Saturday, October 24, 2020

Tonight's Movie: The Pied Piper (1942)

I had a nice surprise this morning, when I learned from a friend that THE PIED PIPER (1942), a film I've long wanted to see, would be streaming as part of a free online film festival.

It was shown by the 2nd Attaboy Clarence Film Festival, and as luck would have it, it fit perfectly into my schedule.

For reasons unknown to me this film from 20th Century-Fox is difficult to see, despite being nominated for three Academy Awards.  My movie viewing records show I saw this film on TV as a child, but it's a rare film which was pretty much a blank in my memories.  

I was chagrined to have missed a chance to see it on the big screen when it was unexpectedly shown at the 2018 Cinecon Film Festival; I had already left for the day when the projectionist opened up cans labeled ON THE AVENUE (1937) and it turned out to be THE PIED PIPER instead!  That made today an especially happy second chance to see the film.

Monty Woolley received a Best Actor nomination as John Sidney Howard, an Englishman who has the misfortune to be on a fishing holiday in France when the Germans invade.

Howard immediately makes plans to return to England, and he's persuaded by another couple at the lodge, the Cavanaughs (Lester Matthews and Jill Esmond), to take their children with him.  Mr. Cavanaugh is a diplomat headed for Geneva, and given the escalation into war, the Cavanaughs prefer that Ronnie and Sheila (Roddy McDowall and Peggy Ann Garner) go stay with their aunt in the relative safety of England.

Crochety Howard insists he doesn't like children but acquiesces to chaperoning them for what should be a straightforward trip of less than a day.  That's before the trains stop running and their bus is strafed...

As circumstances become more precarious, Howard and the children doggedly make their way toward the British Channel, unexpectedly picking up more children (Fleurette Zama, Maurice Tauzin, and Merrill Rodin) along the way.

Howard seeks refuge with a French family he knows in Chartres, and their adult daughter Nicole (Anne Baxter) volunteers to help get Howard and his young charges to the channel.  The challenges include trying to keep Ronnie and Sheila from speaking and calling attention to the fact that they're English, as they try to blend in and not attract the notice of Nazi soldiers.  

A fisherman (Marcel Dalio) is set to ferry the little group over to England when they are unexpectedly detained by a Nazi major (Otto Preminger).

THE PIED PIPER might be one of the least-known films ever nominated for Best Picture.  I found it to be quite engrossing, with the performances and a strong script by Nunnally Johnson (from a novel by Nevil Shute) overcoming the studio-bound sets.

The movie, sensitively directed by Irving Pichel, is an unflinching and unsentimental look at war and its impact on children; in that regard it would be well-paired on a double or triple bill with MGM's JOURNEY FOR MARGARET (1942) or Universal Pictures' THE AMAZING MRS. HOLLIDAY (1943).  It's not graphic, but it doesn't need to be in order to convey the horrors of war.

One scene in which Howard is threatened by the Nazi major is particularly disturbing, yet there's a fascinating and unexpected payoff after Howard proves his dedication to protecting the children in his charge.  (Clearly he doesn't really hate children, as his actions consistently prove.)  I won't share that plot twist here, other than to say it was reminiscent of another excellent Fox war film, THE MAN I MARRIED (1940).

I have a soft spot for Monty Woolley, who was so good in films like THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1942), SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944), and THE BISHOP'S WIFE, and McDowall and Garner were two of the finest child actors of the '40s.  While she's not especially French, Anne Baxter is fine as the brave young woman who comes to Howard's aid.

The cast also includes Helmut Dantine, noticeable in a small role as a Nazi soldier, and J. Carrol Naish, Ferike Boros, Odette Myrtil, and Marcelle Corday.  The movie was filmed in black and white by Oscar-nominated Edward Cronjager, with a score by Alfred Newman.

IMDb lists the running time as 87 minutes; the print I watched was a couple minutes shorter, but since it was shown from the UK it's possible this was due to "PAL speedup."

I really enjoyed the chance to see this film at long last.  Given its multiple Oscar nominations, it's a bit baffling that it hasn't been released on DVD; if nothing else, it seems as though it would be a good candidate for the Fox Cinema Archives DVD-R line, but perhaps there are rights issues.  Hopefully at some point in the future this movie will be more easily available for viewing, as it deserves to find wider audiences.


Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

An old favorite of mine. I'm glad you finally got the chance to see it. I don't know why it's not more well-known or available, but it's certainly one to watch for.

5:54 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

As grand as Monty is -- he was also grand playing Monty Woolley (himself) opposite Cary Grant, Alexis Smith, and Jane Wyman in Night and Day. A load of fun, always a pleasure.

7:10 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

How nice to hear from you, Jacqueline! Now that you mention it, I believe I recall reading about the movie at your site. Definitely a good film. Let's hope one day it finally has a proper release for home viewing.

Barrylane, I have long had NIGHT AND DAY on my shelf as part of a Grant DVD set yet it's one of the relatively few Grant films I've yet to see for the first time. Sounds like I should bump it higher on the list. Love the cast.

Thanks to you both for your comments!

Best wishes,

12:10 AM  
Blogger Vienna said...

This sounds one to watch for. Good cast. I too like Monty. Am sure you will like Night and Day. Monty’s defining role is definitely The Man who Came To Dinner. He is wonderful in that, outdoing Eve Arden in acerbic quips.

1:29 AM  
Blogger Lee R said...

Like you I became a fan of Monty Woolley from Man Who Came To Dinner and Bishop's Wife. Since then I've looked for anything with Monty to watch. I did find Pied Piper several years ago on DVD though. It was sold by some outfit called "Loving The Classics" who seemed to have every unknown movie under the sun. BUT the catch is they took 7 months to finally deliver the DVD. I had thought I was just ripped off, I emailed them, I called their "customer service" number and NEVER got a response. So I chalked it up to being a loss. But 7 months later it finally arrived out of the blue. I would never order from them again but they did finally come thru. But why they couldn't answer just one of the many inquiries I made is beyond me.

YES, getting back to the movie it IS one of the all time great Monty movies. I've never seen him bad in any movie for that matter. It was a different sort of Monty movie though, more dramatic than I thought it was going to be. I'm so used to him being a comical character I sort of expected it in this one too. He still made a very dramatic situation easier to take with his personality.

Glad to see someone else talk about this movie, this is the first time I've seen anyone talk about it!

Also like you I have Night & Day sitting with my other Cary Grant movies but I've only seen it once a long time ago. About the only good thing I remember about it is that it's in color. I definitely need to watch this one again. Thanks for reminding me.

3:40 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

If you cannot enjoy the performances, musical, and otherwise in Night and Day, you need to check your premise; why are you watching the movie. It is not the history of Cole Porter, it is a commercial musical enterprise. Treat it that way. Cary Grant and Jane Wyman sing. Who could ask for more.

4:26 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Vienna, Thanks for your thoughts on NIGHT AND DAY! It's on my "to watch" list! I pull THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER out every couple of Christmases. It's fun to decorate the tree with it on in the background.

Lee, I'm glad you finally got your copy of THE PIED PIPER! I've dealt with that company and they are definitely...unpredictable. Enjoyed your thoughts on it.

Barrylane, I'm definitely curious about NIGHT AND DAY! Hoping to see it before long.

Best wishes,

11:31 PM  

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