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March 25, 2014

Something to Live For

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George Stevens - 1952
Olive Films Region 1 DVD

I was first made aware of Something to Live For about forty years ago. I was doing some volunteer work at the Film Department of the Museum of Modern Art. Another student, I think his name was Jon, from Ohio, had mentioned that film to me. He pointed out that somehow, it was omitted from George Steven's filmography in Andrew Sarris' The American Film. Why there was this oversight, I don't know, but it made me curious. To the best of my knowledge, the film never even got airplay on broadcast television, back when late night viewing was often the only way of seeing vintage films. When I lived in New York City, I had the opportunity to see Alice Adams, Woman of the Year and Giant theatrically. Meanwhile, Something to Live For seemed buried in a vault.

Much later, I also saw George Stevens, Jr.'s documentary on his father. I was hoping for a glimpse of this elusive film. A few minutes of A Place in the Sun and then a skip over to Shane. I had to wonder if this 1952 entry is as bad as The Only Game in Town, Stevens' final film, not mentioned either by George, Jr., perhaps with the thought that it would be more discrete to have Dad's Hollywood career end with the deeply personal big budget flop that was The Greatest Story Ever Told.

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So I finally shelled out some money to see the DVD. And it is a pretty good film. But I can also see why it might be a forgotten film. I don't know the circumstances of the production, but it seems like beginning with A Place in the Sun, Stevens was chomping on the bit to make big films, important films. And Something to Live For is relatively small, almost intimate. Even the running time is small, a shade under ninety minutes. Maybe Stevens was under the gun to fulfill his contract with Paramount, or maybe Barney Balaban, Paramount's president, made the making of this film a condition to making Shane, Stevens' last film before going independent.

And as a story, Something to Live For isn't "important". Alcoholic actress Joan Fontaine can't overcome her stage fright when she steps on a Broadway stage. Former alkie Ray Milland, an AA member, helps her while fighting his own demons, falling in love with Fontaine while maintaining a home and family with Teresa Wright.

I would have loved to have seen this film in a theater. Not for the story, but for the images. I am assuming that Something to Live For was originally shot with nitrate film stock. What I loved was watching the grain, and the light, which must have sparkled on the big screen. The first close-up of Joan Fontaine's face partially in the shadows, and I was hooked. Cinematographer George Barnes presumably should also get credit. But for me, the fascination of this film is watching Joan Fontaine and the play of light, the previously mentioned shadows, Fontaine and Milland back lit by a window, the kind of lighting that often is frequently associated with film noir.

One might wish Stevens wasn't so enamored of the lap dissolve, where the end of one scene fades out while at the same time another scene fades in. Most of the scenes of visual interest are in Fontaine's small hotel room, the kind that served only single women. All other places, Milland's home and office especially, are well lit. The only time it is bright in Fontaine's room is when Milland pushes her into a cold shower to sober her up.

There is one scene that benefits from a second viewing. It's Christmas Eve, and Milland needs the step ladder to put the angel on top of the tree. The two elementary school sons, sent to get the step ladder, run past it to get a full size ladder. Most viewers will simply pay attention to Milland and Wright having an intense conversation in the foreground, but if one looks past them, in the back is a partial view of the dining room, and the two small boys trying to maneuver a large ladder over and around the dining room table. I don't know if Stevens had anything more elaborate in mind. That bit of business is dropped as the boys put down the full sized ladder for the smaller step ladder they were originally sent to get. It's an amusing moment that for myself recalls how Stevens' career began as a cinematographer on several silent shorts with Laurel and Hardy.

Admittedly, I am not the biggest fan of George Stevens, nor am I normally one to go out of my way to see a film with Joan Fontaine, and yet I have am glad to have finally caught up with this film. Some may prefer to pre-war work, or the more epic films by Stevens. I'll take Joan Fontaine in the shadows, with a lone tear streaming down her cheek.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 25, 2014 07:56 AM