At The Art Houses

New films from Europe had reappeared in the United States by 1946 to great excitement from the cognoscenti. Several Manhattan theaters showed foreign language films, which in the right neighborhoods was a more lucrative alternative to being fourth or fifth in line for domestic release. These theaters generally were considerably smaller and more understated than the grand movie palaces of Broadway. Many had 500 seats or less. A few converted burlesque or vaudeville houses were larger. Some were shabby and others were quite posh. With promotable foreign product relatively scarce, popular overseas films tended to settle in for long runs, some for more than a year.

At the top of the pack of the foreign films playing that week in Manhattan was Roberto Rossellini’s OPEN CITY, the neorealist drama, now considered a classic, about resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied Rome. Anna Magnani and Ido Fabrizi starred in the film which was in its ninth week at the World on 49th Street and on almost every New York critic’s “must see” list. It broadened that week to other major US cities as well. James Agee began his review in The Nation in typical Agee fashion with quibbles and qualifiers, particularly about the idealized portrayals of the leftist partisan and the Catholic priest. Agee, brought up as a devout member of the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Episcopal Church and, like most of the writers who covered the arts for The Nation, a disillusioned former Communist, was cynical about the motives and integrity of both the institutionalized church and the institutionalized left. It was not, he wrote, that he could not believe that such altruistic individuals existed in both groups, but rather that he felt that it was misleading to have such paragons serve as representatives of their categories. Agee then goes on to praise the film highly. This was exactly the kind of filmmaking that he championed, movies produced on a shoestring budget with a largely amateur cast, where “production valyahs” were not the highest priority. The World, on 49th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, was a small former playhouse with an Elizabethan décor.

IT HAPPENED AT THE INN, (“Goupi Main Rouges”), filmed in 1943, and the first French film made since the war to open in the US, a reason enough for excitement for many. The black comedy, distributed by MGM, about a family of larcenous peasants who run a country inn, was in its fifth month at the small 55th Street Playhouse. Agee liked the film for its lack of pretense, noting in The Nation that he had almost missed it because “stupidly, I was as usual set on edge by the kind of finishing school, French-table, cultural chitchat by which so many American enthusiasts are aroused by anything from France.” But he admitted that despite his abhorrence of the French lobby, he had a “standing love affair with a good deal that is French.” The film was on the Top Ten of the year list of the National Board of Review and was among the week’s recommendations in the New Yorker.

A PORTRAIT OF A WOMAN (“Une Femme Disparait ”) was filmed in Switzerland during the war but was in almost every respect a French movie. Essentially it was a tour de force for actress Francoise Rosay, who played an over-the-hill actress who drowns herself in a lake. Three people come forward claiming to know the identity of the suicide. In flashback, Rosay portrays each of the disparate possibilities: a taciturn servant girl, the rowdy wife of a bargeman and a genteel schoolteacher. It had been directed by Rosay's husband, Jacques Feyder, best known for his award-winning "Carnival in Flanders." The film premiered at the Little Carnegie on April 20 accompanied by HYMN OF THE NATIONS (a clip here ) a 33-minute documentary featuring Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera tenor Jan Peerce. This was the first time Toscanini had been caught on film and most reviewers felt it was well worth the price of admission on its own. The Little Carnegie was a theater designed for the carriage trade with 450 plush seats and a sizable lobby. It was located on 57th Street adjacent to Carnegie Hall and The Russian Tea Room.

MARIE-LOUISE, another French language film from Switzerland, won an Oscar for its screenplay about a refugee who becomes a spoiled brat after being taken in by a wealthy Swiss family. It was at the Apollo, not the Harlem landmark but the 42nd street theater that specialized after the war in second-run foreign films. The New Yorker recommended the movie. THE COURAGEOUS MR PENN, a 1944 British biopic about William Penn starring Clifford Evans and Deborah Kerr, was the second feature. This was the first major role for Kerr, soon to become a Hollywood star. The 1100 seat neoclassic Apollo had housed vaudeville shows, stage plays and Minsky’s Burlesque before becoming a movie theater in the late 1930s.

The Stanley at Seventh and 41st mostly showed films from the Soviet Union. The theater advertised in the Daily Worker and was patronized by the Communist faithful and their families eager to see films and newsreels from the ideological motherland. As the Communist Witch hunt intensified,  some of its more recognizable patrons showed up in disguise, certain that it was being watched by government agents, or so the story went. On this week in 1946 the offering was WITHOUT DOWRY, a 1938 film adaptation of a Russian play that broadly satirized the Czarist middle class while telling an ultimately tragic tale of a woman jilted by a bureaucrat interested only in a dowry. The Variety reviewer felt it had its moments but would be of little interest to any but “specialized groups.” The critics of the day were largely dismissive but the film is better regarded today

The Irving Place, on East 15th Street, also was running a Soviet film, the musical comedy FOUR HEARTS, about two sisters who fall in love with each other’s boyfriend. It was paired with a British war propaganda drama, THE WAY AHEAD (aka "The Immortal Battalion"- clip here ), written by spy novelist Eric Ambler and actor Peter Ustinov, directed by Carol Reed and starring David Niven.  Agee had “The Way Ahead” on his long list for best movies of 1945. The theater with about 1,000 seats was originally a German language playhouse, then a Yiddish theater and finally a burlesque house before turning to movies.

Sergei Eisenstein’s ALEXANDER NEVSKY (clip here ), about a medieval Russian prince who fought off an invasion by the Teutonic Knights, was the second feature in a double bill at the Fifth Avenue (at 12th). The main attraction was the 1935 French film THEY WERE FIVE (“La Belle Equipe”) about five unemployed laborers who succumb to greed, jealousy and murder after they jointly win the lottery. An American film, “Three Strangers,” playing this week in the neighborhoods, had a similar theme.

SCAMPOLO, an Italian comedy from 1941, opened on April 20 at the Giglio Major Theatre on Canal Street, a theater serving the still sizable Italian-speaking community. Spanish-speaking audiences could find Mexican and other Spanish language films shown without subtitles at the Belmont Theatre, a former playhouse with a Venetian Renaissance façade and relatively simple interior, on West 48th Street. The offering on April 18 was CUANDO QUIERE UN MEXICANO.

HOTEL RESERVE,  based on the Eric Ambler novel, Epitaph for a Spy, was at the Art on East 8th Street. James Mason starred as an Austrian medical student vacationing on the Riviera on the eve of World War II who tries to clear his name after being accused by French authorities of being a Nazi spy. Another British film, LADY IN DISTRESS , filmed in 1940 and originally released in the US in 1942, was being revived at the Sutton on East 57th Street in the posh Sutton Place neighborhood. Michael Redgrave starred in the suspenseful tale of a man who believes he has witnessed a murder through a window.