Category Archives: American Culture

Posts to do with American culture, places, and history excluding WW2 history

FORGOTTEN HOLLYWOOD: Captain Newman, M.D. (1963)

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For my final entry in the Forgotten Hollywood series, I would like to draw attention to a film that is similarly about transitions. Based loosely on a true story, Captain Newman, M.D. (1963) is about Capt. Josiah Newman (Gregory Peck), the head of the neuro-psychiatric ward at a military hospital during WWII. Throughout the film, he and his staff treat a range of patients dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder and other mental ailments. It’s an episodic structure, one that would have lent itself well to a proposed television adaptation.

This setting allows for the supporting actors to indulge to the expected histrionics, chewing the scenery in their respective scenes while Peck falls back on his reliable movie star charisma. These are the performances that garnered critical attention and an Oscar nomination of Bobby Darin as Cpl. Jim Tomkins. However, there is an exception. A relative newcomer at the time, Robert Duvall plays Capt. Paul Winston, who spends much of the film in a catatonic state until one of the final scenes.

I will not spoil the specifics of this moment, but it becomes clear that we are witnessing the birth of a new generation of actor, the type who would dominate the next decade of Hollywood. He goes small rather than big. He whispers were others had projected. His pain and shame are internalised rather than put on display. Instead of a brightly lit room surrounded by an audience of orderlies and nurses, this scene takes place in the shadows and in close-ups, with only him and Peck. Especially when compared to his co-stars, Duvall’s performance reveals a transition not only in dominant acting styles but also in how we remember WWII.

WWII is fading from living memory. Soon, we will be left with nothing but shadows and flickering lights in the likeness of the dead. The heartbreak of I’ll Be Seeing You and the cautionary tale of None Shall Escape are losing their immediacy. The names of Sessue Hayakawa, Preston Sturges, and Anna May Wong are being forgotten. The treatment of Japanese Americans at home and abroad is being elided from our shared memory. With this series, I had hoped to help revitalise interest in these stories and storytellers, a Sisyphean task. They too are fading.

Beyond cinema, I reflect on my time here at the 2AD Memorial Library, on how we memorlise WWII. Scrawled notes on scraps of paper. Faded photographs. Names in a roll of honour. If we do not preserve these stories, they will be lost. How will we remember this time in history? How will we share these stories with others? For this, I am grateful for institutions like the 2AD Memorial Trust. We have a responsibility to keep these stories alive, even as the style of their telling changes over time.

If you want to learn more about the story of Captain Newman, you can reserve a copy of Leo Rosten’s Captain Newman, M.D. (1961). The film adaptation is available on DVD at the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library.

Thank you.

-Francis

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AMERICAN ANIMATION: John Sutherland Productions

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John Sutherland Productions / Public Domain

In the late 1940s and 1950s, United Productions of America (UPA) came under attack by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for their subversive politics. At the same time, a new animation studio was on the rise. John Sutherland Production – named after the former Disney animator and voice of Bambi – positioned itself as a bastion against Communism by instructing viewers on the virtues of Individual liberty and free enterprise. Often, these projects were commissioned by various conservative institutions – including Harding College, the US government, and various private businesses – with an investment in unfettered capitalism.

Despite being its political opposite, John Sutherland Productions often aped the modernist and minimalist aesthetics of UPA. As the studio head, John Sutherland himself focused on the stories and scripts of his films, paying little to no attention to the art direction and animation. He was also willing to hire former UPA animators – such as Bill Melendez and Bill Scott – and gave them relative creative freedom. As a result, the subversive styles pioneered by leftist artists were appropriated and repurposed for corporate and government propaganda. It makes for an interesting contradiction between form and content, to say the least.

In a brief survey of John Sutherland Productions, we can see their steady adoption of the UPA style while they continued to promote capitalist values at the behest of conservative institutions.

Make Mine Freedom (1948) – Produced for Harding College, Sutherland’s more famous production depicts the sinister Dr. Utopia trying to trick American workers with the promise of ISM.

A is for Atom (1953) – General Electric uses animation to depict complex and microscopic scientific concepts in order to show convince views of the wonderful non-military uses of atomic energy.

It’s Everybody’s Business (1954) – Presented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, this instructional short makes a connection between the Bill of Rights and modern capitalism.

Destination Earth (1956) – By the time John Sutherland Productions was making this short for the American Petroleum Institute, they had embraced UPA’s modern graphics in the process of endorsing laissez-faire capitalism.

Rhapsody of Steel (1959) – In their most expensive and acclaimed film, John Sutherland Production partook in US Steel’s campaign against imports and alternative building materials. It is a culmination of the studio’s work graphically and politically.

If you want to learn more about America’s Cold War propaganda during the fifties, be sure to check out Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad (Kenneth Osgood, 2006) from the 2AD Memorial Library.

-Francis

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FORGOTTEN HOLLYWOOD: Anna May Wong

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Anna May Wong circa 1935 │ Paramount Pictures

Anna May Wong holds the distinction of being Hollywood’s first Chinese American movie star. Despite this status, she and her films – including those produced during WWII – are largely forgotten.

Wong’s career began in the silent era, where she specialized in the stereotypical roles the film industry offered her – many Madame Butterflies and Dragon ladies. Her only remarkable film from this time was The Toll of the Sea (1922), the first Hollywood film shot in Technicolor.

She had better luck in Europe, most notably with the British silent classic Piccadilly (1929), which featured her best and most iconic performance. Many forget that she technically wasn’t the lead given how much she dominates the film. However, Wong couldn’t stay away from home forever, and she returned home in the 1930s.

Once again, she was offered the same stereotypical roles that had defined her early career. In Daughter of the Dragon (1931), she played the scion of Fu Manchu (Warner Oland in yellowface). B-movies – such as Daughter of Shanghai (1937) and When Were You Born? (1938) – offered more nuanced roles, but Wong best chance came with China-set epic The Good Earth (1937). However, the Hays Code prevented her from being cast opposite a white actor (Paul Muni in yellowface), and she lost the lead to Luise Rainer. As consolation, Wong was offered the part of the villain, to which she famously replied: “You’re asking me – with my Chinese blood – to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture, featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.”

Although her relationship with China was strained due to her stereotypical roles, Wong used her position in Hollywood to support the Chinese cause against the Japanese invasion. As a part of her advocacy, Wong starred in a set of low-budget propaganda films.

In Bombs Over Burma (1942), Wong plays school teacher Lin Ying, who thwarts a foreign agent sabotaging a vital supply convey. The film is undermined by a weak story that’s been stretched to 60 minutes, with a significant portion of the runtime padded with stock footage.

Lady from Chungking (1942) is a better showcase for Wong’s talents as well as a better film overall. She plays Kwan Mei, a village leader who infiltrates the Japanese army to rescue downed American pilots. The movie still suffers from a low budget, with much of the action taking place off screen.

Aside from the novelty of seeing heroic Chinese characters in American productions, neither of these films are forgotten masterpieces. They are shoddily constructed and stiltedly written. But none of that means that they are unimportant or undeserving of a place in the history of WWII cinema.

Wong’s career has been defined by lost opportunity. Many of her films are lost or nearly impossible to obtain. Every copy of her ground-breaking television programme The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (1951) was destroyed by the studio. Her chance at a starring role in a major Hollywood production was undermined by the racism of the Hays Code and studio hiring practices. And at the age 56, just before her planned comeback in Flower Drum Song (1961), she died of a heart attack. Hollywood failed Anna May Wong again and again. What little is left of her legacy should not be quickly discarded. She does not deserve to be forgotten.

If you want to learn more about the history of Chinese Americans and how Anna May Wong fits into it, be sure to check out The Chinese in America: A Narrative History (Iris Chang, 2003) from the 2AD Memorial Library. Her films Toll of the SeaBombs Over Burma, and Lady from Chungking are all in the public domain and can be watched for free above and on the Internet Archive.

-Francis

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Top 11 Jimmy Stewart Performances

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James Stewart leaning against a railing at Old Buckenham airbase. | 2AD Digital Archive

In honour of the 111st birthday of the 2nd Air Division’s own James Stewart, here’s a list of my eleven favourite performances by the legendary actor.

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Warner Bros. Entertainment

1) David Graham in After the Thin Man (1936) – In this sequel to the hit film The Thin Man (1934), Stewart had his first noteworthy role, a seemingly nice guy with a dark secret.

2) Sen. Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) – Director Frank Capra helped establish Stewart’s iconic persona as small-town Americana in juxtaposition to big city cynicism.

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Warner Bros. Entertainment

3) Macauley “Mike” Connor in The Philadelphia Story (1940) – Stewart won his only Oscar for partaking in this love rectangle with Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, and Ruth Hussey.

4) George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – In his first film after returning from the war, Stewart reunited with Capra for their quintessential collaboration.

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NBC Universal

5) Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey (1950) – As the first film that I saw starring Stewart, this story about a man whose best friend is a giant invisible rabbit holds a special place in my heart.

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Warner Bros. Entertainment

6) Howard Kemp in The Naked Spur (1953) – For the first time since After the Thin Man, Stewart really embraces his nasty side as a greedy bounty hunter.

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NBC Universal

7) Glenn Miller in The Glenn Miller Story (1954) – While I’m not generally a fan of biopics, Stewart’s turn as the legendary trombonist is a highpoint for the genre.

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NBC Universal

8 and 9) L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries in Rear Window (1954) and Det. John “Scottie” Ferguson in Vertigo (1958) – Across these two collaborations with director Alfred Hitchcock, Stewart showed his malleability as an actor and hinted at the darkness and weakness that lay beneath his soft-spoken persona.

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Sony Pictures & Shows

10) Paul Biegler in Anatomy of a Murder (1959) – Once again, Stewart complicates the small-town persona he had honed under Capra, now portraying a self-described “humble country lawyer” who is anything but.

11) Ransom Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – As the intellectual Yankee to John Wayne’s swaggering cowboy, Stewart along with director John Ford deconstruct the Western myths these three men had helped create.

What do you think of this list? Are there any I’ve left out? What are your favourite Jimmy Stewart performances?

If you want to learn more about Jimmy Stewart, be sure to check out the following books from the 2AD Memorial Library:

  • Jimmy Stewart: A Life in Film (Roy Pickard, 1993)
  • Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot (Starr Smith, 2006)
  • Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend (Michael Munn, 2013)
  • Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (Robert Matzen, 2016)

-Francis

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