Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Stanley and Livingstone (1939)

This may not be the most historically accurate portrayal of the lives of Stanley and Livingstone (especially Stanley), but that is okay with me. If I wanted historical accuracy, I would have reached for a documentary. Instead, I wanted a little escapism and an interesting adventure and that is exactly what I got with this rousing film.

Spencer Tracy looking like Africa has gotten him a little down

This movie is about Henry M. Stanley (Spencer Tracy) who is a reporter for the New York Herald. He is known for his perseverance in chasing whatever story his paper assigns to him. His newest assignment might be his biggest challenge yet. He is told to go to Africa to find Dr. David Livingstone (Cedric Hardwicke), a missionary, who another newspaper reported as deceased. Even by today's standards this would probably be a difficult task, but during the 1870s it is darn near impossible. This movie details Stanley's journey to find Dr. Livingstone, the long and hard fought discovery of Dr. Livingstone and Stanley's subsequent fight to have his story believed upon his return.

There are so many things that make this film really work. I love that 20th Century Fox actually sent a small crew to Africa to film authentic safari footage to include in this film. The on-location shooting is priceless for the scenery that is added to the film. They even included stand-ins of the main actors so they could do wide shots showing them walking along the African plains.

Another obvious thing going for this film is the caliber of the actors. First off, you have Spencer Tracy as the lead. The more I watch Spencer the more I enjoy him as an actor. In some of his movies he plays the character so understated that you wonder if he even has to think about acting, it is so natural. With just a slow, almost lazy blink of his eyes he conveys how he feels about what is being said to him, without uttering a word. It is sheer brilliance and I swear, the camera loves his face. Aside from the lead though, the supporting actors in this one are all wonderful too. Walter Brennan plays a guide and sidekick type character to Spencer. His very colorful character is a good yin to Spencer's even keeled yang. Brennan actually steals a few scenes right out from under Spencer and, I have to say, that is not easy to do. On top of Brennan, you add in Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Coburn and Henry Travers and you have a pretty amazing supporting cast.

I also like how, to me, this really had the feel of a western, but set in Africa. One of the reasons I love Westerns is the way the directors use the old West as a secondary character in the films. The scenery in some of the great Westerns simply can't be beat and I felt the same about this one. The shots might not be clever or fancy, but gosh, it is amazing. They definitely used Africa as a secondary character that, just like the Old West, could beat a man down without too much effort.

I loved so many of the scenes in this film too. One of the great ones is the chase scene where Stanley's caravan is attacked by a local tribe. It was filmed and edited brilliantly and, you just don't see many great chase scenes on foot, especially of this magnitude. It is a sight to behold and shouldn't be missed.

I also enjoyed the opening scene of the movie. The US President had sent a couple of delegates to talk to an Indian Chief and were supposed to be escorted by the Army. An Army Officer was explaining to them how you can't just go in and talk to the Indians, they are brutal and would rather scalp a white man rather than talk to him. Suddenly, out of a clearing, come an escort of Indians with Spencer Tracy and Walter Brennan in between them. The Indians wave goodbye fondly as does Tracy and Brennan as they ride towards the Army camp. LOL! Guess they only want to harm certain men. :-)

I also loved the climatic scene where Stanley finally finds what he has been looking for all this time. As strings play "Onward Christian Soldier" in the background, Dr. Livingstone walks out of his hut and Spencer nails the famous line, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume." He says it with such disbelief, awe and weariness - just brilliant. I also love the line a little later from Livingstone, "Well, this is an occasion. We will have the fatted pig for dinner." Mmm ... the other white meat.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film. I can't really think of anything negative to say about it, which is uncommon for me. As such, I highly recommend this one.


kda0121 said...

Spencer Tracy is my favorite actor and it is almost always a delight to watch him. Indeed, his acting is very understated. He exhibits very few "tics or mannerisms" that many actors employ. I read about how several screen actors, including John Wayne and Spencer Tracy, who said screen acting is done with the eyes. If anyone disbelieves, watch some of the celebrated screen actors and concentrate on their performance. Almost always, they are very efficient and economical in their body movement and let their eyes do the acting for them.

AbbyNormal said...

Its a real shame this movie hasn't gotten the DVD treatment yet. I was looking through Netflix for my next Spencer Tracy treat. I have seen most, if not all, of the Tracy-Hepburn films, but only a couple of him without her.

Anonymous said...

I know this old but it shows up near the top on a search for Stanley and Livingstone 1939), so I thought someone else might find this helpful. You can watch this for free without all the pop up and trash you get at most movie websites.