Thursday, March 16, 2006

FOUR SONS (1940)

This remake of a silent John Ford film is probably not as good as the original, but it's still an affecting family melodrama with good performances and some striking cinematography. In pre-WWII Czechoslovakia, in a village on the German border, we follow the story of a widowed woman (Eugenie Leontovich) and her four sons. Chris (Don Ameche) is the sensible, likeable one who the rest all lean on a bit; Joseph (Robert Lowery) is the sensitive artist; Karl (Alan Curtis) is handsome and a bit brooding; Fritz (George Ernest) is the innocent teenager who, if this were a musical, would be played by Mickey Rooney. They are a happy family--none of the brothers is even a wee bit jealous when Mama gives her savings to Joseph so he can go to America to fulfill his artistic ambitions, and Chris is quite understanding when his longtime girlfriend (Mary Beth Hughes) realizes she's actually in love with Karl. However, the political climate soon causes problems. Karl's membership in a German "social" club becomes threatening when Austria falls to the Germans and Karl starts wearing a swastika, which puts him at odds with Chris. War is declared then averted when Czechoslovakia agrees to give up the Sudatenland, but Joseph, who is doing anti-German editorial cartoons in the States and knows that the war cannot be held off indefinitely, tries to arrange to get his family passage to America. Unfortunately, their clearance comes too late to save everyone. I don't want to spoil the film by outlining all the characters' fates, but there are fistfights and gunfights and round-ups and battle casualties, climaxed by Hitler marching through the village at sunrise. The ending is on the grim side, and not all the people you expect to survive do. The film is hardly a noir, but much of it is set at night, and there is some very effective use of shadowy sets and evocative camera angles. One chase sequence, set at night in a swamp, reminded me of something out of a Universal horror film. The acting is fine; Leontovich, a renowned Russian stage actress, overdoes it a bit at times, but she is balanced by the sons generally underplaying their emotional scenes. An underrated film to catch if you can. [FMC]

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