Michael Curtiz Month Week 5: Yankee Doodle Dandy

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This week Michael Curtiz month comes to a close. It’s been a lot of fun writing about his impressive body of work. And I haven’t even touched on Casablanca or The Adventures of Robin Hood! That shows you how immense his talents were as a director. I’ve discussed an adventure at sea,a war picture,a western,and a film noir. This week I’m closing things out with a musical. My last film of the month is Yankee Doodle Dandy from 1942.

Yankee Doodle Dandy stars James Cagney as song and dance man George M. Cohan. And in case you’re wondering if it’s the same James Cagney that stunned us with his performance in gangster pictures like White Heat,The Public Enemy,and Angels With Dirty Faces…yes,it’s THAT James Cagney. He was actually a hoofer himself. If you don’t believe me check out another film he made called Footlight Parade. But I digress. Yankee Doodle Dandy‘s plot?

A musical portrait of composer/singer/dancer George M. Cohan. From his early days as a child-star in his family’s vaudeville show up to the time of his comeback at which he received a medal from the president for his special contributions to the US, this is the life- story of George M. Cohan, who produced, directed, wrote and starred in his own musical shows for which he composed his famous songs.–Source: Internet Movie Database

So basically it’s a straight-up biopic. But it tells the story of a complete life. Very few films do that anymore. While it’s not a completely historically accurate depiction of Cohan’s life,Cagney’s performance makes up for that in spades. In fact,Cohan himself approved of Cagney being cast and his performance. Cohan was still alive when the film was in production. One of the many great things about Yankee Doodle Dandy is that it’s a great look at the world of theater,particularly the world of vaudeville. The film really gives us a great look of the highs and lows of being an actor/composer. The highlight of the film is the title number,performed with great gusto by the cast. A close second for me is You’re a Grand Old Flag. The film is unapologetically patriotic. That’s not surprising given the songs Cohan gave us. In addition to the previously mentioned songs there’s also Over There.

It’s worth mentioning that Cagney has a wonderful supporting cast around him. Joan Leslie plays his wife Mary and Walter Huston plays his father Jerry. And that’s just for starters! Yankee Doodle Dandy is just a lot of lavish musical numbers linked together with a thin narrative. It does a great job of telling the story of Cohan first as a part of his family’s vaudeville act,then through his struggles when he’s blacklisted in the theater for being troublesome (he’s cocky and pushes a lot of his own songs),to his partnership with Sam Harris that gets him his big break,and finally through his comeback and recognition with the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Making Yankee Doodle Dandy even more special is the black and white cinematography of the legendary James Wong Howe. He beautifully photographs the whole film,especially the musical numbers and the final scene,which is among the most moving in cinema history.

James Cagney was an incredibly versatile actor. But,like his fellow Warner Brothers star Edward G. Robinson,got type cast in gangster roles. Certainly he was excellent in those. But it’s great to see him show off his versatility in a film like this. He was also in a film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream,which I highly-recommend.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is a rousing patriotic film and a fun biopic. The film came out in 1942,the same years as another Curtiz classic,Casablanca. Talk about a successful year! Curitz would go on to win a best directing Oscar for Casablanca.The man was a workhorse at Warner Brothers and could direct in any genre. I hope now you will seek out the films I’ve highlighted and his other works.

That’s a wrap on Michael Curtiz month! Join me in February for a month of my favorite on-screen film romances.

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Michael Curtiz Month Week 4: Mildred Pierce

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Greetings,readers! This month I’ve been shining a spotlight on Michael Curtiz. He’s rarely mentioned in lists of greatest directors. One look at his resume makes that absolutely shocking. So far I’ve highlighted The Charge of the Light Brigade,The Sea Wolf,and Dodge City. This week I’m taking a detour into film noir country with the Curtiz classic Mildred Pierce. It’s one of the best examples of noir and it features a powerhouse performance by the legendary Joan Crawford.

The plot:

Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) dotes on her daughters while husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) looks to Maggie Binderhof (Lee Patrick) for affection. They separate leaving Mildred to raise the girls on her own. Elder daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) goads her mother about their lack of money and in response Mildred proposes opening a small restaurant. Realtor Wally Fay (Jack Carson) advises her while making numerous rebuffed passes and introduces her to Monte Baragon (Zachary Scott) whose property becomes the first of a chain of restaurants. Mildred has an affair with Monte. Meanwhile, money-hungry Veda pretends to be pregnant by wealthy Ted Forrester in order to bilk his family of $10,000. Mildred tears up the check, is slapped by Veda, and orders her daughter to leave. After time away, Mildred returns to find Veda singing in a cheap club. Veda will return only if Mildred promises luxury, so Mildred agrees to marry Monte in exchange for a third of her businesses. It soon becomes clear that something is going on between Veda and Monte. Mildred learns of this only after Monte has sold out his third of her business leaving her bankrupt. She then goes to Monte’s beach house to kill him. Shots ring out…but what really happened?–Source: Internet Movie Database

The whole film could have been a cheap,predictable soap opera. But in the hands of skilled actors and one of the best directors in Hollywood history,it became one of the gold standards of film noir. The cinematography of Ernest Haller makes great uses of shadows and light,especially in the critical scene where Mildred Pierce throws Veda out of the house. Some of Haller’s other credits include Gone With the Wind,Rebel Without a Cause,and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Haller was one of the best cinematographers under contract at Warner Brothers. Then there’s Max Steiner,one of the most prolific composers this side of Bernard Herrmann and John Williams. His score adds so much to the tension Steiner contributed to too may films to list,but I’ll highlight a few: Casablanca, Gone With the Wind,King Kong,and Now,Voyager. Of course none of this would matter without great writing. The original novel was written by James M. Cain,who also penned Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. He was one of the heavy-hitters of noir. Ranald MacDougall wrote the screenplay.

Joan Crawford was simply one the best actresses we ever had. Yes,she could be a demanding diva. But her acting chops were stellar! In Mildred Pierce she effortlessly plays the doting mother and the vengeful,wronged woman. It couldn’t have been easy for Ann Blyth to act opposite such a legend and play her daughter,but she does it beautifully! Veda is a brat,and a very believable one at that. Crawford and Blyth create such a convincingly dysfunctional relationship that you can’t turn away from the screen.

Mildred Pierce is another example of why everyone should have Michael Curtiz on their greatest directors list. The range of his resume is something modern filmmakers should aspire to.

Michael Curtiz Month Week 3: Dodge City

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Welcome to week three of Michael Curtiz month! So far I’ve covered a war film (The Charge of the Light Brigade) and one of his many films at sea (The Sea Wolf). This week I’d like to spotlight a Western he made called Dodge City. The many directed films in every genre. Seriously!

The plot? In 1866, Kansas, the American civil war has just finished and the armies disbanded. The building of the West is underway. In 1872, the new city of Dodge City is ruled by violence and shootings. Irishman Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn)  is leading a group of pioneers, including Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland) and her reckless brother, to Dodge City. Once in the city, Wade is invited to be the local sheriff, and an incident makes him accept the position. He tries to clean up the cattle town, ruled by the powerful outlaw Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) and his gang, with the support of the decent local people. That’s the set-up for one of the most fun westerns. I saw it for the first time on Turner Classic Movies last year. I love a good classic film discovery.

Dodge City,a western,may not seem like the type of film for Errol Flynn. He usually plays swashbucklers like Robin Hood and Captain Blood. But Flynn’s natural charisma makes him a great fit for a western as well. Who knew? And Flynn has a great supporting cast,including his frequent co-star Olivia de Havilland and veteran character actor Thomas Mitchell (you may remember him as Uncle Billy from It’s a Wonderful Life). The whole film is a joy to watch. Let me highlight a few favorite scenes. There’s a great long shot of a train at the beginning that kind of reminded me of the first shots of the Death Star in Star Wars. There’s also a fun barroom brawl,seemingly a requirement in a western. The one in Dodge City in particular has a lot of energy and imagination.

As I said before,Michael Curtiz could direct in any genre. Dodge City shows he can direct a western just as well as a musical. Remember Yankee Doodle Dandy with James Cagney? Also directed by Michael Curtiz. The screenplay for Dodge City by Robert Buckner has great exchanges like this:

Wade Hatton: Well, what’s the news in Dodge?

Charley : Well, just about the same as always. Gamblin’, drinkin’, and killin’. Mostly killin’.

The film also features great contributions by composer Max Steiner and cinematographer Sol Polito.I highly-recommend Dodge City,even to those who don’t normally like westerns.

Michael Curtiz Month Week 2: The Sea Wolf

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It’s time for week two of my monthly spotlight on director Michael Curtiz. He directed several films set at sea: Captain Blood,The Sea Hawk,and my week 2 pick: The Sea Wolf. This not only gives me a chance to gush about Curtiz,it lets me highlight another great performance from Edward G. Robinson (my December star). So,here’s my take on the film.

The Sea Wolf is based on a novel of the same name by the renowned writer Jack London. While the film does take several liberties with the book (I read it recently to do a comparison),I forgive it because most of them improve the pacing and ratchet up the already great amount of tension. In the film,writer Humphrey Van Weyden (Alexander Knox) along with fugitives Ruth Webster (Ida Lupino) and George Leach (John Garfield) have been given refuge aboard a ship known as the Ghost. The ship’s Captain is Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson). Larsen’s crew are the worst people you could imagine being on a ship with. Most are on the run from the law for one reason or another. The Captain refuses to put anyone ashore. He prefers forcing them to join his crew. This leads to some really tense scenes of conflict between the characters,including several scenes where the crew tries to mutiny against Larsen and his brutish way of running things. What’s really interesting is that we found out Larsen isn’t just a thuggish villain. He’s also an intellectual,as revealed in his interactions with writer Van Weyden. Brewster,Leach,and Van Weyden try to escape and,well…I don’t want to spoil the rousing ending.

What’s great about this film is not just Robinson’s delightfully menacing performance as Larsen (he makes Captain Ahab and Captain Queeg look like Mr. Rogers) ,but all the great performances of the supporting cast. Two in particular I want to highlight. First there’s Ida Lupino as Ruth. Lupino was a pioneer for women in Hollywood. She was one of the first women directors. Here she gives us a taste of her tremendous acting chops we would see for years to come. She’s so believably vulnerable,that you almost forget her character is a convict. The other real find in this film is character actor Barry Fitzgerald as Cooky. Fitzgerald usually plays genial comic relief parts. Not here! Cooky is almost as menacing as Larsen himself. It’s a far cry from his roles in films such as The Quiet Man. What a delight it is to see him get a chance to showcase his versatility!

The Sea Wolf is a great,tense adventure at sea. It’s not a swashbuckling film like Captain Blood. But it’s a fascinating,tense character study. The chemistry between the cast is excellent. Director Michael Curtiz really has a knack for getting the most out of his actors,no matter what genre he’s working in. The film is also beautifully crafted. The black and white cinematography by Sol Polito is gorgeous,especially when the Ghost runs into some rough storms. The score was composed by the great Erich Wolfgang Korngold. You may recall he did the rousing score for another Curtiz classic: The Adventures of Robin Hood. All of this comes together to make one of the best films set at sea in movie history. Curtiz also worked with Robinson on Kid Galahad. Both men were workhorses at Warner Brothers. This film doesn’t get as much appreciation as The Sea Hawk or Captain Blood,but it’s absolutely worthy of being in their company.

Michael Curitz Month Week 1: The Charge of the Light Brigade

FILM : The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)
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Happy New Year,readers! Here’s to another great year of making film discoveries. This month my spotlight is on the films of director Michael Curtiz. As a documentary about him so eloquently put it: he’s the greatest director you’ve never heard of. Curtiz is curiously absent from many greatest directors lists. That’s shocking for the man who directed Casablanca and The Adventures of Robin Hood,just to name a few. This month I’ll be highlighting some of my favorite films of his. To start things off,let me tell you about a film of his from 1936 called The Charge of the Light Brigade.

No doubt the title The Charge of the Light Brigade sounds familiar. It’s the title of a famous poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. That’s what the film is based on. It stars Errol Flynn,an actor who would collaborate with Curtiz multiple times in his career. Flynn plays Major Geoffrey Vickers,an officer with the 27th Lancers in India. He’s engaged to Elsa Campbell (Olivia de Havilland,a frequent co-star with Flynn). But Campbell has fallen in love with Geoffrey’s brother Perry (Patrick Knowles) and Perry has also fallen in love with her. Of course Geoffrey knows nothing about it. Geoffrey is sent out on patrol and Surat Khan (C. Henry Gordon) attacks the fort,killing everyone,including civilians. A chance for revenge comes when England goes to war with Russia. The 27th Lancers are sent to Crimea,where Surat Khan has sought protection from his Russian allies. It is there that Vickers leads the famous charge in the valley of death so famously depicted in the poem.

The Charge of the Light Brigade is a really well made war picture,especially for 1936. The battle scenes are really well filmed,especially the last one. In addition to having Flynn and de Havilland,there’s a stellar supporting cast that includes Nigel Bruce,Donald Crisp, and David Niven.Flynn is excellent as always playing the dashing hero. Parts like this and Robin Hood were the ones he was born to play. Flynn and de Havilland starred in many films together,and this is right up there with their best. The plot does bend historical facts to create a more thrilling narrative. But I go to films to escape,unless it’s a documentary. So I’ll let it pass.

The film also features a score by Max Steiner,one of the most prolific composers at Warner Brothers at the time. Sol Polito did the gorgeous black and white cinematography. As I mentioned before,Curitz and Flynn went on to work together many times. They famously didn’t get along very well. But yet,their combined talents brought us Captain Blood,The Sea HawkDodge City, and The Adventures of Robin Hood. Even though their working relationship was contentious,they brought out the best of each other as evidenced by the great films they made. The Charge of the Light Brigade gets overlooked a lot,but it’s a thrilling war picture worth seeing.