26/11/2016

The Proud Valley (1940)


London’s BFI Southbank is currently staging its now-customary end-of-year blockbuster season. 2016’s retrospective is Black Star, a celebration of the black community’s contribution to American and British cinema over the past century, masterminded by critic Ashley Clark and showcasing the work of such luminaries as Josephine Baker, Pam Grier and Spike Lee. One of the most underappreciated and unjustly forgotten of all black stars is surely Paul Robeson, leading man, folk singer and later left-wing outcast. A major name in the 30s and 40s, Robeson fought tirelessly to overcome vicious stereotyping but has been out of fashion for some decades now, an oversight in dire need of correction and exactly the sort of wrong the ‘Black Star’ programme is seeking to address.


Much of Robeson’s movie career took place in Britain and The Proud Valley is one of only two pictures the great man declared himself happy with (the other being Song Of Freedom, 1936). Directed for Michael Balcon’s Ealing by Pen Tennyson, great grandson of the poet, it’s the story of African-American sailor David Goliath, who sets out from the Cardiff docks to find work inland. Hoboing his way through south Wales, Goliath pitches up in Blaendy in the Rhondda Valley and is taken in by a family of colliers who welcome him as soon as they realise his bass tenor will make their male voice choir a shoo-in to win the annual Eisteddfod competition. David becomes a popular figure in the locality and is shielded from racial prejudice by his choirmaster, who tells one coal-dusted bigot: “Damn and blast it man! Aren’t we all black down that pit?”


Robeson’s naturally warm presence is well served by The Proud Valley, its screenplay written especially for him by Unity Theatre husband-and-wife team Herbert Marshall and Alfredda Brilliant. His hulking physique makes Robeson a plausible coal miner and is put to good use swinging a pick axe, hauling carts, crawling up slag heaps and later shouldering crumbling support beams at the film’s tragic climax. His unmistakable voice is also given its due, with the Samson of Song belting out both ‘Deep River’ and ‘Land Of My Fathers’ for his enraptured workmates.

Robeson long maintained ties with the British mining community and took a keen interest in both its industrial struggles and way of life. The Mining Review newsreel below, 'A Star Drops In, captures him singing 'Joe Hill' for pitmen in Edinburgh in 1949.



The rest of The Proud Valley’s cast, a mix of professionals and Welsh amateurs led by Edward Chapman and Simon Lack, also bring authenticity, with local sweetheart Janet Johnson especially charming. It is odd though that Marshall and Brilliant’s story, otherwise socialist to the core and unshakeable in its faith in organised labour and the working class, should require the rise of fascism and the advent of WWII to revive the men’s fortunes after a year-long pit closure. Production at the mine is only kick-started in order to meet government coal quotas - raised to fuel the war effort – a move that duly returns Blaendy to prosperity, securing its immediate future. Three cheers for Uncle Adolf!


Robeson’s own outspoken political views and in particular his stated admiration for Soviet Russia led to any mention of The Proud Valley or its Leicester Square opening night being expunged from The Daily Express under strict orders from vengeful press baron Lord Beaverbrook. The film was nevertheless a modest success and became the first to be premiered on radio when its soundtrack was broadcast by the BBC Home Service.

Although naturally a museum piece to modern tastes, The Proud Valley deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Quiet Man (1952) and remains a useful record of British mining in its prime. It should also be commended for its enlightened attitude to race (given its period). You’d have hope that, 76 years on, we might have heeded its simple message of brotherhood.

05/06/2016

Scott Of The Antarctic (1948)


Studiocanal is currently in the process of restoring some of the lesser-known titles from Ealing's back catalogue for a debut Blu-ray release. The latest to benefit from a 2K digital spit-shine is Charles Frend's straight up and down biopic of the titular British adventurer, tragically frozen to death with his comrades in 1912 on their return journey from the South Pole, having just been pipped to the post by dastardly Norwegian rivals. Frend's film draws on Scott's recovered diaries, taking us from the explorer's dogged early fundraising efforts in provincial town halls through every step of the group's long march in vain, the icy wastes of the tundra recreated somewhat creakily at the studio's West London sound stages.

John Mills stars as Scott, imbuing the role with the sort of chirpy, can-do pluck we don't much go in for these days. An interesting aspect of the great man's character stressed here is that he made a fatal error in insisting that the Terra Nova expedition take new-fangled mechanical snowmobiles with them in favour of additional huskies, ignoring the advice of his experienced peers in the name of progress. An unfashionable technophobic moral is thus hinted at but not dwelt upon. Scott's team are made up of reliable character players like James Robertson Justice, Kenneth More, Reginald Beckwith and Derek Bond, the latter a rather chinless Nicholas Nickleby a year earlier but here very affecting as Captain Oates, clinging absently to a slim volume of Tennyson in the group's wind-battered tent before uttering his immortal exit line: "I am just going outside and may be some time."


A commendably businesslike if rather fusty tale of human endeavour against the elements in the manner of Touching The Void (2003) and Everest (2015), Scott Of The Antarctic does pack in some winning moments of pathos: an otherwise jolly scene in which the men say goodbye to their wives and sweethearts before setting sail is freighted with sorrow by our foreknowledge of their historical fate; the team later having to execute their ponies to survive, the gunshots ringing out and prompting howls of terror from their anguished sled dogs.

Perhaps the best reasons for those without a prior interest in its subject matter to seek out Frend's film are Ralph Vaughan Williams's grand and ghostly original score and Jack Cardiff's bold blue and blasted white cinematography, the latter finally given its due in the spanking new format.

14/05/2016

The Naked Spur (1953)


High in the Colorado Rockies, bounty hunter Howard Kemp (James Stewart) pursues killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), enlisting the help of craggy prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and Roy Anderson* (Ralph Meeker), a cavalryman dishonourably discharged, whom he encounters along the trail. The trio succeed in capturing Ben and his ward Lina (Janet Leigh) and set off home to Abilene, Kansas, intending to collect their reward and see him hanged. Ben, however, delights in sowing the seeds of discontent among his captors, exploiting the tensions within the group to play the men off against one another as they cross perilous Blackfeet Indian country.


Showing at the BFI Southbank as part of the venue's psychological Western season, Ride Lonesome, The Naked Spur was the third of Stewart's Oater collaborations with director Anthony Mann and stands as one of the darkest in its genre. Clearly an ancestor of Scottie Ferguson, Kemp suffers delirious night terrors over the memory of a woman who once betrayed him, selling his land out from under him while he was away at war. Scarred and embittered, Kemp hopes to use the bounty on Ben to buy back what was once his, kicking over the ashes of his path, ideally with Lina as his new ranch wife. A tormented and not especially likeable hero, Kemp proves to be the lesser of two evils when the chatty and jovial Ben finally reveals himself to be every bit the vicious, nihilistic murderer we'd been expecting. Ryan is magnificent as Vandergroat, relishing the mind-games with his would-be jailers - cheering on Anderson's lechery towards Lina and preying on Tate's greed to lure him to his death.


The interplay between the five actors is magnificently handled by Mann, whose deft hand teases out the subtleties in Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom's Oscar-nominated screenplay. Leigh suggested that the naturally conflicting personality types among the cast, stranded in the wilderness together on a tough location shoot, did much to boost the film's intensity. William C. Mellor's bright Technicolor cinematography likewise accentuates the sublime scenery, its majesty in contrast to the hardscrabble lives of Mann's flawed and desperate characters. A riverside shoot-out at the finale makes the most evocative use of violent gushing rapids this side of Deliverance (1972) or The Revenant (2015).

*Not to be confused with the deliciously deadpan Swedish director of A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence (2015), a delightful if, admittedly, irrelevant coincidence.

10/05/2016

Yellow Sky (1948)


William A. Wellman's Yellow Sky is currently showing in London as part of the BFI Southbank's Shakespeare On Film season to mark the quatercentenary of the Bard's death and is well worth seeking out if you're in the vicinity.

Very loosely based on The Tempest (1610), as Fred M. Wilcox's sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet (1956) would be eight years later, Wellman's Western is taken from a novel by pulp maestro W.R. Burnett and tells of bank robber James "Stretch" Dawson (Gregory Peck) and his gang, who wind up in the titular ghost town and become embroiled in the affairs of its only residents, an aged prospector (James Barton) and his tough granddaughter, known as "Mike" (Anne Baxter). Given the dilapidated state of Yellow Sky, the men realise the only reason Grandpa and Mike have stuck around is to safeguard the former's secret stockpile of gold. Dawson fancies a share of the spoils but struggles to rein in his ill-disciplined crew, at least one of whom lusts after Mike. Matters come to a head when dandy killer Dude (Richard Widmark) emerges as a serious challenger to Stretch's authority and an army of drunken Apaches appear over the horizon.



Reaction to Yellow Sky was highly positive upon its initial release, with the New York Times's Bosley Crowther noting thematic similarities with the previous year's Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (apparently Darryl F. Zanuck had the same idea and originally envisioned Walter Huston as Grandpa). Variety was also keen, praising the "earthy" script for demonstrating "an understanding of the hungers of men".

Yellow Sky is certainly surprisingly upfront about gang member Lengthy (John Russell) and his intention to rape Mike at the first opportunity, a constant threat hanging over the narrative from the moment he sets eyes on her. We have little doubt that Mike can handle her own and don't have to wait long before she floors Dawson with a jab to the jaw and wrestles him to stand-still in the dirt. She later brawls with Lengthy in a creek as it becomes clear that this "he-girl" in jeans has had to adopt a tomboy act in order to survive the West. Her falling for Dawson, ultimately a rather principled chap, is a matter of easing the repression of her femininity and learning to trust someone other than her elderly guardian in order to realise her true self and blossom. This process is capped, quite literally, at the film's close after the bad guys have been routed and Dawson has gone straight: he presents her with a floral bonnet, a gift she receives with delight. Civilisation has dawned on Yellow Sky and the future looks bright.


Wellman's film is crisply shot by Joe MacDonald - who would also serve on another Western reworking of Shakespeare, Broken Lance (1954) - and contains a number of memorable images: the gang's escape across the salt flats, starved of water; a toppled roulette wheel in the ironically-named Eldorado saloon spinning to a stop as Dude is killed; the pouch at his belt "bleeding" gold dust like the sands of time; Stretch's reverse bank robbery to square his debt to society.


The ever-underrated Baxter is especially lovely here as a gun-totin' Miranda and Peck as staunch and stoic as you'd expect. Widmark, of course, brings effortless menace, as the Punch cartoon above nicely conveys. Was there ever a leaner heavy?