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’

10 North Frederick

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Gary Cooper, Diane Varsi, Suzy Parker, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ray Stricklyn.

Despite my initial enthusiasm to view the Twilight Time Blu-ray of 10 North Frederick that’s now been available for a couple months, I had to be re-nudged to take a fresh look at a movie that has always gotten to me a little, notwithstanding its structural imperfections. With human tragedy at its core and a Gary Cooper performance that’s among his most poignant, I didn’t really need refortified viewing motivation. But then we had the arrival at my door just a few days ago of a new Library of America collection devoted to the earlier John O’Hara novels that long predated Frederick’s 1955 publication — though the LoA volume does contain Appointment in Samarra, which even O’Hara detractors concede is a still major player when it comes to 20th-century literature.

And detractors he had. O’Hara was an off-putting self-promoter, the quality of his writing fell off badly toward the end of his career and his dissection of small-town ambition and the country-club-ism that went along with it got shrugged off by new generations that cared little for what looked a lot like provincial white privilege. Still, I was delighted to see former Paris Review editor Lorin Stein quoted in O’Hara’s Wikipedia entry comparing the “binge factor” inherent in the author’s best work as comparable to “Mad Men’s” … and for some of the same reasons. (Stein later had to resign the Review over sexual harassment issues, which may or may not be irony, given at least implied Don Draper-ism.)

Imminent fading rep or not, Frederick-the-novel was a big deal at the time, following its banning in some cities (including by Detroit’s finest) before winning the National Book Award for fiction. The censorship concerns compounded screen adaptation challenges that the movie already had, and after I saw Frederick in 1958 at a drive-in with, of all things, a Diane Varsi double bill completed by Henry Hathaway’s Western From Hell to Texas, I sneaked around the house to locate my parents’ paperback of the novel so I could read “the good parts.” The movie was cleaned up by top screenwriter-turned-middling-director Philip Dunne from a source so lengthy that it had to be pared down extensively. This is why a) the screen adaptation immediately throws us into a situation where it’s difficult to understand just why Cooper’s mild-mannered lawyer wants to be lieutenant governor of his unnamed state (read: Pennsylvania); and b) why a told-in-flashback movie gets stronger as it progresses after this and other mysteries eventually get explained (it also helps that three or four of the best written and performed scenes are weighted near or at the end).

The story spans the final five years (1940-45) of aging Ivy League protagonist Joe Chapin (Cooper), who’s been successful enough as a lawyer to render money worries a non-issue yet has never satisfied the loftier goals of life he’s never wanted in the first place. It hardly matters because his longtime wife and Hall of Fame harridan (an unforgettable Geraldine Fitzgerald) has enough craven ambition for both of them, projecting a level of chill-pill coldness that has estranged both of their grown children. These are: a daughter (Varsi), who’s initially too ladylike to fight back much even when mom becomes a key factor in the wreckage of her marriage to a trumpeter; plus a perennial academic flunk-out (Ray Stricklyn in an overlooked excellent performance) who wouldn’t mind watching mom bisecting the goalposts as part of someone’s successful 65-yard field goal attempt. He also drinks to excess, which is something he’ll have in common with dad during the movie’s later scenes, when everything goes wrong for the senior Chapin excepting one brief but lovely respite.

This is a mutually beneficial May-December romance with his daughter’s New York roommate (supermodel Suzy Parker, who had a limited career as an actress, and, like Stricklyn, was never as effective on screen as she is here). Cooper, who had only three years left in real life, rarely got to tread this kind of emotional ground on screen (and wearing suits at that); he soon followed this movie with two of the best Westerns he ever made: Man of the West and The Hanging Tree. He did, however, leap to play this role, apparently having learned a lot about this kind of material following his famous late ‘40s affair with Patricia Neal, when he almost left his wife for his Fountainhead co-star.

Around the edges, there’s a lot of drinking in public to go along with all the drinking in private; serial adultery braggadocio at “the club”; domestic arguments that are as cruel as they are unnecessary; lots of WASP hypocrisy; woefully underhanded political graft; an implied threat of blackmail; and all the other things that made Mayberry so great. The graft largely has to do with a local political string-puller (Tom Tully) who’s apparently the one Irishman the local power structure will allow into its circle. Tully has a lot of grease on his palms, including the $20,000 pittance (albeit in circa 1940 dollars) that Cooper/Chapin slips him in an envelope just for the chance to be considered for the state’s lieutenant governor slot, which he and/or the Mrs. have determined might be a smoother-sailing path to the White House. Yet one of the movie’s main themes is that Cooper is far too much of a classy gentleman to go for the jugular, which makes him irresistible to Parker and an object of adoration by his daughter.

Given its pedigree going in, there’s visual evidence that 20th Century-Fox didn’t spend the money it should have on location footage, even though the same studio mounted a large-scale production just two years later of O’Hara’s doorstop novel From the Terrace, which sold well but without the former’s substantial acclaim. It’s less a case that the Parker-Varsi New York apartment exteriors are on an obvious set than on an obviously bad set — complete with an in-your-face waterside matte painting in the background that’s, well, in your face. This kind of thing takes the viewer out of the picture and puts extra pressure on the actors to carry the day, which they manage to do here even if there’s not much to write home about when it comes to Dunne’s visual style.

This said, Joseph MacDonald’s cinematography never disappoints, and this is more ammo for that assertion — another display of how great widescreen black-and-white used to look before the taste of teenaged dufuses began to mandate the visual content of the movies we see. I’ve never understood how the cinematographer of My Darling ClementineViva Zapata! and The Young Lions (all in black-and-white) plus color credits like NiagaraBigger Than Life, The Carpetbaggers and especially The Sand Pebbles (with all that snake-is camerawork in and around that claustrophobic engine room) could be underrated, but Blu-ray has shown MacDonald to such great advantage that the true story is on your monitor.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Man Without a Star’ and ’10 North Frederick’

The Hanging Tree

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Western;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Ben Piazza, Karl Malden, George C. Scott. 

Gary Cooper made three more movies after The Hanging Tree before his death in the spring of 1961, but due to varied limitations in terms of conception and/or execution, none of them seem like the “real” Gary Cooper movie that this oddball 1959 Western (filmed in Yakima, Wash., but set in Cooper’s real-life home state of Montana) absolutely does. For some strange reason known only to my sometimes equally oddball-ish thought processes, I thought of this movie while watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — for no obvious reason. Other than the fact, that is, that the tones of both couldn’t care less about adhering to any established norms of their respective genres on the way to establishing tones of their own, which are highly eccentric. In other words, each is borderline unique.

Though based on a novel by Dorothy M. Johnson, who wrote the short story on which The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was based, Tree also brings to mind a second Ford-Wayne masterpiece: The Searchers. Not in quality, to be sure — but due to the fact that this is another Technicolor superstar Warner Bros. Western from roughly the same movie era where nearly everyone in it ranges from being a little “tetched” to downright crazy. Notably, this off-center lineup doesn’t include Cooper’s character himself, who is stalwart and above it all; in fact, if you ever want to see what totally commanding superstardom was, here’s as good a place to begin as any. This said, the poker-loving physician Cooper plays has a rumored deep, dark secret in his past: something involving a not unintentional house fire that killed a man and woman — an event not explained at all until the end and even then with a key detail or two missing. One senses that it was traumatic enough to knock any involved survivor of it permanently off kilter, but Cooper is doing his best to stay above it all.

Meanwhile, there’s George C. Scott playing a phony frontier religious fanatic (think about it) in his big screen debut. There’s also Karl Malden, in a performance that’s broad even for him in those times when his directors let go of the reins, as a salacious creep whose underwear probably hasn’t been changed since the Crusades — which must make it pretty tough on Doc Cooper when he has to lance a boil on Malden’s behind (think: A Streetcar Named Retch). Cast as a near-lynching victim who’s blackmailed into indentured servitude after Cooper saves him, Ben Piazza (who was mostly relegated to TV after his movie debut here as well) has an acting style that seems more out of a subsequent century — though he still halfway fits in, given this crazy company. And co-lead Maria Schell, who always seemed fairly normal on screen other than her tendency to turn on her sunbeam smile too much, plays a character whose demons are built-in by the script. She’s been left badly sunburned and blinded (for a while, anyway) after barely escaping from a stagecoach robbery in which every other passenger was killed. Malden takes advantage by sneaking looks at her in stages of undress, which suggests Donald Trump’s braggadocio over walking in on Miss Teen USA contestants during costume changes. (Trump, you have to believe, probably has at least two boils.)

Cooper tries to take the high road by treating Schell’s burns and laboring to restore her sight, but the town crone (Jack Webb/“Dragnet” favorite Virginia Gregg) assumes the worst about the village newcomer’s necessary residence in the doctor’s shack — a rather strange target, given the fair abundance of gold-town prostitutes around who aren’t exactly trying to disguise their trade. And indeed, this makeshift burg does have gold fever, which is driving the supporting cast as loopy as the principals — enough, even, to make Scott’s preacher smell money, though one never gets the sense that he’s ever undergone any valid spiritual calling at any point in his life. Today, he’d be on some Sunday morning cable show hawking his new DVD for the temporary low price of $2,495, throwing in a 4-by-6 black-and-white of Charlton Heston (from The Pigeon That Took Rome because he got a bulk deal from the retailer) if you order now.

Tree was last in a cycle of really good Delmer Daves Westerns from the middle and late ’50s, and a wonderful live June 8, 1958, edition of Dave Garroway’s “Wide Wide World” (which aired in NBC’s Sunday afternoon TV ghetto; I saw it at the time) shows him directing Cooper out and around the doctor’s shack in a location that’s somewhere between hilly and mountainous. (Findable on DVD if you’re wearing a miner’s cap, the show also featured Wayne, Ford, Gene Autry, Walter Brennan and more — even The Great Train Robbery’s real-life tenderfoot Broncho Billy Anderson, who’d been a long time between gigs but had just gotten a special Oscar a couple months earlier.) The somewhat underrated Daves, at least until the very end, was about to undergo a massive career switch following the coming Christmas’s smash hit of A Summer Place, launching a series of soapers that half-promoted teenaged sex as long as it was with Troy Donahue.

Cooper’s man-in-black look here is one of the coolest I’ve seen, and it points up how much costuming that we don’t even think about can have such a potent effect on character and drama. The actor was probably sick by this time (cancer), but it doesn’t show to my eye, and I love that we have both this film and the even better Man of The West from so close to the end of his line. Even penny-pinching Jack Warner (see Alan K. Rode’s massive but panther-paced new Michael Curtiz bio for countless examples) had bailed on dribbly Warner Color by this time, so Tree was Technicolor (and on the higher side of that). The cinematographer was Ted McCord, who never seems to have gotten the due he deserves, though he shot Johnny Belinda, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, East of Eden and The Sound of Music.

For extra cosmetics, Marty Robbins gets the movie off to a great start by singing the Oscar-nominated title tune over the credits (it only got to Billboard No. 38 but deserved better). It’s also featured on the classic Hell Bent for Leather LP (I bought it in 1961, upon release), whose front jacket features Frankie Laine in a gun-belt. Truth to tell, Frankie was as much of a tenderfoot as Broncho Billy, but he looked the part and even once appeared in a “Rawhide” episode that I saw at the time. Though judging from how Clint Eastwood talked to the trees in Paint Your Wagon, Laine must not have given the show’s co-star any successful tips on how to song-belt.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Hanging Tree’ and ‘Steve McQueen: American Icon’