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The “Film Blanc”: Suggestions for a Variety of Fantasy, 1940-45 - by Peter Valenti

Journal of Popular Film, Volume VI, No. 4, pp 294-304, 1978. Reprinted with permission of the Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation. Published by Heldref Publications, 1319 Eighteenth St., NW, Washington, DC 20036-1802. Copyright (c) 2008.

 

Midway along the journey of our life
   I woke to find myself in some dark woods,
   for I had wandered off from the straight path.
How hard it is to tell what it was like,
   this wood of wilderness, savage and stubborn
   (the thought of it brings back all my old fears),
a bitter place! Death could scarce be bitterer. 1

The anxiety which Dante verbalizes as he begins his otherworldly pilgrimage in The Divine Comedy suggests an atmosphere typical of many American films of the 1940's. The “film noir,” with its exploration of the darkness of the human psyche and the delicate tensions characteristic of human relationships, embraces a number of more traditional film categories: detective story, psychological thriller, and fantasy. Of the third category one well-known example is Julien Duvivier's Flesh and Fantasy, released by Universal in 1943. The omnibus approach to incredible tales of murder and duplicity worked even better three years later in the British film Dead of Night.2 However, not all fantasies are so grim; in fact, most fantasies made in America in the late 1930”s and 1940’s end rather happily.3 If we are not troubled that an American genre might reach its apotheosis in a British film, then I would like to suggest that another film made in England in 1946, A Matter of Life and Death, can be viewed as a culmination of the particular genre of the fantasy which ends with the reassertion of the forces of light and life triumphant over darkness and death.

We might use the term “film blanc” to suggest a scenario. with the following characteristics:

  1. a mortal's death or lapse into dream;
  2. subsequent acquaintance with a kindly representative of the world beyond, most commonly known as Heaven;
  3. a budding love affair;
  4. ultimate transcendence of mortality to escape the spiritual world and return to the mortal world.

The film blanc shows contemporary Americans successfully negotiating a return to the real mortal world after a trip to the twilight region between life in the physical world and either death or an altered state of existence in another spiritual world. If films such as Suspicion (1941) and Scarlet Street (1945) can be characterized as black for their depiction of the bleaker aspects of human nature, then perhaps the mythically positive note struck by a group of American films made between 1940 and 1945 might well be termed the films of light. Two comedies – Here Comes Mr. Jordan (Columbia, 1941) and The Horn Blows at Midnight (Warner Brothers, 1945) - and two dramas - Beyond Tomorrow (RKO, 1940) and Between Two Worlds (Warner Brothers, 1944) – demonstrate the pattern of the film blanc. In the turbulent and angst-ridden world of 1940, perhaps one could find the impetus to a form of film which minimizes the tensions of a world undergoing profound changes and emphasizes the possibility of transcendent forces guiding the progress of the mortal world. This positive affirmation of life operates consistently through these four films.

In the first of the comedies, Here Comes Mr. Jordan (directed by Alexander Hall),4 an overzealous Messenger 7013 (Edward Everett Horton) prematurely claims the soul of a promising prizefighter (Robert Montgomery) and destroys his mortal body. When the fighter, Joe Pendleton, protests that he must be allowed to compete for the championship and therefore has to return to earth in an appropriate form, the messenger has to check with his superior, the kind but worldly-wise Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains). Ultimately Pendleton is given another suitable body so that he can become champion, and Mr. Jordan is cut in on the take. Pendleton's story, told by his manager Max Corkle (James Gleason) in perhaps his best performance), ends happily with Joe's girlfriend Betty Logan (Evelyn Keyes). Thus a man is restored to the mortal world through the ministration of two kind angels, Rains and Horton. As one might expect in a comedy, the beginning of a productive relationship is suggested after the obligatory difficulties have been overcome. But the difficulties here result from a celestial error, an angel’s honest if overeager mistake. The film suggests that heaven functions much as earth does, with obvious hierarchies and pecking orders, but with the obvious exception that the heavenly operation can correct virtually any mistake – perhaps a comforting thought to a world troubled by the activities of Germany and Japan.

The second comedy, The Horn Blows at Midnight (directed by Raoul Walsh), is somewhat more whimsical than Here Comes Mr Jordan, though it also portrays heaven as a vast bureaucracy.5 As a disgruntled trumpet player in a small orchestra performing for the Paradise (“It’s Heavenly”) Coffee Program, Athanael (Jack Benny) finds the host's spiel so soporific that he falls asleep and wakes to find himself an angel. Harpist Alexis Smith, who attempted vainly to keep him awake on the earthly stage, reappears in heaven as Elizabeth, the secretary to the Chief. This business analogue to God is played by Guy Kibble; like Mr. Jordan, he too must come to earth to straighten out the difficulties caused by one of his employees after Elizabeth has used her power of charm over the Chief to persuade him to send Athanael to earth on an important mission. Since the regular demolition expert usually sent on this sort of work was busy, and since Athanael wouldn't be missed, he was sent to destroy Earth, Planet 33901, by blowing his trumpet at midnight. After a series of madcap adventures in which various comic characters attempt to steal his horn, he falls into the giant cup of Paradise Coffee which opened the film. He then wakes up by falling off the orchestra staging and tells Alexis Smith about the “craziest dream” he’s just had: “You know, if you ever saw it in the movies, you’d never believe it.”

Of course, by definition the fantasy film depicts events beyond what we could expect to occur in our “normal” world of reality. Coleridge’s concept of the “willing suspension of disbelief” must be accepted by tike audience if the film is to succeed; the lack of critical popularity which has been accorded the two dramatic “film blanc” examples suggests that these movies offered a fantastic vision somehow distasteful to film reviewers. That all American fantasies here treated – with the possible exception of Here Comes Mr. Jordan – receive so little attention while any B-feature which presents a psychotic or confused reprobate generates considerable discussion indicates critics’ unwillingness to extend credulity to this genre. The two dramatic examples met with particularly negative reactions, though the films did generate some commercial success. Critics may be willing to go along with comic depictions of a beneficent providence overlooking our mortal world, but when drama approaches heavenly messengers with seriousness, only the movie-going public seems willing to accept the action.

Beyond Tomorrow (directed by A. Edward Sutherland) features a trio of elderly gentlemen who set out to help a young couple by deliberately losing their wallets on Christmas Eve. The three are killed in a plane crash before they bring Jean Lawrence and James Houston (played by Jean Parker and a young Richard Carlson with an indeterminate southwestern accent) to the altar, but they continue their ministrations beyond the grave. The fatherly character actors Harry Carey, C. Aubrey Smith and Charles Winninger portray these newly winged angels as the only possible solution to the dilemma which now confronts the lovers: after Houston’s success as a singer, he is bewitched from Jean by the beautiful Arlene Terry, played by Helen Vinson. As Arlene and an uncomfortable Houston begin their holiday celebrations in a restaurant, they are shot by a man jealous of Houston’s success. The doctors give up hope, but O’Brien (Charles Winninger) requests the great voice above (we can call this voice God or summoning angel, as we please) to give James one more chance. The voice comes from a light growing in the distance and finally accedes to O’Brien's request that the double-exposure Richard Carlson be allowed to return to earth to resume his relationship with Miss Lawrence, who is by now of course most distraught in the hospital waiting room. After the restoration of young Houston, O’Brien meets Melton (Harry Carey) as both walk toward the great light from whence the voice had spoken.

Melton has had great difficulty negotiating the darkness, and O’Brien agrees that sometimes you do have to travel through the darkness for a long time to get to the light. In 1940, on the eve of World War II hostilities, O'Brien’s comment seems particularly prophetic. The mythic qualities of his progress apply also to the quote which opens this essay because Dante’s spiritual pilgrimage is as much a trip through a terrifying region of the unknown as is the experience of a person about to enter a point of war: both fear for their lives, and neither can be sure how the ordeal will end. These tensions characterize Between Two Worlds (directed by Edward A. Blatt) as well. I should say at the outset that I believe this underrated film deserves more attention than it has received, though it seems to have been a popular film upon its initial release.

A motley group of people booking passage from London for America is hit by a bombing raid and its voyage is not to America but to the other world. This realization dawns on these people gradually, however, and they attempt to change or forestall it in different ways. One couple, however, is with this group not because they are victims of the bomb blast but because, when the sensitive French pianist Henry (Paul Henreid, in a role not too different from the part he played in Casablanca two years earlier) cannot book passage for himself and his fiancee Ann (Eleanor Parker), he decides to asphyxiate himself. Ann, returning home to find Henry determined to end his life, decides to join him. However, they are allowed another chance as Inspector Thompson (Sidney Greenstreet) - the obligatory authority from the world beyond who has power in such matters – allows them to return to their flat and turn off the gas before the fatal moment, while the other passengers complete their journey to the world of the dead.

The basic plot of the film was not new in 1944; Sutton Vane's 1923 play Outward Bound was the basis for a 1930 Leslie Howard film version with the same title before Warner Brothers produced their differently titled version. The most obvious departure from the earlier version – aside from the World War II setting of the film – is the addition of the veteran actor George Tobias as Pete Musick, a merchant seaman who can think only of returning to his family back in the states and cannot reconcile himself to the idea that he has died until his fellow passengers point out that his death was in the interest of liberty and freedom for his family and the world at large.

The film has both the virtues and defects of a filmed theatre presentation. Characterization is excellent and skillfully done, but there is lithe technical virtuosity demonstrated in the film. Much of it is shot in nighttime, so darkness predominates. The double-exposure usually accorded to spirits in fantasy films is minimized, and there are some interesting shots tracked from below the performers to open the shipboard sequences. The sharp characterization, however, chiefly recommends the film today. The dialogue of John Garfield (who plays Tom Prior, an embittered newspaperman) is never more acerbic or more crisply delivered than in this film; unbeknownst to Tom Prior his real mother (played by Sara Allgood) is also aboard the ship and is a model of lower-middle-class goodness and humility. The evils of wealth contrast markedly with Allgood's beatific poverty: George Coulouris convincingly plays a powerful British industrialist who learns that his money and connections cannot get him off the ship. Faye Emerson portrays a slatternly actress who realizes, as she states, that she is not a glamour girl “like Ann Sheridan,” one of Warner Brothers’ premier company actresses. Edmund Gwenn (who in 1947 played the genuine Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street) is the kindly steward who makes the transition between worlds as smooth as possible and introduces the Inspector, a man less ominous than efficient and fair-minded. At the film’s close, the passengers are resigned to their fates and the halfway couple reawaken to the possibilities of life amidst the ravages of war.

From these various films a few important images remain. A couple is united in spite of the summons from the world beyond and even though the mortal world is far from just, it still represents a post-lapsarian opportunity to make things better, to improve one’s personal lot. Mortals are fallible, but their basic goodness will win for them another day; even the omnipotent powers of the world beyond are reconciled to this truism. The 1946 British film, A Matter of Life and Death (directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; retitled Stairway to Heaven for American release) repeats this pattern as David Niven, an RAF flier, returns to earth after telling the sympathetic Conductor Number 71 (played by Marius Goring) that he wishes to live. Live he does, and the film ends with RAF pilot Niven affianced to WAC Kim Hunter. Thus the pattern persists even after the war in a tribute to the victory. Like Between Two Worlds, the cataclysm of war does not preclude opportunity for fresh beginnings. The great stairway itself, which reaches all the way to Heaven, is like a great escalator and suggests the elevator in The Horn Blows at Midnight which mysteriously goes far above the top floor in a posh hotel whenever it has heavenly guests to transport. The comic image in these films of a corporate heaven is further developed by the numbers assigned to messengers and planet earth, and the winged insignia on Mr. Jordan's uniform.

Perhaps we can fix more precisely the decline of the American film blanc: in 1947, two films were released which, while continuing the general pattern, are today quite forgotten. Down to Earth (Columbia) takes as much as possible from Here Comes Mr. Jordan including James Gleason as Max Corkle and Edward Everett Horton as Messenger 7013, but the film fails; Rita Hayworth as the muse Terpsichore is no replacement for Robert Montgomery's Joe Pendleton. Robert Cummings portrayed the Archangel Michael who, like Mr. Jordan, must rectify a celestial error in Heaven Only Knows (United Artists). Michael's trip to Montana provides the only western setting for the film blanc. But these films do not carry the sense of conviction that those made during the war do; evidently the filmmakers as well as the public have decided that the trips between heaven and earth may not be so plausible after all.

Further speculation about this film blanc genre suggests reasons for its appearance during the war and its languishing shortly afterward, to the point of being virtually ignored in contemporary cinema studies. Perhaps the obvious benevolence of the omnipotent spirits and the kindly character actors who portray them suggest that even when times are difficult and one sees the world crashing about one’s ears, there are indeed powers above who will provide and who have ordained these seemingly tragic events for the best. But such a pollyanna view of the world clashes violently with the pessimism and realism of much postwar film, which we hold in far higher critical esteem today. Contemporary regard for fantasy seems more sympathetic to that expressed in Brewster McCloud (1970), where the misguided visionary crashes to a dusty death in the tacky atmosphere of the Astrodome. Perhaps the more film is studied as a serious art form, the less inclined critics and reviewers are to sympathize with genuine fantasy – which accepts the reality of other worlds of angels, collectors, and inspectors from heaven. Escapism is here not the lucky accident which accounts for happiness in many 1930’s films, but rather the suggestion that something totally different from the mortal world can intervene to right the wrongs we see daily perpetrated upon ourselves and others. Richard Carlson, Robert Montgomery, Jack Benny, Paul Henreid, and David Niven portray characters who we believe should be given the opportunity which Beatrice arranged for Dante: the redemption from this dark vale of soul-making and the opportunity to show that man is deserving of something more than the grim lot assigned by fortune.

NOTES

1 Dante Aligheieri, Inferno, in Dante's Inferno, tr. Mark Musa (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1971), Canto 1, 11. 1-7. I
2 Interesting comments which evaluate the film noir in a larger imaginative context are to be found in Frank D. McConnell, The Spoken Seen: Film and the Romantic Imagination (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975); and Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America; A Social History of American Movies (New York: Random House, 1975). Film Comment for November-December 1974 features the film noir.
3 A theoretical treatment of fantasy is to be found in Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), esp. pp. 77-92, The American fantasy film grew in popularity during the 1930’s, peaked during the early 1940’s and declined in the late 1940’s. Different sorts of fantasy combined with angels, pacts with devils, mysterious reincarnations, and beckoning spirits. Another related strain suggests only the possibility of otherworldly presences. During this general period American film seems to have been entranced by the idea of negotiating between heaven and earth, moving from the mortal plane to the spiritual. Most fantasies of this period which have enjoyed sustained popularity are comedies: Topper (1937), I Married a Witch (1942), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). The 1945 British film Blithe Spirit suggests a pattern similar to the earlier Topper, though with a different focus. In France the postwar fantasies of Jean Cocteau develop more traditional mythic forms. Fantasy was obviously a viable filmic mode during world war II, even though many American entries have not maintained any appreciable following. But the psychological thriller which uses fantasy extensively - for example, Val Lewton’s production, The Curse of the Cat People - enjoys high regard. In this essay I shall attempt to trace one particular fantasy pattern out of many.
4 The Janus Newsletter for October 1977 notes that a new version of Here Comes Mn Jordan is being directed by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry from an Elaine May script of the original play, Heaven Can Wait.
5 The vastness of heaven is conveyed in the comedies by vast panoramic shots of the sweeping plains of celestial regions reminiscent of tile paintings of the nineteenth-century artist John Martin, and the Voyage of Life series of Thomas Cole. The scoring of these fantasies further underlines this sense of vast regions of dreamworld, and this evocative music is often excellent: Franz Woman contributed the score for The Horn Blows at Midnight, and one might also note that the RKO productions of Val Lewton often depended for atmosphere upon the suggestive scoring of Roy Webb. Most interesting is the score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold for Between Two Worlds, which was this versatile composer's favorite film score and suggests the mood of his operatic works. See George Korngold's liner notes to The Sea Hawk: The Classic Film Scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, RCA Red Seal recording LSC-3330. Korngold supplied the music for warner Brothers’ 1936 production of Green Pastures as well.

Peter L. Valenti teaches English at Fayetteville State University. For the past several years he has been studying the relations between verbal and visual responses to natural landscape in eighteenth and nineteenth century England.