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Harvard Film Archive - 2001

      I've griped in this column about how our arthouse venues are neglectful of exploring pre-1970 American film history, never venturing beyond Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, and other overly-familiar nuggets. So it's matzah from on high this week, July 6-12, at the Harvard Film Archive, with three unexpected Hollywood films from long ago, all in 35mm and pulled out of the HFA vaults. I'm talking about Frank Capra's The Miracle Woman (1932) on July 6, and John Huston's Moby Dick (1956) and Howard Hawks's Tiger Shark (1932) on July 12.

     Four years before his Columbia Pictures' Oscar winner, It Happened One Night, Capra learned his craft there with The Miracle Woman, a curious if shaky melodrama. Most of the actors are subpar hangers-on; Columbia, then the least solvent of the studios, couldn't be choosy. However, Capra is blessed in his lead: young Barbara Stanwyck, salvation as radio evangelist Florence Fallon, a character meant to recall the controversial female preacher, Aimee Semple McPherson.

     The picture begins with the off-screen death of Fallon's minister father, who has been tossed to the vipers, fired by his church's corrupt elders while the congregation turned eyes to the ground. Soon after, daughter Florence is convinced by a satanic promoter to gain revenge by herself becoming the most devious of pastors, and screwing all those who come to worship her. FLASH AHEAD: Florence is now an America-famous media star, regurgitating the scriptures on radio station WGOD while appearing, at her mammoth tabernacle, before a huge live audience of blockhead believers. This is Capra's best and most depraved scene, something akin to Altman's Nashville: empyrean trumpets, a sanctimonious chorus, ragtag cripples a la The Threepenny Opera testifying to the Lord, and Florence preaching flashy gospel from within a lion's cage. Keep those dollars coming!

     Those who have deconstructed Capra's famous populism, and who observe how often his wonderful crowd turn into mindless, mean-spirited, follow-the-leader robots, have ammunition with the Christian nonenetities of The Miracle Woman. The film looks obviously ahead to the true-believer John Doe clubs of Capra's far better Meet John Doe (1941), where cynical newspaperman Stanwyck is converted by Gary Cooper's idealism. The germ of that later love story is the coy-and-kitsch romance of The Miracle Woman: Florence getting in touch with her inner soulfulness because of the purity of the affections of John (stiff David Manners), a blind tin-pan alley songwriter.

     Finally, there's a climactic, unmotivated fire and those dumb people again, on their knees in the streets chanting "The Lord's Prayer."

     You think Jimmy Williams is blind and pigheaded shuffling the Red Sox lineup? If you crave real myopia and stubborness, check out Moby Dick's Captain Ahab. He never listens to the Pequod crew! All he ever wants is to pursue that white whale that chewed off his leg.

     By 1956, John Huston had been planning for a decade to make a movie out of the Melville classic. He's desired to star his actor father, Walter Huston, magnificent in The Treasure of Sierra Madre, but his old man died. He'd thought of playing Ahab himself: remember him afterwards as the perverse father in Chinatown. Eventually, he made a fatal mistake, casting Gregory Peck, decent and moderate and humane, as the obsessed and maniacal Ahab. "I'd strike the sun if it insulted me," his Ahab declares. Sure, Greg.

     Peck assumed lunatic poses and did the best he could with screenwriter Ray Bradbury's psuedo-Shakespearean dialogue. Time Magazine: "He looks like a peg-leg Abraham Lincoln." Interestingly, there was a true Ahab in the cast.

     That would be Orson Welles, who did a one-day shoot - and only three takes were necessary - of Father Mapple delivering a stern soliloquy of a sermon. For the stentorian Welles, Melville-talk was a cakewalk.

     There is one Huston scene which improves on Melville: when Ahab goes down in the ocean, he rises up dead to the surface, entangled in the ropes circling Moby Dick. It worked so well that Steven Spielberg repeated it at the climax of Jaws.

     Finally at the HFA, take heed of Howard Hawks's very nice, practically unknown sea tale, Tiger Shark, in which Edward G. Robinson plays an expert fisherman who is missing skills at love. He marries the wrong gal (Zita Johann), she falls for his pal (Richard Arlen), and Robinson seeks revenge with an Ahab-like wrath. Notice Hawks slipping in some documentary scenes of real fisherman fishing, for which Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini would be so praised fifteen years later as groundbreaking "Neo-realism."

(Boston Phoenix, July, 2001)


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