People like Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane excite me as prospective movie subjects. I’m keen on women who thwart closed-minded sexism, transcend traditional gender roles, and achieve legendary status due to bravery and gun savvy. This explains some of my favourite moments in 1935’s “Annie Oakley”. I like how when the title character signs up for a shooting contest, the men are so incapable of imagining a female sharpshooter that they keep making silly assumptions to justify concluding that she’s a man. My favourite is their insistence that she must be named ‘Andy Oakley’.
When I found out that Jean Arthur played Calamity Jane in “The Plainsman”, I hoped she’d be as empowered as Barbara Stanwyck’s Oakley. I was disappointed. After showing sass and skill in her early scenes (i.e. playfully lassoing ‘Wild’ Bill Hickock’s hat), Arthur’s Calamity Jane spends most of the picture playing worried love interest, subservient sidekick, or helpless captive. I’d rather see a Jane that takes matters into her own hands and kicks butt.
In 1948’s comedy-western “The Paleface”, Jane Russell plays a more proactive Calamity Jane. She’s independent and forceful, which was very much what I wanted from Arthur’s version of the character. Her co-star is Bob Hope, and their roles are fun reversals of gender stereotypes. The man is hopelessly out of his element with a gun, relying on a woman’s superior shooting skills to protect him. Without he or anyone else being aware, she secretly saves him from certain death many times. As I watched Russell, I thought about what I like about her screen presence and the character she played.
She has sultry eyes, a kind heart beneath a brassy exterior, cool confidence, an adventurous spirit, and one of the brightest smiles I’ve ever seen. She doesn’t seem to have had a very distinguished career, being admired more as a sex symbol than actress. Her filmography is short and inconsistent. She apparently lacked the necessary gravitas for challenging roles. I believe she compensated by imbuing light roles with a robust energy that’s as special and worthy of reverence as dramatic acting prowess.
In several movies, I’ve seen Russell play a sexy, talented woman who is aware of her allure, yet not conceited about it. She uses her feminine wiles to help others instead of manipulating them. Her Calamity Jane guides a bumbling, juvenile Bob Hope towards discovering that he has courage and the potential to be a hero, despite being a awkward coward who is useless with a gun.
“The Paleface” won an Oscar for a song called “Buttons and Bows”. Hope endearingly performs it to express his nostalgia for the big city and its gentle, lavishly-adorned women. I love the song because it’s cute, catchy, and celebrates something I love about women. Like Hope’s character, I appreciate how they creativity put together outfits and accessories that make them distinctively colourful, expressive, classy, fragrant, and fancy in look and style…especially when they can do so with the panache of a Jane Russell.
Lately I’ve been feeling like the movies are a fisherman and I am a fish. And not just any fish – a masochistic one that wants to be hooked. By “hooked”, I mean engaged emotionally and intellectually by a movie that shuts down my defenses, overcoming pessimism and high standards. I am also a fussy, evasive fish. With every movie, there’s a struggle, not unlike fisherman and prey pulling in opposite directions. I’m hard to catch and hard to please. Not many movies have fine enough ‘bait’ to keep me on the line. I’ve recently established a 15 minute rule – it usually takes 15 minutes for me to know if the movie is going to reel me in. T.C.M has been showing Oscar nominees and winners for its ’31 Days of Oscar’ marathon. Many have lost me in the first 15 minutes. These movies that captivated mass audiences could not satisfy this stubborn fish.
“Crossfire” was one of the few that held my attention from start to finish. To describe its effect using my fishing metaphor, I can say I was reeled in fast and easy, cooked, and served for dinner. I was hooked from the first frame, with opening shots of two shadows violently clashing. Many of the movies I’ve rejected turned me off because there were just too many characters and too much story – so much chatter and so much going on. “Crossfire” has more pure and simple storytelling, narrowing a laser-like focus on one thing only. A man is murdered. Suspects are identified. They talk with friends and acquaintances. An investigating police captain does the same. The night of the murder is re-constructed from multiple perspectives. The murderer is revealed to the audience, but unknown to other characters, except an accomplice. I was in rapt suspense waiting to see if and how this person gets caught.
“Crossfire” has a social consciousness that impressed me. In a powerful scene, the police captain speculates about racism motivating the murder, eloquently explaining its profound effect on his life and country. I was disappointed to read cynical opinions online that call the movie outdated and limited in its view of prejudice. I agree with Leonard Maltin’s opinion that the issue is handled with “taste [and] intelligence”. I wanted to watch “Crossfire” mostly because its cast includes Robert Mitchum, but Robert Ryan was the highlight. I’ve seen him play a bad guy so many times that I automatically think, “Don’t trust this guy!” when he appears. It was fun to wonder if the movie would reinforce or contradict my expectation. I consider this typecasting a compliment, not a suggestion that the actor lacks range. It takes formidable presence to embody ‘the heavy’ so often and so effectively. Robert Ryan does it like with the ease of someone performing their calling.
“Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet” tells the real life story of a German-Jewish scientist who discovered cures for several diseases by having chemicals shot into the body (hence the term, “magic bullets”). This was the final film shown on T.C.M in January for its month-long ‘Science in the Movies’ theme. Even without seeing the others, I’m fairly certain that they saved the best for last. “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet” is uplifting, involving, sensitive, insightful, and educational. I felt inspired by the title character’s honesty, gentleness, passion, and generosity in the face of so many challenges and heartbreaks. By the end of the picture, I was in awe of this man’s work and his dedication to it. I think the beauty and power of what he did is best articulated by the quote that appears on screen as the film’s final shot. While many movie quotes have made me smile or feel contemplaitive, this was one of the few that made me cry.
“Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet” is also meaningful to me because of its contribution to my journey as an Edward G. Robinson fan. I’ve learned that Robinson was more proud of his role in this movie than any other in his career. I can understand why. This is the 25th Robinson film I’ve seen and I believe Dr. Ehrlich is his best performance. I’m disgusted by the fact that he was not even nominated for an Oscar in 1941. I’ve seen most of the lead actor performances nominated that year. There’s no doubt in my mind that Robinson was just as worthy of recognition as the others.
The performance is not very flashy or original. It’s not the most entertaining one in Robinson’s career or my favourite (my choice for both is in “The Whole Town’s Talking”, and probably always will be). The reason I think Ehrlich is Robinson’s best performance is because more than any other I’ve seen, it made me periodically forget I was watching Edward G. Robinson. He accomplishes that effect with the help of a beard that hides his distinctive appearance and a speaking voice that’s in a more subdued tone than usual for him. Another reason I like this movie is because of what temporary T.C.M. host Sean Carroll (a theoretical physicist) revealed about its origin. According to him, producer Hal Wallis was compelled to make sure the movie got made after he heard Adolf Hitler say
“A scientific discovery by a Jew is worthless”.
In other words, the whole movie is a big “Fuck You” to Hitler!
I can’t think of many better reasons to make a movie.