1940: Part 2

Dance, Girl, Dance. Directed by Dorothy Arzner. You couldn’t ask for two stronger actresses to represent opposing ideas of feminism than Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball. Each a firebrand in her own way, each actress makes a distinct and unforgettable impression in her respective role, O’Hara portraying a trained ballerina forced to make ends meet by working as the second-banana “stooge” to Ball’s burlesque queen (who, for the record, loves her job). There are good performances by Louis Hayward (a fellow who has never really received the acting credit he is due), Virginia Field, Ralph Bellamy, Maria Ouspenskaya, Mary Carlisle, Katharine Alexander, Walter Abel and Sidney Blackmer too, as well as some fine footwork by dancer Vivien Fay. I must also applaud the camerawork by Russell Metty and an uncredited Joseph H. August. I don’t like the film quite so much as Arzner’s earlier drama Christopher Strong, but Dance, Girl, Dance is still very good, an important part of film history for women directors (the Library of Congress added the film to its National Film Registry in 2007) and it certainly moves along at a zippy pace, feeling even shorter than its 89 minutes.

The Grapes of Wrath. Directed by John Ford. Ford’s classic, adapted from John Steinbeck’s novel, is not my absolute favorite of his works – it doesn’t resonate with me quite like Drums Along the Mohawk, The Long Voyage Home, The Quiet Man and The Searchers do – and yet there is no question that Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell – Darwell won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar – give blue-ribbon performances here. Perhaps the most astounding work is done by John Carradine as infinitely wise preacher John Casy, but don’t forget John Qualen as “Muley,” a down-on-his-luck pal of the Joad family, Grant Mitchell as a suspicious caretaker of a migrant camp and Kitty McHugh as a tired, bitter waitress. The most striking element of the filmmaking is Gregg Toland’s cinematography; I’m surprised he didn’t get an Oscar nomination, although it is hard to complain too much when he did receive one the same year for a different Ford film, The Long Voyage Home, which also demonstrates his mastery behind the camera. Toland’s photography and the strong lead performances make the film a necessary watch for all film fans.

The Long Voyage Home. Directed by John Ford. How fantastic it was to see this on the big screen at the New York Film Festival, the first time that I have ever seen a John Ford film in a theater. Gregg Toland’s stunning, Oscar-nominated black-and-white cinematography, which stands with the best of his work (Wuthering Heights, The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane, etc.), looks so magnificent that I’m extra glad that I saw it at Lincoln Center rather than on TV. It’s too bad that Voyage has been forgotten compared to the other major Ford films that were released before and after – namely Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley – since Voyage was in fact nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, along with five other nominations at that ceremony. The film is clearly the product of a highly artistic vision, evident right away in the first five minutes, during which there is no dialogue from any characters, only the sounds of radio transmissions. Character actors rule the roost here, with engaging performances coming from Thomas Mitchell, Ian Hunter (perhaps not a “character actor,” exactly, but impressive no matter what category), Barry Fitzgerald, Wilfred Lawson, John Qualen (what a marvelous face! – examples here and here), Mildred Natwick, Ward Bond (a bastard in real life, but hey, he was a great actor), Arthur Shields (to be honest I prefer him to his brother Barry Fitzgerald, who is entertaining but awfully hammy) and Jack Pennick. Although John Wayne is top-billed, he doesn’t have either the most screen time or the most dialogue; he actually says very little, probably owing in part to the fact that his Swedish accent is kind of weird. Even so, Wayne is such an effective performer that he is watchable just for the wonderfulness of his cinematic presence. The Long Voyage Home was a flop when it was released – Ford’s budget was $682,495 but the film earned only $580,129 at the box office – but thanks to UCLA’s dedicated preservationists and the New York Film Festival, the film has found new admirers.

Strange Cargo. Directed by Frank Borzage. Based on Richard Sale’s popular novel Not Too Narrow, Not Too Deep (1936), Strange Cargo is a somewhat maligned, misunderstood drama with mystical overtones that benefits from great direction by Frank Borzage (an old hand at nearly every genre he was tasked with during the studio era) and engaging performances from Joan Crawford (who somehow looks even more luminous than usual because she is deglamorized in many scenes), Clark Gable, Ian Hunter in perhaps his greatest role as all-seeing, all-knowing “Cambreau,” Peter Lorre, Paul Lukas, Albert Dekker, J. Edward Bromberg and Eduardo Ciannelli, and extraordinary camerawork by Robert H. Planck that has remarkable uses of lighting and camera angles. Some of the logistics of the plot are muddled, but if you read the film as a fantasy and you just go along for the ride, you’ll enjoy it. Viewers may also note that the screenplay’s humanist message is interesting given the time when the film was made, when the United States was on the brink of entering World War II. Harking back to the novel’s title, New York Times film critic Benjamin R. Crisler wrote in Strange Cargo’s 1940 review that “the allegory is certainly not too deep, but it does seem a bit too narrow to accommodate itself readily to the broad and brutal sweep of the penny-dreadful narrative”; in spite of Mr. Crisler’s comments, I consider Strange Cargo definitely worth seeing.

Waterloo Bridge. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. This excellent adaptation of the World War I romance, which had previously been made in 1931 by James Whale and starring Mae Clarke and Douglass Montgomery, stars the incomparable Vivien Leigh and the much-underrated Robert Taylor (he gives the best dramatic performance I have seen from him so far). Joseph Ruttenberg’s Oscar-nominated cinematography is exquisite, particularly in a lovely scene set in the “Candlelight Club.” The best supporting performance is given by Maria Ouspenskaya as the ballet mistress from hell, a woman without an ounce of sympathy or tenderness, a 180-degree turn from her mentor-role in Dance, Girl, Dance. Fans of classic film will undoubtedly recognize Lucile Watson, Virginia Field, C. Aubrey Smith, Janet Shaw (probably best remembered as the waitress who says she’d “just about die” for Teresa Wright’s ring in Shadow of a Doubt) and Steffi Duna in the cast as well. There are no real surprises in this film, just a tearjerker of a story with great acting from the two leads and memorable photography.

Food for Cinema Thought: In Praise of “That Guy”

When reading the recent obituary of actress Catherine E. Coulson, best known for playing Margaret Lanterman (aka “The Log Lady”) on David Lynch’s TV show “Twin Peaks,” I learned something I had not known, or perhaps had forgotten: Coulson was once married to Jack Nance. Nance, a character actor who famously starred in Lynch’s debut feature, Eraserhead (1977), and later appeared in many of Lynch’s films and also in “Twin Peaks,” made a living out of being a “That Guy.” He was one of those character actors who eventually became recognizable enough that your average moviegoer would probably say, “Hey! It’s that guy!” without necessarily remembering Nance’s name. (If you’re interested in reading more about Nance’s tumultuous life and career, read this Quietus piece, which has interviews with Lynch and Coulson.) I often consider these performers the most exciting ones to watch; they’re the people who complete film casts, not by being A-list stars but by playing parents, teachers – in short, all the smaller roles that can stand out if the actor is memorable.

When watching Pleasantville (1998) recently, I thought about this with regard to J.T. Walsh, who plays Big Bob, the mayor-character on a 50s TV show depicting idyllic, small-town America. When two teenagers living in the 1990s get magically transported into the world of the show, they begin to change the ways that the repressed fictional characters think and act, which is of course a problem for Bob, who is used to being in charge of a moralistic, law-abiding community.

I love this scene in the town’s bowling alley, in which Big Bob soberly acknowledges the comfort and safety of the building that he and other townsmen are staying in during the rainstorm (the first in Pleasantville’s history). There’s something about the way Walsh delivers those lines that makes them funny even though the words themselves are not outwardly unusual or witty. It’s the seriousness with which he says them, and perhaps also because his voice reminds me a little of Edward Herrmann, and maybe it’s also in the way that cinematographer John Lindley lit the scene (here’s a clip from later in the scene). I can’t help feeling that we lost a great one when Walsh died of a heart attack that same year, 1998. Even though he never had a starring role (at least not one that I can recall), he was in so many movies and TV shows that he made a mark, whether people knew his name or not.

Stephen Root is another “That Guy,” perhaps a little better known because a) he’s still around and b) he has had the good fortune to have had substantial roles in some widely-known projects, like voicing the characters Bill Dauterive and Buck Strickland on the long-running Fox animated sitcom “King of the Hill” and playing the perennially mistreated employee Milton Waddams in the cult-classic film Office Space (1999). Root also had a co-starring role as Jimmy James, a Ted Turner-like billionaire-turned-radio-station-owner, in the 90s sitcom “NewsRadio.” In the clips posted above, showing scenes from the fourth-season episode “Super Karate Monkey Death Car,” Jimmy James reads aloud from his memoir, Jimmy James: Capitalist Lion Tamer, which has been translated into Japanese and then translated back into English as Jimmy James: Macho Business Donkey Wrestler. (Hilarity ensues.) I have no idea why Stephen Root has never been nominated for any major film or TV awards, but his work on “NewsRadio” is pure gold. It takes considerable skill to sell absurd lines with the conviction that Root imbues: “Glorious sunset of my heart was fading. Soon the super karate monkey death car would park in my space. But Jimmy has fancy plans, and pants to match.”

Another good example is seen in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), in which character actor John Berkes plays Papa Minosa, father of the man whose plight down in a collapsed cave in their little New Mexico town has turned the area into a site of mass-media frenzy.

In this scene, Papa Minosa reacts to the carnival that has sprung up around his son’s harrowing life-or-death situation. People from all across the country have come to exploit the attempts to save Leo Minosa, and his father, as played by Berkes, cares so much more about the rescue efforts than he does about the throngs of vacationers and thrill-seekers just looking for some excitement, as well as some popcorn and cotton candy while they’re at it. This scene lasts ten seconds and the character never says a word; his face says it all. I don’t think John Berkes is remembered by anyone except die-hard film buffs – especially since so many of his roles were uncredited bit parts – but I’ll never forget his performance in Ace in the Hole.

In another example from the 1950s, this is a scene from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), in which a chatty, well-meaning parking lot attendant played by James Edwards gets in the way of the criminal activity that Timothy Carey – one of the most offbeat dudes in American cinema of the 1950s through 1980s – is trying to carry out. Like the definition of the last name of Carey’s character, Nikki Arcane, Carey had a certain mystique, an aura of inexplicable yet obvious weirdness, which allowed him to play several dozen bizarre characters on both the big and small screens. The way that Kubrick and dialogue writer Jim Thompson (yes, that Jim Thompson) incorporate racial tension through the implications of racist language is strengthened by the performances given by both actors.

Women can be “That Guys” too, of course. Who could forget Alice Drummond as the librarian whose paranormal experience in the basement stacks of the New York Public Library opens the film Ghostbusters (1984)? Drummond has been playing the “little old lady” role for decades, seen in such films as Awakenings, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, In & Out, Pieces of April and Doubt and in TV shows including “Night Court,” “The Equalizer,” “Law & Order,” “Spin City” and “Boston Legal,” never making her a household name yet providing her with an excellent résumé.

Going back to the 1930s, Helen Troy could occasionally be seen in comedies and dramas that required a fast-talking secretary, telephone operator (she was very funny as this type in Born to Dance) or maid. She made only a handful of films before her premature death in 1942, but she could steal any scene she was given, as is the case in this clip from Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937), in which she thoroughly perplexes Buddy Ebsen in his endeavor to sign up for a gym membership.

It’s not easy to upstage the leads in a film as momentous as The Graduate (1967), but somehow Elizabeth Wilson does that as Mrs. Braddock. The laugh she lets out when she hears that her son Ben is going to get married is equal parts entertaining and terrifying. Wilson, who passed away a few months ago, made a long career out of playing supporting roles, but she sure got to be in a lot of films that will live on forever in the hearts of film fans (Picnic, The Birds, Catch-22, Nine to Five, The Addams Family and Quiz Show are just a few of the other titles in her filmography). In other “great screams” history, the horror genre has had its share of noteworthy character actresses too. The name Catherine Gaffigan may not ring any bells, but if you’ve seen Brian De Palma’s breakthrough feature, Sisters (1973), you’ll never forget her as Arlene, an insane asylum inmate whose germophobia transcends everything. Gaffigan did not receive screen credit, but man, her screaming at Jennifer Salt is my favorite part of that movie.

The same year as The Graduate, another groundbreaking film about relationships came out: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It is most beloved for its three major stars – Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier – but two of my favorite scenes in the film involve actresses who have supporting roles. In the first of the clips posted above, Virginia Christine (best known in the 1960s and 70s as “Mrs. Olson” in commercials for Folger’s Coffee), who plays Katharine Hepburn’s art gallery assistant, displays her two-faced nature, for which she receives a calm yet extremely potent rebuke from Hepburn. In the second clip, Beah Richards explains to Spencer Tracy the reasons why he and her husband (Roy Glenn) are so unwilling to accept the interracial marriage of their children (Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton). For this performance Richards received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and it is easy to see why. Her quiet strength and dignity are powerful components of the character.

Another favorite of mine is Anne Haney, who played Mrs. Sellner, the inquisitive social worker in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993). I didn’t remember to include Haney or any of the aforementioned actresses in a post I wrote about character actresses nearly two years ago, but all of these women made (and still make) strong impressions on me in their film and television appearances. With Haney, I think she was particularly good both in Mrs. Doubtfire and in the “Golden Girls” episode “The Operation” (here’s a clip of her two-minute scene in that episode, slightly sped-up to avoid copyright infringement rules [I assume] but still effective) because she had a naturalistic way of talking and moving, plus a charming Southern accent. Haney came from a background of studying drama at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but she did not make her first television appearance until 1978, when she was 44, and her first film was Hopscotch in 1980. I think that’s what I love best about character actors: they come from all walks of life and they use their life experiences to make their characters feel like “real,” ordinary people. They might not be glamorous gods and goddesses with impeccable makeup and movie-star good looks, but they have an appeal all their own.

More New Images: Films of 2015/Women Cinematographers, Part 2

Cinematographer/director Reed Morano (left) on the set of Meadowland last year. Photograph by Jess Weiss.

Four months ago I wrote a post detailing some new movies that had been shot by women cinematographers, of whom there are more than you might realize working in both the big-budget and independent sectors of the film industry. Now that we are closing in on awards season, here are a dozen more trailers for films that will soon be released, all showcasing the work of female cinematographers. One day I hope that there will be so many women working behind the camera that it will no longer be necessary for me or other advocates of women in film to highlight their accomplishments as separate from those of men (since women are the minority sex in the fields of direction and cinematography), but for the time being it is essential to recognize the talented women doing work that deserves to be appreciated both by moviegoers and by the Academy.

Meet the Patels (dirs. Geeta Patel and Ravi Patel) – DP: Geeta Patel (in theaters now). Advertised as a “laugh-out-loud, real-life romantic comedy,” Geeta Patel photographed and co-directed this documentary about her brother, Ravi, who is pressured by their Indian-American family to find a suitable wife.

Wildlike (dir. Frank Hall Green) – DP: Hillary Spera (in theaters September 25). This indie feature, which debuted at the Hamptons International Film Festival last October, stars young London-born actress Ella Purnell as a troublesome American teen who is sent to live with an uncle in Juneau, Alaska. The cast also includes more established actors Bruce Greenwood, Ann Dowd and Brian Geraghty.

Brand: A Second Coming (dir. Ondi Timoner) – DP: Svetlana Cvetko (in theaters October 2). Russell Brand is a controversial, polarizing figure in comedy and pop culture, but perhaps Timoner’s documentary will shed new light on him. Cinematographer Svetlana Cvetko has worked on many other nonfiction films in the last few years, including Academy Award winner Inside Job (2010), Red Army (2014) and She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014).

Freeheld (dir. Peter Sollett) – DP: Maryse Alberti (in theaters October 2). A combination romance-drama-biopic, Freeheld tells the true story of Laurel Hester (played here by Julianne Moore), a New Jersey police lieutenant who was diagnosed with breast cancer and afterwards fought for the rights to pension benefits on behalf of her partner, Stacie Andree (played by Ellen Page). Cinematographer Maryse Alberti is probably this year’s MVP among women in her field, having also shot M. Night Shyamalan’s horror-comedy The Visit (currently playing in theaters) and the newest entry in the Rocky boxing-picture franchise, Creed (more on that later in this post).

Gravy (dir. James Roday) – DP: Amanda Treyz (in theaters October 2). Despite some lengthy delays, this zombie comedy written and directed by the former star of the USA TV show “Psych” assembles a large cast of well-known actors: Michael Weston, Sarah Silverman, Gabourey Sidibe, Sutton Foster, Dulé Hill (Roday’s co-star from “Psych”), Paul Rodriguez, Jimmi Simpson, Lily Cole, Lothaire Bluteau and Roday himself. Amanda Treyz has a long history of photographing horror films and thrillers; some of the titles on her résumé include Chromeskull: Laid to Rest 2 (2011), All Superheroes Must Die (2011), Holy Ghost People (2013), Zoe Gone (2014) and Anguish (2015).

Meadowland (dir. Reed Morano) – DP: Reed Morano (in theaters October 16). For the past decade Reed Morano has been one of the most sought-after cinematographers in American film, photographing independent films including Frozen River (2008), Little Birds (2011), Kill Your Darlings (2013) and The Skeleton Twins (2014), as well as working twice with Rob Reiner on the films The Magic of Belle Isle (2012) and And So It Goes (2014). Now Morano has taken on the additional mantle of directing, making her feature debut with a drama, Meadowland. The film stars Olivia Wilde, who gives a reportedly fantastic performance, as well as Luke Wilson, Giovanni Ribisi, Elisabeth Moss, John Leguizamo, Mark Feuerstein, Juno Temple, Kevin Corrigan, Merritt Wever, Scott Mescudi, Ty Simpkins, Skipp Sudduth, Yolonda Ross and Ned Eisenberg. (More about Meadowland can be read in this Indiewire interview with Reed Morano and Olivia Wilde from the Tribeca Film Festival back in April.)

Tab Hunter Confidential (dir. Jeffrey Schwarz) – DP: Nancy Schreiber (in theaters October 16). The life of popular 1950s matinee idol Tab Hunter, who had to hide his sexuality at the time (although he came out publicly in 2006), is profiled in this new documentary. Interviewees in the film include such notable Hollywood colleagues as Clint Eastwood, Debbie Reynolds, George Takei, John Waters, Robert Wagner, Don Murray, Connie Stevens, Darryl Hickman, Dolores Hart, Terry Moore, Lainie Kazan, Portia de Rossi, Noah Wyle, TCM host (and former actor) Robert Osborne, writer/actor Rex Reed and writer Eddie Muller.

Truth (dir. James Vanderbilt) – DP: Mandy Walker (in theaters October 16). Robert Redford may have another opportunity to be nominated for the Best Actor Oscar with this dramatic biopic in which he portrays news anchor Dan Rather. Truth also stars such heavy hitters as Cate Blanchett (playing Mary Mapes, whose book provides the basis for this film), Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, Topher Grace, Bruce Greenwood, Stacy Keach and John Benjamin Hickey. The film also benefits from the keen eye of Australian cinematographer Mandy Walker, who has shot many award-winning films including Shirley Barrett’s Love Serenade (1996) and Walk the Talk (2000), Samantha Lang’s The Well (1997), Ray Lawrence’s Lantana (2001), Billy Ray’s Shattered Glass (2003), Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (2008), John Curran’s Tracks (2013) and also the upcoming Gavin O’Connor film Jane Got a Gun.

Difret (dir. Zeresenay Berhane Mehari) – DP: Monika Lenczewska (in theaters October 23). Executive-produced by global superstar Angelina Jolie and winner of the Audience Award (in the “World Cinema – Dramatic” category) at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, this Ethiopian story told in the Amharic language focuses on fourteen-year-old Hirut (played by Tizita Hagere), who is kidnapped and shoots her captor in self-defense. Hirut’s case is defended by lawyer Meaza Ashenafi (Meron Getnet), a woman who has also struggled against the oppressive men and laws of her country. The film is based on real events that happened in 1996.

The Wonders (dir. Alice Rohrwacher) – DP: Hélène Louvart (in theaters October 30). A tale of girls and women growing up in rural Italy, Rohrwacher’s independent drama (which she also wrote) stars her older sister, Alba Rohrwacher, teenager Maria Alexandra Lungu in her film debut and also internationally-renowned Italian actress Monica Bellucci, who will be seen as “Bond woman” Lucia Sciarra in Spectre this November. The cinematography is by Hélène Louvart, who has had a long history of working with women directors, including Dominique Cabrera, Bénédicte Liénard, Danielle Arbid, Claire Denis, Catherine Corsini, Agnès Varda, Héléna Klotz, Virginie Despentes, Annemarie Jacir and Mati Diop. The Wonders was nominated for the Palme d’Or and won the Grand Prize of the Jury at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

Creed (dir. Ryan Coogler) – DP: Maryse Alberti (in theaters November 25). This is one film that is guaranteed to draw a huge audience, continuing the legacy of champion boxer and ultimate underdog Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) by putting him in the position of mentor to Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), who is the son of Rocky’s former foe, Apollo Creed. Jordan and director Coogler previously worked together on Coogler’s debut, Fruitvale Station (2013), so it will be interesting to see what they and cinematographer Maryse Alberti (Todd Haynes’ Poison (1991) and Velvet Goldmine (1998), Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998), Richard Linklater’s Tape (2001), Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008)) bring to this new addition to Warner Brothers’ Rocky franchise.

Life (dir. Anton Corbijn) – DP: Charlotte Bruus Christensen (in theaters December 4). Ten years ago Mick LaSalle wrote an essay for the San Francisco Chronicle in which, on the fiftieth anniversary of James Dean’s death, he wrote that Dean is “the only actor I know who’s impossible to watch without knowing he’s dead… with Dean, his being dead seems part of the point. To watch him is to simultaneously grieve him. There he is, so emotional, and he’s dead; so young and beautiful, and he’s dead. For most classic actors, death is just a passing phase, a speed bump that the public consciousness encounters and processes, on the way to seeing the actor as alive again, if only in art. But Dean’s is the death that keeps on giving.” It seems strange, therefore, to watch a fictionalized version of Dean (in this case, Dane DeHaan) on our screens, but here it is, presented as a story seen through the eyes of photojournalist Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson), who followed Dean around for a Life magazine profile. Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen might have a chance at an Oscar nomination, either for this film or for her work in Thomas Vinterberg’s Far from the Madding Crowd earlier this year.

Indelible Film Images: Girl with Hyacinths

Girl with Hyacinths (1950) – dir. Hasse Ekman

Starring: Eva Henning, Ulf Palme, Birgit Tengroth, Anders Ek, Marianne Löfgren, Gösta Cederlund, Karl-Arne Holmsten, Keve Hjelm, Anne-Marie Brunius, Gudrun Brost

Cinematography: Göran Strindberg

(Note: I saw the film at the recent Hasse Ekman retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, but I don’t think you can find Ekman’s films on DVD in the US unless they are bootleg copies – and, of course, I don’t recommend those. Second note: Ingmar Bergman once referred to Girl with Hyacinths as “an absolute masterpiece. 24 carats. Perfect.”)

Food for Cinema Thought: Supply and Demand?

I have noticed that lately movie theaters are doing something that, as far as I know, has not been done before: films that were particularly successful in IMAX earlier in the year are brought back by popular demand. I’m not talking about films from years ago, like when Jurassic Park was revived for a twentieth-anniversary-celebration run on IMAX screens; I mean new movies, like Jurassic World and Mad Max: Fury Road, the latter having returned this week, September 11 through September 17. While this is exciting for moviegoers who missed the first-run titles when they were out earlier in the summer (like me – I didn’t get a chance to see Mad Max), I wonder what it means for the industry. Should movies from 2015 be put back in theaters after they have already run their course? Obviously the idea is for these juggernauts to make even more money than they already did the first time around, but does this model take tickets away from movies that are only just being released now? Couldn’t an IMAX re-release adversely affect box office results by potentially taking viewers away from brand-new movies? Some food for (cinema) thought.

A New Retrospective at MoMA: The Films of Hasse Ekman

Swedish filmmaker Hasse Ekman (1915-2004) had a long career both in front of and behind the camera. The son of legendary theater and film actor Gösta Ekman, Hasse Ekman carved own his niche in cinema, starting as an actor and then going on to direct 41 films (many of which were the products of his own original screenplays) between 1940 and 1964. He is now the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, which will be showing ten of his directorial efforts. (Last week I also had the opportunity to see a film in which both Hasse Ekman and his father appeared, the 1936 romantic drama Intermezzo, directed by Gustaf Molander and co-starring Ingrid Bergman.) Although Hasse Ekman’s work was overshadowed by the success of Ingmar Bergman during the same period, MoMA is resurrecting Ekman’s filmography for a new generation of moviegoers. Here is a look at some of the films that will be screening in the upcoming series.

The First Division (1941) – Sat. Sept. 12 at 7:30 pm and Mon. Sept. 14 at 4:00 pm – Famed Swedish actor Lars Hanson stars in this drama about World War II. Hanson’s name may be best known to American silent film buffs; he starred in a number of well-known MGM films, including The Scarlet Letter (1926) with Lillian Gish, Flesh and the Devil (1926) with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert and The Wind (1928) with Gish again, but Hanson worked in the Swedish film industry both before and after his time in Hollywood. Hasse Ekman also has a supporting role in The First Division.

The Banquet (1948) – Sat. Sept. 12 at 1:30 pm and Wed. Sept. 16 at 7:00 pm – Ekman and his wife at the time, Eva Henning, have supporting roles in this drama of complex family relations. Also featured in the cast is Birger Malmsten, who worked with Ingmar Bergman many times, including in It Rains on Our Love (1946), Thirst (1949), Secrets of Women (1952), The Silence (1963) and Face to Face (1976).

The Girl from the Third Row (1949) – Fri. Sept. 11 at 4:00 pm and Thurs. Sept. 17 at 4:00 pm – Ekman wrote this drama as a response to Ingmar Bergman’s 1949 film Prison (a film in which Ekman had an acting role) by exploring similar themes of life’s interconnectivity and theories of existentialism. Eva Henning plays “The Girl,” while Bergman regulars Gunnar BjörnstrandBarbro Hiort af Ornäs and Maj-Britt Nilsson, as well as Hasse Ekman, also play supporting roles.

Girl with Hyacinths (1950) – Wed. Sept. 9 at 7:00 pm and Fri. Sept. 18 at 7:00 pm – Ekman’s favorite among the films he directed, this drama tells the tale of a young woman (played by Eva Henning) who has committed suicide, and a host of her friends and family members look into the reasons why. The September 9 screening will be introduced by Hasse Ekman’s widow, Viveka, as well as by his daughter with Eva Henning, Fam Ekman.

Gabrielle (1954) – Sun. Sept. 13 at 2:00 pm and Fri. Sept. 18 at 4:00 pm – A romantic drama of infidelities and revenge, the title character is played by Eva Henning and the other two-thirds of the love triangle are played by Hasse Ekman and Birger Malmsten. Supporting actors in the film include Inga Tidblad (she played Ekman’s mother in Intermezzo two decades earlier), Karin Molander (wife of Lars Hanson) and Gunnar Björnstrand, while the black-and-white cinematography is by Gunnar Fischer, who shot many of Ingmar Bergman’s films between the late 1940s and the early 60s, such as Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957) and The Magician (1958).

No Small Parts: Supporting Actors in Casablanca (1942)

Seeing Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) on the big screen at the Museum of Modern Art last weekend as part of the Ingrid Bergman centennial retrospective reminded me that the film is so much more than just a vehicle for its four stars, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains (admittedly, Rains’ name is not above the title either in advertising or in the film’s opening credits, but his role is large enough and his lines memorable enough that he has been accorded a higher position in viewers’ hearts). Casablanca is also a wonderful showcase for the many character actors who populated Hollywood in the 1940s, a large number of whom were European refugees, like the characters they play in the movie. With the exception of John Qualen, because I cannot find any videos of his performance, I have tried to account for all of the notable supporting roles in the film by writing a little about each actor and showing his or her work in clips. As Russian theatre director Konstantin Stanislavski said, “there are no small parts, only small actors,” and American character actor Dabbs Greer once remarked that “every character actor, in their own little sphere, is the lead.” That is certainly true of the many performers who shine, even if only very briefly, in Casablanca.

The striking presence of German actor Conrad Veidt (1893-1943) brings life to the role of Third Reich official Major Heinrich Strasser. A tall, imposing man with a distinctively nasal voice, Veidt made a name for himself in Weimar-era horror films including The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Hands of Orlac (1924) and The Man Who Laughs (1928) and after fleeing the Nazis (he vocally opposed them, which earned him death threats from the Third Reich) in the early 1930s, he found work in the UK and US playing many elegant, mysterious, oftentimes villainous characters. In the 1940s he was recruited to play Nazi generals, as in Escape (1940), All Through the Night (1941) and, most unusually, as both a Nazi and his anti-Nazi twin brother in Nazi Agent (1942). It makes sense, therefore, that Veidt would be cast in a similar role in Casablanca and it is a tribute to his artistry that he was the highest-paid actor in the cast.

Inveterate scene-stealer Sydney Greenstreet (1879-1954) takes charge of every frame he is in, which isn’t bad for a guy who didn’t start making movies until he was in his early 60s (his debut being in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon). Greenstreet doesn’t have much to do in Casablanca except throw his weight around (both symbolically and literally) but any time he shows up, you smile.

In two short scenes in Casablanca, Curt Bois (1901-1991) appears as a nameless pickpocket who warns visitors to the city about “vultures everywhere” as he steals their wallets. Berlin-born Bois, who was Jewish, fled Germany shortly after Hitler came to power, finding work in Hollywood starting in 1937. His career, which lasted eighty years, culminated in his final film performance as Homer the aged poet in Wings of Desire (1987), probably one of the largest roles Bois ever had in the movies. You may also recognize the wife in the pickpocketed couple; that is English actress Norma Varden (1898-1989), who later had bigger roles as the society woman nearly strangled by Robert Walker at a dinner party in Strangers on a Train (1951) and as the wealthy murder victim in Witness for the Prosecution (1957).

Peter Lorre (1904-1964) got the biggest applause at MoMA aside from Ingrid Bergman, and for good reason. Audiences appreciate Lorre’s immense talent, his wide-eyed stare and perhaps especially his Hungarian-accented tenor voice, which could swing from charming to smarmy in the blink of an eye. Lorre could play morally ambiguous, or repugnant, characters and yet still have an ounce of sympathy because he was that good an actor.

Standing to the left of the door to Rick’s place, you can see Dan Seymour (1915-1993) as Abdul, the heavyset bouncer who does not have any dialogue. Seymour appeared in many films and TV shows between the early 1940s and the late 70s, often with character names like “Fats,” “The Pig” and “Big Louie” and character descriptions for uncredited roles including “Fat Doorman in Cairo Theatre,” “Fat Turk at the Café” and “Fat Native Man.” Despite the continuous casting based on his weight, Seymour proved many times to be an excellent actor, two of my favorite roles of his being in films directed by Fritz Lang, The Big Heat (1953) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). (Lang and Chicago-born Seymour became friends while making Cloak and Dagger (1946) after Lang found out that Seymour spoke German. Another interesting fact: Seymour held a degree in Fine Arts from the University of Chicago.)

Moviegoers remember Dooley Wilson (1886-1953) for singing the now-classic “As Time Goes By” at Ilsa’s (Ingrid Bergman) request, but as piano player Sam, Wilson does not merely play a worker in Rick’s hire. On some level Rick and Sam have an employer-employee relationship since one man pays the other, but Sam was also witness to the romance between Rick and Ilsa; Rick considers Sam a trustworthy confidant.

Leonid Kinskey (1903-1998) plays the small but memorable role of Sascha, the bartender at Rick’s Café Américain, seen here attempting to woo Yvonne (Madeleine LeBeau – more on her below). Once described by columnist Louella Parsons as “the maddest Russian on land and sea,” Kinskey made a long career out of playing a long list of types, including political agitators, spies and informers (Trouble in Paradise, Duck Soup, Manhattan Melodrama, Algiers), prisoners (We Live Again, Les Misérables), gigolos (Down Argentine Way, That Night in Rio), cowboys (Rhythm on the Range), snake charmers (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer), interior decorators (Goin’ to Town), waiters and bellhops (I Live My Life, Week-End in Havana), professors (Ball of Fire), musicians and composers (The Cat and the Fiddle, 100 Men and a Girl, The Great Waltz, On Your Toes, The Helen Morgan Story), poets and artists (Café Metropole, Nothing Sacred, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle). In Casablanca, however, Kinskey plays a barkeep who does not have many lines, yet the ones he says are always amusing. Perhaps most famously, Kinskey tells Bogart, “Boss, you did a wonderful thing!” and kisses him on both cheeks after Bogart has helped a young couple to obtain exit visas.

Madeleine LeBeau (b. 1923), the sole surviving cast member from Casablanca, fled France with her husband, French Jewish actor Marcel Dalio, in 1940, adding realism and poignancy to LeBeau’s singing of the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise.”

American actress Joy Page (1924-2008) plays Annina Brandel, one half of a young Bulgarian couple seeking a way out of Casablanca. Page appears a few times throughout the film, not usually saying much, but in this scene she moves Rick (and the audience) as she pleads her case.

Helmut Dantine (1918-1982), uncredited, plays Joy Page’s husband. A Viennese actor, Dantine is perhaps best remembered for playing many Nazi characters from the 1940s through the 1970s. You will also notice Marcel Dalio (1900-1983), another uncredited actor, playing the croupier at the roulette table. Dalio was a well-known actor in France, his best roles being in the two Jean Renoir films he made, Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939). Like so many European Jews, however, he had had to flee the continent and went to Hollywood, never playing such large roles again in American film but always popping up in large supporting casts. As previously mentioned, at the time Dalio was married to Madeleine LeBeau, who plays Yvonne in Casablanca.

Ilka Grüning (1876-1964) and Ludwig Stössel (1883-1973) play the uncredited roles of Mr. and Mrs. Leuchtag, a couple who is immigrating to America after finally receiving their exit visas. Their friend, Carl the headwaiter, is played by Hungarian actor S.Z. Sakall (1883-1955) who found success playing a series of kindhearted fathers, uncles, bosses and working-class men in films including Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Christmas in Connecticut (1945), Romance on the High Seas (1948), In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and Small Town Girl (1953).