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Cinema: The New Pictures, Oct. 15, 1951

6 minute read

The Desert Fox (20th Century-Fox), a sympathetic film study of the Afrika Korps’ General Erwin Rommel, will surprise those moviegoers who have come to accept all Hollywood Nazis as guttural, sadistic villains. Rommel, as played by James Mason, speaks flawless English, is kind to his troops, makes a generous foe and a faithful friend.

Based on the bestselling biography by Britain’s Desmond Young (TIME, Jan. 22) and reflecting Author Young’s same reluctant admiration for the enemy, The Desert Fox opens in North Africa with the German disaster at El Alamein. Rommel flies back to Germany to recover from an attack of jaundice and brood on Hitler’s failure to keep the Afrika Korps adequately supplied. While in this mood, Rommel is sounded out by one of the ringleaders in a conspiracy against Hitler.

The rest of the film deals with the progress of the conspiracy and with Rommel’s rather lefthanded endorsement of the plotters’ aims. To convince himself he has no alternative, Rommel visits Hitler for a tingling interview. He comes away more depressed by the Führer’s irrationality than by his ideology. But when the attempt is made on Hitler’s life, Rommel is again in the hospital, this time having been shot up by British fighter planes while directing the crumbling German defenses in Normandy. During the blood purge of the conspirators, Rommel gets his choice of committing suicide or standing trial in a court where the verdict has already been decided. In a deal with the Nazis to safeguard his wife and son, he agrees to kill himself.

James Mason brings a brooding intensity to the role of Rommel, sharply points up the contrast between his brilliance in the field and his uncertainty in public life. Unfortunately for the pace and excitement of the movie, Rommel is shown too seldom on the battlefield, and then only in defeat. The script, by Producer-Writer Nunnally Johnson, has the competence of journalistic history, but most of the excitement is packed into the picture’s opening moments, during an ill-fated British Commando raid on Rommel’s North African headquarters.

The Lavender Hill Mob (Rank; Universal-International), a superior British-made thriller, is divided into almost equal parts of high comedy and farce. The first and best half of the film shows in loving detail how prim Alec Guinness, for 20 years a trusted employee of the Bank of England, steals $1,000,000 in gold bars and smuggles them to the Continent.

The film is a field day for Actor Guinness, who manages to combine jaunty evildoing with an outward show of probity and decorum. His broaching of his plot to Stanley Holloway, a manufacturer with the soul of an artist, is a masterpiece of delicate suggestion without a single incriminating word spoken. With Holloway safely in his pocket, Guinness displays equal ingenuity in recruiting two mobsters to handle the messier details of his plan.

The gold is safely snatched, melted down into Eiffel Tower paperweights, and shipped to France. But there half a dozen of them are sold, by mistake, to a party of British schoolgirls. Guinness & Holloway, fearful that the souvenirs may get back to the baffled authorities, chase after the little girls and then, in turn, become the object of a nationwide manhunt, slapsticky with pratfalls, hairbreadth escapes and colliding police cars. Highlight: Guinness eluding his pursuers by fading invisibly into a throng of Britons, all identical in sack coats, bowler hats and umbrellas.

Producer Michael Balcon (Tight Little Island, Kind Hearts and Coronets) has turned out a picture in the best tradition of satirical good humor. Alec Guinness, recently the victim of six murders in Kind Hearts, makes a thoroughly satisfactory criminal mastermind. Though remaining British to the core, he somehow achieves an almost Latin intensity in his role of a little man in happy revolt against society.

Here Comes the Groom (Paramount) puts Bing Crosby and Producer-Director Frank Capra up to their oldest tricks and ought to amuse all but those optimistic moviegoers who dare to hope for new ones. Crosby, carrying his breeziness this time to gale proportions, plays a newspaperman home from France with two adopted war orphans. Unless he can get a wife to mother them, they will be deported within the week. But his longtime fiancee (Jane Wyman), tired of waiting, had finally decided to marry Multimillionaire Franchot Tone. To woo Jane back just in time to disrupt a colossal wedding ceremony, Crosby pitches charm, song and the pathos of his wards, resorts to conspiratorial shenanigans with the help of his editor (Robert Keith), his would-be father-in-law (James Barton) and Tone’s repressed cousin (Alexis Smith).

Leaning heavily on the crutch of slapstick, Capra works hard to manufacture laughs out of such feeble stuff as the roistering antics of a drunken Irishman, the flowering of frustrated Alexis into hip-slinging whistle-bait, the arch effeminacy of the protocol expert at society weddings. He stages the film’s one bright song (In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening) with the same frenzied use of silly props that he displayed in Riding High. Young Italian Soprano Anna Maria (The Medium) Alberghetti sings well in a long opening sequence that has nothing to do with the rest of the picture.

Saturday’s Hero (Columbia] looks at U.S. intercollegiate football with the same critical eye that Hollywood sport films usually turn on prizefighting. As angry as it is timely, the movie takes the line that gridiron stars like Hero John Derek are the pawns of a game cynically run for the profit of the universities and the political capital of behind-the-scenes finaglers.

But the picture hits the line too hard. As a poor, first-generation American hungering for education, glory, and acceptance in the uppercrust world typified by Jackson College, Halfback Derek gets buried in such a pile-up of broken illusions that the movie looks like a put-up job. Football brings him fleeting glory, leaves him no time to study, wins him only the snooty tolerance of Jackson’s aristocrats and (until the fadeout) the well-born girl (Donna Reed) he loves. It crushes his body and his self-respect to feed the ambitions of a string-pulling alumnus (Sidney Blackmer) and a coach (Otto Hulett) with the face and temperament of a Gestapo man.

Yet, for all its excesses, Saturday’s Hero is Hollywood’s most authentic approach to football, and illustrates the game itself with a hurtling camera that absorbs the bone-crunching punishment of scrimmage and play. Hero Derek wears a clumsy crew cut, which does not quite keep him from looking too pretty for his role, and a monotonous expression of intensity, which does not quite pass for acting. The film’s most natural performer: Aldo DaRe (named John Harrison for future film roles), as a wised-up teammate who is out for all the dough he can get.

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