Posts Tagged ‘Gary Cooper’

Watch on the Rhine 1943Tonight is night when the Oscars are handed out for the best movies, directors, actors and so on.  I’ve always been a big film fan and I always look forward to seeing who wins even on the years when I have hardly seen a movie.  It also makes me think of many of my favorite movies, films that stick in my mind and, like any other  form of art, define who I am.

A few weeks ago, I saw one of these favorites of mine, Watch on the Rhine.  It was made in 1943, adapted for the screen by Dashiell Hammett from  the prize-winning play written by his wife, the great Lillian Hellman.  It concerns a family in the Northern Virginia area across the Potomac from DC whose daughter ( Bette Davis in a supporting role here) returns home from a war torn Europe for the first time in many years with her husband and children.  It is set, and was written,  in the years before our entry into World War II.

Her husband is a German freedom fighter, Kurt Muller,  who is a wanted leader in the underground movement against the Nazis. He is  played by Paul Lukas in a magnificent performance, one that won him the Academy Award for Best Actor that year over Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and Gary Cooper in For Whom the Bells Toll.  Yes, it was that good.

His Muller is the common man who finds himself in the role of the selfless hero willing to give up everything– his career, his family, his life– in order to stand against evil.  It’s not a task Muller sought but is one he must shoulder.  His words are simple, direct and powerful.  Lukas, who also originated the part on the Broadway stage, is brilliant and, whenever I see this movie, I am haunted for weeks afterwards by Lukas’ performance.  The power of it thrills me but I find myself questioning my own strength and beliefs as a human.  Thankfully, I have never been put into a situation like that faced by Kurt Muller and hopefully never will.  But would I be able to stand with even a fraction of the grace and courage of Lukas’ character?

I doubt it but I don’t know.

But I know that this movie’s ability to fix that question in my mind for weeks make it a great movie with great acting and world-class writing.  Hopefully, this year’s movies will have a film like Watch on the Rhine that will haunt future generations when they watch it years from now.


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I was working in the studio yesterday with the television on, set to one of the news channels.  After a while, the constant drone of bad news from every corner of the world- unstable economies, Wall Street panic, oil spills. floods, terrorist bombings, wars and on and on-became more than I could bear.  I flipped over to a movie channel and there it was.  Meet John Doe, the Frank Capra classic from 1941 starring Gary Cooper and the great Barbara Stanwyck.

Meet John Doe is one of Capra’s visions of American idealism wherein the main character hesitatingly fights the malevolence and greed of those in power for the rights of those with little power.  Think Jimmy Stewart in Mr Smith Goes to Washington or It’s a Wonderful Life.  In these movies, the hero often has the very people he champions turn on him, usually as the result of those in power twisting the truth to suit their own dark agendas.  But in Capra’s world, the hero perseveres and is vindicated by the truth.  Sure, it’s naive but it’s a wonderful place to let your imagination rest for a spell.

The hero here is Cooper who plays a drifter who is enlisted by a newspaper  to play the part of John Doe, a character in a publicity stunt who threatens to kill himself on Christamas Eve because of the state of the world.  This was 1941, folks.  Europe was at war with the Nazis marching and we were on the verge of entering the fray. We were still reeling after a decade of the Great Depression.  It was not a pretty time. 

The John Doe character was supposed to disappear after Christmas but it hit a note with the common note and a populist movement grew from it, funded by the newspaper mogul (played to perfection by Edward Arnold who I will someday highlight in this blog) who seeks to usurp and mold it to suit  the political agenda of his powerful cronies and himself.   Sound familiar?  The mogul tries to destroy the movement and Doe, who has come to believe in the ideals that he is supposed to represent as John Doe,  by turning the movement against, portraying him as a fraud and an opportunist. 

Eventually, right prevails, of course, and Doe overcomes the powerful and the people’s movement continues.  I know it’s a fantasy but after day after day of watching newcasts filled with nothing but darkness and dire pessimism, I’ll choose this fantasyof hope and possibility anytime.  I never fail to be moved by these movies from Frank Capra, and the day that I’m not,  I will truly be worried because that means I will have lost all optimism.  And that is a dark day for anyone.

Here’s one of my favorite scenes with the great Walter Brennan, who plays John Doe’s traveling companion.  Here, he gives his theory about heelots

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