Hitchcock Meets Steinbeck: “Lifeboat” (1944) starring Tallulah Bankhead, John Hodiak, Mary Anderson, & Hume Cronyn

Six men and three women – against the sea and each other. -One of the taglines from the movie

…this is what is best about Hitchcock – when he wasn’t busy being a technical show-off, he always kept his mind on thrilling and enthralling the audience. A director who plays TO an audience, pandering to a specific set of sensibilities, will make films that will only ever appeal to the tastes of one era. Hitch on the other hand plays WITH the audience, and this has made his pictures stand the test of time.

Given the time when this was made… it’s hardly surprising that it’s filled with propaganda. Usually, this annoys me; but here it’s done really well, and the propaganda is actually worked into the story instead of just being there to rally the allied population at the time. Hitchcock turns this into a twist, and the way that he parodies the war on the whole on just a small lifeboat in the middle of the big ocean is great. 

-Excerpts from IMDB review

In the Atlantic Ocean during WWII, a passenger ship and a German U-boat are involved in a battle where both are sunk. The survivors gather in one of the lifeboats. They come from a variety of backgrounds and places: an international journalist- Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), a rich businessman- Charles Rittenhouse (William Hull), a young/Midwestern nurse- Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), a steward- Joe Spencer (Canada Lee), a humble British sailor- Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn), and a hard-edged engineer from Chicago- John Kovac (John Hodiak), along w/ his affable buddy- Gus Smith (William Bendix). Stanley and Joe help bring a young Englishwoman carrying a baby in her arms onto the boat- Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel). Trouble starts when they pull another man out of the water- Willi (Walter Slezak)- who turns out to be from the U-boat (German). Some of the survivors want to thrown him back, but others intercede. Connie speaks fluent German, so she can communicate with this man.

It all started when Hitchcock wanted a challenge for himself. He commissioned American author John Steinbeck to write a story based on an idea he had for a drama about people in a lifeboat. Steinbeck’s work was adapted by Jo Swerling; Ben Hecht was also a collaborator in the screenplay. This movie (which cost a little over $1.5M) was shot entirely on a restricted set; the boat was secured in a large studio tank. Hitchcock, striving for realism, insisted that the boat always be moving. The harsh conditions of the shoot took its toll: actors were soaked with water and oil, which led to illness and injury. Cronyn once almost drowned and cracked some ribs! Production was halted twice to allow for recovery of the cast. The famed director insisted on shooting in sequence (which is rarely done), which meant most of the cast had to be paid for the entire shoot. When studio head- Darryl F. Zanuck- objected, Hitch insisted this was necessary to shape the unconventional narrative.

Wow, this movie is impressive- I wonder why I never heard of it before! Like all great films, it takes you on a journey. Hitch made a lot of great films. Lifeboat is lesser-known; I just discovered it last week (thanks to a brief review on YouTube). Hitch succeeds in scene setting and drawing the audience into the story. The way he uses his camera aboard the lifeboat keeps the audience plugged into the plight of the characters. The plot is simple, yet a great premise for a thriller. Its a study of how difference of opinion can create tensions, and how people can deal with those tensions.

The characters are all distinct and each actor does well w/ their role. During filming, several crew members noted that Bankhead was not wearing underwear. When advised of this situation, Hitch commented, “I don’t know if this is a matter for the costume department, make-up, or hairdressing.” LOL! Bankhead (then in her early 40s and a big star) had a style which was later adopted by an younger actress- Bette Davis. Bankhead joked that “All About Eve” should’ve been titled “All About Me” after that hit film came out. In the first scene, we see Connie w/o a hair out of place, wearing a mink coat, made-up, and smoking a cigarette. She looks more annoyed at the run in her stocking than the destruction surrounding her! Connie conveys toughness also, but little by little, her true self comes out as she faces the harsh reality.

It is rare to see such a meaty role for a black American at this time period; Lee even wrote some of his own lines for Joe. Once the film was completed, Steinbeck (who was very progressive) objected to the tone Hitch used w/ Joe in certain scenes. Lee had also acted on Broadway in a lead role in Anna Lucasta. Before he became an actor, he worked as a jockey, boxer and musician. Lee was also a civil rights activist, following in the footsteps of actor Paul Robeson (considered to be a Renaissance Man in his time). My favorite scene in Lifeboat is when Kovac asks Joe for his opinion on what to do w/ the German enemy. Joe replies simply he didn’t realize he had any vote or say in the matter! This was 20+ yrs before the Voting Rights Act.

Early Hitchcock Movie: “The 39 Steps” (1935) starring Robert Donat & Madeleine Carroll

An unassuming Canadian bachelor, Mr. Hannay (Robert Donat), living in London tries to help a mysterious woman w/ a German accent, Miss Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), who turns out to be a double agent. She is killed in Hannay’s hotel room, he is accused of the murder, and goes on the run to save himself. With a map and some details (provided by Miss Smith), he also hopes to stop a spy ring which is trying to steal top secret information. He travels by train to Scotland, hoping not to be noticed by his fellow passengers and the police. The papers are all covering the incident, of course, and some people are bound to be intrigued by the details. When Hannay pops into a car w/ a pretty blonde woman, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), he begs her to help him. As the police approach, he grabs her and kisses her (pretending like their newlyweds). She is not having it, so tells the police that she has never seen this man before.

In Scotland, Hannay travels on foot for some miles, looking for a certain town. He comes across a farmer in a very rural area, Mr. Crofter, who says he can stay overnight at this little house. The wife, who is much younger and mismatched w/ her gruff husband, is played by Dame Peggy Ashcroft (one of the most respected actresses of her time). When Mr. Crofter is out, Hannay and Mrs. Crofter chat about life in London, and she develops a crush on him. Later, when he tells her about his plight, she is very empathetic. After her husband gets jealous, she helps Hannay escape. The local cops are close on his trail. Hannay finds the house of a wealthy/powerful British man, Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle), just in time for a Sunday lunch. He runs across Pamela (again), and more improbable adventures ensue!

Some critics and viewers consider this to be Hitchcock’s most economical and best film. The 39 Steps is a romantic adventure (Hannay and Pamela share moments that wouldn’t be out of place in a rom com) with the usual Hitchcock humor; there is also a lot of metaphor and symbolism. Many of Hitchcock’s typical themes are here: marriage (of different types), human relationships, and types and levels of deception. It’s well-written and each character has a distinct look, attitude, and personality. The plot provides suspense, comedy, and drama in a rather short period of time.

You can watch the full movie (for free) here:

SPOILER-FREE Review: Parasite (2019) directed by Boon Joon-ho

A struggling family in Seoul, South Korea scheme to enter an upper-class/well-connected household in this genre-bending thriller from director Bong Joon-ho (Okja; Snowpiercer). As a young boy, Boon saw a (censored) version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and was “overwhelmed” by the music and structure of the house (behind the Bates Motel). Parasite is the first Asian film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It was described by Bong as “a comedy without clowns and a tragedy without villains.”

Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) is an unemployed family man and head of the Kim family, which includes wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), a 20-something artistic daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam), and idealistic college-aged son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik). One day, a former school friend of Ki-woo’s drops by w/ a gift (and possible job opportunity). While Min is studying abroad, he wants Ki-woo (who he trusts) to take over as the English tutor for a teen girl, Da-hye. At first, Ki-woo is hesitant; Min explains that it’s fine since he has a recommendation. The Parks live in a mansion which wouldn’t be out of place in southern California. The coldly handsome father (Sun-kyun Lee) has studied abroad and works in his own tech company. Da-hye has an 8 y.o. brother, Da-song, who loves anything connected to the Boy Scouts. The mother (Yeo-jeong Jo), though still youthful and pretty, is also “simple” (gullible).

There are quick changes in tone, as the audience is taken on a journey from the Kim’s crowded sub-basement apt. to the Park’s spacious house (designed by an internationally-known architect). The musical score fits seamlessly w/ the movie; Boon recommended baroque music and works of Bernard Herrmann (one of Hollywood’s finest composers) to his own composer. It’s not only clever, it’s also suspenseful, scary, and darkly funny w/ pointed social commentary. Though all the main 10 characters get their time to shine, the heart of this tale is Woo-shik, a youthful 29 y.o. w/ a slim build who grew up partly in Toronto. The audience I saw it w/ definitely was rooting for him, esp. during the (wild) third act. The crux of this story is the relationship between the son and father (the director noted); Song Kang-ho (who is a star in his native land) gets the chance to show many different sides to being a man getting by somehow in today’s society. This is a must-see, even if you don’t get hyped for scary films! I had passes to a free screening at Landmark E St the night before opening.

School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls’ Play (Round House Theatre-Bethesda): SEPT 18-OCT 20

Pretty, popular H.S. senior, Paulina (Kashayna Johnson), longs to become Miss Ghana 1988; she’ll do whatever it takes to win the crown. Suddenly, there is a new student at the Aburi Girls Boarding School, Ericka (Claire Saunders), who arrives from America w/ dresses from Macy’s and the latest beauty products. With humorous lines, deep insight, and timeless themes, Jocelyn Bioh’s award-winning comedy (sold out last year off-Broadway) reveals much about all of us, not just teenage girls.

The teen girls are the focus of the story. Paulina is the “queen bee” who takes charge of her peers, yet carries deep insecurities. Ama (Awa Sal Secka) is a very smart senior looking forward to college w/ a serious boyfriend. All the girls are part of a choir; some ’80s music is featured in the play. Cousins Mercy (Debra Crabbe) and Gifty (Moriamo Temidayo Akibu) provide moments of humor. Mercy’s father is a doctor, but very careful w/ money; the girls want new clothes and shoes. Nana (Jade Jones) is the girl w/ a heart of gold who (eventually) finds a way to stand up for herself. Her stepmother put her on a strict diet, disapproving of her weight.

The adults in the story are former classmates- Headmistress Francis (Theresa Cunningham)- a motherly, no-nonsense woman and self-serving, elegant Miss Ghana 1968- Eloise Amponsah (Shirine Babb, a theater veteran). The headmistress wears traditional clothes, incl. headwraps; Miss Amponsah wears high heels and Western skirt suits. Though all her girls are excited re: the beauty pageant, Headmistress Francis insists that education comes first. Only one girl will be chosen to represent this school- everyone is sure it will be Paulina.

Acceptance, standards of beauty, colorism (experienced outside Africa as well), and pains of growing up are the main themes of this play. It starts out like a broad comedy, then you get to know the girls, and realize just how layered their lives are (as we find in real life). This play is being put on by a team of all women- how rare! Also, Round House Bethesda was renovated recently (w/ a upper level of seats); check it out for yourself if in the DMV area. I went to see this play on one of the PWYC nights and really enjoyed it!

Fairview (Woolly Mammoth Theatre): SEPT 9-OCT 6

Beverly insists the celebration for Grandma’s birthday be perfect. But her husband is useless, her sister is into the wine, and her daughter’s secrets are threatening to derail the day. Meanwhile, a group of spectators has put them all under surveillance. Soon the voyeurs launch an invasion on the festivities, forcing the family to battle for their very identities-Synopsis from Woolly web site

I didn’t know much re: this play (written by Pulitzer winner Jackie Sibblies Drury) when I went to see it (w/ my gal pal) on a recent Pay What You Can Night (PWYC) night. Two DC-based actors I’d seen several times before (Shannon Dorsey and Cody Nickell) were in the cast. Dorsey has been in recent Woolly productions; she’s a talented young lady under 30. Nickell is an experienced actor in his 40s; I’ve seen him perform before at The Folger (focused on Shakespeare).

Fairview is divided into 3 sections and runs w/o an intermission. In the first section, we see a domestic drama (w/ moments of humor) set in the home of an educated, upper-class black American family. The mom, Beverly (Nikki Crawford), is cooking dinner and worrying about making her mother’s 70th birthday special. The dad, Dayton (Samuel Ray Gates), is trying to help, yet also has time for joking around and being playful w/ his wife. He is relaxed and easygoing; they are still very much in love. The auntie, Beverly’s younger sister- Jasmine (Dorsey)- comes over w/ a bottle of wine and starts telling her sis to calm down. She starts to drink, complain, and stuff her mouth w/ cheese (which she was avoiding on a recent diet). The 17 y.o. daughter, Keisha (Chinna Palmer- a recent graduate of Howard), comes home after school and starts chatting w/ her aunt. Keisha is looking forward to college (she’s a good student, plays sports, and has several other extracurricular activities); she confides in Jasmine that she wants to take a year off. A call comes in from the uncle, a lawyer, whose flight will be late. This causes more anxiety for Beverly- a perfectionist- who still has veggies to cook and a cake to bake. They talk, laugh, and even dance around the house some. Suddenly, Beverly falls to the floor!

In the second part of the play, everything we just saw is acted over again, but w/o any dialogue (from the black family). Instead, we heard the (disembodied) voices of others observing this family. At first, I thought these were the voices of those who created this family drama story- producers, director, writers, etc. The most dominant voice is that of an arrogant white man, Jimbo (Nickell), who asks the others: “If you could be any race, which race would you choose? Why?” The first female voice is of Suze (Kimberly Gilbert), a white woman who is (from her commentary and tone) someone who considers herself to be “liberal” and “woke.” Another voice joins in, Mack (Christopher Dinolfo), declaring loudly and proudly that he wants to be Latino (or “Latinx”); he is a young gay man. The last voice is of Bets (Laura C. Harris) who is an immigrant from Russia w/ a strong accent; she has her own views (and points out that “everything in America is about race”). She would like to be a Slav (which is a different ethnicity, not race); this answer confuses the others. Jimbo wants to be black, as does Suze; she tells a story of how she was raised by a black nanny (who she loved). Yes, this play takes on The Help (written by Katherine Stockett), along w/ many other tales from pop culture (incl. The Cosby Show, Tyler Perry movies, various stereotypes- positive and negative- of black Americans).

In the third segment, the play really amps us, as the (white) voices we just heard insert themselves into the story of the black family! Jimbo takes on the role of the uncle, dressed like he belongs in a hip hop music video, and speaking as if straight from “the streets” (African American vernacular). This made the audience laugh and also cringe, recognizing the (blatant/persistent) ways black men are portrayed in media even today. Keisha goes upstairs to get her granny for dinner- Suze emerges wearing a classy white gown and turban-style headdress decorated with gold. She walks slowly down and joins the family at the table. Suze is appalled by the way Jimbo is talking, of course. Suddenly, there is a knock at the door; Mack (dressed in neon colors, wearing blonde fake braids) dances into the story. He is meant to be Keisha’s classmate- a girl– who is on the track team and her best friend. It was hinted before that Keisha may have feelings for this girl. Mack is so flamboyant that the audience cringed (yet had to laugh). This is an unique story! The black family and the observers sit down to eat, but tensions arise, and tempers get hot. Mack declares that Keisha is pregnant, pulling out a home pregnancy test. Keisha is shocked, as her friend was bringing over some homework. Beverly is stunned and disappointed. Suze tries to stay calm, saying she will accept what happens, and be supportive of her family.

Keisha knows something is wrong, but what exactly!? Bets pops out from behind a large family portrait, declaring herself to be the grandmother! She is dressed in a tight gold gown w/ matching turban; underneath, she is wearing an (obvious) fake butt. By this point, a few of the audience is still confused; others are howling w/ laughter (recognizing the ridiculous ways these white characters are trying to be part of the story which doesn’t belong to them). Suze and Bets get in a fight, as Suze objects to this version of the grandmother. Jimbo and Mack get into it also; they run about yelling and breaking apart the set (the family home). There is noise and mayhem for some moments. Keisha, as well as the audience, is trying to figure out what happened and how the story will end! Finally, Keisha confronts Suze- the white feminist/woke ally- and declares that she’s tired of being living under scrutiny (“the white gaze”).

Why are these white voices/characters turning this nice family story into a stereotype? This was one of my thoughts at the start of the third section. Then I realized that maybe the family was already a (positive) stereotype at the start of the play? Near the end, Keisha realizes that these white people have taken over her family, her story, and her future (as she imagined it)! Why can’t she (and other people of color) just tell their own stories, and white people (majority culture, esp. here in the US) give them some space? Why do we POC have to live our lives as if being watched (and judged) by whites? When is it our time to control the narrative? The play ends in an (unexpected) way; I haven’t seen anything like that before!