Summer Film Festival

With Catholic Eyes

Amidst rifle shots and whooping cries in the pre-dawn darkness, a veteran Irish-American cavalry soldier and a little girl seek shelter from attacking Apaches in the ruins of a Catholic mission; as they hurry through the dilapidated chapel, both pause, turn, and genuflect in the direction of the sanctuary before racing on to their escape.
This scene, from director John Ford’s Rio Grande, perfectly embodies the way a Catholic upbringing manifests itself in the work of Catholic artists; whether or not they drifted from the faith later in life, their roots remained. Not only Catholic imagery, but also notions of grace and redemption, sin and innocence, and the importance of adhering to principles even when the world is against you—all these elements of a Catholic mentality are often so deeply embedded in the perspective of Catholic filmmakers that it cannot help but shine through in their repertoire. Three of Hollywood’s most brilliant directors—Frank Capra, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock—were all raised Catholic, though they did not all exactly fit in the “practicing, faithful Catholic” category. However, regardless of any apparent imperfection of their personal faith lives, Catholic sensibilities were deeply entrenched in their way of thinking and consequently in their films. Even if their faith was somewhat battered and damaged, like the chapel in the scene from Rio Grande, and even if they moved in a world rather hostile to Catholic principles, they almost unconsciously turned to give it reverence, by the content, color, and characters that make up the focus of their work.
An Italian Catholic, Frank Capra was a champion of hanging on to beliefs and ideals when it seems least likely they will triumph. He had an abiding Catholic confidence in man’s basic goodness, and a likewise Catholic respect for the common man. His films celebrated the ordinary man standing up against corruption, greed, and selfishness; he focused on the need for self-sacrifice to bring about change in a wicked world. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is Capra’s moving call for selfless patriotism, in the story of a young, idealistic politician who is “crucified,” as one character puts it, when he takes a stand against corrupt government; it is only when the hero sticks to his ideals, even when they are a “lost cause,” that he undergoes a political death and resurrection and comes out victorious. The same basic concept is found in Mr. Deeds Goes To Town. Arguably Capra’s most famous, It’s A Wonderful Life is a masterpiece of Catholic sentiment, examining the heroic choice to live a quiet life of selfless duty even if it is unglamorous or materially unsuccessful. You Can’t Take It With You runs along similar lines, when Capra contrasts the bitterness and heartbreak that results from pursuing only material pleasures with the contentment and peace possessed by those who set their sights higher and trust God to provide for them, like “the lilies of the field.” 
It doesn’t take much analysis of John Ford’s films to realize that his Irish-Catholic heritage was the wellspring of inspiration for the vast majority of his work. Ford loved to draw on the characters and imagery from Irish-American history; Irish and Catholic characters abound in his films. His pet project was The Quiet Man, set in a small, Catholic, tradition-steeped Irish town; essential to the plot is the fact that the characters look to their local priest for advice and help. But Ford’s work also overflows with subtly Catholic themes of grace and salvation. Stagecoach, for instance—often hailed as the definitive Western—takes a motley handful of imperfect characters—a drunk, an outlaw, a prostitute, a gambler, and a social snob—and charts their journey through a purgatorial experience of mutual suffering. One lesser-known but excellent Catholic-themed work from Ford is 3 Godfathers, in which three bandits become the unlikely godparents and self-sacrificial saviors of an infant in the desert, in a way that parallels the story of the three Magi. 
As a director, Alfred Hitchcock returned again and again to themes of innocence and guilt; to tales of innocent men who find themselves entangled in a world of espionage, or mistaken identity, or crime, who must reorder the situation according to a higher standard of justice. Hitchcock also had a knack for adding Catholic depth to his best thrillers by grounding the hero’s adventures in a moral dilemma. Rear Window, for instance, raises the question of whether voyeurism is ethical if it allows one to prevent or uncover crime, when a man with too much time on his hands begins spying on his neighbors and suspects one of murder. In Rope, the protagonist grapples with the ugliness of intellectual pride—and how it spawns other grave sins. Hitchcock’s most obvious return to his Catholic roots, however, was in I Confess, a chilling examination of a (flawed) priest who keeps his vow to uphold the secret of the confessional even when he is falsely accused of murder as a result.  
To be a Catholic means that the Catholic view of reality shapes all we do, including the art we produce. The confidence in the existence and importance of invisible things like moral principles, the fundamental goodness of life, and man’s need for grace and redemption—these things deep in the spiritual heritage of cinematic masters like Ford, Capra, or Hitchcock, are unmistakably reflected in their artwork. Even if they were—like most of us—not perfect Catholics, the themes and focus of their films prove they are the fruit of a fundamentally Catholic perspective. They saw with Catholic eyes.

You Can’t Take It With You

“You know, Grandpa says most people nowadays are run by fear. Fear of what they eat, fear of what they drink, fear of their jobs, their future, fear of their health. They’re scared to save money, and they’re scared to spend it.  . . . People who commercialize on fear—you know, they scare you to death so they can sell you something you don’t need.”
These words, spoken by dauntless stenographer Alice in director Frank Capra’s 1938 film You Can’t Take It With You, could easily be a snapshot of modern society. The standards set today for a contemporary man, or a contemporary family, drive people to chase certain goals: having a certain kind of car, or a smartphone, or a perfect figure. Consumers dread falling short of the commercial ideal—even if they already possess all that is necessary for a happy life. Yet, they would do well to heed Alice’s inherited wisdom, because, in the face of modern materialism, Capra’s light-hearted You Can’t Take It With You rather boldly aims to redefine personal success and failure. A soul whose sights are set on material success, the film points out, ultimately loses its joy in living.
The story revolves—rather uniquely—not around the two young lovers, Alice and wealthy banker’s son Tony Kirby, but around the heads of their two families and the contrast between their personal philosophies. On the one hand is Anthony P. Kirby, successful businessman disconnected from his wife and son.  On the other is Grandpa Vanderhoff, a father-figure whose zest for life is the heart of his family.
As the story begins, Tony’s single-minded, business mogul father is about to close a major deal, while, one room away, Tony is wooing pretty secretary Alice. When Tony’s mother tells his father about it, Kirby puts the matter aside as unimportant. The real center of his day, the reason he gets up in the morning and goes to work, is not his family, but his business.  Grandpa Vanderhoff’s day, by contrast, is marked by acts of simple wonder at and delight in life: sharing a bag of popcorn, taking a walk in the park, sliding down a banister. He takes a genuine interest in the people he meets. Beginning a conversation with a clerk, he learns the clerk hates his job but has a special talent for toy-making, and invites the man home to dinner—and home to stay. “The same One [takes care of us],” Grandpa explains to him, “that takes care of the lilies of the field, except that we toil a little, spin a little, have a barrel of fun.”
Though his notions may seem foolishly idealistic, he simply has his priorities straight: if pursuing material success destroys a man’s happiness and love for life, it’s not worth doing. Unconventionally, each person in Grandpa’s household chooses whatever enables them to best fulfill their role as members of a family, joyfully—not whatever brings them the most success. Their lives are by no means idyllic; as Vanderhoff says, they “toil a little, and spin a little.”  The family cannot scrape together one hundred dollars when asked to do so; there are even hints there have been harder times in the past. Yet, although the family lives hand-to-mouth; they are content doing so. They are happy, because they are not afraid of material failure; they concern themselves with a more important kind of success. What exactly that success is—and what exactly failure is—only becomes clear when Tony’s upper-crust parents come into direct conflict with the Alice’s colorful family.
Everyone in Tony’s life pursues material goals and consequently lives in perpetual fear. Tony’s father is afraid of failure at any step as a businessman. Tony’s mother is afraid that her son’s middle-class love interest will take a feather out of her social cap. And their associate Ramsey is the tragic portrait of a man so consumed by material business fears that it eventually quite literally kills him. Tony himself ultimately admits to Alice that fear of failure keeps him from pursuing what he really wants in life instead of simply conforming to the social expectations. “It takes courage,” he says, “You know everybody’s afraid to live.”
Such fears so deteriorate the relationships in his father’s life that eventually his father must face the bitter truth about himself: he is, as Grandpa Vanderhoff points out in a very rare outburst of righteous anger, a failure. When Kirby vehemently rejects Alice’s family and their whole class as scum, Vanderhoff loses his temper for the first time in 30 years:

“You’re an idiot, Mr. Kirby,” he cries, “What makes you think you’re such a superior human being? Your money? If you do, you’re a dull-witted fool . . . And a poor one at that. You’re poorer than any of these people you call scum, because I’ll guarantee at least they’ve got some friends. . . . You’ll wind up your miserable existence without anything you can call friend. You may be a high mogul to yourself, but to me you’re a failure – failure as a man, failure as a human being, even a failure as a father.”

In Grandpa Vanderhoff’s eyes, you can’t take it with you. Fears and undue concerns for material success are ultimately irrelevant, as he sees it, because material success cannot last. Capra’s film explores how success in the world’s eyes may mean failure in reality; and failure in the world’s eyes may mean success at what is most important.  It presents a striking perspective on the fear instilled in the soul by materialism—particularly relevant in an increasingly materialistic society, as it undermines the commercial messages which pervade modern life. As Capra carefully makes clear, those who trust in God, like the lilies of the field, need not be anxious about material things, what they are to eat or what they are to wear—for the most successful businessman in all his material splendor was not arrayed in joy as one of these.

YOU KNOW THE FACE: A Hat-Tip to the Character Actors

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          “Do not look at the faces in the illustrated papers. Look at the faces in the street.” 

                                         –G.K. Chesterton 
Just before his death in 2007, 100-year-old Charles Lane had begun work on a documentary called “You Know the Face” about his life and work as a character actor.  Unfortunately, the work was never completed; nevertheless, it would have been aptly named, because from 1931 until 2006, Charles Lane appeared in nearly 400 films and television shows, making him one of the most familiar faces in the backdrop of Hollywood productions for whole generations of film-goers.
Charles Lane, looking his usual surly self
Though seldom appearing for long in any feature, Lane filled roles of vastly-varying professions, from reporters to rent collectors, from psychiatrists to census takers, from secretaries to superintendents, and yet he played—almost exclusively—the same sort of character: a sharp-nosed, practical, antagonistic, business-first fellow in spectacles.  Lane himself recognized the queer continuity of all these roles: “Having had so many small parts,” he once said, “there was a character I played that showed up all the time and people did get to know him, like an old friend.”
Walter Brennan
That notion of an “old friend” beautifully sums up the special, undervalued role character actors play in establishing a film’s quality and atmosphere—the way they help make a piece of Hollywood artwork “great” or “classic.” Of course, when we speak of “Hollywood actors and actresses,” it’s tempting to think exclusively of the stars, like Clark Gable or Audrey Hepburn.  But while the stars may be the center of everyone’s attention, the truth is that they never could have made those fantastic splashes of talent and popularity without the steady acting support of the forgettable but reliable “character actors:” actors who were type-cast or continually filled minor roles that colored in the background. Recurring in dozens of films, often playing the same sort of character, as Lane did, or at least playing different roles with a soon-familiar face, character actors made films more complete. They acted like pieces of the set or colors in the backdrop on a stage: even though they were never the center of attention, by their excellence of serving their purpose they made a movie more vivid, more realistic—in a word, more like life.
Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride
as Ma and Pa Kettle 
The inimitable Edna May Oliver
The reason for this was simply because they played people you meet in “real life”: mere “fellows-on-the-street,” non-glamorous side figures, non-heroes—the sort of person you find in the doctor’s waiting room, behind the cash register, on the train. They were there precisely to flesh out the world surrounding the central characters, and consequently they often packed a punch, so to speak, into the tiny tidbit-of-a-role they had.  Good character actors are the spice and color of a film; they are the sort of people of which the world is full—the “common man” incarnate in a particular way, a personality in a crowd.  After all, let’s face it—perhaps it’s true that everyone wants to be Cary Grant (“Even Cary Grant,” as the man himself once said), but the stereotypical hero of a story can often be less colorful than the life-like characters that surround him: the dying old soldier, the hot-tempered Italian grandmother, the dottering country minister, the local drunk, the obsequious villain’s side-kick, the drawling farm boy, the loony old professor, the brusque British police inspector, the wise-cracking taxi driver. 
Victor McLaglen, a Ford regular
These people aren’t the meat-and-potatoes of a film, but they certainly are the relish; and one director who knew this full-well was the legendary Irish-American John Ford.  Ford had a peculiar talent for gathering around him a group of actors and actresses he would reuse again and again as steady characters that seem to link together all his cinema creations into a cohesive whole.  Take for instance, Ford’s cavalry films—She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache, and Rio Grande—each of the movies has an almost identical cast, with a few notable exceptions, and some of the characters even have the same names in the different movies. Ford, a compositional genius, doubtless knew that standardizing his background cast could unify and tighten the impression his films were to make on his audience. When you begin watching his movies, you start to grow accustomed to seeing the same faces in their old place; it’s an evocative sensation, giving the impression that members of a family are gathering around to tell a tale together.  There is a peculiar sort of comfort and delight in seeing those familiar figures again and again, in varying roles but always solidly delivering performances that heighten the atmospheric tint of the whole film.
Peter Lorre
Guy Kibbee
         So, here’s to the character actors, the fellows in the background, the faces in the street. They spice up the stories we love and make them that more believable, because they are tastes of real life–equally full of interesting and unusual people who don’t fit the stereotypes of hero or heroine. They remind us of people we’ve met and known, even in passing, and so they have become to us—as Lane put it—like old friends.   

(Silent) Summer Movies

I’ve covered a fairly broad selection famous films so far this summer, but it’s high time I turned some attention to the other half of classic movies–the silent era! So, here’s a list of some of the best and brightest silent movies had to offer: the comedies of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.

In all of the following silent movies, you’ll get a sense of how, although the technology was somewhat primitive, it was still a fertile ground for artistic talent. Gifted pioneers emerged and began to produce unique works of art in this brand new field, constantly discovering new techniques and ways of doing things. To us, some of the special effects or shots may not be remarkable at all–but that’s only because we tend to forget how original they were in their own day.   The mind-blowing special effects and stunt-man brilliance of today’s films only got where it is because of people like Keaton and Lloyd who were geniuses in their own right and were willing to experiment and risk their necks for the sake of getting a laugh and making a fun movie. These actors, directors, artists, were stepping out into a completely unknown field, becoming masters of a totally new craft. They invented things like close-ups, panoramic shots, zoom in, zoom out, perspective tricks; they were discovering what worked and what didn’t, and consequently laid the groundwork for every other person involved in the film industry that followed.  . . . AND, moreover, the results of their labors are lots of fun. 🙂 

Of course, you realize it’s hard to find a good quote from a silent movie; so, to make up for that, I’ve put up little clips from the films themselves instead of just pictures! 

Safety Last! (1923)  
Harold Lloyd was one of the three greatest silent comedians of all time, a trio which included Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin.  Steven D. Greydanus (from Decent Films) has observed that Lloyd had a special charm unlike either Keaton or Chaplin, because while those two invented quirky “characters”–Keaton’s extremely deadpan fellow with a funny straw hat, Chaplin’s famous Hitler-moustached “little tramp”–Lloyd came across as simply a “common man” character who got out of–and into–scrapes by his own ingenuity, an “average Joe” persona like that of James Stewart or Tom Hanks. I agree; and perhaps I’m a little biased, but I do love Lloyd best. Here, he plays a small-town boy who goes into the big city to make good and make his hometown sweetheart proud. Then, as my brother would say, “Wacky adventures ensue.”  

After you watch him dangling from that clock-face, listen to this bit of trivia: in a photo shoot a few years earlier, just at the start of his rising stardom, Lloyd picked up what he thought was a prop bomb and pretended to light his cigarette from it. However, it was a real explosive, and detonated as he held it, destroying the two first fingers and part of the thumb on his right  hand.  Some thought this horrible accident would end his career, but Lloyd didn’t let this stop him. He wore a kid glove with prosthetic fingers in all his films after that, which means–that’s right–he’s holding on to that clock with only two real fingers on his right hand. (Also: see the real cars and people moving down below? Yes, he’s that high up!) 
Another piece of trivia: his sweetheart in this–the golden-haired, child-like Mildred Davis–was his real-life wife; and he stayed married to her. 

The Kid Brother (1927) 
I would almost suggest you watch this one first, I love it so much. The story is  simple and sweet: in a family of big, brawny “manly men,” out in the Old West, the runt of the family–Lloyd–has to prove himself, win the heart of the girl he loves, and incidentally save the town from disaster. Besides offering some of the very best of  Lloyd’s ingenious pranks, pratfalls, and sight gags, this film also is seamlessly written with lots of fun characters (including carnival con men, neighborly country rivals, and a monkey in a sailor suit), thrilling action sequences, and a delightful little romance.  

Unfortunately, I can’t find a good clip from the Kid Brother on YouTube, so enjoy this brilliant little montage of Harold Lloyd clips set (anachronistically) to the Beatles’ “Help Me.” 

The General (1926)
This is one of Buster Keaton’s greatest and most memorable: the humorous and heroic adventures of a Confederate soldier in the Civil War. Get ready for some Yankee-bashing slapstick and more than a mild dose of chivalrous romanticism about the South. 

Like this little clip, the whole film is genuinely sweet and simultaneously funny, and a good introduction to Keaton’s perpetually-poker-faced persona–a very different character doing the same sort of comedy as Lloyd, and pulling it off brilliantly. 

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)                                                    
Thinking of Keaton reminded me of this one, which is historically important for more than one reason. First: it’s a hallmark of the era; big changes going on in small communities, expansion and industrialization pushing smaller businesses off the map; this takes a look at how that would play out in a small Southern town along the Mississippi. Keaton plays the fresh-faced college kid, an old steamboat captain’s son, who, upon returning to town, promptly falls in love with his father’s rival’s daughter and then must find a way to save the family business from literally sinking. (There’s a lot of subtlety in old silent films like this; keep on your toes to catch it all.) But besides all that, this one is famous for some of its unbelievable gags and brilliant comedic tricks. For instance, a hurricane whips through the town and wreaks alot of damage, but somehow Keaton turns this situation into a hilarious one by doing such things as the following: 

 No, folks, there was no CGI, special effects, or stunt doubles used there. That is Keaton himself really standing on the road as the house falls on him. His audacity and ingenuity is simply unequaled by Hollywood’s performers today.  (And here’s a little tidbit of trivia: Mickey Mouse made his first appearance to the world in a little black and white cartoon called “Steamboat Willy,” which was a deliberate spin-off of this!)

Well, there’s a fun little sampling of some of the comic genius of the silent era. Maybe, if the summer doesn’t end too soon, I’ll get a chance to do some of the adventures/thrillers of the pre-talkie days, like The Mark of Zorro with Douglas Fairbanks (Sr.). 

Encore 2: More Summer Movies!

The Four Feathers (1939)  “The army is soft, now. In my day it was different: men were men, and war was war . . .”  During a British imperialist war in Egypt, a sensitive young man from a military family, Harry Faversham, resigns his commission before his regiment is dispatched to active duty. His apparent contempt for the war and the army so scandalizes his friends and family that four of them present him each a single white feather, the symbol of a coward. Shamed into realizing that guilty fear has made him shun his duty,  he resolves to perform some act of bravery to erase the stain of coward from his name–or die trying.  This fantastically thrilling little gem from British filmmakers takes a fascinating look at true courage as it traces the adventures of this military outcast who disguises himself as a native and goes behind enemy lines to save those he loves without their support or even their knowledge, facing hellish African heat and thirst, frightening battles in which both sides are trying to kill him, and even torture.  The cinematography, for its time, is breath-taking, and the performances–especially John Clements as the hero and Ralph Richardson as his tragic best friend–are superb. A special treat in this film is  C. Aubrey Smith, a very good character actor who played many “old soldiers” in his time; this role is one of his most delightful, as a retired general who retells his favorite battle stories at every single dinner.

How Green Was My Valley (1941)  “There is no fence nor hedge around time that is gone. You can go back and have what you like of it, if you can remember.”  Set in a rural mining community in Wales about the turn of the century, this film takes a peak at the negative effects massive industrialization had on homes, on families, and on individuals. It’s told from the perspective of a little boy growing up in the mining town where his father and brothers all work, and shows through his eyes the life-changing experiences that are part of living in a family and in a community: celebrations, marriages, illness, trouble at school, labor strikes, unrequited love, birth and death. Although the story and milieu are very different from legendary director John Ford’s Old West repertoire, if any of his films is really and truly a work of art, this is it. 

Friendly Persuasion (1956) “A man’s life ain’t worth a hill of bean’s except he lives up to his own conscience.” This film is a good one for a quiet Sunday afternoon. Gary Cooper plays a home-lovin’ Quaker farmer, with the sweet-faced Dorothy McGuire playing his wife (and local woman “preacher” for their Quaker community). They’re “plain folks,” and most of the movie is taken up by fun little family anecdotes including horse-racing rivalry between neighbors, a vicious goose, young love, and controversy over bringing music into the Quaker household. The climax is provided when the Civil War suddenly interrupts their otherwise-peaceful home and family life. There’s a couple interesting themes that run through this: how, for example, in marriage, both spouses may have to compromise a little to make their marriage work. The main theme, however, is a profound one about violence and whether the Quakers are obeying their conscience or shirking their duty by refusing to fight in the War. 

His Girl Friday (1940) You’ve got an old fashioned idea divorce is something that lasts forever, ’til death do us part.’ Why divorce doesn’t mean anything nowadays, Hildy, just a few words mumbled over you by a judge.  Fast-paced and hilarious, this is a crazy comedy–with some dark, rough edges–set in the wild world of journalism in the 1930’s. Originally a stage play called “The Front Page,” it tells of a newspaper editor and his ex-wife, who used to be his best reporter and who is currently scheduled to marry a nice, honest small-town insurance salesman. The editor (Cary Grant), who frankly is just something of a heel, makes a last attempt to get his wife (Rosalind Russell) back by convincing her to cover one final story for the paper, about an insane man condemned for murder and a corrupt governor. The dialogue is brilliant, rapid-fire style, and Russell and Grant can snap it back and forth at each other as if they had been doing it for years. Incidentally, this was also the very first film in which characters spoke at the same time, even talking over each other (before, one person at a time would say their lines). It’s also a glimpse at the mentality of the era in the casual, even flippant attitude towards marriage and divorce. (Reminds me of a certain GKC quote: “Frivolous marriage leads to frivolous divorce.”)