Friday, January 29, 2010

Movies that I’ve stared at recently on TCM #51 (“I Was a Communist for the TCM” edition)

As promised, here are my collected thoughts on three of the movies shown during the final night of Turner Classic Movies’ Shadows of Russia festival—all of which I also recorded for the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives, including the intro to My Son John (1952) where Bobby Osbo does mention the participation of New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick and Self-Styled Siren blogger Farran Smith Nehme even though the channel couldn’t see fit to let them sit in the comfy chairs on television and drink cocktails with their genial host. (Someone told me—and it’s unsubstantiated, of course—that no invite was extended because TCM had to send out the chairs to be steam-cleaned since they allowed Alec Baldwin up on them. Make of this what you will.)

Oh, and I learned that “Nehme” is sounded out like “Mammy”—which allowed me to play around with the lyrics of the old Jolson song (“I’d walk a million miles/For a Siren self-styled/My Neh-eh-ehme-e-e-e”). (It helps visually if I do this on one knee, though it’ll probably take everyone on the blog list to help me up off the floor.) So let’s go to the videotape, and as always…there may be spoilers.

My Son John (1952) – There’s been quite a bit of conversation over at the Siren’s about how this anti-Communist polemic directed by Leo McCarey has good and earnest intentions and is better than its reputation since so few people have actually seen it (the TCM showing was most assuredly a rare occasion). One commenter suggested that the depiction of the family in John is actually superior to that of Jimmy Dean’s clan in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and while I’ve always believed that Cause was a tad overrated in many respects this kind of statement started me to wondering as to what the individual had been smoking and would it be possible for me to procure some.

John Jefferson (Robert Walker) is the son of Dan and Lucille Jefferson (Dean Jagger, Helen Hayes) and has taken time out from his government job to pay them a visit—but his presence in the family home has caused a bit of tension: he seems to shun his family in favor of visiting with one of his old school professors; he makes irreverent jokes at the expense of the priest (Frank McHugh) at the church Mom and Dad regularly attend; and he demonstrates precious little respect for his father’s political beliefs, mocking his campaign to become commander of the local American Legion post (“If you don’t like/Your Uncle Sammy/Then go back to your home o’er the sea/To the land whence you came/No matter what its name/But don’t be ungrateful to me”). Dad Jefferson detects a pinkish tinge to his son’s politics (particularly when Johnny-O asks his old man if he really believes everything that’s in the Bible) and is convinced he’s a Commie (!) but Mrs. J makes John swear on the Good Book in order to reassure herself this is simply not so. (Later in the film, Papa beans him on the noggin with the same hefty Biblical tome when he’s unable to stomach his son’s pinko nonsense.)

A man named Stedman (Van Heflin) keeps making unannounced visits to the Jefferson home—ostensibly because of a fender-bender that he and the senior Jefferson were involved in…but gradually he reveals that he’s actually an FBI agent investigating young John and that Dad—lovable old alcoholic he may be—has nailed it…his son is a Commie! These verbal exchanges between Heflin and Hayes are the highlights in John, particularly with goofy dialogue like the following:

STEDMAN: It’s about John…
LUCILLE: What’s he… (She stops short, correcting herself) What do you think he’s done?
STEDMAN: I’m not sure that he’s done anything…
LUCILLE: Well, you won’t be any more sure talking to me… (After a pause) I don’t see why I should tell you anything…anyway…
STEDMAN: Uh…well, you’re within your rights to refuse…
LUCILLE: Were you within your rights when you wormed your way…that’s right, you wormed your way into my confidence so that I would do a lot of talking…?
STEDMAN: I know that…that, uh, our methods are, uh, very often criticized…uh, by certain sources because we’re after them day and night…but, uh, nobody objects to, uh, a firm that, uh, protects business by, uh, investigating your credit…insurance outfits have to protect themselves by, uh, thorough investigations…

So, you see—when the FBI hassled outfits like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Students for a Democratic Society and the American Indian Movement…it was only because they had a credit score that fell below 600. A tense confrontation between Mr. Fed, Mom (who’s become physically ill upon learning that Johnny Boy is a Bolshevik), John and his double convinces the misguided youngster that he’s made some serious mistakes in judgment and he plans to double-cross his party bosses shortly after recording a stirring, flag-waving speech for the commencement ceremonies at his alma mater. But the Commies get to him first, shooting at his cab so it crashes on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial—where he expires via stock footage from Strangers on a Train (1951). (I’ll explain this a bit more in a sec, along with the "double" joke—but I was amused in thinking what would have happened if they left in the shot where he has Farley Granger’s cigarette lighter in his hand.)

Here is the major lesson I took from My Son John: if you don’t participate in high school football like your no-neck younger brothers (Richard Jaeckel, James R. Young) but instead fritter away your time reading and studying books…you’ll turn out to be an arrogant, effete mama’s boy whose liberalism will take you on a one-way trip to Communism and, subsequently, flaming homosexuality. Star Walker plays John as the road company version of Bruno Anthony, whose Oedipal complex blinds him to the fact that he’s also a snobbish, smart-assed Bolshie bastard and could very well jeopardize his father’s chances to become top dog at the Legion. (Oh, sure—he tells Mama Jefferson that the reason he has a key to the apartment of a girl being investigated for subversive activity is because they’ve been having an assignation—but she’s not fooled in the slightest. He’s a ‘mo, plain and simple…and Communism has made him that way.)

The night before Robert Walker was to finish shooting the climactic scene where he appears before the class at his alma mater to give a rousing speech on why it’s better to be dead than Red, the actor died from an allergic reaction to a sedative (Walker had suffered for a good many years with alcoholism, said to have been brought about after wife Jennifer Jones dumped him for her Svengali, producer David O. Selznick)—and this forced director McCarey into having to do a major rewrite on the film. McCarey lucked out largely because he had the foresight to have Walker record his anti-Communist speech; this allowed him to change the storyline whereupon the John Jefferson character tries to make amends for the evil he’s done but ends up paying the ultimate price. The deception required McCarey to use some extant footage featuring Walker (much of it easily recognizable from Strangers), along with a double and a you-have-to-be-kidding finale in which John’s words are “broadcast” from a podium bathed in light to the visual accompaniment of students riveted to his every utterance (though, personally, they looked like they were counting the minutes until the bitchin’ kegger was scheduled to start). As the choir-like music swells, we see Dan and Lucille exiting the building:

DAN: There was…a lot of good in what he said…some of those…
LUCILLE: Yes…let’s hope they forget what he did…and pray they remember what he said…today…

Because I have a feeling Dan’s gonna get creamed in the American Legion election. The seams start to show around the one-hour-four-minute mark when Lucille is having an important telephone conversation with Bru…, I mean her son John—and while the movie’s reliance on this patchwork editing won’t escape anyone’s notice, you do have to sort of admire the ingenuity on behalf of the filmmakers.

While I was very appreciative in being afforded the opportunity to see this film, apart from it being an interesting artifact from the fear-crazed fifties there’s really not much here to recommend. I did like Helen Hayes’ performance, however—she’s completely out-of-sync with the rest of the film as she delivers her lines in a sort of stream-of-consciousness manner that reminded me of my grandmother after she succumbed to Alzheimer’s. (“My son John! My son John! My son John!”)

I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951) – Based on a series of Saturday Evening Post articles written by Matt Cvetic, this laughably absurd film casts TDOY idol Frank Lovejoy as Comrade Matt Cvetic, a Pittsburgh steelworker who’s infiltrated the Party on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who’s employing Cvetic as an undercover agent. Unfortunately for our hero, he’s not allowed to tell anyone (with the exception of the Feds and a priest played by Roy “Captain Huxley” Roberts) what his real mission is, which has earned him the enmity of his family—particularly his brother Joe (Paul Picerni, who would later cross Lovejoy’s path in House of Wax [1953]) and son Dick (Ron Hagerthy). Dick is having a great deal of difficulty dealing with the fact that he’s got a pinko for a father; his schoolteacher, Eve Merrick (Dorothy Hart), attempts to discuss the issue with Matt…but it’s soon revealed that she, too, is a stinkin’ Red!

The thin plot of Communist involves the Party’s stepped-up attempts to dominate all political activity in Pittsburgh by replacing good-old-fashioned blue-collar Americans in the steel mills with “those loyal to the Party”, all under the dictates of Jim Blandon (James Millican, whose portrayal is so slimy you can practically smell him) and his Bolshie stooges. Meanwhile, Cvetic has written out a letter revealing that he’s not really a Commie and tries to get it to Father Novac (Roberts) for safekeeping—to be delivered to young Dick in the event of his father’s death. He attempts to pass it along to the padre at his mother’s funeral, but there’s a scuffle (brother Joe is outraged that Matt’s fellow Commies showed up to pay their respects) and the letter ends up in Eve’s possession. This provides quite a nifty bit of suspense—will Eve turn Matt over to the Party chiefs or won’t she?—and it’s only when Eve has a change of heart about the Party (those dirty pinkos have convinced some dupes involved with the local union to stage a wildcat strike; things get unnecessarily violent and Matt’s brother Joe is seriously injured) that she reveals she knows Cvetic’s secret. Matt arranges for her to escape from the Red menace, but jeopardizes his cover when he’s forced to kill a pair of the Party’s thugs—fortunately for our hero, he gets the opportunity to clear his name when the House Un-American Activities Committee (presented here as risibly heroic) calls upon him to testify against those traitors, and everything is hunky-dunky with the Cvetic family again.

Despite the success of the Post stories and this film, Matt Cvetic was, in real-life, not the most heroic of figures: he had a notoriously bad pull on the bottle and was so nasty as a result that he once smacked his sister-in-law around to the point she required a stay in the hospital. None of this is featured in the film, of course; the real nasties here are the Commies—who act more like gangsters than radical political activists. (The goings-on in Communist remind me a great deal of The Woman on Pier 13 [1949]—originally known as I Married a Communist—and in fact, both movies would make a swell double-feature.) The movie also strains credibility a tad when it suggests the Pittsburgh Pinkos are also responsible for the agitation that became the civil rights movement, not to mention wielding mighty influence inside the labor unions (I think I was on the floor with laughter about that time). But, hey—who’s to say this wasn’t true? After all, the movie was nominated the following year for an Academy Award…in the category of Best Documentary Feature (one of Oscar’s truly WTF moments).

I was predisposed to like this movie—despite its ridiculousness—because of Lovejoy’s appearance; he has long been a favorite of mine though I think he was far more effective on radio than in television or movies (he had a stiffness to him that he never quite overcame onscreen: he shines in films like In a Lonely Place [1950] and The Sound of Fury [1950], but suffers from a severe case of Jack-Webb-stick-up-my-ass in fare like Wax and Shack Out on 101 [1955; check out Bill Crider’s review on this here]). The popularity of I Was a Communist for the FBI soon led to a radio spin-off starring Dana Andrews, which was a bit more believable than the film (though it’s admittedly a close race). Director Gordon Douglas held the reins on this one (he had a rather eclectic career, helming the likes of Our Gang two-reelers, The Great Gildersleeve movie series, Them! [1954] and Robin and the 7 Hoods [1964]) and Crane Wilbur wrote the script (which might explain the “crime” angle; Wilbur also wrote the screenplays for He Walked by Night [1948] and The Phenix City Story [1955]). You’ll also spot Philip “Captain Parmalee” Carey and Richard “Captain Midnight” Webb as Lovejoy’s “handlers.”

The Bedford Incident (1965) – I recorded this one shortly before I threw in the towel for the night and reran it last night; I’d seen the film before but it’s been a long-time favorite because of the interplay between Richard Widmark (in penultimate rat bastard mode) and Sidney Poitier—two actors who were very close friends in real life (Widmark would often invite Poitier over to his house for dinner at a time when young Sidney was still feeling his way around Hollywood). Widmark is Eric Finlander, a U.S. Naval commander whose impeccable service record has nevertheless kept him from moving up in the Navy’s ranks; Poitier is hot-shot magazine reporter Ben Munceford, who’s taken on the challenge on discovering why. It doesn’t take long for Munceford to learn Finlander’s dirty little secret—he’s a brilliant strategist (assisted by ex-Nazi Commodore Wolfgang Schrepke, nicely underplayed by Eric Portman) but also a bit of a martinet; during maneuvers the Bedford’s crew learns of a Russian sub that’s patrolling illegally in territorial waters and when Finlander’s superiors tell him to stand down he’s unable to suppress his anti-Communist rage at allowing the sub to go scot-free. (“Look, if I catch a man robbing my house and he makes a break for the street, do I let him go just because he made it to the sidewalk?” he asks Schrepke at one point.) Finlander’s fervor begins to permeate that of the Bedford’s crew…particularly an overly tired ensign (James MacArthur), who sets off a chain of events that ultimately results in tragedy.

Incident isn’t a great movie by any means, but it is entertaining—it’s sort of a knockoff of both Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove, based on a novel by Marc Rascovich (which allegedly was based on an actual event in 1957) and directed by James B. Harris, a crony of Stanley Kubrick’s. The acting is, of course, first-rate; you’ll spot Wally Cox and Donald Sutherland as members of the crew but I’ve always believed that Incident was a marvelous showcase for Martin Balsam as the new doctor assigned to the vessel…whereupon he receives a frosty reception from Captain Widmark. (I love the moment in the film where the put-upon Balsam finally lashes out at Widmark with a “Who the hell do you think you are?” spiel—it doesn’t last long, but it’s a marvel to see from the always dependable Balsam.) It’s pretty much Widmark’s show all the way, as evidenced in this exchange between he and his XO (Michael Kane), as Widmark rationalizes why he’s been riding MacArthur’s character the entire time:

FINLANDER: Trouble with that kid, he can't forget what a big hero he was…star quarterback... voted Most All-Around, Most Likely, Most Popular... that one he's still bucking for…the only way to cut him down to size is to keep on him…
ALLISON: Yeah, if he survives
FINLANDER: Well, I hammer too hard, you let me know…
ALLISON: I'll try…
FINLANDER: Yeah, it's a lot of work being a mean bastard…
ALLISON: Hmm…sometimes I can't help admiring how effortlessly you do it, captain…almost as if it came naturally

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3 comments:

M. Bouffant said...

Saw "Bedford Incident" in a real theater at a relatively tender age. The ending was not what the younger me had been expecting.

Brent McKee said...

"Bedfor Incident" also features a small but nice turn in a dramatic role by Marlon Brando's best friend Wally Cox.

amsron said...

Failsafe and Dr. Strangelove? To me it's more of a knockoff of "The Enemy Below."...with the Cold War twist at the end, of course.