Sergeant York (1941)

Inspirational Heroes Blogathon 5

Render Unto Caesar

It’s refreshing to watch a film like Sergeant York with it’s straight up old-fashioned Boy Scout, trying- to-do-what’s-right hero. There’s no edginess, no irony or need for an anti-hero here and while there’s a place for that I enjoy seeing a protagonist who’s trying to reflect the best of humanity; many will find this boring and corny but I dig it. Who better to play such a role than the boy scout-iest of actors (along with Jimmy Stewart) – Mr. Gary Cooper as Alvin C. York; the story of a contentious objector whom in an ironic twist of fate became a war hero. Although you do have to ask if Cooper was too old for the role of York as at the beginning of the movie he is presented as a pathetic man-child still living with his mother.

Sergeant York is the black sheep in Howard Hawks’ filmography, lacking his trademarks and in many ways the opposite of what you would expect from him. Sergeant York is a film which espouses traditional morality and notions of marriage. Joan Leslie as York’s love interest Gracie Williams is anything but a Hawksian woman; rather is as innocent and wholesome as you can get. The real Alvin C. York himself initially refused to allow Hollywood to make a film about his life over concerns of the morality espoused in their films resulting in Sergeant York being as wholesome and old-fashioned as it is in a film in which religion and the community dominate everyday life. However, it’s not religion which triggers York’s reformation but rather the love of a woman which allows the audience’s identification with the character not be a purely religious one. Likewise, the foreshadowing from Pastor Pile (Walter Brennan) to York being struck by lightning avoids making the plot device more contrived.

At its heart, Sergeant York is a movie about pacifism. While its examination of the topic is very much pacifism 101 it is still thought-provoking stuff and lets the audience make up their own mind as the film doesn’t propagate a point of view (including that which York comes to) onto the viewer. The discussions within the film, on York trying to determine the right thing to do, present both religious and secular arguments in relation to pacifism. On the religious side York states that the Bible is against killing as his reason to be exempt from military service but the draft board states the Bible can be interpreted as its followers choose. On the secular side of things, York is handed a book on the history of the United States by one of his superior officers and is told if he wants to worship God in his own way, plow his fields as he sees fit and raise a family according to his own likes then the cost of that heritage is high – In the words of Team America; freedom isn’t free. One of the most striking images in the film is that of York and his dog sitting on a rock on the side of a cliff overlooking the wilderness in a state of deep thought as the words “God” and “Country” are repeated in his head serving as inspiration for the challenge of wrestling with weighty decisions (What Would York Do?).

It’s clear Joan Leslie in the role of York’s future wife Gracie can only just manage to act herself out of a paper bag but manages to get away with it on endearment alone. However, the show stealer is Walter Brennan and those amazing eyebrows as the father like figure Pastor Pile; I don’t think anyone can play an endearing old man better than Brennan. The other cast member that sticks out to me is Dickie Moore as Alvin’s younger brother George. I’m not sure if his performance is supposed to be funny or not but his monotone reaction to everything makes me laugh.

Sergeant York is one example in media of Appalachians being presented in a dignified manner rather than being the butt of jokes. In Sergeant York, there are presented as uneducated and sheltered but not as a pack of simpletons. As it turns out the writers and filmmakers had little choice in this matter as the real York and several townsmen in Tennessee refused to sign releases unless the film was an accurate portrayal of history. Likewise, not a single character in the film, both in York’s rural Tennessee home or at the army barracks in which he trains, seem to know what the war is about but then again no one knows what World War I is all about.

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Meet John Doe (1941)

A Face In the Crowd

Sadly Meet John Doe appears to be an uncared about film falling into the public domain. I’ve previously wondered if this film could have the power to inspire real-life John Doe clubs, like Fight Club inspiring real-life fight clubs. Meet John Doe is the ancestor to film’s like A Face in the Crowd and Network, chronicling the rise and fall of a media built character. Meet John Doe is not thought of as a conspiracy/paranoia film but is a few actions scenes away from being a conspiracy thriller. After watching you’ll start feeling more like tin foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist untrusting of government and the establishment.

John Doe is a Christ-like figure; he preaches loving thy neighbour when he is disgraced a newspaper editor proclaims “chalk one up for the Pontius Pilates of the world” and even plans to sacrifice himself on Christmas day. On top of that, Barbara Stanwyck’s speech at the end in which she tells John he doesn’t have to die for the idea of the John Doe movement – that somebody else already did – the first John Doe and he has been keeping the idea alive for 2000 years, all while the Christmas bells ring. Classic Hollywood films sure love their hard-hitting symbolism and metaphors.

Barbara Stanwyck is a phenomenon here with so much life and energy she can make any bit of exposition entertaining. As for Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan in of their many film pairings; what is it makes them a great duo? Perhaps it’s just the humorous interactions of two folksy Americans. Cooper’s boyish charm is on full display here, such his baseball pitching in a hotel room to his curious on look at a naked statuette. Meet John Doe is one of the finest performances he ever gave with his outburst at the dinner meeting making the hairs on my neck stand up. Walter Brennan’s The Colonel, on the other hand, doesn’t trust any media, authority or society in general. He’s comically cynical in the extreme and probably be a conspiracy theorist if he had lived in later decades. Throughout the film he refers to others as “helots”; state-owned serfs of the ancient Spartans (“When you become a guy with a bank account, they got you, yes sir, they got you”).

Although the John Doe movement claims the John Does are inheriting the Earth, the movement is funded by a corporation; so did they not see someone like D.B Norton taking advantage of them? Edward Arnold as D.B Norton is one scary, menacing guy who is complete with his own personal army force. He defiantly gives of the Hitler vibes and yes, as I write this in 2016 I also get the Donald Trump vibes. When he sees his servants listening to Doe’s speech on the radio and applauding, he realises the political power he can have if he can get John Doe on his side. Under a scheme to buy his way to power he uses the John Doe movement to further his own agenda, to create a political party of which he leads in order to become President of the United States. His description that he plans to create “a new order of things” and “the American people need an iron hand and discipline” sounds like he has the intent of turning the country into a fascist dictatorship. There’s no doubt that Meet John Doe among other things was an argument against American isolationism in the war.

Another striking moment of Meet John Doe is the monologue given by Bert Hanson, the soda jerker (Regis Toomey) on how little we know about our neighbours and how a failure to get the whole picture leads to misconceptions of other people. It’s true in real life, people you live next to for years and you never contact them: perhaps the guy next door isn’t a bad egg.

Many of Capra’s films showcase the people’s need for a leader (Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith or George Bailey) and in turn, they appear to be clueless and misguided with one (think of Pottersvillie in It’s a Wonderful Life) in a showcase of Capra’s darker side. Here the public buying up what the media tells them such as when Norton exposes John Doe for being an apparent fraud in one of the movie’s most powerful scenes as the movie captures so vividly the destruction of a dream. As dark as the movie’s ending is, it still remains optimistic in which the fight goes on (“there you are Norton, the people!”).

The Moons Our Home (1936)

The Whole of the Moon

The Moons Our Home is one of my favourite super obscure films with only 139 users ratings on IMDB as of writing this review and a proclamation from Bill Murray as one of his favourite films (look up his appearance on the Siskel and Ebert Holiday Gift Guide 1988 in which he mentions he would like a video cassette of the film for Christmas). The Moons Our Home has only recently seen its due on DVD on the Universal Vault Series although when I watched the film I had to access it through a torrent. Not the greatest image quality but as a big fan Margaret Sullavan and a Henry Fonda enthusiast I was overjoyed to get a hold of the film and was not let down in the slightest.

What surprised me about Margaret Sullavan’s performance as movie star Cherry Chester (real name Sarah Brown) is how much she reminded me of Jean Harlow, always changing mood within a split second. Sullavan and Harlow are two actresses I didn’t think I would ever compare so it’s fascinating to see this aspect of her screen persona I didn’t even know existed. Right from the beginning of the film Cherry Chester is screaming, throwing tantrums and acting like an all-round pretentious drama queen. There is even a Hepburn-esque quality to her character with her fierce desire to be independent as well as clothing choices of a turtleneck and trousers.

Henry Fonda’s role as the explorer Antony Amberton is very much the same as we are introduced to his character escaping from a group of screaming fans which he compares to his daring exploits from the jungles of Africa to the peak of Mount Everest like a male Greta Garbo. Also, notice how all his fans are giddy women, yeah I don’t think he’s exactly Roald Amundsen. Sullavan and Fonda had previously been married, making their pairing feel more tender and genuine with moments like their histrionics in the snow being as adorable as they are funny. The Moon’s Our Home also features innovative use of split screen in which Sullavan and Fonda are given half of the screen to represent different rooms in which they move in parallel and symmetrical tandem.

The other aspect which so effectively carries The Moon’s Our Home is all the great character actor moments with the likes of Beulah Bondi, Margaret Hamilton, and Walter Brennan as the hard of hearing justice of the peace; a brief but very funny role. However, I think the best of these moments involves Charles Butterworth as Horace, the man who is chosen by Cherry/Sarah’s grandmother as her arranged husband. This is despite in his many unsuccessful marriage proposals to different women. Listen to how mundanely and awkwardly he describes how he will “lift her off her feet” while being distracted by a game of solitaire. The Moon’s Our Home is full of moments like this which are funny on different levels.

It’s already a joy to discover a film I love, even more so when it’s a film that almost no one else will watch in a million years. It gives me the sense that it’s my movie. I guess this is what hipsters must feel like listening to bands no one else has heard off.