Friday, April 23, 2021

A Star-Studded Eternity for the Cinematic Ages

         In 1953, Columbia Pictures studio chief Harry Cohn and director Fred Zimmerman had a tall order in attempting to bring the adult themes driving James Jones’ epic 1951 novel From Here to Eternity to the screen. In addition to addressing the story’s controversial passages, obstacles such as the logistics involved in on-location filming in Hawaii and the clashes involved in finding the perfect cast suggested a possible bad return on a troubled investment, but Eternity represents one of those rare occasions wherein a film’s various elements appear to seamlessly mesh together in a satisfying and riveting whole. Detailing the plights of several serviceman stationed at Pearl Harbor circa 1941 and the women they become involved with, Daniel Taradash’s intelligent, superbly crafted script, which manages to successfully incorporate most of the novel’s mature elements while carefully dodging the ever-looming production code restrictions, clearly delineates each character and their motivations and condensing the lengthy novel’s major plot points down to a reasonable running time of 118 minutes without losing the impact of the overall storyline.

         Fred Zinnemann, fresh off his success with 1952’s High Noon, again proved to be an ideal fit for handing a first-class production with characteristic taste, sensitivity and maturity. Zinnemann had a great track record with actors, and his adeptness with and support of each principle player is apparent as the film moves from one memorable scene featuring vividly-depicted portrayals to the next. Zinnemann also maintains sublime pacing during the film’s nearly two-hour running time, skillfully covering a wealth of interconnecting storylines and characters without losing focus of any of them; his staging of the Pearl Harbor attack is very impressive and help lend an “epic” feel to the film, but the quieter, reflective moments between players is perhaps a better indication of Zinnemann’s distinctive directorial gifts, staying with the viewer long after the attack and film have ended.

          Of all the intelligent, vulnerable portrayals Montgomery Clift created during a remarkable run from his impressive 1948 screen debut in Zinnemann’s fine post-war drama The Search (although Clift’s also-standout work in the smash Red River was filmed first, but released later in 1948) through Eternity, his intense, emotionally-driven, honest and highly principled approach to acting perhaps found its most perfect outlet in a character sharing many of these same qualities- Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a disciplined, dedicated private intent on making the Army a career while stoically refusing to give up his individualism, which causes frequent clashes with superiors and colleagues holding a more traditional view towards Army life. Preferring to express himself through his keen trumpet-playing skills as opposed to using his expert boxing abilities to aid his unit after a tragic bout, Prewitt stubbornly refuses to compromise on any of his beliefs, and Clift’s work is so heartfelt (he truly stays “in-the-moment” every second on-screen and fully connects with each costar) he convinces the audience Prewitt’s introverted, noble manner is worthy of the upmost respect and admiration. It’s great Clift managed a career peak of Eternity’s magnitude during this prime period (which also included A Place in the Sun and fascinating, carefully thought-out work in The Heiress), as afterwards he took time away from the screen before suffering a horrible auto accident while making Raintree County, after which Clift gave some moving performances, but never quite equaled the unique appeal found in his earlier output.

           Top-billed Burt Lancaster gained new stature as an actor with his finely modulated work as First Sergeant Milton Warden. Although already a popular star, specifically in the action genre via such entertaining fare as The Flame and the Arrow and the also perennially enjoyable The Crimson Pirate, both which showcase Lancaster’s impressive acrobatic skills as he cavorts through adventures with former circus partner Nick Cravat, Eternity, which followed closely on the heels of Lancaster’s subdued, ultra-serious work as the alcoholic Doc in the previous year’s Come Back Little Sheba, signaled a continued effort to move into a more serious vein, with Lancaster managing to his combine his ever-imposing presence with a firm self-control that makes the Warden a more mysterious and equally-fascinating counter to the flamboyant, awesome figures Lancaster cut as the colorful, rousing anti-heroes of 1956’s (underrated) The Rainmaker and his Oscar-winning work as the bible-thumping Elmer Gantry. Lancaster infuses a still, calm quality into the Warden, therefore making it all the more impactful when the Sgt. does suddenly become more explosive, such as in the memorable moment he steps in to break up a fight at a bar, making the audience firmly believe no one would dare ignore Warden’s demands to behave, or during the climax of the film, when it looks as though the Sgt. might possibly be able take on the entire enemy single-handedly, before he capably leads his team on a counter-attack. For his mature, formidable work, Lancaster managed to garner his first New York Film Critic’s Award, although both he and Clift missed out at the Oscars, with William Holden taking home the gold for Stalag 17 (I’d back Clift, but 1953 was quite a year for Best Actor, with Marlon Brando lending his distinct to Julius Caesar and Richard Burton in The Robe also in the mix).

           Deborah Kerr’s provocative work as Karen Holmes who, as the disenchanted wife of an unscrupulous Captain finds solace in a torrid relationship with Lancaster’s Warden, was considered out-of-left field casting at the time (Joan Crawford was slated for the role at one point, which makes perfect sense if you read the novel’s depiction of the tough, bitter Karen), based on the string of proper ladies that had brought Kerr fame at MGM and elsewhere. However, closer inspection shows Kerr was no stranger to offering erotically-charged portrayals when appropriate- check out her restless nun in Black Narcissus or her adventurous heroine frequently disquieted by Stewart Granger’s sexy Allan Quartermain in King’ Solomon’s Mines for pre-Eternity proof of Kerr’s knack for vividly depicting sensuality in a bold manner that somehow also managed to find acceptance among the strict production code mores of the time. Kerr proves extremely adept enacting Karen’s tense-yet-direct sexuality, manages a nice American accent and of course has a wonderfully steamy chemistry with Lancaster, specifically in the beach love scene of its or any era, which was considered very racy in 1953 and still generates plenty of on-screen heat. Kerr and Lancaster’s committed work in their scenes make one believe in the couple, and helps keep their risky romance from moving too far into melodramatic territory.

            Of all the players gaining hefty career boosts via Eternity, none benefited from the monumental success of the film and individual praise for their work therein than Frank Sinatra, who was famously at a low-ebb, both on film and records, before launching possibly the biggest showbiz comeback of them all. Stepping in for Eli Wallach, who opted out to do Camino Real on Broadway, and aided by wife Ava Gardner’s pitching to Harry Cohn, Sinatra landed the ideally-suited-for part of Angelo Maggio, the slight-in-stature but imposing-in-personality, grit, loyalty and humor private who befriends the troubled Prewitt and before facing substantial obstacles of his own. Reportedly after reading the novel Sinatra knew the role was made for him, and he charismatically plays the role with seeming ease, proving some valuable lighter moments in the process, while also coming across forcefully in his main dramatic moment, which he pulls off with a quiet grace not seen in Maggio beforehand. Sinatra would reach his apex as an actor a couple years later as a drug addict in The Man with the Golden Arm and also impressively anchored 1962’s classic The Manchurian Candidate, proving himself to possess a screen presence equal to his imposing vocal abilities when the spirit moved him, as it certainly did in Eternity.

           Donna Reed, back by Cohn for another against-type casting in the other leading female role sought after or considered for others (I’ve heard Carolyn Jones, Shelley Winters and Kim Stanley were possible candidates), the tough “hostess” Lorene (aka Alma Burke), comes through with her best work since It’s a Wonderful Life. Although Alma’s job has been sanitized from the oldest profession she occupied in the novel, Reed conveys a hard-bitten, jaded quality suggesting Alma is determined to achieve her financial goals by whatever means necessary, whether or not they can be clearly stated on-screen. Reed is unusually and intently focused in her scenes with Clift, and their rapport accounts for some of the most emotionally compelling moments in the film, as conflicting dynamics threaten the couple’s unorthodox romance. Reed is also impressive in the scene wherein Alma relates to Prewitt she’s working hard to save enough funds to return to her hometown and gain a “proper” position in society- Reed does a great job of balancing cynicism with a sense of wounded pride to show how strong Alma’s independent spirit is, and how serious and driven she is to accomplish her plan, even at the risk of losing Prewitt.

          Among the rest of the first-rate players, Ernest Borgnine shows his adeptness at villainy a couple years before Marty made him a star. Playing James “Fatso” Judson, a Staff Sergeant who comes in conflict with Maggio in ongoing fashion, Borgnine underplays in a calm manner that makes his hateful intent fascinating to watch, and creepier than if Judson came across as a more-explosive monster; for example, Judson matter-of-factly telling Prewitt Maggio deserved the torture Judson put him through, as if constantly beating up someone is the most rational thing in the world and something to do daily at random, is an unsettling moment that carriers more power than most of the forceful bullies Borgnine played at high-pitch during his later starring years (although I’ll always love Borgnine’s shouting matches with Gene Hackman up, down and throughout The Poseidon Adventure). Rounding out the cast, Philip Ober is appropriately underhanded as Karen’s ignoble husband, who also finds time to give Prewitt plenty of trouble, and Jack Warden, George Reeves, Claude Atkins and Mickey Shaughnessy have some good moments as various enlistees.

             Upon its release in the summer of 1953, Eternity became of the decade’s biggest critical and commercial successes, with raves reviews singling out Zinnemann, Taradish and each of the five stars with a wealth of accolades, leading to the film sweeping most of the year-end critic’s prizes before gaining one of the biggest Academy Award payoffs ever in 1954 (13 nominations and eight wins- including victories for Picture, Director, Screenplays, and Reed and Sinatra for their supporting efforts). At the box-office, the small-screen, B&W Eternity placed second only to the introduction of Cinemascope via The Robe, amassing $12 million in rentals in the U.S. and Canada during its first run, according to Variety. With seminal direction, work rating at or near career-best for most of the actors, and that exceptional Taradash screenplay, Eternity offers a seminal example of what 1950’s audiences looked for in a top-flight drama, and it remains an entertaining testament to the significant virtues of its talented cast and crew.  


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