“CALIFORNIA” (1947) Review

“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:

california1947-c california1947-d

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.

“AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” (1956) Review

“AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” (1956) Review

Based upon Jules Verne’s 1873 classic novel, “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” is the story of a 19th century English gentleman named Phileas Fogg and his newly employed French valet, Passepartout, attempt to circumnavigate the world in eighty (80) days on a £20,000 wager set by his friends at the Reform Club. Produced by Michael Todd, the Academy Award winning film starred David Niven, Cantinflas, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Newton. 

Could someone please explain how ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” managed to win the 1956 Best Picture Academy Award? How on earth did this happen? Do not get me wrong. Ever since I first saw ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”on television years ago, I have been a fan of the movie. The idea of someone taking a long journey around the world – especially in an age before air travel – greatly appealed to me. It still does. I like the idea of travel, whether I am doing it myself or watching it on the big screen or on television. And even after all of these years, I still enjoy watching this movie. And yet . . . I simply cannot fathom the idea of it being considered the Best Picture of 1956. Even more surprising is the fact that John Farrow, S. J. Perelman, and James Poe all won Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Perhaps the reason behind the movie’s accolades centered around Hollywood’s amazement that first time movie producer, Mike Todd, had succeeded in not only completing the film, but also creating an entertaining one. Two men directed this film – Michael Anderson, an Englishman who had only directed seven movies before ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”; and John Farrow, a well-known Australian director who had co-written the film’s script. Farrow, by the way, did not receive any credit for his work as a director of this film. Which makes me wonder how many scenes he actually directed. Considering the movie’s running time of 183 minutes (3 hours and 3 minutes), I find it surprising that it took only seventy-five (75) days to shoot it. Along with the four leading actors, the movie featured over forty (40) stars, 140 locations, 100 sets and over 36,000 costumes. No wonder Hollywood seemed amazed that Todd managed to finish the film.

Set around 1872, ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” told the story an English gentleman named Phileas Fogg (David Niven) who claims he can circumnavigate the world in eighty days. He makes a £20,000 wager with several skeptical fellow members of his London gentlemen’s club (Trevor Howard, Robert Morley and Finlay Currie included), the Reform Club, that he can arrive back within 80 days before exactly 8:45 pm. Together with his resourceful valet, Passepartout (Mario Moreno “Cantinflas”), Fogg sets out on his journey from Paris via a hot air balloon. Meanwhile, suspicion grows that Fogg has stolen his £20,000 from the Bank of England. Police Inspector Fix (Robert Newton) is sent out by Ralph the bank president (Robert Morley) to trail and arrest Fogg. Hopscotching around the globe, Fogg pauses in Spain, where Passepartout engages in a comic bullfight; and in India, Fogg and Passepartout rescue young widow Princess Aouda (Shirley MacLaine) from being forced into a funeral pyre so that she may join her late husband. The threesome visit Hong Kong, Japan, San Francisco, and the Wild West. Only hours short of winning his wager, Fogg is arrested upon returning to London by the diligent, yet misguided Inspector Fix.

The main differences between Jules Verne’s novel and the movie centered around Fogg and Passepartout’s efforts to leave Europe. Quite frankly, the novel never featured Fogg’s journey through Europe. In the novel, there were no stops in either France or Spain. Fogg had considered using a hot air balloon in Chapter 32, but quickly dismissed it. Also, Fogg never punched Detective Fix after being released from jail near the film’s finale. He simply insulted the detective’s skills as a whist player.

I might as well stop beating around the bush. What is my opinion of the movie? Like I had stated earlier, I still find it entertaining after all these years. I love travel movies. And I found the movie’s caricatures of the different nationalities that Fogg, Passepartout, Aouda and Fix encounters on the journey rather amusing – including encounters with a boorish American politician portrayed by John Caradine, Charles Boyer’s Parisian travel agent/balloonist and Reginald Denny’s parody of an Anglo-Indian official. The movie’s funniest moment featured Fogg and Aouda’s encounter with a Chinese gentlemen portrayed by Korean actor Philip Ahn, who proved that his English was a lot better than Fogg’s Chinese-English pidgin. The locations in this movie are absolutely gorgeous, especially Fogg and Passepartout’s trip over France, and the rail journeys through India and the United States. And Lionel Lindon’s Oscar winning photography is accompanied by the memorable score written by another one of the film’s Oscar winners – Victor Young. In fact, the most memorable thing about ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” is Young’s score. Even after 52 years, it is the first thing many fans mention about the film.

I was surprised to learn that Cantinflas had won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy for his portrayal of Passepartout. Frankly, I found this as astonishing as the movie’s Best Picture Oscar. Mind you, his performance was a little more animated than David Niven’s portrayal of the stiff-upper lip Phineas Fogg. And his dance with a young dancer at a Spanish cantina was entertaining. But a Golden Globe award? I cannot think of one actor or actress in that movie who deserved any acting award. As for Niven, I think he may have gone a little too far in his portrayal of the reserved Fogg. There were times when he came off as a bit inhuman. I have to wonder about Todd’s decision to cast a young American actress from Virginia to portray the Indian Princess Aouda. Shirley MacLaine, ladies and gentlemen? She is the last person I would have chosen for that particular role. I must give her credit for not succumbing to some clichéd portrayal that would have left moviegoers wincing and instead, gave a restrained yet charming performance. Robert Newton’s portrayal of the persistent detective, Mr. Fix, was just as restrained. Which turned out to be a miracle, considering his reputation as a cinematic ham. Sadly, Newton passed away from a heart attack before the movie’s release.

One might ask why I had expressed astonishment at the thought of ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” winning the Best Picture Oscar for 1956. Quite frankly, I do not believe that the movie deserved such a major award. Sure, the movie is entertaining. And that is about the best thing I can say about the film. Granted, Victor Young’s score and Lionel Lindon’s photography deserved its Oscars. But I feel that the movie did not deserve to be acknowledged as 1956’s Best Picture. Not over other films like ”THE KING AND I””FRIENDLY PERSUASION””GIANT””THE SEARCHERS” or even ”THE TEN COMMANDMENTS”. Nor do I feel that the three men who won Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay deserve their statuettes. Heck, the movie featured a major blooper carried over from the novel – namely Fix’s revelation to Passepartout in Hong Kong about the British authorities’ suspicions that Fogg may be responsible for robbing the Bank of England before his departure. Passepartout told Aouda about Fix’s suspicions . . . but neither of them ever told Fogg. Not even when they were about to reach the shores of Britain. Why?

Another scene that continues to baffle me centered around Passepartout’s bullfight in Spain. Impressed by the manservant’s cape work during a dance in a cantina, a Spanish-Arab sea captain named Achmed Abdullah (Gilbert Roland) promised to give Fogg and Passepartout passage to Marseilles if the manservant would take part in a bullfight. What started as a comic moment for Cantinflas turned into a bullfight that promised to never end. The damn thing lasted five minutes too long and I felt more than happy when Fogg and Passepartout finally arrived in Suez.

I have read Jules Verne’s novel. At best, it was entertaining fluff. I could say the same for the 1956 movie. Like the novel, lacks any real substance. For me, both versions struck me as nothing more than a detailed travelogue disguised as a series of vaguely written adventures. Unfortunately, the movie’s entertaining fluff lasted slightly over three (3) hours. Three hours? I like the movie a lot, but an obviously dated three hour movie based upon a piece of fluff like Verne’s novel just does not seem worthy of a Best Picture Oscar. Despite the movie’s undeserved Oscar, I still find it entertaining after all these years.