One of the great pleasures of enjoying the chronological continuum of film is the realization that it comprises a small world. There must be a film historian's dissertation, somewhere, that establishes the average number of degrees of separation between movies selected at random. My guess is three.
On December 23, after olives and wine at a cozy joint with low lights and high tables in the East Village, we crossed the street to the Anthology Film Archives for a nine o'clock screening of The Young Doctors (1961), part of the Anthology's series of films starring Ben Gazzara. I hadn't given much thought to Mr. Gazzara, and don't know that I could have picked him out in a lineup, prior to the most recent Telluride festival. It was there, in September, that I saw him in The Strange One (1957), a startling film about bullying in a Southern military academy.
The Strange One is one of several films that I never got around to mentioning when recounting this year's festival. My opportunity having passed, I won't go into it now, except to say that its distinguished and principled director, Jack Garfein, was interviewed after the film by none other than Kim Morgan, aka Sunset Gun. It was one of those moments when inner doubts of the "should I keep doing this, year after year" variety are sharply answered with an inner "are you kidding?!" With that memory relatively fresh, I was eager to see Mr. Gazzara in something else from the same era.
In viewing The Young Doctors, forget about the predictable story line and hackneyed plot devices. Sure, the old sawbones and young Turks mix it up, and romance is complicated (or spurred) by disease. What this film is really about, though, is maintaining your idealism when working in an underfunded bureaucratic institution. If you've ever been employed by, served as a consultant for, or made an accreditation visit to a place where the de facto mission is "do more with less," this movie's for you. With a nod to documentary style, its location and sets perfectly capture the desuetude of urban hospitals and schools in the late-postwar period—a time before gentrification, when suburbs were booming and the city was passé at best, and more likely feared. The hospital in The Young Doctors is cluttered and crumbling; the streets surrounding it have a dirty-snowbank look redolent of M-Squad.
A flickering flame of professional dedication survives all this entropy thanks to the likes of Drs. Pearson (Frederic March) and Dornberger (Eddie Albert). You might recall my admiration of Mr. Albert's performance in Attack (1956), which we saw at the Museum of Modern Art at Thanksgiving. That role was a heartbreaking study in cowardice. In The Young Doctors, by contrast, Mr. Albert plays a character possessed of winning humility and sound judgment struggling with conflicting loyalties to friendship and professional ethics. He delivers a gripping performance in the movie's climactic scene at the operating table.
After seeing Attack and The Young Doctors on the big screen in close succession, my respect for Eddie Albert's work has risen considerably. Green Acres will never seem the same. Mr. March, for his part, does a fine job of portraying moral authority tempered by vulnerability, calling to mind his role in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Oh, and Ben Gazzara? Watch for his take on Marlon Brando.
On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, we confidently sauntered over to Columbus Circle a half-hour early to see 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which was showing in Lincoln Center's 70 mm retrospective series. Imagine our dismayed surprise when we found that the long line out front was the stand-by queue. The screening was sold out! We decided to try our luck, but after about ten fortunate cinephiles made it in, the jig was up for the rest of us. Plan B, Great Expectations (1946) at the Museum of Modern Art, went into effect.
A few days before we left home, reflection on our Thanksgiving encounter with The Man in the White Suit (1951) at the Film Forum led me to one of my more-or-less quarterly viewings of Tunes of Glory (1961) off our Criterion DVD. This time I followed it up by looking at some of the extras, including an interview with Ronald Neame in which he discusses his involvement with Alec Guinness and John Mills in Great Expectations. I'd seen the movie listed in the MOMA schedule as I was casting about for things to do at Christmas, but didn't realize it was a Mills/Guinness pairing of vital interest to any Tunes of Glory fan. My companions' preference for 2001 notwithstanding, I was delighted to be heading over to 53rd Street.
The large screening room at MOMA was gratifyingly packed. The Dickens, Neame, and Lean credits flashed on the screen as the pristine BFI-restored print got going. It was evident from the beginning that the production values of the film were high. Even the first part of the film, with younger actors playing Pip, Herbert Pocket (a superb performance by John Forrest), and Estella (Jean Simmons!) was engaging. The set of Miss Havisham's ruined habitation was meticulously detailed, easily surpassing the disarray of the hospital in The Young Doctors that had so impressed me the night before.
The older Pip (Mr. Mills) and Pocket (Mr. Guinness) provide a fascinating contrast to the same actors' performances in Tunes of Glory. In Great Expectations, Mr. Mills's character is diffident, Mr. Guinness's generous. Herbert Pocket is as affable as Jock Sinclair, but, unlike Sinclair, a man at ease. Mr. Mills's Pip is eager to learn from Pocket, conscious of his uncalculating kindness, and grateful for his friendship. The relationship between the characters is warm, yet there is enough tension created by Pip's striving to give it spark. Mr. Guinness's persona in the film is reminiscent of Fred Astaire and Stan Laurel. Great Expectations is an essential for any student of Alec Guinness's oeuvre.
We saw no movies on December 25, although we did attend a heartwarming stage production of that perennial holiday classic, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" on Broadway that evening (more about that in my next post). On Boxing Day, however, we made our way back to MOMA for the final item on our cinematic itinerary: Independent Animation, 1947-60, an entry in the museum's series, An Auteurist History of Film. The show, in one of the museum's smaller venues, where we had seen Attack in November, consisted of thirteen animated features, each three to eleven minutes long.
The cartoons were largely the work of a group of former Disney animators who left the entertainment giant during a labor dispute in the 1940s. They formed their own production studio, United Productions of America (UPA), where they explored stylistic and thematic approaches that were outside the commercial mainstream. Their work ranged from abstraction to pedanticism, spanning relatively serious entertainment and sophisticated humor.
UPA's more well-known products are Gerald McBoing Boing and Mr. Magoo, neither of which I fully appreciated prior to this program. Like much of UPA's output, the McBoing Boing feature shown here gently encouraged social tolerance and acceptance. Mr. Magoo, too, is read by scholars and critics as being more than he seems. Magoo can be a little grumpy and cantankerous, but the bulk of his character is happy insouciance, arising from a stedfast adherance to a humane moral code and a certain gentility of comportment that shield him from life's vicissitudes. There's a significant body of Magoo literature out there, folks; but don't take it from me, ask your favorite librarian.
More serious works from UPA include Brotherhood of Man (1947), which addresses the joys—and potential xenophobic pitfalls—of a shrinking postwar world. There's also a beautiful, touching celebration of flirtation and love, The Tender Game (1958), with its suave Ella Fitzgerald soundtrack. Moonbird (1959) is a transporting evocation of childhood imagination. I could go on, but I think you get the picture. What could have been dismissed as an afternoon of cartoons turned out to be a varied, instructive, and emotionally rich program that has set me looking into a facet of motion picture history I know little about. It's pretty wonderful how often going to the movies in New York turns out that way.