Sunday, August 28, 2011

On Watching John Ford's 1937 Classic The Hurricane While a Real One Raged (sort of) Outside My Window

So, as Hurricane Irene made her wild ride up the Atlantic Coast and people ran out to get their sandbags, eggs and milk, I thought to myself what better time to watch the classic, but oft-overlooked John Ford film The Hurricane.  What better time indeed.  As the wind blew with gale force outside my window, trees bowing and trash cans bouncing down the street, rain pelting the side of the house like machine gun fire, dogs and cats flying through the backyard (that last one may have been a bit of nonsensical hyperbole), I watched as poor helpless Dorothy Lamour was lashed to a tree in order to be saved from blowing out into the South Seas with all her fellow islanders, as cocksure Raymond Massey searched the raging seas for unfairly accused refugee Jon Hall, and as the omnipresent Tommy Mitchell acted as the stumble-drunken words of wisdom.  As the massive island-devouring storm waged war against Lamour, Hall, Massey and Mitchell, as well as motherly Mary Astor and evil-twink John Carradine, Hurricane Irene was battlesent at my very own door.

Okay, much of this story is bunk.  Yes, the much-talked-about, media-frenzied Hurricane Irene did indeed make its way up the Eastern Seaboard, but I was far enough inland to receive nothing more than some hard-slanted rain and a lot of tree debris throughout my neighbourhood (though the trash cans did bounce down the street at one point).  Those poor bastards along the coast, which include both friends and family (all safe now), did indeed receive quite a wallop, many have lost their homes, many even worse, and that is not to be taken lightly at all, but since I was relatively safe and sound and secure in my Harrisburg home (wife tentatively asleep in the bedroom, cats snuggled in various nooks and/or crannies, myself on the couch of my so-named "Cool Guy Lounge" - one does despise the word mancave), wind beginning to blow outside, I did take the opportunity to watch the aforementioned, appropriately-topical Ford classic, The Hurricane.

As for my take on the film, I did quite enjoy it for both its story and its technique (duh, it's John Ford!).  Seeming a bit funny at times to see the very white Jon Hall play a Pacific Islander and be told that he "should stand when told to by a white man" (typical of Old Hollywood of course and not nearly as ridiculous as other certain casting choices like John Wayne as Ghengis Khan or Brando as a Japanese man) but still quite a jolting film at times - and who doesn't like seeing Miss Lamour in island garb.  But the best thing about the film is (of course) the hurricane itself.  According to Life Magazine, special effects wizard James Basevi was given a budget of $400,000 to create his effects. He spent $150,000 to build a native village with a lagoon 200 yards long on the backlot of United Artists, and then spent $250,000 destroying it.  The look was astounding - and not just for the time period.  

New York Times critic Frank S. Nugent praised the climactic special effect by stating, "It is a hurricane to blast you from the orchestra pit to the first mezzanine. It is a hurricane to film your eyes with spin-drift, to beat at your ears with its thunder, to clutch at your heart and send your diaphragm vaulting over your floating rib into the region just south of your tonsils."  Granted, as I admitted to earlier, the brunt of Hurricane Irene never made it to my humble abode (power and even internet connection, as I was watching via my Blu-ray Netflix Instant account, never wavered), but still, the storm on the screen seemed more real than that outside.  Of course, to quote Truffaut, "I have always preferred the reflection of the life to life itself. Perhaps both Astor and Lamour would have too but they were really tied to that tree (no stunt doubles here) as the special effects bombarded them.  Anyway, this was my experience watching John Ford's The Hurricane while one raged (sort of) outside.

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