Francis P. DeStefano

Francis P. DeStefano

Wednesday, 05 July 2023 14:14

DeStefano Reviews

DeStefano Reviews

Francis P. DeStefano

Francis P. DeStefano holds a Ph.D. in history from Fordham University, where his field of concentration was 18th century British politics. He left the academy to pursue a career as a financial adviser. He retired in 2008 and is pursuing his interest in history, especially Renaissance art history. He resides in Connecticut and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Humphrey Bogart: “High Sierra”

No actor, male or female, has ever appeared in more top-ranked films than Humphrey Bogart. Most of these films are as watchable today as they were when they first appeared in the 1940s and ’50s. Most of them were made during Hollywood’s Golden Age, when the Studio system brought together under one roof outstanding directors, writers, cinematographers, and a whole host of other craftsmen and women to produce true works of art. The actors and actresses were of prime importance, none more so than Humphrey Bogart.

He first hit the spotlight in 1935 when he recreated his stage role as gangster Duke Mantee in “The Petrified Forest.” The stars were Leslie Howard, also recreating his leading man performance in Robert Sherwood’s play, and a young Bette Davis. Bogart turned in an unforgettable performance which, unfortunately, hurt his career since he would become typecast as a villain in popular gangster films.

It took five years for Bogart to break out of the mold in the groundbreaking 1941 film, “High Sierra.” Directed by Raoul Walsh, and written by John Huston, Bogart’s close friend, “High Sierra” marked the end of the traditional gangster film in that it attempted to humanize the criminal. It was Bogart’s first leading man role, although he only got second billing to co-star Ida Lupino. Bogart plays Roy Earle, a notorious 1930s gangster who is pardoned after serving eight years in prison. The pardon had been arranged by his old gang boss, who needs him to pull off one last big heist.

In the opening scene we see Bogart leaving the prison and basking in his freedom. He directs the driver sent to pick him up to stop at a nearby park so he can see if trees and grass still exist. He sits on a bench and enjoys the antics of little children playing ball. Our hearts go out to him. Only in the next scene when he picks up his assignment to drive to California and lead a robbery of a wealthy resort hotel do we see his tough guy demeanor emerge. He slaps around the corrupt cop who gives him his orders.

On the drive west he stops at the old Earle family farm in Indiana, which has been taken over by bankers during the Depression. His nostalgic love of the farm of his childhood is evident. He even directs a young boy to a favorite fishing spot. The criminal’s yearning for the idyllic countryside of childhood would be repeated in many films to come, including John Huston’s “The Asphalt Jungle.”

Arriving in California, he accidentally makes the acquaintance of an elderly couple who have lost their Ohio farm and have travelled west to stay with their daughter. They are traveling with their lovely teenage granddaughter, played by the lovely Joan Leslie, who unfortunately has a clubfoot. In another sign of his humanity, Roy Earle shows real concern for the plight of the girl, and eventually falls for her. He arranges for an underworld doctor to perform an operation on the girl’s foot. In those days, it was apparently easy and inexpensive, but when the girl is healed, she reveals that she is in love with another man. Earle is too old.

This rejection is just another sign among many that Roy Earle, after eight years in prison, is out of touch in the world of 1940. The world that he knew has passed him by. Even modern hoodlums are not up to his standards. When he finally meets up with the two other members of the hold-up team, they are obviously young and inexperienced, and certainly lacking in toughness. They are even shacking up with an unfortunate ex-dime-a-dance girl played by Ida Lupino. Tough-guy Earle claims that women are poison in a heist, and orders them to get rid of her. But when she tells him her story, she appeals to his sympathies and he relents. He is a human being, flaws and all. He is a tough and capable criminal but with a soft spot in his heart. He even develops an affection for a mongrel dog at the camp, one of the great dogs in film history. Eventually, they pull off the heist, but as usual in these films, things go wrong.

“High Sierra” marked Bogart’s first role as a sympathetic leading man, and established his persona as a tough guy with a hard exterior cloaking a soft, caring inside, a persona immediately evident in two subsequent films, “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), and “Casablanca” (1942), that made him a huge star. Roy Earle, Sam Spade, and Rick Blaine were roles that it is now hard to imagine anyone but Humphrey Bogart playing.

The Demise of the DVD Mailing Service on Netflix

It was sad to read the news that Netflix, is planning to discontinue the DVD mailing service that originally launched the entertainment giant, and rely exclusively on its movie streaming service. I suppose that streaming is more profitable, but I will miss the DVDs that came in the mail in their distinctive red envelopes. It was a great service. You had listed the films you wanted to see on your online queue, and the one on the top came quickly in the mail. You could keep it as long as you wanted, and when you returned it in the convenient envelope, the next one was sent.

I did try streaming when first introduced by Netflix but did not like it for a number of reasons. Chief among them was the fact that streaming provided fewer film choices. In particular, very few foreign films were available. Also, many American film noir classics from the ’40s and ’50s were available on DVD, but could not be streamed. Perhaps Netflix has added to its streaming menu, but there is another DVD feature that streaming does not provide.

Many DVDs come with special features in addition to the movie itself. There are often video biographies of the people involved in the production of a particular film. Not just the stars, but directors, producers, musical composers, and even costume designers are often featured. These can be of varying quality, but some are intelligent and informative.

For example, the Criterion Collection’s two-disc set of “Now Voyager,” the 1944 Bette Davis classic, provides a treasure trove of commentary. There is an interview with film critic Farran Smith Nehme on the making of the film; a scene-by-scene commentary by scholar Jeff Smith on Max Steiner’s Academy Award winning musical score; and even a discussion of the important role played by famed costume designer Orry-Kelly in dressing Bette Davis to fit changes in the character she portrayed.

Also, many DVDs, especially of important films, come with an expert audio commentary that plays along with the film. You can actually watch a film one night, and the next night view it again with a commentary. Like the biographies, these commentaries can vary in quality, but some are excellent. A few years ago, all of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals were issued in two boxed DVD sets. The DVD for the 1936 “Swing Time,” the best of them all, includes a commentary by John Mueller that provides almost a step-by-step discussion of every dance number. In another example, film scholar Marian Keane’s commentary for the Preston Sturges 1941 film, “The Lady Eve,” is a masterpiece in itself. It certainly helps understand why many consider Barbara Stanwyck one of the greats of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

My favorite commentator, however, is Jeanine Basinger, the founder of the Wesleyan University Film Archive that houses the Gene Tierney collection. Basinger’s audio commentaries for two Tierney films, the iconic “Laura” of 1944 and “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” of 1947, are superb. It is true that the films are wonderful and certainly can be watched over and over again by themselves. But watching a great film with Basinger as your guide is an experience in itself.

Whatever Netflix decides to do, it is still possible to build your own DVD collection and enjoy these films without commercial interruption or pop-up ads. Many people have thrown away their DVD players, but they can still be purchased inexpensively, as can the DVDs. But I will still miss the red envelopes.     *

Monday, 14 February 2022 13:52

DeStefano Reviews

DeStefano Reviews

Francis P. DeStefano

Francis P. DeStefano holds a Ph.D. in history from Fordham University, where his field of concentration was 18th century British politics. He left the academy to pursue a career as a financial adviser. He retired in 2008 and is pursuing his interest in history, especially Renaissance art history. He resides in Connecticut and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Deanna Durbin: America’s Sweetheart

Deanna Durbin’s beautiful singing voice catapulted her to stardom during Hollywood’s Golden Age. From her film debut in 1936 at the age of 15 to her retirement in 1949, her charming personality and singing voice made her America’s sweetheart, as well as one of the highest-paid actresses in the movies, and one of the highest-paid women in the world.

Born in Canada, her parents moved to Los Angeles when she was little more than a toddler. By the age of ten she became the star pupil of one of Hollywood’s top vocal instructors. Her beautiful soprano led to a screen test, and she was signed to a movie contract in 1936 at the age of 15.

Her first full-length film, “Three Smart Girls,” was so popular that many more light-hearted romantic teen musicals followed as quickly as possible. All of them featured at least two or three Durbin solos ranging from pop to operatic areas. It is said that the success of these light comedies saved Universal Studios from bankruptcy.

As she matured, she tired of the frothy comedies that had made her famous and wanted better material. She got one chance in 1944 when she played the lead in “Christmas Holiday,” a film adaptation of a novel of the same name by famed British author Somerset Maugham.

The novel has very little to do with Christmas. Set in the 1930s, it is the story of a young Englishman from a respectable middle-class family who has completed his schooling and is about to enter the family business. Before he does, his father treats him to a holiday in Paris over the Christmas holidays. It is to be a typical middle-class excursion where he will see all the sites, visit the art museums, and attend various concerts including a Midnight Mass celebration, a major Parisian event.

On arrival in Paris, he meets up with an old friend, now a typical ’30s radical, who takes him to a high-class bordello where he meets a Russian émigré prostitute. When she discovers that he plans to attend Midnight Mass, she begs him to let her join him. During the service in a packed cathedral, she breaks down in hysterical sobbing. Over the next few days, she tells him her tragic story, and introduces him to a side of life that he has never experienced or even imagined. In Maugham’s words, the bottom falls out of his life.

The Hollywood production code required major changes in the film adaptation. Even without the code, Deanna Durbin’s persona would never have allowed her to play a prostitute on screen. She plays a singer in a dance hall dive that is a thinly disguised bordello. The young Englishman is transformed into a newly commissioned, young American army officer whose fiancée has jilted him for another man. The locale has been shifted to New Orleans, where the officer’s flight home has been forced to land during a storm. The free-thinking friend is now a sleazy newspaper reporter who doubles as a pimp for the New Orleans dive where Durbin’s character works.

Most of the film story is told in flashbacks, a typical film noir device. We are introduced to the prostitute’s no-good husband played, by Gene Kelly in a non-dancing role, and his over-bearing mother, played by Gale Sondergaard.

Despite the many changes, the film is remarkably true to Maugham’s novel with its emphasis on tragic love, sin, suffering, and redemption. “Christmas Holiday” is a dark film superbly directed by Robert Siodmak, one of the great masters of what would later become known as film noir. The writer, Herman Mankiewicz of “Citizen Kane” fame, produced a brilliant script full of rare depth and meaning. The screenplay is supported by a musical score created by Austrian Hans Salter. It ranges from Durbin’s rendition of Irving Berlin’s ballad, “Always,” to a magnificent orchestral version of Wagner’s “Liebestod” performed in a packed concert hall, and again at the film’s finale.

Speaking of the finale, the film’s creators dramatically changed what I consider to be Maugham’s very weak and ambiguous ending. The ending is still somewhat ambiguous but, like the rest of the film, the direction, the acting, the writing, and the musical score transcend the novel on which it is based.

Deanna Durbin regarded “Christmas Holiday” as her best performance. She certainly demonstrated that the child singer had become a fine mature actress. In my opinion, most of her other films, despite their great popularity, are hard to watch today. One exception is “It Started with Eve,” a charming 1941 romantic comedy in which she stars along with Charles Laughton and Robert Cummings.

In this “screwball” comedy, her youthful charm and vivacity, as well as her singing, revive a dying old man, played superbly by Laughton. When she accompanies herself on the piano with a spirited version of “When I Sing,” set to the music of Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty Waltz,” you can see how she revived American audiences during the great depression and the war years.

Deanna Durbin’s fame did not last like that of Judy Garland’s — another teenage singer who also became a huge star. Despite her box office success, Durbin never appeared in any immortal film musicals like the “Wizard of Oz,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Easter Parade,” or “A Star is Born.” Perhaps even more important was the fact that she decided to quit show business in 1949 at the age of 28. After two failed marriages, she married a Frenchman who had directed one of her last films. They decided to quit Hollywood and move to a farm in France, where she spent the rest of her life until her death at the age of 91 in 2013. When one considers the tragic life of Judy Garland, who can say that Durbin made the wrong decision?

Remember the Night.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray are the stars of “Remember the Night,” a little known 1940 romantic comedy set in the holiday season. Stanwyck plays a woman on trial for shoplifting an expensive bracelet from a New York jewelry store. MacMurray plays the prosecuting attorney determined to send her to jail. However, the trial is adjourned until after the holidays.

Inevitably, circumstances lead them to embark on a road trip back to their respective homes in Indiana. The film is a “road” movie like the Frank Capra 1934 classic, “It Happened One Night.” Two strangers from two different worlds embark on a journey during which they will inevitably fall in love, although it takes most of the movie for them to realize it.

For him, the trip is an annual return to the family farm where live his loving, widowed mother, maiden aunt, and good-natured farmhand. For her, it is a shot in the dark. She has not seen or heard from her mother since she ran away from home as a teenager.

When Stanwyck’s character is repulsed by her unforgiving and bitter mother, MacMurray’s character offers to bring her home to his family for the holidays. There, they receive the warmest of welcomes. He has obviously had a different childhood, but his folks also suspect that there is something going on between him and the beautiful young woman.

Even after he tells them that she is a thief and that he intends to convict her when they return to the big city, they still treat her with real kindness and affection. Over the ensuing Christmas and New Year celebrations, a remarkable transformation occurs. In the words of screenwriter Preston Sturges, the thief becomes converted and the prosecutor becomes corrupted. They have fallen in love, and by the time they leave for New York, he is determined to do all he can to help her escape the clutches of the law, while she is equally determined to do the right thing and face the music.

The acting is really fine in this film. Barbara Stanwyck, who some consider to be the greatest film actress of all time, was at her best. She was helped considerably by her recent collaboration with famed costume designer Edith Head. According to Hollywood lore, most designers declined to work with Stanwyck, whom they regarded as a plain Jane. Edith Head jumped at the opportunity and proceeded to glamorize Stanwyck. After this film, Stanwyck insisted that Head design all of her costumes.

Fred MacMurray, a former bandleader, was rising to stardom and had great chemistry with Stanwyck in this film, something that carried over into their appearance four years later in the completely different “Double Indemnity,” a classic, groundbreaking film noir.

It was a pleasure to watch the rest of the cast. Beulah Bondi, who would become famous six years later as George Bailey’s mother in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” played the mother as only she could. Her woman-to-woman scene with Stanwyck as they discuss the man they both love is believable and touching. Elizabeth Patterson was more than fine as the maiden aunt, especially when she helps Stanwyck fit into a dress with a very small waistline in the same manner as Hattie McDaniel corseted Vivien Leigh in “Gone with the Wind.” Stanley Holloway’s rendition of the song, “A Perfect Day,” was one of the film’s many high points.

As mentioned above, Preston Sturges wrote the screenplay. He complained when director Mitchell Leisen cut some of his scenes, and decided that thereafter he would direct his own films. He went on to great success as a director, but I do not believe that any of his later films equaled this one. Every writer needs an editor, and Leisner did Sturges a great favor. Even though writer and director fought, they produced a fine film. It reminds me of the advice that Dr. Samuel Johnson gave to an aspiring young writer: “When you think you have written something particularly fine, strike it out!”     *

Monday, 24 May 2021 12:21

DeStefano Reviews

DeStefano Reviews

Francis P. DeStefano

Francis P. DeStefano holds a Ph.D. in History from Fordham University, where his field of concentration was 18th century British politics. He left the academy to pursue a career as a financial adviser. He retired in 2008 and is pursuing his interest in history, especially Renaissance art history.

“Monsignor Quixote”

In his long career, Alec Guinness played a remarkably varied number of roles. As a college student in New York in the 1950s, I was introduced to British comedy by Guinness classics like “The Lavender Hill Mob” and “The Captain’s Paradise.” Soon after followed his great dramatic roles in movies like “The Bridge over the River Kwai” and “Tunes of Glory.” Next, I recall taking my young children to the first “Star Wars” epic in which Guinness and two robots stole the show.

Nevertheless, it was only later in life that I discovered “Monsignor Quixote,” a made-for-TV film, in which Alec Guinness played his greatest role.

“Monsignor Quixote” was based on the novel of the same name by Graham Greene. Unlike deep, powerful novels like The Heart of the Matter or The Power and the GloryMonsignor Quixote is a light comedy set in Spain after the death of Generalissimo Franco. It is a charming story, but the film, aided by Guinness and a wonderful supporting cast, transcends the book.

In the film Guinness plays an elderly country priest living in the obscure, Spanish village of El Toboso. His name is Quixote, and he fancies that he is a descendant of Cervantes’ famous hero. He even names his little antique car Rosinante, after Don Quixote’s broken-down nag.

Fr. Quixote is content with his life in sleepy El Toboso until the day he chances upon a foreign bishop whose Mercedes has broken down while traveling through town. He invites the bishop to lunch, spends a delightful afternoon with him, fixes his car, which was only out of gas, and sends him on his way. Shortly thereafter, he is surprised by a letter from the Vatican informing him that the bishop has recommended that Fr. Quixote be made a monsignor.

Father Quixote’s surprise is matched by that of his local bishop, who has little regard for his abilities and wonders why the Vatican should single out for honors someone whose views are somewhat tainted by past generosity to Franco’s enemies. At the same time, Sancho Zancas, the mayor of El Teboso, has just been voted out of office. Sancho is a Communist who gave up Catholicism in his youth and now only believes in Marx.

For different reasons, the two decide to take a sabbatical from El Toboso. Packing Rosinante full of food and fine local wine, Msgr. Quixote and Sancho, played by Leo McKern, embark on a series of adventures in the style of their famous prototypes.

Reports of these adventures reach Quixote’s bishop, who questions his sanity, has him forcibly brought back to El Toboso, confines him to the rectory, and finally forbids him to even say Mass. With the help of his housekeeper and Sancho, Msgr. Quixote escapes and embarks on his last adventure.

He eventually winds up in a town whose inhabitants have become wealthy in Mexico. So wealthy are they, in fact, that they compete to outbid each other for the right to carry the statue of the Virgin in a local procession. More than that, they superstitiously clothe the Virgin with money. Msgr. Quixote comes upon the procession and proceeds to break it up, with the result that he is beaten and driven out of town.

He, Sancho, and Rosinante are pursued by the local police until they finally crash at the gates of a nearby monastery. Over the complaints of the police, the abbot offers them sanctuary, and the dying Quixote is put to bed. In the middle of the night, a delirious Msgr. Quixote gets up from his bed and walks to the chapel to say his last Mass.

Here begins five minutes of acting of the highest order as Alec Guinness, a convert to Catholicism, proceeds to enact the Sacrifice of the Mass without host, wine, or missal. Sancho, the abbot, and a visiting American professor watch in amazement. Finally, the agnostic Sancho kneels to take the imaginary Host from the priest, his companero, who collapses and dies in his arms.

Commentators have noted that Alec Guinness was not a typical movie star. He was unassuming, like many of the characters he portrayed. Oddly enough, he thought his best role was Jock Sinclair in “Tunes of Glory,” a character much unlike him in real life. His most famous role was, of course, that of Obi-Wan-Kenobi in “Star Wars.”

Still, I believe that his private life and public career came together in one role. The convert to Catholicism and the great actor came together to portray the simple priest, Msgr. Quixote.

Unfortunately, the film is not available on DVD, but I believe it can be watched on YouTube.

“A Foreign Field”


“A Foreign Field,” a little noticed 1993 film, brought together a wonderful international ensemble of famous film stars all nearing the end of their careers. Alec Guinness and Leo McKern, who had such great chemistry a few years earlier in “Monsignor Quixote,” were joined by the famed French actress, Jeanne Moreau, and by the equally renowned American star, Lauren Bacall.

It is the story of two British World War II vets who meet an American vet when all three return to Normandy on the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Old rivalries resurface, particularly when two of the men discover they are searching for the same lost love.

Guinness and McKern play British veterans who return to the scene for different reasons. Guinness plays a veteran who suffered severe brain damage from mortar fire on D-Day. He can hardly utter a sentence, but makes clear that he is there to place flowers at the grave of a fallen comrade. McKern plays his wartime buddy, who has taken care of him since that fateful day. He also remembers their departed friend, but hopes to meet up with a beautiful French girl he had met while recovering from a wound of his own.

When they check into their hotel, the two Brits discover a wealthy American car dealer, played by Jack Randolph, who not only was at Normandy but also hopes to find the same French woman. They begin to quarrel like young bucks until they discover that the woman, played by Moreau, was a prostitute who extended her favors to many soldiers during that time, but who now resides in an old age home.

Also, at their hotel is a mysterious, wealthy American woman, played by Lauren Bacall, who has returned to Normandy to remember her beloved brother, who died on D-Day.

Few film actors have had better or longer careers than Alec Guinness, but here, at the end of his career, he chose to portray with great sensitivity a severely handicapped old man. McKern is equally good as the irascible friend who has spent 50 years of his life caring for his wounded buddy. 

The women in the film hold their own, and Bacall gives a fine performance as the American woman with a secret. Oddly enough, she started her career as a beautiful, sexy young woman appearing in “To Have and To Have Not” with Humphrey Bogart in 1944, a few months after D-Day. Here, still beautiful 50 years later, she gives a fine mature performance. 

Moreau plays the aged prostitute with typical French flair and vivacity. One of the highlights of the film is her rendition of the song “La Vie en Rose” during lunch at a crowded restaurant.

Speaking of highlights, the film, which begins as a comedy, becomes very serious and moving at the end when the ensemble visits the various cemeteries. Although initially distrustful and suspicious of one another, this disparate band of survivors eventually finds common ground in the memory of what they lost on that fateful day in 1944.

American Literature on Film

Over the past two years, I have watched some really good films based on classic novels. I know that calling a film or book a classic is the proverbial “kiss of death” and will often dissuade people from watching or reading. For many, “classic” means old, old fashioned, out of date, and irrelevant.

Nevertheless, a good film adaptation can make a great book spring to life on the screen and become a classic in its own right. For example, a good actor or actress needs only a facial expression or a glance to convey what it takes a novelist pages to describe. A good film director can convey in one scene what the novelist took a whole chapter to describe.

Moreover, over the years I have come to realize how important the casting director is in putting a film together. Everyone knows the story of how Humphrey Bogart was not the first choice for the lead in “Casablanca,” and that even Ronald Reagan was considered for the part. Is it possible to imagine anyone else in the role today?

Here are brief reviews of four American classic film adaptations.

“Moby Dick” Herman Melville’s masterpiece of Captain Ahab’s doomed pursuit of the great white whale was brought to the screen in a 1956 color production by director John Huston. The film stars Gregory Peck as Ahab, Richard Basehart as Ishmael, Orson Welles in a cameo role as a fiery preacher, and a great supporting cast. I saw this film when it first came out and can still vividly remember characters like Starbuck, from whom the coffee chain derived its name, and the magnificent cannibal chief and harpooner, Queequeg. In addition to the incredible finale, who could ever forget Ahab’s nailing of the gold piece to the mast?

“The Red Badge of Courage” Stephen Crane’s realistic portrayal of ordinary soldiers before and during a single battle was originally published in 1895. It has become the model for all subsequent novels about warfare. It was brought to the screen in 1951 by director John Huston, who had a great interest in American history. True to the novel, the film sees the Civil War through the minds and eyes of the ordinary men who fought. Audie Murphy, the most decorated hero of WW II, stars along with a fine supporting cast, including Bill Mauldin, the famous WW II cartoonist. The final charge, capped as it is by conversation between victorious soldiers and their defeated captives, is very moving.

“The Magnificent Ambersons” Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize novel of a prominent Midwestern family at the dawn of the 20th century was brought to the screen by Orson Welles in 1942. Completed a year after “Citizen Kane,” Welles’ groundbreaking, break-through film, this film shows him at peak directorial form. Welles complained about studio cuts to shorten the viewing time, but the film is still filled with great dialogue, dazzling cinematography, and splendid performances by a fine cast that includes Joseph Cotton, Anne Baxter, and Tim Holt.

“Dodsworth” Sinclair Lewis’ best-selling 1929 novel was brought to the screen by director William Wyler in 1936. Walter Huston, in what some consider to be his finest performance, plays a wealthy industrialist who sells his business and sets off with his wife of 20 years to discover Europe, and rediscover themselves. This film demonstrates, as many of the films of the ’30s did, the great fascination that upper-class Americans and the film industry had with things European. Co-star Ruth Chatterton gives a powerful performance as a woman seeking more than wealth, and Mary Astor gives one of her usual fine performances. “Dodsworth,” selected as one of the most important films of all time by the Library of Congress, actually far surpasses the book on which it is based.


Some people look down their noses at film adaptations, but watching these films has led me to reread these novels that I had read long ago in my high school and college years. I have found that these authors were great storytellers, and that their writing is still alive despite the passage of years. In the films mentioned above, the filmmakers produced works of art that stand alone, no matter how faithful they may or may not be to the original novel.

It takes one author to write a great novel. If you watch the credits roll on these films, you will see that it takes many craftsmen and women working together to create a work of film art.     *

Wednesday, 10 March 2021 12:50

DeStefano Reviews

DeStefano Reviews

Francis P. DeStefano

Francis P. DeStefano holds a Ph.D. in History from Fordham University, where his field of concentration was 18th century British politics. He left the academy to pursue a career as a financial adviser. He retired in 2008 and is pursuing his interest in history, especially Renaissance art history.


“Marty,” a low-budget black-and-white film about a second-generation Italian American butcher in the Bronx, was the sleeper hit of the 1955 Academy Awards. It won four Oscars including: Best Film, Best Director for Delbert Mann, Best Screenplay for famed writer Paddy Chayefsky, and Best Actor for Ernest Borgnine.

It was also a milestone in another sense, because it marked the first appearance of an Italian American in a leading role in an American film. Borgnine’s breakthrough was as remarkable as Sinatra’s and Di Maggio’s, especially since he was not portrayed as a gangster or Mafioso.

Ernest Borgnine worked in films and television almost to the end of his long life in 2012. He could play “heavies” like the sadistic bully in “From Here to Eternity,” or comic characters like the lead in the TV series, “McHale’s Navy,” but his best and most famous role was his portrayal of Marty. 

Borgnine portrayed a second-generation Italian American who, like most of that generation, had become largely assimilated into the American way of life. Marty had served in the U.S. Army in World War II, and had taken a job in a butcher shop after the war. He lived at home with his widowed mother, who spoke broken English, but his own English was strictly New York. “Whadda ya gonna do tonight, Marty?” “I don’t know Ange, whadda you gonna do?” He was completely at home in the Bronx of the 1950s. He was familiar with the teeming activity on Fordham Road but never would have considered going to nearby Fordham University. In the evenings, he and his friends searched for “tomatas” on Manhattan’s 72nd Street. or the famed Stardust Ballroom, but for the most part they stayed near home in the neighborhood bar. Of course, they would never miss Sunday Mass.

 Marty works in the butcher shop that he aspires to buy from its aging owner, but life seems to be passing him by. His younger siblings are married and raising families, but he is not. Customers in the shop tell him he should be ashamed of himself. It’s not that he hasn’t tried, but he can’t even get a date. Rejection after rejection has resigned him to his fate and he sees himself as a fat, ugly man who will probably never marry.

Nevertheless, one night he and his best friend decide to relieve the boredom by trying to see what they can find at the Stardust Ballroom. Once again, Marty experiences rejection, but then notices a young woman suffering an even worse humiliation when her date leaves her flat. Marty consoles the woman, a plain-looking science teacher from Brooklyn, played by Betsy Blair. It is the beginning of a romance. 

Inevitably, his friends don’t like the girl. In the parlance of the day, she’s a dog. Even his mother, who so wants him to find a nice Italian girl, dislikes her. She’s a college girl, and everyone knows that college girls are one step from the street.

The thing about this film that makes it so appealing is that it is about ordinary people — their lives, concerns, hopes and loves. Plain, ordinary people can have a fine romance. The first kiss is one of the great love scenes in film history. A kiss meant a lot in those days.

My father and mother were of that generation, as were my wife’s father and mother. No one in either family was involved in the mob. Our uncles and aunts were all ordinary people.

My father worked in my grandfather’s grocery store until he worked in a defense factory after the start of WW II. One uncle was a policeman, while another was a civil engineer for an electric utility. My wife’s father took over the family fruit and vegetable business along with his two brothers. Most of her other uncles were plumbers. Most of the aunts were housewives, although they usually were employed until the first child arrived.

Most of that generation were ordinary, hard-working people who managed to make the difficult transition from the Old World to the New. No one ever did a better job of telling their story than playwright Paddy Chayefsky, and no one ever did a better job of portraying them than Ernest Borgnine did in “Marty.”

“Betsy’s Wedding”

Alan Alda conceived, wrote, directed and starred in Betsy’s Wedding, a film that received little critical acclaim when it first appeared back in 1990. Even today, rating services consign it to the mediocrity bin. Nevertheless, in my opinion, it is a charming comedy with an excellent cast that included Madeline Kahn, Joe Pesci, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, and Anthony La Paglia, among others. Moreover, in its own way, it gives an insight into the fate of the third- and fourth-generation Italian immigrants to America.

Eddie Hopper, played by Alan Alda, is a third-generation Italian American who has made it into the middle class. He owns a small construction business, a nice home in the suburbs, as well as a vacation home on Long Island. His father, played by Joey Bishop in a couple of dream sequences, had changed the name to make it more familiar to American ears.

Although Eddie comes from a large and very ethnic Italian family, he is married to Lola, a Jewish woman, played beautifully by Madeline Kahn. It used to be called a mixed marriage. Indeed, they had been married in a civil ceremony so as not to show favor to either family. Nevertheless, the marriage is a success. Eddie is still passionately in love with Lola, while she is happy as a homemaker who also runs a small flower business. However, she still regrets not having broken the glass, a necessary fixture of a traditional Jewish wedding.

They have two grown daughters who are even further removed from their ethnic heritage. The youngest is Betsy, a fledgling fashion designer with an avant-garde taste in clothes. Moreover, she has fallen in love with the only son of a billionaire venture capitalist who, as Betsy informs the family, buys and sells companies. Their engagement and subsequent wedding planning provide another battle of cultures. 

Connie, the eldest daughter, has also broken the mold. She is a policewoman who enjoys arresting criminals. She is still single and lives in her own apartment but is somewhat envious of her younger sister’s impending marriage, especially since there is no man on her horizon.

Pride keeps Eddie from accepting his wealthy future in-law’s offer to pay for the wedding. The kids want a small intimate affair, but Eddie has a large family, and the waspish in-laws have many friends to invite. Complicating matters is the fact that the young couple are not religious and do not want any mention of God at the ceremony. Not only will there be no priest or rabbi, but also a secularized meaning must be found for the breaking of the glass. 

Paying for the wedding is going to break Eddie, especially since he has overextended himself on a building project where financing has dried up. He reluctantly goes to his wife’s brother-in-law, Oscar, played by Joe Pesci, who is a scheming commercial real estate developer with ties to the Mob.

Eddie’s father had always hated the mob and the stain it put on the great majority of Italian Americans. His proudest moment had come when Toscanini, Sinatra, and DiMaggio had all been on the radio the same day. But now Oscar arranges financing with a mobster who agrees to finance this relatively small project as a favor. Eddie’s project also gives the mobster an opportunity to launder some money and provide a job for his young nephew, Stevie D.

Although the nephew, played by Anthony La Paglia. is a young mobster, he is a throwback in his own way to the age of chivalry and courtly love. He is a classic Italian of the old school. In overseeing Eddie’s project, he falls for Eddie’s elder daughter, the policewoman. It’s another culture clash. Initially, she rejects his advances, “I’m a cop, and you’re not.” But he answers, “Connie, I could be anything you want me to be.”

At the end, all the characters come together at a riotous and touching wedding held outdoors under a huge tent during a rainstorm. Generational, ethnic, and cultural differences are all resolved, and love conquers all.

Films like “The Golden Door,” “Marty,” and “Betsy’s Wedding” open a window into the Italian American experience, but I suspect the experience of other immigrant groups is not too much different.   *

Tuesday, 19 January 2021 13:13

DeStefano Reviews

DeStefano Reviews

Francis P. DeStefano

Francis P. DeStefano holds a Ph.D. in History from Fordham University, where his field of concentration was 18th century British politics. He left the academy to pursue a career as a financial adviser. He retired in 2008 and is pursuing his interest in history, especially Renaissance art history.


A few years ago, my wife and I saw “Sully,” the film produced and directed by Clint Eastwood, about the forced landing of US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. It is a thrilling and very moving film about the crew, the passengers, and the first responders whose combined efforts saved all 155 people on the flight. 

Tom Hanks plays the role of captain Chesley Sullenberger (Sully) with the quiet calm and dignity that fits the pilot who became an overnight hero. The rest of the cast is equally good. I especially liked the two flight attendants who rose to the occasion as they prepared the passengers for impact. 

Actually, you might say that the film is a tribute to the competence of all those involved. At one point the captain notes that over his forty-year career he had transported over 1,000,000 passengers safely, but people now call him a hero because of one crash landing. At the end he says to his co-pilot, “We were just doing our job.”

In addition to the drama of the emergency landing on water and the subsequent rescue of the passengers from the almost frozen waters, the film centers around the drama of the subsequent inquiry by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) into the performance of the captain and co-pilot on the flight. Apparently, computers indicated that the plane could have made it back safely to La Guardia airport, and that one engine was still functional.

Some have complained that director Eastwood went a little overboard in portraying the NTSB examiners as out to establish “pilot error” in the case of flight 1549. Unlike the depiction is Sullenburger’s subsequent autobiography, director Eastwood portrayed the examiners as inquisitors or bad guys. But to my mind it seemed as if they were also just doing their job. 

Speaking about doing one’s job, I was especially pleased with the portrayal of the air traffic controllers trying to deal with the extremely stressful “mayday” situation. It brought back memories of my first real job back in 1964 with the Federal Aviation Agency. 

I had taken the civil service exam as a fallback in case I would not be able to land a teaching job. Not too long afterwards I was surprised when a letter came asking me to interview for an entry level management analysis position at New York’s Idlewild airport. The name had yet to be changed to honor the recently assassinated President Kennedy.

Although I had no idea what a management analyst was or did, I was offered the position, and took it. I found myself in a small office on the airport grounds with a bureau chief and four senior analysts. I soon came to see that I was in the least significant part of the vast organization in charge of ensuring flight safety in the ever-more-crowded American skies. I believe that we were distrusted or regarded as nuisances by the people doing the job in the control towers and flight control centers. 

I remember, on one occasion, visiting one of those centers on Long Island. Seeing air traffic controllers hunched over their primitive radar screens watching little white blips apparently approaching each other was an experience I have never forgotten. I found out that it was one of the most stressful jobs in the world.

Most of the controllers were former Air Force pilots which perhaps explains the way they would talk with and bond with the pilots in the air. The job was so stressful that most were forced to take early retirement. Insurance companies believed that the controllers had such a short life expectancy that they would not offer them life insurance. When one died on the job, all the other controllers in the country would chip in to provide funds for his widow. 

These men, and they were all men in those days, were unsung heroes and Clint Eastwood did a good job in giving them recognition. Although I only stayed with the FAA for one year, I have never lost my respect for them and the job they did. I must confess that I sympathized with them when President Reagan fired them all in response to an attempt to strike.

However, I have no sympathy for anyone involved in the making of the films shown in the innumerable coming attractions we had to witness before the start of “Sully.” In particular, the violence and destruction depicted was graphic, offensive, and totally over the top. The weaponry employed by the so-called heroes of these films was incredible. How can Hollywood movie makers pretend to be for gun control when they employ so many assault weapons in their films? These films are not a reflection of the violence in our society, but a training ground for violence.

“LaLa Land”

In 2016 “LaLa Land” received much critical acclaim, but still turned out to be a big disappointment for moviegoers. I thought it would be right up my alley since reviewers indicated that it was kind of a throwback to the great Astaire/Rogers films that I have always loved. Despite fine acting and great cinematography, I had to agree that it was a disappointment. It was not just that the songs and dances did not measure up. How could they in this day and age? I dare anyone to remember more than the first three words of “City of Stars,” the song that won the Oscar for best song.

The biggest disappointment had to do with dreams. “LaLa Land” could have been titled “Dreamland.” Both the main characters, played so well by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, were driven to fulfill their dreams, or to, as the saying goes, “live their dream.” He wanted to own and operate a jazz nightclub where he could exhibit his great talent as a jazz piano virtuoso. Her dream was to be a great actress playing leading roles in significant films.

The first 90 percent of the film developed the love story between these two appealing figures, but then, for some inexplicable reason, it was decided that they must break up in order to fulfill their dreams. I think it was the sad ending that disappointed moviegoers. 

Five years after the breakup, she is a movie star and happily married with a loving husband and adorable child. Meanwhile, her ex-boyfriend has opened his club and it is a huge success. By chance, she and her husband walk into the club one night and she hears her old boyfriend playing the piano. Then, we are treated to an extended dream sequence where she imagines what might have happened if they had not broken up. But it is only a dream, and she and her husband leave after only one number.

What a downer! In the old days the ending would certainly have been altered after previews discovered a negative reaction to the ending among sample audiences. But not today, when directors and so-called creative artists would lose their Hollywood cachet if they came up with a happy ending. 

Perhaps it’s because I’m from a much older generation that I object to the decision of the two lovers to give each other up in pursuit of their dreams. I don’t recall that as a young man I had any dreams or ambitions that I would not give up if the right young woman came along. When she did come along, we had a fine romance that has lasted to the present day. 

I guess we were lucky, but it is also true that our backgrounds and traditions kept our feet on the ground. Sitting in that theater, I wanted to urge the young couple to give up their dreams for the one they loved. In my case, I found that anything I gave up was worth little in comparison to what I gained. We were not the only ones in our generation to choose real life over dreams.

Coincidentally, I had just read the wartime diaries of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, an aspiring writer who was also the wife of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh. They were a dream couple in their own time. She came from a wealthy and accomplished family, and he was the great American hero because of his groundbreaking flight across the Atlantic in 1927.

But by the outbreak of World War II, things had gone sour. Even after they had recovered from the murder of their first-born son by a kidnapper, Charles Lindbergh had become a figure of controversy because of his leadership in the movement to keep America out of the war. He lost his commission in the army, and President Roosevelt and his supporters came close to branding him a traitor.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Lindbergh, despite his age and growing family, offered his services to the war effort, but he never regained his pre-war popularity. His wife stood by her husband during these years despite the fact that practically all of their friends had deserted them. They were still well off, but she had never dreamed that she would be a lonely housewife struggling to find herself. She talked of her dreams in her diary entry of April 8, 1942. (In her diary, “C” is her husband, Charles.):

“Almost every young person is a romantic idealist. Certainly, I was — and am still — in a sense. There has always been a ‘dream figure’ in my life — not always a person of course. But some people learn to accept life and that it is better than ‘the dream.’ At least I got married and had children.

“I told C., speaking of this conversation (we were talking of idealizing people), and C. said, ‘You can’t meet your heroes if you feel that way about them.’ And I said, ‘Well I don’t know — I didn’t lose my dream by marrying it!’ He said, ‘that’s the nicest thing you ever said to me.’


“But I said it the wrong way round really. For I didn’t marry my ‘dream.’ C. wasn’t my ‘dream.’ I never idealized him before I met him. It wasn’t the hero I loved in him. It was the man — the man who has never disappointed me. I had my ‘dreams,’ too, very different from C. That was what all the struggle was about, giving up my ‘dreams’ for this flesh-and-blood man—who I loved, God knew.


“I sometimes feel it is the one thing I deserve credit for, the one thing I am intensely proud of, that I had the courage and the wisdom to give up my ‘dreams’ for real life, to realize that ‘life’ was better than ‘dreams’ and that C. was life.”


   War Within and Without, Diaries and Letters, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, (Harvest Book) Paperback – Illustrated, January 13, 1995.   *

Wednesday, 12 February 2020 13:19

"High Noon"

“High Noon”

Francis P. DeStefano

Francis P. DeStefano is a long-time subscriber to the St. Croix Review. He holds a PhD in History from Fordham University where his field of concentration was 18th century British politics. He left the academy to pursue a career as a financial advisor. He retired in 2008 and is pursuing his interest in history, especially Renaissance art history. He resides in Fairfield, Connecticut.

Periodically, my wife and I watch “High Noon,” the great 1952 Western directed by Fred Zinneman that starred the legendary Gary Cooper. Unfortunately, the film lost out in the best picture category that year to “The Greatest Show on Earth,” a circus drama that is virtually unwatchable today.

I call “High Noon” a great film for the simple reason that it can be viewed over and over again, not only with enjoyment but with total involvement. It is not just that repeated viewings bring out things you might have missed originally. It is not the nuances or the background that makes a film great, but the central core, the thing that the director most wanted the viewer to see and know.

Any great story or work of art works in that way. As children when we heard a story like Goldilocks or Red Riding Hood we wanted to hear it over and over again. We knew the characters, what they would do, and how it would end, but every telling seemed new. We know that most great literature works that way also. The Homeric epics were meant to be told repeatedly to audiences who were totally familiar with them. Year after year we can hear in church the stories of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan and be totally engaged.

I can’t say how many times I have seen “High Noon” since I first saw it as a thirteen-year-old back in 1952. In those days we went to the movies practically every Saturday for a double feature with five color cartoons and a newsreel. We must have seen countless Westerns but “High Noon” was something different.

It was, and still is, a gripping, compelling drama of a small town marshal who is forced to confront four vicious killers. I must have sat open mouthed in the darkened theater as one by one the marshal’s friends refused, for various reasons, to come to his assistance. In the end he was left alone on the deserted street of the town to face the killers whose leader was arriving on the noon train.

Gary Cooper, a veritable American icon, played Marshal Kane. Maybe he was a little old for the part, especially since his new bride was played by young and beautiful Grace Kelly in her first major role. Nevertheless, I can’t think of any other actor of that time, or any time, who could have played the role of the abandoned marshal as well. He won a well-deserved Oscar.

Cooper was surrounded by an outstanding cast. Grace Kelly was fine as a young Quaker bride whose wedding to Cooper takes place a few minutes before the news comes of the impending arrival of Frank Miller and his gang. However, Katy Jurado was magnificent as a Mexican woman of the world who had once been Kane’s lover. She won a Golden Globe in 1953 for best supporting actress. I’ll never forget her rebuke to Grace Kelly, whose Quaker principles prevented her from helping her new husband: “What kind of a woman are you?”

Lloyd Bridges, Thomas Mitchell, Lon Chaney, Jr., and a young Harry Morgan were all excellent in supporting roles.

As a young teenager I could not realize that the real stars of the show were Fred Zinneman, the director, and Carl Foreman, the writer. For some reason Zinneman decided to do the film in black and white and omit any colorful Western scenery. The sky is hardly visible in the film and the town seems isolated in a kind of haze. Along with his cameraman, and editor, Zinneman produced a film of incredible pace and tension. It never drags and the tension is heightened by the constant references to clocks ticking in the background as the hands approach high noon.

Carl Foreman’s script was taut, adult, and free of the usual Western clichés. Characters were able to appear as human and many-sided and each had a chance to state his or her case.

Back in 1952 I had no idea of the controversy that surrounded this film and that still crops up in most critical evaluations. I was certainly not aware of Cooper’s womanizing off screen, nor could I have imagined the tragedy that awaited Grace Kelly. I would not have know that Fred Zinneman was an Austrian Jew or wondered why he would make an American Western. Neither was I aware of the investigation spearheaded by the House Un-American Activities Committee to track down Communists in the American film industry. 

Carl Foreman had been called before the Committee and admitted that he had been a Communist years before but had become disillusioned with the Party and left. Nevertheless, he was blacklisted in Hollywood and eventually left the country to settle in England. He only returned a couple of years before his death. In a commentary that accompanied the DVD, Foreman’s son said that his father told his own story in High Noon. He felt that he had been deserted by all his former friends and employers in Hollywood and left alone to face his critics.

I’m glad that I didn’t know any of this background information back in 1952, and today, more than 50 years later, I don’t think it matters any more. The film is still a great film. The director, writer, cameraman, editor, and cast all came together to make a work of art that transcended their personal lives and politics. 

I should not fail to mention the haunting ballad, “Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darling” that was sung by Tex Ritter and that provides most of the musical background. How could a film that includes these lyrics be un-American?

“I do not know what fate awaits me.

I only know I must be brave.

For I must face a man who hates me,

Or lie a coward, a craven coward;

Or lie a coward in my grave.”     * 

Tuesday, 04 June 2019 13:28

The Spanish Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition

Francis P. DeStefano

Francis P. DeStefano holds a PhD in History from Fordham University where his field of concentration was 18th century British politics. He left the academy to pursue a career as a financial advisor. He retired in 2008 and is pursuing his interest in history, especially Renaissance art history. He resides in Fairfield, Connecticut.


Editor’s Note: Francis P. DeStefano is one of our subscribers — and we hope he continues to send us essays. We do encourage our subscribers to submit essays for publication, because we know we have an exceptionally well-educated and patriotic subscribership.


The Spanish Inquisition has become a code word for human cruelty and injustice. During his term even President Obama equated the Inquisition with the atrocities perpetrated by ISIS Moslem fanatics in devastated Iraq.

Some years ago I pored through Benzion Netanyahu’s massive study of the Spanish Inquisition. If the author’s name sounds familiar, it is because he was the father of Bibi Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister of Israel. Although Benzion Netanyahu took a leading role in the founding of the State of Israel, he will perhaps be best remembered as a great scholar. His field of study was the Spanish Inquisition and his masterpiece, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, revolutionized the study of the subject.

Few people understand that the Inquisition in Spain was not directed against Jews in Spain but against Christians. The Inquisition had no authority to persecute or even investigate the Jewish population. It was specifically chartered to deal with popular charges leveled against Christians of Jewish ancestry and their families who had converted to Christianity. These converts were known as “conversos,” and there were elements in all levels of Spanish society who suspected that the conversos were not sincere Christians, even if their families had converted more than a century before.

Periodically charges were made that the conversos had only converted to gain political or financial advantage. Indeed, they were often suspected of adhering to their Jewish beliefs and practices in secret, and even working to undermine Christian society. Some regarded them as a kind of “fifth column” in the struggle against the Moslem Kingdom of Granada.

It is true that many of the conversos had prospered during the century before the creation of the Spanish Inquisition. Some had risen to high places in the administrations of the various Kings of Castile. Aristocratic grandees who regarded themselves as pure-blooded Christians without any trace of Judaism in their veins were often jealous and contemptuous of these conversos in high places. Among the lower classes it didn’t help the reputation of the conversos that some of them had become tax collectors for the Royal government.

Netanyahu’s 1,000 plus pages demonstrated that the charges leveled against the conversos were false. He marshaled an enormous amount of evidence to show that the conversos were almost always sincere, even dedicated, converts to Christianity. Like many converts, before and after, these converts from Judaism to Christianity in medieval Spain could even be more zealous or committed than the cradle Catholics of the time.

Descendants of conversos often become theologians and clergymen. Some bishops and abbots of famed monasteries could trace their origins to converso forebears. Even Torquemada, the first head of the Inquisition in Castile and a favorite of Queen Isabella, had converso roots.

Nevertheless, in times of political turmoil, military defeat, or economic hardship the conversos were often blamed. Sometimes the charges erupted into mob violence and riots. It was to deal with these charges and riots in very difficult times, that Ferdinand and Isabella sought permission from the Pope to set up an Inquisition in Isabella’s Kingdom of Castile.

The young Isabella had inherited the throne under the most dangerous of circumstances. Castilian grandees or warlords disputed her right and authority. The King of Portugal put up a rival claimant to the throne and launched an invasion of Castile. Once these threats were somewhat subdued, she had to turn her attention to the constant border menace of the Moslem Kingdom of Granada in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula.

Islam was a real threat. In 1480 an Islamic naval expedition had landed on the Adriatic coast of Italy and destroyed the city of Otranto. The invaders tortured and killed 12,000 of the 22,000 inhabitants of the city. Every priest was murdered and the Archbishop of Otranto was sawed in two. Those who were not killed were forced to convert or taken into slavery. In Spain there was constant border fighting and raids with Moslem Granada.

It was a time of great peril from both within and without and fear led to the inevitable outcry of charges against the conversos. Isabella established an Inquisition in Spain to deal with the charges directed against the conversos and to unite her country in the war effort. One modern historian has called the Spanish Inquisition “a disciplinary body called into existence to meet a national emergency.”

The word “inquisition” has the same root as the word “inquiry.” The inquisitors were to look into the charges, call witnesses, and take testimony. In its origins the Inquisition resembles the way in which President Obama ordered his Justice department to examine the causes of local unrest and riots in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore. An outside body is called in hopefully to fairly and impartially examine the charges and counter-charges in an emotionally charged situation.

The fact that the great, great majority of the conversos accused before the tribunal of the Inquisition were released is a testimony to Netanyahu’s thesis that they were innocent, sincere Christians, and that the charges leveled against them were baseless. Since the publication of Netanyahu’s book, historians have had to alter their perspective on the Inquisition, its methods, and its results.

In many ways the Inquisition represented an enormous improvement in methods of justice prevailing throughout the European and Moslem worlds at the time.  The proceedings of the Inquisition were carried out in public and not in secrecy. Its prisons were only temporary detention centers with conditions much better than in local jails. There were no pits with giant swinging razor-sharp pendulums. Torture was rarely used, in contrast to the methods almost universally used in other European and Moslem countries. Even when torture was applied, there was little danger to life and limb.

Studies of the Spanish Inquisition that followed upon the publication of Netanyahu’s masterpiece have shown that the “scenes of sadism conjured up by popular writers . . . have little basis in reality,” and that the inquisitors “had little interest in cruelty and often attempted to temper justice with mercy.” Indeed, as one historian noted: “The proportionally small number of executions is an effective argument against the legend of a bloodthirsty tribunal.”

Nevertheless, the Spanish Inquisition has become synonymous with barbaric cruelty and injustice. In the wars of religion that followed upon the Protestant Reformation, a “Black Legend” arose primarily in Protestant England, which found itself involved in a life and death struggle with Catholic Spain. The Black Legend has gained mythical status and is still used as a weapon to batter Spain and the Catholic Church. It was one of the factors behind the hatred engendered in modern history by the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

In one of history’s interesting footnotes, the bitterness and hatred engendered by the Spanish Civil War did not prevent Spain under Generalissimo Franco from standing almost alone in offering sanctuary to Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. The Franco government maintained neutrality throughout the war, and insisted that all Jews who could claim Spanish citizenship be given safe conduct back to Spain from Nazi occupied countries. The Franco government even went so far as to offer Spanish citizenship and sanctuary to all Jews who could trace their ancestry back to the time of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

Benzion Netanyahu’s masterpiece is now recognized by scholars like Joseph Perez and Henry Kamen who have followed his lead. Nevertheless, their findings will probably never eradicate the myths still propagated today. Politicians and ideologues will still continue to grind their axes, as will popular TV shows like Monty Python. Who will ever forget the three red-robed cardinals breaking into someone’s living room shouting, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition”?     *

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