus has come up with an intricate plan to break into the van, hide the loot, and evade police; he even enlists the unaware Mrs. Wilberforce in his scheme. But just as the five are about to get away with it all – Mrs. Wilberforce discovers the truth. Naturally she needs to report this to the police, she says. Marcus and his gang can’t let that happen. What to do?
….I actually don’t have all that much to say about this one. It was a fine example of an Ealing comedy; a clever heist plot with some wittily-drawn characters, and perfectly fine performances throughout. Mrs. Wilberforce is initially presented as being a bit dotty – she pesters the local police to report on others’ minor infractions out of a sense of “civic duty” – but once the truth about her tenants comes out, a much steelier side comes out that still seems 100% in character. Guinness is also excellent (although he’s been burdened with some unfortunate makeup and prosthetic teeth meant to make him look creepy), as is a very young Peter Sellers, playing a junior member of the gang. The means by which the rest of the plot plays out, and the final outcome, are satisfying enough.
Nevertheless, this just didn’t grab me, and I can’t point to why. Roommate Russ and I agreed that it felt a bit pokey; I pulled up a scene from the Coen Brothers’ remake after, and we both felt like it was paced better, but still weren’t interested enough to try to watch that remake. It was just…okay.
Years ago, as a tween, I read a quote from some theater critic that proclaimed that the quality of a stage musical was inversely proportional to how many times the chorus shouted “Hooray”. I’d barely seen any musicals then, but I sort of viscerally understood what he meant and the kind of musicals he was talking about. Oklahoma, for instance.
Now, if you’ve been reading me for a while, you know that I’m not all that keen on musicals as a rule; so this is definitely a case of “it’s not them, it’s me.” I’m actually okay with some later works, like Les Misérables and Passing Strange and Chicago and Hamilton – basically, anything where there’s a story of some complexity or the music is just way innovative. It’s more the hoarier classics that leave me a little cold; the plots are a little hokey and over-simplified and formulaic, and that always loses me. And even here, I don’t necessarily hate them – there’s often a few songs that I end up liking despite myself, or if there’s a standout performance or production. (I’m still dining out on the fact that I saw the production of Carousel in which Audra McDonald made her theater debut.)
Interestingly, some of the things about Carousel that disappointed me were true of Oklahoma as well – they’re both set in a quaint, site-specific, good-olde-days small town (Maine in Carousel, and a small town in the Oklahoma territory), with twee old-fashionedy trappings (the big social event in Carousel is a community clambake, and in Oklahoma it is a community box social). There’s a main storyline with some drama to it, and a side story played for comedy – one which usually gives a solo to a kooky female best friend of the romantic lead. The female romantic lead runs the risk of some kind of outcome which would lead to her becoming a “fallen woman”, partially shunned by society, but Love Conquers All and saves her at the end of the day, and the whole chorus turns out to serenade the romantic leads with a stirring song at the end as they either fall into each others’ arms or ride off into the sunset. (This song may or may not involve people shouting “Hooray”.)
So I was already disinclined to not be all that taken with the film of Oklahoma! as it is very, very faithful to the stage version. Two songs have been cut, and the cast is performing at actual locations instead of on a painted stage set (with the exception of one bit on a soundstage, which I’ll get to in a minute); but otherwise it’s what you’d see if you went to see it live – Oklahoma cowboy Curley (Gordon MacRae) wants to take pretty Laurie (Shirley Jones) to the box social that night, but he waited too long to ask her so she’s going with her family’s sullen hired hand Jud (Rod Steiger) to make Curley jealous. Except Curley and Laurie really are sweet on each other, and Jud starts to get really creepy and possessive in the hours leading up to the social, and Laurie realizes she needs to extricate herself from his grasp somehow.
However, the film’s faithfulness to the musical means it also includes the musical’s “Dream Ballet” – an extended dance sequence, prompted by a dream Laurie has as she ponders her predicament. The film uses the original stage show choreography by Agnes de Mille, and I was riveted. Arguably watching this on film was even better than seeing it live – the film could get close enough to show the expressions on the dancer’s faces, and there are moments in the Dream Ballet where their expressions reinforce the dancer’s movement; there’s a sequence where Dream Laurie sees herself trapped in a saloon with Dream Jud, as a whole flock of saloon hall girls step their way through the can-can like automatons. Their movements are robotic enough; but the dead and frozen looks on their faces just made that all the more chilling.
And yet, that sequence made me realize my biggest complaint with the film of Oklahoma – the fact that it was a film.
Earlier this year, the film critic Lindsay Ellis released a fascinating video doing a deep dive into the film adaptation of Cats and why it fared as poorly as it did. She calls out some of the more obvious flaws (inconsistent visual effects, some really weird casting), but then Ellis suggested that one of the biggest flaws of the film was in trying to make it be a film in the first place. The musical is a highly-fantastical, stagey fantasy that needs the non-reality world of a stage to work. Trying to set it in “the real world” just doesn’t fit.
To be fair, this is a challenge that film adaptations of a lot of musicals face; and they rise to that challenge in a variety of ways, to a variety of degrees of success. Some “film adaptations” simply film the stage show, using the occasional closeup of an actor’s face here and there; this is what Hamilton and Passing Strange did with their film adaptations. But it is clear that you’re watching a stage show nevertheless, and that sort of “reality but not” feel still carries over. At the other end of the spectrum, we have what director Tom Hooper tried to do with Les Misérables and Cats, where he tried to make the films as realistic as possible – none of the addresses-to-the-audience you find in musicals, gritty settings, unpolished singing. You can get away with that kind of approach to Les Misérables, but for Cats….it’s not that great an idea. A lot of other musical-movie adaptations fall somewhere in the middle; sometimes with a stagey element as a dream sequence, sometimes as a hallucination; whether they pull it off depends both on how well they sell the dream sequence, or on the “stageyness” of the original.
With Oklahoma, the Dream Ballet left me realizing that the rest of the show should have been similarly set on a stage. It all looks pretty enough, and the performances are all fine (my one complaint is with Gloria Grahame as “Ado Annie”, who had a distracting tendency to sing with her mouth closed very small – I was wondering if her dialogue and singing were dubbed). But the world of the play is “fake” enough that it needs the fake world of the theater to support it, and bringing it into the real world doesn’t quite fit.
In its defense, they don’t shout “Hooray” at all (although, they do shout “yeeow-a-yip-i-o-ee ay” at one point, which isn’t that much of an improvement).
I’ve recently noticed some traffic to this blog from a site in the Northern Arizona University’s online learning program. I’d love to find out more about why, however…could someone let me know what’s up?
You can hit me up through the form on the “Contact” link above or commenting below. And – don’t worry, I’m not angry, just really curious.
Lillian Gish is in this! Not only that, but Lillian Gish is a badass in this! And that’s not even the most interesting thing about this film!
The Night Of The Hunter was actor Charles Laughton’s directorial debut – you may remember we last saw Laughton as Captain Bligh in Mutiny On TheBountyback in 1935. Unfortunately, it was also Laughton’s directorial swan song; he had a pretty unique vision for the the film, one that was a little bit more experimental than audiences in the 50s knew how to process. But I thought it was spot-on, and was fascinated. (Clearly.)
Set in the 1930s, this is a dark story of Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a self-professed preacher who’s actually more of a serial killer and con man. His M.O. involves traveling from town to town finding widows to marry, and then when “God compels him to” he kills them, takes their money and moves on. The police do catch up to him at the top of the film – but just for auto theft, a crime which carries a short sentence. His cell mate (Peter Graves) is in for murder; he killed two men during a bank robbery. Before he is executed, however, he lets slip to Powell that he managed to get away with $10,000, hiding it somewhere on his property with only his two children as witnesses. It’s for them, he insists to Powell.
Unsurprisingly, Powell has a different opinion on the matter, and upon his release makes a beeline for his cellmate’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters). Willa has taken to working in the local soda fountain to make ends meet, leaving her two kids John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) to look after themselves. When Powell comes along, weaving flattering tales about “what your husband told me about you all,” Willa and Pearl are soon swept off their feet. John’s more suspicious – especially when Powell implies that he knows that John knows where the money is, and intends to get John to tell him. John holds Powell at arms’ length all through Powell’s courtship, engagement and marriage to Willa; but in due course, Powell receives his “Holy Order” to kill Willa, prompting John and Pearl to make their escape, fleeing down river in their father’s old boat with Powell pursuing them from shore.
Laughton made the film after falling in love with the novel which inspired it; he saw it as “a nightmarish Mother Goose story”. That also perfectly describes the feel of the film – there’s a dreamy, fable-like quality to everything, with most scenes staged like they’re straight out of a fairy tale. As the children flee down the river, Pearl starts singing – an original song that sounds like an ancient folk tale – as various forest animals watch them pass. In another scene, as the kids try to get some sleep in a hayloft, John is warned of Powell’s approach when he hears Powell singing a hymn in the distance, and spots his far-off silhouette. The scene is very obviously staged – and in truth, Chapin was looking at a little person on a pony instead of a distant Mitchum on horseback – but it fits the otherworldly tone of the film perfectly.
Speaking of which, this film just plain looks gorgeous. Laughton leaned on a German expressionist aesthetic here, to play up the dreamlike feel; he and his art director also wanted the film to look at things the way children would, focusing in sharp on some mundane details but obscuring others. So the sets are filled with meticulously crafted picket fences that surround nothing, bright neon signs that aren’t attached to any building, or how the river is filled with reeds and frogs and flies, but not any other boats. The neverland feel is present even when the children aren’t; Willa and Powell’s wedding night is drenched in forboding shadow, and a shot which shows Willa’s ultimate watery fate is arrestingly beautiful – her hair waving in the water, echoed by grasses and reeds waving around her.
Even Lillian Gish’s character seems out of a fairy tale. She turns up late in the film as an elderly widow who’s made a habit of taking in orphans, and draws John and Pearl into her brood. Her name is “Rachel Cooper” but could just as easily have been “Mother Hubbard”, appearing to them in a patchwork calico dress and a big floppy hat and bustling them into a little white clapboard house with a vegetable garden in front. However, when Powell tracks his way to the house, the mistrustful Cooper fends him off with a shotgun, and then settles onto the porch to stand guard all night. The film’s art director reportedly was inspired by the famous painting of Whistler’s mother for the look of these scenes – or, rather, Whistler’s mother if she were packing heat.
Gish was amazing in this – hell, everyone was amazing. Mitchum was just creepy enough as the preacher – many reviews dismiss his character as a con man, but I’m inclined to believe that Powell believed he really was getting commands from God. His persuasions to Pearl to tell him where her Daddy hid the money walk a knife edge between pleading and threatening. He’s more a figure of quiet menace – but there’s one moment where the kids evade his grasp, and he shrieks like a rabid animal and you’re reminded just how dangerous he is. But it’s just that one moment – then he goes back to his careful pursuit, staying just out of sight in the shadows and singing “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms” to scare his prey.
Literally the only complaint I have is with a final scene – it’s a sort of happy-ending epilogue, showing John and Pearl’s spending their first Christmas as part of Rachel Cooper’s brood. It does show that all turned out well for the kids, and it does give Gish some moody lines about the endurance and resilience of children, but it feels a little long and unnecessary; after all, most fairy tales end with a simple statement that “they all lived happily ever after” without giving us details. But the rest of the film is so brilliant that this is a minor complaint at best.