The Americanization of Emily (1964) ****

It’s an immoral job but someone’s got to do it. In wartime, generals need their perks – Winston Churchill with his cigars and champagne the best advocate. And those who supply the perks – Dog-Robbers in American parlance – expect their own perks in the form of a backroom job where they are never exposed to danger. Top U.S. Navy dog-robber in World War Two London on the eve of D-Day is Lt. Commander Edison (James Garner) who can spirit up whisky, steaks, nylon stockings and women, happy even to deliver shoulder massages for boss Admiral Jessop (Melvyn Douglas).

And like the recently-reviewed The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) what’s mostly on the minds of top commanders is jostling for power, how to win the public relations battle on D-Day and prevent the politicians considering scrapping the service post-war. So Jessup comes up with a brilliant wheeze. What if the first man to die on Omaha Beach was a sailor? Allowing for the construction of a memorial to the “unknown sailor,” a feasible proposition given the Navy demolition unit is scheduled to land on French shores in advance of the invasion force. Edison is enlisted to film the anticipated death.

But Edison, whose brother died at Anzio, is a coward and does everything possible to avoid the job. He struggles to get English girlfriend Emily (Julie Andrews), whose father and brother died in the war, to share his perspective and is counting on buddy Lt. Commander Cummings (James Coburn) to get him out of it. But Cummings has his own ideas and Edison ends up the sacrificial lamb.

And it would be a brilliant black comedy except that, in the interests of a happy ending, Edison, despite being shot on the beach by Cummings, turns up alive.

In that case it becomes a fascinating exploration of the realities of war, the moral and immoral coming to grief in a moral vacuum that ensures that the higher up the food chain the less likelihood there is of dying and, ironically enough, the better opportunity to enjoy, while the masses are on strict rations, the good things of life. Emily would act as the movie’s conscience except that Edison is having none of war’s hypocrisy. He doesn’t want to die for his country and may be following to the letter General Patton’s dictat of making the “other poor bastard die for his country.” He doesn’t so much take a stand against the absurdities of war as stand up for the sanctity of life, in particular his own life, unwilling to fall for the “futile gesture of virtue.”

There’s plenty of what you should and shouldn’t do during wartime, arguments passionately argued for and against duty, though even the self-appointed conscience Emily stops short of turning her nose up at the finer things of life, no matter by what dodgy means they fall her way. that her life teeters on hypocrisy is scarcely explored.

And it does its utmost not to fall into the trap of the wartime romance genre, will-he-won’t-he survive the dangerous mission, precisely because you could never mistake Edison for a hero. And you need a hero not an ordinary joe for that particular genre to work. So what you’re left with is something else entirely, a man brave enough to be seen naked, exhibiting exactly the same lack of scruples in saving his own life as his commanders would employ to have him lose it. It’s kind of complicated that way.

Throw in another get-out clause on behalf of the Allied command, the notion that no high-up would embark on such a selfish vainglorious action, and that Jessup only does so because he is temporarily unhinged after the loss of his wife, when in fact history is littered with generals committing troops to wholesale slaughter for their own reasons.

Ediuon is such a charming character that if you wanted someone to plead the case on behalf of the cowardly you couldn’t make a better choice. The whole idea shouldn’t work at all because it’s only the bad guys, the shifty ones that turn up in every war movie, who  carry the cowardice flag. The film is so cleverly structured, with examples of the impact of loss all around, that it’s virtually impossible to vote against Edison. And part of the cleverness is the casting. If such a good egg as Emily can fall in love with Edison it somehow makes him a less despicable character. He’s certainly not as shifty as Jessup who dreamed up the bizarre stunt in the first place or Cummings, intent on exploiting it.

James Garner (36 Hours, 1964) excelled at playing the morally dubious, the cowardly sheriff played for laughs in Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) his biggest box office hit, but this isn’t far short of his very best work, and an exceptionally bold role for a star. Julie Andrews was already trying to move away from her goody-two-shoes debut in Mary Poppins (1965) that would be further enhanced by The Sound of Music (1965) and while her characterisation is not, on the surface, that far away from either role, the depth she displays here, the sorrow and the soulfulness, give this a edgier riff.

Good support from James Coburn (Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round, 1966), Melvyn Douglas (Hotel, 1967), Keenan Wynn (Man in the Middle/The Winston Affair, 1964) and Joyce Grenfell (The Yellow Rolls Royce, 1964).

Director Arthur Hiller (Tobruk, 1967) most of the time walks a very fine line but manages to create a very thoughtful movie that humanized what other anti-war pictures failed to make personal. Oscar-winner Paddy Chayefsky (Marty, 1955) based the screenplay on the bestseller by William Bradford Huie (Wild River, 1960). 

Another in the mini-genre concerning power politics in the Armed Forces. Would make a good triple bill if teamed with The Charge of the Light Brigade and Man in the Middle.

 

Selling Crime – “King of the Roaring 20s” (1961)

Gambling dominates the 12-page A3-sized Pressbook with the legend of the sinister yet charming Arnold taking pride of place in the editorial section rather than, as would be usual, the actors. So we are given the inside story of the famous betting coup with Sidereal at a New York race track, but fleshing out the man shown on screen, exhibitors also learned that Rothstein was known as the “banker of the underworld,” how he won $600,000 in a poker game and a masterpiece painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Not touched upon in the picture, but included here, was that he owned an art gallery, chartered ocean liners to transport liquor from Europe, ran protection rackets in the garment industry, and was instrumental in creating what became known as “The Syndicate.” In short, the Pressbook set out to built Rothstein up as even more fabulous figure than shown in the film.

As with Jessica, and as pointed out in my report on that Pressbook, the producers took the unusual step of sticking with the one dominant image in the poster of David Janssen (as Rothstein) leaning over a poker table with fistfuls of cash in his hand and Dianne Foster (Rothstein’s wife) at his back– although it’s possible in this instance the single-image approach was to reduce costs since this was in fact a glorified B-picture. The rest of the poster is an amalgamation of various scenes – racehorses, showgirls, people dancing the Charleston, a drive-by shooting. In the absence of one big star billed above the title, a total of 10 actors have their names below or their faces running down the side, almost giving the impression that it is an all-star ensemble picture.

After paying his dues in television with four years as Richard Diamond, Detective (1957-1960), David Janssen was a relative newcomer to a leading role although his performance in a second-billed role in war film Hell to Eternity (1960) had caused him to be touted as the new Clark Gable / Cary Grant. He was lucky that he had already been signed up for King of the Roaring 20s for his next picture after Here to Eternity was critical stinker and box office bomb Dondi (1961).

Other journalistic nuggets included that an Arab sheik once offered 100 camels for British star Diana Dors, Mickey Shaughnessey revealed as a Golden Gloves boxer, Dianne Foster previously taught modelling, and Keenan Wynn had a plate in his jaw. David Janssen’s sister Teri made her debut and their mother Berniece was an extra while Timmy Rooney, son of Mickey, was drafted in to play Johnny Burke as a youngster.

Not surprisingly several promotional ideas aimed at exhibitors revolved around gambling. One suggestion was to place a gambling wheel in the lobby with anyone landing on the numbers 7 or 11 winning a pair of guest tickets. Exhibitors were urged to get in touch with the local vice squad to see if they would donate confiscated gambling equipment for lobby display. Giving away cards that provided information on betting odds was another notion.

To get audiences into the mood of the era, cinema managers could run Charleston contests or a tie-in with a fashion store marketing clothes from the period or attire models as “flappers” to parade around town, especially in an open-top car from the era. More straightforward was a new movie tie-in paperback edition of The Big Bankroll, the book that inspired the picture, published by Cardinal.

Stagecoach (1966) ****

It’s probably sacrilege to admit that I quite enjoyed this. Also it’s been so long since I’ve seen the John Ford original that I could remember very little of the specifics and I haven’t seen the remake before so this was just like watching a new movie.

Basically, it’s the story of a group of passengers taking the stagecoach to Cheyenne for different reasons who are joined by an escaped murderer and shepherded along by the driver and a town marshal. There is some excellent action but mostly it’s a relationship picture, how the characters react to one another and their response to crisis.

Good-time girl Dallas (Ann-Margret) is on the run, banker Gatewood (Bob Cummings) is hiding a stash of stolen money, alcoholic doctor Boone (Bing Crosby) is penniless, liquor salesman Peacock (Red Buttons) is a coward, gambler Hatfield (Mike Connors) has Civil War secrets, pregnant Lucy Mallory (Stefanie Powers) is meeting her cavalry husband in Cheyenne. Ornery Buck (Slim Pickens) is the driver. Curley (Van Heflin) is riding shotgun and when he comes upon stranded escaped murderer the Ringo Kid (Alex Cord) promptly arrests him.

The drama unfolds as the characters confront each other or their own weaknesses. Dallas, who had a high old time as a saloon girl, is way out of her depth in respectable company,  concealing the secret of her affair with the married Gatewood. Ringo coaxes her along, bringing her out of her shell, giving her back self-respect, and of course falling in love. Curley, with his eyes on the $500 reward for bringing Ringo in, has no intention of letting the gunslinger take his revenge in Cheyenne on Luke Plummer (Keenan Wynn) who killed his family. Boone and Peacock provide the fun, the doctor spending most of his time separating the salesman from his cargo of booze.

There are endless permutations with a story like this, the kind of material favoured in  disaster movies like Airport (1970) and The Towering Inferno (1974) where disparate characters battle for survival. The action is only part of the deal. The picture only truly works if the characters are believable. For that, you need a heap of good acting. The audience could certainly rely on old dependables like Bing Crosby (The Road to Hong Kong, 1962) in his big screen swansong, Van Heflin (Shane, 1953), Red Buttons (Oscar-winner for Sayonara, 1957), Robert Cummings (Saboteur, 1942) and cowboy picture veteran Slim Pickens to put on a good show. But the main dramatic load was to be carried by relative newcomers Ann-Margret and Alex Cord.

Ann-Margret has made her name with sassy light-hearted numbers like The Pleasure Seekers (1964) and had only just stepped up to the dramatic plate with Once a Thief (1965). This was Alex Cord’s sophomore outing after Synanon (1965), the odds stacked against him making any impact in the role which turned John Wayne into a star. 

Amazingly, the casting works. Ann-Margret moves from feisty to restrained, meek to the point of being cowed, and for most of the film, far removed from the false gaiety of the saloon, seeks redemption. The cocky trouble-making minx emerges only once, to knock the wind out of Mrs Mallory, but, after taking a tumble down the humility route, gradually steers her way towards a better self, preventing Gatewood from causing chaos, nursing Mallory and inching her way towards true feelings for Ringo. As in the best movies, it’s not for her to open up about her woeful life but for another character, in this case Ringo, to identify her predicament: “What you doin’ about your scars, you got ‘em even if they don’t show…when you goin’ to stand up and stop crawlin’?” When they finally kiss it is one of the most tender kisses you will ever see.  

My reservations about Alex Cord’s acting skills were based on his moustachioed performance in Stiletto (1969) but I reversed my opinion after seeing him in The Scorpio Letters (1967) and this is another revelation. As much as he can deliver on the action front, and sports on occasion a mean-eyed look,  it’s in the dramatic scenes that he really scores, gentle, vulnerable, caring. He certainly matches the Duke’s trademark diffidence in terms of romance. That the camera can mine depths of expression from both faces proves the calibre of their acting.

If director Gordon Douglas (Rio Conchos, 1964) had more critical standing, his bold long opening aerial tracking shot over rugged forest, mountain and plain before reaching the stagecoach would have received the acclaim accorded Stanley Kubrick for a similar shot in The Shining (1980). The opening also makes it clear how far removed this is from the original, not just in colour obviously, but (although filmed in Colorado) in a different locale, Wyoming, rather than the arid Arizona of Monument Valley. After a brief glimpse of the stagecoach, Douglas switches to a cavalry troop making camp. A soldier going into a wagon is met by a hatchet in the head. The camera tracks the corpse’s blood as it flows down a stream where it alerts another soldier washing clothes. Before he can raise the alarm, he gets a lance in the back.

Where the passengers have heard rumors, quickly dismissed (“nobody got scalped by an old rumor”) of the Sioux (Apaches in the original) on the warpath, the audience has seen the cavalry troop slaughtered, so (in effectively a Hitchcockian device) provides the movie with the tension the on-screen characters initially lack The passengers soon grasp reality when they come across another patrol dead at a staging post, and eventually are battling for their lives when ambushed. But prior to that there is a tense sequence of leading the stagecoach across a narrow mountain ridge during a storm.

There’s a clever reversal before the Sioux onslaught. The passengers think they have seen soldiers approaching, but it is the Sioux wearing cavalry uniforms. There is no river to cross as in the original, but the chase along a mountainous path is breathtaking, aerial and tracking shots given full rein, ending in a shoot-out without (as in the original) the cavalry riding to the rescue.

Douglas has his work cut out with the drama, as various characters confront their issues, and his staging is superb, characters always given reason to move. Screenwriter Joseph Landon (Rio Conchos) borrowed material from the Dudley Nichols original but added and subtracted quite a bit.

At the time critical deification of John Ford had not begun and Hollywood was in a cyclical remake mood – new versions of Beau Geste and Madame X appearing the same year – so Gordon Douglas didn’t quite face a critical backlash, although praise was generally sparse. Judging by the box office it received an audience thumbs-up – as it does from yours truly.

You can rent this on Amazon Prime.

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