Wednesday, April 2, 2014

His Girl Friday (1940) **1/2

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There’s something unusual about director Howard Hawks’ screwball comedy, His Girl Friday—it’s not all screwy. In fact, there are quite a few dark moments in it that are not standard fare for the genre.  This unusual quirk and the witty, rapid-fire repartee makes for an interesting viewing experience.  Of course, it helps that Hawks coaxed out two great performances from his principal leads, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

his-girl-friday-grant-russell-1Adapted from the heralded Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur play, The Front Page, His Girl Friday flips the script, so to speak, by making Hildy Johnson (Russell) a female reporter on her way out of the slimy bullpen and into respectable matrimony.  Unfortunately for Hildy she has two things standing in her way: her ex-husband and soon-to-be ex-editor, Walter Burns (Grant), and her own professional ambition.  Of course, this doesn’t bode well for her fiancee Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy).  It also doesn’t help that she delivers the news of her impending marriage to Walter on the eve of an execution that has political implications.  Walter needs his best reporter for the biggest story in town and he stops at nothing to ensure that Hildy writes it.  As the story grows bigger by the minute so does Hildy’s love of the newspaper game.

Sure, His Girl Friday is a screwball comedy.  Spit-fire dialogue infused with sexual innuendo and inside jokes abound throughout the movie.  Of course, Hildy and Walter are the two smartest people in any room and seem to relish jockeying between themselves to determine who is actually the smartest between them.  Alas, this means that others have to play the one-upped or, worse, the dumb sap, like Bruce.  But who cares, it’s all in the name of good, rollicking fun!  But is it… There’s a strangely dark side to this film that is quite unusual for the typical screwball comedy. 

For one, the big news story revolves around the impending execution of Earl Williams (John Qualen), a man who killed a black police officer.  We hear and see the police practicing for his hahis-girl-friday-5nging. And, when Hildy goes to interview him in jail there aren’t any hijinks—it’s a serious conversation about what led Walter to the gallows.  There’s also a few dramatic scenes that revolve around Walter’s friend Mollie Malloy (Helen Mack) and the callous way that the press treats their subject matter.  For me, this is one of the reasons that I don’t love His Girl Friday.  If you’ve seen it then you know that there’s a pretty horrific event that takes place near the end of the film and that almost without a beat the story moves back into screwball land—this is jarring, even if Hawks’ is trying to portray just how jaded the journalistic world is.

Still, who can resist the battle of the sexes between Grant and Russell.  He’s a reprehensible opportunist who knows how to use words to his advantage and she’s a fast-talking broad with an interesting fashion sense who knows all of Walter’s tricks.  They are a match made in matrimonial hell—but they are fun to watch.  Interestingly enough, Russell was far, far, far from the first choice for the role of Hildy, but after a slew of actresses (Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur, Ginger Rogers, etc.) either turned down the role or were deemed too expensive by Columbia Pictures, Russell was given the role she is probably best known for (even though Auntie Mame is well-remembered, too).  And while Grant got top-billing, Russell obviously was the star and heart of His Girl Friday—funny how things work out sometimes. 

Overall, the inside jokes alone make His Girl Friday worth watching.  For example, when Walter is asked to describe what Bruce looks like he answers, “He looks like that fellow in the movies—Ralph Bellamy.”  And, then there’s the classic line Bruce quips when the Mayor (Clarence Kolb) says Bruce is through, “Listen, the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat.”  I could go on and on about how hilariously the dialogue is delivered.  Needless to say, His Girl Friday is a fast-paced, antic-filled screwball comedy—with a few odd somber moments. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Babes in Arms (1939) **

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As a fan of the larger than life production numbers that Busby Berkeley choreographed for such films as 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), and Footlight Parade (1933), I must admit that I found his Babes in Arms (1939) to be rather pedestrian. Furthermore, if the last scene, “God’s Country”, were cut, I wouldn’t believe Berkley had anything to do with it, sans the fact that he’s credited as the director in the beginning of the movie.  And, how in the world was MGM allowed to say this was based on a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical when almost all of the original Broadway songs were cut and replaced by mediocre melodies?  The only thing that saves Babes in Arms for me is Judy Garland’s beautiful voice—and even that is somewhat tainted when she has to sing with Mickey Rooney and/or Betty Jaynes. 

Tough times hit the vaudeville world when the talkies take over at the box office and old troopers like Joe Moran (Charles Winninger) and his wife Florrie (Grace Hayes) find they can’t make a living anymore.  When Joe gets the old-timers together for a revival tour he says they can’t take anmickeyrooney-blackfacey excess baggage along—this means no kids, even if they are more talented than their “has-been” parents. Foreseeing that things aren’t going to go well for their out-of-touch parents and with the threat of being sent away to a trade school, Mickey (Mickey Rooney) decides that he and the other kids should put on their own show in their hometown.  And, so he writes and produces his own musical—which we never actually get to see, sans one unfortunate number, “Daddy Was a Minstrel Man” in which almost the entire cast performs in blackface.  I won’t spoil the ending, but needless to say it ends like most 1930s musicals—happily, at least for those in the film, perhaps not so much for musical lovers.

While I didn’t really like Babes in Arms, I can’t say that it was a bad film—it just wasn’t very good.  I don’t know if MGM was in a hurry to cash in on how well Judy Garland’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) did at the box office and decided to rush it through post-production or what, but there is a lack of substance to it that just irks me.  I don’t care if it earned two Academy Award nominations (Best Actor, Rooney—really?--and Best Music) and made a boat load of cash—even more than The Wizard of Oz—oh, the inhumanity!—it’s not what I think a top-notch musical should be.  It doesn’t help either that I dislike every musical number except “Good Morning” and “I Cried for You”, both of which Garland primarily performs alone.  Another pet peeve is that I have to listen to Jaynes and Douglas McPhail sing the same song twice, “Where or When”, in the span of five minutes. I could have done 151_Mickey_Rooney_Judy_Garlandwithout the first rendition, let alone a back-to-back rehashing of the song, which sounded exactly the same as it did the first time I heard it two minutes earlier!  And, finally, suffice to say, I was not happy to see Garland sing in blackface—even if the song was paying homage to that old vaudeville standard, it still doesn’t leave a pleasant image in my mind—which is how I also feel about seeing Bing Crosby perform“Abraham” in blackface in Holiday Inn (1942). Yes,I know Garland had done this in a previous film, Everybody Sing (1938), but fortunately I’ve never seen that. 

Oddly enough, other than the two memorable songs sung by Garland, the most interesting thing about Babes in Arms are the ancillary performances of Guy Kibbee and Margaret Hamilton. Kibbee’s Judge Black’s conversation with Hamilton’s Martha Steele, who’s the head of the Welfare Board, about what is best for the vaudeville children is probably the most interesting dialogue exchange in the entire film. More of them and less of Baby Rosalie (June Preisser) would have done wonders for the movie, I’m sure.

Overall, Babes in Arms is probably the least interesting musical I have watched that appears in the 1001 Movies book. Thankfully, Judy Garland’s voice got me through it. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Ninotchka (1939) ****

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When MGM marketed director Ernst Lubitsch’s political satirical 1939 comedy, Ninotchka, they used the catchphrase, “Garbo laughs”. While Greta Garbo had most assuredly laughed in her previous films, this was her first comedy film and she played her part perfectly.  It helped that screenwriters Billy Wilder, Walter Reisch, Charles Brackett, and Melchior Lengyel’s Oscar-nominated script was tailored made to fit Garbo’s serious on and off-screen persona.  As a result, Ninotchka benefitted immensely from having the perfect script for just the right actress who was supported by an eccentric cast, and who was directed by the only man who could pull it all together. 

ernst lubitsch greta garbo 1When Lubitsch decided to make Ninotchka he wanted to cast Garbo in the lead but was worried that she might not be able to play the part as he wanted.  As such, he had an interview with her in which after several minutes of anxious, serious small talk he asked her, almost accusingly, “Can you laugh?” Garbo, for her part, was amused by the question and told him she believed she could.  But, Lubitsch pressed on and explained that he didn’t want a small, polite laugh but that he wanted a “wide-open and completely spontaneous laugh”. Garbo said she’d have to think about it for a day.  When she returned the following day she answered Lubitsch by saying, “Your question and the idea--can you laugh is silly. And I love it.”  She then proceeded to laugh quite heartily, as did Lubitsch, and they, of course, ended up making a Oscar-nominated film that showcased probably Garbo’s most rounded performance ever.  Oh, and the conversation also turned into one of the best film marketing campaigns ever.

Most of the story takes place in 1920s Paris, where three Soviet emissaries, Iranov (Sig Ruman), Buljanov (Felix Bressart) and Kopalsky (Alexander Granach) are trying to sell the crown jewels ninotscha_lubitschof the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire). The jewelry sale is of great importance to the Soviet people, as it is expected that the year’s crop is going to be quite poor and the money will go toward feeding the nation.  However, the emissaries are beguiled by the luxuries of the Western world and end up being sidetracked by the Duchesses’ smooth-talking lover, Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas).  When the pending jewelry sale ends up in the French courts, the Soviet government decides to send in reinforcements in the form of a no-nonsense hard-liner, Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, “Ninotchka” (Garbo). 

Of course, it is Ninotchka’s stolid, straight-talking, all-business nature that makes the story as funny as it is.  Her tone is set from the moment she steps off the train and refuses to allow a porter to carry her bags and asks him, “Why should you carry other people’s bags?” To which the porter answers, “Well, that’s by business, Madame.” Her retort, “That’s no business. That’s social injustice.”  His reply, “That depends on the tip.” The audience laughs, but not Ninotchka.  And the story continues on like this for quite some time, with Ninotchka matter-of-factly addressing the bumbling antics of 15B-NINOTCHKAher comrades and finding herself appalled by the consumerism of the Western world: two-thousand francs for a hotel room could buy a cow for the Soviet people; ordering raw beets and carrots in a French restaurant; and, inciting ladies’ room attendants to strike for better wages.  Through it all, Garbo plays her Oscar-nominated part to the hilt, never giving away that she is in on the jokes that the audience is laughing at. Her willingness to allow her true persona to be the butt of the joke is what makes the film so great. In one of her first scenes in the movie, her character is asked, “Do you want to be alone, comrade?”, a direct jab at her infamous line from Grand Hotel (1932) which became synonymous with her on-screen and off-screen personality. 

Yet, Ninotchka would have not been quite as good as it is if Garbo’s character didn’t transform a little, and that’s where Douglas’ character comes in.  Even a hard-line Russian girl cNinotchka_Garbo_Douglas_1268_1an be sidetracked by a smooth-talking man—even if she constantly one-ups him with classic lines like, “Your general appearance is not distasteful,” and “We don't have men like you in my country. That is why I believe in the future of my country.”  And, yes, he is what finally makes her laugh a “wide-open and completely spontaneous laugh” with his complete ridiculousness.

Still, it’s not the love story that draws you in, it is the personal, though hilarious, transformation of Ninotchka. Through Ninotchka’s true education to the workings of the world and the true nature of communism, Lubitsch is able to show his main character’s growth as well as to expose the idiocy of the Soviet system.  No one did satirical social and/or political comedy better than Lubitsch, and Ninotchka was the perfect vehicle for him to attack Soviet propaganda.  Perhaps 1939 wasn’t the best time to tick off the Soviets, as less than three months prior to the film’s release the Soviets ninotchkahad signed the Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler.  In any case, Lubitsch’s cunning but polite ridicule of the Soviet system is perhaps the best film depiction of communism of its time.  He would, of course, follow this successful political satire up with perhaps his greatest satire, To Be or Not To Be (1942), when he took on the Nazis—you see, he was an equal-opportunity ridiculer.

Overall, I adore Ninotchka.  While I love Garbo drama, I most admire this performance because it is her most-rounded role ever.  Additionally, I’m a sucker for well-done satire, and when it so deftly exposes the true nature of a political party or a historical mindset all the better.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Gunga Din (1939) **

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Director George Stevens’ Gunga Din (1939) is a product of its time.  Loosely based on the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name, this 75-year old film celebrates British colonialism in a strangely uneven way.  At times, it is a buddy comedy and at other times it is a serious action/war picture—as such, it is difficult to pigeonhole it into a particular genre.  The film itself is not bad, but its plot has not aged well and can be off-putting to some.

Set in the Hindu Kush region of India, circa 1880, the British are dealing with a local murder cult known as the Thuggee who are also freedom fighters.  When the Thuggee murder an entire outpost and disable the telegraph line, three sergeants are asked to lead a small group of soldiers to investigateclipboard02uz8 and repair the telegraph.  Sergeant Cutter (Cary Grant) is a cockney soldier always on the lookout for a get rich quick scheme, usually in the form of buried treasure. Sergeant MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) is the leader of the group, who has a fondness for elephants. And, Sergeant Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) is counting the days until his discharge so he can get married (to Joan Fontaine) and go into the tea business. It’s obvious the three men are great friends, but the prospect of Sergeant Ballantine leaving the group to get married causes both friction and joviality in the story. 

There are many reasons why Gunga Din has not aged well. First, an American film celebrating British colonialism in a post-colonial world is very rarely viewed fondly. Second, most, if not all, of the Indians are played by white men wearing body paint.  You add this irritating detail to the fact that Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe) sacrifices himself for the British gunga116army at the cost of the lives of his countrymen and you can’t help but cringe.  Furthermore, after allowing the Guru (Eduardo Ciannelli) to give a rather impassioned speech about how old and accomplished India is compared to that of Britain, screenwriters Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Joel Sayre, and Fred Guiol then portray him as a complete madman.  Additionally, when one considers that the Indian people were, for the most part peacefully, trying to extricate themselves of British rule in 1939, led by Gandhi, a picture glorying the bravery and might of the British army seems a tad insensitive. 

The overall atmosphere of Gunga Din doesn’t abate the movie’s overall insensitivity, either. Had the film been a more focused, dramatic look at the conflict between the British and the Thuggee, it may have been more palatable.  Instead, Stevens jumps back and forth between seriousness and inanity.  While it was great to hear Grant’s natural cockney accent, his screwball Annex-Grant-Cary-Gunga-Din_06antics throughout the film are grating to say the least.  And, while one can’t complain about anything that celebrates the bonds of soldiers, there is a fine line between showcasing and ridiculing such bonds. Gunga Din does not traverse this line well, and, as such, there is an uneven feel to the overall production.  Had the film been more focused, and the runtime cut by about 15 to 20 minutes, I think I would have enjoyed it, even with its insensitive message, a lot more than I did.

Gunga Din did earn one Academy Award nomination for Best Black and White Cinematography (Joseph H. August), which was probably the best thing about it.  Shooting massive battle scenes in the middle of the Sierra Nevada and Alabama Hills and then trying to pass them off as having taken place in the Khyber Pass was no small feat, but August and Stevens pulled it off.  Still, this is not enough to make this a must-see film, either.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Daybreak (Le jour se lève) 1939 **

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There are two important, though strange, reasons why director Marcel Carné’s Le jour se lève (Daybreak, 1939) is still considered an important element of French filmmaking. First, and probably most importantly, it is considered by many critics to be the greatest cinematic example of French poetic realism—I do not concur and will speak to that momentarily.  Second, it was suppressed not once but twice for two very extreme reasons.  With a resume like this, is it any wonder why Le jour se lève retains a place in some critics’ film Pantheon? Alas, for me, at least, it does not shine quite so brightly.

Jean Gabin was the greatest French actor of his generation. He worked with the best French directors: Jean Renoir, Julien Duvivier, Jacques Becker, and René Clément, on some of ta jour le se leve LE_JOUR_SE_LEVE-15preston sturges he most important films to come out of France in the 1930s through the 1950s.  Still, he was a difficult man to work with and he had a notorious eye for the ladies—specifically one named Marlene Dietrich.  As such, when he did try to make it in Hollywood during the days of Vichy France, things went very poorly for him and he never became an international star like his fellow countrymen Maurice Chevalier or Charles Boyer. Still, he embodied the handsome, hard-working man with a strong conscience that appealed to French audiences—hence, his portrayal of François in Le jour se lève.

François is a simple foundry worker who falls in love with an innocent flower shop girl, Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent).  Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?  Well, from the very first minute of the movie you know it’s not, because a man gets shot and proceeds to have one of the most over-the-top death scenes ever—falling down not one flight of steps, but several—and then is only pronounced dead by a blind man (Georges Douking) poking him with a stick. The police come and our hero and murderer, François, barricades himself in his room for a day so he can remember everything that led up to the moment that he jourseleve1avi001372320pulled the trigger. Ah, but this isn’t your ordinary Hollywood flashback.  No, no one says, “It all began…” to us or an interrogating detective—just a simple dissolve and we are in the foundry with François when he first meets Françoise.  This was such a revolutionary film technique that it  was deemed too confusing for the audience and a title card had to be added at the beginning of the film to explain what was going on. 

The story itself is intriguing and allegorical at the same time.  Of course, François represents the recently defeated Popular Front and the police are viewed as pawns of Fascism, this is where the poetic realism comes into play, but at heart the film is nihilistic and depressing.  Think about it, François falls in love with an idealized woman (Laurent) who is distracted by womanizing dog trainer, Valentin (Jules Berry), who promises to take her to beautiful, European hotspots.  And while she refuses to engage in a sexual relationship with the hard-working François, she most assuredly begins such a relationship with a man who trains animals to do what he Jour Se Leve 1wants. Oh, and then there’s Clara (Arletty)—the woman smart enough to leave Valentin and to see what a good man François is.  Perhaps I’m biased here, but in a way, François got what he deserved in the end because Clara was obviously the best woman for him, but instead he throws her over for the idiotic, and dare I say it, boring, François. 

Okay, so yes, Le jour se lève is full of poetic realism.  François is a working class man with a fatalistic world view who destroys his one shot at happiness by killing someone (although, I would argue that he was on the wrong path in regard to which woman he should choose).  From start to finish there is a cloud of bitterness that hangs over the story that is irritatingly devastating.  Still, I cannot concur with those who believe this is the masterpiece of the genre—as Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937) is a far superior film, and while it does not have the quintessential tragic ending as does Le jour se lève, stylistically it is a better representation of poetic realism. 

Le jour se lève’s overt socialistic and fatalistic themes did not play well in Vichy France and it was banned in 1940.  Not willing to account for their own cowardice and connivance in the wake of the German invasion, Vichy leaders called the film demoralizing, and it was not shown in France again until after the war.  As if the Nazis daybreak4and collaborators weren’t enough, RKO decided it wanted to make a remake of the film in 1947 and attempted to buy up all copies of the movie and destroy them.  Now, I like Henry Fonda, but RKO”s remake, The Long Night (1947), was a bastardized, horrible version of Le jour se lève. Thankfully, some people in France kept a few copies of the film out of the hands of RKO and it still lives on today. 

Overall, the story of Le jour se lève is intriguing. Still, while I enjoy both Gabin’s and Arletty’s performances (hers more so), I found Laurent and Berry unpleasant to watch.  She due to her vacuous personality and he due to his unending need to overact.  And, finally, when you begin a film with the ending there needs to be something in the main section of the movie that allows you to understand why someone would commit murder—and here, there is nothing. Instead, at the end you ask yourself, “Really?”—even if it was poetic realism.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) **1/2

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While the great screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938) is my all-time favorite Howard Hawks’ film, I must admit that the director made a number of enjoyable dramatic films, too.  His versatility was what made him one of the best directors of his time.  Yes, his movies often ran over budget and very rarely wrapped on time, but he usually put out quality products.  Such was the case with Only Angels Have Wings (1939), which was hugely successful for Columbia Pictures and was the third highest grossing production of 1939—no small feat in one of the greatest filmmaking years ever.  While it didn’t swallow up a ton of Academy Award nominations like Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939), Wuthering Heights (1939), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Stagecoach (1939), Love Affair (1939), and The Wizard of Oz (1939), it was comprised of a gifted cast and some phenomenal aerial cinematography.

hqdefaultOf course any film that had Cary Grant as its male lead was assured of a charismatic hero, thief, cad, or jester.  Grant had screen presence and he always seemed at ease with whatever role he played. Perhaps this is why someone who did so many memorable films was so often overlooked by the Academy—he only earned three nods in his storied career.  His co-star in Only Angels Have Wings had the same problem. 

While her career wasn’t quite as long as Grant’s, Jean Arthur starred in some of the best films of the 1930s and 1940s:  Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Easy Living (1937), You Can’t Take It with You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), The Talk of the Town (1942), The More the Merrier (1943), and A Foreign Affair (1948), and she ended her Hollywood career in one of the most revered westerns ever: Shane (1953). Yet, somehow Arthur only found herself nominated for one Oscar and is virtually forgotten today—except by true classic film fans. 

I wholeheartedly believe the reason Grant’s and Arthur’s acting only-angels-have-wings-cary-grant-jean-arthur-1939abilities were often so overlooked—or you might say taken for granted—is because they made it look so easy. Also, they both had the ability to interweave comedy into overall dramatic films, as they did in Only Angels Have Wings, which was a heavy film.  Grant’s Geoff Carter is, to quote Dutchy (Sig Ruman), a hard man who pushes the limits of his pilots to ensure the success of his struggling Barranca Airways.  Arthur’s Bonnie Lee is a sharp-tongued and hot-tempered woman who finds herself unexpectedly involved in a masculine, adrenaline fuelled world she doesn’t understand.  Anytime someone takes to the air it might be the last thing that they do—and if it is, then the others must carry on as if nothing has happened.  With this ever-present fact hanging over their heads, Geoff and Bonnie have to maneuver through a burgeoning love affair which is jeopardized by his love of flying and her fear of his death. It would have been easy for the movie to turn into a heavy-handed melodrama, but the comedic moments between Geoff and Bonnie adds another layer to the film.  Also, who could do sly sexual banter better than Grant and Arthur—perhaps Grant and Irene Dunne, but you get my point. 

Only Angels Have Wings also benefits from good performances by Richard Barthelmess, Rita Hayworth, and Thomas Mitchell.  Barthelmess’s turn as an outcast pilot who takes the most dangerous jobs was probably his best since The Dawn Patrol (1930). Hayworth, who plays Bathelmess’s wife, Judy, turns in a performance that showed she had the chops to finally stop being cast as a lower supporting player.  Yet, it is Thomas Mitchell as imagesKid, the self-sacrificing almost blind pilot, that is the standout.  Not gifted with the good looks of Grant, Mitchell was a fine actor who found himself in supporting roles. Oh, but what a great supporting actor he was. While he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1939 for Stagecoach, he could just have easily been nominated for his performance in Only Angels Have Wings. While Grant and Arthur were the spine of the movie, Mitchell was the heart of it. 

The two Oscar nominations that Only Angels Have Wings did receive were primarily related to its aerial elements.  Joseph Walker earned a Best Black and White Cinematography nod, and Roy Davidson and Edwin C. Hawn were nominated for Best Special Effects.  The two crash scenes (and one near-miss) in Only Angels Have Wings are expertly filmed and recorded.  I expect it was 38pretty dangerous to crash a burning plane at such a high speed, and it is quite jarring to watch—especially for anyone who doesn’t like to fly. 

Hawks had a fascination with airplanes and made a number of other memorable films about aviation: The Air Circus (1928), The Dawn Patrol (1930), Ceiling Zero (1936), and Air Force (1943). Hawks’ love of aviation began during WWI when he learned to fly in the U.S. Army Air Service and continued throughout his life.  It was this love that helped him showcase both the beauty and danger of flight.  No other director defined the genre better, and his depiction of the hero-pilot has been mimicked in countless films up to present day cinema.  It is shocking to me that someone hasn’t put a Blu-ray collection together of his aviation films.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Wuthering Heights (1939) **1/2

As novel to screen adaptions go, director William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights (1939) is far from a faithful retelling of Emily Bronte’s gothic tale of love, jealousy, and vengeance.  Never mind that the entire second half of the novel is omitted by screenwriters Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht’s Oscar nominated screenplay, it’s the last twenty minutes of the film that will forever cause Bronte to turn in her grave. Yet, I’m not going to discuss how insanely wrong MGM presented the true meaning of Wuthering Heights to countless generations of non-readers in this review. Instead, I want to talk about two things: Greg Toland’s gorgeous black and white cinematography and the romanticization of pathological behavior.

liebster wuthering heightsWuthering Heights was nominated for eight Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Laurence Olivier), Best Supporting Actress (Geraldine Page), Best Art Direction (James Basevi), Best Director (Wyler), Best Original Score (Alfred Newman), Best Screenplay (MacArthur and Hecht), and Best Black and White Cinematography (Toland).  Of these eight nominations, only Toland went home with the gold statue, and only because Gone with the Wind (1939) was in color and thus won Best Color Cinematography.  Perhaps things would have turned out better that award season for Sam Goldwyn had he opted for Vivien Leigh to play Cathy instead of Merle Oberon. I expect his unrelenting statement that Wuthering Heights, a commercial failure until its reissue, was his favorite of all of his productions instead of such superior films as The Best Years of Our Lives (1945) and The Little Foxes (1941) was a direct result of getting trounced by Leigh and Gone with the Wind in 1939. 

Toland described Wuthering Heights as “a soft, diffused picture, a fantasy”.  Through Toland’s lighting and camerawork, Wyler was able to depict four separate thematic moods.  Every last scene in the Earnshaw house (Wuthering Heights) is presented as somber, dark and foreboding.  From the opening scene where Heathcliff (Olivier), Isabella (Fitzgerald), and Ellen (Flora Robson) are sitting around the hearth when Lockwood (Miles Mander) interrupts their constant unhappiness, this house is lensed as a house of doom.  The moors that Cathy (Oberon) and Heathcliff escape to in times of both happiness and despair are depicted in two ways.  While Toland always seemed to capture whthe windy look of the rugged moors, he also appeared to present them based on the mood of the story.  When the couple experiences happiness the lighting is warm and inviting, but when things are going bad, say when Cathy chases after Heathcliff in a torrential downpour, the sky is dark and menacing.  And, then there is the Linton house, which always seems to be presented as extremely bright and cheerful, but can also be filmed in a way that its brightness also seems overbearing—more on that in a minute.

Known for his penchant for filming scenes in front of mirrors, Toland captured two of the most memorable scenes in Wuthering Heights by employing mirrors. It is not a coincidence that both scenes involved Cathy, since in Bronte’s novel mirrors had the habit of mocking and tormenting Cathy.  One scene occurs after Cathy maxresdefaultand Heathcliff have a big fight, in which she treats him like a servant after returning from her first convalescence at the Linton house. Upon returning to her room she gazes at herself, dressed in one of Isabella’s fine dresses, in a full-length mirror. As she grows enraged with herself over how she treated Heathcliff she proceeds to violently rip the dress from her body. The other memorable mirror scene finds Cathy gazing into a mirrored dressing table as she prepares for Edgar Linton’s visit (David Niven). When Heathcliff barges into her room to dissuade her from the meeting, her mood completely changes.  For Cathy, both in the film and in the novel, mirrors represent her two personalities/faces—one is wild, carefree, and in love with the world in which Heathcliff resides, the other face is wanton for fine, pretty, respectable things and maliciously hateful toward Heathcliff’s presence, as it endangers her ability to first obtain and then keep “respectable” things. 

And this brings me to Wyler’s romanticization of pathological behavior in Wuthering Heights.  I’ve heard people say that this is a film about undying love and all of the idiotic things that go along with such a statement. Quite frankly, it is not, even if that is what Goldwyn wanted with his insane deCime_tempestose_(film_1939)mand that the ending, which Wyler refused to shoot, find the ghosts of Cathy and Heathcliff wandering the moors eternally together. In today’s world, Cathy and Heathcliff’s story would have been one you would see on the nightly news: obsession turns to murder suicide.  Let’s forget that Heathcliff’s true character is bastardized by this movie—he was a horrible, though troubled, man in the novel.  It is Cathy’s behavior that is pathological—she probably would have been diagnosed with some sort of personality disorder if such a diagnosis existed at the time.  She loves Heathcliff but despises him at the same time. She doesn’t want to settle so she marries someone she doesn’t love to achieve the security and respectability that she so desires. Yet, when Heathcliff elopes with Isabella she has a nervous breakdown which causes her health to deteriorate, which causes her premature death. Ick! 

downloadOnly the deathbed scene, at least for me, somehow salvages the true nature of this unhealthy relationship.  Perhaps some found it romantic, but for me it was filmed in such a way that it truly represented their relationship.  Usually death scenes are shot in an aura of softness and employ somber lighting, but Cathy’s room of death is filled with bright lighting and so much white that it is sharp to the eye.  Forget Heathcliff’s whimpering and declarations of undying love, this brightly lit room is spotlighting how selfishness, vanity, vengeance, and revenge have no place in the world of love.  Cry Heathcliff for the world of happiness you never had. Feel your pitiful life drain from your listless sick body Cathy as you document the true state of your relationship by saying, “If I could only hold you till we were both dead.” In the end, your depravity not only destroyed both of you but those who made the mistake of loving you.  I expect many will not agree with my interpretation of the ending, but I take solace in the knowledge that Bronte probably would look at it the same as I do. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Lady Vanishes (1938) **1/2

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(There may be spoilers in this post.)

I’m not certain what most people see when they watch director Alfred Hitchcock’s, The Lady Vanishes (1938).  To many, it is the most suspenseful and wittiest of his British films.  Perhaps it is the wittiest, but I would dare say that The 39 Steps (1935) is far more suspenseful.  Still, those points aren’t really  what I contemplate when I watch this movie.  What I think about is how politically symbolic it is—perhaps without even trying.

While The Lady Vanishes premiered in London on October 7, 1938, and, thus, could not have been affected by Neville Chamberlain’s idiotic “Peace for Our Time” speech on September 30, 1938, regarding the Munich Agreement, the movie the-lady-vanishesis a reflection of its time.  First, the film begins in the small, fictitious European country of Bandrika, which has just suffered an avalanche that has blocked the railway.  To me, the avalanche is Nazi Germany—which would scoop up the Sudetenland after Chamberlain’s act of appeasement.  As a result of the avalanche, a small group of British citizens find their trip back home delayed and they must lodge overnight in a crowded hotel infested with all sorts of Continentals who don’t speak English and seem unfamiliar with common  British manners. In an uncivilized world (any European country east of France in this case), the British, of course, are overly civilized—which, by the way, was causing them all sorts of trouble with dealing with Hitler.

Then there are the principal leads: Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave.  Iris Henderson (Lockwood) is an heiress returning to England to marry a man she obviously doesn’t love because it is time for her to settle down.  Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) is a whimsical musicologist who is researching regional folk music and customs. Together, they are the British Empire: practical observers of the European conundrum—the Nazis. When Iris’ takes a flower pot to the skull, which leads her to blackout on the trainpic116, her worldview becomes a bit off-kilter—as had the British mindset during Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria.

When Iris awakes, she is tended to by the kindly Ms. Froy (Dame May Whitty), who unfortunately vanishes (hence the title) soon thereafter.  When Iris attempts to find Ms. Froy she finds herself fighting against two groups of people: the conspirers and the do-nothings.  The conspirers are a mix of Europeans (who seem to speak Italian and German) who work together to trick Iris into believing that her bump on the head is causing her to mistrust them, and that Ms. Froy is not missing.  And, then there are the do-nothings, who all happen to be British.  There are the adulterers (Cecil Parker and Linden Travers), who don’t want to become involved in case of scandal, and then there are Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford), two British cricket enthusiasts who would rather stay mum about having seen Ms. Froy than miss an all-important cricket match.  I view this as a statement that scandal leads to confrontation and that it is better to preoccupy oneself with unimportant distractions than 91 27Do0unL._SL1500_seeing what is truly happening around oneself. 

And, then there is the stranded train scene.  By this time, with no help from their fellow British passengers, Iris and Gilbert have recovered Ms. Froy and are trying to convince their fellow travelers that something is amiss in whatever Godforsaken European nation they are stranded in.  It takes a bullet to the hand for Charters to believe that they are in grave danger and Cecil Parker’s character, a pacifist, gets shot down while waving a white handkerchief in the air.  It is not until the British citizens band together against their enemy that they can escape danger.

Oh, and Ms. Froy—why was she “vanished” by the Europeans in the first place?  She was a British spy on her way back to report that two Euro31214895_640pean nations had made a secret pact with one another.  Please pick one: the Non-Aggression Pact between the Soviets and Germany or the Pact of Steel between Italy and Germany, both of which were signed in 1939. 

I expect mine is an unusual viewpoint of The Lady Vanishes.  Perhaps you would rather I discuss how the serenader is killed by an unknown person via shadow or that Hitchcock employs birds and a magician’s disappearing woman cabinet to make a statement?  Or what about the fact that one of the conspirators (Paul Lukas) is a likable villain or that the heroine finds herself in world where reality is pitted against illusion?  All of those common Hitchcockian themes do appear in the movie and work quite well, but as a historian I see an accidentally  politically prophetic film. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Peter Ibbetson (1935) **

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As a fan of Gary Cooper, I must say that I was sorely disappointed by director Henry Hathaway’s, Peter Ibbetson (1935).  When I think of Cooper I don’t envision a pencil mustache, an five-second British accent, and surrealism.  This is not to say that this is a bad film—it’s just unbelievably weird. 

I’ve never read George du Maurier’s novel, Peter Ibbetson, so I viewed the screen adaptation with fresh eyes.  At first, when two young children (Dickie Moore and Virginia Weidler) are torn apart by fate, I anticipated that pithey would reunite as adults and live happily ever after once they overcame some Hollywood obstacle.  My goodness, I did not envision a murder conviction, a broken back, and, wait for it, a nighttime dream world where the separated lovers meet each night to skip through fields and dodge falling rocks.  Granted, it wasn’t your usual Hollywood story, so for that it gets originality points, but, oh my, when I try to wrap my mind around dream synchronization it just makes me giggle.

The acting was passable, but nothing to rave about either.  Cooper, who plays Peter Ibbetson, seems a bit uncomfortable in the role—or perhaps I am projecting my unhappiness with his pencil mustache with how I viewed his performance.  Still, he seemed stifled in this and his easy-going naturalistic acting style seemed to be missing.  Ann Harding, who plays Peter’s dream partner Mary, is much better in the first half of the film than in the second—so I guess that means she gave an uneven turn here.  I much preferred her when she played the spunky Duchess of Towers than when she morphed into the Dream Weaver. Again, my dislike of this plot device may have hampered ida-lupino-peter-ibbetsonmy viewpoint of her second-half performance.  And, then we have a very young Ida Lupino speaking with a sort of Cockney accent as a girl Peter escorts around the French countryside. It was refreshing to hear Lupino use her British accent—as she was English—but I expect she did not speak with a Cockney accent at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, either. 

The most impressive thing about Peter Ibbetson is Charles Lang’s cinematography.  He and director Hathaway obviously wanted to depict two different worlds—reality and dreamland (for lack of a better term, but I suppose you could say fantasy, too).  No surprise here, but Lang’s surreal world is full of silhouettes and expressionistic photography.  I expect the translucent shots of people walking through prison bars was a highlight for many viewers (even if it was 1935 pi (1)and film had made great strides since Victor Sjostrom’s The Phantom Carriage in 1921).  Even I have to admit that Peter’s dream tower was pretty impressive (kudos to art directors Hans Dreier and Robert Usher)—and fitting, as his lover was the Duchess of Towers.  However, I was not amused with it exploding and raining rocks/debris down on two people who were dreaming. 

Overall, I found Peter Ibbetson to be a unique film (especially for the 1930s), but I wasn’t overly impressed with the overall product. The film is uneven and I just couldn’t allow myself to take the plot seriously.  This may sound strange coming from someone who adores The Wizard of Oz (1939), but there’s a big difference between the two films—Dorothy was the only one dreaming! 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Limite (1931) :(((

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If all you can think about is how much you wish you had a handful of Dramamine and speed while watching a film then you are not having an enjoyable viewing experience.

Director Mario Peixoto’s Limite (1931) is not the worst “art” film I’ve ever seen, but it surely wasn’t good, either.  In general, I don’t like experimental film. This admission capped with the fact that this was also a silent experimental film only seemed to heighten my abhorrence.  And, unlike other avant garde films that I disliked (see L'age d'or and Un Chien Andalou), Limite also had the indecency to be exceedingly long—114 minutes of pain.

limite045axIn a rowboat to nowhere three nameless people—two women (Olga Breno and Tatiana Rey) and one man (Brutus Pedreira) indefinitely and aimlessly drift at sea.  Some semblance of what led them to this sea of abyss is told via flashbacks—but even those don’t really explain how the hell these people ended up floating in a boat together.  As such, the “story” made absolutely no sense and drug on forever—hence my need for a handful of speed.

And what of my desire for Dramamine?  Spinning, swerving, spiraling, and twirling cameras, surprisingly, capture those types of images. I suppose this is where the experimental comes into play and why this is viewed as a “cult” film, but it just gave me a migraine. 

Overall, I hated it.  The best part of the film was when they showed a clip of an old Little Tramp film.  For one blissful minute in Limite I didn’t want to scream, “Is it over YET?”

Monday, January 20, 2014

Skyfall (2012) **

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Daniel Craig is certainly the best Bond since Sean Connery, and he is most assuredly the best looking Bond ever.  Yet, once I pushed all of that aside and actually watched director Sam Mendes’ Skyfall (2012) I wasn’t all that amused.  Action sequences galore—guns, explosions, runaway trains, speeding cars and motorcycles—and a crazy baddie (played by Javier Bardem) ripe for a visit with Freud just isn’t enough for me.  Of course, I’m not a 007 enthusiast and so the film that celebrates Bond’s 50th Anniversary wasn’t as special for me as it may have been for others.

Skyfall is about resurrection—and I expect continuation of the franchise.  A wild chase through the streets of Istanbul (and the aisles of the Grand Bazaar) finds Bond atop a speeding tCraiggun_2376904brain trying to recapture a stolen hard drive that contains the names of MI6 agents.  When M (Judi Dench) orders Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) to take out the man with the hard drive (Ola Rapace), she accidentally shoots Bond and he is presumed dead.  When MI6 headquarters are blown up, Bond comes out of hiding. Hooked on booze and pills and out of shape, Bond is asked to hunt down the man behind the assault on the beacon of British intelligence.  He finds a psychopath named Raoul Silva (Bardem), who has it in for M because she once traded him for other agents and cyanide destroyed his teeth. The remainder of the film revolves around some Freudian feud between Silva, M, and Bond, and only the death of one or two of them can bring it to an end.

Like all Bond films, the production was well traveled—Istanbul, Shanghai, Macau, London, and the moors of Scotland all make an appearance.  Roger Deakins’ cinematography is spot on as usual (see Barton Fink, No skyfallmacauCountry for Old Men, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, among many others) and he does a great job with all of the exterior shots. The shots of the Underground and the underground labyrinth that MI6 relocates to are tightly constructed and do a nice job of showcasing the Old Vic tunnels.  If I had to pick one scene that really stood out, it would be Bond’s waterway entrance into Macau—a dark night and sea illuminated by water lanterns always makes for a dramatic entrance.

And, just as every Bond film must have a crazy villain, Skyfall has Javier Bardem as Silva. Obviously Bardem knows how to play a psychopath (see, again, No Country for Old Men), but thiSkyfall-trailer-pic-7-008s particular psycho was a bit over the top—of course, Bond usually requires an over the top nutter. The biggest irritant was that Bardem was a blonde with orange eyebrows, but his obsession with M was also troubling.  Referring to her as “Mother” and blowing up buildings, the Tube, and a nice Scottish manor house only to ask her to blow out both their brains just seemed counterproductive.

The objectification of women is a Bond staple, but somehow, over the years this has been toned down a tad. Besides having  sex with an unnamed woman whilst on sabbatical and engaging in flirtatious talk with Ms. Moneypenny, there was only Berenice Marlohe to have sex with in a shower before her untimely death.  Of course, with M playing such a pivotal role berenice-marlohe-in-skyfallin Skyfall, I can see why the old female objectification theme had to be somewhat diminished.  We will no doubt see Ms. Moneypenny in the next Bond film and with Ralph Fiennes taking over as M, perhaps we should wait until Bond No. 24 to see if this continues.  Still, it was nice seeing more of Craig’s shapely physique than any would-be Bond Girl.

Overall, Skyfall was your usual action film.  Boom, bang, and pow happened.  Things exploded, people got shot and stabbed, and the good guy won.  I was not compelled by the story or bowled over by anyone’s performance.  There were pretty places and people to look at and a lot of ado about nothing happened.  Quite simple, it was a Bond movie.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Lawrence of Arabia (1962 ) ***

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Director David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is an epic, three and half hour-plus film about how T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) unwittingly won Saudi Arabia for the British military during World War I.  On the one hand you could say the production was grand and the cast renowned, but on the other hand you could say the film was too long and comprised solely of men—there are only brief sightings of women.  As such, the film often drags and has a primarily testosterone infused plot—even if there are some homoerotic themes to be found.

The film was nominated for a whopping 10 Academy Awards and won seven: Best Picture, Art Direction, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Original Score, and Best Director.  While it garnered two acting nominations, I must say that I was not overly impressed by anyone in this alec-guinness-3dream cast other than Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif. For me, O’Toole gets a bit hammy in this and Anthony Quinn’s performance is just the epitome of overacting.  Perhaps Sharif had an advantage on most of the cast, as he was actually from the Middle East (Egypt), but his performance as Sherif Ali is engaging and believable, and he deserved his Best Supporting Actor nomination. While Guinness may not have been from the Middle East, he is particularly memorable as King Faisal. I expect he took great pride in doing so well in a role that was originally supposed to be played by Laurence Olivier.

Whenever I think about Lawrence of Arabia I remember an endless desert, camels, and trains being blown up.  The sheer size of the production is mind-boggling, which is one of the reasons I think it is still so highly regarded by film critics.  Filming with a cast of thousands, comprised of both people and animals, in the desert Matsurah Wellwas a monumental task for Lean.  Of course, Lean was no stranger to large productions (The Bridge on the River Kwai and Oliver Twist), so he knew quite well how to be the ringmaster of such a massive circus.  He benefitted greatly from having one of the greatest British cinematographers, F.A. Young, doing the heavy lifting.  Really, it’s not the story that makes Lawrence of Arabia such a memorable movie—it’s all about the images captured by Young. And, these striking images paired with Maurice Jones’ unforgettable score make the perfect pairing. 

In a post-colonial world, Lawrence of Arabia can be a troubling film.  It was actually banned in many Middle Eastern countries (sans Egypt) because of the way it depicted Arabs. The whole idea that Lawrence was some sort of messianic figure to the Arabs somehow infantilizes them.  Also, the depiction of Arabs as gullible savages did not play well in newly emancipated Arab nations.  article-1305786-0049296400000258-285_468x272While no one should ever condone terrorism, there is a reason many in the Middle East don’t like Westerners—you ask them to help you free themselves from the yolks of the Ottoman Empire with the promise of self-rule and then take them over yourselves to plunder their resources (mainly petroleum and gemstones) and there is bound to be some animosity. 

Overall, Lawrence of Arabia is a masterful work of brilliant cinematography.  The story is somewhat interesting, but if you are a student of history the blatant inaccuracies in the movie can be unpleasant to endure. Fine performances from Sharif and Guinness, at least, temper this unpleasantness.