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Monday, January 18, 2021

Still Panning For Pans


Before It Was Agreed They Were Great

Remember Agee acid poured on To Each His Own? Colleague Manny Farber could deal as harsh. Read him on first-run My Darling Clementine, or Strangers on A Train, then retire to a fainting couch, never so fierce barbs aimed at sacred cows John Ford (“unimaginative”) and Alfred Hitchcock (“ … has gone farther on fewer brains than any director since Griffith”). Classics when new were open season for critics not yet instructed on how to respond to them. Farber was an independent thinker, him bracing as old-style shave lotion. Is our accepting “Great Films” as great films just going along to get along? A masterpiece once certified is tough to un-certify. Auteurists gaining influence took down directors they saw as not singular enough: Fred Zinnemann, Stanley Kramer, even George Stevens, but Ford and Hitchcock have stayed inviolate. Farber spoke heresy to what would become strict placement for directors. I enjoy him for shock value current evaluation of old film lacks. Was Farber misguided, blind to splendor set before him? He was too skilled for us to dismiss so easy. Clementine the “slow-poke cowboy epic … a dazzling example of how to ruin some wonderful western history with pompous movie making” is not a quote for the Criterion box, and much as I like the movie, Farber’s voice, niggling since 1946, causes me (and others?) to wonder if maybe he made some valid points.

Object was to read Farber with an open mind before screening again My Darling Clementine (for what, a fiftieth at-least time?). Pleased to report it remains secure in my estimation. Not for a moment was I put off by “cloudscapes … as saccharine as picture postcards,” Ford applying same techniques “ever since Art Acord was a baby,” that last good for a titter, but why not point out fact that both began around a same time, in the teens, Ford by ‘46 still a working survivor where Acord was not (d. 1931). Otherwise JF might have kept Art fed with extra work. Any reference to Art Acord was by then a gag line, which brings us to reality that critics were, still are, there/here to entertain. Where clever or funny at the expense of accuracy, or even point, well … that’s the job, and everyone, even Art Acord, has to eat, this in part why I deny being, or ever having been, a critic. Also shrink from “historian” label, for wasn't it me that misspelled Donald O’Connor’s name? (bless alert readers and Blogger edit function) There was 1968-69 on The Wilkes News payroll as “chief” (only) reviewer, visits to the Liberty grown awkward as columns got less informative, and more smarty-pants (mine should have been taken down for a paddling). Don’t know why, but Farber prose evokes tilt I had with Yellow Submarine, wherein punk pundit me swapped edifying for cute, honing on one of a kid group in the auditorium that somehow got shoes off another, hurling them across seat rows as the victim gave chase. Usher staff, what there was, paid nary heed. Not willing to let well enough alone, I pointed out the same group “wrestling for a nickel that was misplaced on the floor,” that likelier invention on my part to score another laugh. Everyone’s a comedian, they say, especially movie critics wanting to juice up humdrum work they do.

I bought Strangers On A Train blind in November 1977, $175 from a collector in Charlotte who I wonder what ever happened to. He dealt anything … 35mm, 16, had begun with military surplus equipment from age twelve. My gamble on Strangers was the more so for no one I knew having seen it, me included. I took the word of writers that here was a pearl among Hitchcocks. Glad I didn’t read Farber in 1977. Being one AH did for Warners, SOAT had not network exposure like higher profile Paramounts. Syndicated TV was heir to Strangers plus Stage Fright, I Confess, Dial M For Murder, and The Wrong Man, all largely buried on late shows since 1961. I wish I could see Strangers the way I saw it that day in 1977. A crackling thriller, everything a surprise. Being still on safe side of gross over-analysis this and others of Hitchcock ultimately got, I had not worry of duality, moral ambiguity, Guy as mirror image of Bruno, or was it other way around (in short, no baggage). How much of entertainment has been denuded by microscoping? Lots, I aver. Strangers a masterpiece? Yes for me, but let Manny Farber be devil’s advocate to that, his conception of Hitchcock a director who “has made his living by subjecting the movie audience to a series of cheap, glossy, mechanically perfect shocks … cleverly masking his deficiency and his underlying petty and pointless sadism, with a honey-smooth patina of “sophistication,” irony, and general glitter.” Simple to dismiss this as bad attitude, “dated” viewpoint, but if we lack skill and personnel to create things as good as Strangers On A Train today, how do we casually dismiss those who responded to such work when it was new? Obviously they took good movies more for granted, and so kept tougher standards. Are we since too complacent where settled classics are concerned? I wonder if anyone of cultural authority ventures that Hamlet is not so hot a play after all, and what would happen to him/her for saying it?

My Darling Clementine
was 1946-sold on absurdly misleading terms. Here was not a western to be held in reverence. Wish I could have heard what people said coming out. Plain folks, that is, not Ford scholars (too early for them in any case). I had a friend, William Wooten, who lived in Statesville, did what is understood to be the first monograph and filmography for Ford, in 1947. Now there was a vanguard Fordist. “Captivating Hell-Cat, Tantalizing Siren, Luring Men To Madness … To Murder!” cried ads. Such was “Clementine,” but Linda Darnell hell-catting across print pages was not Clementine in the film, nor does she lure men to madness, unless H. Fonda dunking her in a trough amounts to that, but one could argue she lures “Billy Clanton” (John Ireland) to murder … her own. The Garrick was a first-run Chicago trend-setter, independent of Fox, let alone Ford, so far as guidance toward maximum sex-sell. Showmen elsewhere would have seen their handiwork and followed suit. Lest we forget people’s concept of a movie in those days being based almost entirely on theatre ads in newspapers. Fewer actually went to see the shows. I doubt ones who did resented subterfuge out front or in dailies, all complicit in pas de deux between exhibitors and those they exhibited to.

Was a critic establishment loathe to respect Hitchcock? His seemed seldom to command respect. Rebecca was 1940's “Best Picture,” but that was more Selznick’s award. Hitchcock never won in Academy competition. They gave him Thalberg recognition to which he spoke a terse thank you. Hitchcock left England for not being regarded high enough (he thought) and never mind how much how much a public enjoyed him. I saw somewhere that Gary Cooper turned down Foreign Correspondent because it was beneath a large star's consideration. Were Hitchcock stunt thrillers unworthy to put beside serious drama? Farber seems annoyed by this director’s devices. I think part of the reason Hitchcock stayed current was his always thinking ahead of staid convention. Look at Psycho, brimming with protest toward limit movies imposed, seeming work of a maverick newcomer rather than a man sixty who had been at it forty years. For that matter, think how outlandish Strangers On A Train seemed to viewers in 1951. What we groove with easily now was break from many a steadfast rule then. What annoyed Farber, and others who’d deny Hitchcock industry reward (other than boxoffice, not within their power to withhold), was his being a true and ongoing iconoclast oblivious to custom they were of mind to uphold.

For a better if not best among Hitchcocks, Strangers On A Train kept wide of higher profile others, as did My Darling Clementine from Fords a public embraced more. Both seem vague outliers in their respective director’s output, consequence I think of stars, rather than merit, lacking. How many more would have seen My Darling Clementine over the years had John Wayne been Wyatt Earp rather than Fonda? Latter would eventually be an only recognizable name from Clementine cast. Who of latter-day viewers knew from Linda Darnell, or cared much about Victor Mature? You needed to live on late shows to realize value in these two. I wouldn’t be surprised if local listings had “Henry Fonda and Ward Bond in …” To Strangers On A Train came first-and-second billed Farley Granger and Ruth Roman, eventual strangers on promoting trains. I’d been but faintly exposed to either when Strangers On A Train came through collecting doors in 1977. Robert Walker was familiar only because I had lately got a print of Since You Went Away. Other 50’s Hitchcock had color, Cary Grant, or James Stewart, and played networks as well. “Warner Brothers Film Gallery” offered Strangers On A Train, Stage Fright, I Confess, and The Wrong Man for non-theatrical rent on 16mm., $100 each or grouped as a “Hitchcock Festival” for $340. Titles that colleges or film societies preferred, specifically the Paramounts, were unavailable with exception of To Catch A Thief. In that sense, Strangers On A Train was easier to see than others of Hitchcock oeuvre, even as it remained in the shade otherwise.

Extras with Strangers On A Train and My Darling Clementine Blu-Rays have become artifacts themselves, almost twenty years tacked on to backward glancing when content accompanied standard DVD releases. Much is here, hours, to show where these films have stood for a fan, academic, and archival community since distributors saw gain in putting more than a mere movie on discs. Instruction began with alternate versions of Clementine. Seems there was a ending that tested badly with preview audiences, was replaced by Zanuck (Lloyd Bacon hired to reshoot it). Difference was Henry Fonda kissing “Clementine” (Cathy Downs), or not kissing her, John Ford for a handshake only, so that's how he shot it. DFZ opted for the kiss, so that's how he changed it, bringing back Fonda/Downs to see that done. I am philistine enough to prefer the kiss, so would have made an ideal Zanuck Yes Man in 1946. There is analysis of real-life Wyatt Earp and what the O.K. showdown was like. Wonder how I might have responded to all this had Channel 3 used it with their mid-60’s Clementine late show, first time view for me. Criterion bonuses being there would have kept me up till cock crow. Too much even of a marvelous thing? Strangers On A Train extras were made in 2003, eighteen years ago that seems shorter (like everything 18 years ago). Of note was most on-camera contributors gone now, or not likely to sit before interviewing cameras again. Who will take their place to deep-dish Hitchcock, Ford, the rest? Or has it all been said? Fresh crop of commentators who have come to the fore will sustain, or not, for a next twenty years, plus whoever might emerge over that coming period of time. Will another Manny Farber rise up to challenge ingrained definition of Great Films as we’ve been so long taught them?


Blogger Ken said...

Another bang-up piece told as always from your uniquely entertaining perspective. You're right about Linda Darnell. Her name carries little weight these days except among us diehards transfixed by the rear-view mirror. But she definitely meant something to movie-goers in the 40's. Note her top billing in the ads. Does she get the same treatment onscreen? Although Darnell was almost always good, "Clementine" actually gives her one of her less interesting roles. Certainly, though, her career boasted lots of highlights. She hit the ground running in 1939,amazingly adept as Tyrone Power's comedy partner/romantic interest in "Day-time Wife" (and was only 15 or 16 when she made it)."The Mark of Zorro", "Brigham Young" and "Blood of Sand" established her as the most appealing of sweet virginal heroines. Which made it all the more astounding when she transitioned into vamp and vixen roles in the mid-40's. Don't know of another actress who embodied both ingenue and femme fatale quite so definitively. A young friend of mine recently saw her (for the first time) in "Fallen Angel" and phoned me to rave about her. "Who is she? And why don't I know about her?". Wish Darnell had gotten some Oscar attention during her career. She should have been in the supporting actress hunt in '45 (for "Fallen Angel". And for best actress in 1949's marvelous "A Letter to Three Wives", along with co-star Ann Sothern).

11:03 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dear John:

Manny Farber was very, very smart. But he did like to poke sacred cows. Well, he certainly got our attention doing that; still does, truth to tell.

I am weighing my words very carefully here, but Farber may have had something of a point, however mean-spiritedly put, about MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. The movie is brilliant, thoughtful and reflective... but also at least a little bit lugubrious. Mannered, even. But I have re-read his piece on STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, and while I accept that he doesn't like the picture, I think he's just wrong about how it works (or doesn't work). Some of Farber's comments seem to willfully misread the movie. He dismissed Hitchcock's hard wrought cinematic devices as cheap mechanism... I suppose if one feels that way, the whole film comes tumbling down.

In the '60s and '70s, STRANGERS seemed to be in constant loop in TV syndication. I guess it depended where one lived. I applaud your courage in purchasing -- for a whopping $175! -- a print of a movie you'd never seen back in the day, and truly envy you for what it must have felt to rack it up and watch... a masterpiece. One hundred and seventy five bucks well spent.

The display ads for the Garrick floor me. Linda Darnell top-billed in CLEMENTINE? Incredible. Darnell received top-billing on a few Australian day-bills, but I've never seen that in any American ads or posters.

I would not have managed to identify the Mellon Art Gallery in that Warner quiz.

-- Griff

11:18 AM  
Blogger Jim Cobb said...

Farber was always fun to read. He also trumpeted a number of lesser known films. I enjoyed reading him.

About ten years or so ago I went to a screening of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN at the AFI in Silver Spring, MD. Farley Granger was there and was interviewed before the film was shown. Sadly he was quite aged and somewhat out of it. He kept repeating the story about Hitchcock over and over---it was like a bad skit on SNL. I had to wonder who thought it wise to put the poor man in front of an audience in that state. Granger also worked with Hitchcock on ROPE where he was one of the two lead characters who were coded as gay though of course it was implied rather than stated in the film. As it turns out Hitchcock knew both Granger and John Dall were closeted gay men so the casting was on the nose in this case.

11:30 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I've seen only the sneak preview cut of Clementine, and thought the handshake was likely more believable than a kiss. No score, either, making the movie more realistic.

Someone should find what movies Farber preferred the years of Clementine and Strangers, just to see if they hold up as well.

12:13 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I have also see the preview cut of MY DARLING CLEMENTINE and I prefer Ford's version and the few other things that Zannuck unnecessarily modified (sometimes in a heavy handed way.

STRANGERS ON THE TRAIN also has an alternate version, although in this case I prefer the conventional one.

Both movies benefits for not having big stars in them; Henry Fonda always felt like he was a modest one even though he did appear in excellent titles even for television.

9:06 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Hate to be the dissenting voice here, but I couldn't agree more with Mr. Farber re Mr. Ford. I'm hard pressed to think of a director whose work I find as consistently dull as Ford.

I've watched the canonical pictures more than once, thinking that this time, I'll be proven wrong, but each time, he leaves me Antarctically cold, especially something like The Quiet Man, which I don't find as much dull as supremely irritating.

4:52 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

All the world's a critic. I never allowed them to herd me as if I were a sheep. Entitled to their opinion, of course, but one no more important than my own or my next door neighbor's. I watch a movie because I want to, not because Joe Blow of the Daily Bugle says I should or shouldn't.

7:58 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Doc Holliday didn't get killed at The OK Corral. That bummed me off about MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. Ford knew Wyatt Earp so he knew that. Otherwise the movie's fine. Would like to have seen Earp sporting the Buntline special. Big fan of the Hugh O'Brian TV series.

5:39 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"Farley Granger was there and was interviewed before the film was shown. Sadly he was quite aged and somewhat out of it. He kept repeating the story about Hitchcock over and over---"

Now you've got me wondering what the story was.

5:45 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...


I suspect a lot of film scholars and critics are a tad leery of what they think are "easy" viewpoints. They love to discover unknown or underappericiated treasures, but if their instincts lead them to an already crowded bandwagon, even if they set that bandwagon rolling themselves they pause and question their instincts. The assumption is, you can't produce anything worthwhile without alienating SOMEBODY. Ergo, the fewer people a product alienates, the blander it's assumed to be. I think it's "Broadway Melody of 1936" where an editor tells columnist Jack Benny he's no good unless somebody wants to punch him in the nose. When offended Robert Taylor does just that, Benny gets a raise.

It's still a pat assumption -- often true -- that anything done to make a film or show "more commercial" is going to make it less interesting. Management types through the years fueled this perception by groveling to small-town censor boards, advertisers, pressure groups, and even solitary cranks. When film ratings were introduced, the general public quickly decided that anything rated G was probably watery pablum. Filmmakers aiming for a non-child audience began adding solitary cuss words and such to secure an M (later PG) rating. Myself, I get a little prickly when somebody praises something I like as being unsmutty, as if there was that little to Laurel and Hardy.

Hitchcock, Chaplin, Disney, and various top talents started out as the darlings of the critics as well as the public, but as they became popular box office brands the critics cooled a bit. It was exciting for critics and scholars to trumpet new names and new innovations, but considerably less fun to simply join the chorus as geniuses produced work of now-expected quality and success. It became to fashion to nod, declare their new films were as good as expected, and ergo nothing to get too worked up about. Critical passion for anybody's early stuff is less a matter of it being better but of somebody's memories of seeing something new.

As a college kid in the 70s, I saw big audiences roar for both Chaplin and Keaton, while in class they'd tend to dismiss the former while lionizing the latter. Chaplin was universally popular -- too easy. Keaton was in those days much harder to see and occasionally puzzling to a newcomer, so in addition to his other obvious merits he belonged to the true fans. It was also an article of faith that the Marx Brothers at Paramount were infinitely superior to the Marx Brothers at MGM precisely because the latter targeted a broader audience.

In "The Films of Laurel and Hardy", Everson suggested that the boys lacked a cult following because their films (talkies, anyway) were all over the airwaves. Universal availability and popularity reduces genius to a non-precious commodity, something to take for granted while trumpeting more obscure works that need trumpeting. By the time I was collecting 8mm two-reelers the boys were fading from the airwaves, and serious fandom was beginning. Coincidence? The Three Stooges were likewise fading from constant daily runs on local stations when boomer guys embraced them as a joke emblem of masculinity, something that girls couldn't (and wouldn't) muscle in on. Abbott and Costello were on the air all the time through my childhood and seemingly through my teens, but never got campus screenings much less scholarly attention. Now that they're long gone from TV, is it possible they'll yet become objects of a cult, academicized as milestones of pre-war, wartime, and postwar popular culture?

If you read all of this you need to get out more.

6:32 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Student audiences are the worst. John Herbert, the author of FORTUNE AND MEN'S EYES, told me about a production of his play before a student audience at Stratford, Ontario in 1966 before it had its big success in New York.

The students disparagingly laughed at everything until their teachers ask the play be halted. The teachers then said, "Can you behave like a REAL audience?"

The play resumed. They might not have behaved like areal audience but the mocking laughter did stop.

As far as Buster was concerned nobody, including him, was better than Chaplin. I love the work of both of them.

For myself the Marx Brothers at MGM are the Marx Brothers castrated. I'll take the Paramounts and A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA over everything after A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (and that barely squeaks in). I fall asleep watching those MGM films. I'm not the only one. Nonetheless, I will program the MGM titles.

Laurel and Hardy in everything are pure Heaven. I loved ABBOTT & COSTELLO as a kid. I'm a 74 year old kid who still does. Same with THE THREE STOOGES.

Kids who saw films in their classrooms and then saw them at my programs were astounded by the difference. Wrote one student in The University Of Toronto VARSITY newspaper, "I seldom feel a film's greatness in film study. I often feel it at Reg Hartt's CineForum." It's my job to deliver that greatness.

Bernardo Bertolucci said, "Film students should stay as far away from film schools and film teachers as possible. The best school for the cinema IS the cinema. The best cinema is the Paris Cinematheque. The best teacher is Henri Langlois." David Mamet says the same about film schools.

My work in Toronto was inspired by that of Langlois in Paris.

Black and white is what is killing the great and not so great movies when it comes to television.

I loathe subjective opinions. They get in the way of seeing.

I sat in a near empty grind house waiting for THE THREE STOOGES MEET HERCULES. Just before that movie started the place was packed. The audience laughed itself into hysterics. Until we've experienced that we have not experienced the magic of the movies. I'll never forget the huge intake of breath the audience in a 5,000 seat theater took at the start of Richard Lester's THE THREE MUSKETEERS.

Once a teacher asked to use my 16mm print of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI but he did not want the score I'd created for it. Reluctantly he did. Afterwards he asked his class what they thought of the music. They replied, "We didn't like it. It made the film scary." He said, "Yes, it made the film scary," like that was a fault.

If you want to ruin something teach it.

The best way to study a movie is to sit in the last row and watch the audience, preferably working class, watching the movie.

10:06 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

As far as I'm concerned, criticism is a useful two-headed beast, with one mouth each for information and for judgment. But if I'm to rely on a critic's judgment as to where I should pay my money, I would want that critic to mirror my own taste as closely as possible.

11:04 AM  

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