Monthly Archives: September 2018

26. From Here to Eternity (1953)

Director: Fred Zinnemann


Alex – 8.3   Elliot – 8.6  IMDB 7.7    Rotten Tomatoes 8.2

Alex’s Commentary:

It has been a number of years since I had last viewed From Here to Eternity, and my perspective and perceptions obviously have changed over time. This 1953 film, set in the days leading up to December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor, follows military men’s lives and loves. The story has numerous plot lines and develops many strong character studies. I will make a general comment regarding all of the characters in the movie as to not repeat myself as I discuss each one – it is apparent that every character has so much more behind their stories then can be fully explained in a 118-minute film. fhte5-061915The James Jones novel was in excess of 700 pages and screenwriter, Daniel Taradash, had to decide both the key elements of the story line and character background necessary to provide a cohesive narrative. As Taradash won an Oscar for Best Screenwriting, the Academy certainly felt he succeeded. I would be remiss not to mention Fred Zinnemann, the Best Director winner, who engages the viewer throughout the film. Coupled with Oscar wins for Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Film Editing and nominations for Best Costume Design and Best Music, the resulting product is an atmospheric, enthralling film.

The primary storyline involves Robert E. Lee Prewitt “Pru” (played by Best Actor nominee Montgomery Clift), a soldier who transfers to a new unit because his previous unit displaced him as lead company bugler with a player he felt was inferior but had connections. montgomery clift & burt lancaster - from here to eternity 1953This stubborn streak continues as Pru refuses to join his new company’s boxing team which leads to a series of cruel menial assignments from guard duty, to digging unnecessary holes, to scrubbing floors, to running laps and mountain trails. He never breaks because of his love of military service which he believes is his life’s work. Montgomery Cliff plays Prewitt convincingly, but I was left wondering what made Prewitt act the way he did. Uneducated orphan, maybe?

Prewitt’s love interest is Lorene (Best Supporting Actress winner Donna Reed), a woman he meets at a “club” for military men. This is clearly not the Donna I remember as a kid watching The Donna Reed Show.

Probably the most iconic scene which the film is known for is the steamy love scene on the beach with Burt Lancaster (Sgt. Milton Warden) and Deborah Kerr (Karen Holmes); both nominated for Best Actor and Actress. I never was able to fully discern what motivated Sgt. Warden and why he declined to take the officer’s exam that may have permitted him a vehicle to marry Mrs. Holmes, the unhappily married wife of Warden’s commanding officer, Captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober). FromHereToEternityI would have to imagine that From Here to Eternity was considered somewhat shocking in the puritanical 1950’s. Themes involving adultery, consorting with prostitutes (not explicitly stated), pre-marital sex, public drunkenness, and abuse of power by a military officer are not the fare typically seen of films of this era.

Of course, the other storyline revolves around Angelo Maggio (Best Supporting Actor winner Frank Sinatra) and stockade Sgt. ‘Fatso’ Judson (Ernest Borgnine). This was an early role for Borgnine who plays a sadistic stockade commander whose personal vendetta against Maggio climaxes when Maggio is sentenced to the stockade – classic man’s inhumanity against man. We will see Borgnine in an entirely different role two films from now in Marty. This is also not the character I remember as a kid watching McHale’s Navy. The role of Maggio was a pivotal role for Sinatra who was previously was known primarily as a singer. Personally, the Maggio character didn’t resonate with me.  fromheretoeternity_fatsojudson_FC_470x264_040420170528 I usually do not enjoy watching characters whose primary role is to portray a drunk. Having recently watched 1946 Best Picture winner The Lost Weekend, I felt Ray Milland was a much more believable alcoholic.

In the 1947 Best Picture winner The Best Years of Our Lives, we saw the difficulties of veterans returning home after their wartime service. In From Here to Eternity, we see some of the trials and tribulations these soldiers faced during their service that manifested themselves upon their return home. If you have not seen this film, it is not one to be missed.

Elliot’s Commentary:

Our 1953 Best Picture takes viewers back to WWII-era using the incredible source material of the 1951 Novel, From Here to Eternity by James Jones.  While I had not seen this particular film before, I have read the brilliant novel and was eager to see how our director, Fred Zinnemann, would interpret the material. It is not a simple feat to condense 861 pages of brilliant writing into a cohesive and comprehensive 118 minutes, however the screenwriter who adapted the novel, Daniel Taradash, did a great job given the constraints of the time period in which the film was made.   There_eternity_trumpethe novel is much more debaucherous in its depiction of prostitution, however this film was made during the heyday of the Motion Picture Production Code and thus these activities are largely downplayed or only mentioned through vague allusion.   Besides from Here to Eternity, James Jones also wrote another novel that received the silver-screen treatment, The Thin Red Line.  Terrence Malik’s 1998 film of the same name was also a terrific depiction of the brutal reality of WWII.  Both novels and films are semi-autobiographical in nature and draw from Jones’ experience serving in the war.   

It’s hard to imagine that the vapid spectacle of The Greatest Show on Earth could be considered in the same ballpark of this film.  From Here To Eternity excels in many regards, but to see Montgomery Clift in his prime, truly is a treat for all cinephiles.  This film marked the last film that Montgomery Clift would act in before his car accident while filming Raintree County.  From Here To Eternity 4There could not have been a better actor chosen to bring the stubbornness and moxy of Robert E. Lee Pruitt (Pru) to the big screen.   While an actor’s off-screen personality and mystique do not always impact their performance, the notoriously private and secluded life of Montgomery Clift fits in perfectly with Pru’s audacity and commitment to his personal morality code.   Clift is often lumped into the same category as Marlon Brando and James Dean who all embodied the Hollywood outsider persona, while revolutionizing the industry with raw talent.   

Additionally, there can not be enough said about the surprisingly endearing performance of Frank Sinatra as Angelo Maggio.  While today, “The Chairman of the Board” Frank Sinatra, is a household name, 1953 marked a period of decline for the swooner.   With his records not selling and his inability to fill concert halls anymore, it looked like Frank’s star was fading fast. He wasn’t the first choice for this role and there are rumors that Sinatra’s mob connections helped him get a part in this film.  The famous scene from The Godfather where the movie producer wakes to find his prized horse’s head in his bed is said to be inspired by some of the dealings that led to Frank being cast in this film. 004_020468.tifRegardless of the rumors, Frank’s performance was enough to put him back on the map. His comedic timing and brash persona are incredibly captivating, and he rightfully earned the best supporting actor Oscar that he was awarded for the role.  His character’s chutzpah in the face of adversity showed off the actor’s incredible range from light-hearted to emotional heart-breaking scenes. Without providing too much of a spoiler for this 50 year-old classic, Maggio’s final scene in the film is one of the most memorable scenes that we have viewed in our journey through film history.

The actor who is the glue that holds the entire film together is Burt Lancaster. Lancaster’s performance as the steady and intrepid Sgt. Milton Warden provides a terrific juxtaposition against the brash Maggio and the stubborn Pru.  While Pru is receiving the “treatment” for not joining the squad boxing team, the Sergeant provides a bit of compassion and perspective that helps Pru temporarily through some of the company in-fighting.  from-here-to-eternityWhile the Sergeant does not always take the moral high road, especially in light of his affair with the Captain’s wife, Donna, he still remains a symbol of goodness in the corrupt bureaucratic company. Their scene with the Sergeant and Donna on the beach together is one of the more enduring images from the film and encapsulates the ability of the film to cover all ends of the emotional spectrum.  

There are moments in the film where both Pru and Maggio’s treatment is kafkaesque as their superiors use the system to bully the two soldiers into compliance.  The moment in time displayed in the film is clouded with the ominous presence of historical dramatic irony. As we glimpse this version of life at the Hawaiian army base in the closing months of 1941, the stakes for the characters seem so high in the moment but ultimately do not matter given the scale of history’s tide.  S-1243_From_Here_To_Eternity_021_1f264562-e442-4c96-80f2-947c697950fcWhile the film is ultimately a character study with limited discussion of the global conflict of WWII, as the characters’ individual stories begin to resolve themselves, they are faced with “a day that will live in infamy” as FDR described it. The attack on Pearl Harbor makes the stakes of participation in a boxing tournament seem so insignificant, but that is the stark contrast we are faced with. 

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this film.  Besides the stellar production-value and terrific performances from our leads, the plot of this film drives an interesting, rarely-seen depiction of military life that is worth seeking out.  The film contains romantic, dramatic, comedic, and action-packed elements that provide something for every film-enthusiast.


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25. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille


Alex – 6.5   Elliot – 6.3   IMDB 6.7    Rotten Tomatoes 5.3

Alex’s Commentary

The Greatest Show on Earth won the 1952 Academy Award for Best Picture and  Cecil B. DeMille won for Best Director. Given the number of excellent films being produced by Hollywood in the 1950s, I found it unusual that this film would be considered the best picture. greatest3The movie felt more like a documentary of circus life than the engaging drama which it tried to be. The color cinematography and costuming were well done but the cast of established actors could not salvage the weak storyline.

Charlton Heston plays Brad Braden, the circus manager, as an unconvincing and unrelatable character. Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde are trapeze artists attempting to upstage each other for the center ring. Again, the characters did not seem believable and the development of their character was lacking. Another character lacking development was ‘Buttons” A. Clown, which wasted the talents of James Stewart. Buttons was apparently a former physician who somehow killed his wife (I assume for benevolent reasons) and then joins the circus to escape from the police. There are a few other weak subplots that are not worth describing.

So how did this film win the best picture? I have two theories. First, DeMille was presented with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award at the 1953 Academy Awards and perhaps the Academy thought in addition to this award, Best Picture and Best Director awards would make his evening complete. 25887598905_a67d4bd7f9_bMy second theory is that a very strong group of competing films split the voting enabling a lesser film to emerge victorious. This list of films includes four motion pictures that are considered classics and I believe are far superior to The Greatest Show on Earth. They include Moulin Rouge and  The Quiet Man (the great John Ford film with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara). Even more memorable are Singin’ in the Rain and one of my personal favorite films, High Noon starring  Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly.

If you are interested in the circus life of the 1950’s perhaps you would enjoy this film; however, with a running time of what seems like a very long 2 ½ hours, I’d suggest watching one of the other four films mentioned above instead.

Elliot’s Commentary:

The name of our film’s director was burned into the annals of Hollywood history with Billy Wilder’s 1950 masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard as the main character, Norma Desmond, delivers the closing line, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”.  With a 40+ year career as a director spanning from his first silent film in 1914 and culminating with two Charlton Heston-led technicolor spectacles (The Greatest Show on Earth and The Ten Commandments), it’s no wonder that the name Cecil B. DeMille is one of the most revered from the Golden Age of Hollywood history.    While the grandeur of Cecil B. DeMille is not necessarily in line with my preferred aesthetics, the impressive scale and visionary nature of his filmmaking had the power to bring to life the biblical and whimsical to entertain the masses.  It’s no wonder that the Golden Globes (The second best award show 😉 ) named their lifetime achievement award after our film’s director with the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award.  MV5BODY4NDBmODctNjlmYy00M2U3LTkyYTYtZmZiMGQxMzFkZWI4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzI0MTk0OTQ@._V1_Similar to the lifetime achievement award, it is possible that the Academy Awarded Cecil B. DeMille his first and only best picture win for our current picture as recognition for his storied career and contributions to film as a whole. Although I do prefer the Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly film, High Noon from our nominee pool to this feature, DeMille’s ability to bring the spectacle of the circus to the silver screen is certainly a sight to behold.   .

While Charlton Heston does shine in this film, eschewing his brand of masculinity that reminds me of a somewhat gruffer Humphrey Bogart in Gone With the Wind, he lacks the likability that we have seen in other leading men in Best Picture Winners.   This rough around the edges character, Brad Braden (Charlton Heston), with “sawdust in his veins” is a much more complex character than a surface viewing would initially lead you to believe.  His tough exterior doesn’t break often, although there are moments when his humanity and compassion do peak through. greatest-show-on-earth10-827x1030The foil to Heston’s character is Holly (Betty Hutton), a “flyer” whose abilities on the trapeze and bars have catapulted her to center ring.   As she enters the film, she is established as Charlton Heston’s love interest although that storyline is not fully developed.   Betty Hutton is a passable actress and her performance in this film lands very hollow based on her over-acting. Her love triangle with Brad and The Great Sebastian (Cornell Wilde) provides some intrigue, although like the rest of the plot of the film, it ultimately is underdeveloped.   The saving grace to the film is Jimmy Stewart, whose character Buttons is a likable clown with a dark past.   It’s hard for me to think of a role in which James Stewart diminishes the overall quality of a film.  In this particular instance, his natural acting ability shines a light on the deficiencies of his fellow cast.  Even though James performs in clown makeup throughout the entire production, he is still able to bring his humble, everyman charm to the role.   It’s not often the case that one would consider a Best Picture winner as a minor role, but for the incomparable Mr. Stewart this performance is and should be forgotten when considering his body of work.   003a1ec7_mediumHe only had so much to work with given how cheesy the script and storyline were. Also appearing in minor roles were Dorothy Lamour as Phyllis and Gloria Grahame as Angel.

The characters that really steal the show however are not our leading characters, but rather the actual circus folk depicted in this film.  The film splices plot between elaborate circus scenes that play almost like a documentary of a spectacular performance of the actual Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus troops.  This is a fascinating new territory for film as the footage not only serves as a dramatic ensemble character study, but also as a commercial for the circus.  Through using real acts currently performing during the 1951 circus season, it provides real incentives for fans of the film to go out and view their favorite performers in real life.  Personally, I loved seeing the spectacle of dogs riding horses. Additionally, there is a great cameo from Bing Crosby and Bob Hope that adds additional intrigue.  25792668261_e1a100a090_bThe film also provides behind-the-scenes coverage of moments that the average circus-goer would never get to see such as the circus train, the rigging and set-up of the iconic circus tent, and the practice routines for the various acts as they prepare for the night’s performance.  Even moments where Charlton Heston is going through a line-up of elephants and prescribing remedies for elephant-illness such as gin and ginger, are intriguing glimpses of a different world not often glimpsed by the public. As I watched some of the more harrowing trapeze stunts, I found myself on the edge of my seat hoping that we wouldn’t see an accident.  When it comes to world building Cecil B. Demille excels at bringing the grandeur of the circus to life, and depicting the magical place of wonderment and danger that delights adults and children alike.

The film has certainly dated itself with certain special effects including an epic train crash clearly filmed with models. According to IMDB, this film was “the first movie that Steven Spielberg ever saw. His father took him to the theater, promising him a trip to the circus. He was six years old at the time. In Spielberg’s 2005 movie War of the Worlds a brief clip of the train crash scene is seen when one of the characters is channel-surfing.” Besides the low-grade special effects there are a few instances show2of blackface and jokes at the expense of the obese and dwarves that are not endearing in a modern context.   While I don’t have moral qualms with the concept of the circus in general, there have always been questions about the treatment of animals in the production of these spectacles. Even the the 2017 Hugh Jackman feature, The Greatest Showman, loosely based on the life of PT Barnum, incurred the ire of PETA due to Barnum’s abysmal track record of animal abuse.     

Overall, I think this film was a step in the wrong direction from some of our other recent films.   While some of the films we’ve viewed in our journey haven’t aged well or are a little melodramatic, this film borders on the edge of bad.   The acting, special effects, script, and plot just couldn’t be redeemed by the wonderful circus footage. The film was also 2.5 hours long, which is quite a lot of viewing time that the film does not justify based on its content/plot.  Webphoto 2002Not all of the best picture winners deserve to be remembered in perpetuity, and this film in particular is deserving of its place near the bottom of all best picture winners. Due to the time period, this film was produced during the heyday of the Hollywood Blacklist and McCarthyism and thus we are left with the result of what happens when Hollywood plays it safe.   This commercial for the circus was successful in making me want to see a Cirque du Soleil show in the near future, but not much else. See it if you want to laugh at some bad acting, or if you really like dated portrayals of trapeze acts.


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