A Cosmic Coincidence: It’s A Wonderful Life and A Matter of Life and Death

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne Australia

George Bailey learns the value of life in It’s A Wonderful life (1946.) Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

In 1946, both the British and American people keenly felt the impact of death. In Britain, an estimated 384,000 soldiers were killed in combat during the Second World War, and 70,000 civilians died mainly due to German bombing raids during the Blitz. The United States had suffered more than 400,000 casualties across Asia and Europe. It is, therefore, unremarkable then that the cinema of the period responded to the possibility of life after death. Two movies attempted to bring the afterlife into focus, and both were released in 1946. Although different filmmakers made the films on opposite sides of the Atlantic, they share several similarities. The first film was the British film A Matter of Life and Death, and the second was It’s a Wonderful Life from Hollywood. Many observers have noted their similarities.[1]

The American film opens with people praying for a man named George Bailey, who is played by James Stewart. Bailey is a good man and widely respected in his community of Bedford Falls. Bailey appears to have met some severe problems and is contemplating suicide. The prayers come from all parts of the town and move out into space. A Senior Angel, Joseph, sends a Guardian Angel – Second Class, Clarence, to help save his soul. Clarence glimpses into Bailey’s life during the film’s first part of the film. Bailey begins as a young man dissatisfied with the slow pace of the small town in which he lives. George’s father tells him that it is a great honor to help people own houses and move on with their lives. Despite his best efforts, George is thwarted in his quest to travel the world at every turn. He is compelled to take over his father’s small-town bank and save it during a crisis. We look at his life which becomes a series of disappointments, and finally, the bank to which he had dedicated his life appears close to collapsing. The road to his suicide attempt is a tortured descent through a small-town purgatory. This America echoes Billy Wilder’s view in Double Indemnity that the nation was a land of “shattered hopes and twisted dreams.”  

At the end of his tether, Bailey looks down from a bridge to a fast-flowing river, contemplating suicide. The river appears to be fiercely cold, as there are dark snow drifts on the banks of the river. It is a picture of suicidal gloom. Clarence moves beside him and jumps into the river ahead. Bailey is immediately shaken from his suicidal thoughts and jumps into the frozen river to save him. Yet director Frank Capra finds hope in this despair. Once George had rescued Clarence, he was shown by the angel how different his community would be without him. Bedford Falls becomes Pottersville, named after a rival banker, and descends into a living hell. Pottersville is swarming with bars, strip clubs, casinos, and pawn shops. Cops, traffic, lights, noise, and strangers fill the streets. It has a violent and ugly edge. George appears to have been an angel saving the town’s soul. The experience makes George realize his life’s value and how much he has impacted those around him. The message woven into the movie is the importance of kindness, compassion, and community. It says one individual can make a significant difference in the world, no matter how humble they appear. Hope exists in the bleakest moments. Another clear message is that following society’s moral rules will reward you in the afterlife. It is a simple reinterpretation of the message of Christian salvation.

A Matter of Life and Death explores the afterlife. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The film’s opening of the cosmos is astonishingly similar to a British film, A Matter of Life and Death, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It was released in 1946 as well. Both films begin with a cosmic perspective, showing stars and galaxies in space. While in It’s a Wonderful Life, prayers float up to the heavens. In the British film, the opening show is of the universe, which seems to overwhelm the relatively minor conflict of the Second World War. The camera appears to move down from the heavens to earth and eventually to a single stricken bomber returning to base in the United Kingdom. The pilot Peter Carter talks to a wireless operator, June, and tells her he is finished because he does not have a parachute. Peter Carter, played by David Niven, miraculously survives a plane crash. He finds himself on the English beach, which he assumes is heaven. He falls in love with the operator but must fight for his right to stay alive on earth in a cosmic trial to live his life with her.

In both films, a character from another world guides the main character. In It’s a Wonderful Life, the guardian angel Clarence is sent to help George Bailey during a crisis. In contrast, A Matter of Life and Death sends Conductor 71 to guide RAF pilot Peter Carter in a different situation. The main character’s life is also altered by a physical supernatural intervention in both films. Even in small details, the films have strong similarities. At the end of A Matter of Life and Death, a book on chess is returned to Peter Carter; while Clarence leaves a signed copy of Tom Sawyer for George Bailey, saying he has earned his full angel’s wings.

The critical difference is that It’s A Wonderful Life depicts a benign system of angels who want to help the individual when they reach breaking point. It is fair to ask why they did not intervene earlier when Bailey prayed for help. In A Matter of Life and Death’s afterlife, a more hard-hearted legalistic, and cold-blooded bureaucracy processes people indifferently. Due to a mistake made by the administration, Peter Carter must face a trial for his life. He is granted a long life with June.

Their galactic vision allows these films to explore themes such as our place in the universe and the possibility of a greater cosmic order than we can comprehend. It explores the idea of fate, free will, and individual responsibility. Both films’ opening sequences establish these themes visually and thematically. Given the similarities, it is extraordinary that both films were made in the same year in different countries and could not have possibly influenced each other.

Even so, A Matter of Life and Death was possibly influenced by one film. Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). Robert Montgomery plays boxer Joe Pendleton, who dies in a plane crash on his way to a championship match. Compared to Peter Carter in A Matter of Life and Death, Joe Pendleton was not meant to die and was brought to heaven too soon by an overeager angel. Claude Rains plays the angel’s boss, Mr. Jordan, who sends Joe back to earth in a body. Evelyn Keyes plays Bette Logan, an idealistic young woman with whom he falls in love.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan was clearly an influence on A Matter of Life and Death. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Second chances and the afterlife are common themes between these two films. In both, characters make decisions that influence their fates in the celestial realm. Joe Pendleton’s chance to return to life and Mr. Jordan’s role as an angel overseeing the transition of souls are central to Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Both films blend fantasy elements with comedy and romance. Not to mention that the first step to heaven is a type of airport. While dealing with serious themes such as life, death, and love, they use humor to create a light-hearted and whimsical atmosphere. Characters in both films navigate between the mortal world and the afterlife, highlighting the importance of human links and the desire for a second chance.[2]

The central difference is that Here Comes Mr. Jordan picked up audience concerns about an approaching war, while A Matter of Life and Death and It’s A Wonderful Life addressed people who were well aware of the carnage.

[1] “A Matter of Life and Death Deserves a Place on Your Holiday Watch-list Alongside It’s A Wonderful Life,” 2018, accessed December 18,, https://www.tor.com/2018/12/19/a-matter-of-life-and-death-deserves-a-place-on-your-holiday-watch-list-alongside-its-a-wonderful-life/.

[2] A similar view is in: “Criterion Review: Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” 2016, https://cine-vue.com/2016/06/criterion-review-here-comes-mr-jordan.html.

‘We’ll Have No More Grapes of Wrath:’ The Origins, Rise and Impact of a Dubious Cinematic Anecdote

Kevin Brianton,

Grapes of Wrath was a controversial film on its release, and the controversy grew after the Second World War.

Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.com.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

Eric Johnston, President of the Motion Picture Association of America, supposedly remarked ‘we’ll have no more Grapes of Wrath’ in response to an investigation by the House Committee on Un-American Activities into communism in the American film industry in 1947. Many film historians have employed the quotation as evidence that the investigation had created strict controls that led to fewer politically and socially motivated films in the United States in the 1950s. It has also linked Johnston to the highly conservative Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. However, the quotation was based on a suspect source and was possibly derived from material said or written by other people. Johnston may well have made this comment, but if so, the context of the comment has been ignored. A more nuanced interpretation is needed to assess Johnston’s views and actions.

Text of the full article is available at:

Kevin Brianton, “‘We’ll Have No More Grapes of Wrath:’ The Origins, Rise and Impact of a Dubious Cinematic Anecdote,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television  (2023),https://doi.org/10.1080/01439685.2023.2193043, https://doi.org/10.1080/01439685.2023.2193043.

Did Mary Pickford say putting sound into film “was like putting rouge on the Venus de Milo?”

Mary Pickford in her silent heyday. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton, Senior Adjunct Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

When sound was introduced to American cinema, the celebrated actor and film producer Mary Pickford was reported by the Los Angeles Times as saying it was like “putting rouge on the Venus de Milo.”[1] The quote appears to be a strong condemnation of new technology, and it has been linked to Pickford ever since. However, it seems unlikely that she ever said such a thing. Pickford was the most celebrated actor of the silent period and was commonly called “America’s sweetheart.” She was also a powerful force in Hollywood and her comments carried some weight.

If she did say it, Pickford was repeating word for word what director Albert Parker said in 1926 in an entirely different context. Parker was the director of the Douglas Fairbanks vehicle, The Black Pirate (1926). In a publicity interview for The New York Times Parker declared: “that to some persons the making of pictures in natural colors was like putting lip rouge on Venus de Milo.”[2] Parker was against such sentiments, pointing out that Fairbanks had immersed himself in the study of Technicolor processes. The article details the lengths that Fairbanks went to in ensuring that the color process worked and improved the film.

He spoke about the care taken with the new technology. “The color must never dominate the narrative. We have tried to get a sort of satin gloss on the scenes and have consistently avoided striving for prismatic effects. There is nothing violent. We realize that color is violent and for that reason we restrained it.”

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were married at the time of the interview, and it seems more than likely Pickford was fully aware of the comment. Her own quote in 1934 is confusing. Lipstick is usually a bright color, and it makes little sense to apply the allusion to sound. Mary Pickford was quoted while speaking as a guest of honor at the Association of Foreign Press Correspondents. A separate account that appeared in The New York Times did not record the quote. It has also not been possible to find another account from any of the journalists that attended.

Even so, Pickford did not fully endorse talking pictures. She said that she would be “bitterly disappointed if Charlie Chaplin speaks in his next picture.” As it happened, Chaplin did not speak Modern Times (1936). Pickford and Chaplin were part owners of United Artists, which distributed the film.

Pickford would not return to silent cinema. She did declare there would be a minimum of dialogue in her next film. She talked about the story underpinning the film. She believed that the story was the most important element. “I have never seen good acting save a poor story, but I have seen a good story save poor acting.” Overall, she believed that talking pictures were “tiring and provincial.” These pressures were “losing the world’s market.”

She may have reflected that sound meant that English language films were more problematic on the European continent. Audiences may have enjoyed seeing films in their own language. The European film industry had also recovered from the First World War by 1934. It wasn’t sound. It was simply a more competitive environment.

The reality was Pickford had embraced sound film for more than four years in 1934. Always the innovator, Pickford arranged for a sound stage to be built at her Pickfair studios. Her film Coquette (1929) was advertised as 100 percent talking. It was a box office success, and Pickford would win the Academy Award for Best Lead Actress for her performance.

One distinct possibility is that she quoted Albert Parker’s original comments in some part of her speech, perhaps when discussing the broader issue of change in the industry. The Associated Press reporter may have ascribed Parker’s words to Pickford in error. The short article was syndicated across America in newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and The New York Daily Herald. Without access to her speech, it is impossible to say for certain, but it may have never been said.

The comment may have been originally made in connection to the Black Pirate (1926), about the use of technicolor. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

[1] “Mary Pickford Sees Talkies as Lipstick on Milo,” Los Angeles Times March 18 1934.

[2] “Director Tells of Making Fairbanks’s New Prismatic Pirate Production,” The New York Times, March 7 1927.

Mean Moody and Magnificent: New biography of Jane Russell

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Mean… Moody… Magnificent! Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend by Christina Rice. University Press of Kentucky, 2021.

Jane Russell was one of Hollywood’s leading pre-Marilyn Monroe sex symbols in the 1940s and 1950s. Russell came to prominence in her first film, the notorious The Outlaw, which tested the censorship boundaries of the Production Code. She was presented as a sultry sex siren, yet Russell’s politics were conservative, and she was a passionate Christian. The tension between her onscreen persona and her strong spiritual values is an intriguing area for study.

Her biographer Christina Rice raises some interesting questions about the actor and singer in this book. Rice appears to be interested in women who closely associated with RKO head Howard Hughes. She has also written on another actor associated with Hughes in Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel.

The full review is available at

Brianton, Kevin. “Mean… Moody… Magnificent!: Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend.” Film & History 52, no. 1 (2022): 67.


Ayn Rand and the Motion Picture Alliance

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, University

During the Cold War, while the studios were beginning to bring out anti-communist films, the right began to look for other targets. Not content with driving communists out of Hollywood, the right turned its attention to films with liberal messages. Ayn Rand wrote a Screen Guide for Americans in 1947 for the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals which said that free enterprise, industrialists, and the independent man shouldn’t be smeared; that failure and the collective shouldn’t be glorified; and that communist writers, directors and producers shouldn’t be hired. The alliance did not see it as a ‘forced restriction’ on Motion Picture studios, rather that each man should do ‘his own thinking’ and for the guide to be adopted as a ‘voluntary action’. Rand wrote that the guide aimed to keep the screen free from any ‘collective force or pressure.’ The irony was that this was precisely what the alliance was doing.

The real point of Rand’s pamphlet was that only a conservative vision of America should be allowed on the screen. The alliance wanted the present wave of films that attacked or criticized capitalism halted. One of the alliance’s supporters, Cecil B. DeMille was making similar speeches:

The American people know that with all its faults capitalism has given them the highest standard of living and the greatest personal freedom known in the world. The communist cannot deny that. But they can – and do – make a banker or a successful businessman their villain. They can – and do – pick out the sordid and degraded parts of all of America, leaving the audience – especially the foreign audience – to infer that all America is a vast Tobacco Road and successful people are all ‘little foxes’.

The impact of the guide has been overstated. Rand later claimed her ‘Screen Guide for Americans’ was printed in full on the front page of The New York Times drama section.[1] The claim has then been repeated by historians such as Steven J. Whitfield and then in turn by Rand scholar Robert Mayhew.[2] In reality, only a short article appeared on the screen guide with a few sentences describing its contents on page 5 of the supplement.[3] The article only took up one-third of a regular column.

[1] Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, Anchor, USA, 1987, p. 203.

[2] Stephen J. Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1996, p. 131. Robert Mayhew, Ayn Rand and Song of Russia: Communism and Anti-Communism in 1940s Hollywood, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Md., 2005, p. 176.

[3] The New York Times, 16 November 1947

The Wild Bunch

The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film by W.K. Stratton

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Stratton has written a highly entertaining account of the creation of the Wild Bunch. Beginning with the premise that it is the greatest film ever made, he is clearly besotted with the film. It would have been good to have some critical distance to give the book a bit more weight.

The film has its problems, particularly with the depiction of women, and Stratton is not equipped to deal with such issues. It rewrote how violence was depicted on the screen and reset the boundaries for westerns. A great film – yes. The greatest – well it does not stand up that well against the classic Ford or Mann westerns. At least he lays his cards on the table from the beginning.

Stratton is too fixated on colorful stories of drinking and carousing to really understand how such a shambles of production, became a great film. Still the account gives an insight into the creative chaos of Peckinpah. A director who lived in the space between genius and madness.

The highest compliment I can pay the book is that it made me watch the film again.

Legacies of Buster Keaton: Jackie Chan and Malcolm (1986)

Keaton wrestled with huge objects and performed amazing feats in his films.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton,

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

In almost every Buster Keaton film, there is a scene where the audience gasps at the actor’s astonishing athleticism. It can be when Keaton wrestles with huge pieces of wood on his steam engine, The General or when a building collapses on him. In an era, well before CGI, Keaton does make that leap or have a house fall on him. Keaton’s career peaked in the 1920s but then declined with the introduction of sound. Interest in the comic actor rose from the 1940s but then declined from about 2000.[1] While Keaton’s career descended from the 1920s great matinée idol to cameos on Sunset Boulevard in the 1950s, his legacy has lived on. His films are now considered some of the greatest of the period, and many would argue that they are the greatest of all.

The legacy of Keaton’s great directorial skills can be seen in two unrelated from different countries producing two vastly diverse films. Malcolm (1986) was an Australian comedy, written by the husband-and-wife team of David Parker and Nadia Tass, who directed the film. The film stars Colin Friels as Malcolm, a tram enthusiast who becomes involved with a pair of would-be bank robbers. The film has a lot of nods to silent cinema. But if there is one clear predecessor to Malcolm’s character, it is Buster Keaton in The General (1926). In this film, Keaton plays a Southern railway engineer, just before the civil war breaks out, who loves his locomotive called The General and a young woman. It is easy to speculate that the train probably comes first. Keaton’s character is devoted to the railway engine, just as Malcolm surrounds himself with trams and is devoted to their upkeep.

Colin Friels plays a character who is obsessed with trams and other vehicles in Malcolm (1986).
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Like Keaton, who directed The General, Tass does use the overacted double-take employed by many other silent comedians. Keaton played it with his “stone face,” while Colin Friels employs a boyish smile in response to whatever is happening.[2] It is a similar space to Keaton, who shows little or no emotion. While he is ostracised by the Confederate Army, Keaton employs all sorts of inventiveness to defeat the Union forces who stole his train. Like Keaton, Malcolm is an outsider who triumphs. While the Keaton character loved trains, Malcolm is entranced with Melbourne’s trams. Through his ingenuity, he triumphs.

Consciously or unconsciously, the film also echoed some other characters of silent cinema. Despite their modern uniforms, the police are almost direct descendants of the Keystone Cops. This group of highly incompetent officers made shorts for Mark Sennett. Their only purpose was to chase the central characters, with their batons waving in the air, only to lose the chase, with various pratfalls and explosions. The police depicted in Malcolm hark back to the silent period of cinema.

Like Keaton, Chan does not use stuntman and he makes sure that audiences know it.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Like Tass, the police officers in Chan’s films are nothing more than Keystone cops, who wave around guns and are just useless. The martial arts actor Jackie Chan comes from a different cinematic tradition and has been in many films, but one film clearly shows his relationship with Keaton. Rumble in the Bronx (1995) was directed by Stanley Tong, with the stunts developed by Chan and Tong. Released in Hong Kong in 1995, Rumble in the Bronx had a successful worldwide run, and the film announced Jackie Chan’s arrival to United States audiences. As a result of this film and many others, Chan is now one of the most successful actors on the world stage.

Like Keaton, Chan does his own stunts, including a leap from one building to another. It is the type of stunt that Keaton did routinely. Chan did it without wires, and it is astonishing viewing. But it is again a link back to The General, with a climax involving a preposterous use of a hovercraft. Chan does a series of stunts around the hovercraft that are more than a nod to Keaton’s theatrics with a railway engine. Chan injured his foot so badly in this film; he required a moon boot for the rest of the film. Chan continued to work, even engaging in water-skiing without skis. Keaton’s similarities to Chan are obvious: he once broke his neck in a film and continued working.

Many critics have often equated Jackie Chan to Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, who was Keaton’s central rival in the action-comedy – of course, Charlie Chaplin overshadowed both. Jackie Chan has even stated: “I wanted to be like a Chaplin or Buster Keaton, but all the martial arts directors I worked with wanted me to copy Bruce Lee,” he said. “So after I got famous, I started to change a lot of things. When I was filming ‘Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow’ in the late 1970s, I sat down with the director and watched a Bruce Lee film. I decided, when Bruce Lee kicked high, I’d kick low. When Bruce Lee yowled, I’d punch doing a funny face like it hurt. Whatever Bruce Lee did, I’d do the opposite.”[3]

The conscious or unconscious tributes in Malcolm and Jackie Chan show that one of the cinema’s original masters still influences a new generation of directors. When we see Tom Cruise jump out of a building or any other action-adventure figures, we are looking at one of the descendants of Keaton and Lloyd, who opened the door for a whole branch of cinema.

A pebble dropped in a pond will create waves that ripple out forever. Keaton’s influence is still very much with us.

[1] Figures based on https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=buster+keaton&year_start=1800&year_end=2019&corpus=26&smoothing=3&case_insensitive=true

[2] The film was dedicated to John Tassopoulos, Nadia Tass’s younger brother who died after being struck by a car. When interviewed by from The New York Times, Nadia Tass said the central character reflected her brother a great deal. “Basically, he was very similar to Malcolm, who was withdrawn, and socially inept. He had a very difficult time being accepted in society because of his inability to communicate verbally. However, he was a very clever person.” Lawrence Van Gelder,  “At The Movies,” New York Times, 18 July 1986.

[3] Strauss, Neil. “Faster than a Speeding Bullet, but also Humanly Fallible: [Biography].” New York Times, Jan 30, 1995, Late Edition (East Coast). http://ez.library.latrobe.edu.au/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ez.library.latrobe.edu.au/docview/429993898?accountid=12001.

The Screen is Red – book review

Bernard F. Dick, The Screen Is Red: Hollywood, Communism, and the Cold War, Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2016. 282 pp., illus. Hardcover: $65.

During the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities – or HUAC – investigations of Hollywood in 1947, chairman J. Parnell Thomas told journalists that he had a media bombshell. He would link the investigation of communism in the film industry to the leaking of atomic secrets to the Russians. Journalists were intrigued and showed up in droves to find it was a media stunt and Thomas had nothing. Hollywood, communism and nuclear fears proved to be an irresistible lure for journalists in the 1940s, and they remain a fascinating topic for film historians. The political cinema of this turbulent period and its impact is the focus of a new book by Bernard F. Dick, a prolific writer on the film industry. Professor Dick is a classical scholar who has produced critical accounts of the Hollywood Ten, as well as books on the playwright and screenwriter Lillian Hellman, along with directors Billy Wilder and Joseph Mankiewicz. His Anatomy of Film is a standard text. He has also written a history of America cinema in World War II, Second World War: The Star-Spangled Screen, which has been highly influential. His ambitious aim with The Screen is Red is to tell “the story of the culture that formed a generation’s political conscience, and fuelled its suspicion of technology capable of world annihilation, as science fiction films of the period imply.” [4]

Many commentators writing on similar terrain start with the pro-Russian ally films of the Second World War. Dick takes a longer perspective and his chapter on Hollywood’s various approaches to communism in the run-up to the Second World War is impressive. It is a pity that Dick did not step even farther back and look at the anti-communist cinema produced after the First World War when the United States had its first red scare. Bolshevism on Trial (1919) was one of many films of the period to show that Hollywood’s anti-communism was part of its political DNA.

During the 1930s, both liberal and conservative political certainties started to crumble in the face of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism. The tone of films such as Gabriel Over the White House (1933) often verges on the hysterical. Dick captures the faint desperation in the political solutions offered by both the left and the right. He concludes the section with an analysis of the more gentle anti-communist satires, Ninotchka (1939) and Comrade X (1940). In 1939, the Nazi-Soviet pact placed both left and right-wing assumptions under greater strain. A political consensus did emerge in the United States after Pearl Harbour, when it was shaken out of its isolationist stupor and became a reluctant ally of the Soviet Union. The seismic political and cinematic shifts of the period are covered well in The Screen is Red, particularly when it treats the films of the Second World War. In this section, Dick examines pro-Russian ally movies, including the infamous Mission to Moscow (1943), the closest film to Stalinist propaganda that Hollywood ever produced.

Dick focuses on Leo McCarey’s anti-communist film My Son John (1952) in some detail. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Another profound dislocation occurred in Hollywood as the Soviet Union moved from ally to bitter opponent following the war. Reacting to the sharp rise in Cold War tensions, and the 1947 HUAC investigations, Hollywood produced a series of anticommunist films of varying quality over the next few decades. Dick provides an impressive examination of the anticommunist cinema of the 1950s. Films such as I was a Communist for the FBI (1951) and Walk East on Beacon (1952) were part of this group. Dick focuses on Leo McCarey’s anti-communist film My Son John (1952) in some detail. My Son John is undoubtedly one of the more feverish films of the Red Scare period. The film’s production fell into a shambles with the death of lead actor Robert Walker, and an ending of sorts was created – with some unheralded assistance by Cecil B. DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock. The remaining film is uncomfortable to watch; it contains one disturbing scene in which an angry father attacks his communist son for laughing at his conservative jingoism. Despite the contrived conclusion, Dick describes McCarey as a master of plot resolution. He argues that McCarey gave viewers an ending that was “dramatic and reflective,” [117] providing an accurate description of America in the early years of the Cold War. His respectful analysis is at odds with both contemporary reviewers and later critics, who see it as a mixture of hysterical anti-communism tinctured with a vague homophobia – along with some disturbing ideas about motherhood. Most reviewers slammed the film, aside from Bosley Crowther in The New York Times, who praised some aspects of it; but even he had grave concerns about its political dogmatism. Dick rarely references contemporary media commentary and he fails to mention that My Son John also proved unpopular with audiences, along with other overtly anti-communist cinema.

Unlike most writers, Dick also covers the Korean War and its corresponding cinema. Again, he provides a solid summary of the films that centered on the engagement, concluding that Hollywood did not romanticize the conflict as it had done in the Second World War. Dick examines films such as The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), which present war as a thankless undertaking. Sometimes his selection of films is odd. He does not look at important films such as The Rack (1956) which offers many ideas about collaboration, brainwashing, informing, and the Korean War in general. Also absent is Strategic Air Command (1955), a box office success, which directly focuses on his central topic of nuclear annihilation in the post-Korean War period.

The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is not examined in any great detail. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Where Dick is far more comprehensive is in the science fiction genre. The alien invasion and subversion films of the 1950s reveal many of the era’s fears about communism and nuclear war. Dick presents an extensive and energetic discussion of these films. However, in some cases, his analyses could be more thorough. For example, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) depicted the fight by a doctor (Kevin McCarthy) against aliens who can hijack a body when it falls asleep. The horror and suspicion gradually increase until, at the film’s conclusion, McCarthy’s character is (famously) shown running down a freeway yelling hysterically while being pursued by human-like aliens intent on stripping away his personality. Dick initially describes the film as containing a hidden anti-McCarthyite critique as well as dumbed-down communism but does not expand on these ideas. Critics remain sharply divided over whether the alien force represents McCarthyism, communism, or even suburban conformism. Dick presents his view with little evidence or consideration of these other possibilities and moves on to the next film. His only nod to audience reaction is to say that “politically astute audiences might have interpreted the film that way.” [74]

The focus on science fiction films also means that other genres receive little attention. Dick barely mentions westerns. Even High Noon (1952), considered one of the prominent anti-McCarthyite films of the era, is given only part of a paragraph. A more glaring omission is biblical epics. Dick remarks on The Robe (1953), but other films such as The Ten Commandments (1956) contain many ultra-conservative statements that refer indirectly to the strength of the monotheistic religions as a spiritual shield against the atheistic Soviet state. Contemporary media commentary on The Ten Commandments (1956) directly related it to both the Suez Crisis and the Russian invasion of Hungary. Dominating the box office, its ideas of American moral superiority over totalitarian regimes permeated or simply reflected political debate in the United States – indeed it still does.

At times, the book appears to be a loose collection of essays and ideas with an overly relaxed arrangement of thematic and chronological chapters. As the book draws to a close, the director Alfred Hitchcock and actor John Wayne are each allocated a chapter; both sit uncomfortably with the rest of the text. Despite these flaws, The Screen is Red offers an extensive survey of Hollywood from the 1930s through to the present, representing the nation’s central political obsessions of nuclear annihilation and communism. Professor Dick is excellent at describing the plots and contexts of his films, but he has his blind spots. Box office, contemporary film reviews, publicity campaigns, fan letters, and media commentary also play their part in how cinema contributes to shifting attitudes and there is little use of these sources. The Screen is Red is not an entirely successful book, but it is a valuable one.

Kevin Brianton, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Original citation at Brianton, Kevin Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 2018, Vol.48(2), 64-67

Copyright Center for the Study of Film and History Winter 2018

Did Cecil B. DeMille have a foot fetish? Probably not.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Charles Higham in 1969 made the claim of DeMille’s foot fetishism in his discussion of Feet of Clay (1924). Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

One of the persistent myths about Cecil B. DeMille was that he had a foot fetish.  DeMille Biographer Charles Higham in 1969 made the claim of DeMille’s foot fetism in his discussion of Feet of Clay (1924) where he wrote that there was ‘no doubt’ that DeMille’s obsession with feet drew him to the title.[1] This entry would create a claim of a foot fetishism which would be repeated by many people over the years, even though the evidence is against the idea. Film historian Robert Birchard in 2004 pointed out that Higham had no opportunity to watch Feet of Clay as the print was lost and the case for foot fetishism was weak. Moreover, Feet of Clay was about a man who lost his foot – hardly a sexual image at all, and the film was imposed on DeMille by the studio.[2] The fetish claim possibly came from DeMille’s niece Agnes who repeated it in a TV documentary about DeMille in 1982.[3] The evidence is pretty thin. DeMille told Photoplay magazine in 1930 that ‘pretty feet and trim ankles are something he always admired in a woman.’[4] Even so, it is doubtful that his niece Agnes DeMille understood the precise use of the term and she certainly had no detailed understanding of the intimate details of her uncle’s sex life. A foot fetishist enjoys sexual stimulation by the use of the feet. Liking the look of a woman’s feet and a foot fetish are quite different.  A ‘well turned ankle’ is an old fashioned phrase that DeMille might have used to describe an attractive women.

Writing in 2001, David Wallace discussed DeMille’s alleged foot fetish in some detail, saying that DeMille was enchanted with his wife Constance when he saw her feet walking up a stair case.[5] DeMille’s autobiography is the only available account of their romance and he did not mention his wife’s feet at all.[6] DeMille wrote that she was beautiful and had wit.

Paulette Goddard did appear barefoot in North West Mounted Police, but it is not a sexual image.

Other evidence was that Paulette Goddard was rumoured to have got her role in North West Mounted Police by showing her bare feet during an audition. The reality is probably more mundane. DeMille’s grand daughter Cecilia deMille Presley suggested that the possible reason for the rumour was that DeMille liked to see an actor’s feet if they were to appear barefoot on screen.[7] Her eventual role in the film does depict her barefoot, but it is a stretch to say it is a sexual image.

The final piece of threadbare evidence given by Wallace is that DeMille ‘probably’ suggested that people leave footprints in the concrete outside Grauman’s Theatre. No source is given for this weak claim. As weak as the evidence, the idea has permeated critical and biographical writing about DeMille. It is quite possible over the course of 40 years in film making to identify any number of bare foot scenes, but given DeMille directed more than 70 films, the evidence is just not there.

Originally published on kbrianton.com.

[1] Charles Higham, Cecil B. De Mille: A Biography of the Most Successful Film Maker of Them All, Scribner, New York, 1973, p. 129.

[2] Robert S. Birchard, Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2004, p. 195.

[3] Barry Norman, The Film Greats, ISIS, Oxford, 1985, p. 186. Certainly

[4] Rosalind Shaffer, ‘I never choose beautiful women,’ Photoplay, Volume 38, No. 4, September 1930, pp. 30, 31, and 114.

[5] David Wallace, Lost Hollywood, St Martins Press, New York, 2001, p. x.

[6] DeMille, Autobiography, p. 45.

[7] Interview with Cecilia DeMille Presley, January 2008.

George Stevens Jr. and printing the legend:

Review of George Stevens Jr., My Place in the Sun: Life in the Golden Age of Hollywood and Washington, Lexington: University of Kentucky 2022

Kevin Brianton, Senior Adjunct Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

According to Hollywood legend, in 1950, veteran ultraconservative director Cecil B. DeMille fought to oust Joseph Mankiewicz as head of the Screen Directors Guild over Mankiewicz’s unwillingness to impose a mandatory anti-communist loyalty oath for members. The dispute that split the guild came to climax at a meeting in October 1950, at the height of the blacklist’s reign of terror in Hollywood. After hours of contentious debate, George Stevens and then John Fordsupposedly stepped forward and condemned DeMille, leading to his fall from power.

In 2016, I wrote Hollywood Divided: The Screen Directors Guild Meeting and The Impact of the Blacklist, which disputed a great deal of the conventional wisdom about the meeting.[1]It built on the work of Robert Birchard that the story of the meeting was inaccurate and overstated. Most of the errors were derived from a series of inaccurate interviews by one of the participants, Joseph Mankiewicz. In Mankiewicz’s account, Ford is praised as the destroyer of DeMille with his famous speech that began: “My name is John Ford. I make westerns.” The myth has defined the reputations of Ford, DeMille, and Mankiewicz.

George Stevens Jr. used one of the Mankiewicz interviews for his excellent documentary on his father, George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey. The documentary has been influential, and many historians have repeated its claims and quoted from it. Mankiewicz praises George Stevens as a fine man who took on DeMille. The account accuses DeMille of misdeeds, yet most of the interview’s content is highly debatable. The errors became evident after a court stenographer’s transcript of the meeting surfaced, which demolished most of Mankiewicz’s claims.

George Stevens Jr. recently returned to his father’s role in his memoir My Place in the Sun, published by the University of Kentucky Press. The account provides an insight into recent American history. Overall, the book is an entertaining recollection of growing up in the shadow of a tremendous film director and looks at Stevens Jr.’s own fascinating life in film, politics, and media. George Stevens Jr. has had an intriguing life, and almost every page has something of interest.

Concerning the meeting, the book repeats a raft of simple errors and exaggerations that have created one of Hollywood’s most enduring legends. In this case, Stevens made a conscious decision to recite the popular version. He writes: ‘Mankiewicz’s heroic story about John Ford has been repeated through the decades, but new research and writing tell a different story. Ford’s comments, were, in fact, more evenhanded toward DeMille, and he wrote to him the next day saying he was “a great gentleman.” But Ford made a film called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with the newspaper editor’s famous line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” So, I am printing the legend, with this alert to the reader.’

Liberty Valance being shot: George Stevens Jr uses a line from the film: The Man who Shot Liberty Valance to justify printing the legend. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

At least George Stevens Jr. is honest that his version of events may not be entirely accurate, and he has even warned the readers, but the approach leads to a flawed segment of the book. Stevens Jr.’s account is far more valuable when he does research, such as when he quotes a letter from DeMille to Stevens after the Academy gave the Irving Thalberg Award to DeMille in 1952. DeMille thanked Stevens for his support in gaining the award. George Stevens was his political opponent, but it did not extend into personal animosity on either side. The book would have been more substantial if Stevens Jr. had followed this path more closely. Stevens Jr. could have added that his father and John Ford almost certainly had a hand in Cecil B. DeMille winning the inaugural Screen Directors Guild D. W. Griffith Lifetime Achievement Award in 1952. This move was essentially a peace offering to calm residual tensions within the guild. Both John Ford and George Stevens would win the award in later years. The letter also shows that DeMille was also a courteous man, at least in his correspondence, when he thanked Stevens. More of this type of material would have built up a better book.

The fundamental problem with George Stevens Jr.’s approach is that ‘printing the legend’ actually does a disservice to his father. If anyone is to be singled out for having defeated DeMille at the SDG meeting, it should be George Stevens. Stevens was the hero of the meeting, and his integrity, honesty, and courage shine through the entire sad episode. It was Stevens who spent the week researching the background of the recall. Stevens directly confronted DeMille and accused him of undemocratic maneuvers in back rooms. Mankiewicz’s recall had been defeated before the meeting was called to order, but Stevens’ first speech, resigning from the Guild, opened the door for others to demand DeMille’s resignation. Ford had resisted this move, but it was Stevens’ second speech with its “little man” theme, arguing for a return to directors’ business that ended any hopes for DeMille’s survival. Stevens tore DeMille apart at the SDG meeting, not Ford. It is not surprising that Stevens got into his car after the meeting and drove deep into the night in triumph. In sharp contrast, Ford wrote a letter of condolence to DeMille on the day after the meeting. The myth gives undue credit to Ford and neglects the pivotal role of Stevens.

Stevens Jr. is entitled to restate the Hollywood legend. Yet the quote from a Ford film only provides a type of cover for this account. While John Ford may have directed a film with the line, “print the legend,” Ford never printed the legend in his films. Any viewer of the film knows exactly which man shot Liberty Valance.

[1] Kevin Brianton, Hollywood Divided: The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist. United States: University Press of Kentucky, 2016.