The last and final day of the TCM Classic Film Festival did not disappoint. Review time!
THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940) – Leonard Maltin again came out to introduce The Grapes of Wrath, the classic adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel. It was produced by Daryl F. Zanuck and directed by John Ford, though Zanuck got the last word on the film, and in fact re-shot the ending to make it a bit more uplifting. In 1940 it was unusual to make such a non-escapist downer film, but Zanuck felt that if a good film was made, regardless of the subject matter, it would find it’s audience (a novel idea that Hollywood still seems to have trouble with today!).
Great performances are given by all, with highlights coming from Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, and John Carradine as Casy the preacher. The black-and-white cinematography throughout is excellent, and does much to show the hopelessness facing the Joad family as they travel out to California in the hope of finding work. A scene, for example, where Ma throws out her belongings bit by bit before heading on the road is heart-breaking, as she holds up some earrings and looks at her reflection in the mirror, lit only by a smile fire. As with many of my favorite scenes in movies, there is no dialogue in this moment, just music; pure cinema. Another favorite scene is when Tom finds out about the workers’ strike, after having not seen Casy for a few days. Casy is shrouded in darkness, and finally leans forward into the light to tell Tom of his plan. It’s an eerie shot that also hints perhaps there is some hope to Casy’s plan.
All in all this is a great film, though it does feel a tad long. And a movie about starvation in the dust bowl, though deeply moving, is not as much fun as some of the other films I saw over the course of the festival’s four days.
RIO BRAVO (1959) – It seems wrong not to go to a TCM festival and not catch at least one western. Rio Bravo was the one for me. The film was introduced by Ben Mankiewicz, with lead actress Angie Dickinson in attendance. Dickinson was probably the most lively of all the interviews I saw at the fest, and it was a hoot to hear her chat about her friend Frank Sinatra and other members of the Rat Pack (she played Sinatra’s wife in Ocean’s 11). At one point she called Sinatra “the most exciting man I’ve ever been with…but not in that way,” at which point the audience laughed, to which see replied, “OK, so maybe in that way.”
Of Rio Bravo, she called the film “the best vision of me,” and said John Wayne was “very tender and sweet” (not exactly the first words I’d use to describe John Wayne). Of director Howard Hawks, she remarked that he was incredibly patient, due to her inexperience in movie-making; at the time she had mostly appeared in television. She did remark that she was expecting Hawks to make her “a star,” and was a bit surprised and hurt at the time when he sold her to Warner Brothers studios after filming was completed. Even so, Dickinson continued to have a great career after Rio Bravo, and held no grudges.
Famed director Howard Hawks and John Wayne chose to make Rio Bravo as a reaction to High Noon. Wayne felt High Noon was, “The most un-American thing I ever saw in my whole life,” feeling insulted that a cowardly sheriff (Gary Cooper) would need the help of his Quaker wife (Grace Kelly) to take down a bunch of bad guys. Dickinson mentioned that she actually quite liked High Noon, but never said a word of it to Wayne.
I myself also feel that High Noon is a masterpiece, but Rio Bravo is nevertheless a classic Hawks western in every sense. I have always been on the fence about John Wayne’s acting, but the film still showcases him at his most iconic. Dean Martin as a deputy struggling with alcoholism also turns in a fine performance, as does Walter Brennan as “Stumpy” the old cripple tasked with guarding the jail (and giving most of the films more comic moments). And Angie Dickinson herself does a fine job too, not to mention being quite a looker back in her day. All of this is photographed in glorious technicolor that looked fantastic in the Mann’s Chinese Theater. Though the film is somewhat steadily paced, it leads to a great payoff. And lastly, as a long-time sucker for old cowboy music, the moment where Dean Martin lays back and sings, “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me” was pure bliss. I mean, just listen!
MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE (1948) – Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is a simple movie, but a fun one for which to end the festival. The film is very much a product of America post-World War II, where many Americans were choosing to move from their crowded apartments to the countryside.
In the movie, Cary Grant plays Jim Blandings, a flummoxed ad executive (sort of the opposite of Don Draper) living in a New York apartment far too small for him and his family. He finally decides to buy some property in the Connecticut countryside and build a new house, much to the chagrin of his wife and his wallet (the film was remade in 1986 as The Money Pit, starring Tom Hanks). Interestingly, the actual dream house is still standing in Malibu Creek State Park as a forestry station!
The film moves along at a brisk pace and has a lot of funny moments, both intentional and unintentional considering the time it was made. For example, Jim and his wife are shown sleeping in separate beds, and we learn the beginning that he makes a “respectable” salary of $15,000 a year (hot dog!). The opening credits sequences, featuring the actors’ names over housing blueprints, is particularly clever, as is the faux-documentary that starts the film out. Also, I think this is the second film I have seen that features Cary Grant singing in the shower, the other being Charade.
Overall I found this film delightful, if not a tad fluffy. My aunt and uncle are both wealthy New Yorkers currently in the process of building their own house in up-state New York, so there was a lot I found relatable. A subplot involving potential infidelity feels forced, but overall the laughs come fast and strong, and it is a cute film.
All in all I had a blast attending the TCM Classic Film Festival. It is a wonderful experience for any fan of classic cinema, and I hope to keep attending for years to come!