Richard Schickel grew up in comfortable, WASPy Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. It was, he writes, a place to be "secure in our prejudices, secure in our good natures, our never quite seeing the contradictions between the two." And, if it weren't for World War II, "we would have continued forever that way."
If "this great, overarching, perilous drama" awakened men and women in Wauwatosa to think beyond their ken, it thrust young Richard into a passionate relationship with the movies. It was a bond that would ultimately inform his life, as Schickel has been reviewing films for almost 40 years. The critic-historian-director — who gave us that treasure of a documentary series, The Men Who Made the Movies (2002) — believes he would have " 'liked' the movies if the war had not happened." But not to the extent that he did "if they had not had the war as their great subject, not enjoyed the unique reciprocity between this overwhelming reality and its heroic, deadly, inspiring representations in this powerful and omnipresent medium."
Schickel, who is the author (or co-author) of more than 30 books, has written his most personal one in Good Morning, Mr. Zip Zip Zip. Interweaving autobiography with film criticism, he examines the pictures that made an impact on him as a child and reassesses them with a professional's gimlet eye. The title comes from a World War I wake-up song that Schickel's father used to sing to him as a good-night ditty. (The element of contradiction here seems subtly appropriate: Things are not what they seem in life; life is not what it seems in the movies.)
Readers of Schickel's film reviews for Time will not be surprised to find (in a prologue called "Wartime Lies") that he could have "a certain contempt for false pieties and hypocrisies of our old public culture." He also disdains the current labeling of WWII veterans as "the greatest generation." Part of his resistance — which seems especially valid these days — is that the catch phrase "carries am implied criticism of several postwar generations."
The biggest WWII movie icon that Schickel smashes is William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). He calls the multiple Academy Award winner "the last great wartime lie, a fantasia of good feelings, as eerily out of touch with human reality as, say, Since You Went Away had been two years earlier." Fans might argue against that "fantasia of good feelings," citing how much the film shows sadness, anger, fear, identity crises, disillusionment, and huge senses of loss and betrayal. He states that the "leading characters ... never have an ideological thought or discussion." But their reflections and dialogues with one another and their families don't support this. He writes that "no blacks are visible in the film." But they are — in several scenes — including an early one with a line from a black actor among returning servicemen in the airport waiting room.
Schickel deftly describes the plots and performances of the movies he considers. If only the book provided release dates after film titles or a filmography for looking up directors or casts. Small cavils in light of Schickel's entertaining and valuable contributions to film history here. He boldly refutes the popular notion that blacklisted screenwriters were just "innocent victims of McCarthyism" and "that they wrote nothing that could be construed as Stalinist propaganda." Regarding "Hollywood's continuing silence about the fate of the Jews in Hitler's Europe," Schickel points out that the most forthright films were two low-budget comedies: Charles Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) and Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not To Be (1942).
Schickel praises such films as Howard Hawks' Air Force (1943), Mervyn LeRoy's Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) and Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1942). Of the latter he says, "...the writing is so good — smart and pacey, like that of a good screwball comedy, yet capable of embracing deeper emotions."
Not all films presented are about World War II, but were made during its time frame and flavored by it. Henry King's Wilson (1944), Hawks' Sergeant York (1941) and Curtiz's Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) get high ratings as does Raoul Walsh's They Died With Their Boots On (1941), the "deliciously mythic account of George Armstrong Custer's tragic career." Schickel, bless him, gives us Custer/Errol Flynn's parting words to his wife (played by the luminous Olivia de Havilland), which he describes as "one of the loveliest romantic lines in all of movie history: 'Walking with you, ma'am, has been a very gracious thing.' "
Cynical, sensitive, realistic, romantic, inciting, insightful — Schickel's package of war and remembrance couldn't have come at a better time.
Review written by Lisa Mitchell