Cinevent 51 – Day 1, Part 1

Cinevent this year began with something new: A tour of Columbus’s Ohio Theatre. The tour cost extra, and ran late enough to conflict with the first show in the screening room — but it was worth it on both counts.

The theater is located on State Street, across the street from the south entrance to the Ohio State House, on the site of the original Columbus City Hall. Commissioned by Marcus Loew (who didn’t live to see it), it was designed by Thomas W. Lamb, one of America’s foremost theater architects of the 20th century. Some of Lamb’s other designs included: In New York, the Academy of Music (later the Palladium), the Capitol, and the Ziegfeld (the original one, at 6th Avenue and 54th Street); in San Francisco, the Fox; in Boston, the B.F. Keith Memorial (now the Boston Opera House) and the Orpheum. The Ohio opened on St. Patrick’s Day 1928 with the Greta Garbo silent The Divine Woman.

As a Loew’s Inc. theater seating 3,000 and lavishly appointed in Spanish Baroque style, the Ohio thrived as a first-run venue for MGM pictures, even after the U.S. v. Paramount consent decree divested the studios of their theater chains, until suburban sprawl and changing patterns in entertainment (read: television) spelled trouble for the big downtown picture palaces. The Ohio officially closed in February 1969 with the Michael Caine World War II picture Play Dirty. At that point the Ohio appeared doomed; a local developer planned to demolish it (and the adjacent Grand Theatre) in favor of a high-rise office building to be built on the site.

Fortunately, a groundswell of local Save-the-Ohio sentiment led to the creation of the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA). CAPA harnessed public sentiment and the support of business and government leaders to purchase the Ohio and set it on the path to restoration to its original appearance (done in stages throughout the 1970s), with shows and concerts all the while to keep the ball rolling. Next door, the Grand Theatre was eventually torn down; the site is now Galbreath Pavilion, an annex to the Ohio providing additional lobby space, offices, and rehearsal rooms.

CAPA’s success with the Ohio enabled it to expand its activities, even beyond Columbus. Locally, it now also operates the Palace (another Thomas Lamb creation three blocks away), the Lincoln, and Columbus’s oldest surviving theater (since 1896), the Southern. The Ohio Theatre remains CAPA’s flagship and base of operations, and rightly so — as these pictures attest, it’s a breathtaking sight to see (it’s the only theater I’ve ever seen with not just a second, but a third floor lobby). I’ll point to CAPA the next time America’s coastal elites decide to lord it over their cultural inferiors in flyover country. I would also point to such theaters as the Fox in San Francisco, Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles, New York’s Roxy and Ziegfeld, and the Ambassador in Washington, DC — only I can’t, because they don’t exist anymore.

As I said before, the Ohio Theatre tour ran long enough that I missed the first event in the screening room, Chapters 1-3 of this year’s serial, Republic’s Hawk of the Wilderness (1938). This may have prevented me from tuning in to the serial’s wavelength — whatever that is. So perhaps I should reserve final judgment until I’ve had a chance to see the whole thing from the beginning. All I can say right now — having seen Chapters 4-6 on Day 2, then the final three on Day 4 — is that I’m not particularly eager to catch up with what I missed.

Based on a 1935 series written by William L. Chester (a sort of minor-league Edgar Rice Burroughs imitator) and published in the pulp magazine Blue Book, Hawk of the Wilderness opens with a scientific expedition in search of a lost-world-type island somewhere north of the Arctic Circle, yet warmed to a near-tropic clime by a volcano. When the ship founders in a storm, the expedition’s leader (whose wife and infant son are along for the ride) throws overboard a bottle with a desperate message for his colleague Dr. Munro. He and his wife go down with the ship, but his Native American assistant (Noble Johnson, the native chief of King Kong‘s Skull Island) makes it to the island with the scientist’s son.

Twenty-five years later the child has grown into Kioga, or “Hawk of the Wilderness” (Herman Brix, still a year away from changing his name to Bruce Bennett), so called by the island’s natives (whose ancestors remained there thousands of years ago while others continued on to the mainland, eventually to be known as “American Indians”). Kioga has been befriended by one of the locals, while others, led by a malcontent named (so help me) Yellow Weasel, want to kill him to appease their volcano god. Into all this comes a rescue expedition, led by Dr. Munro, the addressee of that long-ago message in a bottle, the message having been finally delivered by a seafaring criminal masquerading as a fisherman, who sniffs the possibility of treasure on the island and is just waiting for a chance to make his move.

As that summary suggests, Hawk of the Wilderness is an odd mash-up of Tarzan of the Apes, The Last of the Mohicans, and Treasure Island. It has a good reputation, if Bob Bloom’s program notes and some comments on the IMDb can be believed, but I’m afraid I wasn’t able to get into it myself. For such a plot-heavy story — Dr. Munro’s daughter Beth and Kioga fall in love, alliances are built and broken as characters hunt treasure, flee from or fight war parties, and contend with the erupting volcano — I found it oddly uneventful; certainly compared to last year’s The Masked Marvel, whose nonstop fistfights, chases, crashes and explosions made it a textbook example of “action-packed”. But to be fair, I only saw half of this year’s chapter-play — and just the second and fourth quarters at that. So I defer to Bob Bloom’s judgment: “Hawk of the Wilderness is a rarely-seen serial. It is available only through grey-market dealers on eBay. It’s fast-paced adventure with 12 chapters that will keep you coming back throughout Cinevent.” (I’ve ordered one of those grey-market eBay videos to fill the gaps in my viewing; if I have anything to add about it, I’ll post an update.)

After Hawk of the Wilderness came the first feature film of this year’s Cinevent: John Ford’s Four Men and a Prayer (1938). Ford was on a roll in those days, although this particular picture came during what his biographer Scott Eyman called a “temporary malaise” — after Ford’s first Oscar for The Informer (’35) and the twin high points of Wee Willie Winkie and The Hurricane (both ’37), and just before the string of jewels and outright masterpieces that would run from Stagecoach (’39) through How Green Was My Valley (’41).

Four Men and a Prayer hardly deserves mention in the same breath with those, but it’s still pretty good; if nothing else, it has a certain curiosity value as Ford’s only murder mystery (at least, as far as I can recall). The four men of the title are Richard Greene, George Sanders, David Niven and William Henry as the sons of C. Aubrey Smith, a colonel of the British Army in India who has been found guilty of dereliction of duty in bringing on a massacre. Drummed out of the service in disgrace, he returns to England and calls a family council. He tells the boys he was the victim of a frame-up (of course they never doubted him) and he has the papers to prove it. But before he can tell them more, he is found dead — with his briefcase empty.

The coroner declares his death a guilty suicide, but the colonel’s sons know better, and they set out to clear his name — with the assistance of top-billed Loretta Young as a wealthy heiress with eyes for Greene. Their investigation sends the brothers (and Loretta) globe-trotting off in all directions, from India to Buenos Aires to Alexandria — all, of course, without leaving the safety of the 20th Century Fox backlot (which has an exotic appeal all its own). Along the way, Ford’s feel for pacing and eye for striking pictorial compositions keep raising the movie above the humdrum level of Richard Sherman, Sonya Levien and Walter Ferris’s script (from a novel by David Garth), especially in an episode during the ruthless quashing of a South American revolution. The resolution of the plot, if not exactly surprising, is at least satisfying — and, after one more “malaise” picture (Submarine Patrol later in ’38), Ford would move on to Stagecoach and his white-hot phase.

And Day 1 had just begun. I’ll continue with the Thursday lineup next time.

To be continued…

Cinevent 51 – Prelude

Once again, on the Wednesday night before the first day of Cinevent, some of us early arrivals in Columbus attended a screening at the Wexner Center for the Arts on the Ohio State Campus. The theme this year was “Audrey Hepburn X 2”, and the program consisted of pictures at opposite ends of Audrey’s career, one of her last (Robin and Marian, 1976) followed by one of her first (Secret People, 1952). Personally, I would have preferred that the Wexner Center take the program in chronological order rather than the reverse.

On second thought, let me rephrase that. I would have preferred that they not screen Robin and Marian at all, for one simple reason: It’s lousy. It was lousy in 1976 and it was lousy last Wednesday in Columbus. Besides, if any Ohio State students really needed to see it, Turner Classic Movies has been showing and promoting it for months far beyond its merits.

Purporting to chronicle the last days of Sean Connery’s Robin Hood and Audrey’s Maid Marian, Robin and Marian is easily the worst movie either star ever made — mean-spirited, cheap and shoddy. The mean spirit permeated James Goldman’s sneering script. As for the cheapness, well, there was really no excuse for that. The picture’s budget was $5,000,000 — quite respectable for 1976 — yet it takes place in a twelfth-century England where the population is about 35, all of them dressed in cast-off blankets and tin-plate armor that would be hooted out of any meeting of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

The shoddiness came thanks to the director, the less-than-mediocre Richard Lester, who could never stage the simplest action without zoom-lensing and quick-cutting it into incoherence; without overusing his telephoto lens until his movies looked literally flat; without ham-handed “comedy” that made his actors look like small-time boobs. In a career that ran from 1954 to 1991, Lester made exactly one decent movie — but for many people, that one covered a multitude of sins.

The picture, of course, was A Hard Day’s Night (1964), and Lester got more credit for it than he deserved. When it came out in July ’64 the Beatles were widely regarded as just four lucky yobbos from Liverpool who had stumbled into a freakish fame. Most everyone who wasn’t a teenage girl assumed it would blow over in a year and all four would be moved to the Where Are They Now File. A Hard Day’s Night‘s stars were assumed to be nothing special; in time, of course, the over-21 world would know better, but for now Lester got credit for making the Fab Four so appealing. The picture also had an excellent screenplay by Alun Owen, so smooth it seemed to have been ad-libbed on the spot. Unfortunately for Owen, it suffered the fate of all such scripts: Lester got credit for that too.

But I digress; back to Robin and Marian. Having seen it in 1976, I didn’t care if I never saw it again, but I supposed once every 43 years wouldn’t kill me. Well, now I’m done; if anybody’s still screening this turkey in 2062, I’ll be busy.

After intermission the Wexner Center redeemed itself with a much worthier effort. Secret People may be remembered chiefly as one of Audrey Hepburn’s first substantial roles (and the one that led directly to her breakthrough in Roman Holiday the next year), but the picture really belongs to Valentina Cortese (or “Cortesa”, as the Brits and Americans preferred to bill her in those days). She and Audrey play Maria Brentano and her younger sister Elenora (Nora), refugees in 1930 from an oppressive dictatorship in their unnamed foreign country. (Their names suggest Mussolini’s Italy, but the dictator is the neutrally-named General Galbern.) Their father, a Gandhi-esque dissident, has smuggled the girls to a friend in London. Shortly after their arrival, they learn that their father has been executed by the Galbern regime.

Seven years later, the two are naturalized British subjects, their surname anglicized to Brent. Maria is unexpectedly reunited with her former boyfriend Louis (Serge Reggiani), who recruits her into a plot to assasinate General Galbern on a visit to London. When the plan goes awry and leads to innocent death, it begins to dawn on Maria that Louis and his cohorts are nothing more than terrorists, as ruthless and callous toward human life as the regime they’re plotting against. Maria’s ambition to be a writer, and Nora’s to be a dancer, mean nothing to them in their lust for blood.

Secret People was directed and co-written by Thorold Dickinson (1903-84), a British filmmaker whose reputation has undergone a bit of a renaissance in recent years. Never prolific (“It’s terribly difficult to direct a film you don’t want to make,” he once said, “that’s why I’ve made so few.”), Dickinson is probably best known over here for his excellent 1940 picture Gaslight, which MGM fortunately failed to destroy when they remade it in 1944. Secret People isn’t entirely successful as either a political thriller or a psychological drama, but it poses intriguing questions, the plot takes some unexpected turns, and Valentina Cortese makes up in screen presence for what the colorless Serge Reggiani lacks. Plus, of course, it offers a glimpse of Audrey Hepburn on the cusp of immortality, indulging her first love, ballet.

In fact, the Audrey Hepburn connection would bear fruit later, once Cinevent itself was under way. I’ll get to that in its own good time.

To be continued…

“Don’t Stay Away Too Long…”

“G’bye, Mary Poppins,” says Dick Van Dyke’s Bert as the Practically Perfect Nanny sails away from No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964). “Don’t stay away too long…”

Well, she did stay away too long. But at long last Mary Poppins Returns has finally arrived, a sequel 54 years after the movie it sequelizes — surely some sort of record. I won’t go into great detail about the movie here, for two reasons: (1) the focus of Cinedrome is Classic Hollywood, not the current movie scene; and (2) the pleasures of Mary Poppins Returns are best discovered without any preparation beyond what you can get from having seen Mary Poppins in the first place.

But I will say this: Mary Poppins Returns is manifestly the best and most enduring movie of 2018. Does that sound brash? So be it. In my defense, I call as my witness generations yet unborn, who will know and cherish this picture long after whatever wins the Oscar this coming Sunday — and any other movie released last year — is a Trivial Pursuit answer that nobody gets. That this exquisite specimen of the moviemaker’s craft scores 78 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and 66 on Metacritic only tells me that 22 percent of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and 34 percent on Metacritic, are fools who don’t know a great movie musical when it stares them in the face; I feel sorry for them. (Meanwhile, on RT, Bumblebee scores 93 percent fresh — which says all you need to know about the current state of film criticism.)

That’s all I have to say here about Mary Poppins Returns. I mention it mainly as a way to segue into a discussion of why it took 54 years for us to get a sequel to Mary Poppins at all. Because the fact is, we could have had Mary Poppins Returns, or something like it, fully half a century ago. It certainly would have starred Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins, and might even have had the rest of the cast — Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns, Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber, right down to Reginald Owen as Admiral Boom. That this alternate-universe sequel never happened was due to two reasons: (1) Walt Disney died too soon, and (2) P.L. Travers lived much too long.

Before I get to Mary Poppins, a few words about Walt Disney. In the community college Film History and Introduction to Film classes I teach, I have a standard lecture I deliver when the subject comes up, as it always will, of Disney’s place in the art and history of moving pictures. Generally, that lecture runs something like this:

Some years ago, the arts editor on the paper where I was a film critic asked me: Who did I consider the most influential artist of the 20th century? I’m sure she expected me to name Pablo Picasso, or Salvador Dali, or Jackson Pollock. Or, moving to other arts, possibly James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Eugene O’Neill or Ernest Hemingway. Or, sticking just to movies, maybe John Ford, Orson Welles, or even D.W. Griffith.

I didn’t even have to think about it. There’s not even a close second, I told her; the most influential artist of the 20th century is Walt Disney. All she could say to that was, “Well, if you consider Disney an artist…” “Well, if you don’t,” I told her, “you’re wrong.”

To me this is not a matter of opinion but a plain fact. Critics and artists may groan at the thought, but merely by inventing the theme park Walt Disney had an influence on American and world culture that Picasso or Hemingway could only dream of — and theme parks are far from all there was to Disney. If there’s one filmmaker from the 1920s — and ’30s, and ’40s, and ’50s, and ’60s — with whose movies you are reasonably familiar, it’s going to be Walt Disney.

Now I’m not talking about the Disney Company. I’m talking about Walt Disney the man — born 1901, died 1966. He died when your grandparents were the age you are now; I know because I’m old enough to be your grandfather and I was 18 when Walt Disney died. It was an occasion of not national, but world-wide mourning. Your grandparents grew up on Walt Disney’s movies. And so did your great-grandparents, and so did your parents — and so did you.

And, I’ll bet, so will your grandchildren. Someday you’ll be babysitting your grandkids, and you’ll turn on whatever people are using to watch movies when that day comes, and you’ll put on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Lady and the Tramp or Mary Poppins, and you’ll watch it with them, seeing it through a child’s eyes again just as you did when you first saw it at their age. And you’ll remember. That’s one of the things that makes Walt Disney one of the greatest artists America has ever produced.

And by the way, if anybody tells you otherwise, don’t listen to them, because there’s something wrong with their definition of art.

I transition now from my classroom lecture on Walt Disney back to a consideration of his final masterpiece. 

I saw Mary Poppins for the first time in early December 1964 at the Fox Senator Theatre, the first-run venue for all Disney pictures when they came to Sacramento. I remember it was the same night as the city’s Christmas Parade down K Street right in front of the theater; our showing turned out to be sold out, so my date and I killed a couple of hours watching the parade, window shopping, and helium-talking from a balloon we bought at a stand outside the entrance to F.W. Woolworth’s.

Finally, we got in to see the movie, and as we came out I had a thought that had never come to me after a movie before: “I’ve just seen a classic.”

Now I’d seen plenty of first-run classics up to that point: Cinderella, The War of the Worlds, The King and I, Mister Roberts, The Ten Commandments, Around the World in 80 Days, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. But I was four to ten years old when I saw those, and four-to-ten-year-olds just don’t think in terms of classic anything. This, at age 16, was the first time the conscious thought came to me immediately as I left the theater.

I was a bit surprised, a couple of months later, when the Oscar nominations came out, and “Chim Chim Cher-ee” was nominated for best song. The song I’d been humming as I left the theater that night wasn’t “Chim Chim Cher-ee” but “Jolly Holiday”, the one Bert (and half the animal kingdom) sings as he and Mary Poppins stroll through the sidewalk chalk picture. The song’s “Once in Love with Amy” lilt was simply irresistible — plus, of course, it goes on for nearly 15 minutes.

As all the world now knows, “Chim Chim Cher-ee” went on to win the Oscar, one of two that Robert and Richard Sherman won for writing Mary Poppins‘s music. By awards night I’d seen the picture a couple more times, and I better understood why “Chim Chim Cher-ee” won. It wasn’t until many years later, with decades of hindsight, that I came to believe as I do now: The nomination, and the award, should have gone to “Feed the Birds”. For my money, that’s the most beautiful song ever written for a Walt Disney picture, and that’s saying something. I’m not surprised that it was a particular favorite of Walt’s, or that he often asked the Shermans to play it to help him unwind at the end of a busy week. It’s probably no coincidence that it’s also the song most directly inspired by the original Mary Poppins stories — and the song that finally persuaded author P.L. Travers to go along with making Mary Poppins a musical.

And this brings me to Walt Disney’s secret weapon on Mary Poppins. Or weapons, I should say: Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman. Like writer Lawrence Edward Watkin on Darby O’Gill and the Little People, the Shermans were hired for a specific project, then assigned to others when that project had to go on a back burner. Watkin’s script for Darby O’Gill was delayed 12 years, during which he was put to work on Treasure Island, The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men, The Great Locomotive Chase and others. The Sherman brothers didn’t have to wait quite that long to see Mary Poppins in production, but they were still sidetracked onto incidental songs for other projects — The Absent-Minded Professor, Big Red, The Sword in the Stone, The Miracle of the White Stallions, etc. — while Disney was courting P.L. Travers. 

“The Boys”, as they quickly became known around the studio, had been handed a copy of the first Mary Poppins book early on, and they were very much in synch with Disney’s thinking on Travers’ episodic, essentially plotless novel — when they compared notes, they saw that they and he had marked off the same six chapters for inclusion in a prospective movie — and story/song sessions with writer Don Da Gradi went well.

Bob and Dick Sherman were pleased with, and even proud of, what they’d written for Mary Poppins, and rightly so. Let’s not mince words; what they turned out is arguably the greatest score ever written for an original film musical. To my way of thinking, its only serious rivals are the ones for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Wizard of Oz. (To be honest, The Wizard of Oz would probably get most people’s vote. But it wouldn’t get mine.)

By the time Travers and Disney finally closed the deal — with Travers to receive $100,000 against five percent of the gross earnings from any eventual film, plus complete script approval — DaGradi and the Shermans were pretty pleased with what they’d come up with. They were sure (as Dick Sherman put it years later) that Mrs. Travers would be “bowled over” when she heard what they had for her.

They reckoned without P.L. Travers. “Bowled over” wasn’t in her vocabulary — unless it was something she did to other people. And she was about to do it to Don DaGradi and Robert and Richard Sherman. We’ll get into that next time.

To be continued…

Catting Around

INTRODUCTORY NOTE: I wish I could take credit for this post, but I can’t. For the first time since I began Cinedrome, I’m presenting a guest blogger. The writer was a student in my Fall 2018 Introduction to Film Studies class at the college where I’m an adjunct instructor in Film and Media Studies. As I tell my Intro to Film students, my philosophy is that the best way to introduce them to film is to introduce them to films; thus I prefer to show them complete movies rather than excerpts. It’s all well and good to study individual sequences from movies you’ve seen, but if you haven’t seen the movie, showing part of it is like handing you a quarter-cup of Hershey’s Cocoa and calling it fudge.

In an 80-minute class period, finding movies to screen can be a challenge. So a major component of the class is to spend time with the films of Val Lewton, the legendary producer who turned out a series of extraordinarily intelligent B horror movies at RKO Radio during the 1940s — all of which ran between 65 and 75 minutes. An essay assignment on the final exam asked students to analyze any two of the five Lewton pictures they saw in class.

One student answered that assignment with a remarkable piece of film criticism, one of the best commentaries on Lewton’s unique body of work that I’ve ever read. I present that essay here for the enjoyment (and enlightenment) of Cinedrome readers.

I think it’s best if I don’t identify the student by name, or even by gender. Still, a few anonymous details won’t be out of order. This was the student’s first semester of college. He/she took the class “to learn more about the way movies/music videos/TV shows are made” and named some favorite movies: Roman Holiday, 10 Things I Hate About You,  Lady Bird.  The student has seen King Kong (1933), Gone With the Wind, West Side Story, The Sound of Music and Schindler’s List, but not Citizen Kane, Dr. Strangelove or Pulp Fiction; has seen the first installment of The Lord of the Rings but not the second or third.

And with that, here is the essay prompt from the exam, followed by the student’s essay. I have corrected minor errors of spelling, grammar and punctuation, and added actors’ names in parentheses where appropriate; otherwise I’ve changed nothing.

 *                         *                         *

Producer Val Lewton was noted for his “psychological” horror movies, replacing the usual movie vampires, werewolves and other monsters with explorations of the darker reaches of the human psyche. We saw five of Lewton’s movies in class: Cat People (1942, d: Jacques Tourneur), I Walked with a Zombie (1943, d: Tourneur), The Curse of the Cat People (1944, d: Gunther von Fritsch, Robert Wise), The Body Snatcher (1945, d: Wise) and Isle of the Dead (1945, d: Mark Robson). Discuss the psychological aspects of any two of these films.

Val Lewton’s movies were known for having supernatural aspects, yet always ending with the common message that the evils of the world were not found in monstrous identities, but in humans themselves. In Cat People (1942) and The Curse of the Cat People (1944), both movies are heavy with psychological themes and explore individuals on a deeper level.

In Cat People the story is of a young man, Oliver (Kent Smith), falling for a mysterious designer named Irena (Simone Simon). Irena is reserved, and tells her husband there are certain things he cannot do, like kiss her. She is fearful of her past, which she hides from him, and is terribly afraid that she will turn into a monstrous cat that will put everyone around her in danger. She asks her husband to listen to her and to believe her when she finally confesses, but he brushes this off and makes her go see a therapist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway). Irena wants to get better, but in the end, because her husband gives up on her and has an affair with his co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph), she turns into a large creature, is stabbed by Dr. Judd, who only wanted to exploit her, and dies.

The entire premise of Cat People seems to be a metaphor for depression or bipolar disorder, some type of mental illness. Irena suffers from a disorder due to a past that has traumatized her, and when she finally believes she can trust and open up to someone, they completely shut her down and refuse to understand her or stay with her through her episodes of unstable behavior. Throughout the film, Irena struggles with her ability to turn into a cat, much like those who suffer from mental illness. She has breakdowns and tries desperately to become better for the good of herself and her husband, but her husband gives up on her, triggering the start of another episode she cannot escape.

Irena has spent her whole life trying to suppress her emotions and “dark” feelings because that is what she has learned to do, which is unhealthy; this becomes her downfall in a way. Instead of being nurtured, encouraged, or listened to, Irena is forced to live in a cage her entire life, feeling as though she cannot escape from the prison of her mind. When she dies, she is finally free from the evils that plague her.

In truth, Irena was not the villain of the film at all. Oliver and Dr. Judd played such a large part in her downfall. Her husband, for not choosing to stick with her through the worst of times, and her therapist for trying to exploit her circumstances for his own curiosity, not to actually help her — which reflects many issues surrounding mental health today. Those afflicted with illness such as depression, etc., are not always supported and treated properly or given the help they need. When Lewton produced Cat People he chose a very taboo subject at the time and disguised it with a “horror” aspect. But Cat People seems to be a reflection of and metaphor for how mental illness works and affects people negatively.

Furthermore, in The Curse of the Cat People, the sequel to Cat People, we see Irena’s husband Oliver is now married to his co-worker Alice, and has a daughter with her named Amy (Ann Carter). Amy is perceived as a strange, imaginative girl who daydreams about fantastical and magical things. The other children believe her to be weird because of her airy personality and short attention span. She later befriends an old lady, Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean), with a jealous daughter Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), and even creates an imaginary friend who takes the form of Irena, her father’s first wife. Again, instead of choosing to understand his daughter, Oliver firmly tells her she must go play with the other kids or she will be punished. He also condemns her for having an imaginary friend, and she is severly punished for that as well.

Amy’s imaginary version of Irena is everything her parents are not — she listens to Amy, encourages and nurtures her, and therefore perpetuates Amy’s innocent view of the world in which all life is beautiful.

Amy’s childish innocence and ability to spread her warmth saves her from being killed when she hugs Mrs. Farren’s bitter daughter Barbara — Amy can see the good in people and in everything due to her innocence. In the end, Amy’s parents believe in her and finally listen to her instead of forcing her to try to be “normal” like the other children.

This here is another example of Lewton using a supernatural aspect as a disguise for a subject that was not really brought up during this time. Amy is a child who seems to be on the autism spectrum; she appears to have Asperger syndrome due to her behavior. Instead of really assessing this fact in their daughter, Amy’s parents, especially Oliver, are intent on making her a “normal” child, even punishing her for silly issues such as having an imaginary friend. Both parents are fearful their child may be mentally ill, especially when Amy mentions Irena. But in the end they come to accept her and foster her growth rather than cage her up, which is a stark contrast to what they did with Irena. The supernatural aspect Lewton added was to keep up the theme of “horror” films the company was marketing his movies as, but Curse of the Cat People was truly about child-like innocence and how adults try to take it away at an early age, when really they should be enouraging it.

Both Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People deal with serious issues in the world, but each topic is thinly veiled behind a supernatural aspect. Val Lewton’s films, though not filled with scary entities to haunt your dreams, are still equally as terrifying as they reflect how humans work. The psychological aspects of his films are what truly make them memorable and frightening.

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This is Jim again — I’m back. I don’t mind saying that this essay left me gasping with admiration. I don’t think I could have answered the essay prompt as completely and concisely as this student did — and I made it up. And remember: the student wrote this, as it were, “under the gun”, in a two-hour exam period — and after writing an equally long and insightful essay comparing Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).

The mention of Amy possibly having Asperger syndrome is particularly astute — especially since the student is probably too young to know that Asperger’s had barely been identified by 1944 (and then only in the Third Reich) and didn’t become general knowledge until the 1980s. (Of course, behavior like Amy’s was not unheard of back then, but it was usually described in less compassionate terms: “The kid’s weird / nuts / not right in the head…”) In other classes where I screened Curse of the Cat People, I discussed the idea of Amy’s being somewhere on the autism spectrum (itself barely recognized in ’44), but with this class I didn’t. As it happened, I didn’t have to — not for this student, anyhow.

Yuletide 2018

I know this is a departure from the subject of movies and the Golden Age of Hollywood, but as the Christmas Season rolls around once again, I don’t want it to go unobserved that 2018 marks the Bicentennial of the most familiar and beloved of all Christmas carols: “Silent Night”.

Or rather, strictly speaking, it’s the 200th anniversary of the carol’s original version, “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht”. It wasn’t to become “Silent Night” until 1859, when it was translated into English by Fr. John Freeman Young, an Episcopal priest in New York City. But as “Stille Nacht”, it was first performed at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve 1818 by its lyricist, Fr. Joseph Mohr, and composer, Franz X. Gruber, accompanied by Herr Gruber on guitar. Rather like Christianity itself, “Silent Night” first came into the world in a humble, even obscure imperial backwater — in this case Oberndorf, Austria — then proceeded to be embraced around the world in a remarkably short time. The song’s sublime spiritual simplicity continues to speak for itself, as it has for fully two centuries.

And in another departure from writing on Classic Hollywood, I’m sharing once again a contribution of my own to the Yuletide Season. As most Cinedrome readers will probably know, writer Philip Van Doren Stern once wrote a little story he called “The Greatest Gift”. He worked on it from 1939 to 1943, then, when he felt it was ready, he found himself unable to interest anyone in publishing it.  So Stern had 200 copies printed in a little booklet and sent them out to family and friends as his Christmas card that year. In time, the story came to the attention of Hollywood, and eventually, after a few false starts here and there, director Frank Capra made it the basis for his 1946 picture It’s a Wonderful Life with James Stewart and Donna Reed.

Taking a leaf from Philip Van Doren Stern, and in keeping with the Spirit of the Season, I’m offering a little story of my own as a sort of Christmas card for my Cinedrome readers. Unlike “The Greatest Gift”, it has nothing to do with movies or Hollywood; it’s just a tale told to me by a wise and wonderful older person I once knew. It’s called “The Sensible Christmas Wish”, and you can read it by clicking here.

If you like the story, feel free to share it with friends and family. Please remember, though, that like everything else here at Cinedrome, it is under copyright, and all rights are reserved.

Happy Holidays!