Tuesday, July 5

Good 40s Films: The Search

1948 War Drama
From MGM
Directed by Fred Zinnemann

Montgomery Clift

Ivan Jandl
Aline MacMahon
Jarmila Novotna
Wendell Corey

It is a war drama, despite the fact there are no scenes of combat. It is a most unusual war drama because it concerns a 9-year old Auschwitz survivor who has been ripped away from his mother and is on a quest to find her on the bombed-out streets of post-war Germany.

What drives this drama is that the young boy, Ivan Jandl, is actually the lead. It is his story. Even Montgomery Clift doesn't come into it for the first 30 minutes.  Jandl was a Czech actor who only made five films.  On this one, his second, he had to learn his English phonetically because he spoke not a word of it.  I find that simply amazing for one so young.  He certainly was asked to do a lot and he hit all his marks.  

We first learn about young Karel's family and watch them in a family musical recital when there is a knock on their front door. Father and daughter are separated from mother and son, the latter who go to Auschwitz.  Then one day mother and son are themselves separated and the boy stops speaking.  

When the war ended, kids were found in camps.  They were now homeless or perhaps orphans and even though they were going to be cared for by organizations that would do all they could to help them, the children were frightened, mostly of anyone in uniform. When we first see scores of them, one is taken by one thing immediately... there was no noise. Don't throngs of children make noise?  Not these poor little waifs, all grey-faced, sickly, angst-ridden, broken. Karel was no exception... although even now in safety, he still didn't speak.

One day when the children were being transferred to another location, Karel has an opportunity to run away and he grabs it.  He has tremendous trust issues, of course, and it's sad to watch him reject helping hands.

Then he comes across a soldier sitting in a Jeep amidst the war-torn ruins. The G.I., Steve, is eating a sandwich when he spots Karel out of the corner of his eye. He sees the shoeless kid with torn clothes is obviously starving and has numerous cuts and abrasions. Steve wants to help and he lures the kid nearer with the enticement of finishing the sandwich. He is able to get the kid in his Jeep and take him to where he is stationed and living with other soldiers. He is emotionally drawn to the boy's plight while the boy remains scared and hostile.

At the same time we are reintroduced to Karel's mother who is desperately searching for him. Her journey is fraught with dashed hopes and ultimately she is told that her son has drowned. His cap was discovered by a river and his body never found while his friend's body was. The mother is told this by the woman who runs the organization that the boy escaped from.  The woman entices the mother to stay with her organization and help them with the flocks of young children who will continue to arrive.

Meanwhile, Karel and Steve have formed a fast relationship.  Steve has gotten Karel, whom he calls Jim, to speak but realizes they speak different languages. Steve determines Karel will learn English and Karel does.  One assumes Ivan the actor must have learned some English as his character Karel does.

This film has some lovely moments between Steve and Karel. Laughter has been restored to the boy's life and he feels safe and care for.  Steve cares about the kid's circumstances to the point that he wants to take him with him when he returns to the States which is coming up.  He's a bit naive to think it's all going to work out so easily and swiftly. Steve  has every reason to believe that Karel is an orphan because he never mentions his parents. One day it all changes when Karel hears a word, one that he had forgotten... Mother.  

From then on he is determined to find her and he runs away again to do so. Steve jumps to conclusions that the mother has died and once he catches up with his little runaway friend, Steve tells him that she is dead.  

So now we have mother and son both hearing the other is dead but continuing their searches anyway.  The audience is put through some anxious moments as mother and son just miss one another and or one or the other has some other near-misses.  I don't need to tell you you may need to grab your hankies for the finale.

The cast flew to Munich for exteriors although most of the outdoor filming was done in the bombed-out cities of Nuremberg, Ingotstadt and Wurzburg.  Interiors were filmed in Zurich.  One of the striking things this film possesses is its realism.  The war had only been over a couple of years and parts of these cities still looked the way they did on that last day.  It was most appropriately filmed in black and white to give it that gritty, documentary feel.

This was just the second film that Montgomery Clift appeared in. The first, Red River, was a mega-western with John Wayne and Joanne Dru.  However, that film's release was held up for various reasons and The Search became the first time anyone had seen Clift on the big screen. He was known in some circles for his sensitive Broadway performances and Hollywood was all bubbly over his first film.  Of course it was thought it would be Red River, but when it turned out to be The Search, fans packed into it.

Clift had hated making Red River and he did not like Wayne at all. It probably helped that their characters, for the most part, also had an acrimonious relationship. He had great hopes for his role in The Search and for the film itself. Fred Zinnemann was more or less an untried director on American shores. We didn't know then that he would bring us such classics as High Noon, From Here to Eternity, Oklahoma, The Nun's Story and A Man for All Seasons

Already Clift had a reputation as an actor who fought for what he believed in. He wanted to be known for only important films (by and large I think he succeeded) and he could be a handful in the collaborative effort when his ideas were not considered. He fought against too much sentimentality here and didn't want his character to be such a do-gooder.  

He began rewriting scenes in an effort to show his relationship with the boy as being more complex. He ran into serious problems with the producer whose son had actually written some of the screenplay. Producer and star and their attorneys had a ruckus on-set. Zinnemann was a little green and relaxed then and just tried to make everyone happy. Before a couple of big scenes were filmed, Clift's contract ran out and before he would renew it and finish the film, he negotiated the scenes to be written and filmed the way he wanted them. Ultimately, upon seeing the rushes, the producer had to agree Clift was right but the two never spoke to one another again.

Before filming began, the handsome newbie immersed himself in army life by hanging out and observing activities on an actual base. He had a fixation on watching how a soldier he was studying was walking. Clift believed a character could be defined by how he moved.  He also watched some real footage of life in concentration camps until he could stand it no further.

Director Zinnemann and his two stars

He had always loved kids and he and young Ivan became friends off the set.  Never letting language barriers get in their way, they discovered a shorthand they could use to understand one another. Everyone on the film spoke of their warm relationship and loved how Clift put the nervous youngster at ease.

Zinnemann said he hired Clift because of his energy.  The crew would occasionally applaud what he'd done in a scene once the cameras stopped rolling.  Many spoke of his face... right up there with the handsomest in Hollywood... and its heartfelt ability to display yearning, intelligence, playfulness, empathy and despair. Clift took his profession seriously and played everything for real.  I connected to that sense of realism from a pretty young age and I always imagined he was playing a part only for me.  What a pity he made only 17 films. Some years later Clint Eastwood would acknowledge that this was the performance that influenced his own acting career.

For his gifted performance as the haunted Karel, Ivan Jandl was awarded a special Oscar but was not permitted to come to America to collect it.  Like many child stars, he soon left movie-making to continue his studies and when he attempted a return in his late teens, his phone didn't ring. Ultimately he did find steady employment in radio.  Fifty year old Jandl died in Prague in 1987 of complications from diabetes.

Jarmila Novotna, as the mother, made only a few films and this is without question her most famous.  I thought she was luminous as a concerned and loving mother and human being.  If I were that little kid, I would want to be back in her arms again, too.  Her real job was as a star with the Metropolitan Opera.  

Aline MacMahon was a most beloved character actress.  Truly, everybody loved this lady who looked and behaved like the kindest person you ever hoped to meet.  She is perfection as one of the leaders who took in the young Karel.

Veteran Hollywood character actor and occasional leading man, Wendell Corey, in only his third film, resonated as Clift's live-in buddy.

Perhaps it hasn't escape your attention how many newbies made this wonderful film. What a credit to all of them.  I first saw the film when I was about the same age as the boy.  I guess I related for that reason.  It certainly is a war film that stands nearly on its own with its focus on a child.

Here's a cute clip:

Next posting:
Warner's Go-To Boy

No comments:

Post a Comment