Thursday, February 18, 2010

1941: Sergeant York (Howard Hawks)

1941: Sergeant York (Howard Hawks)
I love Howard Hawks, and almost all of his films I've seen.  He manages to be insightful and human and entertaining and fun all at the same time (in many ways, what I see as the very definition of Classical Hollywood).

In general, I would never call Hawks' formal approach gritty, raw, or naturalistic.  It's something slightly more glossy with a little artifice here and there.  In other words, films shot indoors with excellent production design that makes you forget you're not watching the real thing.  

But I've always felt differently about this one.  When I first saw Sergeant York, it caught me off guard.  I'm not sure the locations are any many more real than in Hawks' previous work, but there's a certain realism on display here that feels new and different for him.  Obviously a large part (maybe the only part) has to do with the fact that this is based on a true story.  If that's the case, that's fine.  Whatever the case may be though, this bio film (along with a Walsh entry that I'll discuss in my 1942 post) feels more real, more true, closer to life than any bio film I've ever seen.  

Other contenders for 1941: This year seems to be unusually rich.  I have several major gaps, but also several films that would be close runners-up.  The major films I haven't seen are:  Frank Capra's Meet John Doe, John Ford's How Green Was My Valley, HC Potter's Hellzapoppin', William Dieterle's All That Money Can Buy, Fritz Lang's Man Hunt, Jean Renoir's Swamp Water, Howard Hawks' Ball of Fire, Kenji Mizoguchi's The 47 Ronin, Ernst Lubitsch's That Uncertain Feeling, Michael Powell's 49th Parallel, John Ford's Tobacco Road, and Yasujiro Ozu's Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family.  I admire the hell out of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and consider it one of the most important films of all time.  But for some reason it's yet to impact me on an emotional level, personally and deeply.  I really like The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, and They Died with Their Boots On, but just slightly less than my two runners-up.  I love The Strawberry Blonde.  It captures a lost time and era in a way that feels extremely real to me (realism is one of the things I respond to most in film).  Then there's Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion.  It remains one of my favorite films from the director and probably my favorite film ever dealing with paranoia and marital suspicion (Gaslight would be up there, too.)  Finally though I gave the year to the Hawks as it grabs hold of me in a way that I've rarely experienced with any other film. 

8/22/10 I watched John Ford's How Green Was My Valley.  A Ford family epic, full of depth, some marvelous moments, and some tremendous visuals.  I wasn't carried along at all times, but once again Ford proves that he was a filmmaker of great heft with a very fluid, almost effortless style.  

8/22/10 I watched William Dieterle's All That Money Can Buy.  An interesting premise and some admirable visual touches.  But I never found myself caring quite that much or terribly engaged by it.  

8/25/10 I watched John Ford's Tobacco Road.  I must say I struggled with this film about as much as I've ever struggled with a film by a master.  It all felt very broad and the comedy never really worked for me. Ford seemed pretty out of his element to me, and this film is as much a testament as any that it's impossible to make a good film every time out, even for someone like John Ford.

8/26/10 I watched Michael Powell's 49th Parallel.  A propaganda piece certainly, as attacking and venomous as anything I've ever seen made during a wartime.  Powell shows a tremendous feel for nature and an incredible ability to traverse tone.  He also does violence in an unusally direct and hard-hitting way.  There's a certain modernism on display here.  And even though at times, I felt like Powell could have tightened this thing up a bit, it's still an impressive work.  

8/27/10 I watched Fritz Lang's Man Hunt.  Propaganda but a pretty personal piece for Lang, too.  Full of some magnificent moments, particularly the opening sequence.  And Pidgeon has a great role.  All in all, pretty strong, with the exception of the romance, which really didn't work for me.  

8/27/10 I watched Frank Capra's Meet John Doe.  This one felt even more farfetched to me than some of the other Capra I've seen.  It had a few nice underdog moments.  But mostly I found it a little tedious and heavy-handed.  

8/28/10 I watched Howard Hawks' Ball of Fire.  It's one of his films with a pretty major reputation, but I must admit it overwhelmed me a little less than much of his other work.  I just never cared that much about the story, and it all felt more screwy than depthful, important, or even that much fun.  

1/17/11 I watched Alexander Korda's That Hamilton Woman.  Leigh is quite appealing, and the film at its best moments reminds me a little of Letter from an Unknown Woman.  Unfortunately though it often feels overly melodramatic, and Olivier feels a little less powerful than in his most memorable roles. 

1/14/12 I watched Alfred Hitchcock's Mr. & Mrs. Smith.  It's of interest to see Hitch working in such different territory for him.  And Lombard is extraordinary.  But Montgomery is no Cary Grant, and the whole romantic comedy just feels like sub-par His Girl Friday or The Awful Truth.

11/22/12 I watched Michael Curtiz's The Sea Wolf.  A great, atmospheric first five or ten minutes followed by a pretty engaging nautical drama.  The movie features an unusually sexy Lupino and some memorable moments by both Garfield and Edward G Robinson.

1/12/13 I watched Raoul Walsh's Manpower.  An unusual Walsh outing full of more artifice than I typically expect to see or feel from one of the director's films.  Yet Walsh still gives it power, mostly stemming from the emotions bubbling up around the Robinson, Raft, and Dietrich triangle.  The theme of unrequited love is clearly dear to Walsh as it shows up in another of his films from '41, the extraordinary The Strawberry Blonde.

9/20/14 I watched Ernst Lubitsch's That Uncertain Feeling.  Merle Oberon was a bit of a revelation to me.  I am not sure how often I have seen her before but she is quite beautiful and fitting for the role in what is a mildly entertaining Lubitsch.  It creaks along at times and Meredith seems a strange choice for the role of threatening male to the Baker marriage.  

10/26/14 I watched Josef von Sternberg's The Shanghai Gesture.  It certainly maintains von Sternberg's reputation as one of cinema's masters of ambient art.  And it is of interest as being somewhat of a precursor to Chinatown and the noir sensibility in general.  The plot though and much of the vitality seem to be lost and it is much more interesting than affecting.

1/1/16 I watched Jean Gremillon's Stormy Waters.  The first film by Gremillon that I have seen and though I did not fall for it entirely it reminded me of a Hawks film from this era coupled with some of Prevert's sensibility from his work with Carne.  It has this interesting variation on the noir theme of the criminal's last job.  But instead of the final job going awry, it is an affair that puts everything and everyone into a tailspin.     

12/16/17 I rewatched Raoul Walsh's Manpower.  Interesting that I had seen it before as I don't remember watching it at all.  It is okay but nowhere near the very best of his work.

1/15/18 I watched Edward F. Cline's Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.  There is some really fun stuff like Fields' Sqwuigilum.  I just wish he didn't find so much fun in ending his films with long, chaotic car sequences.

1/5/20 I watched Yasujiro Ozu's Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family.  The first full-blown Ozu sound masterpiece.

5/14/22 I watched Gregory La Cava's Unfinished Business.  A film that on the surface impresses by never going where you expect it.  In the way it feels like a romantic comedy dressed up like a drama, it reminded me of Cukor's Holiday.  La Cava puts it all together with great restraint and confidence and I can't ever recall liking Montgomery more than his performance here.  


  1. I like this film, too, though I wouldn't rank it among my favorite Hawks, largely because it's so distinct from much of his other work. I'm surprised to hear you say the film feels more "real" than most Hawks, though: if anything it seems like one of his most artificial films, with all that back-country hokum and stylized depictions of folksy rural types. Very artificial, very set-bound, very far from the dirty, dusty reality of real farming life. The battle sequences towards the end are another story, of course, and maybe that's more what you have in mind. Those have a grittiness and looseness that I associate with the "process" interludes (often shot by Robert Rossen) in some of Hawks' earlier films: the fishing in Tiger Shark, the logging in Come and Get It, the racetrack footage in The Crowd Roars. When Hawks wants to document men at work, men doing their dirty, dangerous jobs, he does often want that kind of gritty realism, and often gets it by farming the task out to semi-documentary second units. In fact, if I remember correctly, many of the war scenes in this film were shot by a second unit as well.

    Anyway, for this year I might pick Sullivan's Travels or Ball of Fire (by far Hawks' better film from this year!).

  2. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Howard Hawks... among my favorite 3-4 directors of all time but I too have never been a huge fan of Sergeant York, at least not in comparisons to his other masterpieces. It is a very good film, don't get me wrong, and I don't think it's at all strange to see it chosen as #1 in this year, he just has a number of other movies that I like more - but we'll get to those in the coming years int his countdown!

    In my own countdown, I went with Citizen Kane which is an obvious selection. I still love it. But since I made that pick, I've become a huge Preston Sturges fan. He was the best comedy writer in Hollywood of this era, in my opinion, and he released two gems in '41. I definitely prefer THE LADY EVE of the two (although Sullivan's Travels is also outstanding) and would pick that as my #1 for the year. The witty sophistication of Sturges' scripts was never done better than here and Stanwyck and Fonda are both great.

    This is another all around excellent year. Here is a top 5 for the year for me:

    1. The Lady Eve (Sturges)
    2. Citizen Kane (Welles)
    3. The Maltese Falcon (Huston)
    4. Sullivan's Travels (Sturges)
    5. The Little Foxes (Wyler)

    I have a number of movies from this year still waiting to be watched - notably The Devil and Daniel Webster and 49th Parallel.

  3. "Sergeant York" is pretty awesome, but I also think it's a prime remake candidate. The story is amazing, but I always felt the execution of that movie was too limited to the resources and styles of that era's filmmaking.

  4. Ed, thanks so much for your great comments! I know that you're a real Hawks aficionado so it's helpful to hear from you. I don't disagree with your comments below:

    "I'm surprised to hear you say the film feels more "real" than most Hawks, though: if anything it seems like one of his most artificial films, with all that back-country hokum and stylized depictions of folksy rural types. Very artificial, very set-bound, very far from the dirty, dusty reality of real farming life."

    I'm not sure I articulated my thoughts as well as I'd like. Let's see if this is slightly better.

    What I'm trying to say is that usually in these bio films (biopics), we only see the key moments from someone's life. We end up with such a "global view", devoid of small moments, that I feel like I don't even know the person when the film is over. Here though (and with Walsh's GENTLEMAN JIM) I feel differently. Hawks really takes his time showing us York so that by film's end he feels totally real and lived-in. And I accept that he's somewhat close to the person he was in real life, whether or not that's even the case.

    It's this feeling, more than anything else, that I really appreciate in SERGEANT YORK.

  5. I see what you're saying now, Jeffrey, and I would agree with that. One of the things I like about the film is how patient it is, how much time it takes building up to the York-at-war sequence that is really the film's whole raison d'etre. There aren't many biopics that spend so much time on a person's mundane life before they experience their claim to fame.

  6. Dave, I completely agree with you on Sturges! There's an energy to his work and writing that seems pretty unparalleled at the time.

    I'm glad to hear that you also like YORK. It's one of those picks on my countdown that seems to have a little less support than most of the others, and I was happy to add it to the conversation.

    Just to clarify for everyone else (I know you know), Dieterle's ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY that I mention in my post and THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER are the same film, just alternate titles.

    Thanks, as always, for the wonderful comments, Dave!

  7. Cribbster, that's a great comment! It would be interesting to see as a remake. But, to be done right, it would certainly have to be a pretty expensive film.

  8. Ed, that's very well put, and exactly what I was getting at in my post. I particularly like your use of "patient" and "mundane". I think those are both important words to keep in mind when discussing YORK.

  9. I'm afraid that SERGEANT YORK is not a film that I'd consider for my list here, though I think it's fair enough. My relative indifference can certainly be comparable to those expressed by Dave and cribbster on this thread, though I have always enjoyed Walter Brennan's supporing performance. There is Capra-like charm here, but it's all too pat. Still, who's to argue with your selection of ANY Hawks film, and this film is certainly revered by many, understandable so. For me the Hawks masterpiece of this year is BALL OF FIRE.

    CITIZEN KANE is one of the greatest films of all-time. The essence of the film lies in its story, comparable to a great novel, and in its often expressionistic style. It studies Kane from every aspect, accentuating his egotism and his loneliness. Welles, who had some of Kane's personal qualities of course was an overpowering presence, even in the company of Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead and Everett Sloane among others). Some unforgettable scenes include Kane's childhood in a landscape of snow and a family boardinghouse run by his mother; Kane's election rallies under his gigantic picture; the crane shot at the opera house, the shots showing the emptiness of Xanadu in the specious rooms, and the opening March of Dimes styled newreel. Mankiewitz's script is one of the greatest penned in history, and the film has defined the cinematic language, exerting enormous international influence that has rightly held teh critical establishment in its thrall for decades. (Sight and Sound has voted it the greatest film of all-time in their decades pollings beginning in 1952 and continuing in 1962, 1972, 1982, 1992, and 2002.) I was and always have been as emotionally engaged with this film, as any other, and I am esentially a deciple of humanist cinema.

    John Ford's lyrical HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, based on Richard llewelyn's celebrated novel is also a masterwork as is William Dieterle's ALL THAT MONEY CAN BY, Preston Sturges's SULLIVANS TRAVELS, and John Huston's THE MALTESE FALCON as well as Mr. Sturges's THE LADY EVE.

    My #1 Film of 1941:

    Citizen Kane (Welles)


    How Green Was My Valley (Ford)
    All That Money Can Buy (Dieterle)
    Sullivans Travels (Sturges)
    The Maltese Falcon (Huston)
    Ball of Fire (Hawks)
    The Lady Eve (Sturges)
    The 47 Ronin (Mizoguchi)
    Love on the Dole (Baxter)
    Hellzapopin (Potter)
    The Little Foxes (Wyler)
    Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (Ozu)

  10. I can't comment on the Hawks discussion...but as for my favorites from this year, I consider CITIZEN KANE, ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY, and SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS to be perfect films and I'd watch any of them at a moments notice. I just love all three (KANE probably gets the nod as the best, as I'm a formalism wonk and I love what Welles does there).

    THE LADY EVE and SUSPICION I'd also watch just about any time, but I put them a slight notch below the others.

  11. Formalism wonk, I like that! We're all in the same pocket here. I obviously recommend the Hawks, would be curious to see how it strikes you.

    Thanks for the great comments, Troy!

  12. Jeffrey, I am not sure what has happened, but I just wanted to verify that I did leave a lengthy comment to this post earlier today. It appears to have been lost. Great thread here.

  13. Sam, first off I'm so sorry about the exclusion earlier! I have a "comments moderator" on the blog and usually it sends me an e-mail each time I need to moderate a new comment. For some reason though, I didn't receive that e-mail this time around. However, I did find the comment and have posted it, as well as your last one. Once again, please accept my apology for this!

    I will continue to re-visit CITIZEN KANE and am confident at some point that it will grab me, like it has so many others. Unfortunately, it just hasn't happened quite yet, whereas AMBERSONS, OTHELLO, even TOUCH OF EVIL have had that effect on me.

    Some of your others I need to track down and plan to very soon. The only one I've seen that I haven't fully connected with it is THE MALTESE FALCON. For some reason, it's never impacted me in the same way that some other noirs have.

    I hear your comment on SERGEANT YORK. It seems that others struggle with it for similar reasons. Who knows why, but whereas I can't connect with some Capra for this very reason, I can go there with Hawks on this one? Ah, the paradox that is being a cinephile, and human, I guess!

    Thanks again, Sam! As always, your perpective is invaluable!

  14. Jeffrey,

    While I love Hawks work, this is one of my least favorite films of his. I know I am probably in the minority here but I could never warm up to the York character. I could never get passed the artificiality of it all, the script, the sets and Cooper’s performance. I understand from what you wrote what you like about the film and that is a fair statement..

    “Citizen Kane’ would be my own choice for #1. Visually, the film is just stunning though that is only one aspect of it greatness. Also from 1941, Sturges “Sullivan’s Travel” and “The Lady Eve”, brilliant writing and some great performances especially by Stanwyck in the latter. Other favorites from the year include “The Maltese Falcon”, “High Sierra”, “Suspicion”, “Meet John Doe” and going almost full circle back to Hawks with “Ball of Fire” with another great performance by Stanwyck and excellent script from Wilder and Brackett

    You mention “They Died With Their Boots On”, what a terrific action film, totally bogus historically, but hey read a book if you want history, watch the movie if you want to have a good time. A terrific film.
    Lang’s “Man Hunt” is a good film but not in the same class as others being discussed

    Films like “How Green Was My Valley”, “Hellzapppin” and “The Strawberry Blonde”, I have not seen in many years and need to watch again before I can comment.

    Like you, I have holes in my viewing among them “The Devil and Daniel Webster”, “Swamp Water”, “49th Parallel” and “All That Money Can Buy” still need to be caught up with.

  15. John, thanks so much for your comments! Actually, it seems like you're in the majority, and I'm in the minority on this one.

    I'm glad to hear that you like THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON. It's one of these Walsh films that I like, but I'm never quite sure how it affects anyone else.

    Just so you know (I didn't know before either), THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER and ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY are the same film, just alternate titles.

    Thanks, John. Always great to hear from you!

  16. Ha, that makes one less film to add to the list. I have heard about this film (Daniel Webster) from some other bloggers (R.D. over at The Movie Projector) and have been meaning to watch. God knows TCM plays it often.

  17. Yeah, I know, it seems like some movies TCM plays every other day. :)

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