These Two by Norman Taurog Are Not Quite Auteur-Tested
Norman Taurog's latest two blasts from the past are unearthed; but should they have stayed buried?
Please Believe MeDirector: Norman Taurog
Cast: Deborah Kerr, Robert Walker
Distributor: Warner Archive
US DVD release date: 2015-09-22
The Beginning or the EndDirector: Norman Taurog
Cast: Brian Donlevy, Robert Walker
Distributor: Warner Archive
US DVD release date: 2015-09-22
Two made-on-demand discs from Warner Archive reveal odd moments from the career of director Norman Taurog, who resists most attempts to inhabit an auteur status. His long and prolific career, primarily in comedy and music, includes work with many stars such as W.C. Fields, Bing Crosby, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Elvis Presley. Taurog won an Academy Award for Best Director with Skippy (1931), one of several boy-oriented movies in his catalogue, and was nominated again for Boys Town (1938).
The closer we look, however, the more he seems to embody the consummate professional journeyman, whose career depended on the script and actors rather than any personal stamp. Unfortunately, with mediocre material, the results are mediocre, and not interesting, failures.
Case in point: Please Believe Me (1950) is a romantic trifle about an Englishwoman (Deborah Kerr) who takes a ship to the US to claim a Texas ranch that she's inherited. Under the impression that she's wealthy, a debt-ridden schemer (Robert Walker) woos her by pretending to be rich. At the same time, she's the object of attention by a real millionaire (Peter Lawford) and his uptight attorney (Mark Stevens) -- the angriest alpha of the three and, therefore, somehow the most attractive to her.
In other words, the script by Nathaniel Curtis is based on masquerades and misunderstandings in that uneasy nether-realm between the credible and the absurd; and it depends on likable actors to help cohere the piece. It's never exactly sparkling and sophisticated, nor is it broad and dumb. It's just there. Its defining tone is friendliness; for the heroine gets along with everybody, no matter how pushy, and they all turn out mighty chummy with each other. Along for the ride are James Whitmore and J. Carrol Naish as semi-Runyonesque gambling types, and they're mighty chummy, too.
If there was an auteur in the room, it was producer Val Lewton in his only film for MGM. Any pretensions to sophistication within the film are his, as one thing he had was polish. A sight gag about a room where Walker has a gun trained on him from a turret creates an odd, suggestive little frisson that feels like a Lewton add-on. Conceptually, it seems a fillip unnecessary to the script, but it still took effort to physically construct.
The Beginning or the End (1947)
Walker had worked with both of these both men before, as he'd been in Lewton's 1949 Paramount production My Own True Love, and he had previously starred in Taurog's 1947 docudrama The Beginning or the End, about a topic so hot that it was literally radioactive. It's a curious relic of its era that opens with a faux-newsreel claiming that this film is being placed in a time capsule for 500 years. The newsreel features actors playing famous people, such as Brian Donleavy as General Leslie Groves of the Manhattan Project, and Hume Cronyn as J. Robert Oppenheimer.
After the credits, Oppenheimer tells his audience of the future that "only you" can know the beginning or the end of mankind. The original audience, no further in the future than 1954, knew that the real-life Oppenheimer lost his security clearance in the Red Scare era that dawned on the horizon as this film hit theaters. While the movie could never guess at that particular unleashing of what the atomic age had wrought, it's sadly off the mark in its final prediction that in our time, and with God's will, "the energy in a blade of grass will send planes to distant lands." At least the film's early sequences display the wonder of flashing lights on huge consoles, thus forecasting many a techno-fetish in future films.
A galaxy of other real-life figures include Enrico Fermi (Joseph Calleia), Albert Einstein (Ludwig Stossel), FDR in a wheelchair (Godfrey Tearle), and Harry Truman (Art Baker), which makes this an early example of dramatizing a current president. He's shown declaring that "all his military experts" predict that the A-bomb will shorten the war by a year, implying some unanimous urging that was far from the case.
He also avers that "in peacetime, atomic energy could be used to bring about a golden age, such an age of prosperity and well being as the world has never known." Maybe in 500 years. The fictional characters are the unfortunately, and we hope unwittingly, named Col. Nixon (Robert Walker); a conscience-stricken young scientist (Tom Drake) who proves himself a hero; and their respective brides (Audrey Totter and Beverly Tyler), who stand by and look pretty.
This is the final screenplay by aviation hero-turned-screenwriter Frank Wead, whose story was told in The Wings of Eagles (1957). For the first drama about an important and controversial development in history, it's surprisingly plodding -- or not so surprisingly, since it had official cooperation out of the yin-yang. We sit through scenes like the one with the nation's leading industrialists, all wrinkled periwigs, throwing themselves into the effort.
In a withering review, James Agee found it "a horrible example of what American movies will be like if the state interferes with them much", and finds the sequences of the bomb test and Hiroshima, "effectively staged, though hardly adequate to one's imagination, let alone one's imagination of how to handle that information creatively."
The only extra is a five-minute trailer as fabricated as the "newsreel". Recognizable character actors play ordinary Americans asked for their candid yet precisely paragraphed responses to the film they've just seen, and we're told that this is surely the most important movie around; which makes it sound like homework. "I liked the romance", sighs one airheaded daughter, while her little brother disses the "mush" and praises the B-29 bombers. Something for everyone.