Montgomery Clift in 1948 – Part III: The Search

title the search

The second film Montgomery Clift made ended up being the first one released, and it was as soldier Ralph “Steve” Stevenson that most audiences first saw him.  It was a smaller part than the one he’d had in Red River, and he doesn’t appear on screen until half an hour into the movie.  However, he received top billing as well as an enormously appealing introduction to the public, portraying a goodhearted guy who takes care of a displaced young concentration camp survivor.

It’s one of his most likeable roles, one devoid of the angst and internal conflict so many of his other characters would embody.  Amy Lawrence writes: “In The Search Clift establishes his image as a natural.  Sui generis, transparent, Montgomery Clift is a figure of endless promise, seemingly inseparable in manner, tone, and moral character from the character he plays.  It is no surprise, then, that The Search sparked many fans’ love for the star.”  It was one of the first Clift movies I saw, myself, when I caught it on TCM years ago, and it remains one of my favorites.

The Search tells the story of a young Czech boy named Karel Malik (Ivan Jandl) and of his mother (Jarmila Novotna), who was separated from him at Auschwitz and is wandering from one dislocated persons camp to another in hopes of finding him.  The movie was shot on location among Berlin’s bombed out ruins and was clearly influenced by neorealist films by directors like Rossellini and De Sica. The Search has an almost documentary style, and in fact begins with a somewhat melodramatic narration discussing the plight of Europe’s children, one which was added behind director Fred Zinnemann’s back.  Even without the narration, viewers would have understood what they were seeing in the sad, terrified, and dull-eyed faces of the children on the screen.

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The movie’s plot is a fairly simple one, as the mother looks for her son and the son, memories of his pre-war childhood wiped out by trauma, struggles to remember his past while being cared for by an American soldier.  All the performances are wonderful – from Aline MacMahon as Mrs. Murray, the compassionate United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) worker who helps Mrs. Malik find her son, to Wendell Corey as Steve’s army pal and housemate Jerry Fisher, to Jarmila Novotna as Mrs. Malik, who refuses to give up the search even when it seems all hope is lost.

Clift and MacMahon

mother and child reunion

However, the heart and soul of the movie is the bond that forms between Ivan Jandl’s Karel and Montgomery Clift’s Steve, so that’s what I want to focus on.  It’s a relationship that could easily have veered into mawkish sentimentality, or into a post-war “Aren’t Americans swell?” piece of propaganda.  Instead, and thanks in large part to Monty Clift’s contributions on and off screen, we see something genuine and natural play out, something all the more touching for being realistic and unforced.

When the two first encounter each other, Karel has run away from the UNRRA transport vehicle that was to take him to a special camp where he could receive help.  The one friend he had, a French boy, drowned in the river during their escape and he is all alone, his bare feet blistered, his clothes in tatters.  Eating lunch in his Jeep, Steve spots Karel walking around in the rubble.  The boy is frightened and skittish, ready to dart off at the slightest provocation, but he’s also starving so he doesn’t run away.  Steve tosses the boy half his sandwich, which he quickly gobbles down.  Steve then leaves the other half of the sandwich on the side of the road. “Nice to have met you, my friend,” he says, driving away.

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A moment later he stops and looks behind him at the boy frantically eating. On his face you see that he’s wondering what he should do, then he turns around and drives back.  You feel it’s the impulse of the moment – one of those times when you have a second or two to decide what the right thing is, and simply act on your gut.  There’s no grand, beneficent gesture here.

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Steve chases through the street to catch Karel, lurching after him and struggling to scoop him up in his arms.  Panting, he deposits the boy in his Jeep and, holding on to Karel’s torn shirt to keep him from leaping out, drives to the house he shares with fellow soldier Jerry Fisher.

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The scene that plays out there is chaotic, with Karel knocking over and breaking a fish tank in his frantic attempts to escape.  Goldfish flop on the floor, struggling to survive out of water just as Karel is struggling to survive in yet another new and seemingly hostile environment.

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At first Steve and Fisher try to be tough with the boy, holding him down so they can administer first aid to his injured feet.  At one point Steve even waves a hypodermic needle at Karel, threatening to use it if he doesn’t calm down, only to feel horrified at what he’s done when he sees the concentration camp tattoo on the boy’s arm.

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first aid

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Steve then unlocks the door and tries to show Karel that he isn’t being kept prisoner and is free to go if he wants to. The boy makes a run for it, but when he realizes the soldiers aren’t going to chase after him he pauses in the street, turns around, and slowly hobbles his way back up the steps and into the house as the two men watch.

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You can see the whole sequence below – it’s well worth checking out. Fred Zinneman often told the story that after a screening of The Search, an audience member approached him and asked “Who’s that soldier you got to act?”  In this brief nine minute segment you can understand why that might have happened. Photographer Richard Avedon told Monty’s brother Brooks Clift “The first time Monty came on the screen [in The Search] I cried because he was so realistic and honest and I was deeply touched.  He seems to be creating a new kind of acting – almost documentary in approach.  It has the style of reportage.”

As I mentioned when talking about Red River, there are so many small actions and moments in a Montgomery Clift performance that are such a joy to watch – the loose-limbed way he runs after the boy to catch him, the way he struggles to catch his breath, the little “Phhhht!” sound and arm motion he makes when he wants Karel to scoot over in the jeep.  The stricken look on his face when he sees the tattoo on the child’s arm and realizes he’s only terrified him further, and the endearing way he demonstrates that the door really is unlocked.  (“So long!  Hello!”)  Clift once said that he learned from Alfred Lunt that acting is an accumulation of subtle details, carefully selected, and in this short segment alone we see that Monty learned that lesson well.

Later we see Steve teach the boy English while writing a letter to UNRRA in hopes of learning something about who he is and where he came from.  Since Karel can’t remember his real name, Steve gives him a new one, Jim.  It’s a lovely, funny scene in which you see that young Jim is becoming more comfortable in his new surroundings and is forming a bond with Steve.

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“Wait here,” Steve says when he leaves the room to find an envelope. Up pops Jim to follow behind him like a baby duck trailing his mother.  The boy munches on bread and butter, his eyes never leaving Steve as he wanders around the room and talks. He smiles when Steve seems especially silly or wound up, and when he gives him a chocolate bar.  Here’s a clip.  It’s a charming scene, and one that makes me wish Clift had been given more of a chance to do comedy.  His timing and delivery are perfect.

Steve continues to teach Jim English, and the two of them grow closer.  Steve reluctantly postpones his return trip to America so he’ll have more time to sort out Jim’s status.  Once word comes back from UNRRA that the boy’s mother was almost certainly killed by the Nazis, Steve determines to jump through whatever hoops he has to in order to bring him back to the States and raise him.

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comforting Jim

We see Steve’s increasing attachment to Jim more through actions than words, in the way he surprises him with a pair of new shoes, helps him put on his coat and tie for dinner, and paternally rests his hands on the boy’s shoulders when introducing him to strangers.

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dressing up

introducing jimWhen Fisher’s family arrives from America – a pretty wife and a young boy about Jim’s age – Jim’s memory is jogged and he starts to piece things together.  He wants to know what a “mother” is.  He remembers a fence like the one he’d seen earlier in a photograph. Suddenly he realizes he has a mother, and he runs away into the dark Berlin night to try and locate her.

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One of the most beautiful scenes in the movie plays out when Steve, having searched for Jim all night, finds him and must tell him that his mother is dead.  Exhausted from his wanderings, Jim sees Steve and runs to hug him.  Steve comforts the boy and gently explains.

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Steve:  Jimmy, I gotta tell you, it’s best that you know.  Your mother is dead.

Jim:  Dead?

Steve: Yes. Terrible that it should be so, but there isn’t anything you can do about it.

Jim: Then…then I can’t find my mother ever?

Steve: No.

Jim: And my mother won’t ever come back?

Steve: No, dear, she won’t.  See, if you look for her, you won’t find her.  If she were alive, she wouldn’t want you to torture yourself. It’s through you she lives on. Your heart is part of hers, you’re a part of her always. You must know that.

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Steve’s “no, dear” gets me in the heart every time! It’s a quiet, tender, and very honest scene, one Clift worked over and revised, as he did all his scenes in The Search. Without his input – cutting down any wordiness, toning down what he called the “Boy Scout” nature of his character as originally written, and injecting more realism – the film wouldn’t have had the impact it did.

Official credit for the screenplay went to Richard Schweizer and David Wechsler, with additional dialog by Paul Jarico.  However, Clift’s contribution was integral in making his dialogue sound more spontaneous and in making his character less “goody-goody.” He told his friend Kevin McCarthy that the original version of the script was “like The Yearling with sugar added.”  Monty’s changes made the film better and added a freshness and honesty that wasn’t there before, but David Wechsler was so unhappy about what the actor had done to his words that he threatened legal action.

Montgomery Clift, 1948

Montgomery Clift, 1948

“The last day an orgy of hate,” Monty wrote McCarthy when the movie wrapped.  “After dubbing, I picked up the stillettoes off my back and went to the hotel.  There awaited two letters from Wechsler…I better get to the border quick.” Weschsler and Schweizer would win an Academy Award for the screenplay Montgomery Clift had done so much to improve.

Even before shooting began, Monty was thinking about his character and suggesting changes to better the part. This excerpt from a letter he wrote to Fred Zinnemann about six weeks before filming started gives an interesting look into his thought processes as he prepared for the role.

Now – the film: I like it very much. Very much indeed. I look forward to what I shall read next.

The part: I’m perfectly happy with its size. A part built up might tend to deviate from the truth and then how should I play it? My being starred does not necessitate a bigger part in my mind. It is certainly the story of the mother and the boy and I think it would be dangerous for your sakes to alter this.

There is one place in the film that does disturb me…After Stevenson makes up his mind to stay and help the boy. I get the feeling of a kind of outward nobility. Somehow this spontaneous nobility is not very interesting. If one goes ahead and does whatever presents itself from day to day – this can be noble but only in retrospect. It’s the “volunteering” to stay and help that I object to in Stevenson…

He should long to go home, but – he’s brought this kid on himself (he obviously likes him) and when his friend points out he’s the only one who can help the boy – he stays – protesting – but he still stays.

Does this give some idea of what I mean? I don’t want Steve to anticipate the help he is going to be to the boy. If he does what he should do reluctantly – it widens the scope of the part – allows whole avenues of humour. This would be a great delight to act. If Stevenson teaches the boy English because he should – then finds himself intrigued against his will…well – this would be a fine relationship.

Mostly the end result would be to get away from doing “good” things for “good” reasons – which in a man is not very intriguing.

As with his preparation for Red River, to get ready to film The Search Monty immersed himself in the environment and activities of the type of he said nocharacter he was to play.  Upon arrival in Europe before the shoot, he lived in an army engineer’s unit and dressed in fatigues.  “He was particularly interested in developing a soldier’s gait,” writes Patricia Bosworth. “He believed that character could be defined by how a person moved.”

Monty also familiarized himself with the horrors European war survivors, in particular children, had lived through.  He and Fred Zinnemann toured U.N. Relief and Rehabilitation camps like the one that would be featured in the film, meeting the Jewish children there.  “Their dry-eyed little faces were gray with grief,” he later told a friend.  Monty watched German movies filmed in concentration camps and found himself unable to sit through more than an hour without running from the screening room and vomiting.

jandl_ivan1Ivan Jandl, the Czech boy who played Karel/Jim, didn’t speak English and learned his dialogue by rote. Monty worked with him patiently, cueing him on his lines and guiding him in his performance. Monty had a good rapport with children. Amy Lawrence writes: “A former child actor himself (or at least a young adolescent), Clift was secure enough in his technique not to be intimidated by the unpredictability of young costars and welcomed the chance to ad-lib as the occasion warranted.”

The 21st Annual Academy Awards recognized Jandl with the Juvenile Award, honoring him for “the outstanding juvenile performance of 1948.”  The boy would not be the last fellow actor Monty coached to an Academy Award.  Frank Sinatra would later give his From Here to Eternity co-star a great deal of the credit for making his own award-winning performance possible.

Montgomery Clift was himself nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his role in The Search, and despite the dispute between himself and screenwriter Wechsler and the resultant “orgy of hate” Monty wrote about, he always considered the experience of making the film one of the most creatively fulfilling of his life.

Patricia Bosworth writes: “It was obvious to everyone attending the rushes, including Weschsler, that Monty was responsible for a startlingly original contribution to The Search.”

“His scenes bristled with life,” Fred Zinnemann said.  “And he filled the screen with reverberations above and beyond the movie itself.”

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Montgomery Clift, Ivan Jandl, and Fred Zinnemann on location

Sources

Montgomery Clift by Patricia Bosworth, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978

The Films of Montgomery Clift by Judith M. Kass, Citadel Press, 1979

The Passion of Montgomery Clift by Amy Lawrence, University of California Press, 2010

Fred Zinnemann: Films of Character and Conscience by Neil Sinyard, McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003

Montgomery Clift in 1948 – Part II: Red River

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Although it wasn’t released until late September of 1948, about 6 months after the release of The Search, Howard Hawks’ western Red River was actually Montgomery Clift’s first experience with filming movies.  It was a trial by fire, or maybe by water.  The film was shot in Rain Valley, east of Tucson Arizona, and during filming it rained nearly continuously for six weeks.  Many of the actors got sick with colds.  Scenes had to be rewritten to accommodate the weather.

Clift and John Wayne didn’t like each other, something that would work in their favor when acting out scenes of friction between their characters, but which couldn’t have been pleasant for Monty to live through. Wayne told a Life magazine editor “Clift is an arrogant little bastard.”  Additionally, Wayne thought Monty was a wimp.  According to Clift biographer Patricia Bosworth, “Wayne actually burst into guffaws when Hawks staged the fight between them. Wayne simply could not take the scene seriously – something that privately infuriated Monty and probably inspired the superhuman intensity he brought to his battle with Wayne.”

Monty had little experience with riding and none with cowboy work prior to filming, but with typical intensity he set about Montgomery Clift on the set of RED RIVER (1948)learning.  “He came down two weeks early and went out after breakfast with a cowboy, taking a lunch with them, and they rode all day long – up hills and down steep places, and through water and so on,” Howard Hawks told Peter Bogdanovich in an interview years later.  “And by the start of the picture he really rode well.  You could tell that. And I taught him a little jump step to get into the saddle – he’d make a little hop into the stirrup.  He worked – he really worked hard.”  Asked if Clift was ever difficult to work with, Hawks replied “Oh, nobody that good is difficult.”  His later directors would beg to differ, but at this point in Monty’s life it was true.

Clift was polite on set but only occasionally joined the nightly poker games led by Hawks and Wayne.  Mostly he kept to himself, poring over his script and writing endless notes in the margins as he examined his character from the inside out, something he would continue to do with scripts for the rest of his career.  He would later say of his experience with the Red River cast and crew, “They laughed and drank and told dirty jokes and slapped each other on the back.  They tried to draw me into their circle but I couldn’t go along with them. The machismo thing repelled me because it seemed so forced and unnecessary.”

In the end the lousy weather, illness, and macho games were worth it, however.  Red River is a beautiful, complex western that’s entertaining from start to finish – a skillful blend of action, humor, romance, and drama.  The film also excels at pitting two different life and leadership philosophies against each other in the characters of John Wayne’s hardened cattle rancher Thomas Dunson, a man who shoots first and lets God sort out the souls,  and Dunson’s foster son Matthew Garth (Clift), a skilled sharpshooter who returns from the Civil War preferring to act out of mercy, good judgment and, whenever possible, non-violence.

As the movie begins Tom Dunson is leaving a wagon train along with his friend Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), heading to Texas with little more than a bull to his name in hopes of starting a cattle ranch. Despite her protests he leaves the girl he loves (Coleen Gray) behind with the train, promising to come back for her once he’s settled.  Unfortunately that plan is not to be, since soon after Dunson departs the wagon train is attacked by Indians.  They wipe out everyone but a teenaged boy named Matthew Garth, who managed to escape along with a cow he was searching for when the Indians appeared.  When Matt proves his worth by standing up to Dunson, he takes the boy on as his responsibility.  “He’ll do,” he tells Groot with grudging approval, and they all head out together for Texas.  Dunson admires the backbone young Matt shows, and his ability to think for himself.  In time those qualities will tear the two of them apart.

Years pass and Dunson’s Red River D ranch is large, if no longer prosperous.  He’s killed and buried many men who tried to take his land away, giving everything including perhaps his soul to make the place a success, but the Civil War has left the South’s economy in tatters.  His cattle are no longer worth a thing in Texas.  Now that Matt has returned from fighting, Dunson plans to lead a cattle drive to Missouri, where he believes he’ll be able to sell the animals for beef at a good price.

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The chasm between Dunson’s and Matthew’s ways of thinking starts to show right away.  As they round up the cattle, Matt tells the men to let any not marked with Dunson’s brand go free.  Dunson instructs him instead to brand all the cattle they’ve caught with the Red River D.  Matt disapproves of what amounts to thievery, but he follows orders.  “Put the iron on all of ‘em,” he tells a cowhand disgustedly. “Anything you see, slap it with a ‘Red River D’ and burn it deep.”

Annex - Clift, Montgomery (Red River)_01To Dunson he says “You’re gonna wind up branding every rump in the state of Texas except mine.”  For now they’re able to smooth it over, Dunson threatening to put the iron to Matt, Matt laughing off the thought that Dunson would really do it. But as the cattle drive gets underway, Dunson’s mania to get the cattle to Missouri regardless of the human cost drives a wedge further and further between the two men.

Dunson threatens to brutally whip a hapless cowhand who started a stampede, costing a fellow cowboy and many of the cattle their lives.  He’s only stopped from killing the man when Matt pulls out his gun and intervenes.  When talk among the men turns to their desire to drive the cattle to Abilene, Kansas instead of taking the more difficult and dangerous trek to Missouri, an idea Dunson refuses even to consider, several of them threaten to leave.  Dunson shoots and kills the “quitters,” much to Matt’s revulsion.

On Dunson drives the men, past the point of exhaustion and common sense.  For Matt the final straw comes when two men who stole supplies and ran away in the night are brought back to Dunson by cowboy Cherry Valance (John Ireland).  Dunson plans to hang the men for theft and desertion, but Matt has had enough of what he sees as senseless killing.  He stops Dunson and easily gets the demoralized cowboys to join him in a mutiny, taking over the herd and promising to take them all on to Abilene himself.

Betrayed by the man he saw as a son and to whom he planned to one day leave everything, Dunson promises Matt that he’ll follow and kill him.  The rest of the movie unfolds suspensefully as Dunson gathers a gang to follow Matt and the cattle drive, while Matt tries to stay several steps ahead.  Matt hopes that once he’s successful in selling the livestock and has money to hand over, Dunson will see sense and relent.  The pain for him is that he believes in his heart the man he loves like a father will never forgive him, even though he did what he had to to salvage the herd and stop the violence.

For all the serious moments in Red River, the movie is also funny at times.  Much of the comic relief comes from the always memorable Walter Brennan as Nadine Groot, the toothless cook whose pronouncements are hard to understand unless he puts in the store-bought teeth Matt brought him after the war.

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There’s also a good amount of lust and romance – enough for whatever floats your boat, in fact.  Red River is famous for several scenes of homoeroticism surprisingly blatant for the day, and particularly shocking for their inclusion in a John Wayne movie directed by Howard Hawks.  The heat generated between Montgomery Clift’s Matt Garth and John Ireland’s Cherry Valance is almost visible on the screen as they examine each other’s guns, eye each other warily but with great interest, and sit around the campfire talking quietly at night.

At the same time, there’s plenty of heat between Clift and his actual love interest in the movie.  Joanne Dru plays Tess Millay, a beautiful spitfire Matthew meets while rescuing her wagon train from an Indian attack en route to Abilene.  Tess is an archetypical Hawksian woman – able to hold her own with men in a game of cards or a battle of wits, tough enough to take an arrow through the shoulder without flinching or crying out, yet able to make her man feel like a man when the chips are down.  Dru’s scenes with Clift are terribly steamy as they talk and kiss in the rain, and later spend a night together before Matt finally has to face down Dunson and either kill or be killed.

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Watching Montgomery Clift act is quite simply a pleasure.  I constantly marvel at the little bits of business he adds to his scenes.  Lighting a cigarette to perfectly punctuate a moment.  Letting a small smile flicker across his face, or a look of anxiety subtly cross his brow.  Pushing his cowboy hat up just so, or gently bumping into a lamp in his erotically-charged haste to take a woman in his arms.  Small moments like those were labored over painstakingly in the margins of his scripts and in rehearsal with his acting teacher, Mira Rostova, but show absolutely no air of study at all in the execution.

It’s the same with the way he says his lines – the inflections, the pauses, the way he uses his voice.  He’s one of the most natural, believable actors I’ve ever seen.  He simply is the character he’s playing.  I never stop feeling awe when I watch him in a role, whether one from his late 1940s – mid-1950s heyday, or one from the post-accident years when he was struggling with life on and off the set. It doesn’t matter. His talent is always so apparent.

As for his own opinion, Clift thought he was mediocre in Red River, and that the movie itself was awful.  He hated the watered down ending, re-written so that John Wayne’s character wouldn’t die, and he hated that the conflict which had built to a fever pitch by the end of the film was resolved in a moment of anti-climax, with Tess Millay breaking up the fight between Dunson and Matt.  “It makes the showdown between me and John Wayne a farce,” Monty said.

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I tend to agree with him on that one point – the end does feel like a letdown and a cheat after all the drama – but as for the rest of the movie, I think it’s brilliant.  From the strong performances by both Wayne and Clift, to the gorgeous cinematography by Russell Harlan, to the sweeping score by the great Dimitri Tiomkin, the movie is completely entertaining and thought-provoking.

Who is the real man, the one who fights, bullies and kills in order to get what he wants, or the one who has the courage of his convictions and isn’t afraid to have compassion and a soft heart? What kind of person makes a true leader, the one with a violent my-way-or-the-highway attitude, or the one who favors discussion, collaboration, and respect?

These kinds of questions permeate Red River as they were permeating the way men in a post-World War II world looked at themselves as they re-integrated into civilian life.  In his embodiment of a kind of masculinity that could be both strong and tender, both physical and cerebral, Montgomery Clift seemed in 1948 to be the man of the moment.

I’ll be back soon with Part 3 of this look at Monty in 1948, with a review of one of my favorite of his movies – Fred Zinnemann’s The Search.

Sources:

Montgomery Clift by Patricia Bosworth, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1978

The Films of Montgomery Clift by Judith M. Kass, Citadel Press 1979

Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors by Peter Bogdanovich, Ballantine Books 1998

Montgomery Clift in 1948 – Part I: The Actor

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Montgomery Clift

In 1948 the Soviet blockade of Berlin began, as did the Western response to it with the Berlin Airlift.  The United States recognized Israel as a country, and Harry Truman signed an Executive Order ending racial segregation in the US military.

That year the House Un-American Activities Committee continued to wreak havoc on lives and careers in Hollywood and elsewhere.  The United States v. Paramount Pictures case ended the monopoly by movie studios that both made films and owned the theaters which showed them, marking the beginning of the end for the studio system.

The year’s top earning movie in the US was The Red Shoes, a dark meditation on art and life written, directed, and produced by the British team of Powell and Pressburger and featuring a daring 17 minute surrealist ballet.  The number two movie was MGM’s old-school, swashbuckling Technicolor adventure The Three Musketeers, starring Gene Kelly and Lana Turner.  The times and the movie landscape were beginning to change, but slowly.

In 1948 Montgomery Clift turned 28 years old.  He’d already been an actor half his life, starring in Broadway productions by playwrights including Robert E. Sherwood, Thornton Wilder, Lillian Hellman, and Tennessee Williams beginning in his teenage years.  He’d acted on stage with luminaries of the mid-twentieth century theater, among them Tallulah Bankhead, Fredric March, Lynn Fontanne, and her husband and Clift’s acting idol and mentor, Alfred Lunt.  Monty Clift was a shining light on Broadway, admired and praised by critics and audiences for his sensitive and perceptive portrayals, even in instances where the plays themselves weren’t so well-reviewed.

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Montgomery Clift with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in Robert E. Sherwood’s play There Shall Be No Night, 1940. The Lunts encouraged Monty to study and to stretch his acting abilities, and spoke with him of the need for actors to avoid alcohol and hard living if they were to succeed. He became part of their inner circle. The Lunts signed a photo of themselves and gave it to Monty — “from your real mother and father.”

Hollywood had been after him for years, trying to lure him into signing a long-term contract.  They saw promise in both his talent and his photogenic beauty, and were eager to begin the studio-prescribed process of grooming him to become the next big star.  For his part Monty had no interest in being groomed, and for years had refused to be tempted by Hollywood’s entreaties.  Finally in 1946 his agent, Leland Hayward, talked him into visiting Hollywood for a while to speak with Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, and Darryl Zanuck and see what they could offer him.  One by one he met them, and each time he failed to be persuaded by their offers.

“[Mayer] told me Leo the Lion is the father of one big happy unsuspended family. And I too will be happy,” he wrote fellow actor Sandy Campbell.  “They keep throwing Greer Garson in my face – nostrils and all…as a perfect example of what…a career can be. Ye Gods!”  Revolted by the studio men like Mayer who saw actors as “properties” and who wanted to shape his image and determine the things he worked on, Monty wrote letters to friends back home in New York with the dateline “Vomit, California.”  He told studio heads their scripts were terrible, that he didn’t want to be typecast, and that he believed his career would be ruined if he signed with them.

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Greer Garson, with whose flared nostrils Clift seemed unimpressed. L.B. Mayer specifically wanted Monty for the part of Garson’s son in 1942′s Mrs. Miniver, but since it would’ve meant a 7-year contract he declined. Metro instead cast this guy, Richard Ney, whom Garson eventually married — much to the studio’s chagrin.

Judith M. Kass writes that “Monty was ambivalent about becoming a Hollywood star; there was no doubt in his mind that he could be one if he wanted to…but [he was] not so sure he could acquiesce in all that would be necessary to make his aspirations a reality. Monty hated the idea of drowning in a press agent’s dream of lotusland luxury; of the invasion of his privacy; the premieres with starlets; and the autographs. His equivocating impressed the studio chiefs as indifference, a nonchalance that only increased their determination to sign him.  And that, in turn, made Monty still more elusive.”

In 1947 Monty finally received two movie offers that appealed to him – the cattle drive themed western Red River, to be directed by Howard Hawks, and The Search, a realistic look at the lives of orphaned children in post-war Europe, to be directed by Fred Zinnemann.  Both movies would eventually be released to considerable acclaim for the films and for Monty himself, and would earn high box office receipts in 1948.

Clift would never sign a long-term contract with a studio, however, and never settle comfortably into the Hollywood system of publicity and image-making, despite the difficulties his iconoclasm caused him within the movie industry.  Dominated by his mother his entire childhood, internally tormented about his homosexuality, he at least wanted control of his career – to continue being choosy, artistic, and as he laughingly admitted to Leland Hayward when discussing Hollywood, “snobbish.”

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Monty reading in his apartment, late 1940s

“I’m just trying to be an actor,” Monty said.  “Not a movie star, an actor.”  By the end of 1948, with two well-received films behind him, his face on the cover of Life magazine as the standard-bearer of a group of “New Male Movie Stars,” and an Academy Award nomination for The Search soon to come, he would – for better or worse – be both.

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Montgomery Clift on the cover of Life magazine in December 1948

How he got there and what happened afterward are still to come as these posts unfold here all month.  For now, however, it’s 1948, and the Montgomery Clift who bursts to life on movie screens around the country is handsome, boyish, natural, funny, sensual, and heartbreaking.  He can wordlessly express thoughts and emotions with his eyes as powerfully as any silent movie star, yet the kind of acting he does is modern, different.  He’s quite unlike anything movie audiences have seen before, and in 1948 they like what they see.

In part 2 of this look at Montgomery Clift in 1948, I’ll be back to discuss the first movie he filmed – Howard Hawks’s classic western, Red River.

Sources:

Montgomery Clift by Patricia Bosworth, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978

The Films of Montgomery Clift by Judith M. Kass, Citadel Press, 1979

Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors by Peter Bogdanovich, Ballantine Books, 1998

The top grossing films of 1948

Last night I found the below list while doing research for a blog post I’m working on for tomorrow.  These were the top grossing movies in the US in 1948, the year in which my father was born and the year in which Montgomery Clift made his movie debut. The directors aren’t shown here, but we’re talking about people like Powell & Pressburger, John Huston, Vincente Minnelli, Frank Capra, Fred Zinnemann, Howard Hawks, and Billy Wilder.  Even the fluffiest of the movies on this list surpasses any of the fluffy type films being put out today in terms of star power and entertainment value, while the great movies on the list are truly great — classics that have stood the test of time.  And these are just the top 20 moneymakers of the year.  There were plenty of other wonderful movies released in 1948, including Portrait of Jennie, The Bicycle Thief, Rope, Letter From an Unknown Woman, I Remember Mama, Rachel and the Stranger, Romance on the High Seas, and Unfaithfully Yours.

This list is as good a summary as any of why I can rarely be bothered to see a current movie in the theater anymore. Was there a film in 2013 that was as inventive as The Red Shoes? Or a musical starring people with the amount of talent Judy Garland and Fred Astaire had in their little fingers?  Was there a satire as biting as Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair, or a comedy as amusing and full of charm as Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House?  The answer to that is pretty clearly no, at least to me, and so for now my local theater only gets my money when they show something from their “classics” series.  It’s Rear Window this weekend, and I’ll be there.

How I look when looking for a current movie to see in the theater. Don't fret, Moira, there's always TCM.

Don’t fret, Moira, there’s always TCM.

1.    The Red Shoes – Moira Shearer
2.    The Three Musketeers – Lana Turner and Gene Kelly
3.    Red River – John Wayne and Montgomery Clift
4.    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – Humphrey Bogart
5.    When My Baby Smiles at Me – Betty Grable and Dan Dailey
6.    Easter Parade –     Judy Garland and Fred Astaire
7.    Johnny Belinda -  Jane Wyman, tied with The Snake Pit – Olivia de Havilland
8.    Joan of Arc – Ingrid Bergman
9.    Adventures of Don Juan – Errol Flynn
10.    Homecoming – Clark Gable and Lana Turner
11.    The Loves of Carmen – Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford
12.    Key Largo – Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and Lauren Bacall
13.    That Lady in Ermine – Betty Grable
14.    The Emperor Waltz – Bing Crosby and Joan Fontaine
15.    The Search – Montgomery Clift
16.    Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House – Cary Grant and Myrna Loy
17.    Hamlet – Laurence Olivier
18.    State of the Union – Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn
19.    A Foreign Affair – Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich and John Lund
20.    Sorry, Wrong Number – Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster

Stay tuned tomorrow for the first post in my month-long series on Montgomery Clift!  I’m very excited to dedicate March to an actor I love so dearly.  I can’t think of anyone I’d rather spend a month thinking and writing about, or anyone who deserves the attention more.

Monty

Montgomery Clift in Red River – 1948

Monty, You’re a Star

M CliftToday I started a reread of Patricia Bosworth’s excellent biography of Montgomery Clift, which I last read probably 15 years ago, and it’s every bit as good and every bit as painful as I remembered it being. Reading about the strange, sad, too-short life he led, it’s difficult not to love Montgomery Clift and want to go back in time to try and help him somehow. He truly was a troubled soul. His acting genius and the movies he left behind are good reason to celebrate him, though, and to be happy for his life even if he wasn’t always so happy, himself. He was a one of a kind talent and a great movie star.

Yes, I’ve fallen down the fannish rabbit hole about Montgomery Clift again, as happens every few years, where all I want to do is watch his movies and read about him, and everything else feels like a waste of time. I’m planning on dedicating the month of March to him here, covering as many of his films during that time as I can, doing a book review or two, and no doubt filling a few posts with nothing but pictures of his startling beauty.  (Those of you who follow me on Twitter or Pinterest are already getting a taste of that. It’s hard not to post photos of him all day, he was just so attractive.)

The Search, Red River, The Heiress,  A Place in the Sun,  I Confess, Judgment at Nuremberg, Lonelyhearts – every time I see one of Montgomery Clift’s performances, I think at that moment it’s his best one, since he was always so good. But readingprobably his very best role was that of Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt in From Here to Eternity. I can’t wait to watch that film again and to write about Monty’s profoundly moving performance.

Montgomery Clift was one of the greatest actors ever in the movies, and I just don’t think he gets enough credit for how genuinely brilliant he was, or for how much he’s responsible for changing film acting. Before Brando, Dean, Newman and the rest there was Clift, and he’s certainly the one I love the most and by whom I’ve been most strongly affected. Happily for me there are several movies from his fairly short filmography that I haven’t seen yet, like The Big Lift, Terminal Station, Wild River, Suddenly, Last Summer and The Misfits. I like still having something new to look forward to.

So stay tuned for a month of Monty, coming up in March. In the meantime, check out this tribute video I found on YouTube recently. It’s really well done and will probably make you want to drop everything and watch his movies, too. Those eyes. They haunt me.

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

mr allisonI watched Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) today for the first time in years and enjoyed it so much.  I’d forgotten how good it is.  It’s just Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr on screen almost the entire time and they both turn in such wonderful performances.  I’m very fond of Kerr and like her in almost everything, but Mitchum I’m not that crazy about in general.  He’s just not my favorite actor.

He’s fantastic in this, though, playing Corporal Allison, a rough-around-the-edges Marine who is at heavenknowsmr-allisonheart a good and decent man.  He’s tough, brave, and takes his duties as a Marine very seriously, but he can be thoughtful and tender, as he is with Kerr’s Sister Angela, a nun who’s stranded with Allison on a Japanese-occupied island in the Pacific during WWII. The bond they form through their harrowing ordeal is sweet, funny,  and  touching.

The movie was directed by John Huston, and it’s reminiscent of another of his films, The African Queen, in its story of a sheltered, genteel religious woman being thrown together with an unsophisticated, hard-drinking, and very masculine man in a life-or-death situation. When the woman is already married to someone else, however, and when that someone else is God, any romance is bound to be bittersweet.

I’m glad I was at home today to catch Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison on TCM.  It’s one of those movies that has a little bit of everything wrapped up in a beautifully filmed  Cinemascope package — humor, action, romance, drama, and most of all two excellent performances from Robert Mitchum and an Oscar-nominated Deborah Kerr.  I highly recommend checking out the movie if you haven’t seen it yet, and revisiting it if, like me, you haven’t seen it in a while.

William Powell in High Pressure (1932)

High Pressure is a 1932 movie directed by Mervyn LeRoy, starring William Powell as Gar Evans, a fast-talking promoter who specializes in putting together companies and selling stocks that are just barely legal.  As he says in an early scene, all his deals are on the level.  After all, you can go to jail for larceny, but it’s no crime to exaggerate.

highpressureEvans is on a days-long bender when his friend Mike Donoghey (Frank McHugh) tracks him down to introduce him to Mr. Ginsberg (George Sidney), an entrepreneur who claims he’s found an inventor who can make rubber out of sewage.  After initially being repulsed by the idea (there’s no romance in sewage, Gar rightly claims, and all deals need to have some romance to them), Evans names the company the Golden Gate Artificial Rubber Company and gets to work.

Gar talks his way into renting out an entire floor of a swanky office building at half price, and into having the owner name the building after the new company. He hires the hobo (Guy Kibbee) he regularly puts in place as his companies’ president, because when he’s cleaned up he looks the part.  He hires a delivery boy who happens into the building, just because his name is Gus Vanderbilt.  No relation to the wealthy family, but what does it matter?  Having an Augustus Vanderbilt around will give the Golden Gate Artificial Rubber Company class.  He hires salesmen to peddle the firm’s stock, rallying them with a rousing pep talk and a chorus of “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag.”  Soon stock is flying out the door to eager buyers, and other rubber manufacturers are worried about this new upstart that may soon be taking business away from them.

brent-powell-high-pressure

There are only a couple of pieces of the puzzle missing.  One is Gar’s girlfriend, Francine, played by Evelyn Brent.  Francine has been strung along by Gar for years, living with both his shady dealings and his unwillingness to commit to her, and she’s had enough.  She’s met someone else and is ready to marry him and move to South America.  To Gar Francine is his good luck charm, however.  He can’t start a company without her.  He sweet talks her into coming back to him and installs her as the company’s receptionist.

The other missing piece is a big one – nobody can find the inventor Ginsberg claims has the formula for turning sewage into rubber.  With so much stock sold and not a pound of artificial rubber yet produced, the District Attorney’s office starts getting suspicious.  And when the inventor finally shows up and is far from the chemical genius they’d expected him to be – his degree in chemistry comes, ironically enough, from a diploma mill Gar ran years ago – things get even crazier, with Gar on the verge of both losing his girl and going to jail.

highpressure_noromance_vd_223x104_120720111047William Powell is at his smooth-talking best as a promoter so good he could sell ice at the North Pole.  He’s especially funny in the opening scenes, wild-haired and unshaven, recovering from days of debauchery.  He plays Gar as the smartest guy in the room, someone slick but not sleazy.  As always Powell delivers dryly amusing lines like no one else, and is the master of reacting to the lunacy going on around him.

The supporting cast is great too, especially Frank McHugh, George Sidney, and Guy Kibbee.  To me the only weak link was Evelyn Brent, who often sounded like she was reading her lines off cue cards.  William Powell could’ve used a leading lady with more sass, who could better hold her own with him.

The screenplay by Joseph Jackson, based on the play Hot Money by Aben Kandel, is sharp and funny, with zingy, extremely fast-williampowellpaced dialogue and a satirical take on the business world that must have seemed especially pointed to Depression-era audiences.  It’s amazing that they crammed so much action and dialogue into just over an hour, but as in a lot of early talkies things zip right along in High Pressure with not a minute wasted.  It’s a really entertaining movie, and a good look at William Powell in a witty, devilishly debonair role of the sort he was making his trademark in the 1930s.

High Pressure is included in Warner Archives’ recently released William Powell at Warner Bros. DVD collection.  It’s also airing on TCM on March 12th.