Posts Tagged ‘Sergeant York’

“My recipe for making movies has always been to give an audience two or three really top-notch scenes in every film and to try not to annoy them the rest of the time. If you can do that you will have made an entertaining picture.”
Producer/director Howard Hawks (Red River, Sergeant York, His Girl Friday)
Talk at Chicago Film Festival
via The Movie Makers: Artists in an Industry by Gene D. Phillips

Here are two memorable scenes with Howard Hawks connections. The first is from the film The Big Sky (1952) which Hawks directed, and the second film is Scarface (1983) directed by Brian DePalma from a script by Oliver Stone.  After seeing the original Scarface (1932) which Hawks directed, Al Pacino set theings in motion to star in a modern retelling of the story.

Scott W. Smith

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“Sergeant York”

“One of the greatest pictures ever made!”
N.Y. Daily News on Sergeant York


Since today is Veterans Day I decided to look at a film centered around war and landed on Sergeant York. The 1941 film directed by Howard Hawks received 10 Oscar nominations and won 2 including Best Actor for Gary Cooper’s role as a conscientious objector who also happens to be an expert sharp shooter from Tennessee.

The script was written by Abem Finkel, Harry Chandlee, Howard Koch, and John Huston based on the Diary of Alvin C. York. (Today the diary reads like a blog— “Shooting at squirrels is good, but busting a turkey at 150 yards–ho ho,” or a Facebook post or tweet;  “Mons Babert, France– Hiked here and stayed a few days.”) The diary became the book Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary written by York and Tomas John Skeyhill.

York was born in a two room cabin in Pall Mall, Tennessee—the third of 11 children, to a family of limited finances. York only had nine months of education, doing farming and hunting to help feed his family. He honed his shooting skills as a youth hunting turkeys and squirrels in the Appalachian mountain area known as Valley of Three Forks of the Wolf.

“As York came of age he earned a reputation as a deadly accurate shot and a hell raiser. Drinking and gambling in borderline bars known as ‘Blind Tigers,’ York was generally considered a nuisance and someone who ‘would never amount to anything.’ That reputation underwent a serious overhaul when York experienced a religious conversion in 1914. In that year two significant events occurred: his best friend, Everett Delk, was killed in a bar fight in Static, Kentucky; and he attended a revival conducted by H.H. Russell of the Church of Christ in Christian Union. Delk’s senseless death convinced York that he needed to change his ways or suffer a fate similar to his fallen comrade, which prompted him to attend the prayer meeting.

A strict fundamentalist sect with a following limited to three states–Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee–the Church of Christ in Christian Union espoused a strict moral code which forbade drinking, dancing, movies, swimming, swearing, popular literature, and moral injunctions against violence and war.”
Dr. Michael Bordwell
The Legends & Traditions of the Great War: Sergeant Alvin York

Perhaps an unlikely person—from an unlikely place— to end up a war hero, but that’s why there’s a movie about his life. In April 1919 the story first gained a wide audience when George Pattullo published The Second Elder Gives Battle in the The Saturday Evening Post. York became an instant hero. As the narrative grew into a legend, the myths increased. But the act of heroism by York and others in Company G, 328th Infantry has never been in questions.

And as trouble brewed in Europe in the late ’30s and early ’40s the release of Sergeant York was positioned to help favor America’s involvement in World War II. Sergeant York was released on September 27, 1941less than three months before the attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941).

Today the  unincorporated area of Pall Mall, Tennessee has a population around 1,500 people. It’s home to the Sgt. Alvin C. York State Historic Park and the gravesite of Sergeant York. Just about 10 miles south of Pall Mall in the town of Jamestown, TN is the Alvin C. York Insitute. A rural high school established by York in 1926.

P.S. Until I wrote this post I only knew Pall Mall as a brand of cigarettes. Back in the ’60s it was actually the number one brand of cigarettes.

“Here’s the news: I am going to sue the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, manufacturers of Pall Mall cigarettes, for a billion bucks! Starting when I was only twelve years old, I have never chain-smoked anything but unfiltered Pall Malls. And for many years now, right on the package, Brown & Williamson have promised to kill me. But I am eighty-two. Thanks a lot, you dirty rats.”
Kurt Vonnegut
(He died in 2007 at aged 84.)

When Steven King was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, Pall Mall was his preferred brand. He has characters who smoke Pall Malls in his many of his novels including Hearts of Atlantis and The Dark Half.

But if you’ve ever watched a life long smoker with COPD struggle with the simple act of breathing you’ll know that those warning signs on the boxes of cigarettes are true. The only good thing I can say about cigarette smoke is it looks great when backlit. Cinematographers love that stuff.

Scott W. Smith

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Once upon a time…between 1927-1941.

By 1927 the film industry was barely 30 years old but great strides artistically and its popularity grew. Filmmaking which started in the United States and France was now happening in Russia, Germany, Italy, Britain, Sweden and beyond. Film technique grew more sophisticated and the audiences simply grew.

Movie theaters became known as picture palaces sometimes the size of cathedrals. In the larger cities the plush carpet, dome ceilings with artwork, and seating for 2,000- 4,000 per theater was not unheard of. They were often grand and sometimes gaudy. Ushers were needed for crowd control. Keep in mind this was not only long before the invention of television, but before the great depression.

There was around 20 movie studios by the end of the 1920s and many people don’t realize that  the 800 films produced per year was at an all-time high. (Compare that today with about 400 feature films being made these days on average. Granted many of these films were shorter.)  Director like D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille were respected.

Stars like Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, William S. Hart, and Lillian Gish were well paid for their talent. But they were not paid to talk. Because until 1927 films were silent. The Jazz Singer changed all of that. Though largely a silent picture it did employ sync sound. Within two years most American movies were talkies.

If you think the industry is going through shift now can you imagine the changes than occurred at that time? Famous and glamourous actors for various reasons were done. Career over. Directors and cinematographers who had the freedom to move the camera freely down had larger cameras and cumbersome sound issues to deal with. And the poor pianist and organist across the country who played the scored music at theaters were now out of the business.

But audiences didn’t care about all of that. By 1929 movie attendance was averaging 90 million tickets sold per week. Even the stock market crashing in 1929 at the start of The Great Depression did not really show down the movie industry. And some would say people during the great depression was a boom to the movie industry as people look for hope and diversion in cheap entertainment. The 30s and into the early 40s are known as the golden age of cinema.

The movie making system was controlled by studios where writers, directors and actors were under contract  so not free to work on any movie they desired and filmmakers had to work under the restriction of  they Hays Code which put restraints on what could and could be on screen. In perhaps a nod to the belief that creativity is best expressed when limitations are set rather than allowed total freedom, the Hollywood golden era produced what many believe to be the finest films ever made.

And even if you disagree with that it’s hard to disagree with scholars who believe that 1939 was the single best year for movies. Check out the lineup:

Gone with the Wind
The Wizard of Oz
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Goodbye Mr. Chips
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Gulliver’s Travels
Jesse James
Dark Victory
Gunga Din
Wuthering Heights

Though personally I think 1941 was the single best year for movies (Citizen Kane, How Green Was My Valley, The Maltese Falcon, Meet John Doe, Dumbo, Sullivan’s Travels, Suspicion, Sergeant York, The Little Foxes, The Lady Eve). The truth is whatever year you pick around that time there is an amazing list of great films.

I honestly don’t know why that short studio era was so prolific. But I do know we’ve never been able to return. Perhaps it was just a shear numbers game in that they were making twice as many films as they are today. (There was no competition from TV, Internet, video games, etc.) Or maybe creating fine work in the hyper-studio controlled era has something to do with an old T.S. Elliot quote;

“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost—and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.”

Every decade since then has turned out some great films, but there has been a lot of sprawl. Of course, maybe all that sprawl from the 1930s has just been long forgotten.

What I do know is that on December 7, 1941 the United States was attacked on Pearl Harbor and followed by the U.S. joining World War II. A war that only lasted a few years but where between 50-70 million people died. Things have never been the same. Including movies.

Hollywood side note: Edwin S. Porter, a lead pioneer in the early film business who gave D.W. Griffith his first acting job and who in 1903 directed highly the successful The Great Train Robbery , resisted the changes in the film business and was working in the appliance business in 1930.

Scott W. Smith

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