Elia Kazan’s “Splendor in the Grass” hit me hard when I was a young teen

 

It’s been several months since posting a review of one of Elia Kazan’s films, so it’s time to get back on track with the director’s fifteenth and last profitable project.

Splendor in the Grass
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Pat Hingle, and Audrey Christie
Warner Bros., 1961, 124 minutes

After the dismal commercial failures of his three previous films (the so-called “Southern Trilogy”), Kazan turned to popular playwright, William Inge, for a box-office-friendly teenage melodrama.

Plot

Arthur “Bud” Stamper (Beatty) and Wilma Dean “Deanie” Loomis (Wood) are king and queen of their high school in 1928 Kansas and madly in love. Bud is from a wealthy family and the top jock on campus (although not a gifted student), while Deanie is from a much more modest background, but is one of the school’s most attractive and popular girls. Together, they’re an ideal couple, but must increasingly battle the temptation to become more intimate. Deanie’s materialistic mother (Christie) counsels her daughter to remain chaste because Bud is the “catch of a lifetime” and he surely wouldn’t marry a “bad girl.” In the meantime, Bud tells his Type-A-on-steroids father, Ace Stamper (Hingle), that he can no longer fight lustful temptations, so he’s determined to marry Deanie immediately after graduation and run the family ranch, but the small town oil baron insists that academically-challenged Bud go to Yale in order prepare himself to take the oil business to the next level. Bud’s scandalously immoral older sister, Ginny (Barbara Loden), has brought shame to the Stamper name and Ace hopes Bud can redeem the family’s reputation.

Recognizing that he can no longer control himself, Bud cools the relationship with “good girl,” Deanie, but lets off some steam with Juanita (Jan Norris), the school “floozy,” thereby humiliating Deanie, and sending her into an emotional breakdown. Somewhat recovered and desperate to win back her boyfriend, she forces herself on Bud, but he rejects her uncharacteristic advances. Deanie becomes so distraught, she attempts suicide. As Deanie teeters on the verge of a complete mental collapse, her doctor advises an anxious Bud to end all contact for her health’s sake.

Bud goes to Yale, but his heart isn’t in it and he’s failing all of his subjects. An Italian waitress, Angelina (Zohra Lampert), befriends him in his lovesick misery. His father visits Yale in an attempt to rally Bud, but ends up jumping from a New York City skyscraper when the stock market crash of 1929 totally destroys his business. In the meantime, Deanie is sent to a sanitarium to recover her mental and emotional stability. There, she befriends a male patient and a lukewarm romance blooms. When Deanie is released after a long, thirty-month stay, she returns home, and immediately asks to see Bud to determine if there’s any spark left in their relationship. She visits Bud on his struggling ranch and learns he’s married to Angelina, with one infant child and another on the way. Disappointed but not broken, Deanie stoically commits to going forward with her life, finding “strength in what remains behind.”

Commentary

“Splendor” resonated with audiences across the country. Inge won an Oscar for his screenplay (Kazan had a large amount of input) while Wood was nominated for her performance. This was Beatty’s film debut, another notable “find” for Kazan. Hingle’s full-throttle performance is quite memorable but skirts with being “over the top.” Most of the movie was shot around New York City.

I first watched “Splendor” when I was in my early teens and was floored by the unorthodox conclusion (the attached video captures the final 3.5 minutes). Kazan stated in later interviews that the last reel was his favorite of all of his films. It certainly wasn’t a stereotypical Hollywood ending. Two characters in love are supposed to live “happily ever after,” but real life is never so orderly, which is why “Splendor” struck a chord. I remember being quite smitten with the lovely and vulnerable Deanie character, probably like many of the film’s teenage male viewers. The startling uniqueness of this film launched my decades-long study of its director.

The two DVD’s of “Splendor in the Grass” released by Warner Brothers unfortunately provide no commentary or remarkable bonus features.

Trivia alert: Screenwriter, Bill Inge, has a small role as a Protestant minister saddened by the spiritual emptiness of his church’s biggest contributor, Ace Stamper.

Additional thoughts from a Christian believer

Kazan was a Marxist atheist who rebelled against religious and societal norms of morality. Perhaps more than any of his previous films, Kazan used “Splendor” to attack “middle-class materialism” and “puritanical morality.” Antagonists Ace Stamper and Mrs. Loomis are presented as the duplicitous enemies of the pure love of their children. Bud and Deanie struggle to adhere to their parents’ hypocritical moral code, ultimately destroying their love.

“Splendor” was somewhat revolutionary in its day for its exploration of teenage sexuality, but by today’s standards it hardly raises an eyebrow. It’s interesting to note that Leftist crusader, Kazan, carried on an affair with Loden throughout the filming of “Splendor,” returning to his wife and children each evening at his comfortable estate in the tony suburb of Newtown, Connecticut. Hypocrisy?

Christians understand we cannot satisfy the ultimate moral code, the Ten Commandments. But God the Father sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to pay the penalty for our sins on the cross. He conquered sin and death and offers eternal life and fellowship with God to all those who accept Him as Savior by faith alone. As Christians, we attempt to follow the Lord in obedience, albeit imperfectly. As a teenager, I struggled with sexual temptation. Those hormones were firing like a well-tuned 350 V-8 engine. It’s a common experience, right? These days, teens are experiencing even greater pressure to give in to temptation at an even earlier age. The Lord gave us guidelines for a reason. To protect our physical and emotional well being and the well being of others. Rampant premarital and extramarital sexuality have led to all kinds of individual and social problems. Perhaps the church would have done better to present sexuality positively, as a natural and wonderful gift of God for married couples, rather than negatively, as something dirty and not to be spoken of. After all, The Song of Solomon is in the Bible. But a person must accept Christ as Savior before they can follow Him in obedience.

Natalie Wood left her then-husband, Robert Wagner, for co-star Beatty during the filming of “Splendor,” much to the delight of Kazan, who sought emotional reality from his actors. Wood would reunite with Wagner in 1972. She died under suspicious circumstances in 1981 while on an excursion on the Wagners’ boat, the ironically-named “Splendour.” William Inge committed suicide in 1973. Beatty would go on to achieve fame mainly as Hollywood’s celebrated #1 Lothario. But now they castigate Harvey Weinstein?

After watching “Splendor,” I can remember scrambling to the library to read William Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality” (1804), with the famous passage cited in the film:

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.

Scholars still debate whether Wordsworth (1770-1850) was a Christian. Most of his earlier poetry glorifies nature as a semi-deific force. Later poems displayed a much more orthodox Christian view. In his “Ode,” the poet admonished his readers to move forward with their lives rather than dwell in the past.

God’s Word has much to say about looking back. Believers are to focus on Christ and Christian service and not look back at the world’s temptations with desire.

“Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” – Philippians 3:13

See here for more Bible verses about looking forward in Christ.

SPLEN

SPLEND
Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood aboard the “Splendour”
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“Calvinist” due out October 2nd

The independent fundamental Baptist church that my wife and I attended after we accepted Christ in the early 80s was like a lot of other IFB churches back then when it came to the Arminian-Calvin, free will vs. predestination debate. Our pastor leaned heavily toward free will, but also preached the eternal security of the believer. I can remember him getting behind the pulpit and deriding the Reformed movement’s TULIP acronym like it was straight from the pit of hell.

After returning to the Lord following a loooong prodigal season, the last two churches we’ve attended have been Reformed Baptist, although the pastors didn’t/don’t really push the doctrine of election very hard that I’ve heard. I appreciate the Reformed movement’s emphasis on the Lord’s grace and forgiveness compared to the Arminian movement’s heavier emphasis on works and guilt (even with the possibility of losing salvation in some circles). So I’m somewhere in the middle of the Arminian-Calvin debate and firmly committed to non-commitment unless the Lord shows me otherwise.

The other evening, I was scanning through the news and I came across the interesting web sites below. A new documentary, “Calvinist,” from director, Les Lanphere, is being released on October 2nd. The film documents how Calvinism is enjoying increasing interest among young evangelicals. Featured are some notable brothers whom I’ve often quoted in past posts including R.C. Sproul, Paul Washer, Ligon Duncan, Kevin DeYoung, James White, Tim Challies, Steven Lawson, and Michael Horton.

As I said, I’m somewhere in the middle of the Arminian-Calvin debate, but I do have a fondness for my conservative Reformed brethren and sistren, especially for their bold stand against ecumenism with Rome, something increasingly hard to find these days within evangelicalism.

“Calvinist” Explores An Old Theology Overtaking Young Christians

“Calvinist” official website

So, are we soon going to see a rebuttal documentary from the Wesleyans, Pentecostals, and Free Will Baptists titled, “Arminian”? 😁 Why is this committed Arminian-Calvinist advertising a movie promoting Calvinism? Hey, I wanted to give a heads-up to my Reformed friends and I want to eventually see it as well. The documentary isn’t available from Amazon yet, so you’ll have to order it from the official website.

Please, my Arminian brothers and sisters, no hate mail!

“Bullitt” and when Steve McQueen, the “king of cool,” was coolest

Bullitt
Directed by Peter Yates and featuring Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, and Jacqueline Bisset.
Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, 1968, 113 minutes

I threatened to watch and review “Bullitt” and I’m a man of my word (sometimes). After reading Greg Laurie’s biography of actor Steve McQueen a couple of months ago (see here), I purchased perhaps his most famous film, “Bullitt,” on Blu-ray and I finally got around to watching it.

Plot

Mobster stool pigeon, Johnny Ross, is sequestered in a flee-bitten San Francisco hotel by ambitious politician, Senator Walter Chalmers (Vaughn), in preparation for his testimony before a crime committee. Police lieutenant, Frank Bullitt (McQueen), and his unit are assigned to guard him, but mob hit men manage to find Ross and shoot him. He dies in a hospital before the goons can finish the job. Bullitt sniffs around town for clues and then follows a menacing, 1968 Dodge Charger that’s been tailing him, leading to a seat-of-the-pants car chase through the famously hilly streets of the city, but the thugs die in a fiery crash. Bullitt then discovers the man he was protecting wasn’t actually Ross, but was a stand-in double. The real Ross is headed to the airport and a Pan Am jet bound for London. Bullitt gives chase across the runway tarmacs, corners Ross inside the airport terminal, and administers Bullitt-style justice. Was there ever any doubt?

Commentary

Steve McQueen is as cool as it gets in this movie. His clothes are cool. His haircut is cool. He doesn’t speak a lot of dialogue because he doesn’t have to, his cool looks say it all. To make things even cooler, there’s Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy score playing in the background and of course there’s Bullitt’s stunning girlfriend, Cathy (Bisset), always at his side whenever he’s not chasing down killers. The icing on the cake is Bullitt’s ultra-cool, Dark Highland Green, 1968 Ford Mustang GT 390 2+2 Fastback. Wowza! Are you kidding me?!?!?! Watching the car chase scene with McQueen pushing the Mustang to its mechanical limits was amazing. I had heard about “Bullitt” and its famous 10-minute car chase scene for decades, but I had never seen the film until now. The plot is notorious for being a bit discombobulated and doesn’t disappoint in that regard. A viewer will need to read a plot summary at Wikipedia or IMDB immediately after seeing the film in order to tie up all the dangling loose ends. Irregardless, this movie is a remarkable action flick and still holds up very well fifty years later. McQueen is the king of cool from start to finish. Robert Vaughn is outstanding as the slimy politician.

Additional thoughts from a believer

When “Bullitt” premiered on October 17, 1968, Steve McQueen was the most popular movie star in the world. After a difficult childhood and a stint in the Marines, McQueen had ascended to the top of his profession and had it all; family, money, fame, and the ability to pursue whatever he wanted, including plenty of cars, drugs, and women. A lot of men wished they could be Steve McQueen for just one day. But even with all of that worldly success, McQueen was unsatisfied and spiritually empty. There had to be more to life than fame and material success.

In his never-ending pursuit of the next thrill, McQueen signed up for flying lessons. His instructor just happened to be a born-again Christian who wasn’t timid about reading his Bible in public. McQueen’s curiosity led to conversation, which eventually led to McQueen accepting Jesus Christ as his Savior at Ventura Missionary Church in 1979. Six months later, the actor learned he had an aggressive form of cancer and died at the end of 1980 at the age of 50. Steve McQueen accepting Jesus Christ as Savior by faith alone; now that’s REALLY cool!!!

Film about Steve McQueen symbolizes Gospel compromise

A short time ago, I reviewed Greg Laurie’s book about actor Steve McQueen’s conversion to Jesus Christ. See here.

I usually catch the last five minutes of Laurie’s radio show every morning as I’m driving into work and lately he’s been pumping the movie follow-up to the book. “Steve McQueen: American Icon” will be playing in selected theaters across the country on Thursday, September 28th only. This is an evangelism tool with Laurie giving an invitation to accept Christ at the end of the film. See the official website here.

I enjoyed Laurie’s book about McQueen and I was even contemplating going to the theater to see the movie. But as one of his pitch points, Laurie mentioned that actor/director/producer, Mel Gibson, is interviewed during the film. Mel Gibson? Again? Laurie featured Gibson on his last TBN-televised Harvest crusade and there’s a quote

GLMG
Laurie and Tridentine Catholc, Gibson, kibitzing for the audience at a Harvest crusade

from Gibson recommending “Steve McQueen: The Salvation of an American Icon” on the book’s dust jacket. But Mel Gibson is an ultra-traditionalist, “Tridentine” Roman Catholic, meaning he believes in salvation by sacramental grace and merit and he also believes the last six popes were imposters because of the changes adopted by the church at the Second Vatican Council. Mel Gibson is certainly not a supporter of the Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ ALONE. So why has he been rubbing shoulders with Laurie so much? Gibson might be a sedevacantist, but he’s also a busine$$man. Evangelicals strongly supported his film, “The Passion of the Christ” (2004), and Gibson is pragmatically counting on their support for the sequel, “Resurrection,” which is slated for release in 2019.

Greg Laurie, a TBN regular, does preach the Gospel of grace, but he also troublingly embraces as Christians those who promote a false gospel. A lot. Many evangelical pastors and para-church leaders do the same thing. Is it that Laurie looks the other way and compromises the Gospel for the sake of money and numbers? He’s just following in the footsteps of his hero, Billy Graham. Laurie and Gibson are using each other for their own purposes in an ungodly, symbiotic dance.

No, I won’t be attending “Steve McQueen: American Icon.” Maybe instead I’ll watch McQueen’s 1968 classic action thriller, “Bullitt,” which I bought on Blu-ray several weeks ago. At least there’s no Gospel-compromising shenanigans going on in that movie!

Martyn Lloyd-Jones and “Logic on Fire”

Logic On Fire: The Life and Legacy of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
Directed by Matthew Robinson
Media Gratiae, 2015, 102 minutes

As Christians, our focus should always be on our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Our trust should never be in the flesh. Men and women will always let us down. But every once in awhile, the Lord lifts up a servant who is so strong in their love of Jesus Christ that we praise the Lord for their example. Such a man was Welsh-English pastor, Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981).

I don’t remember exactly when the Lord introduced me to the ministry of Loyd-Jones, but I’ve enjoyed gradually learning about the doctor via a book here, an article there. He was perhaps the most notable English evangelical of the last century, although I’m sure he would have despised such a title. When many English evangelicals were dallying with ecumenism with Rome in the 1960s and 70s, Lloyd-Jones would have none of it and stood firmly on the Gospel of grace. The Lord blessed the doctor with a rapier intellect. That’s right, unbelieving friend, you needn’t check your brain at the church door. But Lloyd-Jones was also interested in seeing the Gospel permeate a person’s entire being, not just their intellect. He was a strong advocate in the Holy Spirit’s ministry in the life of a believer, not in emotionalism or showy religious experience, but in knowing the actual presence of Holy God through the Word and prayer. Hence there was both logic and fire in the preaching and ministry of the doctor.

I enjoyed this biography documentary package of Lloyd-Jones tremendously. The first DVD includes the finished documentary, “Logic On Fire: The Life and Legacy of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones,” a biography of the doctor that relies mostly on the testimonies of family members, friends, and fellow-workers in the Gospel. The first DVD also includes three deleted sequences, one of which is the “1966 Evangelical Controversy,” in my estimation one of the most important segments in the entire package. The second DVD contains over three hours of additional interviews. The third DVD contains a segment on the dangers of church-growth pragmatism from John Snyder from his “Behold Our God” study series. Also, there’s a 128-page booklet with brief biographies of the contributors and interviewees and four sermons from the doctor.

Those who are unfamiliar with the ministry of Lloyd-Jones may want to begin with some short biographies (see here for an example) rather than this mountain of information, but I know as I continue to read his books and sermons, I’ll desire to return to this documentary package every now and then.

Praise the Lord for uncompromising preachers like Charles Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones! May the Lord continue to raise up faithful proclaimers of the Gospel!

“Logic On Fire: The Life and Legacy of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones” is readily available from Amazon. See here.

 

The “king of cool,” Steve McQueen, meets the KING of kings, Jesus Christ!

Steve McQueen: The Salvation of an American Icon
By Greg Laurie with Marshall Terrill
American Icon Press, 2017, 302 pages

Okay, okay. Yes, I’m a big hypocrite! In the 5/27/17 edition of the Weekend Roundup, I posted a short criticism of Christians who make a big deal out of celebrity conversions. So why am I reviewing a book about a celebrity conversion? I usually catch the last five minutes of Greg Laurie’s radio show every day on my drive into work and as he peddled his biography of actor, Steve McQueen, daily for a couple of weeks, I found myself becoming “curiouser and curiouser.” I can’t say I was a huge fan of McQueen growing up, but I really enjoyed his portrayal of Captain Virgil Hilts in the 1963 film, “The Great Escape.” Neither am I a big fan of Greg Laurie but I’ll expound on that below.

This book traces the life of McQueen, from his very troubled childhood and young adulthood to his subsequent great success as an actor with all the “benefits” of life in the Hollywood fast lane, including wealth, fame, women, and easy access to drugs. McQueen’s popular, anti-hero persona elevated him to icon status in America as the “King of Cool” in the 1960s. Laurie writes that it was often said of the actor, “Every man wants to be like him, and every women wants to be with him.” But McQueen grew tired of the emptiness of the Tinseltown lifestyle and realized there had to be more to life than empty fame and fortune. Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the witness of several people, he eventually accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior in 1979 and died from cancer the following year.

This was a strange book to read. Laurie is clearly a HUGE fan of the “King of Cool.” It was a little bizarre reading a book written by an “evangelical” pastor that is so out-and-out…worldly. I don’t know how else to phrase it. Laurie is a Calvary Chapel pastor and periodically holds big evangelistic outreach events under his “Harvest” banner. He’s also a regular on the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) and, just like the Crouches and their associates, is quite ecumenical in his approach. Ecumenist, Billy Graham, clearly another one of Laurie’s heroes, gets a lot of positive ink in this book (he visited McQueen during his last days and presented him with his personal Bible). Controversial actor/director/producer, Mel Gibson, a Catholic ultra-traditionalist, is also warmly saluted and Laurie even identifies him as a “man of faith.” Huh? There’s also the requisite multiple quotes from ecumenical muse, C. S. Lewis.

It seems from what I read in this book that Steve McQueen genuinely accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior and I praise the Lord for that. Maybe some cool cat-wannabe or fading Baby Boomer* will pick up this book about the “King of Cool,” pondering why the 60s “icon” who appeared to “have it all” wanted to become one of those “crazy born-agains.” That was clearly Laurie’s motive in writing this book. McQueen told friends that he wanted to use his celebrity to lead others to Christ and I pray his desire comes true with this book. Unfortunately, Laurie’s ecumenical brand of big-tent “evangelicalism” is so squishy doctrinally, a devoted Catholic or other works-religionist could read about Mel Gibson being a “man of faith” and think, “I’m good.”

I don’t recommend anyone get their theology from Laurie or the rest of the TBN crowd and this book was the first and the last I’ll ever read from one of those guys. I thank the Lord for anyone who genuinely accepts Jesus Christ as Savior through a TBN-affiliated “ministry” (with God it’s possible), but I deeply hope they find a solid, Bible-preaching church immediately afterwards .

*Speaking of fading Baby Boomers, the very large print type used in this book was appreciated.

Taras Bulba – The movie

…and speaking of Polish history! Hats off to brother Wally for motivating me to dig deep into the files for this one.


Taras Bulba
Directed by J. Lee Thompson and featuring Tony Curtis, Yul Brynner, and Christine Kaufmann
United Artists, 1962, 122 minutes

“Taras Bulba” is the entertaining film adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s famous 1835 historical novella. The story is loosely based on the revolt of the Zaporozhian Cossacks against their Polish overlords, which began in the early 17th century.

Plot

The Cossacks of the Pontic-Caspian Steppes live under Polish rule but pine for their independence. Cossack leader, Taras Bulba (Brynner), desires that his sons, Andriy (Curtis) and Ostap, receive an education so he sends them to the Polish-controlled city of Kiev where Andriy falls head-over-heels for a beautiful Polish damsel (Kaufmann). The Polish nobility of Kiev don’t appreciate a Cossack peasant making overtures to one of their young ladies and the brothers are forced to flee the city.

Bulba leads a revolt against the Polish magnates, besieging the fortified city of Dubno. When Andriy realizes his love interest is behind the walls, he sneaks into the city and switches his allegiance to the Poles. With all of the city’s food gone and the population facing starvation, the Polish knights stage a last-ditch, desperate sally against the Cossack forces. Bulba confronts his disloyal son and kills him. The Cossacks occupy Dubno and Ukrainian peace and benevolence reign supreme.

Commentary

Yul Brynner is simply outstanding as the Cossack hetman (military and political governor). He was born for the part. Tony Curtis is a bit stiff as the son who turns against his father and his people for a Polish

TBM
Tony Curtis and Yul Brynner help Christine Kaufmann celebrate her 17th birthday on the set of “Taras Bulba.”

damsel. A Ukrainian Cossack with a thick Bronx accent? Ridiculous. German actress, Christine Kaufmann, plays the love interest, Polish noblewoman, Natalia Dubrov. In real life, 37-year-old Curtis divorced his wife, actress Janet Leigh, to marry his 17-year-old co-star. Oy vey!

Director J. Lee Thompson does a decent job on this film, one of those Hollywood blockbuster historical epics of the late-50’s and early 60’s. The scene where Brynner breaks into song is a bit annoying but par for the course for Hollywood films at that time. Another scene, where Curtis and a rival Cossack jump their horses over a narrow chasm in an equestrian duel, is an absolute hoot.

This movie was one of my favorites growing up in the 60’s. I wouldn’t miss it whenever it came on television. But, being Polish-American, I was a bit annoyed that the Poles were cast as the bad guys.

Like most films based on historical events, “Taras Bulba” takes some liberties. The Ukrainian conquerors enter the Polish city of Dubno at the end of the movie promising a reign of magnanimity and liberty for all. However, history records that the Zaporozhian Cossacks slaughtered 100,000 Jewish men, women, and children during the most famous of the revolts, the Chmielnicki (Ukrainian: Khmelnytsky) Uprising (1648-1654). A large number of Jews had worked as agents of the Polish magnates and were deeply resented by the Ukrainian peasantry.

For the Polish perspective on the Chmielnicki Uprising, read “With Fire and Sword” by Henryk Sienkiewicz or see the same-titled 1999 Polish film, available on DVD starring Michal Zebrowski and Izabella Scorupco.

Additional thoughts from a believer

The centuries-old conflict between Poles and Cossacks/Ukrainians was not just about ethnicity and self-determination, it was also about religion. Poles were Roman Catholic while Cossacks were Eastern Orthodox. The Cossacks resented being ruled by Romanists. But just as with the Poles, religion for the Orthodox Ukrainians meant participation in the sacraments and much ritual and ceremony. Their religion did not teach the Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

Pushing aside the little guy for the “greater good”

Wild River
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, and Jo Van Fleet
20th Century Fox, 1960, 110 minutes

Director Elia Kazan had visited the Cumberland area of Tennessee in the early 1930s as an idealistic, young communist. He admired the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which tamed the flood-prone Tennessee River while providing much-needed hydro-electric power. For many years, Kazan desired to make a film about the tensions involved in the push for the greatest common good as represented by the TVA versus the disruption of individuals’ lives caused by the project.

Plot

It’s the 1930s and the TVA is on the verge of damming the Tennessee River and flooding several river valleys. Chuck Glover (Clift), a TVA bureaucrat based in Washington, is sent down to Garthville, Tennessee with the mission of removing the last remaining holdout, eighty-year-old Ella Garth (Van Fleet), who has no intention of selling her soon-to-be-flooded river island. Her widowed granddaughter, CarolM&L (Remick), is attracted to the urbane Glover and the two quickly form a relationship. Glover persuades Ella’s Black tenant farmers to leave the island along with their families but the matriarch remains adamant. At the same time, resentment mounts among the local White citizenry towards Glover’s policy of paying Blacks the same wages as Whites to help clear trees. Carol aggressively pursues the ambivalent Glover, asking him to marry her at the very moment the rednecks arrive at her house in order to send Glover packing. He can only admire Carol’s spunky defiance of the gang of good ol’ boys and asks her to elope. A federal marshal is finally brought in to evict Ella from the island. She is provided a small house on higher ground but dies of heartbreak shortly after. On their way to Washington D.C. via airplane, Glover, Carol, and her two children view the river and the only portion of Garth Island still above water; the family cemetery containing Ella’s fresh grave. Glover admired Ella for her foolhardy stubbornness but she stood in the way of “progress” and had to be sacrificed.

Commentary

Kazan filmed “Wild River” on location in the towns of Charleston and Cleveland, Tennessee. Close to one-hundred locals were used as extras. Emotionally crippled Monty Clift barely held it together throughout the filming. Kazan’s accounts of the actor’s performance are quite interesting. While Kazan bragged that he bullied Clift into remaining sober throughout the shoot, town lore has it that the McClary sisters regularly snuck liquor up to his room at the Cherokee Hotel. Twenty-five-year-old Lee Remick is superb as the young, love-starved widow. When she confidently and aggressively courts Clift, it’s all he can do just to sit alone, gape-mouthed, on the couch, leaving every viewer scratching their head. Jo Van Fleet is fantastic as Ella, skillfully portraying the eighty-year-old matriarch at the age of forty-five. Albert Salmi is entertaining as the alpha good ol’ boy. Overall, it’s a wonderful cast which includes several Kazan regulars.

“Wild River” was one of Kazan’s favorite films although its limited art house release guaranteed unprofitability. Fox was convinced 1960 movie audiences would not be interested in a film about the TVA. The movie was rarely shown on television and was only recently (2013) released on DVD.

Kazan had attempted to write the film script himself but eventually hired seasoned screenwriter, Paul Osborne. Kazan especially admired the conflict between Glover and Ella in which both held to positions that were simultaneously right and wrong. Relations between Blacks and Whites in the 1930’s segregated Deep South are portrayed quite candidly for a movie made in 1960.

I’ve seen “Wild River” many times but I appreciated watching it for the first time in HD on Blu-ray. Commentary is provided by Time magazine film critic, Richard Schickel, who doesn’t hide his deep admiration for “Wild River” or for Kazan and Remick. This is a pretty good film but Remick’s performance as someone attempting to straddle both “tradition” and “progress” was Oscar-worthy outstanding.

Additional thoughts from a believer

The Black workers on Garth island and Carol and her children regularly sing old Gospel hymns, with “In the Garden” featured most prominently. Kazan contrasts Christianity and “traditional” values (which includes negative attitudes such as racism) with utopian Liberal Progressivism. I’m all for improving people’s physical circumstances but true redemption can’t be found in either progressive or conservative politics. Jesus Christ transcends politics and physical conditions. But in all fairness to Kazan, one of the main messages of this film is that even the most “successful” progressive social engineering project will have its share of victims.

“Demagogue in Denim”

A Face in the Crowd
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Anthony Franciosa, and Lee Remick
Warner Brothers, 1957, 125 minutes

Director Elia Kazan and writer Bud Schulberg had had a huge success with “On the Waterfront” in 1954 and teamed up one more time for this quirky and extremely prescient movie.

Plot

A radio show producer, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), discovers a talented drifter, Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), in a small-town Arkansas jail, and presents him with the moniker, “Lonesome.” Rhodes is given a slot on a local radio station and his folksy, irreverent humor is so popular he’s soon invited to host a Memphis television program. Although Rhodes infuriates the show’s sponsor, his audience loves him. A wheeler-dealer office gopher, Joey DePalma (Tony Franciosa), sets himself up as an agent and brokers a deal on behalf of Rhodes for a nationally televised show broadcast from New York City. Predictably, Rhodes’ soaring popularity and influence goes to his head. He’s rude to his staff and dumps fiancé Marcia for a 17-year-old baton twirler, Betty Lou Fleckum, (Lee Remick). Rhodes’ politically conservative sponsor soon has him playing kingmaker by having him stump for ultra-right-wing Senator Fuller for President. Staff writer, Mel Miller (Walter Matthau), attempts to turn Marcia against Rhodes, but she’s already souring on her discovery. When Rhodes candidly berates his viewership during the closing credits of his show, Marcia, unbeknownst to him, manipulates the sound board, purposely broadcasting his insults over the airwaves. His audience and sponsors abandon Rhodes overnight. When no one shows up at his gathering for conservative politicians and corporate big wigs, Rhodes calls Marcia threatening suicide. She goes to Rhodes’ penthouse to reveal she was the one who betrayed him. The movie ends with Rhodes screaming for Marica to come back as she rides away in a taxi cab.

Commentary

Andy Griffith is an absolute hoot in his film debut. Few people saw this, his finest performance, but Griffith would find his audience three years later on “The Andy Griffith Show” (1960-1968) on television, playing a character quite unlike Lonesome Rhodes. Patricia Neal gives a great performance. The film did poor box office, which is understandable given the protagonist is an unlovable monster. There’s no doubt the movie was ahead of its time as Bud Schulberg’s script eerily foretold the role of television in politics. Sources reveal the character of Rhodes was inspired in part by Arthur Godfrey and Will Rogers.

“A Face in the Crowd” has some wonderful scenes and some great performances but it’s not quite a five-star movie. Schulberg and Kazan over-reached the mark with this undisguised left-wing, preachy, soapbox. One gets the feeling that with “A Face in the Crowd,” Schulberg and Kazan were saying, “Sure, we may have named names before HUAC but see, we’re still good liberals!”

Ted Turner’s Turner Movie Classics (TMC) cable channel aired “A Face in the Crowd” repeatedly during the 2016 presidential primaries and campaign. Evidently, the folks at TMC felt there were more than a few parallels between Lonesome Rhodes and candidate Donald Trump’s blustering brand of populism.

The DVD includes no commentary but there is an interesting documentary, “Facing the Past” (2005), featuring interviews with Schulberg, Neal, and Griffith.

Trivia alert: Kazan filmed the opening scenes of “A Face in the Crowd” in Piggott, Arkansas. As in most of Kazan’s later films, many non-actor locals were used in small parts and as extras. The house with the swimming pool was the home of businessman Karl Pfeiffer who often entertained his sister and her husband, Ernest Hemingway, poolside.

Additional thoughts from a believer

With “A Face in a Crowd” Kazan and Schulberg warn of the burgeoning influence of television and right-wing manipulation via media demagogues. Sixty years later, we’ve witnessed both ends of the political spectrum attempting to sway public opinion through the media but the reality is that the Left has actually become much more adroit at media manipulation than the Right.

So then, what is our bottom line? Atheist Kazan saw society in terms of a battle between Left and Right, in which the Right had to be defeated in order for society to advance. But are political solutions the answer to man’s overarching problems? Is either the Right or the Left capable of ushering in a “Great Society” of peace and prosperity for all?

As believers, our hope is in our Savior and Lord and we anticipate His coming kingdom. The political ebbs and flows of this world may affect us in varying degrees, but our focus is always on our Heavenly King as we endeavor to fulfill our mission as His ambassadors and emissaries on our brief journey through this world.

“Born in China” – Stunning cinematography but…

Born in China
Directed by Lu Chuan
Disneynature, 2017, 76 minutes

A few weeks ago, my wife and I saw the very good film, “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” and one of the accompanying previews was for “Born in China,” which looked very good. When we mentioned the movie to our five-year-old granddaughter, she knew all about it and wanted to see it, too. So Friday evening, the five of us (my wife, our oldest son, our 18YO and 5YO granddaughters, and myself) packed into my wife’s Jetta like sardines and went to see “Born in China.”

This nature documentary follows a year in the the lives of a panda bear and her cub, a snow leopard and her two cubs, a golden snub-nosed monkey, and a herd of “chiru” antelope in the backwoods of China. The scenery and photography are breathtaking – what a Creator we have! – and the stories are fascinating. However, the struggles between predator and prey are way too graphic for young children. The MPAA association goofed by awarding this film a G-rating. It’s definitely too violent for a 5-year-old.

Something else bothered me about this movie. A couple of times the narrator interjects an Eastern philosophy, “cycle of life” monologue explaining how some Chinese believe the spirits of dead animals are carried up and away by red-crowned cranes to eventually become new animals. Wow! So Disney is now introducing its young audiences to reincarnation? Lovely. There’s also a mention of Eastern religion’s concept of the ying and yang. These references to Eastern religion are going to fly over the heads of most young children but they are causes for concern, along with the sometimes very graphic displays of animal survival. For older kids, the reincarnation references could be used as an excellent “teaching moment” opportunity after the movie.

After the show we stopped in at a nearby Chipotle for burritos all around (no scolding comments please, I ate only HALF of mine). It was my first visit to Chipotles and I liked it very much. No qualifiers on the food!