Playlist: 3 Snowy Non-Christmas Films

December 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

1. THE MORTAL STORM (Frank Borzage, 1940)

So much of one’s memories of The Mortal Storm tends to be occupied by its climax that it’s easy to downplay what an expertly constructed picture Frank Borzage directed, a full two years before the controversy of Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be brought Hollywood’s role in shaping public opinion about the Nazi menace into the New York Times. Borzage, that great romanticist, frames his anti-Nazi film as an arc that shows the disintegration of the family unit as the fascist collective builds itself up from the pieces, until the only identifiable heroes left are James Stewart’s Martin and Margaret Sullavan’s Freya. An early scene sees Freya’s father, the Professor Viktor Roth, celebrated by his admiring students, before his opinions on the new power in Germany leads to a boycott of his classes and a wide shot of the classroom underlining his isolation. The most memorable sequences in the film emphasize the individuals struggling to break free of the collective, including the pub scene that sees Martin and Freya uneasily silent during a chorus of a Nazi anthem, their old friends vanishing into a mass of raised arms and uniforms, and the swooning, iconic finale as the two make a break for free Switzerland, skiing for their lives over the wide-open hillsides on the border.

Available on DVD from Warner Archive.

2. THE WEDDING NIGHT (King Vidor, 1935)

Not every element of this film, among the most winter-obsessed of the old Hollywood era, has aged well. Contemporary viewers may raise an eyebrow (or two) at the depiction of the Polish family Novak and their antiquated ideas about marriage, which even Gary Cooper’s character Tony seems to find out of date. Its best moments, therefore, tend to be when the accents and family politics vanish away and all that’s left are two people, struggling for happiness they can only conceive of in terms of Tony’s unfinished novel. Anna Sten’s Manya, the object of the unhappily married Tony’s affections, grows into something ephemeral and unattainable in her scenes snowed in with Tony at his cabin, both strengthened by the sacred status he grants her as he writes her into his romance and simultaneously drifting out of his understanding as he refuses to confront the reality of her obligations to family. The confrontation between Manya and Tony’s returning wife Dora late in the film is a gem of a scene, two women with good reason to loathe one another finding a way to speak frankly and sympathetically about their situation through art. The final image of Tony staring at the snowfall through his window is the picture’s thematic arc in miniature: the beautiful dream, fleeting though it may be, clearly visible and out of reach.

Available on MGM DVD.

3. TRACK OF THE CAT (William A. Wellman, 1954)

A bizarre, arch melodrama elevated by some of the most outstanding production design ever shot in WarnerColor, Wellman’s snowy western eliminates all colors save for the red of Robert Mitchum’s jacket, an heir to the flag of Battleship Potemkin decades before Schindler’s List that here serves no explicit symbolic purpose except perhaps as a signal that some serious family feuding’s about to go down. A panther lurks somewhere in the woods outside the ranch owned by the Bridgeses, a family unit comprised almost entirely of stock dramatic types enlivened by Wellman’s wide staging and by the lurid tenacity of Mitchum’s performance as Curt, who eventually vanishes into the wilderness for his last confrontation with the beast that haunts them. A burial is glimpsed from the coffin’s point of view, a funeral service that unfolds from this one extreme-low-angle shot. A film adaptation of a painting by Pieter Bruegel, the Elder. It’ll strike all sentimental associations with snow from your mind.

Available on Paramount DVD and for streaming purchase on Amazon. – Brendan

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