The General Died at Dawn

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Thriller;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Gary Cooper, Madeleine Carroll, Akim Tamiroff, Porter Hall, William Frawley.

As a standout film or close in the borderline screen career of Lewis Milestone that additionally features the first screenplay of playwright Clifford Odets’ career, 1936’s The General Died at Dawn has more going for it than the cosmetic magnitude of its two impossible-looking lead actors captured here in a new 4K mastering that shows how great ’30s Paramounts used to look. But let’s face it: most people who see this prime example of the kind of adventure film that used to be called “crackling” will exit marveling the rarely paralleled looks of its co-stars.

We have 30-year superstar Gary Cooper, who as a woman friend said to me multiple times: “He was a great-looking young man and a great-looking old one.” Opposite him is Madeleine Carroll, whose career was cut short for personal rather than professional reasons, but for frame of reference, this was her first Hollywood movie since scoring a huge international success the year before with Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. In other words, we are on the level here of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief, and Alain Delon and Roxy Schneider in anything. Add to this Akim Tamiroff’s not underserving Oscar-nominated supporting performance from the first year the Academy ever awarded them, and you’ve something — though Tamiroff is under so much Chinese warlord makeup that it could be Ronald Colman under there.

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Not to equate it with one of my favorite movies of all time, but Dawn’s portrayal of an American caught up in exotic Chinese locales captures my imagination a bit like Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles does. One huge difference, though, is that Steve McQueen’s character in Pebbles (his greatest performance) is a green forced Navy enlistee who’s in way over his head when it comes to political machinations he doesn’t understand. Cooper, by contrast, is older, savvier and knows what’s going on with warlords’ exploitation of peasants all too well. It would be wrong to call him merely a mercenary because he believes strongly in the peasants’ cause and really wants to stick it Tamiroff (as “General Yang”). And he knows where the money is necessary to plot an insurrection.

One place is in his possession, the peasants having scraped together everything they have (a la Seven Sumurai or The Magnificent Seven) to fight Yang in their own modest way and placed in Cooper’s possession. Unfortunately, too many others (not the most savory bunch) know Cooper has it somewhere and are trying to get their grubby hands on it. One of these is a gunrunner and middle-man played by, of all people, William Frawley, prepped to take the money by arrangement with Cooper and instructed to sell to the highest bidder. Unfortunately, he is a hopeless drunk: Fred Mertz practically in the gutter.

Another is an American with not long to live and played Porter Hall in one of his prototypical wormy roles. Though a couple years before he died, Hall did deliver one of best performances (thanks in part to Billy Wilder’s flawless casting instincts) in a highly sympathetic role as the Albuquerque newspaper editor who makes the bad decision to hire reporter Kirk Douglas (and is it ever) in the Wilder masterpiece Ace in the Hole). Hall is traveling with daughter Carroll — though there were one or two stray lines of dialogue that made me wonder if this were true (I may have missed, or misinterpreted, something).

Naturally, Carroll’s instantaneous good vibrations with Cooper complicates things, which initially leads to no small amount of intrigue on a train. A curiosity here is the surprise appearance, as a reporter, of John O’Hara — a novelist who’s out fashion these days other than his short stories, though I still like him. In any event, his appearance here was close enough in proximity to his first and best novel Appointment in Samarra (1934), which even his detractors give him, so this would have been a fun casting coup for the year. Eventually, Cooper (whose character name is also named “O’Hara”) ends up on Yang’s ship, which is impressively shot by an Oscar-nominated Victor Milner. The two key antagonists here don’t have any perversely tortured liking for each other, but Cooper/O’Hara knows how to press Tamiroff/Yang’s buttons, while Yang at least thinks he knows how to press O’Hara’s.

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Historians Lee Gambin and Rutanya Alda share the Blu-ray commentary, and one thing they touch upon is Odets “going Hollywood” over the purity of the theater, or so said detractors who preferred to grouse on the sidelines instead of accepting work during tough times. This kind of thing plagued Odets throughout his career, but fairly late in the game he became the dominant writer of Sweet Smell of Success — and, say, what have you done lately? The director here was Lewis Milestone, who though he never topped the still very powerful All Quiet on the Western Front, did have other successes or near-misses of interest throughout the 1930s, through, say, 1949’s The Red Pony. His direction is creative, and even the opening credits are novel for their day. My mother told me Dawn was one of the favorite movies of her early adolescence, and I remember watching it with her in the early 1960s on the late show.

In the ’50s, Milestone’s career completely went to hell, a possible exception being Pork Chop Hill, but it’s been too many decades since I last saw it to say for sure. In terms of features, he ended up trying to direct the Rat Pack and then Marlon Brando at his most career-killing (for a long while) impossible — not a fate I’d recommend for those easygoing twilight years.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Tin Cup’ and ‘The General Died at Dawn’

The Great McGinty

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Kino Lorber;
Comedy;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not Rated.
Stars Brian Donlevy, Muriel Angelus, Akim Tamiroff, William Demarest.

Few traditions are more eternal than political corruption no matter the country in question, and even as we speak, Americans are seeing it in Imax three-camera Cinerama with 96-track stereo sound, just to mix some exhibition metaphors. Thus, it’s a little surprising that it took Hollywood until 1940 to attack the subject as directly head-on as in The Great McGinty — though there had been, just thinking here, some satirical jabbing from The Dark Horse (1932, Warner Bros.). But that one’s release came less than half-a-year before FDR’s first election ushered in a period of the president-as-deity except in certain Alf Landon circles — leading to a subsequent period not conducive to all-out comical skewering, though, of course, played-for-laughs political grifters and grafters were often side-issue mainstays in the Golden Age.

However comparably minor it might be compared to the enduring Preston Sturges masterpieces that were shortly to come, McGinty is nonetheless full-throttle instant auteurism and effortlessly identifiable as a Sturges concoction from just about any 30-second excerpt. (Or if you write about film, and it’s not instantly identifiable, I hear there’s a job opening down the street at my car wash.) As in other Sturges comedies, the fortunes of the central character are inverted almost overnight by a chance or flash occurrence, and his staging of knockabout physical comedy is almost as pronounced as anything you’d see in the silent era. Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff brawling with each other (once in a moving car, no less) isn’t much different in life-attitude from the club-car slapstick mayhem in The Palm Beach Story or William Demarest landing on his behind when trying to kick someone in the pants in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.

Anyway, the story behind McGinty, which voiceover commentator Samm Deighan reiterates on Kino Classics’ bonus commentary, is that Sturges, like Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, was in a “let’s bash Mitchell Leisen mood” at Paramount. Though a lot of today’s historians raise amazed eyebrows over this, these ace writers (who worked predominantly but not exclusively for that studio) supposedly hated what Leisen kept doing or not doing when it came to interpreting their scripts. In McGinty’s case, Sturges supposedly offered to sell Paramount his script for a measly sum (Deighan says $10, though I’ve also heard a buck) if they also allowed him to direct it as well for what would be his directorial debut. When the studio agreed, it was a big deal and not just for Sturges. Shortly thereafter John Huston and Billy Wilder joined him to usher in a new era of the writer-director.

Paramount didn’t have that much to lose. The cast was modest (Donlevy, Tamiroff, the now obscure Muriel Angelus), and so was the budget. Nor was this exactly Leisen’s historical extravaganza Frenchman’s Creek when it came to lush Paramount production design — though even at once, Sturges showed himself to have a camera eye, a definite way with actors and a certain deftness with crowd scenes (this you can also see already as well in the same year’s Christmas in July). Low expectations gave the burgeoning filmmaker the freedom to indulge his love-hate attitude toward American foibles with very little sentimentality, which (as Deighan notes) makes Sturges’ political films seem more contemporary today than Frank Capra’s.

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Told in flashback from the banana republic from which he now tends bar, McGinty relates what is arguably the vintage screen’s most telling comic portrayal of ward heeling (though, yes, John Ford’s movie of The Last Hurrah has its moments as well). In an unnamed city that has the “feel” of Chicago, local “boss” Tamiroff hires Donlevy/McGinty as one of many to cast a bogus vote for the local machine’s lackey choice of a mayoral candidate — for the princely sum of $2. Because soup kitchens qualify as his second home, McG overcomes his confusion (the guy is affably dim) and votes 37 times — good not only for $74 but also to show the bosses that he’s an out-of-the-ordinary guy who might fit into the operation. He starts out successfully as heavily pugnacious debt-collecting muscle, though from the example presented does charm at least some of the female victims with a more soft-soap approach.

With his improved fortunes come an upgrade of sorts from a wardrobe best described as “flophouse-traditional” — though at least one of his new-era suits is nearly as sartorially haphazard as anything Spike Jones ever wore, though I suppose it doesn’t quite have the decibel level of those floral prints that preyed on your pollen allergies whenever Roy Rogers donned them during his Trucolor period. Improved fortunes also result in a mostly harmonious arranged marriage to his secretary Catherine, played by Angelus — a London-bred actress who only made a handful of Hollywood films (this was her last before early retirement, not counting a few more years of Broadway appearances).

It’s all for image — women voters supposedly want married candidates — and both sides get something because the bride is a single mom with two young children (a fact she takes a suspiciously long time to divulge, imo). But it works out well because McGinty takes to the children and enjoys, in one amusing scene, reading them the funnies. Somehow, the onetime bum ascends to becoming governor of the state, at which point Catherine’s motherly reformer instincts take over, at which point the picture lingers toward conventionality though not to artistically perilous extremes. But as for McGinty, it becomes a no-good-deed-goes-unpunished situation, which is what you get when you do the right thing for the only time in your life. This is not, getting back to what I noted before, an attitude Capra ever would have voiced, though I can imagine Sturges and Wilder having lunch in the studio commissary and chuckling about how people always vote against their own interests.

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Commentator Deighan seems to have done her homework discussing Sturges’ salad days (as opposed his eventual suffering of a shockingly severe artistic and box office declines), but I winced when twice she noted that Tamiroff and Donlevy won Oscars for performances in other films when, in truth, they only received nominations. And speaking of Oscars, McGinty took one for best original screenplay when The Great Dictator and Foreign Correspondent were among the competition — an indicator of just how much this modest box office success (no more) was admired in the industry. Bigger budgets and bigger stars for Sturges would follow, though the actors — peppered with Demarest and a slew of other loony types who’d make up Sturges’ future stock company of regulars — can’t be faulted at all here.

This isn’t a movie with the visual tools to showcase its 4K mastering, but it made for a very satisfying view on my 75-inch screen. Thank you, again, Kino Classics for what you’re doing for the Universal-controlled Paramount library in general (they hold rights to the 1929-49 titles, with a couple exceptions). This library was the last, Goldwyn’s excepted, to sell its titles to TV back in the day (in my local market, it was fall of 1959). It held Holy Grail status for on-the-ball film fans then, and for a long time history was repeating itself until not long ago. Now, it’s an embarrassment of riches, with Kino having just announced Beau Geste, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer and more for April 7 alone (I think Murder, He Says might be in there, too).

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Great McGinty’ and ‘Watergate’

Les cinq secrets du desert (Five Graves to Cairo)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

All-Region French Import;
Elephant;
Drama;
$29.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter, Erich von Stroheim, Akim Tamiroff.

Given Kino Classics’ laudable current endeavor to bring the cream of the 1929-49 Paramount library out on Blu-ray, it will will likely get around to releasing what remains one of Billy Wilder’s least-seen films (and an early collaboration with producer/co-writer Charles Brackett as well), maybe even sooner rather than later. But one of my ubiquitous “twilight” life projects is to go through Wilder’s output chronologically (as well as that of other filmmakers of his stature) in their best available renderings, and All-Region Elephant Films from France has done standout work with vintage Paramounts-that-matter almost straight down the line. So, here we go.

Set in slight flashback for in the time it was made against what looks to be one of the most geographically granular parts of Egypt, 1943’s Five Graves to Cairo was just the second Hollywood movie that Wilder directed, sandwiched between the still charmingly hilarious The Major and the Minor and all-timer Double Indemnity, whose sordidness apparently so offended Brackett’s outward Southern gentleman to such a degree that he took a pass on contributing to it. In World War II terms, Cairo’s geographical backdrop is here located in what at least for now is German Gen. Erwin Rommel territory, with Franchot Tone playing the one surviving member of a British Eighth Army tank crew who’s been whipped along with his other  colleagues during the recent conflict. The picture’s opening visual is a British tank full of corpses and an unconscious Tone — which means that no one is actually piloting the currently aimless vehicle that keeps rolling up and then down one sand dune after another. I first saw Cairo when I was about 12 in 1960 and have never forgotten this shot. Movies are funny that way, just as brief real-life remembrances are.

After what seems like a long hike during which he has to be seriously dehydrated, the barely alert Tone stumbles upon a town and its “Empress of Britain Hotel” — which is about free of Brits as you’d expect at this time. Actually, it’s pretty well free of everyone, though there is a proprietor played by Akim Tamiroff, an actor whose ham Wilder can’t always control here. (Speaking just for myself, my perception of Tamiroff only occasionally overcame J.D. Salinger’s characterization of him in one of the author’s anthologized Nine Stories — whichever one it is that describes Tamiroff as the actor who always says, “You make beeg joke — hah?”) There’s also a French chambermaid (Anne Baxter), who’d like to find some way to get help for her permanently injured brother who’s been captured by Germans. The role needs someone more exciting and alluring, and I wish Simone Simon, who apparently tested for it, had been cast instead.

Fortunately, Tone is pretty good here, and there are a couple supporting gems with future echoes of the Brackett-Wilder Sunset Blvd. One is the appearance of that masterpiece’s Erich von Stroheim himself, who cuts an imposing monocled figure as Rommel — a performance whose tone differs a lot from James Mason’s in Henry Hathaway’s The Desert Fox, an intelligent Rommel wartime biopic that I’ve always liked (it was one of the first films ever aired on NBC’s “Saturday Night at the Movies”). The other is an Italian general played by Fortunio Bonanova, who shortly thereafter would have a funny bit in Wilder’s Double Indemnity as a trucker/insurance scammer who fails miserably trying to pull a fast one on Edward G. Robinson, cast as the firm’s near-infallible cheat-sniffer. Wilder goes to town with these characterizations and the fun he pokes at the Italian general — with Rommel always making certain that the latter gets the hotel room where the bathroom doesn’t work when these members of the Axis powers take over the hotel for powwows from time to time.

This officer invasion demands some quick thinking on the part of Tone, who is neither German nor Italian. Conveniently, he takes over the identity of a clubfooted waiter who’s just been killed in a blast — a guy who never previously met Rommel met eye to eye but whom the general knows to have been a Nazi spy, which adds to Tone’s good fortune (at least for a while). Meanwhile, amid all this in-house intrigue, Baxter is reluctantly playing up sexually to Rommel/Stroheim’s favorite staffer lieutenant (it probably helps that she holds no love for the Brits) in an attempt to pull strings for her brother. The young officer’s role is a predictably comfy fit for Peter Van Eyck, who was in the early stages of career of playing German officers that lasted all the way up to swan song The Bridge at Remagen in 1969.

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Things get more complicated after this, and how could they not? This is definitely lesser Wilder, but it’s still a movie for grown-ups, which a lot of old Paramounts were. I’m constantly amazed at the level of assumed intelligence on the part of the audience that this old romantic cynic always worked on, and it’s impossible to imagine any Cairo ever having come from MGM — or if so, not unless Louis B. Mayer could shoehorn in a production number or two by Virginia O’Brien or Ginny Simms. (Ironically, the best by far of the era’s Hollywood-produced WWII dramas ended up coming from MGM right at the end of the war with They Were Expendable. Even L.B. wasn’t going to tell the future Rear Adm. John Ford how to go about his business.) I remember reading an interview with Wilder sometime in the early ’60s, when he’d recently caught Cairo on the late show and thought it too preachy. There’s a little of this, but not that much of it for the day, and it comes late in the film.

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As old Variety reviews used to say, “Technical credits are ‘pro’” — and the picture got Oscar nominations for cinematography, black-and-white art/set decoration and plus editing by longtime Wilder teammate Doane Harrison, whose association lasted until Sabrina. The cinematographer was John Seitz, who would shoot several of Paramount’s best movies (early Wilders included), and the score is by Miklos Rozsa, whose allegiance stretched, with long layoffs, from Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend to Fedora). As a result, there’s an “old home week” feel to the movie, which I personally find appealing enough to elevate material that, to an extent, probably cramped Wilder’s style out of a need and necessity to support the troops. As expected, it looks very good on Blu-ray as well.

Mike’s Picks: “House by the River” and “Five Graves to Cairo”