Friday, May 23, 2008

Inglorious Histories: The Sun Shines Bright (1953) & The Kaiser's Lackey (1951)

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Amid a rare down period between the end of the academic year and the commencement of the summer (which for this writer will entail my annual study of a new language - French, this time - and the beginning of my preparations for PhD oral examinations) I have had, miraculously, the occasion to view a few films for which I have no responsibilities.  So obviously my first thought was to undertake an increasingly rare Tativille post, even if my most recent screenings lack the urgency of a new theatrical release or even a widely available home video staple (in other words the following post lacks a consumer component).  It is, rather, an appreciation of two relatively under-seen 1950s classics that felicitously share in their common engagement of "inglorious histories," as I have put in the piece's title.

The neglect of John Ford's The Sun Shines Bright (1953), a personal favorite of the director and of film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, as my good friend Pamela Kerpius noted in her somewhat qualified though largely positive recent review of the picture, follows relatively straightforwardly from the warmth the film shows toward its Confederate subject matter and its employment of the always controversial Stepin Fetchit.  The Sun Shines Bright does not stand up, in other words, to the scrutiny of political correctness and to the identity politics that have defined the American left since the late 1960s.

What is politically most compelling about Ford's self-remake of his 1934 gem Judge Priest, however, is precisely its attempt to recuperate (partially at least) his Democratic Party's troubled past.  Judge William Pittman Priest, here played by Charles Winninger, presides over a Kentucky courtroom where, as with the earlier instantiation, he demonstrates his profound homespun wisdom and universal compassion.  When a young banjo-playing, African American lay-about, for instance - a damning enough composite for knee-jerk, race-based critique - is brought before Priest, the latter finds the willing young man employment following his entreatment of the youth to play Dixie (after a poorly received Yankee number).  

Indeed, Priest shows his extraordinary tolerance even more directly in his subsequent encounter with the young man.  Here, the black youth has been accused of raping a white girl after a pack of bloodhounds pick up the sent of the gent.  With the young man incarcerated, Priest, a former Confederate bugler, stands up for the boy against a storming lynch mob, effectively relinquishing his reelection hopes to save the life of the accused African American youth.  Whether this balances the ledger enough for students of race and advocates of an identity politics approach is for those thinkers to say.  Ford at least recognizes a nobility in his party's former Old South standard-bearers.

This nobility is nowhere more evident, in fact, than during the film's subsequent election morning where Priest silently (and defiantly) walks with a funeral procession enacted for a deceased prostitute - fulfilling her dying wish to be buried in her Fairfield County home.  Priest's stance further threatens his reelection prospects, pitting the sitting Democratic judge against the county's pharisaical Christian community.  (That Ford further identifies this contingent as pro-temperance additionally reinforces the director's negative feelings toward said group.)    Priest, on the other hand, demonstrates the Christianity of the gospels, identifying himself not with those from whom he might gain power but rather with the prostitutes who need him most.  Here, following on The Quiet Man (1952) we have one of Ford's most distilled statements of his Catholic faith; The Sun Shines Bright, though similarly critical of religious intolerance, is a long way from his far more agnostic swan song, 7 Women (1966).

Yet, it is less this passage's testimonial quality than its presentation that stands out; and stand out it does: the only comparable passage I can think of in Ford is the dance inside My Darling Clementine's (1946) partial-built church.  In The Sun Shines Bright, Ford depicts this procession wordlessly (for the majority of its extended duration) marking it as pure cinema, as a moment that showcases cinema's intrinsic basis in movement.  Moreover, it is not only Priest that joins the procession but his fellow Confederate veterans, including the "General" who acknowledges his paternity of the deceased.  Hence, it becomes clear that Priest's honor is not unique but belonged to the society whose twilight Ford is depicting.  Ford finds the good in the bad, a legacy that he could continue to claim.

Ultimately, The Sun Shines Bright eulogizes the admirable things of this lost world, adopting the visual motifs of the director's Western corpus - and in particular their outdoor porches symbolizing the interface between civilization and wilderness.  This sense of loss (that imbues this picture of riverboats and warm summer evenings) is felt most acutely during a meeting of the Confederate veterans when Ford pans across an empty classroom, revealing the gentlemen in a single row in the front of the space.  Their era is quickly closing.  

Consequently, in much the same manner as The Searchers three years later, though far more explicitly, Ford treats the end of an age, while also prefiguring a second - in both instances of the Civil Rights movement.  Ford's film is indeed a hymn to tolerance, whether racial, religious or even historical.  As such, The Sun Shines Bright may be one of the most profoundly Democratic (with a capital "D") films in Hollywood's long, left-leaning history, though it is a form that is barely recognizable in our current, identity politics-driven context. The Democratic party of Henry Jackson, say, rather than

The Sun Shines Bright is also the director's least-known career peak, considering its centrality to the director's politics, his religious affiliation and his career-defining emphasis on America's past, to say nothing of its uniquely graceful form. Indeed, The Sun Shines Bright earns its place beside such other high points as Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine and The Searchers

I can make no similar claim for Wolfgang Staudte's The Kaiser's Lackey (Die Untertan, 1951), which is not only the first film I've seen by the filmmaker but the first East German work that I have viewed period.  Thus, when I say that The Kaiser's Lackey is an East German Citizen Kane, I am not making any claim for its relative stature within its industry.  Rather, Staudte's film demonstrates a similarly baroque aesthetic in the service of a fictitious biography that seeks to summarize the personality of a nation: in The Kaiser's Lackey's case, Wilhelmine Germany.

Staudte's film demonstrates this baroque form from its opening camera movement, which stops briefly on a photo of a nude baby boy before continuing to the child below it.  This child of course will become the film's subject Diederich Hessling (Werner Peters), who over the course of the picture transforms from shy mother's boy to murderous factory owner to the eponymous lackey as the (literal) dark clouds of the First World War pass over head.   Certainly, Staudte does engage his nation's even more recent past - as the film's final line makes explicit - though in form that adopts the cover of a still more distant history.

But back to Staudte's aesthetic: the director employs frequent camera movements, cuts between objects - a summary, ironic condensation of narrative time links three similarly styled portraits of three separate kaisers - framings around and through objects (one mobile take shows its consecutive subjects through the beer glasses they hold to their lips), extreme close-ups, figures in reflection (cadets in the rounded horn of a trumpet) and so on.  Staudte was indeed a strikingly talented visual artist who will become instantly - for this writer - an object of further research.  The Kaiser's Lackey is a cineastes dream: a film representing a distinctive visual style from a largely if not completely unknown national cinema. Suffice it to say that this is the best East German film that I have yet seen.


Anonymous said...

"Whether this balances the ledger enough for students of race and advocates of an identity politics approach is for those thinkers to say. Ford at least recognizes a nobility in his party's former Old South standard-bearers."

There are few who love this film more than I do, but I have to call foul on this reading. The tolerance and wisdom that Judge Priest and his Confederate-veteran cronies display toward the blacks in THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT do not exactly count against the film's employment of minstrel stereotypes to characterize those blacks. Instead, both elements are evidence of a profoundly paternalistic worldview.

If a moderate defense of this film's racial attitudes can be made, it's thanks to the penultimate scene, in which the old prostitute is given a service in the black church (presumably Priest pulled in a favor after having saved the black boy from the lynch mob). Here there's an implied solidarity between those marginal to the town: the prostitutes; the illegitimate Lucy Lee, who teaches in the black school; and the blacks themselves. But this itself could raise hackles, because it smoothes over divisions that might be thought to exist within the black community (would black churchfolk be any more likely to show charity toward a prostitute as their white counterparts?), and disallows any righteous racial indignation, indeed any agency on the part of that community.

By casting the film's critics as "politically correct leftists" you've stacked the deck in your favor and implied that those who would object to aspects of this film are being shrill and oversensitive. You've done this a few times before and it always seems like a cheap way of avoiding having to make an argument.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Dear Loyal Reader,

I think this is a fair criticism.

The world view is unfortunately paternalistic and the scene you highlight is indeed essential. And I think you are probably correct to stipulate that my tag of "politically correct leftists" was intended in part to foreclose against criticism. Really you seem to be saying that the onus remains on the Ford supporter rather than the critic, which from the standpoint of 1953 may not be entirely unwarranted. Any knee-jerking here was mine.

At the same time, what I appreciate about the Ford is its attempt to find nobility in a context that is clearly ignoble in many salient respects. I suppose my continued harping on this point is more a reaction to a school of scholarship whose point is to unlock the racial insensitivity, whatever it might be; an in so doing, to tacitly condemn. It's not so hard in a case like "The Sun Shines Bright." I guess that's why I just assumed this position, which does not exactly make for the most unassailable reasoning. I will do better when next I tackle a similar subject.

Thanks again for your criticism and I hope that you continue to read the site.

Anonymous said...

I am quite fond of The Sun Shines Bright. I suppose the racial stereotypes and attitudes towards women for example were fairly typical for the time the film was made.

Later Ford films are sometimes unduly neglected. I very much enjoy such films as Two Rode Together, Donovan's Reef and Seven Women.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the attitudes on display in THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT are typical of Hollywood films of its time. The very fact that Ford hired Stephin Fetchit when virtually no other directors would touch him is evidence of this (I recall that he had a cameo in an Anthony Mann picture around the same time, but that's about it). The broad playing (the bugged-out eyes, the sing-songy cadences) of the black players in the film probably would have seemed distinctly out-of-step in 1954 as well.

Now you could argue that other Hollywood films, which may have seemed more enlightened at the time, don't necessarily deal with race in a more honest way. But Ford's film, like its central characters, probably seemed like a relic from another time when it came out in the mid-'50s.

"At the same time, what I appreciate about the Ford is its attempt to find nobility in a context that is clearly ignoble in many salient respects. I suppose my continued harping on this point is more a reaction to a school of scholarship whose point is to unlock the racial insensitivity, whatever it might be; an in so doing, to tacitly condemn."

I think your first point is spot on. Priest, by his own admission, is fairly corrupt, obviously guilty of cronyism, and truly (as his opponent puts it) a "doddering relic of a lost cause." But Ford sees his attitude toward people, and his common-sense approach to governance, as more honest and fruitful than the more nominally high-minded, ideological, and truly paternalistic (=prohibition) opposition. The result is a portrait of uncommon political complexity and human feeling. Of course Ford stacks the deck by making Priest's opponent one of his familiar windbags, and the society ladies of the town (embodied by Jane Darwell) screechy hypocrites, but that's Ford....

I do think you may be propping up a bit of a straw man in defending THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT. At this point, it's really only those inclined to cut it a break that will bother to take the trouble to see this film. Everything I've read about it in the past 10 years has been quite positive. The defensive tone that creeps into celebrations of this film seems to me more a consequence of the authors' own divided feelings than any concerted campaign against it.

The problem now is not so much critics, who seem to either ignore or love the film, but studios and video labels who may have second or third thoughts about releasing it to a wider audience.

Anonymous said...

In a way, Ford is no more guilty of employing stereotypical images than were Shakespeare or Dickens. The beauty of the film is the way Ford uses the character of Priest to highlight the folly of fixed ideas, prejudices and all sorts of irrational behaviour. Priest has the self-knowledge and insight to work within the system. He acknowledges his corruption, but instead of preaching about some abstract ideals, he does his best in a practical and pragmatic way to act in a just and humane fashion, of necessity within the existing societal structure. One of the main themes in a Ford film is the way abstract ideals can destroy a person or society. In a way Priest is perhaps the most enlightened character in the film, and he is more fortunate than most Ford heroes in that he does not have to wait until the end of his journey for enlightenment, as Ethan is compelled to do in The Searchers, or Henrietta in Pilgrimage.