Author Archive

“My Son John”: A Cold War Tale

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

My Son JohnMy Son John” is very much a product of its time (1952). Its subject?  A young man (played by Robert Walker) goes to work in Washington and comes home to visit his small-town, religious parents with some new, disturbing ideas that make his parents suspicious.

If you know your history, you’ll recall that a certain Wisconsin Senator was at this time engaged in a hunt for those holding Communist party sympathies and/or membership inside the federal government. He became very zealous about this, and was eventually stopped in his pursuit. This movie was made at the height of McCarthy’s efforts, and it may elicit both laughs and serious thought. It’s only natural, in my opinion, that movies from another era, especially when they are trying to convey serious ideas, may sometimes come off as corny or obvious.

On the other hand, this viewer looked at other aspects of the movie, and found much to take pleasure in. To begin with, there’s the acting of Dean Jagger and Helen Hayes as the parents—they seem to have achieved a wonderful naturalness in their interactions, all done with the backdrop of location shooting in Virginia (as opposed to the more common studio-bound tendency of that time).  Second, though the movie takes a very obvious stand in its politics, it also shows Jagger’s character as a bit of a hothead, and over-sensitive in his reactions to his son.  And speaking of the son, Robert Walker (you might remember him from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train) does a marvelous job as a sort of prodigal who wastes no time showing his condescension toward those who love him. Finally, the movie works as a window into the thinking of the time, a time when both real and imagined enemies were lurking about, when the country was trying to forget a brutal World War II and yet having to send its children off to Korea for more bloodshed and sacrifice.  Altogether, well worth watching!


Posted by:

“Three Wicked Melodramas…”

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

The Man in Grey” is one movie of a three-movie set recently issued by the Criterion Collection as part of its Eclipse series. That series has been a boon lately for those of us interested in discovering wonderful and often long-forgotten directors. Criterion, which is known for its high-end restorations of a variety of films, has made the decision to issue Eclipse DVDs in inexpensive editions that make them easier to buy for institutions or individuals.

James Mason, with his smoldering acting style and tendency to play mysterious characters, has a heyday here. (He also has a role in one other movie in the set, The Wicked Lady.) He plays Lord Rohan, a nasty aristocrat in Regency-era England who marries young and naïve Clarissa strictly to produce an heir. The heir is produced and the two live separate lives, which produces further melodrama, as Clarissa meets a dashing “strolling player” and is reunited with a friend from school who appears to be on her side. But is she? A sort of historical film noir, “The Man in Grey” will appeal to fans of old movies, to fans of James Mason, and probably anyone who likes a romping good tale of intrigue and menace.

What was particularly pleasing about the structure of the movie is that it begins and ends in contemporary (i.e. 1943) wartime London, in which the effects of Lady Rohan are being sold at auction. We learn the story behind those artifacts, and then return to the auction house for the closing minutes of the film. This scene, with its subtle and clever commentary on the past and the present, adds a lovely dimension to the story. It’s worth the wait.

(This film is not rated, though it has at least one disturbing violent scene.)


Posted by:

Book Sale at the Plainfield Branch

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

The Plainfield Friends of the Library will be having a sale of gift-quality used books Saturday, December 1 and Sunday, December 2. The Saturday sale will be from 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM and Sunday from 1:00–4:00 PM.  Books in this sale will be individually priced. Come over and find some great holiday deals for all the book lovers in your life! Also, be sure to check the ongoing sale in the library that our Friends maintain on a permanent basis.


Posted by:

Stanwyck: “No Man of Her Own”

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

No Man of Her Own” (1950) is a complex film noir starring Barbara Stanwyck that’s just been released on DVD. It must have been considered somewhat daring for its time, given that the start of the film features a young woman (Stanwyck) who is pregnant and unmarried.

In the typically more elliptical fashion of the time—an approach that also makes it more enjoyable to watch, in my opinion—it’s never stated explicitly what has happened, but is rather shown through the dress she wears, her desperate pleas, and the one-way ticket her former boyfriend has just given her. As with many noirs, we are given access to the story through a long flashback—we know that serious trouble is at hand, but must be shown how the couple in front of us got to their present dilemma. The flashback takes us to Stanwyck’s anguished situation and her subsequent train journey, during which a young married couple who are also expecting take pity on her, not knowing her full story. I won’t give away the rest of the story here, but let’s just say that things get very complicated for Miss Stanwyck very quickly. She and her baby must hide behind a cover that will inevitably be exposed, but to whom and how and why is a lot of the fun (if that’s the right word).

In addition to the plot, I also enjoyed the settings–the way it went from big city to train car to small, Midwestern, snow-bound town with a lovely old family mansion that becomes the centerpiece for this wonderful gem from the tail-end of Hollywood’s Golden Era.


Posted by:

1812 and All That

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

I think we can safely say that watching any movie about historical events or people must be taken with a grain of salt in terms of its details. It simply goes with the territory that artistic license will be involved in spicing up a story in order to keep a large audience interested.

This was probably even more true in the studio era when The Buccaneer (1938), directed by the great Cecil B. DeMille, was made.  The story concerns the War of 1812 (as we mark its 200th anniversary) and the work that Jean Lafitte, “privateer” (aka pirate), did in helping the Americans at the Battle of New Orleans. In its general outline, the film is factual—see the entry for Lafitte in The Encyclopedia of the War of 1812—but beyond that, one must simply acknowledge that, on top of presenting an exciting and complicated historical event, DeMille wanted to give us a rousing good tale of pirates, war, integrity and romance. 

Frederic March plays Lafitte, and he’s surrounded by a whole bevy of colorful characters, real and imagined, from Dolly Madison saving George Washington’s portrait from British destruction, to Akim Tamiroff as the perfect pirate, to Walter Brennan as one of Andrew Jackson’s coon-skin capped fighters, to Hugh Sothern as the future President Jackson in all his earthiness and bravery.  While some of the more unpleasant pirating activities are taken out, the movie still makes clear that Lafitte, despite the offer of amnesty he receives from the Americans, has some unsavory things from his past that must be dealt with. This leads to a very satisfying conclusion of an already thrilling tale.


Posted by:

Woody Allen: A Documentary

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

When Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was released last year, there were some critics who wondered if the long-time director/writer would ever be able to repeat the huge successes he’d had in the late 1970s with such great films as Annie Hall and Manhattan.  But he proved them wrong, and the film went on to make (as of this writing) over 56 million dollars in ticket sales — his highest grossing film ever.

That’s just one of the interesting points made in the new film, Woody Allen: A Documentary, a very long (195 minutes) and very interesting take on one of the most productive director/screenwriters this country has ever produced. (The only comparable person would be Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman, who is, of course, one of Allen’s heroes.) The film takes us back to the very beginning, where we learn that Allen, at the age of 17 and writing jokes for others, was already making more money than his parents. Amazingly, by the end of the 1960s he was offered a director’s position simply on the merits of his writing, and took off from there. 

While the film can’t possibly cover every movie Allen has made, there is much that is covered, and the information comes from a variety of sources — to start with, Allen himself, who appears in new footage and older interviews, but also Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts,  Martin Scorsese, and numerous stars who have appeared in different productions, such as Mira Sorvino, John Cusack and Owen Wilson.  Regarding Allen’s personal life — that is, the scandal involving Allen and Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter (whom he eventually married), this too is dealt with, though not with the sort of breast-beating many might like to see.  And, not surprisingly, Mia Farrow does not appear in the film, except for being in clips from Allen’s movies.

Overall, I found the documentary a fascinating gem — particularly when Allen shares with viewers some of his work habits. For one, he still uses an old manual typewriter he bought sometime in the 1950s, and he keeps a drawer full of paper scraps with ideas for stories that he saves and then goes through for inspiration.  This and many other details make this film worth your time. If you’d like, let me know what your favorite Woody Allen film is, and why.


Posted by:

Beatty, Malden and Lansbury!

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

All Fall Down (1962) is yet another great movie the late director John Frankenheimer made in the first half of the 1960s (some of the others are The Train, Seven Days in May and the fantastic Manchurian Candidate). 

Unlike some works from this period though, this is a family drama starring the likes of Warren Beatty, Karl Malden and Angela Lansbury–there’s no politics here, no train wrecks, and no assassinations; rather, we watch the slow unraveling and awakening of a family that worships its eldest son—a prodigal whom they believe to be some kind of saint. Beatty plays the son, a wanderer and womanizer worshiped by his younger brother Clint (Brandon de Wilde) who still lives with his parents (Malden and Lansbury) in Cleveland.  As the film begins, de Wilde has tracked down Beatty in less than auspicious circumstances in Florida—and here we can see some of the frankness of the 1960s cropping up—but he refuses to face the facts. The story is complicated even more when Echo, played by Eva Marie Saint, arrives from Toledo for a visit to the family, and de Wilde falls hard for her, even though she, in her older, patronizing way, doesn’t take him very seriously. 

What’s partly interesting about this film from a different era is how non-conformist Beatty’s family is in the era of Leave it to Beaver: Clint decides not to finish high school, and his parents barely raise an eyebrow; Malden invites a group of homeless men in for a nightcap on Christmas Eve, and the family seemingly has no jobs to support their old and rambling house, while Clint hides around corners and writes down all the arguments his parents have. 

The denial and frustrated love must come to a head, of course, before the film is over, and it is up to each viewer to decide if the ending is a satisfying one or not. Whatever your opinion, you’ll have to admit that there is a certain catharsis by the end of this drama, and with actors of this stature, it’s certainly worth giving the film a try.

Posted by:

Earn an Artist Badge!

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

Artist Badge

Earn an Artist badge during Summer Reading @ KDL!  As part of the Experience Summer program this year, KDL is asking participants to branch out into new areas of learning and experience. 

There are numerous ways the Artist badge can be earned. You can read a biography of an artist or attend an art-related event at one of our branches.  You can go to a local art museum or visit an art gallery or art exhibit. You can enjoy art programming for families at the Grand Rapids Art Museum during Saturday All Day with the Arts. Present your KDL library card from 10:00 AM – 3:00 PM every Saturday through August to receive $3 admission for each person in your group. (GRAM is also free of charge every Tuesday from 1:00 – 5:00 PM). Finally, you could do some original artwork of your own and show it to any one of our librarians–and as a librarian who has studied and done visual art, I’d really like to see these! You only have to do one of the suggested activities to earn the badge.

Other badges include Animal Lover, Dreamer, Entertainment, Foodie, Multicultural, Nature Lover, Reader, Sports Fan, and Traveler.

Once you’ve earned all ten badges associated with this program, you may print out your “Experience Summer @ KDL” certificate.

Posted by:

“The Organizer”: An Italian Film on DVD

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

Set in late 19th century Italy, “The Organizer”(1963) is a somewhat humorous, sometimes ironic movie about a serious topic. Imagine going to work at 6 AM and not being able to leave until 14 hours of work have been put in. This is the situation of a group of workers in a Turin cloth factory. They work hard, and then they get tired—accidents inevitably follow, but with very little sympathy from the factory owners. The workers select a group of leaders who consider striking, but they might need some help. Suddenly, sneaking off a train one night, the “professor” (played by the great Marcello Mastroianni) appears. He’s a mysterious figure, but is willing to help. 

With a good mix of tragedy and comedy, the movie explores and dramatizes the struggle to organize—but unlike some films made on this topic, it doesn’t demonize some and canonize others. The owners, for instance, don’t come off as monsters, and certainly the workers, including the professor, are not always heroic in the choices they make. The whole society, it seems, is bumbling and working its way through this struggle. Hence the ending is not what you might expect—but remember to keep an historical perspective on it, and to note that this is a European film that takes a slightly different tack than many American movies might with the same material.

Finally—and this seems to be a common factor in many Italian movies of the last 50 years—it’s great fun to watch so many people on the screen. The sense of a crowd, of people banding together (and disbanding) permeates the screen, which means that it’s taking full advantage of the medium itself—even if it isn’t the latest digital effects. (Not rated; adult material but nothing explicit. This movie is black and white with English subtitles.)


Posted by:

Musical Nostalgia, With Pirates! Jeanette and Eddy Sing!

Saturday, May 5th, 2012

I am nowhere near in age to the generation that grew up hearing Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, but for those who are—and maybe even some who aren’t—you might enjoy the new-on-DVD copy of “Naughty Marietta.”

First released in 1935, this historical musical features MacDonald as a French princess who is being forced into a marriage she doesn’t want and who, by a bit of trickery, gets herself on a boat full of mail-order brides headed for New Orleans. The ladies make it across the ocean safely, but just as they are about to land, a band of pirates stop them with some very bad intentions. Fortunately—and I don’t think I’m spoiling much here—Nelson Eddy and his band of singing mercenaries swoop in, singing “Tramp, tramp, tramp.”  This, of course, is the beginning of romance, but it has a ways to go before everything turns out all right. The royal authorities from France soon appear (how this happens so quickly in that era is never explained, but remember, it’s a musical…), so Marietta has to run and hide some more, with the help of Eddy, who is still waiting for his affections to be reciprocated.

I’ve always liked musicals, and while this wouldn’t be at the top of my list, it is certainly an enjoyable film.  The music is more operatic than, say, jazzy—despite its New Orleans setting—and the singing is top-notch.  The ending is full of “frontier” optimism, a perfect way to wrap up a “riches-to-rags” story like this. (Rated G)


Posted by: