I do not claim any extraordinary artistic merits or intellectual depth for any of these films. I love movies, but I also love detective novels, jazz, and Rogers and Hart songs without claiming that any of them is art in the sense of high art. These are movies I have seen several times and will probably see once or twice again, if I live long enough. Most of them, while being tremendously entertaining, have a serious point, though the directors and writers rarely beat the viewer over the head with the moral.
I have deliberately omitted some of my favorites, such as John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Tod Browning’s Dracula, John Ford’s The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and many others, Fellini’s 8 and 1/2, and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, both because I would be telling you what you already knew or because other people of good taste would be recommending them.
I am including a film that is to me as obviously significant as any I have mentioned. It is a flawed favorite of mine, famous in its day, which makes my general point about film: Sullivan’s Travels. When I first saw it, I was reminded of a time in San Francisco, when, down and out with neither job nor place to stay, I spent one of my last dollars at the Powell Street Theater watching A Night at the Opera. As I walked out still laughing, I realized I’d be happy to try to get a job waiting tables at a retirement hotel that had an opening.
Sullivan’s Travels (1941) was directed by Preston Sturges, the nearest thing to a full-fledged auteur that Hollwyood ever produced. Sturges started out as a writer, moved into directing, then even became producer. Men of genius-—like Sturges or Buster Keaton—-are hated in Hollywood, and when studio hacks recut Unfaithfully Yours and the film did not make money, Sturges was ridiculed. He washed his hands of Hollwyood.
Sullivan’s Travels is a morality play about the Hollywood film industry that takes itself all too seriously. A successful Hollywood director of comedies (Joel McCrea) decides that the serious times of the Depression require serious films. One improbable accident follows another, and the ambitious director finds himself in a prison work camp. Exhausted, he and the other prisoners are treated to movie night and find themselves laughing themselves sick watching a Disney cartoon. Travels is not as excruciatingly funny as the Palm Beach Story or as ruthless as the Lady Eve or The Great McGinty, Sullivan’s Travels remains one of the best movies ever made about movies.
Four Faces West (1948). Directed by the prolific and humdrum Alfred E. Green and written by Hollywood hacks C. Graham Baker and Teddi Sherman, this entertaining movie fails to do justice to "Pasó Por Aquí," Eugene Manlove Rhodes’ beautiful short novel about the not-so-old West. Fortunately, whatever weaknesses are in the film are more than made up for by by the stars: husband and wife Joel McCrea and Frances Dee, and Charles Bickford (as Sheriff Pat Garret).
Interestingly Rhodes, as a wild young man shooting off his revolver within the town limits, had been pistol-whipped by Sheriff Garret (the killer of Billy the Kid). Rhodes spent a good part of his life resenting Garret, but his portrayal of the wise and humane sheriff is a testimonial both to Garret’s real character and to Rhodes’s maturity. Bickford’s performance is entirely convincing.
To save his father’s ranch, the amiable McCrae robs a store and goes on the lam, only to be rescued by Frances Dee. Joel McCrea was never much of an actor, perhaps because he was too real and decent a human being to play such games. McCrea was perhaps the most normal American ever to have been a film star. Raised on a farm, McCrea only wanted one thing out of Hollywood: to make enough money to run his ranch. When I once observed to a WW II combat veteran that he had stayed married to one woman, the vet said, you’d have stayed married too, if your wife was Frances Dee.
My Man Godfrey (1936). Gregory La Cava’s finest movie stars William Powell and Carol Lombard, and is probably the best film either one of those actors made. It is Hollywood’s Answer to Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, with Godfrey (William Powell) playing the aristocrat who forces the members of a dysfunctional family to grow up. It is La Cava at his zany best, and, despite a few lapses into moralizing, it gives real insights into the imbecility of America’s monied classes.
Roberta (1935). Directed by William Seltzer—best known for his Laurel and Hardy films--Roberta, based on a hit Broadway show, is one of the best musicals ever produced by Hollywood. The absurd plot makes Randolph Scott the heir to his aunt’s fashion design business in Paris. Scott is business manager for Fred Astaire’s band, “The Indianans,” mistakenly hired by a Parisian nightclub owner who thinks they are Redskins. When Scott inherit’s Aunt Roberta’s business, Fred decides to become a creative genius in fashion design, and his inept designs almost destroy the business.
Roberta plays off the serious romantic couple—Scott and Irene Dunne—against the comedic pair of Astaire and a phony countess played by Ginger Rogers. Dunne and Scott make a great romantic couple, as anyone who has seen My Favorite Wife already knows. The plot is fun, but the brilliance of the film lies in the songs by Jerome Kern and (mostly) Dorothy Canfield: "Let’s Begin," "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "Lovely to Look At," "I Won’t Dance"-—all performed with great vivacity by Fred and Ginger. Hollwyood has scarcely ever done anything better. This is America’s best answer to The Marriage of Figaro, an opera I cannot see without wishing I could leave the audience and step into the 18th century. Yes, I know, this says almost as much about America as it does about Wodehouse’s pal and collaborator, "Mr. Kern," as they always called him in the business.
Out of the Past (1947), perhaps the greatest of the films noirs, was directed by the under-appreciated Jaques Tourneur and starred Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer. The moral catastrophe Mitchum brings on himself in the shape of a femme fatale is as inexorable as anything in Thomas Hardy. The young Mitchum is at his uncharacteristically understated best, and Jane Greer, who from everything one can hear was a genuinely nice and moral person, plays the wickedest woman in the history of film. Don Siegel directed an amusing rematch of the stars--The Big Steal—which is also very much worth seeing.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). This classic horror movie was an early masterpiece from Don Siegel. Its tale of normal Americans being turned into pod people without human feelings scared the pants off me when I was 12 years old: I dared not close my eyes lest I should fall asleep and lose my soul. The film is a less pretentious parallel with Ionesco’s Rhinocerus and Karl Capek’s War With the Newts, both of which touch on the same theme of dehumanization. Over 60 years later, observing the descent of Americans into watchers of reality TV and consumers of TV news, I am even more terrified. Siegel went on to make Dirty Harry, The Shootist, and several other good cops-and-robbers movies, but this inexpensive early flick shows what a real director can do even without money or stars.
I Vitelloni (1953), is chosen almost at random from my favorite films of Federico Fellini, which include Lo Sceicco Bianco, Luci della Varietà, 8 and 1/2, and Il Bidone. The “vitelloni” of the title are over-grown calves, who grew up during WW II and its aftermath and cannot seem to get on with their lives. The movie is set on the Adriatic coast, where the filmmaker grew up, and was the first big hit for actor Alberto Sordi. Unlike Fellini’s later films, where as he was running out of imaginative gas, he had to dabble in fantasy, this film enchants us with the drab lives of everyday people, all of them treated with kindness and good humor.
Sedotta e Abandonnata (1964). Seduced and Abandoned is Pietro Germi’s masterpiece. Inspired by newspaper accounts of a Sicilian seducation and elopement, Germi (North Italian from Genoa) plays off the cheerful and naive North Italian carabinieri against the grave and violent Sicilians. In one memorable scene, the cops, who are trying to find a village where a murder is supposed to be taking place, lose their way. The tall dumb blond—the Polentone—suggests that he asks directions. His boss, older and wiser looks in disbelief as the kid asks three locals who do not move a muscle of their faces. When he climbs back into the jeep he comments, “They must not know where it is.” Anyone who wants to understand the ongoing North/South clash in Italy should watch this film several times.
Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), a melancholy masterpiece by Marcel Carné. It is worth seeing if only for the beauty of the filming and for its depiction of mime theater. Truffaut, who spent his life hating and envying Carné—as well he ought—once said he would trade all his films for this one movie. I agree entirely though that is not much praise for Carné. I don’t weep at movies, but I keep a handkerchief handy for this one.
Underground (1995), a bizarre historical fantasy and political allegory directed by the brilliant Bosnian (at that time Muslim) Emir Kusturica. During World War II, a group of Serbs is lured underground to work in a munitions factory, where they continue to slave away through the Tito years. The plot is too preposterous to be summarized, but I have discovered people who know nothing about either modern history or the Balkans who fell in love with the film. If there are any geniuses making films these days, Kusturica must lead the pack, and his surreal realism is enhanced by the Gypsy music score of Goran Bregović.
The Testament of Doctor Mabuse (1933). In 1922 Fritz Lang had made a silent masterpiece, Doctor Mabuse the Gambler, four and a half hours about a criminal mastermind whose exploits typify the corruption of the Weimar Republic. In this sequel, Mabuse dies in a hospital, but his crime wave continues—I am not going to spoil it. Mabuse’s rhetoric is eerily reminiscent of statements made by the leaders of the Nazi Party. The film was banned, and Lang, though a famous director, fell into disrepute. As a Catholic with a mother who converted from Judaism, he had reason to be nervous and left. I rented this film on a whim: It is barely a talky—there is about as much spoken dialogue as could be represented by the captions in a silent—the sound and the video were scratchy, and my limited German, even with the aid of subtitles, is not conducive to enjoyment. And yet, and yet, the whole film is terrifying. Lang made many fine films, both in Germany and the United States, but this one haunted my dreams and scarred my waking life for weeks.
Yojimbo (1961). Akiro Kurosawa did 8 or ten films this good or better, but I find the comedy—and the moral actjion—of this film irresistible. The plot, later ripped off by Sergio Leone for his wretched Fistfull of Dollars, pits Toshiro Mifune as a comical samurai who plays off two sets of criminals until they have killed each other off. Of course, Kurosawa had in mind (though he did not rip off) Dashiel Hammet’s The Glass Key, which was made into a pretty good movie with Alan Ladd. In Yojimbo a samurai at loose ends and a sense of humor-—imagine a humane and intelligent prototype for Eastwood—-pits two sets of criminals against each other. Kurosawa took at least part of Hammet’s point in his novel and turned it into a comic masterpiece about political corruption and the creative uses of duplicity. If you don’t know Kurosawa’s work, this is a great place to start.
Dr. Thomas Fleming, the magisterial editor of Chronicles for many years and one of the most perceptive commentators of our day, will occasionally share an essay with us, generously taken from his subscription website www.fleming.foundation.
A young reader from Scandinavia came to see me a month ago in order to talk strategy. Since then he has had a few meetings with conservative organizers and plied me with questions about tactics. In particular he wondered how we might make use of emerging "stars" in the media and social media. Here is the response (amplified a bit) I sent him.
I have taken some time to answer your queries, because I believe you have started at the wrong end. That is a very conservative habit, unfortunately. Conservative activists begin with the premise that we need to elect conservatives and then hope they will carry out the mandate they have been given by their supporters. This overlooks what used to be known as Stan Evans Law. Stan's law was essentially an observation, put in the form of a question: Why is it, whenever one of our people gets in a position to do any good, he becomes one of their people?
You make several good tactical suggestions, which could be quite practical if they were implemented, but, before devising a set of tactics, one has to have a strategy in mind, and before one can devise a strategy, there must be an objective or set of objectives that determine our course, and, before establishing objectives, one first has to have a set of principles which make the objectives not only desirable but worth the effort to attain them. When conservatives take the opposite approach—devising tactics before they have clarified their principles—they are doomed to reenact the old nursery rhyme, said to have been a summation of Bosworth Field: “For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, for want of a horse the rider was lost, for want of the rider, the battle was lost— all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”
To take an analogy, suppose we were getting in a boat with the vague objective of going somewhere to have a good time. We'd have to know what kind of good time we wanted to have. Fishing? Relaxing at the beach? Visiting historical monuments and soaking up 'culture'? If this last, then which culture do we wish to absorb? Let us say South Italian Catholic culture, infused with ancient classical civilization. We might, then, head for Siracusa (Sicily) and then begin plotting our course, deciding on how big a boat, what provisions to take, what sort of crew we'd need. Could we communicate with the natives, if we did not speak Italian? Could we appreciate the monuments if we were ignorant of Greek religion and architecture?
If we were typical conservatives, we'd just get in the boat, cast off, and wonder why we got stuck in the Bermuda Triangle.
Briefly, what are the objectives in organizing a conservative political movement? Is the goal to re-establish a movement that would lead to a political victory that would accomplish more than the Reagan-Bush administrations did in their 12 year reign? Or is it something else? And if it is a right-wing victory, in whose interest and for what motives would that be desirable? To answer that, one would have to be clear about what is wrong with the leftist regime and why, because only then it would be possible to to design a plan of attack.
By and large Anglo-American and North-European conservative parties and movements have pursued a two-track strategy: Their first and most urgent objective is to halt or at least slow the apparently inexorable leftist advance, at least on key fronts such as the growth in the size and scope of government. The second is to work toward restoration of some imagined happy time in the past—generally speaking, this is usually the world of one’s childhood or early adulthood. When I was working with conservatives, they always seemed to hanker after the Eisenhower years. Now, most of their pious wishes are prefaced with, “When Ronald Reagan was President…..”
The flaws in such strategies are pretty obvious. Most obvious is that they are rooted only in nostalgia or folklore, not in the realities of power or the realities of human nature. This preference for nostalgia over principle helps to explain the second much greater flaw: Conservative strategies simply don’t work. They never have, they never will.
The so-called Right never knows what it wants. The Left, by contrast, almost always knows what it wants: Continuing success in eliminating human distinctions and in obliterating the past. Naturally, this requires a never-ending pursuit and increase of the power of the state over its victims. Even high school English teachers and Midwestern Democratic state legislators are dimly aware of this, and, while two years ago, they might have supported same-sex marriage and opposed transgender rights, they are now on board with the transgender movement and will soon be championing the equal rights of all mammals.
A century ago, G.K. Chesterton traced our future in the little essay on prophecy he used as preface to The Napoleon of Notting Hill?
“Tolstoy and the Humanitarians said that the world was growing more merciful, and therefore no one would ever desire to kill. And Mr. Mick not only became a vegetarian, but at length declared vegetarianism doomed ("shedding," as he called it finely, "the green blood of the silent animals"), and predicted that men in a better age would l live on nothing but salt. And then came the pamphlet from Oregon (where the thing was tried), the pamphlet called "Why should Salt suffer?" and there was more trouble.
If it is not the rights of pets and Maryland crabs, it will be something else equally preposterous that stimulate the pop culture sensibilities of the over-schooled and undereducated American ruling class. It really doesn't matter which fantasy they are advancing. Government party leftists are like the Epicureans, who argued that it does not matter which scientific explanations of natural phenomena are correct, because what matters is to reject supernatural explanations and eliminate religion. On the leftist agenda, neither truth nor justice is ever really at issue but their own increase of power over their increasingly helpless victims that pay their salaries, buy their newspapers, watch their movies, and listen to their “music.”
So, when asked about tactics, I say: We must begin with strategy, and any real ‘conservative’ strategy will include the following elements:
1) A serious anthropology, that is, an understanding of human nature and its potential. Marxism failed because they shut their eyes to the universality of private property and hierarchies rooted in status. Democratism in its modern form especially fails because democrats, capitalists, liberals, and libertarians all misunderstand man’s social nature and fail to acknowledge the realities of power. Machiavelli is an excellent corrective.
2) A serious historical grasp of revolutionary history that does not fall back on cliches about 1960’s radicals or Communists.
3) A hierarchy of priorities—social, ethical, economic. To draw up such a hierarchy, one has to keep in mind both what is most important—these days that would seem to be the need to distinguish humanity from other forms of life—and what can be actually accomplished. For example, the welfare state is a blight on Western societies but its elimination may not be practicable until other objectives can be attained, such as the marginalization of non-contributing and hostile elements of society—for example, the aliens who consume vast resources and serve as a voting block in support of the Left.
Until we are clear about these elements, any talk of rolling back the revolution is useless. There are no historical analogies that will serve us in our current misery, because conservative tactics in the past have always failed. As I used to tell people until they were sick of hearing it: When Jimmie Carter was President, any talk of homosexual rights was ridiculed even by most Democrats. By the time George H.W. Bush was leaving office, it was acknowledged by both parties that homosexuals were possessed of distinctive rights not possessed by normal people.
On all the most important fronts, those twelve years were a far worse disaster for the American people than any other comparable period of time. Yes, the growth of government spending was temporarily slowed--big deal!--and the Soviet Empire finally collapsed. In citing these “facts,” Reagan’s apologists fail to acknowledge an obvious bit of reality: The Bolsheviks, as evil and crazy as they were, were far less evil and crazy than the current leadership of both major parties in the United States. That is why Stalin's heir is now idolized by so many American conservatives. Sure, Putin is a crook and a murderer and a tyrant, but he, unlike the Clintons, McCains, and Grahams, is not an enemy of normal humanity.
That is a measure of how far we’ve come—and how fast we have arrived to a position in which we may say, as Tacitus observed of his own age, “the remedies are worse than the disease.”
Note: This piece was originally published on The Fleming Foundation website on August 23, 2018.
Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina.