The Black Watch (1929)

Heart of Darkness

The Black Watch marked John Ford’s first venture into talking pictures and as expected with talkies from 1929, the film’s dialogue is delivered at a snail’s pace as one actor will wait over a second for the other to finish before they themselves start speaking, creating many long gaps in the dialogue and making the film’s pace slower than it needs to be. This gives The Black Watch a disjointed feel while the film still uses title cards over establishing shots – a silent era holdover. Visually speaking, however, the production values do not let the film down with the craftsmanship to be expected from a John Ford picture. The sets and costumes are lush and there are plenty of grand and expressionistic visuals – ultimately the film succeeds in creating that sense of adventure.

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The Black Watch is a loose adaptation of Talbot Mundy’s novel The King of the Khyber Rifles. The Heart of Darkness style story sees Captain King (Victor MacLaglen) of the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland (“the descendants of highland chieftains who rallied behind Wallace and conquered under Bruce”) sent on a military mission during World War I to take out a cult leader in a territory not under British rule ahead of the northern frontier of British India near the Khyber Pass. The first portion of The Black Watch features a heavy emphasizes on military tradition with plenty of thundering bagpipe action to show off that sound technology, plus nothing beats some Auld Lyne Sang regardless of the movie. The Black Watch holds a number of parallels to the adventure film Gunga Din which was released 10 years later and also starring Victor MacLaglen in an Indian setting.

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One of the main draws of The Black Watch is Myrna Loy in the spotlight role of Yasmani – Goddess to the natives (“others have been sent to take her out but never returned”). Observe the theatrical manner in which Loy moves her body alongside her hammed up pompous speech delivery, all while cloaked out in lavish costumes and surrounded in splendour and opulence. Yasmani claims to be a white woman descended from Alexander the Great, with Aryan blood running through her veins as she puts it. When she delivers a sermon in the cave of echoes she speaks of the prophecy that a woman of Alexander’s line shall find a mate and are destined to rule these tribesmen.

The identity of the cult in the film is not made clear. The film gives many indications the cult are Islamic extremists (there is no mention of the words Muslim or Islam) from members praying to Allah to proclaiming the murder of infidels and even the appearance of a flag with the Islamic Star and Crescent. However, in Islam you wouldn’t have a woman, let alone one of western origin at the head of a traditional Islamic movement. Likewise wouldn’t referring to Yasmani as a Goddess not go against Islam’s (and Abrahamic religions’ as a whole) monotheism? Not to mention the cult’s racial undertones raises many questions. I can’t deceiver if The Black Watch is a poorly researched movie or was intentioned to be deliberately vague?

The Grapes Of Wrath (1940)

California, Super Cool To The Homeless

The Grapes of Wrath was impressively released less than a year following the release of the novel and yet within this short timeframe director John Ford crafted one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. A number of John Ford’s movies have that foreign film feel – a feeling of very raw, lifelike emotion. The Grapes of Warth itself is one of the most emotionally draining films of all time with one scene after another drawing up such feelings of pity; everything is rough, dirty nor is there makeup on any of the actors. Just take the scene in which the depression-ridden Joad family on their way to California attempt to buy bread from a dinner (a scene which really puts the value of money in perspective) – The emotion is one part humility and the other part pathetic.

Yokels, rednecks, hillbillies – everyone’s favourite punching bag. The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t look down America’s uneducated, rural white folk nor presents them as a caricature but that still doesn’t change the fact that none of the Joad clan are the sharpest tools in the shed nor don’t understand how the outside world works. Just as we are introduced to the family the youngest daughter Rosasharn is pregnant and married when still a teen while the family is dirt poor and huge as it is.

Henry Fonda’s performance as Tom Joad may be the pinnacle of his acting career. His stone face alongside the laid-back manner in which he walked and talked is mesmerising yet Joad is not someone I would fancy being in the vicinity off. Fonda’s performance has a sinister edge to it and a sense of barely restrained violence. His proclamation to the truck driver near the beginning of the film when telling him the reason he was in prison, a simple uttering of “homicide” could come straight out of a horror movie. Jane Darwell on the other hand as Ma Joad is the other great scene stealer with her hauntingly sombre, tour-de-force performance as a character with one ultimate aim – keeping the fambly together.

The amazing landscape shots, use of German expressionism and high contrast lighting give way for such unforgettable images from a car light driving along the horizon to silhouettes walking across a hill, thanks to cinematographer Gregg Toland. Take the scene at the campsite in which the characters discuss their present situation; it’s so dreamlike with the odd, unnatural angles, it couldn’t be more mesmerising. I also recommend watching the South Park episode Over Logging which parodies this scene (and the movie as a whole), right down to the black & white cinematography.

Once the Joads arrive at the Farmworkers’ Wheat Patch run by the Department of Agriculture it is a temporary relief to see something good happen to the family, after all, they have been through. When The Grapes of Wrath was released in 1940, the US Secretary of Agriculture was Henry A. Wallace, whom that same year was running for Vice President with Franklin D. Roosevelt; a message of support for FDR and the New Deal no doubt? At the government camp they are greeted by a seemingly genuine, honest man who looks like FDR and tells them they have washtubs with running water; a world away from the corporate run camps the Joads took residence earlier in the film – all sounds too good to be true? The government is the solution to the Joad’s problems (temporally at least as they end up leaving at a later point), nor at any point in the film do we see any charitable organisations out to help the poor. It’s fairly obvious that The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t exactly lean to the right of politics; evil bankers running people off their land, corrupt police, capitalists treating people like dogs, total collapse of the free market, socialist camp run by the government is only decent place to be in which cops are not allowed to lines of dialogue such as “people are going to win rich, people are going to die”. – A world of oppressor and the oppressed if there ever existed one. Regardless of one’s politics, I still contend The Grapes of Wrath to be one of the most emotionally draining films in all of cinema.

The Whole Town’s Talking (1935)

A Tale of Two Eddies

It’s already unexpected that John Ford directed a screwball comedy (as well as a film set in urban America, which he rarely did), even more so that it’s one of the inventive, inspired and quirky screwball comedies ever from a director who has no other association with the genre. The Whole Town’s Talking is a delight to watch as it unveils each increasingly surreal situation.

Edward G Robinson appeared in a number very quirky comedies such as The Amazing Dr Clittlerhouse, Brother Orchid and Larceny Inc which have made me prefer him in comedy over drama. Here you get two Robinsons for the price of one playing the dual role of the lovable, naive Jonsey and the notorious gangster Mannion. I believe this may be Robinson’s best performance. Not only does he play two characters who look the same but are worlds apart in terms in personality, he also has to play Mannion pretending to be Jonsey! Even though he is held in high regard as an actor, I feel Edward G. Robinson has never been truly celebrated for just how versatile he is; going far beyond the gangster roles he is most famous for. The film’s use of spilt screen and back projection techniques are executed to a seamless degree. In one particular shot featuring the Robinsons sharing the frame, notice how the smoke coming from Mannion’s cigar enters the other end of the frame over Jonsey.

Jean Arthur’s Miss Clark is one of the coolest, craziest and more carefree characters ever. When she finds out she has been sacked after arriving to work late she doesn’t care in the slightest. Or how about when she discovers that Jones keeps a picture of her by his bedside which he stole from her at the office. She isn’t disturbed, she finds it cute! Everything she does is so laid back and without a care in the world; I love this character!

The only minor complaint I have with The Whole Town’s Talking is the possible plot hole at the beginning of the film in which Jones rushed out of his apartment after the realisation he is late for work he leaves the bath running. This had me thinking that when he returned home his house would become flooded but the running bathtub is never addressed. Regardless, the film’s screwiness is in no short supply. This movie not getting the recognition it deserves? Mannion!

Mister Roberts (1955)

No One Can Succeed Like Mister Roberts

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Fonda, Cagney, Powell, Lemon. What more could you ask for? Being a huge fan of all four actors, for me personally, Mister Roberts may be the greatest accumulation of actors ever; thus I will try my best to contain my inner fanboy. Not only do all four play interesting characters but they all share such interesting relationships between each other. Fonda and Cagney share a Bugs Bunny/ Yosemite Sam-like dynamic with Cagney being a frustrated old captain (possibly with a Napoleon complex) in a position of power but with no control over the taller Fonda stepping over everything he does.

Jack Lemon’s Ensign Pulver, on the other hand, hates the Captain but out of total shock, the captain likes the Ensign. I find this dynamic particular funny as I can relate to that situation of being admired by someone you dislike. However, I also relate to the character of Mister Roberts himself in his predicament of being stuck in a rut of which he is desperate to escape from; wanting to leave the navy cargo boat and be right in the action of the Second World War. The entire film effortlessly combines tragedy and comedy with no better example of this being the final scene itself in which the film transitions from the tragedy upon the characters discovering that Mr. Roberts has been killed in action to one more final pay off from a recurring gag; one of my favourite movie endings ever.

The claustrophobic intimacy of the ship, as well as the simply superb dialogue and performances, makes the dialogue-heavy scenes so engaging. Even with two directors on the project which could have spelled disaster, the film manages to come out perfectly fine rather than ending up like a Frankensteinian stitch up. The other scene which always stuck out to me was at the beginning of the film when the men are attempting to get a glimpse of women in a shower and going crazy as hell over it. Would men have the same reaction today because of the internet? Was the prospect of seeing a naked woman more thrilling back then?

Mister Roberts would be William Powell’s final film although one of Jack Lemon’s first, so I see the film as a passing of the torch between two generations of comedic actors. Originally Powell retired after appearing in How to Marry a Millionaire but decided to appear in Mister Roberts after reading the script. A much, much better choice of final film in which he shows that even in this stage of his career the man was still a master of words.