A trapper's job turns into a battle of wits and a test of survival.
The movie Swamp Water is based on Vereen Bell's 1941 novel of the same name. We read the book a while back and loved it, so having a look at the movie adaptation was mandatory. Jean Renoir directs a heavyweight cast: Walter Brennan, Walter Huston, Dana Andrews, an eighteen-year old Anne Baxter, and even John Carradine. Brennan is the key character, playing a murder suspect hiding in the Okefenokee Swamp. He's considered an all-time great actor, and here he plays a backwoods good ole boy, mouthing dialogue like, “I bet I been cottonmouth bit a dozen times.” When we heard that line we had to laugh, because it prefigures his famous soliloquy from 1946's To Have and Have Not about being “bit by a dead bee.”
There's more excellent dialogue in this. Our favorite line: “It's gettin' so I don't expect nothin' from you 'cept a bossified tongue and a cussin' out.”
While the script is fun, we didn't think Bell's book would be easily adaptable and we were right. One of the pleasures of the novel is its extensive focus on the geography of the swamp, but there was no way that could fit into the film. The air of deep foreboding and mystery is also missing. For those and other reasons what you end up with is a so-so old movie made from an excellent old book. The script closely follows the source material, so if you want to know a bit more about the plot, we posted a short write-up on the novel here. Swamp Water opened across the U.S. in November 1941, but before its national debut had a special premiere in the town of Waycross, Georgia, where much of the movie was made. That was today, 1941.
Gold may fill the pockets but it can also empty the soul.
We wanted to show you a bit more work from German artist Rolf Goetze. We settled on this West German poster for the quasi-western drama The Treasure of the Sierra Madre because the film premiered in West Germany today in 1949. This is Goetze at his best. For that matter, it's Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, and John Huston at their best too. That isn't just our opinion—Walter Huston won a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance, and John Huston won both Best Director and Best Screenplay. If you're not familiar with the film, we'll just tell you it's a cautionary tale about the lust for riches, and it contains this classic and oft-mangled quote: “Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges!” More Goetze poster work to be seen here and here.
Westerners undone yet again by the inscrutable Chinee.
The Shanghai Gesture is a movie we were excited to see. It’s a Josef von Sternberg directed vehicle adapted from a John Colton play (though neutered due to Hays Code worries), with Gene Tierney starring alongside Victor Mature, Walter Huston, Ona Munson, and Phyllis Brooks. Von Sternberg makes almost fetishistic use of his main asset—the luscious Tierney—by showing her in such extreme close-up you’d almost think it’s her breath fogging the lens, rather than one of the diffusion filters mid-century filmmakers utilized to shoot their female stars. A few minutes after she appears, as she observes the decadent tableau inside a Shanghai casino, she pulls out this line: “The place smells evil, like a place where anything can happen.” We’d suggest that if a place smells evil, something already happened. Blame the nearest person. Or the dog. Anyway, when Tierney makes her observation we understand pretty quickly that it’s going to be about her, a flower of Western purity, and her headlong descent into Oriental flooziedom.
All well and good, but the filmmakers fall prey to the type of easy characterizations that the best movies of the period were learning to avoid. When you observe, for example, the mostly respectful depiction of a character like Sam in 1942’s Casablanca, it becomes difficult not to cringe at such excesses here as Ona Munson's Chinesecharacter Mother Gin Sling entering rooms to the sound of a gong, or Walter Huston’s Sir Guy Charteris—a supposed old hand in Asia—querying Mike Mazurky with, “You speakee Chinee? Cantonee? You breakee window?” Did Westerners in China back then really say things like that? We’re dying to know. Mazurky gets the last line in the film, tossing off a smug echo of one of Huston’s earlier questions, and at that moment he’s a sort of stand-in for all Shanghai, which by now we know is a place where white people meet their ruin, but still—“You speakee Chinee?” The unintentional humor of such moments undermines the believability of the entire enterprise. Then there's Munson's insta-Asian makeover. It was standard practice back then, and you know that already before going into any Asian themed movie, but it still looks bad today.
Another problem for us is that Victor Mature comes across as singularly unappealing. He’s not supposed to be a nice guy, but depriving him of any shred of charm makes it hard to believe Tierney would desire him. In any case, the script requires this and other indignities of poor Gene, and soon her fall from grace is so complete she even loses her mellifluous upper class accent and starts braying like a donkey. Yes, there’s some good here. Tierney is spellbindingly beautiful (one reason so many people
think this movie is better than it really is, we suspect). Some of the interiors are excellent, especially Mother Gin Sling’s baroque circular casino. A couple of the set pieces are striking, such as when young women are hoisted in baskets above a crowd of men clambering to buy them for their flower boats—i.e., floating brothels. And Huston is solid in his portrayal of Charteris. But all in all, The Shanghai Gesture is strictly so-so.
Incidentally, the movie is widely labeled a film noir, but it really isn’t. It can be difficult to say definitively whether a film fits into a certain category because “genre” is a nebulous concept to begin with, but we submit that this one is well off the mark, no more a noir than is The Lost Weekend, or for that matter Casablanca. If we’d known in advance it was a run-of-the-mill melodrama—yes, an exotic one, but also clunky and unengaging—we would not have mistakenly expected the cutting cynicism and visual wit that characterize so many film noirs. If you go into it expecting something more along the lines of a B-picture, then The Shanghai Gesture might entertain. But whatever you expect, don’t thinkyou're going to see von Sternberg or Tierney doing their best work. At top you see the original American promo poster, and below that some production photos. The Shanghai Gesture premiered in New York City on Christmas 1941, and went into national release today in 1942.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
The newspaper Pravda is founded by Leon Trotsky, Adolph Joffe, Matvey Skobelev and other Russian exiles living in Vienna. The name means "truth" and the paper serves as an official organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party between 1912 and 1991.
1957—Ferlinghetti Wins Obscenity Case
An obscenity trial brought against Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of the counterculture City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, reaches its conclusion when Judge Clayton Horn rules that Allen Ginsberg's poetry collection Howl is not obscene.
After a long trial watched by millions of people worldwide, former football star O.J. Simpson is acquitted of the murders of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. Simpson subsequently loses a civil suit and is ordered to pay millions in damages.
1919—Wilson Suffers Stroke
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson suffers a massive stroke, leaving him partially paralyzed. He is confined to bed for weeks, but eventually resumes his duties, though his participation is little more than perfunctory. Wilson remains disabled throughout the remainder of his term in office, and the rest of his life.
1968—Massacre in Mexico
Ten days before the opening of the 1968 Summer Olympics
in Mexico City, a peaceful student demonstration ends in the Tlatelolco Massacre. 200 to 300 students are gunned down, and to this day there is no consensus about how or why the shooting began.
1910—Los Angeles Times Bombed
A massive dynamite bomb destroys the Los Angeles Times building in downtown Los Angeles, California, killing 21 people. Police arrest James B. McNamara and his brother John J. McNamara. Though the brothers are represented by the era's most famous lawyer, Clarence Darrow, of Scopes Monkey Trial fame, they eventually plead guilty. James is convicted and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. His brother John is convicted of a separate bombing of the Llewellyn Iron Works and also sent to prison.
1975—Ali Defeats Frazier in Manila
In the Philippines, an epic heavyweight boxing match known as the Thrilla in Manila takes place between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. It is the third, final and most brutal match between the two, and Ali wins by TKO in the fourteenth round.
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