Friday, January 29, 2010

Mister Roberts (1955)

I just watched the 1955 James Cagney/Henry Fonda/Jack Lemmon/William Powell movie Mister Roberts for the first time, and it was cool. James Cagney didn't really have a lot of screentime in this film, but he convincingly portrayed the tyrannical Captain as the ship dictator he was through his wonderful acting. Another appeal of this movie that took place during WWII was that it had an all-star cast and directed by famous director John Ford (well, it was mostly directed by Mervyn LeRoy; it had two directors).The film takes place on an American Naval cargo ship during the waning days of World War II. The ship's perpetual mission is to supply the United States fleet in the South Pacific. The ship’s captain, Morton, has a spotless record of cargo delivery that he maintains through an oppressive command: he refuses to let the crew remove their shirts during hot days working in the cargo hold and has not granted his men ”liberty” for at least two years, despite frequent requests from his XO, Lt. JG Douglas "Mister" Roberts, who serves as cargo chief. Roberts has an excellent working relationship with the crew, often bending the rules to allow them some leeway. Morton’s reputation for timely handling of cargo was rewarded with a palm tree from an impressed admiral, which he keeps in a dirt-filled bucket near the ship’s bridge; Morton is quite proud of his gift, however, the crew despises the tree and the Captain himself.

Mister Roberts (1955) started as a novel by Thomas Heggen, but became popular when it hit Broadway as a stage play in 1948, written by Heggen and Joshua Logan. The play starred movie actor Henry Fonda who had left Hollywood after making Fort Apache (1948) with director John Ford. For once, that turned out to be a wise decision, as the play became one of Broadway's most popular hits.

When Logan and the play's producer, Leland Hayward, went to Warner Brothers to make the film version, Fonda felt there was little chance he would be given Roberts. After all, he was then nearly fifty years old and Roberts was written as being a man in his twenties. In fact, Warner Brothers would have preferred Marlon Brando or William Holden in the lead. However, one of the first decisions the producing team made was bringing Ford onboard as director and Ford demanded Fonda. To make Fonda seem younger, most of the rest of the cast was populated with older actors; fifty-five year old James Cagney as the dictatorial Captain Morton and, after Spencer Tracy turned down the role, sixty-two year old William Powell for Doc. For the young Ensign Pulver, Ford chose a little-known actor who had made a screen test for his previous movie The Long Grey Line (1955)- Jack Lemmon.

As the filming began, sailing could not have seemed smoother. Ford used his Navy connections to find one of the old cargo scows to use for the story's setting and boat; cast and crew were all sent to Midway Island for exterior shooting. Why it all went wrong is a matter of controversy. After years playing Roberts on stage, Fonda felt he owned the role and knew how it was to be played. Ford had other ideas, introducing bits of broad physical comedy, inventing new situations and, allegedly, throwing more attention to Lemmon's Pulver than Fonda's Roberts. Fonda kept his mouth shut but Ford could tell he was dissatisfied. One night, Ford confronted Fonda in his quarters while Fonda was having a meeting with Hayward. "I understand you're not happy with my work," Ford muttered and, when Fonda confirmed it, Ford charged him, swinging wildly. Fonda managed to hold him back and Ford later apologized. The damage, however, was done and was irreparable.

Ford continued directing the movie into the next month but could not handle being subservient to an actor. His way of dealing with the humiliation was drinking, keeping an ice chest full of beer nearby and downing up to two cases a day. After exterior shooting was completed, Ford was hospitalized with a gall bladder attack. The day he went into hospital for surgery, he was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy, the director of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and Quo Vadis? (1951). LeRoy shot all the studio-bound interiors except for two scenes, the laundry scene and Pulver's final message to the Captain, both of which were directed by Joshua Logan.

Those who knew the play well from Broadway were unhappy with the end result but their perspective may have been colored by unrealistic expectations. Movie audiences loved Mister Roberts, making it 1955's third-biggest box office hit, and earning Jack Lemmon his first Academy Award. Ford went on to what many feel was his greatest movie, The Searchers (1956), while Fonda had a long career of acting triumphs. But these two former friends never worked together again.
The movie was directed by John Ford, Mervyn LeRoy and Joshua Logan (uncredited). While directing the film, Ford had personality conflicts with actors Henry Fonda and James Cagney. When Ford met Cagney at the airport, the director warned that they would "tangle asses," which caught Cagney by surprise. Cagney later said: "I would have kicked his brains out. He was so goddamned mean to everybody. He was truly a nasty old man." The next day, Cagney was slightly late on set, and Ford became incensed. Cagney cut short the imminent tirade, saying "When I started this picture, you said that we would tangle asses before this was over. I'm ready now – are you?" Ford walked away and he and Cagney had no further conflicts on the set.

During the production of the film, Jack Lemmon started a long-time friendship with Cagney which lasted until Cagney's death in 1986. Their first introduction is as funny as the film itself. Prior to his appearance in his first film, years before Mister Roberts, he started in live television. In one particular performance, Jack Lemmon decided to play his character differently. In his brainstorming he decided to play the character left-handed, which is opposite to his own way of movement. With much practice, he pulled off the performance without anyone noticing the change. This change even fooled Lemmon's wife at the time. A few years went by and Jack met Cagney on their way to Midway Island to film Mister Roberts. They introduced each other and Cagney chimed in "Are you still fooling people into believing you're left handed?" They had a great laugh and a strong friendship endured ever since. As Lemmon noted, this was an example of James Cagney's ability to observe human behavior for his acting.

Henry Fonda wrote in his 1982 autobiography, My Life, that he believed that as good as the movie is, the play is even better. The film was William Powell's last movie, although he died decades later, in 1984. Powell was offered many chances to return to the screen but refused, apparently believing that 35 years of film acting were enough. Anyway, I would recommend this film for James Cagney fans who are also fans of Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, or William Powell. Happy Commenting!!!

(Next blog [for sure]: Horse Feathers [1932])

Clips from Mister Roberts:

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Video Related to White Heat (1949)

George C. Scott on James Cagney. Includes clips from this film:

White Heat (1949)

I just finally watched the 1949 James Cagney movie White Heat, and it was cool. James Cagney was great as Cody Jarrett, the crazy, madman (Hitler-like) criminal who has an obsessed and less than healthy relationship w/ his mother (an Oedipal mama's boy). Brutal, psychotic criminal Cody Jarrett trusts no one, least of all his unfaithful wife Verna and overly ambitious right-hand man Ed Sommers; no one, that is, except his equally criminal mother, the only one who can soothe the blinding migraines that plague him. Sent to jail on a charge he fakes to avoid conviction for the more serious crimes of train robbery and murder, Cody takes into his gang smalltime crook Vic Pardo, who is in reality undercover cop Hank Fallon, sent to infiltrate the Jarrett gang. Cody controls his gang from prison via instructions passed to his mother. Later, in the prison mess hall, Cody learns of Ma Jarret's murder. He goes berserk, and it takes several guards to restrain him and drag him screaming from the room. He's put into a straitjacket and placed in the prison clinic, from which he engineers an escape, taking "Pardo" along with him. After a botched payroll-robbery at an oil refinery, Cody learns Pardo is a special agent and tries to kill him.

An exciting, dynamic film in its own right, White Heat also stands out as the flaming finale to the era of stark, fast-paced crime films made famous by Warner Brothers and James Cagney (among other stars) from the 1930s on ­ films in which the focus was on the often violent but charismatic gangster rather than the law enforcement officials who hunt him. It was also the apotheosis of Cagney's brilliant career, a kind of summing up of the memorable outlaw characters he had created. His projects that followed in the 1950s were mostly lackluster affairs, and the cocky, pugnacious star audiences had come to love was glimpsed infrequently in such films as Love Me or Leave Me and Mister Roberts (both 1955). His last big film before retirement was the Billy Wilder Cold War comedy One Two Three (1961). He returned to the screen twenty years later as the turn-of-the-century New York police chief in Ragtime and made one more film, the TV drama Terrible Joe Moran (1984) before his death in 1986.

White Heat, then, is a chance to catch Cagney one last time as the no-holds barred gangster he created in such pictures as The Public Enemy (1931) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). Here, however, the character has been pushed to the extreme, and the progression to Cody Jarrett can be traced through a trio of gangster films made by director Raoul Walsh, of which this was the last. In The Roaring Twenties (1939), Cagney's criminal is seen in the context of history and society, a man whose ambition and drive is put to service on the wrong side of the law by the circumstances of time and place. In High Sierra (1941), Walsh cast Humphrey Bogart as Roy "Mad Dog" Earle, a troubled man on the run, the gangster as the last individual in an increasingly soulless world. With White Heat the archetype is pushed to the very edge, depicted as a vicious man gripped by insanity. It's fitting that the image Cagney was so identified with should go out with such a bang.

The spectacular ending aside, the most famous scene in White Heat is undoubtedly the one in which Jarrett gets the news in prison of his mother's death. The news is passed down from inmate to inmate at the prison mess hall tables until it finally reaches Jarrett, who explodes into psychotic grief, staggering around the room landing punches on everyone who gets in his way while letting out a kind of strangled, primal cry. Cagney was once asked by a reporter if he had to "psych" himself up for the scene. Cagney responded, "You don't psych yourself up for these things, you do them," reiterating his very non-Method philosophy that working on inward emotional motivation is a waste of time leading to a performance solely for the actor himself. According to Cagney, an actor shouldn't psych himself up to be the character, he should simply understand the character and play it for the audience. His only preparation for the scene, he later said, was remembering a visit as a youngster to see a friend's uncle who was in a psychiatric hospital. "My God, what an education," he said. "The shrieks, the screams of those people under restraint. I remembered those cries, saw that they fitted, and I called on my memory to do as required."

In some ways, White Heat is also a swan song for Warner Brothers, the studio that had become known for quickly produced, gritty action-oriented pictures with a social conscience. By the time this film was released, the Supreme Court had forced the big Hollywood studios to divest themselves of their lucrative theater chains, and the stock company that had made Warners so successful in the 1930s and early '40s had either left the studio or were on their way out. Several stars had already made their last movies under their long-term contracts: Ida Lupino in 1947, Olivia De Havilland in 1946, Ann Sheridan in 1949 and "Little Caesar" Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo (1948). Humphrey Bogart's last Warners picture would be The Enforcer (1951), and Errol Flynn would exit in 1953. Even 'Queen of the Lot' Bette Davis was history, storming out of her contract after the over-the-top melodrama Beyond the Forest (1949), and not to return until Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).

Cagney had already quit the studio after his Oscar®-winning turn as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). "Movies should be entertaining, not blood baths," he said in the last days of his Warners contract. "I'm sick of carrying a gun and beating up women." He formed his own production company with his brother William, and for the next five years their pictures were distributed by United Artists. There were, however, only four films in those years, none of them very successful financially. So Cagney returned to Warner Brothers with a degree of autonomy (his production company remained intact) and made the kind of "blood bath" he had turned his back on seven years earlier. "It's what people want me to do," he grumbled. "Someday, though, I'd like to make just one picture kids could go see."For all his grumbling, though, White Heat remains one of the crowning achievements of Cagney's career. It's hard to imagine another actor of the time convincingly pulling off this all-stops-out portrayal of Cody Jarrett. And this is no mere farewell or throwback to another era. It has the volatile dynamism of the best gangster flicks of the '30s and '40s, but it mixes in important tendencies taking shape in post-war cinema. The train robbery heralds the attention to the logistical details of a crime that would play such a vital element in films like John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956). It displays elements of the documentary style made popular by Naked City (1948) and similar movies. And it shares something of the film noir style in its often shadowy cinematography and focus on its lead character's twisted psychology.

White Heat was Raoul Walsh's best film since High Sierra, another powerful thriller set in the same vicinity. But he directed another Warners star famous for playing gangsters, his first work with Cagney since The Strawberry Blonde (which I personally prefer to this movie) in 1941. (Of course, he directed both Cagney and Bogart in The Roaring Twenties.) White Heat is arguably the finest work of Walsh's impressive career, and the director always gave credit to Cagney for adding fascinating layers of depth to the character. Perhaps the richest performance of his career, it--like Rocky Sullivan in Angels with Dirty Faces--should have brought Jim an Oscar; but, as in 1938, the Academy still didn't give Best Actor awards for gangster portrayals (ha-ha). Cagney's Academy Award for Yankee Doodle Dandy was won as much by the patriotic character and subject matter as by the actual performance (but Jimmy Cagney preferred that way, and so do I). White Heat was the six Warners film to depict a relationship between a Cagney character and his mother. Interestingly, it was the first to bump off Mom, a character who would never again appear in a Cagney film released by Warners.
As we all know, like many other classic films, this film is not safe from the parodying clutches of some TV shows such as The Simpsons. In The Simpsons, Bart paraphrases Cody Jarrett's famous quote "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" while riding a globe in an episode from season 10 called The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace.
I didn't really watch the shooting scenes because they were too dramatic. Anyway, this film is a must for any James Cagney fan, but I have a legitimate reason for such procrastination: I never really liked James Cagney's famous films, including Yankee Doodle Dandy. I really preferred films like Footlight Parade, Taxi!, Hard to Handle, some of his underrated works. I do not care for the famous ones, especially Angels with Dirty Faces. Happy Commenting!!!
(Next blog [for sure]: Monkey Business [1931])

Clips from White Heat:

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Captains of the Clouds (1942)

I just recently watched the 1942 James Cagney film Captains of the Clouds, and I fought it spectacular, photography-wise. James Cagney was good as Brian MacLean, the cocky Canadian bush pilot who joins the Royal Canadian Air Force and must learn to turn himself into a team player. As for the film itself, I did not care for it; I only paid attention to the wonderful cinematography that the wonderful Technicolor had to offer. Anyway, folks, this is almost my last James Cagney film review blog, so there will be a hiatus between this blog and the next James Cagney film review blog, until like next month or so, or until that yahoo on YouTube finally uploads a new James Cagney movie (or I may finally watch White Heat and do a film review blog about that). Anyhow, during that hiatus which I'm not sure is gonna exist yet, I will be writing Marx Brothers film review blogs. Just wanted to keep you folks posted for a moment there. So anyway, on with the film...
"So Full of Spectacle and Glory it Had to be Made in Technicolor!" screamed the ads for Captains of the Clouds, and sure enough, James Cagney's first color movie boasts some spectacular aerial sequences. The story follows a group of Canadian bush pilots who decide to join the Royal Canadian Air Force when WWII breaks out. It sounds simple enough, but the truth is that Captains of the Clouds was an exceptionally challenging and difficult picture to make. Warner Bros. producer Hal Wallis wrote in his memoirs that the film "proved to be by far the most extensive and difficult venture in location work undertaken by Warners since the silent period." Most of the film was shot in and around Ottawa. With difficult wartime conditions, every hotel in the area was booked, and the crew had to be housed in an army camp - with army food. "They grumbled loud and long," recalled Wallis, "and twice we came close to a strike on the picture."

One day, Cagney suffered a concussion during a stunt in which his character gets knocked into the water by a propeller. Afterwards, Wallis and director Michael Curtiz were informed by their technical adviser that in such a situation "the propeller would normally have been turned off, and we had gone through this experience for nothing." Other problems included truck crashes, plane crashes, various on-set injuries and even lightning, which one afternoon struck a camera reloading shed "and burned it to the ground."But the single hardest sequence to shoot was the elaborate "wings" ceremony, in which Air Marshal Billy Bishop's speech to the ranks on an airstrip is interrupted by Cagney's daredevil flying maneuvers. The scene took forever to nail down. Just getting the timing right was a major logistical challenge which required many attempts, but there were other problems: A sudden rainstorm. Engine trouble. Not enough sunlight. Malfunctioning cameras. The air marshal showing up late. After a week, wrote Wallis, "Rain, technical mishaps, and problems of every kind continued to dog us. We finally had to piece together fragments of footage from the many days of shooting in order to achieve a finished result. In the picture, however, it looks as if the whole sequence was shot at high noon in optimum sunny conditions."Captains of the Clouds sprang from a magazine story called "Bush Pilots" which Canadian actor Raymond Massey had brought to Wallis's attention. Cagney wasn't crazy about the script but was persuaded to do the film by Jack Warner, who told him that he would be contributing to the war effort by accepting the role. Cagney relented, but only on the condition that his brother Bill be the line producer. In his memoirs, Cagney also remembered the film as one of his most grueling, but he added, "the one consolation for all the hard work was the kind of person you worked with. Alan Hale, that big, wonderful guy we all loved. Always in a good humor. Dennis Morgan, also a nice, nice guy. As the years wear on, I look back at those people and think about them. When they were around, I really enjoyed them, but now I realize that I could have enjoyed them more. The picture business has always been such a hysterical one and the demands on attention so great that one didn't have time to savor everything to the fullest - particularly your friends. That is one of my regrets."

Reviews were mixed, but critics raved over the sensational aerial scenes. Time said, "Although Cagney is much better than his thankless role, the real heroes of Captains are director Michael Curtiz and his five cameramen, who caught the matchless greens and browns of Canada's infinite north-country." The Motion Picture Academy thought so, too, nominating Sol Polito for a Best Cinematography Oscar®. (He lost to Fox's The Black Swan, shot by Leon Shamroy.) Ironically, Polito almost didn't make it to the set. As an Italian, he had serious trouble getting across the Canadian border since Canada was already at war with Italy. He also suffered a heart attack during production.

Captains of the Clouds was completed before Pearl Harbor and released in January 1942. In hindsight, the picture is an interesting precursor to the WWII combat film genre that would soon get underway. Intended also as a rousing "war preparedness" film for American audiences, by the time it played, the U.S. was already at war, but it did serve as a showcase of the Canadian war effort. Released in an era of patriotic films that skirted propaganda themes, Captains of the Clouds received an enthusiastic public acceptance. Although it was a "Hollywood" production, the film premiered simultaneously on February 21, 1942 in New York, London, Ottawa, Cairo, Melbourne, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver with RCAF pilots transporting film copies to all these cities. The public reaction can be partly attributed to the plot line that revolved around the unique Canadian wilderness and the enigmatic bush pilot mystique. The vivid aerial scenes filmed in Technicolor were another aspect of the expensive production that garnered critical attention. Although reviews were mixed especially in regards to the stagey plot and forced "romantic" overtures, the aerial scenes were considered the film's redeeming feature.

The description of the film's production is detailed in an article at

Much of
the crew stayed at the Empire Hotel and at Len Hughes Camp Champlain during
their stay here. The big stars spent very little time here but some of the crew
remained for several weeks shooting the bush plane scenes. Cagney hated flying
and did not fly as was the case with the other actor pilots. Hollywood stunt
flyers were brought in. The close-ups of the cabins of the planes were shot
later in Hollywood in mock up cockpits. Of local interest is the fact that well
known North Bay businessman Harry Mulligan, who had some Hollywood connections
was instrumental in bringing the movie to North Bay. He loaned his carrier
pigeons to the director to send messages to North Bay for transmission to
Hollywood and elsewhere. Trout Lake was just in the early stages of its
development and there were no phones and the roads were very rough. Yvette
Gravelle Boyce who lives on Nipissing's south shore and her sister Jeanette
worked as cooks at Len Hughes Camp Champlain in 1941 and fed the staff and crew
of the film on several occasions. Cagney and others had cabins there for
convenience. The sisters and a brother were asked to be a part of a scene where
people were needed in the background and their brother caught a rope thrown from
a docking plane in one scene. Stand ins were often used until a scene was
actually shot and before the stars stepped in and sometimes a double that looked
like the star was used where a close up was not required. Mildred "Middy"
Morland, daughter of the owner of North Bay's Morland real estate company was
chosen to be a double for Brenda Marshall. In one scene she stands on a
wagonload of hay while Cagney's bush plane buzzes the wagon. The scene was shot
several times and the star was nowhere in sight until she comes down off the
wagon and is seen in a close up. Mildred married Jack Gorman, a young reporter
at the Nugget who covered the shooting of the film. They live in North Bay. She
recalls the good pay and the trips to work in a Deluxe taxi.

The film obviously recycles elements of both Devil Dogs of the Air and Ceiling Zero (in a very clumsy attempt), but without O'Brien (regrettably), and neither color nor the addition of an awful (I'll say) title song could freshen it. Anyway, Captains of the Clouds was Jimmy Cagney's second Warner Bros. aviation picture in a row (you see, it was made after The Bride Came C.O.D., and it was his fourth overall), but his very first to feature material connected to World War II. After directing this film, Michael Curtiz directed two of the generally best films in American film history which make this film look like crap: Casablanca (which I like very much since it doesn't overpraise the US unlike the latter film) and Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Anyway, I did not really watch the fighting scene at the end and some of the flying scenes since they were too dramatic. I would recommend this film for James Cagney fans who enjoy watching him in war films. Happy Commenting!!
(Next blog: A Day at the Races [1937])

Clips from Captains of the Clouds:

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