A New Book on “They Were Expendable,” My Favorite Ford film

Many admirers of John Ford consider his greatest films were made in the late 1930s and early 1940s; these include Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, and How Green Was My Valley. Other Ford devotees favor his post-World War II motion pictures such as They Were Expendable and My Darling Clementine. Others admire such later works as The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I stand with director-Fordian scholar Lindsay Anderson and am most touched by John Ford’s They Were Expendable. Anderson believed that John Ford was the “poet of faith in an age of unbelief” and declared this movie about the American defeats in the Philippines at the beginning of World War II at the time of Pearl Harbor is Ford’s masterpiece, his heroic poem.
Film scholar Lou Sabini and photographer Nicholas Scutti’s “Behind the Scenes of They Were Expendable: A Pictorial History” (McFarland, 2015) utilizes Scutti’s stunning photographs and astonishing recollections of the month he spent in 1945 on location in Florida while the movie was being filmed. The result is a must-read for anyone interested in John Ford, John Wayne, World War II films, and one of the great movies about men and women in war.
This book is an extremely well-organized and sincere and inspired tribute to the movie. It includes a fascinating, detailed overview of the background to the production of the film and also features bios of the actual heroes (John Bulkeley and Robert Kelly) who led the PT squadron which rescued General MacArthur and brought him to safety. There are also bios of the Hollywood stars of the film, Robert Montgomery (who actually commanded a PT boat during the war), John Wayne, Jack Holt, Donna Reed, and Ward Bond. But the core of the book are the photographs and Sabini’s adroit, probing questions of Scutti who was an eighteen-year-old U.S. Navy photographer in 1945. These questions and Scutti’s memories of his experiences interacting with the cast and crew gives the reader an excellent behind-the-scenes view of the filming of this classic motion picture.
The movie, They Were Expendable, features numerous “Fordian moments,” touching scenes that capture and expose a significant moment in time, a perfectly phrased quip, or a revelation of a character’s private and often painful thoughts, sentiments, and memories. Hopefully, this book will propel new audiences to experience this exceptional movie and its special moments. If so, Sabini and Scutti have more than done their duty.

200 pg.    $39.95      McFarland      www.mcfarlandpub.com      800-253-2187

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A Visit to Cong, Ireland

I recently visited Cong, County Mayo, Ireland where “The Quiet Man” was filmed.  A must visit for anyone who relishes John Ford’s classic ode to Ireland.  Conan’s pub is still there as is the cottage where the old man (Francis Ford) was “almost” on his death bed.

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To Celebrate Halloween: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1949)

Walt Disney was responsible for so many cartoon classics.  One that is too often forgotten is the perfect Halloween experience for viewers of all ages.  This is the “mini-classic folktale,” The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1949), featuring Bing Crosby as the singing narrator.

Based on Washington Irving’s 1819 short story, this thirty-three minute short tells the story of Ichabod Crane, the new gangly schoolteacher in the small rural upstate New York hamlet of Sleepy Hollow.  Ichabod soon charms the entire community including buxom Katrina Van Tassel, the original Saint Pauley’s girl and the daughter of the richest farmer in the district.  But the local bully, Brom Bones, also wants Katrina and soon a rivalry develops with the teacher winning all the early battles.  In the movie’s conclusion, Brom gains his revenge over the superstitious “pedantic pedagogue” with a vivid and terrifying ghost story about a headless horseman.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow utilizes comedy, superior animation, and Bing Crosby to create a memorable movie.  There are funny lyrics like this description of Ichabod: “Who’s that coming down the street – are they shovels or are they feet?”; visual humor (the short, heavy-set girl manhandling brawny Brom Bones at the dance); and Bing’s self-deprecating teasing of his own crooning with Ichabod’s “Ba ba ba boom” to a group of swooning female admirers.

The Disney studio’s Technicolor animation successfully balances humor and horror, thanks to the contributions of such craftsmen as Ollie Johnson, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, and Wolfgang Reitherman.  The bright, colorful early autumn scenes and the frightening climax all exhibit superior primary and secondary characters as well as imaginative gestures, backgrounds, and atmosphere. Crosby’s warm, mellow narration contributes wit, texture, and personality to Ichabod’s character and the entire film.  Be it serious or silly, Bing’s soothing voice is always unforgettable while, as Barbara Bauer stated in her book, Bing Crosby: The Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies, his “charming, casual, crooning style . . .  disarms us.”

Clyde Geronimi and Jack Kinney directed the movie.  Winston Hibler, Erdman Penner, James Algar, and Joe Rinaldi contributed to the script while Oliver Wallace, Gene DePaul, and Don Raye were responsible for the words and music.  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was originally half of Disney’s eleventh animated movie, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.  The other half of this cartoon classic was The Wind in the Willows narrated by Basil Rathbone.

The story has been filmed numerous times.  The 1980 TV version with Jeff Goldblum, former football star Dick Butkus, and Meg Foster in the three leads is an extremely entertaining movie while Tim Burton’s inspired and creative Sleepy Hollow (1999) is a beautiful, but gory version with Johnny Depp as a bumbling city policeman investigating a series of murders.

But it is Disney and Bing’s cartoon that remains the standard.  Online IMDB movie critic, Ferruccio Bariavento, correctly declared, “It is one of those simple, underrated and forgotten Disney classics from the 40s . . .  Ichabod Crane is probably the most original character ever created by Disney . . .  his simplicity, charm, and pacific personality are what really makes the difference.”  So celebrate Halloween by watching this forgotten gem, and be prepared for thirty-three minutes of pleasurable entertainment.

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Interview: Author Bill Levy on Director John Ford’s Acting Company and his new project, Familiar Faces in Unexpected Places

Click below to check out my June 2014 interview with NPR’s Julia Meek where I discuss my  book on film director John Ford’s stock company of actors and actresses and my next project, Familiar Faces in Unexpected Places.





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Trail of Robin Hood

Trail of Robin Hood  

A Forgotten Gems Column by Bill Levy

© Bill Levy 2013


To celebrate the holiday season, this critique focuses upon an enjoyable holiday-related movie that isn’t  as well-known as White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, The Bishop’s Wife, the various versions of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, or It’s a Wonderful Life.  This  “Christmas Forgotten Gem” is Trail of Robin Hood (1950).

This motion picture has nothing to do with the legendary bandit of Sherwood Forest.  There’s a sheriff, but he’s a minor character in the storyline; there’s a marksmanship contest, but it involves rifles not bows and arrows;  and there’s a character named Sir Galahad,  but he’s not a noble knight but a pet turkey.  Instead of a sequel to Errol Flynn’s greatest adventure, Trail of Robin Hood is a likeable Roy Rogers B-western that features a Christmas theme, several Christmas songs, lots of action, and an abundance of entertaining silliness.

The plot of this Republic Pictures film involves a retired silent movie cowboy star (Jack Holt) who wants to sell Christmas trees to the needy at cost.  A greedy timber baron (Emory Parnell), his manipulative daughter (Penny Edwards), and their evil lumber camp foreman (Clifton Young) attempt to sabotage Holt’s operation, but their schemes are thwarted by a U.S. Conservation agent (Rogers) assisted by Trigger, Bullet, a simpleton-handyman (Gordon Jones) and his young spunky sister (Carol Nugent), and a posse of well-known B-western movie stars including Rex Allen, Allan “Rocky” Lane, Monte Hale, and Ray “Crash” Corrigan.

In his encyclopedia of western films, “The Western,” Phil Hardy describes Trail of Robin Hood as, “one of the most surreal of serial westerns, and all the more charming for it.”  This is certainly a bizarre movie.  In addition to its irrelevant title, the movie is filled with zany inconsistencies like cowboys prancing around wearing  six-shooters like it’s the 1880s while Roy’s romantic interest drives around in a modern convertible.  And then there’s Sir Galahad.  The film abruptly switches from an action horse opera with numerous fist fights, fires, and chases on horseback (filmed in California’s Big Bear Lake area and the San Bernardino Mountains by Rogers’ favorite director, William Witney) to a musical with Roy and The Riders of the Purple Sage abruptly singing “Home Town Jubilee,” “Get a Christmas Tree for Johnny,” and “Ev’ry Day is Christmas in the West.”  Then the movie changes to a comedy with  Gordon Jones (Mike the Cop in the Abbott and Costello television series) as the bumbling sidekick before the action resumes, and then, suddenly, it’s a Christmas melodrama with Roy and his buddies risking their lives to help those in need enjoy their Christmas.  But somehow it all works.

The first “Christmas Forgotten Gem” I ever wrote was John Ford’s Three Godfathers (1948). Although Trail of Robin Hood does not feature John Wayne’s strong presence,  Ford’s creative direction, Winton Hoch’s majestic photography, or  any  significant Christmas symbolism, it does offer four things that Three Godfathers doesn’t:  “The King of the Cowboys,”  “The Smartest Horse in the Movies,” a wintry Christmas snow scene, and that unforgettable pet turkey.



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Celebrating Greer Garson’s September Birthday: The forgotten gem, “Blossoms in the Dust”

“Blossoms in the Dust”
A Forgotten Gems Column by Bill Levy
© Bill Levy 2013

Greer Garson (1904-1996) and Walter Pidgeon (1897-1984) co-starred in eight motion pictures. “Mrs. Miniver” (1942), “Madam Curie” (1943), and “Mrs. Parkington” (1944) were produced at the zenith of the couple’s fame and are each well-remembered, while “Blossoms in the Dust” (1941), the first movie they made together, is the “Forgotten Gem” of the group.

This MGM production describes the life and contributions of Edna Gladney (Garson), a real-life selfless American heroine who devoted her life to helping orphans and to combatting the stigmatizing these children were forced to experience for the rest of their lives. In the film, Edna receives loving support from her husband (Pidgeon) as she runs the Texas Children’s Home and Aid Society and battles indifference and rampant prejudice against these innocents. Her stance can best be summed up by her mantra, “There are no illegitimate children; only illegitimate parents.”

Greer Garson’s characterization displays a powerful presence mixed with uncompromising integrity, compassion, and commitment. She (and her gorgeous red hair and marvelous cheekbones) benefit from Karl Freund and W. Howard Greene’s Technicolor cinematography as well as Mervyn LeRoy’s adroit direction. Garson was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award but lost out to Joan Fontaine (“Suspicion”).

In this movie, Walter Pidgeon he portrays a Texas businessman who continually provides her with the assistance and encouragement she needs. Character actor, Felix Bressart, resembling a bewhiskered Walter Brennan with a Hungarian accent, adds solid support as Edna’s friend and ally, Dr. Max Breslar.

In addition to Garson’s nomination, the film was nominated for Oscars for Best Picture and Best Color Cinematography. It won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction – Interior Decoration in Color. “Blossoms in the Dust” was adapted by Anita Loos, Hugo Butler, and Dorothy Yost based on a story of Edna Gladney’s life by Ralph Wheelwright. Producer/Director Mervyn LeRoy also directed Greer Garson in Random Harvest and Madame Curie. During her lifetime, the real Edna Gladney (1886-1961) placed over 10,000 babies with adoptive families.

Movie critic Jason Higgins recently observed, “Blossoms in the Dust,” “has all the makings of a classic MGM film – outstanding production values, a great cast, good writing and expert direction. Greer Garson is superb and her frequent co-star, Walter Pidgeon, gives a fine, low-key performance. It’s a tear-jerker done with great style.” The basic premise of this movie – a plea for compassion – is as timely today as it was seventy-odd years ago when the film was made and one hundred-odd years ago when Edna Gladney fought for the rights of her blossoming orphans and foundlings. This is a heartwarming and inspiring tribute to a lady whose portrayal deserves to stand besides Spencer Tracy’s Father Flanagan of “Boys Town” as a prime example of classic Hollywood’s depiction of a true hero dedicated to protecting and championing hundreds of children, in her case, hundreds of defenseless “creatures of shame.”

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Celebrate July 4th with “Stars and Stripes Forever”

“Stars and Stripes Forever (1952) is a movie that provides viewers with a different way of celebrating the Fourth of July by relishing John Philip Sousa, his wife, and his music:

                                                             “Stars and Stripes Forever”

A Forgotten Gems Column by Bill Levy

© Bill Levy 2013


          During the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, Hollywood made numerous films in which the wife of a famous historical personality is the “power behind the throne.”  One of the best of these movies is Stars and Stripes Forever (1952) with Ruth Hussey as the wife of the famous “March King” John Philip Sousa (Clifton Webb). 

          Ruth Hussey often portrayed the calm sophisticated, knowing wife.  Halliwell’s Filmgoer’s Companion characterizes many of her characters as “smart and competent.”  In Stars and Stripes Forever, she is superb as Jennie Sousa, an intelligent (and extremely attractive) spouse subtly guiding her brilliant but eccentric husband.   Whether she is “suggesting” that a new ballad he wrote be played as a march or educating him about the best ways to deal with a young couple (a very youthful Robert Wagner and a very radiant Debra Paget), Miss Hussey is wonderful. 

          Clifton Webb is also perfectly cast.  His John Philip Sousa is pompous but somehow endearing, stiff yet quite vulnerable and human.  Sousa is far more than the stereotypical absent-minded music professor and is more perceptive than his wife realizes.   His dedication to his music, his subtle sense of humor, and his arrogant stare create a life-like person and personality that earned Webb a Best Actor Golden Globe nomination.

          Stars and Stripes Forever depicts the story of Sousa’s famous band focusing on its formation and its popular tours during the Gilded Age of the 1890s.  The film is filled with patriotic music including Sousa’s great marches “El Capitan,” “Washington Post,” “King Cotton,” and “Stars and Stripes Forever” as well as Julia Ward Howe and William Steffe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” John Sanderson’s “Hail to the Chief,” and Daniel Decatur Emmett’s “Dixie.”

          This Fox production was directed by Henry Koster and scripted by Ernest Vajda and the movie’s producer Lamar Trotti.  The picture was based on Sousa’s autobiography, Marching Along.  Academy Award winner George Chakiris appears in the film as a ballroom dancing extra.  Ruth Hussey was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the cynical photographer, Elizabeth Imbrie in The Philadelphia Story (1940).  Clifton Webb, born Webb Parmalee Hollenbeck, was nominated twice for Best Supporting Actor Oscars; (for his Waldo Lydecker in Laura [1944] and his Elliott Templeton in The Razor’s Edge [1946]), and for Best Actor as Mr. Belvadere in Sitting Pretty (1948).   

          So, as an alternative to watching those endless war films on and around the Fourth of July, try something different and experience a movie that will not only stir up the patriotic juices but will also give you the opportunity to witness a successful marriage of strong-minded individuals who together created great happiness for themselves and for millions of others.

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Back Again

I apologize for disappearing but it’s been a busy spring. 

I’m just about done with my second BearManor book.  This one is titled 101 Forgotten Gems: Overlooked/Overshadowed Films from Hollywood’s Golden Era.  (For further information on that book, please check the section on Upcoming Projects).

I have also been busy promoting the John Ford Stock Company book.  I just did a book signing at the Westport (Connecticut) Library and have two others schedule this month – at Mendham Books in Mendham, NJ on May 18th  at 11:00 am and at The Quiet Man Pub in Dover, NJ on Saturday, May 25th from 11:00am to 3″oo pm.   If you’re into John Ford, old movies, or great Irish pubs, do check out the Quiet Man pub.  (For further information on these and other appearances and talks, please check out  the section on Scheduled Events).

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Bear Manor to Publish a Second Book – “Forgotten Gems from Hollywood’s Golden Era”

BearManor Publishing will publish a second of my books: Forgotten Gems from Hollywood’s Golden Era: 100 Overlooked and Overshadowed Films of the Studio Era. The book will be available later in 2013.

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“Being Sensible About Pennies”

“Penny Sense”
A “Levy’s Wry Column” by Bill Levy
© Bill Levy 2013

There has been a great deal of recent conversation about eliminating the penny. Several foreign nations have already done this. Many merchant and retail groups have been lobbying to get rid of the penny for years. There has been talk of legislation to round cash purchases to the nearest nickel. An article in the New York Times declared, “Once a symbol of thrift and resourcefulness, pennies are now striking many people as anachronistic and a nuisance.” But before we ban the penny, we should attempt to be as sensible as possible.

Pennies have always been a significant part of the American Experience. Throughout the years, American culture has been broadened and brightened by penny arcades and penny serenades. Pennies have been responsible for such unique American institutions as baseball centerfielders, Thanksgiving centerpieces, and, of course, Playboy centerfolds.

The penny has shaped the American character. For example, American men have generally been less aggressive than European Continental males because we’ve had pennies to pinch. Also, American teenagers would probably never have had the energy for rock and roll if they were weighted down by silver-dollar loafers.

No one can deny that there are bad pennies and that pitching pennies, gambling at penny arcades, and kissing pretty pennies have hindered some youngsters’ moral development. But if pennies become extinct, we would lose so much. We would lose the optimistic hope that there are “pennies from heaven” and “honest pennies” among us. The thought-provoking phrase “penny for your thoughts” would become obsolete. Without the possibility to become penny-wise, many of us could become pound foolish, and too many of us are overweight already. The thought of the United States of America without the penny is nonsense. With all the problems facing our nation today, we need all the sense and cents we can get.

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