1944 was the year of the big turn-around in WWII, with the Axis powers gradually being forced into a retreat across Europe, Asia and the Pacific. There’s a strong propaganda element in much of what the film studios produced at this time – understandably so, with the necessity to reinforce the need to keep up the effort in spite of the terrible costs.
The occasional film did manage to avoid the propaganda war and concentrate on the drama and characters. Three such films being Robert Wise‘s directorial debut, The Curse of the Cat People, the haunting Ealing drama The Halfway House, and Alfred Hitchock‘s adrift-on-the-high-seas soap opera, Lifeboat.
Director: Robert Wise (replacing Gunther von Fritsch, who was fired for time and budget over-runs) (USA).
Cast: Ann Carter, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Julia Dean, Simone Simon.
Plot: A lonely child creates an imaginary friend based on the photograph of a beautiful woman she finds – only the photograph happens to be of her father’s psychotic ex-wife.
Review: This is one of those films where the children’s parts are directed by adults who seem to have no idea how children talk or behave, so they sound peculiar much of the time. The adults don’t come off much better, trotting off their lines in turn robotically.
The exception to this is 65-years-old Julia Dean (1878-1952), and the moment she appears half-an-hour into the film things takes a step upwards. A noted stage actress in her younger days, her first lines are about how she misses “those beautiful, shining, golden days”. One feels she really means it.
After this events become increasingly creepy, with Wise introducing the ghost of Irena (the father’s deceased wife), dressed up like a fairy-tale princess. Other strange events happen, and the film becomes an uncomfortable mix of Dickensian melodrama, ‘fifties noir and Disney-like imagery. With all it’s oddities, one felt it necessary to watch it to the end, just to see how things turn out and learn the identity of the mysterious other woman who drifts about the old lady’s home, claiming to be her forgotten daughter, but this plot point never gets properly explained.
While Wise as a director shows promise, this film is really of curiosity value only and for appearances by Simone Simon and Ann Carter. Simon was a gifted French actress whose first love was the stage and who never really made inroads to Hollywood successfully because of her temperamental disposition (she once hired a bodyguard to protect others during her outbursts) and unlucky choice of roles.
Ann Carter was an impressive child actress when well-directed and probably destined for greater stardom, but in her teens contracted a severe case of the muscle-wasting form of polio after swimming in infected waters. After several years of therapy and rehabilitation funded by her childhood earnings, she turned her back on Hollywood and trained as a teacher, living very happily on the opposite side of the continent with her husband and three children.
Having played briefly alongside many of the great names of the day, Carter recalled her unusual childhood – she acted from the age of four and could not recall a time when she was not doing something for the screen – with great pleasure, such her time as Humphrey Bogart‘s daughter in The Two Mrs Carrolls (1947), saying he impressed her as a very kind and humorous individual, and that he nicknamed her “tonsils” one day after she yawned right in front of him.
The film is available here.
Director: Basil Dearden (UK).
Cast: Mervyn Johns, Glynis Johns, Sally Ann Howes, Richard Bird.
Plot: Six travellers, all going through a period of turmoil in their lives, find themselves stranded together at an isolated Welsh Inn.
Review: This is a film of unmistakably British character, an early Ealing Studios production and one of their best. A relative light story, but wonderfully atmospheric. The plot is simply that a cast of troubled individuals all get stranded for a day and a night at a remote Welsh inn, finding that the innkeeper and his daughter have an uncanny ability to identify whatever it is troubling each one of the travelers.
The fact that the inn was actually destroyed in a bombing raid and the occupants killed a year earlier is revealed to the audience early on, but not to the characters, although they do work it out gradually without too much difficulty because of odd things that keep happening (such as Glynis Johns having no shadow in the sunshine and her father no reflection in a mirror). In this way it feels slightly odd. The story isn’t a mystery because we and the characters know pretty much what’s going on, it is simply the strength of the acting which makes it so watchable, particularly Mervyn Jones and his real-life daughter Glynis as the ghostly proprietors, and the young girl desperate to stop her parents separating who is none other than 13-year-old Sally Ann Howes, later to become famous as Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Sally Anne Howes in The Halfway House (1944) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). Howes had begun her acting career a year earlier in Thursday’s Child, acting alongside Stewart Granger – the producer, after auditioning two-hundred girls for the part, chose her simply on the basis of a photograph and the knowledge that she was from a theatrical family and was a neighbour of the film’s writer.
There are elements of war-time propaganda – one character is chastised for profiteering, while another makes up his mind to go and do his bit – and the lack of suspense probably reflect the period as well, not asking the audience have to work too hard to understand what’s going on.
The Welsh village is named Cwmbach in the film, perhaps after a real Welsh village of the same name which was indeed partly levelled in 1941 with lives lost when a German bomber dumped its high-explosive payload to save weight on the way home. The filming was done, however, at various locations around Exmoor. Walkers might recognise Dunkery Hill in some of the early scenes.
The film is available here.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock (USA).
Cast: Tallulah Bankhead, Walter Slezak, John Hodiak, William Bendix, Mary Anderson, Henry Hull, Heather Angel, Hume Cronyn, Canada Lee.
Plot: Survivors from a passenger ship and a German U-boat have to survive at sea crammed together in the same lifeboat.
Review: This is a film I must have seen when a child, as some scenes were recognisable – particularly the ones involving a German survivor and an injured sailor. Nice to catch up with it again in a collection of Hitchcock films I picked up.
A German U-boat sinks along with the armed passenger transport it had attacked. The few survivors clamber aboard a single lifeboat, nicely introducing themselves to us one-by-one. Not unlike The Halfway House, the plot is actually pretty thin, with the drama propelled by the quality of the character actors involved. No big names here, but all sound screen professionals.
It’s an episodic narrative, with the survivors having to cope with various practical and interpersonal issues. One of them happens to be a German from the destroyed submarine, another is a sailor with a gangrenous leg, another is moping over a series of failed relationships, another a mother who has lost her child. They argue about what to do with the German, which way to sail, who should be in command, their personal lives, and so on. It’s all masterfully directed by Hitchcock who never allows the audience to take anything for granted for too long, happily throwing in new twists and turns at unexpected moments.
As a key character, this is Tallulah Bankhead‘s most famous role, playing a world-wise and weary self-made socialite, not unlike the extravagant character she was in real life. Passed over in her younger acting years, she ditched America for the London stage where she became a major star. On the back of this success she was invited back to Hollywood and had a number of screen roles, but somehow never made a breakthrough, this being her most memorable role.
She still made her mark in other ways, being famous for holding lavish parties which would last for days and her generally unconventional and outrageous behaviour, although it was always on her own terms – one reason she failed to get good roles in her early days was through refusing to spend time on directors’ couches. It was Bankhead who coined the luvvie expression, “dah-ling”, as this was how she addressed anyone she thought worthy of her attention.
The film was criticized when it came out for showing a German with positive traits, not simply as an all-bad Nazi, and also because the character played by Canada Lee was said to be offensively stereotyped and insulting to other black people. The accusations seem bizarre as his role is no more stereotyped than any of the other characters, but the consequence was that many theatres wouldn’t show the film.
There may have been some deliberate mischief-making here – Lee was a keen black civil rights activist under the attention of the FBI and the fanatical anti-communists of the era. Not long after this he found himself on the invisible Hollywood ‘blacklist’ and under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee as a supposed communist sympathiser. He sadly died of a heart attack aged only 45, never having had an opportunity to clear his name, his condition clearly not helped by these stresses.
Available at Amazon.
So, the best film of 1944 is …
… because of Hitchcock‘s wonderful direction – whenever there’s any risk of things becoming predictable or boring, he happily pulls the rug from under the audience’s feet with a new twist, and Tallulah Bankhead‘s star turn as the incorrigble and self-possessed socialite, who, even in the midst of a stormy ocean, rarely has a hair out of place.
The next The Best Film of … will be the year 1976.