One Way Passage: A Tour Through Yesterday

After recently watching a “minor” work of the great British team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, “I Know Where I’m Going”, my wife asked me how I enjoyed the 1945 film, most of which was set in the rugged Scottish islands. I responded that though it wasn’t the most enjoyable film in some ways, it was like a visit to another land with interesting people and delightful customs.

That’s similar to how I felt upon revisiting the 1932 classic One Way Passage, directed by Tay Garnett (perhaps known best for 1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice). That, however, was a trip to another time, another kind of cinema, another set of stars. 1932 was an unusual time in films. Sound was most definitely now a part of film, and a new crew of stars had appeared. This is also known as the Pre-Code years, when films were experimenting with how risqué they could get, and were pressing boundaries until the real enforcement of the Code in 1934.

One Way Passage is surprisingly short film (a scant 67 minutes) that feels much fuller. It won the Oscar for Best Writing, Original Story, a precursor to the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award. To keep spoilers away, I can only say that it involves the meeting of a convicted criminal and a very sick young woman, and what happens after they meet aboard a ship.

It’s an extraordinary film for several reasons. It starts a pre-Thin Man William Powell, who delivers a beautiful performance as the criminal. If you’re only used to seeing him in his later work in the Thin Man series or even Life with Father, this early work is a revelation. His performance is delightful and he makes his character genuinely suave without an ounce of oil.

Even more fascinating is the all-but-forgotten Kay Francis. A clotheshorse extraordinaire at this time in American film, Francis had her best year in 1932, between this film and the Ernst Lubitsch classic Trouble in Paradise. There was no one like her before this, and there certainly has been no one like her since. Watch her for her smooth elegance, or her wardrobe, or her glamorous ennui, or even her inability to pronounce a solid “r,” but watch her. Her career was for a moment in time, and she perhaps more than anyone was destroyed by the infamous 1938 “Box Office Poison” article, which did ultimately little damage to Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford, Mae West, and Marlene Dietrich. Francis’s questionable life choices contributed to her descent at the box office as well, but this was Kay Francis at her lovely peak.

The subplots and supporting players are where the film shows its age—which is simply a descriptive rather than critical comment. The comic relief provided by Frank McHugh is most clearly a trip to another age. His bumbling drunk act and signature laugh can grow tiring quickly, and would never find a place in a more modern film. But it provides insight into what was once thought humorous, and shows us how the role of the supporting comedian has both evolved and in some ways has stayed pretty much the same.
The other supporting player is the wonderful Aline MacMahon (Oscar-nominated 13 years later for Dragon Seed, but a recognizable face for those familiar with ‘30s and ‘40s film). She is almost miscast here, and the narrative arc for her veers into the unbelievable, but she is a comic gem, and is funny and refreshing even now.

Take a trip back in time, especially in film time, and enjoy the lovely story and deft performances in One Way Passage. You’ll definitely enjoy the outing.

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The Two Great Film Anniversaries You Probably Didn’t Hear About

2015 is the one-hundred-year anniversary of two monumental events in the history of cinema. The fact you’re not hearing about them is two-fold: one is especially technical and most folks aren’t interested, and the other is being tragically choked out by political correctness.

The first is the centennial of Technicolor. I was blessed to see the touring exhibit, In Glorious Technicolor, at the George Eastman House in Rochester before it went to New York City and Vienna. As a complete film nerd, I was in cinema heaven watching the various film clips, seeing the cameras, reading the history of the technology and learning about the other landmark Technicolor masterpieces beyond the usual trilogy of The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, and Singin’ in the Rain.

I was also able to see one of the most beautifully photographed films in history, The Red Shoes, in glorious 35mm Technicolor in the accompanying film screenings. For fans of film and/or the technology, the exhibit was exhilarating. But for most folks, even those who love film, the whole thing might come off as a little technical and a big geeky.

The more important centenary was the 100-year anniversary of the release of the first great American cinematic masterwork, Birth of a Nation, directed by D.W. Griffith. A story of the Civil War and the early years of Reconstruction, including the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the film is a seminal work of film, and particularly American film. Griffith took what he’d learned in the various shorts he’d created in the previous half-dozen years (the filming was done in 1914), and essentially created modern film language in the one film. I could go on and on about the brilliance of the film, and how important it is in the history of the art form. Suffice it to say that in many ways, this film is the beginning of modern cinema, albeit in its silent form.

The reason we’re not hearing about this, of course, is because Birth of a Nation is not just a masterpiece, but a breathtakingly racist masterpiece. Though Griffith himself was not a mean or vindictive filmmaker (actually, quite the opposite), he, to use modern parlance, didn’t self-identify as a racist. This of course makes the film all the more fascinating and all the more a reflection of the man and of the time of the film’s creation. The entire situation is rife with possibilities of discussion and study.

The first film class I taught was History of American Film, and Birth of a Nation was a part of it. I no longer teach that specific class, and I’ve heard since teaching it that many similar classes around the country have dropped the film. Were I to go back to teaching that subject, I would reinstate the film posthaste. It needs to continue to be seen, and it needs to be studied.

Of course it’s a difficult film! Of course it presents scenarios and images that are repugnant and more than uncomfortable! But for two reasons, we need to keep it front and center in our studies of American film.

For one, it’s simply brilliant, and practically a miracle of filmmaking. Watching earlier works by various American directors sets Birth of a Nation in a context that needs to be understood to appreciate the film, and that demonstrates what a wonder it is technically. Any modern filmmaker can see that this film is a cinematic blossoming of a great variety of developments in cinematography, acting, camera movement, editing and more. To pull the film from view and from study creates a huge hole in our understanding of how film language evolved.

The second reason it needs to be studied is that we need to keep front and center the history of American and race. Certainly the study of race in American film must include this work. But to understand America itself, there are some things that simply can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. Our nation’s history with slavery, racism, and Jim Crow is part of who we’ve been, and still are to a great extent. Dropping the film from study isn’t going to make us a better people, only a more ignorant one.

It’s regrettable from a film history point of view that our first great masterwork is shot through with racial bigotry. But the fact remains that one of the great works of American film, and perhaps still the most important historically, contains a great deal of offensive racism. That’s part of who we were, and even today, art can also be offensive. Birth of a Nation is a work of art, and it’s also objectionable. To essentially ignore its 100th anniversary indicates a certain inability or lack of desire to wrestle with the issues of the film, and the issues of the undeniable fact of the film’s importance.

We can appreciate the film’s strengths while still understanding its weaknesses. To throw out the baby with the bathwater is essentially cowardly, and it damages a true understanding of film history in general and American film in particular. If you have the time and inclination, see Birth of a Nation and respond to it. (If you do, see the longest version you can find; believe it or not, the longest versions flow more easily than the shorter, choppy ones.)

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Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Somewhere in the middle of loud action, threatening dinosaurs and pixilated activities in films ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, Tom Cruise managed to release the latest film in the Mission Impossible series. Rogue Nation is one of the more intelligent in the series, and is a refreshing combination of action and Cold War spy thriller. It’s full of twists and turns, and features one of the best leading ladies in a recent action film.

Cruise just manages as an actor to get away with being an action star at this point. While he’s been slow to age, is still in shape and moves well, his face tells us that all the fighting and running has a certain shelf life. As a producer, though, he and his team have given us a great example of how to keep the energy and life in a franchise that could easily have lost its identity. It has elements of James Bond, but MI is not that series. It’s full of action, but is not any of those other mindless offerings. It’s opened and kept at number two, but has managed to entice a large number of viewers drawn to its more adult sensibilities.

The strongest asset in the film, and one that attests to the series’ attempts to address a more mature audience, is the presence of Rebecca Ferguson as the lead female. She’s pretty, of course, but far more interesting looking than that, and tougher than she is pretty. She isn’t 20 and scatterbrained, but 30-plus and a serious participant in the fight scenes. She’s easily Cruise’s equal in every scene, and it’s to the film’s benefit that there is no sex scene, and (spoiler alert) the expected kiss turns into a heartfelt hug that enriches the entire film.

As a film nerd, I was delighted to note that her striking resemblance to film legend Ingrid Bergman didn’t go unnoticed. Her name here is Ilsa, the same as Bergman’s in Casablanca, and some scenes take place in Morocco, specifically Casablanca. She never went to Rick’s, but I think we get the nudges.

Cruise also wisely shares the screen with accomplished actors who both hold their own, and likely bring out a stronger performance from their leading man. Jeremy Renner, who can’t seem to manage a successful lead in a film, does solid work, as does Simon Pegg, who pulls off the serious aspects of his character without losing his comic persona, not an easy task. Cruise underplays at times, offering a less intense performance, one punctuated by moments of his character’s being dizzy or suffering the effects of the previous scenes’ exertions. It adds a reality to the film and keeps Cruise from too much thespian couch-jumping.

One element worthy of more study than my mere mention is Cruise’s expected “can-you-top-this?” scene. Last time it was crawling on the outside of the world’s tallest building. Here he is “really, really” holding onto a plane as it ascends. There has been a great deal of press about this event, so we all know it’s real. Yet it is less than dazzling or tense. That’s because CGI had reached a point of simulation so real that the “reality” of the stunt doesn’t have the punch it should have. It just seems like a modern-day version of a matte shot. Let the cinematic speculation begin.

Renée Zellweger might have had Tom Cruise at “hello” in Jerry McGuire. MI:RN had me at “Nessun Dorma,” my favorite classical piece. It not only is featured dramatically a la the Albert Hall sequence toward the end of Hitchcock’s 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much, its main theme is used throughout as part of the background score. It lends the entire proceedings an elegance that enhances the entire film.

Cruise’s character of Ethan Hunt is not as exciting or iconic as others (e.g., Bond, nearly any action hero), but this latest offering keeps things exciting by all the questions consistently raised in the plot. Is she with us, or against us, or both? What is the Syndicate—is it real or fictional, and if either, what might that mean? Has the IMF really been canceled? Is the data, captured at such a cost, really worth anything? Is Ethan going to die? (OK, that last one is really never in doubt.)

Released July 31, this film is the perfect segue from summer action to more serious and thoughtful films that come in the fall. More intriguing than dazzling, providing more thought than action (of which it provides plenty), MI:RN is smart, full of quick turns, and introduces us to a fascinating new action star in its leading lady. For those waiting impatiently for Spectre (November 6 in the U.S.), try this in the meantime.

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Quick Takes: Inside Out, Ant-Man, Out of the Past

Been busy with the publication of book number two and the continuation of book number three! So here are some quick takes on what I’ve been seeing.

Inside Out

Pixar’s latest success in a long string of successes. Great vocal performances combined with creative animation and a solid and touching storyline. It was released in June among a number of gigantic moneymaking summer films and has been a bit ignored in the process. As with most Pixar films, this is one that appeals to adults as well as children; there are layers of understanding throughout the film’s many twists and turns. There is also a quick throwaway line about facts vs. opinions that had me laughing so loud and hard that I had to get myself under control.


Smart to release this in the summer when our brains are turned off. It’s a lot of fun, yet all over the place in tone and pace. But just making us sit in our seats to see an ant-sized “superhero” is a triumph of some kind in itself. Paul Rudd is not the perfect choice, but probably the best one around as the lead character. He’s not anywhere near as strong or macho as the other great leading man of the summer-Chris Pratt—but his off-the-charts likability is the thread that holds this together. Hats off to Oscar-winner Michael Douglas for taking his role seriously and holding his crucial part of the film together in terms of acting. A happy surprise is the solid work of Lost’s Evangeline Lilly, who’s been absent from any screen—big or small—recently. With these three at work, any danger of the film going off its rails has been contained.

Best friend Clint Morgan noticed that the special effects were uneven in quality (he has the eye for such things). But while Ant-Man is not in the class of the Avengers films or the first Iron Man film, it’s a fun diversion. It will probably fall out of your head in a day or two, but we’ll likely see sequels.

Out of the Past (1947)

To some, this Robert Mitchum/Jane Greer classic is the ultimate film noir. The new Blu-Ray version is knock-your-eyeballs-out gorgeous in its blacks and whites. The story occasionally veers into Big Sleep confusion at times, but Greer (who should have had a much bigger career) is perhaps the fatale-est of noir’s femme fatales. The film finds Mitchum relatively early in his career, when he was working harder and seemed fresher than he did later, when things got a little too stolid.

But beyond the acting and the look and the plot, this film has perhaps the best collection of hard-boiled noir lines of any film. I won’t quote any of them, so you can enjoy them all for yourself.

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Jurassic World

Jurassic World has two things going for it—state-of-the-art special effects and Chris Pratt. It’s also got a completely unoriginal plot line with cliché subplots, and is often poorly directed. And it’s the biggest moneymaker of the year, which is worth exploring for reasons outside of the purview of this blog.

This latest installment of the series is pretty much a reboot, with enough references to the original to be simultaneously cute and knowing, with little other effect. It’s essentially the first film reset into current times, but with sexual politics right out of the worst of the ‘80s.

There is nothing edgy or even fresh outside of the effects. It’s the same old story of innocents in danger, but with a little background of corporate greed. This is ironic to the max, as the film is also a first-rate example of the excesses of product placement, the extremes of which border on the absurd. The central “romance” has come under a great deal of deserved criticism, featuring the rather cold corporate female having to be “tamed” and defrosted by the rough-and-tumble male lead. There has been enough ink spilled on the ludicrousness of the female lead hiking, walking and running in her high heels; no need to beat a dead horse here.

There has also been deserved criticism of the lack of wonder in the film. This too is true, and even Spielberg’s production presence failed to provide that. Spielberg as a director knew how to bring the viewer back to the feelings of awe and surprise felt by a 10-year-old while not insulting one’s intelligence. That sense is not captured here. Director Colin Trevorrow has limited feature film experience, and it shows. Some of the early scenes are functional, with not much else. Some of the conversations, especially between Pratt and female lead Bryce Dallas Howard, are awkwardly directed, with bumpy editing and uneven conversational rhythms that were clearly not intentional.

The action scenes are more successful, and some are even beautifully timed and well executed. This is the film’s biggest strength, and obviously the factor that fills the seats. Logic needs to be suspended at times, sometimes greatly, during these scenes, especially when the people we come to care about rather magically escape harm, and when Pratt’s character can manage to ride his motorcycle smoothly through areas where dinosaurs have to jump over obstacles in their paths.

The acting, usually not a major component of the action adventure film, is run-of-the mill. The young brothers get off to a rough start (blame it on the script and director), but improve slightly throughout the film. Bryce Dallas Howard is a wildly inconsistent actress. She can nail a character sometimes and stay consistent throughout, as she did in The Help. She can also fail to locate the essence of her character and just “do her best” from scene to scene, as she does here. Her character doesn’t come off as particularly likable, which becomes more and more of a deficit as the film progresses and as she and Pratt’s character Owen supposedly grow closer. The eventual “creation of the couple” here ends up where you think it will, which is satisfying on a superficial level. But their basic incompatibility as two people casts a rather dark shadow over the pairing and its possible future.

But finally, and ultimately, there is Chris Pratt, doing a Julie Andrews in the new millennium. Her Oscar-winning Mary Poppins in 1964 was followed the next year by the juggernaut The Sound of Music, which put her stardom into the stratosphere. Pratt’s one-two punch was last year’s runaway surprise hit Guardians of the Galaxy, followed by this film. The single greatest attribute of both films is Pratt, though he is much more limited here in expression.. In GOTG, he was funny and cool in equal amounts. Here he is the traditional action hero, but is much straighter and serious. Yet his undeniable charisma and charm override the restrictions of his character, and he remains the glue—even more than the dinosaurs—that holds the films together. As has been said about only a handful of stars in the past, everyone likes him; men want to be him, or at least hang out with him, and women want to be with him.

To those who get the difference, Jurassic World is a movie, not a film. It’s escapist, mindless fare of the first order, and is therefore highly resistant to analysis and criticism. Yet that only makes it more of a challenge to try.

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New website coming next week!

My Friends:

I am launching a new website next week called “Dedicated to Grammar.” It’s for everyone, but aimed primarily at students and business professionals who want to sound and write more accurately. It’s not high-falutin’ and will be fun and easy.

Just go to and sign up for the weekly entries, which come on Tuesday. And if you want to know the play on words of the title, just click on “About.”


Mark DuPre

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The Garden of Allah (1936)

Such a curiosity! The film is visually stunning, stolid, lumpy and howlingly unbelievable. But it’s worth a look for several reasons.

The story is so out of our time as to be worthy of archeological study. A young woman who used to attend a convent school near Paris (Marlene Dietrich—an obvious choice for a young French student, right?) has a major attack of purposelessness and ennui and returns to the school to get some life direction. She’s told to go to the desert, an obviously common recommendation for bored young women.

At the same time, we visit a monastery that produces a fine liqueur, and we jump in right when the monk who carries the secret recipe decides to break his vows and go into the world. He ends up meeting Dietrich’s character, and they….well, you can guess.

The renegade monk is played by Charles Boyer (who at least is French), in full “Come with me to the Casbah” mode, two years before that line became famous in the film trailer for his 1938 film Algiers.

This was in the middle of the low period for Dietrich, and was one of the reasons for her inclusion on the famous “box office poison” list of 1938. Watching her is a hoot. She learned a great deal about lighting from mentor/director Joseph von Sternberg, and her input must have won the day with the cinematographer. Her face is lit up more than any other person or object in the frame, almost comically at times. Her acting isn’t good, nor particularly interesting in any fun or strange way, as it could be in her earlier films. But what a presence she is on film!

Boyer gives the stronger performance. While he is as credible as a monk as Dietrich is as a French convent girl, his scenes (mostly done in long uninterrupted takes) at least demonstrate the level of conflict and pain the man is in.

What’s missing in the film is any sense of believability in the plot, or any real connection between the two leads. Boyer’s character’s pain is internal, and Dietrich’s character is all make-up, fabulous costumes, and “look at me” lighting. It’s a fantastic study of what classic old Hollywood could be, but it doesn’t make for an engaging film.

The strongest reason for seeing it beyond its stars is its look. It was the third film done in three-strip Technicolor, and has been featured in the celebrations of the 100-year anniversary of the technology. For those who think of American Technicolor as loud and brash, this film is worth a close look. It won a special Oscar for its color cinematography. Combining that with the talents of William Cameron Menzies, art direction/production designer extraordinaire, who was listed in the credits, and you have a glorious color film that prefigures both Gone with the Wind and even Lawrence of Arabia. Menzies, of course, won a special Oscar himself three years after this film for his work on Gone with the Wind, and one can see his earlier hand here. (This year was also the year he directed the famous Things to Come, based on the H.G. Wells novel.)

The look is rich and softer than you might think. Like The Red Shoes, this Technicolor wonder shows us what Technicolor could look like, and what color films could do. For those unfamiliar with early three-strip Technicolor, or for anyone who is curious about what could be done with color cinematography, it’s a revelation. In an era of eye-popping CGI, it’s exciting to see what beauty could be achieved with what is now an older color technology. The plot may be thin, but the film is a rich panoply of images.

Note: This is one of the last films directed by Richard Boleslawski, a former actor and acting teacher (and early proponent of what became known as The Method). He had a full history of stage and screen work before dying just two months after this film was released. Just another one of those “we’ll never know” items in Hollywood history.

It was also a David O. Selznick production, and one cannot watch it now without seeing it in the light of Selznick’s production of Gone with the Wind (1939). Production values are top-notch, the look and design are beautiful, and the Oscar-nominated score was by GWTW’s Max Steiner.

One way in which this is an historical relic is the element of faith in the story. (Spoiler alert) Boris (Boyer) decides that he has broken his vow to God and decides to return to the monastery after he and Dietrich’s character get together. Not only does the film essentially agree that this is the right decision to make, Dietrich’s character, while emotionally torn, ultimately agrees with him.

Not only would such an occurrence probably never be seen in one of today’s films, but the very idea of faith would likely be ridiculed or at least lessened relative to human love. Even the Max Steiner song introduced in the film is entitled “No One But God and I Know What is in My Heart”. No irony, no condescension. While the particular religious expression is not one that I share, I can’t help but be impressed by a film that gives narrative weight to the sanctity of vows and the importance of a call from God.

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