Christmas on Celluloid: “Donovan’s Reef”

Donovan's Reef 1963 posterI confess a fondness for Christmas movies that stray from the typical snow-covered farmhouses, nostalgic small-towns, holiday-decorated department stores, and parties overrun with good cheer. While non-traditional Christmas movies rarely achieve classic status, they are interesting for unusual or personal reasons.

I have always had an affection for Donovan’s Reef, partly because I watched it on Saturday Night at the Movies with my father when I was a little girl, and he enjoyed it so much. But, I was also taken with the film’s tropical setting, which made for an exotic backdrop for Christmas. I can’t help but wonder if my obsession with the romance of the tropics began with Donovan’s Reef.

Directed by John Ford in the twilight of his career, Donovan’s Reef takes place on the (fictional) Polynesian island of Haleakaloa, which was saved from the Japanese by three Navy buddies—Dr. William “Doc” Dedham, Michael Patrick “Guns” Donovan, and Thomas Aloysius “Boats” Gilhooley. Based on the names alone, it is easy to tell that this knockabout comedy is going to be all about the boys. Thinking Haleakaloa a paradise, the three sailors can’t get the island out of their minds after the war. Doc returns to found a hospital for the islanders, while Guns establishes a couple of businesses, including a saloon called Donovan’s Reef. Gilhooley jumps ship from time to time to swim ashore to Haleakaloa for the sole purpose of starting a fistfight with Guns on their mutual birthday—apparently something of a tradition. The actual narrative begins when Doc’s adult daughter, Amelia, arrives from Boston to find her long-lost father. Doc attempts to hide his island family from her, because he fears she would not accept that he had married a native woman and fathered three children. Guns steps up and pretends the half-breed children are his. In typical Ford fashion, Amelia and Guns are attracted to each other but can’t get along.

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John Wayne: The Early Years

This is John Wayne month here on TCM and that means a five day marathon of movies, starting this week, starring the Duke.   Seeing as he acted in well over a hundred movies (closer to two hundred, really), it also means that plenty come from early in his career.   Doing my part, I even wrote up two early oaters, The Big Stampede and Somewhere in Sonora.  The fact is, most stars have brief early careers before someone realizes they have the charisma necessary to be a top marquee name.   Marlon Brando, to use an easy example, had one film, The Men, before A Streetcar Named Desire.  Even though he was famous on Broadway at the time of The Men‘s release, it did nothing for his superstardom.  When Streetcar was released, it was a different story.  He became a star, immediately, and his pre-A-List career remains that one, single movie.  An even more extreme example is Katherine Hepburn.  Her very first movie, A Bill of Divorcement, made her a star.  By her third movie, Morning Glory, she was an Oscar winner.  Pre-A-List career: non-existent.   But some actors, like the Duke, have pre-A-list careers that are almost as long, in number of movies made, as their A-list careers.   In Wayne’s case, it made him a better actor.

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All aboard the Stagecoach!

I missed y’all last week, due to a technical difficulty.  And thanks to that glitch, I missed posting about John Ford’s Stagecoach in advance of last Sunday’s screening on TCM.  Which is a shame, but at the same time Stagecoach is one of those classic movies so towering in its importance that it practically dwarfs all efforts to really appreciate it–here is the film that made John Wayne a star, that proved that Westerns could move from the B-movie ghetto to being major Hollywood fare, and that then established the character types and narrative tropes that would fuel all those subsequent Westerns inspired by it.  That’s a lot to pull off in just 96 minutes.  More to the point, it’s a set of accomplishments defined primarily by what comes later, by what we know about Stagecoach‘s precedent-setting legacy.

In other words, forget that I missed putting it in context when it aired on TV last week–what would it have been like to experience it back in 1939?  That’s almost beyond our reach altogether.  But c’mon, let’s give it a try, shall we?

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Tracing My Irish Roots Through the Movies

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John Wayne & Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man (1942)

When I was a child my family regularly celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day on March 17th. My parents and grandparents encouraged me to wear green and my mother would often make my brother and I a meal that consisted of corned beef and cabbage or my personal favorite, Irish stew with dumplings. But whenever I’d ask family members about our Irish ancestors I was usually ignored or met with a wry smile and a joke about our criminal connections. The truth is that most of my Irish ancestors were apparently kicked out of the British Isles in the early 1800s and ended up in Australia, which was a penal colony at the time. As a youngster I didn’t exactly understand what it meant to the larger world to be related to convicts but I was made to feel somewhat embarrassed and ashamed due to my family’s reluctance to discuss our personal history. Now that most of my immediate family has passed on I’ve taken it upon myself to delve into our past and uncover our Irish roots. It’s been an incredibly rewarding and eye-opening experience but I’ve had to rely on my own powers of investigation along with lots of paper documents and books to give me a better understanding of who I am and how I got here. I’ve also turned to one of my favorite obsessions for insight, the wonderful world of movies.

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On the Death of Harry Carey, Jr.

careyjrcardDuring the last phase of his career, Harry Carey, Jr., appeared in small but significant parts in some of the few westerns produced in Hollywood during the 1980s. In Walter Hill’s The Long Riders, he played a stagecoach passenger named George Arthur, who is robbed by members of the James-Younger Gang. When George reveals that he had fought for the South during the Civil War, Bob Younger shakes his hand. The unreconstructed rebel bonds with the outlaws as he helps them rob a cowardly passenger who lies about fighting for the Stars and Bars. As the gang rides away with guns blazing, George walks toward the camera, murmuring in amazement, “I’ll be god damned and go to hell”—a proper testimonial after an encounter with legends. The stage hold-up is one of my favorite scenes in the film because it is Harry Carey, Jr., who delivers this line. As a member of John Ford’s stock company, Carey had walked among a few western legends himself, albeit cinematic ones.

Carey died last week at the age of 91, and most obituaries identified him with Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond, Ben Johnson, and the other actors associated with Ford’s troupe. Carey was proud of his close association with Ford and his westerns even when he didn’t fully agree with the great director’s attitude toward his actors. In his autobiography Company of Heroes: My Life As an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company, he declared, “. . . I’ve only had one teacher. That man was John Ford. He was my nemesis and my hero. There were times when I was not an admirer—but when the day’s work was done—I loved him.”

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HARRY CAREY, JR., c. 1948

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Two’s A Crowd: The Whole Town’s Talking (1935)

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In an early Christmas present, the Museum of the Moving Image screened a 35mm print of John Ford’s unaccountably hard-to-see The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) this past Saturday. Unavailable on home video, aside from out-of-print VHS tapes going for $60 on Amazon, it deserves to be as well known as his Oscar winning drama from the same year, The Informer (his third film in ’35, Steamboat ‘Round the Bend, is no slouch either). A box office hit which revived the career of Edward G. Robinson, its descent into relative obscurity is puzzling, aside from the larger trend of studios choosing to ignore their own history. It has not even been released on Sony/Columbia’s DVD burn-on-demand service, which was made for titles like this.  In any case, it is an elegantly constructed farce that showcases the astounding range of Robinson, who can play delicate meekness and gruff murderousness for equal laughs.

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My heroes had always been cowboys, or “Hey, westerns, remember me?”

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I’m a horror guy. The older I get, the less I want to watch or write about any other kind of movie. It’s a juvenile, kneejerk response, and of course I will watch and enjoy other kinds of movies… but in my brainmeats I think I’m much more restrictive and exclusive than I really am. I recently was asked to write the liner notes (for want of a better word) for a DVD box set packaging five Universal-International widescreen westerns in one collection. I took the job because that’s what freelancers do, they live in the realm of the infinitely possible (calendar and clock be damned), in the land of Yes, county of Never Turn Down Work. “Westerns,” I thought to myself. “I’ve seen tons of ‘em. I can do this.” As I dug in, however, I found that not only did I enjoy the work but it seemed to feed me in a way, as if I’d been hungry all along and never even noticed. [...MORE]

Warner Archive Roundup

The Warner Archive continues to release an enormous amount of the WB back catalog, at a rate impossible to keep up with. Here is my vain attempt to catch up, covering a group of four films made up of bad men and one very bad woman. The most famous title is Nicholas Ray’s Born to Be Bad (1950), a devious noir/woman’s picture in which Joan Fontaine uses her seductive wiles to marry the heir to a family fortune. Then there is a trio of manly ne’er do wells, with Peter Graves leading a mercenary force in the spaghetti western The Five Man Army (1969), Robert Mitchum doing the same in a priest’s habit in The Wrath of God (1972), and Rod Taylor carousing his way through Dublin in Young Cassidy (1965).

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Stuff I love

I feel as though I’ve been complaining a lot lately. Pointing the finger. Assigning blame. And so, with my birthday looming, I’m going to take a break from all that and throw some love at you. [...MORE]

Favorite Director? Which Period?

Artists of all stripes (writers, painters, filmmakers, musicians) tend to go through different periods of growth.  This can produce smooth transitions or jarring discontinuity depending on the artist and the type of experimentation at hand.   In the world of film, this often produces two or three distinct sets of films that are of a piece within the director’s career but also seem as different from one another as if they had been done by completely different directors.  David Lean is a perfect example, going from smaller, more intimate films, like Brief Encounter, in his first period, to large canvas epics like Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, in his second.

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