My Memorial Day was spent watching a small town parade made up mostly of scout troops and such, followed by a rubber ducky race in part of the Rahway River that flows through our town.
We weren’t planning on going to the parade, my little guy and me, but having just gotten up, heard the commotion and threw on some pants and ran out to catch it, since I live in the center of this little village.
Ran into tons of friends and people I hadn’t seen in a while and others I have. Lots of tree climbing for the kids, and stick fighting, and just generally running around having the good kid times that make up for all the trials of being a kid.
Later my little boy and a friend of his played games back at my apartment, until his mom came to get him for the rest of the day.
I turned on the TV to watch something while I ate a late lunch, and there was SERGEANT YORK just starting. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen that from start to finish. Decades ago, at least.
I love anything with Gary Cooper, and this is one of his best. Hokey, in that old style Hollywood way that we all somehow took as real back when, but still, some incredible moments in it, despite the point of the flick—that came out the year we entered WWII— being: how a religious-based pacifist could kill people for the better good, etc.
All the elements that made this a classic, Howard Hawk’s direction, Cooper’s Oscar-winning performance, Walter Brennan’s restrained performance as the preacher, Dickie Moore (I think his name was) great as always as Coop’s younger brother (he was the deaf kid in Robert Mitchum’s OUT OF THE PAST who saves Mitchum’s life), Ward Bond and Noah Beery, Jr. hamming it up as only they could in these old Hollywood flicks.
But what struck me this time was the great beauty and screen presence of Joan Leslie as Coop’s (I mean “York’s”) girlfriend. I don’t remember her that well, and for me the revelation of watching this movie again after so many years, was the realization of another one of those forgotten stars, the general unfairness and unpredictability of fate.
She was as sparkling and engaging as any of the Hollywood ingénues in those days, and, it turns out, was only sixteen when she made the film (same age as York’s wife was when they married), not only holding her own with the likes of Cooper and Brennan, but almost outshining them in her youthful exuberance.
I’m going to start looking out for her now in other old flicks and see what I can learn about her. And not only her, but the character actor (or actress if you prefer) Margaret Wycherly who plays York’s mother. She was terrific, in fact she held the film together and made it work on a deeper emotional level than the rest of the cast seemed to be working on. She brought tears to my eyes several times with a gesture or a look that I associated with my own long gone mother and my own parenting of my children.
Ain’t it cool that we can turn on the tube and have access to so much of the great films of history? I probably saw SERGEANT YORK the first time on black and white TV when I was a kid during one of the few times of the day when old movies were played. But now, hell, I had my choice between YORK or THE SEARCHERS or THE STING all in one day, among hundreds of other films. And I’m not even talking Net Flicks or On Demand, just what is readily available on any given day.
I’d rather see them in the theater, just as I’d rather be fifteen again, or at least thirty, but since that ain’t happening, I’ll take the abundance of great films on TV and be grateful for it.