Category: Golden Age Article

The Oscar-Winning Short Films of John Nesbitt, Part Five: Goodbye, Miss Turlock

Previous Films: That Mothers Might LiveOf Pups and Puzzles,  Main Street on the March, and Stairway to Light.

Goodbye, Miss Turlock (1948)

Ten years after his first Oscar-winning film, John Nesbitt produced, wrote, and narrated his last Oscar Winner.

Goodbye, Miss Turlock is set against the backdrop of the social changes that America faced as the country marched towards the second half of the twentieth century. For decades, the one-room “little red schoolhouse” was a symbol of rural education in America. The expansion of highways and other changes in rural life made bussing children to larger schools make more sense. And so America’s rural one-room schools were slowly passing away. This short focuses on one of these schools, whose teacher was Miss Turlock.

The film spends a few minutes with Miss Turlock, who is viewed by her young students as harsh and stern, except to a boy who the narrator described as “slow.” The film in its short-running length shows the reality of Miss Turlock, something many of her students didn’t figure out until adulthood. The movie’s closing is sweet and sentimental in a way that calls to mind longer films like Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Cheers for Miss Bishop.

Goodbye, Miss Turlock has all the hallmarks of the best Nesbitt short. Great and moving narration with a touch of humor, solid silent acting that uses body language and facial expressions to sell scenes, and some nice editing work.

The film is the most sentimental of the five Oscar-Winners. But it’s important to be just as clear what it’s not. It’s not a film that’s resisting the end of the red schoolhouse or complaining about it. Rather, it’s honoring the schoolhouse and those who taught in them. The film is a salute to the passing of a way of life with no judgment on what came after.

Appropriately, even as the little red schoolhouse was nearing its end, so was John Nesbitt’s passing parade. The last of Nesbitt’s seventy-two short films for MGM would be released in 1949 and in 1951, The Passing Parade would pass from radio.

So much of Nesbitt’s radio work has been lost to the ages. However, that which survives, coupled with his short films, showcases his talent as a storyteller and his gift for speaking to the hearts of listeners and viewers. And in many cases, that gift can even bridge the chasm of time.

Goodbye, Miss Turlock is currently available on YouTube


The Oscar Winning Short-Films of John Nesbitt, Part Four: Stairway to Light

Previous Films: That Mothers Might Live, Of Pups and Puzzles, and Main Street on the March.

Stairway to Light (1945)

Stairway to Light begins with a powerful attention-grabbing opening.

A French language chyron on a mental asylum appears, and then shifts to a dark basement covered with straw. Text splashes across the screen: “Until this fantastic but historic event took place, mentally sick people were believed to be animals. They were penned in cages and controlled by the use of whips and streams of ice cold water.” The camera pans across the basement to a room where a burly, rugged man hoses down a man in a cell.

The film goes on to tell how this all changed thanks to the efforts of Philippe Pinel (Wolfgang Zitzer), who took charge of a mental hospital and transformed mental asylums in France, and later throughout the world. The story is beautifully and dramatically told, with so many powerful moments packed into less than ten minutes of screentime.

Pinel’s changes ran into opposition, with many viewing him as a menance. In many ways, this story paralleled Nesbit’s first Oscar Winner, That Mothers Might Live. However, life played out a bit differently for Dr. Pinnel and the opposition culminates in a violent mob and perhaps the most memorable twist of a remarkable short form.

Stairway to Light is currently available on YouTube


The Oscar-Winning Short Films of John Nesbitt, Part Three: Main Street on the March

Previous Films: That Mothers Might Live and Of Pups and Puzzles

Main Street on the March (1942)

From 1936-1956, there were actually two categories for live-action short films, one-reel films (up to eleven minutes long) and two-reel films (up to 22 minutes long.) The only year which saw Nesbitt win an Oscar for the two-reel category was 1942. It actually won the same year that  Pups and Puzzles won in the one-reel category.

Some Americans might imagine that the country moved immediately from a footing of self-satisfied isolationism to the country being all-in for World War II. The reality was more complicated than that. Main Street on the March shows America undergoing a subtle evolution, with the events of Pearl Harbor being the end rather than the beginning. It starts on a typical American Main Street in May 1940, where Americans tended to believe the year-old War was a “phony war.” However, Germany’s May 10, 1940 invasion of Belgium, Luxembourg, and Holland began to awaken Americans to the importance of strengthening America’s national defense.

The film is of great historical significance, as Nesbitt’s narration is mixed with real-life historic statements by figures such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Nesbitt describes a process of change and the country passing through multiple stages over the year and a half between Germany’s actions and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It also shows how Americans prepared for war in that crucial year and a half. Without those prepartions, the war could have had a very different outcome.

The film had actually been completed and slated for release on December 8, 1941. However, events led to the film being pulled back, and new scenes and narration being added to reflect the events of Pearl Harbor and America’s final evolution. The original film wrapped before America’s entry into the war, and would have had a different conclusion, and you can see a few hints of what that might have been in the surviving footage.

Not all edits were merely for dramatic or thematic purposes. Some street scenes were filmed in Hagerstown, Maryland on West Washington Street and North Potomac. As such, the premiere of the film was held on January 5, 1942 in Hagerstown. However, in the original cut, there were more scenes in Hagerstown’s leading defense factories, but after the US joined the War, it was determined that these scenes had to be removed.

While I’d be curious to see the original cut, the final film is well worth a view and definitely earned its Oscar. It tells how America changed over the course of a year and a half. It’s a film that would really be of interest to anyone who’s interested in the events of World War II and America’s involvement in it.

As of this writing, Main Street on the March is available on YouTube.

The Oscar-Winning Short-Films of John Nesbitt, Part Two: Of Pups and Puzzles

Previous Film: That Mothers Might Live

Of Pups and Puzzles (1941)

This short film is about a revolution in American industrial hiring practices. The one-reel film talks about the old way, where a foreman would look at a group of men, and make a superficial choice as to whom to hire based on who looked strong.

Circumstances were going to make such arcane hiring practices untenable. While the film was released three months prior to Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II, America had begun a peace-time draft and ramped up national defense production. Getting the right person into the right job would be critical. To do that, employers turned to psychologists, and behavioral experiments involving three dogs and a chimpanzee.

The film does a good job of making its potentially dry content interesting, as it explains how animal behavior studies changed human hiring practices. Having cute animals on the screen for much of the run time keeps things interesting, and Nesbitt’s storytelling abilities keep the story moving along. The resulting hiring practices of the 1940s are quaint to say the least, as we travel back to a time when unexpectedly pulling a gun out of a drawer and firing it was just all part of the hiring process.

While Of Pups and Puzzles presents its material in an entertaining way, I can’t help but feel actual interest in the film’s content is a bit niche for modern audiences. One IMDB user said it’d be of most interest to “research psychologists and industrial/ organizational personnel specialists.” If you fit that niche or just want to see some old animal footage, you may enjoy this film.

Of Pups and Puzzles is available on YouTube.

The Oscar-Winning Short-Films of John Nesbitt, Part One: That Mothers Might Live

John Nesbitt was a mainstay of the Golden Age of Radio as one of radio’s great storytellers. Nesbitt was known for his Passing Parade, which aired for more than a decade, both as a stand-alone program as well as a segment on longer programs, such as Johnson’s Wax Summer Program and The John Charles Thomas Show.

However, Nesbitt’s talents weren’t just enjoyed by radio listeners. He narrated more than fifty short films, which were played in theaters before the feature attraction. Many, but not all, were a film series of Passing Parade. Nesbitt’s voice would be the only speaking role as he told viewers an unusual or remarkable true life story.

Nesbitt’s films were not just filler. Films that Nesbitt narrated and either produced or wrote received a total of five Academy Awards for short films over an eleven-year period from 1938-49.

In this series, we’ll take a look at each one.

That Mothers Might Live (1938) 

That Mothers Might Live opens with shots of a 1930s hospital. We’re then told of a man who dreamed of this a century before and are transported to a 19th-century hospital. There, a popular young obstetrician named Doctor Semmelweis (Shepherd Strudwick) becomes obsessed with finding out what has caused the death of more than two thousand women over the course of six years.

Semmelweis’s tireless research leads to a breakthrough discovery that could change medicine and save the lives of numerous patients. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it was considered common sense. But in the nineteenth century, it rubbed against hospital politics and the pride of physicians. The film shows Semmelweis’s fight and the toll it would take on him.

Strudwick’s acting is solid. In what’s a non-speaking role, he manages to bring Semmelweis to life and to go through the whole gamut of emotions in just a few minutes.  The film is well-directed and well-edited, taking the audience on this emotional roller coaster ride in ten minutes through the incidental music and cuts. Nesbitt’s narration is flawless and keeps the audience engaged from start to finish.

Semelweis’ story was a footnote in history that the average viewer both then and now had never heard of. For those who saw That Mothers Might Live, Semelweis’ story is one that’s impossible to forget.

The film won the Oscar for Best Short Subject (One-Reel) in 1939.

That Mothers Might Live is currently available on YouTube.

Father Brown’s Not Buying It: A Review of the Incredulity of Father Brown

A version of this article was posted in 2011.

Twelve years after his second Father Brown book, G.K. Chesterton brought readers a new collection in 1926 entitled, The Incredulity of Father Brown.

While the previous titles, The Innocence of Father Brown and The Wisdom of Father Brown had very little with the theme of the stories, Incredulity is a key theme of each story in this collection.

In each story, an event happens to which a miraculous supernatural explanation is offered. Father Brown by and by doesn’t buy into the supernatural solution, but finds a natural, but often amazing solution to the case. Of course, in each case, the people expect Father Brown to go along with a supernatural solution as he’s a priest and all. However, the book makes the point that being religious and being  superstitious are not the same thing.

In “The Curse of the Golden Cross,” Brown explains his belief in “common sense as he understands it:

It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing–room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible. But I’m much more certain it didn’t happen than that Parnell’s ghost didn’t appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand.

Father Brown applies such incisive common sense to eight problems, with all but one of them involving murder. One thing that makes these stories different is that the goal of the story is not catching the murderer. In the vast majority of cases, the suspect is not caught. The story is about the puzzle and how Father Brown solves it. In one case, “The Oracle of the Dog,” Brown stays one hundred miles away from the scene of the crime and solves it secondhand.

The best story in the book is, “The Arrow of Heaven” which involves the seemingly impossible murder of a millionaire in a high tower with an arrow when it was impossible for anyone to be able to shoot it that distance.

“The Miracle of the Moon Crescent” is a fascinating story that has three religious skeptics contemptuously dismiss Father Brown but they begin to think a supernatural cause may be involved in the seemingly impossible murder of a millionaire when the police fail to turn up any satisfactory solution.

“The Doom of the Darnaways”  may be one of the most profound stories in the collection. Father Brown encounters a young man whose family is said to be subject to a curse that leads inevitably to murder and suicide. An expert on genetics declares the curse is nonsense, but that heredity indicates the same type of fate. Here Chesterton illustrated that it’s possible for both superstition and science to develop a fatalism about human life and destiny that excludes free and leads people to helplessness and despair. The story has a well-told murder mystery, though I don’t know why Father Brown put off the solution.

There’s not really a story I didn’t like in the collection, although I do think, “Oracle of the Dog” may have a little too much literary criticism and not enough story. All in all, The Incredulity of Father Brown is a truly wonderful collection of stories about the original clerical detective.

The Incredulity of Father Brown entered the public domain in the United States on January 1, 2022 and is available on Project Gutenberg Australia

DVD Review: Father Dowling, Season Three

A version of this article appeared in 2017.

After a TV movie and two partial seasons, ABC gave the Father Dowling Mysteries a regular season of 22 episodes in 1990-91.

The same cast of regulars from Season Two returns with Father Frank Dowling (Tom Boswell) and Sister Steve (Tracy Nelson) investigating mysteries, and Father Prestwick (James Stephens) and housekeeper Marie (Mary Wickes) providing comic relief.

The series maintains a pleasant, family-friendly tone with likable characters. Steve does a lot of undercover work and handles most tasks well, but you don’t get the impression she’s unrealistically super competent in everything like during Season One.

Some of the past seasons had episodes that could more rightly be called “adventures”  than “mysteries,” but this season all the episodes are true mysteries. The plots are thought-out but never too intricate.

The one thing I did miss from Season Two was the little touches that made Father Dowling and Sister Steve seem more like a real Catholic priest and nun. Except as discussed below, they don’t do anything to cut against that idea, other than the fact that the two can always run off to investigate a mystery.

One of the best episodes of the season is “The Christmas Mystery.” It’s a nice mystery with a few suspect twists, but it’s a fun Christmas treat and there aren’t enough good Christmas mysteries out there. In “The Moving Target Mystery,” another of my favorites, a contract killer comes into Father Dowling’s confessional and confesses he was hired to kill Father Dowling. He is backing out because he won’t kill a priest, but somebody else will. It’s a good set-up for a story.

The “Fugitive Priest Mystery” finds Father Dowling on the run thanks to his evil twin Blaine, and he has to clear his name and find out what Blaine’s up to. “The Hard-Boiled Mystery” is my favorite episode of the season. Father Dowling goes to have words with a writer who has decided to write a story based on Father Dowling. It’s set during the 1930s, with Dowling as a hard-boiled priest-detective. We flash from the present to the hard-boiled detective scenes and they’re absolutely hilarious.

On the downside, some stories just didn’t work. After having an angel in Season Two, the writers decided, “How about having Father Dowling encounter the devil?” Thus we are given “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea Mystery.” What we get is a Hollywood version of the Devil, who is defeated by a plot ripped off from “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” The story introduces an older brother for Steve and contradicts a previous season’s story featuring Steve’s younger brother. Further, it has the characters acting really out of character. It’s the worst episode of the series.

“The Consulting Detective Mystery” is also a bit of clunker. Father Dowling makes a deduction as to who committed a crime. He’s wrong, leading to an innocent ex-con losing his job. This leads to Sherlock Holmes appearing in order to restore Father Dowling’s confidence. It’s not a great set-up and the actor playing Holmes doesn’t work. It’s not as bad as “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea Mystery,”  but it’s weak and poorly executed.

The rest of the box set is serviceable and fun. Father Dowling was never a big budget show, and it never featured television’s most clever mystery writers. It was a show you could enjoy with the whole family. Another reviewer described the show as “cute,” and I’ll go with that. This season, in particular, features Father Dowling and Sister Steve working to save a cute zoo monkey who is framed for murder. It’s easy viewing with a bit of nostalgia for simpler times thrown into the deal.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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