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The Films of Douglas Sirk

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kingrat
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The Films of Douglas Sirk

Postby kingrat » April 8th, 2014, 12:19 pm

I bought a used VHS tape of The First Legion (1951, dir. Douglas Sirk) which turned out to be perfectly serviceable, not a perfect print but that may have been from the source material.

“The first legion” refers to the Jesuits, and the film is set in a Jesuit monastery near a Hollywood-perfect small town. Father Fulton (Wesley Addy) plans to run away and return to civilian life, but his plans change when an apparent miracle puts an aging priest (H. B. Warner) on his feet for the first time in three years. Father Arnoux (Charles Boyer) investigates whether this is a genuine miracle, as the father rector (Leo G. Carroll) hopes, and will advance the cause of sainthood for the order’s founder. Boyer and Carroll in the same film—they had voices in those days!

Lyle Bettger plays the agnostic doctor who fears that the supposed miracle will only fan the hopes of a paralyzed young woman (Barbara Rush) with whom he is in love. I had a little trouble accepting William Demarest as a monsignor, but the character is worldly, political rather than religious, and Demarest’s out-of-place accent does point that up. The actors are very good, and the directorial highlight is the scene where the miracle occurs as a famous priest shows movies of his travels in India.

This is one of the few films that might profitably have been twenty minutes longer, as the effects of the miracle on both the fathers and the town are explored, and I’d like for Boyer to have more screen time. The young priest played by Wesley Addy also needed to be brought back in the latter part of the story. Lyle Bettger probably has the most minutes, for the doctor plays a crucial role in the events leading up to the ending, which is what you will be expecting.

Not everyone will care for the subject matter, but this is a well-made film, with deeper character development and more emotional involvement than in some of Sirk’s more famous films. I wish it were more readily available.

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Re: The Films of Douglas Sirk

Postby MissGoddess » April 8th, 2014, 2:46 pm

I never even heard of this movie! And with Charles Boyer...not to mention Bettger NOT playing a "heavy" for a change. Thanks for writing about it, I will hope it turns up on YouTube or some such outlet.
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Re: The Films of Douglas Sirk

Postby moira finnie » April 8th, 2014, 3:49 pm

I am so glad that you had a chance to see this interesting Sirk film, kingrat. I agree about the ending but think that Carroll & Boyer were excellent in their roles. I believe that Demarest as a monsignor represented a more familiar type of priest to audiences at the time, though he does seem to lack the Jesuitical intellectualism, to put it mildly. I would love if someone could ever sit down at length with Barbara Rush to discuss this film and her early career. What a heady experience this must have been for a neophyte film actress. You can read more about The First Legion (1951) here in a thoughtful article by Susan Doll:
http://moviemorlocks.com/2010/01/25/on-douglas-sirk-and-the-first-legion/
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kingrat
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Re: The Films of Douglas Sirk

Postby kingrat » April 8th, 2014, 7:30 pm

Moira, thanks for posting the link to Susan Doll's wonderful article on The First Legion. This would be a great "discovery" for next year's festival, especially if Barbara Rush could talk a little about the making of it. One thing I particularly like about the film is that there are no real villains, only believable complex characters. The priests and monks are distinct individuals.

More on Sirk: I saw A Time To Love and a Time to Die (1958), though panned and scanned, not in the correct Cinemascope ratio, so the story and actors were foregrounded rather than the director’s compositions. Maybe this will be Criterion’s next Douglas Sirk project. Sirk had a son who was killed fighting for the Nazis on the eastern front, so this adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel must have been a deeply personal project.

John Gavin, so wooden in Imitation of Life, turns out to be an actor after all, and his natural sweetness and good looks make him a fine romantic hero, a reluctant German soldier who must crowd a lifetime into a three-week furlough from the Russian front. Perhaps Gavin was inspired by his leading lady, Lilo Pulver, a cross between Audrey Hepburn and Jennifer Jones. They make a most attractive couple who try to find a little happiness on the home front, which is as much a war zone as the icy battlegrounds of Russia.

The supporting cast includes Don DeFore as a kindly soldier, Keenan Wynn as a blustering but kindly wiseacre, and Klaus Kinski and Jim (then billed as “Dana”) Hutton in early roles. Best of all is Thayer David as a school friend of Gavin who has prospered in the Nazi party, and his apartment with paintings and the heads of animals has to be seen to be believed. Sirk and the set designer must have fun putting that together. Remarque himself plays an anti-Nazi professor.

It’s a little difficult to say where this film ranks in the Sirk canon without seeing it as Sirk intended, but it’s a solid accomplishment, with a dark, ironic ending. A Time To Love and a Time To Die was made in Germany, and Sirk directed no more American films, which seems unfortunate.

These unfamiliar and hard to locate films give a completely different perspective on Sirk, as Susan Doll discusses.

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Re: The Films of Douglas Sirk

Postby ChiO » April 8th, 2014, 7:52 pm

This is a marvelous movie. This, SLEEP, MY LOVE and THE TARNISHED ANGELS are the Sirk films that I most wish that Criterion or Olive or someone would issue (though I'd settle for A SCANDAL IN PARIS as well). Sirk did say that John Gavin was not his first choice -- he wanted Paul Newman.

A Time To Love and a Time To Die was made in Germany, and Sirk directed no more American films, which seems unfortunate.

IMITATION OF LIFE, with the return of John Gavin, was shot and released later.
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Re: The Films of Douglas Sirk

Postby moira finnie » April 9th, 2014, 7:40 am

Your mention of A Time To Live and A Time to Die (1958) reminded me of the fact that Larry Russell (VecchioLarry) knew both leads of this film, and recalled his time with them on our site in the past here: viewtopic.php?f=22&t=704&start=75

I believe that Larry is also going to the TCM Film Festival, kingrat, so perhaps you can ask him more about it in person very soon!
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