Not my favorite Howard Hawks film, 1941’s Sergeant York treads some familiar ground stylistically for the director. Based on a true story, this is Hawks at his most saccharine and also, maybe even as much as in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, his most musical. Gary Cooper plays the eponymous York, a rural farmer who becomes an unlikely war hero despite espousing pacifist beliefs.
At first glance, York is like a lot of other Hawks films. It’s male-centric, favors medium shots, and the narrative moves in a traditionally structured, classic Hollywood-kinda-way. It features an awesomely staged, sometimes surprisingly violent war sequence, and Hawks’ best bar fight since A Girl in Every Port.
The score mentioned above is one thing that sets it apart from other Hawks work immediately surrounding (His Girl Friday, Ball of Fire) and well before and after. The music is omnipresent. It’s everywhere, probably covering a good 70% of the film. For my money, Hawks uses music best as music intro to a scene or character, and then as a little punctuation and/or as an out to a scene. In York music underscores nearly everything, at times covering entire scenes. It’s an unwelcome deviation. What is it about the jingoist wartime film that sees more conducive to music than either comedies bookending this picture, or later noirs, dramas, etc? It’s as though Hawks sees nationalistic pride as needing (deserving?) that extra layer of aural spirit.
Sprinkled throughout York are a few shots that struck me as particularly anomalous in Hawks’ strategy. Here are two:
That first wide shot (where the camera is actually slowly craning forward) feels pulled from a Western with its emphasis on landscape and silhouettes that seem to blend in with nature. It’s appropriate for the scene (York tries to reconcile religious and nationalistic beliefs), but it also feels too theatrical and stereotypically beautiful for a shot from a Hawks film. The second – a shallow-focus 2-shot featuring York in a tight close-up – really separates itself from the otherwise laxness of the Hawks medium-shot.
That said, there are plenty of other Hawks-isms throughout. Repetition in the large scale narrative, for example. York, pre-war, wins a turkey hunt by fooling the ducking birds with his own turkey call:
Later, York lures two Germans out via the same strategy. Hawks shoots it in a similar way, mirroring the wooden barrier with the sandbagged bunker, and even framing York in a 3/4 medium close-up in both (though he’s appropriately closer in the wartime shot):
York tells his wartime buddies how to shoot turkeys. He uses bullets to demonstrate that it’s smartest to shoot those in back first, so the ones in front aren’t aware what’s coming. That way you can take down the whole lot:
Then in wartime, guess what? The same situation presents itself as York is face-to-face with a row of Germans, whom he picks off one-by-one, from back to front:
It’s moments like this that are pretty genius in Hawks, and not just because of the repetition. What really makes these work, is that both scenes – the set-up scene (York hunting turkeys) and the pay-off scene (York hunting Germans) – are integrated into the narrative and, at the time of their presence, serve a story purpose. The set-up scene doesn’t only exist to make the pay-off work. It exists to advance the story otherwise (York needs to win the turkey hunt to win some land to get the girl he loves, etc).
But it’s not just larger scale repetition that Hawks uses. In York there’s a nice moment towards the end of small-scale, camera repetition. York receives a medal from the French:
Hawks then cuts to an ECU of the medal and dollies back to reveal York being kissed on both cheeks (somewhat flustered):
Hawks moves to York’s interaction with the British. Again, after establishing the two men in medium-wide shot he cuts into the ECU and dollies out, this time revealing the men in firm handshake:
And lastly, Hawks goes to York’s medal from the Americans. As opposed to the scene with the French and British, Hawks here starts in close-up, a slight indicator of preference:
Also like the other two he cuts to an ECU of the medal and dollies back, revealing York exuberantly shaking the general’s hand:
It’s not only that the repetition here creates a tempo that implies the regularity of these events, it’s also that Hawks gives a bit of insight into York’s backwater naivete in the process. He’s uncomfortable with the French, rigorous with the British, and at ease at home with the Americans.
Speaking of saccharine, Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement comes this close to being another Mr. Smith Goes to Washington at times. It also comes incredibly close to not providing expected romantic, heterosexual closure – this would have been a beautifully orchestrated surprise moment – but then veers back to the norm in the last 90 seconds.
Still, despite being somewhat self-righteous and preachy, Gentleman’s Agreement is ahead of its time, and, like The Best Years of Our Lives the year before it, shows a somewhat jaded (in this case indirect) war outcome that differs from that post-war malaise so frequently cited as a driving factor behind film noir.
Gregory Peck plays Phil Green, a reporter who poses as Jewish to uncover anti-Semitism in New York. Though the logline might indicate a takedown of the newspaper industry it’s not the case. The good parts of Gentleman’s Agreement expose some of the grey areas and hidden prejudices in society and prove far more interesting than the overtly racist moments that also pervade the film. At the forefront is Green’s relationship and potential marriage to Kathy Lacy (Dorothy McGuire) who says she’s supportive, but might be thinking otherwise…
Within Kazan’s filmography, Gentleman’s Agreement seems to me to fit best stylistically with Panic in the Streets (1950), though I’ve never seen Boomerang! (1947). It’s a classy picture, and not quite reaching the grittier, looser levels that Kazan hits in later post-HUAC, method, and/or Brando films.
Here’s a really small, pretty inconsequential blocking moment that I liked early in the film. Green is with his mother (Anne Revere) and his son Tommy (a young Dean Stockwell!). They start in a medium 3-shot with Tommy’s back to camera:
As the conversation progresses, Tommy wanders to the background and is just visible through the two adults:
This particular blocking moment is a good example of why I love staging, and why some actors can carry a scene more than others. Peck takes a step back as he’s departing. It’s a really small action, but it’s so natural. A lesser actor would just turn and walk away. Peck kind of drifts off. We can see his reluctance to leave his son in this small movement. It also allows Tommy to turn towards him and be re-engaged in the scene.
Kazan ends the scene with a good example of a small button. In this case, that button – the definition of which can be pretty malleable depending on the context – is motion. Rather than hard cut from Mrs. Green and Tommy in a standing position-
Kazan waits for them to walk away, blocking their movement in part with extras, diverting the attendant’s attention with another extra (frame left, below). This motion away from frame is classic closure and provides momentum that carries over into the next scene, which is Green applying for the job that will ultimately take up the meat of the film.