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MOVIE REVIEW: GENE KELLY — DRAMATIC ACTOR

In film, history, ideology on June 13, 2009 at 1:30 am

CROSS OF LORRAINE (MGM, 1943)

CROSS OF LORRAINEAside from the usual wartime flagwavers Hollywood came out with detailing the atrocities against “our boys” in the Pacific and other spheres, that stoked the home fires of those back home, the studios did their best on behalf of China, the Philippines and other allies to get the message out about foreign struggles for independence against the ruthless jackboots of the Axis Powers.

Each studio constructed moving if sometimes necessarily artificial vehicles for the voices of oppressed countries to be heard. Goldwyn’s North Star about a Russian village is the most (in)famous of them, with producer William Cameron Menzies enlisting the participation of writer Lillian Hellman, director Lewis Milestone, the photography of James Wong Howe, and the music of Aaron Copeland. These celebrated names and an illustrious cast including Walter Huston, Erich Von Stroheim, Ann Harding, Dean Jagger, Dana Andrews, Walter Brennan and Anne Baxter didn’t save it from being the target of communist accusations by red-hunters later and the condemnation of critics ever since who have judged the film by how Russian the actors weren’t. Fox’s The Moon is Down has overall the best reputation — about the resistance of a Norwegian village to Nazi occupation, written and produced by Nunnally Johnson from a Steinbeck novel. Warners’ Watch on the Rhine, Northern Pursuit (Mounties chasing Nazis), Edge of Darkness (another Norwegian fishing village), Columbia’s The Commandos Strike at Dawn (commandos returning to Norway), and MGM’s The Seventh Cross are other socko movies worth seeing. Paramount’s The Hitler Gang, Hitler’s Children (RKO) and Hitler’s Madman from Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) are other well-known contributions; the last about the assassination of Heidrich with John Carradine in the title role, and the Nazis’ monstrous revenge against the Czech village of Lidice.

Gene Kelly as the aggressive Jew, Victor.

Gene Kelly as the aggressive Jew, Victor.

Cross of Lorraine — named for the emblem of Joan of Arc — was a good effort from MGM, a stirring hymn to French patriotism and stickability. The story traces the fate of a French squad persuaded to surrender when their army looks doomed by the Blitzkrieg invasion of May-June 1940. The Nazi promise is of repatriation to their homes — and they are delivered to a repressive POW camp across the German border. The ‘civilized’ Frenchmen led by top-billed Jean-Pierre Aumont think at first there must be some oversight and continue trying to appease and understand the Nazi mentality, trying to appeal to a sense of fair play, even rationality, that (they believe) must lie somewhere under the surface.

The only ones to resist and keep their spirits intact through two and a half years of captivity and starvation are Victor, an aggressive Marseilles taxi driver played by Gene Kelly, and a Spaniard (Joseph Calleia) experienced against the fascists from his country’s Civil War. Reacting against the murder of their chaplain (Cedric Hardwicke), Victor is severely beaten and put in solitary confinement. He is at the mercy of brutal sergeant Peter Lorre, who, annoyed at Victor’s continuing bullish defiance, has him castrated.

The informant among them, Duval (Hume Cronyn), promoted by the Nazis to ‘translator’, has had a hand deep in his own comrades’ suffering, including reporting on the priest, and gets his future sorted out by them. Aumont’s character, promoted in his place, gradually sees how responsible he is in collaborating in his own men’s failing spirits, and determines to organize a mass escape by stealth.

Jean -Pierre Aumont, the civilized POW, getting in touch with his animal side.

Jean -Pierre Aumont, the civilized POW, getting in touch with his animal side.

While not on the same artistic level as Jean Renoir’s classic French POW drama, La Grande Illusion, I consider this film very rewarding and well worthwhile watching. Gene Kelly, in particular, gives a powerful performance of an ordinary man instinctively disgusted and provoked by every duplicitous gesture of the Nazis — every bit as intense as Gabin’s in the Renoir film, and more subtle. On his emasculation, he insightfully and intelligently portrays the fear and anxiety of a man with his animal power and all mental initiative suddenly taken from him.

BLACK HAND (MGM, 1950)

At times Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio of Middle American gloss par excellence, surprises you.

Self-made junk man Louis B. Mayer moved into movie production during World War I and ruled MGM as the amalgamation in 1924 of three medium-sized companies to form the new titan of the industry, surpassing the previously all-powerful Paramount in one stroke. Its readymade stars and early acquisitions included popular leading men John Gilbert and Ramon Novarro (The Big Parade and Ben-Hur, respectively, the two biggest world earners of 1925-27), exotic leading women Barbara LaMarr and Renee Adoree, supreme child star Jackie Coogan, “Man of a Thousand Faces” Lon Chaney, and a triumvirate of dramatic divas that would rule world screens with few interruptions from the late Twenties for more than a decade: Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford.

Mayer had to continually compromise with young and creative production head Irving Thalberg until the death of the ‘boy genius’ in 1936, after which, for the next 12-year period, he had clear running. Trouble was, by this time, immediately post-World War II, MGM began to be overtaken by Paramount, Fox and Warners. Audiences were no longer the same, and wanted to see real life rather than MGM’s customary rosy Hallmark-greeting-card view of the world. The solution of Loew’s Inc, MGM’s New York parent company, was to bring in Dore Schary, the production head at RKO who had successfully diversified that studio’s output to take it into large profits for the first time in its twenty-year existence. Schary bailed just in time, in 1948, as new RKO owner Howard Hughes began his steady elimination of the studio’s talent through witchhunts for communists and other paranoid purges that would leave his own property as barely a fond memory a decade later.

A thorn in Mayer’s side for the next four years until MGM’s ruling paternal figure was ousted sideways out of the way, Schary instantly led MGM to deal with the reality of the new industry: more reality, less candyfloss. Combining the noirish grittiness he had established in the most realistic films at RKO with the bigger budgets now available to him, under his new influence outstanding films of gripping topical reality were possible: Intruder in the Dust (racial discrimination in the rural South) and Abraham Polonksy’s Force of Evil (postwar rackets), and the following year his first hands-on production, William Wellman’s Battleground, an impressive war film with tour de force ensemble performances from Van Johnson, John Hodiak, Ricardo Montalban, James Whitmore, George Murphy and others.

Johnny Columbo (Gene Kelly) arrives back in New York City ready to deal to the Mafia one way or the other.

Johnny Columbo (Gene Kelly) arrives back in New York City ready to deal to the Mafia one way or the other.

Black Hand, emerging shortly after, was a revelation to me in the performance of Gene Kelly among a number of intriguing elements contained in the film. A fixture at MGM since 1941 (excluding war service shortly after) at age 28, Kelly was of Pittsburgh Irish stock–arriving, according to his own testimony, “twenty pounds overweight and as strong as an ox.” When he was dressed up like Fred Astaire he still “looked like a truck driver.” So, with Fred Astaire the aristocratic dancer of Hollywood in top hat and tails, Kelly dressed in character, usually as a workman.

I’d seen him before in classic musicals of the mid Forties like Cover Girl with Rita Hayworth and Anchors Aweigh with Frank Sinatra; of the early Fifties in the iconic An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain and The Pirate; as a hearty, convincing swashbuckler–a particularly athletic D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers; even in a serious role in the dramatic wartime Cross of Lorraine.

Though I’ve since discovered he has been listed as 15th top actor ever in film by the American Film Institute, nothing had prepared me for how he pulled off this portrayal as a young New York Neapolitan (c.1900) caught up in the Comorra phenomenon imported from Napoli–as if born to it. Not only is perfect Italian speech intact, lithe movement and magnetic, brooding silences, but in this film he projects the macho, offhand persona of Sonny Corleone coming more than two decades later. At times the resemblance in mannerisms is so close I would be amazed if James Caan didn’t study Kelly’s performance before his Godfather role.

Gene Kelly -- a model for James Caan's Sonny Corleone?

Gene Kelly -- a model for James Caan's Sonny Corleone?

Gene Kelly is Johnny Columbo, a law student torn between avenging his father’s murder within or outside the law. Also scoring high in the film are Teresa Celli as the hero’s ally and love interest, J. Carroll Naish as a dedicated local cop and mentor and Marc Lawrence as the elusive archvillain of the local Comorra. The urban sets, dating from the period, are dramatically set off by atmospheric lighting and (mostly) shadow. All aspects of treatment of the subject, down to casting, are spot on. It took just two weeks to shoot and, according to Kelly, took millions in profits around the world.

Though several contemporary reviewers gave Kelly his dramatic due for this one it’s a pity that few observers since have even mentioned Kelly’s dramatic ability. To posterity I suspect Kelly will always be what appears above the surface most often: the screen master of free-form creative dancing–the counterpart to Fred Astaire’s more formal rhythmic dance steps.

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