Posted by Moira Finnie on September 14, 2008
The enjoyment I derive from episodic movies might be indicative of our fragmented concentration in this dizzying information age. Yet, as someone who loves to curl up with a book of short stories, I also enjoy movies that follow that portmanteau format, at least loosely. Some of the films mentioned are literary, some dream-like, and some just plain movie fun. Hardly any would ever make one of those AFI best movie lists, but they have given me a great deal of diversion.
The following is a partial list of my favorite anthology films, which, despite the often critical disdain that greets them, continue to pop up from the early talkie period to today. Their sometimes hit or miss quality seems to have kept most of them from ever being the critics’ darlings as a genre, but there is lots of entertainment in some of these often imaginative and films, whether they are directed by one person or a clutch of varying talents. Curiously, many of the older films mentioned are very hard to find and haven’t been broadcast in years, but are well worth seeking out. I hope that you’ll add your suggestions to the list. I’m sure that there are some that I’m overlooking:
If I Had a Million(1932): An early talkie from Paramount, this omnibus story features a brilliant cast of everyone from George Raft, Jack Oakie, Richard Bennett (Constance & Joan’s dad) to Charlie Ruggles. Even Gary Cooper and W.C. Fields make appearances in various segments, all directed by eight wildly varying different talents (with Lothar Mendes uncredited). Several excellent scenarists, among them a young Joseph Mankiewicz, Sidney Buchman and Claude Binyon, contributed to the quality of the various segments.
The common thread in this Depression era fantasy? Each story concerns the impact that unexpectedly receiving a million dollars has on several random individuals. Before you can say “My name is Michael Anthony” or “Shades of John Beresford Tipton”, each character responds to their windfall from the dying millionaire (Richard Bennett) a bit differently. Some stories are touching, as the one in which Wynne Gibson, a prostitute, uses her new-found fortune to have one clean bed, with only one pillow, and no one to bother her. A resident (May Robson, who is magnificent) in a harsh nursing home wisely arranges to have it turned into a delightful home for herself and her fellow inmates.
My favorite, largely silent sequence is “The Clerk”, which features Charles Laughton under the direction of Ernst Lubitsch. Laughton embodies every oppressed drone’s fantasy when he takes the liberty of leaving his desk in the middle of the day, climbs an endless stair to his lordly boss’s office, and delivers, in person, a lovely raspberry. Interestingly, in the British release of this film, Laughton reportedly gave the high muckety-muck what is commonly known as “the bird.” Oh, those earthy Brits!I guess that Paramount didn’t think that American audiences could handle that frankness, even in pre-code days.
Charlie Ruggles‘ slapstick sequence as a man who demolishes a shopful of china once he realizes his good luck is real, is deftly done, though, to be honest, I do not find the sequence with W.C. Fields and Alison Skipworth particularly amusing, but then, alot of Fields is painful more than funny to me. See what you think in this clip:
Next on my list would be Tales of Manhattan(1942), directed for Twentieth Century Fox by French director Julien Duvivier, who wisely decamped for Hollywood during the war while the Nazis controlled France. He directed these stories linking a custom made white tie and tails to several owners, among them, Charles Boyer, Ginger Rogers, Charles Laughton, Henry Fonda and George Sanders. Perhaps because this film reflected the playfully poetic sensibility of one director, this movie may be my favorite anthology story. The outstanding cast is rounded out by several remarkable talents, including Paul Robeson, Rita Hayworth, Thomas Mitchell, and the indispensable James Gleason. One of the most successful vignettes, and one that was cut by the studio despite many contemporary critic’s praise upon its initial release, featured W. C. Fields–this time in a funny role as one of the fellows who buys the second hand tails from a brash salesman (Phil Silvers). The bulbous nosed comedian, whose demise after Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) had begun a sharp descent, is at his best in this brief episode, which is his last film. The film, which is mysteriously absent from the dvd rack, is available as a vhs, with the delightful W. C. Fields turn restored to the movie. His inebriate lecturing a crowd of teetotalers, including the sublime Margaret Dumont, is very funny, especially when the crowd learns that the title of the lecture to be given by Prof. Postlewhistle (Fields) is ““Will alcohol ever take the place of rover as man’s best friend?”
The most satisfying dramatic portion of this movie for me may feature that consummate actor, Edward G. Robinson. A denizen of skid row, Robinson is a bum, whose only known address is a mission run by the brusque yet kindly Jimmy Gleason. When a letter addressed to Eddie arrives one day, Gleason seeks out Robinson, finding him in magnificently realized squalor, asleep in a filthy alley behind a cluster of tenements. The letter, notifying Robinson of a college reunion prompts Gleason to encourage his lost friend to attend, wearing, it turns out, the much used tail coat. The reunion, attended by several good actors, including an acidic George Sanders, turns out to be revelatory for Edward G. as well as his classmates. This movie, which culminates in the coat, and good fortune descending from the skies on impoverished Black sharecroppers, (among whom are Robeson, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Ethel Waters), does occasionally show up on cable.
Flesh and Fantasy (1943): Duvivier strikes again with noir-tinged supernatural chillers, made at Universal Studios this time, but with a similarly great cast, including Edward G. Robinson and Charles Boyer, (again!), Barbara Stanwyck, and Thomas Mitchell and some of the most beautiful cinematography of Paul Ivano and Stanley Cortez. The stories are wonderfully eerie and romantic, particularly the sequence involving the often excellent Boyer, as a tightrope walker who disregards a seer’s warning, to his regret as well as that of his beloved, Barbara Stanwyck, who gives one of her more tender performances. Robert Cummings, who may have been at his best in this period on film, appears as a young man who finds love in an unexpected way during Mardi Gras with the bitter Betty Field, who plays a plain Jane. Field, whose interesting Hollywood career often shirked easy categorization, plays one of those iconic females of ’40s films. She is a tragic figure because she failed to be beautiful, and she would literally sell her soul to be one of the herd of blandly beautiful. The need for a woman to be convential to be a success was rarely so disturbing as it was here. Perhaps my favorite vignette once again features old pros Edward G. Robinson and Thomas Mitchell. Watching these two in a dramatization of Oscar Wilde‘s story Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime is like drinking a fine brandy in front of a fire on a cold night. Mitchell, as a society fortune teller with a disreputable air, predicts that Robinson will be a murderer. Eddie‘s character naturally scoffs at his vision. The skill and pleasure that these two actors appear to exhibit in unraveling this cautionary tale is a dark delight.
I will hope to address several other anthology films in the near future here, including, among others, Dead of Night (1945), O. Henry’s Full House (1951), The Story of Three Loves (1953) and Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990). I’d like to conclude this piece by mentioning a seemingly forgotten movie, director Martin Ritt‘s adaptation of Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man(1962). The director drew from Richard Beymer some of his best work on film as the hero of Ernest Hemingway‘s wonderful early stories, tied to the character of “Nick Adams”. (Yes, I know that there are readers who will attest that David Lynch‘s tv program, Twin Peaks contains Beymer‘s best acting. I’m just not one of them.).
While many of Hemingway‘s novels and stories have received some harsh treatment by Hollywood, this film at least evokes some of the feeling of rural life as the main character comes of age around the time of the First World War. The picaresque story begins in the Michigan woods around 1916, as Beymer’s character realizes that he must break away from the “buried alive” atmosphere of his home, where his parents, beautifully played by Arthur Kennedy and Jessica Tandy, love him and need him as a buffer between them, but don’t necessarily want him to grow up.
The characters encountered by Beymer in his travels, among them Dan Dailey as a drunken advance man, Fred Clark as his boss and only true friend, Paul Newman and Juano Hernandez as a punch drunk fighter and his trainer, Susan Strasberg and Eli Wallach, among others.
Of course, there is an inherent problem with any adaptation of Hemingway: the author’s tersely vivid prose, and particularly his dialogue, which pierces to the heart of character and insightful understanding on paper, may sound absurd when uttered aloud by an actor. This does occasionally hamper this film adaption by Hemingway friend and biographer, A.E. Hotchner. Yet, the film succeeds best when the Franz Waxman score and cinematography by the great Lee Garmes are allowed to take over the movie. Garmes captures the feel, look and almost the scent of Autumn in the woods in one scene between Beymer and the very young Michael J. Stoddard.
A couple of outstanding performances are also worth noting. Doing his too often overlooked yet outstanding turn, Arthur Kennedy as Nick’s father, who is slowly crushed by life, is very touching . All the actors seem to relish their parts in this film, which is available on dvd in a boxed collection called The Hemingway Classics Collection featuring The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms (1957), The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and the underrated John Garfield film Under My Skin (1950). Sadly, when the film was first released, it received lackluster reviews. The movie’s debut in theaters was not helped by the financial crisis that was also occurring in the board room of Twentieth Century Fox at the time, when Darryl F. Zanuck’s attentions were focused on the epic, The Longest Day (1962) and the debacle of Cleopatra (1963) was unfolding.
The director Martin Ritt, in an interview with Patrick Milligan, once remembered how in the early days of live television, he cherished “the excitement of dealing with quality material, including works by Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, and John Updike.” He also lamented the problems inherent in working “within a general culture that values ‘junk’.” Perhaps Ritt’s intention to honor the writer’s work by translating it to the screen was flawed. But, there are some non-verbal moments in this episodic movie that seem closer to the spirit of his stories than almost any other adaptation–when it stops being literary. Hemingway would probably have hated it, of course.
Dixon, Wheeler, The Transparency of Spectacle: Meditations on the Moving Image, SUNY Press, 1998.
Jackson, Carlton, Picking Up the Tab: The Life and Movies of Martin Ritt,
Popular Press, 1995.
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