Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Mrs. Miniver

Directed by William Wyler
The United States of America

In my never-ending quest to find forgotten classic films, I am consistently astonished to discover great pieces of cinema that are sitting right in front of our noses. For instance, did you know that there have been eighty-four movies that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture? Think about that for a second. In the history of the Academy Awards, there have been a whopping eighty-four films that Hollywood has distinguished as being the best of the year. That makes eighty-four films that could logically be considered timeless classics. And yet, it is stunning how quickly we forget about them. Of course, everybody remembers certain winners such as Casablanca (1943) and The Godfather (1972). But most of the films that win Hollywood’s highest honor are doomed to be forgotten. How many people have honestly heard of, say, Cavalcade (1933)? The Great Ziegfeld (1936)? How about Gigi (1958)? Not only did that film win Best Picture, it took home an astonishing nine Academy Awards! Or what about Marty (1955), the second and last film to ever win Best Picture and the Palme d’Or? Of course one could make the argument that the Academy Award for Best Picture is not the best measure of a film’s quality. After all, any award that is decided based on popular vote is destined to have a few clunkers. But the fact remains that at some definite point in the past, all of these films that I have mentioned were toasted as the greatest film of the year.

That's 84 of these bad boys.

Therefore, I have decided that it is my duty to help bring the spotlight back to some of these great films. I have already featured one of these films on this sight: The Life of Émile Zola (1937). The film that I wish to focus on today was released five years after Dieterle’s film took home the gold. Upon its release, it won six Academy Awards and boasted on its poster that it was “Voted the Greatest Movie Ever Made.” Nowadays, the general public has seldom heard it. This film is none other than William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver.

Believe me, I wanted nothing more than to make my own screenshots for this review. But the makers of my DVD copy of the film made this impossible by including an encoded file that scrambled all of my own screenshots. Since I am no computer geek or programmer, we'll have to make due with Google Image Search.

The story is based off a fictional English housewife created in 1937 for newspaper columns named Mrs. Kay Miniver. Living a very comfortable life in the outskirts of London with her well-to-do family (you can tell they are well off because their house has a name: “Starlings”), Miniver’s life is thrown into turmoil by the start of the Second World War. Her oldest son, Vin, quickly joins the Royal Air Force and becomes one of the Few; the pilots who held off the German Blitz during the Battle of Britain at horrific personal expense. Her husband Clem is called in the middle of the night to participate in the Dunkirk evacuation, that miraculous operation wherein over 300,000 trapped British and French soldiers were rescued from the shores of France from the rapidly advancing German Army. Later that morning, Miniver is threatened by a downed German pilot who holds her at gunpoint. And finally, Miniver’s entire family huddles in a shelter as they are very nearly killed by Nazi bombs.

It would be one thing if the film focused solely on the character of Mrs. Miniver. But Wyler wisely positioned Mrs. Miniver within a much larger cross-section of British society. We meet characters such as the Miniver’s live-in housemaid Gladys who tearfully sees her husband off to the front lines. There’s Lady Beldon, a local aristocrat, and her daughter Carol who falls in love with Vin and eventually becomes his wife. Lady Beldon is locked in an epic struggle with kindly stationmaster Mr. Ballard whose only offense was to dare to enter a rose (which he named the “Mrs. Miniver”) into a local flower competition which she has perennially won for the last several years. And finally there is the local vicar (played by Henry Wilcoxon) who unites the entire community in the final scene with a heart-breakingly powerful sermon in the ruins of his bombed-out church.

The film is indeed a piece of wartime propaganda. Upon its completion President Roosevelt ordered it to be rushed to theaters so that it would inspire Americans to support the war effort. The film, released in 1942, actually began production two years earlier before the United States entered the war. As a result, the film was continually reworked as the US’s involvement became more and more inevitable. This most obviously manifested itself in the scene where Miniver is cornered by the German pilot. As the film was revised, the German was made more stereotypically evil and unrepentant. The encounter became more stand-offish. Finally, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the scene was changed again to include a shot where Miniver slapped him.

And yet, to dismiss the film merely due to its status as propaganda would be foolish. Mrs. Miniver is a genuinely moving piece of filmmaking. Take, for instance, the scene where the Miniver family is being bombed. As they try and sleep in a minuscule shelter, the sounds of bombs gets louder and louder. Suddenly, the entire shelter shakes. The kids awaken, the family cat dashes, the door flies open. Their young son Toby speaks with the clarity that only children can muster: “They almost killed us that time, Mommy.” It is a devastating scene. And yet, it speaks to the film’s overall message: that the strength and unity of Britain, in both its families and communities, is what will help it prevail in the end against evil.

Mrs. Miniver is just one of the numerous Best Picture winners to be largely forgotten. But it remains a triumphant work of art for those who are willing to look for it. For although it was made explicitly for World War Two audiences, its heart, its soul, its message is one that will resound for ages.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

黒い太陽 (Black Sun)

Directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara

In a decrepit wasteland of rubble, detritus, and debris, a crumbling Christian church shivers in the Japanese morning sunlight. In its lone spire, a car thief named Mei relaxes and plays a jazz record. Though the artist sings in a language he doesn’t understand, he feels a desperate, inner connection with them. His walls are plastered with photos and clippings of jazz musicians and the floor is hidden by a layer of albums. He plays with a dog affectionately named “Thelonious Monk.” Life is hard, but enjoyable.

Mei listening to his new record.

At least until he discovers a wounded machine-gun toting American GI hiding in his room. What’s more, he isn’t an ordinary American GI. No...this man happens to be black.

On a totally unrelated side-note, I got these screencaps from Hulu. I have no idea how to take them without that "Buffer" bar at the upper top showing up.

Ecstatic at his discovery, Mei tries to communicate and calm the GI who is screeching for help: “Today’s my lucky day! . . . All black men are my friends . . . Negro jazz! . . . I love you!” But the GI ignores him. He is on the run from the military police, having been involved in an incident where two other GI’s were shot and killed. What follows is a brilliantly unsettling examination of cultural boundaries and racial tensions in post-war Japan. Such is the world of Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Black Sun.

Black Sun is one of those special films that could only have come into fruition under the right historical and cultural circumstances. Set in the Japanese post-war reconstruction years, Kurahara’s film is more than just a crime drama; it is a kind of anthropological time capsule. Kurahara’s film perfectly captured the atmosphere of his time and all of its inherent contradictions, such as how Japanese society was experiencing an unheard of level of economic and social freedom while living under the suffocating presence of American occupiers. While jazz clubs and bars flourished and gave birth to a new form of wild night life, many still lived in the remains of bombed-out buildings and collected scrap for a living. And, most importantly, how the unprecedented level of intermingling with another foreign culture managed to entrench racist sentiments and xenophobia.

For example, despite Mei's love of jazz and black musicians, he is openly and virulently hostile and racist to white GI's.

Take Mei. Mei openly idolizes black jazz musicians. But he had probably never seen one before his run-in with Gill. Even the GI’s that he sees on the street are white. As a result, Mei doesn’t just worship black jazz musicians, but black people in general, lumping them together into an autonomous whole separate from other white Americans. As Gill writhes in pain, Mei eagerly offers him a trumpet and asks him to play.

Now may not be the best time, Mei...

But the misguided sentiments don’t end with Mei’s assumption of Gill’s musical prowess. When Gill accidentally kills “Thelonious Monk,” Mei calls him a nigger, runs to a bar, and starts to complain about how worthless black people are. Even after he gets over his depression concerning his dog, he introduces Gill to a bar full of friends as his "slave."

In any case, Mei decides to help Gill escape from the police. In order to get through military roadblocks, Mei paints Gill’s face white and his own black. When the roadblock officers begin to interrogate Mei, mistaking him for a black GI, they soon realize that he is just a Japanese in blackface and let him through. Why Gill needed to be in whiteface is left unclear.

Gill, in whiteface, and Mei, in blackface.

But together they embark on a quest to reach “the sea.” For some inexplicable reason, Gill, desires to reach “the sea” so he can return to his “mama.” A bond begins to grow between the two, reminiscent of the one found between the two on-the-run white and black prisoners chained together in The Defiant Ones (1958). As Gill slowly loses his mind to the pain and infection from his bullet wound, Mei begins to risk life and limb to get him to “the sea.” In a hauntingly surreal scene, Gill straps himself to a giant balloon and begs Mei to shoot the rope holding him to the ground. With the police quickly closing in, Mei tearfully obliges and sets Gill free, shouting, “Go back home to your mama!”

Gill going home.

Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Black Sun is a loud, ugly, gritty, and gripping film. It is a tortured shriek of post-war anguish from one of Japan’s leading filmmakers of the 1960s. Every aspect of the film is a visceral assault on the senses. Cinematographer Mitsuji Kanau delivers bleak, jagged black-and-white cinematography the likes of which would make Sven Nykvist and John Alton proud...and jealous. Max Roach, one of Mei’s idols whose album provided the title of the film, provided a blood-curdling soundtrack reminiscent of “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace” from his We Insist! - Freedom Now Suite. Chico Roland’s performance as Gill is so intense and unsettling that it can only be likened to a doctor torturing a naked nerve during a root canal.

Ignore the progress bar, please...

But most of all, Black Sun is terrifying for its unflinching glare into Japanese society. I lived in Japan for a few months during my Junior year at college, so I know first hand how even today the Japanese have a tendency to rely on stereotypes for their interactions with foreigners. This is not the symptom of some in-bred hatred, but rather a side-effect from a culture that for centuries prided itself on isolation from the rest of the world. As such, Mei’s story can be interpreted as symbolic of the cultural shock that all Japanese people faced at the end of World War Two when the world imposed its will upon them. Regardless, Black Sun is unequivocally a treasure of Japanese cinema that hasn’t lost a single bit of power over the years.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Passport to Pimlico

Directed by Henry Cornelius
Great Britain

Henry Cornelius' Passport to Pimlico is the kind of comedy that I hold near and dear to my heart. It is one of the films that proves that good comedy doesn't have to rely on vulgarity, shock value, or gross-out humor. Don't misunderstand me. There is a time and a place for such things. But recently it seems like Hollywood has come to the conclusion that good comedies need to contain explicit content. But that isn't true. Many of the greatest comedies ever made contain almost no graphic material. Instead, they rely on witty and intelligent writing and brilliant comedic performances. Some films are able to combine the two, like Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) which featured a stunning screenplay and a bevy of historic comedic performances. Other comedy films focus more on performances. The works of the silent comedians such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin come to mind. And then, there are comedies where the writing pulls the most weight. Passport to Pimlico belongs to this category. But that isn't because it lacks memorable performances. Instead, this is because the plot doesn't give any one character enough screen-time to truly develop a mature comedic persona. This is because Passport to Pimlico isn't really about any one character, but about a group of people thrown into bizarre circumstances.

The citizens of the Pimlico district of London awake one morning to a resounding explosion that rocks their otherwise quiet community. Some local boys accidentally set off an undiscovered German bomb from the Battle of Britain. The townsfolk discover that the bomb had unearthed a forgotten cache full of treasure.

What? It happens.

Among the jewelry and works of art, a strange piece of ancient parchment is discovered. A professor identifies it as a royal charter of King Edward IV, who reigned in the late 1400s. The parchment ceded the area to Burgundian Duke Charles VII who sought refuge in England after being presumed dead at the Battle of Nancy (January 4, 1477). Much to the horror of the British government, the charter was never revoked. As such, Pimlico officially becomes Burgundian soil.

A realization dawns upon the citizens of the newly emancipated Pimlico: they are no longer governed by the laws of the British government. As such, post-World War Two rationing gets thrown out the window and Pimlico becomes swamped with black market goods and cheap foodstuffs. Total anarchy breaks out to such a degree that the streets are barely navigable.

The new marketplace of Pimlico.

The citizens of Pimlico try to appeal to the British government to control the influx of illegal merchants, but they refuse. After all, the Pimlico affair has caused them great embarrassment and want them to rejoin the Crown. In a brilliantly passive-aggressive political maneuver, the British government insists that they will only recognize laws passed according to the rules of the non-existent Dukedom of Burgundy. Since Burgundian laws could only be passed by a council appointed by their Duke, the citizens of Pimlico seem defeated. That is, of course, until a young Frenchman named Dijon appears from out of the blue and provides proof that he is the heir of the dukedom. Pimlico’s new Duke chooses a council of townsfolk and thwart the British governments attempts to bring them back into the Empire.

Dijon, the new Duke of Pimlico.

The rest of the film follows the increasingly absurd and ridiculous lengths that the British government goes to in order to force Pimlico to rejoin Great Britain and the equally preposterous methods in which Pimlico fights back. The police literally shut off the Pimlico “border” with barbed wire fences and guards. In the madness, people are stranded in Pimlico and not allowed to leave or enter because they didn’t have their passports (leading to one of the film’s great lines where a woman complaining that she can’t leave Pimlico results in a police officer saying “Don't blame me Madam, if you choose to go abroad to do your shopping.”

The "Burgundian" border.

And so the Burgundians strike back by confiscating an Underground train when it goes beneath them. As a result, we see the professor who validated the authenticity of the Pimlico charter being asked if she has anything to declare when she storms off the train.

Pimlico takes possession of the train.

The British government cut off their electricity, food, and water. So the Burgundians organize night raids where they steal water from fire hydrants across the “border.” When they run out of food, sympathetic passersby throw food and provisions over the “border” to them. In one preposterous scene, a helicopter flies over Pimlico, lowers two giant hoses, and is “milked” by a Burgundian. As this film was made during the West Berlin Blockade, the symbolism of this event could not have been missed by audiences.

A helicopter prepares for a delivery of milk.

Even the inevitable end of the conflict comes not from an explosive denouement, but a sensible and surprisingly clever compromise between the Burgundians and the British wherein both sides are able to walk away without losing any face. Because, at its core, Passport to Pimlico is a comedy concerning a battle of wits. The screenwriter, an Ealing Studios favorite named T.E.B. Clarke, crafted a phenomenal story that despite all of its over-the-top eccentricities remains believable. The events in this film were, after all, inspired by an actual case during the Second World War where the royal family of the Netherlands flew to Canada and had the Ottawa Civic Hospital maternity ward declared international territory so their daughter could be born Dutch and thereby still qualify for the throne. Is it a far-fetched story? Of course. But that’s why it’s such a good one. It showcases the valiant British will-power and stubbornness borne under the fires of war against the Nazis like almost none other. As one character explained, “We've always been English and we'll always be English; and it's precisely because we are English that we're sticking up for our right to be Burgundians!”

Monday, February 6, 2012

Hell's Hinges

Directed by Charles Swickard, William S. Hart, and Clifford Smith
The United States of America

Hell’s Hinges is by far one of the most cynical and bleak Westerns that I have ever seen. The fact that it was made in 1916, a full thirteen years before John Ford would officially legitimize the Western as more than just B-movie trash with Stagecoach (1939), is all the more astounding. And yet, Hell’s Hinges, clocking in at barely over an hour, could very well be as essential to the survival and evolution of the Western genre as Mr. Ford’s film. To say that it was ahead of its time is an understatement as it seems akin to Revisionist Westerns, such as Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992). It is dark, murky, ugly, nasty, and despite an ending that could be classified as “happy,” remains unrepentant.

A shot of the eponymous town of Hell's Hinges, a place which the narration describes as a town to "ride wide of."

But perhaps first some history is in order. It’s important to note the general state of Westerns before Hell’s Hinges. It’s generally accepted that one of the most important Westerns of all time was Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) which helped pioneer such techniques as cross-editing to tell a story from more than one point of view. However, subsequent Western fare did little to continue Porter’s tradition of using the genre as a platform for cinematic innovation. As Moving Picture World reported in 1911, Westerns by and large featured “always the same plot, the same scenery, the same impossible Indians, the wicked halfbreeds, the beautiful red maidens, the fierce warriors, the heroic cowboys, the flight from the Indian village at night.” In fact, it was widely accepted that the Western genre had exhausted itself and was doomed to die.

Thankfully, before the genre could expire, producer Thomas Ince breathed new life into it. He set his films in a sprawling twenty-thousand acre ranch above Santa Monica that was dubbed “Inceville.” For actors, he sought out members of the Oglala Sioux tribe and a Wild West show troupe. But perhaps the most important addition to his stable of actors was William S. Hart.

William S. Hart, seen here in Hell's Hinges, began his film career when he was nearly 50 years old.

Hart, with his aged stoicism akin to a Wild West Buster Keaton and a unflappable presence that predated and predicted the likes of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, would forever be known as the first star of feature length Westerns.

And, is it just me, or do I detect a little hint of James Stewart, too?

Forgive the pun, but Hart was truly the heart of what made Hell’s Hinges great. In an era defined by overdramatic acting reminiscent of the theater, Hart’s restraint spoke louder and more forcibly than any exaggerated expression or body movement. And that restraint is what helped propel Hell’s Hinges from the realm of pulp to cinematic genius.

The plot plays as an inversion of the famous Western trope of the arrival of the schoolmarm who brings law and civility to the untamed West. In such stories, there is a town or piece of country ruled by lawlessness and godlessness which is eventually saved and reformed by an outsider, usually from the East. And, at first, Hell’s Hinges seems to fit that story. A minister and his sister arrive from New York to Hell’s Hinges in order to aid the few moral citizens, referred to as the “Petticoat Brigade.”

The "Petticoat Brigade," a "drop of water in a barrel of rum."

However, in reality, the minister is a hypocritical charlatan who was sent Westward because his superiors wanted to keep him away from the temptations of the city. Once he arrives, he is seduced by one of the town’s most notorious prostitutes.

The reverend and his sister, Faith, arrive in Hell's Hinges.

His sister, Faith, an exemplar of ingenue Christian piety the likes of which would make Lillian Gish proud, becomes the object of “Blaze” Tracy’s affections. Tracy, played by Hart, was the hired gunman of Silk Miller, the owner of the local saloon and tyrant of Hell’s Hinges. Together, they swore to keep the law and God out of Hell’s Hinges at any cost. However, upon seeing Faith and at the church, he instantly abandons his wicked ways and converts to Christianity.

"I reckon God ain't wantin' me much, ma'am, but when I look at you, I feel I've been ridin' the wrong trail."

What results is nothing short of all-out war between Tracy, the new defender of the faith, and Silk Miller. Mobs form, shots are fired, and the church is burned to the ground. Before escaping with Tracy and Faith, the reverend is shot and soon dies once they are outside of town.

The church burns.

Enraged at the wickedness of Hell’s Hinges, Tracy returns to wreck horrible vengeance upon the town. He traps the remaining population of the town into Silk Miller’s saloon, sets it on fire, and shoots anybody who tries to flee. Instead of bringing salvation and civilization, the East has brought the damnation of Hell’s Hinges.

Tracy keeps the evil townsfolk hostage while the saloon burns.

Although the Western would again atrophy into cinematic trash by the 1930s, Hell’s Hinges was essential to the genre’s survival. Not only was Hell’s Hinges one of the darkest and most brutal Westerns ever made, its craftsmanship was so flawless that it remains riveting even to this day. Hell’s Hinges is a searing fable of Old Testament wrath, not in the Holy Land, but in the land that God forgot: the Old West.