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.

Hitchcock in Color: “Rope”(1948) starring James Stewart, John Dall, & Farley Grainger

1. The story unravels in typical Hitchcock fashion. The suspense is built, then lessened by some well timed comedy, and then built again to a final crescendo.

2. The dialogue is natural and flowing. The finest bit of timing involves a swinging kitchen door, the rope, and the fear of discovery.

3. ..it seems to be a very modern film.

4. There’s plenty of black humor throughout.

5. He manages to fit in many of his trademark angles and closeups in, without it seeming forced.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Grainger- later starred in Strangers on a Train) are two young men who share a spacious NYC apt. They consider themselves “intellectually superior” to their friend, David Kentley, and decide to murder him. In the first scene, they strangle David (w/ a rope), place the body in an old chest, and hold a small party. The guests incl. David’s father, his fiancée Janet (Joan Chandler), and their former prep school housemaster, Rupert Caddell (James Stewart). While Brandon is cocky and keeps joking, Philip is fearful (esp. since Rupert is at the party).

The story was loosely based on the (real-life) case of Leopold and Loeb, two wealthy students at the University of Chicago who in 1924 kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old boy. They committed the murder (called “the crime of the century”) as a demonstration of their perceived intellectual superiority, which, they thought, enabled them to carry out a “perfect crime” and absolved them of responsibility for their actions. This movie is very different from Patrick Hamilton’s play which was set in England. Sir Alfred Hitchcock made his own adaptation w/ Hume Cronyn (also a prolific character actor); they created new dialogue and characters for this adaptation.

This is Hitchcock’s first movie filmed in color and also his shortest (w/ a running time near 80 mins). The theatrical trailer features footage shot specifically for the ad that takes place before the beginning of the movie. David (the victim) sits on a park bench and speaks with Janet before leaving to meet Brandon and Phillip. Stewart narrates the sequence, noting that’s the last time Janet (and the audience) would see him alive. This movie, considered the director’s most controversial (at that time), was banned in several American cities b/c of the implied homosexuality of Phillip and Brandon.

Rope was filmed entirely in the studio, except for the opening credits (where we see the street outside the apt). The clouds seen out the window were made out of fiberglass. Hitchcock created a (new) way of editing by making the movie look like one continuous shot. He later said that the 10 min. takes were “a stunt” (a challenge for himself). Most of the props and some of the walls were movable. The cast had to avoid tripping on cables on the floor, b/c of the moving cameras and lighting.

This is the kind of movie that you need to see more than once to appreciate, esp. if you saw it as a teen or young adult. There are undercurrents that less mature viewers may not get, particularly the nature of the relationship between the two killers. Stewart is one of my faves, but some critics/viewers have commented that this “dark” role would’ve suited someone like James Mason better. This was the only movie Stewart made with Hitchcock that he did not like; he felt miscast as the professor. The actor was paid $300,000 (a huge portion of the $1.5M budget). The first choices for Philip and Rupert were Montgomery Clift and Carey Grant, but they both passed (due to the gay subtext).

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!

JxJ Film Festival: Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles

The origin story behind one of Broadway’s most beloved musicals, Fiddler on The Roof, and its creative roots in early 1960s New York, when “tradition” was on the wane as gender roles, sexuality, race relations and religion were evolving. -IMDB synopsis

In the early 20th century, Jews and Orthodox Christians live in the little village of Anatevka in the pre-revolutionary Russia (when Czars ruled). The poor milkman Reb Tevye has been married for 25 yrs to Golde and they have five daughters . When the local matchmaker, Yente, arranges the match between his eldest daughter Tzeitel and the old widowed butcher Lazar Wolf, Tevye agrees to the wedding. However, Tzeitel is in love with the poor tailor Motel Kamzoil; they “gave each other a pledge” to someday get married. After seeing the couple so happy, Tevye begins to rethink some of the traditions he assumed would continue…

This was my favorite film (of the six that I saw) of this year’s festival; it’s a funny, educational, and touching doc (featuring Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda, veteran actor Austin Pendelton, cultural critic Fran Lebowitz, and many others influenced by the beloved and timeless musical). The theater was full (or nearly full) during the two showings. Did you know that several of the team who came up with the lyrics, music, dances, etc. are still alive?

We get to hear from theater greats like Harold Prince (producer), Sheldon Harnick (songwriter), and Calvin Trillin (writer). Several discuss the innovation, as well as the emotional/verbal abuse, of Jerome Robbins (the very talented choreographer). Robbins was a “conflicted Jew” and controversial figure because he revealed names to the HUAC. It turns out that he was a closeted gay man seeking to protect his privacy.

A youthful Norman Jewison (who directed the very popular 1971 movie) is seen directing a scene featuring Tevye (Chaim Topol, an actor from Israel who worked mainly on the London stage). Did you know that Jewison (who worked on many socially-conscious films) isn’t Jewish? Though Tevye is the center of the story, dreaming of being a rich man, talking to God, and trying to be the breadwinner, his three (independent-minded) daughters propel the story forward.

Stage/film actresses from different generations talk re: portraying Tevye’s practical wife (Golda), eldest daughter (Tzeitel), witty middle daughter (Hodel), and the gentle/shy one (Chava). Each daughter has (what we call these days) a love marriage. It was shocking to the family when Chava ran off to marry a Russian (not Jewish) boy; this action had more serious consequences in that time period and community.

The (timeless) themes of Fiddler on the Roof have made the play popular worldwide; we get to see clips from a professional performance in Japan and one from school kids in Brooklyn and Thailand. Non-Jewish creative types, including Gurinder Chada (best known for the British indie hit Bend it Like Beckham), talk about how the tale has influenced their works. Miranda even used the song “To Life” in his wedding reception; he, his father-in-law, and members of the wedding party surprised his wife! The doc wraps up w/ how the plight of (modern) refugees is not unlike Tevye’s family.