Strange Cargo (1940) by matthew c. hoffman

“Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.” ~Hebrews 13:2

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With her acting—and his presence—Joan Crawford and Clark Gable were two of Hollywood’s biggest heavyweights. Strange Cargo was their eighth, last, and most unusual teaming. Under the direction of Frank Borzage, it became something more than another star vehicle. It’s the story of several convicts who try to escape Devil’s Island with the aid of a mysterious stranger. The film’s theme of spiritual regeneration was an offbeat topic for a mainstream studio like MGM, which was better known for their romantic dramas set in upscale, urban settings. Gable & Crawford are a long way from that here. Strange Cargo is a fascinating deviation from the packaged entertainments of the time.

Clark Gable is Verne, a tough-talking, smug convict determined to escape a French penal colony. While on a work detail along the waterfront, he meets Joan Crawford’s Julie, a café entertainer with a questionable past. Verne takes a shine to her and eventually involves her in his escape. There are several prisoners with Verne—thieves, murderers, and men with dark pasts. But there is one man among them who doesn’t quite fit in, a stranger by the name of Cambreau. He will lead the men through the jungle and out of the darkness of their souls.

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The catalyst for the story is the character of Cambreau. Unlike the films that will follow in Cinema of Transcendence, he is not a minister, yet he is able to lead others to self-discovery. As in our own world, there are many who are embittered and warped by circumstance–people in need of a self-inventory. Strange Cargo deals with this without sermonizing or judging. Moralizing, afterall, tends to steer people in the opposite direction. But by making the convicts look at themselves, Cambreau gives them the opportunity to cleanse themselves of the dirt. To the film’s credit, not every character is transformed by Cambreau’s sense of faith. As in life, not every person finds peace or attempts to seek it.

Strange Cargo was based on a novel by Richard Sale called Not Too Narrow… Not Too Deep. The screenplay emphasized the allegorical aspects whereby characters attain a symbolic meaning. This is most obvious in the intellectual confrontation between the atheist Hessler and Cambreau, who becomes the conscience of the men. When they square off, we forget this is a Gable-Crawford movie. There is a metaphysical quality that hovers over the proceedings—a fantasy dimension that recalls other films like Destination Unknown (1933) and the British production, The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935).

Ian Hunter as Cambreau
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In order for this story to work on the screen, Strange Cargo needed an extraordinary cast. This was Clark Gable’s first film after Gone With the Wind, so he was at the height of his popularity at this time. Joan Crawford had recently made a comeback of sorts with 1939’s The Women. Her star appeared to be rising again. Though Strange Cargo has the star power, it’s the supporting actors who really make the production as interesting as it is. Peter Lorre has a small role as Monsieur Pig, the stool pigeon who lusts after Julie. The convicts are made up of an all-star team of great character actors including Ian Hunter as Cambreau. Hunter was a British actor whose career alternated between the stage and motion pictures. He starred in many films at Warner Brothers and is probably best known for his role as King Richard in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

Paul Lukas, who would later win an Oscar for Watch On the Rhine (1943), plays the murderer, Hessler. The other notable performances include Albert Dekker as Moll, J. Edward Bromberg as Flaubert, and Eduardo Ciannelli as Tellez. Strange Cargo is remembered today, if at all, for the byplay between Gable and a decidedly unglamorous Crawford. Here, she gets stripped away of makeup and her $40,000 Adrian gowns. However, the film really belongs to the one with the last line in the movie.

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Strange Cargo was directed by the often overlooked Frank Borzage. Anyone not familiar with him needs to see films like 7th Heaven (1927) and The Mortal Storm (1940). One of his better-known works is the film noir Moonrise (1948). Borzage’s films, especially those made during the silent era, often featured a visual romanticism heavily influenced by the German director F.W. Murnau. A recurring theme in his best films dealt with love’s transcendence over adversity. Borzage was one of the most evocative filmmakers when dealing with this type of subject matter. Borzage had mixed melodrama and religion earlier with 1937’s The Green Light, which starred Errol Flynn. Borzage’s final film, The Big Fisherman (1959), was a biblical epic that told the story of Saint Peter. Strange Cargo would deal overtly with Christian themes, but there would be no saints in this one.

Writer John Belton wrote of Borzage’s characters, “Verne’s discovery of a need for something outside of himself, though centrally at issue in his relationship with Cambreau and his spiritual system, leads him to a deeper love of and need for Julie. What is great about Strange Cargo is the interdependence of these two threads. Borzage’s demand that his characters attain a spiritual awareness that goes beyond an immediate love relationship to a sympathy with and need for the world around them marks a significant expansion of the director’s concerns and a deepening of the beauty of his art.”

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Mainstream Hollywood rarely dealt with such issues, but instead of being commended, the film was condemned by the Catholic Church and their Legion of Decency because it presented a “naturalistic concept of religion contrary to the teachings of Christ and the Catholic Church,” as opposed to an evangelical understanding of God. But Strange Cargo is not to be condemned. It suggests that God dwells in all of us and is among us. Even in the most hellish places on Earth, we are not alone. Some of the more pious audiences back then may have been offended that God’s spirit would manifest in a penal colony housing every form of social degenerate. They may have forgotten the words of Jesus when the Pharisees questioned why He would eat with sinners: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.” (Matthew 9:12)

Audiences in 1940 weren’t interested in seeing Clark Gable find salvation. They stayed away. Strange Cargo made a profit of only $21,000 at the box office. The film’s producer, Joseph Mankiewicz, reportedly said, “It was almost a good film. I wish it could have been made later. It was tough doing any kind of film that even approached reality in any way.”

Strange Cargo is not for everyone. There will come a moment in the story when you will wonder what exactly is going on—or it may come as a complete revelation. Irrespective of one’s interpretation, Strange Cargo is a beautifully-made film about redemption—a theme we’ve been dealing with in this series since the first week with The Gaucho.

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Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) by matthew c. hoffman

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Angels With Dirty Faces is the quintessential gangster movie featuring James Cagney at his most charismatic. It’s one of his finest performances and it would earn him his first Oscar Nomination. (He would lose to Spencer Tracy’s Father Flanagan in Boys Town.) Though the film displays Cagney’s dynamic force of personality, the greatness of the film does not rest solely on his shoulders but on the talents of many. The studio system of filmmaking was a collaborative effort that incorporated the best talents in front of and behind the motion picture camera. Angels shows the craft of the studio system at its zenith. It’s a truly great film that has lost none of its emotional impact.

Angels With Dirty Faces is the story of two boyhood friends from the slums of the Lower East Side who take different paths in life– if only because one can run faster than the other. One is Rocky Sullivan, as played by James Cagney, a gangster who thumbs his nose at the law and is idolized by the neighborhood Dead End Kids. The other is Jerry Connelly (Pat O’Brien), a priest who believes his boys can be saved– if not Rocky himself. Sullivan enters an uneasy partnership with crooked lawyer Humphrey Bogart and deals with a criminal organization ingrained in society. Rocky Sullivan is a throwback to the old-time gangsters who must now adapt to the larger, criminal system around him. As his fortunes change—from rundown tenements to ritzy nightclubs– his stock rises in the eyes of the impressionable. The stakes are high, and it’s up to Father Jerry to win back his kids. Angels features one of the most powerful endings in 1930s cinema. Some modern critics over the years have reinterpreted the ending, but there’s only one plausible interpretation that remains in keeping with the character of Rocky Sullivan.

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Angels With Dirty Faces was part of the second wave of ‘30s gangster movies. It’s a genre that thrived in the early ‘30s with films like Public Enemy, Little Caesar and Scarface. But unlike those films which glamorized hopeless criminals, Angels offered something different. It presented a character who had the potential to be redeemed. It’s this layer that separates him from the earlier criminals who died on the street or in the gutter, unrepentant to the end. Rocky Sullivan isn’t all bad. There is a spirit of goodness underlying the tough exterior, and this is conveyed through his friendship with Father Jerry. The audience is drawn to him much the same way the Dead End Kids are. Angels offered the possibility of spiritual redemption for the gangster.

The ‘30s crime genre had always been about how the role of the gangster could be a seductive force, both within the context of the movie but also without– how movie audiences were drawn to these colorful characters (to the consternation of the Production Code). Angels is all about this attraction. This is most evident through the media, specifically the use of the newspaper headline. Certainly a parallel can be drawn to today, although headlines have been replaced by the Internet and real-time coverage in which events unfold instantaneously. What is interesting in Angels With Dirty Faces is that almost every action stirs a headline. It’s a recurring visual motif, and it’s used to show the impact of the gangster in the lives of those who worship him.

What makes Rocky Sullivan so attractive is the fact that he is played by James Cagney. He was one of the great stars of Hollywood. Cagney’s first big break came with 1931’s The Public Enemy. Throughout the ‘30s he appeared in many star vehicles that Warner Brothers ground out like sausages, movies like Taxi!, The Crowd Roars, Winner Take All, Hard to Handle, Picture Snatcher, The Mayor of Hell, and so on. These were entertaining movies but not necessarily ones that would endure in our consciousness. There were occasional films during this period that did stand out more than others. Footlight Parade, which showed Cagney’s great versatility as a song-and-dance man, and the artistic A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was one of the most beautiful films of the decade, remain two of his best films from the era. Angels With Dirty Faces would likewise become something more than just another star vehicle.

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With the possible exception of White Heat, it’s Cagney’s best film. Rocky Sullivan is certainly one of Cagney’s most memorable portrayals. Movie buffs remember his physical characteristics—the famous shoulder roll and neck twitch. We get insight into the actor’s process in Doug Warren’s 1983 biography on James Cagney. In it, Cagney said he modeled the character of Rocky Sullivan on a hophead-pimp he had known growing up in his old neighborhood in New York. “He wore an expensive straw hat and an electric blue suit, and all day he would stand on that corner. He would hitch up his trousers, twist his neck and move his necktie, lift his shoulders, snap his fingers, then bring his palms together in a soft smack. His invariable greeting was ‘Whaddya hear? Whaddya say?’ I did those gestures maybe six times in the picture, and the impressionists have been doing me doing him ever since.”

Unlike other movie stars who played tough onscreen, Cagney was tough, having grown up on the streets in the kind of environment depicted in the movie. One of the most memorable sequences in Angels is the chaotic basketball game in the parish gym that Sullivan referees. Cagney was always in control onscreen—as well as off. In Cagney, author Doug Warren writes that in one scene, Leo Gorcey of the Dead End Kids kept ad-libbing phrases that broke the continuity. Cagney wasn’t going to tolerate it. “When Gorcey interjected an ad-lib, Jimmy gave him a stiff-arm above the nose, snapping his head back sharply. ‘Now listen,’ he said, poking a finger into Gorcey’s chest. ‘We’ve got work to do, and there’ll be no more of this goddamn nonsense. We’re going to do it the way we were told to do it… understand?’ Gorcey understood. It was a language familiar to him.”

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Pat O’Brien was a very good friend of Cagney in real life, and with fellow actors Spencer Tracy and Frank McHugh, they were known as “The Irish Mafia” of Hollywood. In fact, O’Brien was often referred to as “Hollywood’s Irishman in Residence.” He had originally come from Broadway and had found great success beginning with 1931’s The Front Page. From the mid-1930s on, O’Brien would co-star with Cagney in several films, including Here Comes the Navy, Devil Dogs of the Air, The Irish in Us, and others. These were early forerunners of the “buddy film,” with the two usually cast as a team. O’Brien’s most memorable role, however, came in 1941 when he portrayed the famous Notre Dame football coach, Knute Rockne. He often played tough cops, fast-talking reporters, or authority figures. Angels With Dirty Faces presents one of his best roles as Father Connolly. This was the type of characterization Hollywood at that time excelled in with similar movie priests like Spencer Tracy in Boys Town and Bing Crosby in Going My Way. Like them, Father Jerry represents the best of the Catholic faith. Connolly is a streetwise priest who counteracts the pull of Rocky using calmness and wisdom. O’Brien’s style of acting is in direct contrast to Cagney’s, which further delineates him onscreen.

The Dead End Kids had started out in a successful Broadway play called Dead End which was later turned into a 1937 movie of the same name. Their destructive antics on the set of that film led Samuel Goldwyn to sell their contact to Warner Brothers. After a successful tryout in a B film called Crime School, they were cast in Angels With Dirty Faces. They would follow this will a sequel, Angels Wash Their Faces, starring Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan, which was more a comedy than a drama. It would anticipate the comedic antics that would become part and parcel of the series. The kids would appear in six films for Warners. At Universal, they became the Little Tough Guys for a series of movies including no less than three movie serials. Then at the low-budget Monogram studio they were retitled the East Side Kids. In their last incarnation they were the Bowery Boys. Though their films were at best average programmers, they elicit a nostalgic charm that has resonated with classic film lovers. Altogether, the Dead End Kids made 89 films over the course of a career that spanned just over 20 years.

Ann Sheridan was the prototypical Warner girl who could be as tough as her leading men. The Texas-born Sheridan broke into the movies in 1934 at the age of 19 with Paramount and later signed with Warner Bros. two years later. Nicknamed the “Oomph Girl,” Sheridan was a popular pin-up in the 1940s and starred in many classic films during her career including Dodge City (1939), Kings Row (1942), and Nora Prentiss (1947). In Angels, she plays the pretty snappy-looking social worker who falls for Sullivan. This would be her first starring role in an “A” picture.

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Humphrey Bogart is the crooked lawyer Jim Frazier. This was the first of three films in which Bogart would star opposite Cagney, and in every one Cagney would get the upper hand. In 1938, Bogart was still three years away from becoming a major star with the studio, so in Angels he has the secondary role of the heavy. But he plays it well, convincingly projecting fear and apprehension in the presence of Sullivan.

One other casting choice of note is that of Frankie Burke as the young Rocky Sullivan in the film’s prologue. It’s the greatest impersonation of Jimmy Cagney ever seen. Frankie Burke didn’t have much of a film career and only appeared in about 15 films—one of which was another film with the Dead End Kids called Hell’s Kitchen—but he does a brilliant job here. Unfortunately, the filmmakers couldn’t find anyone who could play a convincing Pat O’Brien at that age.

Angels was directed by Michael Curtiz–the ultimate studio contract director behind Warners’ biggest productions. In 1938 alone he directed four films including The Adventure of Robin Hood. He would later direct Cagney in his first Oscar win with Yankee Doodle Dandy. Curtiz would be nominated for Best Director for Angels With Dirty Faces. The film represents not only some of his best work but also the studio’s.

Like other films at Warners, Angels is a social commentary film that draws a parallel between the environment and the development of the criminal. To create this sense of place, director Curtiz evokes the street life of the lower classes with an eye towards detail. He creates an authentic world that appears worn-out and lived in, and it is peopled by characters we believe in. Curtiz’s visual imagery presents us with the world of the New York tenement. This is all conveyed with the opening shot. In this manner, the story is put forth with a narrative economy that removes the extraneous.

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The screenplay was written by Rowland Brown, Warren Duff and John Wexley, the latter having done a successful play called The Last Mile, which dealt with prison life on death row. But Pat O’Brien said that it was Brown who contributed most of the script ideas—Brown having previously penned 1930’s Doorway to Hell. The writers would be rewarded with a nomination for Best Original Story. Though a gangster drama, the Angels storyline offers something much more than the usual “crime does not pay” message. It presents a moral battle between two opposing forces.

Angels With Dirty Faces is a film that reveals how figures of authority can guide and misguide us– and how the media can influence our perception of them. Angels resonated with audiences of the 1930s and it resonates today. It has all the traits of the gangster genre that one would expect, but there’s also a depth– both in its themes and in its characters. It’s a film with a belief in its convictions and a honesty in its vision. Therein rests its power and impact.

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The Walking Dead (1936) by matthew c. hoffman

“You can’t kill me again.” ~ Boris Karloff in The Walking Dead

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Boris Karloff is the man who lived again in a film that combines Universal horror with Warner gangster drama. A group of racketeers and a crooked attorney frame former convict John Ellman for the murder of a judge. Two young eyewitnesses—and the film’s romantic couple— see the frame-up and know the truth but are too frightened to step forward to clear Ellman. Will they be too late to save him from the electric chair? And what’s the secret in Dr. Beaumont’s lab that offers hope? What follows is a truly surprising sequence that takes the film into science fiction. Rising above the ordinary, this genuinely suspenseful and moody film has something to say about capital punishment, a corrupt criminal justice system, and life after death.

The Walking Dead is a B movie just over an hour in length. Except for Karloff, who was by then an international star, the cast is made up of featured players and character actors—but no stars. Despite this, the film has much to offer and was made with a great deal of care. The Walking Dead was directed by Michael Curtiz, who of course helmed some of the biggest films for Warner Brothers including 1942’s Casablanca. With this assignment he was not being punished, as Humphrey Bogart would be with The Return of Dr. X. Warner Brothers simply wanted The Walking Dead to succeed, and so they assigned their best director to the project. In fact, Curtiz had experience in the genre having previously directed two outstanding horror films: Dr. X and The Mystery of the Wax Museum.

Swedish poster for The Walking Dead.
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The Walking Dead was shot in 1935 in only 18 days. The film has the feel and look of the studio’s “A” films. Warners was known for their crime dramas with their urban settings. The opening scenes have that kinetic energy, giving the viewer the familiar Warner atmosphere with action set in a courtroom and newsroom. The film has a breakneck pace with one scene inventively merging into the next. Two scenes, in particular, which stand out include the “death house” sequence– offering German Expressionist camerawork and Dutch angles by cinematographer Hal Mohr– and the scene in which Karloff is on display for the racketeers and performs Rubinstein’s Kamenoi-Ostrow on the piano, which is the musical motif throughout the film. Whether it’s the high angle shot of a convict playing Ellman’s favorite musical piece on a cello or the haunting flash of Karloff’s image in a bedroom mirror, these are wonderful moments that separate the film from the usual B movie fare.

The storyline, like other Warner Brothers films, dealt with events that were then topical. The electric chair was often in the news and turned up in many crime films of the period, including Angels With Dirty Faces, which was also directed by Michael Curtiz. But more specific to The Walking Dead were headlines of a scientific nature. In the film there is a reference to the Lindbergh heart, which was a method of keeping human organs alive in a chamber. This method would pave the way for the development of the modern artificial heart. The Lindbergh heart was developed by aviator Charles A. Lindbergh and Dr. Alexis Carrel, the latter having been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1912. The ability to sustain life outside the body was a scientific breakthrough and a major headline in 1935, the same year The Walking Dead went into production.

1930s theatre display
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Another important influence on the film was the work of Dr. Robert Cornish, who was involved in the scientifically questionable method of re-animating dead bodies. His idea was to use a see-saw to help circulate the blood in the victim—at first experimenting on those who had died from electrocution or drowning. He had no success until he refined his process on animals. In 1934 he was able to restore life to a dog named Lazarus IV, which had been pronounced dead. There was no further record of animals or humans being restored to life, but in later years, Dr. Cornish did develop his own brand of toothpaste.

Though these headlines gave the film a topical interest, nothing compared to the name KARLOFF headlining theatre displays across the country. He alone was the box office draw on this film. Boris Karloff had a non-exclusive contract with Universal which allowed him to work at other studios. The Walking Dead was the first and best of five films he would make at Warner Brothers in the late 1930s. The others being West of Shanghai, The Invisible Menace, Devil’s Island, and British Intelligence.

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The role of John Ellman is one of Karloff’s best away from Universal. Once again, he reveals a great depth of sadness through his expressive eyes. He is a lost soul, and this is most touchingly conveyed when his character is seen wandering the cemetery at night. It’s a moving performance, and he makes the character the most sympathetic one in the movie. One of the more interesting stories that Greg Mank tells about the production was Boris Karloff’s role in shaping the character. In the original story treatment, the Ellman character came across more like a wild dog unable to speak, but it was Karloff who turned Ellman into the version we see in the finished film. It was also Karloff who came up with the idea of using music to trigger Ellman’s memories of his past life.

The doctor who brings him back to the world of the living is played by Edmund Gwenn, a distinguished character actor best known for his roles in Miracle on 34th Street and the science fiction classic Them! His two assistants are played by Warren Hull and Marguerite Churchill. Hull is remembered today by film buffs for his roles in movie serials like The Spider’s Web and The Green Hornet Strikes Again. In later years he would host the TV game show “Strike it Rich.” Marguerite Churchill is known for another horror film she appeared in that same year: Dracula’s Daughter.

The gang of racketeers is a “who’s who” of great character actors. Two of the more noteworthy include Barton MacLane as Loder and Ricardo Cortez as the attorney Nolan. Film historian William K. Everson said of Barton MacLane: “He never spoke when shouting would do.” He often played the heavy and appeared in countless films for Warner Brothers during their heyday. Ricardo Cortez had been cast as a Valentino-like leading man in the silent era, but by the early 1930s he had shed that image. With his shark-like grin and smarmy manner, he was the villain audiences loved to hate, almost always being shot, stabbed, or poisoned in the pre-Code era.

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The Walking Dead was made near the end of the first great wave of horror films. Censorship, particularly from Britain, threatened the overseas market. The genre itself was under close scrutiny. By 1937, the horror genre would be all but dead, and it would be a couple years before it would be brought back to life with the Son of Frankenstein. But in early 1936, horror films were still being released. Though The Walking Dead hasn’t left the lasting impression that The Mummy or The Bride of Frankenstein has, it is a well-crafted and suspenseful chiller. It’s also a wonderful example of the tight storytelling that Hollywood employed in those days, especially in the era of the B movie. If this were made today, it would be about two hours long and loaded with gruesome details.

In its own way, The Walking Dead is a profound film with more depth than most of the purely escapist films of the time, asking questions that go beyond the scope of its 66 minutes. “What is death?” The answers and implications are only suggested. The Walking Dead is a terrific, often overlooked film that I’ve shown before as part of a double feature at the LaSalle Bank revival theatre in Chicago. And now, the dead will walk again in Park Ridge. I’d like to end with a quote from author Greg Mank who wrote, “Yet, this horror/gangster morality tale dares to be different by making Karloff’s monster Heaven’s avenging angel. The remarkable sensitivity of Karloff’s bravura performance, the solid direction by (Michael) Curtiz, and a script that insists on delivering more than expected all create one of the most surprising, moving, and truly spiritual horror movies of the time.”

For more on The Walking Dead, refer to The Very Witching Time of Night: Dark Alleys of Classic Horror Cinema (2014) by Gregory William Mank.

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ADDENDUM: We had 61 in attendance on 4/23/15. More importantly, we had some good comments and questions afterward. One of our regulars, Joe Paolelli, a young theology student, said he would mention this film in his class, which coincidentally had been discussing the definition of resurrection (as a Christian concept versus resusitation). Also, in the film, both John Ellman and Dr. Beaumont use the quote, “The Lord our God is a jealous God.” After the show, one lady questioned the meaning of “jealous” in relation to God and how could a human emotion like that be applied to Him? To help answer this, I asked Joe, who responded:

“That is a quote from the Old Testament. It comes up several times in the Pentateuch and the prophets, always in reference to God’s requirement of absolute loyalty in the face of lesser “gods.” It first occurs in the 10 Commandments.

I interpret it from two perspectives: on the more pragmatic side, I suspect the filmmakers were attempting to incorporate scriptural dialogue in a way that would not specifically endorse a religion. At this time in American history, that basically meant using an Old Testament quote that would be appreciated by both Jews and Christians.

But one might ask, Why use that particular quote? In the Old Testament stories, God describes Himself as “jealous” whenever He is calling His people to absolute loyalty. Just as a husband or wife is sometimes referred to as “jealous,” and this is meant to imply that they are protective of their spouse and their relationship, God is described as “jealous” because He is protective of His people’s allegiance.

The film presents death as shrouded in mystery, and lifting this shroud is one of the major themes of the latter half of the movie. Thus, the use of the quote suggests that God is protective of this mystery. That is why Ellman dies before he reveals any details about his experience after death.

Overall, I am impressed with the filmmakers’ ability to present an engaging story imbued with religious undertones while remaining accessible to a wide variety of beliefs and worldviews. This strikes me as ambiguous enough not to turn many people off, but definite enough to make some basic metaphysical claims that invite a reflective response from the viewer.”

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Les Miserables (1935) by matthew c. Hoffman

 “It simply gives us more of the book’s core, unfurled like a banner, draped over an intelligent 108-minute screenplay by W.P. Lipscomb that seems a small miracle of concision. Hugo’s themes and gigantic clashing antagonists emerge intact, with their inner selves revealed as well as their outer. The social protest couldn’t be more explicit, especially in its outcry for ameliorating harsh penal codes. And yet, the film makes clear that there is a moral dimension to Les Miserables and moral distinctions that most adaptations miss. It gives the actors that much more to work with and the film is richer with both actors integrating them into their characters.” ~ Jay Carr, TCM article on Les Miserables (1935)

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Adapted from the Victor Hugo novel by writer W.P. Lipscomb, the 1935 version of Les Miserables is a condensed though artfully done screen adaptation. Fredric March is Jean Valjean—a man sentenced to ten years in the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread. After his release from prison, the now hardened convict is moved by an act of compassion from a bishop. Renewed with the spirit to give rather than take, Jean sets out to change his life. Under a new name, he becomes a businessman and eventual mayor. But through three phases of his life, there is one part of his past he can’t escape—the uncompromising law administrator, Javert, as played by Charles Laughton. “Regulations, good bad or indifferent, must be carried out to the letter.”

After the Production Code reasserted itself in 1934, Hollywood studios turned to safe material for storylines. There was nothing safer than classic literature. Fox production head Darryl Zanuck wanted to rival MGM, a studio which had great success adapting the classics with films like David Copperfield and Little Women. “When Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables,” Zanuck recalled, “he was raising a powerful cry against the inhumanities of the parole system then existing in France. Today the pendulum has swung the other way. Instead of being too drastic and oppressive, our system is said to be too lax. However, there is grave danger that the pendulum, swung by outraged public opinion, may again travel too far in the original direction.”

Les Miserables was the kind of “social-problem” film that Zanuck was accustomed to making at Warner Brothers. Despite being a historical drama from the previous century, Zanuck realized Les Miserables was a story that would resonate with the modern audience. The story had already been told several times since the earliest days of motion pictures. It had most recently been adapted for a French film directed by Raymond Bernard. This 1934 version is often cited as the most faithful, but it could afford to be with a running time of nearly five hours.

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Though the American version is forced to remove incidents and cut some characters, it is nevertheless faithful to the spirit of the novel. Those who are interested in the differences between the novel and the film can find them on Wikipedia; we’re more interested in the film’s cinematic qualities—not its literary roots. The 1935 film is a remarkable work because it has all the qualities of great cinema, chiefly, great direction, cinematography, and acting.

Les Miserables was helmed by Polish director Richard Boleslawski, who had gotten his start directing films in Europe. Later, in New York, Boleslawski taught a style of acting that became a forerunner of Method acting. Hollywood came calling and offered him a contract. It was during the 1930s when he found great success within the studio system. Boleslawski worked with some of the biggest stars of the day including John Barrymore, Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo. He also directed the last film we showed in our 2014 series, Theodora Goes Wild, with Irene Dunne. Boleslawski died at the age of 47– only two years after Les Miserables.

“A director can spend his whole life looking for the script– a story of great enough scope and purpose to spur him on to that prodigious effort which, if successful, will later be mistaken for inspiration. When the continuity of Les Miserables was placed in my hands, I knew that at last I had the script.”

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When he was given the Les Miserables assignment, Boleslawski also got Gregg Toland for a cinematographer. Toland, an Illinois native, is universally considered one of the best—if not the best—cameramen in Hollywood noted for his many innovations in depth of field. His later credits would include such films as Wuthering Heights, Citizen Kane and The Long Voyage Home. Toland’s camerawork as well as the composition and lighting add a pictorial beauty that separates this version from those that followed. If you want a singing Jean Valjean, then watch the 2012 musical, but I’ll take the cinematography of Gregg Toland.

Les Miserables features many fine performances both in the lead roles as well as in the supporting ones. Fredric March gives one of his finest performances with a sincere and intensely felt portrayal of the long-suffering Valjean. March not only displays a wide range of emotions through many stages of this character’s life, but he also plays a secondary character in the film—the “old man” mistaken for Valjean.

On the TCM website, Jay Carr writes, “There was no more distinguished actor of the ‘30s and ‘40s than March. No other actor has won two Oscars… and two Tonys. His roles were often derived from literary sources or classics. He made decent and even heroic men come alive, never allowing them to perish under a pall of worthiness. Here, he’s often photographed in full or three-quarter profile. But he never just lets his leading man profile do the work. In scene after scene his eyes flash with sensitivity and sentience. He’s a man with a keen eye for injustice, and the will and means to fight it, as his life is more and more touched by the political turmoil of the times.”

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The other great performance is that of Charles Laughton as the policeman Javert. Laughton underplays the character to great effect, revealing more with his eyes than with loud bluster. He is a psychologically disturbed character, a procedural tyrant, and his interactions with Fredric March provide some of the most memorable and tense moments in the film. Laughton had starred opposite March previously in The Sign of the Cross and The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Nineteen thirty-five would be a stellar year for Laughton as he would appear in two other classics: Ruggles of Red Gap and Mutiny on the Bounty.

Also in the cast is Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the bishop who practices what he teaches. His character embodies the true meaning of Christianity. March’s real-life wife, Florence Eldridge, portrays the tragic Fantine. Rochelle Hudson is the grown-up Cosette. Hudson is best known to movie buffs for this film as well as for Wild Boys of the Road. She also appeared in several films with Will Rogers in the mid-1930s. Later in her career, she played Natalie Wood’s mother in Rebel Without a Cause. Finally, there’s Frances Drake as Eponine, a character re-drawn as a secretary to Marius (John Beal). Drake is best-known for her role as Yvonne Orlac in Mad Love, also from 1935.

Fredric March and Frances Drake
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Les Miserables is one of my favorite films in the series and was one of the first to be added to the schedule. It’s a film about social injustice with themes dealing with charity and forgiveness. It reveals the challenge of keeping one’s sense of decency and doing what’s right in the face of overwhelming and enduring hardships. Given the circumstances that condemn and label Valjean, it would be easy to become bitter towards life. But Valjean rises above bitterness and finds a greater reward in the wake of his spiritual rebirth. Les Miserables reflects the purest meaning of Cinema of Transcendence by presenting the ideal model of the “love thy neighbor” tenet.

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Before 7 PM our audience saw the 1935 “Little Rascals” short Little Sinner. (This was the same short I had played when I last presented Les Miserables at the LaSalle Bank Theatre in Chicago.)

And before our presentation on Les Miserables, I played a sequence from D.W. Griffith’s The Sorrows of Satan (1926), a film not available on dvd.
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Dante’s Inferno (1935) by matthew c. hoffman

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Sometimes I feel a little like Pop McWade, the older concessionaire in tonight’s movie, as played by Henry B. Walthall. He is offering a message of hope to those who will stop and listen, but people just walk on by his exhibit, preoccupied with other amusements. As Pop tells Jim, the Spencer Tracy character, “Youth is the time for fun and happiness. Not the serious entertainment we have in here.”

Maybe I could be more like a carnival barker and sell this spring program a different way. “Step right up. Step right up. See Claudette Colbert bathe in a tub of asses’ milk. See Vesuvius rain down fire and lava upon Pompeii. See a gangster sentenced to the electric chair. See another one survive the electric chair. Step right up. We have it all here for you at Cinema of Transcendence.”

Now that would be false advertising because this series is about serious entertainment. All the films in the program deal with the role of spirituality and religion in classic Hollywood. Tonight we look at the role of film as allegory where images have symbolic value. The opening shot of Dante’s Inferno conjures up the fire and brimstone of Hell until we realize that the film is actually opening inside the boiler room of a ship. The message and meaning of Dante’s Inferno is conveyed in powerful visual terms which makes this film one of the most interesting in the series.

This shot does not appear in the movie, but the painting does. (You’ll have to look fast to find it.)
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Spencer Tracy is Jim Carter, a rather wily coal stoker who winds up at an old-time amusement park. There, while in blackface, he meets Pop McWade, who offers Jim a job which turns to barker. He talks people into Hell—Pop’s attraction called Dante’s Inferno. Jim soon marries and then builds the park up into an empire. He surrounds himself with money and “society background.” His business practices, however, leave something to be desired. “I didn’t do anything that any other businessman wouldn’t have done,” he admits at one point. He builds a pleasure ship for gambling, which turns into a hedonistic playground. The S.S. Paradise becomes the scene of the film’s climax—and the turning point in Jim’s life. From the first image within the steamship furnace to the blazing Paradise cruise, this star vehicle is guaranteed to hold your attention.

The story has some basis in reality. In Dante’s Inferno, Carter’s unethical business practices help build up an unsafe carnival attraction which leads to tragedy. In New York City, in 1904, a senator by the name of William H. Reynolds had spent millions of dollars on an amusement park in Coney Island called Dreamland. He had acquired the property by dubious means by having others bid on it without revealing his intentions; Reynolds used his political influence to get what he wanted. Once the park was operational, Dreamland featured many attractions including two shoot-the Chutes, gondola rides through a model of Venice, an animal circus—and a ride called Hell Gate, which took visitors on a boat ride through dark caverns. It was in Hell Gate one night in 1911 when disaster struck. A fire broke out that engulfed the entire park. By morning, Dreamland was a faded dream. It was never rebuilt.

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Dante’s Inferno also features a climax taken straight from the headlines. The disaster that befalls the cruise ship also had a parallel in real-life. The story treatment was inspired by a recent fire on the steamship S.S. Morro Castle. The disaster took place in 1934 off the New Jersey coast. One hundred and thirty-three people were killed.

Few people are aware of these historical references. Most viewers assume by the title that the film is based largely on Dante Alighieri’s 14th century poem, The Divine Comedy. Writers Philip Klein and Rose Franken commented about using the poem. “In bringing a version of Dante’s Inferno to the screen, we wish to apply its symbology—as the Bible is symbolic—to the everyday life of the present age. As Dante revealed the journey of the soul in its development, so we will attempt to follow the progression of those who encounter today the fundamental experiences of life and death.”

Henry B. Walthall portrays the reverent, gentle Pop who guides Jim along like the poet Virgil. It’s his character who applies the significance of Dante’s message to the present-day reality of Jim’s life. Twenty years before, Walthall had played the Little Colonel in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. He had been a leading man for Griffith at the Biograph studio in the silent era and had found great success as a character actor in the sound era, having appeared in such films as Judge Priest and A Tale of Two Cities. Dante’s Inferno would be one of his final roles as he would die the following year.

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Walthall may be the soul of the film, but Spencer Tracy is the star. This was his last released film for the Fox studio. Tracy was never happy at Fox and reportedly was drunk through most of the production. He would leave the studio for MGM where his fortunes changed. In just a couple of years he’d be starring in films such as Captains Courageous and Boys Town. He would spend twenty-five years with MGM– the studio that would turn him into a Hollywood legend. But in 1935, he was not yet a major star. His career was stagnating, and he certainly was not happy with Dante’s Inferno. In fact, he wanted his name removed from the credits as well as from all publicity. Tracy later called it “one of the worst pictures ever made anywhere, anytime.” Despite his claim, the movie was a huge success.

Claire Trevor plays Jim’s sacrificing wife. Aside from one key scene in a courtroom, she is not given a lot to do. Trevor is best known for the film noirs she made like Murder, My Sweet and Born to Kill. She would win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for 1948’s Key Largo.

Scotty Beckett of the Our Gang shorts plays Jim’s son. It’s hard to believe that the little boy in this movie would have such a self-destructive life in years to come. Beckett would die at the age of 38—one of the most tragic of all child stars.

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Also in the cast is a 16-year-old Rita Hayworth who was then billed as Rita Cansino. She appears in her first screen role in the “ballroom bacchanal” onboard the S.S. Paradise. You can’t mistake her smile as she dances with her partner. The extended cast list on IMDB features many uncredited actors whose names are familiar, but one that stood out for me was Joyzelle Joyner who is listed as a dancer. We can guess it’s somewhere onboard the cruise ship (unless she was replaced by Rita Cansino)? Joyner had performed the “Dance of the Naked Moon” in DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross.

Dante’s Inferno was directed by Harry Lachman, a well-traveled artist whose primary interests were in photography and post-Impressionist painting. Lachman was born in LaSalle, Illinois, in 1886, and by the age of thirteen he was in Paris studying to be a painter. He first became involved with motion pictures in France, and this led him back to Hollywood. Though Lachman was a studio director who worked well with everyone from Shirley Temple to Laurel & Hardy, Dante’s Inferno is clearly the one film that allowed him to best express his talents. Lachman had been a production manager on Rex Ingram’s remarkable silent The Magician and was undoubtedly inspired by that film’s nightmarish imagery of Hell. Lachman’s cinematographer on the film was the highly respected Rudolph Mate, who had made a name for himself in Europe working on such films as Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.

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The magnificent visualization of Dante’s Hell was primarily inspired by the engravings of illustrator Gustave Dore but also by the original paintings of art director Willy Pogany. In production notes, an uncredited Ben Carre is said to have designed much of the inferno sequence. Carre was a French artist who had worked on the set designs for films like the 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera and The Wizard of Oz. Some sources have erroneously reported that the inferno was lifted from the 1924 version of Dante’s Inferno—also produced by the Fox studio—but there is nothing to support this claim.

Filming on Dante’s Inferno began in December, 1934, and lasted through January, 1935. It was released in the summer of that year. But in the spring, on May 29, 1935, Fox Film Corporation joined with Twentieth Century to become Twentieth Century-Fox. With the merger, many of the offbeat films Fox had been known for would disappear from the production schedule. Oddities like Dante’s Inferno would become a thing of the past.

My first experience with tonight’s film was seeing a photo from it in Classics of the Horror Film by William K. Everson. It depicted a surreal image of sinners writhing in agony as their half-naked bodies cover the trunk and limbs of a tree. In the foreground, a man’s arms extend like tree branches. It’s both nightmarish and hauntingly beautiful in a cinematic way. It’s one of many such images in this eight-minute sequence which features no dialogue. It is here, during this interlude from the main storyline, where Dante’s Inferno reveals an imagination and artistry that harkens back to the silent era.

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Many people today are drawn to story and realism. That’s the bulk of what television and cable and most adult films are—just talking heads. I’m only interested in the pictorial beauty of cinema—the power of the image. Lighting and composition are more interesting to me than plot details. On the surface, the plot of Dante’s Inferno is familiar even within the context of this series. It’s a morality tale that shows the corrupting influence of greed and power. There are themes at work that we’ve seen before and which we’ll see again. But it is how the film is told that makes it one of the more interesting works of the 1930s.

When I finally saw this film for the first time, the image of Hell that I had seen in the William K. Everson book did not disappoint. I was equally caught up in the carnival atmosphere as well as how it was all photographed. Even the film’s painting depicting Alexander cutting the Gordian knot seemed to take on a life of its own. That is the power of the cinema, and that’s why I’m showing films like this, regardless of how many pass through our gates.

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The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) by matthew c. hoffman

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The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) was an early disaster film made by the same team responsible for King Kong (1933). Produced by Merian C. Cooper and directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack, the film was released in the wake of other epics like Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932). Nevertheless, Last Days gave audiences a story just as entertaining (and less sensational) with a style all its own. Though it lacks the production values of a major studio like Paramount, Last Days comes across as a mini-epic. The film was originally conceived in Technicolor, but this became impossible when the budget was cut. Despite these cost-cutting measures, the film that emerged remains one of the finest historical dramas of the 1930s.

The Last Days of Pompeii is a tale of a good-natured blacksmith named Marcus who becomes embittered when tragedy strikes his family. He begins to believe that money is the only real thing that matters in life. His natural strength leads him to the arena as a gladiator. With success, he becomes a man of some means, able to care for an adopted son, Flavius, and to purchase a slave to tutor him. When an injury forces him to leave the arena, Marcus earns a new living as a slave trader and then later as a mercenary for Pontius Pilate. While in Judea, tragedy strikes a second time and Marcus is forced to take his son to a healer known as the greatest man in Judea. The years pass, but the memory of this holy man stays with Marcus and shapes the lives of both he and his son. Unbeknownst to Marcus, Flavius will risk his own life to save those slaves persecuted by the Romans. Flavius is captured and, in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, thrown into his father’s arena to fend for his life.

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Last Days of Pompeii is the story of a man who fails to understand the relevance of events happening around him. With the Ben-Hur character, it was revenge that had blinded him, and with Marcus, it’s his bitterness at what Fate has handed him. Both men would find themselves on a spiritual journey. The film is a morality play, but it is so beautifully done by screenwriter Ruth Rose. Today’s jaded viewers may find aspects of the film’s theme of spiritual awakening heavy-handed, but the religious elements were put forth with a sincerity back then that did not seem condescending the way so many faith-based films are now.

The filmmakers took the title of their film from a novel of the same name by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, but aside from the setting, the book and film version have little in common. Though Last Days is centered on an actual historical event –the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD– the film takes liberties with history. As Pontius Pilate is seen visiting Marcus in his later years shortly before the destruction of Pompeii, it should be noted that Pilate is believed to have died nearly four decades earlier, possibly from a suicide.

The film stars Preston Foster as Marcus. Foster was a former Broadway performer who would make a name for himself in many movies for RKO in the 1930s, usually contemporary roles as a cop or detective. When Channel 7 in Chicago used to run the late late movie, it was usually something from the RKO vault, and this is where I first saw Preston Foster. However, he is probably better known to audiences for his later role as the police captain in 1952’s film noir Kansas City Confidential. His performance in tonight’s film has been called adequate or acceptable at best. In his defense, he was probably one of the few actors on the RKO lot who could meet the physical requirements of the character. Foster could pass as a blacksmith turned gladiator, although an actor like Victor McLaglen would’ve certainly given it a greater dimension.

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There are several fine performances from supporting players in the film, including Alan Hale and Ward Bond, but the most memorable is that of Basil Rathbone as Pontius Pilate. Though he only has a few scenes in the film, his casting was a real coup for the production. Rathbone created a Pontius who was calculating towards his enemies yet guilt-stricken by his role in the condemnation of Jesus. It’s an intelligent, sensitive performance by one of the finest character actors of that time.

As with Ben-Hur, the film tells a story about fictional characters who live through great historical events during the time of Christ. The Last Days of Pompeii also depicts Jesus in an indirect way. But unlike Ben-Hur, we see no actual image of Jesus except for a double exposure at the end. This was very much in keeping with the respectful attitude of the time. The image of Jesus on film was either shown in a reverent manner, as with Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927), or He was represented by an onscreen effect, such as rays of light. With the exception of the French film Golgotha (1935), there were few major films at this time that depicted Jesus onscreen.

Last Days’ primary appeal to audiences, especially contemporary ones, is that it’s an early disaster film that makes use of special effects by Willis O’Brien– the same man who brought King Kong to life on movie screens. Though O’Brien is best known as a stop motion animation artist, he also supervised many kinds of visual effects. For instance, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and the destruction of the Roman city were accomplished mostly through miniatures.

Willis O’Brien (right) with one of the models used in the film.
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In the December 1935 issue of American Cinematographer, cameraman Edwin Linden revealed, “The scenes in the arena, in which the Colossus crumbles and falls after the start of the earthquake was another thrillingly difficult scene. It was not ‘done with mirrors,’ as some reviewers have expertly stated, but was a combination of a full-sized arena set, with real people and horsemen, a miniature arena, glass painting, miniature projection, and a life-size breakaway Colossus which was photographed at high speed. The task of merely combining these shots into a homogeneous composite is an intricate problem of special-effects trickery in itself.”

The later sequences that Willis O’Brien supervised are effective, but I’m sure it will be a disappointment to younger viewers who are accustomed to half-hour sequences of computer-generated overkill. Despite the limited budget, The Last Days of Pompeii is a well-crafted film because its effects go a long way in creating the illusion of a world beyond the studio; the effects expand the restrictions of space. Effects such as glass paintings, travelling mattes, and composite shots that incorporated separate film elements are evident throughout, most notably in the opening shot of Pompeii. There are many memorable images in the film. One of which is a glass shot depicting Christ’s crucifixion in the distance as Marcus travels on horseback out of Jerusalem with his riches.

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Another of the film’s assets is its music. Roy Webb orchestrated an evocative score reminiscent of Max Steiner. In fact, as soon as the horsemen march into the arena near the climax we hear music cues from Max Steiner’s works including King Kong and The Most Dangerous Game. This leaves the impression that the production may have been pressed for time and simply recycled Steiner’s earlier music. Since he was a genius and the music is great to begin with, no one is complaining of Roy Webb’s/RKO’s appropriation.

The Last Days of Pompeii’s reputation grew after its initial release beginning with a 1949 reissue in which it was paired with 1935’s She. It was only then that the film began to make a profit. The film remains fondly remembered by an earlier generation of movie fans who first saw it on television. The film finally made its debut on dvd 10 years ago along with King Kong, Son of Kong, and Mighty Joe Young. The Library is proud to be able to present it now in 2015.

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Divine Madness by matthew c. hoffman

“You can do important things with that pen if you wanted to.”
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“If we are to go forward we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because, without such discipline, no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good.” ~ President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933

Gabriel Over the White House is a Depression-era fantasy that was released in 1933. I saw it for the first time in the mid-1990s at the LaSalle Bank Theatre in Chicago before I took over the programming there. It made such an impression on me; I would always remember actor Franchot Tone in his armored car, giving the signal to fire upon a barricaded group of gangsters. But it’s a film more about ideas than action; for me, the emotional climax of the film became the President’s selection of a particular pen. Gabriel Over the White Houes is a very bizarre film, and twenty years after first seeing it at LaSalle, it was on my short list of films planned for 2013’s Rediscovered film series. But I’ve saved it for this year’s theme. To this day, Gabriel Over the White House remains controversial with many unflattering labels applied to it, such as pro-fascist.

Based on a political fantasy called Rinehard by British author T.F. Tweed, the film version tells the story of a newly-elected President who is simply part of the political machine. With the Great Depression affecting millions, the country has lost all hope. Many of the problems that face America– such as unemployment—the President sees as local problems. He literally tunes out the voices of discontent. His recklessness outside the White House ultimately leads to tragedy with an injured President beyond all human help. From this point on, his life will become two with a new man emerging—a crusader who will restore confidence, prosperity, and the spiritual health of a nation. It is through his hands that America will be rehabilitated.

Gabriel Over the White House was directed by Gregory La Cava. He originally worked for William Randolph Hearst as a producer of early animated cartoons, but he eventually became a director of live-action silent movies. He is best known for the films he made in the 1930s, most notably My Man Godfrey (1936) with Carole Lombard and William Powell and Stage Door (1937) with Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers. La Cava showed that he could handle comedy as well as heavy drama. In last season’s Rediscovered film series, we had shown Gallant Lady with Ann Harding, which was another La Cava picture.

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Gabriel Over the White House was produced by Walter Wanger, who had recently joined the MGM studio, as well as by William Randolph Hearst himself. The newspaper tycoon had influence in the movie business. His Cosmopolitan Studio was created for the express purpose of making movies starring his mistress, Marion Davies. In addition, Hearst was, at that time, a strong supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. With his influence, he had helped FDR win the Democratic nomination in 1932. The film reflects Hearst’s own vision of the ideal president—a social activist who is really a benevolent dictator. Hearst also had a hand in the writing of the script, including those speeches made by President Judson Hammond. The film was reportedly pushed through by Walter Wanger when studio head Louis B. Mayer was away on vacation. Mayer, a staunch Republican, was horrified when he saw the finished film at a preview. Though he delayed the film’s release, he did not pull it from distribution.

The film was designed to usher in the FDR administration and was in fact released after his election. Roosevelt is said to have approved of the film. One can clearly see the building blocks of his New Deal at work in it. Most strikingly, when President Jud Hammond creates a construction army made up of the unemployed, it foreshadows the creation of the WPA in 1935. In a sense, Gabriel Over the White House is a shrewd piece of Hollywood propaganda in which the previous administration of Herbert Hoover is characterized as do-nothings.

Gabriel has been called pro-fascist because President Hammond bypasses Congress and the Constitution in order to pass through his emergency acts. He is called a dictator by members of Congress who are powerless to stop him. Viewed within the context of the 1930s, Hammond’s actions may have seemed more justifiable to desperate audiences who, at that time, had no inkling of what fascism would lead to in Europe. But in 1933, at the bottom of the Depression, there was talk of anarchy. Democracy itself was in danger. The collapse of the capitalist system was more than a theory. Many Depression audiences would’ve been more accepting of a President single-handedly challenging the system for the greater good—especially if that President were Walter Huston.

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Huston is a favorite of ours here at the Classic Film Series. More recently, we saw him last spring when we screened D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln. Coincidentally, in Gabriel there are visual references to Lincoln in an overt attempt to justify the actions of President Hammond. As though the approval of the angels wasn’t enough, the film also suggests our 16th President silently consents.

The Canadian-born Walter Huston was one of the great actors in the early talkie period and appeared on Broadway before becoming a Hollywood star in films like The Beast of the City, American Madness, Dodsworth, and many others throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s. His career culminated with an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. His casting as the fictional President Hammond—in the wake of his Lincoln portrayal from three years before—is ideal.

One of the more unusual scenes is President Hammond’s creation of the Federal Police, a military squad operating in mini-tanks. This group is designed specifically to deal with– and dispose of– the foreigners, that is, the bootlegging criminals. The President’s secretary, as played by Franchot Tone, is given the new task and leads the army. The gangsters are arrested and sentenced in a military tribunal. With intended irony, their demise at the hands of a firing squad appears to be set on Ellis Island with the Statue of Liberty in the background. And no, this film is not a comedy—despite the outrageous scene depicting a drive-by shooting in front of the White House. As incredible as the storyline is with the formation of the Federal Police, it’s not far removed from what would develop across the ocean in Germany with the SS.

President Hammond (Huston) with his two secretaries played by Franchot Tone (right) and Karen Morley.
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The younger generations will not grasp the historical context of the film. They will not understand references to the Bonus Army or have any knowledge of past Presidents like Hoover, Harding, or even FDR. It would be interesting, then, if this story were re-imagined today. We live in a world of political gridlock and party politicians where even the government itself can shut down. Those who allow that to happen are the “traitors to the concepts of democracy.”  In 2015, with trillions of national debt and half the world wanting to destroy us or take advantage of us, tonight’s film certainly gives us something to think about: a leader who not only recognizes the problems of the day but offers clear solutions to solve them. But here, the implication is that only divine intervention can make this so.

The film bypasses our system of checks and balances, civil liberties, and even the Constitution itself. The greater good in Gabriel Over the White House becomes the “Washington Covenant” that is formed among all the nations of the world. The word covenant evokes a Biblical connotation as God’s promise. The promise that Hammond makes leads to nothing less than world disarmament and world peace, albeit enforced world peace. These were simple, direct solutions to the world’s problems.

Much has been written negatively about the politics of Gabriel Over the White House. As a political drama, it certainly reveals much about the mindset of the nation at that time. But those who dismiss the film as propaganda miss its value and overlook its cinematic qualities. This is a unique, fantasy film that projects an alternate vision of what America might’ve become in the Great Depression. It extrapolates upon that idea, and it does so in the most entertaining of ways.

For more about the politics of Gabriel Over the White House, here is a 2013 article from The New Yorker.

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