Friday, February 24, 2012

Tonight's Movie: The Beginning or the End (1947)

THE BEGINNING OR THE END is MGM's telling of the Manhattan Project and the dropping of the first atomic bomb. Given the historic scope of the story, it's somewhat surprising that this film -- made just a year after the war ended -- is today relatively little known.

This movie, which was released in February 1947, traces how scientists from the U.S., Britain, and Canada joined together in atomic testing and the development of the atomic bomb. Brian Donlevy portrays Maj. General Leslie R. Groves, who had the challenge of managing the massive, multi-state project which had to be kept top secret. Documentary footage is briefly incorporated showing the construction of production facilities in Oak Ridge and Los Alamos. The final part of the film depicts the flight of the Enola Gay, a story which MGM would focus on more extensively half a decade later in ABOVE AND BEYOND (1952).

The large cast includes Hume Cronyn as Robert Oppenheimer; his fellow scientists are portrayed by Richard Haydn, Joseph Calleia, Hurd Hatfield, Norman Lloyd, Frank Ferguson, and several other fine character actors. Henry O'Neill is General Farrell, in charge of the mission to drop the bomb, with Barry Nelson as the pilot of the Enola Gay, Col. Paul Tibbetts Jr.

Robert Walker portrays General Groves' aide, with Audrey Totter adding a dash of spice as his girlfriend, who is also General Groves' secretary. The brief scenes depicting their flirtatious relationship provide a welcome lightening of the mood in a very serious story.

The film was somewhat less successful inserting a more detailed personal story with Tom Drake as a civilian scientist who has ongoing doubts about what the bomb will mean for mankind. Drake has a perennially worried expression; he does play well opposite Beverly Tyler as his cute, bubbly bride. (Drake and Tyler had been teamed the previous year in THE GREEN YEARS.) I wondered if the film might have been more effective if it had focused on being a straight docudrama; the story is dramatic enough in and of itself, and the Drake-Tyler storyline adds a bit of unneeded melodrama, culminating in an awkward extended scene which ends the film.

The film is an interesting melding of cinema and history, and I was particularly intrigued to see how the subject matter was treated so soon after the use of the atomic bomb and the end of the war. The story is framed in an unusual manner, beginning with a "newsreel" of a time capsule about the atomic bomb being made for people of the 25th Century, and the movie itself is included in the time capsule. (That's a bit strange to try to follow -- the movie depicting itself being put into a time capsule?) The pros and cons of the atomic bomb are discussed at some length, including a scene where President Truman (Al Baker) lays out his reasons for using the bomb to his press secretary.

At the time of the film's release, Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times: "Metro has made a motion picture which fairly re-enacts the main events in this almost incredible story and which gravely points the fearfulness thereof... For the most part, the re-enactments are commendably graphic and tense, and they are competently strung together in an impressive dramatic line... The result is a creditable concept of the energy expended and involved." I also smiled at his comment "Brian Donlevy makes a pretty snappy spark-plug out of dynamic General Groves"; the film could have used a few more scenes with Donlevy. I read Crowther's review after writing most of this post, and it was interesting to see that we had similar reservations about certain aspects of the film. Concerns aside, for the most part it's an absorbing film which is well worth seeing.

Aside from the actors previously mentioned, the extensive cast also includes Moroni Olsen, John Litel, Victor Francen, Jonathan Hale, Nella Walker, and Warner Anderson. Ludwig Stossel plays Einstein and Godfrey Tearle plays FDR. Patricia Medina is listed by IMDb as portraying the wife of Hurd Hatfield, but I don't believe she appeared in the final film.

A fun bit of trivia: There's a scene in the Pentagon where the characters played by Donlevy and Walker meet in front of a long hallway. I immediately recognized that hallway, which also appears in a scene in an office building in THE HUCKSTERS, released the same year. Five years later, Donald O'Connor danced up that "hallway" -- which is actually a large painted backdrop -- while performing "Make 'Em Laugh" in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952). Anyone who's seen SINGIN' IN THE RAIN a number of times shouldn't have any trouble picking out the fake hallway in this film. I wonder if MGM used it in more than three movies?

THE BEGINNING OR THE END was directed by Norman Taurog. The script of this 112-minute film was by Frank Wead, from a story by Robert Considine. The black and white cinematography was by Ray June.

This film is not available on DVD or VHS. It's been shown on Turner Classic Movies, which has the trailer available online. The trailer is rather unusual, interviewing "audience members" (including actor Clinton Sundberg) and a theater manager (played by Morris Ankrum) about their reactions. One of the taglines is "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer daringly presents the most timely production in motion picture history." The trailer is a bit over the top but it's also quite interesting to see how the film was marketed.

6 Comments:

Blogger Cliff Aliperti said...

Absolutely agreed about this getting sidetracked with the Tom Drake-Beverly Tyler domestic story. It's funny, you know they included that to put the movie over to a wider audience but it takes away so much!

Was also surprised how little known the title was. Heck, I never heard of it until I saw it! Really enjoyed it, except for those parts above.

12:25 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Cliff! I was very interested to get your feedback on this! Sounds like we had very similar reactions.

I'm an MGM fan from way back but info on this title had sure gotten past me over the years. When I read the description in the January TCM guide I was very intrigued and made sure to record it. I'm glad I did! Great cast and a very compelling story which made me want to learn more, especially about the test Robert Walker's character observes very early in the film.

Best wishes,
Laura

12:48 AM  
Blogger Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I've got to check up on this fake hallway. I know the one you mean from "Singin' in the Rain". Love it.

5:03 AM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

No mention of the giant grasshoppers attacking Chicago?

Just kidding.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Patrick McCray said...

Hi-

I'm teaching a course on Nuclear War in Fiction and Film at Caltech now. I really enjoyed your blog post. I have very old copy of The Beginning or the End but would LOVE to get my hands on a version of higher quality. Could you help me in this regard? (I am more than happy to pay for any costs)

Thank you,
Patrick McCray

11:31 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Patrick,

What an interesting course! Please email me at the "Contact Me" button on the upper left area of my blog, at the bottom of the "About Me" section.

Best wishes,
Laura

12:03 PM  

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