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The Howards of Virginia (1940)

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The Howards of Virginia (1940)

Postby moira finnie » July 5th, 2007, 12:03 pm

Cary Grant, glowering or hiding behind a tree in this movie?

Perhaps it was just me, but how did anyone else react to this movie? I was really looking forward to The Howards of Virginia (1940) on TCM since I'd never seen it before. Let me also begin by stating that Holiday, In Name Only, His Girl Friday, Mr. Lucky, Arsenic and Old Lace, None But the Lonely Heart, Gunga Din, North by Northwest, and even Sylvia Scarlett are probably among my favorite movies of all time. Whether serious or silly, I almost always enjoy the presence of Cary Grant before the camera. He can be quite effective when given some serious action to do, as he demonstrated nimbly in Gunga Din, Destination Tokyo and North by Northwest. His darker characters in None But the Lonely Heart, Notorious and People Will Talk were also interesting to me, but without strong direction and a halfway comprehensible character to play, even one of the greats seems to have been at a loss here.

Naturally, I was curious about The Howards of Virginia, which seems an ideal fit for the 4th of July. I looked forward to the interweaving of early American ideals with revolutionary events, the real conflicts between rebels and Tories in the American colonies, a 'guest appearance' by young Tom Jefferson (Richard Carlson), familial conflict and a chance for Cary to strut his action stuff once more, as he had so effectively in Gunga Din just a year before this was made. Sad to say, I was actually embarrassed several times for Mr. Grant while watching this one. It wasn't just the stiff dialogue and unfocused story, (one minute a love story, another an adventure tale, another a father-son generation gap, then back to Virginia class conflicts in the 18th century), from the distinguished hand of playwright Sidney Buchman, (who lent his talent to some very successful, colloquial dialogue in movies as diverse as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Awful Truth). I suspect that without the same budget or talent behind the camera, the filmmakers were trying to crank out a Gone With the Wind, revolutionary war style.

Cary Grant gives all the energy he can muster to this part without any sense of fun or the usual underlying edginess that Mr. Grant can bring to the most mundanely written of material. I also wonder, since this film's production came smack in the middle of one of Grant's busiest working periods during his career, if he might've just been getting a little burnt out after such a hectic creative period at the end of the '30s?

My favorite bad scene in this movie is (perhaps mercifully) largely silent, when Grant returns home after a long period in the thick of battle. As he walks through his town, he seems to be unrecognized and unwelcome, and poor Grant is encouraged to mug shamelessly, glowering at one and all from behind a 4 day growth of beard in a scruffy coat. I half expected Joan Fontaine from Suspicion to pop out of the crowd and call out "Who's the monkey face now, Cary?"

Apparently not a success at the time of its release, as Robert Osborne mentioned after the film. Osborne said that Cary Grant swore off all costume pictures after this one, but sorry, Bob, just check out a little number called The Pride and The Passion (1957). Our man Cary appears in that epic in Napoleonic breeches and a ponytail. Looks good too, especially when photographed next to a youngster named Sophia Loren in that movie. Oh, I just remembered one more "costume pic" that did work for Mr. Grant: I Was a Male War Bride (1949)

Cedric Hardwicke seemed to be the only actor whose scenery chewing allowed him to rise above the flat, old-fashioned feel of the movie, though Martha Scott, as his well-born, only slightly starchy sister gave it all she could as Grant's loving wife who's somewhat estranged from her rather rustic hubby and his politics, as well as concerned over his limitations as a father.

Btw, other than the pre-revolutionary war movie from John Ford, Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), why do you think there seem to have been so few successful films about this period in American history?
Did you enjoy this movie much more than I did?

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Postby movieman1957 » July 5th, 2007, 1:14 pm


I didn't see it last night but I did see it a long time ago and my memory is that Grant seemed quite out of place. With all the other movies you mention it is hard to imagine him in 1700's America (although he certainly would have fit the mold in the reality of the day.)

You pose an interesting question about the success of Revolutionary War period pictures. I did see one recently that I thought had some success, though not on a scale you probably imagine, and that was "Allegheny Uprising" with John Wayne and Claire Trevor.

My thought, for what it is worth, is I think this time period is one of the least taught periods in our history. We cover the basics but seldom get into much depth of the war. Another thought is that by the time the movies were big there were still some Civil War veterans around so that their history was certainly at least second hand to some of the public. You obviously didn't have that from 1776. Throw in the War of 1812 and you have the fist 60 or 70 years of our history almost a cinematic blank.

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Postby mrsl » July 5th, 2007, 3:24 pm

Good stuff from both of you movieman and moira. Cary Grant in costume is certainly a rarity though not completely never done.

When this site was dead last night, I checked out TCM and found a thread about Martha Scott. I found her delightful in the part of Jane, and thank goodness Joan Fontaine was not available for it. Martha's career seemed to be more in TV than in cinema from the imdB listing, and I like her quite a bit.

As for American Revolutionary movies, you're correct about all your combined points regarding the lack of interest. One of my favorite all time movies is Drums Along the Mohawk however. I too looked forward to seeing the Howards . . . and was unhappy with Carys' performance. In several serious scenes instead of showing temper, he seemed to be putting forth a bad imitation of David from Bringing Up Baby.

The Unconquered,
although actually an Indian War story, also deals with the failure of assistance to the revolutionary military, due to the split of some troops being busy with the French and Indian wars.

The Disney studios put out a really good movie for younger kids in Johnny Tremaine. It was shown in two parts on the Wonderful World of Disney, and I remember being glued to my seat, but I have always been a history buff.

Mel Gibson's recent Patriot does one of the best jobs in making the story interesting by going at it from the family point of view, much as Shenandoah did with Jimmy Stewarts' family and the Civil War.

I guess people foolishly believe the Civil War had more to do with the American way of life than the revolutionary war, and I mean what I say when I use the word foolishly, I've actually heard people state this belief in person!

But in answer to your question, I did like the movie, I just closed my eyes after the first 20 minutes when Cary was on (never thought I would say anything like that about him!) I wanted to kick him though whenever his two sons were around.


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Postby mongoII » July 5th, 2007, 5:54 pm

I must admit I didn't stick with it, alhough I tried. I found myself looking for relief from the character actors, notably Elisabeth Risdon, Irving Bacon and Anne Revere.
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Postby Lzcutter » July 6th, 2007, 12:39 am


I agree wholeheartedly with your comments regarding The Howards of Virginia. I kept waiting for it to make up its mind about what kind of film it wanted to be. I also kept waiting for characters to evolve and come to terms with themselves and others in this time of turbulent change. But alas, that will have to be another movie.

I don't know why movies about the American Revolution are so hard to engage audiences. Most have died on the vine, as it were.

I think the Civil War, strangely enough, is an easier war for us to understand. The war itself lasted only four years where as the American Revolution spanned across a couple of decades. What many people think they know about the Revolution is wrong but it doesn't have that tug on the heart strings the way the Civil War does. There is something about the Civil War that will get us to watch in a way that doesn't happen with TV specials, documentaries or movies about the American Revolution.

The only successful film I can think of set during the Revolutionary War is The Patriot. The only other one is not set during the Revolution (though many think it is) and that's Michael Mann's wonderful "Last of the Mohicans"

But I think that may have more to do with Daniel Day Lewis than anything else:


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Postby knitwit45 » July 6th, 2007, 1:53 pm

For what it's worth:
I live in an area rich in history of the Civil War. Lone Jack, Westport, Lawrence, Ks, Lexington, MO with its incredible Anderson House, which was used as a hospital and changed sides 3 times in 3 days. We also have quite a lot of Indian artifacts and historic sites.

My cousin grew up in Sunny Cal, and got a real charge out of seeing all the above mentioned areas, since there were no Civil War locations in San Diego.

When my husband was stationed at Fort Gordon, Georgia, we lived in Augusta, GA. There were several museums in Augusta and the surrounding areas for American Revolution artifacts, and what a thrill it was to see a real British Redcoat uniform. We were as excited about that coat as my cousin was about the cannonball lodged in the Lexington Courthouse pillar.

My point (if there is one) is that so many states were involved in the Civil War, and fewer in the American Revolution. We grow up hearing stories handed down to us by grandfathers and grandmothers who heard them from their grandfathers and grandmothers..who actually lived thru that time. Perhaps, since so many of the stories of the Revolution are not taught throughout the schools of our nation, and the people who lived then are long forgotten, we don't grow up knowing those stories, and wanting to see them played out on screen.
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Postby mrsl » July 6th, 2007, 2:00 pm

Exactly knitwit:

And those stories involve all the fights for all the freedoms we enjoy today that everyone is always saying we should fight to keep. That's what I meant about foolish ideas. So many people don't think the Revolutionary war was important. Geez!!!


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Postby MikeBSG » July 6th, 2007, 3:03 pm

I guess the jinx on American Revolution movies began in the silent era. During WWI, there was a movie called "The Spirit of 17776" that apparently got banned because it had English villains (and could thus be seen as arguing that the US should not be allied to Britain in WWI.)

In the 1920s, D. W. Griffith tried to revive his career with "America," a Revolutionary War movie that utterly failed to generate any of the excitement "Birth of a Nation" did.

Perhaps "Northwest Passage" and "Last of the Mohicans" are the only Colonial era movies (and "Drums Along the Mohawk") that were successful because they could piggyback on the popularity of Westerns.

Has anyone seen the Al Pacino "Revolution"? Is it as bad as they say?

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Postby sandykaypax » July 6th, 2007, 6:45 pm

I only caught about the first 20 minutes of The Howards of Virginia. I was recording it as well, until I tried to use the toaster and the microwave at the same time (making some tasty BLT's) and tripped the breaker. So, that ruined my recording, as the power went out to the tv!

I've decided that Cary Grant looks best with short hair. No ponytails. Yikes. He is incredibly handsome, but this look did not suit him!

Interesting point about the dearth of Revolutionary War films. I've seen the same ones that everyone else has sited--1776, The Patriot.

A film that I always think of as a Revolutionary War film even though it's contemporary is Sweet Liberty with Alan Alda, Michael Caine, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Lillian Gish. It's actually about a group of people making a film about the Revolutionary War. It didn't get great reviews, but I've always found it rather sweet and funny. And it's got Lillian Gish! Can't beat that!

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