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’

Murder, He Says

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 4/7/20;
Kino Lorber;
Comedy;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Fred MacMurray, Helen Walker, Marjorie Main, Jean Heather, Porter Hall.

Other than 1948’s Miss Tatlock’s Millions, which falls just short of being a brother-sister incest farce while getting all jocular about mental illness, Murder, He Says is the most twisted Hollywood comedy I know from the 1940s. This raises an interesting question of why almost all the funniest ’40s comedies I know — both of the above, the Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder libraries, the “Roads” to Morocco, Utopia and Rio — were all from Paramount, but that’s a question for another day. (The Lubitsch’s at other studios would be an exception, though they’re less gut-busting than charming on historical levels.)

Very little about 1945’s Murder, or at least its characters, has been to charm school — starting with the murder of an innocent party that’s played for laughs when it’s not being simply shoved under the narrative rug. There’s also a near-psychopath matriarch who frequently and brutally takes a whip to her imbecilic twin sons; the promiscuous use of firearms in an indoor setting by half the cast; and the played-for-laughs radioactive poisoning that makes as many of them glow, developed by the latest husband of the whip-wielding mom. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t all take place on an Ivy League campus but in backwoods Arkansas, where a rep from a national poll studying rural living makes the mistake of riding his bike onto the property of this inbred-acting array.

Fred MacMurray plays this poor sap in what I’d rate as the top comic performance of his long and still underrated career (The Apartment is, of course, a masterpiece, but he’s mostly a no-joke total heel in that one). His timing is flawless when he has to react about once a second to the mayhem going on around him. The supporting cast, which includes Marjorie Main as “Ma,” is in the same class, including one major acting surprise. And voiceover bonus commentary by producer/writer Michael Schlesinger and film archivist Stan Taffel speculate that Main’s work here might have encouraged MacMurray to get her cast a couple years later in The Egg and I, a huge hit for Universal-International and the movie that launched the Ma & Pa Kettle series (I remember when it was theatrically issued in the summer of 1954, which only the biggest box office wave-makers were in those days).

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Getting back to Murder, which gets a 4K spiff-up here, MacMurray shows up at the sub-ramshackle house as part of his job — and to see if he can figure out what happened to the work colleague who preceded him and was not heard from again (good luck on that one). Instead, he’s accosted on the way by one of the twins; they’re Mert and Bert, and Peter Whitney nails both roles, abetted by some of the best matte work of the era. All the blood relations here seem to be products of Ma Barker’s gene pool, and the source of constant conflict here is the whereabouts of 70 grand from some long-ago family crime spree that’s supposedly hidden somewhere in the house. Grandma (Mabel Paige) knows the elusive location, but she’s on her death bed — and even in her better days was always “tetched.” The only hint is a few musical notes that result in nothing when they’re hummed and a few accompanying lyrics of gibberish that make about as much sense.

Nobody in the family trusts any other member, and this extends to poor MacMurray, who would have been better off lobbying his superiors to handle the Death Valley polling territory. Matters get more complicated when the family member who pulled off the robbery escapes from jail and shows up to mount her own money search. The tragic Helen Walker has this role, and it’s obvious before very long that she’s an imposter with her own agenda, and like very few other people here, is “normal.

Two Hollywood hopefuls in the cast all but had their careers ended by auto mishaps. Jean Heather, who, despite noteworthy appearances in both Going My Way and Double Indemnity, basically came out of career nowhere here to go all the way thoroughly “nailing” the family’s one likable character, who, alas, may be even more tetched than grandma. In real life, beautiful Heather got thrown from a car and disfigured, and made her final screen appearance in a 1949 ‘B’ Western.

The decline of Walker, who’d scored in a high-profile co-lead in her first picture, was more protracted but possibly more of a nightmare. She picked up three soldier hitchhikers on New Year’s Eve of 1946, and when she flipped the car, one of them was killed and the other two badly injured. The survivors charged drunkenness, and the messy trial that resulted cleared her criminally but resulted in career-wrecking publicity. She worked intermittently after that, but after good supporting roles in a couple well-regarded 20th Century-Fox noirs, it was a steep toboggan ride for her. Commentators Schlesinger and Taffel may be too gentlemanly to mention it, but at least at some point, alcohol was indeed a debilitating problem with her. In her final big-screen appearance (The Big Combo), it clearly shows on her face.

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The director here was George Marshall, who spent a 56-year career mixing bombs, god-awfuls, nonentities and several indisputably enjoyable “entertainments” without ever making a really great movie or major factor in any title’s applicable movie year, other than Destry Rides Again (coming soon from Criterion). Schlesinger and Taffel are quite enamored of him in their appropriately breezy mix of the jocular and informative, though one of them claims that Marshall directed three of the five episodes in “How the West Was Won” when it was Henry Hathaway who did (Marshall only directed “The Railroads,” which is the weakest of the quintet). The actors’ dexterity here is so keen throughout that one has to assume that Marshall definitely deserves his share of the praise, especially with the younger players. But even at 94 minutes, the action gets a little labored in the final going before it’s yanked with vigor back into the plus side by a terrifically clever barn-set finale. The script, but the way, is co-written by Lou Breslow, who also penned a comedy that I’ve  coincidentally been watching as we speak, It was 1950’s Never a Dull Moment, in which MacMurray weds and drags the incomparable Irene Dunne to his struggling farm, and this city-dweller begins living a kind of Green Acres existence,

Ultimately, the standout takeaway is that I can’t immediately think of another comedy that’s anything like it — and certainly not from the 1940s — though the commentary notes its warped link with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I suspect Paramount is the only studio that would have attempted it at the time because they really had a flair for off-center farces. I can just see a horrified Louis B. Mayer seeing it at an industry screening and immediately putting out a directive for MGM to speed up development on Love Laughs at Andy Hardy.

Mike’s Picks: “Murder, He Says” and “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project”