February 26, 2016

The Forties on Film

While I touched on TV earlier this week, I thought today I'd briefly review two recent films set in the 1940s. Both being in the same general time period, the late forties and early fifties were a dark time in Hollywood's history thanks to the blacklist, but the two films couldn't take a more different approach to the subject.

Hail Caesar:

Hail Caesar is a comedy first, and a Coen brothers film with more light than usual. The film centers around Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) and his role as Columbia pictures fixer. He gets the stars to behave, cleans up their messes before the press can get wind of anything, and generally keeps the studio going. When the studio's biggest star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped, it is only one of the many problems he has to deal with that day. The film follows the kidnapping story, but also several others that seem to exist mostly to have fun on a 40's backlot. There's a naive western star driving a proper English director mad, a brazen blond mermaid with a husband to secure, chic reporters hovering trying to snatch up any scandal, and a homoerotic sailor tap dance number. All in a day's work for Mannix, but it doesn't have to be if he accepts Lockheed's offer. In many ways film barely touches on the blacklist, and when it does it is with a heavy dose of fiction rather than reality. Here the "communists" are portrayed with comedy alone, not sympathy, and one scene (involving a rowboat off the coast) is downright just weirdly camp. I can forgive the forays into extreme camp, if you're going to be a bear, be a grizzly as one of my favorite podcaster's is fond of saying. I found the film very enjoyable, probably made more so by my recent interest in old Hollywood and binge watching of older films.

What of the costumes? Scarlet gets a great suit, but Tilda Swinton gets several delectable ensembles playing a set of twin gossipy reporters. The film follows around a lot of men, who I find less interesting, but the ladies costumes (whether on the stars or background extras) do not disappoint. One hat of Swinton's (an ultra cute perched number in rainbow striped silk) is begging to be recreated for my own wardrobe!


I finally saw Trumbo, I had been waffling about seeing it since it came out last fall. I don't really know why I had ever hesitated, I really liked it. The film centers around it's titular character Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), one of the best screenwriters in Hollywood. Of course thanks to his being a communist he and he rest of the Hollywood ten, along with many many others are carted off before congress to explain themselves. Correctly (at least in my opinion) pointing out that the 1st amendment guarantees them the right to believe and say what they'd like, Trumbo and the others decide to push back instead of cooperate and are charged with contempt of congress. When a swift change in the leanings of the Supreme Court ensures them jail time, Trumbo seems a bit surprised but remains resilient in his beliefs. Forced to write under false names to get any work in Hollywood, Trumbo and others struggle to make it, secretly working under the curtain of Hollywood's blacklist. The fear mongering is left to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), John Wayne (David James Elliott), and the rest of the House Un-American Activities Committee who are seen in the film as the villains they really were (even if elderly Trumbo gives them a pass, I don't).

There is no doubting the studios were the ones responsible for the blacklist, not the government itself, and how stupid they were to bend to pressure. Some reviews of the film criticize the glossing over of Trumbo's actual communistic beliefs, saying that perhaps his beliefs were somehow more dangerous than this film lets on. Perhaps I'm just liberal, but I'm pretty sure your allowed to have any beliefs you'd like in the US whether they be right, wrong, radical, or otherwise. Until you begin to break laws, you shouldn't have to do jail time right? I can't say I am well read on the Hollywood blacklist, or the Hollywood ten, but Trumbo has certainly made me more interested in finding out more.

The film of course simplifies certain portions of the story, but let's Cranston shine. As for the costumes (you know I love costumes), evil Hedda Hopper gets some great ensembles and gorgeous hats (the real Hopper was famously devoted to hats). Cleo Trumbo (Diane Lane) as Dalton Trumbo's stalwart wife is great and gets some lovely costumes. The style and design in the film feel very authentic and I enjoyed the aesthetics immensely.

One final note on these films, having seen these two films (Hail Caesar is in theaters now and Trumbo has just been released on DVD/Bluray/Streaming) within the same week I certainly noticed the parallels between both, and chief among these the focus on the male characters. Where is my movie about Marsha Hunt? I'd love a film set in this time, dealing perhaps with the same issues, but with some female leads. As always I am left thinking. where are the ladies at?

If you have seen either film I'd love to hear your thoughts. What are your favorite modern films (lets say within the last 25 years ish) set in the forties and fifties? I'd love to add to my watch list!


  1. These both sound very interesting, I will have to look them out.

    1. They both certainly were! I hope you find and like them <3

  2. I saw them both in the theater and liked them, too.

    I did think the Communists in Hail Caesar were portrayed with some sympathy, though - in some ways they were very true to some lefty internet spaces I've been in, and the poking fun felt like it was coming from a positive place to me.

    1. Oh I definitely think the Coen's were having fun with the whole Communists writers thing, as I am sure they know their history full well. My viewing was certainly recolored by seeing Trumbo the very next night though!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...