A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, November 27, 2015

Watch on the Rhine (Herman Shumlin, 1943)

Like Broderick Crawford in All the King's Men (Robert Rossen, 1949) or Cliff Robertson in Charly (Ralph Nelson, 1968), Paul Lukas had the good fortune to land a movie role that won him the best actor Oscar on his one and only turn as a nominee. His competition included Gary Cooper in For Whom the Bell Tolls (Sam Wood), Walter Pidgeon in Madame Curie (Mervyn LeRoy), and Mickey Rooney in The Human Comedy (Clarence Brown). Oh, and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz), the one performance that everyone remembers. It's not like Lukas hadn't had plenty of opportunities to attract attention before: He had begun acting in movies in his native Hungary in 1915, and after coming to Hollywood had appeared in mostly supporting roles in numerous films, playing Professor Bhaer opposite Katharine Hepburn in Little Women (George Cukor, 1933) and the sinister Dr. Hartz in The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938), for example. He had also played the role of Kurt Muller, the coordinator of resistance movements against the Nazis, in the original Broadway production of Watch on the Rhine in 1941, so he was a natural choice for the film version -- though producer Hal Wallis wanted Charles Boyer instead. As often happens, the Oscar was no step toward better roles in movies, and Lukas spent much of his later career on stage, though he continued to appear on film and TV up till his death in 1971. The play was written by Lillian Hellman, whose lover, Dashiell Hammett, did the screenplay with some input from her. Unfortunately, the result is less a movie than a sermon about doing one's patriotic duty in the struggle against fascism. It didn't help that Wallis hired the play's director, Herman Shumlin, for the film: Shumlin had never directed a movie and had to be assisted throughout by cinematographer Hal Mohr. He was also unable to rein in Bette Davis, who is miscast as the noble and dutiful wife and has a tendency to slip into some of her familiar and caricaturable mannerisms in the film.

The Flowers of St. Francis (Roberto Rossellini, 1950)

After his great Neo-Realist films Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946), and just as he was beginning his relationship with Ingrid Bergman, Rossellini made this sweet-natured film that combines some of his Neo-Realism (the use of non-professional actors) with some of the moral questioning he does in the four Bergman films, especially Europe '51 (1952). Based on two 14th-century books that retold legends of the life of St. Francis and his followers, The Flowers of St. Francis consists of a prologue and nine episodes. The actors, who were Franciscan monks, are not credited, although Francis was played by Brother Nazario Gerardi and the key role of Brother Ginepro by Brother Severino Pisacane. The only professional actor in the film is Aldo Fabrizi, who had worked with Rossellini in Rome, Open City. Fabrizi is the monstrous tyrant Nicolaio, who torments Ginepro until he is won over by the monk's gentle endurance of all the ills inflicted on him -- at one point, Ginepro is used as a human jump rope, then dragged around Nicolaio's camp behind a horse. The title of the film in Italian is Francesco, Giullare di Dio, meaning "God's jester," and the moral lesson constantly taught in the film is that of self-abasement to the point of ridicule. In a key episode, Francis and another friar go in search of perfect happiness. They find it when they go to the house of a man who repeatedly refuses their plea for alms until he finally beats them and kicks them downstairs. Then Francis explains that true happiness is to suffer in the name of Christ, a moral lesson not unlike the one learned by Irene Girard (Bergman) in Europe '51, where it's expressed in more secular terms. (And one that I might use as an excuse the next time I shut the door on a Jehovah's Witness or a Mormon missionary.) The screenplay was written in collaboration with Federico Fellini with consultation from two Roman Catholic priests, though the film is much lighter in tone than that suggests.