“CALIFORNIA” (1947) Review

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“CALIFORNIA” (1947) Review

I am a history nut. And one of my favorite historical periods that I love to study is the Antebellum Era of the United States. One of my favorite topics from this period is the California Gold Rush. I also love movies. But despite this love, I have been constantly disappointed by Hollywood’s inability to create a first-rate movie about Gold Rush. 

I may have to take back my comment about Hollywood’s inability to produce a first-rate movie or television production about the Gold Rush. There were at least three that managed to impress me. Unfortunately, the latest film about the Gold Rush that I saw was Paramount Pictures’ 1947 film, “CALIFORNIA”. And it did not impress me.

Directed by John Farrow, “CALIFORNIA” told the story of how California became this country’s 31st state. The story, written by Frank Butler and Theodore Strauss, is told from the viewpoints of a handful of characters – a female gambler/singer named Lily Bishop, a former U.S. Army officer-turned-wagon train guide named Jonathan Trumbo, a former slave ship captain and profiteer named Captain Pharaoh Coffin, and a Irish-born farmer named Michael Fabian. The movie starts in 1848 Pawnee Flats, Missouri in which female gambler Lily Bishop is ordered by the town’s female citizens to leave, when someone accuses her of cheating. She manages to join a wagon train bound for California, due to the generosity of a westbound emigrant named Michael Fabian. Unfortunately, the wagon train’s guide, Jonathan Trumbo and a few other emigrants object to Lily’s presence on the train. Lily and Trumbo become attracted to each other, but the latter’s refusal to face his feelings get in the way. Before the wagon train can reach the Sacramento Valley, a traveler reveals the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill to the emigrants. Despite Trumbo’s efforts, the emigrants abandon the train and rush toward the goldfields. Lily departs with another gambler named Booth Pannock, who injured Trumbo with a whip. By the time the latter reaches the Sacramento Valley with Fabian, he discovers that Lily and Pannock are employed by a former sea captain-turned-businessman Captain Pharaoh Coffin at his saloon in Pharaoh City.

Trumbo learns from the former emigrants that Pharaoh not only control the countryside – including the goldfields – that surround Pharaoh City. He also realizes that he is still in love with Lily, despite her growing relationship with Pharaoh. Lily realizes that despite her attempt to view Pharaoh as a man worthy of her love, he is still a ruthless and manipulative tyrant determined to take control of the entire California territory. Even worse, Pharaoh is haunted by his past as a slave ship captain and has a tendency to lapse into psychotic ramblings. Matters between Trumbo and Pharaoh becomes even more heated when the former decides to organize political opposition to Pharaoh by convincing Fabian to run as a delegate for the Monterey convention on statehood. As supporters for California statehood, both Trumbo and Fabian could end Pharaoh’s dreams of a West Coast empire.

One of the descriptions of “CALIFORNIA” described it as an “epic” account of how California became a state. It occurred to me that this could have been the perfect narrative for a two-to-three hour film or a miniseries. But a historical epic crammed into a 97-minute film? It finally hit me that the narrative for “CALIFORNIA” was simply too much and too vague for a 97-minute Western. The movie could have worked well if the story had been about a wagon train trek to California . . . or the Gold Rush experiences of the main characters . . . or simply a political drama about California becoming a state. But to cram all three potential narratives into a movie with the running time of a B-oater was just ridiculous. And if I must be brutally frank, this short running time, combined with so many subplots and an inability to focus on one particular theme really damaged this film. Another aspect about “CALIFORNIA” that really turned me off was the amount of songs featured in it. There were times – especially in the film’s first five to ten minutes – when I wondered if I was watching a Western or a musical. The movie’s opening sequence featured some overblown tune about pioneers with a montage of westbound emigrants on the Oregon and California trails. To make matters worse, not long after the dispersed Fabian-Trumbo wagon train reach California, audiences are subjected to another pretentious musical montage about those same pioneers being caught up in the search for gold.

And it seemed such a pity. “CALIFORNIA” really had a first-rate cast. Barbara Stanwyck, whom I consider to be one of the greatest actresses in Hollywood film history, was perfectly cast as the bad good-woman Lily Bishop. After all, this was a role that she had played to perfection in previous films. A good number of critics felt that the Welsh-born Ray Milland was miscast as Jonathan Trumbo. I would have agreed that he seemed miscast on paper. But . . . watching this movie made me remember that Trumbo was not some frontiersman who had been raised on the Western plains. He was an educated man, probably born and raised on the East Coast, and a former Army officer. And Milland not only pulled it off, he also proved to be a first-rate action man and generated a great deal of heat with Stanwyck, especially in scenes in which their characters engaged in some kind of psuedo-masochistic courtship. I was surprised to see that George Coulouris also had a strong screen chemistry with Stanwyck. He also did a great job in portraying the ruthless, yet slightly psychotic Captain Pharaoh. Although, I feel that the portrayal of his madness went over-the-top in one of the movie’s final scenes. And Barry Fitzgerald was perfect as the compassionate, yet strong-willed farmer, Michael Fabian. His character could have been a one-note good guy, but Fitzgerald infused a good deal of charm and energy into the role, making it one of my favorites in the movie. The movie also featured solid supporting performances from Albert Dekker, Frank Faylen, Gavin Muir and yes . . . even Anthony Quinn. I am reluctant to include Quinn, because of his limited appearance in the movie. He still managed to give an excellent performance.

“CALIFORNIA” had other virtues. One glance at the movie’s opening scenes pretty much told me that this was a beautiful looking movie. And the man responsible for the film’s sharp and colorful look was cinematographer Ray Rennahan, who had already won two Oscars for his work on 1939’s “GONE WITH THE WIND” and 1941’s “BLOOD IN THE SAND”. The artistry that Rennahan poured into his previous work was pretty obvious in the photography for “CALIFORNIA”, as shown in the images below:

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The movie also featured excellent work from the team responsible for the art direction, Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier; and the two set decorators, Sam Comer and Ray Moyer. I also enjoyed the costumes designed by Edith Head (for Stanwyck and the movie’s other actresses) and Gile Steele (for Milland and the movie’s other actors). Both Head and Steele did a pretty solid job of re-creating the fashions of the late 1840s, even if I did not particularly found them mind blowing. I certainly enjoyed Victor Young’s lively score for the movie. However, I have mixed feelings for the songs written by Earl Robinson and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg. I found the songs written for the movie’s montages – “California” and “The Gold Rush” rather pompous and overblown. But I have to admit that two of their other songs – “I Should ‘A Stood in Massachusetts” and “Lily-I-Lay-De-O” very entertaining.

I have come across reviews of the movie that accused John Farrow of uninspired or flawed direction. Mind you, I found nothing particularly special about his direction. I thought he did a solid job. But I doubt that he or any other director could have risen about the rushed and overstuffed screenplay penned by Frank Butler and Theodore Strauss. If the pair had stuck to one particular theme for this movie, the latter could have been a decent and entertaining piece of work. Instead, audiences were left with an overblown and pretentious story stuffed into a movie with a 97-minute running time. What a shame! What a shame.

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Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1910s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1910s: 


TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1910s

1-Mary Poppins

1. “Mary Poppins” (1964) – Walt Disney personally produced this Oscar winning musical adaptation of P.L. Travers’ book series about a magical nanny who helps change the lives of a Edwardian family. Directed by Robert Stevenson, the movie starred Oscar winner Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.



2-Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines

2. “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” (1965) – Ken Annakin directed this all-star comedy about a 1910 air race from London to Paris, sponsored by a newspaper magnate. Stuart Whitman, Sarah Miles, James Fox and Terry-Thomas starred.



3-Titanic

3. “Titanic” (1953) – Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb starred in this melodrama about an estranged couple and their children sailing on the maiden voyage of the R.M.S. Titanic. Jean Negulesco directed.



4-Eight Men Out

4. “Eight Men Out” (1988) – John Sayles wrote and directed this account of Black Sox scandal, in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series. John Cusack, David Strathairn and D.B. Sweeney starred.



5-A Night to Remember 

5. “A Night to Remember” (1958) – Roy Ward Baker directed this adaptation of Walter Lord’s book about the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic. Kenneth More starred.



6-The Shooting Party

6. “The Shooting Party” (1985) – Alan Bridges directed this adaptation of Isabel Colegate’s 1981 novel about a group of British aristocrats who have gathered for a shooting party on the eve of World War I. James Mason, Edward Fox, Dorothy Tutin and John Gielgud starred.



7-The Music Man 

7. “The Music Man” (1962) – Robert Preston and Shirley Jones starred in this film adaptation of Meredith Wilson’s 1957 Broadway musical about a con man scamming a small Midwestern town into providing money for a marching band. Morton DaCosta directed.



8-My Fair Lady

8. “My Fair Lady” (1964) – Oscar winner George Cukor directed this Best Picture winner and adaptation of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe’s 1956 Broadway musical about an Edwardian phonetics professor who sets out to transform a Cockney flower girl into a respected young lady to win a bet. Audrey Hepburn and Oscar winner Rex Harrison starred.



9-Paths of Glory

9. “Paths of Glory” (1957) – Stanley Kubrick directed this adaptation of Humphrey Cobb’s anti-war novel about a French Army officer who defends three soldiers who refused to participate in a suicidal attack during World War I. Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou and George Macready starred.



10-Somewhere in Time

10. “Somewhere in Time” (1980) – Jeannot Szwarc directed this adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1975 time travel novel called“Bid Time Return”. Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour and Christopher Plummer starred.

“TITANIC” (1953) Review

“TITANIC” (1953) Review

As many moviegoers know, there have been numerous film and television productions about the maiden voyage and sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic on April 15, 1912. The most famous production happens to be James Cameron’s 1997 Oscar winning opus. However, I do wonder if there are any fans who are aware that another Titanic movie managed to strike Oscar gold.

Directed by Jean Negulesco, the 1953 movie “TITANIC” focused on the personal lives of a wealthy American family torn asunder by marital strife, a deep secret and the historic sinking of the Titanic. Family matriarch Mrs. Julia Sturges and her two children, 17 year-old Annette and 10 year-old Norman board the R.M.S. Titanic in Cherbourg, France. Julia hopes to remove her children from the influence of a privileged European lifestyle embraced by her husband Richard and raise them in her hometown of Mackinac, Michigan. Unfortunately, Richard gets wind of their departure and manages to board the Titanic at the last moment by purchasing a steerage ticket from a Basque immigrant and intercept his family. The Sturges family also meet other passengers aboard ship:

*20 year-old Purdue University tennis player Gifford Rogers, who falls for Annette
*the wealthy middle-aged Maude Young (based upon Molly Brown)
*a social-climbing snob named Earl Meeker
*a priest named George S. Healey, who has been defrocked for alcoholism
*American businessman John Jacob Astor IV and his second wife Madeleine

Julia and Richard clash over the future of their children during the voyage. Their conflict is reinforced by Annette’s budding romance with college student Gifford Rogers and a dark secret revealed by Julia. But the couple’s conflict eventually takes a back seat after the Titanic strikes an iceberg during the last hour of April 14, 1912.

There seemed to be a habit among moviegoers lately to judge historical dramas more on their historical accuracy than on the story. As a history buff, I can understand this penchant. But I am also a fan of fiction – especially historical fiction. And I learned a long time ago that when writing a historical drama, one has to consider the story and the character over historical accuracy. If the latter gets in the way of the story . . . toss it aside. It is apparent that screenwriters Charles Brackett (who also served as producer), Richard L. Breen and Walter Reisch did just that when they created the screenplay for “TITANIC”. Any history buff about the famous White Star liner’s sinking would be appalled at the amount of historical accuracy in this movie. However, I feel that many lovers of period drama would be more than satisfied with“TITANIC”, thanks to a well-written personal story and top-notch direction by Jean Negulesco.

Superficially, “TITANIC” is a melodrama about the disintegration of a late 19th century/early 20th century marriage. The marital discord between Julia and Richard Sturges is filled with personality clashes, class warfare, disappointment and betrayal. And actors Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb did their very best to make the clash of wills between husband and wife fascinating and in the end . . . poignant. One of the movie’s best scenes featured a confession from one spouse about a past discretion. I am not claiming that the scene was particularly original. But I cannot deny that thanks to the stellar performances from Stanwyck and Webb, I believe it was one of the best moments of melodrama I have ever seen on screen . . . period. But their final scene together, during the Titanic’s sinking, turned out to be one of the most poignant for me. And by the way, fans of the 1997 movie would not be hard pressed to recognize one of Webb’s lines in the film . . . a line that also ended up in Cameron’s movie.

“TITANIC” featured other subplots that allowed the supporting cast to shine. Audrey Dalton portrayed Julia and Richard’s oldest offspring, the beautiful 17 year-old Annette, who had become enamored of her father’s penchant for European high society. Dalton did an excellent job of slowly transforming Annette from the shallow socialite wannabe to the shy and naturally charming young woman who becomes more interested in enjoying her youth. And the character’s transformation came about from her budding friendship and romance with the gregarious Gifford Rogers.  Robert Wagner seemed a far cry from the sophisticated man that both moviegoers and television viewers have come to know. His Gifford is young, friendly and open-hearted. Wagner made it easier for moviegoers to see why Annette fell for him and Julia found him likable. However, I was not that enthusiastic about his singing. Harper Carter did an excellent job of holding his own against the likes of Stanwyck, Webb and Dalton as the Sturges’ son Norman. In fact, I found him very believable as the 10 year-old boy eager to maintain his father’s interest without accepting the snobbery that marked Annette’s personality. Perhaps he was simply too young.

The movie’s screenplay also featured a subplot involving a young priest named George Healey, who dreaded his return to the U.S. and facing his family with the shameful news of his defrocking. Thanks to Richard Basehart’s subtle, yet sardonic performance, I found myself feeling sympathetic toward his plight, instead of disgusted by his alcoholism. Thelma Ritter gave her usual top-notch performance as the sarcastic noveau riche Maude Young. Allyn Joslyn was amusing as the social-climbing card shark, Earl Meeker. And Brian Aherne’s portrayal of the Titanic’s doomed captain, was not only subtle, but he also kept the character from wallowing into some kind of second-rate nobility that usually makes my teeth hurt.

For a movie that did not have James Cameron’s advantages of creating the technical effects of the 1997 movie, “TITANIC”proved to be an attractive looking movie. Production manager Joseph C. Behm and his team did a solid job of re-creating life aboard an ocean liner, circa 1912. Behm was also assisted by costume designer Dorothy Jeakins, Don B. Greenwood’s art department, Maurice Ransford and Oscar winner Lyle R. Wheeler’s art directions, and Stuart A. Reiss’ set decorations. Although the movie did not feature an accurate re-creation of the Titanic’s sinking, I have to admit that visually, the special effects created by a team team led by Ray Kellogg were very impressive, especially for 1953. They were ably assisted Joseph MacDonald’s black-and-white photography and Louis R. Loeffler’s editing.

Earlier in this review, I pointed out that James Cameron’s 1997 film was not the only one about the Titanic that struck Oscar gold. Although “TITANIC” did not win eleven Academy Awards, it was nominated for two Oscars and won a single one – namely a Best Original Screenplay award for Brackett, Breen and Reisch. But despite an award winning script, a superb cast led by Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb and a first-rate production team, “TITANIC” still could have ended in disaster. But it had the good luck to have an excellent director like Jean Negulesco at the helm.