Categories
Action/Adventure Drama Romance

To Have and Have Not

Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a good example of how recycling characters and plot from a wildly popular movie can led to tedious viewing. An infinitely more successful effort to rip-off a prior cinema classic is Howard Hawk’s To Have and Have Not.

Perhaps the greatest film ever produced via the old Hollywood studio system — Casablanca — was still playing in a few theaters when production began on To Have and Have Not. Although putatively based on a Hemingway novel, To Have and Have Not recycles Casablanca’s characters, plot, style and indeed some of its cast to tremendous effect. In the Ingrid Bergman role of a resourceful, beautiful woman with a past, the incomparable Lauren Bacall became an instant star as well as Bogart’s real-life bride.

The plot: Humphrey Bogart again plays an outwardly cynical man of the world who doesn’t want to get involved in World War II intrigue, despite the pleas of the idealists around him. But the better angels of his nature and an alluring stranger (Bacall) pull him into the fight on behalf of the Free French versus the hateful, corrupt Vichy regime that oversees the Island of Martinique. Nearly peerless entertainment ensues.

The movie has exciting moments of high tension as well as some laughs, but what positively sizzles here is the interaction between “Bogie and Baby”, who were soon to become an enduring Hollywood power couple beloved by millions. May-December romance in the movies can be unrealistic and even downright gross, but here it’s so deeply felt that it works. The two stars were in each other’s thrall, which puts spark and wit into their scenes together. Some immortal lines in the script (“You know how to whistle don’t you?”) enliven their exchanges, which is a credit to Jules Furthman and William Faulkner (Since the average Faulkner sentence runs about 50 pages, I lean towards crediting Furthman with the best one-liners).

The film also features one of Walter Brennan’s many memorable supporting actor turns, this time as Bogie’s alcoholic friend Eddie (See Carl Rollyson’s thoughtful take on Eddie here). Also on hand is the appealing actor-musician Hoagy Carmichael (for another fine Hoagy performance see my recommendation of Canyon Passage). He’s well-cast as the piano player at Rick’s Cafe, um, I mean, Frenchy’s bar. In one of the movie’s highlights, Hoagy and his band back up Bacall as she gives a sultry rendition of his song “How Little We Know”. The studio has originally planned to dub her, but she pulled off the musical number on her own.

I first saw To Have and Have Not as a teenager, and immediately fell in love with Lauren Bacall. I suppose it may reflect a lack of emotional development on my part that I am still just as enchanted by her four decades later…but what can you do?.

p.s. The film might have been the only high point in Lauren Bacall’s career if not for some luck and favorable Hollywood politics surrounding The Big Sleep.

Categories
Action/Adventure Drama Romance

Canyon Passage

Image result for canyon passage 1946

Between making bettered remembered films, Dana Andrews starred in an underappreciated 1946 frontier yarn made in glorious Technicolor by an extraordinarily unlikely director: Black and white film noir master Jacques Tourneur! The result is an entertaining, highly original (if blandly titled) Western: Canyon Passage.

The plot, set in mid-19th century Oregon, is not easy to summarize, which turns out to be one of the film’s virtues. Throughout there is a movie-length story thread concerning whether brave, restless entrepreneur Logan Stuart (Andrews) will marry a sweet, stay-at-home woman (Patricia Roc) or end up with the sassy, adventurous flame-haired beauty the audience knows is made for him (Susan Hayward) if only she were not engaged to his friend (Brian Donlevy). But there is much more to the film than that. It’s a slice of frontier life, told through different lenses. Indeed, the film’s highlight is an extended sequence of slight relevance to the love triangle storyline in which the pioneers raise a cabin for a newly married couple. The panoramic tale also includes subplots about the cruelty of “justice” in towns where no police or courts exist, the workings and risks of gold mining-based economic systems and how boredom leads small town dwellers to seek out destructive entertainments (e.g., egging on fistfights, engaging in compulsive gambling). Some critics found Canyon Passage too “plotty” but if you step back from the details and see it more as the story of a entire frontier community, it’s unified and not a bit overstuffed.

That style of storytelling is one sign that Tourneur clearly didn’t want to make a typical Western. Another is that the first closeup doesn’t occur until 15 minutes into the movie! Throughout the film, Tourneur keeps the camera at a distance from his stars (thereby driving producer Walter Wanger batty), which makes the audience think about the many characters in the town as a whole rather than just seeing them as background for the leads.

What makes Andrews’ commanding performance so enjoyable is the way he plays off three other talented actors. His flirty, forbidden jousting with Hayward has palpable electricity, his dedication to his flawed friend Donlevy is both inspiring and sad, and his conflict with a vicious local bully (Ward Bond) is gripping. Bond was a physical powerhouse, and his brutal character here is what Jud Fry would have been in Oklahoma! if he had regularly consumed steroids. The physical confrontation between Andrews and Bond, one of the film’s highlights, left both men bruised and in need of stitches (that’s an juicy detail in the engaging Carl Rollyson biography about Andrews that I recommended here). Other fine performances in the film are turned in by Andy Devine, Halliwell Hobbes and a then-unknown Lloyd Bridges. When such a large cast is uniformly good, you should credit the director, so hats off to Tourneur for his skill.

Whether you find this film to be outstanding or just pretty good may well turn on whether you are a fan of Hoagy Carmichael, who had an enormously successful and unique multi-decade career in Hollywood. He is primarily remembered for his music, but also acted in some movies in the 1940s and early 1950s including in the Andrews-anchored classic The Best Years of Our Lives (my favorite Carmichael role in is one of my recommendations, To Have and Have Not). Here he plays (what else?) a musically inclined shopkeeper and performs several original songs which he wrote for the movie, including Ole Buttermilk Sky and Silver Saddle. I think his music is pleasing in any event and also fits the movie particularly well, but see what you think.