Ian McShane as Flight Sergeant Andy Moore, Royal Air Force pilot
England, Summer 1940
Film: Battle of Britain
Release Date: September 15, 1969
Director: Guy Hamilton
Wardrobe Credit: Bert Henrikson
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Today commemorates the anniversary of a decisive aerial battle in the skies over England that marked one of the first substantial Allied victories in World War II. Luftwaffe attacks on British ports and fleets had launched the Battle of Britain in June 1940, followed by sporadic and deadly raids that culminated with a German attempt to essentially eradicate any British defenses to clear the way for Operation Sea Lion, Hitler’s intended invasion of England. On September 15, two waves of German attacks on London were successfully repelled by the Royal Air Force and the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy, primarily the No. 11 Group RAF, a decisive defense that prompted then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill to famously declare: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
29 years later to the day, Battle of Britain was released in the grand tradition of star-studded war epics, boasting a talented cast that included Michael Caine, Trevor Howard, Kenneth More, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Robert Shaw, and a relative newcomer named Ian McShane. Continue reading
Cary Grant as Walter Eckland, crude and reluctant wartime coast-watcher
Pacific Islands, Spring 1942
Film: Father Goose
Release Date: December 10, 1964
Director: Ralph Nelson
Costume Designer: Ray Aghayan (uncredited)
Last month, I reflected on the elegant white suit that Cary Grant wore at the start of his stylish career in the pre-Code drama Hot Saturday. More than 30 years later, Grant was firmly established as one of the most charming—and enduringly best-dressed—stars of the era, subverting his screen reputation for his penultimate movie, the World War II-set comedy Father Goose opposite Leslie Caron. Continue reading
Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty, impulsive drifter based on Beat Generation figure Neal Cassady
New York to San Francisco, via New Orleans, Winter 1949
Film: On the Road
Release Date: October 12, 2012
Director: Walter Salles
Costume Designer: Danny Glicker
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Yesterday was the 65th anniversary of when On the Road was published on September 5, 1957. Jack Kerouac’s seminal Beat Generation novel had been years in the making, beginning with his continuous, single-spaced 120-page “scroll” that he typed across three weeks in April 1951, almost immediately after returning from the last of the book’s depicted travels.
With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road. Before that I’d often dreamed of going West to see the country, always vaguely planning and never taking off. Dean is the perfect guy for the road because he actually was born on the road, when his parents were passing through Salt Lake City in 1926, in a jalopy, on their way to Los Angeles.
Though Kerouac hardly shied away from including seedier details of his friend’s life, On the Road became something of a hagiography centered around Dean Moriarty, the alter ego he developed for his real-life pal Neal Cassady. With the same excitement of the Dexter Gordon, Lionel Hampton, and George Shearing performances they celebrate, the impulsive Dean steals the spotlight much as he and his fellow travelers steal to support their travels, or offset “the cost of living”, as they rationalize.
Despite considerable interest—including from the author himself—in cinematic adaptations, it wouldn’t be until more than a half-century passed that cameras would finally roll on bringing On the Road to the screen. Francis Ford Coppola had held the rights since 1979, holding on through decades of development hell until the artistic critical success of The Motorcycle Diaries encouraged him to hand over the reins to director Walter Salles and writer José Rivera. Salles again collaborated with cinematographer Éric Gautier, whose photography brought mid-century America back to life across the small towns, sandy deserts, and snowy hillsides that resisted generations of change.
Garrett Hedlund’s appropriately kinetic performance as the dangerously charismatic Dean also emerged as one of the strongest aspects of Salles’ On the Road adaptation, with Owen Gleiberman writing for Entertainment Weekly that “the best thing in the movie is Garrett Hedlund’s performance as Dean Moriarty, whose hunger for life—avid, erotic, insatiable, destructive—kindles a fire that will light the way to a new era.” Continue reading
Rock Hudson as Bob Merrick, conscience-stricken millionaire and ex-medical student
Brightwood, New York, Spring 1949
Film: Magnificent Obsession
Release Date: August 4, 1954
Director: Douglas Sirk
Costume Designer: Bill Thomas (gowns)
German-born director Douglas Sirk and actor Rock Hudson had collaborated on nine movies throughout the 1950s, though their association may be best remembered for a trio of lush Technicolor melodramas beginning with Magnificent Obsession, released 68 years ago this month in August 1954. Continue reading
Dan Seymour as Angel Garcia, gangland gofer
Key Largo, Florida, Summer 1948
Film: Key Largo
Release Date: July 16, 1948
Director: John Huston
Wardrobe Credit: Leah Rhodes
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
One of the most familiar—if under-credited—faces of the 1940s, the distinctive-looking character actor Dan Seymour was often cast as a sinister local in an “exotic” setting. Seymour’s most prominent movies starred his friend Humphrey Bogart, including his performance as Moroccan doorman Abdul in Casablanca, a corrupt Martinican official in To Have and Have Not, and mob lackey Angel Garcia in Key Largo, John Huston’s moody noir set in a storm-isolated tropical hotel. Continue reading
Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta, ambitious middleweight boxing contender
The Bronx, Summer 1941
Film: Raging Bull
Release Date: December 19, 1980
Director: Martin Scorsese
Costume Design: John Boxer & Richard Bruno
Today would have been the 100th birthday of Jake LaMotta, the tough middleweight boxer born July 10, 1922 who was cinematically immortalized by Robert De Niro’s Oscar-winning performance in Raging Bull. Now considered one of the best movies ever made, Raging Bull was adapted by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin from LaMotta’s similarly titled autobiography, inspired by his own nickname “the Bronx Bull”. Continue reading
Anthony Quinn as Colonel Andrea Stavros, tough Greek officer
Middle East, Fall 1943
Film: The Guns of Navarone
Release Date: April 27, 1961
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Wardrobe Credit: Monty M. Berman & Olga Lehmann
Seersucker Thursday may be one of the few remaining bipartisan aspects of American politics. Inspired by the practice of early 20th century congressmen donning their tailored seersucker suits, Mississippi Senator Trent Lott reinstated the tradition in 1996, to be observed by men and women of the Senate on the second or third Thursday in June to coincide with National Seersucker Day, a standing celebration of the cool-wearing cloth.
There have certainly been more elegant showcases of seersucker suits in cinematic history, but one of the toughest examples can be seen with The Guns of Navarone‘s introduction of Colonel Andrea Stavros, the pipe-smoking officer of the Hellenic Army’s 19th Motorized Division. Continue reading
Charlton Heston as CAPT Matthew Garth, U.S. Naval Aviator
Pearl Harbor to Midway Island, Spring 1942
Release Date: June 18, 1976
Director: Jack Smight
Many familiar with World War II history are familiar with the significance of Monday’s date as, on June 6, 1944, the Allies landed at Normandy in northern France as part of the “D-Day” invasion that laid the groundwork for the eventual Allied victory. Two years earlier, the Americans had been engaged in yet another decisive battle that would turn the tide of the second World War.
The Battle of Midway had commenced 80 years ago today on June 4, 1942, following intelligence gathered by the U.S. Navy that allowed it to prepare for a counterattack against the Imperial Japanese Navy. Three days of battle followed, with American forces destroying all four Japanese fleet carriers that had engaged and—in both a tactical and symbolic victory—had also been part of the six-carrier force that attacked Pearl Harbor six months earlier.
Though the Americans also suffered the loss of a carrier, a destroyer, and approximately 150 aircraft, casualties were considerably higher on the Japanese side (including nearly double the amount of aircraft lost), marking an early turning point of the Pacific War in favor of the Allies and which historian John Keegan has called “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.”
In addition to an 18-minute color documentary directed during the battle by John Ford, the Battle of Midway has been the subject of two major movies, mostly recently in 2019. A star-studded retelling of the battle and its lead-up was produced by The Mirisch Company in 1976, starring—among many others—Henry Fonda as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet. Having served in the Navy in real life during World War II, Fonda had actually partly narrated Ford’s 1942 documentary and also appeared as an unnamed admiral inspired by Nimitz in the 1965 epic In Harm’s Way.
The cast was rounded out by both established international stars from Robert Mitchum to Toshiro Mifune and relative newcomers like Dabney Coleman, Erik Estrada, and a non-mustached Tom Selleck. Being made just over 30 years after World War II ended meant a number of actual veterans among its cast; in addition to Fonda, Glenn Ford, Charlton Heston, Hal Holbrook, Cliff Robertson, and Robert Webber had all served.
Though most of its characters are real-life figures, Midway centers around a fictionalized hero in the form of naval aviator CAPT Matthew Garth (Heston), for whom the battle presents the culmination of his increasing personal and professional troubles. Continue reading
Robert Cummings as Barry Kane, civilian aircraft mechanic
From Glendale, California, into the High Desert, Spring 1942
Release Date: April 22, 1942
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock’s wartime thriller Saboteur—not to be confused with his earlier movie Sabotage—was released 80 years ago this month. Though production began just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the idea had actually been months in the making after Hitch’s original pitch to David O. Selznick. “We were in 1941 and there were pro-German elements who called themselves America Firsters and who were, in fact, American Fascists. This was the group I had in mind while writing the scenario,” Hitchcock later explained to François Truffaut.
Despite his traditional elements of the wronged man, the beautiful blonde, and the “MacGuffin,” Hitch identified several disappointments with Saboteur, most notably in the casting of his two heroes and the villain. Of leading male star Robert Cummings, who portrayed the accused saboteur, Hitch commented to Truffaut that “he’s a competent performer, but he belongs to the light-comedy class of actors,” though this wouldn’t stop him from casting him a decade later in a strong supporting role in Dial M for Murder. Continue reading
Bradley Cooper as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, opportunistic carny-turned-nightclub mentalist
Buffalo, New York, Winter 1941
Film: Nightmare Alley
Release Date: December 17, 2021
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Costume Designer: Luis Sequeira
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
On the eve of the 94th Academy Awards, I wanted to revisit the “golden era” style of quadruple-nominee Nightmare Alley, Guillermo del Toro’s evocatively photographed adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel of the same name. Continue reading