They both like the beach, poetry, spicy food, and slaughtering cruel despots. They'll make a perfect couple.
The above posters for We Were Strangers, one of which seems celebratory and another that is more dramatic, could give the impression of a studio that wasn't sure what kind of film it was trying to market. Legendary director John Huston made a habit of confounding executive suites, and here produced a film that probably came close to sending studio bigwigs plummeting in despair off high ledges. The story is set in Cuba during the early 1930s rule of dictator Gerardo Machado y Morales, and deals with revolutionaries who devise a plot to tunnel from a house near a graveyard to the site of a funeral they know the president will attend, and blow him to kingdom come with dynamite.
The movie stars John Garfield and Jennifer Jones, and is beautifully shot, but the characters aren't well written, nor are the performances sufficiently involving. There's nice action, though, especially at the climax. Since the central personalities are revolutionaries in Cuba, many critics denounced the film as Marxist propaganda, which it really isn't. It's just historical drama with unavoidable economic context. You wouldn't think it would be terribly controversial to say that for Americans to live income-wise far above the global average, substantial portions of the world must remain stuck below it, but on the other hand maybe it's understandable that we want to avoid thinking about how earning a nice profit is usually dependent upon others providing raw goods and hard work dirt cheap.
It's a shame the film isn't good enough to sweeten its message with high level drama and thrills. Huston was a workmanlike director who, despite helming numerous classics, wasn't any sort of auteur. He tried to tell stories in ways he felt was best for the material, but he also loved travel, which led him to accept projects based on the potential for exotic location work. Sometimes, as in The African Queen, he struck gold. Other times, as here, he spent a lot of investment capital and made a lot of Hollywood suits cry. We Were Strangers will be of interest to Havanaphiles, but in what was a famously up and down career, this effort comes out on the lower end of the Huston scale. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1949.
Rat-a-tat-tat, all the men fall flat.
Above is a promo image of the wonderful Jennifer Jones, made for her 1948 Cuba adventure We Were Strangers, in which she played a character with the amazing name China Valdez. Wanna see her use that gun? If you watch the film, which was directed by John Huston, you'll see it happen during one of the most action packed climaxes in ’40s cinema, though the actual movie isn't one of Jones's nor the great Huston's best.
The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world it was an adventure film.
Above, a beautiful poster for John Huston's love-it-or-hate-it comedic African film Beat the Devil, which premiered in the U.S. today in 1954 and starred Humphrey Bogart, Gina Lollobrigida, Jennifer Jones, and Peter Lorre. This poster, while cool, is completely misleading. Beat the Devil is not an adventure. When it was made there was no category for it, but today such movies are called "camp." Only over time have audiences come to understand it. We wrote about it awhile ago and shared a Belgian poster, here.
You know the saying there’s a thin line between love and hate? Duel in the Sun shows just how thin.
Duel in the Sun was a huge movie. We mean important stars, vibrant Technicolor, David O. Selznick in the producer’s chair, King Vidor directing the action, and a gigantic promotional budget. It’s a movie made by people absolutely sure they’re dealing with the hit of the year. Not because the movie is good. But because with so many important people involved it simply had to succeed. And like so many other movies of that stripe, its failures are manifold. We could talk about the overcooked score, the bombastic acting, the improbable script, and more, but there’s no point. Let’s just say a story about two people who love each other so much they end up shooting each other in the final scene is going to be hard to pull off under the best of circumstances. Spoiler alert, by the way. Or were we supposed to write that first?
Well, in any case, the best of circumstances are not those provided by Duel in the Sun’s old West backdrop. Still, though, if a movie is big enough it can bludgeon people into acceptance, and Duel in the Sun today rates well on various review sites. But all of those reviewers are wrong. And the funny thing is they know it, too. They all say things like, “Preposterous but worth the ticket price because it’s beautifully shot.” One critic calls it “fragmented and ultimately destroyed by its obsessive producer,” yet goes on to give it a positive recommendation. You see what we mean? Even professional critics sometimes suffer from cognitivedissonance. A movie that is destroyed by its producer is not good—period—and movie going shouldn’t be a mercy fuck.
On the plus side, Gregory Peck is always fun to watch and Jennifer Jones as the dusky Pearl Chavez cannot fail to stir something inside you, but the whole proposition is just silly. Really. If you want to see a big studio flick implode spectacularly, this may be the one. And if you want to know how studios began to understand that they didn’t need to make good movies to make money, this is a prime example, because in adjusted currency it remains one of the most successful productions of all time. But at least the promo poster is a total winner. It was made for the movie’s Japanese premiere, which was today in 1951.
American actress Jennifer Jones, seen here in a promo shot from her movie Duel in the Sun, 1946.
Beat the Devil flopped in 1954 but today is appreciated as pioneering camp cinema.
We’ll tell you right now that we are not neutral when it comes to John Huston’s Beat the Devil. We love it. It has Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Gina Lollobrigida, and the exquisite Jennifer Jones, so we loved it immediately. If only audiences had felt the same. The movie was such a flop that not only did it lose money, but its copyright went unrenewed, causing it lapse into public domain. But keen observers, after they got over being misled by the promotional campaign into thinking the movie was a standard Hollywood adventure, soon realized that what they had on their hands was something new—a camp satire bringing together some of the most distinct voices of 1950s cinema.
And we mean voices literally. You have Humphrey Bogart with his famous lisp, Gina Lollobrigida with her vampy Italian drawl, Jennifer Jones trying on an English lilt, Peter Lorre with his trademark Germanic accented sniveling, and more. The accents are your first clue that the movie is going to be all over the place.
The plot concerns a group of raggedy adventurers who hope to buy uranium-rich land in East Africa. Problem is, they need to get there. Seems straightforward enough, but the cosmos itself is aligned against them—cars fail, boats sink, betrayals ensue, information gets garbled, and just about any other obstacle you can imagine appears.
But Beat the Devil isn’t slapstick. It’s satire, which means it isn’t funny in a conventional way. In fact, maybe there isn’t a real laugh in the entire movie. Yet you have to smile when Marco Tulli introduces Peter Lorre’s character O’Hara as O’Horror, you have to marvel at Jennifer Jones’ crazy accent that sounds like an English version of Bogart’s lisp, and you have to watch with heightened interest during her famous calesthenics sequence, in which she has an entire conversation with Gina Lollobrigida while doing... well, we don't know what she's doing, but it looks like this.
Despite these and other charms, Beat the Devil is polarizing. Bogart declared that only phonies liked it. Huston, on the other hand, was well aware of its uniqueness and even told Jennifer Jones—who had already been nominated for four Academy Awards and had won once—that Beat the Devil would be one of her most remembered roles. True enough. The French and Dutch language poster you see above is for the Belgian release, and was put together by S.P.R.L. Belgique. Beat the Devil opened in France today, and Belgium this month in 1954.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1930—Movie Censorship Enacted
In the U.S., the Motion Pictures Production Code is instituted, imposing strict censorship guidelines on the depiction of sex, crime, religion, violence and racial mixing in film. The censorship holds sway over Hollywood for the next thirty-eight years, and becomes known as the Hays Code, after its creator, Will H. Hays.
1970—Japan Airlines Flight 351 Hijacked
In Japan, nine samurai sword wielding members of the Japanese Communist League-Red Army Faction hijack Japan Airlines flight 351, which had been en route from Tokyo to Fukuoka. After releasing the passengers, the hijackers proceed to Pyongyang, North Koreas's Mirim Airport, where they surrender to North Korean authorities and are given asylum.
1986—Jimmy Cagney Dies
American movie actor James Francis Cagney, Jr., who played a variety of roles in everything from romances to musicals but was best known as a quintessential tough guy, dies of a heart attack at his farm in Stanfordville, New York at the age of eighty-six.
1951—The Rosenbergs Are Convicted of Espionage
Americans Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage as a result of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. While declassified documents seem to confirm Julius Rosenberg's role as a spy, Ethel Rosenberg's involvement is still a matter of dispute. Both Rosenbergs were executed on June 19, 1953.
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